Finding cues from books to keep calm and carry on

Bookstore in Berlin

On a miraculous note, I have finished reading all the four books that I started reading in the last two months. I call it a miracle because believe it or not, there are 6-7 books on my kindle which I started reading but couldn’t go on. For varied reasons. And then I would give up reading for a while, keep scourging listicles to find a book which will help me get back on track and feel disconcerted all the while because I did not have a book to go back to. Working full time and raising a child leaves very less time to read (or even to take a shower for that matter), but escaping my own life and joining someone else through the books makes it rather bearable to live through the mundane necessities of life. We are so small in this whole universe, that our joys and sorrows, difficulties and breakthroughs are all insignificant and should not be taken too seriously.

Four years back when I was in Paris, I went to Lyon to spend two days with a business associate and his family consisting of his wife and three kids. His youngest daughter Lily (who was 6) and I became very attached. She doesn’t speak a word of English and I cant speak French, but sometimes you don’t need words to feel close to each other. I hadn’t seen her since then. When we were going to Berlin for our annual international meeting, I was going to see her father. I took a little gift for Lily and wondered if she would remember me.

We were in for a rude shock when we saw Lily with her father in Berlin and he told us that his wife had committed suicide a week back. 10 year old Lily accompanied him as there was no one to take care of her at home. I knew her mother, such a warm gentle person. But she suffered from depression for several years and couldn’t take it anymore. I felt the inevitable had happened.  She fought the demons in her head for 20 years, but refused to accept medication. As it often happens in situations like these, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything comforting. We hugged each other and said that we are very sorry to hear that.

I couldn’t focus on anything for the rest of the evening or night. A book came to my rescue. While in Berlin, I wanted to read something about the city and I had Stasiland by Anna Funder. I escaped into that book, The Berlin wall and the attempts to flee, atrocities committed by the Secret police – the Stasi, incessant spying by the East German government on the citizens and so on. Suddenly the bleaker world that I was reading about made my real world seem more cheerful. And the words, how they comfort a soul when troubled. Look at this from the book “I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.” Or this : “We don’t catch hold of an idea, rather the idea catches hold of us and enslaves us and whips into the arena so that we, forced to be gladiators, fight for it.” These are the words that will save the world, one person at a time.

Next day, Lily and I then went to the Stasi museum, the museum of the Secret police of East Germany. We saw a lot of stuff that was described in the book Stasiland. Two people who didn’t speak a common language trapezed through the museums and streets of Berlin, trying to understand the people and the history of the city. Then we sat at a cafe and did what Berliners do. Lunch on salad and sandwiches and some hot chocolate before the whirlwind of 4 days of constant meetings sucked me in. I don’t know what Lily thinks of her mother’s suicide. She doesn’t know what fears I have about Arjun growing up in this world. We don’t have a common language to communicate. But there on that afternoon, we sat besides each other and knew that it will all be okay. In the long run, everything is always okay.

My best friend and I always used to believe in this theory of people coming into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. You may not know it at that time, but each person who comes into contact with you leaves a part of them with you. Changes your perspective about something in some way that you didn’t know existed before. So I always believe if anyone asks you if you want to meet for a cup of coffee, say yes. And make the time for it. Something will conspire in that conversation, in that chance meeting and it will give you the energy, the zeal to carry on.

Akshay and I completed 6 years of being married yesterday. We have our good days and the bad days. There are days when I think how awesome he is and the 31 year old me can fall in love with him all over again had we met right now for the first time. And then of course there are days when everything seems to be pointless. Sleeping it out without saying any unnecessarily harsh things to each other works. And as Ann Patchett’s friend asks her in her book  ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’, –

“Does your husband make you a better person?” My answer to this question has been an unfailing yes. And that is all that matters.

IMG_7136Cheers!

Rutvika

Simple Eggless Bread Loaf with cheese and pepper

I think I got my bread baking mojo back. After a hiatus of 3 years, I am back in the game.

Pepper Cheese loaf cut

Baking bread is a time consuming affair and slightly complicated than just throwing in a few ingredients like we do while baking a cake. First it starts with buying or finding the right kind of yeast. Then adapting a recipe to the type of yeast you have, blooming of the yeast, mixing, kneading and first rise, shaping, the second rise and finally baking. So a simple loaf can take anywhere upto 5 hours from start to finish. When my baby was little, I couldn’t guarantee the loaf that I would come to shape it after its first rise, or I would be able to knead it for 5-10 mins without the baby requiring me on an urgent basis (with babies, it’s always very urgent). But now that he is over two, I am beginning to enjoy baking bread again. Its euphoric to see it rise. It is instinctive, scientific and artistic all in one go.

This here today is a simple loaf with cheese and some spices. I baked it twice on the weekend (it was that good), once with cheese and crushed black pepper and the second time with more cheese and a pizza spice mixture which I had at home – very similar to those Oregano spice packets which come with Dominoes Pizza. Its a fool-proof recipe, just follow the steps and the notes to bake your own bread.

This recipe is from The Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger is adapted to suit Indian flour and humidity conditions.

Whole loaf of pepper cheese bread

 

Eggless Bread Loaf with cheese and pepper

What you will need :

  • 2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/3 cup lukewarm water
  • 300 grams all purpose flour (maida)
  • 50 grams whole wheat flour (aatta)
  • 2 grams bread improver (see notes)
  • 90 grams freshly shredded processed Cheddar (I used Amul)
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper or any other spice mixture (see notes)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon red chilli flakes
  • 4 tablespoon butter (I use Amul salted)
  • 3/4 cup cool water
  • 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (I used Tabasco)

What to do :

  1. In a big cup or a glass, warm 1/3 cup of water. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over this water and gently stir it. Keep it in the corner of your kitchen platform till it becomes foamy, about 10-15 mins.
  2. Meanwhile, in a big bowl, combine whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, bread improver, pepper and salt. Mix it with a whisk to ensure that bread improver is evenly incorporated.
  3. Add 4 tablespoons butter to this flour mixture.
  4. After the yeast mixture has become foamy, stir it with a spoon, and add the 3/4 cup cool water to it. Add the hot sauce to this mixture.
  5. Now with the dough hooks of a electric beater beating, add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture in a steady stream so that it all starts coming together to form a sticky soft dough.
  6. After the dough forms a soft elastic ball that clears the sides of the bowl, add the cheese and beat it for another minute so that all the cheese gets incorporated in it. If the dough is too sticky, add some more flour by a tablespoon , if the dough is too dry, add a teaspoon of water. (See notes)
  7. Using a plastic dough scraper, transfer the dough onto a smooth floured surface. Knead it slightly with the plastic scraper. It will still be an extremely sticky dough, just keep flouring the surface and keep bringing the dough together with the scraper.
  8. Grease a big bowl with olive oil or butter and put the dough ball in it. Turn it once to grease all sides of the dough.
  9. Cover it with a plastic wrap and let it stand at room temperature till it doubles in bulk, about one hour.
  10. Grease a 8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch loaf pan with butter.
  11. Turn out the dough onto a clean floured surface. Shape it into an oblong loaf and place it in the prepared pan. Cover it loosely with a plastic wrap. Let it rise again at room temperature until it reaches 1 inch above the top of the pan. Around 1 and 1/2 hours.
  12. Twenty minutes before baking, pre-heat oven to 170C. Using a sharp knife slash the loaf one-three times diagonal across top,  no more than 1/2 inch deep.
  13. Place the pan on a rack in the centre (or bottom rack – see notes ) of the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes till it is lightly browned and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped with your finger.
  14. Transfer the loaf from the pan to a cooling rack. Let it cool before slicing.

Kneading and shaping the dough

Notes :

  • Adding bread improver to a bread recipe is optional, but I have found that since bread flour is not available in India, and there is no standardised flour type, it is better to add bread improver. Approximately 0.01% of the quantity of the flour and the results are remarkable. To know where to buy it, check this.
  • Pepper is a strong spice so 1 and 1/2 teaspoon is sufficient. If you are replacing it with anything other spice mixture, you can use 2- 3 teaspoon easily.
  • For point no. 6 : I have found that in hot and tropical climate like ours, generally the dough becomes very sticky and needs more flour. So you can add a little amount to the dough or generously flour the work surface so that it gets absorbed.
  • Indian ovens like MR, Bajaj are smaller and hence it is prefarable to keep the pan on the lowest rack and bake. Because the pan is tall and dough has risen 1 inch above the pan. So if you keep it on middle rack, the top gets too browned or burnt. So keep it not he lowest rack, with both rods on. If you have a big commercial oven, use the middle rack.
  • Do not let the loaf cool in the pan, or the bottom and sides will become moist. Always use a cooling rack to cool it.

slices of bread

Pepper and Cheese bread pinterest

Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookies

I have a giant book borrowed from an aunt – The Taste of Home : Ultimate Cookie Collection, which has several hundred recipes and very useful directions to almost everything in the land of cookie making. How to store cookies, how to ship them, what if cookies spread too much while baking, what if they don’t, what to do if they are too tough/ too brown / too pale, etc etc. its a delight to read the book and experiment from there.

chocolate-chip-cookie-split

And my baby Arjun has a book where the cartoon Elmo is making cookies. So he wants to make cookies every weekend. It’s fun to bake with him (only if you ignore all the mess that he does). 😛

Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookies

What you will need :

  • 1 and half cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 150 gram butter at room temperature (approx 10 tablespoons)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 and 1/2 cup chocolate chips

What to do :

  1. In a bowl, stir in baking powder and baking soda in the flour and then sift it once. This ensures that the baking powder and soda get mixed evenly in the flour and it gets aerated once sieved.
  2. In another bowl, take butter at room temperature and whisk it with an electric beater. Add granulated sugar and brown sugar and beat till it becomes light, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add lightly beaten eggs and vanilla extract and beat for another 2-3 minutes. Let it all get incorporated well.
  4. Now add the flour mixture into the butter and egg mixture and whisk till it all comes together. Do not over-mix.
  5. Remove the whisk and then fold in the chocolate chips with a spatula.
  6. Take a baking sheet and line it with parchment paper.
  7. Now with a tablespoon, drop 12 heaps on the parchment paper, spaced well about 1 inch between two heaps.
  8. Put it int he fridge to chill for at-least 15 minutes.
  9. Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 170 C.
  10. After 15 minutes chill time, put the tray in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, till the top gets slightly browned and the cookies get crisp on the outside. You can also rotate the pan once in between.
  11. Keep next batch ready for baking or if you have a bigger oven, you can bake two sheets at a time.

chocolate-chip-collage

 

Notes :

  • The cookies spread out once they go in the oven. So make small heaps and space them apart.
  • If you want very crisp cookies bake for a minute longer, if you want a chewy centre, bake for a minute or two less. Also individual ovens behave differently, keep a close watch while baking cookies.
  • You can also cut the cookies with a cookie cutter when they are fresh out of the oven. Like I did with a Christmas tree cutter in the picture above.

stack-of-choco-chip-cookies

Bon Apetit!

Rutvika

Eggless Chocolate Cake with Inserted Lava

A Cultural Rhapsody

I was 17 when I read Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody. And it had a profound impact on me. I missed school and classes for two days, pretended sick and stayed at home to finish the book. It almost felt as if her difficulties would lengthen if I took longer to finish the book. I don’t know if I was empathizing more with Betty or her daughter Mahtob, or both, while simultaneously realizing that Dr. Moody, the father also had honorable intentions, considering his cultural upbringing.

Betty and Moody came from entirely contrast backgrounds, she knew freedom and yearned for it, for herself and her daughter. Moody saw patriarchal way of living in Iran where he grew up, and the way he treated his wife and daughter was the normal way of life in Iran. His mom, sisters, and other women in the family adhered to the beliefs and he wished his wife would too. She, an American, did not confirm and hence retaliated, which led to a vicious circle of fights. Later, Moody told his wife that she can leave, but as per Islamic law, the daughter’s custody would be with him. He was her father, and had equal right to raise her as he deems fit; but Betty wanted an American way of life for her daughter. Unfortunately the book is from Betty’s point of view, but I yearn to read what Moody felt when his daughter was taken away from him, in the middle of the night.

Honestly speaking, at that point of time I couldn’t imagine being separated from my mom, so I was glad that it ended it victory for the mom and daughter. But now, a decade later, I see the somewhat faulty, biased premise of the book. An aunt from my husband’s side, married an Irani guy who she met studying at Delhi University. They shifted to Iran after her wedding, and lived luxuriously for a couple of years in Iran, as he belonged to a royal family. They had two lovely daughters. Then because of the increasing turmoil in Iran due to the Gulf War, they left Iran and settled in the US. All of them. For 20 odd years they were happily married, and eventually due to some problems between the two of them, they got a divorce and she came back to India. But the point is,  she always describes her life in Iran with a lot of fondness. True, their customs are different from ours, but you sort of accept that when you decide to marry a man from that culture!

That was also the time when I realised that I am not capable of handling such a huge cultural diversity. It takes a truckload of patience and courage to accept and assimilate into a different culture you are marrying into. And all the talk of women’s liberation does little to help when you want to adjust into the new family, a majority of the changes have to be absorbed by the woman. Even a strictly vegetarian Jain girl finds it strange is she gets married to a mutton-relishing Punjabi guy. And that is just the beginning. I knew different cultures are a mix of amazing and some very peculiar practices. But I am a sucker for traditions and love the little things that we did as a family , as a community. I knew, I would marry someone who has the same kind of social set-up and values.

So even though the poignancy of that book washed over me and had me in a trickle of tears, my takeaway from the book was way different from what Betty Mahmoody had put in front of us. Nevertheless, like every chisel blow shapes a statue, this book had a big role to play in the way I viewed the world, from thereon.


I have always loved the Choco Lava Cake which comes with the Dominos Pizza. A choco ‘lava’ cake is basically a slightly undercooked cake, with a chocolate chunk in the centre, which melts while the cake is being baked, but does not bake fully into a solid with the rest of the cake. I researched for several recipes, but the thought of eating a slightly underbaked cake with eggs was deterring.

So I researched and tried some more recipes to make an Eggless choco lava cake. Two of the recipes came close to having atleast some amount of molten chocolate, but texture wise one was a disaster. The other one was good, although I would have preferred a bubbling sizzling chocolate lava coming out of it. But in this case there was just a hint of molten chocolate inside.

Two molten lava cakes

Eventually, let me be honest, I realised that a oozing chocolate cake from the centre is not really possible, so I filled it with some melted chocolate , yeah totally cheat sheet.

But its a beautiful and super simple eggless chocolate cake, and I had to share the recipe!

Serving suggestion : Pour some melted chocolate in the centre and serve with vanilla ice-cream.

Chocolate lava cake

Eggless Chocolate Cake with inserted Lava

4 ramekin cakes

What you will need :

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup softened butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup castor sugar
  • 1/2 cup yoghurt
  • Chocolate chunks, coated with flour

What to do :

  1. preheat oven to 220C.
  2. In a bowl, sift all purpose flour + cocoa powder + baking powder + baking soda.
  3. In another bowl, beat butter and sugar together till pale and creamy.
  4. Add in yoghurt and flour mixture, alternately, in 3 steps, ending with the flour mixture.
  5. Grease 4 metal ramekins with butter.
  6. Pour the prepared batter in a ziplock bag or a pastry bag without a tip and pipe it into the ramekins for a smooth swirl. Alternately, you can even spoon in the batter into the ramekins.
  7. Press a chocolate chunk in the centre and cover it up with some more batter. Do not let the chocolate chunk touch the base of the ramekin.
  8. Bake at 220C for 8-10 mins, till it is light and springy to touch. A skewer inserted in the centre will show some batter sticking to the centre, which is good. Stop baking and let it cool on wire racks.
  9. Before unmolding, run a knife along the edge of the ramekin and upturn in to a plate.

Cutting a lava cake

Notes :

  • Being an eggless cake it is perfectly safe to leave it slightly undercooked. The centre is still gooey and if you are lucky, some chocolate might come pouring out 🙂
  • This cake is best enjoyed warm with cold icecream.