It’s own timbre

Yesterday, the sky was a flat-packed grey. Under it, wet roofs, wet roads, damp brick walls, damp people in damp socks, the neighbour’s cat with a sweet squirrel in his mouth. Bleak stuff. It’s August, the prime of summer, but the sky is British you see, it can’t comment on summer. So what if the rest of Europe is laid out on their beach towels like strips of bacon in a frying pan? We’ll just take the old umbrella out for a walk.

Still, the weather doesn’t irk me like it used to.  Maybe it has something to do with a little girl who goes ‘Yay, rain!’ every time it rains. I mean, who says ‘Yay, rain!’ in this country?! She can be positive about anything, this one. A couple of days ago, she hopped and grinned and danced around me saying “Ma, I’m really, really excited about nothing!” So yeah, it could be her; she makes me notice the grey less.

There’s something else I like about days like these. The silver light. Like a snail’s trail that has dried on the ground in slow, shiny loops. This light, even through a bare window, is diffused, discreet. It’s incredible how a land’s people mirror its weather.

I was writing this post when I looked up and saw Chotto-ma engrossed in her book, and realised how utterly quiet the house was. Only the rustle of a page turning, and her foot softly kicking the arm of the sofa, thup thup thup. I picked up my phone quietly and took this photo. Of her and the light and the quiet. There’s a special kind of silence on grey days. It’s different from the silence of a sunny day. Like the difference between synonyms – each with it’s own timbre, its own use.

I’ve been meaning to share a recipe for weeks. It’s for a plum cake that has been baked, eaten, baked in a loop recently. It’s beautiful; soft, sweet, tart and almondy. I’d Instagrammed it, just out of the oven, and now here it is. These photographs are off my phone camera too, because I forget to do any better when this cake is sitting on the table making our rainy-day house smell all kinds of wonderful.

Almond, Plum & Brown Sugar Cake

Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
1 cup ground almond
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup coarse demerara (you can use white sugar too, but this gives the cake a rich, roasty flavour)
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 heaped tbsp of butter
1/2 cup oil
1/2 – 3/4 cup milk (as needed)
4-5 plums, halved, then sliced (with peel on)

Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F).
Grease a rectangular baking dish (or a cake tin of your choice) with butter, keep aside.
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl – flour, ground almond, baking powder and sugar.
Make a well in the middle. Crack in the eggs. Add the vanilla essence, the butter and oil.
Start mixing it in a circular motion. Pour the milk a bit at a time as you mix, till you get a nice smooth batter, easy to stir.
Pour batter into cake tin. Top the batter with the sliced plum, laying them on with a gentle hand so they settle into the batter a tiny bit, but not sink in.
Bake for 40 minutes if the baking dish is flat and rectangular, and about 45-50 minutes if it’s deep and round. Slide a knife in to check if done.

Stereotypes and cake

I have the week off. I get almost nothing done when I have time off. For the past hour, I’ve sat on the sofa staring at this lion that Chotto-ma drew a few days ago. It’s such a beautiful lion, isn’t it? It has kind eyes. A zebra might have another opinion, but it has kind eyes. It also has a bow on its head, if you peer in closely. What’s a big beast of a lion without a little red bow in his mane, right?

We like breaking stereotypes in this house, and ste-reo-types is a word Chotto-ma learnt early. Because, by lord, we’re surrounded by them outside, we drown in them when we walk out the door!

We went to the John Lewis store to buy pyjamas for Chotto-ma the other day. Chotto-ma loves dinosaurs, and she loves sharks and penguins and anything that moves on all fours or sixes. But no sir, John Lewis begs to differ. Every interesting pyjama with dinosaurs and sharks had a sewn-in tag saying John Lewis For Boys. Wait. What’s wrong with John Lewis For Kids, if you must assume I’m size-blind? I’m sure people can decide if they’d like to buy it for a boy or girl based on the child’s personality and taste rather than sex? Yes, there was one lone dino-print pyjama in the girls’ section, bless their generosity – but no points for guessing its colour. No, it wasn’t pink. It was Very Pink.

And that brings me to the country’s great, unspoken colour-code. Pink and Blue. When you have a baby, don’t you dare confuse those two! Girls must gurgle in their prams in pink, boys in blue. Cover a little girl in a blue blanket only if you want to hear, “Aww, what a handsome little boy!”

And of course, there’s the conversation I had at the hairdresser’s some time ago. There was a lovely girl cutting my hair, and Chotto-ma trying to catch my chopped, wet strands before they fell to the floor. The hairdresser and I were chatting about this and that, as we usually do. She was talking about her job at the salon, so I asked her how she’d gotten into hairdressing. And she said: “You know, I was never much into school, so I did what girls do. I got into beauty.”

And then there’s the fact that Chotto-ma went to a birthday party where all the girls got little purple coin-purses in their party-bags and all the boys got large bugs preserved in glass cubes. And she came home a little sad. She’d really wanted the bug with its black hairy legs and cool shiny green body, but she was a girl, so a purple purse it was.

And there’s the fact that at Chotto-ma’s after-school club, when she and a friend were once playing with a box of Lego from the Star Wars series, an older boy came up to them, took the box away, and reminded them they they had the ‘girl Lego’ to play with, and that these were for the boys.

And there’s the fact that you might know a little boy who loves playing with kitchen sets but you also know that you can never gift him a kitchen set for his birthday, without incurring the shock of his parents. He must be gifted a car, poor child. Or a football at the very least.

And the fact that a local children’s magazine I was leafing through had an article called “Party Ideas for Boys and Girls”, where the page was split in two – Boys / Girls, and the boys’ section had science experiments, pirates, football and space. While the girls’ section had a tutu party, flowers and fairies, cupcake baking, princesses and mermaids. Chotto-ma is obsessed with space and planets and all its galaxies, just as I was when I was young. She loves science experiments, which we often do at home with kitchen ingredients. But never mind all that – let’s just put all the girls in sparkly mermaid costumes, shall we?

It’s hard for children to find their own voice when the world seems to be so organised in their stereotypes. When they’re seen as Boy or Girl, instead of People. Girls, especially, are constantly given subliminal hints about their ‘role’ in life. When you gift a girl a Barbie (I could write an entire post on everything that’s wrong with that doll), and you buy a book called ‘Facts on Fossils’ for a boy, you are sending her a strong message, which will have far deeper repercussions than one might think. [Link to an interesting article on that below]

We do what we can to balance Chotto-ma’s world at home, even if it means breaking the smallest stereotypes. I have a blue toothbrush and D has a pink one. We went out and bought them after telling her how people couldn’t be coded by colour, how no one had to follow any set notion of ‘Obvious’. And when we came back home from the hairdresser’s that day, I showed her a photograph of the scientists who built Mangalyaan, the Mars orbiter. The photo showed a group of Indian scientists, all women, in beautiful silk sarees and flowers in their hair, punching the air as they made history in space technology. They’d probably also packed their child’s lunch before coming in to work to build that rocket.

Chotto-ma sees D cooking as many meals as I do; because dinner is cooked by whoever has the time to cook it that day. And the house is cleaned, and clothes folded, by whoever has the time to clean the house and fold the clothes that day. There’s nothing more to it – apart from the fact that you’ll probably eat a little better if I cook the dinner. And you’ll probably also get a slice of lovely cake after.

Are there stereotypes that bother you? Moments when you have found them frustrating as a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt? Stereotypes that annoyed you when you were a child? I’d love to hear your stories, for surely I’m not the only one who has them? My stories come from being the parent of a girl, but which ones do you face as the parent of a boy? I’d love to know, and it’d be good to have this discussed – please share the blog link on Facebook and elsewhere if you like.

And in the meantime, I’ll give you a recipe for a mean orange-almond cake, which goes well with good old talk about things that matter. I’ve baked it thrice in three weeks. Well, Chotto-ma and I baked it together, even as we talked about planets, bugs, prehistoric creatures and other so-called ‘boy things’. Because, there might be a set recipe for a cake, but there ain’t no set recipe for a girl. Or a boy.

Added on March 10, 2015: A kind lady emailed me an article yesterday after reading the post. This article is from a US perspective, while mine is from the UK, but they say the same thing. It shows why seemingly small, market-created stereotypes can do deeper damage to our social structure, and handicap girls and women. Here’s an excerpt from the article

“…contributing factors, according to academic experts I interviewed, include a culture that encourages young women to play with dolls rather than robots and pursue traditionally female careers, as well as the self-perpetuating stereotype that a programmer is a white male. Sometimes women can feel like they don’t belong in a technical world dominated by men.
Those stereotypes are based on reality, according to data released by some of the largest tech companies. Among the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, 70% of the workforce is male. In technical roles, the disparity is even greater. At Twitter, for instance, only 10% of the technical workforce is female.”

You can read the complete article here.

Orange and Almond Cake

Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
1 cup ground almond
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, pulp in
2 tsp zest of an orange
2 heaped tbsp of butter
2 heaped tbsp yogurt
1/4 cup oil (vegetable or sunflower)

Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F).
Grease cake tin with butter, keep aside. (I like my 6-inch, and deep, cake tin for this)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl – flour, ground almond, baking powder, sugar, orange zest.
Make a well in the middle. Crack in the eggs. Add the vanilla essence, the butter, oil and yogurt.
Start mixing it in a circular motion. Pour the orange juice a bit at a time as you mix. Till it’s a nice smooth batter, easy to stir.
Pour batter into cake tin. Bake for about 50 minutes, then slide a knife in to check if done. If it’s still a little soft, switch off the oven, and pop the cake back in. Leave it there for 15 more minutes.

This cake has a beautiful crunchy crust when it’s just out of the oven, so you must have a slice warm. But once it’s cooled, wrap the rest in clingfilm and leave it on the table overnight. It’s even better a day later, when the ground almond has released all its lovely natural oil.

You’ll love it!

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All gone

We woke up on Sunday and looked out of the windows to find all the houses and trees gone. The parked cars, the pavements, gone. The church across the street gone, its moorish spires stolen by diaphanous djinns. The sky no more, sucked up into itself.

Outside our windows, the world was whipped cream. Thick, white. You could dip a finger in. Or, if like us you were walkers of a less sane mind, you could put your shoes on. At 7.40 am on a winter morning, you could put your shoes on.

You could walk through familiar streets as if for the first time; fog makes a first time of everything. It makes everything seem as secretive as half-told stories. Houses whisper, people in them sleep and dream strange dreams. Nothing stirs expect the hours.


We walked for a long time; I don’t know how long. By the time we decided to head back home, the fog had begun to lift. Headlights passed. A tree appeared in autumn leaves like a girl in gold lamé returning home from her Saturday night. We could see the church now, its neon sign reminding people to be saved on Sundays. The djinns had returned its spires before the people at Sunday Mass noticed anything amiss. A man stood by the park in a clown costume drinking coffee.

When we climbed the stairs home, the world was returning, sharpening. There would be other fogs, other out-of-focus fairytales. For now, there was coffee as dark as the outside was white. And pear cake with cream. Thick, white.

Pear & Yoghurt Cake with Orange Sour Cream Icing

This is a throw-everything-in-a-bowl kind of cake, so the recipe that follows is unconventional. As in, it may seem suspiciously whimsical and simple for a cake, but hang in there. It will rise to the occasion. It’s the best cake I’ve baked in a while, and certainly my favourite icing by far.

Ingredients

For the cake:
2 pears, not too soft, nor at its firmest; peeled
2 cups of plain flour
2 tsps baking powder
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups plain set yogurt (not Greek)
3/4 cup coarse brown sugar
2 heaped tbsps butter at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla essence

For the icing:
600 ml sour cream (that’s usually 2 small tubs)
1/2 – 3/4 cup white castor sugar (adjust to taste)
Grated zest of 1 small orange

First the icing:
Hang the sour cream in a clean cloth to strain the water out. This should take an hour.
In a bowl, add sour cream, sugar and half of your orange zest. Give it a good mix till smooth. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Keep aside.


Now the cake:
Pre-heat your oven to 170 degree C (350 degree F).
In a large, deep bowl sieve the flour and baking powder together. Throw in the sugar.
Crack two eggs in the middle. Add the butter. Pour in the oil and the vanilla essence.
Now, with your hands, or a wooden spoon, give it a mix in a nice clockwise motion.

Into this tight batter, add yogurt. Mix till it’s a lovely smooth consistency.
Hold the pears above the bowl and with a knife scoop slivers of it into the cake batter. Let the juices drizzle in. Gently fold the pear into the batter.
Grease a medium (9-inch) cake tin with butter, and pour the batter in. Bake for about 40-45 minutes.

Cool completely. Then slather the icing on top, and sprinkle with remaining zest.
Refrigerate for about an hour before serving. Enjoy!

Stew you for supper

“Who are you, little girl?”
“Maa…”
“Have you lost your mummy?”
Tumi aamar ma” (You’re my Ma.)
“What’s that strange language you’re speaking?”
Eta strange na. Eta Bangla; Bengali.” (It’s not strange; it’s Bengali.)
“Bhengawli? Well, I don’t understand a word of it! Greek to me.”
“Ma…”
“Oh, stop calling me that! Go home, little girl. Stop following me.”
“Ma.”
“Shoo.”

This is Chotto-ma’s absolutelyfavouritest game, staged daily on the walk back from school. I started it, little knowing what I was in for. She loved it so much, it has begged repetition ever since. And every day if possible.

There’s me in my best ill-humoured-Edwardian-lady accent, and a little brown girl straggling behind. Ne’er has a play seen a more unsuitable cast. But apparently, it’s “hu-normous” fun.

Some days, though, when I pick her up from school, I feel like I haven’t seen her forever; which means I need to squish her too much to play the game. I squish her and I carry her as far as I can these days, slobbering her face with very noisy kisses – which doesn’t quite set the mood for Le Pathétique. On days like that, there is Option B.

In Option B, I play myself (thank god). But. I seem to be very confused about our way home from school. I drag her to all the wrong doors, try to take all the wrong turns, but Chotto-ma knows better, of course. So she rolls her eyes and pulls me in the right direction. She points to our house from a distance. Look Ma, there’s our house. No-no, I say, that’s Miss Havisham’s, an old lady who’s allergic to little girls. Nah, she says, that’s ours. Big mistake, I say – Miss Havisham’s going to stew you for supper.

And so we climb the stairs; me mumbling caveats about trespassers and dour old ladies, and Chotto-ma with her worldly calm, shaking her worldly head. When she reaches the door, she takes the key from me. She slips it into the keyhole. I’m aghast that our key fits Miss Havisham’s house. She turns the key and the door opens! She pulls me in, and I nearly pass out from the shock of it all  – for it is indeed our house.

And so happy and relieved are we to find Miss Havisham missing that we flick off our shoes, throw off our jackets, and dive into the kitchen to bake a cake that would befit the fussiest Edwardian dowager.

…..


Fig & Pecan Buttermilk Cake

Ingredients

3 large figs (1 quartered lengthwise; the other 2 cubed into 8 pieces each)
A handful of pecan, broken into pieces
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
3/4 cups brown, granulated sugar
3/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat oven: 160°C.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together with a wooden spoon.
Make a well in the middle, crack in the eggs, pour in the butter and vanilla extract. Stir it all in.
Add in the buttermilk a little add at time. Stir, add, stir – till the buttermilk is all gone and you have a nice, smooth batter.
Now, add the cubed figs and the pecan, and fold them in.

Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin.
Tuck in the other fig slices on top.

Bake for about 50 minutes, or till a knife inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Let it cool for a while before slicing.
Serve with a drizzle of cream.