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
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!