Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Making Mayonnaise

I love mayonnaise. I don't care how much bad cholesterol or how many unwanted calories it may add to my body, although, at my age, I should. I find the creamy concoction with that hint of mustard irresistible.

I fell in love with mayo (as it is called in cooking jargon) in America, where I started cooking with real interest and - if I may add - and flair. I first ate it in sandwiches in fast-food restaurants. But, I felt its real charm when I first ate tuna sandwich. This was in Corvallis, Oregon, where I was doing a summer internship. I couldn't believe fish in a sandwich could taste the way it did as I ate the "welcome lunch" for interns at a quaint restaurant I can't place now. The sandwich was magical.

After I returned to India, my home country, I used store-bought mayonnaise for chicken and fish sandwiches. Then, I thought of making mayonnaise myself. I wanted to make Waldorf chicken salad with home-made mayo.

I trawled the World Wide Web for a recipe for the humble mayonnaise. I found several, but, given my phobia of salmonella poisoning, I picked one that involved pasteurizing. I think the site was USDA's - some organization that recommends sterilized mayonnaise.

My attempt turned out to be a disaster. When I warmed the egg yolk in a double boiler with a thermometer dipped into it for precise temperature, it curdled. One egg and some oil wasted from a poor cook's pantry.

The words of a cookbook author, Barbara Beckett, sounded, at that moment, ironical: "It is quite magical to make the first time." (I had read her recipe for mayonnaise in Learn to Cook Poultry, one in the Learn to Cook series of the publisher, Harlaxton.)

Then, I tried a recipe from allrecipes.com. This one was more forgiving - no sterilization required. The lemon juice would be enough to counteract any ill effect of the raw egg. The only variation I did was to use vegetable oil instead of olive oil.

And, lo and behold, my mayonnaise took shape drop by drop. It was, indeed, quite magical to make. Only, it was the second time, not the first.

Since that unnerving first time, my mayo has turned out smooth and nice every time. So, I am no longer a mayo virgin.

Here is my recipe for sure success:

1 egg, yolk separated
1 cup vegetable oil
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
1 tsp of dry mustard paste (with 2 tsp of water)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Take a bowl - I use a deep glass bowl - and put the yolk in
2. Pour the lime or lemon juice.
3. Whisk with a wire whisk. The mixture should look a pale yellow.
4. Add oil drop by drop, whisking after each addition. If the mixture still looks smooth, you are doing fine. If it looks curdled, you have messed up - start over again.
5. Keep on adding oil, a few drops at a time. As the mayonnaise stabilizes, you can add oil a little faster, but never faster than a thin stream. Keep whisking.
6. Add the mustard and seasoning.

Note: Your kitchen equipment must be spotlessly clean. Store the mayonnaise in a sterilized jar. To sterilize, boil the jar in water for 20 minutes. Screw it tight. The stuff will keep for a maximum of 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Joys and Sorrows of Baking Muffins

I remember the first time I ate muffins. I waited tables then at Faculty House, a dining club for University of South Carolina faculty. I was a graduate student at the university trying to keep body and soul together and my grades respectable.

At Faculty House, after the lunch hour, when the guests had left, my colleagues, including Lianji, my Chinese friend, and I sat down to lunch. I ate blackened wahoo or chicken piccata with rice or whatever was on the menu that day - I just happen to remember some dishes. And, always Lianji made sure we got our muffins. He would carefully stash away in the warmer a few before our lunch.

I would slather butter - I remember the pats with parsley sprinkled on them - on the muffins and watch the butter melt slowly down the sides. Oh, how we looked forward to that communal lunch after a hard shift!

Several years later, I baked my first muffins in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I lived for almost a year. I had bought a non-stick muffin pan. The muffins came out perfectly fine.

I replicated the success a year ago back home in Kolkata, India. My interest had been rekindled by "Muffins," a book by Elizabeth Alston, the food editor at Woman's Day magazine.

But, I recently messed up a batch of muffins. I'd started out to make orange marmalade muffins. I followed the recipe precisely except for the size of the egg - I had a small egg, while the recipe called for a large egg.

When I folded the wet ingredients - egg, yogurt, butter and vanilla - into the dry mixture of flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, I ran out of the wet portion. The flour mixture became dough instead of batter. I ran to my mother with the mixing bowl in hand. I was sweating profusely in the hot Kolkata afternoon. I was baking this for my colleagues for my birthday treat.

My mother suggested adding another egg or a little milk. I chose the extra egg, beating it into the dough-like mixture.

When the muffins came out of the oven, I gingerly broke one to eat. The marmalade looked and tasted fine in the core, but the texture of the muffin seemed tough and chewy, and, worse, it smelled of egg!

I took the muffins to office anyway. My colleagues ate one each. They downplayed the flaw, but one was candid enough to say the muffin smelled of egg.

When I analyzed the flaw, I thought the last-minute addition of the extra egg undid the muffins. Or, else why would they be so tough? True, I hadn't sifted the baking powder with the flour for even distribution, but was that fatal?

I have no idea. It's for you to judge without eating the muffins - I wouldn't even offer them to you. What went wrong?

In her book, Alston talks about the two main kinds of muffins based on the procedure of mixing: stirred and creamed. I have baked cakes and brownies before with great results, and all I can say is I am more at ease with the creamed method, in which the dry ingredients go into the wet and not the other way round.

But, the big question is: Will I continue to bake both kinds of muffins? You bet.

Bengali Food an Emerging Cuisine

Yesterday, I wrote about Bengali cuisine. Actually, if you live overseas, you might not even have heard about this regional cuisine, for Indian food -- if there is a pan-Indian cuisine -- has long been dominated by North Indian, or Tandoori, Mughlai (the food of the former Muslim rulers) and South Indian cuisines.

Tandoori is, indeed, the face of Indian dining abroad. When I lived in the United States, every Indian restaurant I went to had Tandoori delights on the menu. Ask anyone familiar with Indian food and that person will probably say Tandoori chicken before you can say chutney. Even in India, it's these cuisines that stand for Indian food.

However, Bengali food is becoming popular in India. A recent article, "Bengal on the Menu," in The Telegraph (See the Links section on the right) talks about how Bengali cuisine is finding its rightful place on restaurant tables around the country.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Welcome to Cooking in Calcutta

Today is Mahashtami Day, the second day of the annual Durga Puja festival in West Bengal (or, in short, Bengal), a state in India. Let this day bring joy and blessing to you, for Durga is a goddess all of Bengal (and, indeed, almost all of India) worships.

On this day of worship, I launch for you, the reader, Cooking in Calcutta, a log of musings on food and cooking -- Calcutta (rechristened "Kolkata") is the capital of Bengal. Cooking in Calcutta is an offering from a devotee who worships food and cooking. As drumbeats fill my neighborhood, I dedicate this blog to you.

I have been thinking of starting this blog (short for Weblog, as you probably know) for a while. After reading about food blogs and just a few entries of those blogs, I realize how similar food bloggers are even though they live in different continents.

I live in Kolkata, a state in the east of India (more about the history and culture of Bengal in later, I promise); yet, I discovered a moment ago, I am so similar to a popular food blogger, Clotilde Dusoulier, of Chocolate & Zucchini (See the Links section on the right).

Clotilde lives in Paris, I live in Calcutta. But, like Clotilde, I am a food fanatic who loves to cook. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Like Clotilde, I
-- work in a software company
-- want to be a full-time food writer
-- want to open a restaurant someday
-- spent several years in America before returning to my home country

Isn’t this amazing? Food and cooking geeks have one giant common thread running through them.

Yet, each blog should be individual, quirky, for these are the adjectives that describe blogs best. Cooking in Calcutta is about cooking in, well, Calcutta. But, what does that really mean?

It means this blog is about something specific to Kolkata (and Bengal) and to the writer. Bengal as a region -- as I said earlier -- has its own distinctive history and culture, and that binds two Bengals, East (now called Bangladesh, a separate country) and West (West Bengal, the Indian state).

And, Bengal is about fish, mustard and rice. From the turbid waters of the Ganga come silvery fish, and on the fertile delta of the river grow yellow mustard and verdant paddy.

So, Cooking in Calcutta is about cooking with these things, but it’s also about international (or "ethnic") cuisines and drinks, for, like the bloggers, food today is truly global, and so should the coverage of food be.

So, all ye readers, from Paris to Patna, from Tampa to Timbuktu, jump onboard. Browse the words on the platter I offer you, and rant or rave. I will take all.