Saturday, April 27, 2013

The 'We Knead to Bake Project' 2013 - Torcettini di St. Vincent

I've always dreaded the third time I undertake any project, there usually seems to be a jinx associated after that.. 3 weeks of working out in the gym, or following a dietary regimen, three baking tasks etc. . the 'We knead to bake project was no exception. Even as  I took it lightly that the 24th of the month was some ways of, BAM!.. it crept up before I knew it and I had no cookies to show for it. Of course there was no way I was going to let a bad case of the common cold let me miss this session, so better late than never, Here is the recipe that Aparna Balasubramanian picked out for April - Torcettini di St. Vincent.

So what is a Torcettini? Its believed that the cookie originated as a variation of the classic Italian breadstick, the Grissini. A baker in Valle d'Aosta had some leftover butter that he decided to incorporate into  his last batch of dough,shaped it into a twist, and rolled it in sugar to differentiate it from the regular bread sticks & voila, the torcettini was born. The cookies probably soared in popularity when Queen Margaret, the wife of King Umberto of Savoy, loved these so much that she directed her kitchen staff to always keep an abundant supply of the ingredients to make this whenever she wanted.

The cookies have a lovely crunchy exterior that gives way to a chewy center, reminiscent of pretzels except that they are sweet from the sugar crystals with just a touch of saltiness from the dough.

Torcettini di Saint Vincent:

(Adapted from 'A Baker's Tour' by Nick Malgieri)

You need:

1/2 cup warm water, about 110F

1 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (or 1 tsp instant yeast)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoon cocoa powder (if making chocolate torcettini)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lime/ lemon zest (replace with orange zest for the chocolate version)
40gm unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
about 1/3 cup  Turbinado cane sugar for rolling the cookies


Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, in a small bowl and keep aside.

Put the flour and the salt in the food processor bowl (or a largish regular bowl if kneading by hand) and pulse a couple of times to mix. Add the butter pieces and pulse until the butter is well mixed and the flour-butter mixture looks powdery.

If making chocolate Torcettini, remove 2 tbsp all-purpose flour and add the 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder mentioned in the recipe. Don’t add the lemon zest/ anise. Use orange zest and maybe add 1/ 2 tsp instant coffee powder with the flour.

Add the yeast-water mixture and pulse till it all comes together as a ball. Do not over process or knead. Place the ball of dough in a oiled bowl, turning it so it is well coated with the oil. Cover the bowl, and let the dough rise quite a bit.
This dough does not really double in volume, but it should look “puffy” after about an hour or so. When you pinch off a bit from the top you can see the interior looking a bit like honeycomb. Press down the dough and deflate it, wrap it in plastic film and refrigerate it for at least an hour or up to 24 hours.

When ready to make the cookies, take the dough out and lightly roll it out into an approximately 6” square. If the dough feels sticky, scatter a little sugar on it. Using a pizza wheel cut the dough into four strips of equal width. Cut each strip into 6 equal pieces, by cutting across, making a total of 24 pieces. The measurements are not very critical in this part because this just makes it easier to have 24 equal sized bits of dough, as compared to pinching of bits of the dough.

Roll each piece into a pencil thick “rope” about 5” long. Sprinkle a little sugar on your work surface and roll the “rope” in it so the sugar crusts the dough uniformly. Form the “rope” into a loop crossing it over before the ends.

Place the Torcettini on parchment lined baking sheets, leaving 1 1/2" between them. Leave them for about 20 minutes or so till they rise/ puff up slightly. Don’t worry, they will not “puff up” much.

Bake them at 160C (325F) for about 25 minutes till they’re a nice golden brown. Cool the cookies completely, on a rack. Store them in an air-tight container at room temperature.

  Serve as a tea time snack with a piping hot cup of Cafe au Lait or tea.

Bon Appetit!

Some tips to keep in mind:
Once your Torcettini have been shaped, don’t let them rise for longer than 20 minutes. If you do, your Torcettini will more bread-like on the inside due to the extra “rise”.
  To make sure the Torcettini dough does not rise for more than 20 minutes, it’s a good idea to work on shaping the 2nd batch while the first batch is in the oven.

A Gorgeous set of Pewter measuring spoons I picked up at my neighborhood yard sale!

This recipe is being Yeastspotted.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Good wishes for 'Vishu' - Happy New Year!

The second week of April generally marks the New Year in many Indian communities. Baisakhi (Punjab), Rongali Bihu (Assam) , Ugadi (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka), Gudi Padwa (Maharashtra), Varsha Pirappu & Vishu in Tamil Nadu and Kerala respectively. The week marks the passage of the Sun into the constellation Aries, and as with all other Indian festivals its marked by plenty of food as religious offerings. There is one particular tradition that makes Vishu an annual event to remember. Its referred to as the 'Vishu Kani' . The Lady of the house has a cornucopia of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and dals along with money and jewelry arrange in a beautiful 'Uruli' (An artisanal cooking pot made with a bell metal alloy).In the centre of the dish is a mirror and large Lamps are lit. Children are led to the prayer room where the Kani is arranged and are asked to open their eyes to view themselves in the mirror. The belief is that it is auspicious to open ones eyes to prosperity first thing in the morning. The head of the family then hands out the 'Kaineetam' gifts of Money and new clothes (Oh yeah, Its just like Christmas!). For a detailed version of the festival, I'm going to refer you to Ammini Ramachandran's informative article in Zesterdaily.

One of the classic desserts served up for a traditional Kerala Vishu feast is the Parippu payasam (a coconut milk and toasted mung based pudding sweetened with Jaggery) and a decadent Jam-like Pate made from Mango or Jackfruit. I hit it lucky this time around when I found some perfectly ripened Jack fruit at my local Indian grocery and converted it into this delightful dish with help from Mrs. Ramachandran's recipe from her book 'Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts'

The chakkai varatti (as the jackfruit pate is called in Malayalam) in  my recipe is used as a filling in a sweet ravioli, Its a delicious dessert morsel to savor warm with just a dusting of powdered sugar, or for an elegant plated dessert, you may serve the ravioli over a layer of traditional Paruppu payasam. Since the sweetness in both the payasam and the jam come from the same jaggery, this tends to confer a singular note. To counter this I've added some spice through the addition of Ginger (I used powder, but adding juice from the fresh root will work beautifully as well).

Chakka Varatti: (makes a little over 1 cup)
(Jackfruit Pate - Recipe from Grains, greens and grated coconuts by Ammini Ramachandran -I've reduced the quantity of Jaggery as per my personal preference. The original recipe calls for equal amounts of fruit and Jaggery, and ~1 cup of ghee )

You need:

3 cups jackfruit (fresh or canned)
2 cups crumbled Jaggery (Gud)
1/2 cup Ghee
1 cup water

Cut the Jack fruit into thin strips (deseeding the fresh pieces of fruit from the entire chunk needs another blog post and I'll save it for later, in the mean time go ahead and get yourself  2-3 cans of the ripe fruit from the local Oriental grocery).  If you do opt for the fresh fruit, do save the seeds, they taste just like chestnuts when roasted.

Add the strips to the water in a heavy bottom pan and gradually bring to a boil. once the fruit has softened enough to mashup when squeezed between the thumb and index finger, Mash the pieces thoroughly using the back of a wooden ladle. (Alternatively you could use an immersion blender, but that tends to completely puree the cooked fruit, resulting in a smooth pate) 

Once the mixture has reduced in volume by about a third, add the crumbled Jaggery (test for sweetness as the canned fruit can be cloyingly sweet from the syrup ) and cook down the mixture on low heat, constantly stirring the bubbling liquid. I use a spatter shield as a guard to prevent any drops from scalding me accidentally. Add the ghee gradually by the tablespoonful and let it get incorporated into the thick paste. As the water evaporates, the Pate begins to leave the sides of the pan and you can see the ghee sizzling at the edges. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before transferring into a glass jar for storage.

Paruppu Payasam:
I used a pressure cooker to make the payasam but making it in a conventional pan is equally easy.

 You need:

1/3 cup crumbled Jaggery loosely packed.
1/4 cup yellow mung dal, toasted golden
1 can coconut milk

1 tablespoon powdered ginger or 1 tablespoon ginger extract from the fresh root
½ tsp Cardamom powder

Pressure cook the toasted mung dal till soft. Mash well and add the jaggery, ginger and coconut milk. bring to a boil and immediately lower the heat to a simmer and allow the flavors of the ingredients to combine well (~ 10 minutes). Allow to cool down and chill until ready to serve.

For the Ravioli:

1 cup All purpose flour + some more for dusting
1/4 cup 2 % milk
a pinch of salt
Knead into a soft dough.


Store bought Wonton wrappers
Chilled Chakkai Varatti
Sesame Oil or Ghee for deep frying
1 teaspoon chickpea flour whisked with 2 oz milk for brushing

Spoon  bits of the  chakka varatti and roll them between your well oiled palms and set aside on a plate

Divide the dough into two and roll out 2 equal sized rectangles Setting aside one piece, lightly brush one rectangle of  with the chickpea / milk mixture (this helps in sealing the two pieces of dough. Arrange the Chakkai varatti potions over the dough leaving ample space between the filling. Place the other sheet of dough over the pieces and, using your fingers, lightly press down to expel any air trapped between the layers of dough. Using a ravioli press stamp out the ravioli and arrange in a single layer on a plate. If you opt for the readymade wonton wrappers, then use 2 wrappers to make the ravioli as shown in the photograph below.


Heat oil / Ghee in a cast iron pan. Once the oil gets hot fry each ravioli one at a time.

To plate, Spoon a layer of the chilled payasam in a bowl. Place a couple of the fried ravioli and dust with microplaned pistachio,  Or serve the Payasam on the side.

Plated version 1

Plated Version 2

For a homely casual version, Allow the Ravioli to soak and soften in the Payasam and serve chilled. I call this version 'Zuppa Keralese con ravioli'!!

Wishing all my readers in India a Wonderful, happy & prosperous New Year!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Food Bloggers against Hunger - Thriving 3 ways on 4.00$ a day

'Anna daata Sukhi Bhava' (May the person who supplies food, live well & prosper) - This is a blessing in sanskrit that is uttered at the end of every meal. It thanks not only the creator, but also the individuals who helped create a satisfying meal that enables others to thrive, the farmer who nurtured the crops, the grocer who made it accessible and the chef who cooked the ingredients into an unforgettable meal.

Hunger extends beyond culture, class race and species. Food is one of the four 'F's that every creature on earth is neurologically programmed by evolution & nature to seek in order to survive (the others being Fight, Flight and the 'F' word that describes the path to reproduction). 

For those of us fortunate enough to go grocery shopping at the drop of a hat , especially those of us who live in the US of A ('oh, no, I'm running short of Plugra butter or Olive oil of a XYZ terroir'). We've almost forgotten that evolution programmed humans to expect food shortages,  where the term 'seasonal' is used in an artisan sense, and fat, colorful  plump produce is nothing but a grocery store hop away. It makes it all the more shameful that we as Americans, are unaware of a dirty secret, that almost 1 in 2 of our children will at some time in their life teeter on the brink of hunger. Shame regarding this (after all, every parent takes pride in ensuring that their children are well fed & clothed) drives this issue further underground. Just take a look at this trailer of the documentary 'A place at the table' from Participant media and it will give you an idea of how bad the situation is.

Growing up in India in the 1970's and 80's, I remember stories that my mother used to tell me about my grandmothers sense of generosity to anyone who worked as a household help. She would give away bushels of grain and vegetables that were grown on the family land without giving it a second thought. Her reasoning was that 'this person leaves behind her children just so that they can earn a living working for our family'. At no point of time should those children ever feel or get an inkling of regret that they went hungry because their mother/father was off helping out someone else for that negative energy would ultimately settle upon my grandmothers family. It was downright sacrilegious to waste food, doing so was akin to insulting Annapoorna, The guardian deity of one of the worlds oldest cities, Benaras who is revered the goddess of food (Annam- Food, poorna- one who grants). 

Fast forward to this day and age when Children are ordered to throw out food into the garbage at school simply because they did not have the means to pay. To me this is feels criminal on two fronts. Depriving a hungry kid is bad enough, but that the food would be tossed into the trash is even worse.

It was a simpler time when fancy ingredients were out of reach for most of us middle class kids, but healthy food was taken for granted even if was the quintessential Dal Chawal or Dal Roti (lentils  with either rice or Roti), served with a side of sauteed vegetables and a toasted lentil wafer known as paapad. Even today, this most elemental of Indian dishes is on the top of my comfort food list. And believe it or not, the nutritive value and flavor is matched only by its budget friendliness. The portions I made for my recipe were enough for 4 generous servings, all within a 4.00$ budget that food stamps allow for.

I opted to pick Lentils (known as 'masoor' in Hindi) as my protein source simply to showcase the variety available. From the common dehusked orange variety, all the way to the exquisite looking caviar like (and pricey!) black Beluga lentils.

Its unfair and cruel to preach to a hungry individual about nuances of cooking, when all they seek is eat a healthy balanced meal without resorting to borderline fake processed prepacked garbage that is so commonly found on supermarket shelves. Rather a simple guiding hand towards good wholesome food, and it paves the way for healthier and happier individuals who are better equipped to overcome other hurdles that they face in life.

The basic recipe for a Lentil dal has infinite possibilities for incorporating various flavors. At the basic level, onions sauteed to the point of caramelization add a meaty flavor with minimal help from other spices. Add a sprinkle of practically any spice blend and it transforms into a vehicle of flavor, transporting one to the culinary trends of different varied lands. I'll include a list of spice blends that I have used while making multiple variations of the same basic dal at the end of the recipe along with other healthy dishes that can be made with commonly found ingredients.

Dal Chawal (Rice and lentils) Serves 3-4

You need (for the rice):

1 cup rice (any short grained, or Jasmine)
3 cups water
1 pinch of salt
1/2 tablespoon oil or butter

Wash and rinse the rice. Heat the oil in a 3 qt pan and add the rice. On medium heat, saute the rice until it turns opaque.

Add the water, stir to ensure that no grains are stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bring the liquid to a boil and turn down the heat to low. Cover with a lid and allow the rice to cook until all the liquid is absorbed (~ 15 min). Use a fork to fluff the grains.

Plain Dal:

1 cup Split red Masoor lentils
3-4 cups water
2 tablespoons oil 
1 teaspoon cumin  seeds
2 large onions, grated
1-2 cloves garlic minced finely
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 pinch turmeric powder 
Saltto taste
 1/2 teaspoon of your choice of spice blend (curry powder, garam masala...)
Chopped cilantro or dill weed for garnish
2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice

Rinse and drain the Lentils. Add the water along with the turmeric and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and cook until soft but not completely mushed up (~ 15 mins)
In a deep skillet, heat the oil and add the cumin when the oil gets hot and begins to shimmer. Add the garlic and grated onion. On a medium heat, saute the until the onion just begins to caramelize. Add the tomato paste along with the turmeric, salt and spice blend. adding a sprinkle of water to deglaze if the tomato sticks to the bottom of the pan, stir until the tomato paste loses its raw aroma. Add the cooked lentils and stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning. remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and garnish with cilantro or dill. Serve warm over rice.

 Or simply by itself as a hearty stew,

Or puree the dal (prior to adding the lime juice and cilantro) and strain to obtain a delicious soup. Add a dash of sour cream or yogurt prior to serving.

 I have made variations galore on the dal, some of the spice blends I've tried are Moroccan Harrissa, Ethiopean Berbere, Ras el Hanout as well as the occasional dab of Thai red curry paste. The possibilities are endless, but the dish is as comforting as ever.
The Orange lentils retail for about 1.69 / lb even for the high end organic variety and its about 2 cups (which would serve 6). Jasmine or any other short grain non fancy rice such as jasmine retails for 12.00 for a 20 lb bag (about 40 cups of uncooked rice at ~ 60 c / lb). Thats potentially 6 meals right there, not counting the other staples that need only be used in tiny quantities.

Some other dishes that can be made within a budget:

Pongal: A kedgeree of rice and lentils spiced with powdered cumin and pepper, the leftovers can be transformed into a delicious snack with the addition of some bread crumbs.
Vegan Potato Latkes:

Rajma: The North Indian version of the hearty Chili made with Kidney beans
Potato Patty sticks: Boiled spuds and stale bread give rise to this kid friendly snack
Black eyed peas Curry, this is yet another protein rich hearty curry that my family loves sopping up with a bread roll or rice.

To Nicole Gulotta & her team at, Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to be part of this fabulous mission. Deep in my heart I do believe that there will be people who will have benefited from this noble cause and in their happiness will be embedded that little blessing 'Anna daata sukhi Bhava'. and this genuine offering of goodwill will help in making the world a better place for everyone.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cous Cous a la 'Pohe'

' As easy as it is to pack on the pounds, it is as difficult to shed it. '

While its easy to use the above line as an excuse, there is no mistaking the fact that putting on weight is not an overnight process. It took me over 2 years and a liberal dose of happy go lucky noshing (on my own creations) to pack on 25 lbs (& thanks to Weight Watchers, it had taken me just 3 months to lose the same amount which I managed to keep off even through a pregnancy & childbirth. ). Through all the dissections of what is good and what is bad, emerges one indubitable fact: Carbohydrates are highly addictive and the take home message is to try and shed the cravings. (which is easier said than done!)
Personally, It turns out that rice is my bogeyman. Its been quite easy to restrict myself to 2 phulka roties (Plain chapati made w/o any ghee brushed on) whenever I make them for a meal, but with rice, any fledgling thought of trying to measure out portions is automatically suppressed by 'god knows what' gluttony center in my brain! As hard as it is to resist the aroma of fresh rice, I'm training myself to avoid it all together, except as a 'treat' once in two weeks. Results: 3 lbs down in 2 weeks without  any other restrictions!  

Aloo Poha (flattened rice with sauteed potatoes) is an irresistible beloved breakfast dish in western India. 

Thanks to a series of photographs posted by Chef Suvir Saran on Facebook yesterday, the temptation to indulge in rice (in its alternate, yet equally addictive form -- Poha or flattened rice). Maybe it was a stroke of luck that all I had on hand was about 2 tablespoons of scrappy poha crumbs in a big empty bag and right next to it was a pack of tricolored cous cous that I had picked up at Kalustyans over the weekend.

I found myself savoring a perfectly delicious healthy lunch while satisfying the craving for the  traditional flavors of Aloo poha. 

This is definitely one proverbial cake I could have AND eat!

Cous Cous a la 'Pohe' (makes ~ 3 generous servings, ~ 5 Weight watchers plus points)

You need:
1 cup uncooked cous cous
1 cup finely diced red onion (or Shallots)
1 cup peeled and diced potato
1 cup diced sweet peppers 

1.5 tablespoon sesame or olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pinch asafetida

1 birds eye chili, sliced
1 teaspoon minced ginger root
1 sprig curry leaf, torn
Kosher Salt to taste
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Chopped Cilantro for garnish
juice of 1/2 a lime.

Add about 1/2 inch of water in a wide pan (an Indian pressure cooker pan works great) and place a steamer basket. Place the cous cous on a fine sieve and thoroughly drench with cold water. Place the sieve over the steamer basket. Cover and allow the cous cous to cook via the steam, occasionally fluffing the grains with a fork (~ 10-15 minutes). Keep covered until needed. you should have about 1 1/2 cups of cooked grains.

Heat the oil in a skillet until it shimmers. Add the mustard and cumin. Once the mustard pops and the cumin seeds split, lower the heat and add the birds eye chile, ginger, asafetida and curry leaves. give it a quick stir and then quickly add the onions. as the onions turn translucent, add the potatoes and the sweet pepper. Sprinkle some water if necessary to the mix, Lower the heat, cover the pan and allow the potatoes and the peppers to cook thorough.  Add the salt, combine thoroughly and adjust for seasonings.

Add the fluffed up couscous and the toasted slicedalmonds and fold gently into the vegetable mix until it is well combined with the other ingredients. Transfer to a serving dish, drizzle with the lime / lemon juice and garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve warm.

Bon appetit!


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