Author Archives: Ria

A brownie in any shape…

For the most part of December, I was in Toronto. And for the most part of December, it was snowing in Toronto. And as long as one looked at it from within the warm interior of the home, the snowscape was so beautiful!
Being housebound has its plus points too… one can take up any of those projects filed away for ‘one of these days’… or one could bake! On a cold day what could be better than the fragrance of sugar and chocolate and warm caramel wafting through the house? So that is what I did… baked brownies!
And brownie goodness is something that one needs to spread around. Distributing brownies to friends is not only good karma, but good calorie control strategy too! 🙂 And one of the friends who tasted the brownies wanted the recipe. No recipe can be complete without some pictures. So just to get some pictures, I decided to bake some today. Beginning of a long relaxed weekend, what better time to mess around in the kitchen!
So I’m melting the butter with the chocolate, stirring it round and round… when the idea hit me. Why do brownies always have to be made in a square or rectangle pan? Why not try something different? After all, I claim ‘continuous improvement’ as my middle name. (Some of my people call that ‘won’t leave well enough alone’ too, but what do they know!)
In a jiffy, thought turned into action and the brownies were reborn as brownies cup cakes! But even though I say so myself, they were pretty good… pretty darn good indeed. 🙂




2 sticks unsalted butter, plus more for pan

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch salt

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons instant coffee

2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)

1 1/2 cups walnuts



Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Mix butter and chocolate in a double boiler or in a pan over simmering water. When fully dissolved and smooth and shiny, remove from the heat and allow to cool.


Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.

Dissolve the coffee in two tablespoons of warm water. Beat the eggs with sugar, dissolved coffee ,and rum, if using.


Add the cooled chocolate mixture and mix well. Add the flour in batches and incorporate into the mix. Add the walnuts.

Spoon into the cupcake pan and bake for 18 to 20 minutes. The brownie cakes are done when a skewer inserted into the center of it comes out clean.


Cool in the pan for five minutes before grabbing the brownie cakes.



17 Jan 2014

NYBG Train Show


I was so afraid I was going to miss the NYBG holiday train show this year. For starters, I was travelling for almost the whole of December. And, once I got back, the polar vortex also arrived, bringing ice and snow and sleet with it… Still, despite all odds, I made it in the nick of time… went and saw it on the last day of the show! 🙂

As my people already know, I am a great fan of trains. Small trains, big trains, unusual trains… all of them. Even the PATH trains. But at the NYBG show, I found the trains sort of meh… What really got me was the landscaping.

Combining historical and geographical interest, the show features 140 iconic New York buildings, many of them from dates past. The models are made to scale using all natural plant parts. It is almost like a miniature tour of the city!

This year’s show features 21 model trains and covers 6,000 square feet of area with 1,200 feet of track laid out. The trains in the show are G-gauge and represent American trains from the late 1800 steam engines to today’s high speed passenger trains.

A new introduction this year are trains made of plant parts, looking like they are straight out of some fairy tale. Hoping there will be many more of them next year!


Among the buildings recreated are the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York Public Library, the Guggenheim, City Hall, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, the original Pennsylvania Station, Met Museum and many many more.

The train show debuted at the NYBG in 1992. The designer behind the wonderful miniature landscapes is Paul Busse, assisted by a team of 20+ artists and engineers of the Applied Imagination team. More examples of their fascinating work can be seen at


Plans for the buildings are made with the help of photographs and architectural drawings. Then a shell is made with foam board. Twigs, bark, moss, leaves, flowers, acorns, pine cones, seed pods… anything that comes from nature is used to mimic the architecture. The finished product is coated with a thin layer of resin to protect it from dust and moisture.


Each structure involves hundreds of hours of painstaking work, with every intricate detail recreated through the imaginative use of materials. The minute details, executed so meticulously, truly gives meaning to that oft repeated word ‘awesome’!


I was left with the definite impression that the original structure would have been way better if it was constructed with natural plant parts! 🙂

Notice the pistachio shells and corn husk?

Notice the pistachio shells and corn husk?

The holiday train show is held at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden.



From the ‘Am I seeing things?’ department

Was Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home in Tarrytown, featured twice in the show? I believe so (in fact, I have documentary evidence!) but realised that only when I was looking through the pictures taken! 🙂




15 Jan 2014

It’s cold out there…

It is cold… believe me, it is really really cold… Brrrr… it is brrrrold. No, that is not true. Brrrrold is bracing cold. When you want to go for long walks with a sweater thrown over the shoulders and something from Starbucks in your hand. Cold that makes you think of good things like fireplaces and warm red wines and chocolate brownies.

What we just went through is nothing like that. This was frrrold… freezing cold, bone chilling cold, mind killing cold. Cold that breeds inertia, cold that makes you think of the equator and escape.

The polar vortex, as the cold snap was called by the meteorologists, has set many records, including the coldest Jan 7th since 1896!

Apparently, it has also inspired many to conduct interesting experiments. We all know about the ‘lick the lamppost’ experiment… who doesn’t love A Christmas Story? Happens, a girl in New Hampshire really did that and was stuck to the pole for 15 minutes before she could be freed. She apparently hasn’t seen the movie, or couldn’t resist the ‘triple dog dare’!

Some other interesting experiments include throwing boiling water up into -17 degree F air, blowing bubbles that freeze in mid-air, and making slurpees by super cooling soda. If you would like to see these in action, take a look here.

Anyhow, when weather gets this cold, I know it is time to pack my bags and bid adieu to New York for a few weeks. Fortunately, the salt mines where I work has offices all over the world – literally. So by the end of the month, I’ll be happily headed to Bangalore, part work and part vacation. And won’t be back till the buds start waking up and daylight savings time is on again. 🙂

Thinking of travel, I knew I needed a new toiletries bag. And I had to make it before my trip. So finally got around to it this week. Yep, being house bound has its advantages too; things get done!

Actually, there is not much to it. Take a rectangle and circle of fabric, make partitions in the rectangular piece, attach it to the circular piece, and you are done! 🙂

Any kind of sturdy strong material will work for this. The measurements will depend upon how big you want it. Mine is nine inches tall with a six inch diameter. For that the measurements were 23×17 inches for the rectangle and 7 inch diameter for the circle.


Make a narrow fold and stitch 4 inches on two of the short sides of the rectangular piece.

Fold and stitch both the long sides of the rectangular piece, one inch on one side (the side where the side stitches are already made) and half an inch on the other.


Fold and pin four inches along the long side where the half inch stitch was made. And mark sections as you see need.


These are to hold the brushes, perfumes, lotions, etc. Stitch along the marked lines.


Now, attach the rectangular piece (folded edge) to the edge of the circle. Turn inside out and thread a ribbon through the top fold.


Tada… all done!


If you would like more detailed instructions, feel free to email me: ria at thebigjackfruittree dot com.


I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (what else is beer for), the power to change the things I can (coffee to the rescue) and the wisdom to know the difference (workin’ on that one).




10 Jan 2014

An interesting dog situation

We have a dog situation at our condo. In fact, it has been present for a while. Only, now it has grown so big it can’t be ignored anymore!

To start at the beginning… Ms D, who lives on the third floor, has a dog. And this dog, Tigger, has a violent temper. Any movement in the corridor in front of the apartment would send the dog into a frenzy of hissing and barking and scratching on the door. According to neighbours, this would happen regardless of whether the dog was alone or D was in the apartment.

The Condo board has received a number of complaints about the noise and disturbances created by the dog, which I’m personally aware of, since I’m a board member. Several times the board president Mr J has had conversations with D about the behaviour of her dog and the need to curb such behaviour. And every time, D has assured him that she will do whatever it takes to keep the dog under control.

BTW, the board president is a very patient man, quite unlike me. 🙂

Then, it was late summer. During the summer, we had converted the open space behind our building into a garden with a picnic and barbecue area. How better to celebrate better than with an ‘adieu to summer’ party? At the monthly condo meeting the details were laid out… pot luck party; people bring stuff to be grilled. Salads, soda and cookies to be provided by the board. A grill master was chosen. We were so close to adjourning the meeting with the question, ‘any other business?’

L promptly put up his hand… ‘I have a complaint’. And most of us knew what the complaint is; it is not the first time Tigger has featured prominently at our condo meetings. Sure enough… ‘You all know the lovely dog that lives opposite to me… I can’t take it anymore. It only has to hear me take out my keys and it starts hurling itself at the door. And the barking… one would think its throat would burst any moment. And it doesn’t cease even after I’m inside my apartment!’ He got up and enacted the dog running at the door and hurling and scratching at the door. I have to say. L is a great mimic and despite the seriousness of the complaint the whole group burst out laughing. L continued, ‘Just tell her… I don’t care if I’m being politically incorrect, I have to say this: I’m Chinese, my wife is Korean, aaaand we eat dogs. If her dog disappears one day, don’t bother looking for it.’

With all seriousness, J turned to him… ‘L, if you bring any meat for the weekend’s barbecue, we will have to refuse it’. And all I had to say was, ‘L, I have never tasted… please invite me!’ Needless to say, we all had tears in our eyes from the laughing.

More talk with D ensued; she promised that she will keep a close watch on Tigger and there will be no more disturbance from the dog. Personally, I didn’t see much hope in that promise, but for a while all was quite on the third floor.

Then I went away for two weeks during the Christmas holidays. ‘Ria, you missed all the drama!’ These were J’s first words when he met me in the entrance hall, even before I could wish him a happy new year. And he explained… One day L was waiting for the elevator. And who would be in the elevator when the doors opened on the first floor? Of course, it had to be Tigger and D! Apparently taking advantage of the fact that  D’s hands were full with bags and things, Tigger lunged at L, who is convinced the dog now has a personal vendetta against him. Long story short, choice words were exchanged between the two, I mean L and D. And the board has received not one, but two formal written complaints! And later we watched the whole episode on the security camera in the elevator lobby.

So now the question is, what can/ should we do? Stay tuned for further developments.


From the above narration, every word of which true to the last syllable, if you pictured Tigger as a Pit Bull or a Rottweiler or something of that kind, the error is all on my part. I should have made it clear sooner… Tigger is some kind of terrier, Havanese I believe, who stands tall at 12 inches! And, if I was not afraid of violating Tigger’s privacy, I would surely have added a photo of him here!



Monday’s lunch…



06 Jan 2014

Festive New York

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

The last days of December… The best time to be in the city. Just as we pull out our winter woollens at the first indication of the chill, the city pulls out its adornments of magical enchantment. Lights twinkling from every building and every tree, music percolating into the street, smells of hot chocolate and coffee wafting in the air… all add a lightness to your steps.


Of course, there are more tourists in the city, more than at any time of the year; they are everywhere wandering around with maps in hand and eyes on top of the buildings. However, even they begin to look charming, with their mittens and scrubbed faces and dangly caps. Maybe an unforeseen impact of the holiday cheer going around! 🙂


For me, the one event that triggers the festive season is the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. This year, it took place on December 4, a Wednesday.


In an event broadcast live worldwide, Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned on the 45,000 multi-coloured LED lights on the 76-foot tall tree, topped with a 9 1/2-foot-wide Swarovski star. Artists who performed at the ceremony included Mary J. Blige, the Goo Goo Dolls, Jewel, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis.

Toy soldiers at the Rockefeller Center

Toy soldiers at the Rockefeller Center

Looking at the spectacular pageantry associated with the event today, it will be hard to imagine the simple origins of the tradition.


The year was 1931. The nation was under the grip of the great depression, but New York suffered more than other parts of the country. Businesses had closed, manufacturing had ceased, and construction had come to a standstill. The stock market had lost 90% of its value; unemployment was above 25%.


Like a ray of light shining through the cloudbank, work on the Rockefeller Center started in the summer of 1931, bringing hope to the construction industry, burdened with a 64% unemployment rate.


By December 24, the plaza was cleared and excavation had started. Workers lining up at the site to collect their paycheck decorated a 20 foot evergreen rising out of the rocky ground, with garlands of cranberries, tinsel and tin cans. I’m sure none of them even dreamed that their action would set up such a long standing tradition!


Today, the search for the perfect evergreen to become the Rockefeller Center Tree starts in the beginning of the year. A minimum height of 65 feet, with a width of 35 feet at its broadest point, will qualify a tree to be in the running, but it takes a special something, be it a symmetrical shape or thick branches – something that contributes to that perfect look – to be the winner. The Rockefeller Center’s head gardens manager makes the final decision on the selection.


Once the tree has been identified, it is given special care and regular grooming. In November, preparations will start to get it ready for its travel to Manhattan. The branches are wrapped in twine and burlap, and are strapped tight to the trunk to make a compact shape. When ready, the tree is held up using a hydraulic crane and cut. Trees have travelled to the city on trucks, barges and once even on an airplane!


  • There were two Christmas trees at the Rockefeller Center in the years 1936 and 1937; three trees in 1942.
  • The 1966 tree, harvested 120 miles north of Ottawa, was donated by the Canadian government to celebrate their country’s centennial in 1967.
  • In 1941, four live reindeer were penned near the Christmas Tree as an added attraction.
  • On Dec 27 1979, a man climbed to the top of the tree to demand the freeing of Americans held hostage in Iran, and stayed there for an hour and half till he was coaxed down.


Generally the trees are taken down in the first week of January, most often either donated to Habitats for Humanity for use as lumber or chipped and turned into mulch.


Though the Rockefeller tree holds the pride of place in the city – the country, the world – J there are so many lovely ones I make a point of visiting every year. Here is the one at the Bryant Park with the ice skating rink.

Bryant Park

The shop windows dress up so beautifully during the season that one tends to forget the crass commercialism for the moment and marvel at their beauty. Look at these from JC Penny…




“I’d rather be a lamppost in New York than mayor of Chicago.”

James Walker, Mayor of New York City from 1926 to 1932, nicknamed ‘The Late Mayor’ for his tendency to be always late and ‘The Night Mayor’ for obvious reasons. 🙂


01 Jan 2014