July 30, 2010

Eggless Spiced Avocado Cake

I don’t remember my first set of school books, but I’m sure they included a book of alphabets with pictures. Our daughter never had any books to carry to school for her first two years. She just used to come back from school, proudly waving her very colourful “worksheets” to show us what she had done at school that day.

As I was saying, I still keep seeing those picture books with alphabets everywhere, and the first page almost always tells you that the letter “A” is for Apple! So I learnt that an Apple which was a somewhat round shaped red coloured fruit with a small stalk sprouting from its head to which was attached a single very green leaf!!

I wonder how many Indians living in India those days, other than in Kashmir and thereabouts, had actually seen an apple. I started school in East Africa where apples didn’t exist either. It wasn’t till I was in my teens that I saw my first apple.

The letter “A” also happens to be for Avocado, which I saw much before I did an apple. I never thought of avocados being grown in the African countries we lived in, but I think they must have. Those were the days before fruit was imported, and the avocados my parents used to buy were cheap enough to have to have been grown locally.

My mother used to love avocados, though she doesn’t seem to like them much now. I remember my mother scooping out the flesh and enjoying it with salt and a dash of lime juice. I never could understand what my mother saw in such an ugly looking tasteless fruit!

Actually, I still haven’t figured out what it is that there is to like about the avocado. I’m not sure I can even describe what an avocado tastes like, but I do know that I still do not like it. People say the taste is buttery (nutty somewhat) but I’d rather go with butter if I was looking for “buttery”.
However, there remains the fact that the avocado is rich in “good” fats (and calories), fibre and potassium. Avocados are nowadays as common as onions, potatoes and tomatoes at my market, in the season.
They are quite expensive and even though no one here likes it much, it seemed a good idea to buy a couple and see if they could be disguised (as in cooked or baked) and passed off as something else.
I had remembered seeing an avocado cake so I went searching for a recipe.

Why a cake with avocado? Well, why not? If one can make cakes with carrots, zucchini and beets why not with avocado? I also thought if I could hide the avocado in a cake, it would be likely to have more takers.
I improved the cake further by drizzling it with some melted chocolate!

The net threw up a lot of avocado cake recipes and all of them seemed to have cocoa or chocolate in them. Maybe the cocoa or chocolate is the avocado disguising ingredient and while I am self-proclaimed chocoholic, I didn’t want chocolate in my avocado cake.

I did find the odd link to a plain cake, but then the avocado was in the frosting! Again, this wasn’t what I was looking for.
Then there were a couple of cakes with avocado in the cake but required more eggs and butter than I was willing to bake with.
I thought the USP of the avocado was that its fat content (or being buttery) so I couldn’t understand cakes that caked for a stick and a half of butter!

So I came up with a workable recipe for the kind of cake I wanted. My recipe has much less butter and no eggs at all.
Many of the avocado cake recipes I saw used a bit of cornmeal along with all purpose flour. I happen to like the texture cornmeal lends to baked goods so I kept that in my recipe. If you do not like the taste of cornmeal in your cake, you can replace it with flour.
I also thought a bit of spice would add to the cake so I used chai masala.

The crowning glory was a chocolate drizzle. This recipe bakes into a pale green and moist cake that’s perfect to serve with coffee. There’s something mysterious about the pale green and just a faint hint of something different in the taste but it is not unpleasant. No one would say “avocado” if they didn’t know what went into it.

I would definitely recommend trying this once. I do not mind my avocado taking the form of this cake.

Eggless Spiced Avocado Cake


1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/2 tsp salt

75gm butter, softened

3/4 cup avocado purée*

1 cup buttermilk**

1 1/4 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp chai masala (or all spice)

1 tsp vanilla extract


* I puréed one avocado with 1 tsp of lemon juice and that gave me 3/4 cup of purée from one avocado.

** I used 1 tsp of white vinegar in 1 cup of milk instead of buttermilk.

Put the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder and chai masala in a bowl and whisk together. Keep aside.

In another bowl, using a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add the avocado purée and beat well.

Add half of the whisked flour and half the buttermilk and beat on medium speed, just until the batter is smooth. Add the remaining flour, buttermilk and vanilla extract and beat again till just till the batter is smooth.
Do not over beat.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured bundt pan or a 8” or 9” cake tin and bake at 180C (350F) for about an hour, till the cake is done and a skewer comes out of the cake clean.
Unmould and cool the cake on a rack.

When cool drizzle with chocolate. Melt about 1/3 cup chopped dark chocolate and 2 tbsp cream in a small bowl, over hot water. Stir the chocolate-cream mixture till smooth and drizzle over the avocado cake.
Serve the cake as it is or with ice-cream, or as you would prefer.

This cake serves 8 to 10.

You might have noticed that I'm putting a bit more effort into my photography. This has nothing to do with this recipe, but I wanted to mention something because I'm kind of proud of it.
The first picture in this post has been shaot in colur and has not been edited for that effect. I believe this sort of thing can be done with editing software, but that's something I still do not know much about beyond the basics.

I shot the picture using black and white props (the napkin, the background, the plates, the cup and saucer) so that I could show a hint of green that was in the slice of avocado cake. It was only after shooting the picture that I realised the efect of the slice of colour in an otherwise black and white picture.

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July 27, 2010

Have Your Cake And Eat It Too, With Some Ice-cream! Swiss Swirl Ice-cream Cake: Daring Bakers Challenge, July 2010

Time again for my Daring Bakers post and this time it’s a cake and some ice-cream, all in one. Even though the challenge and its individual components weren’t really all that difficult to do, I still managed to have problems!

The July 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Sunita of Sunita’s world – life and food. Sunita challenged everyone to make an ice-cream filled Swiss roll that’s then used to make a bombe with hot fudge. Her recipe is based on an ice cream cake recipe from Taste of Home.

Sunita, a friend and this month’s host wanted us to make our own swiss roll cake, two flavours of ice-cream and a chocolate fudge sauce. We then had to layer slices of swiss roll, the ice-creams and fudge sauce to make an ice-cream cake/ bombe.
She gave us the freedom to use either the given recipes or our own for each of the components, and that’s a lot of freedom in a DB challenge.
You can find the detailed challenge recipe on this month's host blog.

My "rescued" Swiss Swirl Ice-cream Cake!

It was our daughter’s birthday early this month and though she had already decided on her birthday cake, she decided she liked this one too. Since she was planning to celebrate her birthday with her friends on a weekend, she thought we could celebrate her actual birthday with this cake. I thought it was a good idea, too. It is another story that what I ended up with an “Ice-cream Cake in a Chocolate Puddle”!

My Experience:

This challenge was a bit spooked for me from the word “go” and turned out to be a bit of an obstacle race/ hurdle! It shouldn’t have been, as it’s not difficult to make ice-cream, a sponge roll and some fudge sauce.

I have never made a swiss/ jam roll before, for the simple reason that I don’t have a suitable pan to bake the sponge in. This was hurdle number one!
I have a small countertop microwave-cum-oven and most conventional sized bake ware just doesn’t fit into it. I do have a rectangular tin but I would have a very small sponge (and not much of the cake to “roll”) if I used that. Since that was the only close to suitable thing I had, I decided to make my sponge in that.

Both the ice-creams in this challenge, like all the ice-cream I make, are eggless so I thought I would do this whole challenge eggless. That decision presented me with the second hurdle!!
Trying to make an eggless sponge is not easy because it is the eggs that largely are responsible for the texture of a sponge cake. But I found a vegan recipe which seemed promising and went to work. The resulting cake was so awful, that there was nothing I could do but throw it out.

So I decided I would forget about going “eggless” with this challenge and decided to use the given recipe to make my sponge. I had seen some pictures of beautiful multi-coloured sponge rolls and decided I would get creative and make a chocolate-vanilla striped sponge roll. If you haven’t guessed by now, this was hurdle number three!!!

I divided my cake batter in to two, one chocolate and one vanilla. I piped alternative rows of batter and baked it. It was just perfect; that is, till I started rolling it up. That’s when the roll stated coming apart and I was left with a chocolate-vanilla spongy mess.

I would have given up at this point but I had promised the birthday girl a cake with swiss roll and ice-cream.
So back I went to the drawing board my mixing bowls and oven, and turned out a plain vanilla sponge. The sponge turned out perfect but it was time for the fourth hurdle!!!!

This time, my cream refused to whip up even though the cream, beaters and bowl were chilled.
The only cream I get here is 25% cream but it usually whips up stiff on what a friend calls “beating the heck out of it”. Not this time, though.
So I tried whipping up a fresh batch of cream. This time, the cream took pity on me, co-operated and stood tall.

The anemic version before disaster struck!

At this point it struck me that my vanilla sponge roll was filled with vanilla cream. This is not a bad thing, but it is the reason why my finished cake looks pale and anemic.
A contrast would have worked in terms of flavour as well aesthetics but with all the excitement that was going on, I forgot to add the cocoa powder/ chocolate to the sponge batter and then to the cream filling as well!

Mango Ice-cream ( the one in my cake is chocolate chip free)

The one part of this challenge I had no problems with, was my ice-cream. Ice-cream (gelato actually, as I tend to leave out the cream mostly) is something I make frequently, especially during the summer and they’re always eggless and made by hand, as I don’t have an ice-cream machine.

Since mangoes are still very much around, I made Mango Ice-cream (left out the chocolate chips this time, but added some cream). My other ice-cream was Cookie Crunch Vanilla Ice-cream. You can find my ice-cream recipes on the respective posts.

Cookie Crunch Vanilla Ice-cream

I didn’t have problems making the chocolate fudge sauce, but it proved to be my hurdle number five!!!!!
Now all I had to do was assemble my Swiss Swirl Ice-cream Cake.
I didn’t have a dome shaped mould, so I used a round glass dish. I lined the base and sides with swiss roll slices and had enough slices to cover the top after adding all the layers. So my ice-cream cake had a swiss roll base too.

Now the challenge recipe suggested using the chocolate fudge sauce as a layer between two layers of ice-cream. However, me being what I am, I had to do things differently and decide to use the sauce as the last layer. I thought that the chocolate sauce would form a lovely layer at the bottom of my cake.

The "Ice-cream Cake in a Chocolate Puddle" version!

Was I ever wrong?
I layered the chocolate fudge sauce over the second layer of ice-cream and it froze beautifully. Once this was covered with a layer of cake slices and unmoulded it was just perfect. I even piped some of the refrigerated fudge sauce at the base of my cake.

When I decided to take the cake out of the freezer and cut it, things began to go wrong. It’s raining here right now and much cooler than it usually is. Yet the fudge sauce layer started melting out from the base and pooled around my cake. The ice-cream layers were still solid.
So my somewhat passable cake was now sitting in muddy looking chocolate fudge sauce puddle!
Now, I understood the rationale behind suggesting that the fudge sauce went in between the two layers of ice-cream but it was too late to do anything about that.

I still needed a picture of a Swiss Swirl Ice-cream Cake (or something close to it) for my Daring Baker post and it went against the grain to use my “Ice-cream Cake in a Chocolate Puddle” as proof of my completed challenge.

So I got my brain working in "rescue the cake" mode. I stuck the cake in its puddle back into the freezer. I scraped off the frozen “chocolate puddle” and fixed the raggedy looking edges of the cake by hiding that behind some chocolate covered wafer balls. Some sprinkles brightened up my rather sad looking cake a bit I was left with an apology of an ice-cream cake.
But this is a single edition original. I can bet you never ever saw an ice-cream cake that looked like mine!


The effort I spent on making my cake and then writing this “desperately trying to be witty” kind of post has tired me out. So I’ll keep this short.

Forget about how my ice-cream cake looks. This is a perfect example for the saying, “Never judge by appearances” because this cake is good. After all, what’s not to like about a sponge roll, not one but two flavours of ice-cream and chocolate fudge sauce?
And as a bonus, this is a cake which freezes extremely well so is good candidate if you’re looking for a cake you can make ahead.

Now go on, and see how this cake should really look by taking a tour of the other Daring Bakers out there.

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July 23, 2010

A Tropical Tofu Smoothie With Some Home-made Tofu

Before I get on with this post, I just wanted to say a thank you to everyone who visits this blog and leave your comments. Akshaya also thanks you all for her birthday wishes.
Most of you would have noticed that I haven't been around blogdom much in the past month or so. There are demands on my time which often leaveme  just enough time to continue posting here as regularly as I can. I do miss "bloghopping" and shall come visiting as soon as I can.

As is our practice every month, four of us (Alessio, Asha, Pamela and I, a.k.a The 4 Velveteers) set ourselves a new kitchen challenge this month. So far we have tackled artificial colour-free Red Velvet Cake, Savoury Verrines with squash, zucchini, cheese and chocolate, dessert using any one fruit and two kinds of nuts, and a dish using a seasonal fruit/ vegetable and mint.
As you can see, its been fun all the way.

This month’s challenge was to make home-made tofu and then make a dish of our choice with it.
I must say my first reaction to making tofu, in general, wasn’t very positive. No one in my home likes the stuff, no matter what is made with it. I really cannot blame them, as the tofu I get here is slightly chewy and rubber-like and so not something one would want to eat, unless it was the only choice.
The only way I have managed to use it so far is as a substitute for egg in some bakes.
Imported tofu of better quality is available but is so expensive, I don’t think it is worth buying despite being a great source of protein.

And then the thought of making tofu scared me a bit because it brought to mind an episode on the Discovery channel I had watched some time back. It was about different types of tofu made in China and what stayed with me was some people in remote villages of China stirring vats full of soya milk and the commentator mentioning that making tofu seemed to be a smelly business!

However, a challenge is a challenge, and must be faced and completed in the spirit of things. Pamela also assured me that good tofu is supposed to be soft and somewhat like paneer (a fresh and soft Indian cheese). Now I do know that paneer can also be chewy and rubbery if not made or cooked properly, so the idea of making my own tofu started feeling good.

I guess the true challenge of making tofu from scratch would be to start with the soya beans. I shall do that some day (maybe), but this time I started halfway using readymade soya milk.

A lot of things going on at home this month meant that this post almost didn’t happen. By the time I decided I could do this challenge, I didn’t have much time to meet the deadline. I also spent a lot of time searching for soya milk before I found it, so I wasn’t going to complicate things for myself by looking for soya beans now. So my tofu is made with store bought soya milk.

My mound of home-made tofu!

If you have made paneer or ricotta at home, making tofu isn’t all that much different. The process is more or less the same, and it’s just the raw material that’s different. Even if you haven’t made anything like this at home, it’s still not something very difficult to do. You don’t really need any fancy equipment either but stuff most cooks have in their kitchens like pots, a wooden spoon, a couple of thin cotton kitchen towels and a colander/ sieve for draining.

As for the ingredients, all you need is some soya beans (if you’re making your own soya milk) and a coagulant of choice to turn the soya milk into tofu.
Here’s a good video showing how to make tofu from scratch.

Traditionally, the Japanese use “nigari” which is mostly magnesium chloride and made from evaporating sea water. The Chinese prefer gypsum (naturally occurring calcium sulphate) to make their tofu. Both of these may be difficult to find in stores everywhere and ordering them online isn’t always a viable option.

Another coagulant is glucono delta lactone (GDL) which is used to make silken tofu. More commonly available coagulants are Epsom salts (magnesium suphate), lime juice or vinegar. The texture and taste of the tofu would depend upon the coagulant used, the amount of it used.
The amount of pressure applied to pack the tofu and for how long it is left, also determines how soft or hard your tofu will be.

I have used vinegar and lemon juice to make paneer and wanted to see how Epsom salts worked as I’ve never tried this before. Epsom salts are considered a laxative but that shouldn’t be a concern as it is used in a very small amount here.

There are a lot of recipes on the net for making tofu at home and they all seem to start with soya beans. I just started with 1 tsp of Epsom salts and and then added another 1/2 tsp later to get my soya milk to curdle.

Home-made Tofu


1 litre soya milk

1 1/2 tsp magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts)


Pour the soya milk into a pan and heat it till it reaches approximately 80C (about 175F). I don’t have a kitchen thermometer and I just dipped the tip of my finger in a bit of the milk to to judge how hot it was. This isn’t very scientific or very safe, but it works for me!

Dissolve the Epsom salt in 1/2 a cup of water and add it to the soya milk. Stir gently with a wooden spoon and you will see the soya milk starting to curdle. It took me about 5 minutes of gentle stirring on low heat (not boiling) before the soya milk curdled well.

The milkiness of the soya milk should have given way to clear amber/ light yellowish coloured whey and curdled solids. If there is some milkiness, add a little more coagulant (about 1/2 tsp Epsom salt in a little water) to the mixture and stir gently till no milkiness is visible.
Take the pan off the heat and allow the curdled mixture to stand for about 10 minutes.

If you have a tofu mould, line it with cheesecloth and pour the curdled mixture into it. I don’t have a mould so I used a strainer which I lined with a thin cotton kitchen towel. I placed over a bowl so that the whey could drain into it.That is why my tofu is mound shaped rather than the usual rectangle.

Once most of the whey has drained out of the tofu, tightly wrap the ends of the towel or cheesecloth over the tofu and place some weight (I used a jar of dried beans) over it so the excess moisture is pressed out and the tofu is packed into shape.

Remove the weight after about 20 minutes and open out the towel. I believe pressing it down for longer (about 30 to 40 minutes) will give you firmer tofu.
Turn out the tofu and its ready for use. Use it within a day.

If you are not going to use it immediately, place the tofu in a sealable container and cover it with water. Change the water everyday and use the tofu within a couple of days.
One litre of soya milk gave me about 1 1/2 cups of soft tofu.


Now that the tofu was made, all I needed was to figure what to make with it. According to various sources, tofu made with Epsom salts should turn out soft and sweet. So I did a taste test, and though the tofu was really soft (but firm enough to hold its shape), I didn’t even get a hint of sweetness. I can say with much conviction that tofu is a taste I am yet to acquire.

In case you are wondering why my tofu is a dirty brownish colour, that’s because the soya milk was a light brown colour! I thought soya milk was meant to be white or very light creamish in colour.
In case anyone is interested, I used the Godrej brand of natural soya milk.

Given that tofu isn’t on anyone’s list of favourites here, I thought it was best to make something where the tofu had a large enough presence without taking the leading part in the show!

The perfect kind of recipe for this seemed a Tropical Tofu Smoothie that I adapted from MyRecipes.

I must say that while I haven’t become a tofu fan, I have no objections having my tofu in a smoothie like this. The tofu gave the smoothie some volume and a creamy texture, and if I didn’t actually put it into the blender I wouldn’t have known there was any tofu in it!

Tropical Tofu Smoothie
(Adapted from Cooking Light, January 2000)


2/3 cup soft tofu, drained

3/4 cup pineapple juice, chilled

1 cup chopped mango

1 small banana (optional)

1/2 cup plain yogurt, frozen

1/4 cup orange juice, chilled

1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp honey or sugar (optional)

seeds from 2 pods cardamom, crushed (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)


Process the tofu, chopped mango pieces and the banana (if using) in a blender till smooth. Add all the remaining ingredients and process again till smooth.
Serve immediately.

This recipe makes 2 tall glasses of delicious smoothie.


The four of us go velveteering, as we like to call our kitchen adventures, with a new dish/ style of cooking/ cuisine every month. Each of us will share our recipes, experiences and verdicts on our blogs.
If you would like to join us, please leave a comment at this post or send me a mail and we’ll get back to you.

This month, Ken and Jaya are joining us in our adventures. Their posts will be on their blogs soon.

Alessio :  Tofu mousse with sesame seeds and matcha green tea.

Asha :  Mapo Tofu

Pamela :  Tofu Onde-Onde

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July 14, 2010

An Easy Birthday Chocolate Cake With Cocoa Frosting

Another birthday has just gone by and our daughter is one more year older. Sometimes, when we see the self assured girl she has grown into, it seems it wasn’t so long ago that she was a toddler on shaky legs with an endearing two-toothed grin and a single-minded determination for tearing up paper!
I don't usually put personal pictures on this blog, but I just couldn't resist sharing this one of Akshaya with you. That's her, just a year old, at her favourite past-time of tearing up newspaper!

Akshaya, busy at work!

This year, she got to celebrate her birthday thrice!
The first was her traditional birthday. The second one, on the 6th of July which is her date of birth, she celebrated at school with her class and teachers.

Then on the weekend, she invited a few of her friends for a pizza-pasta party. She usually celebrates her birthday at home, but this time she wanted to eat out. So someone else did the cooking while I baked the birthday cake.

Baking Akshaya’s birthday cake is something I’ve been doing since I started to bake regularly. She almost always chooses vanilla, or chocolate, or both as flavours she wants in her cake. Now that kind of choice makes it easier for me but a bit challenging to find a vanilla/ chocolate cake that’s different from the one I baked in the previous years.
I would also want a cake that’s easy to put together given my limited decorating skills, while she wouldn’t want her friends to be the guinea pigs to my baking experiments!

So predictably this year, she wanted a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. She also wanted me to make an eggless no-bake lemon cheesecake as this was also the perfect dessert for a couple of her friends who do not eat eggs.
After some searching I found this old fashioned chocolate cake that looked promising, from the reviews following it. It is eggless and since it uses oil as the fat of choice, is very easily adapted to a vegan cake if required.
What I really liked here was that the frosting requires comparatively much less butter than most frostings and is therefore not so heavy and doesn’t really coat the tongue.

In the past, I have found a few cakes made with oil, while moist, tend to leave a “pasty” feeling on the tongue. In order to avoid this I used butter in my cake. I also added an egg after reading some of the reviews.

I made some more changes. I used milk instead of water, and coffee decoction which I find intensifies the flavour of chocolate and makes chocolate cake much better. I used the chocolate chips since the cake was being made for a group of teenagers. You could leave that out and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

The original recipe requires 5 cups of powdered sugar for the frosting but I found 3 cups more than enough. I powdered my sugar at home and couldn’t get it as fine as store-bought powdered sugar. You can see that my frosting is slightly grainy because of this. Surprisingly, no one noticed this but you might want to ensure your sugar is fine for a shiny frosting.

This cake doesn’t rise much so it is perfect for layering. I used two cake tins instead of three as that was all I had. So I made a two layered cake. The frosting recipe given below was enough to fill and cover this cake.

My eggless no-bake lemon cheesecake

The cake was a winner (and the no-bake cheesecake was much enjoyed too), and the pizza-pasta party a success. A couple of unexpected surprises including a visit from her Dad (he’s now away from Goa on a new assignment) had Akshaya declaring that this birthday week had been the best ever!

Easy Chocolate Cake With Cocoa Frosting
(adapted from epicurious)

The Chocolate Cake:


3 cups all purpose flour

2 cups sugar

½ cup dark cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt (if using unsalted butter)

1 cup warm milk

1 cup coffee decoction

150gm salted butter, softened at room temperature

1 tbsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips (optional)


In a bowl, stir the butter and warm milk together until the butter melts. Add the coffee decoction and vanilla and stir well.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Add the sugar and whisk together to blend.

Mix the dry ingredients into the liquid in the bowl with a wooden spoon, till well blended. Do not over mix.

Divide the batter equally between two 9” greased and floured cake tins. Evenly sprinkle 3/4 cup chocolate chips on each cake tin of batter and bake at 180C (350F) for about 25 to 30 minutes till the cakes are done.
Cool the cakes in their pans for about ten minutes. Remove from the tins and cool both cakes on a rack.

For frosting the cake, use the cocoa frosting recipe below, or one of your choice. Place one cake with the chocolate chip side facing up. Cover the top with frosting and place the other cake with chocolate chip side facing down. Cover the sandwiched cakes with frosting and decorate as desired.

The Cocoa Frosting:


1/2 cup butter, softened at room temperature

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

3/4 cup dark cocoa powder

3 1/2 cups powdered sugar (you may need more)

approximately 8 tbsp milk


Whisk together the powdered sugar and cocoa powder till well mixed.

Put the butter and vanilla in a bowl and, using a hand held mixer, beat till it is light and fluffy. Add the cocoa-sugar mixture and beat well. Add about 5 tbsps milk, and beat until the frosting is creamy and fluffy.

If you feel you need more milk or sugar, add the required quantity and beat well. Refrigerate the frosting till the cakes have cooled completely. If the frosting has set, keep it out till it softens and then beat it till smooth, before frosting the cake.

This chocolate cake serves 10 to 12.

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July 10, 2010

Food For Thought: Food Photography Props (Or The Lack Of Them!)

What is it that attracts you most about a food blog, and takes you back there again and again? Is it the variety of recipes there, the style in which the writer puts forth his/ her posts or the pictures on the posts?
For me, its usually a combination or even just one of these reasons.

Yet, I feel that food blogs with good pictures do have an edge when it comes to attracting readers. They don’t necessarily keep every reader coming back because written content is as important, if not more.
This doesn’t mean that if your food pictures aren’t good, it is a reflection on your cooking or writing skills or vice versa.

We are just naturally attracted to all things beautiful (the definition of “beautiful” is subjective), including food. In today’s world where people have less time than ever and shorter attention spans, a well written piece just looks like more words to a casual reader. On the other hand, a beautiful food picture would easily catch the eye and induce the reader to continue reading the accompanying piece.
Think about all those gorgeous food photographs in magazines you’ve read that made you go “Oooh!” Remember the number of recipes you have bookmarked, just because they looked so good.

Just to make matters clear, this post is not about becoming a better food photographer to drive traffic to your blog, even though that could possibly help. It is about what one could do, to take good/ better food pictures.

Ideally, when one talks about taking good pictures one usually starts with the importance of light, aperture, shutterspeed and light. Many bloggers/ photographers have already done so and I won’t add to that the little I do know. Instead I’ll point you to the importance of using props in your food photography.

Ilva has a very comprehensive series on what kind of props can be used and how to use them, on her blog. I have long admired her pictures, so while you are at her blog, do check out her her amazing non-food photography too.
She recently asked us if we would like to "show her our food props" and I thought I’d add my little bit as well.

Using props aesthetically in food pictures is one way of adding character or mood, or even telling a story in one’s food photographs. Props add to the overall essence of a picture without being the focus in it. Think of a prop as makeup for your photograph; too little and there is room for improvement, whereas too much can spoil it. I would even go as far as saying its better to have a picture without props that to have a badly “propped” one!

I am still learning how to use props in mine, and prefer my food pictures to be simple and uncluttered. When I look at a picture of food, and there is too much going on it with food elements, colours and props, all I’m left with is a lot of confusion. So in my pictures, I tend to go with the thought that less is more.
To some extent, this is probably because I do not own too many props and so have to work with what little I do have.

Some thing like this would probably be the ultimate prop dream come true, for a food photographer. If not, I guess one could manage admirably with this. But what does one do when without these kind of resources at hand?
Beg, borrow or steal? Or buy!

The first three are not my thing and buying props is not a very great option for me. Thrift stores are unheard of where I live. The 2 or 3 stores where I could buy such stuff are quite expensive and do not sell anything as separate pieces. They’re not exactly bursting at the seams with variety in the stuff they sell, either.

I also have an innate aversion to clutter which is probably as a result of growing up with parents who could never bring themselves to throw anything out. Every 4 to 6 months, I even do a “spring cleaning” type of clearing out stuff we cannot use. My husband even jokes saying that one of these days, I’m likely to throw him out too, with the junk!!

The expense and clutter resulting from buying props just for use in my food photography is not something I’m comfortable with, even though I’m guilty of giving in to the impulse on more occasions than one.

Most of what I use in my pictures is my regular cookware, crockery, cutlery, mats and linen which double up as props when required.
I have a rather meager collection of small sized plates, bowls and such stuff which are not utilitarian but great for pictures. I also tend to use whatever else I have lying around the house if I can.

I do have a store not far from where I live, which is a good source for all kinds of stuff made from hand-made paper. So I have accumulated a collection of hand-made papers of different colours and textures which are great as backgrounds.

This sums up my collection of props for now. I don’t see myself accumulating a lot more in the future, but then you never know.

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July 7, 2010

Eggless Cookie Crunch Vanilla Ice-cream

In my part of the world it’s the season for rain, rain and more rain from June through August, and a bit of September. It means frequently getting drenched because sometimes umbrellas or rainwear just cannot keep the rain out. Wading through ankle-deep water puddles, trying to drive through a deluge which makes just about everything invisible and laundry that feels damp and cold even though it is dry is not fun. Grey, overcast skies through which the sun doesn’t even peek sometimes can be depressing.

Yet, I love the monsoons. Not only is the rain so welcome after the unbearable heat of the summer, I can feel the magic that it brings with it.
Have you smelt the first rains on parched earth or felt the joy of getting wet in the sudden rain just when you thought you couldn’t take the summer anymore?
Have you seen the rains approaching you from the sea slowly, like a misty curtain across the expanse of blue-grey water?
Have you watched the rain outside, from the warmth and comfort of your favourite chair, with a book and cup of piping hot spiced tea for company?

So now you all know I love the rains!
The one thing that the rain is giving me grief with these days is when I need light for my photography. I have just about got the hang of taking pictures in natural light and as you can see, I have a long way to go with low light photography!

Now one thing I’m guessing most people do not do during the rains, is eating ice-cream. We enjoy eating ice-cream at anytime of the year, monsoons included, and I am one of those unusual people (you could call me weird too!) who sometimes also makes ice-cream during the rains.
My home-made ice-creams (or gelatos) are always eggless and mostly low fat because I do not usually add any cream either. Of all the flavours I have made, one I never have is vanilla.

When we were kids, and I don’t know why, ice-cream somehow didn’t figure very much in our lives. It was an occasional treat and the only flavours that do come to my mind from back then are vanilla and chocolate.
Once I was older, vanilla was that brown liquid in a small bottle which we used to flavour cake batter with! So the idea of vanilla ice-cream paled in comparison with more exotic or unusual flavours.

Then I discovered vanilla beans and the yawning difference between the vanilla in a pod and that brown stuff in a little bottle. Yet it has taken me all this while to make that vanilla ice-cream. When I finally did, I still couldn’t get over my prejudice and wanted to add a little “something” to make it better!

I turned to our resident vanilla ice-cream expert and Akshaya came up with the idea of cookies in ice-cream after some Oreo cookies in vanilla ice-cream she remembered eating at Baskin & Robbins.

The store nearest to didn’t have any Oreos in stock but he had Pure Magic Vanilla Crème cookies (much better than Oreos, in my opinion), so I used those to make my Cookie Crunch Vanilla ice-cream.

Eggless Cookie Crunch Vanilla Ice-cream


3/4 litre milk (3%)

3/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean

3 tbsp cornstarch

100ml cream (25%)

6 chocolate-vanilla cream cookies

(I used Pure Magic Vanilla Crème)


Take about 1/4 cup of the milk and keep it aside.

Put the remaining milk and sugar in a thick walled pan and slowly bring it to boil, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar. Turn the heat down and allow the milk to simmer for about 2 to 3 minutes.

Slit open the vanilla bean and scrape the pulp inside and add to the milk. Chop the beans into pieces and also add to the milk. Take the milk off the heat and allow the vanilla to infuse into the milk for about an hour.
Strain the vanilla infused milk, to remove the vanilla bean pieces. Return the milk to the thick walled pan and just bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium.

Now dissolve the cornstarch in the 1/4 cup milk and add it to the simmering milk, stirring constantly to make sure no lumps form.
Cook just till the milk thickens into a custard and coats the back of the spoon. Take it off the stove and allow it to cool, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming on top.

Add the cream to the thickened milk and whisk by hand till smooth. Pour the ice cream into a flat container and freeze till set.

Take the ice-cream out and break up the crystals by mixing it with a fork or hand held blender till mushy. Freeze till set. Repeat this process of breaking up crystals two more times fro a creamy ice-cream.
After the last time you do this, break the crème cookies into pieces and add this to the ice-cream. Fold it just enough to uniformly distribute the cookie pieces.

Freeze till ready to serve. Serve with chocolate cake or brownies, caramel or chocolate sauce, just by itself or any way you wish.
This recipe makes enough ice-cream for 6.

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July 3, 2010

Ney/ Nei Payasam (An Indian Jaggery-Ghee Kheer/ Rice Pudding)

It is our daughter’s birthday today, even though she wasn’t born on the 3rd of July! As improbable as that sounds, it is possible if you are Indian and follow the traditional Indian lunar-solar calendar.

Like the English calendar year, our traditional calendar also has 12 months in a year, but each month has 29.5 days. Each of the 29.5 days has a date and is also marked by a “star” or “nakshatram”. There are 27 of these “stars” which follow a particular order and appear in that order periodically every lunar month throughout the year.

This means that in an English calendar month, a “nakshathram/ star” may occasionally appear twice. All traditional celebrations/ religious observances are decided based on this solar-lunar calendar.

The long and short of this is that in Hindu families in India, when a child is born, the month (on the Indian calendar), time and day of birth decides the birth “nakshathram/ star” of the child. For us, this then is the day that is celebrated as a child/ person’s birthday, and it does not fall on the same date every year.

When we were children, our families celebrated only “star birthdays” as we called them. On this day, one got up early in the morning, had a ritual bath and wore new clothes, then sought the blessings of all the elders at home and then visited the temple for special prayers and blessings. Special birthdays, like a first birthday, are more elaborate celebrations.
For all other purposes we follow the English calendar in India, so as we grew older we came to know of birthdays celebrated on the same day every year with cake, blowing out of candles and birthday gifts.

At some point in time, especially after our daughter was born, we were a bit undecided on which of the two birthdays to celebrate. While cultural traditions definitely have a place in our lives, our more "modern" and changinglifestyles meant that it made sense to celebrate one’s birthday according to the English calendar.
We finally got around this dilemma by celebrating two birthdays in a year each - a “date of birth” birthday and a “nakshathram/ star” birthday!

As I mentioned, traditional birthdays are celebrated with “payasam” and the other birthday means cake or dessert.
A “payasam”, also known as “kheer”, is a milk/ coconut milk and rice/ wheat pudding-like sweet celebratory dish. It is usually sweetened with sugar/ jaggery depending on the kind of payasam being made.

Akshaya does not like payasam very much, but a traditional birthday is just not the same without it. When given a choice of payasam, this birthday girl settled for “ney payasam”, as this is about the only payasam she does like.

Funnily enough, this is not a payasam that’s usually made for birthdays. Ney payasam, as the name suggests is has a lot of ghee (called "ney" in Tamil and Malayalam) is normally made and offered to God in temples, or at home during special poojas (ritual worship), and then distributed as prasadham (blessed food) to devotees. In fact, for a long time I used to call it “kovil” payasam where kovil means temple because that’s where most of the ney payasam that we ate came from.
The best tasting ney payasam is always slow-cooked in an uruli and requires a bit of an arm workout in the form of constant stirring. This pudding-like payasam is quite sweet, very rich and is meant to be (and can only be) eaten in small quantities.

Ghee ("ney" or browned butter), raisins, cashewnuts and cardamom

In this version I have added cardamom, cashewnuts and raisins which are really not part of an authentic ney payasam. A true ney payasam is deep brown (from the jaggery) and shiny (from the ghee), with a bit of crunch that comes from the ghee-fried coconut pieces in it. My ney payasam is quite pale in colour, because the jaggery I get here in Goa is very light unlike the dark jaggery available back home.

"Payasam ari" (a variety of raw rice used for making payasam)

Do not use long grain aromatic rice like basmati for this recipe. A short to medium grain raw rice is best. I used what is locally (in Kerala) called “payasam ari" or rice for making payasam, which is unpolished and brown-streaked raw rice.

If you cannot find the coconut to slice and chop into thin bits, do make this payasam without it. It might not be authentic but is still pretty good.


3/4 cup raw rice

3/4 cup powdered jaggery*

1/4 cup water

1/3 cup ghee (browned butter)

2 tbsp broken cashewnuts

2 tbsp raisins

2 tbsp thinly sliced coconut pieces

4 to 5 pods cardamom (optional)

*You might need up to 1 cup of jaggery. The jaggery I get here is very sweet so I used only 3/4 cup.


Wash and cook the rice and well cooked but the grains are still separate and not mushy. The rice must be cooked till very soft and you can test this by pressing a couple of cooked rice grains between your thumb and index finger. You should be able to mash into almost a paste.

If at this point your rice is not cooked enough (or to the right texture), when you cook it with jaggery, the rice will become tough and your payasam/ rice pudding will not have a soft texture.

Heat about 1 1/2 tbsp of the ghee in a pan and fry raisins till the puff up and become golden (not brown). Remove and keep aside. In the same ghee, fry the cshewnuts till golden. Remove and keep with the raisins. Similarly fry the small coconut pieces till brown and crisp. Keep this also with the raisins and cashewnuts.

Now dissolve the jaggery in the water and strain to remove any impurities. Pour the jaggery solution into a thick walled pan and bring to boil, while stirring occasionally. Turn down the heat to medium and allow to simmer for about 2 or 3 minutes.

Add the rice to this and stir well, ensuring there are no lumps. Continue to cook the rice over medium heat and add about a tbsp of ghee. Keep stirring till the ghee gets absorbed. Use up all the ghee in this way, adding a tbsp at a time.
By now the payasam/ rice pudding would have thickened and start leaving the sides of the pan when stirred.

Once the payasam is thick yet still moist, about the consistency of a very thick sauce, take it off the heat. Add the powdered cardamom, the fried coconut pieces, raisins and cashewnuts and mix well.

Serve warm. Remember that this rice pudding is very rich and so the servings need to smaller than most other desserts or sweet dishes. This payasam, as all others we make, are traditionally served slightly warm and taste the best this way. It can also be served at room temperature or chilled, if you prefer.

This recipe will serve about 8.

Other payasams on this blog:

Aval Payasam (Beaten rice flakes in sweetened milk)

Parippu Pradhaman (Lentils in jaggery sweetened coconut milk)

Cabbage Payasam (A modern twist to the traditional payasam)

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July 1, 2010

No-knead Yeasted Banana Cardamom Bread Rolls

There are a lot of people who really like bananas and so I’m assuming that they would also like banana bread, given the number of recipes one can find for it on the net. Well, I’m one of those who enjoy bananas as fruit but not in bakes. Any more out there like me in this preference?
In fact, the only banana bake recipe I have on this blog so far is for Banoffee cupcakes! That might change in the future as I am finding the occasional banana bake that I do like and today’s post is about one of them.

The schedule for the ABin5/ HBin5 group tells me I should have attempted Whole Wheat Mixed Berry Bread or Muffins and Whole Wheat Banana Bread this fortnight. I am not discussing the previous fortnight’s scheduled breads because I never went there!

So far, I have been adapting/ baking some breads from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day (most of the group do this) or from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day which is the book I have.
For various reasons, including the fact that whole wheat or otherwise “healthy” breads aren’t very popular here, I shall now be baking only from my book trying to keep to the schedule whenever possible.
By this I mean, that if something similar to the scheduled breads are in my book I shall bake those or else I will try and adapt the theme for the fortnight to “regular” recipes from ABin5.

As for the mixed berries bread, it isn’t the season for berries here right now unless one is thinking of cherries. So I thought I would bake banana bread with a local variety of some small, sweet yellow bananas I had. If you do a net search for banana bread most of the results would be for a quick bread using baking powder for leavening.

I wanted to make yeasted banana bread and found some good recipes on a couple of sites. My challenge was to adapt a recipe from ABIn5 to make the banana bread.
I used the buttermilk bread recipe that’s on page 207 of ABin5 (half the given recipe). We have become quite fond of this bread here and I’ve found it adapts itself quite well to additions. I last made an excellent Carrot Bread with it and decided to try making banana bread with it.

This time, I decided not to add any whole wheat flour (unlike my usual practice of 1: 3 ratio of whole wheat to all purpose flour) since the addition of puréed banana would probably make the bread dense.
Surprisingly, the banana didn’t make the bread dense/ heavy as I expected. My banana bread rolls turned slightly moist and delightfully soft. The presence/ flavour of banana in the bread was just there, which was fine with us.

If you would like a very strong flavour of banana in your banana bread, then this recipe is perhaps not for you. On the other hand, if you are looking for very soft and slightly sweet bread rolls, I would definitely recommend that you give this recipe a try.

The basic premise of Jeff and Zoe’s bread books is about mixing up the dough on one day and then baking the bread from it as and when required over a period of time from a week to two, depending on the dough.

Since I added banana to this dough, I have no idea whether the dough would keep for more than a day in the fridge. I chose to make up the dough in the morning and bake it in the afternoon of the same day.
You can find the original buttermilk bread recipe on page 207 of Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day.

Yeasted Banana Cardamom Bread Rolls
(Adapted from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day)


3 1/4 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup lukewarm water (maybe a bit more)

½ cup buttermilk*

1 1/2 tsp dry active yeast

3/4 tsp salt

3/4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp butter, at room temperature

1 cup well mashed/ puréed banana

1/2 tsp freshly crushed cardamom

extra flour for dusting

some melted butter for brushing on rolls


*I didn’t have buttermilk so used 1/2 cup milk + 1 tsp white vinegar.

Put the 1/2 cup lukewarm water, buttermilk, yeast, salt, sugar, butter, cardamom and banana in a bowl large enough to hold about 2 1/2 litres of liquid. Lightly whisk everything together till mixed well.

Add the flour and mix everything without kneading, using a strong handled spoon (or in a mixer/ food processor with dough attachment). I always do this by hand as it’s easy and also means no cleaning up my food processor or attachments.

You can add a couple of tsps of lukewarm water if the dough is too dry. The dough should look shaggy and be a bit wet and sticky.
Cover the bowl (not airtight), and allow the dough to rise and collapse (or flatten on top). This should take about 2 hours.
You may use the dough at this point, but it is easier to handle when cold so refrigerate the dough for about half an hour.

Grease a round 9” cake tin with oil or butter.
Take the dough out of the fridge and lightly dust with flour. Divide the dough into eight equal portions. Dust each piece with more flour, if needed but resist temptation to use too much flour or the rolls will turn out tough.

Shape into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides while rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. Similarly shape all the other pieces into balls.
You can bake this bread as a loaf if you prefer.

Arrange the balls of dough in the greased cake tin and lightly cover the tin with a damp towel. Allow the dough to rise, for about 45 minutes to an hour.

Bake the rolls at 180C (350F) for about 35 to 40 minutes till done and golden brown. If you want the crust of the rolls to be soft, brush them on top with melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven.

Cool the rolls in the pan for about 5 minutes and then cool completely on a rack. Serve warm as you desire.
This recipe makes 8 medium sized banana rolls.

My banana rolls are being YeastSpotted!

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