Thursday, June 14, 2012

Healthy Tasty Cake! Multi-Grain, Beetroot Orange-Peel Cake

This recipe is an improvisation.

The author of the original is Nutan Pandit, whose Natural Childbirth Classes I attended in expectation of the arrival of my child. Among the many friends who had recommended these classes, Arpita Chatterjee clinched the issue by telling me about the wonderfully satisfying cakes that were served there. So, I went along, gratefully ate the cakes thoughtfully dished out to the legitimately hungry women (and their spouses), in between taking notes and practising the breathing and other exercises, and requested Nutan to share the recipe.

Of course, I had been baking much before I attended these classes. In fact, cakes and soups were probably the only categories of food that I was good at making. With the reputation of being ‘bright’ at studies, nobody seriously expected me to enter the kitchen, even when I had finished school and college. So it was that, when I got married fairly soon after I was officially bestowed a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture, my list of culinary accomplishments was rather short. My mother-in-law skilfully parried queries from her relations and friends about my abilities at making ‘sukto’, malai chingri’, alu-posto and other such Bengali delicacies, by elaborating on the range and quality of these two items that I could produce.

My cakes though good to eat, were the conventional butter-sugar-egg variety. Even though my Turkish friend, Gulfer Badak, a fellow-student at the Master of Arts Degree in Architectural Conservation in Leicester, regularly conjured up incredibly light and fluffy cakes in her house, I only-half believed her when she said she used yogurt. It was the cake at Nutan Pandit’s, which punctuated each two-hour class for the four-day sessions over the three-weeks of the Course, that led me to the alternatives of oil, curd and jaggery. Since then, I have become so much bolder in my experiments, that this recipe may not be easily recognisable as an off-shoot of the ones she served.

The two or three main ingredients that mark out my cakes – orange-peel, beetroot and the multi-grain flour mix – are small but key variations. In fact, the grated orange peel, which is the really brilliant part of the recipe, is not really my idea, but a contribution of my mother’s. It gives a fresh and lingering flavour, and also satisfies my concerns about reducing litter by usefully consuming the peel, which otherwise ends up in the waste-bin. If oranges are one of your favourite fruits, as they are ours, you will know what I mean. We hand-grind or grate fresh orange peel practically every day in the winters, and my cook is really pleased when the orange-season ends. My mother also dries orange peel and powders them, for use when fresh oranges are not available. 

As for the combination of various flours, I have hit upon it by dint of good intentions and bad planning. My bid to make each mouthful of the cake as wholesome and delicious as possible for my small and fastidious daughter, is coupled with an inherent reluctance to stick to strict instructions, and an impulsive temperament. So, when the wish to bake suddenly catches hold of me (as it often does), and I discover I am out of some standard ingredients; I happily search for an alternative in the kitchen. The addition of popped amaranth seeds (also called ramdana, chaulai dana) to the recipe, was the outcome of one such sudden baking effort.

Apart from various sorts of seeds and flours, I have also (with varying degrees of success) added to the cake-mixture, fruits and vegetables in season – grated beetroot/carrot, finely chopped apricot/mango, mashed bananas/dates/figs. I like to keep processed food-items to the minimum, which is why I do not as a rule add any essence or flavour. Freshly grated ginger (or even its dried and powdered form, saunth) and the addition of orange/lemon peel are healthy substitutes. Beetroot gives a rather delicious deep colour and texture, especially in combination with Madua (millet)[1] or Bhatt flour. So much so, that I had a hard time convincing my aunt’s neighbour when he dropped in on a cold night in December just in time to sample the freshly-baked cake for my cousin’s birthday, that it did not have any chocolate in it.

I had been toying with the idea of writing my version down, owing to the rather gratifying response that my experiments generally receive. My strictly vegetarian grandmother is pleased with the curd version of this recipe, since she does not eat eggs in any form. Indeed, visits to Dehra Dun to my extended family, are ritually accompanied by the carrying of home-made cakes to my grandmother, aunts and uncles, and a demonstration baking event at my eldest aunt’s house. Despite this, Saroj Mausi still calls up every other month to refresh her memory about the ingredients and the process, owing not entirely to her habit of writing down recipes (along other useful things such as important telephone numbers, details of art and craft that attract her attention, grocery lists etc.) on sundry scraps of paper. My tendency of constantly experimenting with the proportion and kinds of ingredients, and presenting her with a different sort of cake on each visit may also have something to do with her queries.

But the immediate provocation for noting down this recipe was the completely flattering request by my daughter’s good friend, Aniva Rao, who asked me if I would teach her to cook when she grew up, so that she could enter TV Cooking Contests. This, to someone who has been the subject of hysterical banter in the family when it comes to any domestic duties, was too good to be true. So, I decided to write this down before she changed her opinion.

1 ½ cups atta (wheat flour); ¼ cup madua (finger millet, also known as raagi, nachni); ¼ cup sooji
(If you do not have madua, you can replace it with black bhatt or soya flour – as I did on a midnight baking session in December at Saroj Mausi’s – or popped amaranth seeds; or if you want a slightly denser cake even with jhingora/jhangora [2](barnyard millet). If you do not have any of these or merely want to play it safe, stick to 2 cups atta. The addition of more than ¼ cup of madua/jhingora/ bhatt, will make the cake a little too heavy.)
1 tsp cinnamon/green cardamom powder (The cinnamon/ green cardamom powder can be expanded to include powdered nutmeg and cloves.)
1 ½ tsp soda bi carbonate
½ tsp baking powder[3]
a pinch of salt
MIX WELL TOGETHER (I sieve these four to five times)
2/3 cup oil (sesame oil) (I used refined oil according to Nutan's recipe, but I have now stopped using refined oil completely in my kitchen; you can substitute the oil with white cow's milk butter too)
2 cups red sugar/grated gur (if you are out of these, and want to use ordinary white sugar, reduce quantity to 1 and 1/2 cups)
Grated orange peel/powdered Orange peel (approximately 3 tb.sps)
1 peeled and finely grated beetroot
1/2 cup hot water (add ½ tsp grated ginger for extra flavour) 
3 eggs or 1 cup curds (the Curd version should be more of a ‘dripping’ consistency than with the eggs.)
(Some of my friends swear by the 'cut and fold' technique with a spoon for the final mixing, though the chef at a demonstration baking session at ATTIC last Christmas claimed that the best way is to vigorously mix in a circular motion with a ladle or your hand. I use a combination, depending on what the size of the vessel I have chosen, allows.)

Ladle in to a greased baking dish – I have lately started using a lovely black earthenware dish from Kerala, courtesy Veni Mathew, a Kumaoni friend married into a Malayalee family. It is traditionally used to cook fish-curry or rice. But it works well as a baking dish too!
I generally bake in a pre-heated electric oven (25 minutes 220 degree, 25 minutes low (160 degrees); if you have a Gas oven, bake for 1 hour.

I sprinkle posto khus (poppy seeds) or brown til (sesame seeds) on top of the mixture for a light crunchy top, as the fancy takes me. Go ahead, try it. 
And feel free to improvise.

[1] A friend and fellow-architect, Siddhartha Misra told me that the origin of Millets is attributed to Vishwamitra, the king who became a sage. Through great tapasya, Vishwamitra gained the power to make counterparts to the Lord’s creations. These were aimed at the needs of the poor, such as the lumbering buffalo in response to the revered and deified cow and bull, and the hardy millets in response to water-intensive grains such as wheat and rice. Despite being less resource intensive and easier to cultivate and rear, these were never accorded a similar status by the higher caste-Hindus. Indeed, they are still looked down by many, (including my family) being branded as ‘poor man’s food’. Rotis made of madua, rich in calcium and other nutrients, were traditionally part of the staple diet in many parts of India, including my part of the country - the mountains of Kumaon and Garhwal in Uttarakhand.
[2] Jhingora or Jhangora is a specialty of Uttarakhand; it is generally cooked with milk as a kheer, but can also be eaten in a salty form, as an upma.
[3] A friend who bakes frequently, cautioned me about the health implications of additives in baking powder. I am not certain whether baking powder should be entirely replaced with soda bi carbonate, but I found these two sites useful:

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Village, Now and Then

My grandmother could not specify the location of their beginnings. It might be anywhere in the Southern Peninsula. She just mentioned it as ‘that village’, which conjures up a familiar pattern-a hundred houses scattered in four or five narrow streets, with pillared verandahs and pyols, massive front doors, inner courtyards, situated at the bend of a river or its tributary, mounds of garbage here and there, cattle everywhere, a temple tower looming over it all, the temple hall and corridor serving as a meeting ground for the entire population, and an annual festival attracting a big crowd from nearby hamlets – an occasion when a golden replica of the deity in the inner shrine was carried in a procession with pipes and drums around the village.

R. K. Narayan, Grandmother’s Tale

This ‘pattern’ of villages in a specific geographical area—the form and the layout of their houses, the social and religious ceremonies around which life revolved, the landmarks—were ‘familiar’ to most people even till the first half of the 20th century. The villages shared common features derived from the climate and culture of an area; names of individual villages were almost incidental. So it was that R. K. Narayan, one of the more enduring Indian writers of English, (whose famous admirers range from his contemporary author Graham Greene to the present-day popular writer Alexander Macall-Smith) could conjure up a perfectly detailed picture of the village in South India where his grandmother grew up, even while recalling his surprise at her not knowing the name of her mother’s village.
            Villages in earlier times in the Indian sub-continent managed their infrastructure in admirable ways, as evident from the archaeological findings in ancient sites of the Indus-Saraswati Civilization[1] as well as the historical records unearthed by the historian Dharampal[2] showing the continuity in such organisation of village life even till three centuries ago. Village dwellings and lifestyles perfected a response that kept their fragile ecosystems intact. This is most evident in areas such as the cold and dry desert of Ladakh, where even the manner in which villages managed and maintain waterworks, is a lesson in planning and cooperation.[3]
It is also the village that has through the ages sustained artists and artisans within a familiar environment that promises them the security of some level of relationship with their land and with its society. For most of us, bred to the superiority of city learning, it would doubtless be surprising to realize that we owe the existence of the world-renowned Jantar Mantars as much to a village priest of humble origins as to the famous Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh. Sawai Jai Singh met Pandit Jagannath, a Brahmin village priest in the Deccan, whose knowledge of astronomy and religion was so manifest that it catalysed Jai Singh to take the priest back with him to Amber. Pandit Jagannath went on to become Jai Singh’s chief aide in his astronomy researches and in the theory and practical construction of his unique masonry instruments of astronomy. That we derive a wealth of meaning and identity from the rural landscape, is perhaps best exemplified in this poem, written 80 years ago for her son by an Englishwoman, Freda Bedi, who married an Indian and made a village in India her home. She was the first British woman to be jailed for participating in India’s freedom struggle against the British. In her evocative poem, the overriding image for an entire region—and even for heaven—is synonymous with an agricultural crop that is grown, cherished and harvested in villages.

Guru Nanak said to God
(White his beard as snow untrod)
‘Whatever tree or fruit it yields
Does mustard grow in the Heavenly fields’?

Curd from the pitcher, well-water sweet
Out in the fields a man must eat’
Whole wheat bread and mustard grant
The heart of Punjab is the sarson plant.

Where is the winter’s unsheathed lance?
Spring comes with a lyric and bhangra dance
My daughter has yellow veils in her dower
The heart of Punjab is the sarson flower.

‘Guru Baba Nanak, look
Tender your eyes like a country brook
Whatever tree or fruit it yields:
There’s a carpet of gold in the Heavenly Fields.’[4]

Despite the fact that villages have inspired some of the most beautiful imagery and most potent literature in our country; and that they have formed the backbone to our civilization, there is an almost complete disregard for rural cultures today. They are considered expendable, archaic, and regressive. SEZs replace them all over the country. The disruption in the traditional village organization caused by the deliberate breakdown of indigenous practices by the colonial incursion, has led to a steady degradation in village society. Manifested in the mounds of garbage recalled by R. K. Narayan even almost a century ago, the village environment across India today is now much, much worse. Between 2003 and 2008, according to research by P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, on an average one farmer committed suicide roughly every 30 minutes, the outcome of a nationwide agrarian crisis. [5]
Among the questions that exercise me are, how should we, as designers, respond to the state of villages today? How can we positively build upon the invaluable knowledge of ecological and cultural systems embodied in village habitats? Are there ways that we can suggest which ensure that traditional farming practices and crafts—and the heightened aesthetics which still flourish in many villages—bring enough to rural communities to live without fear of starvation or eviction? 

Maldevta, A village in the DoonValley, Uttarakhand, 2009 , Photo: Snehanshu Mukherjee

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[1] The Lost River, On the Trail of The Sarasvati, Michel Danino, Penguin Books 2010
[2] Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century
[3] Ancient Futures, Learning From Ladakh, Helena Norberg-Hodge; ‘The Economics of Happiness’, A film by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick & John Page
[4] ‘Basant’, Rhymes for Ranga, p. 48, Freda Bedi, Random House India, 2010
[5] Agrarian Crisis and Farmer`s Suicide, P. Sainath, IIC Occasional Publication 22