Wednesday, August 31, 2011

India Part 5: Eating Our Way Through Manali

We left our Manali hotel a little after 6pm. The mountain air was already getting cold so we put on extra layers – an America East Track Championships long-sleeve under my kurta, and a purple sweatshirt in addition to Bridget’s t-shirt and harem pants – basically as homeless-looking as we could get. Somehow when in India that’s ok. 

We walked a few minutes down the street to a concrete shack (is that an oxymoron?) advertising  “Chicken/Veg/Mutton Momos.” We peered in. It looked reasonably semi-ok so we pulled up a bench and sat at a table. A teenage Tibetan-looking boy came from behind the curtain in the back that clearly shielded 3x5 foot “kitchen.” He stood next to our table waiting to hear our order – uh, ok, clearly no menus. 

“One veg momo, one chicken momo?” I asked hopefully.
“No chicken,” he replied, confusing me further since he looked confused at my order.   
“Mutton?” he suggested instead. Alright sure.

I just learned from a Traveler’s Tales collection of short stories that Indian “mutton” is actually goat. This makes sense since we had yet to see any sheep on the subcontinent, but goats were a roadside fixture.

A couple minutes later he returned, plopping down plastic bowls of steamy brothy soup, “Veg and mutton.” 

We looked at each other baffled.  Momos are supposed to be steamed dumplings, a Manali specialty, we’d had them for lunch that afternoon. Again we shrug – sometimes it’s easier to just take what’s given.

As we sipped the broths, full of flavor and dotted with oil, an even smaller boy came over and placed two bowls of dumplings in front of us. Aha! The momos! I poured a dollop of “continental  sauce” on both plates, and a spoonful of the firey-hot chili sauce on one (for me, Bridget doesn’t like it). We dug in, enjoying the light meal, and enjoying it even more when our bill came to 40 rupees, just under one dollar. (Not everything is that cheap in India…but if you eat in dubiously sanitary roadside shacks it is!)

“Welp, that was a good pre-dessert snack,” says Bridget. “Cake time?” Yes.

Since arriving in India I'd noticed a multitude of Indian sweet shops. Back in Goa we bought an assortment of Indian sweets. All lived up to the name – they were incredibly sweet.  And almost as common as sweet shops are bakeries – glass cases filled with fluffy-frosted squares of cake. That was our goal for the evening: a cake tour of Manali.

The first place we went had a promising cake case. We sat inside and ordered two milk-teas, one pineapple, and one chocolate cake. As we waited, old American WWF played on the TV. The cakes, alas, were sorely disappointing. They were dry and stale…super bummer. At least the tea was good. It had a tiny bit less sugar than normal Indian tea, probably 4 spoonfuls instead of 5. We dunked our cake in the tea and plotted our next move.

A few shops down we saw another promising locale: The Honey Café. Before going in we stopped to watch a mass of people slowly making their way up the main street carrying “India Against Corruption” posters. 7:30 pm on a weeknight seems like an odd time to have a rally…but I’m as anti-corruption as the next Indian (less corruption might lead to better roads in Himachal Pradash, a welcome improvement for locals and tourists alike), so I snapped a picture in the dim twilight.

The Honey Café lived up to its name. Bridget ordered a chocolate honey ball (imagine a super-dense and big cakeball drizzled with honey and chocolate sauce), and a honey hot chocolate. 

I got apple pie with butterscotch ice cream. Of course it was drizzled in honey – so sweet and so good! The apples were diced (in American pie they’re usually sliced), and I think there may have been some walnuts and raisins mixed in. The crust was super-light and almost cakey textured.

We sat and chatted as the café filled with Indians and a big group of Asian tourists (maybe Tibetan? Maybe Mongolian?). After our sugar-comas subsided we decided to first go for a walk and then evaluate if we could handle more cake. 

The quite main street of the morning and afternoon was gone – “Hello! Madame! You want to buy? It’s very nice!” came at us from all angles. A polite “no thanks” was always our first response, but the particularly persistent salesmen got the more aggressive “No! I don’t want it! Why would I ever need a crappy toy helicopter???"

Bridget bought a traditional hat for her boyfriend so he could look like Abu (from Aladdin) for Halloween. On our way back one of the many shopkeepers invited us in (“No thanks!”), then laughed, “You know how many times I’ve said hello to you today?”
Probably a lot, we’d walked the main street many times…
“Yes, yes, a lot!” he was still laughing. “See you tomorrow! Goodnight!”

We made the wise choice against more cake and instead headed back to our hotel – 400 rupees a night! Hot water! Big bed! That was some accidental good bargaining on our parts. Indian hotel owners don’t like the idea of their potential guests shopping around for a better deal. After we looked at the room and heard the initial price (600r), we said we wanted cheaper but we might be back. “You leave?  No no! How much you want to pay?” Done. The carpet may have been stained, the TV didn’t work, and Lord knows about the sheets…but that’s where we were sleeping!


Catch up with my previous India posts:

Part 1: From the Streets of Bangalore to the Beaches of Goa

Part 2: Old Goa to the Taj Mahal

Part 4: Worst Bus Ride EVER and Paragliding in the Himalayas

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cake of the Week: Lemon Layer Cake with Whipped Cream Frosting

The grocery store on Friday night was an absolute madhouse. I waited in line for 40 minutes, my fellow shoppers purchasing important hurricane-preparation things like batteries and bottled water. I, on the other hand, was there to pick up far less practical staples: lemons, butter, sugar, and heavy cream.


Now all those people are well-stocked if a hurricane is ever predicted again. I am not. But at least I and my friends had the satisfaction of enjoying an absolutely delicious Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Curd Filling and Whipped Cream Frosting for LOTR-Emily's birthday on Saturday night!

As I've said before, lemon cake is the one thing that might rival chocolate in my cake-loving heart. This cake recipe uses lemon pudding in the cake batter to add flavor and a light but at the same time rich texture. 

The lemon curd component was inspired by my Lemon Filled Cupcakes. But this time I went with a different curd recipe that used whole eggs instead of egg yolks. I don't like having to worry about leftover egg components, so this recipe was perfect. And the curd was easy and turned out really well. 

And the whipped cream frosting. Oh the whipped cream frosting! I am so pleased with how well it worked! As I approached my heavy cream, I was anxious to say the least. My kitchen was humid (never good for delicate baking), and last time I made whipped cream frosting it was a near-cake-disaster-miss (but one of my best cakes ever - the Peach Chantilly Cake). 

But I got my googling on and found a promising recipe that used gelatin. And it worked! I'm paranoid, so I added a teaspoon of cream of tartar for extra stabilization power. Normal whipped cream is just heavy cream, sugar, and maybe some vanilla. But the problem with this most glorious substance is that it tends to kind of melt. So if you frost a cake with'd better be eating that cake almost immediately. Stabilized whipped cream, however, stays whipped. With the addition of gelatin (or cornstarch, or cream of tartar, or meringue powder), it suddenly becomes whipped cream but exponentially better

You can use it as a frosting. You can put it in a piping bag and decorate with it. You can eat it with a spoon out of a tupperware in your fridge for days. (Scratch that last one. I would never do that.) (Pure lies. Clearly I am doing that as we speak.)

Lemon Pudding Layer Cake
Yield: 3 x 8" round layers
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 (3 oz) package lemon pudding mix
1 cup butter, softened
4 eggs (room temperature)
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Juice and zest of 2 lemons (about 4-6 tablespoons of juice)

  • Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter, line with parchment, and flour three round 8-inch pans, tapping out the excess. Set aside.
  • Sift and whisk dry ingredients together in a medium bowl, and set aside.
  • In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the sugar, pudding, and butter on medium speed until light and fluffy--about 5 minutes.
  • Add the eggs, one by one, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl with spatula.
  • Add the wet & dry ingredients to the creamed mixture by alternating--beginning and ending with dry ingredients and mixing just enough after each addition to incorporate, but not overmix. Add the lemon juice and zest last (to prevent the milk from curdling).
  • Divide the batter in three pans.
  • Bake 25-30 minutes or until a cake tester comes clean when inserted into the center. Be  careful to not overbake. Check cakes at 20 minutes, but not before, and once you feel it's almost ready, set the timer for 2 minute intervals. Let cool on racks for 10 minutes before loosening the sides with a knife or spatula, and invert onto greased wire racks. Gently turn cakes back up, so the tops are up and cool completely.
  • Cool cakes completely before assembling. You can wrap them tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 days, refrigerator for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 2 months. Best eaten day one.


Lemon Curd (source)
Yield: almost 2 cups 
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (2-3 lemons) (do not use the bottled lemon juice)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tablespoon finely shredded lemon zest

Room temperature lemons provide more juice. After squeezing, strain the juice to remove any pulp. Zest is the yellow, sweet-flavored outer rind of the lemon. A zester or fine grater can be used to remove the rind. Cold lemons are much easier to grate. Grate lemons just before using as the zest will lose moisture if it sits too long.

  • In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk the eggs, sugar, and lemon juice until blended. Cook, stirring constantly (to prevent it from curdling), until the mixture becomes thick (like sour cream or a hollandaise sauce) (160 degrees F or 71 degrees C). This will take approximately10 minutes. 
  • Remove from heat. 
  • Cut the butter into small pieces and whisk into the mixture until the butter has melted. Add the lemon zest and let cool. 
  • The lemon curd will continue to thicken as it cools. Cover immediately with plastic wrap (so a skin doesn't form) and refrigerate for up to a week.

Whipped Cream Frosting
Yield: about 3-4 cups frosting. Enough to generously frost one cake and have leftovers.

1 teaspoon gelatin powder
4 tablespoons cold water
2 cup whipping cream
1 speck of salt
8 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar (I don’t know how absolutely necessary this is, but it can’t hurt and I’m paranoid about my whipped cream melting.)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

  • Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in small bowl to soften (about 5 minutes). 
  • Scald 4 tablespoon cream; pour over gelatin, stirring till dissolved. 
  • Refrigerate until consistency of unbeaten egg white (about 30 minutes, but check it so it doesn’t become too firm.) 
  • Using a hand-mixer, beat until smooth.  (If you accidently let it get too firm in the fridge, just beat it for longer, it should loosen up). 
  • Whip remaining cream. Add salt, sugar, vanilla, and cream of tartar; beat in gelatin mixture. 

  • When the cakes and lemon curd are completely cool, spread half the curd on the first layer. 
  • Add the second layer and spread the rest of the curd. 
  • Gently place third layer on top. My cake was a little precarious (lemon curd is slippery!), so I inserted spaghetti noodles (you could also use toothpicks) to keep the cake together. 
  • Sidenote: Make sure you warn people about the noodles when serving! In my family finding a noodle in your cake was good luck and meant you got to make a wish. :)
  • Refrigerate the cake for 20 minutes to an hour so it can set while you make the frosting.
  • Frost generously.
  • Enjoy!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Weekend Report: Emily's Hurricane Birthday

Before the birthday shenanigans began, I did what every intelligent person does pre-hurricane: went on a boat cruise!  

Jessica had an extra ticket up for grabs and I wasn’t about to say no. I feel like cruising the Potomac is one of those things to do in Washington DC. The cruise went from Waterfront, up the Anacostia River, then around Haines Point and up the Potomac River. The weather was actually quite pleasant – not too hot and a little breezy – nothing like it would be the next day. 

Hurricane (ahem, I mean Tropical Storm) Irene started around noon on Saturday and delivered consistent steady rain and a bit of wind all day and night. But it was LOTR-Emily’s birthday celebration, and neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stop me from delivering a birthday cake to one of my bestest friends! 

An elite few hung out at her house through the stormiest hours of the storm, then made their way home in the still rainy night. 6x6 and I left LOTR-Emily’s around 1:30 am and walked home through Meridian Hill Park. We saw 3 people walking towards us…
"Are they naked???" 6x6 gasped.
"Nooo, I think they're wearing bathing suits?"
But as the trio (2 guys and a girl) came closer we realized that they were, in fact, completely naked walking through the park in the rain.
We passed right by them, “Happy hurricane!” they greeted us. 
“Happy hurricane!” we responded. And that was that. Kind of a surreal encounter in the middle of a very rainy night…

The next morning we awoke to a sunny day and minimal destruction (in my neighborhood at least). 

The true birthday partying was soon to come: all-you-can-order brunch at Masa 14. That means you pay a set price ($35) and can order as many small plates of Asian/Latin fusion food as you want from 11 am to 3 pm. And so we did. 

Luckily Masa 14 is well-documented in the blogosphere, so though I didn't take any pictures of our food (I feel sliiiightly crazy doing so sometimes), there are plenty available for you to see all the amazing things we ate:
  • Masa Breakfast Pizza - house bacon / egg yolks / gruyere cheese / pico de gallo / arugula 

  • Wild Mushroom Flatbread -  oaxaca cheese / roasted red pepper / avocado 

  • Veggie Benedict - toasted bread / spinach / tomatoes / poached egg / green chili hollandaise

  • Spinach Salad -  pickled mushrooms / roasted red peppers / walnuts / black bean dressing 
  • Fruit and Granola -  yuzu yogurt / blood orange syrup 
  • Daily Petite Quiche - chorrizo/green salad       
  • Smoked Salmon Omelet -  goat cheese / spinach / caramelized onions / tomato jam 

  • Tenderloin Benedict -  scallion kimchi quesadilla / poached egg / green chili hollandaise 
  • Smoked Brisket Hash -  caramelized onions / chilis / chipotle hollandaise / yucca / poached egg 
  • Pain Dulce -  ancho whipped cream / roasted pineapple syrup 

  • Grilled Chorizo Sausage - poached egg / salsa mexicana
  • Crunchy Shrimp -  chipotle aioli / sesame / scallion / masago 

  • Smoked Salmon -  achiote ponzu / spinach / bacon 

  • Bacon Fried Rice -  kimchi / scallion / poached egg 
  • Grits -  chipotle pepper / oaxaca cheese / green onions 

Are you impressed by the capacity of our tummies? (Or horrified?) We ordered over $200 worth of food and drinks, making the set price well worth it!

If I had to pick a top 3 (it was all so good!), it would be: the smoked brisket hash,  pain dulce, and the crunchy shrimp. The grits were creamy and cheesy and intensely amazing. And the smoked salmon was cooked perfectly. Seriously, if you're ever in DC you have to try this place and go hungry so you can try everything!

Hope you all survived the storm this weekend, and had some fun too! 

Happy Hurricane!

Friday, August 26, 2011

India Part 4: Worst Bus Ride EVER and Paragliding in the Himalayas

India was all about things that go. Through our travels we took almost every kind of transportation the country had to offer: cars, busses, boats, rickshaws, cabs, and pedi-rickshaws. And with all this going, clearly it was only a matter of time before something went horribly ridiculously horrendously wrong.

We boarded an overnight semi-sleeper bus on India’s Independence Day and drove out of Delhi with the backdrop of hundreds of kites flying over the poorest neighborhoods (it’s just like the Kite Runner! On Independence Day they do kite battles!).

The ride to Manali started off smoothly. Mountains relax me, though I’d never seen any quite like India’s: super-steep and bright green all the way up. Even at low elevation the steep edges reminded me of sharp contours of the Eastern Sierras. Power lines sweep across the hills like a giant network of spider webs – Himachal Pradesh (the state) is the main source of hydroelectric power in India. At the bottom of it all ran the rushing brown river, full of recent rains and dirtied by the mud slides that succeeded in making our 15-hour bus ride turn into a 30 hour ordeal.

That’s right – 30 hours. The bus stopped around midnight and we slept unmoving as the monsoon rains poured down outside. Two rockslides blocked the 1-lane road, and a chain of cars, busses, and trucks backed up for miles, snaking around the hills. The next morning we continued to wait, getting out of the bus on occasion to walk around, Bridget desperately searching for a potato-chip vendor (breakfast of champions?). By 3pm, 7 hours after we were supposed to arrive in Manali, we started moving. We passed car-sized boulders on the side of the road – oof, I would not want to be in the way of that slide!

The bus careened around corners and switchbacks, just inches from the edge of the cliffs. I’ve learned that my best line of defense is to look sideways out the window and trust the driver knows what he’s doing.

Around 5pm we stopped again. The road to Manali was blocked by its own series of slides. What are we supposed to do??? The 10 or so bus passengers consulted (bonding through shared adversity?), and decided to hire two cabs to take us on the back roads to our destination. 

The back roads were terrifying but beautiful, even snakier and sketchier than our earlier driving experiences. That part of the trip took 6 hours. Mostly because we stopped all the time for no good reason. We don’t need snacks! Why are we stopping again? What could you possibly be talking about? Get back in the $%&^$* car! I raged quietly in the back seat as Bridget tried to convince me that completely losing it would not be productive.

Finally at 11pm we arrived in Manali, found an over-priced hotel, showered the road-dirt off of ourselves, and went to bed.

The next morning we awoke to fresh mountain air, a small town, and hungry bellies. (We're not sure why there were huge piles of rocks in the middle of the main street.) I wouldn’t want to spend that much time in a bus again…but maybe it was worth it? I want an omelet and a chocolate pancake. And then I want to go paragliding, Bridget insisted. Agreed. After breakfast we were leery of getting into any kind of transportation ever again, but the only way to get to the paragliding was an 18k cab ride up higher into the Himalayas. 

Touristic zeal overtook us and we agreed to yet again get in a car. It was totally worth it. We arrived at one of the few ski resorts in India and were told to walk up the ski hill to do the “short” paraglide (we’re too cheap for the “long” one). So we trudged up the bunny slope and waited our turn at the top. 

Bridget went first, strapping into a harness and then running and jumping off the slope with a guide attached to her back.

Next was my turn. As he fitted my helmet, the guide explained, “You have to run. Don’t just sit. Run and jump, ok?”

No problem! Running and jumping I can do! Though it’s a bit awkward to do so with a weighted sack and another person attached to your back…

We took off  (Nice! Very nice! Nice!” my guide cheered) and floated on the breeze for a couple minutes, freely flying through the mountains. Awesome!


Catch up with my previous India posts:

India Part 1: From the Streets of Bangalore to the Beaches of Goa

Thursday, August 25, 2011

India Part 3: Hindu Forts and a Morning in Jaipur

The morning after the Taj, we again piled into Vishaal’s car to head to Jaipur. We arrived in the late afternoon, just in time to make it to one fort: Amber/Amer Fort. From a distance the fort looks like the Great Wall of China, snaking over craggy hills. 

At Vishaal’s insistence we hired a tour guide, who proceeded to not show us the whole fort…until Vishaal made him take us back in (it’s kind of nice to know that Indians get cheated sometimes too).

At 9am the next day, Bridget and I left Vishaal at the hotel to sleep in. “I’m only in India once!” declared Bridget as we told him to take his time and call us when he was ready to meet up later. Outside the hotel we popped our heads into the first bus we saw, “City Palace?” (this is how you get places in India – shout a location at anyone and they will give directions.) “Yes yes!” nodded the driver’s assistant as he waved us on. We couldn’t believe our luck – first try! That was so much easier than expected.

We got off the bus in a semi-deserted market area. The rows of shops under redish/pinkish breezeways (Jaipur is the “Pink City”) were all closed because the market doesn’t open until noon on Sundays. But breakfast, we assumed, would be easy. We wandered up and down streets for what felt like forever, looking for somewhere with a place to sit and the promise of food.

I was about to die of thirst. We made a beeline across the street to what looked like a standard Indian snack bar (huge deep fryers out front, unidentifiable food on display), and were psyched to see there were tables inside. We sat and looked at the menu (what fried delicacy to choose?), but the proprietor came over and explained in a mix of words and gestures that it was still too early for the menu. 

“Tea?” we asked hopefully, “Any food?” Yes-yes, he nodded and came back to show us a deep fried bun-looking thing. “Sure, 2 please!” we ordered. He sat the buns down in front of us, along with two sauces: one spicy and one sweet in the typical Indian tradition. The buns were delicious – like super-thick croissants filled with a mix of lentils and spices. Tea, water, and 60 rupees later were feeling pretty damn pleased with ourselves and ready to take on Jaipur.

Back on the street a young-ish man stopped us to talk. Oh jeez, here we go, I thought, mentally rolling my eyes and wishing he would go away. I could tell Bridget felt the same, but was politer than I. We both softened towards the man when he asked us why foreigners don’t ever want to talk to him, he’s just being friendly. In an attempt to give our race (and by race I mean all foreigners?) a better name, Bridget and I agreed to go somewhere, have some tea, and talk with him for a bit about America.

“Ok, follow me!” he said happily. And we did: down a different street, around a corner, through an alleyway, then into what appeared to be a series of stone courtyards. Bridget looked back at me apprehensible, “I don’t think we should follow him in there…this is weird.” Agreed. The when-in-India motto definitely has its limits.

“Excuse me, where are we going exactly?” I asked.

“Come come! It is just here, somewhere quiet. There are others, don’t worry!” Like lambs to the slaughter we shrugged and followed him around one more corner to take a seat on some stone steps in an alleyway across from a cow munching garbage and a few men chatting on their motorcycles. Kinda weird…but alright.

A man brought our new friend a plastic bag of milky sweet tea which he poured into a couple plastic cups as he started talking. Mostly he wanted to hear about American festivals, “like the Burning Man.” Unfortunately Bridget and I don’t know much about that, so instead we told him about Thanksgiving and Haloween. He was a silly guy and delighted in telling us jokes (How do you get a camel into a refrigerator? You open the door and put him in! How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator? Well, first you have to take the camel out! You’re loading Noah’s Ark, which animal is missing? The elephant! He’s still in the refrigerator!).

He likes talking to foreigners, “There are three things every foreigner has you know. Your Lonely Planet, you know, your Bible; a water bottle; and a plastic bag of toilet paper!” Yup. Check check and check. White people in India…apparently we’re completely predictable and all alike.

After a few cups of tea he asked if we wanted him to show us things, jewelry? Miniature paintings? Rugs? 

Uhoh, here’s the sales pitch, I thought, but allowed myself to be led to a small jewelry shop nearby. I bought a necklace and Bridget bought earrings from the jeweler who sells to buyers in Delhi and insisted he was giving us the “wholesale price for very good friends.”

Then our friend took us to see jewelry makers. We entered a small room to see two men sitting cross-legged on the floor bent intently over strips of silver and a pile of colored stone on their table. They invited us to watch as they expertly fitted the silver around the stones, making perfect casings to be used for pendants, bracelets, and earrings.

“Miniature paintings next?” our guide suggested. Again he led us through the streets (becoming more crowded now) and up some stairs into a small room with mattresses on the floor and walls covered in miniature paintings of everything from Hindu gods to people to tigers. A middle-aged man sat in the middle of it all and introduced himself as the painting instructor. He gave us a demonstration of how he crushes rocks to make the paints, and then brought out stacks and stacks of paintings by him and his students for us to look at. “Not trying to sell you anything, you can just look” he said. We admired the intricate details through a magnifying glass, some of the paintings took 3 weeks to complete! We each bought two. They were kind of expensive ($25 each), but original art is worth it!

We made our excuses and left, thanking the painter profusely. We told our friend that we had to meet Vishaal at the Hawa Mahal at 12:30, so he walked with us part of the way, then turned down a different street, “Ok, I’m going this way. Bye!” And that was that.

His abrupt departure was a little odd, considering most Indians we met insisted on exchanging contact information (name, address, phone, email, facebook), no matter how brief the encounter.

But whatevs, it was a great morning in Jaipur. Bridget was psyched, I was still skeptical (wondering just how much money our friend got from the merchants…was he actually nice? Or just using us?). But we did have fun and liked what we bought, so either way I guess it’s ok.

We saw the Hawa Mahal (Air Palace), which was crowded but fun! There’s 360 windows in the front of the palace, one for each of the wives to look out of.

Then Vishaal met us and we drove up to Nahargarh Fort (Tiger Fort), this one overlooking Jaipur. It was beautiful! 

After meandering through the rooms, we had tea and snacks at a café that felt like it was on top of the world. All around us we saw the city, spreading and sprawling into the distance, and as we sipped tea we imagined ourselves ancient Hindu princesses and prince, surveying our kingdom.