deepavali or, as it is more commonly referred to in western culture, the festival of lights is a hindu celebration of the return of lord ram from exile. it is also referred to as diwali. there are many traditions and customs associated with this festival for hindus across the globe. every group having their own special way of celebrating the auspicious occasion. for me, being a largely non-practicing hindu there are only two aspects that appeal to me. the first is family, taking the opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones, and second, the preparation of sweetmeats to be shared out amongst said loved ones.
it is important to note (for non-hindus) that sweetmeats and sweet breads are not the same thing. sweetmeat is a term used to refer to indian confection and sweets. the proper term is mithai. when referring to indian confection you cannot really use terms like baked goods or pastry. the items don’t always contain flour and items are rarely baked. most preparations are stove-top.
as is my personal custom i prepare a number of mithai for deepavali. i make a list of friends and family that will be receiving a parcel of mithai and i go about deliberating (weeks in advance to be honest) about what i should make. some effort goes into presentation as well. we have come a long way from the cling-wrapped paper plates of my youth. deepavali parcels grow more elaborate with each year, with the use of decorative ornaments, glass platters, beaded organza and many other items to help relay the festive nature of the celebrations. bright and shiny is usually the way to go.
this year i went with brown cardboard boxes tied with an embroidered ribbon. very muted by normal standards but a truer reflection of my personality.
i had decided to hand out 14 parcels this year. i also decided to make 5 mithai. they were:
burfee – can be likened to a creamy fudge made with milk powder and flavoured with elachi
chana magaj – also kind of fudgy, but made with chickpea flour and almonds
badam halwa – an almond jelly. don’t worry. you’ll understand in a minute
gulab jamun – an indian doughnut. fried and then dipped in a cinnamon flavoured syrup
kaju katli – a cashew nut burfee. first-timer on this one.
i prepared my ingredient list and went shopping. in past years i have mixed some more western treats in my parcels. lamingtons has always been a solid favourite. this year i was looking for new challenges and the idea of an purely indian parcel appealed to me.
i prepared the mithai over four days starting the tuesday before i handed out parcels. i baked them in order of which would keep best over time. mithai will last atleast a week (longer in the fridge) and will not appear to become stale over time. for this reason they can easily be prepared in advance. this helps tremendously when you have a full time job.
the first thing i made was some ghee. you can buy ghee at most supermarkets but i like to make my own because i let the butter brown a bit which helps it develop a richer, nuttier flavour than the store-bought variety.
the images above show the progression from melting butter in a saucepan to the point where a thick foam develops on top to when the foam fries off and sinks. the last image is the remaining milk protein that is left behind once the butter clarifies. this should be done on a medium low heat. also remove the pot from the heat once the solids go a deep golden colour as shown above. if you leave it on the heat, that combined with the inherent heat of the ghee will continue to darken the solids leaving a burnt taste. i have found that swirling the pot instead of mixing stops the solids from becoming too fine which makes it easier to separate from the ghee. put it through a sieve or even better some muslin. i store my ghee in glass jars. it keeps for months in a cool cupboard.
step two was roasting of the almonds. an important lesson i have learnt when making mithai is to make sure that you use a big enough pot or saucepan. if you don’t you end up splashing/spilling hot stuff (and by hot i mean molten hot mag-ma) all over the damn place. anyhoo, i emptied the slivered almonds into a pan, thought better of it and split it into a second pan as well.
i roasted on medium high heat and kept stirring to get even heat distribution. i kept going till i got a light golden brown colour and an aroma that said, these almonds are now even more delicious.
it should probably be noted at this point that apart from the kaju katli all the recipes can be found in the Indian Delights cookbook. This recipe book is a permanent fixture in indians kitchens across South Africa.
badam halwa is made by bringing a mixture of sugar, water, cornflour, food colouring and lemon juice to boil. as it boils the mixture begins to gel. this is most noticeable by the presence of darker red streaks in the solution. once this happens i remove the mixture from the heat and whisk to get it back to a homogenous state. you may then add the almonds (which are mean to be split, not slivered but who has time to blanch and split two cups of almonds?), elachi, saffron and ghee. you should know that if you make this recipe you will not be able to eat any. try and you’ll see why.
so whisk the last of the ingredient in. take special care to blend in the ghee which will sit on the top otherwise. as the mixture gels it takes quite a bit of elbow grease to keep it moving. eventually it will start to come away from the sides of the pot. i have made this in the past where i got blisters from strenuous mixing of the steaming gloop.
this year however the mixture went to the required thickness in 15 minutes, a blessing from the heavens! i tipped it out into a greased, oven-proof dish. not cos it goes in the oven, but because the mixture is very very hot. if you make this in a shallow pot and it splashes it will burn you.
you know you have cooked the mixture correctly when it comes away from the pot relatively easily. i left the badam halwa to cool at room temperature before cling wrapping it twice and leaving it in the fridge. the Indian Delights states that it will keep indefinitely in the fridge. There was still a bit of ghee on the top of the halwa. i think this means that i could have gotten away with less ghee…or i didn’t mix properly.
day two of deepavali baking centered around the chana magaj. i had purchased 500g of chickpea flour from my local spice shop.
the milk is added to the chana (chickpea) flour and mixed with the fingertips till the mixture resembles bread crumbs…much like the technique used to make pastry. i then placed the mixture in a baking pan to dry. it is important that the mixture be left for at least an hour. if its still wet when you start frying the flour in ghee (yes you heard that right), you will end up with large lumps which can be problematic.
while the flour was drying i prepped the rest of the ingredients and coloured the almonds. deepavali is all about bright colours. bear usually vetoes the use of food colouring but this year i was in the mood to be bold. its important to let the coloured almonds dry. this makes sure that the colouring doesn’t bleed into the magaj creating a messy finish. also add enough food colouring so that all the almonds slivers are uniformly coloured. this usually gives you the best finished product.
the icing sugar (used to sweeten the fried flour) and the milk powder were also weighed and set aside to be added when needed. you need all your ingredients at hand or things will get rushed and stressful.
when the allotted time had passed and i was happy that the flour was sufficiently dry i went about frying the flour. ghee was placed in a large pot and heated. to this the dried flour was added. the flour is mixed continuously until it changes colour and smells cooked. to be honest it is hard to describe exactly what you are looking for here and every
time i have made chana magaj i have fretted that i had either undercooked or overcooked the flour. all i can tell you is that the nose knows.
the resulting mixture smells nuttier than the raw flour and is a creamier looking brown. there are some globules in the mixture that can be broken down by hand or as was the case with me, dealt with with the aid of my handy stick blender. i added the almonds (finely chopped not the coloured ones), icing sugar and milk powder and mixed thoroughly before pouring the mixture into a prepared baking tray.
i then liberally sprinkled the coloured almonds over the mixture before wrapping in cling film and leaving aside to cool.
two down…three to go.
catch the follow up post to see how this baking adventure turned out.
ps. yes i went awol again. hope you guys have been keeping well.
pps. with deepavali at least 7 months away this is probably not the right time to be posting this post, but i’m posting it anyway. rebel without a pause.