The Art of Improvisational Desserts (aka winging it and hoping for the best)

If I had a cookie for every time a great cook has told me they don’t/can’t/won’t bake desserts because they “don’t like to follow recipes,” or they “like to improvise,” or they “can’t be precise” (or some other reason along these lines), I’d be set for life.

I’ve never really understood the apprehension cooks have about desserts.  Cooking and dessert-making have always seemed connected to me.  Perhaps that’s because I have a huge sweet tooth and started baking before I ever started cooking anything too interesting, but nevertheless…

In today’s post, I’m going to share a dessert-making story from this week that will hopefully debunk some of the myths about dessert-making being strict and rigid (while perhaps reinforcing them too. You’ll see what I mean shortly).

I just returned from a month of touring with my band Red Baraat, so I’ve been excited to have more time to get down in the kitchen and enjoy the summer’s bounty now that I’m home.  By my second day back, I had a few projects lined up.  One was making a banana pudding for a friend who cat-sat for me while I was out of town, and the other was making a dessert for a small gathering that evening.  With my puddingy reputation, I figured I’d go pudding all around, hoping to pull off a blueberry pudding pie with fresh mint.  I felt confident in my pudding abilities, so I winged it.  I made a double recipe of vanilla pudding (using the seeds from a vanilla bean), saved half for the banana pudding, and then added a puree of a handful of New Jersey blueberries and a sprig of mint from my fire escape (the only food I can manage to grow with my touring schedule) to the other half.

Suddenly my beautiful, creamy vanilla pudding looked like a blueish liquidy disappointment.  I stuck it in the fridge with the hopes that it might set, but I was feeling pessimistic.  Something about the little bit of blueberry puree seemed to undermine the thickening properties of the cornstarch (other hypotheses are welcomed).  Sure enough it was soon clear that the blueberry pudding was a failure, and I needed to rethink my strategy.  I had already been to the grocery store once and didn’t want to go again (and didn’t really have time either).

I still had half a pint of blueberries that I was determined to use and a couple of limes in the fridge.  Then it dawned on me.  Perhaps I could adapt my go-to (key) lime pie recipe!  I didn’t have enough limes, but I did have some bottled organic lemon juice (for emergencies like this one) and a carton of OJ.  So, I zested and juiced my two limes, and added lemon juice and a little orange juice for the remaining liquid, and made a mixed citrus pie filling.  I stirred in the whole blueberries before pouring it all into a vanilla wafer pie crust (I bought the vanilla wafers for the banana pudding) and baked it.

I was a little nervous, but when I took it out of the oven it looked beautiful, and the crowd was quite pleased with the results.  I failed to take any pictures, so you’ll have to take my word for it – it was a success in improvisational baking!

creamy blueberry mint ice pop

As for the aforementioned failure, there is a silver lining.  I bought popsicle molds a couple of weeks ago (inspired by the ridiculous heat wave), into which I poured the liquidy pudding. I apprehensively tried the makeshift pops the next day and was pleased by the creamy texture and refreshing blueberry-mint flavor. Disaster averted!

So the take-home message here is you CAN freestyle, change recipes, and experiment creatively in your dessert-making (just like you do in your cooking), but practice will show you what does and doesn’t work – which is also a lot like cooking, right?  I’m sure we’ve all had some failed attempts at creativity in our savory cooking (that would be a fun post – worst cooking experiments ever?), so there’s really no need for baking anxiety.

Without further delay, here is how I made the Citrus Pie with Blueberries. I encourage you to change the recipe.


For crust:
35-40 vanilla wafer cookies (or ginger snaps or graham crackers)
Half a stick of butter

For filling:
Half a pint of fresh blueberries
3/4 cup of citrus juice (mine was mostly lime and lemon juices with a little orange)
the zest of 2 limes (the more zest the more limey, or lemony)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
2 eggs

For topping:
Fresh whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Crush the cookies in a food processor, blender or by hand.  Incorporate the melted butter.  Press buttery crumbs into a pie dish with your hands, using the bottom of a glass to help you smush it down and up on the sides of the pie dish nicely.  Bake the crust for about 8-10 minutes until it begins to brown.

While the crust is baking whisk together the eggs, and add the condensed milk, citrus juice, and zest until smooth and creamy.  Gently stir in the blueberries.  Pour the filling into the crust and bake for about 20 minutes until set.  Cool completely in the fridge and serve with a dollop of lightly sweetened (or unsweetened) whipped cream.

Pudding Magic

Spicy Chocolate Pudding (recipe below)

A few years ago I was in my kitchen making a creamy orange puddingy pie.  I was following the recipe, whisking together various liquids, corn starch, and sugar on the stove top waiting for something to happen, uncertain of what I was doing.  Then suddenly it happened: Pudding Magic.  What one second was an unappealing opaque thin liquid, the next second transformed into a soft and creamy pudding.  I was blown away.  That day a pudding-maker was born.

I always loved pudding growing up, whether it was the boxed Jello Pudding Mix version or the Hunt’s Snack Pack in my lunch box (I guess my immigrant parents tried to provide me with the best of American processed foods so I wouldn’t feel left out at school.  Somehow people still seemed to notice my turban and brown skin and harass me regularly…but I can understand my parents’ efforts at suburban America assimilation.  Hmmm…this sounds like the start of a different post all together).

Something about the smooth and creamy texture in my mouth has always drawn me to pudding.  Maybe pudding isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind when it comes to sensual foods, but perhaps I’ll convert you by the end of this post.

Sensual or not, my aforementioned pie-making experience inspired me to figure out how to make my own pudding.  So I began researching recipes online and experimenting with different flavors and thickeners, and learned that it doesn’t take much to make a delicious, luscious and satisfying pudding to eat on its own, put in a pie, or use for a layered trifle dessert.  And you don’t necessarily need eggs, cream, or even dairy products at all to do so (though I do in all honesty prefer my pudding with cow’s milk)!

Some of the puddings I regularly make include: chocolate (regular or spicy), vanilla bean (so simple, yet so good), peanut butter (often made into a filling for PB pudding pie with a layer of chocolate ganache underneath), coconut-banana-ginger (vegan, made with coconut milk and crystalized ginger), and I’ve recently started exploring rice puddings (my latest creation being a blood orange-vanilla bean-cardamom version).

Once you start making pudding, it’s really easy to make up your own recipes using the basic formula (which I explain below in the recipe), which I did this past week for a family gathering in Atlanta (where my brother and his family live).  We were having a big meal with both sides of the family together, and banana pudding was requested of me (I usually get charged with making dessert for these sorts of things and am happy to oblige).  My mom used to make banana pudding when we were growing up and always used boxed pudding mix.

Here’s what a box of Jello vanilla pudding mix has in it: Sugar, Modified Food Starch, Contains less than 2% of Natural and Artificial Flavor, Salt, Disodium Phosphate and Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate (For Thickening), Mono- and Diglycerides (Prevent Foaming), Artificial Color, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Bha (Preservative).

Needless to say, I went ahead and made mine from scratch with layers of vanilla and peanut butter puddings, an ode to the PB and banana sandwich that I adore (my local-eating aspirations are still just aspirations I guess).  Pudding magic to the max with out the tetrasodium or bha (what the hell is bha?!)

So for all the pudding lovers and even pudding skeptics out there, homemade pudding is where it’s at.  You’ll never go back to the Jello or even the Kozy Shack.  All you need is a whisk and some patience (and a few simple ingredients).  And if that’s not enough for inspiration, pudding literally facilitated Ora and I becoming dear friends and cooking comrades!  We started having cooking dates after we discovered our shared infatuation with pudding.

So without further delay, here’s my recipe for one of my favorites: spicy chocolate pudding.  (I’m happy to share the banana pudding recipe too, but thought I’d start with a simpler one).

Sonny’s Sensual Spicy Chocolate Pudding

(about 5-7 servings)

* 1/4-1/3 cup sugar depending on how sweet you want it (agave nectar works too, just increase the cornstarch a bit)
* 2 tablespoons cornstarch (non-GMO cornstarch is available in most grocery stores these days)
* 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
* 2 cups milk (soy milk or almond milk works well too, or for extra rich you can use cream or half and half for up to 1/2 cup of the liquid)
* 4 ounces semi-sweet or dark chocolate, chopped or chipped
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* pinch of salt
*  ~2 tsp ground cinnamon
* ~ 1/2 tsp cayenne

put milk in a pot with corn starch and whisk and dissolve corn starch some (before turning on heat). then turn on heat to medium and add sugar and cocoa powder. keep whisking as it comes to a slow boil. once it starts boiling it will start thickening. keep whisking whisking whisking until fairly thick (just a couple minutes after thickening begins — you’ll notice the  magical puddingy transition, then just keep it going for a couple mins). then turn off the heat and add all the other ingredients and whisk them in, melt the chocolate. turn the heat back onto low until everything is nicely combined.

pour hot pudding into a medium bowl and refrigerate ideally for a couple of hours until cool (though there’s nothing wrong with a warm pudding!)

spiced whipped cream topping
beat one small container of heavy cream with some ground cinnamon and maple syrup or agave nectar.

serve pudding with a dollup of whipped cream on top and shave some dark chocolate on top to make it extra fancy if you want.   you can also pour the pudding into a pie crust (i usually do a graham cracker crust) and top with whipped cream for a chocolate pudding pie.

Sacred Meals: Food Justice and (Sikh) Spirituality

This post is an edited version of a piece I wrote entitled “Working for Langar Justice” for a progressive Sikh blog called The Langar Hall.   I’m excited to share it here at the Big Ceci and look forward to bringing conversations about the relationship between spirituality, food, and justice to this space. 

I love food.  I love to cook.  I love to gather with friends, community, and sangat and share a meal together.

Because food is our most primal need and our common bond to the earth and one another, it can ground us as we stretch ourselves to draw in all the interlaced threads—so we can weave a whole, meaningful picture for ourselves.  I still believe food has this unique power.  With food as our starting point, we can choose to meet people and to encounter events so powerful that they jar us out of our ordinary way of seeing the world, and open us to new, uplifting, and empowering possibilities.                                                                                                        – Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, from Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet

The Sikh institution of langar has always been something near and dear to me, partially because of my borderline obsession with food, but also because it really gets to the heart of Sikhi.  The practice of langar, our free community kitchen, was started some 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, to meet a basic human need – eating – and to create a space for community-building that reflected the Guru’s radical vision of equality.  Rules about food preparation and eating were (and still are) one of the central ways that caste oppression was enforced.  Langar turned this all on its head.  With everyone sitting together on the same level (on the floor) and eating the same simple food, which was prepared by people from all caste backgrounds, langar was nothing short of a revolutionary accomplishment.

It is with this lens that I want to discuss the food of langar itself.

When I sit down in the langar hall (which exists in every gurdwara) to eat in that very sacred space, I rarely consider where the food is actually coming from.  Yes, we very well know the labor of the volunteers from the community who prepare and distribute the food with love and with the spirit of the Guru.  But what about the ingredients?  What do we know about the farmers who grew and harvested the potatoes, cauliflower, and peas?  Do we know if they were being paid a decent wage and treated with respect?  What do we know about the living conditions of the cows from whom the milk and butter originated?  And what about the handful of multinational corporations that control the majority of the world’s food supply and bring home billions in profits?

There is nothing sacred nor revolutionary about harmful pesticides (that affect farm workers, the earth, and those of us who ingest them), the exploitation of migrant farm workers, the horrendous and unnatural confinement of animals on factory farms, and the carbon footprint of having our vegetablesshipped from thousands of miles away.

I am well aware of the barriers to accessible, affordable organic, locally-sourced food in many of our communities, especially working class communities.  But creative solutions do exist, from CSAs (community supported agriculture) to community gardens (imagine if large Sikh neighborhoods and/or large gurdwaras had their own community-run gardens!), farmers markets to food co-ops.

Isn’t it time we ask ourselves, as Sikhs who are so proud of our institution of langar and who love our Punjabi food:  What are we doing to promote food justice, or more specifically, langar justice?

If langar is an institution that is, at its core, about equality and justice, is it unreasonable to expect ethical and just food sources for this sacred meal we share together as a sangat?

Has anyone ever come across a house of worship that makes conscious choices about where its food comes from?  Any organic langar halls out there?  Locavore langars?

I know we’re a long way away from this in most of our gurdwaras and communities (where styrofoam use is the unquestioned status quo!).  But if Guru Nanak and his followers succeeded in creating the institution of langar in the face of one of the most ancient forms of oppression (caste) hundreds of years ago, it must be possible for us to transform the way we do langar in gurdwaras today to better reflect the values of Sikhi.