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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Diaries from an Italian Summer….Farewell Roma

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…..

“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions and the city of yearning.”
– Giotto Di Bondone  (Italian Painter)
August 13th, 2016
We weren’t about to repeat blunders and discard time amid staggering tourist lines. I don my horse blinkers in the hope to keep away from the usual albeit veritable distractions. Minutes from our Air Bnb, we plop ourselves in a taxi, groggily requesting to drop us off at St. Peter’s Cathedral. It is 6 am. The sun has just availed himself from his sanctuary after a long night’s endure and the sprawling aurora sky is reverberating with a soft, orange hue. The cathedral & Michelangelo’s soaring dome are painted in warm tones, almost fiery. In respect to the Pantheon, the Florentine sculptor made his dome 5 feet shorter across saying, “I could build one bigger but not one more beautiful than the Pantheon.”
In the vast expanse of  the Piazza San Pietro, are standing two souls. Hopeful, grateful. One, infinitely elated, clicking buttons at the rate of 100/minute, in the quest to make the best of the Golden hour. The other, equally overwhelmed and in the hope to imbibe this ephemeral experience to perpetuity.
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The piazza is desolate for the moment, save for security guards who are indulged in cigarette drags. Nuns scurry past us as they scrupulously gauge my attire. The morning din seems like a far cry for now but the city is slowly gearing up.
The piazza  facing the cathedral illudes as boundless, flanked by fountains on either side of a soaring central Egyptian Obelisk. Encircling the square are two colonnades extending from either side of the facade. Hundreds of columns, sparsely separated, they masquerade as colossal but in reality they are simply affectionate embracing arms. We stand in line to witness the grandeur of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Apparently copious amounts of research coupled with my imaginative skills failed to prepare me for the splendor we were about to encounter.
Our early rise proved successful for the church is uncrowded giving the husband a chance to capture it’s infinite beauty. I wordlessly walk along the nave, amid low murmurs and a soft haze of sunlight travelling through the windows, basking in the unfazed calm. A silence that is not, in the least bit, unnerving.
Magnanimity aside, it is the masterpieces by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Lorenzo Bernini and others that we’re here to etch our memories with.  Although they’re but, a microscopic glimpse of art tethered to the past, it certainly is thoroughly pleasing to the soul.
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Top Right: Bernini’s Baldacchino, Lower Right: Michelangelo’s Pieta

Fortunately, there’s more because the next stop happens to be Musei Vaticani.

The streets leading up to the Vatican Museum are speck less and well interspersed with souvenir shops and cafes. We promptly grab a Chocolate Cornetto and string along with other tourists, in the hope to elude despicably long lines. Pontifical Swiss Guards stand at intervals and if not for Dan Brown’s detailed description in his book, Angels and Demons, I might have stopped to take a second look. Out of respect, we don’t take pictures. They are after all the de facto military of the Vatican City and not merely posing as costumed clowns. The contemporary attire draws inspiration from Rafael’s frescoes : Stripes of ultramarine blue, red & a bright ochre, white collar & cuffs, complete with a black beret. They stand out offering an insignia of the Renaissance period.
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Image Courtesy: Google

The Vatican museum is indubitably a treasure house of art, that reveal a clandestine past, and shines despite the rummage and ravage it has endured. Maybe I should mention the gilded ,enchanting ceilings bearing the most delicate of patterns, or the walls of a long hall that carry, 40 geographical maps of Italy from north to south or the enormous rooms that are perfectly swathed in the young artist, Raphael’s frescoes. I wonder if I should talk about Giuseppe’s staircase that curves in a double helix, or the countless sculptures, both mortal & biblical that are only shattered on the outside or Michelangelo’s thought provoking colossal masterpiece, The Last Judgement, draping the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It’s easy to get lost in the past, almost painful when jolted back to reality.
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Come evening, we once again stroll along the byzantine Roman pathways towards Via Dei Condotti. After a brush with history, we prepare to indulge in a little modern fashion. Although I think it’s not fair to label it “modern” when just a few yards ahead, lie the Spanish Steps: 135 steps built between the years 1723-1725. The husband is immersed in photographing the architecture while I window shop the streets that nestle quintessential  luxury names…Gucci, Prada, Cartier, Jimmy Choo, the works. However, a little corner on the street is home to a street vendor, gently roasting chestnuts on an open fire. The aroma is inviting and moments later, we’re staring at a paper bag with mounds of chestnuts whilst contemplating if we should give in to our curiosities. We do, we love it and pat ourselves on the back!

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Piazza Di Spagna

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The Spanish Steps

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Before we bid farewell, we sit on stone benches at the Piazza Di Spagna, binge on Pistachio Cannolis and plan the following morning’s journey. It is a bittersweet moment. Rome gave us glorious cathedrals and gorgeous sunsets. We were introduced to sweet Cornettos and flavour bound pastas. Rome shared with us secrets of it’s poignant history and helped us attempt Italian words. For that & more, Grazie! It’s never enough, the heart is hardly content but Florence awaits….Farewell, Roma.

I have to take a little break to share with you all the magic of the holidays in my next post. In the meanwhile, do stop by my Instagram account to see some of the holiday goodies I baked this year! Happy Holidays:)

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!

 

Masala Chai Cupcakes, served with a bout of nostalgia…

Let’s take a break from the Italian adventures. I promise not for long. Today, I invite you on a different kind of journey, a trip down memory lane, as I dive deep into the depths of many memories back home. Come, travel with me as I make short stops and immerse in chunks of my past…

♦While the smoldering sun seeped through iron-grilled window panes, the kitchen is ridden with the rattle of pots & pans and infused & bursting with the scent of aromatic spices. It’s 4 pm & amma needs her usual cup of Chai. Dried tea leaves are brewed in hot water & enriched with Ginger, Cardamom, Tulasi, Star Anise & Cloves. The heat leaches out all the goodness in these spices & although subtle they wind up revamping it into royalty.Then comes the milk that our milk-man has delivered fresh in the morning. Boiled again for good measure, strained and served. But for her, Masala Chai is more than just tea-time. It’s a time to immerse in herself, albeit for a few minutes. A time to wash away monotonous responsibilities( although I highly doubt a mother’s heart lends her permission to do that), a time to submerge in calm & forget the challenges of life or at the least keep them aside for a short while. I like to think it’s a rudimentary nectar she takes assistance from to keep herself sane from the obligations & madness that perpetually surround her.

♦Maybe I should share with you my earliest memory of drinking Chai. It was the time when I metamorphosised into a night owl owing to the pressures of student life. Yes, dentistry changed me plenty and that can occupy a whole new blogpost in itself but gulping cups of warm milk-tea was a routine confined only to certain nightmares called internals. I say “drinking” because it was certainly not something I relished. Never an indulgence, just an infaliable drug that I yielded to in order to pull an all nighter.

♦Like my father, I have failed to fantasize tea in this form, unable to dwell in it’s glories & rhapsodize it’s greatness. However, I still label myself a teophile because I happen to admire it in it’s simplest attire. Black or green with a squeeze of lemon or orange. Maybe some mint, seldom a shred of chocolate or ginger! The husband unlike me is enraptured by the kick, power & sweetness of Masala Chai. He is beyond devoted. Those rare days when my parents visited us, mother & son-in-law were able to toss out awkward formalities, all over a warm cup of Masala Chai.

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My tea collection at home

♦I realise I still haven’t made a mention of the 6 foot, 22 year old baby we had with us over weekends while in Bangalore, my youngest brother. He like my mother considers this drink an essential, a staple. I remember nudging him to get to his books whilst tempting with a cup of Chocolate Chai. Worked like a charm, every time.
His passion extends beyond the seclusion of home. Like when he excitedly told us about bustling mornings in Old Hyderabad where he woke up to Chai, Bun & Osmania biscuits. Or when he suggested I try an Iced Chai Spice Latte with condensed milk & whole spices after religiously learning it from a You Tube video.

While I sing songs of nostalgia, I hate to admit that I’m still learning & compelling my tastebuds to render itself to it’s grandeur. Let me clarify, that doesn’t mean I lack appreciation. I do and a special one at that when the Rain Gods pay a visit! Despite the little detests, I am thankful & Masala Chai has invariably become a big part of my life. This recipe is an homage to this warm beverage, an attempt to fall in love with the magic it exudes. Because we all know, if there’s one drink that stands in equal might with Filter Kaapi, it’s this!

My Masala Chai Cupcakes are dedicated to people like me who prefer desserts to pretty much anything else. To people like me who don’t particularly love Chai but are open to similar flavour profiles.
To the ones who’ve already proclaimed their love for Masala Chai because every bite of this rich cupcake is synonymous with a sweet, fragrant sip of warmth. 
And lastly to the brave ones who are willing to experiment & surrender to something new.
Whoever you are and whatever category you find yourself in, I urge you to try these cupcakes, you will not be disappointed.
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As always these cupcakes are egg free, and suffused with freshly ground lavanga (cloves), elaichi (cardamom), Chakra Moggu (Star anise) & freshly grated ginger. They remain the true stars of this show. As the mortar & pestle did their bit, it was almost calming to drink in whiffs of these magical spices and not to forget, redolent of many special times.Tea decoction is added in good measure as well and topped with a generous amount of Chai infused buttercream.
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RECIPE FOR EGGLESS MASALA CHAI CUPCAKES (Makes 6)

INGREDIENTS
MASALA CHAI CUPCAKES:
3/4th  cup All Purpose Flour + 1 tbsp

1/2 cup Granulated sugar
1/2  tsp Baking Soda
3 tbsp oil
1/2 tbsp white vinegar
1/2 cup milk + 1 tsp white vinegar to make buttermilk
2-3 tbsp of Tea Decoction ( I used Tetley tea bags.)
1.5 tsp of Chai Spice- 

2 cloves
4-5 Elaichi/Green Cardamom pods
2-3 small pods of Star Anise

1- tsp of Fresh grated Ginger
1/4 tsp of powdered Ginger

CHAI SPICE BUTTERCREAM:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 1/2 cup of Icing sugar
4 tsp of heavy cream/milk
A pinch of salt
1- 1.5 tsp of Chai Spice

Others:
Crumbled cookies or biscuits

METHOD:
MASALA CHAI CUPCAKES
◊ Make the Chai Spice by grinding Cardamom, Cloves, Star Anise. Add powdered ginger as well.
◊ Preheat oven to 350 F and place cupcake liners in the tray.
◊Make Tea Decoction by boiling 1/4 cup of water and immersing 2 tea bags. Allow it to brew.
I used Tetley bags but tea leaves can be used too. The Cardamom peel can be added to this decoction as it brews.

◊Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl .(All purpose flour, Granulated Sugar, Baking Soda, Chai Spice)
◊Incorporate the wet ingredients-Oil, White vinegar & Grated ginger
◊Make buttermilk by incorporating 1 tsp white vinegar into 1/2 cup milk. Add this to the remaining ingredients. Whisk well to ensure there are no lumps.
◊ Add 2 tbsp of tea decoction and stir it into the batter.
◊ Next, taste! And I consider this the most important step because if the batter needs any extra spice or tea, then it’s important to add it at this point. The batter should taste like Masala chai

◊ Bake for 17-22 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
◊ Cool completely.

CHAI SPICE BUTTERCREAM
◊ Beat softened butter and heavy cream for a minute until creamy.
◊ Add the icing sugar in parts and beat well.
◊ Incorporate the Chai Spice according to taste. I added a teaspoon.

TO ASSEMBLE-
Frost the completely cooled cupcakes with the Chai Spice Buttercream and top with a dollop (or more!).
Crumble Almond Biscotti or any cookie/rusk on top.
NOTE:
1) Don’t restrict yourself to just these ingredients. Cinnamon, Tulasi etc can be added too. Experiment with individual proportions as well.

2)The quantity of chai spice in the cupcakes & the buttercream can be varied depending on your taste buds.
3) If you’re curious about the flower deco – It’s a buttercream blossom made using Wilton tip #104
4) I apologize for this very , very long post!

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