Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Ice Cream Social, and Cassata Slices

Several weeks ago, my BFF Neighbor Girl began to say that she wanted to throw me a baby shower. I cringed and changed the subject as soon as possible. I hate being the center of attention, I don't like big gatherings and the idea of inviting people to bring over gifts is so awkward. We argued and she persisted and to make a long story short, I agreed to it so long as we could keep it simple. That's how a lot of my friends gathered together this Sunday for an ice cream social and I have to say I had the loveliest time.

We wanted an afternoon get-together and the blistering weather these days is simply crying out for frozen desserts, so the choice of a menu revolving around ice cream was a pretty easy choice. The wonderful thing about an ice cream social is that you can keep it as simple as you like by buying different flavors of ice cream and setting them out with toppings like fruits, sauces and nuts, or you can invest some time in making ice creams and other frozen treats at home. We chose a balance of the two, making two homemade ice creams and putting together one frozen dessert and buying some of the ice cream. A lot of the ice cream sold in stores is full of artificial ingredients and fillers; it is well worth it to read labels and seek out the good stuff with a short ingredient list and high-quality natural ingredients.

As we were planning the menu, I happened to check out the most incredible ice cream cookbook from the library, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home- a new release from the famous ice cream store in Ohio.  This book was a real treat to read and full of inspiring ideas. Jeni's ice cream is quite different because she avoids egg yolks in the ice cream base, relying instead on some cream cheese and cornstarch to provide a silky texture. In a sense, it reminds me more of kulfi. This ice cream base has a lighter, smoother flavor and makes these recipes very suitable for people who don't or can't eat eggs. The book has luscious ideas for ice cream sauces, and ideas for serving ice cream in the form of terrines and sundaes.

This was the menu we worked out:

1. Two large tubs of good quality ice cream from the store in the two most crowd-pleasing flavors: vanilla and chocolate. I chose a Belgian chocolate flavor that sounded very rich and decadent.

2. Accessories for "make your own sundaes": I made a batch of brownies using my favorite recipe for Alice Medrich's cocoa brownies and also made some "magic shell" chocolate sauce, the kind that hardens into a shell when you pour it on ice cream. I used to love this stuff in the form on choco-bars growing up. The recipe for this sauce came from Jeni's book that I mentioned above- it contains two ingredients, coconut oil and chocolate, melted together. Wow. We set out ripe strawberries, chopped walnuts and chocolate chips as sundae add-ons.

3. To have a couple of extra gourmet ice cream flavors on hand, we bought two tubs of gelato from Whole Foods, fig orange which V loves, and strawberry custard, half of which we ended up using for the cassata (below).

4. To make ice cream sodas, we got a few bottles of orange cream soda and strawberry pop from Fitz's, a local soda company. Ice cream sodas are ridiculously simple to make. See a recipe here, all it needs apart from the soda is vanilla ice cream and we already had that on hand.

5. To make falooda or rose sundaes, I made a concoction of falooda noodles, basil seeds also called subja/tukmaria and rose syrup (all three ingredients are sold in Indian grocery stores). When someone wanted to try the falooda, I would scoop some of this into a glass and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Falooda is a unique summer treat; for a complete recipe, see Ashwini's gorgeous post.

6. I bought an ice cream maker last summer and enjoy using it, so I made two ice cream recipes at home for the party. One was this roasted cherry coconut ice cream which turned out OK. The other was Jeni's roasted pistachio ice cream which was utterly fabulous and a recipe I will make over and over again. I used the recipe from the book, which is very close to the recipe posted here. My modification was to skip the almond extract and instead add a large pinch of saffron to make kesar pista ice cream. The only special ingredient in this ice cream is light corn syrup which everyone may not have on hand. I had a bottle on hand because I use this stuff once a year for pecan pie at Thanksgiving.

7. I assembled a cassata for the party and the recipe is at the end of the post.

8. Finally, we bought a box of waffle cones from the grocery store to give guests the option of a cone or a cup.

We printed off a menu listing all of the ice cream treats and posted it on the fridge so guests could choose what they liked. We set out bowls, small plates, spoons and napkins and that was it- we were ready to party.

Now for the cassata! I would not have been able to put this together were it not for the collective wisdom shared by so many of you in the comments on this post. All in all, it sounds like cassata is assembled with a thin layer of cake, three ice cream flavors- any combination of kesar-pista, tutti-frutti, vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch- and a topping of nuts. The exact assembly seems to depend on the brand of cassata. Here's how we put together our version (V did all the assembly here).


1. Start with a loaf pan. Line it with plastic wrap so that the plastic covers the bottom and the sides and overhangs over the top edge of the pan. This allows for easy unmolding of the finished dessert.

2. Lay down thin slices of pound cake to cover the bottom of the pan. I did not want to make a whole pound cake just to use one slice, so I bought a large slice of pound cake at the bakery and cut that up. Any flavor would work- we used orange pecan pound cake.

3. Choose any three flavors of ice cream. It is great to use different colors and diverse flavors- in our case it was sweet, mild strawberry gelato, vanilla and nutty almost salty pistachio-saffron ice cream. One by one, soften each ice cream just until it is easy to scoop and spread. Layer the first ice cream in one third of the loaf pan, then cover with plastic and return to freezer for 20 to 30 minutes. Repeat with other flavors. Top the last layer with a scattering of roasted cashews. Cover with plastic and freezer until ready to serve.

4. Right before the party, you can slice the cassata to make it easier to serve. Unmold the cassata onto a cutting board. Use a serrated knife to quickly slice the cassata into neat slices. You can get anywhere from 8 to 12 slices from each loaf. Place the slices on a platter and return to freezer.

The cassata was such a lovely treat! In one small slice, you can taste so many flavors and textures. It is easy to see how one could make endless variations on this theme and create custom combinations for a party, using store bought ice cream or home made, or a combination, like I did. I can see myself making cassatas or ice cream terrines for many occasions in the future.

Our ice cream social was a very enjoyable affair. While it sounds like a logical choice for a children's party, it was a treat for us grown-ups to be able to indulge in ice cream and feel like a child again. This party can be tailored to different dietary needs- for instance, by including non-dairy soy or coconut ice creams for vegan guests. Sorbets and frozen yogurt are other variations that can be included. A big ice cream cake could be a festive centerpiece. Ice cream sandwiches, bonbons, popsicles could also be served- there are so many possibilities to make an ice cream social special.

At the end of the day, I went to bed feeling very lucky indeed, to be enveloped in the love and support of so many good friends.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Peanut Sesame Vegetable Curry

Today's recipe has been on my meal rotation for a year or two and I'm finally getting around to posting it. It is certainly blog-worthy, taking only 10-15 minutes of hands on time, with rich and flavorful results.

The inspiration for this recipe comes from this stuffed eggplant recipe on Mahanandi. The original recipe is exquisite. Over time, I've used it as inspiration for a vegetable curry with many variations. From Indira's recipe, I gleaned two things: (a) the peanut sesame spice powder that becomes the base for a creamy curry and (b) the technique of releasing steam after turning off the pressure cooker to keep the vegetables from completely falling apart. Using this method, they get cooked to tender perfection in a matter of minutes without becoming a mushy mess. Of course, the recipe would also work on the stove top if you feel unsure of releasing steam from a pressure cooker in a safe way.

Peanut Sesame Vegetable Curry
(Adapted from this recipe from Mahanandi)

1. Dry roast the following until toasty and fragrant, then cool down and grind into a powder:
  • 1/2 cup peanuts
  • 1/4 cup white sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp. coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 small piece cinnamon 
  • 4 - 5 cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. fenugreek seeds
2. Prepare the vegetables and set aside. You need 5 cups or so or large vegetable chunks. I like using some combination of summer squash, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, potatoes. Baby vegetables like baby eggplants and tiny pattypan squash would also work well here.

3. Heat 2 tsp. oil in the body of a pressure cooker. Temper it with 1 tsp. mustard seeds and a sprig or two of curry leaves.

4. Add the following and stir for a few seconds:
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp. red chili powder (or to taste)
  • Salt to taste
  • Peanut sesame spice powder
  • 1 tsp. tamarind paste
  • 2 tsp. jaggery
5. Add the vegetables and 4 cups water (adjust the amount of water depending on what consistency you like) and pressure cook for 1 whistle. 

6. Gently release the steam right after turning off the pressure cooker. Be careful while doing this! 

7. Taste the curry and adjust as required- the magic is in finding the right balance between the rich nutty texture and the salty, tangy, spicy and sweet flavors. 

I enjoy this curry most with rice, yogurt, a cabbage stir-fry and some pickle on the side, accompanied by something crispy like papad or potato chips. It is nothing short of an everyday feast.

* * *
I'm hosting an ice cream social next weekend and short-listing some frozen treats that I want to serve at the party. I was reminded of an ice cream flavor that I used to love. It is a frozen dessert known as cassata in Bombay- a kind of terrine with three layers of different flavors of  ice cream and a topping of nuts (I'm quite sure toasted cashews), served in slices. I can't remember what the flavors are, and whether there is a layer of cake.

This was the dessert served at my younger aunt's wedding reception, more than 25 years ago. Her 4 small nieces were all dressed in coordinating pale pink frocks, frothy concoctions of satin and lace. We took advantage of the general chaos and the relative lack of adult supervision, and ate plate after plate of cassata ice cream, giddy with the joy of tasting three different flavors at one go. I don't think I have tasted it since. Food memories can be so powerful and long-lived.

Maybe cassata is still made and sold today, or maybe it enjoyed temporary fame and is not popular today. In any case, if you have tasted cassata and know what the layers and the flavors are, I'd sure appreciate if you left a comment- thank you! If I can, I'd love to recreate this nostalgic summer treat.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Paneer Makhani

I have quite a long "bucket list" as far as recipes go, things that I love to eat and that I want to learn to cook properly in my lifetime. This past weekend was an unusually productive one, because I learned how to make not one, but two of them.

One of the recipes was for idli- steamed pillows of frothy lentil and rice batter. There are decent idlis, which I can make, and then there are the sort that are impossibly lightand meltingly soft- the latter always seemed elusive for me. V's aunt and uncle were visiting us for the weekend and this aunt has a reputation for being a fantastic cook. Let it never be said that I let a good opportunity be wasted- as soon as the aunt offered to cook one of her specialties for us, I requested a tutorial for idli and sambar. But that's a story for another post.

I wanted to put together a nice dinner for this aunt and uncle on Friday night and turned to a recipe that I had long bookmarked- makhani gravy from eCurry. The makhani curries are a staple of Indian restaurant menus, and for years I have wondered about the secret to nailing down that characteristic flavor and aroma. This recipe lives up to its promise; the aroma that hits you as the curry bubbles away is proof enough. I did mess with perfection and altered the recipe a little to meet my needs. And it is freezer friendly- making it easy to pull off a fancy meal on a weeknight.

To go with the curry, I marinated and broiled some paneer. I used Anita's recipe with some modifications, such as adding a little chickpea flour to form a crust. Ordinarily, I would have added a few vegetables- chunks of onion, peppers, tomato- to the tikka platter but I used paneer on its own this time because I was serving other vegetable dishes on the side. The quality of the paneer matters a great deal- we love the richness and soft texture of Nanak brand paneer from Canada. For those in St. Louis, I am able to buy this brand of paneer in Seema stores (two locations, on Page and Manchester). The paneer tikka can be marinated in a few minutes in the morning, and the broiling takes 15 minutes in the evening- again, a perfect recipe for a festive weeknight meal.

Paneer Tikka
(adapted from this recipe from Anita's blog, A Mad Tea Party)

1. In a large bowl, whisk these ingredients together to make a marinade
  • 4 tbsp. thick plain yogurt
  • 1 tbsp. oil
  • 2 tsp. besan (chickpea flour)
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tsp. red chili powder
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. cumin powder
  • 1 tsp. Punjabi garam masala
  • 2 tsp. ginger garlic paste
  • Salt to taste
2. Cut a 14 oz block of paneer into bite size cubes. Mix the paneer cubes with the marinade and refrigerate for 4 to 10 hours. 

3. Pre-heat the broiler. Line a broiler baking tray with foil and drizzle with oil. Place the marinated cubes in a single layer on the tray, drizzle with a little more oil and broil the cubes until they acquire a nice crust (10-15 minutes; watch the broiler tray like a hawk). 

Makhani Gravy
(adapted from this recipe from Soma's blog, eCurry)

1. In a heavy pan, heat 2 tbsp. butter and 2 tbsp. ghee.

2. Add the following and saute for a minute
  • 2 black cardamoms
  • 1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
  • 1 heaped tbsp. ginger garlic paste
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. red chili powder (or more to taste)

3. Add the following
  • 1 tbsp. kasuri methi
  • 1 tsp. "magic masala" (blend of green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves)
  • 1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes in juice 
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • Salt to taste
4. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes on low heat; using a splatter guard is recommended. 

5. Fish out the black cardamoms and discard them. Use an immersion blender to blend the tomatoes into a smooth sauce. Simmer for 10 more minutes. 

6. At this point, the sauce can be cooled and frozen, or used right away. 

I used half a portion for a curry and froze the rest. The frozen sauce is what I thawed and poured on the paneer tikka to make the paneer makhani. One could add some cashew paste or dairy cream to finish the dish. Garnish with lots of fresh cilantro.

So that's another edition of "Eating Out while Eating In" on One Hot Stove. The weekend is almost here and I hope you have a good one!