Sticky Toffee Pudding

My affiliation to desserts hardly comes as a surprise. Early on, it may have to do with possessing a sweet tooth or perhaps being amid sugar devotees. However, with my culinary learnings, I’ve learnt also, that the desire to bake or create desserts bears no relation with my love for consuming sugar. Meaning, even on days when I’m sugar-starving(by choice), I find myself hankering for the rumbling sound of my stand mixer as it punches and mangles a robust babka dough, the perfume emanating from a slit vanilla bean pod and the disarrayed crackle top of an 8×8″ brownie. After a 10 day vacation traipsing around Croatia this summer, our home bound flight back seemed devoid of melancholy only because my restless mind conspired to bake a crostata with figs and sweet port-simmered onions. Although, I did christen it with a quirkier name, “It’s been 10 days since I’ve baked. I miss the oven” crostata. Jet lag was forced to take a back seat.

Having grown up relishing my grandmother’s Badam Halwa(Almond pudding), my mother’s Paayasa’s(kheer), my father’s secret stash of chocolate, desserts take precedence over other foods in my kitchen and if it demands an oven, then it only becomes that much better. In an ideal world, I would bake every single day, I would check off that unceasing bucket list like my 10th grade self checking-off roting her vast syllabus. However, at the moment I will appease myself with the current pace and make sweet ‘somethings’ as often as I can.
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This dessert was prompted after devouring a Martha Stewart Show, the only cooking series I watch, and sadly restricted to random sightings. I watched in awe the other murky afternoon as she conjured a coffee-laden, sticky date cake and a velvety amber sauce to complete the dessert. The chef’s composed demeanor propelled me to take my standard position by the kitchen counter, whisk and bowl in hand, oven at 325F. Unfortunately, the lack of a couple of of key ingredients demanded rescheduling.
A few mornings later though, after running our of patience, I took position once again(after sourcing all ingredients).  I wasn’t nearly as calm or collected as she was. In my defense, when one is basking in the caffeinated fragrance suffusing from a cake batter or witnessing chunks of butter melting seamlessly into bubbling cream, it is painstakingly hard to contain excitement.
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Francis Coulson of the Sharrow Bay Hotel is said to have created the dessert in 1970. The hotel claims that the original recipe is cloistered in the confines of a secret vault and the staff sign a non-disclosure agreement so as to preserve the secret. I’m ignorant as to how different the original recipe is from the one I’m about to share but I can safely say, disappointment is not a part of the equation.
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The recipe involves Medjool Dates; they are tremendously sticky and you will find your knives coated with their flesh as you chop them into tiny bits. But, the stickiness also means that they blend harmoniously into the batter and the resulting cake. Also, like I mentioned before, this batter is folded in with a cup of strong espresso and I for one become weak in the knees when it comes to coffee in desserts. This was no different. Like all my bakes, I adapted this into an eggless version as well, thanks to an Egg Replacer(the brand I used is Pane Riso Foods Egg Replacer)it should be easily available online if not in stores.
It is better to let the cake sit overnight or for a day as the cake succumbs to the warmth and liquidity of the toffee sauce. But, if you’re anything like me, rather than tolerate the wait, you will assemble a square chunk of cake flooded with sauce ready to go while it is still sizzling hot.
Hope you like this one!

RECIPE FOR EGGLESS STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING(ADAPTED FROM MARTHA STEWART’S RECIPE)
INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature 
  • 8 ounces Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
  • 1 cup hot and strong brewed coffee
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 3/4 cup lightly packed dark-brown sugar
  • 2 tsp egg replacer mixed with 4 tbsp of room temperature water (I use Pane Riso Foods Egg Replacer but different brands will probably have a different set of directions)

Sauce

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 cup lightly packed dark-brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour an 8×8 inch baking pan. Place dates in a bowl, pour hot coffee over dates, and let them soak in the coffee for about 15 minutes. Then stir in the baking soda.

In a bowl, whisk together, flour, baking soda and salt. Keep aside.
Using a hand mixer or a stand mixer, beat together butter and sugar with a mixer on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Then add the egg replacer and incorporate it for a few seconds( it is allright if the mixture appears curdled).

Add the flour mixture in parts, again in medium-high speed and mix until a smooth batter is formed. Add date mixture and remaining flour mixture, and beat until just combined. (Do not overmix.) Transfer batter to dish, and bake until cake is puffed and springs back in center when gently pressed with a finger, about 35-40 minutes.( I used  a toothpick to check the done-ness)

Toffee Sauce:
To make the toffee sauce, bring together butter, sugar, and cream in a pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium (so sauce does not boil over) and boil, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens and darkens slightly, about 4-7minutes.

Remove cake from oven and pierce holes at 1-inch intervals to bottom of cake with a wooden skewer. Pour half of the hot sauce over cake and let soak 20 minutes. Serve warm with remaining sauce. Cake soaked in sauce and remaining toffee sauce can be stored at room temperature up to 1 day. Before serving, warm cake in a 300 degrees oven 10 minutes, and sauce in a small saucepan over medium heat.

 

Kensington Market, Toronto

When asked about my favorite place in Toronto, I answered with a straight face & without a second thought , “Kensington Market!”. The thought that immediately followed this proclamation, was hardly nonchalant in character. It was one of surprise laced by curiosity. The answer, I had assumed, would be a tad different; Perhaps the speckless boardwalk paralleling the serene waters of Lake Ontario, maybe the hygge-ligt coffee shop that offers safe haven in the boisterous winter months, even possibly the grey-stoned castle, Casa Loma. Despite these choices,  I had chosen one of the most crowded, loudest markets on the fringes of Spadina Avenue as my favorite spot in the city.
Why? I write this as an answer to you and and to myself.

IMG_2894It was the early days of spring 2016 when the  husband and me first ambled along the streets of  Kensington Market. The said weekday morning was engulfed in grey and bereft of color. However, as we strolled along the narrow lanes for the next hour, all shades from the grey scale seemed to have evaporated into thin air. Walls flanking these alleys spoke their own arcane language, some in a mellow peach, some in an enchanting scarlet red, some in a fierce orange, others in a somber blue and most times in a jumbled jargon. Like a town submerged in colour, the color-wheel has been spun and every hue extracted, saturated & splashed in every nook. A wild, beautiful disarray, much like my watercolor palette.  I will confess, much of the art is indecipherable to me, mostly abstract but, that doesn’t mean the art doesn’t command attention & appreciation. This market has in its arsenal, a plethora of colors and a walk in these streets, in the midst of such rampant art was ostensibly all that gloomy morning demanded.
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Kensington Market at its heart is a multicultural community with a littering of diverse shops. While an artist crafts modern, string jewelry on a little table plopped on the street , behind him, a front yard is ornate with traditional embroidered clothing from India; its entrance hosting a painting of our very own Elephant God. A little store houses Jamaican souvenirs, a quaint shop carries blocks of guava jelly from Brazil while another hosts a fragrant turmeric-coconut paste. I scoured the entire city for a Lebanese Pomegranate Molasses when all I had to do was spend a few seconds in one of the blessed stores here. Like all regulars, I too have a few that hold a special place in my heart.

First, the fromagerie. Oui! Blocks of artisanal cheese sit here in shared silence, some, works of art brimming with mystery. But more importantly, a far cry from my childhood’s concept of cheese: a little square block of Amul, hidden within the secure confines of a silver foil.( Unwrapped, grated and generously tucked into a sandwich. Always a pleasant, comforting sight in the lunch box). This on the other hand is akin to walking into a room full of unknown people. (Ironically, I’m mildly acquainted with creamy chunks of Goat Cheese, greasy melts of Mozzarella, soft spheres of bocconccini, salty shavings of parmesan, buttery cuts of brie). I am thoroughly buoyed by this find, but mostly overwhelmed, a tad intimidated. But the answer can be mindlessly simple, isn’t it? All I need is to foray into that unknown more often, ask more questions, haul back more loot, eat more cheese, eat lots of cheese. C’est Bon!
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And second, the book shop. Here, a sea of books are crammed and corralled in the an old hidden nook, almost clandestine. The nook itself, tiny, one that is discovered by curiosity alone & one, where night is same as day. The books, blanketed by dust and waiting to spill a million stories. The air more heavy with tumbling words than anything else.
A serendipitous tryst with ‘Vellichor'( meaning= the strange wistfulness of used bookshops).
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And thirdly, the vegetable and fruit market. Admittedly, the bounteous fresh produce flaunting water droplets shimmering from a recent spray, has a perpetual effect on my hunger. I hop around the serpentine store with a mind on overdrive and a mangle of recipes as I glean to possess the most vibrant of seasonal harvest. The five kinds of squashes showstopping in their fall themed hues and the table masked by the verdant leafy family only encouraging me to harness my greed and take more than what I need.
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Not that I don’t value a burgeoning diversity, although, it tends to become all the more special when it envelopes food. I do hope you’re hungry!
Few escape the charm that churros exude. Hardly a surprise. They unleash sweet, deep-fried, cinnamon-coated goodness. For the ones yearning a few more spoonfuls of sugar, the chocolate sauce and condensed milk do the needful.(I apologize for the lack of a picture. I’m so drawn by this sweet escape that it completely slips my mind.)

An organic curry and salad outlet with its sunshine soaked patio seats and an intent for simplicity allows us to guiltlessly give in to lazy summer weekends. A cardboard box carries in its enclosure: brown rice, a smattering of quinoa and ladles of chickpea-rajma curry. There is a certain comfort lent by stirring rice and its liquid accompaniment, then savoring a warm morsel, even under a blazing sun. I refrain from using my hands but only if I did, home would be a lot closer than I thought.
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If one favors steamed Indian modaks, the Japanese Mochi isn’t too different. They both generously lend similar textures and wholesome fillings. What does differ though is the bite of fresh summer fruits and a hint of sweet from the red bean paste in the mochi.  They parley into fun( to put it bluntly) summer foods, all the while heeding to that forever starved sweet tooth.
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We’re not ones to every deny a good gelato and while Kensington Market boasts of more than a handful of these summer essentials, a little something called a Mexican Paleta has rightfully taken its place in our lives. While essentially being fruit popsicles, their snazzy flavor profiles like Mango-chilli & Tamarind-chilli attract a strong temptation.
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Of course, waffles and popcorn and juice bars and peanut-butter-banana sandwiches and a motley crew of food can keep one company too.

Under the bonhomie summer sun, the warm air , ebullient colours and faces agleam with smiles, life appears a tad bit more cheerful. The poetic riot of colours, the hustle-bustle, the need to cleverly snake through berserk crowds, the high-pitched conversations: all oddly part of the joie de vivre moment. And you know where else that happens? The chaotic markets of Bangalore, the loud bazaars back home. Looks like I found my answer.

Khara Biscuits & My Love-Hate Relationship with Sugar

Rosy as it may seem, my relationship with sugar like any other is flawed. Sweet yet oddly imperfect.
I hail from a family that is ravenous for sugar and the clan has rightly  realized that its absence will only add to the existing pandemonium. Hence, we give in to its captivity. Be it the amber hued jaggery syrup that is made specially for dosas to diligently mop up or those surreptitious, midnight thefts of of chocolate or those weekend dessert projects bustling in the kitchen, such as Holige( Sweet Rotis)  and the likes or that generous chunk of jaggery stirred into every single savory dish, we love “the sweet life” and life without it is imagined to be listless, dark and sullen. I finally have a reason for my foray into the cozy, hygge-ligt world of baking. It is that “sweet”gene rampant in my cells that yells and throws unbearable tantrums until I give in.
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Until a few years ago….
For a year almost in 2014-2015, I gave up on sugar. Completely. The first couple of weeks were every bit as cringe-worthy as was suspected. A world painted in color turned gray. I felt myself at sea most times, dubious about my decision. Every smile, I found, was peppered with a sad note. The romance that had me exuberant and invigorated had come to an end(albeit temporarily) and I was heartbroken.
The good news: it lasted only a week or two. Once I swam the rough waters, the calm was an unexpected surprise. The cravings bid adieu and to put it very bluntly, I lost interest. Those hardworking sugar-coveting tastebuds were probably happier in hibernation and my body was thrilled to bits with the ongoing  detox. And, gray didn’t seem like such a bad colour.  Might I add, I still reveled in the bliss of baking and very often. I just didn’t eat those treats, nor was I tempted to give in. The powers of the mind and body  are magical, I learnt.
Admittedly, there are days when I’ll be caught binging unstintingly on sweet treats but most days I resort to portion control or zero intake.
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These cookies are devised precisely for those days. They are called Khara(spicy in Kannada) Biscuits and since Iyengar Bakeries are non-existent in my part of the world, I resort to overworking my battered oven quite often.
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The recipe has been adapted from the wonderful Chitra Agarwal’s ‘Vibrant India‘, the book brimming with memories and food, redolent of good times from Bangalore, a common home between us. For me, the collection occupies a special place for reasons aplenty but some take priority:
– While the traditional Palyas , gojjus & Chitra-annas make their presence, some are twisted beautifully, and yet strongly rooted to tradition. Like her Apple Pie Kadabu’s, where apple pie fillings fragrant with autumnal spices substitutes the coconut filling that is traditionally opted.

– I always assume(with the risk of my imagination running wild), that recipes for Congress Kadlekai(spiced peanuts) and Khara biscuits ( both quintessentials in a Bangalore Iyengar Bakery) lie scribbled in some old, tattered pages, cloistered into a crevice of the bakery’s walls. Lucky that the author includes recipes for these as well. Many miles away, my kitchen is alive with the scents of the streets of Bangalore.

-And finally, despite having grown up and well acquainted with a gamut of dishes from the book, it is the aura of Bangalore that it drapes so well, the manner it magically mirrors the culinary saga of my elders that, coerces me into lending this treasure trove of flavour-bound recipes a place in my kitchen nook.

The cookies you see here are bite sized and slightly softer unlike the original crispy variant, equally delicious nonetheless. They are richly fragrant with Mint, Curry Leaves and Lime leaves. They are heavily laden with nostalgic memories from Bangalore & a sharp, tangy cheddar cheese. I do hope you like this one!
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{Before we move on the recipe, I just want to add that I’m no health expert and my desire/disinterest in sugar is purely my personal choice. I do not suggest in any way that this recipe is a “health/healthy food” OR Diabetic friendly.}

RECIPE FOR CHEDDAR & HERB SHORTBREAD COOKIES (KHARA BISCUITS)
(Adapted from Chitra Agarwal’s, Vibrant India’)

INGREDIENTS
1/4 th cup unsalted butter(at room temperature)

1.5 tsp sugar
2 tbsp plain yogurt
1/2 tsp salt
1 green chilli, finely chopped
10-12 curry leaves, finely chopped
1-2 dried lime leaves, finely chopped(optional)
1/4 cup mint leaves,finely chopped
1 cup all purpose flour/sifted whole wheat flour
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Method
– In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar by hand. Add the salt, herbs, green chillies and yogurt and mix.

– Then add the flour, grated cheddar and milk. Very gently bring all the ingredients together into a dough.
– Roll this into a log and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for an hour.
– In the meantime, preheat oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
– Slice the dough into 1/4 inch thick slices and arrange them on the cookie sheet.
– Bake for around 18-22 minutes and cool completely.
Notes:
1) The author has included coriander leaves in these shortbread cookies which also lend a wonderful flavour.

Diaries from an Italian Summer – Surrendering to the Florentine Sunset

August 14th
Mid-morning, after a beatific breakfast involving a cornetto or two on our Air BnB terrace, we reluctantly bid goodbye to Rome to embark a bullet train chugging off to Florence. Like any railway station, people pour in in throngs and the order of the day is confusion(in our head only because the truth is, it is very well organized). We thread through the melee, almost scurrying off to find the right train. The journey is short and we intend to get some shut-eye in preparation for a hectic day: more than a handful of places to visit, heaps of history to absorb and plenty of boxes to check-off. Distractions, however,  demand attention. Rolling hills dotted with houses, their balconies alive with tumbling flowers and swaying clothes and acres of lush olive groves are fleeting under a sunny Tuscan sky. One of those times when reality surpasses dreamland. On my right, an Italian mother serenades her little daughter to sleep. I learnt that the cosy outcomes of a lullabye are hardly dependent on language.
Our hotel in Florence is seconds away from Brunalleschi’s Il Duomo, the dome resting it’s sheer magnificence on the Florence Cathedral. Flashes of memories from reading Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ occupy my excited mind and I ‘m hankering for that long-awaited glimpse of the gilded Gates of Paradise, that fated ceiling of the Palazzo Vecchio. There’s an undeniable urgency to vehemently drown in the present and imbibe everything.
However, at the moment, we hear Sicilian Pizzas calling our name.
(These little square pieces are quite thick and fluffy much like the focaccia and they’re derived from their authentic cousin, the sfincione.  Sfincione are topped with a tomato sauce, breadcrumbs and a hard cheese and traditionally made on festivities. What we devoured was a slightly different counterpart, more like a pizza with a mozzarella topping. Delicous!)
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This is followed by a sonorous gelato call( that surprisingly arrive at very close intervals when in Italy!).
Don Nino’s is a charming gelato and pastry shop attired in a pristine white and is home to gooey, flavour-bound gelatos. Sprawling in front is a cobblestone street and patio seats with a magnificent view of the Duomo. A dash of modern snuck and surrounded by ancient stone architecture.
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Just outside the Duomo, an oil painter, unwavered by the frenzied crowd ambling past him, has parked his ware & is buried deep in brushwork,. By his side, clipped poster-card sized paintings flap in the summer breeze. Mr. Aroen Morina paints abstract imitations of the city and its historic architecture. He’s also an Italian infatuated by Indian television and we converse about how similar our cultures can be. Him gesticulating in an Italian accent, us talking in our Indian accent. The world can be quite small and the old adage is justified yet again.

 

 

I’ve promised the husband an enchanting  scene to capture. Not that it will ever satiate the photographer in him but maybe for the day?  We hurry amid the hustle-bustle to get there in time. The distractions make their play yet again:
-the labyrinthine alleys flanked by  walls so high and lamps so ornate;
-the ornamented doors, so gigantic, they make one feel like a lilliput ;
-the sculptures seizing Piazza Della Signoria in their thrall: an imitation of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ & Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules and Cacus’;
-street artists stopping everyone in their tracks as they play the violin.

 

 

 

{Palazzo Vecchio(L) & Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules & Cacus(R)}

Beauty and history all around, cobbled roads below, merry wafts of food in the air….our brisk pace transforms to a saunter but we manage get to Piazza De Michelangelo a couple of hours ahead of time(there is some steep climbing involved but that’s exactly what the gelato is for).
Atop, the husband is on a quest to secure a spot for his tripod while I’m pursuing a spot in a little patio restaurant. He is intent on capturing memories for us while I sip wine and inhale the effervescent view ahead.
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The sun retreats Florence for the day. Ironically though, it appears that the city is surfacing from quiescence. A vespertinal awakening. Emerging at the far end of the piazza is a sprawling view of Florence, swathed intensely in the evening sun, like a diaphanous veil, capable of rousting every tired cell in the body. The scene is crowded profusely with red rooftops and in the background, Brunalleschi’s Duomo proudly looks on. The entire city is splashed in a soft orange, like a painting! Oh my! Mr. Morena’s painting has come to life…..
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To be continued…

(All photographs by Deepak Mohan Photography)

The ‘Stop to Smell the Roses’ Cake

Not that a chocolate or an orange flavoured cake doesn’t entice me substantially, but that winter morning demanded a distraction from the familiar. I was fortunate Sumayya Usmani’s ‘Mountain Berries and Dessert Spices’ had sailed from it’s confines of the store and landed amid the cozy comforts of my living room. The author is driven by authenticity and her recipes are brimming with tradition. She paints the book with dishes showcasing the magic of rose petals, cardamom, berries, pistachios and other produce native to her homeland.

The love for baking isn’t new. You know that. Let’s just say this cake is a product of inspiration, madness and wild curiosity. For the sake of nostalgia, accompany me on a trip down memory lane, will you?
In Kannada, there is a phrase – ‘MaTa MaTa MaDHyana’. It refers to blazing afternoons when the sun is at it’s peak, the air warm, the roads desolate and the atmosphere blanketed by laziness. These breezy summer afternoons in the 80’s and early 90’s meant mom-made orange candy set in little ice cube trays or mom-made lemonade with pungent hints of cardamom and a tinge of salt. They were special treats stored away for school breaks only. These drinks were rarely(I mean, really rarely) punctuated with a rose drink that many of you are familiar with, RoohAfza. The cool hit from the floral notes of rose intertwined with sugar and hued in a deep fuschia-red was nothing short of a celebration on lackadaisical Banglaorean afternoons. Then there was also the coveted, ‘Rose Milk’. Another blush toned concoction that got the tastebuds singing.
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Finally one morning , in the present day, I wondered why I have absentmindedly ignored this mellifluous flavour. If anything, my cakes deserve to feel special! The previous evening was spent scouring for rose petals. A Chinese market bottled thousands of tiny rose buds meant to be steeped in tea. I bought a handful and chalked up a simple recipe.
This egg free cake is entangled with rose petals and mildly laced with cardamom. Dousing the cake, is a simple sugary rose glaze. Bear in mind, this cake is brimming with the rose flavour. Like an opera singer’s high pitched chorus. Beautiful, at the same time, strong. Hence, I suggest you to feel free to play around with the Rose water measurements. We were happy with the outcome but take it down a notch if you like.
This cake takes me back to a simpler time and parallelly transports me to an ethereal one. One that my taste buds are familiar with and yet oddly, not. I hope you like this as much as we did!
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RECIPE FOR : The ‘Stop to smell the roses’ CAKE (for a 6 inch EGGFREE cake)
INGREDIENTS
For the Cake
3/4th cup Self Raising Flour
1/2 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 cup of Granulated sugar
2-3 green cardamoms powdered with a pinch of sugar
1 tsp Rose water
3 tbsp Oil (I used canola)
1 tbsp + 1/2 tsp Vinegar
1/ 2 cup Milk
Dried organic Rose Petals (Optional)

For the Glaze
2-2.5 tsp of water/milk
3/4 cup of icing sugar
1 tsp of Rose water(optional)
A drop of Pink food colouring (optional)
For the Garnish(Optional)
Chopped Pistachios
Dried organic Rose Petals

METHOD
1. Preheat the oven to 350F
2. Cut a round piece of parchment the size of the base of the cake pan and keep aside. Grease the entire cake pan and place the parchment to cover the floor of the pan. Then dust the sides with the flour.
3. In a medium sized bowl, bring together the dry ingredients and give it a whisk.(Self        Raising Flour, Baking Soda, Granulated Sugar & Powdered Cardamom)
4. To the dry ingredient mix, add, Oil, Rose water and 1/2 tbsp of vinegar.
5. In a small bowl make buttermilk by mixing milk with 1/2 tsp of vinegar. Once it curdles, add it to the remaining ingredients.
6. Mix well to ensure there are no lumps.
7. Add rose petals(optional)and gently fold it in and pour into the prepared cake an.
8. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
9. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze by mixing together, icing sugar, rose water(optional)    and milk/water. Add a drop of pink food colouring if you like and keep aside.
10. Once the cake is out of the oven, keep it on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Gently slide a        knife along the sides to loosen it from the pan.Then carefully turn the pan upside down onto a tray to make sure it comes out in one piece.
11. Once completely cool, pour the glaze on the cake and garnish with rose petals & pistachios.

I hope you like this cake as much as we did: )
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Reminiscing the holiday season – Toronto Christmas Market

We are moments away from the burgeon of spring and the blazing sun. The cold will soon be vanquished by bursting clusters of flowers dripping from balconies. The mellow, cloudy mornings and flurried side walks, snow peppered rooftops and tree branches sheathed in ice….the harbingers of winter will  depart for their temporary hiatus. Soon, sunshine will storm through diaphanous curtains and light will flood. It is a good, beautiful thing, I know. That doesn’t mean however that the gray skies aren’t…
It has dawned upon me that I have warily erased the memories of the magical Toronto Christmas Market and since I’m caught in a race against time, we now travel back to the holidays.
It was a calm winter morning, a few gentle flurries here and there, when the husband and me boarded bus 121 to visit the market. The temperatures had just begun to dip and it was a freezing -2 degrees C. The venue, Distillery District, with its usual rustic red bricked charm had undergone an obvious transformation. “Possibly into the North Pole”, I mused!
Winter may seem long but the holiday season tends to vanish in the blink of an eye. Amid quivering chills and bustling winds, they tend to be a much coveted warm hug. The ornamented ferns and conifers, the gleaming shades of crimson and emerald, the cinnamon and peppermint infused lattes and teas, the food, the festivities, the sugar & smiles. It’s best to give in to its thrall and captivity. Best to enjoy the dalliance. So we did!

A colossal Christmas tree stood in the centre of the square, bedecked with ribbons and shimmering festoons. Swarming visitors hogged a portion of the tree whilst they had their pictures taken for the quintessential Christmas photo. I wasn’t one to shy away. The tree, however large, was only a miniscule portion of the magic. The organizers had gone the whole nine yards in enthralling their visitors. Twinkling lights danced along red bricked walls & glimmering decorations hung from every corner while wafts of sweet apple cider, cinnamon & chocolate tickled the olfactory senses. Soaking in the boisterous, festive cheer was mandatory here. The air beckoned an escape, an escape to wonderland, to childhood even.

Little gingerbread houses lined the sidewalks, complete with white rooftops. They were really, makeshift shops that allowed visitors to indulge in food & drink & make merry. The husband & me had deliberately skipped breakfast and after a quick prayer to the calorie Gods, we devoured delicacies  like there was no tomorrow.
Grilled cheese was an essential, of course. Warm, melted cheddar spilling generously from sour dough bread deserves a heaven of it’s own. Hot chocolate was gulped following the cheesy expedition. Fortified by carbohydrates we marched into SOMA. Soma chocolatiers makes them as hot chocolate should be….warm but not hot, mildly sticky and recklessly loaded with dark chocolate. The sugar on the other hand is subtle, leaving one hankering for more. What they also do is go the extra mile and make it intense with the addition of spices like cinnamon and ginger. Almost bearing a mystical quality . As we huddled in a dark, cosy corner of the store and sipped our drinks, I realised, that everything was in fact, perfectly all right with the world! Hot chocolate tends to do that.
A man bundled in a fluffy jacket and two woollen scarves smiled at us as he watched his little mini doughnuts rise up the bubbling oil. It was a welcome. One we wouldn’t deny. Six doughnuts occupied a little cardboard box and they were deluged with a luscious, ruby red strawberry sauce. The cold sauce helped balance the heat from the doughnuts and rendered a tart sweetness. It was Toronto’s smashing answer to the -2degrees.Imaginably we scarfed them down in no time.

” We need souvenirs”, we thought as we ambled along the streets of the old distillery, now an outdoor mall for gourmet foods, couture clothing and art galleries. Little cookies dressed vibrantly in royal icing was an ideal take- home token that could soon be coupled & enjoyed with the afternoon tea session.
Distillery District houses an antique store and is studded with old typewriters, weathered albeit pretty cupcake pans , teacups stained with vintage rose patterns and more. It was a safe haven from the chiding weather outdoors & people gave in to the warmth & coziness as they rummaged through shelves & shelves of used homeware. Nestled among these ancient treasures are BOOKS.
Tattered pages and battered leather bindings but brimming with life and stories from the past. I wondered about the past owners of this antique book and if I may possibly stumble upon notes or letters hidden in the crevices. I gently parted book after book with my fingers, ensuring they were handled with care and picked up Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes. As we boarded bus 121 to head back home, I was smiling ear to ear as a  little secret wish had materialized itself, that of adorning my bookshelf with an antique book. All in all, a magical day.

Do take a tour of this beautiful market through the husband’s pictures…

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A Letter to the Elusive Vegan French Macaron

An Overworked Kitchen
Toronto, Canada
February 13th, 2017

Dear Vegan Macaron,
Bonjour!
You have seemingly become one of the most profound culinary discoveries this decade, much to the delight of enthusiastic vegans & vegetarians such as myself. A riveting creation with bloggers and foodies responding maniacally(again,such as me). Stalwarts in veganism have challenged & battled the ‘Egg’ to recreate the delicacy that bears little forgiveness to it’s maker. You surprisingly imitate not just the supremely elegant,tantalizing looks of your non- vegan friend but thoroughly infatuate the taste buds too. The chewy goodness and melt in the mouth factor have indubitably been captivated. You are no fake my dear, rather, an identical twin…
Allow me to abate the flattery so I can come to the point. It is of my opinion that no baker is satiated well enough until he/she masters or at the least, attempts the task of conjuring the glorious French Macaron. With this, I  begin this intense, heartfelt and veritable account of my journey with you. Please allow me to bare my heart and I pray you take no offence. I have no intention of appearing impertinent or petulant. I’m just a mad, incorrigible baker that has discovered an authentic, calming remedy for insomnia,  a learner that is on a tranquil quest to decipher the cryptic myths & mysteries of baking, and, at the bottom of it all, I’m just a soul that loves insanely, to eat, experience & live….

“What will be, will be…”
One blazing afternoon in the soaring summer of 2016, as Doris Day crooned to “Que Sera Sera”, I arduously jotted down the recipe from Blog #1. Many hours were spent reading, re-reading & registering a detailed instruction manual, to the point that it was indelibly ingrained. The author, a kind lady must have spent tedious hours drafting the inner workings of it all for the benefit of her readers. I was captivated and floating in nervous elation.

To some I may seem a tad impatient but set me to do a creative task & I am instantly overcome by the patience of a saint. Aquafaba was whipped to a snowy white meringue and powdery almonds were sieved painstakingly. Le macaronage was done without an ounce of care or concern for my aching biceps. The batter flowed like thick ribbons of hot lava, delicately amalgamating with the remaining batter. The Pipe-wait- bake-wait drill was unduly carried out as well. Soft words of encouragement came from my eternal cheerleader, the hopeful husband. Yet, I failed, miserably. The shells were lopsided!

Backing to the drawing board the following day only to be struck by disaster. The adage, “Third time’s a charm” is preseumably a myth since the catastrophe occurred again. I won’t go on my dear, for 6 attempts within a span of one week led to a similar ordeal. Where was I going wrong?
Well, the chapter finally  came to a close, not without the utterance of a seething string of profanities.

“Someday we’ll find it, the Rainbow Connection….”
Despite the series of disappointments, the winter of 2016, instilled in me a desire to take a chance. Winter inspires in a myriad of ways. The liberating chilly breeze, the gray skies. The night in question was a snowy one, snowflakes descending like cotton fluffs. My heart was full, spirits high. Gwen Stefani sang a soulful “Rainbow Connection” , emphasizing the magic of wishes, the tangibility of dreams….
I bet my hopes on a new recipe from Blog #2 and the miracles spurring from a flurry, wintry night. This particular recipe involved the making of a French Meringue(vegan of course) as opposed to the Italian Meringue done previously. Three times my heart was blown to smithereens. The shells were lopsided! I will confess, two of those fateful attempts, the batter was a pathetic mess and I had to toss it out before it was even piped.

Blog #3 had a much more detailed plan with definite reasons for lopsided shells/Uneven feet and pictures accompanying literature. Another glimmer of hope. Another brand of almond powder. Another round of tinkering with the oven temperatures. This recipe employed the Italian Meringue technique and it was the best macaron batter I had achieved, even if I say so myself. The result you ask? The shells were lopsided.

Now, intense research has taught me that of all reasons that are have been attributed to lopsided shells, the one thing that is not in my control is an oven that heats unevenly. At the risk of sounding petty, I have to say, it is conceivable that this is perhaps true. More than that, the other reasons attributed have been scrupulously checked for. After 11 valiant attempts, enormous expenses at the grocery (although I never resorted to making full batches), an unhealthy amount of  sugar intake and countless nights scrubbing unkempt utensils and kitchen sinks, I think I deserve to place the blame elsewhere!

That said, this is not Au revoir my friend. The curious case of the Vegan Macaron will be deciphered. If this tumultuous ordeal has taught me anything, it’s that I can be a fighter. I’m not quitting, just indulging in a long break.
Maybe someday you will appease this chagrined baker, maybe someday I will seize that ineffable joy, maybe someday I will bake the perfect French Vegan Macaron…..

Until then,
A Despaired Baker
P.S – Here’s a picture of my imperfect vegan macaron. The entire flawed area I.e with no feet is hidden behind owing to some smart photography by the husband;)
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(Thank you for reading this article. I just want to take a moment to thank those wonderful bloggers/bakers who have put in enormous effort in bringing those recipes. Successful or not, I will forever be grateful to them.)