Making Progress

It took a tough lesson that drove home to me the importance of following recipes while baking.  That looking squint eyed at a 1 kg bag of flour and dumping in approximately a third of it before dousing it in the wet ingredients does not necessarily produce a good, or even vaguely edible, cookie.  That forgetting to sieve the flour, then quickly losing patience while working the lumps out of batter, is a sure fire way to incite the wrath of the cake gods.

My first cake was born of the oven in the small, rented apartment that my family lived in as new immigrants to Australia.  Indian kitchens, traditionally, do not have ovens.  The only home-made cake I had tasted was the one that my mum used to make in the jaffle maker, the one she had excitedly purchased after attending a demonstration at a neighbour’s place.  She would follow the eggless recipe in the instruction manual that was also a cookbook, brand new to baking herself.  That cake was soft, sweet, and in hindsight, almost pancakey.  It’s surface was ribbed from the jaffle maker cake fitting and it’s crumb was loose and yielding.  It was, from memory, a good cake.

strawberry coconut cake (2 of 3)

My mum’s jaffle maker cake was what I envisioned when I and my childhood best friend, flour dusting our faces and every surface of the tiny kitchen, slid our dubious batter into the hastily preheated oven.  What emerged some forty nail-biting minutes later was more weapon than cake.  More desert than dessert.

The Rock Cake haunts me to this day.  It’s harsh surface hiding a dry, uncompromising crumb.  The raisins that studded it a humiliated version of themselves.  It’s alarming power to strain any knife that dared to challenge it.

It was a tough lesson but an effective one.

Thankfully these days I (mostly) follow recipes when it comes to baking, and I choose my sources wisely.  Deb Perelman’s blog Smitten Kitchen is one of my go to sources for fail-proof recipes, especially when it comes to baking.  I came across this strawberry summer cake while browsing through her archives in search of a way to use the 2 half punnets of strawberries that had taken up residence in my fridge.  What I pulled out of the oven was delectable, a far cry from my first cake as an eight year old.  It was moist, dense and chewy with coconut (my only tweak), yet still somehow light and summery.  The strawberries took on the jammy character that berries will in the oven, adding tartness to sweetness, red stains to fluffy pale yellow.

It’s a cake to celebrate the dregs of summer, and perhaps more importantly, my birthday.

strawberry coconut cake (3 of 3)

Strawberry and Coconut Cake

Slightly modified from ‘Strawberry Summer Cake‘, Smitten Kitchen

Get:

85gm unsalted butter at room temperature, extra for greasing
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup plus extra granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup shredded coconut
6-8 strawberries, washed, hulled and halved

Make:

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.  Grease and flour a standard medium sized cake tin (I used a bundt tin).

Fold the dry ingredients together in a small bowl.

In another bowl, use electric beaters to beat butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. On low speed, mix in egg, milk and vanilla until just combined

Add dry ingredients gradually, using a spatula to fold in until just combined.  Fold in the coconut gently.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and scatter the strawberry halves, cut end down, over the top.  Sprinkle over with 1-2 tbsp sugar.

Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 10 mins, then reduce temperature to 170 degrees C and bake for 40-50 mins, or until a cake tester or knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

strawberry coconut cake (1 of 3)

Curry Leaf Thambuli

Curry Leaf Coconut Raita 1

Curry Leaf Coconut Raita 1

My parents are farmers, of sorts.

Not really, but in one corner of the garden is a curry leaf tree of grand proportions.  It towers above the hibiscus, overshadows the quietly achieving chilli plants and puts the tiny basil crop to shame.  The slender, lustrous leaves caress the fence and carpet the garden bed, softly making their presence known.  They tickle your face as you walk past, filling the nostrils with their subtle but unmistakable scent.

It is quite common for Indian families to have a curry leaf plant.  The herb is a staple in South Indian cuisine, most dishes bearing a scattering of the deep green leaves.  That they aid digestion is well known, but curry leaves are also packed with iron, buzzing with antioxidants and help regulate blood glucose levels.

Curry Leaf Coconut Raita 6

Couple that with the fact that a small package of shriveled leaves, their fragrance but a distant memory, will set you back at least four dollars in most Australian supermarkets, and growing your own just makes good sense.  My parents’ version however, is one of mammoth proportions that surpasses what is dictated by that good sense.  It turns out that this particular Indian has taken a liking to Aussie climate and soil.  This piece of urban foliage could probably supply a small Indian city or a large Indian town without too much trouble.  It certainly does supply a sizable sector of my parents’ friends circle on a regular basis and anyone who dares to ask for a few curry leaves is usually bombarded with an overstuffed shopping bag of vegetation that will suffice for the coming year or so.

Curry Leaf Coconut Raita 2

The tree’s offspring have been adopted out to various friends and colleagues in the past and are now thriving like leafy teenagers in pots and backyards.  When it begins to flourish out of control, Dad has been forced to prune the tree back lest it completely destroy their pergola and invade the garden, engulfing the house and possibly even the entire street.

This Curry Leaf Thambuli sees the leaves blended with fresh coconut and yoghurt to make a spicy cold soup or condiment.  This is another recipe from my cousin Chaithra, you know, the one who brought you that delicious ivy gourd and coconut dish, Thondekaye Sukha.  You will have to make a trip to the local Indian store for this one, and a good food processor is important.  Eat it on its own, stir it through rice or even drizzle it onto a piece of grilled, Indian spiced fish.  Should you find yourself in possession of a large overstuffed shopping bag of these leaves, this is a fabulous way to use them up in a healthy, nutrient-rich way.  If you do not have access to such a bounty, well then the investment is probably worthwhile.

DSC_3786

Curry Leaf Thambuli

Serves 2-4 as a side dish

Get:

2 tsp ghee
70-80 curry leaves (or the leaves from 4 sprigs)
1/3 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut
1 cm ginger
1-2 hot green chillies (I used frozen ones), to taste
1 tbsp + 1/4 cup Greek style yoghurt
Water
Salt, to taste

For the tempering:
1/2 tsp ghee
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
1 dried red chilli, broke into pieces
Pinch asafoetida
2 tsp urad dhal

Make:

In a small saucepan, melt and heat 2 tsp ghee.  Add the curry leaves.  If they are fresh, they will splutter, so stand back.  When they are browned and crisp, take off the heat and allow to cool a little.

In a food processor, blitz the ghee/curry leaf mixture, coconut, ginger, green chillies 1 tbsp yoghurt and a couple of tbsp water.  When it is a slightly coarse paste, add it to the remaining yoghurt in a bowl.  Add 1/4 tsp salt and stir through.  Taste and add a little more salt if needed.  The mixture should be spicy and slightly sour.  The salt serves to balance out the sourness of the yoghurt.

In a small saucepan, on medium heat, melt and heat the ghee.  Add the mustard and cumin seeds and when they are popping, turn the heat down to low.  Add the other tempering ingredients and stir until the urad dhal browns a little.  If it is browning quickly, take the pan off the heat and just stir the hot oil mixture.  Add a few more curry leaves if available and stir until they are crisp.

Add the tempered mixture to the Thambuli and stir through.  Serve with rice or as a sauce.

Curry Leaf Coconut Raita 3

Eight Little Women

Thondekaye Palya 6

It was a time when rounded verandahs were all the fashion, and the two girls who were old enough to know this convinced their father that a rounded verandah was the thing to have.  The little ones looked on in awe as the teak doors were painstakingly carved by hand.  Eventually, curiosity would get the better of them and they would play with the sharp wood fragments, only to be shooed away by the old carpenter.  The same teak doors still separate the rooms of the fifty-something year old house, their carved patterns intact, their hue slightly darkened with age.

rangoli

My mother is the fifth of the eight, all girls. The older ones cared for and scolded their younger sisters, in equal measure.  Over the years, the solid brick walls absorbed the gleeful chatter, melodious singing and silly squabbles of eight little women.  Clothes were bought or home sewn, handed down, fought over and innovatively re-sewn.  Nothing was wasted or carelessly tossed away. Pleasures were simple and always shared.  A pretty piece of fabric, a small bag of sweets, a new song.

Thondekaye Palya 2

Education was deemed important beyond almost anything else. Nooks were claimed for study and the safe-keeping of books.  The table, a staircase landing, the stone used to wash clothes upon and the tiny attic above the third bedroom all became valuable study areas where books were devoured and exams were fretted over.  As the older girls graduated, their spaces were relinquished to be occupied by younger sisters.  Etched into the door of a small cupboard with a knife sharpened with procrastination, is the name of one of the sisters, the surrounding wood worn smooth by the years.

My grandparents saw no reason for eight daughters to be any less academically accomplished than if they had been eight sons.  Their thinking was progressive for their time and as a result, the house churned out an assortment of doctors, scientists, accountants and teachers.  Brass plaques that were nailed into the front door bearing names and once shiny new qualifications still adorn the dark wood.  Among the plaques sits the two oldest of them, one bearing my grandfathers name and the other bearing the name of the house.

Jyothi

A brilliant light.

Thondekaye Palya 1

Stairs along the side of the house led up to the open terrace, a common feature of houses of that time.  This wide open space was for daytime yoga sessions, afternoon naps on summer days and a makeshift salon where wet hair was dried before it was braided.  My grandmother would venture up there to dry chillies and tamarind on large blankets weighed down by rocks.  Diwali saw that terrace bathed in a glorious display of light when all the girls would race up there to set off firecrackers.  Later, the wrappers would be proudly carried down and piled in front of the house, lest the neighbourhood kids think that eight little girls couldn’t set off their share of explosions.

Marriages were arranged or beaus were found, kept secret, breathlessly whispered about and finally disclosed.  Weddings were organised, the youngest still giggly schoolgirls excitedly watching their akkas (older sisters) move away with the men they chose.

Later, there were grandchildren.  Small, sprightly offspring who would climb the bars surrounding that rounded verandah.  Quieter little ones who would curl into those same nooks with story books.  Aunty Jyothi, the very daughter for whom the house was named, lives in that house now with her family and so two more daughters have been raised between the solid walls, fed from the same kitchen and have crammed for exams in the same rooms.

Thondekaye Palya 3

During my recent visit, my cousin Chaitra and I spent a morning cooking in the kitchen of the house our mothers grew up in.  It was apt, and terribly exciting that she taught me to how to cook one of my favourite vegetables.  Thondekaye (Ivy Gourd), resembling tiny cucumbers, is available only in frozen form in Australia, although those in the UK can find it fresh in Indian stores.  My love of it is widely known amongst my mum’s side of the family, meaning that many of my aunts will indulge me by cooking me a thondekaye dish whenever I visit India.  So when Chaitra, who has flourished into quite the cook, offered to teach me how to make this Manglorean Thondekaye Sukha (dry stir-fry), I was in.

It is important to cut the whole thondekaye lengthwise, into quarters or sixths.  What happens is that each piece curls lovingly around the spiced coconut matrix, the flavours settling nicely between the internal ribbing.  The sharpness of chilli, hint of jaggery sweetness and sour notes of the tamarind are offset by the freshness of the coconut, and the tiny thondekaye wedges are the perfect vehicle for this intricate mixture.

Thondekaye Palya 4

That morning, my cousin and I cooked, giggled, chatted and cooked some more.  I chopped as Chaitra grated fresh coconut.  She roasted spices to fragrant perfection while I soaked tamarind.  Each step was patiently explained to me while I madly scribbled it all down.

So it was that we added new memories to the fifty-something year old kitchen.  And the gleeful chatter of two more women mingled and were absorbed into the walls of the house with the rounded verandah.

Thondekaye Palya 5

Thondekaye Sukha (Ivy Gourd and Coconut Stir-fry)

Get:
600 grams of fresh or frozen thondekaye (ivy gourd)
Ball of dried tamarind the size of a small lime
Boiling water
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup grated coconut, fresh or frozen (defrosted)
2 tsp grated or powdered jaggery
Salt
Small handful fresh coriander, chopped (optional)

For the Spice Mix
1/4 tsp coconut oil
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
4-5 black peppercorns
4 dried red chillies, broken into pieces
Generous pinch asofoetida
1/2 tsp urad dhal
10-12 dried curry leaves

For Tempering:
2 tbsp coconut oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp urad dhal
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
6-8 fresh or dried curry leaves
2 small garlic cloves, slightly crushed

Make:
Break up the tamarind and soak in 1/2 cup of boiling water in a medium sized bowl. Mash with a fork and leave to soak until the water is cool enough to touch.  Then, with clean hands, squish the tamarind in the water until the water thickens.  Strain the water into another bowl.  The tamarind flesh can be discarded or stored in the fridge and used again within a few days.

Slice the thondekaye lengthwise into quarters or sixths, depending on how thick they are.  Frozen thondekaye usually comes pre sliced.  Immerse in salted boiling water and bring to the boil again.  Simmer on low-medium heat until the insides are tender but the skin still has a bite.  This will take 5-7 mins for frozen thondekaye, and longer for fresh.

In a large non-stick pan, warm 1/4 tsp coconut oil.  Add all the spice mix ingredients except the curry leaves.  Roast on low heat until fragrant and until the red chillies become brittle between the fingers.  Transfer the mixture to your mortar and pestle or spice grinder.  In the same pan, roast the dried curry leaves for a minute or so and add to the other spices.  Grind to a fine or slightly coarse powder.

In the same large pan, heat 2 tbsp coconut oil.  Lower the heat to medium and add the mustard seeds.  Take care not to burn them! When they have popped, add urad dhal, turmeric, curry leaves and garlic.  Stir-fry for a minute or so on low-medium heat until the dhal has gained a little colour.  Add the spice mixture and stir-fry for about 2 mins.  Then, add the diced onion and saute until translucent.  Add the coconut and toss to mix.  Pour in the tamarind water and sprinkle in the jaggery and 2 tsp salt.  Mix well and cook for a further minute.  Drain the thondekaye and add to the pan. Stir-fry for another 5 minutes.  Taste and add more salt if neccessary.  If the thondekaye is still a little undercooked, cover and cook, stirring intermittently, for a further 5-10 mins.  The thondekaye should be tender and yielding but not mushy.

Sprinkle with coriander, if desired, and serve with chapatis or mixed into rice with a little more coconut oil.

Notes:

Jaggery is unrefined Indian sugar and can be found at Indian grocery stores along with frozen thondekaye, coconut, the spices, urad dhal and dried tamarind.  Jaggery has a unique flavour but if you can’t get it, soft brown sugar should work.

You can of course use powdered spices instead of whole, but believe me when I say that when you start powdering your own spices, you will never want to go back to pre-powdered ones.

 

 

Thondekaye Palya 6