January 30, 2011

French Style Lemon-Yogurt Cake (Gâteau au Citron) With Blueberries


If you are a regular at this blog, or even just pop into this kitchen once in a while, you might know that I am a part of a small virtual book-cook club. I haven’t been awfully regular there, but we’re a small bunch of bloggers who all recognise that life has a way of making its own plans for us and sometimes havoc with our good intentions.

Last month’s book choice was A Homemade Life: Stories And Recipe From My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg. Last month being December and everyone knowing the nature of that beast (month), it wasn’t surprising that none of us had the time to read or cook from it. So we’re doing it this month and I’m just managing to make the deadline, so to speak.
Most of you would be aware that Molly blogs at the very popular Orangette. While I do not follow her blog regularly, I have read a lot of her posts and she does write very well. I must say I’ve never tried out any of her recipes though.




I liked the way Molly starts her book as it really rings true with me a lot of the time. The first chapter opens with these words - It started when I was a freshman in high school. We'd be sitting at the kitchen table, the three of us, eating dinner, when my father would lift his head from his plate and say it: "You know, we eat better at home than most people do in restaurants."!

As the title of her book promises, it is really about stories about her family and life interwoven with recipes. She writes about leaving Oklahoma for France for studies, selling olive oils and teaching English in her beloved Paris to support herself, working in a Pilates studio in Seattle and as a publicist for a publisher, about a date who made dinner for her which was tufts of 7 different sprouts and 3 cherry tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar!
She also tells you about her much loved father who became ill of cancer and died at 73, about starting a blog because she loves to write, getting fan mail for her blog posts from a New York composer who is now her husband.




I knew which recipe I would be baking even before I started her book, as I had my heart set on baking her French Style Lemon-Yogurt Cake a few months back. I first tasted this cake about 3 months ago when I went visiting Sheba. She had baked the version that was on Molly’s blog and I really liked the cake very much. So the choice of Molly’s book last month was a sort of sign for me.

As it happens, this Lemon-Yogurt Cake is very important in Molly’s life. It was this cake recipe on her blog that prompted Brandon’s (now her husband) friend Meredith to write to her. As Molly says, “she owes this cake a debt of gratitude and though a simple cake it borders on the magical”.




This French style yogurt cake or Gâteau au Citron as it also known, is a popular old fashioned French cake and there are many versions of it. Molly’s recipe (and all the others) require 3 or 4 eggs which was a bit too much for our tastes. We prefer our cakes not to smell like omelettes, so I had to reduce the eggs to the bare minimum. I made a few changes to her recipe. I used melted butter with the oil as I find that cakes that have about 1/2 cup or more of oil tend to taste a bit “pasty” to me. I also added some blueberries to the batter.

Molly’s recipe includes a lemon syrup to drench the warm cake and then a lemon glace icing. Given that we’re not overly fond of lemons in our desserts and that in India all those little yellow or green little fruits of the citrus family are actually limes and extremely tart, I thought it prudent to use only the glace icing on my cake.



French Style Lemon-Yogurt Cake (Gâteau au Citron) With Blueberries




Ingredients:


For the cake:


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 tsp baking soda

pinch of salt

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

3/4 cup plain yogurt

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1/4 cup oil

1/4 cup melted butter

3/4 to 1 cup blueberries, dried



For the glaze:


1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

3 tablespoons lemon juice



Method:


In a large bowl, lightly whisk together the yogurt, sugar, oil, melted butter and egg till well blended. In another smaller bowl, lightly whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and lemon zest. Now add the blueberries to the flour mixture and mix till they’re well coated with the flour.

Add this to the wet ingredients in the bigger bowl and fold just enough to combine into a smooth yellow batter. Do not over mix or beat vigorously.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 7” or 8” cake tin and bake at 180C (350F) for about 25 to 30 minutes till golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Do not over bake.

Combine the icing sugar with the lemon juice in a small bowl, till it dissolves. Add more icing sugar if the icing is too runny. Spoon ithis over the cooled cake and leave for it to set solid for about an hour.
Slice and serve. This cake serves 8 to 10.
Before I go further I also have to say a much belated but heartfelt thanks to Manju and Aparna (my namesake). If by some chance you haven’t discovered this yet, food bloggers are amongst the most awesome people around. They are also very good natured, giving and understand your fixation with things like cake moulds, cupcake wrappers, food decorations, parchment paper, and all such stuff related to food. Why else would they write to me and ask if I they could bring me anything from abroad as they were coming down to India?

Manju (also happens to be family ), who I couldn’t meet this time, brought me a stash of stuff including blueberries which I used in this cake, and Aparna managed to find space in her suitcases to bring me my 100mm f/ 2.8USM Macro lens that I have been dreaming of for ages! The last picture of the slice of cake (2nd image in this post) has been taken with the 100mm lens, while I used the 50mm f/ 1.8 lens for the others.




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January 27, 2011

Designer Desserts (Joconde Imprime/ Entremets) – Daring Bakers Challenge, January 2011


Having completed 3 years as a Daring Baker, I must admit that that the monthly challenge announcements no longer have the same effect they did when I first joined the group. Being someone with very basic baking skills, I still remember the first year of challenges used to leave me quite confused. Challenges I had never heard of that usually ran to at least 3 or 4 foolscap sheets, ingredients that I couldn’t find here and culinary techniques I knew very little about didn’t exactly leave me with much confidence.

A lot of reading up and 3 years of an extraordinary Daring Baker support system has resulted in my becoming a baker with some confidence in my own skills. So much so, that I have become comfortable with adapting a large number (or a part of) the challenges as eggless bakes/ desserts.

The January 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Astheroshe of the blog Accro. She chose to challenge everyone to make a “Biscuit Joconde Imprime” to wrap around an Entremets dessert.




I know, my first reaction was “Huh?”
Previous challenges ensured I knew what a biscuit joconde and entremets were but the imprime had me puzzled. Let’s clear up the mystery of these French terms (if it one for you).

Biscuit Joconde – This is an almond sponge cake that is baked in thin sheets (like for jelly/ jam rolls) and used to wrap desserts like charlottes and mousse cakes. Incidentally, the name joconde comes from La Giaconda, another name for Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

Joconde Imprime – Is the same as a biscuit joconde except that a design is “printed” into the sponge layer. This is done by layering or piping a “cigarette/ decor paste”, freezing it and then layering the joconde batter over this before baking it.

Entremets – are multi-layered desserts usually of cake and mousse, but can include pastry creams which will set. They’re usually chilled and served.




So in Astheroshe’s words, a joconde imprime (French Baking term) is a decorative design baked into a light sponge cake providing an elegant finish to desserts/torts/entremets/ formed in ring moulds, and usually served cold. A joconde batter is used because it bakes into a moist, flexible cake. The cake batter may be tinted or marbleized for a further decorative effect.

I was quite excited by this challenge and the opportunity to learn how to do this myself. Let me say it looks a lot more complicated than it actually is. We had to make the biscuit joconde imprime with the provided recipe and also use it to create an entremets, but colours, designs, fillings, presentation, etc., were all our choice.




I used 1/2 the joconde recipe, 1/4 of the décor paste (cocoa) recipe to make four individual serve entremets. I used a ginger-nut cookie base (used in some cheesecakes) and topped with a layer of fresh strawberry mousse and a layer of white chocolate vanilla mousse. Both mousse flavours contain no eggs or gelatine.

As Silpat is something I don’t get here, I baked my joconde on parchment paper. I needed to bake my cakes for only about 9 minutes and the edges started browning. How much time your joconde takes would largely depend on how thick or thin the layer is.

You can find the detailed challenge here. Given below are the quantities I used. I have already posted my easy fresh strawberry mousse which I used in my entremets. My white chocolate vanilla mousse was adapted from my eggless orange and chocolate mousse.
Joconde Sponge

(Recipe provided for DB challenge, January 2011)



Ingredients:


1/3 cup finely powdered almonds

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoons confectioners' (icing) sugar

1/8 cup cake flour

1 egg

2 egg whites

1 1/4 tsp granulated sugar

1 tbsp butter, melted




Method:


In a clean mixing bowl whip the egg whites and white granulated sugar to firm, glossy peeks. Reserve this in a separate clean bowl to use later. Sift almond flour, confectioner’s sugar and cake flour. (This can be done into your dirty egg white bowl). Add the egg and mix well on medium speed, until smooth and light.

Fold in one third reserved whipped egg whites to almond mixture to lighten the batter. Fold in remaining whipped egg whites. Do not over mix. Fold in melted butter. Reserve this batter to be used later.

This recipe makes enough to make 4 to 6 individual desserts “wraps”.



Patterned Joconde-Décor Paste

(Recipe provided for DB challenge, January 2011)


Ingredients


50 gm butter, softened

1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp confectioners' (icing) sugar

2 egg whites

2/3 cup cake flour

1/4 cup dark cocoa powder

1 – 2 tbsp milk



Method:


Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, using a hand held mixer. Gradually add egg whites, beating continuously. Fold in sifted flour and cocoa powder. If the batter is too thick (it should be a bit thick), add a tbsp of milk.


Preparing the Joconde- How to make the pattern:


Spread a thin even layer of décor paste approximately 1/4" thick on a sheet of parchment paper placed on an upside down baking sheet, with a spatula or flat knife. The upside down sheet makes spreading easier with no lip from the pan.

Pattern the décor paste – Here is where you can be creative. Make horizontal /vertical lines (you can use a knife, spatula, cake/pastry comb). Squiggles with your fingers, zigzags, wood grains. Be creative whatever you have at home to make a design can be used or use a piping bag. Pipe letters, polka dots, or a design. If you do not have a piping bag, fill a Ziploc bag and snip off corner for a homemade version of one.
I used the same joconde- cocoa décor paste combination and made smaller strips, each with a different pattern.




Slide the baking sheet with paste into the freezer and freeze hard (approx. 15 minutes). Remove from freezer and quickly pour the joconde batter over the design. Spread evenly to completely cover the pattern of the décor paste.

Bake at 240C (450F) until the joconde bounces back when slightly pressed (about 8 to 12 minutes). The joconde bakes very quickly, so watch carefully.

Cool. Do not leave too long, or you will have difficulty removing it from the parchment paper. Flip cooled cake on to a powdered sugared parchment paper. Peel off the parchment paper from the joconde. The cake should be right side up, and pattern showing! (The powdered sugar helps the cake from sticking when cutting.)

Trim the cake of any dark crispy edges. You should have a nice rectangle shape. Cut the joconde imprime “wrapper” to required size. Traditionally, it is 1/2 the height of your mould. This is done so more layers of the plated dessert can be shown. However, you can make it the full height. This is a good video to watch before attempting to cut, line your mould with the joconde imprime and fill your entremet.

Make sure your strips are cut cleanly and ends are cut perfectly straight. Press the cake strips inside of the mould, decorative side facing out. Once wrapped inside the mould, overlap your ends slightly. Your joconde should fit very tightly pressed up to the sides of the mould. Then gently push and press the ends to meet together to make a seamless cake. The cake is very flexible so you can push it into place. You can use more than one piece to “wrap “your mould, if one cut piece is not long enough. The mould is now ready to fill.

*Note: If not ready to use. Lay cake kept whole or already cut into strips, on a flat surface, wrap in parchment and several layers of cling wrap and freeze.

Fill with anything you desire. Layers of different flavors and textures are good but should be something cold that will not fall apart when unmoulded.




Suggestions:


Mousses, pastry creams, Bavarian creams, cheesecakes, puddings, curds, jams, cookie bases, more cake (bake off the remaining sponge and cut to layer inside), nuts, Dacquoise, fresh fruit, chocolates, gelee and ice-cream.
Verdict:


My joconde imprime turned out perfect except that I made my strips a little too tall and so had to cut them down again. So pipe your designs with the height of your entremets in mind, or you might end up with a lopped off pattern! Even though I used the same joconde-cocoa décor paste pattern, I baked them as smaller strips each patterned differently.

This technique is really easy and yet looks as if a whole lot of effort goes into it. It is important to have a comparatively thinner, rather than thicker, joconde imprime layer for best results especially if you are using it in smaller/ individual serving entremets.

I know I shall be using this technique a lot whenever I get the chance to do so and experiment with colours and patterns as many of my very talented friends have done.
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January 24, 2011

Easy Fresh Strawberry Mousse


Sometimes you get this urge to have dessert yet you don’t want something that involves a lot of effort and comes with a truck load of calories. Fruit is nice, especially these days when there’s such a variety of it around, but isn’t really going to satisfy that craving that only a dessert can. Chocolate is one fool proof solution but even though I’m a chocolate lover, there are times when I look forward to something different.





I found my answer in this easy and light strawberry mousse I made. There isn’t much that original about folding in whipped cream into fresh strawberry purée, and there must be a hundred variations on this mousse. This isn’t one of those instant desserts and despite requiring at least 6 hours to set, I find this mousse has a lot going for it.

There’s quite a bit of fresh fruit in it and the whipped cream gives it the “dessert” feel. Of course, the cream means that it is not low calorie but then if that’s what you want you can always settle for fresh fruit. Look at this way; it is cream with 25% fat and about 75ml of it in each serving (or less if you make 6 serves), it satisfies your dessert craving and you don’t mousse everyday after all (I hope).





As I must have mentioned many times before, in India, the season for strawberries is winter. So strawberry mousse it was when the craving for dessert struck, the other day. It doesn’t take much time to set and is vegetarian (no eggs, no gelatine). I used agar flakes to help the mousse set, though you might need a little more agar if you want the mousse to set firm enough to use a layered filling.

Easy Strawberry Mousse



Ingredients:


1 1/2 cups fresh strawberry purée (about 2 cups quartered strawberries)

3 tbsp powdered/ fine sugar

300ml fresh cream (25% fat), chilled

2 tbsp icing sugar*

2 tbsp agar flakes

1/8 cup hot water

2 or 3 strawberries and mint for garnish



Method:


*Icing sugar – the kind with cornstarch.

Mix the strawberry purée and sugar so the sugar dissolves. Dissolve the agar flakes in the hot water and allow it to cool but don’t let it solidify.

Put the chilled cream, the icing sugar and the agar in a large bowl and beat, using a hand mixer, till stiff. Add the whipped cream to the strawberry purée and fold it in till blended. Divide the mousse equally between 4 or 6 glasses, cover and refrigerate for at least 4 to 6 hours, or till set.

Serve. This recipe makes 4 servings (or 6 smaller servings).

 
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January 21, 2011

Brussels Sprouts Gratin


It all started when I last went vegetable shopping and found one of the stalls at my market had Brussels sprouts on display. Brussels sprouts are one of those non-Indian vegetables which are now being grown in India. Since they’re usually bought by the starred and fancier restaurants, Brussels sprouts are very expensive and usually bought in bulk by them. Yet I am beginning to see more and more unusual vegetables and fruit (unusual for India), such as zucchini, asparagus, broccoli and varieties of lettuce, to mention a few.

Having seen Brussels sprouts on a lot of food sites and blogs, and hearing them raved about, I wanted to buy some to see for myself if the hype was worth it. They were pretty expensive, and after some bargaining (and maybe he wanted to sell them off) and though they were still on the expensive side, I came home with a small stash of the stuff.




So Brussels sprouts look like miniature cabbages, and I was pretty sure they tasted a lot like them too. The usual way I cook cabbage is Indian style and I wanted to see how these “little cabbages” could be cooked differently. I saw a lot of recipes which mostly seemed pair the Brussels sprouts with bacon which wasn’t acceptable for obvious reasons. I saw quite a few salad recipes but I didn’t think I’d be able to serve them successfully in a largely non salad loving household. Some of the pasta recipes looked good but since I wanted to serve the Brussels sprouts as a side with a pasta main dish, this choice was out.

Then I saw a recipe for a gratin, which didn’t have cheese or milk or cream which was just what I was looking for to serve with pasta. I have been under the impression that a gratin should have cheese and cream (or milk) because all the gratins I have seen so far have been of this type. It turns out that I was mistaken and a gratin refers to the breadcrumb and butter topping which is browned under a grill (or broiler) to provide crunch to a casserole of any type!




I tweaked the recipe a bit to make it vegetarian and put my own twist to it. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on which way you look at it considering how much this vegetable costs, I don’t see myself buying it again.
I have to report that none of us really liked the Brussels sprouts as a vegetable and just found it to be like we had eaten a particularly strong smelling and tasting cabbage. I am someone who likes cabbage, yet I couldn’t find the slightest inclination to like it at any level except to say it looked cute which isn’t much of a recommendation!!
So this might end up being the only Brussels sprouts recipe on this site, unless I am convinced otherwise.

No, I did not overcook it causing it to smell and taste funny which I was aware could happen. However, if you do like Brussels sprouts, then I can definitely recommend this recipe as our problem wasn’t with the dish but the vegetable itself.

Brussels Sprouts Gratin

(Adapted from MyRecipes)



Ingredients:


About 3 cups (or 300gm) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/4 tsp garlic paste (optional)

3 small onions, thinly sliced

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Salt to taste

1/8 cup slivered and toasted almonds

1 tbsp butter

1/3 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese



Method:


Steam cook or microwave the Brussels sprouts.
Heat the oil in a pan, add the cumin seeds, garlic paste and the onions. Sauté the onions till they turn golden. Add the steam cooked Brussels sprouts, the salt and pepper. Stir well and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, till the Brussels sprouts start caramelising and turning brown. Add the slivered almonds, stir and take the pan off the heat.

Transfer the Brussels sprouts to a baking dish and level it uniformly. Melt the butter in a small pan and add the breadcrumbs. Add a bit of salt and sauté till the breadcrumbs are lightly toasted. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the Brussels sprouts. Now add the grated cheese and cook under the grill (or broil) until the cheese melts and turns golden. This took mine 5 minutes but would depend upon your grill/ broiler.

This recipe serves 3 to 4 as a side dish.

One of the winners (Suzan, who didn't leave me any way to contact her) of my last giveaway hasn't got back to me in the last 10 days. So I randomly picked another winner for  America's Little Italys: Recipes and Traditions by Sheryll Bellman.
Congratulations Angela on the win.

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January 18, 2011

Food Photography Basics #1 : Do I Need A DSLR To Get Good Photographs?


This is a question I have been asked a few times and is probably the best place to start a series of posts on photography. After all, photography starts with the camera and the best place to start anything is at the beginning. I am often asked questions and get the occasional mail about my photography so I thought it might be a good idea to put down some of my thoughts about my learning process in a series of posts on the subject.

Before I go further, let me make it clear that I am not an authority on photography. I am still discovering that there is so much out there that I don’t know about it, including what my camera and lenses are capable of. Most of what I do know is what I have picked up through extensive reading, a couple of very short term photography classes and lots of practise. My posts are also written from the view point of someone on a budget when it comes to spending on photography. If you are still interested, read on.



Cape Gooseberries (taken with a DSLR)


So, if you want a very short answer to the above question, then I would have to say no! Whether you are someone who likes taking pictures, or a food blogger taking pictures of food to post on your blog, the answer remains the same.
Since this is a food blog and we are talking about food, I shall concentrate on food photography for the rest of this post and the series. Though I said that you can shoot very good pictures with your Point& Shoot (which I shall refer to as a P&S, from now on), it doesn’t quite end there.

It  depends on what exactly you are looking for in your photography and your camera, to decide whether you want to progress from your P&S to a DSLR. I am assuming that many of you, like me, live with budget restraints and that even without the restraints you would like to justify your expenditure before jumping off the deep end!

It is most important to understand that it is not the camera that makes the photograph but the person who is behind the camera. Having said that, I must also say that the quality of the photograph taken with a DSLR is much better than one taken with a P&S. While the creative part of a photograph depends entirely upon the photographer, the quality resulting from advanced optics and technology of the DSLR is much better than that of a P&S.

The first step in deciding whether one needs (as opposed to wants) a DSLR is to ask oneself some questions. These are very valid questions (in my opinion) because not everyone looks at photographs and photography in the same way.


First the photography point of view:

 -  Do you want to just add a picture to your post that perhaps gives a visual representation of your cooking process and the final outcome?

 -  Do want your picture to look really good (visually, creative, colourful, balanced, artistic, etc.) while doing the above?

 -  How serious are you about your photography? Do you just want it to end with the picture and the post, or is it a passion and you want your picture to say something about you, your creativity and the way you see food?

 -  Do you see yourself, at some point, perhaps going semi-professional or professional and earning an income (however small or big) from your photography?


Then the camera itself:

 -  Are you technically challenged with the buttons and dials on your camera and think doing anything more than pointing at your subject and shooting is not worth the while?

 -  Or do you think that taking pictures of food is not a big deal? Does it seem like too much fuss is made about “staged” photography especially food?

 -  Do you use your P&S only to take pictures of food to add to your blog posts and not much beyond that?

 -  Are you happy with the ease that a P&S allows you by being able to shoot in the different auto modes at the turn of a dial?

 -  Do you think your P&S isn’t able to take the sort of pictures you would like because you are not able to tell it what to do, since it has a mind of its own (in the auto modes)?

 -  Are you frustrated with the limitations on the manual mode of your P&S because you are not able to change parameters on it to get the sort of photograph you want?

 -  Do you really want to carry around a camera which will not go into your bag, and you cannot just whip out a moment’s notice and take a photograph? Remember that a DSLR means carrying around a camera bag, lenses (at least one, maybe two initially), and also changing lenses depending on your need if you have more than one.

 -  Do you think it is important for you to get a DSLR because everyone out there in food blogdom who matters seems to be saying that a really good blogger should have one? (This could be a serious consideration for some people)


And the biggest question of them all. Can you really spare the money for a DSLR, and would you rather be spending it on something else more important?


Please understand that if your answers to some of the above questions make you think you should stay with a P&S, it doesn’t make you any less of a photographer. I have seen some excellent photographs taken with a P&S camera.
What matters is that you are happy with your choice, though I can understand that budgetary constraints do not make for a happy choice! Still you can look forward to the DSLR at the end of the rainbow when you finally get there, like I did.

I have personally found that when I am limited by my choices/ circumstances (whether in photography, or otherwise), many a times I push myself to the limits and beyond and becomes better at whatever I am doing.

These were some of the questions I asked myself when I started thinking I wanted to upgrade to DSLR. I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting the sort of pictures I wanted with my P&S, which was a Canon A550. My little camera gave me no control over apertures and shutter speeds even in the manual mode, even though it had a pretty good “Macro” mode to shoot close-ups, such as in food photography.

My P&S also had no manual focus, which meant that I had no control over which point of my photograph would be sharp and in focus when I was shooting in the “macro” mode. The camera would automatically focus on the point where it felt there was optimum light, which was not necessarily what I wanted. It also meant I had no control over the depth of field (how much stayed sharp and how much of the background was blurred) in my photographs.

These were just some of the issues that made me think of moving to a DSLR. To get a good idea of what I’m talking about, here are two photographs of some cape gooseberries taken with a P&S (Canon Powershot A550) and my DSLR (Canon EOS 450D/ Rebel Xsi). I have tried to keep the light, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure to the same level so as to compare the photographs with one another.


  
















                                                           

The photograph on the left was taken with the P&S and on the right with the DSLR. It was a bit cloudy and I shot in natural light. I have not edited the photographs, except for adding the name.
The settings in both shots are :
ISO – 200
Shutter speed – 1/200
Aperture setting is 2.6 on the P&S, and 2.5 on the DSLR (that’s the closest I could get to 2.6 on the DSLR)
Exposure compensation – 0
The metering – centre weighted average.
The focal length was 5.8mm for the P&S and 50mm for the DSLR and I couldn’t do much about this, as the first wasn’t within my control. The 50mm f/ 1.8II lens is what I usually shoot food with so I used that in the DSLR.

 I had to go much closer to the fruit with my P&S in macro mode whereas with the DSLR I shot from farther away with the 50mm lens, otherwise I couldn’t get the subject in focus range. I left the white balance on auto in both cameras yet the tones seem different despite this.

These are the differences between the photographs, as far as settings go. Yet you can judge for yourself the differences beyond this, in both the photographs. Both photographs could be adjusted for brightness and would look better.
With a DSLR, depending on my subject and existing light conditions, I could use a lens of my choice, adjust the amount of light, fix my point of focus and decide on what depth of field I wanted in my photographs. This would mean that I would have a lot more control over the outcome of my photograph, unlike with a P&S.




And take a photograph like this one. Here the ISO is still 200, the aperture is now 2.8, shutter speed is 1/125, while other parameters are as mentioned earlier with the other 2 photographs.
Or the first picture in this post where the ISO is still 200, the aperture is 3.2, shutter speed is 1/80, while other parameters are as mentioned above.

As I was saying earlier on in this post, I wanted to be able to shoot pictures in a manual mode which gave me freedom and flexibility with settings. I have nothing against shooting in auto modes nor do I think that photographs shot in these modes are not “true” or “good” photography. I had just discovered a passion for photography (not just food photography) and wanted to take it to the next level.

I spent a couple of months looking for answers to these questions. I asked a few friends (bloggers, non-bloggers, food and non-food photographers) and also read up as much as I could lay my hands on, because I needed to know that I wasn’t spending a few ten thousands of rupees on another camera if my P&S could give me the kind of pictures I wanted.

A lot of articles on the net convinced me I could work wonders with a P&S. That’s when I discovered that all P&S cameras are not the same. Yeah, I know most of you know this but I was pretty clueless then and thought most P&S cameras just pointed and shot! The higher end P&Ss do allow you to change aperture and shutter speeds as you choose (in the manual mode) and some of them even allow you to change the lenses which are specially made for these cameras.

Let me tell you again, if a P&S is what you have, you can still get pretty amazing pictures with it. Kamran at the Sophisticated Gourmet had a Canon Powershot A550 (same as mine, but he’s moved on to a DSLR now) and took some amazing food photographs with it.

Once you answer these questions, and probably some of your own, you should be able to decide whether you want to stay with your P&S, move onto a DSLR, or maybe just upgrade to an upper end P&S which are incidentally about as expensive as an entry level DSLR.
You might want to take a look at this post - 10 Reasons NOT to buy a DSLR camera!

If you do find some of the terms used here like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. confusing I shall try to de-mystify them as we go along the series. I would welcome your feedback about whether you found this post useful.
In the next post in this series I shall try to answer the question, “Which camera is right for me?”

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January 15, 2011

Palak Paneer (Indian Cheese In A Mild Spinach Gravy)


This is another one of those more common Indian preparations from the north which is invariably on the menu of most restaurants, small or big, that serve Punjabi or north Indian food. Almost everyone who cooks it has their own recipe for it so I don’t know if there such a thing as an authentic Palak Paneer.

Palak paneer is nothing but pan-fried fresh, soft Indian milk cheese (paneer) in a mildly spiced spinach (palak) gravy. Spinach is the stuff of Popeye’s muscles (at least it used to be when I was growing up) and is one of those vegetables which falls in the “good for you” category for parents, and the “can’t stand the stuff” category for their kids. Most children (and adults) that I know of love paneer, and I have many Indian mothers say that Palak Paneer is one way they can get their children eat spinach.




Unfortunately for me, even though my daughter can probably eat paneer for all 3 meals of the day, palak paneer is one preparation which she will avoid. If pushed to the wall, she will pick out the paneer and leave the spinach behind. She will tolerate spinach as mulagootal or in her chappathis, pooris or parathas provided it is puréed and in the dough.

So obviously, this is one of those dishes I do not cook as often as I would like to. The palak paneer in my photographs may not look very inviting, but if you like spinach then this is a great way to enjoy it. The additional of cream at the end does make a difference to the taste, but if you are going to be cooking this often you might find it healthier to leave it out. In this case, replace the cream with milk.




This is a very simple dish to make and and doesn’t require much time or effort. Here is a good video on how to make palak paneer, though the recipe is different from mine. You can use store bought paneer to make palak paneer, but you may refer to this post (or this video) if you want to make your own at home.

Palak Paneer (Indian Cheese In A Mild Spinach Gravy)

Ingredients:


2 1/2 cups puréed spinach (about 3 bunches of spinach, fresh and cleaned)*

200 gms paneer cubes

1 1/2 tbsp all purpose-flour

2 tbsp + 1 1/2 tbsp oil

1/3 cup warm milk

2 medium onions, minced

3/4 tsp ginger paste

1/2 tsp garlic paste

2 medium tomatoes, puréed

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp red chilli powder (adjust to taste)

1 tsp coriander powder

3/4 tsp cumin powder

½ tsp garam masala powder

salt to taste

2 tbsp cream (optional)



Method:


*I use fresh palak (spinach), so if you’re using the frozen variety you don’t need to this. Take the leaves of the stalks and also the tender part of the stems. Discard the rest. Wash the spinach and soak it in water, to which a heaping tsp of salt has been added, for about half an hour. This ensures that microscopic oraganisms (which didn't wash away) will be destroyed. Drain the water and wash again.

Steam cook the spinach or in the microwave, without covering it so that the spinach retains its bright green colour. Let it cool and then purée it in the blender, adding as little water as possible, till smooth.

Now prepare the paneer. Put the paneer cubes in a bowl and sprinkle the flour over it. Toss the paneer so that it is well coated with the flour. Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a non-stick pan and add the floured paneer to it. Cook the paneer, over medium heat, till it turns a golden brown. Turn the paneer so that the cubes are uniformly brown and do not cook it for too long else the paneer will turn tough and very chewy.

When it is done, take the paneer out and drop it into the warm milk. It helps if the milk is in a shallow bowl so that all the paneer is in contact with the milk. Dunking the fried paneer in milk keeps it soft. Keep aside.

Heat the remaining 1 1/2 tbsp oil in a non-stack pan. Add the onions, garlic and ginger pastes and sauté over medium heat, till the onions turn soft and the raw smell disappears. Add the turmeric, chilli, coriander and cumin powders and stir. Let this cook for a minute. Then add the tomato purée and cook this for a couple of minutes, stirring on and off.

Add the puréed spinach, the salt and the garam masala. Mix well and cook for about 3 minutes and then add the paneer cubes with milk. Stir everything gently so that the milk blends with the spinach, taking care to see the paneer doesn’t break. Cook the palak paneer for a further 2 to 3 minutes and then take it off the heat.

Ladle the palak paneer into a serving bowl and garnish with cream. Serve hot with chappathis, naan or rice. This recipe serves 4.



My best wishes for a very Happy Pongal and Makara Sankranthi to all who are celebrating, and a great weekend too.


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January 12, 2011

Chili Sem Carne (Vegetarian Chilli) With Cornbread Muffins; And The Winners Of The Giveaway Are…….


Chilli con carne (chilli with meat) is a spicy stew with meat and beans in it and definitely not vegetarian. The vegetarian version has beans and usually a choice of 2 to 3 types of vegetables (sem carne/ sin carne). Serve it with some carbohydrates (bread or rice) and you have a well-balanced meal!

What actually goes into a chilli depends on who is cooking it, but a chilli isn’t a chilli without chillies (chilli peppers)! An essentially American dish (particularly Texan) and supposedly invented by the Spanish immigrants who settled in San Antonio, the original chilli had no beans. That chilli was made by pounding together dried beef, fat, salt and chilis and dehydrated into small bricks which could be cooked into stews on the trail by cowboys, adventurers and gold miners in the 1800s.




Over the years, the chilli evolved from a simple “on the go” dish to a slightly more sophisticated stew and you now have a whole lot of variety including some without beans, those with the beans and meat, and vegetarian versions as well.
It is still a very hearty stew and is a dish that can take on whatever identity you decide to give it so long as the basic ingredients are there to qualify it as a chili. What you add to the stew makes the difference to taste but vegetarian versions use beans (you can use your favourite kind or a mixture of 2 or 3 varieties, if you wish), bell peppers, tomatoes, some vegetables, chillies and spices.

Here is my version inspired by too many recipes to mention and somewhat adapted from Emeril Lagasse. I have tried to keep true to the identity of the chilli (beans and chillies) without deviating too much in my choice of ingredients. We found the American style chilli to be a slightly less fiery and spice-wise milder version of a rajma (kidney bean curry).




One of the time held traditions seems to serve chilli with cornbread so I made some cornbread as well, but that comes later in this post. Chili can also be served with rice or bread, and I understand it is also served with spaghetti so the choice is all yours.

Chili Sem Carne (Vegetarian Chilli)




Ingredients:


1 tbsp olive oil (or oil of choice)

1 big (or 2 small onions), finely chopped

1 tsp minced garlic

1 medium red bell pepper (capsicum), chopped

1 medium yellow bell pepper (capsicum), chopped

1 small zucchini (trimmed, quartered lengthwise and diced)

2 medium carrots, cut into roundels (or halved lengthwise and diced)

2 green chillies, finely chopped

1 1/2 tbsps red chilli flakes

2 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp coriander powder

2 large tomatoes, deseeded and puréed

1/4 cup tomato ketchup

salt to taste

1 1/2 cups cooked kidney beans, drained

3/4 cup vegetable stock (or water)

1 1/2 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried thyme

2 to 3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro leaves



Method:


Heat the oil, in a large heavy pot. Add the onions and garlic and sauté till the onions become tanslucent and soft. Add the carrots, zucchini, bell peppers and the green chillies and cook, over medium heat, till the vegetables start becoming soft.

Now add the chilli flakes, cumin and coriander powders and stir, allowing them to cook for about half a minute. Add the puréed tomato, the ketchup and the salt. Stir well and add the kidney beans and the vegetable stock/ water. Stir again, and bring to a boil.

Turn down the heat a bit and allow the chilli to simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the chilli seems too thick, add a little stock (or water) to adjust the consistency.
Add the oregano, thyme and the chopped coriander. Stir a couple of times and take the chilli off the heat. Serve hot. This recipe will make 4 generous helpings. 
Cornbread Muffins



One of the recipes I tried out when I first started baking, was cornbread. The fact that I haven’t made cornbread since then should give you a pretty good idea as to how that particular recipe turned out. So what’s the big deal with making cornbread as it’s just a quick bread and not exactly the most difficult thing to make? True, but my only excuse is that back then, my baking skills must have pretty sad!





Yet, making cornbread has always been on my “to bake” list. Since I have the whole of this year ahead, hopefully I shall be able to cross off a large number of entries on that list starting with this cornbread. The only cornbread, like some other foods, I have ever tasted is the one I have made so I really do not know what an authentic one should be like. But I understand cornbread is made using the muffin method (minimal mixing of the batter) and the best cornbread is made in a cast iron skillet. It seems cornbread can be sweet, savoury or savoury with a hint of sweet depending upon preference and what it is served with.
I don’t have a cast iron skillet, and if I did have one I couldn’t have baked my cornbread in it. I have a countertop oven and it is too small to accommodate a skillet of any reasonable size. So my option is to use a cake tin or my muffin tins. Using my muffin cups seemed a good idea as it cornbread muffins are easier to serve. You could go ahead and make this in a skillet if you have one that fits your oven.




Given that my previous experience with making cornbread wasn’t the best, I decided to rein in my tendency to experiment with this recipe and just customised it to our tastes with some additions. This time my cornbread turned out lovely – crisp on the outside and golden yellow flecked with green and red, soft with a great crumb yet firm enough to slice if you choose to make it in a cake tin or skillet. Until I find a better cornbread, this is the one I’m going to be making.
Cornbread Muffins




Ingredients:


3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup of yellow cornmeal

1 tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tbsp. sugar

50gm butter, melted

1 egg

1 1/4 cup of buttermilk

(or 1 1/4 cup milk + 1 1/4 tsp white vinegar)

1/4 cup sweet corn kernels

1 small red bell pepper (capsicum), chopped finely

2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped

1/4 cup, finely chopped spring onion greens (optional)



Method:


Put the dry ingredients ( cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar) in a large bowl and whisk it to blend everything together.

In another smaller bowl, lightly whisk together the melted butter, egg and buttermilk. Pour this into the dry ingredients. Immediately uniformly sprinkle the sweet corn, red bell pepper, chillies and spring onion greens on top of this.

Using a wooden spoon/ spatula mix everything using a few strokes (about 10 turns) and a light hand till you have a reasonably well mixed batter. It should be lumpy (not smooth) and if there are small bits of cornmeal/ flour in the batter, that is alright.

Divide the batter equally between 10 greased muffin cups/ muffin pan and bake for about 18 to 20 minutes (a bit longer, 20 to 25 minutes for cornbread) at 200C (400F), till the tops turn a golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Allow the muffins to cool in the cups/ pan for about 10 minutes, loosen the edges and remove. Serve warm with the chilli or as you wish. This recipe makes 10 medium sized cornbread muffins.
My cornbread muffins are my submission for this month’s Bread BakingDay, whose 36th edition is being hosted by Girlichef.
I’m sending my vegetarian chilli to Simona who is hosting the 31st edition of My Legume Love Affair.


And the giveaway winners are .........
And now for the winners of my cookbook giveaway. The random number generator picked Suzan (who didn’t leave a link or e-mail id so I could contact her) as the winner of America’s Little Italys: Recipes And Traditions by Sheryll Bellman, and Archana (Spicyana) who won 500 Cheeses by Roberta Muir.

Congratulations ladies! Please send me your mailing addresses so that I can send you your books. If I do not hear from either of the winners in the next 10 days, I shall randomly pick someone else as the new winner(s).


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January 5, 2011

Looking Back at 2010 – Some of My Favourite Photographs


The first post here, this year, and I was thinking it ought to a bit different from the usual. I wanted to do a sort of “wrap up” as the last post for 2010 but somehow I wasn’t able to put down anything that would have been worth reading. Instead, I ended the year on this blog with a sweet note.
One is usually advised to go forward and not look back, but can there be a future without a past? So I thought it would be nice to take one last formal peek into 2010 before getting on with 2011.

2010 was mixed year for me (and for most of you, I’m sure) and I have to confess I’m glad it is over. As far as this blog goes, it has been all good. I cooked a lot more, pushed the limits with culinary discoveries and put on a few more kilos which I don't need! I discovered some really great blogs, made more virtual friends and discovered just how generous many of them are. I also achieved some fame I could have done without.

The past 3 or so years of writing this blog have made me realise that I thoroughly enjoy doing this. The one other thing that I have discovered through blogging and has become very much a part of my life is photography. I have learnt much about it in the past year and still have a long way to go. While photographing food is fun and very challenging (how many different ways can you photograph a brown lumpy looking cookie and have your viewers think it looks gorgeous?), there’s a whole world out there waiting to be discovered through the lens.

While it is not easy to pick a favourite from one’s photographs, I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of my favourite photographs from 2010 with you. They may not be the best from a technical point of view but they are special to me for personal reasons. Many of you are familiar with my food photographs, and you can see my non-food photographs as well on my Flickrstream.

For this post, I am sharing two of my photographs (one of food and one non-food) from each month of 2010. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did taking them.



JANUARY






A Friendly Face



FEBRUARY
  


Gerbera



Cape Gooseberry



MARCH





 

Divine Light

     

APRIL



Yellow Ixora


 

               


MAY



A Time To Fish


 




 JUNE

  

I Wonder....


 

   Dal Tadka



JULY



A Red Rose






AUGUST






Urban Development



SEPTEMBER



Orchids






OCTOBER






A Lone Bench



NOVEMBER



Man And His Boat






DECEMBER



Butterfly






Thank you for the comments about the new look here. I am happy to know that you all liked it as much as I do.


I would also like to remind you all that I am giving away two books and the giveaway is open till the 7th of January, 2011, and I will ship worldwide. If you would like to take a chance on winning, and haven’t done so yet, please leave a comment at the giveaway post.


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