Archive | December, 2011

Thoughts on the Year End, a Wedding Anniversary & a Black Forest Cake

31 Dec

Wow! We are nearing the end now, only to begin something new. This cycle never felt this surreal before.

May be it is an age thing.

I haven’t yet settled into my 30′s . It worries me to see the little changes that are happening every single day that mark a little deterioration. A grey hair, that slowing down of pace, that need to sit down a second after a 30 minute run, that dejection at the discovery that my favourite stores do not have my current dress size, the increasing responsibilities and the inability to relax. 2 years ago I did not feel this way. As 2012 approaches at a neck-break speed, I want to hold on to 2011 a little longer only to realize how futile it is.  Until 2 years ago, I embraced each year with the such furor and excitement that it would have felt a little short of  being annoying.

Yes it is definitely an age thing. 

2012 makes me jittery as there are many things that worry me. I do my best to push them back since I know everything will settle itself the way it does, on its own. I hope it does. Even pray.

2011 was a blessed year for me. It was a year that let me settle in this new country as I found new friends and interests. It offered me the luxury of time to engage with my creative side through writing, blogging, cooking, baking, photography and so much more. I know for a fact that this investment will not go in waste. While I worry about how 2012 is going to treat me, I also feel content in many ways that eluded me for so long. For long, I tried to find my calling but got no answers inspite of much contemplation. But life, in its funny little way, showed me my calling, silently, slowly and without warning. That I understand what my calling is now, is also may be because I am certain age now. I am settling down, my thoughts are settling down, my life is settling down.

So it is an age thing after all. 

Who knew there would be such grace in deterioration!

But as I age, other things in my life only improve; my marriage and my understanding of how to balance everything in life. My hubby and I celebrated our 6th Wedding Anniversary and it was a quiet affair. No party, no excess of any sort was required. Just us.

We felt thankful about how our life had shaped, that we have each other and we have Mimi. We realized that inspite of  the incredible comfort that we share, we will never take each other for granted. We also reminded ourselves that despite the little ups and downs, we shared a friendship that is true and rare – and that we are safe in this marriage we have built and are building every day.

So now the age thing isn’t so bad. 

The Wedding Anniversary celebration was marked by the cutting of our favourite – The Black Forest Cake. A few hours of toil in the kitchen paid off when it was well received and savored.

Recipe for the Black Forest Cake

Adapted from here

Ingredients

For the chocolate sponge

7 eggs

250g caster sugar

200g plain flour

50g cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp vanilla extract

 For the cherry compote

1/3 cup caster sugar

600g pitted fresh cherries, halved

1 tbs rum

For the cherry sugar syrup

90g caster sugar

¼ cup cherry juice

For the chocolate hazelnut praline mousse

½ cup caster sugar

½ cup hazelnuts, toasted lightly and skinned

300g chopped dark chocolate

3 egg yolks

300ml thickened cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

For the mascarpone cream

500g mascarpone

1 tsp vanilla bean paste

2 tbs icing sugar

For the dark chocolate ganache

150ml cream

200g chopped dark chocolate

shaved chocolate – to decorate

fresh cherries- to decorate

Preparation

1. For the chocolate sponge, preheat oven to 160°C . Grease and line 2 x 20cm springform cake pans.

2. Add eggs and sugar to a heatproof bowl of an electric mixer, and set over a saucepan of simmering water over very low heat. Whisk the mixture until 37°C. Remove the bowl from the heat and beat with an electric mixer on a medium-low speed for 5-8 minutes or until the mixture has cooled and thickened to a mousse-like consistency. Sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder together twice. Using a large metal spoon, fold the dry mixture into the egg mixture in 3 batches until combined, adding the vanilla extract with the first dry batch.

3. Pour the mixture into the lined cake pans and smooth surface. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until sponge springs back when lightly touched. Allow to cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then turn out onto wire racks until cake has cooled completely.

4. For the cherry compote, add the sugar to a non-stick saucepan and place over medium heat. Once the sugar begins to dissolve add the cherries and cook until they start to release their juices. Add the rum and cook for 10-15 minutes or until the liquid has reduced and thickened. Strain, reserving liquor.

5.  For the cherry syrup, heat 170ml water and the sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and stir in the reserved cherry juice and compote liquor. Allow to cool.

6. For the chocolate hazelnut praline mousse, line a baking sheet. In a dry heavy-based saucepan, cook sugar over medium heat, stirring, until melted. Once melted, cook without stirring, swirling pan, until lightly golden. Add hazelnuts, stirring until well coated. Immediately pour mixture onto the baking sheet and cool completely. Break praline into pieces. Place into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Set aside.

7. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk the egg yolks in a small heatproof bowl. Heat 250ml of the cream in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir through half of the hot cream into the egg yolks. Return the mixture to the saucepan over low heat and stir until thickened. Strain into a clean bowl. Stir the melted chocolate into the hot custard. Add the vanilla and allow to cool. Whisk the remaining cream until stiff peaks form. Fold into the chocolate mixture with the praline, until just combined. Set aside.

9. For the mascarpone cream, beat the mascarpone, vanilla and sugar in a bowl until smooth and slightly thicker in volume.

10. For the chocolate ganache, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Set aside. Bring the cream to just below boiling point in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, then add the melted chocolate and stir until smooth. Allow to cool until thick but still pouring consistency.

11. To assemble the cake, slice both cakes into thirds. Place the base of 1 cake onto a serving plate and brush with some of the cherry syrup. Spread over half of the chocolate praline mousse.

12. Place the next layer of cake onto a board, and brush with cherry syrup. Spread over half of the mascarpone cream. Divide the cherries into two parts for two separate layers. Place cherries around the border of the cake, 5mm from its edge and scatter remaining in the middle. Carefully remove layer from the board and place on top of the first layer. Repeat each layering process on the board (you will have 1 spare slice of cake), starting with the praline mousse and ending with the cherries on the mascarpone cream.

13. Place the final layer of the cake on a wire rack sitting over a baking tray. Evenly pour the ganache over the cake, ensuring it is completely coated. When the ganache has set, place on top of the layered cake. Decorate with shaved chocolate and  fresh cherries.

This is a perfect special occasion cake and the flavours are simply fantastic. All the layers blend beautifully and each mouthful is like  Christmas in your mouth. So that was how we toasted our marriage and celebrated being together.

But this post wouldn’t quite be complete if I were not to mention that the Black Forest assembling was a tough task since I haven’t yet perfected the art of slicing the cake in threes or twos. As I assembled one layer over the other, it started to tilt on one side because of the irregularity in the slices. I was angry and disappointed about how I ruined so many hours of work by my careless slicing. I went ahead with the final pruning and kept it in the refrigerator for chilling, checking it time and again to see if the layers hadn’t slid down. All of sudden, I just felt I should just let it be. Nobody was judging me and I knew what a sincere effort I had put into making this fabulous cake.  An hour in the chiller and the cake looked perfect ( atleast in my eyes) inspite of its imperfection because it was a labor of love. That was the moment when I had an important insight.

Based on that insight, for the first time in years, I have decided not to make any resolutions for the New Year. This comes from a realization that in order to grow, improve and learn, I will have to let go. I know how difficult it is for me to relinquish control and just let things be.

So 2012 will be the year of ‘Just Being’.

Wishing each one of you a Sparkling New Year, full of joy, luck and prosperity. God Bless!!

Postcards from Bahrain and Sumptuous Spaghetti with Chicken Balls

27 Dec

And the celebrations continue this festive season. Even in this part of the world, the whole month of December is dotted with holidays and that makes it easier to step into high spirits. It takes every ounce of my will power not to bake something everyday. After all I do want to fit into a decent party dress on New Year’s eve.

As an expat, this tiny archipelago of 33 islands never ceases to surprise me with the bounty of new experiences it has to offer. Just when I sit back to think, I have seen all that Bahrain has to offer, there’d be an interesting something announced. December has been a month full of such beautiful surprises for me and my family. The weather is gorgeous with the winter sun shining down only to spread some good cheer. People are in great spirits and there is a smile on everybody’s face. I feel year -ends can give you that feeling of closure and the anticipation of starting afresh in the New Year. Unresolved issues can wait in December while you enjoy great food, time with friends and the holiday season.

So during this holiday season, I took some short trips with family and friends around the island and visited some beautiful places.

We visited the ‘Tree of Life‘ which is a 400 year-old 32 feet high North American mesquite tree. The tree stands lonely in the heart of desert. It stands as a symbol of strength, hope and longevity for Bahrainis and expats alike.

The weekend found us jumping with excitement at a Wild Life Park – Al Areen. Mimi was so ecstatic spotting all the animals that she had only seen in her picture books. Huge tortoises, Oryx, Ostriches, Emu, all kinds of migratory birds, giraffe ( this was first time I had seen one and I was so excited) and other wild animals. We had the best time walking around and looking and taking pictures of these animals in their near-habitat enclosures.

We also took a trip to an island close by called Al Daar. We had a splendid time at the beach, splashing about in the waves, building sand castles with Mimi, soaking up some winter sun and lazing around in hammocks.

16th, 17th, 18th , 19th were National Holidays in Bahrain celebrating the King’s Accession Day and the National Day. There was a wonderful Aerobatics show for people to see at a beach. Three tiny planes swirled, twirled and somersaulted in mid air giving all the spectators the chills and the thrills.

End of the year also witnesses the biggest sales in the island and I have had a gala time picking up wonderful stuff at 70% discount and less. The shopping spree will continue until the end of this month and I am so looking forward to it.

As an expat the other way to be entertained and to entertain your friends is to either go out for dinner or invite each other for one. Planning and sorting dinner menus for friends has become a norm this month and I have enjoyed it to the hilt. This gives me an opportunity to try different cuisines and recipes. For one such dinner night, I made some sumptuous Spaghetti and Chicken balls and other Italian fare. It is my own recipe since all the Spaghetti and Meat balls recipes called for using minced beef. For this reason alone I have never tasted this Italian dish before in restaurants. I thought I might try and adapt by using chicken mince and to my great relief and joy, it came out wonderful.

Recipe for Spaghetti and Chicken Balls

Ingredients

Spaghetti – 300 gms

For the Chicken Balls ( will yield 14 balls)

Chicken mince – 325 gm

Ginger – 1/2 inch, grated

garlic – 3 cloves, grated

Egg – 1 no.

Parsley, chopped – 1/2 cup

Pepper – according to taste

salt – according to taste

Oil – for deep frying

For the Sauce

Onions- 3 , chopped

garlic – 5 cloves , crushed

Tomatoes – 1 no. , chopped

Tomato paste – 2-3 tbsp

Oyster sauce- 1 tbsp

Sweet chilli sauce – 2 tbsp

oregano flakes – 1 tsp

pepper – according to taste

salt – acc. to taste

oil

Preparation

1. Start by prepping for the chicken balls first. Bring together minced chicken, grated ginger, grated garlic, egg, salt, pepper and chopped parsley. Mix well and make balls.

2. Heat enough oil in a frying pan and drop the balls to deep fry them. Keep them aside for later use.

3. To make the sauce, first fry chopped onions until translucent and then add crushed garlic to it.  Then add chopped tomatoes and cook well. Let the mixture sweat well before you add the tomato paste and keep stirring.

4. In a while, you would see the colour of the sauce changing and all the onion-tomatoes would have mashed well by then.

5. To this add oyster sauce, sweet chilli sauce and oregano flakes. Keep stirring and add water if you find the sauce getting too thick.

6. Finally add salt and pepper according to taste.

7. Pour the sauce over the chicken balls and keep aside until it is time to serve.

8. Break Spaghetti into half and put them in a pot of boiling water with salt and little olive oil. Cook as per instructions on the packet or until al dente. Drain.

9. When it is time to serve, place spaghetti on a plate and pour the chicken balls and sauce at the center and serve hot.

10. Garnish with basil.

My friends enjoyed the meal so much that they came back for seconds and thirds. For me personally, Spaghetti and Chicken balls is the new Lasagna. I hope you try it and let me know how you like it.

For the first time in many years, I feel I am truly at home and I have come to love Bahrain bit by bit. I haven’t a clue about what is in store for us in the future; whether we’d stay here or move. But I have decided to explore this country in every possible way and take it with me wherever I go.

Crackling Spicy Lavash Crackers

22 Dec

I love playing hostess. It gives me a high when guests leave my home, happy, well fed and promising to come back as they enjoyed their meal so much. When the thanking continues over Twitter, Facebook and even text messages you know you really hit the nail at the right place. Just to get the conversation going, I always want something that the guests find irresistible and love to munch over their glasses of wine and other drinks. So I turned to this incredible bread baking book for inspiration – The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. Peter Reinhart is such a craftsman that you feel his precision when you leaf through the pages of this massive book.  He demystified a lot of my bread baking myths with pictures and instructions that carefully consider every single step that is involved. I like such precision and attention to detail. So I was tempted to try these Armenian Lavash Crackers that looked so beautiful and appetizing. I did not feel the weight of the actual work involved because of the thorough instructions.

A little about Lavash Crackers – Typically, Lavash is called Armenian flatbread and is eaten all around the Middle East. They are very similar to the Mannaeesh which is a Lebanese bread or a pita which is  a Turkish flat bread. The main difference between these breads is either how thick or thin the dough is rolled out or the type of oven in which they are baked.

The key to getting extremely crisp Lavash,  is to roll out the dough paper-thin. The Lavash dough sheet can be cut into crackers in advance or snapped into shards after baking. The shards make a nice presentation, in my opinion and Peter Reinhart’s too.

Recipe for Lavash Crackers

Makes 1 sheet pan of crackers

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups  Unbleached bread flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp instant yeast

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1/3 to 1/2 cup water , at room temperature

Poppy seeds ( I left this out), sesame seeds; white and black, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, paprika, for topping.

Preparation

1. In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt, yeast, honey, oil and just enough water to bring everything together into a ball. You may not need the full 1/2 cup water, but be prepared to use it all if needed.

2. Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead for about 10 minutes, or until the ingredients are evenly distributed. The dough should pass the Window Pane test which is a reliable method to determine when the gluten development is sufficient. This can be done by cutting off a piece ( a small one) off the dough and gently stretch. Keep stretching, pulling and turning it to see if it will hold a paper-thin translucent membrane and that is why it is also called a Membrane Test. If you hold it against a light source you should easily see through the translucent membrane. But if the stretched dough tears, then you need to add some more flour and keep working on it till you pass the window pane test. Do not worry about over kneading the dough, as there is zero chance of that happening. So knead away.

3.  The dough that you end up with should be medium-firm dough; satiny to touch and supple enough to stretch when pulled. Lightly oil the bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap.

4. Ferment at room temperature for 90 minutes or until the dough doubles in size. ( Alternately you can  also rest the dough overnight in a refrigerator immediately after kneading)

5. I chose to ferment the dough since I wanted my crackers that very evening. So I sprayed the kitchen counter lightly with oil and transferred the dough to the counter. Press the dough into a square with your hand and dust the top of the dough lightly with flour. Roll it out with a rolling-pin into a paper-thin sheet about 15 inches by 12 inches. You may have to stop from time to time so that the gluten can relax. At these times, lift the dough from the counter and wave it a little, and then lay it back down. Cover it with a towel or a plastic wrap while it relaxes. When it is the desired thinness, let the dough relax for 5 mins. Line a sheet pan with baking parchment. Carefully, lift the sheet of dough and lay it on the parchment. If it overlaps the edge of the pan, snip of the excess with scissors.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the over rack on the middle shelf. Mist the top of the dough with water and sprinkle a covering of seeds and spices on the dough ( such as alternating rows of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, Paprika, caraway seeds, etc)

A) if you want to cut it straight away do it before you tuck it in the oven at this juncture. You do not need to separate the pieces right now since they will snap on their own after they have been baked.

B) If you want to make shards like I did, the bake the sheet of dough without cutting it first.

6. Bake for 15-20 mins, or until the crackers being to brown evenly across the top ( time would depend on how thinly you have rolled the dough)

7. When the crackers are baked, remove the pan from the oven and let them cool in the pan for about 10 mins. You can then snap them apart or snap off the shards and serve.

I served these appetizing snack with basil flavoured home-made hummus. The guests enjoyed these so much that there weren’t even any crumbs left and I am not exaggerating.

The fantastic part about using Peter Reinhart’s recipes is there are never any leftovers because

1. They taste scrummy

2. The portions are just right for my little family and a few guests.

These crackers would taste delish with hummus, salsa and all sorts of dips and they are very healthy. Next time I would try them with wholemeal bread flour and see how they come out.

The Nostalgia Trip With Tiramisu

18 Dec

December is such a wonderful month for resolutions and nostalgia. I am always high on nostalgia and find myself fleeting several feet high up in my past, rarely wanting to get down.  While resolutions and me don’t really go hand in hand, I did have a bunch of resolutions written down last year, more out of peer pressure than anything else. But nostalgia is my friend. That is because my past and present are as evident to me as night and day.

All the time before 2009 was the past and time after that would be my present. As for the future, it’s not really my bother because I have always been the take-it-as-it-comes kind of person. You must be wondering about, how I got to this clear division of my past and present? Well it is simple really. I got pregnant in Jan 2009 and since then I have been living in the moment; in the present. Any event, occasion before that time is my past. When I think about my past, I see a very different person because, I looked different, I did different things and lead a different life. The year 2008 was an important year for me in many ways. Not only because I fell pregnant the next year, but I did a lot of growing up in that year alone.  Out of the 12 months, I had to be on my own for the half of it. That alone time, gave me lot of time for reading, watching movies, working out and reflecting. Now when I think about that time, I experience mixed emotions. Alone-ness sometimes turned to fierce loneliness and sometimes the sheer joy of being in my own company surprised me to no end.

In my opinion at a sub-conscious level my mind and body were preparing for a life altering event; arrival of Mimi. But ofcourse at a conscious level I wasn’t aware. I can say this now with some ounce of surety, because I lived a whole life in the year 2008 before embarking on this wondrous journey of being a mother.

The year started with prepping for the half marathon in November. A healthy diet and exercise became the norm and I completely enjoyed my running  jigs.

Middle of year saw my hubby moving away to Seattle for  next 5-6 months. To fill my time, I joined spinning classes apart from my regular gym and running jaunts.

I haunted all the book shops in the city and gathered an enviable collection. Weekends were devoted to reading through different books at the same and at a rate that surprised me. I can proudly claim that I may have read more books in that year than the rest of the life put together. It is during this time, that I read a life changing book , ‘ Eat Pray Love’. To me, during that phase, this book made so much sense that it has etched an indelible mark. I even bought extra copies for my girlfriends and my mum too. I also read the Harry Potter books several times and  you can quiz me about anything in the books and I am sure, I won’t disappoint.

I also watched a whole lot of movies  that I always wanted to watch but never had time to. I was able to watch brilliant movies like ‘Closer’,  Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind’, ‘ My house in Umbria’, ‘ Talented Mr. Rippley”, “Under the Tuscan Sun’ and many more. Under the Tuscan Sun and My house in Umbria clearly remain as favorites even today. If you haven’t seen them yet, get your copy of the DVD and watch it. I also watched the entire Kill Bill series and I think, Uma Thurman is a Goddess. I worship her.

In between, when I felt the world was closing in on me, I took a breather and went visiting my parents in Kerala. I spent a whole lot of time with them discussing, chit chatting and mostly just being around them. I am so glad I took that time off.

I went around Delhi to explore places I hadn’t been before and stopped for coffee at the quaintest little coffee shops that served the most amazing coffee.

I also went partying on weekends and danced the nights away. I was always the quintessential party girl and dancing was my first love and my greatest stress buster.

For an office assignment, I found myself wandering the streets of Amsterdam ( The Netherlands). I spent my time admiring the mannequins on display in shops only to realize they were actual people displaying their ‘wares’. It was here I fell in love with the foulest smelling cheese and the heavy wooden clogs.

Just around Christmas, I traveled to Stockholm ( Sweden) to see Santa Claus and tell him my little wish. It is here, I started to believe again in the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus when I saw my wish come true.

Just before my wedding anniversary and the year-end, my husband returned. He bought my first Chanel perfume and we celebrated it with Champagne. That was my first taste of Champagne and I loved it.

We took a memorable trip to Goa with friends and that was my last real vacation.

2008 was a year that I experienced  momentous joys and also fell into the deepest chasms of despair. During my trying moments I picked myself up by rewarding myself with little things that made me happy. It could be a new dress or a new music CD or sometimes a guilty dessert. I always felt chocolates loved me unconditionally. They always set my mood up and I felt positive  even on the dreariest days.

It was during this year that I also coined the term, ” Earn your dessert”. According to this,  only after doing my 7 km run every weekend, I would reward myself with a dessert and it had to be Tiramisu. I loved Tiramisu in puddings, in biscuit flavours, in cakes and in ice creams. Funnily, I may have never had an authentic Tiramisu, if there is any such thing. In the most up market Italian restaurants in Delhi, I was certain that they had a sponge cake or a pound cake dipped in coffee essence and not the lady fingers which made it more Italian. But what the heck, it tasted wonderful, this not-so-authentic Indian version of the Italian Tiramisu.

So 2008 was the year of the Tiramisu for me; bittersweet. 

So to toast my Nostalgia that December, I made some kick -*** Tiramisu inspired from a lovely blog -Sunshine and Smile. Kankana’s blog has become my go-to blog for most of my experimentation in the kitchen and I must add, the success rate has been 100%.  I tried this decadent tasting Tiramisu only to realize how ridiculously easy it is to make it. To stay true to my fond memories of Tiramisu, I decided to use  pound cake strips dipped in espresso.

Recipe for Tiramisu

Ingredients

3 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

4 tbsp mascarpone cheese

24 lady fingers or strips of pound cake or sponge cake

2 tbsp cocoa powder plus extra for dusting

1 cup strong espresso, cooled down to room temperature

1/2 cup bitter-sweet chocolate shavings, for garnish

Directions:

1. Beat the egg yolks and sugar in an electric mixer or whisker until they are thick and pale.

2. Add mascarpone cheese and continue beating until smooth.

3. Add 1 tbsp of coco powder and mix until its thoroughly combined.

4. Dip each ladyfingers/ pound cake strip/ sponge cake strips  into espresso for about a second and place on the bottom of the serving bowl (I placed 3 in each).

5. Next, pour the mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers.

6. Now, arrange another layer of soaked ladyfingers and top with remaining mascarpone mixture.

7. Cover the bowls with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours (I keep it overnight).

8. While serving, sprinkle some more coco powder with chocolate shavings.

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