Bombay By Way Of San Jose

charminar market Aug 16, 2009 3-56
Fresh pineapple cut to order. Don’t eat it, though. You’ve been warned.

Greetings from India. This is my fourth week here, about the halfway point of the trip, and all is well.

Well, sort of. The first week was taken up with recovering from jet lag. They say to expect a day of screwed-up circadian rhythm for each time zone you travel through, and I passed over fifteen getting here. Once you’re over it, however, you kind of miss it. Even though you’re crashing out at around nine every night, you’re also awake by four in the morning, which equates into a whole extra half-day if you act on it. But even when you recover from jet lag, homesickness can set in right afterward.

A little history: not only is this my first visit to a country outside the U.S., it’s also the first time I’ve traveled anywhere by plane in over a decade, since before 9/11. So between not getting sick on the flight over and not getting sick from questionable food or water sources, I think a little pining for my own bed is a natural reaction and the least that could happen. It could very easily have been worse.

And by “worse,” most people mean, of course the Indian equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge, a.k.a. “Delhi belly,” or less delicately, mudbutt.” Dysentery and its cousins can be caused by improper food handling, unsanitary conditions, or simply a tender tummy’s reaction to new foods. But the biggest culprit of intestinal illnesses in the developing world is, sadly, the water. The hard and fast rule is that if you’re traveling in a country where you don’t absolutely trust the source of your food, there are only two safe choices; eating something that’s had the shit boiled out of it, or eating something that you can peel, like a banana.

Of all the things you’ve heard about India, the one that turns out to be the most true is the people. I’m currently working in Hyderbad, which is one of the country’s Silicon Valley counterparts; it’s also the third largest outsourcing city in India. People are everywhere; crowding the roads with their insane driving, building mansions into the rocky hills, and selling everything in the marketplace. Find out what after the jump.

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Green Tea & Almond Cupcakes

matcha redeemed
The ancient Japanese cupcake ceremony.

(Author’s note: this is my last cupcake post for a while; I’m being sent to India for a work assignment next week, and baking is not in the equation. Watch this space, however; there may very well appear some one-off features on the challenges and oddities of an expatriate trying to eat in the Asian subcontinent.)

Last week I received some sample packets of matcha from Matcha Source. Matcha is traditional Japanese green tea powder, and I’ve wanted to use it in cupcakes for awhile now, but its relatively pricey price in America has so far discouraged me. It’s not that I’m a tea snob; on the contrary, I enjoy a nice cuppa. Black teas provide a gentler morning “lift” as opposed to coffee’s caffeine bitch-slap, regular bagged green teas are excellent for detoxing, (Yamamotoyama’s genmai-cha is a personal favorite) and Mighty Leaf makes a nice camomille blend that doesn’t taste too much like soap.

Fun fact: herbal teas aren’t technically teas at all since most of them contain botanicals and aromatics and no real tea leaves.

Matcha, however, is something altogether different. Steamed and dried, green tea leaves are then stone ground over and over again until a fine, silky powder is produced. Since matcha is mixed directly with water and not steeped, you consume the tea leaf itself, which makes for a very heady, earthy, albeit bitter, brew.

matcha 02
There wasn’t even enough of Dr. Manhattan’s remains to bury after Ozymandias got through with him.

As for the cupcakes, if you take any lesson away from reading this today, it’s this: recipes are written down for a reason. What that reason is varies from cook to cook, but for the most part, it’s to provide a proven, documented legacy of culinary functionality for anyone who comes after that initial session in the kitchen. That said, I’m a person who likes to experiment with recipes, to tweak little things here and there, take something out and add something else, to make the dish my own and create my own legacy. There’s supposedly an unwritten rule among amateur cooks that states you can claim an established recipe as your own creation if you change at least three things about it, which has been the case for most of the cupcakes I’ve posted here during my tenure at ES.

But, as we all know, baking recipes are different than just mucking with a recipe for borscht or noodle soup or green bean casserole. Tweak something the wrong way, and you get a Friday Fuck Up that doesn’t care what day of the week it is.

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Trashy Cupcakes: Cooking with Tang

tangcakes plus
Tang cupcakes with cherry Kool-Aid frosting. You heard me. Oh yeah, I went there.

It’s been summer officially here in California for a few weeks now, and like most seasons in This Great State, it’s peculiarly schizophrenic. Hundred-plus noonday temperatures one week, crisp and chilly overnights the next. They say you can get used to anything, but even the natives here still find time to bitch and moan about the weather instead of doing something about it, like moving. I guess I’m lucky in that I spent a large part of my childhood growing up in the Midwest, a region of the country notorious for its own extremes of climate: jungle-humid summers, savagely cruel winters, and even the springs and autumns were marred by cicada invasions and the odd freak tornado.

For foodies and other gourmand-types, we often mark the changing of the seasons by the availability of our favorite produce, the arrival of which also sometimes serves as a harbinger of things to come. For example, we know it’s spring when we see the first scrawny stalks of asparagus start to appear at the farmer’s market and more “locavore”-minded eateries; we also know that when this unfairly short asparagus season ends, it means that both summer and strawberries can’t be too far off.

Baking also has its own season, but it isn’t summer. Or is it? On one hand, what kind of masochist wants to hang around a hot kitchen on a hot day with the stupid oven on? Summer is for bikini sorbets, barefoot cocktails, and halter top fruit salads, not sweater cupcakes or flannel muffins. On the other hand, baking as an activity may be relegated to the comfort months, but baking as a trend has proven itself lately to be an all-weather sport.  In our post-postmodern world, it’s the end result that is often a more accurate expression of our labors; and if there’s anything that’s the antithesis of seasonal produce, but still representative of an American summer, it’s the powdered drink mix.

Fun fact:

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Cupcake Rampage: Arnold Palmer Cupcakes

arnold 02
“I want you to kill every golfer on this course.”

Legend has it that one day at the height of his powers in the early 1960s, pro golfer Arnold Palmer was at the Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills, Colorado for one reason or another. Reportedly, Palmer asked one of the bartenders to mix him a special drink, the ingredients of which must have been so gauche that the Tom Cruise-wannabe behind the bar initially refused to sully his Boston shaker with the likes. At this, Palmer allegedly became so incensed with the mixologist’s cheek that he flew into a mild rage, threatened to get snooty, and, if his request was further denied, promised to get downright snotty.

Blanching at the prospects of facing down a murderously thirsty PGA Master and his posse, the barman wisely caved and quickly built Palmer’s beverage: a tall glass of ice, filled halfway with lemonade, and topped off with iced tea.

The drink has since earned the reputation of being the black-and-tan of the country club, the virgin Queen of 19th hole quaffers, and to this day, such a mixture is still known colloquially as an “Arnold Palmer.” Most barkeeps will know what you want when you order one by name, although some restaurant waitstaff may fix you with a funny look, since it is kind of a fusty old drink; something for teetotalers or closet lushes who want to keep their vice on the down-low. And while it hasn’t stopped marketers from pushing pre-packaged versions onto the masses, at least it comes with a readymade practical joke:

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Cupcake Rampage: Trashy Cupcakes

trashy tower
Keep eating those clown cupcakes, and you’ll turn into a clown.

We’re a pretty loose group here at Endless Simmer. Although I’ve yet to visit the corporate headquarters in New York, I hear it’s pretty swanky. Hot and cold running microbrews from the bathroom faucets, life-size voodoo dolls of dozens of celebrity chefs skewered with huge Renaissance Fair lances, and a giant chocolate fountain that rises up three stories into the atrium above the lobby. I wonder why they haven’t invited me to see it yet.

Oh well, it’ll keep. It’s just a thrill and an honor to be a member of the team and do my part for the ball club.

Anyway, for the most part I think I’ve managed to maintain the Cupcake Rampage gold standards so far: didactic journalism, spotlighting mature flavors for sophisticated palates, and trying to explain as much why something happens as how it’s supposed to happen. After last week, however, I may have hit the wall. It wasn’t the new directions I was taking my writing, or the tangle of coming up with something pretty and practical every week, or even the dilemma of what do to with all those goddamn cupcakes.

No, gentle readers; I was done in by frosting.

Last week’s Aztec xocolatl cupcakes were a byproduct of another five dozen cupcakes I baked as a favor to a friend and her party for the neighborhood kids. (My first paid gig!) Now, even though it might sound nightmarish, making fifty-plus cupcakes really isn’t that big a deal, even if they’re different styles and flavors; you just get into assembly-line mode and crank them out. Making a different kind of frosting to go with each kind of cupcake, however, now that’s a pain in the ass. The worst kind of crash is a sugar crash, and nothing has more sugar than homemade frosting.

So you see, I needed something simple this week. Nothing terribly fancy or high-maintenance or with too many ingredients, but still something that encapsulated the essence of Endless Simmer: a little class, a little flash, a little trash. Since going vegan I’ve kind of left my trashy food tendencies behind, but just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you. (Hel-lo, vegan cupcakes? It’s still a cupcake!) So, what’s classier than a vegan cupcake, flashier than a new cupcake tree, (thanks, Diana!) and trashier than the tops of said cupcakes adorned with the unnatural accouterments of American breakfast cereal? Nothing, I says! Nothing!

Just whip up a batch of your favorite cupcake batter (I made gluten-free vanilla, because I’m still working on my GF skillz) and sprinkle on your favorite brand of sugarbombs before chucking them in the oven. I used Cocoa Puffs, Trix, (gluten-free!) and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Airy, crunchy cereal works best because they don’t sink; marshmallows tend to melt and make the cupcake all gross. (Extra trash points!) Once they’re baked, the cereal is also going to be in direct contact with the cupcake itself, so the topping will start to get soft after a few hours.

What’s that you say? Oh, you don’t think breakfast cereal is trashy enough, do you? No matter how much high fructose corn syrup it’s been soaked in, how nutritionally deficient it may be, how laden with GMOs, artificial colorings, and hidden sodium it is? Well then, let’s just go back downstairs into the lab and see if we can’t find something a little more…disturbing for you, shall we?

Stare into the face of horror after the jump, if you dare

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Cupcake Rampage: Aztec Xocolatl Cupcakes

¡Ai ya! ¡Las magdalenas del monstruo están sobrando la ciudad!

I have a problem with chocolate. Not an addiction kind of problem, it’s more like the complex gauntlet of feelings a married couple goes through leading up to a separation or estrangement. My problem isn’t with chocolate per se, but rather the lofty pedestal it’s been placed upon as food of the gods. The appeal of chocolate has become so pervasive and universal as to make it ubiquitously available, which has invariably led to a massive spectrum of quality, the majority of which have been dulled and flattened to appease the less sophisticated Western palate. Most commercially available chocolate shares the same stigma as boxed macaroni and cheese; so many people are used to the low balled version that the “real thing” would taste almost alien to them.

Now, I’m not trying to be a snot-nosed foodie and say that you haven’t tried real chocolate until you’ve tasted a raw cacao bean or anything, but I’m also of the mind that the more often chocolate is utilized or abused in products, the less special it becomes. This is why I don’t bake with chocolate very often, not because I don’t like it, but because it’s such a mysterious, multidimensional, powerful ingredient that I want to make sure I use its magic properly.

Then again, the ancient Aztecs didn’t quite think that way when it came to their version of hot chocolate. Before that asshole Cortez came along and wrecked everything, they were known to guzzle gallons of what they called xocolatl, (pronounced “HOCK-a-lottle”) and since they didn’t know from sugar, they tempered its natural astringency with hot peppers and other spices. The recipe that follows isn’t an attempt to recreate that brew with any degree of authenticity, but rather an experiment to see what other kinds of personality traits can be brought out of something that usually tastes the same every time you eat it, like chocolate.

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Summer On A Spoon: Meyer Lemon Sorbet

Freshens breath, too.

As the touchy-feely, Zig Ziglar-esque, power-of-positive-thinking cliché goes: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; then sell it on a street corner at an insultingly inflated price to cover your operating costs.”

But what do you do when life gives you Meyer lemons? You make lemon sorbet.

In the taxonomy of frozen desserts, sorbet falls at the end of one extreme, with ice cream appearing at the other, and sherbet somewhere in between. Where ice cream is a frozen combination of dairy, sugar, and sometimes eggs, sorbet is almost always a frozen mixture of a sugar solution and fruit, although other flavors like coffee are not unheard of. Sherbet is the Borg of the lot, incorporating both fruit and dairy. Recipe after the jump…

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