I have not always been a frosting person but people change. I’m still not at the point of luxurious swathes of buttercream swirled into peaks of sin-mine’s a more tentative swipe across the top of the cake, unevenly plastered. Clockwise from top: blackcurrant tea cake, pumpkin and coconut cake, carrot cake and vanilla apricot cake. The last one was stuck to the pan and refused to dislodge. More on my stinginess with parchment paper later.
What do you do if you aren’t besotted with travelling? Skulk on the sidelines like a social pariah, gulping down your dirty secret while friends expound on their life-changing experiences? A mere run of paragliding did me in. Never again, I decided. The ignominy of being suspended like an awkward rag doll, combined with despair and utter helplessness has somehow been accepted as mildly adventurous by some suicidal types. That was Thailand and I skulked when urged to ride one of those water scooter-type contraptions in Goa. I am notoriously unsporting.
Even for staid trips, I’m not committed enough to the concept of travel, to take that overwhelming decision to take decisions in an unfamiliar place. I have become more stick-in-the-mud than ever, held back by intermittent worries of whether I can do justice to a place. Since it was a family trip, decisions were arrived at through the chaotic exercise of democracy. It was a motley crew but we were all grown up, so things would proceed smoothly we supposed. No one threw tantrums and everyone sipped quietly on their nightcaps, before and after dinner.
Munnar unfolds in patches through the crisp veil of tea leaves—golden-ish green giving way to plants whose virtues had been hitherto experienced only in pinched, packaged form. It’s a loamy, aloof hill station heady with the scent of spice, rounded off in soft edges. It has rocky bits too, if you’re keen on undertaking a jolting ride in a jeep to a tucked-away tea estate. There’s coffee, cocoa, varieties of honey, eucalyptus oil and strange, greasy chocolates stored in shops crammed full of tourist bric-a-brac. The food is spicy but uncommonly toothsome. I carried memories of a tomato fry from there, determined to have the cook replicate its sour, swollen flavour.
The resort had expansive windows with enchanting views of the dappled, winding road, a chunk of the town below and the midriffs of some gloriously tall trees. All I wanted was to loll in the nook by the window with a ledge for sitting on—crafted in the contours of imbibed cosiness. But sights had to be seen. One was of a tree laden with beehives, some drooping and others lush with gritty honey, glowing amber against the sun.
So a jolting jeep ride it was, a few botanical gardens and streets curiously devoid of bakeries. The ride culminated in a tea garden with an old wooden factory for show-and-tell. One could pose with tea leaves getting blown into one’s face, up one’s nostrils and getting stuck in unruly hair. It was too much of a gimmick and the muddy ram grazing outside the factory was more of an attraction.
In obscure restaurants, you get the finest porotta and a mean beef fry. I’m not a fan of spicy gravies but who wouldn’t like a bit of tangy meat wrapped up in flaky, pillowy folds of porotta? And, messy food adventures followed at the airport. When we reached bleary-eyed after a night of no sleep (a strike in Kochi upset our plans), my mum thought food was needed and promptly proceeded to buy five sandwiches, each of which contained two. Aunt was more interested in a nap and so were the rest of us. And there we were querulous and saddled with ten, sandpaperish sandwiches tasting of nothing that one could put a finger on. We spent a long time wondering why Ma would dismiss local fare for pale, dubious sandwiches. Then the resident Malayali chanced upon the humble and deep-fried pazham pozhi, cholesterol be damned, which were highly appreciated. Slightly greasy, encased in a crisp coating of batter, the pazham pori has a hue of the ripest mango flesh.
I remember the food parts most vividly, the rest of the trip is a bit of a blur. We had some very overpriced tender coconut and some mediocre soup. The best flavoured tea I’ve had after Twinings was the one picked up from the airport.
I’ve been obsessing over how to best incorporate apricot in cake. I used to be a big believer in upside down cakes, typically called for when confronted with accusatory stone fruit getting too ripe for its own good. But my upside-down cakes wouldn’t come out with neat circles of gooey fruit crescents fanning into a caramel and cinnamon-y top. To me, the layer seems to tamper with the batter, leaving it almost soggy on the bottom and they never rise as gloriously or yield a crumb as fine as the non-upside-down ones. So, when I had a bunch of apricots and wanted to put it to good use, I decided to make preserves instead.
I had been having a good run with preserves, having made strawberry and cherry preserves in quick succession, which were divine smeared on a cream cheese-slathered slice of toast.
Something went a little off with the apricot though, it refused to acquire that lovely compote-y texture and insisted on getting stuck to the bottom of the pan. Also, it was losing its lovely sunset hue and plumpness to yield a sullen blend. Very distraught I was. But I hung on grimly for dear life.
If I bake things that aren’t umm.. great-tasting, I try to make something else out of it-stodgy cakes go into custard, crunch-less biscuits are submerged into puddings-in an effort to salvage them. I was determined to not give up on the apricot preserve. I’d had lovely results with a plum jam which I pushed through a sieve and blended with a little rum to incorporate it straight into cake batter. That cake was moist with a blush of brown edged with tartness.
My sullen apricot preserve was not going to cheer up anytime soon. So I decided to try a swirl instead-made of apricot and rum. Okay, once the batter plumped up, it kind of swallowed the swirl and the cake was more speckled with crusted jam bits than gracefully swirled but it tasted good so I won’t finick.
It was a long weekend of staying at home so I also tried a chicken pot pie. There was some smoked chicken salami, chicken stock and a bit of cream lying around along with carrots and beans. It was a good food week. I always struggle with the pastry part and this one came out a little lopsided as usual.
Now for the apricot cake, ta-da! I made a rum syrup for it and drizzled it onto the still-warm cake. I’m yet to fathom the temperamental machinations of cake batter—it can be unyielding and docile in equal measures. Thankfully, this was the good one in the midst of semi-mishaps. The thing with preserves is it is as good in the sponge as it is layered on. I sieve the preserve to get most of the syrupy part out. Mix the syrup with a drizzle of rum to increase volume. This goes straight into the batter, imparting colour and depth, while the grainy fruit bits are on top. Another lovely way to use up leftover, old preserve is in a crumble topping for a cake or in waffles.
Not a great photo but the munchkins slid out obediently from the pans, which I am always grateful for. I have invested in a thick wad of parchment paper that somehow I keep forgetting about. Notice the pooled glaze in the crack of the mini loaf? I could go to sleep there.
The two may not have much in common but together, they create a symphony of sorts. To wreath the laden prose of Woolf with the sunny temperament of waffles dotted with raisins, you need languor-sodden afternoons when any resolve aimed at productivity seems intrusive. Accompany each sentence with bites of browned, eggy squares topped with a surreptitious lick of maple syrup as you try to turn pages with the tenacious grip of a weakly pinky. And a cup of vanilla tea to top it off. Dainty elderflower drinkers, look away. This vanilla tea is the kind you brew robustly with milk, thicken with spice and a touch of ginger.
The book in question is Jacob’s Room, my second attempt because the first time round I was impatient and couldn’t appreciate the pace. This time I’m savouring the sentences, rolling the words around like marshmallows on my tongue. Woolf’s stories are like mille feuille—a million layers of flaky pastry stacked into a sublime tower of sentiments. Jacob’s Room is an introspective read, very atmospheric and descriptive. Entire paragraphs are devoted to scenes of daily bustle on roads, characters letting their minds wander into self-centred circles and the sea. She may as well have painted in vivid shades mottled, grey skies and the dignified rustles of cliffside fauna.
It takes a while to get through the book, to appreciate its meandering narrative. In spurts it rests, ruminates, delves into Jacob’s perpetually perplexing nature for pages on end. Readers are not welcomed into his head, they are to quietly observe and hope he doesn’t look up alarmed and decide to fall into a reverie. Now you know why you need waffles to go with it.
It’s the first happy lot of waffles, a little chewy and somewhat waffly, which brings me to the subject of the waffle stick maker. It’s a compact cutie that churns up six waffle sticks in the space of five to seven minutes. I haven’t had the pleasure of using the traditional waffle iron but this one works just as well. I am indebted to darlingest Alison for this, who picked up the best gifts anyone could wish for, including a set of lovely mason jars. But I digress.
These waffles are great with compote.
Milk – 1/2 cup
Butter/Oil – 2 tbsp
Egg – 1
Flour – 3/4 cup
Cinnamon – 1 tsp
Baking powder – 1/2 tsp
Sugar – 1/3 cup (I use brown sugar)
Vanilla essence – 3/4 tsp
Mix the dry and wet ingredients separately, barring the sugar. The sugar needs to be whisked with the egg and milk. Throw in anything slightly chewy you may have handy—raisins, cherries, apricots. They add these pockets of tart flavour, which offset the mild sweetness of the waffle.I can also imagine chocolate chips complementing waffle batter, but not the precocious squat drop-shaped ones. Just hack roughly at any chocolate bar and sweep the resultant chocolate shavings and uneven bits into the batter. They say the batter should not be overmixed and be left lumpy for the best results.
What started as polite hobnobbing with the basics of baking has happily evolved into a full-fledged hobby, if that’s what you call the irresistible urge to messily whisk together eggs, flour and sugar. I have become neater; I don’t leave half-moon dustings of flour and smudgy droppings of batter on the kitchen counter anymore. The only evidence is the smell of baking—a sweetish, fudgy aroma that lingers hours after the cake is out of the oven gradually fading to be replaced by the denser smell of the cake itself, punctuated by hints of peel or cocoa. The day after baking, the top of every self-respecting cake develops a light glaze that’s lovely to behold. It’s the point where the knife squishes into its soft, magically compact depths.
This is the first batch made with the processor gifted by very dear friends. The batter while deceptively batter-like, was let down by the convection setting on the microwave oven I was using at the time (yes, an obvious mistake). I would make batter after batter and expend anguish as cakes turned out hard, pasty and positively unpleasant. I tried changing the baking powder, excessively oiling the baking tins, increasing the proportion of eggs, but to no avail. The problem persisted, seemingly compounded by every dejected corrective measure.
After months of this, with a measly 1:6 success ratio, I was all but done—disasters included a honey cake, a mango cake, a strawberry pie, an upside-down pear cake—the first one turned out strangely pungent (it was some sort of strange forest honey, which did not translate well into bakedness) and the latter ridiculous, like milkshake converted into cake. I believe I crumbled it and used it as custard topping, it being glorious mango season. What I learnt is never to bake with mango. It’s against nature.
To come back to the question of stubborn cakes, there have been many disasters—stodgily brimming with the self-importance of improper proportions. I like to think of them as the revolutionaries of the food world, refusing to adhere to the orderliness of recipes, rejoicing in their very inedibleness. This is food that ripens into old age, growing crusty in the fridge, not having to fear spasms of midnight snacking. I have made self-flagellating pies, self-pitying tarts, cakes with the consistency of hard cheese and wasted more grams of butter than I would care to acknowledge. That was before I discovered oil is always better when it comes to cake, always. Dollop butter into the frosting, slather it over tea bread or simply dot it on waffles, but it’s very butteriness gets lost in the batter without imparting the moistness that oil does. Rum too works on similar principles. In batter, it sinks without a trace. But in frosting, it brazenly cosies up to butter and flaunts its rummy overtones over the by-now-humbled sugar.
Destroy my crumbcastle
After I spent hours slaving over it
Measuring out butter and sugar
It’s not for you, I say
But someone special
I take a bite and grimace
The crucial question of crumb. Moist, with each miniscule grain separate from, yet touchy-feely with its fellow crumb neighbour makes for a texture that doesn’t need frosting. Cakes are my weak, and strong point. The slightly misshapen products of my oven can’t claim to be lookers, but they taste adequate and at times, quite marvellous (by the admission of a few kind hangers-on who’ll do anything for cake and have stoically hung on through years of clumsy baking). Cake represents jollity, a crinkle-at-the-corner-of-the-eyes kind, that you can slice up and hand around, a most tangible exercise in spreading joy. When I come across a soft swoop of buttery frosting nestled on a moist cupcake or a vulnerably rotund sponge burnished with drizzle, I hanker for it. I can bake one that doesn’t require fancy ingredients but at the moment I am without cake and it’s not a happy one. I am often dismayed by friends’ scant regard for dessert when we finish a satisfying meal. It’s a habit best kicked in the sugar-weakened gut, but it’s distressing—this cold void of sweetlessness that extreme types embrace. Talk to me of scones and clotted cream, wax eloquent on petit fours and beignets, postulate on the perfection of croissants and flaky crust. I like a bit of flakiness, a bit of naughty ooziness.
In pursuance of this unseemly fixation, I would have ideally liked to gush about how my baking efforts are appreciated, (because who doesn’t like a fridge full of cake?) but it’s not true. *Grumble* but, all those intimidatingly disciplined, lovely, creative bloggers always have these supportive partners. This one mutters, “yesyesverynice, maybe I’ll have some after dinner and cake isn’t really dessert, is it?”
So, cream cheese, brown sugar, cinnamon, hoarded patterned cupcake liners, wooden spoons, bundt pans, cocoa-at-hand, vanilla essence (the cheap one works beautifully), no-to-food colour (quick aside, make an exception for the the siren of cakes—red velvet), whisking-by-hand, rum, peel (orange, lemon, ginger) an’ an’…What you get are companions for tea and a shelves full of baking pans.