It’s Diwali…the festival of lights! Everywhere in India, diyas and electric lights brighten homes, turning night into day. This is a time for family and friends, festivities and merriment; wonderful food eaten next to flickering lights while enjoying shimmering and stentorian firecrackers…. an annual celebration of the triumph of light over darkness.
All these years, I’ve succumbed to the time-saving promise of the microwave pedha and quick-fix barfi. Not to take anything away from these convenient modern versions, but there is something to be said for the traditional fare, the ritual of planning your time and variety in the weeks before the festival, preparing to cook various Diwali delicacies, aside from the regular cooking of lunches and dinner. I thought I’d give this route a shot this time. I’ve been cooking for a while now. How hard could all of this be, right?
A behind-the-scenes look at this setting would reveal harried women everywhere frantically juggling several balls in order to bring the idyllic celebration scene to reality. The mad dash to clean the house and work their way through the back-breaking work of doling out all kinds of festival sweets. The recipes are simple but the work tedious and involved. It is important to get mixtures, roasts and temperatures just right. These golden equations have come into existence through years of trials and evolution of modes of cooking. Messing around can at best create a variation that could work, but at worst, could result in unmitigated disaster. Patience is really not my forte and I’m not one with much upper-arm strength. This was a rigorous schooling in stretching both.
First there was the fact that I did not plan this well at all. Since the decision to make faral (traditional sweets made for festivals by the people of Maharashtra in India) was made pretty much last minute, I had to commit to doing a bunch of things rather quickly. For instance, realistically, what could be made before the holiday was through? I decided on shankarpali (a sweet made with flour, clarified butter and sugar) and also on besan (chickpea flour) and rava (semolina) laddoos. Mulling over methods and recipes, I thought these would take the least amount of time.
Then ingredients had to be sourced, and even though this was an attempt at the traditional, compromises had to be made. One involved the use of all-purpose flour. There was no such thing when I was growing up in India. There was whole-wheat flour, the one used in chapatis, the one with a high fiber content. Then there was maida, a type of flour akin to cake flour, more finely-milled with greater gluten. Most sweets made with flour ask for the latter or a mixture of both. All-purpose flour makes a remarkably decent substitute. There was a mad dash for raisins and cashews and copious amounts of sugar and whole milk, easily gotten but not something I keep around.
I found out rather early in the process that these sweets certainly require room to work on, something my tiny kitchen doesn’t have. Though I don’t do it all the time, in this case a mise en place would have been tremendously useful. But when your counter-space is packed to such capacity that finding room to put down a teaspoon is problematic, you have to make do without such things to ease the process. Then there was the fact that I had chosen to work at a time at which I couldn’t pick up the phone and call my mom, so there were no trusted recipes to fall back on. There was nothing in our files on these sweets. I guess our mothers never thought we’d embark on such ambitious sideline projects that did not show up in daily eating. Or maybe they were just hinting we stay away from trying it. I can see why.
Indian sweets are rich and decadent by definition. They take copious amounts of ghee (clarified butter) and sugar. The rest of the ingredients that shuffle around probably wouldn’t make it on anyone’s healthy ingredient list. But there is a time and place for them. Amey and I agreed this was definitely it. We tackled the shankarpali first, little diamond shaped pastry bits that put up a winning fight against all attempts on my part to make them healthier. The dough itself takes a good amount of ghee, but we thought we’d try and bake them to cut out the frying oil requirement; an attempt that failed dismally. They came out done like hard candy, not something your are looking for here. What you are looking for is a shortbread type bite, one that can only be achieved by frying them in oil till they are golden. That gives you a wonderful melting piece. There is work involved in kneading of the dough and the rolling, the cutting and the frying and the standing around for all these things to happen. The recipe I worked with was good but not great which is why I decided against sharing it. (Update: I tried a second recipe, which was very good. All I adjusted was the sugar to make the recipe a bit sweeter. Thanks to Happy Burp!)
I choose not to speak about the besan laddoos. A badly written recipe and lack of thinking things through on my part resulted in besan laddoos entirely too buttery for my liking. No one who ate them complained, but they aren’t the way they taste in my memory. The star of the entire effort however, were the rava-coconut laddoos. Delicious, crumbly, with the crunch of the nuts contrasting perfectly with the bite of the coconut and tangy raisins, by some quirky twist these turned out exactly like I remember my mom’s to be. These are the things I wish I had the time and inclination to make in batches at different times of the year. Just so I would have them around to pop them in my mouth whenever the mood strikes me.
Makes 30 to 35 laddoos depending on size
Coarse semolina (sooji or rava) – 3 cups
Sugar – 2 cups
Dry coconut powder – 1 cup
Green cardamom (elaichi) powder – 2 tbsp
Clarified butter (ghee) – 4 tbsp
Water – 3/4 cup for sugar syrup
Saffron – a good pinch
Raisins – 1/4 cup
Raw pistachio bits – 1/3 cup
– Prepare a large tray or platter to lay out the laddoos.
– In a saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Dissolve and heat to make a sugar syrup. When the sugar is dissolved, add the saffron to the liquid.
– Soak the raisins in some very hot water for five minutes, then drain.
– Heat ghee gently in a non-stick pan at just under medium heat. Add the semolina and fry until it turns a pinkish brown.
– Add the coconut and cardamom powders and fry for a several more minutes.
– Mix the semolina and coconut mixture into the sugar syrup. Move this off the heat.
– Mix in the nuts and the soaked raisins and keeping stirring to bring everything together into a thick mixture.
– When it is just about cool enough to handle, but still warm, start to roll out spheres about 3/4″ to 1″ in diameter. This may require some pressure to compact it. Place the laddoos to cool and set on the platter. Continue until the entire mixture is used up.
Be prepared to devote some time and muscle power to these sweet delights. It is not such a bad thing if you think of it as prior exercise to offset the eating of the laddoos. I had forgotten how much I love these until I took a bite. Most kinds of nuts would work here. Amey and I even discussed using pine nuts, a far from traditional choice, but one that I think would have worked quite well. Avoid walnuts though, they don’t quite work. There is a slight bitterness they have that clashes with the other flavours. You can choose to leave the raisins out if you like. I find I like the teensy burst of tangy moisture of the soaked raisins. I know some variations include a fresh coconut or a self-grated dry coconut, but the coconut powder is the perfect thing to use here. Being of the same size as the semolina grains, it integrates perfectly into the mix.
Maybe this recipe was all I should have attempted. But Amey didn’t think everything else was as unsuccessful as I thought it was. Faral is meant to be shared with friends and neighbours. So we handed out some gifts. We made these lovely little packages for our friends. Happy Diwali guys!!