To say that it has been an eventful fortnight would be an understatement. In the last two weeks I’ve:
Gone river rafting.
Hiked some beautiful trails.
Tried to climb up an old, hollow tree. From the inside.
Battled with an extremely bad bout of migraine.
Battled with a minor bout of food poisoning.
Had a crazy work week.
Watched Andy Murray beat Roger Federer at the Rogers Cup Final.
Got drenched in the rain. Thrice. On the same day.
Eaten half a dozen tomato sandwiches for lunch. Not on the same day.
Baked a cake, made a heirloom tomato pizza with naan dough and some delicious lamb kebabs with mint chutney.
Drunk way too much coffee.
So I have a lot to share. Let me begin with the cake.
To tell you the truth, I’ve always had a minor aversion to Black Forest Cake. I could attribute it to sub-par store-bought versions with cream that doesn’t taste too fresh, cakes that are too spongy and drenched with syrup and those awful maraschino cherries. (To fans of these, I’m sorry, but I absolutely detest them.) While all this is true, I’m sure they don’t matter to a 10 year old kid who picked this cake for her birthday attracted by those very same red, garish cherries. However, a cake that dares to go bad (all that fresh cream) on that most important day – let’s just say, hell hath no fury like a 10 year old birthday girl with no cake.
This is a new series in which I feature my version of fast food – recipes that are quick, simple and delicious. Most are adaptable, some mere suggestions – but when you need good food in a hurry, everything helps, right?
I’ve been meaning to start this series for some time now. Some of the things I make in a hurry are actually my favorite things to eat. But I was hesitant – who needs a recipe for a tomato sandwich, right? But recently, when Merrill put up her recipe on Food52, reading the numerous comments gave me ideas I wish I’d thought of. It was fun and inspiring – so I decided to finally start off the series, appropriately with my favorite tomato sandwich. This is my go-to lunch in the summer. Thick slices of multi-grain bread are layered heavily with ripe tomato slices. Salt, pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and crumbled mozzarella or goat cheese provide the supporting cast. The whole production is toasted open-face till the bread is golden and the cheese is melting. A garnish of basil and a glass of fresh orange juice – I guess I know what I’m having for lunch tomorrow. Again.
The Swiss roll and I have never had a great relationship. It’s not my fault. At every encounter, I treat it with nothing but care and respect. It always starts out well – the gentle stirring of the batter, the perfume of chocolate lingering in the air, the delicate touch as the cake comes out of the oven. And just when I begin to think this is it, this is the one, it all falls apart. Literally. An atheist should try making a Swiss roll. Because even if you don’t believe in a higher power, when trying to roll a cake, you’ll find yourself muttering “Please, please, please – don’t let this one break.” This will inevitably be followed by expletives (at least in my case) as one after the other, the cracks begin to appear. And then comes the inevitable break-up. And we all know what happens after that.
So when I saw my first Daring Bakers challenge, I was not happy. Not happy at all. It was a Swiss Swirl Ice Cream Cake – slices of Swiss roll are used to line a bowl and then filled with two flavors of ice cream and fudge sauce – all made from scratch. Sounds elaborate and complicated? It sure does, but I had no problems with that. I live off elaborate and complicated. But the Swiss roll – I didn’t want to go back to that. I had the entire month to make it but I procrastinated and, I’m ashamed to admit, thought of elaborate excuses to drop out. They ranged from the plausible – my freezer broke down – to the ridiculous – the dog ate it! I also daydreamed of injuries that would leave me perfectly capable of doing everything except making a Swiss roll.
But then I pulled myself together. The group is called Daring Bakers after all, not Bakers-who-make-only-what-they-know. I decided to make a Black Forest Swiss Swirl Cake – dark chocolate cake layered with whipped cream, mascarpone and cherries to go with the chocolate and cherry ice creams I’d made earlier. For the cake, I picked my favorite chocolate cake recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen – the cake that Deb calls the Lighter-Than-Air Chocolate Cake and her mom calls the Sh*t Cake – obviously for all the expletives you utter while making it. (At least I know I’m not alone in this.)
I’ve always wanted to be a part of a secret club. As a kid, this was a fantasy that involved secret passwords and solving crimes (Enid Blyton phase); older teenage versions included men that looked like Hugh Jackman in a tux and women who wore slinky red outfits and smoked those thin, long cigarettes (romance novel phase). I have vague recollections of even starting a club in middle school – I was the president, of course. The reason I say vague is because this club didn’t actually do anything. We just hung around, drank a lot of lemonade and gossiped about boys. (Things don’t change too much, do they? Only now it’s martinis.)
So when I read about the Daring Bakers, a group of food lovers that got together and invented challenges and kept them secret from the rest of the world until the end of the month, of course I wanted in! I applied and was accepted into the fold. (I was almost disappointed there was no secret initiation ceremony.) The July 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Sunita of Sunita’s World – Life and Food. Sunita challenged everyone to make an ice-cream filled Swiss roll that’s then used to make a bombe with hot fudge. Her recipe is based on an ice cream cake recipe from Taste of Home. (Like spies, we have to use certain lines and words that can then be tracked – okay, maybe I’m taking this theme a little too far, but it’s true.)
But my heart sank a little when I read the challenge. Dreading the Swiss roll (more of that in Part 2), I decided to start with the ice cream. I needed two flavors; the first – chocolate – was so obvious I didn’t even think about it. The second was a little more difficult, taking me all of 20 seconds to home in on the cherries that have found a permanent space on the counter, and my heart, this summer. The recipes were another matter – I don’t own an ice cream maker but do have an old, cantankerous freezer. When I found a post by David Lebovitz titled The Easiest Chocolate Ice Cream Recipe…Ever, I was skeptical but willing. David Lebovitz – I owe you an apology. Never will I ever, ever doubt your word again. If you tell me to make something, I will make it with blind faith. Because people, this, without an ice cream machine, without any cranking, stirring or sweating of any kind, is the easiest, creamiest ice cream you could make. Ever.
Panna Cotta. I love the lyrical quality of this Italian dessert’s name. Even though the name implies cooked cream, the actual dessert is so much more – its delicate quality always bowls me over. It is also a blank canvas, willing to absorb colors and flavors that match your whims and fancies. This time around, my experimentation took me in the direction of basil. I had read about a Basil Custard in Gourmet magazine (RIP) and the idea of using herbs that are traditionally savory in a dessert intrigued me – I decided to use it for my next panna cotta.
Panna cotta is traditionally made with cream but to lighten the texture, I use a mixture of cream, milk and yogurt. I heated this mixture with some lemon zest until it came to a simmer. Off the heat, I added fresh mint and basil leaves and left it to infuse it’s wonderful essence. Straining out the leaves and adding the gelatin was all that was left to be done. (I read somewhere that in a bygone era when gelatin was not available, they used fish bones to set the mixture!)
Tangy, sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy, chewy, soft, flaky – it’s very difficult to describe exactly what chaat tastes like. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that – an explosion of flavors and textures in your mouth. The word ‘chaat’ means to taste or more precisely, to lick and a more apt word could not be found for this tasty Indian street food. As most things in India, chaat can take on many personas or avatars – a Hindi word much better recognized thanks to one James Cameron. Whichever form it takes, it will always have layers of components contributing to the whole – pieces of fried dough like puris, veggie components like tomatoes, onions, potatoes, chickpeas or sprouts, cilantro chutney for spice, tamarind chutney for the sweet and sour, puffed rice (murmura) and sev for crunch, yogurt to temper the heat and chaat masala, that special spice mix to round it all up. Besides the usual suspects of peppers, cumin, coriander, etc. what gives it its distinctive taste is rock salt and aamchur (dried mango powder). Seems like a lot in one tiny bite, but that’s chaat for you.
Nostalgic for home and more specifically for Bombay, a friend and I decided to try replicating that taste at home. We both have fond memories of eating chaat on the streets of Bombay – from roadside hawkers where hygiene is questionable but the taste is not. I still remember one particular hawker who used to set up his mobile shop on the street outside my friend A’s house. On a wicker stand stood dozens of small tiffin boxes and his hands would fly between them as he added and mixed and served, never pausing to measure or taste. On a makeshift plate or cone made of magazine paper (sometimes if you were lucky you could read an article from Vogue) and for the grand price of Rs.10 (approx 25 cents), you got a tasty meal that would fill you up till you got home for dinner. In this way, the chaat is much like Bombay – made up of an endless kaleidoscope of colors and flavors and always on the go.
My rain dance worked! It has been Hot! Hot! Hot! this entire week. Too hot to put on the stove. Too hot to bake. Too hot to do anything but lie on the floor and pray for some rain. Or go out on the deck and dance for some. And today morning when I opened my eyes, the Rain Gods had answered my prayers. The drops pattered quietly outside my bedroom window. The cool breeze once again found its way into my room and weary from its travels to far off lands, it decided to stay. All this less than one day after I bought a new fan, of course.
When I bitched about the heat on Facebook (where else?), people here asked me “But aren’t you from India?” and people in India asked me “How hot can it possibly get in Canada?” The average temperature this past week has been hovering around 33⁰C but the all-important weather network ‘Feels Like’ number has been closer to 40⁰C. And that’s Hot! In any country. Especially when your room has neither an air conditioner nor a fan because you’re not expecting anything like this. Hot enough for me to get so distracted that I did an entire load of laundry – without adding any detergent! Hot enough that all I wanted to eat this entire week was salad and fruit. My hips would have thanked me but I also threw ice cream into that mix. But one can quickly get tired of eating raw food every single day, which is why this simple but delicious fish supper from Lucques was so deeply appreciated.