Friday, March 30, 2012

Cardamom Cupcakes with Dulce de Leche Frosting

I grew up with guinea pigs and remember each of them with great affection. Benji arrived when I was three and I confided in him whenever I had a rift with my parents. Ginger and Pepper came next. Ginger was a mild mannered calico; Pepper, a jumpy red head. Over the course of their courtship, Ginger gave birth to 34 offspring. Every few months, we found the couple curled up with a new batch of babies. Our last guinea pig, Lola, had pink eyes. Her long white fur arched in the air and then descended over her body like water springing out of a fountain.

After living with guinea pigs (a dog, and other animals), I've come to believe that life is lived the fullest with a pet. When I started to look for a condo, I wrote off buildings that prohibited animals.

I spent the week before Easter in my hometown. Before running errands one day, I stopped by the pet store to see if it sold guinea pigs. I found a dozen or so eating pellets in open cages. When I peered in to select one among them, they ricocheted to the corners of their pen like stray pool balls. The closer I got, the more the poor critters wanted to flee. I felt unnerved and rejected.

Just to the right of their cage was a tiny, very blond bunny. Its posture was straight and its eyes steady. When I walked up to its cage, it seemed totally unaffected. It had things to do and wasn’t going to be distracted by a gawking human. I was mesmerized by its confident, content attitude. I handed over $15 to take her home. When I asked the clerks if the bunny was a girl or a boy, they flipped it over, examined its crotch, and said, “Hmmm. We think she’s a girl.” That’s how my adventure with Honey began.

After six plus years, I've learned that living with a bunny is wonder and a commitment. Over the years, Honey has grown into a strawberry blonde boo with cream colored stenciling around her eyes and noise. She has a white beaver-shaped tail and tummy that she keeps impeccably clean. Her fur is softer than silk and there is nothing more therapeutic than petting her at the end of a long day. Like a dog, she comes running when I call her name (unless she's cross with me or  has other plans). She loves children. She loves family. She loves life. Like Peter Rabbit, Honey gets into all kinds of scrapes. She loves bananas and managed to jump into a plate of honey I had resting in my lap because she smelled a banana I had in my other hand. For a split second, her feet were mired in the sticky substance. Then she jumped off the plate, sat on her hind legs behind the couch, and flung her paws in the air hoping that she could flick off the honey. When I tried to whip her paws with a moisten towel, she hid behind an arm chair.

Living with Honey is like living with an animate saw. She chews on everything - furniture, plaster, my favorite books, wires - except her chew toys. It took me a while to realize that she was nestling between the wall and the bedspread (pictured above) because it allowed her to gnaw on the elegant cloth. Despite the fact that I give her three meals a day, plenty of hay, and snacks. And provide her with chew toys?

When I see depictions of rabbits this time of year, I just shake my head. They're shown as mild-mannered, sometimes even docile, and eager to deliver treats to children. If I handed Honey Bear a basket with candy to distribute, she would rustle through the contents, chew a hole in the bottom, and then leave the scene to take a nap.


 Mung dhal pudding (payasm) is my favorite South Indian dessert. It combines jaggery, cardamom, coconut milk, and cashew nuts. These cupcake reflect many of its flavors. Try tucking a few in your Easter basket this year.


For cake: 

Dede Wilson's recipe for yellow cake
2 teaspoons ground cardamom


For frosting and garnish:
1/4 cup raw cashew nuts
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1 1/2 cups dulce de leche
1/3 cup coconut milk
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted


Heat the oven to 300. Roast the cashew nuts until they turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Cool and chop very finely.

Increase the oven temperature to 350.

Prepare the cake batter as directed. Add the ground cardamom to the creamed butter with the vanilla. Bake as 24 cupcakes.

Beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Add the dulce de leche and coconut milk. Beat until smooth.

Add the powdered sugar and beat on low until just incorporated. Increase the speed to medium and beat until creamy.

Pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes. Sprinkle with chopped cashew nuts.
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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cooking with Cardamom

When strangers learn about my South Indian roots, nine out of ten of them will tell me that they love Indian food. Then, in their next breathe, they confess to being overwhelmed by the unusual ingredients and prospect of cooking it. I know where they are coming from having been daunted by the task of selecting fish sauce or olive oil from a dizzying collection of bottles crammed on a store shelf. If it were possible, I would escort each and every one of them down the aisles of my favorite Indian grocery stores, past the fiber-rich lentils, the spunky chutneys, and the mesmerizing array of spices. But alas, it's not. So I've decided to dedicate one post each month to arm my readers with knowledge of the Kerala pantry before they venture out with a shopping list. I'll begin with cardamom.

Although my paternal grandfather was a lawyer by training, he also managed cardamom estates that had been passed down from his father. The cardamom grew in remote regions of the Western Ghatts. Several times a year, he would visit the estates accompanied by the men that tended the land. Much of the surrounding region was uninhabited, and they had to trek through thick forest where tigers, wild boar, and a hearty collection of poisonous snakes loved to tread. When daylight fell, they lit torches to lead the way. 

After the cardamom was harvested and dried, bulging sacks of the spice crowded the hallway of my father's childhood home. Most of it was delivered to S. K. Nadar, a wholesale dealer who possessed the sole license to export cardamom out of South India at the time. The rest found a place in my grandmother's pantry.

When my parents immigrated to the U.S., they carried along their love of the home grown spice. I grew up eating cardamom in chicken biryani, dry beef curry, and other heavily spiced meat dishes. My mom threw pinches of the potent spice in mung dhal pudding (payasm), pan-fried plantains, donuts soaked in syrup (gulab jaman), and other desserts she recreated from memory.

When I started to cook on my own, I wanted to harness cardamom's seductive, floral flavor. Here are the things I have learned after spending years cooking my mom's cardamom laden dishes.

Purchasing Cardamom

Unless otherwise specified, always buy green cardamom (sometimes referred to as small cardamom) to use in Kerala cooking. It has a complex flavor that compliments both sweet and savory dishes. Look for small football-shaped pods which have a green tint. They should smell like a potpourri of pine and flowers. Avoid black cardamom which has larger brownish pods. It has a less dynamic flavor and is rarely used in Kerala.

Buy cardamom pods instead of ground cardamom whenever possible. The whole spice stays potent for a year (or longer) and the seeds nestled inside the pods can be ground quickly with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. (More on this below). Ground cardamom, by contrast, loses its flavor rapidly.

Although cardamom is the third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla, most recipes call for a teaspoon at the very most, making it far less expensive than a souped up cup of coffee. The small pods grow near the ground and ripen at different intervals. Harvesting them is nuanced, backbreaking work.

Cooking with Cardamom

Like other spices, cardamom can be used whole or ground. The pods must be heated to release the essential oils in the seeds. I like to saute them in oil with cloves and cinnamon and then simmer them with basmati rice to produce a delicious pilaf.

If you need to use cardamom on its own, I recommend powdering it in a mortar and pestle instead of a spice grinder (or coffee grinder strictly designated for spices). The waxy seeds will orbit around the blade of a spice grinder like a carnival goer on a carousel and end up roughly chopped at best. Opt for a mortar and pestle made of stone or marble. The metal versions don't offer any traction. The seeds will slide around and you'll want to pull out your hair.

To powder the cardamom:

- Crack open the pods with the pestle
- Pick out the papery husks
- Grind the pebbly seeds

I prefer to use a spice grinder when I grind cardamom with other spices. The spices should fill the grinder's base a third of the way or more. With sufficient traction, the cardamom will not escape the blade.

Like my mom, I don't bother to remove the papery pods. They powder easily and do not affect the flavor or texture of the spice mix.

If you need to grind a smaller quantity of spices, I recommend either: 1) removing the papery pods, which will otherwise whirl around the blade unscathed and, powdering them in the spice grinder with the other spices or 2) powdering the cardamom in a mortar and pestle first and then adding it to a spice grinder with other spices before grinding them together.

Complimentary IngredientsHere is a list of ingredients I love to pair with cardamom.

Rose water
Cloves and cinnamon
Ginger and cumin
Cashew nuts and coconut
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Monday, March 12, 2012

Fudge-Pecan Pie

I have lived in Chicago for almost a decade. By now, I consider myself a city girl. But there are days when I want to sit down to a plate full of blue gill and hear the words, "Hi, baby doll." from a server I just met. 

When I was young, I couldn't wait to leave my hometown of just over ten thousand. But there are small things that draw me back. Things like pecans harvested from a neighbor's tree that were destined for Fudge-Pecan Pie.

So I travel south, 350 miles south, passing acre after acre of corn. I stare at a landscape that is numbingly flat.

During the final hours of my trip, I wait for the scalloped wings of hawks to appear in the sky, like finely crafted kites. I read billboards that tempt drivers with fast food. Others offer a proper southern meal. Their lineup - chicken, corn bread, cobbler - is more inviting. I stop for a glass of ice tea and a zing of caffeine to push through the last of my six hour journey south.

Soon I see the greenish waters of the Big Muddy River, which still inspires stories (and sightings) of the Big Muddy Monster. The terrain is voluptuous down here, and I'm privy to that well kept secret. I know if I drive further up the road, the land will rise and dip. Houses will give way to apple trees and peach orchards and other fruit that's fit for pie.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

I live in Illinois and I'm going to tell you one of our state's best kept secret. This is information millions of Chicagoans don't even know. If you travel...
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