Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Festival of De-lights.

Every year, as Fall kicks in, haggard NRI moms like myself get busy cleaning, shopping, as well as toiling in the kitchen, concocting secret recipes for meringues and marshmallow peeps for Halloween, alongside “phirnis” and “barfis” for Diwali. Given that almost all our festivals spin around good food, Diwali needn’t be any different. In fact, it’s one among the more popular festivals that hogs up all the hype because of the ritual of dispensing sweet assortments that has come to rule over the years. Moreover, with the advent of the Internet, age-old grandma recipes for that incredibly delectable, perfectly viscous “kheer,” or “laddus” with a light saffron-tinge and rotund shape just so, are only a few clicks from Google. One doesn’t have to be Saroj Kering, or Sanjeev Kapoor to whisk up Diwali delights like a genie blessed with a magic pot and a silver spoon.

As always, the festive season has sparked off an overbearing sense of nostalgia in me. The sights of glimmering diyas lit up at the onset of dusk, arranged in calculated geometrical order all around the house; the intoxicating aromas of coconut milk, sugary thick Milkmaid, neatly trimmed squares of jaggery melting away in a cauldron with equal parts of water, and fresh cardamom ground in the brass mortar-and-pestle; the sounds of firecrackers and prayers competing with one another, each equally strident and powerful in a way that makes one’s hair stand on end; they all imbue my senses with a longing that will possibly only wane with the turn of season. But for now, I would like to wallow in the wistfulness of the moment, and try to re-create some of the effects here, in a land so far away and completely oblivious to the intensity of the celebration, just so I can assuage my yearning heart a little.

So, what does the average NRI kitchen smell like at this time of year? With the heavy impact of Paula Deen’s weakness for rich buttery desserts cooked slowly and unperturbedly, and Sandra Lee’s obsession with all things quick, easy, and semi-home made, which is ostensibly more in line with the be-all, do-it-all Super Mom like myself, I’d like to believe there is no one way to make or bake. Further, with the little scraps of paper tucked in my hand-written recipe book that have logged the littlest of details - like a dollop of ghee at the end - that could do wonders for a certain type of “halwa,” and the colorful platters of pista, almond, and cashew-infused Diwali sweets that stare back at me from my little Macbook screen from an online Haldiram’s sweet shop, I am eternally re-thinking and re-aligning my ways of cooking during the festival. Influences of the Western bake culture could have myriad, wondrous possibilities to quickly turn-over an Indian version of any dessert (much to the dissent of slow-and-steady cooking moms in India); the time spent toiling in front of the stove can be reduced in half, and even if one wishes to indulge, the thought of sweating it out on treadmills often plagues us enough to go easy on the fat, which can be achieved without as much as a niggle, courtesy the good old conventional oven. Further, there are scores of quick-fix microwaveable options too for those in a great hurry.

While the prospect of toiling away making these sweet delicacies for Diwali - be it for a few minutes or hours on end - seems less appealing than that of heading to the nearest Sukhadia’s, or better yet, ordering some online; it is the enormity of the venerable, warm concept of “homemade” that binds us to our past, and might even open up vistas for handing-down a delightful little tradition to our children. While you’re still riding high on the notion of nostalgia I have managed to stir up this Diwali season, let me sneak in a recipe that will bring the zing back to your kitchens, and infuse the walls of your well-lit homes with the essence of India.

For those with a sweet tooth, as well for as those who like it light, this recipe is sure to be an instant hit - for it has all the makings of an avant-garde, stylized sweetmeat - a true example of East meets West, replete with cardamom and coconut, and cream cheese and almonds. What’s more, it goes right into the oven, then in the refrigerator, and melts like honeyed silk in your mouth, after.


Almond Bars:
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup chopped almonds
1 pinch finely powdered cardamom

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup lightly roasted, sweetened desiccated coconut

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square pan. Whisk the confectioners' sugar, cardamom powder, and flour together in a bowl. Use a pastry cutter or a simple kitchen fork, and cut the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture till it gets all crumbly. Press this mixture into the greased pan, spreading it out uniformly. Sprinkle the chopped almonds on top and then press down gently. Bake for 30 minutes flat. Once done, set it aside to cool completely.

While it cools, whip the cream and granulated sugar with a hand-held electric mixer until stiff; fold in the desiccated coconut. Spread this topping over the cooled bar in a swift swirl and smooth roll, cutting into squares gently after. Cool in the refrigerator before serving.


Now, as those frost bites are balmed, scented candles burned blazing red to supple blue, bells rung and long-distance phone calls made, new “Dhanteras” possessions sought, and lest I forget - this recipe tested, here’s wishing all of you a most glorious Diwali. Let there be light.


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