I’ve decided to start the blog again but focus a bit more on children and storytelling, with the odd general parenting post… let’s see how it goes!
Celebrating Diwaali November 2, 2010
How to make Indian sweets
No Diwali celebration is complete without platefuls of barfi, besan laddoo and halwa – and homemade sweets are the best
These sugary confections have an emotional pull, too, from their association with happiness, good luck and festivals. Celebrating a new baby, a promotion at work or straight A*s in your GCSEs is incomplete without a plate of mithai (sweets). When I told my aunt I was getting married I made sure I secured her to make the sweets in the same breath. My husband was alarmed to discover that on the wedding day we would be faced with toothpick-wielding relatives trying to force feed him pastel-hued squares of milky barfi for good luck.
Yet somehow their violent charms seem to have frightened away most British devotees of India’s savoury dishes. A home cook’s everyday repertoire might include Keralan fish curry or dhal – dishes that show the increasingly sophisticated appreciation of south Asian cuisine. But it’s still rare to see a non-Asian face in any of the multitude of Indian sweet houses in London’s Southall or Manchester’s Rusholme. The colours can seem vulgar, the sugar content too high for uninitiated palates – just two little balls of my favourite, gulab jamun (a fried sweet of milky dough bathed in syrup) can be as much as 380 calories.
Food writer and cookery teacher Monisha Bharadwaj thinks this is a shame, and insists that sweets made at home are completely different. Not that she is claiming they could be called healthy (although she does helpfully point out that gajar ka halwa – made from carrots – might count as one of your five a day), but it is possible to tame the sugar and fat. “In shops the sweets all have the maximum amount of sugar, colour and ghee in them. At home they taste very different – you don’t feel like you can’t eat more than one bite.”
I have arrived in Monisha’s immaculate kitchen (cleaned twice a day, she tells me cheerfully) to learn how to make some favourites. It’s the perfect time – in nearby Southall, the shops are already filling up with lamps, candles and fireworks in preparation for Diwali. The five-day festival of light, celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, starts on 5 November.
“There are no specific dishes you eat in Diwali but you must eat sweets,” Monisha insists. “Making them is part of the buildup, with the children getting involved. Then when you go visiting you will be offered them at everyone’s house. At the end of Diwali you should be completely sweeted-out.”
Variety is important, so we start by making two sets of barfi – solid cubes of condensed milk. Coconut is first – it is the classic version. We grind cardamom seeds, popping them from their dried pods to release their strong scent, then boil double cream, add sugar and milk powder and turn it into custard. Finally we add the coconut and cardamom and pour the mixture into a shallow dish, leaving it to cool. I can’t wait for it to fully set though – we dive in with teaspoons. It’s delicious, with a stronger caramel flavour than a shop-bought version, and, as Monisha promised, not as overpoweringly sweet. Next up is the chocolate barfi, which is also tastier than the dry commercial offering, where flavour feels like an afterthought.
The problems start when I try something a little more tricky – besan laddoo. These cheery little beige spheres, made from a mixture of chickpea (gram) flour and semolina, and flavoured with almonds and cardamom, should shine gently with the butter. Monisha shows me how to roast the gram flour, butter and semolina until the flour’s raw and slightly bitter smell disappears. But once we have added the sugar and flavourings, and begin to shape the sweets, they turn into a sticky mess in my hands. “Too much ghee,” Monisha swiftly diagnoses. But even her magic fingers can’t make the plumpness last, and within seconds it melts. “Never mind,” she announces, quickly sticking a sultana in the top. “We’ll just say you were cooking a flat pedhe instead.” I would have thanked her, but my mouth was too full.
• For more information on Monisha’s Dilwali food walk, cooking classes and cookery books, see cookingwithmonisha.com
Besan laddoo – as they should look. Photograph: ephotocorp/Alamy200g besan or gram flour
4 tbsp semolina
100g caster sugar
4 tbsp sliced almonds
1 tsp cardamom powder
A few raisins to decorate
Put the gram flour, semolina and ghee in a heavy saucepan and fry on a medium heat for about 10 minutes or until an aroma develops. Make sure to keep the heat down and keep stirring so the flour roasts right through.
Turn off the heat and allow to cool until just warm.
Stir in the sugar, almonds and cardamom.
Take a small fistful of the flour and press into a ball. Put a raisin into each one to decorate.
Chocolate barfi (makes 20 squares)
120g cocoa powder
400g tin condensed milk
4 tbsp mixed chopped nuts
2 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp for greasing the dish
Pour the condensed milk into a heavy saucepan. Add the butter and the cocoa. Cook on a gentle heat stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and begins to draw away from the side of the pan.
Grease a flat dish with the extra butter. Pour the thick cocoa mixture in and smooth the surface with a spatula.
Allow to cool and set.
Sprinkle with the mixed nuts and cut into 1in squares. Barfi can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
Coconut barfi (makes 20 squares)
150ml double cream
150g milk powder
120g caster sugar
75g dessicated coconut
½ tsp cardamom powder
Put the cream in a saucepan and bring to the boil, lowering the heat when it gets hot. Add the sugar and cook on a low heat until it bubbles and forms a single thread consistency – this should take 8-10 minutes.
Add the milk powder and stir for a couple of minutes until it begins to leave the side of the pan.
Add the coconut and cardamom and cook for a couple of minutes. Turn out onto a greased plate and allow to cool. Cut into squares.
From ‘Oh the places you’ll go’ by Dr Seuss November 9, 2008
Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to great places! You’re off & away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go. You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care. About some you will say “i don’t choose to go there”. With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street. And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air. Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too. Oh, the places you’ll go!
Alphabet Soup October 3, 2008
“Only the pure of heart can make good soup” Beethoven
So the late Paul Newman had a personal motto that you should always make a bowl of soup for a friend. A hearty and humble aim for such a man and one that makes much of sense on many levels. There’s an old saying that soup and stories should both be readily shared and the age-old story of Stone Soup springs to mind, where a stranger unites a village experiencing a famine and gets them laughing, singing and eating lashings of hot soup from the few ingredients they each had.
For soup will have been made since man first had fire and is said to be more powerful than medicine at healing and helping from colds through to cancer. Soups can hide all manner of healthy ingredients from unsuspecting children’s eyes and can be turned into pasta sauces or frozen at the drop of a proverbial hat…
In these uncertain financial times we’d be as well to remember some of the culinary arts of both our pre- and post-war ancestors, of using scraps and stored vegetables, of using wild foods and foods we’ve grown, combining them in ways to make hearty, nourishing, seasonal, healthy and inexpensive fare.
Try making courgette, red lentil, coriander and coconut milk soup or fennel and puy lentil. The secret, they say, is in using herbs where you can and getting the best quality stock, preferably homemade, that you can lay your hands on. Soups should generally have some carbs at their core such as lentils, potatoes, rice or even bread.
So find a friend and make him or her some soup this week!
Idle Pleasures… September 5, 2008
beat the post-summer blues and indulge yourself in one of these this autumn…
taking a bath, poking the fire, slouching, leaf catching, waiting for the tea to brew, messing about in boats, tree houses, strolling through the city, procrastinating, the deckchair, taking a nap, deja vu, public benches, river swimming, reclining on the top deck of the bus, the beach, just looking, melancholy, walking with toddlers, singing, sunbeams, sticking matchsticks in vegetables to make vegetable aliens, looking at maps, gathering food from the hedgerows, putting out the washing, being ill, sleeping in your clothes, sitting on the loo, grottos, face pulling, competitions, tree climbing, reading poetry, sleeping outside, dreaming, telling, stories, feeling the wind in your hair, staring, dressing gown, autumnal sneezing, chatting to the postman, learning the names of trees, writing a real letter, conkers, wandering round old churches, shadow watching, garden shed, sit down protests, contemplation of things that fly, squeezing bubble, wrap, whistling, whittling, morning sex, getting dressed, smiling, breast feeding, libraries, doodling, slippers, skimming stones, pacing, merry making, lying around in fields, butterfly hunting, cloud watching, hiding, snow, charity shops, leaning on gates, overnight trains, star gazing, gossip, philosophising, good company, building houses of cards, cycling, dancing, choosing to get wet in the, rain, launderettes, reading Edward Lear poems out loud to children, folding paper, reading gravestones, walking back home drunk, bell ringing, lying in hammocks
Rest August 4, 2008
So it’s a little known fact that the term ‘let’s sleep on it’ has basis in actual scientific fact; the brain transfers information from the short term memory into the longer term and in the process all the information is organised into the right bit of the brain, thus making full sense of it all. It’s why you must rest and stop from time to time and why any lesson in anything should incorporate a short time to reflect or relax (as in the case of yoga etc).
It’s also why summer holidays are so important to kids and why you often see a giant leap forward at the end of them – not that the learning stuff isn’t important but the time spent mooching about and mucking around is when it all starts to sink in and make sense. So enjoy mooching and don’t worry that you should be doing terribly structured activities!
Recipe: Credit Crunch July 23, 2008
Serves: Makes 12-15
Cook: 5 min
100g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
5 tbsp golden syrup