Desserts

Desserts

By
Anjum Anand
Contains
11 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849495639
Photographer
Martin Poole

In India, every happy event, prayer ceremony or festival is celebrated with something sweet, so it is no surprise that the nation has a fairly crushing sweet tooth. There are two types of “desserts”: home-style sweets rustled up by Mum; or those made by a professional halvai (most of these fall under the collective banner of mithai). I do love Indian desserts, and I feel bad for them that they are relegated to a small chapter at the end of this book when they hold far more symbolic importance in India than that of a mere full-stop at the end of a meal.

Home-style desserts tend to be quite simple, made with humble ingredients such as grains, vegetables, dairy products, coconuts, nuts, dried fruits… even lentils and spices. If this doesn’t sound immediately appealing, may I remind you of a few perennial Western favourites: pumpkin pie, carrot cake, bread pudding and custard tart. There is a lot to love. Indian sweets are generally cooked with varying amounts of sugar or jaggery and ghee, and often flavoured with cardamom or saffron.

Diwali, in our home, always meant there would be a type of kheer (milky, cold rice pudding, sometimes with added carrots, mangoes, or other ingredients); prayer ceremonies would be accompanied by the simple-but-delicious semolina halva. While Indian desserts can be a bit sweet, one doesn’t normally eat a lot, and only after a meal; teatime treats and breakfasts tend to be savoury.

Mithais require more technique and experience to get them just right, and recipes tend to be kept under lock and key by the professional halvais, as they are the key to the success of the family business. Indians take their sweet specialities very seriously, with people travelling to eat the best or freshest. When I first visited my new in-laws in Kolkata, I mentioned that I would love to try the very seasonal Bengali speciality of set, sweet date syrup yogurt at some point. At breakfast the next morning, a clay pot containing thick-set yogurt of a faint caramel hue was on the table. It was delicious, creamy with a light tang and with lots of natural dateycaramel flavour and sweetness. The clay pot draws the liquid from the yogurt, so it thickens as it sets. Apparently, my in-laws had sent someone out at 5am to wait in a queue for it, as they sell out by 10am!

Mithais are as beautiful and well presented as home-style desserts are rustic, but Indians have an abiding love for both. However, Indian desserts do divide people, even families; my children thankfully love them, my husband not at all. So, in this chapter, along with some traditional dishes, I have also used Indian flavours and ingredients in more familiar ways that I hope will appeal to a Western palate, but still round off an Indian meal really well. I have included some healthy desserts and some gluten- and carb-free sweets, which might sound like a compromise but – I promise you – still deliver.

Saffron

The aroma and flavour of saffron are unmistakeable and loved by so many. The root of the word comes from the Persian zafran, attesting to the introduction of saffron into the West (and East). This spice is the stigma in the heart of the saffron crocus flower. It can only be picked by hand, and each flower only yields three strands, so it stands to reason that they are precious, and prized by those who enjoy the musty flavour and unique aroma.

Saffron has always been expensive, so not found in everyday Indian food, but was used judiciously in rich households when guests visited for a special meal. You will still find little traces of saffron-hued rice giving a biryani a golden glow, or find a small pinch of the tell-tale red strands stirred into a creamy rice pudding served on Diwali, like slivers of rubies. I had the privilege of tasting delicious saffron tea in Calcutta when visiting my husband’s family, and my all-time favourite remains the Indian mithai (sweet) of saffron and rose water-soaked gulab jamun dumplings.

Store saffron in airtight containers in the fridge and – as with truffles – pair it with delicate ingredients so as not to drown out its own subtle flavour. Try it in syrups, or anything creamy, rice dishes, yogurts, or even light breads and cakes. Saffron varies in quality depending on how much of the stigma is picked and also where it is grown. I generally always seek out Iranian saffron and look for a deep red colour.

To get the best from saffron, lightly crush it and infuse it in a hot liquid for 20 minutes.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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