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Kurma Dasa


Cooking With Kurma > Essays > Classical Indian Sweets

Classical Indian Sweets
by Kurma Dasa

Indian SweetsIndia is a nation with a penchant for sweets. This is not a new phenomenon but one which dates back to Vedic times. The actual word ‘sugar’ comes from the sanskrit ‘sharkara’. The living art of preparing sumptuous sweets, puddings and desserts has been preserved largely by successive generations of temple cooks, and professional sweet makers known as halwais.

Today, even as in centuries past, presenting sweets conveys gratitude, affection, respect, joy or reward. Even an unexpected visitor is welcomed with a sweet beverage, fruit or confection. There are countless types of sweets in India, all with hundreds of regional variations. Bengal alone has a purported 2000 varieties.

To give you an example of the vast scope of India’s sweet-making tradition, the temple at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh state prepares 100,000 boondi laddoo sweets every day to give as prasadam (benediction) to the 50,000 visiting pilgrims. Thirty cooks are employed full-time in the temple’s inner sanctum kitchen, where they daily consume 3000kg urad dal lentils, 6000kg sugar, 2500kg ghee, and vast amounts of cashew nuts, raisins and cardamom.

Grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and dairy products form the basis of Indian sweets, combined with various sweeteners. Aromatics are added in various ways – for example lime, lemon and orange zest, saffron threads, cardamom seeds, rose water, traditional scents such as sandalwood, khus (vetiver), kewra (screw-pine) edible camphor and sandalwood, and spices such as fennel, pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

I have attempted a grouping of Indian sweets into 7 categories, which is by no means exhaustive.

1. Halva puddings based on grains, fruits, seeds, legumes, and vegetables such as carrots, winter melon, yam or summer squash. Famous examples are carrot halva, and semolina halva.

2. Fresh creamy smooth panir cheese confections such as sandesh.

3. Juicy panir cheese confections simmered in sugar syrup, such as rasgoola, rajbhog, chamcham, ras malai, and raskadamba.

4. Milk fudges such as pera, burfi, and milk ladoos.

5. Grain-based syrup sweets such as rose-flavoured crepes called malpoora, succulent milk balls in rose scented syrup (gulab jamuns), deep-fried crispy pastry loops in saffron syrup (jalebi), flaky pastry swirls with cardamom glaze (balushai), dry, glazed pastries such as khaja, and melt-in-the-mouth chickpea flour fudge cakes (mysore pak).

6. Classic milk puddings such as Bengali rich rice pudding (payasa), toasted vermicelli rice pudding (seviya kheer), creamy milk pudding with juicy tangerine segments (kamala payasa), and creamy almond and rice dessert (badam firni).

7. A miscellaneous category of sweets prepared from yogurt cheese such as shrikhand, fresh coconut confections like the famous Bengali camphor and pepper-laced raskara, and sweets made from sesame seeds.

Some Recipes

Succulent Milk Balls in Rose-scented Syrup (Gulab Jamuns)

Gulab Jamuns are ideal confections for festive moments and entertaining. When guests are confronted with them for the first time they invariably ask, "What are they? " Guesses then range from preserved fruits to doughnuts. In fact, Gulab Jamuns are made from just milk powder and flour. They're fried slowly in ghee until the lactose in the milk powder caramelises and turns them a golden brown, and then they are soaked in a rose-scented, medium- heavy sugar syrup. Hence, the Hindi words Gulab Jamun meaning literally "rose ball".

Although it only takes a few minutes to assemble the dough, the Gulab Jamuns must be fried slowly under carefully controlled temperatures. Some recipes increase the flour content of the dough in order to minimise the importance of the heat regulation, but it is a fact that the less flour there is in the dough, the better the quality of the Gulab Jamun. If the balls are browned too quickly, or not fried long enough, they tend to collapse in the sugar syrup.

Because the balls must be constantly agitated while they fry, I suggest you take your phone off the hook, pull up a stool, and put on your favourite CD.

YIELD: 20 Gulab Jamuns

4 cups water
3 ¾ cups sugar
5 teaspoons pure distilled rose water
ghee for deep-frying
1½ tablespoons self-raising flour
2½ cups full-cream milk powder
¾ cup warm milk, or as required

Combine the water and sugar in a 3 litre pan over moderate heat and stir constantly until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat and boil for 5 minutes. Remove the syrup from the heat. Add the rose water and set aside.

Pour the ghee to a depth of 6.7 - 7.5 cm in a non-stick deep-frying vessel at least 25 cm in diameter. Place over very low heat.

To make the dough: sift the flour and milk powder into a small bowl. Pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Sprinkle the small bowl of milk powder and flour into the large bowl of warm milk while mixing with your other hand. Quickly mix and knead the combination into a moist, smooth, and pliable dough. Wash your hands, rub a film of warm ghee on them, and divide the dough into 20 portions. Roll those portions into 20 smooth balls. Place them onto an oiled tray or plate.

When the ghee temperature reaches 102°C, drop the balls in, one by one. The balls will initially sink to the bottom. Do not try to move them. You can, however, gently shake the deep-frying vessel from side to side occasionally until the balls start to rise to the surface. From this point on they must be gently and constantly stirred, rolling them over and over with the back of a slotted spoon, allowing them to brown evenly on all sides.

After 5 minutes, the temperature of the ghee will have increased to about 104°C and the balls will have started to expand.

After 10 minutes, the temperature should be increased to 107°C.
After 25 minutes, the ghee temperature should be about 110°C and the balls should be golden brown.

Test one by dropping it into the warm syrup. If it doesn't collapse within three minutes then remove all the balls (3 or 4 at a time) with the slotted spoon and place them in the syrup. Otherwise, cook the balls for another 5 minutes. When all the Gulab Jamuns have been placed in the syrup, turn off the heat under the ghee and allow the sweets to soak in the syrup for at least 2 hours.

Gulab Jamuns can be prepared a day in advance, allowing them to fully soak overnight. They should be served at room temperature or slightly warmed.

Creamy, Saffron-infused Condensed Yogurt Dessert (Shrikhand)

This popular dessert from India’s Maharastra state is simple to prepare. Yogurt is hung in a cloth to remove excess liquid. The solid residue, called yogurt cheese, or dehin, is sweetened, flavored with saffron, nuts, cardamom, and rosewater, beaten until silky smooth, and served ice-cold in little cups.

As an alternative, replace the saffron, nuts, cardamom, and rosewater with ¼ cup fresh, vine-ripened chopped raspberries, strawberries, or blackberries.

Shrikhand is ideal for preparing in large quantities. Remember the simple sugar-to-yogurt ratio: good quality yogurt should yield 50% liquid (whey) when hung. Add sugar to the yogurt cheese in the ratio of one to four; in other words, the sugar content of Shrikhand is one-eighth part the original quantity of yogurt.

Shrikhand is much-loved when served with slices of fragrant fresh mango and puffed plain flour pooris sprinkled with sugar.

YOGURT DRAINING TIME: at least 12-16 hours, better after 1-2 days
YIELD: enough for 8-12 persons

1 kg whole-milk yogurt
¼ teaspoon ground saffron threads
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon rosewater
2 tablespoons blanched raw slivered pistachio nuts
½ cup powdered sugar

Drape a triple thickness of cheesecloth in a colander.

Spoon in the yogurt, gather up the corners of the cloth, tie it into a bundle, and hang it, either in the refrigerator or in a cool spot for at least 12 to 16 hours. Catch the drips in a bowl. After the required hanging time, the residue of yogurt cheese should have reduced to half the original quantity.

Combine the ground saffron threads with the rosewater for 5 or 10 minutes to allow the saffron to steep and release it’s flavour and colour.

Transfer the cheese to a bowl, add the ground saffron and rosewater infusion, ground cardamom seeds, pistachio nuts and sugar. Beat until light and fluffy, and serve in small bowls.

Alternatively, do not add the nuts to the mixture, pipe out the dessert from a piping bag with a fairly large nozzle, and sprinkle the pistachio nuts on top.

Pistachio Milk Fudge (Pista Burfi)
Pistachio burfi is a delightful example of a traditional Indian milk sweet, where boiling, sweetened milk is reduced gradually until it thickens to a fudge-like paste. Note that, as all burfis, pistachio burfi will firm up as it sits. If you keep it well covered, you can store it for up to 10 days in the refrigerator.

YIELD: 36 small pieces of fudge

2 litres fresh whole milk
1¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon ghee or unsalted butter
½ teaspoon powdered cardamom seeds
1 cup raw blanched pistachio nuts, chopped fine.
edible pure silver or gold foil (optional)

Combine milk, sugar, ghee and cardamom in a 5-litre saucepan, preferably non-stick. Bring the milk to a rolling boil over moderate heat and continue to cook it, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon for about 45 minutes, or until the milk has reduced to a thick bubbling creamy mass, about half its original volume.

Continue to reduce the fudge, stirring continuously with gently rhythmic strokes for a further 10 minutes, or until the mixture resembles a thick paste.

Add the pistachio nuts, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook the fudge, stirring and scraping with the wooden spoon for further 20 minutes or until the mixture becomes a thick dry lump. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool for one minute. You should have about 2½ cups fudge.

Transfer the fudge to a shallow, buttered tray. As the mixture cools a little more, use a buttered spatula to shape it into a smooth, flat cake, about 15cm square. Allow the fudge to cool for a further one hour.

With a minimum of handling, slip the sheets of silver or gold foil over the fudge and press down gently with the backing paper, allowing the foil to adhere to the fudge.

Cut the fudge into 36 pieces with a sharp, buttered knife. You may need to wipe the knife clean after each cut. Alternatively, divide the still-warm fudge into 36 pieces and press into decorative molds. Serve, or store in airtight containers for up to 2 weeks.

Silver-coated Orange-scented Cream Cheese Fudge
(Kamala Sandesh)

Bengal is the home of Indian sweet manufacturing, and of all Bengali sweets, sandesh is the most famous. It is prepared from only two ingredients: homemade curd cheese and sugar. Use one-quarter part sugar to the volume of kneaded cheese curd. Sandesh is very simple to make, provided you prepare the curd cheese properly. You should also knead your cheese to the correct silky-smooth, neither-wet-nor-dry texture. Sandesh must be cooked in a scrupulously clean pan over very low heat. This sandesh derives its orange flavour from the orange oil contained in orange rind, which is added during, and removed after, cooking.

YIELD: 16 - 20 pieces

fresh homemade curd cheese from 2½ kg whole milk
at least ½ cup caster sugar or icing sugar
one 7.5 cm strip of orange rind
edible pure silver or gold foil (optional)

Knead and bray the curd cheese on a clean surface until it is silky smooth and creamy. Gather into one lump and calculate its volume with measuring cups. Measure one-quarter that volume of sugar. Combine the cheese, sugar, and lemon rind and again briefly knead and bray the cheese.

Place a heavy-bottomed pan on the lowest possible heat and, constantly stirring with a wooden spoon, cook the cheese for 10 to 15 minutes or until its surface becomes glossy and its texture slightly thickens.

Scrape the sandesh from the pan and remove the orange rind. Press the sandesh onto a lightly buttered tray into a flat 1¼cm thick cake. Cool to room temperature. Cut the cake into 2½ cm squares. When completely cool, store in an airtight container in a single layer. The sandesh can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

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