Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Strawberry buttermilk cake

With Christmas around, everyone is baking some of the best cakes and beautiful ones that will sure taste delicious too. there are posts after post bringing us cakes, cookies and candies. The season of sharing has brought the creativity in my fellow bloggers and they are working in their kitchens to share the goodies with family and friends.

I have tried much to bake but cakes have always not been good at it. However, that does not deter me from attempting again. This cake is one that I had tried earlier soon after Aparna had posted this one. I remember using the exact measurements and liking it when we tasted, only that we like our cake a bit sweet. She had tried this recipe from gourmet and altered to suit her tastes.

This time I used the recipe from gourmet, replacing the egg with extra buttermilk and baking powder; I did not find raspberries, so went with Aparna and the strawberries. This cake was for our marriage anniversary earlier in the week. Both recipes I had looked up were baked in a 9" round tin, however, I wanted to use one smaller bundt tin I had with me, so used that and another 41/2" small round tin to fit the rest of the batter.

1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar (I used 150 ml sugar, slightly less than 2/3rds of the cup)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 cup fresh strawberries chopped

Pre heat the oven to 200 degrees Centigrade.
Dust the cake tin and have it ready.
Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda.
Whisk the buttermilk well.
Beat the butter and the sugar until pale and fluffy.
Add the vanilla extract and beat to combine.
With the mixer running at the lowest speed, gently beat in the flour mix in small batches, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour. Add the chopped strawberries mixing lightly. If you want a beautiful design on your cake, you may cut strawberries in neat cut pieces and arrange on the top after transferring the batter to the tin.
Transfer the batter to the prepared tin and bake at 200 degrees C for 25 to 30 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out clean. I had  small cakes and hence the baking time was only 25 minutes.
Cool the cakes on wire racks.
I sprinkled some powdered sugar on top and topped with few fresh strawberries.
We enjoyed the cake with tea.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Making unrefined sugar - visit to a cottage industry

Almost every holiday we spend in my parents place, at Namakkal, we get to drink fresh squeezed sugar cane juice from either of the many 'aalai'  (small industry that makes unrefined sugar) where vellam (jaggery) and the popular 'Salem sarkkarai' or 'Naatu sarkarai' is produced. My father's friends and his clients will send home  the juice to which chilli, ginger and juice of lime has been added in stainless steel containers and urge that we consume before that ferments. All of us like the juice and will look forward to more.

In the nearby villages agriculture is the mainstay of the rural people. Crops like groundnuts, onions, sugarcane, tapioca and banana are grown. The sugar cane in the area is grown with the water that comes from the Cauvery. The irrigation system consists of underground pipelines that brings water about 20 km from the river bed. Also, these areas were dry until a good while ago, it is only now, that they are growing cash crops in the area.Sugarcane here is used for the manufacture of  jaggery, while most of the produce is sent to nearby sugar factories located in the district. also the bagasse is sent to the paper mill nearby.

Jaggery production has been a cottage industry for many years that I remember we used to smell the sweet aroma of the boiling sugarcane extract while travelling through the villages.Though we could not physically see the 'aalai' we would sense it nearby. This time we took a trip to Jedarpalyam, near Namakkal visiting one such 'aalai'. The owner Mr. Ravi and his family generously obliged to show us around.

The process is quite simple, but for the people who toil in the heat of the furnace, stirring the mass and then gathering in the right size of an odd sphere - conical shape while warm it is quite a job. 

There were a few small units there and two were working when we visited. one of them was in the process of making the vellam while the other was producing the cane sugar. With the power supply being erratic, they were running the cane crushers on generators and hence the limit to the running units.

The sugar cane is passed through the crusher and the juice is collected in drums that are cover with sack to strain the juice. Small quantity of sodium -bi-carbonate has been added in the drum to cleanse further. This juice is transferred to another drum after another round of straining.

This second drum is fitted with an outlet hose which drains directly into large circular flat pans with rims that are about half foot tall. This pan sits stoutly on the furnace. The furnace is fed with the dried bagasse and some splinters from trees. The heat is kept steady and the juice boils down to a syrup. The time is adjusted in accordance to the requirement - whether it will be rolled in jaggery or will be stirred until powdered cane sugar. They have a very innovative pulley and rope arrangement to drain the boiled syrup on to a clean wooden platform. While a man holds strongly at the rope and balances the weight of the tilted pan, another person quickly brushes the residual liquid onto the platform while two or three others assist by holding the pan in position.

The drained syrup is continuously stirred with wooden ladles that have long poles for handle and is allowed to cool down. Again the required thickness is determined and the effort is timed accordingly.
Prior to dropping the liquid on the platform some amount of soda is sprinkled on the platform too.
In earlier years people used lime for this refining process, but in modern times the soda bi carb has replaced the lime. Apart from this almost negligible quantity of the chemical, no preservative is added during the process.

When the correct consistency has been achieved by stirring and cooling the mass, the men and women work on the shaping of the vellam. It is first hand rolled and quickly transferred to clean white material cut to measurement and rolled within by squeezing the edge tight. Neat and uniformly shaped vellem emerges from within the cloth which is then stacked in a neat and orderly manner.

On the other board, the boiling time is slightly altered and the stirring is more laborious in order to allow the mass to become lump free but coarse powder. When the cooling is complete, the mass is pushed to the centre of the wooden platform and is then transferred for storing.

Earlier during our visit to Badami, we witnessed that the sugarcane fields there were ready for harvest and the guide passed some very commendable information that I think I must share. Since hand harvesting of sugarcane is fairly new in Karnataka and there are skilled labours in Mahrashtra, the landowners hire them. They have to move family as the women also are hired. In order that their children do not miss out on education, tutors are hired along with every few units, paid extra and aid the schooling. This India is what we shall be proud of.

Sugar in any form is not healthy. However, the unrefined sugar undergoes less chemical absorption changes and is fairs better on that scale. The sweetness of the vellam depends on how good the cane has been; since no preservatives are added in the manufacturing process, it is best consumed sooner for over the period of time fermentation will occur.

We took home some jaggery and a 2 litre bottle of cane juice and many pictures. Few dishes I have used jaggery to prepare are adhirasam, aval pittu, adai payasam, kamarkhat, manoharam , pittu and more.


Monday, December 10, 2012

'A workshop on food photography basics' - Something I had looked forward to and thoroughly enjoyed

I have been away, travelled, had fun and now am back. I apologise for not keeping up with the many posts you put up, missing to wish on birthdays, blog birthdays and many important occasions that may have been over the past month and a half.
This time we decided to take a longer (than our usual) vacation and planned an itinerary of sorts to visit few places in India, meet friends, celebrate deepavali with family and NO REST! I am glad we did all of that was planned, well mostly 'ALL', for with some unexpected travel hiccups, we had to cut short a day in one of our trips and that meant leaving out visiting one of the great historical sites. There is always a next time, I hope.

As I was working this trip plan, Aparna had decided to conduct a workshop on food photography sometime in November and had sought interested people to join. That was one opportunity I did not want to miss and promptly enlisted for the same. The workshop was to be in Chennai which was an easy location for me to include in my itinerary and it would be for a whole day. I could not have asked for more.
However, November is the month of monsoon in Chennai and I had my misgivings about the light that is the important  factor for photography. Now, if anyone tells me that if you wish hard enough, things will certainly take place, I would blindly take that. It was November, but the weather was beautiful, not the hot and humid Madras weather at all nor was it pouring down.
Nithya had co-ordinated with Aparna, who had travelled to Chennai for this and a short visit to her family and organised the same. Nine of us had registered and THE KETTLE TEAHOUSE, Anna Nagar was just the right place for that. They had arranged for the morning session indoors and had kindly let us use the patio through the afternoon for experimenting the theory we had absorbed earlier.

Aparna had put much work to make this worthwhile for all of us. She discussed many aspects of photography in general and when she moved on to food photography in particular, we were hanging on to every word she uttered. She made it simple and interesting through the discussion which covered even small details that we did not know mattered.

It is simple, you do not have to own something fancy to be good, but if you did have something that mattered, make use of it as much as it can work for you. Thus, what lenses worked best for what type of photos, how to effectively create the mood for the photo, use the light and play with light were are shown with slides.

She discussed technical aspects of photography, with special detail to food, depth of field, angles, composition and other aspects such as styling tableware etc. along with tips that will make a difference to your pictures. At the same time, she also lectured in detail what she has already written in her posts earlier on this topic.

How to make your reader look at your picture again with the correct angle, clarity, proportion, styling and more were suggested and shown through her slides.

The afternoon session was a fun filled exercise that we clicked pictures of food that The Kettle Teahouse  had made available. Aparna had actually carried with her, some paper that work as good background, few handy reflectors and diffusers and material too. That will emphasize on how eager she was to share her expertise.

There was a small challenge thrown in by Kettle TeaHouse. They had wanted the participants to click shots of one of their teas and post on their facebook fan page and there was a prize to go with the chosen shot. I did not think my pictures worthy of the contest, but certainly want to share with you.

Having enjoyed the workshop, it is only fair to acknowledge the hospitality shown by the management of the venue. They were more than accommodating as we pulled and pushed their neatly arranged furniture to make ourselves comfortable; provided us with a much needed Masala Tea and some sandwich for a mid morning snack, a satisfying meal with a choice of rice and Thai curry/ pasta with starters and ice cream for dessert. By the end of the session we had garam samosas and tea of  choice.

If there was food for thought and the stomach, Aparna  sent us home with a goodies bag too. The cute props shown below are her gift to us, the white ceramic dishes being sponsored by Urban Dazzle.

Most of the above pictures have been taken by me and I have borrowed one  or two that my daughter clicked when she came to pick me up. The group picture was from Aparna which she allowed Niki to click.

Pictures of the workshop, participants and more can be viewed in Aparna Balasubramanian Photography page on facebook which has a collection from all of us.
You might also like to read Divya's and Rajani's experiences; please head to their respective posts just clicking these links below.
Divya's Easy Cooking

Rajani's Kitchen Trials

I hope that I have learnt something and that will reflect in my work in future. If that shows then you know who I must thank for. This workshop was a chance for me to catch up with few of my blogger buddies and introduced other new friends. I just had another beautiful day and I hope to have accounted for the same as interestingly.