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Of Beets, Bread and Hung Yogurt

July 4, 2016

It is a pity that my brain was ever unable to make connections for answers to questions on an exam, but it is able to function at warp speed when it comes to food. For example, I was wandering the aisles of the grocery store helping my parents pick produce and I happened to see some pretty pink beets on the shelf. It might not have even been a full minute, but I had figured out what to do with the beets and how to make them.

The husband is a giant fan of soups, and I received from him a copy of “Zuppe” by Mona Talbott. The book is an interesting compendium of soups prepared in the American Academy in Rome. There was a recipe for beet soup with yogurt in it somewhere, and I had been meaning to try it out. Obviously, I did not care to read the recipe in its entirety before embarking to the grocery, so I did not have some of the ingredients (besides the beets) on hand. I’m not sure where I get it from (I only began cooking in earnest after I was married and unemployed), but I am able to improvise when the situation calls for it, and more often than not, the results are somewhat satisfactory (as in eaters were alive post serving them the food).

The recipe had beets, fennel, onions and a bunch of other things that I did not have. And it said serve with yogurt at the end, as somewhat of an afterthought. The soup had excited me because I thought the yogurt was incorporated, not a garnish. A few pages on, there was a recipe for a cucumber yogurt soup (yet to try that out), and it mentioned something about straining the yogurt through a cheesecloth. I don’t have cheesecloth, but I do have a bunch of clean hankies stolen from the husband. I scooped some yogurt into the hanky, clamped it with a bag clip, and suspended the bundle from a chair a few inches above a bowl with a shoelace for an hour or so.

For the soup, I used one big onion, five or six small to medium beets and one big carrot (husband is secretly a bunny). Recipe said boil all vegetables, but I sautéed the onions, then threw in the beets and the carrots (all sliced or diced) until everyone was colored a beautiful deep red like the beets. Then I threw in some water to cover all the vegetables, a couple of bay leaves for aroma and closed it all up with a lid and boiled them until the ladle could cut through the beets. Everything was cooled down to almost room temperature, followed by a whirl in the food processor (blender works fine, too) until it was as smooth as possible. You don’t need to (and this did not work as well as I wanted, anyway), but I strained the entire soup through a strainer.

Reheat the soup till it boils and gets nice and hot. I threw in several spices, but mostly hints of curry powder, turmeric (my father insisted), lots of cayenne pepper, some zhug and some harissa as well. I’m a tad lazy to describe zhug and harissa, but Google should do a fine job of that. About five minutes before the soup was turned off, I scraped out the hung yogurt from the hanky (it was a beautiful, creamy white almost cheese like texture) into the soup and stirred until it was all homogenous. I discovered to my delight that the yogurt being hung made it dissipate into the soup fabulously as opposed to disintegrating into white bits that floated around the soup. It also lent an interesting flavor profile to the soup, the sweetness of the beets interspersed with the tang of the yogurt, all cut through with the heat from the peppers. I was also overjoyed because my parents seemed to thoroughly enjoy the soup, and the bread that went with it.

Final

Speaking of, the bread that went with the soup was also made from scratch. My bread book is stuck in the box with all the other books and it was too late to start digging it out. Using a random recipe for honey wheat bread from the Internet for proportions, I proofed my yeast in some warm water with a lot more honey than the recipe called for. I replaced most of the wheat flour with rye flour and then proceeded to mix it all in like I do for my quick pizza dough recipe. It was late and I was sleepy, so once the ingredients mingled and were socializing nicely, I wrapped up the bowl with plastic wrap and threw it in the fridge overnight.

The dough seemed to have risen decently over the next 20 hours, and I took it out and kneaded the life out of it for about fifteen minutes, and it managed to eat up almost another cup of flour that I dusted it with. The next part is where I went wrong. I should have (a) kneaded earlier than I did and (b) kneaded and let it rise in the loaf pan. Instead, I threw it back in the same bowl and then tried to put it in the loaf pan after an hour (It should have had more time, but we were all starving by this point). The bread did not rise as much as I would have liked while baking, and the outside got dry and the middle was moist and soft.

However, the taste of the bread exceeded my expectations somewhat. The bread was soft inside, crumbly outside and had a sweetish aftertaste of honey in each bite. It worked more because it complemented the savory soup perfectly. Again, the parents were pretty impressed and vanished the bread pretty quickly with the herb butter that I made to go with. It was quite a satisfying meal all put together, and I know what I need to work on for the next time I make the bread. The pictures are mostly intended to display texture and color. I hope you enjoyed this adventure. Until the next one, bon appetite!

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Experiments with Ebinger

June 20, 2016

A while after we were married, after we discovered that I enjoyed baking, the husband sent me a link and asked if I could bake the cake in it as a sort of challenge (see below). It was the link to an NPR article about Ebinger’s Blackout Cake, a supposedly legendary cake sold in a Brooklyn bakery that has since closed. The cake was described to be an arduous affair, lengthy and complicated. I took one look at the recipe and balked. I had just begun baking, and had but a whisk and a makeshift mixing bowl as equipment. My baked goods were barely passing muster (for me), and I was trying to achieve professional grade results with bare minimum resources.

The recipe when pasted into a word document is about two to three pages long and requires almost all the bowls and spoons one would have lying around (ergo tedious, if you include cleanup time). I’m not sure why, but I told him that I would not attempt something like this until I had the proper equipment. Proper equipment was purchased last year, and yet I did not find a good time to bake this cake. But opportunity presented itself on the husband’s birthday. The background story is that in the time we had been married, we had not been together for his birthday even once. So this time around, I thought it was a momentous enough occasion to attempt this cake.

So attempt it I did. It took a full five hours, and it took so long, we missed the midnight deadline to cut it because the frosting had to set for a few hours. It turned out that I woke up the poor boy at 5 am to eat his own birthday cake (I had to go to work early that day) and took a sleepy eyed picture of him to remember it. The filling of the cake did not turn out as planned, it was more runny than custard-ey, but overall the taste of the cake turned out to be fabulous, and the filling sat inside nicely after refrigerating the cake overnight. The cake is supposed to consumed within 24 hours (it tends to dry out). It turned out I had no trouble getting that to happen.

Obviously, this post is not about my first Ebinger’s cake. I have since been able to bake just the complex cake minus filling/frosting and adapt other frostings onto it. So it’s just an Ebinger cake (no blackouts here). Since I successfully made the Ebinger’s cake, I needed a bigger challenge now. It came in the form of one of my friends at work deciding to turn vegan. Now I love her enough to want to bake for her birthday, but I was in a quandary seeing as her being vegan took away the basic building blocks of baking from me: butter and eggs. And deserve a fabulous birthday cake, she did.

I’m not one to set low aspirations for myself. If I am to fail, I must fail spectacularly at failing. Failing at brownies (which I still do, but that is another post for the bad attempts) is not always something to write home about. So I upped the ante and decided to make the Ebinger’s cake vegan. I don’t know if this is anything of a challenge for accomplished bakers, but for me it was. The only thing I did before this was make a dairy free pie for a lactose intolerant friend.

Making vegan cakes is not technically difficult. Any number of vegan blogs out there will teach you what to replace eggs with. What made Ebinger hard to turn vegan was that you have to separate the egg whites and yolks and whip the egg whites up real good so that the cake gets its airy, spongy but dense texture. While I was googling away like crazy I happened upon an article that claimed that vegans might have found their answer to vegan egg white replacement. Behold Aquafaba-what sounds like a water filtration company’s name is exactly not what you think: vegan egg whites! What on earth is aquafaba you might wonder, and what it is might make some people go eewwww (husband was extremely suspicious even after eating the cake). Aquafaba is the icky yellow liquid that comes out of a can of chickpeas, which mostly ends up in the sink. At once glutinous but pourable, the liquid is supposed to contain enough protein to mimic the peak forming abilities of egg whites while keeping the vegans happy.

Needless to say, I made a beeline to my pantry and uncovered a can of chickpeas. I decanted the liquid into a jar and got busy making my test blend cake. Thankfully for me, my wonderful friends at work are always ready to sample the manifestations of my culinary ideas. Butter replaced with coconut oil, milk with soy milk, egg yolks with flaxseed and egg whites with aquafaba, the test cake was served without letting anyone in on the fact that it was vegan. Some initial trepidation later, the general feedback was that the cake was not terrible, and could pass off as a birthday cake.

I made and handed off the actual birthday cake on said friend’s birthday, and perhaps the BEST reaction to the cake (or any I’ve made) was from her 10-month-old son, who gurgled happily while he reached for more cake (I almost passed out with happiness). I am going to leave it to the beholders to guess which cake is vegan and which cake is not in the pictures (fine, you will probably find out if you click on the picture, but take a guess before you do that).

Technical Notes:

  • I suppose you could replace butter with olive oil or other oils as you please. The birthday girl chose coconut oil, so I used that.
  • The cake is a wee bit on the dry side and tad more crumbly than regular Ebinger.
  • The aquafaba looks very pretty when it makes stiff white peaks, but tends to fall apart a little bit while folding. However, this does not seem to impact the ability of the cake to rise.
  • Flaxseed egg: 1 tablespoon of flaxseed meal + 3 tablespoons water + 10 minutes in the fridge
  • Aquafaba: I used regular canned chickpea water. Recipes can be found to make your own if you so choose.

Ebinger’s Blackout Cake Recipe

Aquafaba

Close Encounters of the Culinary Kind

June 19, 2016

I was the fussiest of eaters as a child. Especially when it came to eating my mother’s food. I was that child that needed spanking to eat a full meal. Thankfully, leaving home for college changed that, and now I am more or less looking for every opportunity to eat her food. That being said, at this point in life, I am what you could classify as a food lover: The kind that is constantly wondering about her next meal. For example, while driving to work or while running my assay, my thoughts for no reason tend towards, “What can I eat for dinner tonight?” Next thing I know, I have already come up with a recipe for dinner. Sometimes, it is partly borrowed from something I ate at a restaurant, sometimes it is all my own.

I am mostly vegetarian (I occasionally enjoy wings at a happy hour/chicken tikka masala at the Indian buffet), but I really do love eating. Even though my husband is a sparse eater, he does enjoy the experience of eating out, and one wonderful thing about being married to him is that he is all for high-end gourmet dining. Eating is an experience, not a necessity according to him, but it works for me because I get to try new stuff and more importantly, I get ideas.

I think I enjoyed cooking, but I did not realize how much until I moved to California and was unemployed for about a year. Cooking makes me happy; it is that blank, blissful state of being after that extra cocktail you knew you should not have had. What makes me happier than cooking: Baking. Baking is sheer bliss. I work in a lab, therefore precision is important. As much as my cooking is the result of plenty of imagination and the near non-existence of a recipe, baking is all about measurements and accuracy and following instructions. The results (not always satisfactory) are usually breathtaking: in satisfaction, not necessarily their appearance. Appearance is important, but it is also the texture, the color and the taste (duh!) that matter. How it feels to the touch, how its cross section looks, how it breaks off (crumbly/not crumbly) are some of the things I fuss over. Like you would over a cute little puppy, or your baby. It is that important.

I never instagrammed my food until my brother (I think) said I should, so he can see what I am up to in my kitchen (we both share a love of cooking). I don’t instagram all my food, only the ones I am proud of, because they passed all internal quality control (QC) (I work in QC, so all jargon is QC related for my food plus it makes for a great workplace joke). Recently though, more than one person said I should blog about my food. To anyone who read(s) my blog, you would notice that I post about once in 1.5 years so you should know that though I am inspired often, I am lazy and it usually extinguishes my inspiration. I am not even sure this food-blogging will last too long, but I figured I should try.

This is not one of those blogs you should look to for healthy/quick meals/weeknight meal planning or any of those things you go to such blogs for. I will issue a disclaimer that this is not a healthy food blog. This is not even a food blog, really. It is mostly a place where I will put up a picture/sort of recipe of stuff I cooked that turned out to be edible. Please note that pictures are not filtered/edited too much, they are mostly brightened or dimmed to match how they looked on the countertop. I try to eat healthy, but my definition of healthy may not agree with other people. I prefer a more “you have one life, eat in moderation” type of mantra. So don’t get shocked or horrified that I cook with butter. I do sometimes. Butter is wonderful to me, fragrant and delicious and heartwarming. That is not to say I dump two sticks of butter into everything I make, it is more like a teaspoon. Okay fine, a tablespoon. There, I confessed I am a butter-loving freak. While in disclaimer mode, I will also re-iterate that my food is a product of my wandering imagination. Recipes change from the time I daydreamed them to when I actually cooked them. I love spice blends and have about fifty bottles of spices in my kitchen. This tends to cause a lot of deviating during the execution of the actual recipe.

I don’t have a large blog follower group and that is not the intention of this platform at all. On some level, it is so that I can remember stuff I made and maybe try and make them another time. For those of you who take the time to read this, I thank you. It is always nice to know that someone reads the stuff I put out there, and I greatly appreciate any time you spend on here/feedback anyone gives me. All that being said, welcome to my kitchen.

Promises

March 22, 2014

She sat as still as the stone beneath her and stared. The sound of the water lapping against the rocks was as soothing as it was unnerving. The waves reiterated their permanence; they would be here long after her existence ceased to prevail in the universe. Her life and its miseries were mere drops in the timeless breadth of water that lay before her. The ocean beckoned, its tides tugging at those surging through her. Her own tides kept time with no moon; they grew stronger as her spirit weakened, threatening to pull her under. As the ocean tide resonated with her own, she felt oddly drawn to it. Warmth seemed to emanate from it, so inviting she longed for its embrace.

For a second, she was visited by a strange notion: what if she dived in? She ached for comfort, for relief from her agony. The sea smiled benevolently, welcoming her in. Long, white tipped fingers inched ever closer, until a particularly long one nudged her bare foot playfully. The chill of contact went straight to her bone, jolting her out of her reverie. She instinctively retracted her foot out of reach. She had not anticipated the cold, the summer breeze conning her.

Her face felt hot and she realized her cheeks were moist from her tears. The sun was beginning its descent beyond the horizon, but as the ocean was swallowing it, its rays caught the dancing waters, making them shimmer. She found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the sheet of sparkling diamonds. The beauty of the moment struck her and she closed her eyes to preserve the memory and savor it. When she opened them, night was creeping in and the world was suspended between light and dark. For a fleeting moment, the perspective eluding her was revealed. Realization rushed into the heart vacated of the turmoil that had been its resident.

A deep sigh escaped her and she turned to make her way home, a smile beginning to etch her face, the first in a long time. As the first star appeared to herald the end of day, she promised herself she would wake to the next one.

This Dance of Ours

May 22, 2013

Another writing exercise.

No one I’ve known has simplified and complicated life as much as you have. This dance was not the easiest or most obvious thing to happen, but we’ve found a rhythm that we both can groove to, without stepping on each other’s toes. Most of the time, anyway. Left and right, up and down, sideways and upside down we jive while navigating the dance floor of our relationship. 

From strangers to what we are today, it’s been a tough routine to master. Keeping up with your moves, introducing you to mine, developing new moves that suited both of us. The tempo of our dance ever changing, oscillating between mellow comfort and fiery crescendos that leave us both breathless. Still, we never tire of this dance.

The dance has become a part of us, of what we do, the fabric of whom we have made each other become. Both better dancers, I hope, although we do bring out the worst moves in each other sometimes. I am tethered to the dance, always seeking it out, being unable to stay away from it. It has become my undoing; I crave it as much as I do the air I breathe. There are other dancers to partner with, but the dance with you is the one I enjoy most.

Unfair, illogical and pointless though it is, watching you dance with another makes me uncomfortable, in spite of knowing that you would never abandon our dance, or dance as well with anyone else. My disquiet and insecurity rouses the bad dancer in me, and I disrupt the flow of our tide. I am amazed that you stick with me despite wrecking the dance over and over, at times to the point of no return. 

Every time we reach the edge of the dance floor, you pull me back onto it, never breaking your stride, though chiding me for my instability yet never letting me suffer my indignity in solitude. You spin me around so that for a moment I am afraid of falling, but you reel me back into the safety of your arms, and I’m secure again.

I trip you up sometimes, upsetting a picture of grace and elegance, and you forgive my erroneous missteps time and again, only showing me how to improve, never giving up on me.

Time and circumstance have forced our dance to change with them, we no longer dance together all the time like we used to. I miss dancing with you, holding you close, learning and teaching, swaying to our beat. Each time we dance together now, I know the music will stop, and we will have to take a step back. When the music dies out, there is nothing more I want than for it to come back on, just one more time. But it’s only wishful thinking, and I have to accept that we will have to wait for the next song. And yet, we dance this dance of life, knowing the miles between us will never put us out of sync. 

Half Marathon. Check.

May 14, 2013

Note: I wrote this the day after the event, but post-run happenings prevented me from posting it immediately. 

As my feet crossed the finish line, I was assaulted by a wave of emotions: extreme exhaustion to the point of falling down, mingled with a strange feeling that I’d now classify as a mix of happiness, relief, pride and an overwhelming satisfaction. I’d done it. What a rush! 

I’d just finished running my first half-marathon. Yes, a half. Not even a full marathon. 13.1 miles through the streets of Pittsburgh. Streets I’d walked leisurely before, never paying attention to how they felt under my feet. But every step I took on the same streets felt so different yesterday. Bridges that I’ve admired from atop Mount Washington for their beauty, and the same bridges were beautiful in a different way yesterday. I’d never acknowledged that running up and down the bridge was as hard as it turned out to be. 

The whole experience was brand new. I know a lot of people who run marathons both half and full, but doing it for myself was a game changer. I’d never thought I was capable of running that far in the first place. It seemed to be a task too arduous to undertake, and of course the physical pain associated with all that exercise was ominous by itself. But once I began running in the summer of 2011, I started enjoying it. And since we lived in Pittsburgh then, Rosh and I decided to run the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in 2012. But then 2012 was filled with events that would interrupt any chance of training, so we did not do it that year. When we met in December though, we seriously decided to pursue the idea. And so, beginning February 2013, we began to train in earnest for the half marathon (our guru and guide being Kaushik), me in Berkeley, Rosh in Pittsburgh.  

Thousands of people run marathons I know, but it is a personal experience for each person, different and unique to who they are. I ran the half marathon to focus on a goal single-mindedly and see it through, along with training to endure through the run, teaching my body to withstand the rigors and trials of the challenge. The beginning was easy enough, the one-mile sprints on the treadmill, the 3 and 4-mile maintenance runs. The real training began after mile 6. Mile 6 was hurdle enough, one that took a few repeats to overcome. The going only got tougher after that. The one thing that made it easier on me was the fact that Kaushik would run with me once we reached mile 8, adding a mile each week. I’m sure the whole picture would have been different if I had been going it alone.

After all the training runs on the streets of Berkeley, the sweating, the aches, the pains, the groans, the foam roller stretches, post run fruit bars and emergen-C, the Tylenols and the Tiger Balm, ice packs and knee braces, I was as ready as I could be.

The day before D-day was filled with some jitters and nerves, and a big scoop of self doubt of course. My sleep was disturbed with dreams about not being able to finish. I woke up not as energetic as I wanted to be, but once I did up the laces on my shoes and we stepped out into the cold, crisp Sunday morning at 5:30 am, I felt ready. I couldn’t wait to get out there and run.

After getting to the race and checking in, it turned out that the entrance to our corral was blocked because they were preparing to open up the corrals ahead. Thankfully, most of the runners in our corral were stranded with us. So we all just banded together and waited for an opening in the blockade to join the throng of runners heading to the start line. The sun was rising over Downtown Pittsburgh, and a perfect day seemed to be around the corner: just enough sun and breeze for a run.

We could only hear the race officially beginning while being jammed with all the other runners and spectators around us. The whistle signaling the start of the race got us all excited to start the race ourselves. Once the corrals ahead had started, it was our turn at last. It felt surreal to walk with thousands of other people, old and young alike towards the start line. A woman walking ahead of us wished us luck. As one, we all headed to the start line, and once our feet touched it, we took off, along with the thousands who had before us. The first steps were simply exhilarating.

On the straight stretches of road, all you could see ahead was a long river of runners, each at their own pace, heading towards the same goal: the finish line. We high fived each other when we saw the 1-mile flag. Each mile added was a new achievement, one mile closer to 13.1. Our original idea was to run the whole race together, but things did not go as planned. After mile 6, we got separated, and it turned out both of us added some minutes to our time by waiting for each other at mile markers and fluid stations, but missing each other in the crowd each time. After mile 8, I decided I might be finishing this race by myself, and Rosh by herself.

The entire race itself was a humbling experience. To be part of something this big, running with 30,000 other runners all towards the same finish line, each running for a different reason, some for themselves, some for another person, some for a cause they supported, was awe-inspiring. It’s hard to explain why you would put yourself and your body through all the hardship and pain, but when you run the course and finish, all the tribulation pales in comparison to how you feel at the end. Even the post race pain is sweet, despite every muscle in your body protesting vehemently as it cools down after the exertion. 

13.1 miles is a long run in itself, and it would not perhaps be doable without some support and encouragement. Which we got in plenty from the thousands of spectators lined along the course, cheering the runners on, with banners and flags and in some cases, trumpets and bells and in one place, an entire dance troupe dressed as Native Americans. Some people were cheering their loved ones in the race, but there were some who were cheering for just about every runner, holding out their palms for high fives as we sailed past, shouting for us to keep going if we were tiring, giving us that extra push that took us towards the finish line. Tiny little kids held out their tiny little hands for high fives and said “Good job!” as we ran past them. There were bands playing music along each mile, keeping our spirits up as they ebbed with the distance. The cheering sometimes made all the difference, when putting one foot in front of the other was the hardest thing to do.

As I neared the finish line, my exhaustion was mounting, but so was the din the spectators were making. Thousands of people standing by and applauding and screaming certainly helped me make that final sprint to the finish as soon as I could see it looming in the distance. By this time, every inch of my body was hurting, my legs were screaming for respite, each step my feet took felt like torture and my lungs were burning from the exertion, but for one moment as I stepped over the line, all of it melted away. For that one glorious moment when I realized that I had done it, that I had run 13.1 miles from start to end, and I was still alive after all of it. Of course, in the next moment, all the pain came rushing back with full force, and I was ready to collapse in a heap.

Each runner that crossed the finish line was given a medal that said “Runner of Steel, Pittsburgh Marathon 2013”. It’s amusing now, but almost every runner wore the medal like they had run in the Olympics, including us, even though all the 30,000 runners got it. I guess for all of yesterday, it symbolized the journey that each of us had undertaken to get it.

Ah, it feels good to get all those feelings down in writing. I’ve obviously not done a great job describing them, and I doubt anyone reading this will be inspired to go run a half marathon themselves, but I just wanted to write it down so I could read it myself later, perhaps on a day when my mind is wandering when it has to be focusing, or when I’m having a bad training run day, or simply to remind myself how great it felt to go out there and run. And oh yes, I am already looking for my next big race. Who knows, it might be a full marathon! 

Away from Prose

April 19, 2013

I’ve been restless to write the past few weeks, but nothing really kindled my interest enough to sit down and get to it. Kaushik’s out of town, and sleep refused a visit, so I conducted a random thought-to-words writing experiment.  What came out of it follows. The person who inspired this piece was kind enough to let me publish it.

You complicate life, yet you simplify it.

You are the solution to most problems,

While of some you are just the cause.

You chase away inhibitions, making them take flight.

You cloud judgement, like that extra glass of wine.

You clear up the waters when they are murky,

Then you throw a stone and muddy them.

You are a mystery to be demystified,

An enigma that cannot be unravelled.

 

To provoke you is to stir up a hornet’s nest.

A conversation with a hungry lion: a safer bet.

You rage like a hurricane laying waste,

Tearing everything asunder with your fiery glare.

Your anger is terrifying to behold.

Vanishing without a trace, like a story untold.

Your grievances dismissed in a flash,

Though their memories etched in some deep corner of your mind.

Forgiven, never forgotten.

 

The dam breaks when your restraint cracks,

Washing away everything in its path.

Heartbroken and ruined,

Helpless against your sad tide.

 

Your love is like an ocean:

Vast, open and calm.

Unpredictable, tumultuous.

You changed life as it used to be.

And now remain one of its constants.

You bring out the best.

You awaken the worst.

Your smile is a wonder, like the bright beautiful sun.

Something to dispel the gloom of a bad day.

 

Beautiful, you are.

Only to the eyes of the rose-tinted beholder.

Tomorrow is worth waking up for.

New aspirations, undone things to do.

Your presence in the next day of this life.

One of the things I look forward to.