August 11, 2012

Every ordeal is an opportunity

August 11, 2012
Rarely have I been as utterly disappointed as yesterday when renouncing the recipe of misthi doi, sweet yogurt! A week earlier a friend of mine, Cintamani, had introduced it to me. It is one of the most exquisite desserts I’ve had for a long time. Her interpretation of the classic Bengali after dinner treat had a light and silky nuance, quite different from the traditional one. I was looking forward sharing the recipe with you. But, I can’t! Seven days and ten litres of milk later, it is safe to say, I tried but failed. Instead of misthi doi, I will explain how I patched the fiasco of unsettled yogurt. Before that, let’s get back to Cintamani.
“Come to see the letter I got,” my husband said. “It is from an old acquaintance from Warsaw. She is asking if I know someone called Lakshmi, a photographer, also living in Helsinki!” That’s how I met Cintamani two years ago. She had seen my pictures on Flickr but had no idea I was married to someone she and her husband knew.

Since then, we have corresponded regularly. I’ve visited her twice. In July I spent four days with her photographing and talking about food photography. I exhausted her with questions about her motives, processes and goals. I’m sure, at times, she felt like being pressed by a screw vice!
Cintamani is an expert cook. She was a vegetarian chef on a travelling tour of a bhakti-yoga organisation for years. She has cooked for thousands of people on festivals and for VIP’s including the first lady of Poland. She has run a catering company. She had a cooking column in a leading Polish newspaper for five years. When asked about her strongest cooking identity, she answers, “I love to cook for my spiritual master, Indradyumna Swami. I’m a cook of my teacher.”
When cooking, writing and styling for the newspaper, she worked with photographers who claimed food photography is complicated. She saw their struggle with large equipment, lights and toys, as well as with bloated egos. Whatever she suggested, they refused. As a perfectionist, Cintamani was rarely satisfied with the results. She thought ideally the cook, stylist and photographer should be the same person. She concluded that instead of looking for a good photographer, it will be quicker to become one. It led to her first digital SLR camera, Canon 50D with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.
It doesn’t come as a surprise Cintamani works in the field of art. She has a framing business. She loves and is passionate about her work. What fascinates her about art is the story and history behind a picture: who did it, why was it done and what is the character of the artist? Photography is a balancing hobby that allows her to disconnect from work. Food is a natural object because of her cooking background but, also, because it doesn’t get impatient! People are much more difficult to capture.
We discussed about the importance of feedback. I suggested that giving or receiving an analytical opinion is hard because art has become (or has always been) an elitist fragment of expressive knowledge and only a few are educated in the vocabulary. Whereas most people are able to point they either like or don’t like an image, not many are able to take a picture apart and study the elements, process, story or rules which would answer the question “why”. Nor is there a need.

Cintamani acknowledged that although feedback is important to her, she is learning to become less dependent on others’ likings, and trust more her own choices. The opinion of masses isn’t the whole truth. Constructive feedback is rare. According to her, the best way of learning is via a master and disciple relationship. Mentoring is personal and effective.
Food photography has, of course, other essential values than aesthetic or artistic. It is informative: it exhibits a dish or cooking process the best – most delicious – way. I asked Cintamani how her process of food photography looks like.

Cintamani: I’m inspired by many things. The ideas are different, but I always start with colours. I pay attention to the colour of food and harmony of colours. I have some obsessions, like white with some other colour. I want to have my colours in order! I’m a detail oriented person which turns against me sometimes. If I get fixated with an unwanted detail while post-processing, I discard the picture.

Lakshmi: What about the angle? How do you determine the point of view?

Cintamani: I try and see. I have to see the setting through the live view of my camera in order to arrange it. I’m not able to visualize it without framing it first.

Lakshmi: Your husband made you a table with wheels you can easily move around. Is that how you find a suitable light?

Cintamani: Yes. I try different options. I like bright pictures because the textures are clearly visible. I would like to shoot more against light.

Lakshmi: What do you base the compositions on?

Cintamani: I’m conservative and usually utilize the rule of thirds. I mentally divide a composition into nine equal parts by horizontal and vertical lines, and place the important elements along them or their intersections. I use a lot of repetition, but always balance it with a difference. For example, I photograph similar shapes together but alter some of them to create interest. A picture has to be aesthetically pleasing. Some food doesn’t look good by itself but adding a little, fine detail will divert the attention without negating the substance.
Cintamani told me she is at the point where she can learn and develop as a photographer without pressure. We discussed a lot about evolving as a person along the skills. In whatever we study, it is necessary to understand our identity and goal. The process has to take both into consideration in order to be successful. She narrated an example of a friend who went to a photography school for four years but gave the craft up the day she graduated. She learnt the skill but killed the spirit.
I got a beautiful deck of meditation cards as a present from Cintamani. Each one has an illustrated verse from a Sanskrit scripture, Bhagavad-gita. I put them immediately into use during my morning practice.

When the sweet milk for misthi doi kept refusing to culture for the tenth subsequent time, I picked a card that said:

yogasthah kuru karmani
sangam tyaktva dhananjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva
samatvam yoga ucyate

O Arjuna, perform your duty without attachment, remaining equal to success or failure. Such equanimity of mind is called yoga. (Bg 2.48)
Every ordeal is an opportunity.
Instead of throwing away the partially fermented milk, I turned it into something else. I added thick yogurt (Greek type), crème fraiche and sugar to it and baked it in the oven until it became pudding-like. As a dessert it is not as elegant as Cintamani’s misthi doi but keeps the sweet tooth quiet for awhile.

I find the taste and texture of pudding better when baked in shallow, small ramekins. A larger oven dish can be used but the pudding becomes thicker and cheese-like. When cooled down, it can be cropped with a cookie cutter and served with cream, fresh berries and almond brittle.
Another use I found for the failed misthi doi is frozen yogurt. Again, I added Greek type yogurt and sugar to it and set to freeze. It became quite nice even without an ice-cream maker. After a couple of hours of freezing, I took it out two or three times to mix some air into it with an electric mixer. For a richer taste, add cream.
The liquid works in pancakes, too. As long as it is not spoiled, it can be used in cooking, baking and making drinks. Today I’m going to bake a cake with the rest of it.

I will keep practicing Cintamani’s misthi doi until I get it right. It is worthwhile! The recipe is simple. Despite of analysing it, I can’t figure out why it doesn’t work in my kitchen. I suspect it has something to do with temperature, humidity and the starter-culture I’m using. I will post the recipe as soon as it comes out perfect. However, now I need a short break from anything caramelized!

Thank you.


  1. Oh i love you new header, the lettering, type and the little lemon illustration, everything is so lovely! Such a nice refreshemnt!

  2. Love reading about Cintamani, have been pinning and browsing a lot of amazing pictures on flikr from her but never knew the person behind the camera.
    Creating recipes from a Mishti that failed to set...only you can make it happen! Beautiful clicks.

  3. A beautiful post! Cintamani seems to be a very interesting person.

    Gorgeous food.



  4. lovely post as always lakshmi- nice reading about her. what I also loved is the nice twist you have given to the doi that dis not set. YUM

  5. A real beautiful post as usual Lakshmi, nice reading about Cintamani...beautiful pics on flikr too!

  6. I have been following Cintamani's work in Flickr for a long time now. Always enjoyed the light and color she adds in her picture. I too need to see in the camera view finder before I start capturing. She sounds like a lovely person and an amazing friend.
    Lakshmi .. you can understand how much I would love to try her misti doi! I know you will get it right and I can't wait to make it in my kitchen :)

  7. Your are courageous & persistent. I would have given up after the third try! What type of pot are you using to make the yogurt? My mother always made hers in a clay pot, wrapped it in a knit blanket my grandmother made and left it sitting in a quiet corner. Love that you are creating one-of-a-kind desserts from all your trials. What is the champagne colored berry? Is it sweet, sour, lookes amazing!

  8. Thanks for stopping by and meeting Cintamani. She is a dynamic and talented person.

    Kankana - Cintamani's misthi doi is incredibly good! It has a feather-light texture and tastes fresh. It is sweet and tangy in a perfect ratio. It is hard to describe it because it is so modest and festive at the same time. When you eat traditional misthi doi, you know you are dealing with something extraordinary. Her version is a blessing in disguise!

    thefolia - the berries are white currants. They are perhaps milder than red ones, although still zesty. Nowadays currants grow in all colours! The other day I tasted pink and green ones, too.

    I tried a claypot, too, without success. The closest result I got was when I wrapped the jars with a cotton cloth and foil, placed them inside a pot which I insulated really well with a woolen blanket. But 24 hours is too long for yogurt to culture to the point of being "almost" there.

  9. As always wonderful pictures.
    I am choosing vegetables with a colours to my meals. I like to keep it in a harmony :)
    I would like to ask - what a zodiaq sign you are? Is this some with a water element?
    Sunny greetings :)
    oh p.s. Art school killed my creating spirit, as I can call it. People with skills - don't go to schools :)

  10. Lakshmi, I get so much out of your posts and always come away contemplative. I also find reflection, beauty, art, deliciousness. I finish your posts with a yearning to cook and create and to share food, as a service and a gift. I always feel a deep sense of the joy of life and the inherent beauty of everything as it is. Thank you for sharing xx

  11. A beautiful friendship!!!

  12. Blu*M - hmm, an interesting question! According to the Indian calculations of zodiac, Jyotish, my Sun and Ascendant are in water signs. The watery planet, Moon, which is considered more important in the Eastern thinking, is not, but rules the ascendant. According to the Western calculations, none of them are!

    Lucie - thank you for the encouragement.

    Madhu - thanks.

  13. I love Cintamani and her work and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the pictures of her. :D Thank you for the lovely post as usual! I have never had mishti doi but I like your version. It looks really delicious!

  14. Dear Laksmi,

    It is such a funny feeling to be a subject of the blog which I follow from the very begginig and what's I'm the biggest fun ever.
    I admire your style, narration and photography skills. I'm honnored to be considere a friend of yourself, even if I would like more "teacher and disciple" relationship. I hope soon I'll be able to get it by participation in one of your internet courses on food photography:-)))))
    I'm so sorry to be a creator of your misthi doi obsession, but, look how you can turn every failer into succes- your pudding looks sooo yummy. Now I want my misthi doi do not work at least ones to get such a perfect dish like this burfi looking pudding. (I use to do similar dish by baking just mix of condeced sweet milk with yogurt- but this looked complitelly different). I think the secret of my Misthi doi is to keep it in the oven in the state temperature of 30'C for 12 hours. But I'll try to make it outside of oven for next time and let you know about the result.

    I also would like to thank everydoby who commented here and write all those nice words about me. We says in Poland: "friends of our friends are also very dear friend to us"- so welcome on the board! Hope to meet you soon here on this lovelly blog or somewhere else in the universe.

    Love Cintamani

  15. thank you :) I was just curious, because of your hands. You got pretty hands, more like a type of water :) Pretty hands doing pretty things, keep up what you're doing.

  16. Such a beautiful post, so full of light, elegance and honest interactions between human beings. Once again, thank you Lakhsmi for opening such beautiful windows on your world, it makes me travel far from my house near Paris, France.

  17. Cintamani - I think you are right about the temperature. I did several batches in the oven set on 30 C. They failed one after another. I finally placed a thermometer in and witnessed how the temperature was fluctuating up and down. When it reached 52.4 C, I knew the game was lost! That's why I got better results outside the oven. I will try next a Styrofoam box –method.

    Blu*M – that’s funny! Thanks for the compliment :-). However, most of the hands in the pictures belong to my husband. He is water personified! On this post, the hands are Cintamani’s. She is definitely fire. And pretty by all standards :-)

    Florence - thank you!

  18. Lakshmi - thank you for a beautiful, peaceful post. I love how you use words and light ... it feels like looking at the world through sheer white cotton. :)

  19. it can be a fire as well :) long fingers she has than. And I need to learn more about palmistry :)

  20. I just nominated your for the One Lovely Blog Award!

  21. This is a success story of failure!!! Lakshmi, in ur quest for perfect mishti doi, u have created another wonderful pudding! All we can do is give our best shot and it is upto the master of this universe to turn it into what he seems right :) i will patiently wait for mishti doi as im sure that u will master it some time soon...

    lovely to meet Cintamani through ur blog. she seems like a rather wonderful friend.

  22. congratulations, you have a wonderful blog! I will follow you now! kisses!

  23. Beautiful as always!!!
    It is purely magical how we meet people and how we become close friends...
    Relationships depend on purity of hearts and thats what makes them or breaks them...
    Beautiful post... gorgeous photography and awesome feature...

  24. Magic! How beautifully you have introduced her. I love Cintamani's photographs and really nice to see more of her. Those phulkas look fantastic :) and so beautiful is all the fresh flowers and vegetables. I saw her Misti Doi in Flickr, but Lakshmi you have turned failure in to a work of art and something entirely new, as you always do.

  25. what a lovely blog! The photography is so stunning, magazine quality. Glad I "found" you!!!

  26. Thank you, Soma. I think my forte as a cook is not in creating marvellous gourmet subtleties but, as an underdog, fixing failures. Seriously. I love imperfection because it puts my shortcomings in perspective. I would feel like an elephant in a porcelain shop if I was placed in a perfect world. Being unfinished and in progress is a more comfortable position. And, natural.

    Amelia Thank you!