Scones and other bits of my childhood

I had a fairly happy childhood until it got to that point where I realized I will probably never get to taste scones. And then I lived unhappily ever after.

Because Enid Blyton turned my life upside down.

In her books, people led magical, adventurous lives, always doing things, solving mysteries, bringing bad people to books, rescuing life forms, but mostly packing tea or having tea and eating the most wondrous things. I didn’t particularly care for the sweets, although there was an array of them: the humbugs, bulls-eyes, liquorice candy, barley sugars, from the village shop that was the chief catalyst in most of the Secret Seven’s adventures. I was happy to chew on my Parle Poppins or my five paise orange kidney sweets although I did think liquorice might be a good thing to taste but was afraid it might contain liquor and one would have to be a certain age.

If they were not chewing candy, they were stuffing their face with eclairs, meringues, large slices of chocolate cake, tongue sandwiches, potted meat sandwiches, warm buttered scones, egg and lettuce sandwiches, pork pies, hard boiled eggs, jam tarts, gingerbread, ginger buns and then washing it all down with lemonade, ginger ale and oooh, ginger beer!

It was all too much to take but I made my peace by elimination.Eggs, tongues and meat held no excitement for me. I figured gingerbread was a medicinal bread you had if you were sick , along with haldi doodh, and shortbread biscuits were just leftover bread which was dried and broken into bits (like they do for dogs and fish). Meringue sounded like a cousin of tongue (perhaps an animal part I wasn’t aware of) and eclairs – well Cadbury’s was doing a good job of it, and we always got occasional eclairs as treats. (I had no idea at the time that they could be a giant, gooey mess, like a veritable chocolate volcano).

But she had me at scones! Scones I wanted. Scones took me to warm and fuzzy places. Scones made me feel sorry for myself whenever I had my idlis and molagapodi, even when I added a dollop of butter on my warm idlis and pretended they were scones.

Plus, Mr Twiddle had left an image of it which was indelible:

As he passed the cake-shop, a very nice smell of hot scones came out. Twiddle stopped and sniffed. “I think I’ll pop in and have a cup of hot coffee and a scone or two,” he thought. “I really didn’t have much breakfast”

So in he went and chose a table. Soon he was sipping a cup of coffee and eating a whole plate of  warm, buttered scones. Very nice, indeed!

Unlike the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Five Findouters’ teas, of which there were hardly any pictures, this one had a nice illustration that I could stare at. And sigh.

Around that time, my mother was taking baking lessons in the afterhours of her school teacher job. Every Saturday, she would return with baked goodies: coconut cookies, nankhatais, marble cake, sponge cake, pineapple upside down cake and even chocolate cake, exactly like Fatty’s mom used to make. I asked her when they would teach her scones and she gave me this “How greedy are you?” look.

It was clear that scones was not going to be a part of her repertoire. We couldn’t afford cookbooks and this was pre-internet days, so I was sure I couldn’t google the recipe. I blamed Enid Blyton for not having a recipe section in her books.Every time we went out to eat (which was rare), I would ask for scones and I would be offered an icecream cone. (Clearly I was even pronouncing it wrong, like ‘cones’). Scones were now the bane of my existence.

Soon youth and all the trappings of it obliterated the memory of scones. Or so I thought. Twenty years later, I was at Norwood Bungalow in Sri Lanka, writing a travel story about the  Ceylon Tea Trails. The menu for the high tea read: Scones with clotted cream and strawberry compote, lemon tarts, cucumber sandwiches ….”

Finally.

As I stared at the three-tier spread in front of me, I was awash with emotion. It was like they had packed my childhood and put it right there in front of me. I picked up a scone, like it were a jewel, and caressed it. It looked like muddy, dehydrated pao for the most part and tasted unspectacular. It wasn’t warm, like I thought it would be, but then we were in the hills, and the outside air was cold. I slit it gingerly, and dolloped butter on one half and the compote on the other, smiling and crying.

When I got back to Bombay, the first thing I did was look up the recipe. I told my son about this magical thing from my childhood that would melt in your mouth. My first attempt failed miserably; the scones were hard and un-photogenic. No amount of butter or jam could redeem them. I was despondent, but the child said we could pretend they were rock cakes.

And then Cupcake Jemma (a YouTube fairy) entered my life with a really simple recipe with flour, milk, baking powder, sugar and salt.

And my lovely friend Rebecca Vaz showed me how you could be really smart by cutting your scones into squares instead of circles so there’s absolutely no wastage.We made these in the mountains of Himachal, and added dollops of Bhuira Jams‘ Strawberry preserve and had a little picnic in the garden under the deodars.

The scones tasted exactly like my childhood.

 

 

(This piece first appeared in The Hindu here )

Parenting lessons from burnt cookies

It has been one of those weeks when three generations were coexisting under one roof in my house – my mother, Re and I have been bonding and sharing space and food. Talk is a necessary byproduct of both.Yes, we have been talking a lot.

Grandparents are amazing things. When they walk in, parenting looks easier. My mother can access the parts of Re that I can’t. My father can be the crockey (a game he invented combining cricket and hockey) buddy I can’t.

And it’s often not because of what they do; it is their mere presence that seems to dilute the tedium of parenting. You perhaps realize that you were shaped by them, so it can’t get much worse. They also silently seem to applaud you for everything that you do, even the small things, so it seems worth the while (admit it, you are all looking for points!)

In the true spirit of our family, cooking (and eating) is what mostly brings us together. Every once in a while, my mother gets to watch me play mom and she is intrigued. While she was visiting last week, Re and I got down and dirty with a few baking expeditions (it somehow seemed like better weather for baking) and we made cookies and baked a cake. Unlike my mother who let me in at age eight, Re has been at it since age four.

The thing about baking is that even the most seasoned baker often waits with bated breath to see if the cake has risen. Even if you have a manual, you are never sure you will get it right, much like parenting. I have a few baking buddies. Some give me recipes, others give ideas. The ideas are far more valuable, much like they are in parenting. I have never taken to recipes.

Re stands in front of the oven asking me every microsecond, ‘Is it ready yet?” I have found a way around it. “When you smell the right smell, it’s ready!”

The other day, when it was cookie time, I handed Re the dough and asked him to roll his own cookies. What shape should it be, he asked.

It can be any shape you want, it’s your cookie, I replied.

We made assorted shapes together and no two cookies looked alike.

When we were done, he licked the cookie dough and declared, “Mmmmm, delicious!”

I know how to take a compliment and I egg him on. He has always been generous with compliments and never been hard to please in the culinary space. That somehow makes me want to try harder, however convoluted it might sound. We hungrily devour the entire tray of cookies, and don’t bother with any kind of decorum. (Not even taking the mandatory photo, hence can’t show you our excitingly imperfect cookies)

My mother watches this. She sighs. “You are so free with your child, I wish I had been like you. I was always so caught up with getting it right.”

I am glad she said it and I didn’t.

I remember when my mother let me in on her baking expeditions. There were too many boundaries.  All the cookies had to be the same size and shape, rolled not into a disc, but more of a tetrahedron, and my mother’s watchful eye often made me nervous. When we embellished it, the cherry had to be right at the centre. The baking tin had to be grease-proofed up to every micro square cm. Everything had to be mixed in geometric proportion.

Everyone loves the perfect cookie. But I have learnt that there is no such thing as a bad cookie. That even the hard ones can be redeemed with icecream or some such palliative. And even the really mushy ones have the power to put a smile on your face.  I learnt how not to judge a cookie by its cover. Burnt cookies are my best friends. I learnt that if the cake doesn’t rise, we can always have a crumble.

I see this whole attraction for wholeness and perfection among my students at too. At the school meals, every child wants the perfectly shaped pooris, omelettes, dosas. The rest are rejected. I look at the pile of broken bits and something shifts inside me. Give me the broken bits, I tell the person on duty.

I wanted my parents to understand my broken bits. They just pretended it didn’t exist. They were too focused on my perfections. I spent most of my youth nurturing my broken bits. I am still working on them, as I believe it is never too late. They will always have a special place in my heart. Re gets this, and I’m grateful.

Sometimes I feel like asking my mother for my childhood back. At other times, I am grateful to her for letting me grow up soon. I have significantly lowered the bar for Re, but in doing so, I have lowered the bar for myself too. I am allowed to have bad days and burnt cookies. I am allowed to bake cakes that don’t rise. Or make custard that doesn’t set.

I inherited my mother’s oven and a few of her baking tins. It was an equaliser between her and me. And when I baked my first date and walnut cake in 40 minutes including prep time, my mother asked in amazement, ‘How did you manage that?”

I knew we had made a fresh start.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 15th December, 2014)

 

 

A for Aloo, B for Basil

Midday Feature

Ever since Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Kylie Kwong, Curtis Stone, Master Chef and some set foot in our homes, food has somewhat morphed from the dal-chawal-roti-sabzi  routine to assume new avatars on our plate. Food is less about hunger management and more about ‘plating up.’ I noticed this even more after I became a mother— I began to explore a whole new relationship with food as I was trying to introduce my son to the world of flavours and textures. I certainly wanted to graduate from baby-food as I found it quite demeaning. He thought so too, and made it amply clear right from the start.

It all started from his squeal of delight at purple-stained palms with beetroot puree at age six months (instead of the more recommended staid pumpkin), his grabbing of a soup-stick, his dousing idlis in molagapodi from my plate and chomping a whole one in three bites, his helping himself to a mixed lettuce salad with vinaigrette dressing, all before he turned one. I knew I had birthed a foodie and I raised the bar for myself.  Post the beetroot rhapsody, much foodie adventures have happened and still continue, with our recent escapades with Nigella’s linguni with pesto (which, incidentally, he has patented a very unique way of eating) . While I go about working on my culinary art, to please my more demanding palate (and his too), Re potters about with his pots and pans—he has an Ikea kitchen set, complete with colanders, saucepans, cookie cutters, ladles, rolling pin, and even a gas range.

So here’s some food that soothes our visual senses as well as our taste-buds.

 1.     Baby potatoes in thyme

A for Aloo is probably what they should teach at preschool, since a child’s relationship with potatoes is far deeper than that with a certain fruit of sophistication that, even in season, is as dear as 100 rupees a kilo. Aloo was also Re’s favourite vegetable of play, with him tossing them around in real cauldrons (mine) and pretending to stir fry, sometimes pierce them with a fork, ready to bake (clearly I have no issues with cutlery),even pour them. My rendering of them was still limited to aloo parathas, a crispy aloo sabzi or an aloo raita. Mashed potatoes were not good looking enough, hash browns needed an accompaniment, roasted potatoes are great but difficult to master consistency with and dum aloo somehow lacks the dum and frankly, is messy and busy.

Then one day, a bag of baby potatoes arrived and he looked at them suspiciously, perhaps wondering, “Mommy! Who shrank the potatoes?” I pretended that just like human beings, cats and dogs, aloos could also have babies and they often ended up looking cuter. It took him a while to get friendly with the babies though—he still preferred their more robust, adult versions. The trick was to find a stand-alone baby potato dish that could win him over, qualify as finger food, be appealing to the eye, and that I would enjoy as much. My baby potatoes in thyme won on all counts. Simple, non-messy, non-fussy and extremely elegant with no extra work at all (it would help to choose evenly sized potatoes but not imperative).  And it is still the one thing I always make when we have friends over (his or mine). It looks good, and it sure does make me look good.

 

Ingredients:

One packet of baby potatoes (or 250 gm)

One tablespoon butter

Dried thyme, pepper

Salt to taste

 

Boil the baby potatoes enough to be able to peel them, and set aside.

In a shallow pan, throw in the butter. Heat enough to melt the butter, then throw the thyme and pepper powder and then the potatoes.  Add salt to taste, but remember that the butter is already salted.

Toss it all around to mix thoroughly and roast on a slow flame will the potatoes are evenly brown.

 

2.     Nigella’s Linguini with fresh Pesto and Beans

Nigella's Linguini with pesto and beans

Almost every afternoon, Re and I stare wistfully, sometimes in awe, at Nigella Lawson in Nigella Kitchen  (we have a bank of recorded ones as the real show is way past his bedtime). We watch her transforming the mundane into the seductive in the kitchen, in a manner that only she can. Her lazy, effortless way of cooking is something that I am trying to adopt, although I don’t have her persona  and definitely don’t sound as convincing when I say, “When I am in the kitchen, I’m happy”.

Pasta was always a favourite for Re, ever since I saw a strand of spaghetti making its way from my plate to Re’s mouth at age nine months. It was a tomato-based sauce with bell peppers, mushrooms, and aubergine, and he picked out the yellow and red bits and ate them too. He was ready for world cuisine, I thought, and there was no looking back.

But Nigella’s Linguini with pesto, potatoes and beans! Our collective eyes lit up. Now we were talking! Somehow a green pasta with oodles of texture and hidden beans seemed like an exciting visual break from our regular red (both of us are not fans of white, cheesy sauces). Off I went shopping and set up a play date with Deeya, the screechy girl next door who for once called me auntie, instead of my name and said, “I really like this. I really like you!” Re signed off the performance with a  Nigella impersonation of eating the linguini with both hands, sinking it into his teeth as if it were dental floss, and pulling it on either side. It’s a classic! I love you, Nigella.

Box:

250 gm linguini

A medium sized bunch of basil (or two packets from the supermarket)

Parmesan (100 gm)

Extra Virgin Olive oil – one tablespoon

Two medium sized potatoes

100 gm French beans, destringed (around 15-20 beanstalks) and halved (or whole, if small)

Four cloves of garlic

Salt to taste

 

Method:

For the pesto sauce:

Blend the basil, the parmesan, the garlic and the olive oil to a coarse mixture with a little salt. You can add some of the pasta stock (water in which pasta has been boiled) to the blend to make a good puree.

 

For the pasta:

Chop the potatoes and add them to a large pot of water and bring to boil, adding a little salt.

When the potatoes are half done, add the linguini to the same pot, mixing well.

Five minutes later, add the beans (whole, preferably) to the mixture, mixing well to ensure the potatoes, the pasta and potatoes are evenly cooked.

When the beans are cooked to a crunch, switch off and drain the pasta.

Transfer the pasta to a large bowl and mix the pesto with it. (You can use some of the pasta boiling water to the pesto to give it a better pouring consistency). Mix the pasta with the pesto well with a large fork. You will notice that the potatoes would crumble in, adding further texture to the pesto sauce and ensuring you get an even mix.

 

3. Tabouleh salad

Midday Feature

I often give Re real vegetables to play with, usually onions, potatoes, beans, peas or lady fingers. It makes him feel like a real chef, like he is making some important contribution to the daily spread. One afternoon, he set his hands on a box of cherry tomatoes in the fridge and set about using them to create something. As I watched him, he first bit into every cherry tomato and threw it into another pan. Some, he just ate. It actually reminded me of the iconic “thoda khao thoda phekho” from Jaane bhi do yaaron.

Very soon, there was a small heap of half-bitten tomatoes staring at me and the thrifty me couldn’t let it go to waste.

I decided to teach him the art of creating something out of waste. I couldn’t think of a better medium than couscous. So the much insulted cherry tomatoes found salvation in a Tabouleh salad.  We also play a little game where we each have to find the tomatoes/olives in the salad and get a clap every time we do.

 

What you need:

One cup cous cous (or burghul wheat, or lapsi)

One packet of cherry tomatoes

Small bunch (3-4 stalks) parsley

Two spring onions (with leaves)

One tablespoon olive oil

Salt, pepper/paprika to taste

Juice of one lemon

5-6 black olives, sliced

 

Method:

Take the couscous (or lapsi) in a shallow bowl, pour enough just boiled water over it to cover it, and let it sit.

Chop the olives, and the cherry tomatoes into halves. Also chop the spring onions and parsley fine.

When the couscous has absorbed all the water and swollen up and looks dry, break it with the help of a fork, clearing lumps if any, so that you get an even, powdery mass.

Add the tomatoes, olives, parsley, spring onions, lemon juice, paprika (or pepper), salt and olive oil, mixing well, breaking any lumps.

 

 

4. Tsatsiki

Tell-tale tsatsiki

Tell-tale tsatsiki

 

When I was still wondering whether Re was really ready for adult food, began the attack of the Tsatsiki. It was a house party where Tsastiki was served up as one of the dips  on a platter with lavash and soup sticks.

Initially, he was excavating the Tsatsiki with a soup stick, but he soon decided to abandon the soupstick and dig in with his fingers. Soon he was wearing a tsatsiki mask and my guests were staring open mouthed as a nine-month old displayed his refined palate.

“Is he ready to eat dips?” They asked.  He bloody well was. At least much more than he was ready to eat baby food out of a tin.

Tsatsiki was the first sign that Re found baby-food and its mushy, gooey avatars demeaning and disrespectful to his sensibilities. He was ready for the real thing, real interplay of flavours, real textures, real subtleties.

I also realised that dips were such a great way to legitimise the frequent snacking habit. All you need is some crackers or lavash or baguette slices or pav or carrot and cucumber sticks, a bowl of tsatsiki or hummus or guacamole, and you can dig in, any number of times a day. Sometimes we even use it as a sandwich spread.

I am not really into ready-to-eat snacks or processed food and you’ll seldom find me with a packet of biscuits or a bag of chips. But yes, a bowl of tsatsiki and brun pav? That would be us!

 

Recipe box:

Two small cucumbers (or one large one), grated

One medium tub (400 gm) of dahi

One small bunch of dill (3-4 stalks) with the stalks removed

Juice of one lemon

One tablespoon olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine

One small teaspoon of paprika (you can also use pepper)

One teaspoon of honey (optional)

Salt to taste

 

Method:

Hang the curd till all the water drains off. Set aside.

Grate the cucumber, add some salt to it and set aside. The salt will exude all the water from the cucumber which you can then squeeze dry and set aside.

In a bowl, mix the curd, the cucumber, the garlic, the lemon juice, the paprika, the honey.

Add the olive oil and more salt if required and mix well.

 

6. Date and Nut roll

My mother always ensured I had regular consignments of her Date and nut rolls while I was pregnant. A nutrient-packed, easy to eat (or hide in your purse, if you are in a multiplex), fully organic snack, it was her version of the granola bar that kept me going through my constant hunger pangs. It does even now.

I got the recipe from her and started Re on them when he had a few teeth to reckon with. I am not a biscuit and chips mommy, although I encourage plenty of in-between snacking. It is our on-the go snack, there is always a box of it in the car, in the fridge, by the bed and in his toy basket. He fondly calls them ‘cookies’ and I haven’t bothered correcting him. It’s his anytime snack, sometimes a breakfast cereal, sometimes a dessert, and at other times a meal on the go. So if you want energy and want it soon, pop a couple of these. Also makes for a non-fussy, yet elegant dessert for those of you with a sweet tooth.

 

Recipe

Seedless dates – 250 gm

Almonds – around 15

Cashews – around 15

Walnuts – around 10

Ghee- one tablespoon (you can also use butter)

Marie biscuits – 3-4

Method:

Chop the nuts and dates into fine bits. In a non-stick pan, add the ghee/butter. When it is suitably heated, add the dates and nuts, and mix well till it all blends well.

Switch off the gas and mix in the crumbled Marie biscuits, mix well.

When the mixture is cool, transfer onto an aluminium foil and roll into a cylinder with your hands. Wrap the roll in the foil and refrigerate for two hours.

Remove the cylinder, slice evenly and serve.

(This post first appeared in Midday on 21-08-2011)

Pulse fiction: How I fell in love with my legumes all over again

It is that time of the year when dried pulses are making a comeback. Among other things, vegetables have become so dear that it is currently inducing the fiscally wise (yours truly included) to adopt hi-protein legume diets, Atkins or no Atkins (the last I checked, it appeared that it was cheaper to be a fruitarian) Suddenly, the husband’s cold-cuts were paling in cost compared to my tomatoes and cauliflower.

Since it breaks my heart to buy veggies by the quarter of a kilo and since potatoes and onions don’t exactly a wholesome meal make, I began to explore legumes, a produce hitherto neglected by me-with-a-fetish-for-everything-fresh.

For one week, I am going the pulse route, I decided. A world of low fat, high fibre, no cholesterol, low glycemic index, high protein, high nutrients option at a remarkably low cost.

Until recently, my pulse odyssey was limited to rajma and chholey, apart from that great south Indian contribution, adai (but more about that in another article). It took me a while and a lot of minimization to perfect the recipes for the former two, but I finally culled out a simple, but great one for rajma from CY Gopinath’s blog (courtesy Guru da Dhaba in Lokhandwala) and the one for chholey which does not involve a million masalas from my Futura cookbook, an acquisition with my Futura cooker, one of my prized possessions, which hopefully, Re will inherit.

In my week of living with the beans, I also tried a moong kadhi, an olan, hummus, a chickpea and aubergine stew, a rajma salad and various adai mixes.

Of course childhood memories of the mother doling out a regular dose of a chowli-yam-raw banana-eggplant-concoction in tamarind gravy (puli-kutthi-kuttu, she called it) come flashing back. I never really acquired a taste for it, but it was an existential yet wholesome meal, to say the least. I could never tell if it was a main course or an accompaniment—so overwhelming was the veggie to gravy ratio.

My favourite pulse starrer is still the olan (the one with white pumpkin and red beans). It is subtly flavoured, yet satiating, and easy on the palate. I can eat it by itself, although rasam rice goes every well with it.

Hummus (something that Re takes in his tiffin, and people think I’m showing off)

Chickpeas: 200 gms

Juice of two lemons

Olive oil – one tablespoon

Garlic – 6-7 cloves

Tahini paste (optional, and over-rated) one tbsp

Salt to taste

How to make it:

Soak chickpeas overnight, and remove loose skins if any. Pressure cook till soft. Cool. Drain cooking liquid and set aside.

Grind the chickpeas and the chopped garlic to the right level of coarseness, adding the cooking liquid for consistency.

Now, squeeze the juice of the lemons into the ground chickpeas and mix well. Add a dollop of tahini paste (available at gourmet food shops or supermarkets) and mix well, adding salt to taste. Add the olive oil and mix well.

Garnish with chilli flakes or chopped parsley and serve chilled. Can be stored for a week.

(Works well as a dip or a sandwich spread, with lavash, pita bread or even crackers for a quick hunger fix. )

Tip: If you want to make your hummus more exciting, try adding a few pickled jalapenos to the chickpeas while serving.

Moong kadhi

Whole moong: 1 small cup, soaked

Curd

Turmeric powder

Chilli powder

Salt

Sugar

Besan

For the tempering

3-4 cloves of crushed garlic

Method:

Soak the whole moong for half and hour and pressure cook well with a pinch of salt.

In a pan, whisk 250 gm of curd, two teaspoons of besan, a pinch of turmeric, a pinch of chilli powder, salt to taste and a pinch of sugar. Mix well, breaking lumps formed, if any.

Now add the boiled moong to it, and enough water to have a kadhi like consistency and bring to a boil. Switch off gas.

For the tempering: Heat one teaspoon oil and fry the crushed garlic till light brown and pour over the kadhi

Serve hot with rice and papad.

Olan

White pumpkin ¼ kg

Red chowli 100gms

Green chillies – 2

Salt to taste

Coconut oil for garnish

Method:

Skin the white pumpkin and cut into 2’ x 2’’ slices of 1 cm thickness. Wash well.

Now soak the red chowli for half an hour and pressure cook it with a pinch of salt till well done, but still whole and not mashed

In a kadhai, transfer the white pumpkin add some water, salt to taste and cook on a slow flame.

Crush two green chillies and add them to the pumpkin, mixing well.

When the pumpkin is nearly cooked, add the cooked chowli into it, stirring well.

Drizzle some fresh coconut oil over the olan for the authentic south Indian touch(optional)

No, I am not a white broccoli

One of the things I told Re when he turned four was that the cauliflower was not a white broccoli. I thought it was about time the cauliflower earned its own identity, although I nodded vigorously when Re designated it thus two years ago. Broccoli was then an object of affection, and I figured, anything goes, as far as more vegetables enter his repertoire. But now that the cauliflower has assumed a place of its own in Re’s life, I thought it was time to tell the truth. It went well, I am happy to report.

To be born a cauliflower is an elegant thing in itself—it’s like what can possibly go wrong with a Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie offspring? It will have the looks, the body, and of course the bite to go with it.

Having said that, the cauliflower’s natural beauty is perhaps one thing that gets in the way while trying to cook it. Mutilating it like the South Indians do in their poduthuvals is close to criminal, dousing it with coconut, chilli and garlic gravy like the Maharashtrians do is sacrilege. I for one always have issues about ‘deflowering’ this thing of beauty, rendering it leafless, almost bald. With such reservations, transforming it into an out-of-world experience is a daunting task. As Aamir Khan said in Dil Chahta hai, “Perfection ko kaun improve kar sakta hai?” (how can you improve perfection?)

I must say the north Indians have cracked this. Like they have totally figured out that only-ginger-no-garlic is the way to go for this flower. Or that less is more (so roasted and crushed jeera and a whole chilli are perhaps the only things that pass muster). They have also figured out the slow cooking is the only way to get your gobhi right, even if takes close to an hour. And that there is a colour palette while frying onions that moves from white to pink to green to brown and that green is the shade we want. As someone with limited patience, exaggerated by the inability to stand over a flame and watch something cook for more than five minutes, I am definitely not the candidate.

I have had the most simple, yet most amazing aloo-gobhis at my childhood friend Tina’s house, where her mother, Mrs Sahni, served them up for us with hot rotis wrapped in a towel, and released just before they reached your plate.

Recently, at a dinner table conversation with a Punjab-da-puttar, my interest in this species of vegetable was rekindled all over again. It’s been a while since I ate a good aloo-gobhi and Tina has moved to San Francisco and evolved into a shockingly bad cook, while her mother is nestled somewhere in Greater Kailash II in Delhi. So right now, the Punjab da puttar my only hope and I do hope he reads this and invites me for a meal soon.

I attempted doing it the Punjabi way, but my patience wore out, so now, I do the occasional cauliflower soup (which I am good at), throw it into a vegetable stew (it works) or make a quickie pulao with chunky pieces of it in a tomato and ginger-garlic gravy. But I still yearn for a good gobhi-matter or aloo-gobhi or just plain gobhi-ki-sabzi.

And then, one fine day, I learnt this recipe from my buddy Deepa (an amazing cook and equally fun to be with) in which she just buttered a whole cauliflower, dunked it into an oven and garnished it with pepper. It was the most divine one-pot meal I had ever eaten.

Baked cauliflower with thyme and pepper

1 medium sized cauliflower

Salted butter

Crushed pepper

Dried thyme

Method:

1.Wash and clean cauliflower if necessary and wipe dry (avoid buying the slightly mottled ones)

2. Take a dollop of butter (as much as you are permitted to have or dare to) and slather it all over the cauliflower, making sure you smear enough in the grooves and hidden parts.

3. Now sprinkle some thyme and pepper (just pepper will also do if you don’t particularly fancy thyme) all over (don’t forget the parts between the florets) and dunk it into a microwave for 4-6 minutes (850W) or bake in a regular oven for 20 min at 180 degrees.

4. Mop up the excess butter in the dish with a baguette, and dig into the whole cauliflower with a fork and knife. Or just tear it to shreds if you give two hoots about elegance.

Rehaan ka Dabba in the world of Maggi

Re has just entered the fascinating world of the dabba. I should say school, for it sounds more politically correct and milestone-ish, but no, dabba it is. No, he is not one of those children who ‘Doesn’t do food’, much as moms these days seem to display it as a feat. Re digs food and all the credit goes to me (thank you!). The OPU will just about eat to live, although sometimes I have heard him make appropriate sounds while eating (if I am awake at that unearthly hour).

For the first two weeks of school, I hung out with Re in class (no, I didn’t choose one of those Nazi schools where they don’t let you step beyond the threshold) and watched the proceeds unfold, and was equal party to it, with my own little snack and thermos of tea. I have now been relegated to the garden area, where I have my tea under a tree and write (yes, it’s all getting very idyllic and Ruskin Bond-ish and I love it).

By day three, Re figured out that the dabba was indeed, an exciting part of his day and a great reason to go to school.  Of course he was pushing it when he asked to eat his dabba within half hour of entering school, but I managed to convince him to wait for the appointed hour. “Else what will you eat when others are eating?”, I asked. He saw my point and agreed.

On day two, I began to eavesdrop on other dabbas. I always do that. Have always done it. I judge people by their dabbas. Go, judge me.

The dabbas were of course, all nice, colourful, attractive, in sizes ranging from the microscopic to the gargantuan, shapes from basic squares and circles to  houses, ships, pigs, phones and butterflies. Some with 3-D images on their tops, some with multiple layers, matching cutlery and water bottles.

What was inside the dabbas left much to be desired though. Here is what I saw. Chivda. Chips. French fries. Biscuits. Kelloggs chocos. Maggi. Bread jam. Maggi. Bread-cheese. Farsan. Potato smileys. Kurkure. Maggi. Cheese balls. Little hearts. Kurmura chivda. Biscuits. And yes, the occasional idli or chapati roll or cut fruit, the only things that smelt of home.

I thought of my mother ever so fondly and how exciting she used to make my dabbas. For as long as I can remember, going to school was always about ‘What’s in my dabba?’ Mine was a working mom, but my dabba never reflected that.  I never had biscuits or bread-jam in mine. Some days, there were idlis smothered in molagapodi or dosas stuffed with potato filling. At other times, there was the fluffy cabbage upma (my mom’s top 5 tiffin items, write for recipe in comments section), or poha speckled with coconut or shev and coriander, or with lots of peanuts or crispy potatoes or uttapams with stuffings of this and that. There was tomato rice and lemon rice and tamarind rice (again peanuts ruled) and curd rice with grated carrots or cucumber bits. Some days, there were even cutlets or medu vadas (mostly Saturdays, when mom was home). My favourite was still sabudana khichdi, and I loved eating the potato bits and then getting to the rest of it (shockingly, Re does the same).

My zest for the dabba continued through college, through internship, through my moving out of home and cooking for myself, till my last job and is the same even now. What I enjoyed the most about my pregnancy was the legitimisation of multiple dabbas and the fact that I could eat when I wanted, no eyebrows raised. In fact what motivates me about getting Re ready for school is what will I pack in his dabba today?

I still remember in one of my many jobs, I had a dabba partner and we ordered a dabba from this Gujarati lady, Bhavnaben who would send us hot phulkas smothered in ghee, two vegetables, a dal or kadhi, rice and papad for a measly 35 rupees. He was the only man who could match me morsel for morsel, and every afternoon, it was a race for who would get to the dabba first (there was some thrill at getting first dibs at the least perspiring chapatti or the biggest chunks of aloo).

Re and I have a similar race with our food. Sometimes, he robs me of peanuts in my lemon rice, or the crust of my dosa, sometimes it’s the crispy aloos in the sabudana khichdi or poha, sometimes it’s the dollop of butter on my aloo paratha, or the dahi.

On day one of school, Re had hummus with cucumber and carrot sticks. Everyone turned to look at him scooping out his hummus. I wasn’t trying to show off, there was leftover hummus from Sunday dinner, and I figured why not make a dabba out of it? I am not a gourmet cook and do the regular upma, dosa, uttapam, chila, idli (in its various avatars), poha and sabudana khichdi, aloo and sprout chaat. Sometimes, he gets home-baked cake or cookies.

I meet more mommies now than ever before. At school. In parks. In cafes. At brunch.  In parking lots. In elevators. In bookshops. We often get chatting. And they often talk about food as being one of their biggest woes. When mothers whine that their kids don’t eat breakfast, I ask them what did you eat? They mumble something about a glass of milk or cereal or cornflakes. Then I ask them, does food make you happy? They look at me like I asked them about their sex life.

And it’s not that I wake up at 5 am and slog away in the kitchen. I am just intelligent and Nigella about it. A baked cake is dabba for four days. Cookies can go for a week. Hummus and Tsatsiki can be converted into sandwich spreads. And sandwiches are a mommy’s best friend (but you can do better than jam/cheese). Idli/dosa batter is the most versatile thing to have in your fridge. And there is no end to the goodies you can add to an upma or a paratha. Spinach. Carrots. Sprouts. Peppers. Beans. Peas.

Go figure. Food is intuitive. At least that’s how it should be. Try different things and figure out what works for your child. My tip is, make it visually exciting. Make it look good. All you need is colours. So a red and green upma with carrots and peas will score over an insipid gooey mush of a Maggi any day.

This week, we had a strawberry bonanza, so Re’s dabba has gone fruity. Every day, he gets chopped strawberries with one other fruit (it has to be a different colour, else Re says, “Where are my happy colours?”)

Which brings me to the moral of the story. If you don’t have a passionate relationship with food, there is no way your child will have one. So if you want your child to eat well, it’s time to start your affair with food. Size zero be damned. Pre-pregnancy weight be damned.

So stop whining and start cooking. If you can’t cook, surely you can think? Or read books, look up the internet, delegate, get involved. There is nothing cool about saying “I can’t cook”. For your own good, I hope the husbands can.

In any case, a Nigella mom is always sexier than a Maggi mom. And it’s never too late to start.

How I learnt to bake without boundaries

 Strange things happen when you have a child. You learn to overcome stage fright. (Well, with all that singing and dancing in public, you better). You learn to become a ventriloquist. I can throw so many animal voices, I have forgotten who I really am. You learn to say yes when you mean no. You learn the fine art of patience (I am still getting there, but I have been told I am doing a fairly decent job). You learn to appreciate the poetry in repetition. And more such.

I also learnt to bake without boundaries.

I was one of those children who learnt to cook at age 10. No, I am not kidding. I did it out of boredom. I went to a convent school, we had Thursdays off, my mother would be at work, I would have the house and the kitchen to myself (well, nearly), and I was one of those diligent girls who finished her homework in school, so there was nothing to do, really. So I took to cooking.

By the time I was 12, I could put a meal together. My mother didn’t have a problem. As long as I didn’t mess up her kitchen, she was okay, and any help was welcome.

Baking was another story. It was one of those things my mother learnt late in her life (read after she had three kids, one of which was now a blooming adolescent). She went to a baking class on Saturday and brought home goodies that she learnt to bake there. Coconut cookies. Nankhatais. Coconut castles. Shortbread. Gingerbread. Pineapple upside-down cake. Marble cake. Sponge cake. Coffee and walnut cake. Anything and everything cake.

Saturday evening was when she would practise what she learnt. And the siblings and I were her appointed menials. One of us would chop the cherries or the candied peels, another would beat the eggs (whites me, yolks my brother), another would be asked to sift the flour, and another (again, me) would be asked to grease-proof the baking tin.

My mother was very fastidious about every step though, and watched us from the corner of our eye as we went on about our assigned tasks. “Has every corner of the tin been buttered?”. Or , “Too much flour, Lalli”, “Don’t lift the egg beater out, Shivi, you will introduce more air into it” or “Don’t change the direction of the creaming.” Or  “The cookies are not the same size. I don’t want any fights later.”

And more such.

Whenever I would express a desire to bake, my mother would say, “Well, first you work on getting all your cookies the same size, then we will see.”

I came close to swearing off baking completely. I couldn’t deal with a skill that required such a degree of perfection, it was almost anal. Cooking was another thing. If you did something wrong, it could always be fixed.

And so began my culinary journey.

In my mother’s world, baking was as precise as it got. The dropping consistency of the batter, the peaking of the egg-whites, the shape of the cookies rolled, the width of each swirl in the marble cake, the pressure applied to the pressing of the cherry onto the coconut cookie –they were all closely monitored and graded.

All her secrets were documented in her blue diary, something she guarded stealthily, like it were a family heirloom, something we were not allowed to touch, lest the pages came crumbling like cookies.

And then one day, my mother stopped baking. Just like that. Ironically, the blue diary went missing after one of our house moves, and it was never found again.

Time passes. I turn into an innovative, often inspired cook, but always stay away from baking.

And then Re is born. And I so want to bake.

Divine intervention came in the form of a friend’s mother who walked into my life when I was pregnant. She said something that finally helped me overcome my baking inhibitions. “What’s in baking? Nothing! Just butter, sugar, eggs, flour. Add whatever you want in the end. Easy, men!”

And there it was. Simple. Rustic. Uncomplicated. Like me, I thought.

I started with simple pound cakes, then got adventurous, adding dates, walnuts, chocolate, coffee, icing, strawberries, carrots, orange rinds, lemon zest, anything I could find. I mustered the courage to bake vegan, gluten free, eggless, and various permutations and combinations.

One day, my mother was over, and just like that, I baked her a date and walnut cake. She was aghast. “How did you do that so fast?”

It was my turn to act smug.

Soon after Re’s second birthday, I developed a crush on Nigella Lawson, courtesy her shows that Re and I watched together. As pornographic as she is about her culinary skills, she did make baking look effortless. Just like I wanted it to be.

I bought myself a brand new oven and my affair with baking started all over again. I have been doing cookies, muffins, cupcakes, banana loaves, apple crumbles and whatnot. But unlike my mother’s world, my world of baking is full of imperfection. It didn’t matter that my first batch of chocolate chip cookies were burnt at the bottom. It doesn’t matter how many chocolate chips are there in each muffin or each cookie. Re still makes the right noises.“Mmm, nice mamma!” And that does it for me.

It didn’t matter that the vegan muffins had to be eaten along with some of the butter paper, as they stuck to the base.  Re still found them ‘yummy’.

I can’t wait to try the fun stuff my friend Rushina does with her kids

And it’s not all about brownie points or doing it from the goodness of my heart. Fact is, a batch of cookies can quieten a restless child for three days. So can a batch of muffins. Or a really moist banana loaf or a carrot cake. Think of how much time you save thinking up an innovative snack every evening. There it is — practical, sensible me, who still wants to look good.

So there! I finally mastered the art of imperfect baking. And I am no longer intimidated by my mother and her blue diary. But ever so often, I wish I had it.