Chocolate Bread, and Starting Traditions

I never say that I am a remarkable parent (I do, sometimes), but I also never highlight the mistakes I have made as a mother. For example, I could have tried harder to introduce more vegetables into Jahan's diet early on. With family members who don't feel full if they don't eat meat, it isn't often that I cook vegetables. It is a rare day in our household when the dinner menu is entirely vegetarian. Moreover, I was a working mother. Yes, yes, I read all the books that said "give your baby everything," but I discovered that she liked rice and chicken, so I got into a rut. I am frequently in a food rut myself. And to be honest, I didn't discover vegetables until I started going to college here in America. As a child, I remember my youngest sister complained one day upon finding lentils for dinner, "It seems I have forgotten what chicken even looks like." Drama, I am afraid, runs in the family. 

It is time to confess something - when I say that my baby eats everything, what I really mean is that she eats everything as long as it consists of meat and/or grains and/or select fruits and/or desserts. Yep, no vegetables (unless you count potato). We have made progress - a few days ago, she smelled a piece of broccoli before throwing it away. That is an improvement from holding it and tossing it straight away. 

In an attempt to get her more interested in different foods, her auntie and I are inducting her into the kitchen. Jahan's aunt programs her cooking excursions in a more controlled manner, namely she chops vegetables for an omelet every weekend, and Jahan adds them to the egg. She then adds spices that her aunt measures out for her and mixes everything together. Tadah! Omelet! I have a slightly different method. It's no secret that I love to bake. My best friend and Goll Gappay's official photographer, Rebecca, gave me this amazing cookbook on my birthday that I had been wanting for a very, very long time, The Cake Bible. I have only tried two recipes from it, and they are both divine! The second recipe, chocolate bread, has become a household favorite. Jahan particularly loves it. So, what I do is this: I bake, and I give Jahan some steel mixing bowls with a cup of lentils or beans in them. She takes either a steel spoon or a wooden spatula and pretends to cook while I get all the ingredients ready for the bread. It's a quiet time of concentration and bonding, each of us absorbed in our tasks, mine more real than hers. It almost always gets more noisy in the end. Jahan scatters the contents of her bowls on the floor and then pretends to clean the mess with her toy broom (which is surprisingly effective, I often sweep the floor with it). 

At the very least, I hope that Jahan will acquire a love for cooking as we do more together in the kitchen. Gradually, maybe she will start to measure out ingredients for me. Perhaps we will bake cupcakes together one day, or bake a cake. At best, we will transition into making salads and grilling vegetables and she will expand the boundaries of her palette. At least I hope so. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Broken Promises & A Birthday Party

I know, I know, what was I thinking? A post a day? Every day? For a whole month? I must have been half asleep when I bound myself in that promise. But I had a pretty good run. 9 days. That's not bad, right?

Somewhere along the one-post-per-day discipline that I tried so hard to inculcate in myself, I realized that I definitely don't want to post for the sake of posting. Who am I to think that my anxieties matter to my readers. I can almost feel people rolling their eyes, cringing even, "Who does she think she is, anyway? Hey, you, yes, you, no one cares about your panic attacks. Get a hold of yourself and write a real post!" Oh, alright. Not every day then, because I can't possibly explore little matters that matter every single day and articulate them well enough to share with all of you. Every other day, then. Or as often as I am able to. I will do my daily writing exercises every night, though, once I get started on Story-Starters

So, that was a very round-about, self-involved (in the disguise of self-deprecating humor) way of making my apologies. Shall we move on?

I have a habit of setting myself up for failure. Spinning this positively, I can say that I am habitually ambitious to the point of exhausting myself. Yes, I will post every day. Of course I will exercise every afternoon. Sure, doing an hour of Zumba is a piece of cake. Yes, I will bake a 2-tier cake for my baby's second birthday and do the decorations and work on the favors and be the perfect hostess. Whew! Unrealistic expectations result in the realization of only one of two possibilities: Making a Herculean effort to do the things I have committed to doing, or failing spectacularly in the process, resulting in - yep, you guessed it - broken promises. 

So, no more forced posts (or impulsive promises). I will try to make meaningful and thoughtful appearances in this space, rather than hurried and dutiful ones. 

But while we're on the subject of my two-year-old's birthday, it was quite a success if I do say so myself (only because I had a HUGE amount of help and support from friends and family). It took me weeks to envision and plan it so I had everything matching my imagination with exactitude. The weather was perfect; Balmy and bright after a cold spell in mid-October, the colors of Fall already peeking in through the foliage, a slight breeze cooling off the guests as they enjoyed the barbecue and ran after their toddlers. The birthday girl had a wonderful time, which was only part of the goal, of course. If I am to be entirely honest, I planned the day because I wanted to throw a damn good party. I hate celebrating my own birthday with pizazz, but love putting together celebrations for other people. And this is the little love of my life we're talking about. She will get her mother's tireless efforts thrown into creating memorable birthday parties for her every year. Little baby girl - already two years old. Who knows how much longer I will be able to exercise my vision and plans for her parties. Pretty soon she's going to want a trip to Disney on Ice with her friends for her birthday rather than an elaborate barbecue in the park that her mother agonizes over for weeks. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, however. For now, pictures of the beautiful day.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Unequal Infinities and Chocolate-Raspberry Layer Cake

“I am not a mathematician, but I know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
-John Green in The Fault in Our Stars
Though the idea of some infinities being bigger than others in John Green's new YA novel The Fault in Our Stars has to do with two terminally ill teenagers finding "forever" in a terribly finite amount of time, it made me reflect - not on anything in particular, nothing grand and monumental like My Life or My Past, but a superficial touch upon the surface of memories, like the gentle patter of rain against a tin roof. 

"Some infinities are bigger than other infinities." If a moment stands crisp in my memory like the clarion call of a church bell clanging, does it transcend time in a way, does it occupy an infinite continuum within the finite reserves of my consciousness - because, let's say a strong emotion exists forever, infinitely, then haven't I, on occasion, created my own small infinities? Hasn't everybody?

Last week, I attempted to make Bon Appetit's Chocolate-Raspberry Layer Cake. It was the most complicated dessert recipe I have tried so far, and I had chosen the wrong day for it. It was difficult for me to focus last Wednesday. My family was all around me, the day was warm, my baby was circling around and through my legs like a cat, and my kitchen was a mess, full of clutter and noise and people. I positively revel in the concentration it takes to bake a good cake. I like being vigilant about each step so my cake doesn't fail. It allows me to focus on something other than myself, which means, I may be baking in my kitchen, but I am not there, not really. So, if you call my name a few times and I don't answer, it's not because I am ignoring you, but because I am in the zone, detached, far away, unwound. But last week, I was simply not achieving that state of heavy-lidded, slack-jawed convergence on the cake, and so, since my body did not relax on its own, I decided to dip a finger into my imaginary Pensieve and search for a memory to stabilize me. 

I was 10 or 11 years old when I baked my first cake. It was such a complete catastrophe that I did not attempt to bake a dessert from scratch again until recently. So last week, as I felt my concentration lapsing and my Chocolate Raspberry Layer Cake inching closer and closer to a similar fate of failure, I transported myself away from the noise, from the laughter around me, from the warm afternoon sun filtering in through the window and falling relentlessly on my neck, from the jangling pans and scattered flour and cocoa powder on the counter - snow and sand. I was instead in my mother's cool kitchen, dimly lit because of the neighbor's wall blocking the sun. The small 4-seater wooden dining table was littered with mixing bowls, bags of flour and sugar, eggshells, dirty spatulas. My sisters were bursting in and out of the kitchen excitedly. "Is it ready yet?" It was a November afternoon, my mother's birthday. I spent hours on the preparation. It was a basic yellow cake - I remember the amber color of the finished product that smelled of eggs and felt like a small boulder. It was my first personal failure. And what did I do? Well, of course I decorated the cake and served it. I simply could not accept that my creation was anything less than worthy of being served and enjoyed.

I wonder if that was overconfidence or faith in myself or both. I wonder if there is a way to channel it again, the absolute conviction that what I had achieved was good, or at least good enough. Instead, in my kitchen last week, I was wringing my hands, wiping small beads of sweat from my forehead, disappointed in myself for not being able to pull off the Bon Appetit recipe successfully. Whereas the ten-year-old me not only served the cake, but also insisted that the whole family taste it, last week, the present me haplessly tried to reassure herself. "It's OK, it's OK, it's OK." It was OK in the end. More than OK, actually, the cake was delicious, but I realized something: I doubt myself now. I don't just factor failure into the equations of my endeavors as a possibility - I consider it to be a likely outcome. There is a subtle difference between the two, but it's enough to make me hold back, shy away, and say, "No, this is not for me." 

After hearing my family praise my cake, I leaned against my clean kitchen counter and unspooled an infinitely long thread backwards in time. I touched that little girl who exists in the small infinity of my yellow cake disaster memory. "How are you not afraid of failing?" I asked. But she didn't hear me. I looked closely at her. "I know you," I whispered. She watched the ingredients in front of her with heavy lids and a slack jaw. She wasn't there, not really. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Chocolate Sponge Cake

I am still keeping up with my planned 1 recipe per week from Bon Appetit, but did not blog about it last week. I cook every Monday night, so I hope to have the associated entry up the following week. 

Two weeks ago, I baked Chocolate Sponge Cake, which turned out great! I took it to work and asked people to give feedback. "Is there anything I should change?" I asked. One of my co-workers said "No, just keep bringing it in!"

This cake was more challenging than Fallen Chocolate Cake. One little hiccup was that I didn't have a 9x13 baking pan, so I ended up using two 9'' round pans and layered them. The icing was rich and glossy. I served the cake at room temperature. 

I am having a wonderful experience with all these Bon Appetit recipes. We will be taking a break from dessert for a while, though, and the next couple of food-related entries will be savory. 

The reality of the BA 1-recipe/week entries is that they are more visually appealing because of the pictures rather than intellectually stimulating because of the content. Enjoy Rebecca's amazing photography of my successful Chocolate Sponge Cake. Try the Bon Appetit recipe, and don't forget to let me know how much you love the cake once you polish off a few slices. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Fallen Chococolate Cake, A Sick Baby, And Solace in Baking

Last week, Jahan came down with a terrible cold. She had a high fever, which probably persisted for a day longer than it should have because I was fretting as mothers are wont to do. On Monday afternoon, haggard after taking care of a sick baby, carting her to the pediatrician's office, pleading with her to eat something, anything, even fries, for god's sake, I heaved a sigh of relief when Rebecca came over. With Jahan fitfully napping, I began to bake Fallen Chocolate Cake featured in Bon Appetit. Slowly, as the day wore on and the cake took shape, I began to feel better. The sense of being overwhelmed began to recede. "Babies gets sick all the time, right? She's just fine. It's just a fever. We're fine," I kept saying to myself (and to Rebecca, who good-naturedly agreed with my ramblings, validating and encouraging me by turns).

This new-found passion for baking came on rather strongly, I must admit. One day, I baked banana bread and blogged about it, and almost immediately afterwards, I was drawn to baking, which I previously detested. Part of the reason may be that I have found I am not dreadful at it, which is to say I am a better baker than I had previously anticipated. The other, and I suspect the more pertinent reason may be that I have discovered baking to be a stress-reliever for me, much like cooking (and writing). It is the distraction it provides from the rest of the day, from the daily pressures of being...well, me...paired with the tangible results I see in the form of a rising cake, thickening heavy cream, the happy faces of the people I love when they taste it, which makes it so rewarding. It allows me to forget about everything else and devote my attention completely to a piece of paper with just a few different ingredients whose chemistry upon combining together creates delicious results. And this is why I feel rested despite being on my feet stirring, chopping, frosting, et cetera, while cooking and baking.

The cake turned out great - you all must try it. It is rich and smooth and creamy. The chocolate melts in your mouth. The whipped cream frosting is a wonderful accompaniment to the richness of the chocolate. And it's beautiful to look at. 

Before I could serve dessert, however, there was that little matter of cooking dinner.  So I cheated and served something that required minimal preparation - shami kebabs with roti (ah, the hardy roti - it requires a post of its own) and a cucumber and red onion salad. Jahan woke up, ate a little, and even had some dessert. We were fine. Just fine.    

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Baking to Stay Hopeful

I baked almost every day this week as Pakistan geared towards elections (May 11). For the first time, the youth of the country mobilized, marched out into the streets in sweltering heat to vote for change. All day today, I sat in bed with a nasty cold and refreshed my computer screen constantly to see how the race was going.

The results were disappointing, not only because the candidate I was supporting didn't win, but also because there was mass-scale rigging and outright sabotage at the polls, which was caught on camera - facebooked, tweeted, posted on national and international news websites.

Tonight, on the eve of Mother's Day, in order to remain hopeful and keep a strong faith that my country is indeed well on its way towards a positive change, I decided to bake Joy the Baker's White Chocolate Rose Cake with Strawberries. Unfortunately, Rebecca wasn't here to take pictures, so I have to subject you to my poor photography using the mediocre camera of my phone.

 Rebecca came by yesterday and took the photos below (edited: 5/13/2013).

Chai - & - Announcing 1-recipe/week from Bon Appetit

Chai has featured more or less consistently in my writing. A series of poems I have written and posted on Desi Writers Lounge is called Chai and a Poem. The poems aren't all about chai, but doesn't it create a powerful image? A cup of steaming chai next to a piece of paper with words scribbled on it that make a poem - a few phrases married to each other to create compelling meaning. Most of the prose I have written recently has chai in it - a girl sitting on her balcony sipping a cup of chai, watching the city breathing, writhing, teeming below her; a woman breaking the coat of milk-fat forming on top of her chai and wondering if this is how her relationship with her father is breaking apart - one touch of a finger and a million cracks running all over the thin wrinkled brown layer; a boy and girl on a rooftop in Lahore during Basant, the festival of kites, a teacup breaking as it slips and falls between them, a meet-cute. I use chai consistently in my poems, too. The brown ring of chai left on a glass-top table, a reminder of somebody no longer there. Burnt chai. Strong chai. Weak chai. Chai the color of someone's skin. Chai that burns. Chai that soothes. Chai that reminds you there is much to live for yet. Not long ago, my good friend, the amazing Editor of Papercuts, and humorous blogger Afia Aslam asked me, "Why didn't we call your blog Chai and a poem?"

There is something inspiring about this humble drink. It is a beverage that crosses all class barriers in Pakistan. The cleaning girl, the errand boy, the washerwoman, the driver - they may have a separate set of china for their chai, but it is poured out of the same pot as Bibi Jee's or Sahib's. It is what sells year-round on the street in chipped porcelain cups (or small narrow glasses if you're across the Wagah Border). Every home has a way of brewing it. And when guests arrive, the hosts ask, "Chai? Thanda?" (Chai or something cold?). Until recently, my image of an arranged marriage, which is common in Pakistan, was one of a demure young lady wheeling a tea trolley with kebabs, samosas, scones, pastries, and the queen of the arrangement, chai in a majestic teapot, to the drawing room.

The oft-overlooked, humble chai is quite an inspiration. If you don't believe me, just look at the pictures Rebecca took!

Chai is the first thing I really learned how to "cook." I spent a long time coming up with just the right recipe. The best kind of milk (whole milk), the right amount of Lipton Yellow Label Orange Pekoe (sorry, PG Tips), the perfect additions (crushed green cardamom), and the right length of boiling. I mastered it. It's what I did on stressful afternoons back in Davis with an exam looming in the near future. It physically made me overcome my stress, relaxed my tense muscles one by one, made me realize it was going to be OK. It was strangely therapeutic for me, this act of making the perfect cup of chai. And now I feel the same way about cooking (and maybe even baking).

This is my perfect cup of chai
And this is a great segue to the second part of this post - the announcement! I will be cooking 1 recipe per week from past issues of Bon Appetit magazine that have been accumulating in my kitchen for over a year now. Posts will be labeled with the "1-recipe/week from Bon Appetit" tag. I will be cooking on Mondays and posting pictures (taken by Rebecca), an accompanying blog post, and a link to the recipe by the end of each week - Friday-ish. Stay tuned for....drumroll please....Fallen Chocolate Cake....coming soon!

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The Secret Banana Bread

I have always maintained that I am not a baker. 

I enjoy the intuition that accompanies cooking. I love the vibrant colors of my spices, the flourish of a spatula as it scrapes the bottom of a pan when I stir - a smooth stroke, the smell of onions caramelizing, garlic roasting, chilies sizzling, the crunch of seeds and sticks of spices grinding underneath my marble pestle, the feel of dough between my fingers as I knead it, and the sight of roti swelling with steam as I put it on the open flame. 

I do not enjoy the clutter of measuring cups, the tedious tasks of lining and buttering baking pans, preparing ingredients separately (wet and dry), and sitting idly while the oven does its magic. I know baking is therapeutic for some people, but it has always been an annoying task for me. This is why I have never served homemade dessert when I entertain (and I do a lot of that). Dessert always comes as an afterthought to me. I plead with my husband to run to the store and buy some ice-cream. For birthdays, I order expansive (and expensive) custom cakes because they are gorgeous and I can never pull off anything even close to what they look and taste like. Plus, I don't have a sweet tooth. Yes, I know I am very, very strange. 

Almost two years ago, our youngest sister came to visit us for the first time. And boy, does she love sweets. And so, for her, I decided to revive an old recipe of banana bread I had tried years ago with marginally good results. Little did I know that trying this recipe would actually lead to a mission to make the best banana bread possible. After much experimentation, some of it fun, some of it bordering on unpleasant, I have now come up with a foolproof recipe with two secret ingredients that I am about to reveal. This banana bread is loved and devoured by all, including the baby.

I hope you'll try it and give me your feedback!

All purpose flour - 2 cups
Dark brown sugar - 1 cup
Large eggs - 2
Ripe bananas - 3 to 4
Unsalted butter - 1 stick
Ground cinnamon - 1 teaspoon
 Salt - 1 teaspoon
Baking soda - 1 teaspoon
Baking powder - 1 teaspoon
Half and half (or milk) - 1 tablespoon
Chocolate chips - half a small packet (I just eyeball them)

Secret ingredients (obviously no longer a secret now that they are on this blog):
Vanilla essence - 1 teaspoon
Ground nutmeg - 1 teaspoon

Pre-heat oven to 325 F and prepare a loaf pan for baking.
Mix the brown sugar with butter to make a creamy mixture
Mash in the bananas.
Add two eggs, one at a time, and mix in.
Add milk and vanilla and mix
In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
Mix the dry and wet ingredients together. 
Add chocolate chips and mix. This will be a thick creamy mixture. 
Transfer it into the loaf pan and bake for 60 to 65 minutes.
Cool for at least an hour before slicing.   

Enjoy with a cup of cardamom chai.