Cooking Class: Lesson 29
Indian Sweets and Words From a Vaisnavi Halvai
THANKS TO Srila Prabhupada, today we can sample sweets of the Vedic tradition mentioned in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Caitanya-caritamrta, and other scriptures. For over thirty years ISKCON devotees have played a big role in distributing classic Indian sweets to tens of thousands of people on every continent.
Besides mouth-watering sweets made from regionally grown Indian fruits, grains, and flours, an extensive array of sweets and confections are made from little more than milk and a sweetener. In forthcoming lessons we will focus on some major categories of sweets: pastries, syrup sweets, fruit-based sweets, grain-based halavas, khir milk puddings, sandesa cheese fudges, succulent cheese confections, and pera and barfi milk-fudges.
In India an expert sweet-maker is called a halvai and may work in a temple, a bazaar, or at home. As an introduction to sweet-making, I present here a few words from one of ISKCON's legendary halvais,Kulangana Devi, of Bhaktivedanta Manor, our temple outside London. Famous for her dedication as well as her superb sweets, this youthful sixty-four-year-old has inspired devotees worldwide. At our last meeting about two years ago, I asked her about her culinary journey.
Yamuna Devi: Would you tell me a little bit about your background?
Kulangana Devi: By the grace of Lord Krsna I came to the Krsna consciousness movement in 1972. The first two years my main service was distributing books. But by chance, in 1974, I watched devotees at the Bury Place temple in London making sweets for offering at mangala-arati [the first Deity worship of the day]. They were making "quick" milk sweets by combining milk powder with boiled-down milk. The best was a melt-in-your-mouth confection called "Simply Wonderful," a sweet Srila Prabhupada had taught his disciples in 1966 and 1967. (Incidentally, by 1975, with the exception of Simply Wonderfuls, most ISKCON cooks stopped making quick sweets, opting to make them the classical way). Other quick sweets were almost as good, one of them decorated with a film of edible silver foil. Curiously, it was that silver foil that first inspired me to learn more about making sweets that and something I had read in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
YD: What was that?
KD: In the purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.21.1, Srila Prabhupada writes, "Real opulence is supplied by natural gifts such as gold, silver, pearls, valuable stones, fresh flowers, trees, and silk cloth. Thus Vedic civilization recommends opulence and decoration with these natural gifts of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Such opulence immediately changes the condition of the mind, and the entire atmosphere becomes spiritualized."
I knew that the Lord's form is ornamented with silver and gold jewelry, but the Bury Place kitchen was the first place I'd seen sweets decorated or garnished with gossamer-thin sheets of pure gold and silver. From reading Srila Prabhupada's words, I became determined to learn about sweet-making.
YD: How did you get started?
KD: At first I assisted others, gradually learning to work on my own.
YD: When did making sweets become your main occupation?
KD: It was in 1985, when I moved to New Vrindaban, West Virginia. I gravitated at once to the temple kitchen and the best halvai I could find Dharmakala Devi, with sixteen years' experience. I made milk sweets for long hours each day. We cooked on wood stoves, using only farm-fresh milk and the purest ingredients. I became acutely aware of cookware, utensils, sweeteners, heat sources, and the butterfat content in the milk. It was a kind of concentrated apprentice program; I studied from whomever would teach me. I cooked through all the recipes in your Lord Krishna's Cuisine.
YD: Did you become a full-time halvai when you returned to England?
KD: Yes. At Bhaktivedanta Manor I began by improving cleanliness standards and reorganizing the layout of the kitchen. We bought thick-bottomed stainless-steel pots to use only for sweets. We kept all utensils for sweet-making separate from other cookware. And because studies show that bacteria multiplies on plastic cutting boards, we used only wooden cutting boards.
YD: How about a few tips from your years of experience?
KD: Use the freshest and purest ingredients. I use raw milk brought straight from the milking parlor to the kitchen, still warm.
Some sweets are very rich and sweet, others are lighter. Krsna likes both He's not a health-food faddist. Especially in temple kitchens, we're cooking for Krsna's pleasure, so if a dish calls for cream and sugar, use it. If the prasadam is too rich for us, we can simply honor it by taking a little bite.
If you scorch or burn milk over high heat, that's lamentable, because you've wasted it, taken away its food value.
If you reduce milk very slowly over low heat, its lactose sugars caramel-ize, and it will take on a pleasant toffee flavor.
YD: Thank you for the valuable advice.
KD: Hare Krsna.
In a curious twist, Kulangana Devi no longer uses the pure silver foils that first attracted her to sweet-making. According to her research, silver foil was not used in ancient Vaisnava kitchens. The use of silver foil is new, imitating a practice in Jain temples. As a purist, she wishes to preserve the ancient tradition, and we thank her.
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post andVegetarian Times. Write to her in care of BTG.
Srila Prabhupada called this mock milk fudge a "simply wonderful sweet." Some varieties include a dash of essence such as vanilla, almond, lemon, or lime. This version resembles firm, uncooked fondant in texture and is so easy to assemble that kindergarten children can turn out a successful batch for grown-up treats.
I have made this sweet around the world, using different processed ingredients. Health-food-store non-instant skim-milk powder yields the creamiest consistency, whole-milk powder has a firm fudge-like consistency, and Milkman brand instant non-fat milk powder is somewhere in between and slightly granular. If you use a granulated sugar raw or white process it in a blender until superfine. Because these ingredients are processed and stored under varied conditions, you may need to use more or less milk powder to achieve the desired texture.
Basic Simply Wonderfuls
Preparation time (after assembling ingredients): 10 minutes
½ cup (120 ml) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (60 g) confectioners' sugar
1-¾ cups (220 g) dry milk powder, or as needed
1 teaspoon (5 ml) milk or cream, or as necessary
a few drops of flavoring essence (as suggested above), or
2 tablespoons (30 ml) grated nuts or dried fruit puree
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Using your hands, work in the milk powder and milk or cream, adjusting portions as necessary, to make a medium-soft fondant. Flavor with essence, nuts, or fruit puree and continue to work until well blended.
Wash and dry your hands, then roll the fondant into smooth balls. (You can also roll the fondant around whole nuts or sandwich a pellet between nut halves). Place the sweets in paper cases and keep refrigerated in a well sealed container for up to four days.
Offer to Krsna chilled or at room temperature.
Coconut and Cream Cheese Simply Wonderfuls
Khara Nariyal Pera
This mock milk fudge takes only minutes to assemble. I find homemade yogurt cheese a pleasant alternative to cream cheese because it has fewer calories and adds its own distinctive flavor.
Preparation time (after assembling ingredients): 10 minutes
¼ cup (60 ml) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup (60 ml) neuchatel or cream cheese at room temperature, or fresh yogurt cheese
¼ cup (60 ml) frozen apple concentrate, thawed
½ cup (45 g) toasted grated coconut
1 ½ cups (165 g) dry milk powder, or as needed
generous ¼ teaspoon (1 ml) freshly ground nutmeg
Cream the butter, cheese, and apple concentrate in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add the coconut and blend well. With your hands, work in powdered milk until it forms a medium-stiff dough. Wash and dry your hands; then roll the fondant into smooth balls and place them in paper candy cases. Sprinkle with ground nutmeg. Offer to Krsna. Keep refrigerated, in a well sealed container, for up to four days.