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.

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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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 )

Autumnal Musings…

Distraction seems to have got a hold of me & I’m compelled to blame the changing season this time. However, autumn and the glory of colors that entail aren’t just mere distractions. Soothing greens change to glimmering golds and although it doesn’t technically conform to the science of alchemy, they bear with them a promise of euphoria. 

Summer is long gone and with it the burst of sunshine pouring through our diaphanous curtains. I awoke to a grey, gloomy sky and though for some it qualifies a few extra sleep hours, the silvery silky sky and the the soft rain behoove me to indulge in a walk. I don my long gray coat over a thick grey sweater only to realize my sartorial preferences are blending perfectly with my surroundings. Save for the fall foliage, the sky, the facades of historic buildings & the modern skyscrapers with glistening window panes are swathed in shades of grey. Drizzles of rain nonchalantly knock against my umbrella as I circle & navigate around the pathways of Toronto. A crisp breeze and ripples of chills accompany me. Neighboring pedestrians carry sprouted umbrellas and walk briskly while I amble tardily, permitting the rain to soak me. For the moment, Audrey Hepburn croons to Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ on my phone.

A dimly lit cafe beckons me to enter. Luckily I never leave home without a book. I’m soon sipping sweet, honeyed black tea, seated on a high chair, facing a massive glass window on which the rainy water drops have created bizarre patterns. Erin Morgenstern’s, ‘The Night Circus’ absorbs me, only for a bit though. Soon, I’m engrossed in the picture painted outside. Streams of cars buzz across the street. People are wordlessly rushing while a poor, homeless man displays a sign for want of spare change. His furry labrador is snuggled close silently watching the scene in black & white. A man in a turquoise jacket waits under the cafe awning hoping for the rain to stop pitter pattering. A bicycle is parked right out front and it’s saddle, a wet mess. The ground I imagine is gladly welcoming the rain after a parched three summer months. I click many mental pictures before exiting.

The hues of leaves appear darker in the rain, more vibrant, more pronounced. Most make their home on the tree as they gently sway in muffled whispers. The rest are drenched thoroughly but ornately studded over the concrete of the footpath….a beautiful disarray. I make a mental note to capture this in a water colour painting. These are after all, fleeting moments. Evanescent. Soon, barren tree branches will be laced by flurries of snow and the ground, a pristine white spectacle. The crimsons & golds will vanish in the blink of an eye because Mother Nature never falters. Autumn will valiantly bid goodbye and leave us wistfully waiting….

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I will be back soon with Italian adventures. Until then, Ciao!