It has been a procession of sunshine-less days; with the exception of a few hours of watered down, chilly (yes, chilly- believe me) sunshine for an hour or two in the afternoons. On most days…
Afternoons which are lost all too soon to the darkness which descends by five in the evening.
Days when I would pull on two pairs of socks on feet which still feel like blocks of ice and regretfully remember the evening while the aircraft was taxi-ing for take-off from the Thiruvananthapuram airport in Kerala, in mid January, marking the end of our sun-and-sands winter holiday. My watch had shown 6.25 pm; the visibility excellent, dusk slowly starting to fall and the weather warm……..
From the air, the Arabian sea appears to gently lap the coastline, but the sea is anything but gentle in her unexpected, wilder moments. The memory of the rogue wave, which knocked my son off his feet while the rest of us held each other (and him) tightly for dear life makes me smile now, though not then.
The enchantment of the sea has to be experienced- the waves (turquoise? green? blue?) following each other to the shore. Sometimes the receding wave cancels the force of the progressing one. Sometimes it adds to it. Either way, it is difficult to break away from the timeless magic of the sea, till darkness fully cloaks the beach.
Anyway, I remembered the warmth, continued wistful musings and pulled on another layer of clothing to ward off the chill. The lifesaver rosebush is still doing fine and abounding with pink roses; I feel grateful for small mercies and count days to the end of winter. Determined to outwait the chill and confident that the Great Wheel has to turn again!
At such junctures, I miss my various old lives and start the game of remembering.
Memories of childhood December nights leading up to Christmas is one special treasure trove. The paper star would have been tied midway on the tall coconut palm tree standing in front of the house and would be lighted up throughout the night, starting from before Christmas and well into the New Year. The crib would be prepared with fresh straw and the gaily coloured figurines of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph accompanied by an assortment of angels, farm animals and the three wise men would be brought out from the attic chest and installed lovingly in the crib. Carol singers would go around the neighbourhood each night and would be rewarded with a few coins for their pains. The high point for children would be the night of Christmas Eve, when crackers and fireworks would be lit. Since Deepavali was practically unknown to the children of Kerala in those pre-TV days, Christmas and the harvest festival of Vishu (falling on the 14th of April) were the only two festivals which involved large scale fireworks. The other major festival of Onam in Kerala did not call for fireworks- the emphasis was more on the elaborate food, new clothes and the Pookkalam (circular flower pattern) which had to be created afresh each day leading up to the Thiruvonam day.
The custom of setting up the crib disappeared from my life even while I was still at school; the figurines too must have been thrown away when the house got pulled down to make way for the newer modern house, and have passed on into the realm of memories. The problem is that one realises the value of things only once they are well and truly lost. I really don’t think I mourned or even registered the loss of this quaint ritual at that time.
Another poignant memory is that of baking.
I am an average sort of self taught cook and can claim no great culinary legacy from grandmother’s kitchens; my father’s mother had passed away long before I was born. I had known my mother’s mother briefly- she passed away when I was twelve or so. She was a tough woman who had no great love for her daughters or granddaughters; all her affections flowed down the male line! Strange but true- there indeed were (are?) women who seriously favoured sons over daughters!
Kerala’s tradition of sweet dishes are in the line of various payasams (liquid sweet dishes) made with milk or coconut milk with jaggery, rice, vermicilli, almonds, sometimes jackfruit, and so I grew up alien to the sweet traditions of the rest of the country.
Leaving home at seventeen, and before that always having a book in hand, (my college library was vast and venerable), I never learnt any culinary skill worth mentioning from my mother. My entire cooking repertoire has been gleaned from an assortment of cook books and websites including the ISKCON website, specialising in sattvic (evoking higher spiritual vibes) vegetarian cooking.
So shortly after the birth of my daughter, to combat my feeling of inferiority in the conventional cookery department (and secretly to blunt the sugar coated but sharp jibes on the subject), I decided to learn the skill of baking. It was the start of a passion!
Much has been written about the process of baking- I can only add that of all the hours I have spent in the kitchen, those hours could only be described as meditative. The churning of fresh butter, the preparation of the pan, lightly buttered and dusted with flour, the assembling of ingredients well ahead of time- so that the butter and eggs are of room temperature, the oven to be kept heated and ready so that once the dry and wet ingredients are mixed, the cake mixture can go immediately into the oven, instead of waiting for it to heat up- all require mindfulness.
And the reward- apart from the soft and light cake, the most wonderful aroma permeating the house, which cannot be replicated in any other way. It could be the aroma of chocolate, bananas, apples or carrot-and-dates, depending on which cake I’d be baking that day.
Of course I have my own idiosyncrasies- even if a cake recipe calls for a pinch of salt, I will not add it; and equally stubbornly, will use only fresh and unsalted butter. The latter compulsion has contributed to my baking recipe book gather dust now; the only type of milk available here is the long life, ultra high temperature treated milk, which does not lend itself to extraction of butter.
My recipe book also has a page on which a childish scrawl has jotted down a special recipe for God-knows-what: Dal pani, Gajar ka pani, Bas thoda. (Lentil water , carrot water, just a little). The scrawler was my daughter- seven years old in 2002 !
As a pay-it-forward in gratitude to my various teachers of cooking, all of whom are ignorant of the existence of this student, and in compensation to having shelved this passion temporarily, I share a simple and wonderful recipe here, with the guarantee that it will turn out fine, if anyone is of a mind to try it; (hoping someone would!). The other guarantee is that it will really disappear, especially if kids are around.
White Unsalted Butter : 1/2 cup
Sugar (powdered) : 2 cups – can be tweaked to 1 and 3/4 cups
Vanilla Extract: 1 tsp
Flour: 1 and 3/4 cups
Cocoa: 3/4 cup
Baking powder : 3/4 tsp
Baking soda: 3/4 tsp
Milk: 1 and 3/4 cup
Salt : 1/8 tsp (can be omitted, as I consistently do)
- Oven to be preheated to 350 Deg F. Cake tin to be buttered, lightly dusted with flour and kept aside.
2. Sieve all the dry ingredients together at least thrice. This is to incorporate air and ensure good mixing. Keep aside.
3. Beat together butter and sugar. Once mixed well, add eggs. Beat again and then add vanilla extract.
4. Add the sieved dry ingredients at (2) to the butter-sugar-egg mixture, little by little, alternating with milk, mixing well (so that maximum air can be incorporated) after each addition. The end result should be smooth.
5. Pour into the cake tin and bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
Another recipe another day….