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?