Monday, October 26, 2015

Irish Barmbrack - A Tea Flavoured Sweet Fruit Bread

I haven't been able to bake the monthly breads on We Knead to Bake through most of 2015 much to my disappointment, and have only watched as others baked a variety of beautiful breads. Luckily I managed to do the October bread and I am so happy I did!

The Irish Barmbrack turned out to be one of the very best breads I've ever baked in my life. Not only was it quite easy, it also had enough unusual things going to make it quite different from any bread I've done before. But then, that's the beauty of the WKTB group - we bake breads from all over the world learning new recipes, new techniques, new flavours, and new breads, of course. The Barmbrack is full of fruit and is mildly sweet. Commonly made a Halloween, the bread is often filled with charms that are fun to find while eating the bread.

This is the recipe shared by Aparna for us to follow. However I did make a few changes according to the ingredients I had at hand. I followed the technique as given in the original, of course. Most of the kneading was done in my stand mixer but once I added the soaked fruit to the dough I hand kneaded only.

Here's what I did.

1 cup Tesco's Presoaked Mixed Fruit

1/4 cup sultanas

a scant handful cranberries

1 1/2 cups Tulsi Ginger tea

1/4 tsp dried ginger powder

1 tsp cinnamon powder

1/2 tsp salt

3 1/2 cups plus extra maida or APF

2 tsp instant yeast

2/3 cup powdered sugar

30 gms butter, softened

1 egg, beaten

1/2 cup milk

In advance soak the dried fruit in the hot tea in a bowl and let it steep for a couple of hours or more. I put the tea leaves in a fine mesh strainer and left the strainer in the bowl to steep so that the tea flavours could be absorbed to the maximum by the soaking fruit. Once the fruit becomes quite plump discard the tea dregs and drain the fruit carefully. Reserve the tea liquid. Put the fruit in a strainer and let them drain while you get the dough going.

In the bowl of your mixer mix in the flour, yeast, sugar, spice powders, and salt. Give it all a stir. Add the beaten egg and the butter and mix again.

In a measuring jug mix milk and the tea liquid to make up one cup. I had loads of the tea liquid so I used half milk and half tea liquid. If it's gone cold warm it a little in the microwave. We're going to use this liquid to make the dough so it should be just warm enough to help the yeast bloom, not too hot or the yeast will die.

Pour in the milky tea and start the mixer at a slow speed till dry and wet ingredients are mixed well. Increase the speed by one level and, using the dough hook, knead the mix till you have a sticky but smooth dough. Add dry flour if required.

On a floured surface turn out the dough and knead for a minute or two by hand. Flatten out the dough and scatter the drained fruit on it. Fold over the dough and knead to mix the fruit into the dough. I added the fruit in a couple of batches to distribute it better - add the initial lot, knead to mix, flatten dough again, add fruit and knead again to incorporate.

Oil a proofing bowl and place the dough ball in it. Cover with a damp napkin and leave it aside to double.

Once it has doubled remove again to your floured surface. Divide the dough into two and knead gently for a minute each. Place in greased loaf tins or shape into freestyle loaves and place on your baking sheet. Cover again with a damp towel and leave to rise for another hour or so. I used a well floured banetton for my loaf.

Bake the breads at 180C for 30 to 40 minutes till golden brown on top and hollow sounding when tapped. If your bread is browning too fast cover loosely with foil.

Cool on a wire rack completely before slicing. We had our Barmbrack for breakfast and tea, slathered with butter, jam and honey. This bread toasts well too.

*Use any dried fruit to make up that 1 cup of fruit - raisins, prunes, apricots, sultanas, cherries, cranberries - whatever mix you like. I had that bag of Tesco's fruit so I used some of it.

*Use regular strong tea. I didn't have any so I used the tulsi ginger tea a friend had sent a while back. How nice that some of it got used!

*The original recipe calls for allspice powder. I didn't have any so I used more cinnamon. A mix of clove and cinnamon with a star anise thrown in would work quite well too.

We Knead to Bake #32

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Comfort that is Daal Bhaat

It's been a tough year so far and the last few weeks have been quite high on the difficulty scale. Stretched nerves, eroded patience, a whole lot of stress and a big surgery later we brought Mom home from the hospital. I don't know who was the most exhausted by the time we got home. You know how it is... after endless days spent in hospital, those last few hours till you finally step over the threshold and out of the building seem to pass with excruciating slowness. And then when you finally pile into the car, the drive home seems to take another age.

And then you're home! Exhausted but exhilarated.

Soon the exhilaration evaporates and the tiredness hits. The mind wants to shut down and crawl into a deep dark corner but there are mundane jobs to be done, lunch to be made.

Today the hubby stepped in and whipped up the simplest meal in creation - Daal and Rice. I had rooted around in the veggie drawer in the fridge and I found a plump brinjal, ideal for a bhaja to go with the daal and rice. And so that's what we had - Bhaat, Daal, Begun Bhaja, and my homemade Ghee.

We ate in silence as the simple meal comforted and strengthened us, assured us that all would be well, embraced us in a blanket of familiarity, normalcy and peace. Daal and Bhaat. That's what it does.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Thousand Years of Fusion - My Article on Parsi Food Ancestry Published in the CaLDRON Magazine

I wrote a couple of articles and contributed some recipes for the Two Year Anniversary Bumper issue of CaLDRON Magazine. Here's the one I wrote about Parsi food as we know it today and its ancestry tracing influences from Iran and India that have all made it what it is today. 

Do check out the issue here and see my article up there in print on page 68!  

Parsi Food – the words evoke images of Dhansakh and Patra ni Machhi in most people’s minds. But there’s much more to the cuisine of this much beloved community epitomised by philanthropy and eccentricity in equal measure.

The Parsis arrived in India as refugees from Iran, a little more than a thousand years ago and first settled on the Gujarat coast. Legend has it that the leader of the earliest groups went to meet a local chieftain to seek asylum. The chieftain showed him a bowl brimming with milk and said his land was like that bowl, with no room for more. The leader of the refugees sprinkled sugar into the milk and said, like the sugar, he and his people would not only blend into the milk but would improve it too. And thus the Parsis remained in India, and not only did they blend in, they certainly added plenty of sweetness to the land.

In Iran their diet included plenty of meat and wheat, punctuated with a profusion of fruit which was also dried to last through the year, pulses, herbs, a few spices, saffron, onions and garlic. Bread was a big component of the meal and they were skilled bakers. In India they found an abundant variety of fish, fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, a wide range of spices, and coconuts. While fusion food has become a fashionable buzz word in the last few decades the Parsis were at it as soon as they arrived. Most of modern Parsi cuisine that we see in India is a result of a fusion of Persian with Gujarati and coastal dishes, with influences from British cuisine, along with a dash of Portuguese thrown in.

Thus were born classics like Patra ni Machhi that uses coriander and coconut, the vividly red Parsi curries that use coconut, dried red chillies and poppy seeds, the Patio which uses vinegar, red chillies, tomatoes, and is garnished with vegetables like drumsticks and baby brinjals, Lagan nu Custard which is a classic British egg and milk custard with cardamom and nutmeg added to the mix and topped with nuts and dried fruit, to name a few.
There was no Dhansakh in Persia, nor was there any Patra ni Machhi. However we see Persian ancestry in the Pullaos, and in various other preparations that use dried fruit like apricots, raisins, currants, and saffron. The fondness for lamb over other meats is another vestige of their Persian heritage. However, they avoided beef and pork in India because these were taboo to many locals.

The Parsis don’t have many festivals but the start of a new year is of marked importance. August is a month of celebration with three important days – there’s Pateti, Navroze, and Khordad Saal. Pateti is the last day of the year and is a relatively solemn occasion where one reflects on the deeds of the year gone by; taking stock of the good and bad one has done, and resolves on doing better in the forthcoming year. Navroze, the ‘new day’, is the first day of the New Year and brings with it hope for a new beginning, celebrated with feasting and family outings to plays and concerts. Khordad Saal is the day of the Prophet Zoroaster’s birth. All three days are marked with visits to the Agiary (fire temple) and plenty of good food.

An invitation to a Navjote (initiation) or Lagan (wedding) is quite coveted for the guest is guaranteed to be wined and dined in style. Here too, the Indian influence is seen in the meals being served on banana leaves. Of course, these days many people prefer to have a buffet spread but the sit down meals are as popular.

In the old days a wedding feast menu featured mutton dishes from start to finish. The goat being a large animal, it was only slaughtered at weddings where there would be a large crowd to feed. The menu featured Aleti Paleti (pan fried offal in a spicy gravy), Bhaji Dana ma Gos (mutton cooked in fresh greens and peas), Khattu Gos (mutton cooked in curd) and a sumptuous mutton pullao or plain rice accompanied by Masala ni Daar (spicy daal). Mhowdi, a liqueur made from the mahua flowers, would be served in little silver cups called ‘fuliyas’. 

The advent of poultry farms and broiler chicken has changed the Parsi diet considerably. Chicken was now easily available and one didn’t have to sacrifice a valuable layer that provided eggs. Eggs have always ruled the roost in Parsi kitchens and there is an endless variety of egg preparations, the most well-known being ‘Sali per Eeda’ or eggs on straw potatoes. Kasa per Eeda or eggs on something is an entire chapter in Parsi cuisine where eggs are steamed on top of a variety of bases. The base could be leftover vegetables, a simple mix of onions, tomatoes, and spices, a piquant kheema, or something as decadent as clotted cream! 

Fish also gained popularity and today, no Parsi feast is complete without Patra ni Machhi or Sahs ni Machhi made with pomfrets, the Parsi’s favourite fish.

While the Parsi loves proteins more, there is quite a variety of vegetarian recipes in the repertoire – much to most non Parsis’ surprise. Granted, most vegetable recipes have some meat added ‘to make it palatable’ but there are plenty of completely meatless vegetable preparations too, no doubt the result of intermingling with local communities and the sheer abundance of vegetables in India.

The cuisine today is a wonderful mix of original Persian preparations with strong local influences starting in Gujarat, going south along the western coast as they moved towards Bombay and beyond, right down till Goa. A thousand years of fusion has resulted in a unique cuisine that celebrates local produce and ingredients and yet holds on to the rich culinary heritage of the land of its origin.