Cookbook Challenge: Panch Phora Aloo

If you’ve spent much time around me and food has come up in the conversation, you probably know I have a passion for Indian food. Once upon a time, I set out to try every Indian buffet in the Boston area (there are over 50 accessible by the T, to say nothing of those accessible by the bus system) and documented my findings on a short-lived blog called “The Phantom Buffet”. During my journeys, I got to try all sorts of new dishes (and compare some ubiquitous dishes, served at almost every buffet).

Prior to that journey, however, I had spent 4 years in Maine as a cook at 2 well-regarded restaurants in a town full of good restaurants (and not just the seafood variety). I got pretty good, and some of the dishes I designed for one restaurant remain on the menu today.

So, as I wound down on the Indian buffet venture, I began to work on reproducing some of the dishes I enjoyed most. Some are too far from realistic for a home cook (I hope someday to have a kitchen with a tandoor, but not today) but others are eminently doable. Through several cookbooks, I have tried many recipes and discovered more and less successful ways of doing some of my favorite dishes, and have approached restaurant-quality meals in some cases. Last week, I finally decided to tackle an elusive favorite dish which I had yet to discover a viable recipe for: Jeera Aloo (and its delectable cousin, Methi Aloo).

The dish is simple in concept but less so in execution. Basically, they’re Indian homefries with whole spices and a really complex flavor that’s soaked up by perfectly-cooked potatoes. There are some complications: First, “perfectly-cooked” potatoes are hard to do. Mashed is easy, undercooking is woefully simple, but getting nicely-formed cubes that are fully cooked without being mushy is difficult. Second, getting the right flavor is hard because you can’t taste the potatoes until it’s too late to re-season them.

Another monkey-wrench thrown into the mix is the Cookbook Challenge. This is something my wife put me up to in order to help me trim my wall of cookbooks. She said, “You have 1 year. Make something out of every cookbook you want to keep. If you fail to make something out of a cookbook by the end of the year, the cookbook goes.”

Enter the Spice Bible. This is a book I was gifted some years ago and have glanced at but never really used. It’s unique in that it organizes its recipes by the dominant spice in the recipe. It also goes into some unusual spice mixes and pastes toward the end. And under one of those mixes, I found my recipe.

jeera-alooPanch Phora Aloo is a dish very much like Jeera Aloo, but with a more complex flavor palette. Instead of just jeera (cumin), it uses a spice mix consisting of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella and black mustard seeds (in equal amounts). It also uses copious quantities of ghee.

The first batch I made I followed the directions on but didn’t think too hard about seasoning. Salt would have been important but I didn’t use it until it was too late. The spice balance and heat level was good but salt brings the flavors to the forefront and the result was an unevenly-flavored dish that I was convinced I could do better.

I took a risk. Last Tuesday I had heard some old friends were all coming to the Tuesday Night Dinner — a potluck at the home of another old friend. When I can make it, people know that whatever I have to offer will be one of everyone’s favorites and the host will probably end up scraping the bottom of the dish and eating it right off the serving spoon. So I had to do it right. I changed one thing about the recipe: after sauteeing the panch phora and onions until nicely browned and fragrant, I added a liberal quantity of salt (about half the amount of whole spices) at the same time as adding the powdered turmeric, freshly-roasted and ground cumin and chili powder. This made the oily paste (sounds appetizing, right?) extra salty and flavorful just before adding the parboiled potato cubes and garlic. The naturally bland potatoes and the oversalted sauce combined to create — voila! — a perfectly-seasoned dish. After sauteeing for 15 or 20 minutes, the potatoes cut nicely and a taste test confirmed all was well. A bit of lime juice and cilantro tossed in at the last minute and the dish was ready.

At the Tuesday Night Dinner, it was one of only a handful of vegetarian dishes and therefore much appreciated by the handful of vegetarians — but lauded by many others as well. In the end, the score was Potluck: 1; Cookbook Challenge: 1; Phantom Buffet: 0. That’s one more dish I don’t need to search out on the buffets and menus of Boston — now I can do it myself just as well or better!

I hope you enjoy my culinary adventures. Remember, if you want to turn these off and just read my music or knitting content, use the “Choose Your Own Adventure” floater to your right.

Enter the Carousel

My lovely wife just passed a milestone (it’s like passing a kidney stone, but less painful). As of yesterday, she’s joined me in the 30-something crowd. Some years back when I did the same thing, she planned an ingenious surprise party for me, managing to get old friends of mine to travel in from several states away. Her original idea, however, was even more ingenious — to do a Logan’s Run themed 30th birthday party.

Spoiler Alert: For those who haven’t seen Logan’s Run, and enjoy campy 80′s sci-fi B-movies, I recommend it. But if you don’t want to sully your pristine mind with such things, I’ll tell you the basic plot. There’s an isolated underground society where everyone is under 30 years old. When they reach 30, they participate in a ritual called the Carousel, where they ascend to a higher plane or some such. Of course, someone in the society figures out that the computer in charge of all this is just killing them off. His name is Logan, and of course on his 30th birthday, he runs rather than subjecting himself to the Carousel.

Logans-RunThe Carousel itself looks like a giant red modernist jello-mold or, more relevant here, a bundt cake. So the idea was to bake a cake using a sufficiently-geometric bundt pan, and maybe get all our friends together in white robes and fly around above the cake before exploding in showers of bad special-effects. Or, you know, just eat cake.

Anyway, on her 30th birthday I also failed to get a Logan’s Run-themed party together — partially because I am not a good party planner and partially because she had already planned something equally awesome for herself. However, as the day approached, I figured I could at least bake an appropriate cake. I am, after all, the chef in the family.

I had a devil of a time, however, finding an appropriate bundt pan. I feel like, some years ago, such a thing existed. But some bundt designs are timeless and some are less so, and it appeared the one that looked like the Carousel had reached its 30th birthday and expired.

So instead, I went with clean, beautiful, awesome geometry, like what might have been if Logan’s Run had been remade in the modern era (don’t do it, Hollywood! Please don’t!). I bought the Nordicware Jubilee pan, admittedly one of the more difficult bundt shapes to get right, and hoped for the best.

I figured I’d have the best luck with a King Arthur Flour recipe, and I dug around on their site until I found this one. I had some other errands to run so I went out and fetched some high-quality baking cocoa from Burdick’s and some real Maraschino cherries from Cardullo’s. I already had a bag of mixed dried cherries from my recent trip to Seattle. While my wife was out on an errand of her own, I whipped up the recipe and tossed it in the oven.

Bundt-1The recipe was for a 12-cup bundt pan, and the Jubilee is a 10-cup design (probably due to all the lost space from the geometric spikes) so I was afraid I overfilled it — but while it did overflow a bit, it didn’t make a mess and only took an extra 20 minutes in the oven to get to the right consistency. After some cooling time, I loosened the bottom, flipped it onto a plate and voila! it worked perfectly the first time!

The next issue was frosting. I wanted a lurid red glaze, but it had to be opaque enough so that the chocolate cake underneath didn’t show through. Some research indicated that red glaze is next to impossible if you also want the flavor to be good — too much food coloring makes the glaze bitter and the Maraschino liqueur I was using isn’t actually bright red like the artificial stuff you usually see. So I settled for pink and good flavor rather than red awfulness. Regardless, the glaze pools in the indentations and even if the resulting cake doesn’t look as beautiful as the one fresh out of the pan — and certainly doesn’t resemble the Carousel very much — it’s going to taste awesome.

Bundt-2So I give you: Alasdair’s Quintuple-Cherry Chocolate Bundt Cake! We’ll report on flavor in the comments. Anyone else ever done any interesting Bundt shapes?


Thanksgiving Apple Pie

A new tradition? Grandson's Apple Pie.

Well, in an attempt to branch out in my definition of art and/or craft, I want to make sure I post some things other than knitting in here. Case in point, here’s a pie I baked for my family’s Thanksgiving. My grandmother has traditionally been the pie-baker in the family, and everyone has fond memories of her pies. But it’s been a while since she’s had a real functional kitchen for baking since she spends her winters at an assisted living facility, and I offered to make the pie for this year’s gathering out in Western Mass. I’m really happy with the way it came out; it reminds me of the pies my mother made, but with my own touches — like the fact that it’s made in a huge ceramic deep-dish pan.

This is only one of two I made — because after coming back from Thanksgiving proper, my wife’s family had Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday. I made another pie then (all this with apples picked up for a song at one of the last farmers’ markets of the season) and was made to promise I would bake another one for Christmas. Twist my arm!

I made these with this neat flour called Ultragrain and made the latest with Earth Balance shortening, which impressed me so much that I threw out the remainder of my Crisco.