Sunday, September 25, 2011

Siddo's Birthday Cake

Abe Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

In June, my nephew Sidd called from Seattle.

"Susie Auntie, can you make my birthday cake?" He was on the cusp of turning eight.

"Of course, Siddo. What kind of cake do you want?"

"I'd like it to be square."

"O.k., but what flavor should it be? Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry? As the family baker, I consider this an all-important question.


After years of baking, I've come to recognize the power of a homemade cake. I can't recall any of the gifts I received at Sidd's age, but I can still picture the butterfly birthday cake my mom set before me, year after year.

Abe Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

For the next several weeks, Sidd and I continued to chat about the cake.

"Susie Auntie, I know what I want on my birthday cake. It's something very old and something that you can use to buy things."

A riddle. I liked the challenge. Before I could respond, Sidd began again.

"Think about it, Susie Auntie. Do you need a clue?"

"Siddo, do you want it to have a dinosaur?"

"Yes!" he replied. "You're right Susie Auntie. Now try to guess the other thing."

Abe Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

"Could it be money, Sidd?"

"Yes, money!" In the last few years, Sidd has developed a fascination with cash that no one wants to claim.

Putting our imaginations together, we talked about frosting a sheet cake with green trim to resemble a dollar bill and replacing Jefferson's profile with the head shot of a dinosaur. But after more thought, Sidd asked if I could make a cake with a giganotosaurus counting money.

"What's a giganotosaurus?" I asked naively.

My oldest nephew Paul picked up the other phone

"Susie Auntie, it's one of the biggest dinosaurs ever!!!"

I would have to Google it.

Abe Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
In a few weeks, Paul, Sidd, and I were in my parent's kitchen measuring out ingredients. Flour flew, milk splashed, and sugar crystals scattered. I poured the glossy batter into floured pans and passed them the mixing bowl. Conversation slowed as they slid their fingers over its surface, creating an abstract silver pattern.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

We stirred together a butter cream frosting, and Paul and Sidd scooped out a spoonful before I started to trim the cake.
"Mmmm...that's so good!"

By the time we got to the dinosaur, they were fazed by all the kitchen work. They chased each other in and out of the room while I sculpted its body together.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

In the end, the cake was a little lopsided, but it possessed layers of meaning like a handwritten note. Paul pronounced it the best birthday cake ever and Sidd said that he wouldn't sell the dinosaur even if he were offered a million dollars. Having interned at a fancy-smancy bakery, I could pick out all its imperfections. As an aunt, I knew we had crafted a deeply memorable cake.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)


I love to decorate cakes and cupcakes with modeling chocolate. It's easy to make and tastes like a high-end Tootsie roll. Just be sure good chocolate like Ghirardelli, Guittard or Lindt. If it's a really special occasion, splurge on Valrhona or Amedei. I use this recipe as a guide. If it's too hard to knead after you pull it out of the refrigerator, microwave it for a few seconds. Keep in mind that it hardens as it dries.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Last Day of Summer

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

I am conflicted when my dahlias finally open their petals with the panache of frozen fireworks. By the time they appear, much of the community garden is in need of rest. The corn flowers stoop. The zinnias bend their necks. The oak trees begin to shed their scalloped leaves. One-by-one, they hit the ground brown and crunchy. With autumn on its way, the landscape is inevitably being drained of color.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
I have a passion for fiery fall leaves, but I am never ready to give up the comfort of the flowers that grow in my neighborhood. It is particularly difficult knowing that in Chicago the brilliance of autumn gives way to weeks of gloomy gray skies. I guess it's the price Nature exacts upon those that want to experience all four seasons.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Thankfully, the farmer's market is still full of color. For added comfort, I remind myself that autumn brings a stretch holidays that feature food front and center.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)


Serves 4 to 6


For the sweet potatoes:

2 cups diced sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

For beans:

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup finely sliced red onion
1 1/2 teaspoons slivered garlic
1/4 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces white mushrooms, finely sliced
1 15-ounce can pinto beans

For guacamole:

1 medium avocado, seeded and peeled
1 small lime
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely diced tomato
1 tablespoon minced cilantro

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)


Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread the potatoes over the foil. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Rub the potatoes to make sure they are coated evenly with oil.

Bake until fork tender, about 10 minutes.

Heat the oil for beans in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic. Cook until the onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cumin, oregano and salt. Cook for 2 minutes.

Increase the heat to medium-high and the add mushrooms. Cook until the mushrooms soften, stirring off and on.

Lower the heat to medium. Add the beans. Stir. Cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

On a quarter plate, mash the avocado with a fork. Squeeze the lime over avocado.

Add salt and pepper. Mix with a spoon.

Add the onions, tomatoes and cilantro. Mix together.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tomato Rice

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

My mom shared the gloomy prediction on a sunny day in June.

"Lucille used to say that the first frost falls six weeks after the cicadas begin to sing." Unwilling to ponder the possibility, I tucked the information in the far reaches of my mind.

About a month later, I heard their first chorus. It had a pulsing rhythm that seemed mechanized. Summer after summer, I had been fascinated by the ebb and flow of the cicadas' melody. So much so that when I lived in Japan my sister sent me a recording on cassette tape. But that day I felt terrorized by it. Hadn't summer just started?

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

By early August, my rabbit began shedding her coat. I found tufts of strawberry blond fur on the couch, the carpet, and in the windowsill where she loves to perch. "Great???," I thought. "It seems, Honey is in cahoots with those noisy insects!"
Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Unable to cope with the onset of fall, I began sharing the prediction with my neighbors.

"Did you know that it's supposed to frost six weeks after you first hear the cicadas?"

"Really, when did they start?"

"In the middle of July."

They would shoot me a look of disbelief that quickly gave way to weary acceptance.

"That's Chicago for you."

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Thankfully, the six-week point came and went without the appearance of ice crystals. The sun kept shining. The cicadas kept singing, and Honey sported a shabby spectrum of blond.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Last week, I asked a flower vendor at the farmer's market about the cicadas and their foretelling of fall. He gave me a big smile, and in a humble voice said, "There's no way. The first frost coincides with the full moon and won't be here until the end of September."

And in a few simple words, he redeemed the buzzing creatures.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)


This recipe is wonderful with fresh summer tomatoes. (Be sure to store them on your counter top, not in the fridge where they get mealy.) It starts with a saute of onion, ginger, and garlic, the "Holy Trinity" of Kerala cooking, and calls for turmeric, another very commonly used spice added in "dashes". The hot pepper rounds out the flavors, and I think of it as my mom's secret weapon. Remove the seeds to dial down the heat. Lastly, the women in my family swear by Riceland Extra Long-Grain Rice.
Serves 6 to 8


2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup diced onions
1 1/2 teaspoon minced ginger
1 1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 - 1 jalapeno, slice lengthwise (depending on the heat)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
Dash of turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups diced tomatoes
1 cup extra long-grain rice
2 cups water
1 teaspoon lemon juice


Heat the oil in a medium saute pan on medium heat.

Add the onions, ginger, garlic, and jalapeno. Saute until the onions become translucent.

Stir in the cumin, turmeric, and salt. Cook for 1 minute.

Add the tomatoes. Cook until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes.

Add the rice. Stir until thoroughly combined. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the water and lemon juice. Stir. Bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook until the rice is tender, about 15 minutes.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

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