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 )

Kneading. Proving. Waiting. Proving: Of raising loaves and children

My first loaf of bread

I’m the kind of person who will seldom say no to any kind of new experience. I have, in the past, tried several things which may have seemed scary on the surface, but turned out to be fun nevertheless. However I consciously stayed away from baking bread. I’d done my share of cakes, cookies, loaves, cupcakes, muffins, biscuits, pies and crumbles, but always stopped short of bread.

Bread intimidated me. It was too precise, too scientific, too complicated a way of consuming something really simple. There was too much measuring and waiting, kneading and waiting, proving and waiting, thumping and waiting, more proving and waiting. It was too confusing, too much to remember, too long a way to the end of the tunnel. The worst thing was, it was unfixable for the most part if things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to.

I mean, I could get a cake together from start to finish in half hour. And it was cake at the end of the day! I always got points for it. But bread? It was at best a carrier for something else. Forget it, I thought.

But each time I saw pictures of freshly baked bread on Instagram, it took me to a warm and fuzzy place that cake and cookies couldn’t. It took me home.

But end of last year, I told myself I was too chicken not to try bread and that I had to overcome my bread virginity. I had recipes from friends, but they took too much for granted, I thought. This was a big deal for me. I just buried my head in websites and blogs all day. I typed “bread making for people who are scared of bread” in my search field. I was careful to find really precise instructions. Like sprinkling the yeast on the water as opposed to adding the water to the yeast. I found Aunt B on a budget, a blog that doesn’t make beginners feel left out.

I learnt that yeast is a big deal, and it’s moody, quite unlike baking powder that always does its job. Yeast requires a little thought, a little finesse. After all, it is a living organism; it demands some sensitivity. It has a lot of power, though, causing things to rise and multiply and making all those yummy holes that breathe and look so heavenly in pictures of bread.

But yeast is also powerless without sugar. It can take a while for yeast to wake up and get going, and it’s the sugar that helps the yeast proliferate. If you feed the yeast sugar directly, it can become more active, more quickly.

And just when I thought I learnt a deep truth, I found out that the French have been baking bread without sugar.

I also felt quite clumsy while kneading. There was too much volume, too little hands, I was flustered, sweaty, there was flour on my hair and face, and I wasn’t even in a movie and there was no hunk ringing my doorbell! Finally, after a few hair-splitting minutes which seemed like hours, the dough came together nicely. It sprang back when I made a dent, just as she said it would. I left it to prove. It rose to twice its size, just as she said it would. I punched it and it collapsed. Just as she said it would. Then I made a few slits, sprinkled some water, proved it again, and then shoved it into the oven.

It came out looking like the most divine thing on earth.

I shouted from the rooftop. I took a picture. I shared it. Hell, I can do bread I thought. It was a moment. I mentally ticked off a block that I had in my head and felt lighter, headier.

Now I wanted to raise the bar. I didn’t want to be the harried woman who had flour in her hair. I wanted to look elegant, like my friend Maria always does while baking. I wanted clean hands, an unruffled face. I wanted poise and Zen. I wanted it all.

Make a hole in the flour. Pour the yeast mixture and a tablespoonful of oil and mix it all with a fork, she said. No hands. She looked so effortless doing it. And her hair was all in place.

Next, I wanted to try cinnamon rolls.

Everything that had to go wrong went wrong. As I kneaded, the dough kept multiplying like some demon on drugs and flying in all directions. I began to wonder if it would ever come together. At some point, I wanted to fling the dough into the garbage. I thought of all the yummy, buttery, cinnamon sugary goodness that went into it, and the best King Arthur’s bread flour and Fleishman’s yeast I had carted all the way from the U.S on my last trip. Finally, in disgust, I just rolled the dough into four balls and dunked it in the oven. I gave it some brutal slits. Half an hour later, it smelt divine. An hour later, I opened the oven with much trepidation. It looked good to me. It was edible. I just had to call it something else.

Re rejected it. “How can it be a bun when it tastes like biscuit?” he said.

Okay, call it a bread biscuit, I said.

The next day, I had some students over. I put my Cinnamon Rocks in front of them. They polished it, no questions asked.

That’s the thing about parenting. You know a little each time, but you never know enough. And sometimes, things don’t rise, or come together. And just when you think you’ve cracked it, you have to go back to the drawing board.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th January, 2015. If you see more connections between bread and raising kids, email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)

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)