Classical Indian Sweets
by Kurma Dasa
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
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.
Succulent Milk Balls in Rose-scented Syrup (Gulab
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
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.
PREPARATION AND COOKING TIME: about 45 minutes
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
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
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
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,
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.
PREPARATION TIME: 15 minutes
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.
PREPARATION AND COOKING TIME: about 1½ hours
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
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
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.
PREPARATION AND COOKING TIME: about 30 minutes
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
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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