Saturday, June 26, 2010

Baking Therapy

It is no secret, especially to people I know, that I love to bake.  I love to bake cakes, pies, bread, anything really.  The interest for baking came from the fact that growing up I don't ever remember having cake that I really enjoyed.  The bakeries in India back then sold really dry cake with a thick, tasteless frosting made almost entirely from vegetable shortening.  Pies were almost unheard of.  We did get good, freshly baked bread though, but the variety was limited mostly to white bread.   The interest for baking that was born out of necessity developed into a hobby then into a love and has now become my passion.

I still remember my first attempt at baking a cake when I was about 12 or 13 years old.  It was a simple cake, but it turned out really well.  I didn't frost it, but everyone enjoyed it all the same.  The next time I tried baking the very same cake, it sank in the middle.  As I remember it, I was so impatient to see if the cake was done.  It was only ten minutes after  I put it in the oven to bake, and I ignored my mother when she told me not to open the oven to look inside.  Now I know never to open the oven door at least until the baking time mentioned in the recipe.  I also remember the first time I baked a pie.  My first attempt was a huge success.  My second attempt, not so much.  I realize now that each time I tried something new, I followed the instructions to a T on the first attempt and then tried to take shortcuts the second time around.  Not a good idea.  This has taught me to take my time and try to do everything right every time.  Shortcuts are okay only if I am 100%  sure that the end result is not compromised in any way.  In a strange but interesting turn of events, lessons learned from baking have become life's lessons for me.

Over time I learned that adding cold eggs to cake batter will curdle and separate it, making for a cake that is hard as a rock (well, almost).  I learned that all ingredients need to be at room temperature.  I learned that I cannot get by without preheating the oven.  I learned that there's a reason I need to take the time to cream the butter and sugar, whisk the eggs well, sift the flour.  I have to incorporate air into these ingredients if I want to have a soft, fluffy cake.   I learned that when baking bread I need to be very careful with the yeast or I will kill it.  I learned that I have to knead the dough well.  Kneading dough is physical therapy for me.  Feeling the dough between my fingers while getting all the ingredients together takes me to my place of Zen.  I can get all my frustration out from punching the dough.   Then comes the proving.  Speaking colloquially, you gotta prove.  If the recipe calls for it, more than one proving is required.  I have learned that I cannot hurry up any of these steps.  All if it requires patience.  Here again, lessons learned from baking have become life's lessons. 

Yet when it comes to pie crusts, I have to throw out the window everything I've learned and adopt an entirely different strategy.  All the ingredients have to be as cold as possible.  In order to get the best results the ingredients should be minimally handled so as not to allow the warmth of my hands into the crust.  I need to use a chilled pastry blender to incorporate the ingredients.  I need to gather up the dough into a ball and then chill it again before rolling it out.  After rolling and lining my pie dish with the dough, I have to chill it again.  I have to get the oven as hot and place the cold, cold pie dough into it.  That's how I get a light and flaky pie crust.  Life's lesson learned: I need to be flexible and adapt to change.

As I continue to learn, there are times when everything aligns as if by magic.  I had to bake a cake for work this past week.  I actually had to bring the cake in on Tuesday, but on Monday I woke up with a very bad back.  I cursed my awful luck and worked from home that day.  I planned to bring the cake into work on Friday.  I had planned to make a fat free sponge with whipped cream and berries.  While shopping for the berries, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that strawberries were selling for $1 lb.  I don't remember the last time they were selling so cheap.  Had I baked the cake on Monday as planned, I would have had to pay $2.99 lb for the strawberries, if not more.  So my bad back was actually a good thing.  A happy song was playing in my head as I bought 5 lbs of strawberries.  I also bought raspberries, blueberries and blackberries.  I baked two layers of  fat free sponge cake.  I whipped almost two pints of heavy cream.  I hulled 5 lbs of strawberries.  I washed and dried the raspberries, blueberries and blackberries.  I assembled the cake.  I was waiting for something to go wrong but nothing did.  Everything just fell into place.  

That's how life is sometimes too.  They may be few and far between, but there are situations where everything happens almost effortlessly.  I just wait for something to go wrong and nothing does, which makes me feel like it's almost too good to be true.  And miraculously, that's just how it turns out to be.  Too good to be true.

PS: Forgive me for the oversight, but I meant to thank the many people who have encouraged and supported me thus far.  My late father, John Powell, who loved to bake and who helped me find my wings; my immediate and extended family; everyone in Active Life Fellowship; Parag Parekh, Saurabh Khandwala, Xerxes Cama, the entire "Rum House" gang; Rohinton and Shenaz Parakh, who trusted me with their childrens' birthday cakes when I was still honing my skills; Jonathan and Binaifer Powell, who trusted me with their wedding cake; Rachel and Shehan Gooneratne for the same reason; Everyone I work with at T-Mobile who show up every month for the Birthday and T-Mo Anniversaries celebration; Everyone who has ever been a willing guinea pig for my "experiments". Thank you, all of you for being the wind beneath my wings.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

For Dad

It was on June 19th, 1910 that Father's Day was first celebrated in Spokane, WA.  That was a hundred years ago. The tradition lives on and many will honor their father today with a card, a gift, lunch, dinner, good wishes. There will be some who will celebrate other fathers they know as they remember their own father who is no longer with them.  There will be new memories made and old memories relived.  I will be one of those who celebrates my brother's fatherhood, as I remember my own Dad.    

My father's life ended almost 25 years ago in November.  After he passed on, we realized just how sick he was.  He knew it too, but didn't really share with us what he was going through, probably because he didn't want to burden us with details he thought might scare us.  I wish he did though, because then I would have made it a point to make sure to say words that were left unsaid.  As far back as I can remember, my father was in and out of hospital all the time.  That is why I was not prepared for him being taken to the hospital for the last time, never to come back.  He was only 57.  I didn't get to say goodbye.  I don't even remember what my father's last words were to me

My father was a complicated man.  My relationship with him was as complicated.  But as strained as our relationship was toward the end, I do have many good memories of my father that I cherish.  The best I can do today is to honor him by sharing these memories so everyone would know what a good man my father was.  One thing that I know from what my mother has told me, is that when I was a baby I loved to fall asleep to my father's voice singing to me.  What I do remember going back to the age of 3 or 4 was that in Dad's eyes I could do no wrong.  As I remember it, my mother was the disciplinarian.  I don't remember my father ever being mad at me until later in life. 

My father and mother had the traditional Indian arranged marriage.  They met for the first time a few days before their wedding.  You'd never know it from seeing the relationship they had with each other.  They were always holding hands, so much in love until the very end.  Watching them I knew that no matter how bad things got, no matter how much they fought, they would somehow make up and everything would be right with the world again.  It was nice to have that kind of security growing up, even though it was very embarrassing through my teen years watching them be so affectionate toward one another.

I remember how talented my father was.  He had a great singing voice, a booming loud baritone which he could turn into a gentle, soothing tune when necessary.  But not many people knew this, because my father chose to keep his vocal talent to himself, singing only in the shower.  Or singing to his baby girl.  My father also loved to paint.  He painted beautiful pictures.  My father loved to cook, oh man did he love to cook!  He made complicated food, with meticulous attention to detail.  He once made a custard apple ice cream.  It took hours to remove the large black seeds from the sticky, pulpy fruit, but the end result was absolutely worth the effort.  Every Christmas season saw many wonderful treats made with love by him.  During the holiday season in 1984 my father baked the best Stollen ever.  I watched him knead the dough, fold in raisins and almonds, roll it into shape, dust it with powdered sugar and bake it to a rich brown loaf.  I knew then that someday I wanted to be able to bake as well as he did.  When he wasn't painting or cooking, my father loved to watch movies.  He also loved to read comic books.  This is what made him a cool Dad.  While my friends were chided by their own fathers for watching mindless movies and reading drivel, my father took us to movies and let us read comic books.  My father recognized my love for cooking and encouraged me to develop my penchant for it.  He was always pushing me to step out into the world and expand my horizons.

When I was 11, my father took us to lunch after church one Sunday afternoon. My father told my brother and I that we could order anything we wanted from the menu.  I remember that was the first time that we were given that privilege.  I remember ordering a whole chicken that we split four ways.  We had never done that before.  Of course, that's not all we ordered, but that's the part I remember.  After we were done with lunch, we each ordered a triple sundae for dessert.  It was the best lunch I had ever been to or ever had.  Ever. That same year there was an activity at school I will remember forever.  One of our assignments was to convert a story we read into a little skit that we would perform on stage for our parents.  I wrote and directed my story-skit and our team went home with the honor of being the best skit among 7 others.  My father was there to watch my success.  He was so proud of me that he took us all out to dinner that night.  Dad made sure to tell me over and over again what a good job I had done on the skit.  

My father wasn't the kind of person to express emotion.  I didn't know how to react when I saw him him cry for the first time, when my mother's brother passed away very suddenly and under very tragic circumstances.  The only other time I saw my father shed a tear was when he was saying goodbye to me when I was getting on a plane to go away to college.  This was during the turbulent time in our relationship.  I can't begin to imagine what he must have been thinking about me that would cause him to be so emotional.  All I can think is that no matter how much we disagreed, I would always be his only daughter.  

I never did get to tell my father how much I loved him or how much he meant to me.  It's too bad that he isn't here now so I can let him know.  

I love you Daddy, and I miss you.  This blog is dedicated to you.

In loving memory of John Powell (December 2nd, 1927 to November 7th, 1985)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ho Mok Talay Revisited

When each of your parents has nine siblings, you are bound to share a birthday with one of your relatives, or at least come close.  My cousin Rachel celebrates her birthday two days before I do mine, so we have made it a tradition for just the two of us to get together and do something special.  This year we decided to venture out in pursuit of Ho Mok Talay served in a coconut shell. 

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my accidental discovery of Ho Mok Talay, and that Sea Thai Restaurant in Seattle served it in a coconut shell.  Rachel and I made our way to Sea Thai Restaurant in the Wallingford neighborhood.  Since I am the kind of person who depends on landmarks instead of street signs, I made a mental note of the fact that Sea Thai Restaurant is a hole-in-the-wall little place between the famous Kabul Afghani Restaurant and the famous-for-a-different-reason Erotic Bakery.  We parked the car in one of the residential streets and made our way to Sea Thai.

The restaurant is a small, unassuming little place, with very limited seating.  It is clean and comfortable.  The menu is quite extensive, considering that the restaurant is so small.  We looked at the menu and decided on an appetizer along with our main entree.  The Angel Wings caught our eye.  It was described as Chicken wings stuffed with pork, shrimp, surimi (imitation crab), vegetables and bean thread noodles.  The chicken wings were steamed and then deep fried, and came with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.  It was priced at a very reasonable $6.00 for a plate of two.  We ordered it along with a Ginger Tea for Rachel and a Thai Iced Coffee for me.  The Angel Wings (above) were quite good, served crisp and warm.  The dipping sauce was tangy and added good flavor, and the cabbage-carrot garnish added a nice crunch to the dish.  

Then came the Ho Mok Talay (left), with a side of steamed rice.  It came served in a coconut shell, as promised.  We ordered it spicy, as in 4 stars.  We were especially delighted to find some coconut meat on the "lid".  The dish itself was pretty good, with shrimp, scallops and mussels.  The coconut curry base was delicious and spicy.  There was also an unexpected amount of bamboo shoot in the dish.  Overall, I would say that the Ho Mok Talay did not disappoint, and the tender coconut meat definitely added to the complexity of the dish.  Rachel seemed to really enjoy it.  However, I still prefer what I had at Ochar Restaurant in Issaquah.  I just wish Ochar Restaurant would serve it in a coconut shell as well.

All said, I think I would like to visit Sea Thai Restaurant again.  I probably won't order the Ho Mok Talay again, but there are quite a few dishes on the menu that I think I would want to try.  I believe in supporting the small business owner who takes pride in what they do, and while Sea Thai doesn't have much to offer in terms of atmosphere, it seems to me like good food in a clean and comfortable environment is something the owner takes seriously.  And that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Another Page Turns

I am a year older today than I was yesterday.  It's funny, but I don't feel any different.  What's even more funny is that I don't remember feeling any different than I did in my 30s, or even in my 20s.  Sure, I have more gray hair than I would like to admit.  Gone are the days when I used to color my hair purely for vanity.  Gone also are the days when I wore make-up to enhance my looks, not cover my flaws.  So much for not feeling any different, I guess.  No matter how I have handled it, age has crept up on me and has changed me.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing though.  I will continue to be a work in progress the rest of my life.  But the more I think about it, the closer I have come to becoming a person I can love and I can live with.  There are still things about myself that I want to change, but these changes I want to make are for myself and nobody else.

But enough about me.  This past year has seen a sea of changes.  Most days were calm and serene, but there were some storms and hurricanes through which I didn't think I would make it. There were cakes baked, cakes eaten, cakes enjoyed.  There were SQL queries, there were dreams of SQL, there was managing projects, there was a piano, there was Japanese food for lunch almost every Thursday with some great people at work.  There were people who moved on so they could be happier.  There were movies, there was the first baseball game I went to.  There was Russell Peters live.  There were all my relatives. There was a relationship that ended.  There were old friendships revived, there were new friendships made.  There were births, there were deaths.  There was heartache, there was joy.  There was so much that went on! 

If I were to pick the most significant things that happened over the past year, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the piano.  I tell this story wherever I go, so some of you may have heard it before.  This story goes back to about 16 years ago when I had a piano that I couldn't take with me when moving to a new country, the one I now call home.  That was the piano on which I had learned to play, the one that I had since I was 12, the one that meant the world to me.  All I wanted for it was a good home and to give it to someone who deserved it.  I sold it to a very good friend of mine, for a price that people thought was too little.  It didn't matter to me what people thought, because I believed in my heart that the piano that meant so much to me had found its new home.  Fast forward to 2010, and under the most unlikely circumstances, I got a piano (above) for which I only had to pay the moving charges.  The "Piano Story" as I call it, taught me that when you do something with good intention, somewhere down the road you will have it come back to you.  I apologize for the poor quality of the picture, but it was taken with a Blackberry phone that didn't have the best camera.

The other incident that I must mention happened only a few days ago.  A very good friend of mine, Sandra, found me through Facebook after nearly 20 years.  Sandra and I go way back.  We were in High School together.  We stayed in touch through our college years.  We hung out together a lot.  We went to movies, plays, lunches, dinners.  Sandra saw me through some really great times and some really bad times.  She was there at my older brother's wedding.  She was there 25 years ago when my father passed away.  Somehow we lost touch over the years as each of us went our separate ways.  I don't know if I ever got to thank Sandra for being there for me.  I am so glad that we are back in touch.  

Yes, this past year has seen so many ups and downs.  I am so blessed that I have people in my life who are there for me, no matter what.  I also have to mention the non-human person in my life.  Through it all I had my dog JackJack (right), who just by being himself returns a semblance of sanity to a world that goes crazy every now and then.  One look into his puppy eyes, one wag of his tail, one tiny kiss he plants on my forehead, and everything is back to normal again.  I still can't believe the circumstances that brought us together.  Truly a miracle.  

So thank you everybody for another year.  I am blessed with good health, wonderful people (and dog) and all the material things I need, and then some.  Thanks be to the God I believe in, who has kept His promise of not leaving or forsaking me.  

Here's to life.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Divine Seafood

Anyone who knows me is fully aware of how much I love food!  I love to bake, I love to cook, but most of all, I love to eat food that other people have cooked for me.  I love simple food made with care.  And I love seafood.  I could live on seafood forever.  Which is why this blog is about one of the most wonderful seafood dishes I discovered quite by accident.

It was about a month and a half ago that I was in Issaquah, on my way to Costco, when I realized that I hadn't had luch that day, and I was quite hungry.  I was in the mood for Thai food, so I headed over to Ochar Thai Restaurant at Pickering Place.  I scanned the dinner menu and looked at item number 42.  It was a Thai seafood dish called Ho Mok Talay.  The description read, "Salmon, shrimp, mussels and squid in coconut milk curry with a touch of curry powder. Served over poached cabbage."  "Interesting," I thought, "I should try this".  So I ordered it and asked the server if I could have the spice kicked up a bit.  I was told that Thai Green Peppers could be added to it, but only if I could handle the heat.  Was he kidding me?  Oh well, I told him I could.

So when it came, this is what it looked like.  It was foil-wrapped, and just as the description said, contained salmon, shrimp, mussels and squid, with coconut, red peppers, the Thai Green Peppers I had asked for, and cabbage at the bottom.  I served myself some steamed rice, then put a few tablespoons of the dish on top.  I took a small bite.  Oh me, oh my!  Delicious!  Everything was just right!  It was as spicy as I hoped it would be, the seafood was cooked just right.  The mouth-watering coconut curry wrapped itself around every morsel of seafood in an exquisite symphony of flavor and texture.  The cabbage at the bottom was crunchy but had somehow managed to absorbed the flavors of seafood and coconut.  I had never tasted seafood so good!  Hints of lemongrass and fish sauce were evident, as in most Thai cooking.  At $14.95, it was a pretty generous helping of food that made it through two meals for me.  I thoroughly relished my dinner that day, and took quite a bit of it home to enjoy later. 

A couple of weeks later I had a hankering for Ho Mok Talay again, but this time went to the Ochar Restaurant at Eastgate.  I ordered the same thing, but when I took my first bite of food, I was deeply disappointed.  There was no shrimp, there were scallops.  Not a bad substitute, except that the scallops didn't seem to belong to this dish for some reason I can't quite put my finger on. The seafood was overcooked, the mussels tasted off.  The dish tasted like it was put together in a hurry, almost like an afterthought. Maybe it isn't ordered often at the Eastgate restaurant.  I was also surprised that two restaurants supposedly under the same ownership could serve the same dish but prepare it so differently.  I have no words to describe how much of a let down it was.

Anyway, another trip to the Issaquah Ochar a few weeks later got me over my disappointment.  It also got me searching the internet for a good Ho Mok Talay recipe.  I learned that there are slight variations to the dish.  One recipe I read called for tender coconut meat to be stirred in, with a dollop of coconut cream on the top.  Another called for beaten egg to be included.  I have no idea how it will combine, but am not averse to trying it sometime.  But the most intriguing recipe I read said that Ho Mok Talay should be served in the shell of a tender coconut.  Wow!  I continued to scour the internet to see if there was anywhere in Seattle they served Ho Mok Talay in a coconut shell.  Bingo!  Sea-Thai at Wallingford!    I did have to look through the menu a few times to find it listed, though.  But to make things easier for you, it's S9!  I cannot wait to try this. Once I do, my next step would be to try and make this at home.

So Rachel, what are your thoughts on going to dinner at Sea Thai?