Category Archives: Delicious desserts

Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving Day!

November 2020

My first Thanksgiving meal was more than 38 years ago with extended family in the Bay Area. It was a magical day filled with foods I’d never tasted before. There was wild rice (not really rice!), stuffing made with bread, mounds of mashed potatoes (different from south Indian masala potatoes), savory vegetarian gravy, baked squash with a sprinkle of cinnamon, fresh rolls, green leafy vegetables with cream sauce  and loads of desserts, including pumpkin pie made by the kids in our family. It was a day filled with easy camaraderie, stories and affection.

I loved this new holiday so much that when we got married a few years later, it seemed natural to continue the celebration. The day was a perfect combination of good food, family and gratitude.

Now I was brought up on ritual and decorum. Feasts in India are based on centuries-old beliefs. You always served tangy Aviyal stew for an Onam feast or sweet and savory rice balls were mandatory on Ganesha Chaturthi.

But there was no south Indian game plan for celebrating Thanksgiving and my husband’s childhood traditions didn’t quite fit our vegetarian lifestyle.

Over the years I have cooked all kinds of food for Thanksgiving. One meal was all Indian with masala dosas, Indian flat breads and vegetable stews. Another time, it was a huge lasagna with homemade noodles and sauce.

It took time to find that perfect meal to reflect my cooking and our own rituals. My mother-in-law shared her creamed onion recipe (years later it would be modified to include a light herbaceous béchamel sauce and roasted pearl onions). I remembered mashed potatoes from my first Thanksgiving feast. I experimented with adding roasted garlic, cauliflower and even malt vinegar for that salt and vinegar flavor. I tweaked gravy recipes until I found a hearty caramelized onion gravy we all liked.

Wild rice was mandatory and included chunks of succulent roasted squash and toasted nuts.

Herb-flecked asparagus timbales with béchamel sauce and parmesan-spiked bread crumbs became a family favorite, even a son who disliked asparagus managed to eat a timbale or two.

We had to have cranberry sauce. My friend Sandra had the perfect recipe which included fresh cranberries, a whole orange and plenty of finely chopped toasted walnuts.

For dessert, along with traditional pumpkin pie, we added different baked goods such as black forest cake, apple pie, cherry pie or chocolate pecan pie with a touch of bourbon.

A funny thing happened over the years, my boys and husband loved all the foods but we discovered we liked being together even more. We found that gratitude and giving thanks was almost as satisfying as the savory appetizer or slice of tart cherry pie with vanilla ice cream.

This year we are counting our blessings over spinach crepes with roasted red pepper sauce, roasted cabbage with walnuts and lemon and wild rice with pomegranates and pistachios.

The meal will be simple and a little untraditional but the sentiment behind it will be the same.

Here’s to next year when we’ll be back to eating all the foods we love with family we cherish.

Giving thanks never goes out of style.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Filed under Celebrations, cooking, Delicious desserts, dinner, harvest, Uncategorized

Ammalu and the Jackfruit

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February 2019

Over time a family story can become a folktale of epic proportion, a true inspiration to all who hear it. This one is about my great-aunt Ammalu.

The story begins in a sleepy little village deep in south India.  Here Ammalu and her sister Pearl grew up surrounded by countless cousins, aunts and uncles. Ammalu was the older sister, the one with a sense of adventure. She loved going on outings to visit neighbors and relatives. She had a knack for storytelling and an easy going nature. Pearl was shy and more at home in the kitchen with a flair for pastry making.

Little Ammalu was rumored to have a sweet tooth. In those days there was no candy or chocolate bars and so she indulged in what grew in her backyard from large juicy mangoes, tasty papayas to bananas in all sizes, but her favorite was the jackfruit.

The jackfruits from our family orchards were legendary in their size and flavor. It would take two men to cut down the gigantic fruit and lug it into the family courtyard. The fresh fruit would be placed on an old cotton sari and one of the men would use an enormous knife to cut into the tough skin. As the jackfruit was cut open the entire courtyard would be filled with its fruity fragrance. The milky fluid from the jackfruit would flow onto the sari and children would be held back so that they wouldn’t get any of the sticky sap on their fingers. The women would be waiting, ready to dip oily fingers into the cut fruit. The coconut oil was necessary to keep the sap from sticking onto fingers and eager hands. The tiny strands would be pushed aside to get into the thick pods of creamy yellow fruit. Each pod contained one large seed, which would be cleaned and saved for later use. The seed had a sweet nutty taste, very similar to roasted chestnuts.

The best jackfruit was sweet and juicy with a hint of tartness and a pleasing crunch. Overripe jackfruit was sometimes stringy and too sweet. Ammalu loved this unique and delicious fruit. When everyone had enough of the fresh fruit, the leftovers were cooked down with jaggery sugar and stored in crock pots. In the cool pantry, the jackfruit jam fermented into caramel-like goo with a pungent odor that was pleasant only to the true fan of jackfruit. Ammalu must have had a discerning palate because she loved eating scoops of this odoriferous jam. It was also made into special puddings.

Life in our tiny ancestral village was simple. There was not much in the way of entertainment and so everyone looked forward to visits from roaming troupes of actors. These troupes of mostly men would enact scenes from Indian myths and legends. Perhaps it was one of these actors who told Ammalu about the wonders of travel and of a special city dedicated to Lord Shiva.

This holy place was called Benares (or Varanasi or Kashi) and situated near the Bihar border in the faraway state of Uttar Pradesh. Visiting this holy city and bathing in the even holier Ganges became an obsession with Ammalu. Perhaps one of the actors or someone in the family pointed out that after visiting Benares the pilgrim would have to give up a favorite food. Ammalu knew what she would give up.

She was in her early forties when she finally had an opportunity to take her dream trip. In the years after her pilgrimage when relatives offered her a piece of fresh jackfruit, she would shake her head and say, “I just returned from Kashi,” and everyone immediately understood why she said no to her favorite snack. She died at the age of 88 and never tasted jackfruit again.

A decade or so ago my family and I visited Benares to scatter my uncle’s ashes. We found the city to be a study in contrasts. The grime and dirt didn’t deter from the city’s beauty and timeless quality. The Ganges was a lazy ribbon of water with a lot of floating debris but as I watched the orange glow of the tropical sunset, I couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of peace and calm. A holy city will do that to you. I imagined Ammalu must have experienced that same serenity as she bathed in the Ganges and vowed never to eat jackfruit again.

She would have never dreamed that her pilgrimage and personal sacrifice would inspire the next generation. Recently I decided to challenge myself by giving up sugar for a few months and great-aunt Ammalu’s uplifting story has been a marvelous example for me.

The least tangible (and material) legacy we leave behind will endure the longest. Perhaps the next generation will remember you for your kindness, your grace under pressure or your selfless love. That is a legacy worth striving for!

 

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Filed under Aunts and other relatives, Benares, Celebrations, cooking, Delicious desserts, family, Fresh fruit, Fresh produce, Ganges River, harmony, harvest, Holy City, jackfruit, Lord Shiva, meatless, my mother's kitche, Personal experience, pilgrimage, remembering our ancestors, South India, Uncategorized

Birthday Pudding

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July 2016

Birthday cakes were not part of my childhood celebrations.

But don’t feel too sorry for me. For birthdays, and on other special occasions, my mother prepared a creamy cardamom-spiked pudding. This addictive dessert was the perfect ending to a spicy meal.

There are many variations of the pudding but the main ingredients are rice or vermicelli, milk, sugar, ghee, cashews, raisins and cardamom. A richer version of the pudding uses expensive saffron threads, pale green pistachio nuts and tiny currants.

My mother liked the simplest version and so that is my preference too.

She used Indian vermicelli that was super thin. The vermicelli was broken up into bite size pieces and then toasted in a little bit of ghee. The scent of toasting vermicelli always brings back memories of many birthday celebrations.

Indian cooking (and other types too!) is a multi-sensory experience. My late mother-in-law never used the timer when baking her famous apple pie. She knew by the aroma when it was done and she was never wrong! When you have an instinct for cooking this is easy but for those of us who tend to forget what’s on the stove or in the oven, a timer is essential.

Birthdays meant the scent of cashews frying in golden ghee. Celebrations were never complete without the pungent and heady scent of green cardamom pods being crushed.

My mother only added the smallest amount of raisins (perhaps they were expensive) but it didn’t matter; the finished pudding was always delicious.

We enjoyed our pudding at room temperature or even warm. But if you prefer your pudding cold, feel free to chill the mixture.

You can’t place candles in this pudding, but getting older will be a little easier when you taste a bite of this creamy soothing dessert.

RECIPE

4 1/2  cups whole milk

1 cup vermicelli (Indian is best, but Italian will work too), broken into bite size pieces

1 can condensed milk

4 tablespoons ghee

1 tablespoon raisins (you can add more if you want)

4 tablespoons whole or halved raw cashew pieces

4-6 cardamom pods, peeled and then crushed in a mortar and pestle

PREP:

Bring milk to boil (TIP: Coat the pan with water before adding milk to keep from sticking). Let the milk simmer for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of ghee in a large saucepan and roast the vermicelli until golden brown.

Add the vermicelli to the thickened milk and cook for 6-8 minutes (depending on the kind of vermicelli).

Once the vermicelli is tender, add the condensed milk. Keep stirring and cooking for an additional 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat. The pudding will thicken in the fridge and as it cools. If it is too thick add a few tablespoons of warm milk before serving.

In a small sauce pan heat the remaining ghee. Add the cashew pieces and sauté until a light brown, add raisins and keep stirring until everything is golden brown. In a few minutes the raisins should get nice and plump. The kitchen will be filled with a golden nutty aroma.

Remove sauce pan from heat, add crushed cardamom and stir. Add this mixture to the cooling pudding and stir thoroughly.

Enjoy warm or cold.

Warning: Birthday candles will sink! Serves 2-4 or sometimes just one!

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Filed under Cardamom pudding, Celebrations, Delicious desserts, Indian dessert, Indian food, mother's kitchen, my mother's kitche, South India, Uncategorized