Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why Do You Bake?

"Why do you bake"- This was the question posed to me by my high school friend's nine year old son. He was scarfing down brownies and lemon bars at my kitchen counter and had just informed me that I should open a bakery. Did I mention that he's a great kid? ;)

I bake because it is fun- like an experiment, and then you get to eat the results, is what I told him. Baking and cooking certainly is fun, but it is much more than that. It is a simple way to spread some cheer, contribute to the community, nourish relationships and share the love.

Recently, baking triggered a big wave of nostalgia. Over Memorial Day weekend, I hosted a mini reunion with two of my best high school buddies and their families. Some of our most vivid high school memories are of getting together in my parents' kitchen and baking a cake, specifically, a marble cake with swirls of vanilla and chocolate cake which was our family go-to cake recipe. It was a "true pound cake", as in, the recipe was similar to the original way pound cakes were made, using a pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs.

Baking certainly wasn't a traditional activity in Indian home kitchens at the time we were growing up. But my parents loved baking cakes now and then, using a big plug-in countertop oven which had been a wedding gift and an electric hand mixer which my grandparents brought back from a trip to Singapore.

I described the making of the cake in this blog post nearly a decade ago: "Equal weights of eggs, butter (usually home-churned), sugar (powdered in the mixie) and flour (sifted with baking powder) were set out. Ritually, butter and sugar were creamed together with some vanilla essence. Beaten eggs and flour were added in tandem, a little at a time, until a thick and creamy batter emerged. The batter would get divided into two parts. One part got tutti frutti and chopped walnuts stirred into it, and the other got a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder. The two batters were dropped in random clumps into a cake pan lined with newspaper, and after a hour of baking, a random marbled cake emerged, with swirls of pale yellow and dark brown. Occasionally, the birthday girl would request a more colorful cake, and then the batter would get divided into four, and two portions would get pink or green food coloring to result in a beautifully ribboned cake with swirls of pastel colors."

Well, this was the marble cake that we would make as teenagers. I use the term "we" loosely. The gal pals would sit around and yak steadily while I hustled to make the cake, then they gamely ate up half the batter in the name of tasting it even before it went into the oven. The resulting cake would be demolished in minutes in the way that only teenagers can devour food.

So when my girlfriends showed up, it made perfect sense to welcome them with a freshly baked marbled cake, for old times' sake. While I loved the "true pound cake" recipe back then, I no longer use those proportions to make cake- the equal weights of ingredients is way sweeter and greasier than it needs to be. Instead I used this recipe for marble cake from The Kitchn. A few notes on the recipe: I skipped the ganache frosting- it just isn't necessary. And I made the cake by hand- an electric mixer isn't needed. Instead of the buttermilk, it is fine to use a mixture of yogurt and milk.

The marbled cake turned out beautifully. The vanilla part was soft and vanilla-scented and the chocolate part was nice and chocolatey. In keeping with historic tradition, we polished off the entire cake in one evening; the last crumbs were eaten as we played poker late into the night...

That memorable Memorial day weekend marked the beginning of summer 2017, and the end of Lila's first year of public school; it was a busy and wonderful one and she seemed to thrive in her school. Some of her favorite times in school involved what they call the "specials"- Art, Music and Physical Education. Have you ever seen a bumper sticker that says, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." Yes, well, until that great day arrives, parents in our school have to work very hard to raise funds for these specials, for field trips, enrichment activities and teacher appreciation events that aren't covered by the regular school budget.

I rarely attended PTA meetings this year, but I tried to be a good worker bee and signed up to do simple, tangible tasks- like serving salad at the spaghetti dinner and reading a book aloud in the classroom on Dr. Seuss day. My interest in cooking came in handy when we were asked to contribute items to a silent auction fundraiser. I offered a three hour Indian cooking class- and to my relief someone bought it. It was great fun and something I would certainly offer again.

For the end of school teacher luncheon, I signed up to bring dessert and made these lemon bars. The recipe is a keeper- really easy and really fun to make. It makes a large batch and the bars freeze beautifully. A couple of notes on the recipe: you can cut down the sugar if you wish. And by far the best way to cut butter into flour for the shortbread crust is to freeze the sticks of butter and grate them into the flour.

Lila felt bad that the teachers got lemon bars but the bus driver didn't get any, so she talked me into making treats for the bus driver. Together we made another batch of the lemon bars, and while we were at it, also made a double batch of brownies. My go-to brownie recipe is the one for Alice Medrich's cocoa brownies, featured here on Smitten Kitchen. A double recipe fits nicely in a 9 x 13 pan. Half the lemon bars and brownies were packaged up with a thank you note for our very nice bus driver, and the other half went into the freezer for the aforementioned Memorial weekend reunion.

So there you have it- three baked goodies- marble cake, lemon bars and brownies- that are all easy to make, made with simple pantry ingredients, all freezer-friendly and great to share as treats. Happy baking, friends!

Tell me- why do you bake? :)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Quinoa Dosa with Quirky Fillings

Every few weekends, I haul out my biggest mixing bowls and drag the jumbo stone grinder to the center of the counter- it is time to do the ritualized measuring, soaking, grinding, washing up, fermenting, all in anticipation of the moment when the kitchen steams up with the aroma of idlis and the sizzle of dosas on the cast iron pan. I enjoy the process very much (and the product even more!) but it requires a certain amount of planning and blocking off time to do the grinding in between weekend chores and baby naps.

When the craving for dosa strikes in the middle of a week, I have been making something distinctly less authentic but just as tasty and satisfying- a quinoa dosa paired with all sorts of interesting non-traditional fillings.

I do soak the ingredients for a few hours and I do ferment the batter for a few hours as well, but the grinding (which seems to be the most time consuming and tiring part for me) is done in only a couple of minutes in a heavy-duty blender.

Quinoa dosa may sound like something with a health halo- a better-for-you but worse-tasting alternative to the original. And I'll admit that when I first made this, I thought I would be compromising on the taste of real proper dosa. With the first taste, I cheered aloud- quinoa dosa is full of flavor, crispy and wonderful. Both of my kids love it. We make a thicker dosa, smear it with ghee and tear it into bits for the baby to eat as a finger food. His big sister likes a crispy version of the dosa, rolled up with some filling inside, with plain yogurt as a dipping sauce.

Quinoa Dosa

SOAK: In a big bowl, soak together:
2 measures quinoa (I used tricolor quinoa because that's what I had on hand). By measure, I mean the rice cup measure, which is about 3/4 cup.
1 measure ural dal (I use skinned whole- gota- ural dal)
2 tbsp. chana dal
2 tbsp. raw rice

BLEND: After a few hours, use a heavy duty blender like the Vitamix to make a smooth batter, using water as necessary.

FERMENT: Ferment the batter in a warm spot for a few hours.

COOK: Make dosas on a cast iron skillet.

The traditional potato masala (filling) for dosa is marvelous, and I love riffing on the recipe to make all sorts of variations. One is the kale and butternut squash twist that I've posted before. Pictured above is a version made similarly, with a box of frozen chopped spinach (a pantry staple chez One Hot Stove) and a potato. Other vegetables that have worked spectacularly well as dosa filling: eggplant, cauliflower, and believe it or not, mushrooms.

I've seen off-beat dosas made with barley and oats and those would be nice to try.
What are your favorite variations of dosa?

* * * TV Land * * *

Our Friday night family movie nights continue to be an enjoyable kick-off to the weekend. Last Friday we watched Hotel Transylvania 2 and it was pretty entertaining with Adam Sandler as the voice of Dracula. The week before that we watched The BFG, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Roald Dahl's book- a heartwarming and enjoyable movie. We also watched Finding Dory, which was a bit depressing for me with the story line of animals in captivity- I absolutely cannot stand zoos and aquariums.

By far my favorite thing to watch lately with Lila is StoryBots Super Songs- they are so clever and funny and absolutely entertaining even for people of a certain age, shall we say, who are not particularly enamored of dinosaurs, vehicles and such. My favorite storybot songs: colors, dinosaurs, solar system and barn animals.

I'm always partial to British shows and with home remodeling/ decluttering/ design on my mind, I have been watching Grand Designs (about people's ambitious projects to build off-beat homes) and Escape to The Country (pretty self-explanatory: about people leaving behind city life to buy homes in the country). The latter is almost a travel show illuminating the geography, history and culture of the British countryside. Sticking with the British theme, I am enjoying the Father Brown mysteries featuring the intelligent and compassionate amateur detective Father Brown, although I haven't yet read the G. K. Chesterton books that the character is based on.

In a mood to watch something uplifting that celebrates the awe-inspiring side of humanity, I found two documentaries and highly recommend them. Cave of Forgotten Dreams has footage of some of humanity's earliest paintings, found in the Chauvet cave of France. It blew my mind that these 30,000 year old paintings looked so fluid, so modern, so skillful.

Man on Wire is the almost unbelievable story of a young Frenchman Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker who took the help of a few loyal friends to illegally rig a wire across the twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked/danced between the towers, a hundred stories above the ground, for over 30 minutes. Watching this documentary brought back a flood of memories. I was living in New York City on 9/11 and the weekend right before the towers were destroyed, I was sitting with my friends in their shadow eating bagels. The towers were office buildings, practically deserted on the weekend. We just stopped there for a snack before going on to other places around town, not knowing that something was about to happen there in 3 days that would change the world. Anyway, this tightrope walk happened in 1974, decades before that fateful day.

As for movies, I enjoyed these two very much: O Brother Where Art Thou has George Clooney AND an amazing soundtrack. Something's Gotta Give is a fun romantic comedy with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

What are you watching these days? Got any movies to recommend? 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Magic of Spring Cleaning

This month, in keeping with the season, I'm in the middle of a whole house Spring cleaning project. Actually, let me correct myself- it is Spring tidying and not Spring cleaning. What I am doing is clearing out clutter and getting our home organized.

The tail end of March threw me a bit of a curve ball in the form of minor surgery on my big toe- minor surgery with some pretty major discomfort which kept me off my feet for a while. A couple of weeks ago I was finally feeling energetic and closer to my usual self, ready to tackle this project. The renovation of part of our home was completed in mid-April which was great timing to be getting the house in order, quite literally. And we have friends and family visiting all the way from Memorial Day to beyond Labor day, so being streamlined is going to be sanity-saving.

Image: Goodreads
To properly psych myself up for this task, I went straight to the library and borrowed a bestseller- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I could not have chosen a more motivating book. Who would have thought that a book about home organization would be so polarizing? But KonMari as the author is called is beloved by some and criticized by others. KonMari is very quirky. She is single-minded in her insistence that the exacting KonMari method is the one and only way to get lasting results as far as life-long tidiness goes. But there were so many points in this book that resonated with me. To quote a few:

1. "A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming."

2. On gifts: "The true purpose of a present is to be received". The purpose of a gift is simply to convey feelings. Once the gift has been accepted with joy and gratitude, its job is done. If you can use it, great, if not, donate or discard it without any guilty feelings. Thinking about this also reminded me to give gifts that are functional or consumable or "experience gifts"- and less likely to end up as clutter.

3. "Start by discarding". Don't organize clutter, just get rid of it. No need to rush out and buy containers and storage furniture. Only keep enough stuff that can reasonably live in the space you have.

4. "Does it spark joy?" This is the ultimate KonMari catchphrase. I take this to mean that an object must add some value to your life by being useful or by making you happy in some way. Choose what you want to keep in your life.

5. "Appreciate your possessions". I've heard it being said that KonMari's obsession with ruthless decluttering is wasteful but in fact I thought that this is a book that is remarkably eco-friendly. She talks about cherishing your possessions and expressing gratitude towards them. It means you own only things you love and take good care of them.

6. "Designate a place for each thing". Tidying is a simple concept, where every object should have a home and be returned to that home when you are done using it.

7. On a more practical note: "Store things standing up rather than laid flat." Piling things one of top of another means that stuff gets buried and you can't see what you have.

8. "Before you start, visualize the destination". When I look at design blogs, the spaces I'm drawn to are full of natural light and color, functional, welcoming and free of clutter. That's the "happy modern cottage" look that I would like my home to have.

9. Finally, this gem: "The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life".

One of my biggest motivations for this Spring tidying marathon is to create spaces that my kids can thrive in. We have a baby who is on the cusp of being mobile and needs space to explore his world safely and freely.

Meanwhile, I have been observing our preschooler for 5 and a half years and have a good understanding of what kind of play she engages in and what environment suits her best. It turns out that she ignores most of her toys. She would rather engage in pretend play using objects around the house and stuff retrieved from the recycling bin. She ignored her play kitchen set and instead took away my set of measuring cups to play with. Don't worry, mama, she told me magnanimously, you can borrow these measuring cups any time you need them.

These days, she's also spending a lot of time playing board games and making arts and crafts. In December, V was out of the country for ten excruciatingly long days and I had to come up with strategies to keep Lila busy after school while I was occupied with a demanding young baby. What worked best is that I spread a waterproof sheet on the dining table and converted it to an "art studio". We spread out sheets of paper, blank cards, stickers, crayons, markers, paints and let everything stay out there on the table as we made holiday cards and random artwork day after day. Having materials accessible at arm's reach is excellent for sparking creativity at a moment's notice. 

All these things were on my mind when I listened to this podcast and they talked about embracing simplicity and editing their children's toys. It reminded me of a post I read a long time ago about a mother who took all her kids' toys away in an extreme parenting moment and discovered that less is indeed more.

So I KonMaried the children's books and toys. I did it on a day that I had taken off from work while the kids were conveniently at school- it was my birthday, actually. If it seems loopy to spend one's rare and precious day off doing this, well, all I can say is that it brought me a great deal of mental satisfaction. It took hours and the work continued this weekend.

Two big bags of toys have been donated to the thrift store, there is a folding table permanently set up as an art space, board games and books are neatly arranged vertically and everything is visible and available for playing, reading, creating.

V warned me that Lila would not be happy to see the changes. He got me worried and I smiled nervously as I greeted Lila off the bus that day. To my astonishment she noticed NOTHING. Strolled over and started playing with the wombat stuffie that I had unearthed.

It takes a lot of privilege to have so much stuff that you even have to worry about decluttering and simplifying. But this is the best way to not take that privilege for granted- by having fewer things, taking care of them and enjoying them actively rather than looking to acquire more and more. This whole exercise has been just wonderful. Maybe life-changing, even ;)

Tell me- what does "stuff" mean to you? Oh, and Happy May!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Dinner Talk Game

Today, I'm sharing a simple conversation game that has made mealtimes much more enjoyable for our family.

Weekday evenings around 5:30 PM is dinnertime in the One Hot Stove household- and it is peak chaos. We enjoy gathering together in the kitchen but it is a race against time as V and I tag-team to get everyone fed, bathed and tucked safely into bed. Amid the many distractions, we try to keep a dinnertime conversation going with Lila.  But everyone tends to be worn out by this time and a tired question like, "How was school?" gets equally tired answers like "Fine" or "OK" or just a wordless shrug.

Somewhere along the way, we started playing the Mad-Sad-Glad game- I forget where I came across this idea. You go around the table, and each person shares something that made them mad that day, something that made them sad and something that made them glad. It is a simple yet powerful prompt to think about the happenings of the day and share some of the ups and downs, and gives an opening to talk about things that may be worrying or upsetting you (the sad and mad bits) and find something to be excited, happy or grateful about (the glad bit).

With the success of Mad-Sad-Glad, I spent some time collecting other conversation prompts from various websites and typed up about 50 questions and printed them out- a handful of strips of paper that became our "dinner talk game". At dinner, we take turns picking questions and go around the table answering them. The questions are light-hearted, with the intention of learning more about each other's preferences, dreams, wishes and personality. I chose them to be engaging to preschoolers, but fun for any age. We have many hilarious and warm conversations based off these random questions.

For instance, for the question, "What is the most beautiful place you have ever visited", Lila surprised me by saying it was her best friend's room. Why? "Because she has so many pink toys."

For the question, "What would you rename yourself", the answer was "Unicorna" LOL LOL LOL

Some of the questions are pretty deep- like "What is the hardest thing about being ___ years old" as in, what is the hardest thing about being your age? Because there is something wonderful and something challenging about being every age, from 1 to 101.

In this end, this simple game is all about prompting each person to be curious about themselves- their likes and dislikes- and to interested in others.

For the question, "If you were the mom/dad, what rules would you make?", Lila said that she would have more family traditions, such as a family movie night. Good idea- we implemented that one right away. Since December, Friday nights are movie nights at our house, a special night when you get to eat dinner in the living room. On weekend mornings, we let Lila watch some TV, and those are the times when we are using it as an electronic babysitter to keep her occupied while we relax and do something else. Movie night is different because we actually sit down, put away the phones and laptops and watch the movie with her, and laugh together and talk about what is happening. So far, we have enjoyed many movies, including recent animated like Home and Zootopia, classics like ET and random children's movies I find on Netflix, like Paddington. Last Friday, a couple of friends joined our movie night for the ridiculous Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

If you would like to play the Dinner Talk Game with your own family, e-mail me (onehotstove AT gmail DOT com) and I will send you a copy of the questions within a day or two.

Simply print out the 2 pages of questions. Card stock would be sturdier but any paper will do. Then cut the sheets down the middle, then across so each question is on a separate strip of paper. Place the question strips in a bowl or jar on the dinner table. Take turns drawing questions and go around the table answering them.

What does dinner time look like in your family?

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Dinner that Practically Cooks Itself

February may be the shortest month of the year, but for me it seemed to last forever and a day. The days were full of wide-ranging everyday dramas pulling me in different directions- respiratory viruses, ear infections, V traveling for work, my colleagues visiting from Africa, the start of our basement remodel, our biennial quilt show- and finally here I am in March, feeling a bit winded.

And let's not forget that Feb was the much-touted sugar free month. Well, my sugar free status lasted all of 24 days. On February 25, with my willpower at an all time low thanks to a nasty virus, what did me in was a box of Girl Scout cookies! There are a couple of adorable Girl Scouts in my life and hence the abundance of cookies this time of year. I bought several boxes of trefoils (shortbreads), the only kind of Girl Scout cookies that I like. I am not a fan of the thin mints that everyone seems to love. The trefoils are so good dunked in chai.

My sugar free month may not have been perfect but it was perfectly worthwhile. I am no longer reaching for sweet treats and desserts without thinking- just a moment's pause is enough to decide whether I really want to be eating something or not. And my taste buds are positively more sensitive to sweetness. So it was a good exercise and I am glad I did it- and many thanks to all of you who played along! Tell me how it went for you.

Almost every day of this past week, this is the scene in my kitchen. I start making dinner (precariously close to dinner time) by turning on the oven to 400F (convection roast) and pulling out a sheet pan. While the oven is preheating, I make a trip to the crisper to pull out any vegetables that are on hand, which I chop quickly and toss with olive oil and some seasoning. Then they go into the oven until tender and a little charred at the edges. It takes all of 15 minutes in my oven.

The roasted vegetables can be part of all kinds of quick dinners- they can be the subzi served with khichdi, or tossed with canned beans to make a taco filling or stuffed into grilled cheese or tossed with cooked noodles and some sauce- say, Thai-style peanut sauce or pesto.

Here are short "recipes" for my two favorite sheet pan suppers of last week.

1. Roasted cabbage and broccoli, seasoned with a little cumin and garlic. While the veggies were roasting, I made a quick khichdi in the pressure cooker- 1.5 cups masoor dal (soaked for a few hours), scant quarter cup rice, cumin seeds, a sprig of curry leaves, salt, a little pulao masala, water. For almost no effort at all, we had a piping hot supper that was perfect with a drizzle of ghee and a dollop of pickle.

2. Mexican style hash: Roasted cauliflower, green bell pepper, onion- seasoned with garlic, smoked paprika, cumin, oregano. I tossed the roasted veggies with a cup of leftover cooked rice and a can of black beans, then stuck it back in the hot oven for a few minutes to warm the rice and beans. With some shredded cheese and bottled salsa, this supper hit the spot.

Sheet pan dinners are actually really trendy right now- and possibly the first time in my life that I am doing something trendy, purely by accident! But truly, when your goal is to eat a large amount of tasty and well-seasoned vegetables, cooked as quickly and easily as possible, then the sheet pan is your friend.

What have you been cooking this week? 

Monday, February 06, 2017

Velvety Cauliflower Soup

Cough and cold viruses seem to have taken over our community for the last week or so; everyone in our family has had their share of runny noses and mild fevers and disrupted routines. I've been making pretty simple everyday meals to keep us going, and soup is often on the menu- this cauliflower soup has been a particular favorite lately.

Many years ago, I posted this spicy cauliflower soup recipe from Alice Waters. These days, I am making and loving this version that is much more plain and not spicy; when blended smoothly, I swear it tastes like liquid velvet!

1. Heat oil or butter in a large pot.
2. Saute a diced onion and plenty of garlic.
3. Add 3 tablespoons or so nutritional yeast (or a couple tablespoons all-purpose flour, or some combination of flour and nutritional yeast).
4. Add in a head of cauliflower, roughly chopped.
5. Season with salt and pepper and stir around for a couple of minutes.
6. Add a couple of cups of water or vegetable stock, cover the pot and simmer until the cauliflower is tender.
7. Blend the soup to a velvety smooth texture, adding some milk/ cream/ grated cheese/ cream cheese if desired. I add some of these ingredients variously depending on what I have on hand and depending on what I am serving with the soup.

Last week I made a thicker version of this soup and served it as an alfredo sauce with pasta shells- it was a hit!

Just this evening I made a similar soup with broccoli, with a little carrot sauteed along with the onions, and with some cream cheese blended in- the result is just like the broccoli cheese soup so beloved in restaurants.

Sugar-Free February continues to go well. Over the weekend, I took Lila to a little neighbor's donut themed birthday party- there were boxes and boxes of frosted donuts of every kind- but I managed to keep on walking right past the table, and enjoyed some black coffee and fresh fruit instead.

At work, there seems to be a plate of muffins or brownies or leftover donuts from some meeting in the kitchen area every other day or so, and instead of automatically reaching for a stale muffin just because it is there (and regretting it 5 minutes later), it is actually a relief to walk away.

How is your week coming along? What's the best thing you cooked or ate this week? 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Sugar Free February is here! (And Jam Jar Dressings)

To everyone who is participating in Sugar-Free February- the big day (?!) is finally here. How did Day 1 go for you?

Around here, it was a pretty routine weekday. I'm fairly used to my twice-a-day sugar-free chai by now. It is not particularly enjoyable but it is a hot beverage and it has caffeine, so at least it checks off two important boxes. Instead of (lightly) sweetening my almond butter oatmeal the usual way with maple syrup or jaggery, today I sliced half a banana into it and that tweak worked just fine. Eating lunch at my desk, I doused my roasted vegetable bowl with hot sauce, then did a double take and quickly checked the ingredients on the bottle- and whew, no sugar there ;)

If you are looking for inspiration, might I suggest reading this Washington Post article- Ellie Krieger writes about why it can be hard to cut back on sugar and suggests practical ways to do it. I particularly like the couple of paragraphs that talk about the addictive nature of sugar. She has good tips about giving yourself a small sugar allowance per day and spending it wisely. But I must say that I don't much agree with her assertion that most of us should be eating more fruits and dairy than we already are.

* * * 

One of my favorite habits that helps us eat better is my "house salad mix" that I have described in this post. I make a big box of it every few days and we enjoy it in several meals with different dressings.

I've never found a store bought dressing that I like (which may be just as well, since most seem to have added sugar...) but we usually make a quick jam jar dressing for the salad- where you add ingredients to a clean glass jar and get your favorite five year old to shake it up for you.

Our usual jam jar dressing is equal parts vinegar (either balsamic or apple cider), olive oil, a dab of dijon mustard, salt and pepper.

Meyer lemons are in season now- they are sweeter, less acidic and more fragrant than regular lemons. They make a fantastic salad dressing. Regular lemon juice will work  here as well.

To make garlic lemon dressing: Into a jam jar goes the juice of two meyer lemons, an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil (just eyeball it), some grated fresh garlic (use a microplane zester), salt and pepper to taste- then shake up the dressing until well emulsified.

More jam jar dressing inspiration here (check out the comments). See you in a couple of days!