Well I must say, I was slightly anxious about logging on to Eat and Dust today. It’s been almost 6 months since I’ve been here – I thought the blog police might have snuck in and closed me down on the grounds of extreme neglect!
The fact is, for the past year I’ve been working on a book about Old Delhi, and for the past few months I’ve done virtually nothing else. Anyway, I finally sent off the first draft last week then promptly collapsed in a heap. When I eventually picked myself up again one of my first thoughts was “My poor blog!”
But what to write about? I’ve hardly left the house recently except to walk the dogs so I have no new street food joints to report (although I intend to put this right very soon). Also, my own cooking has dwindled to the bare minimum – so no new dinner recipes to suggest. I have, though, in the interests of staying sane, managed to keep doing a little baking.
Bizarrely, for someone so keen on sugar, deep-frying and ghee, I suddenly seem to be thinking healthy thoughts. Worrying, I know, I’ll be sending fan mail to Gwyneth ‘no carbs’ Paltrow next! Anyway I’ve been experimenting with all the wonderful grains that are available in India and I have to say it has been a revelation.
According to my husband, whose job it is to pronounce on such things, this recipe for pearl millet crackers with dukkah may well be my best yet. I’m not sure how I feel about that as these crackers are little more than a dinner party twist on what food historian K.T. Achaya once dismissed as the “staple dietary item of the common folk”, bajra ki roti.
Yes, pearl millet may well be the main form of nutrition for over a third of the world’s population and in India, where it is known as bajra, it is widely used to make warming winter rotis but it rarely, if ever, attracts superlatives. And although millet has been around for over 10,000 years, I’d never used it in my baking before.
But it turns out bajra, or pearl millet, has a delicate sweet, earthy, nutty flavour which made me wonder where it had been all my life. A few minutes in the oven and a sprinkling of the wonderful Egyptian roasted nut and spice mix called dukkah transformed it into total deliciousness.
Incidentally, I’ve become completely addicted to Dukkah recently – my favourite winter soup this year, during the dark days of the first draft, was a roasted carrot soup with a sprinkling of dukkah and yogurt. It’s worth keeping a tub of it in the freezer – I can’t think of many things that wouldn’t be improved by it.
I was so excited I also decided to make a simple cheese to go with the crackers, a sort of firmed-up ricotta made from milk and buttermilk (chaach).
Just making these recipes made me feel gratifyingly rustic, as if I’d just spent the morning on a farm, especially when I used the whey from the cheese to bind the crackers. But the flavours were a revelation and the combination of spicy, nutty crackers and creamy, herby cheese was, as my husband will testify, anything but home-spun.
Bajra and Dukkah Crackers
Makes 16-20 crackers
200g bajra flour
100g maida (plain flour)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
Approximately ¾ cup (about 200ml) whey or water
Dukkah to sprinkle on top of the crackers
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Sprinkle a baking tray with flour.
Sift the flours, sugar, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour with your fingertips. Add enough of the whey or water to make a soft but not sticky dough.
Lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Then divide the dough into walnut-sized pieces and roll them out as thinly as possible, no more than 1mm thick. Keep checking the dough isn’t sticking to the surface and sprinkle a little more flour if necessary. The pieces don’t need to be neat—in fact they look nice rugged and rustic. Carefully lift the rolled out dough on to the baking tray. Brush a little water over the surface of each piece and sprinkle on the dukkah (although you could also use sesame or caraway—I made a couple with dried pomegranate powder). Bake for 6-8 minutes until the crackers are lightly browned and crisp. The crackers keep well for a few days in an airtight container.
½ cup hazelnuts
2 tbsp sunflower seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 tsp rock salt
Put the hazelnuts in a heavy frying pan and roast over medium-low heat for a few minutes until a little browned, then add sunflower seeds and roast for a few more minutes. Tip them on to a plate to cool, then add the sesame, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds and peppercorns to the pan and heat until fragrant and popping. Be careful not to let any of the nuts or seeds burn.
Put the nuts and seeds into a pestle and mortar with the salt and grind gently—you want to retain a range of different textures. Store for up to a month in the fridge or longer in the freezer. Dukkah can pep up almost anything—salads, hummus and lentils, but my favourite winter lunch this year has been a roasted carrot soup sprinkled with dukkah and a good dollop of yogurt.
Fresh Rosemary Cheese
Makes a small cheese approximately 12cm wide
1 litre full-cream milk
1 litre buttermilk (chaach)
Juice of half a lemon
1 tsp salt
A small bunch of fresh rosemary, chopped
Heat the milk and buttermilk in a large pan until it just reaches boiling point. Stir in the lemon juice for a minute or so until the mixture separates into white curds and greenish whey. Tip it all into a sieve (but keep the whey for bread or cracker-making!). Put the curds into a bowl and stir in the salt—you could also add other flavouring like toasted cumin or cracked pepper.
At this stage, the cheese is ricotta and could be served as it is with the crackers. If you want a firmer cheese, either wrap the curd in a piece of muslin or put it in a perforated metal paneer (cottage cheese) mould. Put the muslin or mould on a plate, then weigh it down with something heavy to press out the liquid. Leave it in the fridge for a few hours. When the cheese is as firm as you want it, take it out of the mould and sprinkle it with the chopped fresh rosemary. The cheese will keep for a few days in the fridge.