Rainy Sydney

Sometimes I wonder what the point of anything is. I hope God forgives me for this. It is my middle-aged hormones making everything appear without colour, without purpose. As I sit at the breakfast table, one child emptying the dishwasher, another being an irritable teen, another, for the moment, not to be found, I look out of the window. It is a rainy day. The window is opaque because of a plastic film of some sort that has been stuck to its glass by the previous tenant, or perhaps by the landlord. I have tears in my eyes. I have often seen my own mother just so at the breakfast table. I have felt her loneliness and her longing but not moved a muscle in her direction to comfort her, perhaps with a hug or a caress. I don’t like physical affection except from my husband and my children. I long and ache for physical affection from my husband. But I can’t bear to show physical affection to anyone else. And I am aware all the while that one day, my own turn will come. I will sit with tears at the breakfast table and my children will walk around me, watching me, knowing I need their physical affection, and do nothing. It is what is generally, unimaginatively, called ‘karma’. I prefer ‘makafat-e-amal’.

Outside the window is a rainy day. And vegetation I am well familiar with. If I was not as aware I am of being in Sydney, I could easily imagine myself in Islamabad. I miss Islamabad more than I thought I ever would. We live here as aliens in this land. We operate each day in an alien language, dress ourselves in alien clothes, follow the law, subdue our actions and reactions. We may become citizens here one day but we will never be natives. This gut-wrenching ache I feel for a house on a hill in Islamabad, these tears just below the surface of my consciousness, so ready to overflow, this exile far away from my parents and my siblings…we have to work so hard simply to be in the same place at the same time, with all our spouses and children. What is the worth of this? I do not know but my Beautiful God does. I trust Him. I am so angry at all the scum who have snatched away our simple and undeniable right to live in peace in our own land because of their greed. They enjoy the comfort of their families, their friends, vast properties and riches, to which they keep adding through corrupt and unscrupulous practices. All the while we stay away from our soil, for the sake of peace, for the sake of just normal days where when a child leaves for school in the morning, I feel confident of sending him our with a kiss and an ayat-ul-kursi. We stay away so we do not have to undergo the new normal – checks at hotels, airports, hospitals, schools. We stay away so our eyes are not routinely jarred by the sight of armed men hopping out of the vehicles of the rich and famous when they stop outside our schools, armed men at traffic signals, at the entrance to the streets where the rich and prosperous reside, armed men outside malls, at checkpoints. Weary armed men, bulletproof vests on them, eyes dead, protecting those whose wealth and stature they cannot hope to fathom in their entire miserable lives. I cannot forgive the rats who have swallowed up all our citizen’s rights in Pakistan, who allow, and even support, fanatics to run riot in our country, blowing places, people up. They force us to choose this life, a life where I sit peacefully at the breakfast table with tears in my eyes and pain in my heart.

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Love note to Self

Everyone has a certain turn when they catch sight of themselves in the mirror. They arch an eyebrow, or hold their mouth closed with their cheeks sucked in. I smile. I smile when I am finished dressing up to go somewhere. I smile if I catch myself alone in the lift. I like my smile. I like myself when I smile.

Lately, I have noticed my left eye crinkles up a little whenever I smile, whether it is my no-teeth smile, or a toothy one. I love it! It makes me look kinder. It reminds me of my secondary school French teacher, Fru Dubois. She was one of the kindest teachers I ever had. That meant everything to adolescent me – self-conscious, frumpy, frizzy-haired was I, my mother the first to point out the changing angles of my growing nose. I never had the confidence to wear what the other kids were wearing because I imagined myself as the kid with the biggest arse a fifteen-year-old was ever saddled with. I would lock my bedroom door and dress in outfits I imagined would be stunning to the boys in my class if they were ever to catch me in them. I would undo my hair and let it float around my face and smile my bright smiles, a fifteen-year-old, desperately looking for approval of her outward self from her peers. But always, when I went to school, it would be in the one or two outfits I considered safe, my sweaters always long enough to cover my big bottom completely, my shoulders heavily padded with detachable pads I bought for myself from the haberdashery department of the store my mother shopped from, in an effort to balance them with my nether regions.

My mother had a vague idea that I considered my bottom to be a handicap I never hoped to overcome. But I doubt she ever considered it a problem serious enough to swoop in and rescue me from. She did try to help me with the fuzz on my upper lip that adolescence brought, and handed me tubes of depilatory creams to do away with similar peskiness in other areas of my body. But that was the extent of the grooming regimen she considered of any import to a young girl. I suppose this was partly deliberate as well – after all, we were in morally-depraved Europe and shunning a teenaged girl’s burgeoning youth and consequent yearnings was arguably the soundest course of action to unearthing that impossible Holy Grail for middle-class Pakistani parents : the Untouched, Innocent, Virtuous, Morally-Upright (or is it uptight…?) Good Girl. As a result, I felt deep embarrassment every time I heard the phrase ‘sweet sixteen’. There was nothing sweet about me at sixteen. I felt jiggly, dark, anything but the kind of girl that was the teenaged fantasy of every boy in my class.

When we returned to Pakistan, things improved considerably, mainly because I wasn’t the only one with hair everywhere God could think of putting it. I wasn’t the only one with hair the colour mine was or skin the colour mine was. In fact, a few years later, I began to discover how tweaking my diet a little could produce miracles in the mirror. Both my parents were still fully opposed to any contact with articles of makeup (my father paid me money to relieve me of the one lipstick I managed to sneakily buy myself in my third year of college). And they were never too pushed to help us follow the latest in fashion even back in Pakistan. But somehow, whatever I had heard, growing up as their child, managed to produce a strange, inexplicable pride in me that helped me to see beyond just the physical aspects of myself. They had always valued intelligence and integrity over all other human attributes. College allowed me to see that I had a bigger share of both than most of my peers. What’s more, I was reading fascinating things, forging new friendships, expressing myself more openly and more confidently than I had in years. Things were reasonable.

My body looked reasonable too. As much of it as I could see in the small mirror my sister and I had in our room on the upper floor of our two-storey house. But my butt was unchanged. Most days I was able to skirt this persistent tragedy of my life and do interesting things that made me happy. But the days that I caught sight of all of me in the full-length mirror in my mother’s room, I felt I was on the verge of being blinded by the hideousness of my body. I would turn sideways to reassure myself that from that particular angle I looked perfectly normal. But when I would turn again to face the mirror, there it was again. A wide, wide abdomen. A huge butt. I would be plunged into despair. When I came back to visit my parents after moving away, I found more than a few notebooks, writing pads and sketchbooks buried in a cabinet below my writing table that had just two words scribbled idly on their very last pages, ‘Ugly, fat.’

Except I didn’t feel that way at all after my marriage! I will never forget how desperately I asked my husband on our wedding night what he thought of my bum. He assured me I was the picture of beauty in every way. He admired my hair, my neck, my eyes, my body. But I wanted him to look more closely at what had convinced me of dying a spinster in my days of girlhood. I wanted him to see the peculiar shape of my bum. Some perverse desire to be told yes, that it really was the strangest sight to behold kept making me draw his attention to it. Poor man. He just couldn’t see what I couldn’t unsee.

I have moved on a considerable distance from those days of desperate melancholy. I still wish I had the kind of mono-butt models happily perk up in magazine spreads. But at 36, it dawned on me how much I love my body. My body worked hard during the days in which it was reviled, helping my parents get a handle on the impossible job of gardening, fallen on a family wholly unused to any menial labour. My arms, my hands scrubbed the front stoop of our house in all weathers and washed the floor of our kitchen every day. My body was able to give and derive pleasure in the beautiful bond of marriage. It grew three beautiful children inside it whom I love with my being. My arms held them and comforted them in their earliest days of infancy in a way no-one else could. My breasts produced milk enough to satisfy their hunger entirely. My heart and mind slogged through days filled with baby chatter and mountains of ironing while my husband worked impossible hours to establish his career. It saw me through mornings filled with hundreds of little chores, from the laundry to the groceries to cooking. My arms carted my children around our house, other cities to which we travelled, stores we went to. My back, my arms, I never had reason to doubt being able to count on. I felt pride whenever the doctor discussed my blood reports with me to comment on my ideal levels of cholesterol, my lipid profile. My body has been working hard each day of its forty-year-old life. It has cleaned itself from within as it was meant to, it has functioned to its optimum, as it was created to. And I am so grateful.

As two friends younger than me have recently fallen ill, one with a tumour in her head and the other with breast cancer, my new-found love for my body has deepened into respect. It is a comrade which has marched my spirit about, wordlessly, every single day that I wanted and needed it to, whether I abhorred it for the few extra pounds it had stowed away or looked wistfully at the abdomen it has been adamant to retain. I look at the crinkles around my eyes with amusement and affection. I have earned them. What a long, precious journey we’ve been on together!

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Far from home

We’re in Sydney. We are meeting some old friends and family who live here. We did the touristy stuff the last time we were here. Two weeks in a city like Sydney means you can look up old friends and acquaintances on the days you don’t want to traipse around the city gawping at things.

I met an old family friend today. He is a septuagenarian now. He arrived in Sydney in the 70s. He was young, newly married, had two small children. I expect he arrived with stars in his eyes, dreams of what he was going to become. But swamped with the pressure of work, of making a new life in a new country, he soon found he had to give every last ounce of energy to making it. In the process, he lost his wife. According to his own account, she felt lonely and depressed, all alone in a new country, with two little children to look after, presumably, almost on her own. So even his blossoming career was not attractive enough to keep her from leaving him and their two little children, both under five, and journeying back to Karachi, where her own family was. I find that at once sad and bewildering. I am a mother. What was she thinking? When they were five, I could not bear to be separated from any of my children. How did she think she could survive? And considering the very conservative little community she was a part of in Karachi, how in the world did she find the courage to take such a drastic step all the way back in the 80s?

The gentleman in question, let’s call him S, had a hard time taking care of his two children. But this period finally led him to his wife of twenty-nine years. She was his neighbour. Her offer to help take care of his children once in a while, as he struggled with his new circumstances, eventually led to a deeper relationship which culminated with their marriage. She was a good wife to him and took good care of his children. She occasionally got exasperated with him when she felt he cared more for his children than he did for her. But S claims, that he told her, quite brutally, that although he could find many a wife, he could never part with his children. Eventually things must have fallen into the sort of pattern families fall into. But there was one glaring difference. I wonder if it was as glaring to S, whose children now had a relatively stable domestic life, as it is to me and was to all his family back home. The new wife was not Pakistani – she was Korean. And even more glaringly, she decided to retain her Catholic faith instead of converting to her husband’s faith. I do not bring this up as a criticism – merely as a further complication. The new situation reads something like this: Pakistani man, divorced, in his forties, with two children from his first marriage, married to Korean, Catholic lady, living in Sydney. Call me boorish, but it could have helped matters quite a bit if the Korean lady was all of her lovely self with the addition of being a Pakistani Muslim. It could have cut down on the confusion that seemed to become the hallmark of S’s domestic life. But life is never perfect. And Allah tests all of us in unique ways. He knows best. He loved the Korean lady as much as He loved S undoubtedly.

S moved his family to Karachi in the late eighties. They lived amongst his family and the children went to school. Another baby was born. The Korean wife learnt to speak Urdu. She kept up good relations with his extended family, her Oriental family instincts must have guided her well. A decade and a half went by. A lot happened. I find only the domestic side of the story fascinating – how a multi-cultural, multi-lingual family rose from the ashes and what lay in store for them. As I tell you the rest of this tale, I am reminded of how easy it is to view things in retrospect and fancy understanding just where everything fell apart and where it all came together. When we are in the thick of it however, no such clear-sightedness is guaranteed. May we all be guided by Allah in all things.

In 2000, S moved his family back to Sydney. His eldest, A was 20, second-born, M, 18 and youngest, N, 12 or so. The children became adjusted in schools and colleges here. Fast forward a few years. A, the son, can find no one to marry and settle down with. S, fiercely proud back in the day, asked me today, uncharacteristically meekly, to suggest a ‘good Pakistani girl’ for him, then went on to muse over how little control parents have over their children’s lives here, how A has a quick temper. I don’t know what the problem is exactly. I know A has been through a few serious relationships, his parents anticipating each one to end with A marrying and settling down, and being disappointed each time. A is now 36. M, who is now 34, has been through a terrible tragedy meanwhile. She fell in love with a man who now appears to have been a con artist. The two met in university and got married. When I visited three years ago, I could not see her because she was almost due with her first baby and was finding it hard to travel all the way to the city to see us. This time I discover that her sleazeball of a husband duped her into believing his mother was on the deathbed back in Gujrat, Pakistan, took all their savings and departed to see her. M was used to him going away to Pakistan to see his family for weeks at a time, not keeping in regular contact and then only through email. But when a few months passed, she contacted him to ask when she could expect him back. Meanwhile some of their mutual friends began suggesting he wasn’t up to any good. Some even had news he was not coming back. When she got through to him, he sounded distant but she could still not smell anything fishy. The cat was let out of the bag one day when she caught sight of him outside her apartment building, on the road. When she caught hold of him and asked where he had been, he confessed he had taken up a new apartment barely five buildings down from her own! She confronted him with rumours she had been hearing about him having remarried and absconded. He denied everything. There was not much she could do. She let him go. But she was shaken. She had to get to the bottom of things. She arranged to take him unawares on the street with a few friends soon afterwards. They confronted him as he came out of his building with his new wife. She looked at her face and then at his demanding, ‘Do you want to tell me who that is now?’, to which he apparently replied, ‘Who are you?’ He then tried to run her over as she stood pleading with him to tell her what was going on. He has since denied ever marrying her. He denies his son from their marriage as being theirs. He has told his new wife M is his brother’s wife and her son is his brother’s son. I couldn’t listen to much more. It sounded too much like something that would happen on a Jerry Springer show. You don’t expect it to happen to good people you know, so close to home.

M is in the middle of a messy divorce now. And on the rebound in a new relationship she is keeping to herself at the moment. All I keep thinking is if that one woman, M’s biological mother, could have kept her own desires, her loneliness, her depression to herself, maybe all of these broken lives could have been more whole.

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Gajar ka Halwa – cracked!

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Desi halwas were surely meant for the freezing climes of Europe and North America. The nuts, the khoya, the ghee, all come together to produce a dish so unique, it is hard to resist when you begin each winter’s day with chattering teeth. Gajar ka Halwa falls squarely into this category of winter treats, reminding you of home, your parents and your long-forgotten childhood. Unfortunately when it comes to carrots found beyond the realm of the homeland, one finds that they fall miserably short of those that produced that mouth-watering delicacy of yore. Their sickly pallor and blandness does not encourage the cooking of halwa. But when memories of home overwhelm your every moment, and nothing but your ammi’s food appeals, you can’t help but rustle up something from long ago. Last year I let half the winter go by before giving in, buying the wretched carrots at the supermarket and making us halwa to have with our tea. Surprisingly, it didn’t disappoint. This year, I didn’t waste quite as much time. As the autumn got brisker, I decided to pick up a few bags of grated carrots at the supermarket and get on with it.

Our supermarket sells grated carrots in sealed bags. Last year, I diligently bought proper carrots and then slaved, peeling and grating them by hand (we have an electric grater somewhere in the depths of the kitchen cupboards, but I couldn’t be bothered to find it.) This year, I reasoned that the frequency with which the bags of grated carrots disappear from the supermarket fridge racks, and the fact that they are in fact refrigerated, points to the certainty of them being fresh enough. I bought three bags, which came to 1 kg. of grated carrots. Of course you may choose to peel and grate fresh carrots yourself.

You will need:

  • Grated carrots – 1 kg.
  • Ghee – 4 generous tablespoons
  • Green cardamoms – 12
  • Evaporated (not condensed) milk – 400 ml. can
  • Sugar – 220 g.
  • Blanched, chopped almonds – a handful

Ghee is the traditional medium to cook halwa in. Oil is not a good idea because it does not get absorbed into the finished halwa as ghee does. If you succeed in bhoonoing (I shall explain this process later in this recipe) your halwa properly, but use oil to do this, you may well end up with the oil completely separated from the halwa at the end. Ghee does not behave like this. It becomes part of the halwa while still allowing you to bhoono for as long as you like. If you are fearful of the idea of ghee for some reason (as many of us are at some point or other in our lives), you may well substitute it with butter, or a half-and-half mixture of butter and your cooking oil. Butter is a wondrous ingredient of course. But ghee really is what should be used. It is the real thing. And it has got a bad rep for too long without any valid reason at all. This is another discussion for another day though.

Heat the ghee in a heavy-bottomed cooking pan and add your grated carrots to it. Turn the heat on medium to low and leave the carrots to sweat and soften in the pan, with the lid on. The carrots will cook in their own juices, and soften too, until you will find the juices evaporated. Now add the evaporated milk to the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil on high heat and then leave to cook on medium to low heat again, with the lid only slightly ajar. Evaporated milk saves the tedium of having to cook away litres of milk from a halwa. It also goes some way towards making up for the absence of khoya in your halwa, presuming of course that you cannot find khoya where you live. Let the carrots cook with the milk till the milk dries up. In the mean time, take the seeds out of the cardamom pods and crush them, using a pestle and mortar. Discard the pods. Keep an eye on the carrots when the milk is in the last stages of drying up because it is easy for the carrots at the bottom of the pan to get singed.

When the milk dries up, turn the heat up and begin stirring the carrots about quite determinedly. This is the cooking technique known as ‘bhoon-na’ in Pakistani cooking. The purpose of this exercise is to completely cook away any remaining moisture from the milk and the carrots. But this single technique is actually the secret to a delicious halwa outcome. Quite simply put, the longer you have the stamina to toss and turn the carrots on a high heat with the cooking spoon, the more authentic your halwa will taste and look. The high heat will impart the colour to your halwa the firangi carrots so sorely lack. With every turn, a new side of the conglomerating carrots will be exposed to the hot pan, resulting in a lovely rich colour, not far different from the colour of authentic halwa made from authentic Pakistani carrots. As you bhoono your carrots, add the cardamom seed powder to them. A delicious aroma will waft from the pan with the addition of the cardamom seeds, an encouragement that you are on the path to halwa success. Persevere. Call on all the family to help if you must. Husbands salivating in the background are often more than happy to pitch in and help you bhoono your halwa. (It is also a golden opportunity for you to impress upon them the fact of how much relentless work goes into producing the masterpieces they love to devour.) Bhoono, bhoono for as long as you can. Watch the colour turn a deep rusty orange.

When the moisture has evaporated completely, without a shred of doubt, from the halwa, add the sugar. Mix well. The halwa will become at once more moist and malleable. Mix for a couple of minutes. Taste it and ask its premier eaters to do the same. The amount of sugar stated above produces a ‘nafees mithaas’, a ‘sophisticated sweetness’, as my parents would put it. You may add more, or less, depending on your taste. Remember also that if you are to serve the halwa at room temperature, or not quite as hot as it is at the time of tasting, it will taste less sweet – hot halwa always tastes sweeter than cold halwa.

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Dish your halwa out. Sprinkle it with the chopped almonds, the more the merrier I always feel. Enjoy!

 

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Oh Malala, Malala…

Malala! Boo! And the nation is in an uproar!

Sometimes I think Pakistan might implode on itself. We are angry when not acknowledged, angry when acknowledged, angry, angry. Why now though?

Since the prize was announced yesterday, October 10, 2014, the Pakistani nation has been at daggers drawn. There are two lobbies. And you must pledge allegiance to one. And when you do, you must ready yourself to be vilified, chastised, attacked and belittled. You are either with one or against the other. Pick a side damn you.

Well, I can’t. My position is: meh. Now stop with your rotten tomatoes and eggs. Please hear me out. There are those among my friends who have snidely commented perhaps getting shot is a pre-requisite towards getting the Prize. There are those who point out that Malala has done absolutely nothing to promote ‘fraternity between nations’ nor worked ‘for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses’, criteria which were supposed to determine the recipient of the Prize. (She can be said to have contributed somewhat to the latter actually, with her rather spunky comments on drone attacks during her trip to the White House. Even our esteemed Prime Minister found it impossible to raise the subject of drone attacks with President Obama during his trip in October 2013 after all.)

So why am I not as jubilant as I see the vast majority of my friends on Facebook being? I’ve thought about it – the negativity our people feel towards Malala seems to be a subconscious resentment towards Western nations. It seems that these nations have swooped in, taken our girl and made her their own. (Here is today’s most glaring example.) It’s as if they have embraced her while keeping the rest of us at arm’s length. As if we are barbaric, incapable of recognising the worth of a girl as indomitable as Malala. (And indeed the conspiracy theories that came out immediately after she was shot would point towards that conclusion. So would their shameless continuation, even after the Taliban themselves wrote a letter addressed to Malala fessing up.)

For people like me it is the appropriation of Malala that is the keenest blow. It is the unspoken but seemingly pervasive Western sentiment that she is representative of all good Western values of Truth, Freedom and Education and not a product of our very own Pakistani soil. That grates on our collective consciousness. To hold her up as an exception, as someone who does not represent the norm in Pakistan, conveys a spite that we are unable to endure. ‘Look at all the rest of us!’ we seem to want to shout. ‘All the girls in Swat are being educated! Malala is not an exception! We are not barbarians!’ But the Western gods have moved on, having bestowed what was theirs to bestow.

I am happy for Malala of course. And making her into another Dr. Abdus Salam serves no purpose. She is the only feel-good story to have come out of Pakistan for a long time. Those in Pakistan who criticise her without mercy have no inkling of what it is like for regular Pakistani expats like me to live with constant shame of the latest Pakistan-related scandal to hit the news. Let’s all take a deep breath, a step back, smile and enjoy this moment.

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Third Culture Kids

Our recent trip home was the most emotionally draining one so far. Lots of factors combined to make it so: BH is not enjoying his new role in the company anymore. After seventeen years of fidelity to it, he seems to actively be considering, and in fact looking, for other options. When we landed in Karachi, the smell (or stench, depending on how charitable you are feeling) of humidity and humanity combined, stirred up nostalgia within all of us. But it affected BH a little more than the rest of us it seems, because he was visiting Karachi after so long. He discussed the possibility of moving back with me day and night. He looked quite seriously into the local job market. And then we went up north to the Punjab.

The children take on a life quite distinct from ours as soon as we land. It becomes an unspoken but well-understood premise that they will be left to their own devices in the company of their cousins, who they have been pining to see since their last visit. BH and I are not to interfere/comment/influence to the contrary/coerce. They do this under the auspices of their grandmother. Any attempt to separate them from their cousins for even the length of a night, in order to ensure adequate rest, is met with belligerence from the matriarch herself, who insists simply that this is what family get-togethers must absolutely entail.

I used to get really vexed at this erosion of my own matronly rights. I would fume and fret at the ‘bayqaaidgi’ of it all, the fact that the children balked at even short separations in order to accomplish necessary goals such as the taking of showers. Their behaviour, the late, late nights, and the waking up in the afternoons was so unpalatable to me that eventually I would begin cribbing about meddlesome grandparents in the solitude of the room BH and I were given. This would lead to BH trying to take on his mother and re-establish his authority by forcing the children to sleep at the time of his choice, in our room – because this was the other problem: it was a foregone decision, taken by The Matriarch that all the family’s children would sleep together, on mattresses, in one room. This was intended to promote closeness between quite obviously disparate children.

It worked. And though I have made my peace with Susral, this is still an aspect of things I am irritated by. I gave up resistance to it about a year ago, during our last trip home. I realised that it made me not just unpopular with adults and children alike, but immediately made my motives suspect.

This trip however was most emotionally challenging yet. On the one hand was BH, actively looking at Pakistan with new eyes. On the other were our children, actually thinking about what sort of employment they could expect to find in Pakistan as adults! There were teary-eyed remonstrances when we confronted mis-behaving children in the confines of our room about the great misfortune of being a family constantly on the move, without long-term friends. After one such conversation, we were taken aside by The Matriarch to protest our ‘treatment’ of our own child. We were informed that he couldn’t have been the only one responsible in the situation that had arisen, and surely the other children were just as much to blame. As my jaw dropped, I heard BH responding, ‘Well, I can only tell my own child off now, can’t I?’

When we got into the car to drive to the airport, Mo’s eyes became moist. He has always been like that – since the time he was eight, I remember him sobbing uncontrollably after his return from the Punjab. He feels, he has told us on this trip, that his cousins are his closest and only real friends. All those years of no-rules, no-parental-authority holidays have forged a close relationship, yes. But it also seems to be a debilitating one. I wonder if any of the rest of the children feel they are in the wrong place, the wrong country. I wonder if Aunty has any idea of the damage she has done. I wonder if she has any idea that BH and I find ourselves in the unenviable position of having to defend ourselves and our lives to three little children who are unaware of the dynamics of international job markets, what life really is like in Pakistan now and how people we meet there envy us and aspire to what BH has been blessed enough to achieve.

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Cheesecake Virgin No More

I made a cheesecake! A chocolate cheesecake that tasted like it had been bought from an expensive patisserie! I feel bound to share my recipe straight away – it would be a crime not to reveal how easy it actually is to create the perfect dessert to a lovingly-prepared meal. So here goes:

I got my recipe by combining elements from the two methods here and here. You can read both of course. Or you can skip them and just do what I did.

Ingredients: 

  • Oreo cookies – 18, crushed to crumbs in a food processor
  • Cold butter – 50 g.
  • Philadephia cream cheese – 4 packages, 200g. each (do choose full fat) at room temperature
  • Sugar – 1 cup (250 ml. capacity)
  • Cooking chocolate – 200 g. (the darker, the better)
  • Eggs – 3 at room temperature
  • Strawberries – 500g. lopped into large chunks

Begin by preparing a springform tin with baking paper. Since it was my first time, I was quite manic about doing things exactly as this blogger described. So I greased and then lined the base of my cake tin with paper. I brush vegetable oil on the base of cake tins to grease them. Then I cut a strip of baking paper to go around the sides of the cake tin. I greased and lined the sides too, trimming off excess paper. Then I turned the tin upside down and covered it’s bottom with three sheets of aluminium foil until I was sure it was quite impermeable – this was to ensure no water seeped into my lovely biscuit base as I baked the cake in a water bath. I then turned on my oven to 180 C.

My European package of Oreos had only 14 cookies in it. So I weighed 4 cookies on my kitchen scales, and added their worth of weight in Digestives to my cookie crumbs. Yes I am manic like that and you are reading Nutty Bread after all. I whizzed the biscuits with the cold, cold butter, straight from the fridge and chopped up into little cubes, in my food processor. I pressed the mixture into the bottom of my prepared cake tin, using the bottom of a measuring cup to achieve an even and smooth base. Here’s a photo, mid-process, for you to see:

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The white bits are the cream filling from the cookies and the cream coloured bits are the crumbs from the Digestives. Then I ‘blind-baked’ this base in the oven for ten minutes. (I love that word.) At the end of the ten minutes, I put the cake tin into the fridge to cool.

Then I proceeded to melt my chocolate in a double-boiler of my own invention. I perch a stainless steel bowl on a tiny saucepan of boiling water and use a little whisk to melt my chocolate. Here is the whole apparatus for you to see:

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I took the melted chocolate off the bubbling saucepan and left it to cool on the counter-top while I plunged on with whipping the four packages of cream cheese with my electric whisk that has only one setting – fast. My mother bought this whisk for me as part of my wedding trousseau and I cannot part with it even though many recipes ask for things to be beaten at a slow speed. I just beat them at whatever speed my whisk decides to function on that day. So I beat the cream cheese and the sugar together. Then I beat the eggs into this mixture, one at a time. Finally I poured my cooled, melted chocolate in. (You don’t want the chocolate to be anything less than completely cool for fear of the eggs misbehaving.) It looked quite seductive:

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More beating – but just enough to get everything together. Someone, somewhere said overbeating a cheesecake is counter-productive. The batter began looking good enough to eat! Look at this!

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I poured it into the cooled base.

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I put the cake tin into a roasting pan with boiling water coming half way up the sides to ensure the eggs and cheese cooked gently. They are, after all, in essence, the ingredients that custards arise from and as such, should be treated accordingly. I’m going to try out another technique next time though. Putting a pan of boiling water in the bottom of a preheated oven should have the same effect of making the air inside nice and steamy. Here is where I’ve read up on this.

This time however, with my cake sitting in a hot water bath, I began baking at 160 C with the timer set for a total of 50 minutes. At the end of the 50 minutes, the cake came out quite set but wobbled a little in the middle of the pan. This is normal according to all that I’ve read. So I allowed it too cool completely on the kitchen counter and carefully removed the aluminium foil on its base. The foil was quite drenched and I feared some of that water somehow making its way into the cake base. When the cake was quite cool, I let it chill overnight in the refrigerator, still in its tin. I covered the top of the tin loosely with tin foil.

Just before serving it at dinner the next day, I unclipped the side of the tin and lifted it off carefully. I peeled the wax paper away from the sides of the cake and transferred it, with the bottom of the springform still under it, onto a cake pedestal. It would have been too risky trying to remove the base of the springform tin. Here is a picture of it as it sat waiting to be cut.

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The cake turned out to be very creamy, luscious. The only way to ensure making clean cuts into it is to cut it with a hot knife. Here is how I did it – I filled a mug with boiling water and submerged two sharp knives into it. I kept a nice wad of kitchen paper to dry the knives on by my side. I cut into the cake with my hot knives, alternating one with the other so I always had a hot blade at hand to cut into the cake with. I served each slice with the strawberries which cut into the sweetness of the cake very nicely with their tartness. The oohs and aahs began almost instantaneously and it was too late before I could take one last photo of my fast-disappearing debut cheesecake. Here it is for you to enjoy,

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