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/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)

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.)

Diaries from an Italian Summer – The Roman Ruins

The August of 2016, the husband, me and a little brown leather bound journal carefully tucked away in my bag , traveled to Italy and checked off plenty from our bucket list. We devoured pasta like locals, indulged in wine like there was no tomorrow, learnt a handful of Italian words and drank in immense art & history. I’m glad I could make a note of our precious encounters during this ten day vacation because the many glasses of wine sure didn’t help with the memory! At this point, I’m not sure how many parts this post/journey is going to be sliced into and since I’m heavily ridden with a bad habit of “straying”,  I cross my fingers and hope that I can keep you entertained and not subject you to boredom. I hope this journey makes you as happy as it did us…..

August 12th, 2016
I’m miserable & counting infinite sheep owing to the curse of the dreaded jet lag and find myself profusely thanking Maurizio for equipping the room with an espresso maker. At 5am,  a quick youtube tutorial later, I gulp the bitter concoction in two gulps and bide my time, experiencing jitter & thrill as the espresso accomplishes it’s tasks. Outside, the night time lull is gently being replaced by the whirr of motor vehicles and a boundless bright sun awakening a sleepy sky.
We head out to the Illy Cafe, minutes from our apartment, walking past a glorious Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. The air is quiet, still as it can be, waiting to be drenched in sunshine, before the cacophony of the day begins. Locals in the cafe are sipping coffee whilst engaging in laidback conversations with the barista.  The barista is a skilled multi tasker,serving coffee on the dot, yet cheerfully indulging in a camaraderie with his customers. The Italians are wonderfully expressive and although the language is foreign to me, I can’t help but pause and smile because instantly, I’m overcome by a surge of memories from home. Locals casually chatting with chai walas (tea vendors) & coffee vendors in Darshinis (South Indian fast food chains) is a scene almost every Bangalorean is accustomed to on weekend mornings. Research had made me aware of the very subtle similarities in culture and lifestyle…..
Breakfast introduces us to the Cornetto. The French croissant’s Italian cousin. Sweet, flaky, perfectly layered, dusted in icing sugar & profusely bursting with gooey, marmalade as orange as the sunshine. I realise my predilection for Italian cuisine will only intensify. Warm, foamy cappuccinos wait patiently to be sipped as we watch the Roman world go by. Not for long though…the Colosseum awaits…


We meander along the Roman pathways despite being forewarned of the lengthy ticket lines. Although, in my view of things, the walk is a treasured experience by itself. A water color artist displays his creative ware and his papers flaunt the many tourist spots scattered across Rome. I’m partial to local artists and we splurge on a masterpiece of the Piazza Navona.
Tardily, we  arrive at the destination (The Colosseum) and spend a few quiet moments marveling at the magnanimity of the colossal architecture but spirits are crushed as we spot the long lines braving under the harsh summer sun. We succumb to expensive tour guides.
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The Colosseum is bathed in a sandy grey, it’s facade punctuated with hundreds of windows that are struggling to enclose countless secrets, that are privy to the suffering of many pained souls. Constructed by the emperors from the Flavian Dynasty in 70AD, it is in fact an amphitheater (originally called, Flavian Amphitheater) where roughtly 65000 spectators watched as gladiators, prisoners and beasts were enforced to fight for the sole cause of entertainment. The guide pointed to dungeons indoors that locked away wild animals and humans together in a miniscule space. The swell of silence is disquieting and remains unbeaten by the gaggle of tourists and with good reason. In 217AD , a major fire destroyed major parts of the Colosseum followed by numerous earthquakes. The architecture however still stands tall as one of the icons of Rome, surrendering to constant restoration and lending tourists a tiny glimpse of a poignant Roman history many centuries later…


“While the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall.”
—AD 7th century Anglo-Saxon pilgrims’ proverb, quoted by the Venerable Bede
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We then snake along pathways bordered by bushy trees, led by a friendly guide to visit the Ancient Downtown Rome: The Roman Forum and the Palantine Hill.
From atop, I attempt to imagine the bustle of activity that engulfed the area 2000 years ago. What used to be studded with a plethora of temples, Roman courts, Government offices,  marketplaces & homes is now a picture with hints of a laborious excavation.  Ruins lie rummaged and ravaged, eaten by the severity of elements. Fluted columns stand alone and worn flagstones drape the earth providing significant clues to a lost past. A history lesson I find myself deeply immersed in….
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Next, we visit the Vatican and parts of Roma contrasting these historic ruins…Ciao

(Do read my previous diary entries When in Rome &
Touchdown, Rome )