Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Decadent Chocolate Cake with Buttercream Frosting.....and celebrating Rakhi!!

No celebration in our house is complete without a cake whatever might be the occasion. 
Yesterday we celebrated the festival of Raksha Bandhan (or Rakhi as it is popularly known) in our house and it goes without saying that there had to be cake and that too without question a chocolate one!!
The festival of Rakhi is a traditional Hindu festival celebrated with great enthusiasm across India. It symbolizes the unconditional love and bond between brothers and sisters. In this festival, the sister ties a colorful thread on the wrist of her brother, praying for his long life and he in turn vows to protect her from all troubles. 'Raksha' means protection and 'Bandhan' means ties, thus the name Raksha bandhan. Its a very sentimental occasion, full of love and emotion and an opportunity for the families to get together and celebrate, wear traditional clothes and prepare special dishes. Of course, for some who are not able to meet, sisters make sure that the Rakhis are mailed to their brothers so that they can reach on time and their brothers can wear the thread of love send by their sisters on the auspicious day. 
photo source: internet
For me too, Rakhi was a much awaited occasion and was always celebrated with great enthusiasm. We got new clothes and mom always prepared a special fare for us to feast on. 
I got to tie Rakhi to my twin elder brothers. I know some of you might be thinking, how lucky I must be to have twin elder brothers to protect and look after me but when younger I thought otherwise. Though I love them both intensely, at that time, I thought having twins for brothers wasn't exactly all that great. 
I was so envious of them as being twins they always had each other for company and I was perpetually ignored and pushed away most of the time especially being younger by 31/2 years. Also being a girl it was automatically decided by my brothers that I was useless and didn't know anything.  Twins have a certain affinity and closeness and when together they need no other companion around. Because of these very reasons, I used to pester my mom all the time that why I too couldn't have a sister to play with. 
Even when we got into a fight (which was often), it always used to be them against me. Though I wasn't one to give in easily and gave it my all in the battlefield - pulling hair, biting and kicking anything to give me a upper hand.
I used to follow them relentlessly everywhere they went and wanted to be included in whatever they did or played. Poor guys!! Now that I actually come to think of it, it must be pretty embarrassing for them to have a little sister tagging along with them all the times and inspite of their best efforts to throw me off their trail, I used to be like their shadow. (Maybe things would have been different, if in those times time we too had video games and internet to distract me!!) To make matters worse, I was my dad's pet and whatever mischief or untoward incident happened that was supposed to be kept hushed, was promptly rattled off to him on his coming home from office. Gosh!! I must have been a total pest and what a tough time I must have given my poor brothers!! No hard feelings Bros!! I totally understand it now and genuinely feel really sorry for you guys.
I must say, inspite of all my complaints and feeling sorry for myself, I have had some really wonderful times too to look back on. I remember as a child, travelling on the train in the first class compartment was always so much fun, never a dull or boring moment, playing cards and jumping from one berth to another. At home, we used to keep busy playing board games together for hours (of course it usually didn't end nicely whenever I lost or got out), with them I learnt to climb the toughest of trees, I still remember as a 9 year old, how we would walk up the mountains in 'Khunmoh' in Srinagar from one army post to another, a little later when dad was posted in Bareilly, going for cycling together to the swimming pool and also for horse riding early in the mornings, playing 'pittuh' on the road and hide and seek and dark room whenever there was a power cut!! My love for playing games and outdoor sports began early on in life and you know by now whom do I have to thank it for. What lovely treasure troves of childhood memories to cherish!! 
We also had great fun planning for festivals, during Dussheras collecting things to build our own effigy of 'Ravana' and filling it with crackers, then waiting with excitement to light it up at night, planning for 'Holi' days in advance and then getting up really early in the morning to fill water balloons and buckets with colored water so that we could all hide near the gate and target unsuspecting passer-bys, cracking  loads of crackers at Diwali and competing who had the courage to burst the most dangerous one. God!! such sweet memories and they will always remain precious to me.
Having elder brothers has taught me for one thing to be strong and confident and never to take any nonsense from anyone and most important to feel that nothing really is impossible even if you were a girl!! Luckily for me my parents treated me no less than my brothers and I was not stopped to do anything or go anywhere. 
Now each one of us has got busy with our lives and responsibilities with everyone staying in different parts of the country. Over the past few years, there have only been a handful of occasions, when I have tied Rakhi to my brothers personally. But inspite of the time and distance, I want both of you to know that you are missed terribly and I will always have all my love and prayers for your long and healthy life!!
What better occasion than Raksha bandhan to reconfirm our love and special bond. I feel blessed to have you as my brothers and the blessing has increased manifold as now I have two lovely sister-in-laws whom I get along with like a house on fire. I think its God's way of imparting justice to me and finally giving me sisters which I always longed for!!
My son and daughter celebrating Rakhi 
To commemorate the auspicious occasion of Rakhi I made a chocolate cake for my kids.  Its a rich, beautifully moist and utterly decadent, infact the best chocolate cake I have tasted!! Truly a special treat for a special occassion.
For the cake
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon espresso coffee powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2 tbsp vinegar
2 large eggs
1 cup boiling water
1 tbsp vanilla essence
For the Chocolate buttercream frosting (enough to cover and fill a 9" cake)
11/2 sticks (170 gms) unsalted Butter softened
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
21/2 cup confectioners sugar
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp coffee powder 
Preheat oven to 350 F. 
In a large mixing bowl sieve together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and espresso powder or put the ingredients in a bowl of a stand mixer and whisk using your paddle attachment, on low speed until well combined.
Add milk, vegetable oil, eggs, vinegar, and vanilla essence to the flour mixture and mix together on medium speed until well combined. 
Add in the boiling water and whisk till thoroughly mixed.
Don't worry if at this point your cake batter is looking too runny. Avoid the temptation to add in more flour. Trust me!!
Pour the batter in a greased 9" spring form pan.
Bake for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
To make the icing
Add cocoa and the softened butter to a large bowl.
With a hand mixer mix thoroughly for 1-2 minutes till it reaches a smooth consistency.
Add in the sugar, vanilla and milk to cocoa mixture and mix thoroughly with the hand mixer on low speed. Turn the speed on high and mix for about a minute till the consistency is smooth and creamy. Make sure there are no lumps in the batter.
If the batter appears thin add in some more confectioners, spoon by spoon until it reaches the right consistency.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Apple pie - dedicated to all my friends - old and new!!

" A Friend is one that knows who you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow" - William Shakespeare
You know what is the most difficult part about relocating yourself to a new place, even more so to a new country? - It is to find new friends!!
Yes!! That has by far being the hardest part for me when we shifted to Houston almost 10 months back.
Having taken premature retirement from the army, me and my husband were living a blissful existence in Gurgaon surrounded by the cosy cocoon of our family and friends. As luck would have it, at that time some our our closest friends were stationed in Delhi and another few, who like us, had also taken early release from the army and were now working in Delhi in private sectors. Being associated with each other since the last 20 years you can imagine what a blast we had whenever we got together. We all gone through so many ups and downs together, celebrating and sharing the best and the worst with each other.
The kids too had literally grown up together and they had their own party going.
With good friends around, its always party time and we made the most of our time that we were together, never missing an opportunity to get together at the slightest of excuse. Whenever we met, it felt like being transported back in time, reliving our past by rekindling old memories with many a repeated stories (not one of us got tired of listening to them again and again) and the anecdotes and rolling in laughter as they were shared. (Infact at one time my daughter commented that," Mom I have never heard you laugh so much. You all were behaving like kids!!" ) Well!! That was the magic of the company of dear friends.

Looking back now, I realise how precious those moments were and how much I miss having them around. Sigh!!!
Cheers to our good times together and many more to come!!

Life mein har ek friend jaroori hota hai!

But I think luck followed us here to Houston too. When we were coming here, a friend of my husband told him that his course mate, also retired from the army, was also living in Houston and we must touch base with him once we reach here. That's how we met this amazing group of people here. At their house we were introduced to a few more couples. The common factor that connected us all was that each one of them had some connections with the Indian army, having served in it at some time or other. Most of the spouses too were army brats like me. It is difficult to meet like minded people especially as you grow older but luckily for us we found ourselves connecting with them on the same wavelength.
It does take time to build a relationship but I must say we are definitely on our way !!
We meet occasionally at our homes for a fun evening. Most of  the times we hold a  potluck so that it is not too much of a burden on the host, as unlike India there are no maids and everything has to be taken care of by yourself. 
For the get together this month, I was assigned a dessert and I decided to take along an Apple pie. Generally I like to make a short crust pastry for making the pie crust, but this time I decided to do a flaky pastry. Surfing the net, I hit upon King Arthur's recipe of double crust for pies. It was the perfect choice as the crust on baking was crisp and buttery and there was no blind baking needed. Also usually while making the filling for an Apple pie, I  like to cook my apples a bit. This way not only is the filling thick and gooey but it also helps to lessen the gap between the crust and the filling, since the apples shrink considerable on baking. Another benefit is that you can make the filling in advance instead of sweating over it all on the same day.
To give an extra crunch to the pie I added a cup of dried cranberries and 1/2 a cup of roasted almonds which really helped to boost the flavour of the apple pie.

Crust (adapted from King Arthur's Flour double crust pie)
21/2 cups All purpose flour
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup cold unsalted butter (if using salted butter reduce salt to 1/2 tsp)
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water

8 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples

1 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup sliced roasted almonds

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3/4 cups brown sugar

2 tbsp. cornstarch
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1/4 tsp all spice powder
2 tbsp. butter, diced in small pieces
1 egg for glazing the top

In a medium bowl whisk together the flour and salt. Dice the butter into small cubes and work it into the mixture, gently rubbing it with your fingertips until the butter is well distributed but not fully incorporated. Small pea size  butter flakes will be left behind.
Add the chilled water, 2 tablespoons at a time, mixing it in gently. When the dough is moist enough and starts clumping together, gather the dough into a ball.
Divide the dough in half and pat it into two disks.
Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling.

To make the filling:
Combine the sliced apples, lemon juice and sugar in a pan. Cook on low heat for 5-10 minutes just till the apples start to soften. Cool slightly.
Add in the cranberries, roasted almonds, cornstarch, salt and spices and stir in the apple mixture till fully coated.
Lightly grease a 9-inch pie.
Roll out half of the pastry into a circle big enough to cover the base of the pie dish and is hanging over the edge of the dish. (I like to roll my pastry in between  two sheets of cling film which really makes it easier to roll without sticking to the surface) Check out my post on Quiche Lorraine here for some easy rolling tips.
Preheat the oven to 425F.
Spoon the apple filling onto the lined pie dish. Dot with the diced butter.
Roll out the remaining pastry to an 11" circle. Cut decorative vent holes. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous weave a lattice over the apples. Check out my post on Cherry Pie if you want to learn how to decorate a pie with a lattice on top
Roll the overhanging crust up and over the top crust pinching the upper and lower crust with your fingers to seal the two together. flute the edges of the pie, then place it in the refrigerator for 10 minutes to chill the pie before placing it in the oven.
Glaze the top of the pie with an egg wash. Sprinkle some granulated sugar on top for adding an extra crunch.
Bake the pie for 20 minutes at 425 F, then reduce the temperature to 375 F and bake for 40 minutes more until the filling is bubbling inside. If you feel the edges of the pie browning too quickly cover them with a foil.
After the pie is done, remove it from the oven and cool it completely before slicing. The filling will continue to thicken as it cools.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Fresh Strawberry Ice Cream

“Ice cream is happiness condensed.” - Jessie Lane Adams 
Who doesn't love Ice Cream? And more so when you get to taste it fresh, right out of an ice cream machine the pleasure is just magnified manifolds.
Believe me!! There is nothing more delicious than having freshly churned ice cream. Its quite something else to watch the fresh pieces of fruits and cream, hypnotically churn in the ice cream maker and magically transform into soft creamy clouds of pure bliss right before your very eyes.
Its another sight to watch everyone standing transfixed around the ice cream maker, patiently or rather I should say impatiently waiting for the ice cream to finish churning before they could dig in with their spoons.
The best part of having an ice cream maker is that you can feel free to experiment with all the different flavours and combinations you could think of. And not to mention it is a great way to keep cool and beat the Texas heat.
Thanks to the high demand for fresh ice cream in my household, apart from strawberry ice cream, I have already got to try my hands on Blueberry-raisin ice cream, Banana-Strawberry Ice cream and a Mixed Berry Ice cream all of which turned out fantastic. Next on my list is to try out a Sorbet, a Gelato and Yogurt ice cream which I plan to do soon.
I had always aspired to buy an Ice cream maker in India but somehow never got around to buying one. Luckily I found this one in a garage sale, infact I remember this was my very first appliance that I bought here in America soon after we arrived.
We came to America literally with just 2 suitcases each in our hands which barely fitted our clothes and a few other important things. You can't imagine how frightening it is when you realise after staying in a blissful cocoon all your life, you have to give up all your comforts and begin life afresh all over again. its not easy!! Being always so passionate about cooking, over the years I had managed to get quite an impressive collection of things for my kitchen. Now my heart ached for all my gadgets, cooking appliances and baking things which I had to leave behind, amongst which was my precious Kitchen Aid mixer which my husband had gifted me on our Wedding Anniversary just a few months before coming here as at that time there was no plan of us moving out of the country.
Most of my kitchen collection had been painstakingly and lovingly collected piece by piece over the last 20 years of our married life and held a lot of sentimental value. With a heavy heart I disposed most of my kitchen stuff, some to charity, some to friends and some things I gave away to the maids who worked at my house. I found wisdom in my moms words when she told me that it was better to get rid of old things as when you come back you can buy newer and better things.
So when we reached here, we had to begin almost from scratch and I realised if I wanted to have a fully equipped kitchen with all the possible gadgets that were on my list, it would be impossible to buy everything new and also it would have been a long long wait. Thus began my journey of scouring classified ads for 'gently used' Kitchen appliances and gadgets and I must tell you I have struck some pretty good bargains.  Now within 10 months of our being here, I can proudly say that I have a beautifully equipped kitchen with every possible gadget and appliance a passionate baker (that's me) could think of and I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to cook and create in my kitchen. Its been hard when I began but I think I have reached the place I finally wanted to be in.
So for all you out there, even if things don't turn out your way, don't lose hope. I firmly believe there is always something better waiting for you in the wings. Reaching here with absolutely nothing with us we had never even imagined we would be able to rebuild our lives so quickly. But things work out for everyone and here we are!!
Here's to all the sweet memories I am looking forward to create in this beautiful new part of the world!!
Ingredients (recipe adapted from the Cuisinart Ice cream maker recipe book)
3 cups fresh ripe strawberries
4 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
11/2 cup sugar divided
11/4 cup whole milk
2 3/4 cups heavy cream
11/2 tsp vanilla extract
In a small  bowl combine the strawberries with the lemon juice and 1/2 cup of the sugar.
Stir gently and allow the strawberries to macerate in the juices for 2 hrs.
Strain the berries, reserving the juices.
Mash or puree half of the strawberries.
In a medium mixing bowl, use a hand mixer on low speed to combine the milk and remaining granulated sugar, until the sugar is dissolved about 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in the heavy cream, reserved strawberry juice, mashed strawberries and vanilla essence.
Turn the ice cream machine on; pour the mixture into the freezer bowl and churn till thickened about 20 to 25 minutes.
Five minutes before mixing is complete add the reserved sliced strawberries and let mix in completely
The ice cream will have a soft creamy texture.
If a firmer consistency is desired, transfer the ice cream mixture into an air tight container and place in the freezer for about 2 hrs.
Remove from freeze about 15 minutes before serving.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Apricot and Blueberry Bundt cake: Baking with Summer Fruits

I wonder what's good about Summer? 
Its so hot in Texas right now that you feel as if your life is ebbing out of you due to the heat. Even the setting sun does not bring one any relief from the sultriness of the summer heat. The heat makes one feel tired and and sluggish all the time, making one want to stay cooped up within the realms of your air-conditioned comforts inside your house. Boy!! How much I envy all those guys who have a pool in their backyards to cool off anytime they want. How good it would be to come back from a run and jump right into the cool inviting waters? Wow!! Just the very thought of it is so comforting. Definitely on our agenda whenever we are on a lookout to rent our next house.
Though coming from India I shouldn't be complaining about the heat as supposedly I should have been used to this kind of climate having lived there and experienced a similar kind of climate all my life. Really summers in Delhi have a bad reputation and you do not even have fully air-conditioned houses as here in Houston and not to forget the long long power cuts!! But what we did have back there was the convenience of ordering groceries on your phone and having them delivered right onto your doorstep instead of venturing out in the heat and lugging it all back yourself. What a luxury that was!!
Then what does one have to look forward to in Summers? What I love about Summers are the summer fruits.The grocery stores are stocked up with every kind of wonderful fruits that I love. Peaches and plums, apricots, blueberries, raspberries, watermelons, strawberries are the top favorite amongst the other fruits available and are usually almost always stocked up in my house. These Summer fruits not only taste great eaten raw but I also love to use them for making icecreams, smoothies, sauces and cakes. See my recipe for blueberry muffins
In this recipe too, I have used fresh blueberries and apricots. It is a very easy recipe to put together and the end result is a superbly moist cake with a light crumb. The cake not only looks beautiful with the vibrant burst of violet colors from the fresh blueberries but tastes great too. The best part is that it is not overtly sweet and the tart lemon glaze beautifully complements the flavors adding a lovely zing to the taste. 
Definitely on my make again list.
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
11/2 cups whole wheat flour
11/2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 Tbsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
11/3 cup buttermilk (I added 2 tsp vinegar to 1 cup milk instead)
6 Tbsp Canola oil
4 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups fresh blueberries
2 cups apricot, pitted and halved (Use tinned apricots is you like)
6 Tbsp lemon juice
1 cup confectioners icing
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Coat a 12 cup bundt pan with a baking spray or lightly coat it with oil and sprinkle lightly with flour.
In a bowl combine the eggs and sugar. With an electric mixer whisk the eggs for a couple of minutes till light and frothy.
Add in the buttermilk, oil and vanilla extract and mix well.
Sieve together whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and add in to the above mixture. Beat on medium speed for about a minute till combined well.
Gently fold in the apricots and blueberries,
Pour into the bundt pan.
Bake in the preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Cool completely in the pan before inverting onto a serving platter.
In a small bowl, combine the confectioner's sugar and lemon juice.
Drizzle the cake with the glaze over the top of the cake.
Slice and serve.


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Watermelon Salad with Feta Cheese and Toasted beat the summer heat!!

Its hot, its muggy and really oppressive!! The weather recently has been behaving really badly. 
With the temperatures rising to almost 100 F, the heat has become unbearable. One step outside and it feels as if you could easily melt away under the glare of the scorching sun. In addition to guzzling down gallons of water to quench your thirst you feel like eating light food that doesn't leave you feeling heavy and drowsy. 
This refreshing Watermelon Salad with Feta cheese is the perfect solution to beat the summer heat. It is light, delicious and extremely refreshing. I also sprinkled some toasted almonds on top of the salad as I feel apart from raising the health quotient, the almonds lend a lovely crunch and add texture to the salad, which I just love. You can get more info about the great benefits of almond on your health here.
In addition to being eaten raw, almonds are a wonderful addition to your food. I add them all the time to my salads and baking. 
Did you know that almonds are high in mono-saturated fats (also found in olive oil) which has also been associated with reducing the risk of heart disease? Just a handful of nuts can pack quite a powerful punch. According to a survey, almonds contains the most fiber compared to other nuts and are richest in Vitamin-E. They are also really beneficial for people suffering from blood sugar as it helps to lower LDL cholesterol in the body and also help control the blood glucose levels. 
Let me also let you in another secret, according to one study by International Journal of Obesity, eating a handful of nuts daily may even help you slip into those skinny jeans!! Rich in fiber and protein, snacking on just a handful of nuts would help you feeling full and satisfied for a longer time so you would not have the urge to overeat.
So remember next time hunger pangs attack you, just go nuts!!.

5 cups seedless watermelon, cut into 11/4-inch chunks
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tsp salt
11/2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped finely
1/2 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted

Sprinkle the watermelon with 1 tsp salt and toss to blend; let stand for 15 minutes.
Add in the olive oil, vinegar and mint to the watermelon.
Season to taste with pepper and more salt with required.
Sprinkle with feta cheese and toasted almonds.
Serve chilled.

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