Apple, pear, fig and plum crostada

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This is a post I wrote for Masterchef Monday on the Home Baker's Guild. 
Hang on tight, it's a long ride. 

Raised and schooled in Singapore, followed by 6 years of college education and hostel life in Madras, it was marriage that took me to the township of Ramachandrapuram, on the outskirts of Hyderabad city some 30 years ago. Living at the back of beyond, trying to run a home and an almost nonexistent kitchen, was quite something else, culture shock is too mild a term. A kitchen with no sink, running water at odd hours, no gas and not one but 2 kerosene stoves! Early on, I understood how important it was to keep the wicks trimmed so the flame would burn blue, there would be less pot scrubbing to do later. Still, no amount of French perfume could mask the unmistakable smell of kerosene on one’s hands. Ahh, the travails of a quintessential party girl!!

What did I miss the most? Definitely the oven at home. I had collected a whole sheaf of recipes for cakes, breads and cookies, thinking I could carry on with baking in my spare time but Hyderabad found me with lots of spare time and no oven.

Then my husband’s colleague lent me her “round oven”. Something was better than nothing but after a point, I got fed up with the little I could do with it.

Around that time, my mother in law decided to donate her secondhand oven to me. She lived in Ranchi where the power situation those days was pathetic. She had given up all hope of baking as anything put into the oven ever baked to completion. Neither she nor I ever realized the direction my life would take from that decision onward.

One evening, we received a note from a transport company to say that we were to pick up a consignment from their office. And there it was- in a big crate. A friend helped us get it home and husband and I set about opening it. Slowly, the small compact tabletop oven within was revealed, ironically named Jackson Giant. A bit battered and bruised, and weighing a ton, I loved it nonetheless. Despite its size, it could fit two 9”x 13” pans on the 2 racks. It had a baffle plate for toast, a plate warmer on one side and an enormous electric hob on top which my husband promptly disconnected. I quickly measured out flour, butter, sugar and eggs, intending to do a test bake.

We removed all the packing material from inside and then plugged it in and switched it on. The next second, there was an almighty THUP and the husband and I found ourselves sitting in pitch darkness. The house fuse had blown!! Marrying an electrical engineer has its perks- he repaired the fuse and a quick check with a multimeter revealed the fault was with the wiring of the oven and not with the oven itself. Phew! I could live with that!

By the next evening, he set right everything and got the oven up and running.

I loved baking apple pies and somewhere along the way, crostadas became a favourite. A crostada is nothing but a free form pie.



My recipe for apple, pear, fig and plum crostada has a secret ingredient which makes it absolutely delicious- thickened condensed milk. Google and HBG abounds with experiments on home made dulce de leche. If you’re not confident of doing it in a pressure cooker, do it my way- in the microwave.

Apple, pear, fig and plum crostada (makes 1 pie)

Pastry
180 gm plain flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons sugar
90 gm unsalted butter, cold and cubed
2 egg yolks beaten with 2 tablespoons water
Iced water to mix

Filling
½ a can sweetened condensed milk
2 apples- Granny Smith is fine
1 large China pear
1 large purple plum
2 figs

Method
Open a can of condensed milk, pour half the contents into a large microwave safe glass dish, cover the top with cling film and fold back a corner. 
Microwave on high for 2 minutes, stir with a whisk and microwave for a minute or so more if necessary. It should still be a little runny. Cool to room temperature. 


Sift flour and salt into a bowl, add in the sugar.
Rub in the butter till the mix resembles breadcrumbs.
Make a well in the centre of the bowl, pour in the yolk and water mixture and mix lightly to form a dough.
Add a little more water, in drops, if necessary so the dough comes together does not crack when pressed.
Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for about ½ hour.



For ease of handling, place a sheet of plastic on a worktop.
Dust it lightly and roll out the pastry into an 11” circle. Don’t worry if it isn't a perfect round but it should be of an even thickness.
Place a large sheet of greaseproof paper over the pastry and flip the whole thing over.
Remove the plastic sheet.

Drizzle a little of the thickened condensed milk on the base, leaving clear a margin of 1½” all around the edge.
Peel and cut the apples and pears into chunks, stone the plums, slice them, also the figs.
Mix all the fruits in a bowl, place them on the pastry, spreading them out.
Drizzle the remaining thick milk over the fruits.
Fold the pastry over, pleat it down where it sticks up.
All dressed up for the oven

Lift the paper and place it on a 10” baking sheet, bake at 200ºC for the first 15 minutes then lower the heat to 180ºC for another 20-30 minutes or until the pastry is golden coloured.
Remove the crostada carefully onto a wire rack to cool.
Serve in wedges hot, warm or cold and with ice cream if you feel you deserve the extra calories.

Or with a custard.

In case you have a smaller capacity oven, just make half the recipe. Or even 2 small ones.
In case you do not want to use eggs in the pastry, you can leave them out. 


Bon appetit!



Apple, pear, fig and plum crostada



A birthday in God's own country

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A 90th birthday is a special one. In the recent past, we've celebrated birthdays of nonagenarian uncles and aunts and a week ago, it was the turn of my father in law. Hence, the necessity of a trip to Kerala.

I am a terrible traveller. Even for a 2 day trip, I pack as if I am moving house. It's the monsoon season, what if washed clothes don't dry? Ok, pack 2 more sets. And footwear - one pair to wear in the train, one to wear at home, one to wear outside the home, one to wear in case I decide to go shopping. And please don't get me started on the contents of my dressing table drawer...

But this time, there was an additional package- the birthday cake. My father in law loves a good chocolate cake. Of course it wasn't practical to carry a fully decorated cake on a train. A friend had once carried a cake I'd baked for his daughter's first birthday by train and enroute, accidentally sat on it. So this cake was baked, packed into a well padded box, along with the icing, nozzles, icing bags and a spatula.

The distance from Chennai to Kottayam is about 750 kilometers, the superfast train covers the distance in nearly 12 hours. Since my husband and I boarded the train in the night, there was nothing much to see from the windows of the airconditioned coach. But the next morning, I was able to click a few pictures.

The lush green of Kerala's landscape, everyone grows tapioca, coconut and banana plants in their backyard, during the season, these waterlogged patches will become paddy fields.

Rubber trees, the  early morning stillness of a river 

Arriving at Kottayam station, we were met by the birthday boy as well as my sister in law who, deciding to surprise us all with her unexpected presence, had flown in from Dubai the previous day.

We stopped for breakfast at Aariyas Restaurant, a ritual started and faithfully followed for the past 12 years by f-i-l, a big treat especially for our children when they were younger. They still look forward to this.

Dosas and piping hot coffee at Aariyas

It was a short drive home and after after dumping our luggage, we walked across a small patch of grass to visit dad's brother who lived next door. He had celebrated his birthday a couple of days earlier.

We took a quick walk around both the compounds. Lots of trees and these -

A still green pineapple, abundance of bananas and ripening mulberries

So then it was decided that we would organise a birthday lunch but before that, I had a cake to decorate. It was indeed a challenge- being out of my comfort zone. With an improvised turntable, background chatter and unwanted advice offered freely by the husband and sis in law, I managed to decorate the cake without too much of a hassle.

Lunch would be Malabar style biryani and karimeen polichatu. Karimeen is pearl spot, a bony fish that inhabits the Kerala backwaters. Pollichathu is the style of cooking. We were advised to order it from Karimpin Taste Land, a nearby restaurant that specialises in seafood. (www.facebook.com/karimpintasteland.nattakom)

The restaurant had mat enclosed huts which afforded privacy to the patrons. We were led to a waiting area as ours was take out. They were kind enough to allow me to their kitchen where I watched the chef prepare the fish.

The fish had been marinated earlier so into a big cauldron (urali) full of of coconut oil, the cook lowered the masala (curry paste) coated fish. He let it cook on one side, then turned it around and dropped in handfuls of sliced shallots. The shallots were frying on one side, the fish on the other side (told you it was a big cauldron).

Fish in the cauldron

When the fish was done, the cook fished it out and placed it on a broad strip of banana leaf. More sliced shallots were dropped into the oil, a second fish was taken out.

Then an amazing process - with his ladle, he skimmed the top of the oil and lifted out a layer of cooked curry paste. I hadn't seen him putting it in so it must have come off the fish as it was frying. One side of the fish was coated with the paste, then he fished out some of the fried shallots, dropped it over the paste, turned the fishes over and repeated it.



When it was over, he covered the fish with the rest of the banana leaf, put it on a flat pan and lit a fire underneath to bake it a little. And that was it - he placed it on a plate garnished with tomato slices and the fish made its way to the diner who had ordered it. The whole process had taken less than 10 minutes.

Fish with curry paste, covered with the leaf and getting baked

And this was the amazing lunch we had - Malabar style chicken biryani and karimeen pollichathu.


But before that, we sang the birthday song and got the birthday boys to cut the cake.



I bugged an aunt to give me the recipe for this yummy fish so here goes-

Karimeen Pollichathu

Ingredients
2 palm sized karimeen or pomfret
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
1/2  teaspoon pepper powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Masala (curry) paste
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder(more if you like it hotter)
1/2 teaspoon whole mustard
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons coriander powder
40 shallots
1" piece ginger, chopped fine
10 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 green chillies, chopped fine(optional)
2 tomatoes, finely diced
1 sprig curry leaves
1 teaspoon vinegar(opt)
Salt to taste
Oil
2 banana leaves or aluminium foil for wrapping

Method
Scale and clean the fish well, leaving the head and tail intact.
Make 3 gashes across the fish on both sides.
Mix together chilli, pepper and turmeric powders, spread over both sides of the fish and leave to marinate for about half an hour.
Thinly slice half the shallots, finely dice the rest.
Grind the chilli powder, mustard, turmeric and coriander powders with a little water, keep aside.

Hold the banana leaves over an open flame to let them wilt. Remove from flame.
Heat 2 cups oil in a wok, fry the fish lightly on both sides, remove and place each on a banana leaf.
Remove half the oil, fry the sliced shallots till golden, remove onto a kitchen towel to drain.
Remove all but 3 tablespoons oil, saute the diced onions, ginger, garlic and green chillies for about 7 minutes along with the curry leaves.
At this point, add the ground chilli powder paste and the tomatoes, saute till most of the water evaporates and the oil starts separating.
Season to taste, the curry paste should be thick. Add the vinegar if you need a little more acidity.
Smear half the curry paste over one side of both fish, sprinkle half the fried shallots over, turn the fish over and repeat the process with the remaining paste and fried shallots.
Wrap the fish well in the leaves, place on a baking tray, bake in a preheated 180°C oven for about 30 minutes.
Serve hot.

And I do hope your fish looks as good as this one.


*You could wrap the fish in aluminium foil in case banana leaves are not available.


An Awadhi evening

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Right, I'll admit it upfront - I don't know much about North Indian food. I had to google to find the subtle (and some not so subtle) differences between various NI cuisines. But food is a universal language of communication, well prepared food speaks its own language and has its own syntax. The one thing I am certain about is that my spell check will go crazy by the end of this post.

The ongoing Awadhi food festival at Keys hotel Katti-Ma (http://www.keyshotels.com) Thiruvanmiyur was the reason for this sudden need for food education, especially as the hotel is located in the neighbourhood. The festivities happen at the Keys Cafe, a charming space, and at the flower motif-ed entrance, service staff dressed Awadh style welcomed us with the traditional application of attar (perfumed oil) on our wrists.


The buffet was neatly laid out, beginning with some very un-Awadhi salads. We were told that some diners preferred the regular menu and so this was for their benefit.

We started the meal with murgh galauti kebab. Served with mint chutney, the kebab was melt in the mouth tender. Just the way toothless nawab wanted it, I guess. The spices were subtle and well balanced, the meat was definitely the hero. Then there was a plate of paneer dhungara tikka- soft, well marinated paneer pieces.  They would have tasted better if they were hot. Along with the kebabs, we had sheermal and ulti tawa ka paratha. The sesame studded sheermal was not too sweet but our favourite was definitely the ulti paratha. It was the perfect accompaniment to the kebabs.

Paneer dhungara kabab, murgh galauti kebab, ulti tawa ka paratha, sheermal

The soup on offer was murgh hara dhaniya shorba. Light and flavourful, spicy with a hint of coriander.  

Dal rohili, mewa pulao, kaju kumbh makhana

Dal rohili, made with urad dal,  looked interesting, opening the cover of the chaffing dish, the aroma was unbelievable. It was a match made in heaven with the mewa pulao. I particularly liked the kaju kumbh makhana, beautifully cooked mushrooms studded with cashew halves. Simply yummy!!

Ambali paneer, gajar makkai ki tarkari

The ambali paneer with the diamond shaped paneer pieces was tempting, the richness of the cashewnut paste added to the thickness of the gravy but I left it to my son to pronounce the verdict- delicious. There was also a gajar makkai ki tarkari- a dish of carrots and corn. Both my son and I gave it  miss- we are unabashed non vegetarians.

Murgh awadhi biryani, dum ka gosht

Murgh awadhi biryani was definitely the star of the evening. Fragrant, flavourful, hints of rosewater, saffron, each grain of rice separate but beautifully moist. And the perfect accompaniment had to be the dum ka gosht, tender pieces of lamb cooked in a plethora of spices, nuts, cream. Oh those Awadhs sure know how to make you forget your diet plans. And yes, there was also a tamatari machili made with basa fillets- not our fish of choice.

Tamatari machili, accompaniments for the biryani

And now, time for


The desserts on display included carrot halwa, zafrani kheer and siwai ki muzafar. All three were delicious, studded with slivers of almonds and pistachios. The kheer was outstanding, the flavour of saffron was a subtle hint rather than a bold statement.

Carrot halwa, zafrani kheer, siwai ki muzafar

I think the chef was suitably impressed with all the photographs I was taking that he brought me a bowl  of his special dessert - halwa-e-gosht. Ok, that was a bit of a shock - a dessert with meat? I must admit this took a bit of courage to try, not to mention the glass of water I had to drink to cleanse my palate. The water was also to buy some time as the chef was waiting for my...err...reaction/comment?

Halwa-e-gosht

Finely ground lamb cooked with khoa and mildly sweet. An unusual combination, rich, yes, at the same time,  savory notes playing on my tongue. Looks like the old Lucknow cooks knew a thing a two about fusion food!!

I think for me, it was a good introduction to Awadhi cuisine. The dishes were rich, mildly spiced, each of them had a unique flavour. Service was unobtrusive, but it did take some time for our plates to be cleared. Piped music added to the ambiance of a leisurely meal.

There are other un-Awadh dishes at the extensive buffet spread, just in case someone likes something else. There was a little boy who came in with his parents, looked at the dishes and then pronounced that he would love to have the noodles.

The Awadhi dinner buffet, inclusive of a glass of wine/ mug of beer is priced at Rs.600+ taxes if you choose to go on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. The weekday buffet is Rs. 400+ taxes.

The festival is on till Sunday November 24th.

Here's a helpful tip- skip lunch and indulge at the fest.
      

At the grill- a workshop

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It's almost the end of the year and the everyone's gearing up for a season of entertaining family and friends. What could bring about a more convivial atmosphere than a grill party. Nothing could be simpler than marinating meats and vegetables and at party time, everyone has a go at the grill. Hot food, minimum fuss.

At the upcoming grill workshop, you don't need a state of the art grill and the works or any fancy equipment. Well, you could use them if that's what you want Santa to bring you this Christmas.  All you would need is an oven (not strictly necessary), and a few pans.  

So what's on the menu? Sweet chilli prawns, barbequed chicken, Moroccan chicken, chicken teriyaki skewers, lamburgers and grilled chicken with yoghurt and lime. Also rosti and a big bowl of salad.

At Kottivakkam, on November 16th, 10.30am - 2.30pm.


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At the Creating Cakes workshop

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What does one do after baking a cake?

Eat it, of course.

At the Creating Cakes workshop, these were the beauties that were made and demolished in no time at all:

Checkerboard cake with white chocolate buttercream
Raspberry charlotte cake, since we couldn't get strawberries!
Red velvet cake with a creamy, dreamy, tangy frosting 
A luscious baked dark chocolate terrine with raspberry coulis



Deliciousness in every bite.

 
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