My book group prioritizes literature, food and wine more or less equally when we plan our monthly meetings. This month, we read the new Arundhati Roy book, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” which is set in India.
The hostess, who happens to be of Indian descent, organized a menu featuring a variety of dishes that thematically reflected the book — a full Indian buffet. She asked me to bring dessert.
Normally, this is a short order for me. I love sweets and happily whip up something that fits the menu and the crowd. But this assignment was a bit more challenging. I adore Indian food; the spice, the complexity, the variety of flavors and textures intrigue me, but the desserts from the subcontinent are something else entirely.
I have never managed to acquire a taste for traditional Indian desserts. But I was determined to create some sweets that both honored the Indian menu and my hostess but also pleased my taste buds.
With that in mind, I planned to create Western-style desserts with Indian flavors. Using spices like ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and chili, I added an exotic zing to brownies, blondies and pound cake. The results were quite tasty. The good news: Everyone loved them. The bad news: I am on dessert duty in perpetuity.
I’ve riffed on these before for the Mexican palate — using the chilis and cinnamon only. The addition of cardamom takes these heavenly squares east and gives them a bit more exotic flavor.
Makes 16 brownies
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks sweet butter)
1 11 ounce bag dark or semisweet chocolate chips
1 generous teaspoon, ground chipotle chile powder
1 scant teaspoon, ground ancho chile powder
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 1/2 tablespoon finely ground French roast coffee beans (or any dark roast)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-by-8-inch square baking pan.
Melt the butter and chocolate in the microwave on 50 percent power, stirring frequently. (Total melting time takes about three minutes.)
Add the chili powders, cardamom, cinnamon and coffee. Set aside the mixture to cool to room temperature. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring until blended.
Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30 minutes on the lower shelf of oven until done. Cool completely before cutting.
Using three different forms of ginger (fresh, dried and crystallized) as well as the option of adding ginger liqueur, gives these bars a zesty zing. And if you detest ginger, you can omit these and enjoy straightforward butterscotch blondies.
Makes 16 bars
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger
2 tablespoons ginger-flavored spirit such as Snap (if not available substitute 1 teaspoon of vanilla)
Heat your oven to 350 degrees and grease a square 8-by-8-inch pan.
Mix all the ingredients thoroughly. Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for 25 minutes, until just set in the center.
Cool and cut into squares.
Chai Pound Cake
This recipe offers a spiced tweak on the traditional butter pound cake. For more spiced chai flavor, do not strain the chai as directed; just pour the spiced liquid directly into the batter.
1/2 cup milk
1 tea bag
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, minced
A light sprinkle of black pepper
1 1/4 sticks butter, softened
1 1/3 cups sugar
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs plus 1 yolk
Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a loaf pan.
In a small saucepan, heat the milk to near boiling and add the tea bag, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and pepper. Remove from the heat, cover and allow it to steep for about 10 minutes (or longer if a stronger chai flavor is desired.)
While the chai steeps, dump all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix, starting on low speed and increasing to high as the mixture blends. It will be very thick.
Strain the chai if desired and pour it into the batter, blending thoroughly.
Pour the batter into a prepared pan and bake for 55 minutes (or more) until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.
Cool the cake, remove it from the pan and serve as desired.
Start with vanilla ice cream or a plain purchased cake. Fresh fruit, flavored whipped cream and some purchased extras help you shortcut to gourmet sweets with little or no effort.
For an Indian meal, whip some cream and flavor it with a dash of ginger and/or cardamom. Serve it with fresh sliced mango and your store-bought cake and ice cream.
For Greek, consider a lemon-flavored addition: infuse the whipped cream with limoncello. Top the cake and/or the ice cream with lemon curd.
Mexican? Use Kahlua. Or lime.
Italian? Frangelica (hazelnut liquor) and some Nutella.
Adding cocoa powder to regular whipped cream delivers quite a wow factor. Chocolate whipped cream is rather unique, special and delicious.
Specialty jams, dulce de leche and other jarred sauces are all wonderful ways to dress up plain desserts with practically no effort.
So don’t stress. Dessert should be fun. PJC
Keri White is the food columnist for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.