August 30, 2012

Vanilla Butter Cake

  Birthdays were always a special occasion at my maternal home. My mom always baked me a cake, icing or no icing :) I guess my brother was not as lucky as me when it came to getting to cut a birthday cake..... as mom mostly made payasam for his birthday. I vividly remember how my mother once baked a plain cake and iced it with my favorite pink color home made icing. She used all the different nozzles to pipe out a cute doll on the cake. I still remember the black peppercorns she used to create the doll's eyes with :) That was for my eleventh birthday. Back then, there was no ready made icing available in India and there definitely was no Betty Crocker brand in any of our stores. So mom would buy icing sugar, food colors, blanch almonds, make almond paste, make colorful rosettes and flowers out of that to decorate the short, it was a tedious process. But she always took extra pains to get an outcome as good as the photos in her recipe books. She mostly preferred to bake a simple vanilla cake or 'plain cake' as she would call it, whenever she wanted to ice it. She always felt that this was the best cake to enjoy the flavor of home made icing. Well, all I can say is that whatever she baked, I thoroughly enjoyed really didn't matter to me whether the cake was plain or not :) Mom did try to hand me down the recipe for her vanilla cake, but the recipe got misplaced somewhere :( Hence began my search for the perfect 'plain cake' and after many months of searching the web, I chanced upon a recipe quite similar to my mother's. On second thoughts, I wouldn't exactly call this my old plain cake as this one is way more buttery than my mom's cake. I do relish this recipe though, as this was the first perfect cake I baked, all on my own. It is very simple to bake and very heavenly to eat...... thank the butter for all the dense flavor!

Vanilla butter cake out of the oven

Vanilla cake, less a yummy slice !


All purpose flour or maida - 1 1/2 cups
Sugar - 1 cup
Eggs - 2 (at room temperature)
Baking powder - 2 tsps
Butter - 1/2 cup (1 unsalted stick)
Salt - 1/2 tsp
Milk - 3/4 cup
Vanilla extract - 2 tsps


Preheat oven to 350 °F. Grease and flour either a 8 or a 9 inch round pan. The cake will rise more in an 8 inch pan. The pan in the above picture is a 9 inch one.

1) Bring the eggs and butter to room temperature. You can place cold eggs in luke warm water to speed up  the process. Microwave cold butter for about 10-15 seconds if you don't have time to thaw it. Hopefully in peak summer time, it should take less than an hour to thaw them both.
2) Sieve together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. 
3) In another large bowl, cream the butter using a hand or stand mix on low and then medium speed, for about 2-3 minutes. Slowly add the sugar and continue beating on high speed, till you use up all the sugar. Take care to scrap the sides of the bowl so that all the butter is well creamed. You should get a smooth pale yellow mixture once creaming is done. If the butter and sugar are not properly creamed, then the mixture will be slightly gritty in nature and this will affect the texture of the cake. The creaming process will take about 3 minutes.
4) Now add the eggs and vanilla extract to the creamed mixture and beat on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy.
5) Gently add the sieved ingredients to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk until well blended. Use a spatula to 'cut and fold' all the ingredients.To do this first add a small quantity of the flour followed by a little milk, then take the spatula and cut through the creamed mixture, simultaneously folding all the ingredients in a gentle circular motion.You could divide the dry ingredients into 3 portions to make this easier. Continue with this gentle mixing until all the dry ingredients and milk is used up.
6) Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes at 350 °F. Check for doneness with a toothpick or a tester. The cake if done should spring back on a slight gentle touch. Remove from the oven and let it cool in the pan for about 10 mins, before transferring to a cooling rack. I prefer to leave the cake in the pan itself to cool down, as that way, the surface of the cake does not become too moist. Just be sure to cover the cake with a clean kitchen towel or paper napkin after a couple of hours.
7) Once cooled completely, cut into pieces and store in an air tight container. Refrigerate the cake in the hot summer to increase shelf life, else it may go bad in a few days due to the heat.

Note: This cake is awesomely buttery in taste and so is slightly on the denser side. If you don't prefer the dense taste, increase the quantity of flour to 2 cups. Enjoy eating 'plain vanilla cake' :) Once cooled you can ice it with any icing of your choice.

August 22, 2012

Stuffed Brinjal Curry

   I love Andhra cuisine! Most varieties of 'pappus','podis','kuras' are mouth watering and very tasty mainly because of the famous Guntur red chilly and groundnuts, I suppose. My first brush with andhra style of cooking was when I got to stay with a very close telugu family friend of mine (my favorite Latha aunty), for an extended period of time. I got a taste of 'Meerakai Pacchadi', 'Pesarettu and Upma', 'Khaja from Kakinada' and a variety of Andhra specialities. Then again, when I moved to Bangalore, I stayed with my Aruna aunty (also from Andhra) and got to taste her awesome 'Stuffed Brinjal kura'. If you love spicy food, then tasting this is a must, in my opinion :) Aruna aunty always made her stuffed brinjals with the powdered stuffing from her native place. And it was always a dry fry, made with very little oil in a small cooker. She always used the freshest brinjals to make these. She would slit the brinjals, stuff them with the powder and place them in the cooker and allow them to fry without actually closing the cooker lid. After a while she would toss the brinjals gently. This kura or vegetable was a favorite of mine, especially with curd rice. Since then, it has always been my interest to learn to make this wonderful dish. As luck would have it, I found many recipes online, tried a few, but none came close to what my aunt used to make. The one I am writing now has become somewhat of a favorite of mine, as it evokes memories of the time I spent with both my aunt's. 

Stuffed Brinjal Curry

Small brinjals - 6 to 8 (I prefer the purple ones to the green ones as they have lesser seeds)
Onions - 2 large ones
Tomatoes - 3 plum or 1 beefsteak tomatoes (add more if you want more gravy)
Tamarind - half lemon size (add a lime sized ball if you want a sour gravy)
Chilli powder - 1 tsp
Oil - 2 tsp for seasoning
Salt - to taste
Powder for stuffing - (dried coconut + roasted peanuts + roasted sesame seeds + urad dal + chana dal + cumin seeds + dried red chillies + cinnamon stick + cloves + salt)
(refer to the 'Stuffed brinjal powder' in the 'Powders and Pickles' menu item for full details)
Jaggery - small pellet
Mustard - 1/2 tsps
Urad dal - 1/2 tsp
Curry leaves - a few

Slit brinjals stuffed with wet paste

1) Chop the onions finely and grind the tomatoes into a fine paste. You can also use store bought tomato puree if you like. You can add chopped tomatoes if you wish, but I feel grinding them gives you more quantity of curry. Wash the brinjals and remove the green stem. Dry them on a paper towel and slit them vertically without breaking them. Take about 4 tbsps of the stuffing( I shall call it 'brinjal powder') add few drops of water to it to make a paste and stuff this paste into the slits of each brinjal. You can also stuff the brinjals with the dry powder instead of making a paste. Soak tamarind in water for half hour and extract the juice. Keep aside.
2) Heat some oil in a heavy bottomed vessel. I prefer to use the cooker for this curry as it is much faster. When the oil is hot, season it with mustard seeds, urad dal and curry leaves. Add the chopped onions, a little salt for the onions and fry till onions are translucent. 
3) Now add the pureed/ chopped tomatoes and fry till it is cooked. Add the tamarind extract and salt to taste. Any leftover brinjal powder paste can be added to the curry, together with another tbsp of the same.Gently place the brinjals one by one, the slit side facing upwards, into the curry. Add a small piece of jaggery for taste. Close the cooker and place the weight. Simmer the cooker for a minute or two when you hear the whistle and then switch off. Allow the cooker to cool a little before opening it. That way the brinjals would have been cooked just well enough. Serve this curry with hot rice.

Brinjals ready to be placed in the curry. The green one was a trial brinjal :) 

Curry with onion, tomatoes, tamarind extract and brinjal powder

Brinjals placed in the curry to be cooked

Brinjal curry done!

Note: This is a curry recipe and not a dry fry, but you could use the brinjal powder to make a dry fry. Slit the brinjals, stuff the powder and place it in a kadai with few tablespoons of oil. Season the oil and add the brinjals to the same. Allow it to fry, taking care to turn over the brinjals from time to time till done. In the above recipe, I have added a small piece of jaggery and it truly enhances the taste of the the essential sweet-sour flavor. You can omit the jaggery, if you wish to savor only a sour taste.

Serving size: This curry will be enough for 2 people for 2 servings. Increase the quantity of all ingredients to serve more people.

August 15, 2012

Phulkas (Puffed Rotis)

  Phulkas are made of wheat flour which is kneaded with water and salt, rolled out into a thin circular shape and cooked on a tava or griddle. You can call it the thinner version of the roti or chappati, which are generally thick. I call them 'Halka Phulka' as they are an extremely light and a versatile Indian bread.You can eat them with any sabzi (vegetable), curry, jam, pickle or butter. The Phulka derives its name from the fact that it puffs up when it is directly placed over the fire. 'Phulna' in Hindi means puffing up. This Indian bread is a staple of North India and is a little difficult to make as compared to the regular roti. The technique to get the phulka right, is in the quantity of water used and the amount of kneading done to make the dough soft. The more you knead the dough, the softer it becomes. Some people  may find it difficult to make phulkas with a very soft dough, not to worry, refrigerate the dough for about 20 minutes and it will be easier to work with. My mother made phulkas almost everyday for lunch and dinner as these and thick chappatis were a favorite of my brother's. Most times when we had unexpected guests for lunch, my mother would scramble to make rotis. And she was so adept at making these, she would have a plate stacked up with garma garam phulkas in under twenty minutes. Not to mention the dollop of home made desi ghee smeared on each phulka. I prefer making phulkas to the thicker chappatis. At home, we had something called the 'thick chappati' and the regular chappati which was the phulka. I always preferred the phulka as it was easier to eat and consumed less time ;)   

Naram Garam Phulkas (without the ghee)
Phulkas when kept folded

Wheat flour (Atta) - 2 cups (for kneading)
Wheat flour - 3/4 cup (for dusting the phulkas)
Water - 3/4 to 1 cup
Salt- a pinch (to taste)  
Ghee- a few tbsps

   Keep the following at hand: Rolling pin, Tava/ flat griddle, a pair of tongs or a wire mesh, Hot pack/ Casserole to store the phulkas

1) First visit the Indian store and buy a 5 or 10 lbs atta bag :) You will have many choices to choose from. I found that the brand one picks also matters here in the US as some are coarse ground and others are finely ground. There are also some brands which have maida mixed in the wheat flour, but claim to be pure wheat flour. In my opinion, coarse ground attas are better to make rotis/chappatis/phulkas/puris. I am not promoting any particular brand, but after lots of experimenting, I found Sujata atta to be the one closest to what my mother uses back home. Mom always did it the old fashioned way....buying wheat, washing and drying it and then getting it ground the way she liked it at the flour mill (chakki). She doesn't do that anymore as it is laborious and  I am not there to help her too.
2) Measure out the atta in a large bowl. Add the salt. Add a little water at a time and begin to knead the dough. Add only so much water initially so as to wet and bind the entire dough. Keep kneading and sprinkling a little water till you get almost an elastic consistency in the kneaded dough.The dough should be come soft and pliable. Cover and rest the dough for about 10 mins before making phulkas. You can also refrigerate the dough for about 20 mins in case you are not very comfortable working with a very soft dough.

Soft and pliable dough

3) Now make small round balls out of the dough. Take a flour ball and flatten it a little by hand, to make a small slightly thick disc. Dust this in the extra flour and roll it into a very thin roti. You will have to dust the roti once or twice to prevent it from sticking on the surface you are rolling the phulka out on. Making rotis or phulkas may be a little messy and I prefer to use the flat kitchen counter top to roll out the phulkas. I keep the  atta for dusting usually in a flat plate or on the counter itself. You could use a 'chakla' or traditional elevated flat wooden surface to make the phulkas too. Not that it will reduce the mess :)
4) Heat the tava / griddle on high. Once it is hot enough, slightly lower the flame and place the phulka on the tava. Once it changes color, flip it over and allow it to cook, till light brown spots appear on it. Now, holding the tava handle with one hand, place the phulka directly on the fire with your other hand. You could also place the hot tava on another unused gas burner, so as to keep your hands safe. Making phulkas is a little tricky and does need some practice, but once you get the hang of it, it is very easy :)
5) The phulka placed directly on the fire should puff up due to trapped steam. Using the kitchen tongs, flip the phulka over on the fire for a few seconds. Remove it with the tongs and place it on a plate or casserole.  Smear with a dollop of ghee, if you like the taste of ghee. Mom used to smear a lot of ghee on her phulkas, but I stopped using ghee on mine long ago....guess I don't really like the taste anymore. Repeat the process for all the balls of atta you have, taking care to lower the flame when placing the phulka on the tava each time.Take care to cover the casserole once all the phulkas are made. That way they will stay warm and remain soft when you eat them.
6) Another option would be to use a wire mesh, which I believe is available in the Indian store. Place this on a different gas burner than the one on which you place your tava on. Keep the flame on high and place the phulka over the mesh to puff up. I have never used the wire mesh and learnt to make the phulkas my mom's way.....which did include burning my finger tips in the process. But definitely worth it!

 Note: In case you find placing the phulka directly on the fire or wire mesh is not for you, then you could also use a kitchen towel. Crumple it first and gently press down on the phulka when it has slightly cooked on both sides, keeping the flame on high while doing this. Steam will build up inside the phulka causing it to puff up.