Savory Tea Biscuits (shortbread cookies with carom seeds)

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It’s not often that the world changes so dramatically in a span of just a few weeks. When I started this tea pairing challenge a few weeks ago, none of us had any idea what was coming our way. In most parts of the world at this point in time, life as we know it is upended. In some parts of the world, people are fighting for a chance to live in the resources their hospitals can afford them, while elsewhere, others are separated from their families, far far away. Such stories are normally reserved for third world countries, but it is heartening to see it happen in US and Europe. This pandemic has brought the world to its knees, and we don’t know how life will be in its wake.

Whoa, not something you would expect to read if you were browsing for a nice teatime biscuit recipe, huh? Well, it is rather uncomfortable – talking about tea and biscuits like everything is alright in the world. I’ve written myself into a corner here – there are no elegant segues from this topic to tea pairing, so I’m just going to put a pin in it for now (as we are all trying to do by self-isolating…here I go again!), and talk about my favorite thing in these bleak times: tea.

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Tiranga Dhokla (Tricolor Savory Sponge Cake)

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Every year around January 26th and August 15th, depending on how many Indian people you know and follow, you may have noticed your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds bursting with the Indian tricolor of Saffron, White and Green, or  the “Tiranga” (“Tir” = three, “Ranga” = color). If you are not sure why, it’s because January 26th is India’s Republic Day and August 15th, it’s Independence Day! Flags are hoisted in every institution all over the country, and the tricolor waves proudly throughout the country in the hope of a more secular, open and better tomorrow for my motherland!

And, if you are obsessed with food as I am, you might see elaborate tricolor preparations all over your feed too – tricolor rice, desserts, parathas (flatbreads) and the like. I myself try to make something new each year; this past year I made Tricolor Dosas (rice and lentil crepes), and for 2019, I am applying the “Tricolor” filter to one of the India’s favorite snack, the Dhokla (pronounced Dhow-klaah).

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Easy and Wildly Inauthentic “Tilgul” (dairy-free, gluten-free sesame energy bites)

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Every other year or so I have attempted (and failed at) “Tilgul” – a sweet treat made with sesame seeds (“Til”), jaggery (“Gul”), coconut and a whiff of cardamom, sometimes rolled into balls (“Laddoos”), or formed into bars. There’s many different kinds too, with different levels of complexity (and corresponding failure rates). Some varieties are fudge-y and moist, while others are crunchy and almost brittle-like.

No matter the way, I find it tricky to make Tilgul at home especially with the variation in the jaggery available in the US. It seems to have a lower moisture content sometimes, and other times it liquifies too fast and hardens into a rock. It’s not that my Tilgul attempts have been complete disasters, but they haven’t been as perfect as they should be, or could be (unless you call dismantling it and eating it like granola with your cereal a success).

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Vegan Rose and Pistachio Cake

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As much as I love vegan cake recipes, many times they involve strange ingredients (like flax eggs instead of regular eggs, or things like tapioca starch, and so forth). It’s most likely my ignorance on the matter because folks make wonders with these things, but my problem with them is the fact that they are substitutions, and not organically vegan.

I usually draw the line at using an extra banana or two instead of eggs in a banana-based baked good, like a banana bread, or a double chocolate banana bread, or pancakes and waffles, but beyond that I don’t find it appealing at least at this point. Which is why I was so happy to find this inherently vegan cake recipe in a handout I got at a cooking class somewhere in the Caribbean, and then spotted a variation of it on smitten kitchen!

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Kesar Pista (Saffron & Pistachio) Cake

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This cake came to be because a friend happened to order Kesar Pista Kulfi (Indian ice cream infused with saffron and ground pistachios, chilled in an earthen pot) without realizing the consequences of her actions. You see, I expressed my interest to bring dessert to a Diwali party and the Kesar Pista (Kesar = Saffron, Pista = Pistachio) ice cream had already been ordered. I figured I would bake something that’ll “go” with the ice cream, but one thing let to another after I saw this loaf, and a Kesar Pista cake was born for all future parties, Diwali and otherwise.

This is a saffron- and cardamom-infused riff on the Pistachio Cake by Smitten Kitchen. I used a saffron syrup that is easily available in India and likely some Indian/Middle-eastern grocery stores in the United States, but don’t fret if you can’t find it – just infuse the milk with regular saffron. You can do so by scalding the milk (warm it in a saucepan and turn off the heat before a simmer sets in), adding 2-3 big pinches of saffron to it, stirring it gently and letting it cool completely before using in the recipe below.

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Bhadang (savory rice snack)

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Please welcome Bhadang, the puffed up cousin of the Pohyacha Chivda! The process for both these “chivda” recipes is similar – toast the puffed or paper-thin flattened rice, fry up some salty goodies, make a tempering, toss everything together – but they have distinct flavor profiles. You might say that Pohyacha Chivda is the milder, well-behaved, buttoned-up cousin with a great balance of flavors, and Bhadang is wilder, spicier (uses red chili powder instead of chopped green chillies), bolder (fried garlic!) and more rustic.

The version shown here is mild, since I am making it for a crowd, but back in India I have seen Bhadang that is fiery red and irresistable!

Bhadang employs puffed rice, or murmura, or churmura, as opposed to the flattened rice flakes used in Pohyacha Chivda. Murmura is typically the base in Bhel Puri, a popular Indian street food item! This recipe also calls for Metkut, a very special, Maharashtrian roasted-lentil and spice mixture, which may be difficult to track down in the US, and in the worst case, can be skipped. Please do not substitute with Garam masala or Chaat masala, though!

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Besan Ladoo

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Besan Ladoo (gram flour fudge) is the quintessential Indian sweet, and very popular in Maharashtra where I come from. While it is typically made all year round in India, it is one of the signature Diwali Faraal (feast) items (one of the others being the Pohyacha Chivda) that is practically mandatory in Marathi households. I attempted it a few times over the years but failed and ended up converting it to Besan Kheer (porridge) or Halva just to salvage it. This year though, I think I finally understood it.

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