Celebrating Diwaali November 2, 2010
How to make Indian sweets
No Diwali celebration is complete without platefuls of barfi, besan laddoo and halwa – and homemade sweets are the best
These sugary confections have an emotional pull, too, from their association with happiness, good luck and festivals. Celebrating a new baby, a promotion at work or straight A*s in your GCSEs is incomplete without a plate of mithai (sweets). When I told my aunt I was getting married I made sure I secured her to make the sweets in the same breath. My husband was alarmed to discover that on the wedding day we would be faced with toothpick-wielding relatives trying to force feed him pastel-hued squares of milky barfi for good luck.
Yet somehow their violent charms seem to have frightened away most British devotees of India’s savoury dishes. A home cook’s everyday repertoire might include Keralan fish curry or dhal – dishes that show the increasingly sophisticated appreciation of south Asian cuisine. But it’s still rare to see a non-Asian face in any of the multitude of Indian sweet houses in London’s Southall or Manchester’s Rusholme. The colours can seem vulgar, the sugar content too high for uninitiated palates – just two little balls of my favourite, gulab jamun (a fried sweet of milky dough bathed in syrup) can be as much as 380 calories.
Food writer and cookery teacher Monisha Bharadwaj thinks this is a shame, and insists that sweets made at home are completely different. Not that she is claiming they could be called healthy (although she does helpfully point out that gajar ka halwa – made from carrots – might count as one of your five a day), but it is possible to tame the sugar and fat. “In shops the sweets all have the maximum amount of sugar, colour and ghee in them. At home they taste very different – you don’t feel like you can’t eat more than one bite.”
I have arrived in Monisha’s immaculate kitchen (cleaned twice a day, she tells me cheerfully) to learn how to make some favourites. It’s the perfect time – in nearby Southall, the shops are already filling up with lamps, candles and fireworks in preparation for Diwali. The five-day festival of light, celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, starts on 5 November.
“There are no specific dishes you eat in Diwali but you must eat sweets,” Monisha insists. “Making them is part of the buildup, with the children getting involved. Then when you go visiting you will be offered them at everyone’s house. At the end of Diwali you should be completely sweeted-out.”
Variety is important, so we start by making two sets of barfi – solid cubes of condensed milk. Coconut is first – it is the classic version. We grind cardamom seeds, popping them from their dried pods to release their strong scent, then boil double cream, add sugar and milk powder and turn it into custard. Finally we add the coconut and cardamom and pour the mixture into a shallow dish, leaving it to cool. I can’t wait for it to fully set though – we dive in with teaspoons. It’s delicious, with a stronger caramel flavour than a shop-bought version, and, as Monisha promised, not as overpoweringly sweet. Next up is the chocolate barfi, which is also tastier than the dry commercial offering, where flavour feels like an afterthought.
The problems start when I try something a little more tricky – besan laddoo. These cheery little beige spheres, made from a mixture of chickpea (gram) flour and semolina, and flavoured with almonds and cardamom, should shine gently with the butter. Monisha shows me how to roast the gram flour, butter and semolina until the flour’s raw and slightly bitter smell disappears. But once we have added the sugar and flavourings, and begin to shape the sweets, they turn into a sticky mess in my hands. “Too much ghee,” Monisha swiftly diagnoses. But even her magic fingers can’t make the plumpness last, and within seconds it melts. “Never mind,” she announces, quickly sticking a sultana in the top. “We’ll just say you were cooking a flat pedhe instead.” I would have thanked her, but my mouth was too full.
• For more information on Monisha’s Dilwali food walk, cooking classes and cookery books, see cookingwithmonisha.com
Besan laddoo – as they should look. Photograph: ephotocorp/Alamy200g besan or gram flour
4 tbsp semolina
100g caster sugar
4 tbsp sliced almonds
1 tsp cardamom powder
A few raisins to decorate
Put the gram flour, semolina and ghee in a heavy saucepan and fry on a medium heat for about 10 minutes or until an aroma develops. Make sure to keep the heat down and keep stirring so the flour roasts right through.
Turn off the heat and allow to cool until just warm.
Stir in the sugar, almonds and cardamom.
Take a small fistful of the flour and press into a ball. Put a raisin into each one to decorate.
Chocolate barfi (makes 20 squares)
120g cocoa powder
400g tin condensed milk
4 tbsp mixed chopped nuts
2 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp for greasing the dish
Pour the condensed milk into a heavy saucepan. Add the butter and the cocoa. Cook on a gentle heat stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and begins to draw away from the side of the pan.
Grease a flat dish with the extra butter. Pour the thick cocoa mixture in and smooth the surface with a spatula.
Allow to cool and set.
Sprinkle with the mixed nuts and cut into 1in squares. Barfi can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
Coconut barfi (makes 20 squares)
150ml double cream
150g milk powder
120g caster sugar
75g dessicated coconut
½ tsp cardamom powder
Put the cream in a saucepan and bring to the boil, lowering the heat when it gets hot. Add the sugar and cook on a low heat until it bubbles and forms a single thread consistency – this should take 8-10 minutes.
Add the milk powder and stir for a couple of minutes until it begins to leave the side of the pan.
Add the coconut and cardamom and cook for a couple of minutes. Turn out onto a greased plate and allow to cool. Cut into squares.
Random thought which made me think of the Climate Summit:
“A friend of mine, a distinguished explorer who spent a couple of years among the savages of the upper Amazon, once attempted a forced march through the jungle.
The party made extraordinary speed for the first two days, but on the third morning, when it was time to start, my friend found all the natives sitting on their haunches, looking very solemn and making no preparation to leave.
“They are waiting,” the chief explained to my friend. “They cannot move further until their souls have caught up with their bodies.”
I can think of no better illustration of our own plight today. Is there no way of letting our souls, so to say, catch up with our bodies?”
From ‘Oh the places you’ll go’ by Dr Seuss November 9, 2008
Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to great places! You’re off & away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go. You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care. About some you will say “i don’t choose to go there”. With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street. And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air. Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too. Oh, the places you’ll go!
Lap Dancing October 9, 2008
So I was reading about the mating habits of hedgehogs with my youngest, Jude (3 and a half) as the group he’s in in preschool is Hedgehogs and for some reason I felt it necessitated knowing the full biology of the creature (pushy mum??). It made me smile that animals are so primal yet we humans are so sophisticated when it comes to sex.
That evening Nige told me he’d read some research saying that lapdancers get better tips when they are ovulating. The next day I read that women’s voices change over the course of a month, with different, more soothing and seductive tones when they are most fertile. I’ve decided to review my initial idea that we’re so highly developed after all…
Before and After: Weekends October 6, 2008
Before kids: Weekends were a source of respite, recovery, nourishment and play.
They might have started with a couple of cheeky drinks after work, home for a take away and a quality bottle of wine or beers. Maybe a little marital / commonlaw horseplay and then a lazy lie in on Saturday morning. A few chores and maybe even one load of washing then food shopping and a coffee with a friend. Saturday night might feature a meal at some friends, a trip to the pub or, for the more daring to a club or band.
Sunday morning would be long, lazy, maybe a roll-together, some reading of newspapers, a long bath and a cooked breakfast which you got to finish yourself. A walk in the woods, Sunday lunch at a local pub with friends or the colour supplement and maybe an afternoon film at the cinema. A long, uninterrupted phone conversation with your mum or close friend, some rubbish telly, a good book and then bed…
Friday night is exactly the same as any other night of the week: manhandling children into pyjamas, wiping the contents of their tea off the floor, hasty bedtime (not letting them know for a minute that it’s Friday night and there’s no school tomorrow) so you can get to that discounted bottle of wine you bought in Tescos – 3 for 2 – which turns out not to be that nice at all and you now own 3 bottles of the stuff. Fall asleep in front of a movie it turns out you are now too old, tired and picky to get through without continuous moaning and nit picking.
Saturday morning starts at 5am because no one told the kids they didn’t have to get up before sunrise. Lie on sofa pretending to be asleep while they re-enact the Battle of Le Somme with Power Rangers and find an accordian to serenade you with. Unfortunately you do have a hangover even though you only had a glass and a half of atrocious wine. Roll together doesn’t work as kids keep coming upstairs to find out if you’re OK and to bring you some ‘breakfast’ in bed (crushed biscuits mashed with banana).
Saturday spent trying to food shop with two (or more) small wild animals, resisting the magnet-like forces of the local toyshop, putting as many loads of washing on as you can feasibly dry in a day then racing to the children’s party you forgot to eldest/ youngest / that-one-in-the-middle was invited to, quick stop via toyshop for present (at which point resistance to buying a new toy meets toughest test yet). Drag tired children home full of Sunny Delight or generic equivalent, wash and to bed. Either sit and lament lack of life or scrape together money for a babysitter and stare exhaustedly into a beer in a pub it seems is full of 20-somethings in cobweb tights and music that seems just a little too loud…?
Sunday: repeat as Saturday.
Alphabet Soup October 3, 2008
“Only the pure of heart can make good soup” Beethoven
So the late Paul Newman had a personal motto that you should always make a bowl of soup for a friend. A hearty and humble aim for such a man and one that makes much of sense on many levels. There’s an old saying that soup and stories should both be readily shared and the age-old story of Stone Soup springs to mind, where a stranger unites a village experiencing a famine and gets them laughing, singing and eating lashings of hot soup from the few ingredients they each had.
For soup will have been made since man first had fire and is said to be more powerful than medicine at healing and helping from colds through to cancer. Soups can hide all manner of healthy ingredients from unsuspecting children’s eyes and can be turned into pasta sauces or frozen at the drop of a proverbial hat…
In these uncertain financial times we’d be as well to remember some of the culinary arts of both our pre- and post-war ancestors, of using scraps and stored vegetables, of using wild foods and foods we’ve grown, combining them in ways to make hearty, nourishing, seasonal, healthy and inexpensive fare.
Try making courgette, red lentil, coriander and coconut milk soup or fennel and puy lentil. The secret, they say, is in using herbs where you can and getting the best quality stock, preferably homemade, that you can lay your hands on. Soups should generally have some carbs at their core such as lentils, potatoes, rice or even bread.
So find a friend and make him or her some soup this week!