Monday, May 16, 2011

Baking in a Bengali home

This blog is about Bengali cooking, but our home cooking history and account would be incomplete without a mention of baking. I love baking, and so does my mother.

When I was a child, the only Western food concept that was firmly set in our house was cake. My mother was an expert in baking simple cakes. I would be her assistant who gladly volunteered to stir the batter. I remember the frothy egg in a large bowl after vigorous whisking. I remember the gradual addition of sugar, butter (white, unprocessed and unsalted white butter), flour (mixed with baking powder), essence (usually vanilla), and, sometimes, nuts. She would put the batter in a pan and the pan into an oven that might have become an antique by now. It was a dinosaur. The oven was a big black iron box with a glass door secured with a little latch. The oven’s source of heat was not inside it; it would be placed on a chulha.
But the cake that would come out would be perfect.

Another way my mother would bake a cake was by putting smouldering coals on the lid of an aluminum pot with the batter in it set on a chulha. The cake would turn out just as fluffy, rich, and light.

Whether it was the low-tech gadgets or my mother’s magic I don’t know, but something worked well every time. The cake would be just right – light, moist, yet fluffy and flavorful. (The only thing my mother never learnt to do is icing. My father often urged her to learn icing from the Russian women who lived in Bhilai, but she never took active interest.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ghee vs. butter: Two siblings, rival

I love ghee, or clarified butter. For too long, ghee has been closeted or relegated to Indian cuisine. I grew up eating ghee in my home, and still love the incomparable flavor of pure ghee, and I think it could give butter a run for its money. I prefer the more delicate flavour of cow’s milk ghee to that made from buffalo milk. I am glad that ghee is finally emerging from the Indian pantry to win the hearts of Western cooks.

Recently, I read in Mint newspaper the column of a British baker and blogger who substituted pure ghee for butter in shortbread cookies (close cousins of nan khatai). She found the results more flavorful and crispy than what butter had earlier produced.

In the same newspaper, I read a few weeks ago another column, this one on healthy food, that provided a recipe for preparing ghee. Ah, making ghee from scratch! The recipe calls for cream skimmed off fresh milk over several days and cooking it until the ghee separates. Another way to make ghee (even though the article didn’t mention this) is to, well, clarify butter, especially unprocessed.

I remember my mother making ghee both ways when I was a boy. When she would make ghee from white, unprocessed butter, she would ask me to go tear some leaves from a lime tree growing in our backyard. She would put a few in the sizzling butter to infuse the ghee with a limey flavour. How I long for the heavenly fat!

Which of the fats do you prefer?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Chutney: Homey -- and exotic

Chutney (chuht-nee), n. From the East Indian word chatni, this spicy condiment contains fruit, vinegar, sugar, and spices. It can range in texture from chunky to smooth and in degrees of spiciness from mild to hot.

I grew up, as most Indians do, eating chutneys. We never seem to think much about chutneys, do we? At least, I have always taken chutneys for granted. I have eaten since childhood unripe mango and papaya, pineapple, amla (Indian gooseberry), and, of course, tomato chutneys. A chutney is something that Bengalis eat at the end of a meal in small quantities, sometimes merely as a ritual, to give the repast a finishing touch, perhaps just before dessert, if that is served, too.

Over the past several years, though, I have seen the chutney going upscale – some creative chefs from all over the world are using chutney as a garnishing sauce or a special touch for their creations. The humble chutney, if you will, is becoming exotic. It is, in fact, earning its rightful place.

I gave the chutney dignity in my own way this past week by replicating a simple, but classy recipe conceived by my mother and executed by – of all cooks – the housemaid in our Kolkata home a few weeks ago, when I was visiting. The chutney is made from fresh strawberry, which is prohibitively pricey in some parts of India -- for a chutney. (My wife glared at me and called me extravagant during preparation!)

The strawberry chutney, prepared Bengali style, turned out to be delightfully rich in color and velvety in texture, with some chunks thrown in for some bite. Have you eaten strawberry chutney, dear reader? If not, I will show you how to prepare it. Stay tuned for the recipe.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Burnt milk: Stink or flavor?

I burnt something the other day in the kitchen. My family was away in Kolkata, and I was working at my computer, all by myself. I was engrossed in my work when I smelled something smoky and pungent. I realized I had put on the gas stove a pan of milk and forgotten all about it.

I ran to the kitchen. By that time, much of the milk had overflowed, bathing the burner. I regretted my mistake and filled with the burden of cleaning up the mess. After I stood there for a moment, though, I smelled something more pleasant than the bitterness of a silly error. I smelled something smoky, but nostalgic, reminiscent of my mother's fondness for something -- the flavor of half-burned and caramelized milk.

As I took off the pan of milk from the stove, I inhaled deeply. I smelled "kheer," or evaporated, half-caramelized milk. I could eat the remaining milk in the pan with roti.

Putting my regret behind me, I recalled my mother's liking for burnt milk. She had always admitted with embarrassment her weakness for the flavor, a singular fondness for half-burnt milk that she would scrape with a serving spoon to eat.

She now lives in Kolkata, about 2,000 miles from my home in Mumbai; she is now sick and old in an equally old house in the heart of an older city. I remembered her. And I remembered something -- my own fondness for a sweet, a dessert that is almost the same as burnt milk. I remembered "pora pithe" -- a sweet famous in the state of Orissa. That is similar to creme brulee, too!

I love it. I have begun loving burnt milk! What about you, dear reader?