Monday, November 24, 2014

A Mother, a Daughter, and a Chocolate Cake...

Well, I am definitely my mother's daughter. For one, being vertically challenged, we  hover around 5'. We both started graying in our twenties and we absolutely panic when confronted with a mathematical problem. Fortunately it doesn't stop at that; there's a bright side too. We love working with our hands, sharing an almost compulsive need to create. We love to laugh, joke and play, but most of all, we are ALWAYS ready for a good dessert.

My mother's daughter...
Those who know me, are aware of my passion for desserts, the seeds of which were sown very early on in my childhood, by my mom's love for baking and her unending experimentation in the kitchen. India in the 80's was not really conducive to these experiments with ingredients hard to come by. But, that never deterred my mom. She would try to figure out substitutes for the ingredients she could'nt find at hand and would somehow manage to create lovely desserts.

 "Mama, don't start baking anything until I come back from school!" I used to repeat on and on like a broken record. I loved to watch her bake; waiting for my chance to participate in any little way that she'd permit me, my favorite, of course, being licking the batter. Of all the goodies baked, the most often repeated was the Chocolate Pound Cake and  over time, it's presence in the refrigerator  became a norm. I expected to see it when I opened the fridge, just as one expects to find milk.

So one day, opening the fridge and not finding any cake, must have come as a rude shock to me. I don't recall the incident too well, but I might have had a minor tantrum that could have ticked off my mom which might have provoked her into taunting me to do it myself. Well, whatever the story, it led to my first solo baking adventure at age 8. I don't recall how the cake turned out but I realized that day that I had been bitten by the baking bug!

Bitten by the baking bug!!!

When I came to the US in 1998, imagine my delight when I saw that every grocery store had a baking aisle!!!  I began experimenting in earnest, trying out many different recipes, tweaking them to create my ultimate comfort food: the best chocolate cake that would hit the spot! Over the years there have been many good recipes, but I will share my absolute favorite...

Chocolate Sour Cream Pound Cake!!!

(the recipe is included at the very end)

Here is a step by step visual guide to creating this awesome cake, and since I am first and foremost a potter, you will get to meet some lovely handmade pots on the way.

Ingredients at a glance. Everything needs to be at room temperature.

Preheat the oven at 325 F.

Grease a 15 cup bundt pan with melted butter.

Dust it with cocoa powder.

Sieve together  2 &1/4 cups of all  purpose flour, 1 &1/2 tsp baking soda, and 1 tsp salt.

Keep aside.

Chop up 7 oz of your favorite eating chocolate. For me, that will be Lindt Dark with a touch of Sea Salt.

Try not to nibble too much. If you eat them now, trust me, your cake won't taste as good. These chocolate bits will go into the batter at the very end.

In a bowl, add 1 cup unsweetened cocoa, 1 tbs coffee and 7 &1/2 oz of semi sweet chocolate.( I like to use Lindt 70% dark chocolate). Pour 1 & 1/4 cup  of boiling water over it.

Blend well till the mixture becomes smooth. Looks tempting, doesn't it? But don't bother licking will be too bitter. Believe me, I have tried it. 

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat  2 & 1/2 sticks of  butter on medium high speed till creamy. ( A little less than a minute.)

Add 2 & 1/2 cups of brown sugar. Beat again at medium high speed.  

Continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add eggs one at a time, beating about two minutes before adding the next one. Continue the process till all 5 eggs have been incorporated. The batter will become fluid and smooth. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time.

Add 4 tsp vanilla extract and beat enthusiastically for another minute.

Reduce the mixer speed to slow and add  the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the sour cream and beginning and ending with the flour.

Add  1 &1/2 cups of sour cream in two additions and end with the last 1/3rd of the flour mixture. At this stage, beat at the slowest speed  just until the ingredients are mixed in. 

Add the chocolate-cocoa-coffee mixture to the batter, and continue to blend at the lowest speed.

Blend till there are no visible white streaks, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides. Be careful not to over beat. 

Now add those chocolate bits to the batter that you have resisted eating with so much self-discipline.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the chocolate bits.

Pour the batter into the prepared bundt pan.

Set it in the preheated oven and bake for 60-65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached to it.

While the cake is baking, don't forget to indulge in the most important ritual... 

...till you have licked the bowl clean!!!

Once baked, set the cake on a wire rack to cool. It will be too hot to eat, so hold on for now and just enjoy the delicious aroma that fills the kitchen!

Once it's at room temperature, flip it on to a cake stand...what a beauty!!! Now if you just can't wait, go ahead and dig in. But, if you'd like to slice it perfectly, let it cool in the refrigerator for a couple of hours so that the cake is structurally stronger.

If you want perfect looking slices, it is important that the cake is cool, but not super cold. (Remember, we have chocolate bits in there which would prevent clean slicing if they are too hard) Dip the knife into boiling hot water, wipe, and then using the hot knife cut straight down and drag the knife out. Dip and wipe the knife after each cut. 

Do I need to tell you what to do next...?

Now it is my daughter who expects to always find this chocolate cake in the refrigerator.

A Mother, a Daughter and a Chocolate Cake...the tradition continues...

Chocolate Sour Cream Cake Recipe:

For the cake:
· 1 cup cocoa powder, sifted, plus more for dusting pan
· 1 tablespoon coffee
· 7 1/2 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
· 1 1/4 cup boiling water
· 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
· 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
· 1 tsp. salt
· 20 Tbsp. (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
· 2 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar plus 4 tsb white sugar
· 5 eggs, lightly beaten
· 4 tsp. vanilla extract
· 1 1/2 cups sour cream
· 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Have all the ingredients at room temperature.

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F. Grease the Anniversary Bundt Cake Pan and dust with cocoa powder; tap out the excess.

To make the cake, in a bowl, combine the 1 cup cocoa powder, coffee and the chocolate. Add the boiling water and whisk until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth and blended. Set aside.

Over a sheet of parchment, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, 30 to 45 seconds. Reduce the speed to low, add the brown sugar and beat until blended. Increase the speed to medium and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating until incorporated before adding more and stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla until incorporated, about 1 minute.

Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the sour cream and beginning and ending with the flour, beating just until blended and no lumps of flour remain. Slowly pour in the chocolate-cocoa mixture and beat until no white streaks are visible, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the chocolate chips.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading the batter so the sides are about 1 inch higher than the center. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached to it, 60 to 65 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool upright in the pan. When cool to touch, Invert the pan onto the rack and lift off the pan. Let the cake cool completely, at least 1 hour.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

My Ode to Water

Most of us have a favorite comfort drink. My husband loves to start his day with a cup of chai, my mom craves her coffee at breakfast, my kids love to end their day with ginger- honey-lemon tea. But for me, the uncontested winner in the world of consumable fluids is: WATER!!!
Never having developed a taste for hot beverages, sodas or juice, I have always opted for water as a beverage of choice. But in the past, it was merely a thirst quencher. It wasn't until I became a potter, that water got elevated to the status of a comfort drink. How do the two connect? Well it was quite simple. When I began making cups, I wanted to use them constantly. So, I drank water ever so often, just to be able to caress the cup in my hands and enjoy the feel of the rim on my lips. Invariably, water (in a handmade cup) became my ultimate comfort drink.

Drinking out of a cup made by Jeff Oestreich
I love to collect hand made cups and I have a growing collection of cups made by artists from all over the US.

Cups from over 60 different artists.

 Each day I spend a few minutes in front of my cup cabinet, choosing my water companion for the day. Sipping water from this cup is like having a conversation with the artist and believe me, water tastes ever so sweet, when one drinks it out of a hand made cup.

A couple of years ago, on a long drive to Mississippi, to visit my brother and his family, the sight of our plastic water bottles, planted in the cup holder, barely touched throughout the 12 hour journey, made me realize that it was time to make myself a clay bottle.

I hadn't ever seen a clay water bottle. So, I did what I always do when I have a question...I Googled it...but I was surprised to realize that Google did not have a solution for me!!! I had to travel this road on my own. I knew I needed a bottle form that would fit into the cup holder, would have a secure lid and would be easy to use. So, with just a sketchy idea in my head, I began experimenting.

My initial idea was quite grand. I thought, I would make a bottle with a double wall, so that the water would remain insulated. But since it had to fit in a cup holder, that restricted the base width and the result was a heavy piece, which could hold less than a cup of water. So the double walled idea was rejected!

I decided to replicate a regular water bottle form and secure the cap with a cork, simple enough right?

Water bottle with a cork lid.

But this style had two problems: firstly, one could not add ice cubes because of the small opening. Secondly, it was not user friendly from the driver's point of view, as it required the use of two hands. So the lesson learnt was: I needed a bigger opening and a drinking spout of some kind.

This led to the next generation of  water bottles. These bottles had a wide opening on the top, which was secured with a rubber stopper. There was a small spout to facilitate drinking. I was delighted with the result. I could carry ice water and drink one handed. But my joy was short lived. On our first test drive, I realized that on every sharp turn, if  I did not hold on to the bottle, the water would go flying out of the spout! Not acceptable.

Water bottles with wide lid and a drinking spout.

The spouts needed to be plugged, when not in use. So the next set of bottles had  a cork on a string added to the design.

Water bottles with a cork to plug the spout when not in use.

Once that was in place, I decided that this bottle was as good as it could get. Granted, it was a little awkward to use because one had to tip it at an extreme angle to drink out of it but that seemed like a minor inconvenience for what one got...the joy of drinking out of a handmade clay bottle!!! So with this satisfied mindset, I gave it to a friend (a pottery lover) to try it out and give me a feedback. Not being so attached to the concept as me, she frankly told me that it was awkward to use and encouraged me to go on working on the design with the idea of adding a straw so as to eliminate the need for tipping it.

So, it was back to the drawing board because in my heart I believed that she was right. I started researching the different kinds of straws available and how I could integrate it with my design. I ordered few different types and played around with design and functionality. CamelBak Biter Straws did the trick and this is what I came up with...

Camelbak biter straw incorporated with the lid.

Rubber stopper glued on to the lid bottom with 'J B Weld' to get a good seal.

Water bottle ready...

Custom ordered bottles for my most important customers, my kids!!!

And they appreciate it too!!!

We are finally ready for a long drive!!!!!

Monday, May 5, 2014

For the Sheer Joy of Carving...

Carved lantern, 2003

How did it begin? What inspired me to start carving my pots?  Well, when I think back, it tickles me to recall that the earliest motivation to carve pots, resulted from a need to be able to identify my beginning wheel thrown work, from shelves full of bisque ware (work done by other beginners such as myself).  All our pots looked startlingly similar. They were small, heavy and ugly!! The only way to identify one's pot was to turn it over and look for the initials. Not wanting to waste precious studio time in hunting for my bisque pots, I started making marks on them for the purpose of easy identification. I  did not know then, that, what began as simple etch marks (for identification purposes) was to become an integral expression of my voice in clay.

Red Earthenware platter, intricately carved, 2003

 I began by etching designs on my pots, using just a  pencil, which slowly led to a full blown exploration of relief carving. Soon I was carving because I wanted to, not because I needed to.

 And the designs came pouring out of my head; I could see that my Indian upbringing and the years I had spent surrounded by the rich arts and craft of my native country were to be my inspiration.

Red Earthenware Tea set, 2007

Over the years, as my work evolved, my carvings underwent a change too...sometimes being the focal point of a piece and at other times, just highlighting the profile of a piece. No matter the manifestation, I still find the process of carving as soothing and meditative as I did sixteen plus years ago.

Tree platter, mid fired black clay, 2013

Carved Tea set, mid fired black clay, 2013

Learning to Teach...Teaching to Learn... 

A few years ago, when I was asked to do a carving workshop, I found the idea absolutely terrifying. The thought of demonstrating in front of a group of people  made me weak at the knees. I was  convinced that I would be terrible at it. So, sheepishly, I refused. However, the relief of having dodged the predicament was short lived, for soon I was landed into another situation that demanded a mandatory demonstration for being a show participant. Long story short, I was thrown into the deep end and all I cared for, was to somehow get through it. So, It was rather difficult to acknowledge to myself that it actually had been a pleasant experience. That, there was a deep satisfaction in sharing one's knowledge with an enthusiastic audience, was a realization that took getting used to.

 I have come a long way since far along in fact, that I now, willingly host carving workshops at my about transformation! I  just finished one last weekend, and I am still so charged and invigorated by the experience that I am inspired to share it.

It was an all day, hands on workshop with eight fantastic ladies who had driven from various cities of Texas, one coming from as far as Oklahoma!! What an honor. The agenda was to carve all day while enjoying the camaraderie of other clay enthusiasts and that's just what we did!

Ready for the workshop...

Demo time... 

Hard at work...

All that hard work deserves to be we relaxed over a home cooked meal...

The menu included Chicken  Curry...

Basil Pesto Pasta...

And of course dessert!!! Featured here: Dark Chocolate cake with home made Brown Butter Ice cream, topped with Hot Fudge and pecans!

Time to eat!
Followed by more carving!!!

Everyone's work was so unique, expressing their individual personality. Some did abstract work...
while others focused on realistic subject matter...
It was positively inspirational!!

Working with this enthusiastic group has been an awesome experience. I made great friends and was inspired to try something new. So in the week following the workshop, I threw a thick walled piece and carved it with deep,bold patterns...something I hadn't done before...

...and it made me very happy!!!