Sunday, 14 December 2014

Once upon a time


A few weeks ago, I found Once Upon A Time.

It was in my secondhand bookshop locked in a glass cabinet unlike the other books, which stood on open shelves bare to a stranger's browse. It seemed appropriate that something called Once Upon A Time should be locked up - by an evil queen no doubt - waiting to be rescued.


I rescued it with a few pounds that afternoon. Its pages felt like the loose skin on the underside of my grandmother's arms - soft, thin, giving. It's a magazine that was born in the late sixties; a weekly for children.



There is something more personal, more generous, about print productions from the pre-digital age. Like homemade cookies, they had a pureness of intent. You can imagine people stooped over, setting type by hand, the page layouts tweaked slowly, manually. The publication of Once Upon A Time ceased years ago, but its beauty still breathes. In its large pages, inked with abandon. Brimming with childhood.



It reminded me of the magazines Ma used to collect when I was young, and which I would spend hours leafing through in my teens. Old issues of LIFE, large in size and in content, and with the same wise smell to its yellow pages. I remember The Illustrated Weekly of India - the cartoons by RK Laxman and Mario Miranda. And the old Indian comic books, filled with stories of small-town India, and of kings and simpletons and wily pranksters.


Somehow, when I think of me pouring over those copies of LIFE, the memory is always set in winter. Sitting on the long, low settee in our the living room where the sun fell after lunch. It would've been the Christmas holidays. I remember the nip.


December in Calcutta is a lovely time. The air is cool, people calm. They've passed the humid clamminess of summer and the torrents of the monsoons. During Christmas, we would always go out to see the lights on Park Street. Ma would have fresh flowers in every room. 'Boro Deen' - that is what Christmas is called in Bengali. 'The big day'.


Between Christmas and New Year, our house would be filled with parties. Some with family. Some with Ma-Baba's friends. The table heavy with food. The drinks flowing. Laughter, conversations, evenings that didn't end. Baba would be at his best, armed with his anecdotes, humour and stories from history. Ma would cook up the most perfect dishes; creative; recipes no one had ever tried before (not even Ma) - baked, steamed, stirred. Mixes and mash and combinations that would work beautifully. My brother and I would wait for these evenings. For the excited throb that took over the house, but mainly for the food.


One of Ma's appetizers - which became so popular that it was always on our party-table by popular demand - was a simple aubergine dish. A dish that I now make for my guests. It's a thing to pass down. And like most of Ma's recipes, and mine, it's very quick and low-fuss. I've never made it without having to tell guests the recipe.

I'm going to share it with you today. And then, I'm going to find some pretty paper and wrap up Once Upon A Time and put it under the Christmas tree for Chotto-ma. She decorated the tree this week, and now it stands by the doorway dressed for Christmas Day. Different from my Boro Deen in Calcutta, but just as big. Years later, these Decembers are what will be Chotto-ma's 'once upon a time'.



Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Whatever-lights-up-your-winter.
Happy holidays, everyone! xx


 ***




Ma's Pan-fried Aubergine with Yogurt and Red Onion Topping



Ingredients

1 large aubergine, cut into inch-thick slices
1 cup strained yogurt (hang yogurt in cloth to strain it)
Half a red onion, finely chopped
Fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 green chilli, de-seeded and chopped (optional)
Paprika powder
Salt
Sugar
Oil



For the topping: mix yogurt, onion, coriander leaves and green chilli. Add salt and sugar to taste (I like mine salted with a nice sweet edge). Beat till smooth and keep it in the fridge.



Brush the aubergine slices with oil on both sides.
Heat a flat pan with 1 tsp oil, and add the aubergine.
On medium heat, pan fry till cooked and both sides of the slices are nicely browned.



Place on serving dish and spoon on the topping. It should be a nice combination of hot and cold. (Though even all-cold tastes lovely).
Sprinkle with paprika for a slash of colour, and a tiny bit more onion if you like, and serve.



PS: When I have guests, I keep the topping ready in the fridge. I pan-fry the aubergine early on, and line them up on a baking tray. When guests arrive, I just heat it in the oven on high for a few minutes, spoon the topping and serve.


Have the most wonderfully festive holiday!


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Love


That's my kitchen table this morning. There's the apple cake I baked yesterday. My coffee. A yam I don't know what to do with. A bowl of oranges. And linen embroidered by my grandmother long before I was born.


I just noticed how many round things I've put together there. Circle on circle. Spheres and orbits. I hadn't realised I'd done that. I have a terrible cold - stayed up the night coughing - so I don't know what I'm doing anyway, but there might be some subliminal therapy in circular things. Tai chi. Yin yang. Cake.

There's something else circling around in my head. A poem Chotto-ma wrote yesterday. She's been writing a lot. Suddenly, fiercely. Writing, writing, writing. Stories, poems, and a movie script called 'The Blues' where two lonely girls born with blue hair find each other and becomes friends.

This is her first poem, complete with her spellings. It made my cold better.



LOVE 
by Chotto-ma


Love is our 
own naicher.
Love is our
life.
Love is evrything.
Love is what
we like.




[Glossary: naicher = nature. We like to keep our spellings nacheral.]




Monday, 17 November 2014

All gone





We woke up on Sunday and looked out of the windows to find all the houses and trees gone. The parked cars, the pavements, gone. The church across the street gone, its moorish spires stolen by diaphanous djinns. The sky no more, sucked up into itself.

Outside our windows, the world was whipped cream. Thick, white. You could dip a finger in. Or, if like us you were walkers of a less sane mind, you could put your shoes on. At 7.40 am on a winter morning, you could put your shoes on.




You could walk through familiar streets as if for the first time; fog makes a first time of everything. It makes everything seem as secretive as half-told stories. Houses whisper, people in them sleep and dream strange dreams. Nothing stirs expect the hours.




We walked for a long time; I don't know how long. By the time we decided to head back home, the fog had begun to lift. Headlights passed. A tree appeared in autumn leaves like a girl in gold lamé returning home from her Saturday night. We could see the church now, its neon sign reminding people to be saved on Sundays. The djinns had returned its spires before the people at Sunday Mass noticed anything amiss. A man stood by the park in a clown costume drinking coffee.




When we climbed the stairs home, the world was returning, sharpening. There would be other fogs, other out-of-focus fairytales. For now, there was coffee as dark as the outside was white. And pear cake with cream. Thick, white.



Pear & Yoghurt Cake with Orange Sour Cream Icing

This is a throw-everything-in-a-bowl kind of cake, so the recipe that follows is unconventional. As in, it may seem suspiciously whimsical and simple for a cake, but hang in there. It will rise to the occasion. It's the best cake I've baked in a while, and certainly my favourite icing by far.







Ingredients

For the cake:
2 pears, not too soft, nor at its firmest; peeled
2 cups of plain flour
2 tsps baking powder
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups plain set yogurt (not Greek)
3/4 cup coarse brown sugar
2 heaped tbsps butter at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla essence

For the icing:
600 ml sour cream (that's usually 2 small tubs)
1/2 - 3/4 cup white castor sugar (adjust to taste)
Grated zest of 1 small orange






First the icing:
Hang the sour cream in a clean cloth to strain the water out. This should take an hour.
In a bowl, add sour cream, sugar and half of your orange zest. Give it a good mix till smooth. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Keep aside.






Now the cake:
Pre-heat your oven to 170 degree C (350 degree F).
In a large, deep bowl sieve the flour and baking powder together. Throw in the sugar.
Crack two eggs in the middle. Add the butter. Pour in the oil and the vanilla essence.
Now, with your hands, or a wooden spoon, give it a mix in a nice clockwise motion.





Into this tight batter, add yogurt. Mix till it's a lovely smooth consistency.
Hold the pears above the bowl and with a knife scoop slivers of it into the cake batter. Let the juices drizzle in. Gently fold the pear into the batter.
Grease a medium (9-inch) cake tin with butter, and pour the batter in. Bake for about 40-45 minutes.



Cool completely. Then slather the icing on top, and sprinkle with remaining zest.
Refrigerate for about an hour before serving. Enjoy!























Friday, 7 November 2014

Her first tune


One Sunday past, when the outside was still orange with autumn and not as naked as it is today, a little promise was kept. Remember that promise of music? The one I could see in the far distance when a piano edged in through our doorway, and Chotto-ma had her first music lesson?

Well, on Sunday I was stretched out on the sofa between a doze and a dream, and D was sitting on the armchair with his feet on the coffee table, when Chotto-ma brought him his guitar. She wanted him to play it while she played the piano. Then she sat down on the black stool as she does, feet dangling, back straight, fingers curved on keys. And she played. D followed her lead, and she took him into the tune she'd been hearing in her head.


It took me a while to realise something special was happening. My ears had been expecting a playful plonking of one of her lessons, but her book of notes was closed, and what I was hearing was her first little composition, her own tune. As one note followed another, I sat up. D looked at me, grinning, still guitaring along. Midway through their session, I remembered to record.

It's quite something to hear your child make their first music. Somewhere between magic and a punch in the plexus. Who knew? OK, OK, you even cry a little. And then you try to play cool. You also kiss her and eat her up; for which you never need much reason anyway.

And then, with her little tune playing in your head, you go into the kitchen, to bake something you've haven't baked before. But you figure, her first tune deserves your first apple crumble. So the three of you chop up some apples, tickle some flour, find the cinnamon, sprinkle the sugar and have the house smelling like November.




So here it is: Chotto-ma's first composition for you to listen to, and an apple crumble for after. The composition's called 'Sunday morning' because it's what our Sunday morning sounds like.



'Sunday morning' - Chotto-ma with Ba









Apple Crumble

This is the simplest, quickest crumble there is; and adapted to our taste, as everything is. It's lower in butter and sugar than most crumbles, but it's also less tart, so the sweetness finds its balance. It's good.


Ingredients

450gms apple, peeled and cubed (Gala or Braeburn works well if, like me, you don't like your crumble tart)
A pinch of cinnamon

For the crumble:

300 gms plain flour, sieved with a pinch of salt
160 gms of coarse brown sugar
150 gms of butter cubed at room temperature
A knob of butter to grease dish





Preheat oven to 180 degree C (350F/Gas mark 4)
Put the flour, sugar and butter in a large bowl, and rub it all together using both hands till it forms  a mix that looks like breadcrumbs.
Grease baking dish with butter.
Mix apples with cinnamon, and place in baking dish.
Sprinkle the crumble mixture on top. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until crumble is browned and apples are bubbling.
Serve with custard or cream.