“Mom it tastes like Christmas”, said my 15-year-old taking his first bite of the millet cake. My experiments with millet recipes haven’t always been received with the same enthusiasm. Happily and hopefully, all that is about to change with this cake. I’m inclined more and more to bake with gluten-free flours, always seeking recipes where millet, nut and other healthier flours can replace regular flour. Many a millet recipe has gotten me excited, often ending in mediocre to disastrous results, but this one I can definitely put on my encore list.
My Christmas was gluten-free. Every year, the holiday season leaves me feeling bloated from feasting on the holiday specials (and completely giving up festive food is neither possible nor probable). So this time, I tried to retain the quintessential flavours of the season by choosing lighter (and healthier) substitutes for ingredients that leave one feeling full and sluggish. I’m not normally on a 100% gluten-free diet the rest of the year, but yes, when there are parties to attend and dresses to fit into, it makes sense to turn into a gluten-free gourmand.
Baking a healthy cake like my wholesome Gluten-Free Chocolate Beetroot Cake, gives me bone-deep satisfaction. In the last few months, I’ve struggled to perfect the recipe for a gluten-free, xanthum gum-free, light, moist, healthy and unapologetically chocolaty chocolate cake. Past experiments resulted in a few disasters when the cake crumb alternated between sawdust and sand. So, now that I have nailed that dense, intense mouthfeel of a real chocolate cake, (think dark, dew-soaked rainforest soil), I’m taking a moment. Call me kooky but cooking, like spilt ink smudges runs into most aspects of my life, and sometimes makes me question the time, thought and precious elbow grease that I put into it. But on occasion, when an experiment yields a near flawless result, it all seems worth it.
It has been a month now of baking my own bread and it’s time for a healthy but festive cinnamon raisin bread No more store-bought stuff if I can help it. This means that I have to get myself organised before the day of the baking. I find that early morning is a good time to start because it allows the dough 2 or 3 unhurried proofings, goes into the oven by late afternoon and by sunset it’s sitting on my kitchen counter, spreading its comforting aroma in my home (Nothing like cinnamon raisin bread to fill the air with cheer). Last week on my bread-baking day, a mirthless wind prowled outside, bringing the chill and gloom of winter lurking around the corner. “What better day to bake bread”, I thought. My home and hearth needed a warm hug. The kind of hug that would make my boys feel fuzzy and loved when they got home at the end of the day. It called for a cinnamon raisin bread, a bold and bright contrast to the cold outside. I had this picture in my head of a dollop of butter gently melting on a slice of cinnamon bread….yum! It is entirely possible that the thought of my home redolent with cinnamony scents was the single biggest motivation behind my choice of bread. This recipe is from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread. I have adjusted the quantities and part of the process for what I felt would help me get a better result.
My husband was never interested in cooking. In food, yes but not in how it got on his plate. But he would compensate by making countless cups of tea, an occasional fried egg, doing the dishes and trips to the grocery store, on demand, sometimes for just one or two things. For many years, it continued like this, till he had to live for close to a year in a foreign country where meat and potatoes ruled the roost. Being a meat lover, he was confident that his diet was taken care of, no problem. But, before he knew it, he was craving his daily dal, rice and vegetables. Despite being meat lovers, like most Indian families, our diet is primarily composed of vegetables, lentils and beans and rice or rotis and fresh yoghurt. Freezing winter days and one too many meals of bread, sausages and cheese finally pushed him into the kitchen to try his hand at cooking a simple Indian meal. I remember writing a flurry of emails full of extra detailed recipes with highlighted lines reminding him to, “Wash the dal, rice and vegetables before you cook them” and “ Make sure you don’t drain the rice along with the water!”. But by far, the most challenging part was getting him to identify the dals (lentils) by their names. Arhar, masoor, moong, urad… Every time I mentioned one, he would say, “the yellow one or the pink one?” Now, Indians eat a variety of lentils that are pink, green, white and black, not to mention at least 3 yellow ones. Most of us know the names but yes, there are people who still say yellow dal. We put turmeric in our pink(masoor) lentils and they appear yellow when cooked, so let me just clarify that that ‘yellow dal’ is not helpful when trying to shop for lentils. My hungry husband did finally manage to get the names right and has since then taken his culinary abilities to a higher level.
Baking a good loaf of bread, much less a baguette is a challenge at which I’ve failed more than I have succeeded. It is a science, an art and an instinct (I think) that has to be cultivated patiently with hours of practice. It is actually just simple chemistry between flour and yeast but the weather, the quality and consistency of the flour (which varies across brands and countries), the temperature temperaments of ovens and even the altitude of the place decide the character of bread. For me, baking bread is a bit like solving a cryptic crossword. I lick my chops at the thought of filling those blank boxes when I open the morning paper and on a good day, you’ll catch me walking around with a smug smile stuck on my face. With bread my experience is similar. The challenge and anticipation of watching the dough rise, listening for that hollow knock, and beholding that mounded crust crowning a loaf fill me with a sense of achievement like very few other things do. At that moment, all is forgiven – the iffy yeast, the reluctant rises, the dense blocks of brick bread….everything.
Fresh corn on my kitchen counter for making easy muffins triggers off memories from years ago. Standing tall over the hedge, silk glinting in the sun, the cobs perched like trapeze artists tantalised my greedy little hands. I remember our tiny but bountiful kitchen garden keeping its secrets in a corner of our main garden, behind the hedge. But it could never hide the towering corn reaching for the sky, as if meaning to borrow some yellow from the sun. Those few maize plants among the eggplants, tomatoes and okra on that small plot couldn’t have been more generous. Armfuls of corn were frequently shared with friends and neighbours.
Grasses stand tall and cosmos congregate alongside our car, waving summer farewell. On the road, we drive past farm stalls beckoning us with their green roofs and white porches. Crates of avocado, mango and squash conspire with homemade honey and fresh cheese to lure us in. Not surprisingly, I succumb. And loaded up with a couple of golden butternut squash, a boxful of avos and a block of cheese, continue the rest of my journey conjuring delicious daydreams.
Baking is therapy. It cures heartbreak, stress, loneliness, homesickness and many more blue-hued maladies. Like Panadol for your heart, its quick, foolproof and offers deliciousness as a welcome side-effect. Right from choosing a recipe to measuring the ingredients, mixing them, waiting for their transformation in the oven, the satisfaction of beholding and finally tasting the results, is a simple yet effective process that helps lift my sagging spirits whenever I need it.
Try avocados and caramelised onions on toast. It’s a little bite of paradise, I promise. It’s a great go-to meal on lazy days when you want a yumminess with minimal effort. Slicing and caramelising the onions is about the only task that takes about 15 minutes (actually you can do the crossword while the onions acquire their golden tan). It’s just oil (any light oil will do), onions and a splash of balsamic towards the end to deepen their sweetness. Add a dressing on top of the avocados if you wish but even without it’s delicious.