‘Didimoni, do you need help?’ At the kitchen door stands our wild-haired cook, addicted to all-night jatra folk-theatre in Midnapore and fine Bengali cuisine. His frown intensifies as he scans the scene around me that blazing May afternoon in Kolkata.
Probably an unusual sight, by any yardstick. An uncooked, semi-scrambled egg lies amidst shell shards on his impeccably swabbed floor. A dozen cake-friendly ingredients occupy the marble counter-top. Ants scamper through scattered sugar. Another yolk drips half-heartedly off the sink ledge.
Neither Ma nor the cook have ever seen me in their gleaming kitchen before. Ma is deep in her siesta, the single sea-green wall in her cool room probably enhancing her deep sea dreams.
Both are unaware of the fact that, at 13, I have just taken a secret vow. To be the best experimental cake-maker in a family of lauded cooks. Mainly because tea is my favourite meal of the day. Besides, it seems daunting to take on the perfection of Thakurma’s crab curry or Didibhai’s sugared coconut flakes of gangajali (her recipe vanished with her ashes, my Mashi moans), or even Ma’s milk-cured lamb chops.
My inspiration is at hand ~ a glossy Victoria Sandwich in Ma’s bulky, brand-new recipe book. It calls for whisked eggs, which leaves me floundering. So, I cast the cook as a co-conspirator, swearing him to silence. He mops up the mess, neatly cracks open two eggs, offers me Ma’s balloon whisk, sets the gas oven to Mark 3 ~ and vanishes from the scene, spooked by my insistence on going it solo.
I measure castor sugar, dainty teaspoons at a time for accuracy, into a big glass bowl. Using an outsize wooden spoon, I beat the sugar with softened butter. Whisking the eggs into the sugary fat, my skinny arms threaten to come apart at the joints while I glare the curdling edges into submission. The flour is quickly tossed in, half mounded on the counter. Undeterred, I pour the pale yellow batter into buttered sandwich pans.
The coast is clear. My older brother is deep in a Second World War book; our younger sibling immersed in artwork with his thumbprints.
Edging the door semi-closed, I sit cross-legged in front of the cooking range for 30 minutes. The batter in one pan seems to breathe, rising and falling, threatening to overflow. In the other, it flops dramatically to the semblance of a tortured pancake.
As the timer pings, I examine the near-ruins of my first baking caper. I lack the heart to toss it out. Instead, I spoon Ma’s fresh strawberry jam on the risen sponge, firmly capping it with the flop half. It bears little resemblance to the Victoria Sandwich in Ma’s book, yet my brothers devour the experiment.
Declaring it delicious at first bite, Ma gently asks, ‘Shall I teach you a simple dal tomorrow?’ I decline on the double. I am willing to live on cake through the day, the year, the decades to come.
Even as a writer today, I realize baking is my hidden superpower. One I use to woo select souls with. Yet a niggling but simple quest underlies my days. Is there a recipe for a cake, bread or loaf with tea as a main ingredient? Coffee is often listed as a significant cake-changer. But somehow, tea ~ as leaf or dust ~ never quite makes the grade.
I add brewed tea (white, green or black) to cupcakes with disastrous results. Neither ginger tea nor chai masala with leaf tea proves appetizing. The results? Either a pulpy brown at the core, or closer to curry than cake. An attempted matcha chiffon cake in a pale green hue results in puzzled glances at every nibble. The flavor is too subtle, almost undetectable, leaving me yearning for a moreish tea taste.
Jasmine tea lacks flower power in cake, I find, even when pounded in a gorgeous green Kota stone mortar. As for garam masala with powdered tea, it tastes soapy to my tongue.
For way too long, all seems quiet on the tea loaf front. Until a breakthrough, right out of the blue.
Just five years ago, as I sip kahwa in New Delhi with R, her grandparents recall their lost orchards in Kashmir. With every green drop laced with saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, I eye the slivered almonds at the bottom of my porcelain cup.
‘You always lusted for more almonds than we normally put into our kahwa,’ R teases, radiant in her stone grey pheran with burnt orange aari embroidery. ‘Even at college…’
I blush at the memory. ‘Remember how we jumped out of the ground floor classroom window in Kolkata to avoid two hours of the…’
‘History of English Literature!’ she shrieks. We roar with laughter, imagining our scrawny college selves slinking past the beefy, mean-eyed watchman.
‘Is kahwa always made this way?’ I ask when we are calmer.
‘Let’s see,’ R says. Two hours later, our rummaging results in a genuine find ~ her late Daadi’s notebook, replete with recipes in her fading copperplate script. As R flips pages, a yellowing, dog-eared paper lands at my feet. I pick it up casually. Within seconds, I dance with glee, unintentionally spilling kahwa on her Shyam Ahuja rug. On the ruled sheet, I read, ‘Tea Loaf (not Cake).’ At the top of the listed ingredients is… tea!
R looks puzzled, so I briefly explain the backstory. ‘Somebody has tried this,’ I whoop, fingering the stains. ‘It should work.’
Voila! it does. My first guinea pig normally shuns cake, declaring himself a committed ‘utthapam man.’ His verdict? ‘I actually prefer it to my Ajji’s Mysore Pak,’ adding with a wink, ‘When did you learn to cook?’ A four-year-old niece engages with the recipe hands-on, challenging me to a raisin-gobbling contest. I demur. Four days later, she says, ‘Can we bake that kismis with brown tea thingummy again? Not like brownies, but still kind of… yummy.’
Over the years, this zero-fat fruity loaf ~ it has now earned the moniker Tell-a-tale Tea Loaf ~ that packs a mighty tea punch has gained fans across ages and tastes. Part of its appeal lies in the subtle zing of marmalade in each rich brown slice. A cross between cake and bread, this loaf serves 6 to 8 people.
While you sip your aromatic Darjeeling, oxidized Oolong or smoky Lapsang Souchong, perhaps you could swap tales of favourite teatime treats? Or even your best ever tea-inspired recipe?
- 1 cup cold, strong black tea
- 1 ½ cup mixed dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, cranberries, chopped nuts, etc)
- 1 ½ cups self-raising flour (or 1 ½ cups refined flour sifted with 1 ½ tsp of baking powder)
- ¾ cup superfine or castor sugar
- 1 large egg, well beaten
- 2 tbsp. orange marmalade
- Place the fruit in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Pour the cold tea over it. Leave to soak overnight, if possible. Or till the fruit plumps out by absorbing the tea.
- Either the next day or at least four hours later, grease a 700 gm loaf tin with butter or oil. Line the base with greaseproof paper.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180C or Gas Mark 4.
- Combine the flour, sugar, egg and marmalade.
- Pour in the fruit and any tea left in the steeping bowl.
- Stir gently but thoroughly.
- Place the batter in the loaf tin, Smoothen the top with the back of a spoon.
- Bake for about an hour. When done, a skewer/ toothpick should come out clean. .
- Allow to cool, then ease out of the tin.
- Slice to serve.
- Serve with butter, if you like.
Aditi De’s Tell-a-tale tea loaf was baked, tested and photographed by Richa Gupta, and enjoyed by the Teabox team.