January 27, 2010

Sweet Beginnings To The DB New Year– Nanaimo Bars! Daring Baker Challenge January, 2010

I was quite happy to find out this month's challenge was to make Nanaimo bars from scratch, including the crackers that make the base of this Canadian confection. For the first time since I joined the Daring Bakers 2 years ago, the challenge is to make something that I've made before.

A Nanaimo bar is a 3-layered bar where the bottom layer is made of graham crackers/ digestive biscuits, the middle layer is basically a buttercream with custard powder and the top layer is chocolate.

This January 2010, the Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and http://www.nanaimo.ca/.

As it turned out, Lauren chose the same recipe that I had used back then, though she made some changes.
Lauren cooks and bakes gluten-free and she gave us to the option to make gluten-free crackers which would be used for the lower layer of the Nanaimo bar. Much as I would have loved to make gluten-free crackers, I used regular all purpose flour as the gluten-free flours are not available here.

My Nanaimo bar experience:

Though I’m not new to Nanaimo bars, I had never made the crackers for the base before. I understand that Graham crackers are found in the U.S. and the closest that Britain and its ex-colonies (I live in one) come to these crackers are “digestive biscuits”.

We don’t really like digestive biscuits, though they make an excellent base for cheesecakes and the like. However if I had to eat a digestive biscuit that I came close to liking, this one would be it.
They are good. The secret to crisp digestive biscuits is to roll the dough quite thin.

As for the Nanaimos bars, making them was quite easy. Of course, having made them before I knew what to expect; and that was that Nanaimo bars can be really sweet. When I say sweet, I mean tooth tingling sweet!
So I cut down the sugar in the second layer by half a cup. This still meant that the bar was quite sweet but the semisweet chocolate layer balanced it out a bit.

I usually mention (or should I say complain?) that for a lot of the challenges, some ingredients are not available here and am usually driving myself nuts figuring out workable substitutes.
For once I was happy not to be in that position. One of the ingredients required for the second layer is custard powder, which I understand is difficult to find in many countries.

Well, India is probably one of the few countries where you can find custard powder easily. Even the local “Mom and Pop” stores have them and you can also find it any number of flavours other than vanilla. The store I usually shop at had it in strawberry, raspberry, mango and orange flavours!
I used the very Indian flavour I had on hand which was “kesar pista”. Kesar is saffron and pista is pistachio, and this explains the rather orange colour of the middle layer in my Nanaimo bar!
I also substituted the egg with 1 tbsp of powdered flax seed mixed with 3 tbsp warm water, for an eggless Nanaimo bar.

A few things to keep in mind while making Nanaimo bars:

- If you line your tin with plastic wrap/ cling film, leaving some overhang, and then press in the layers, you can use the overhang to unmould your Nanaimo easily and neatly.
- It is important to ensure that each layer is refrigerated long enough to set properly. This way you will have neat layers to your bars.
- Since the melted chocolate layer is being poured on a refrigerated cracker/ biscuit and custard layer, it will set rather quickly. So one needs to work fast to ensure a smooth top layer.
- For neat squares, dip your knife in hot water and wipe it dry. Then cut through, sharply, into squares.


The last time I made Nanaimo bars (a few years back), my daughter refused to touch them for some reason of her own. This time around, her complaint was they didn’t last long enough!
A bit sweeter than what we are used to, but that didn’t seem to prevent everyone from asking for seconds and thirds (in installments, naturally!). The general consensus was that it was worth making again.

To see the most interesting flavour variations one can use in Nanaimo bars, please hop over to my fellow Daring Baker blogs. You won’t be disappointed.

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January 25, 2010

Somewhat Healthier Eggless Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip Cookies!

In my opinion, the best two things ever made with peanuts (or groundnuts, as we call them here in India) are peanut butter and Indian style peanut-jaggery brittle called “chikki”. I know there are many who wouldn’t agree and I would love to know what your favourite peanut confection/ concoction is.

Cookies with peanut butter are probably as common as plain chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal cookies, and I’m sure that almost everyone who bakes has a peanut butter cookie recipe that they fall back on.
But I, who really enjoy peanut butter and usually have it in stock, have never ever made cookies with peanut butter before!

As many of you would have noticed, I have been absent from the virtual world for about a week now. I was away from Goa last weekend, and returned to find that my computer was dead! Well, it did make a couple of rather half hearted attempts at switching on before deciding the effort was too much and then died on me.
A rather sustained effort by experts in the matter finally brought my computer back to life, with a warning that they didn’t know how much more time it had.
I have decided to make the best of whatever time the computer and I have together and hope to be more consistent with all matters related to blogging.

I just accidentally discovered that today, the 24th of January, apparently is the National Peanut Butter Day (in the U.S.)! This is not to be confused with the National Peanut Butter Lovers’ Day on the 1st of March, the National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day which would be the 2nd of April or the National Peanut Day which is on the 13th of September!
In my mind, I can hear my daughter saying “Duuuh!” and I’m totally with her on this one.

Now I don’t really need a particular day to celebrate my love of anything but I needed to make some cookies and since “peanut butter” caught my eye, that’s the direction I went along.
As usual, the net threw up countless number of options. Most of the peanut butter recipes I looked seemed to require quite a bit a peanut butter (naturally!) but equal or larger amounts of butter as well.

I finally found this simple recipe which looked promising without all the butter the others required. It uses a bit of oil instead (which is still fat), but it looks like these cookies do need that.
I adapted this recipe to make it eggless and substituted some of the all purpose flour with whole wheat flour. I also reduced the sugar a bit.

I found the cookies slightly crunchy on the outside but a bit cake-like towards the centre, which I liked. What I liked most was that the peanut butter flavour was unmistakable but not too strong.
Here’s my eggless version of these cookies. I would recommend that you go through the original recipe and the reviews/ comments there before making these cookies.


3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (I used crunchy)

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup oil (I use a rice bran-sunflower blend)

2 tspvanilla extract

1 tbsp powdered flax seed mixed with 3 tbsp warm water

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup semisweet mini chocolate chips


In a large bowl, combine first 8 ingredients. Using an electric mixer, beat at medium speed until the mixture is smooth.
Combine the all purpose and whole wheat flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Stir with a whisk. Add this flour mixture to peanut butter mixture, stirring everything just until combined. Stir in the mini chocolate chips.

Drop dough by tablespoonfuls 2 inches apart on lightly greased baking sheets. I found the dough dry enough to roll into small balls and flatten them slightly.
Bake the cookies at 180C for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.

This recipe gave me about 30 cookies (approximately 2 1/2” diameter).

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January 17, 2010

A Boule And A Pain d'Epi: Baking From ABin5

A lot of people say that baking bread is therapeutic and I would consider myself one of them. I understand many people find it very relaxing to get rid of their frustration by taking it all out on the dough. Now, I definitely do not belong to this group!
The one part of bread making that I can take or leave (mostly leave, I would say!) is the kneading of the dough.
Give me a bread recipe and I am likely to relegate a large part of the kneading, if not all of it, to my trustworthy food processor.

Perhaps Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francis had people like me in mind when they wrote Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day (a.k.a ABin5).
This book of theirs, their latest one called Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day and a new one in the works, Pizza and Flatbread in 5 Minutes a Day are especially for people who would love to make their own bread at home with minimal fuss. Read "no kneading" for minimal fuss, in my case!
Of course, you cannot make bread in 5 minutes, but what their recipes do is show you how to easily mix (no kneading) a large quantity of bread dough, store in the fridge and then use only 5 minutes to shape your bread and bake whenever you want it.

After reading all the reviews, I had ordered my copy about a year back but haven't baked too much from it. I sometimes have a tendency to forget being adventurous with my breads and go back to making the same old bread.
You can find my grape shaped bread adapted from ABin5 here.

So when Michelle of Big Black Dog announced she was getting together a group of bloggers who wanted to bake from HBin5 (or ABin5, if we wanted) I joined them knowing this was one very good way of trying to bake my way through the book. We are baking our way through the book starting from this month.

The nice thing about this group of bread bakers, apart from the support, is that there are no compulsions to keep to the schedule. While a schedule is drawn up to bake the various breads within given deadlines, each one of us can bake according to our convenience. Similarly we can use the schedule as a guide and bake what we like, and shape or flavour our breads as we choose.Really, it couldn't get better than this!
Well, I almost didn't make the 15th January deadline. Well, I baked 2 breads out of the suggested three at the "nth" hour, but am posting them another 2 days later!

For the first half of this month, we were to make the master recipe and then, from this, make anyone, two or all three of a loaf, an epi or wreath shaped bread and spicy snack crackers.
I had time only for two out of three, so I made a boule (artisan free-form loaf) and a pain d' epi (wheat stalk bread) from the master recipe.

Since we are going to be baking our way through the book, and it would be unfair to for copyright reasons, I will not be reproducing any of the recipes from this book.
I will however, give my impressions of the breads/ loaves I bake and recipes of whatever we had the breads with whenever possible.

The Pain d'Epi:

This is a wheat stalk shaped French bread where "epi" describes the flower of wheat and "pain" means bread in French. A very pretty looking bread, it is also easy to pull of the roll-like "ears" and so a very popular picnic bread. This bread can also be made as a decorative wreath.
This bread tends to stale quickly and become chewy and rubbery and is best eaten fresh.

Jeff and Zoe have a very detailed tutorial on how to shape this bread on the ABin5 site. Now, I thought I had understood how to do this but realized I really hadn't when I actually got down to trying it out. This meant that I added a little more flour (the dough can be very sticky!) to reshape the dough, which isn't really a desirable thing to do if you want to keep the texture of the bread.
I finally managed to make an epi (wheat stalk shaped bread) of sorts.

The Free-Form Boule:

"Boule" means ball in French and refers to any rustic ball shaped bread and is perhaps the easiest bread to shape, other than "no-knead" breads which require no shaping at all.

My boule was pretty good, but I had problems slashing it prettily. Slashing and decorating bread is one area where I need to improve a lot. The other problem I tend to face with free-from bread is that the dough invariably seems to spread a little with the result that my loaves aren't very high. While this doesn't make a difference to the taste, it tends to look as if my bread got tired and sat and spread itself a bit comfortably!

The ABin5 site suggests the use of bannetons/ brotforms, which are wicker rising baskets, to prevent this spread. Since this is something I cannot get here, I shall have to be satisfied with slightly squat-looking boules for the present.

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January 10, 2010

Sweet And Sour Carrots (Indian Style)

A lot of Chinese recipes involve a perfect balance of sweet and sour tastes. Sweet and sour vegetable (usually carrots as in this recipe) is a very popular dish on the menus of many Indian restaurants offering Chinese fare.
Naturally, the first time I ever had this was in a restaurant and I have to confess I quite liked it. At some point, much later, I found a recipe for "Sweet and Sour Carrots" in one of my cookbooks and I was rather surprised (shocked was more like it) to see that the ingredients included cornstarch and tomato ketchup! My feeling is that most people would either like it or not and very few people would have an ambiguous feeling about this dish.

I have since discovered that cornstarch is used as a binder and thickener in Chinese cooking but ketchup is about as close to being Chinese as I am!!
Now that I know what goes into this dish, I tend to make it less often only because I don't think there's much nutrition in cooking some carrot, onion and bell pepper in what is basically a soya-tomato ketchup flavoured cornstarch thickened sauce.
This dish is usually not at all spicy but I prefer to add a bit of "fire" to it as I feel this tastes better.

I don't mean to put any one off this recipe with my description and let me assure you, I wouldn't be posting it here if it wasn't reasonably good. I had promised this recipe in my last post and here's my version adapted from The Vegetarian Menu Cookbook by Vasantha Moorthy.
You may also use a mix of vegetables in place of carrots for a different but equally tasty preparation.


1/4 kg carrots

2 small green bell peppers

2 small onions

2 tbsp oil (not sesame seed oil)

1/4 cup white vinegar

2 tbsps tomato ketchup

1 tbsp soya sauce

1/2 tsp red chilli sauce

2 tbsp cornstarch

1 1/2 tbsp sugar

1/2 tsp crushed black pepper

salt to taste

a couple of tbsps of spring onion greens


Peel/ scrape the carrots and slice them into 1/2" thick roundels. If your carrot is thick/ fat, cut the carrot lengthwise and then slice into 1/2 " pieces. Steam cook, microwave or boil in lightly salted ware till just done.
Dice the onion into slightly big pieces (I cut each onion half into 4). Dice the bell peppers into a similar size. Keep aside.

Heat the oil, add the onion and sauté on high heat for a couple of minutes till it turns pink. Add the bell pepper and sauté till soft. Now add the cooked carrot, salt and pepper and stir for a couple of minutes.

In a small bowl whisk together the cornstarch, red chilli sauce, tomato ketchup, vinegar, sugar and about 1/4 a cup of water, till smooth. Pour this into the vegetables, stirring throughout, and allow to cook (on medium heat) for about 3 to 5 minutes till it thickens a bit. If you feel the mixture is too thick, add a little more water and cook for another minute.

Pour into a serving dish and garnish with chopped spring onion greens.
This recipe serves 3 or 4.

Serve with noodles or fried rice.

On an aside, I have moved a little further with re-arranging my blog and there's now a horizontal menu bar which should make this site a little more reader friendly. All the link should be working. I would very much appreciate being told in case any of the linksdo not open up.

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January 6, 2010

Chinese Vegetable Fried Rice (Indian Style)

The title of this post seems to be a bit of a contradiction in itself. If a vegetable rice is Chinese, how can it be Indian? If you have read my post on Gobi (Cauliflower) Manchurian, you would know that we Indians love our own interpretation and adaptation of Chinese food. No Chinese person would ever recognize what we in India call "Chinese" food as what they cook, but we love our Chinese food all the same! Even small restaurants will invariably have some form of Chinese food on their menu. So you see, Chinese food can be Indian too!

Here at home, we quite enjoy vegetarian Chinese food. However, in the recent past, I have become a little choosy about the Chinese food I eat and a bit of what I would describe as a "Chinese food snob"! What I mean by this is that I really do not enjoy the vegetarian Chinese fare that most restaurants, even the fancier ones, dish out to their customers.
Take this fried rice for instance; most places I have seen serve it very oily and that just totally takes away from the dish for me. The over-riding flavours in other dishes would be that of soya sauce, vinegar or aji-no-moto (monosodium glutamate)!

On the flip side, this "snobbishness" has meant that I have learnt to cook some of the Chinese food we enjoy. This Chinese fried rice is one of them.
This particular recipe has been adapted from one of my oldest (and favourite) cookbook, The Vegetarian Menu Book by Vasantha Moorthy.


1 cup long grain rice (Basmati is good)

1 medium carrot

1 medium green bell pepper

2 spring onions

1/4 cup peas

3 to 4 baby corn

5 or 6 french beans

1/8 th of a small cabbage

1/4 a small cauliflower

1 green chilli

3 tbsp oil

2 tbsp soya sauce

1 tbsp white vinegar

1 1/2 tbsp tomato ketchup

1 tsp green chilli sauce

1/4 to 1/2 tsp freshly crushed black pepper

salt to taste


Heat 1 tsp of oil in a wok and put in the uncooked rice. Over low heat, stir fry the rice till it starts looking white. Do not let it brown. Remove from the wok and cook the rice with 2 cups of water and some salt till done but still firm.

Chop the spring onions and chop both the whites and greens separate. Cut the beans and carrots into small pieces. Cut the cauliflower into small florets. Julienne (cut into thin long strips) the cabbage, bell pepper and the baby corn. Chop the green chilli finely.
Steam cook (or in the microwave) the carrots, beans, cauliflower and peas till done but still firm.

Heat the remaining oil in the wok and over high heat, stir fry the chopped chilli, spring onion whites and greens. Stir in the cabbage, baby corn and the bell pepper and stir fry some more till the vegetables are cooked but still crunchy.
Now add the steam cooked vegetables and mix well. Add a little salt (remember the rice has already been salted and so is the soya sauce), vinegar, soya sauce, tomato ketchup and chilly sauce. Mix well.

Add the cooked rice and slowly mix well with the vegetables without breaking the rice grains. Serve hot, garnished with spring onion greens.
This recipe serves 3 to 4.

Serve this rice with Gobi (Cauliflower) Manchurian or Sweet and Sour Carrots (recipe to follow).

I would like to mention here 2 bits of good news related to my blog. Its not really a big deal, but I am excited enough about it to mention it here.
The first is that my blog was featured in a local newspaper, the Delhi edition of the Times of India. The journalist who did the article had lots of rather nice things to say. Flattery certainly made my day!

The second piece of good news is that my blog was chosen "Top Blogger in the Vegetarian Community" at the Wellsphere Healthbloggers' Awards. Thanks to everyone who voted for my blog and made this happen.

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January 1, 2010

Starting The New Year On A Sweet Note: Date And Walnut Cake (or Loaf)

If one had to think of a Christmas cake, I'm guessing a lot of people around the world would think "fruit cake"! It's pretty much the same here in the two places I've lived in India where Christmas is celebrated in a big way. Whether in Kerala or in Goa, its all about preparing the fruit way ahead before Christmas and then turning it into a cake that is rich in spices and flavours.
Now, I'm really not a person who likes cakes much (unlike my husband) and I especially do not like cakes containing fruit soaked in liquor of any sort.

However, for my husband and me, cake at Christmas has meant Date And Walnut cake, for a long time now. This is because there is a delightful soft and light date and walnut cake available here at a local bakers' shop only at Christmas time.
This shop, called Mr.Baker (estd.1922) and run by two sisters, is very well known for it's more traditional but delicious bakes. In the past, we have been known to go back more than a couple of times during Christmas for their date and walnut cake.

A couple of months back, I had told my husband that I would try and make this cake at home at Christmas time this year, but all my plans for the year end did not materialize. This morning I thought I ought to make at least an attempt at this cake even though Christmas has been and gone.
It’s the festive season still and as far as we're concerned, a date and walnut cake (preferably the Mr. Baker kind of cake) is a cake for anytime of the year.

I searched for a suitable recipe but most of the ones I found were spiced cakes (I know, I know, it's supposed to be a Christmas cake!) with either had loads of butter or too many eggs for my comfort. So I finally put together a recipe adapted from too many recipes to mention in particular and made this cake.

While this cake turned out to be nowhere near the soft, light and delicious cake I wanted, it turned out to be very good in its own way. It’s a slightly dense but moist cake yet not very sweet, the perfect cake to serve with coffee or tea.


1 cup pitted dates, chopped coarsely

1 tsp baking soda

1 cup boiling-hot water

1 cup granulated sugar, firmly packed

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tbsp melted butter

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

½ cup walnut, chopped


Put the dates in a slightly big bowl (you'll be mixing the batter in this) and sprinkle the baking soda over the dates. Pour the hot water over this so it covers the dates. Keep aside for about half an hour till the dates soften up and the water cools down.

Stir in the sugar, egg, butter and vanilla into the date mixture. Sift the all purpose flour and the baking powder together and add to the bowl along with the walnuts. Gently mix in this in till everything just combines.

Spoon the batter into a greased and floured (or parchment lined) 7" round cake tin. You may use a loaf tin if you choose.
Bake at 170C for about 50 minutes till cooked or till a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Serve with coffee or tea.

I'm sure most of you would have noticed that this blog of mine finally has a header after 2 years of existence! There will be a few small changes on my blog as I try and free it from clutter and make it a little more user friendly.
My blog should be done by the middle of this month, but in the meanwhile if you cannot find some links or some links do not work, please bear with me. This is a temporary state of affairs.

Before I finish this post, I thought I would share this little poem while reading something. The author has a very cheerful and positive way of looking into the New Year and it seems just right to me.

“Another fresh new year is here . . .

Another year to live!

To banish worry, doubt, and fear,

To love and laugh and give!

This bright new year is given me

To live each day with zest . . .

To daily grow and try to be

My highest and my best!

I have the opportunity

Once more to right some wrongs,

To pray for peace, to plant a tree,

And sing more joyful songs!”

-William Arthur Ward

"Wishing everyone a very Happy, Prosperous and Peaceful New Year!"

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