Taan, Tan Tan, Taannnn! The final bell of the day rang and my elder brothers and I, who have secretly packed our bags, sprang up from our benches. We would run down the streets and sprint towards our house, located about 2 kilometres from school! We were way too excited that particular day, because our favourite Didi had come to visit us from Patna! Our family regularly called her a fancy city girl, since we stay in Darbhanga, a small growing town in the heart of Bihar. I always reminisce fondly on that particular childhood memory, as it is a favourite of mine. Especially since it inevitably set me on the path of baking.
Didi visited us once or twice a year and stayed for over a fortnight, some times, even a whole month! These specific months brought us more joy than summer holidays! We got to play with her and do a lot of fun things, and particularly, eat delicious food as well.
She was our our most beloved Didi because she had learnt the art of baking a cake. Just imagine a 6-year-old boy’s thrill at hearing that a cake could be baked at home. How could we make such a yummy thing, wafting a mouth-watering fragrance, on a stove at home?! Those particular days were the highlight for the whole year. Honestly, they were more joyous than a festival for me!
My siblings and I would freshen up quickly, and scamper to our Didi. We would want to know each and every small aspect of this magical cake. This was so that we could do it on our own some day! Even though she used only basic ingredients like, maida, sugar, vanilla essence, butter and eggs, they looked so exotic to me. We had a tin box and a flat-bottomed bowl to bake the cake, and some coal. This was the fanciest thing that I had seen in those days!
The flat bowl/pateela was always packed in newspapers and kept in the attic, used only for this special baking time! When the pateela would be drawn out of the box, even our neighbours’ kids would be excited! It would always turn into a literal celebration, and just one batch would not suffice. We always knew it would be too delectable to eat just a single time.
I have around 2-3 favourite parts of this process. Firstly, uncovering the pateela hidden in the attic. Secondly, the making of batter and tasting it almost 10 times in between, because it has such a divine taste. I’m sure we're all on the same page for that, and it would be one of our most carefree and favourite childhood memories, right? And the next part was when Didi would add the ingredients, and then start whisking it with a basic hand mixer of the olden days, because there were no baking instruments back then. She would do it for over 45 minutes in a very patient and persistent manner.
After a couple of tasting test sessions, courtesy of her little brother (me), she would pour it in the pateela, its bottom coated with oil so that the cake doesn’t stick. And then, she would place the pateela in the tin box, put some burning coal over the lid of the tin box. The gas would run on low flame for over 45 minutes or more.
When I had once asked her why we needed to put the coal, she told me that it would give heat to the cake from both sides and make it heat-up faster. It was complete rocket science for a 6-year-old me! I was so astonished by this trick, that it made me insatiably curious about baking. It made me want to experiment with it all by myself!
While we impatiently waited for the cake to bake, with its enticing aroma filling the whole kitchen, we would be making the batter for the next set. And suddenly, I would hear the word nankhatai reverberating in the house! OMG! And that is a whole another favourite and treasured childhood memory for me!