I am an ant; or at least was in another life time and will be again. I can smell the sugar from at least half a mile away and will join the other ants heading in the direction. I cannot remember a sweet I didn’t like, in my whole life time. But growing up we didn’t have that many sweet. Sweets were reserved for special occasions. There was a sanctity about them; you craved them; you dreamed of them; you waited in anticipation; and when you ate one bite you savored it and saved it and made it last. You understood the value of the sugar. It’s true – I loved juice, soft drinks, ice cream, chocolate, cookies when I was growing up, but couldn’t buy it all the time because I didn’t have the money and my mother was careful about how much sugar we ate. Once in the US and on my own, where sugar in all its forms is so cheap, the first time I did grocery shopping I bought a gallon of ice cream and a bag of chocolate and took months to finish it. The sugar wasn’t so sweet any more. You only want what you can’t have; the fun is in the chase – for more things that just sugar!
I think I’ve talked about my mom’s exemplary sweet making skills. Every year there were two major festivals when she pulled out all the stops – Diwali and Holi. She made her staples – gulab jamun, gujia, burfis and every year she tried something new – one year she even made the famed the cashew and pistachio roll. You knew Diwali or Holi was coming when she pulled out her flours and nuts and bought extra milk and made khoa. If you woke up one morning to the smell of milk reducing on the stove, you knew Diwali was coming. It added to the whole excitement surrounding the festival – the clothes, the crackers and the sweets. On other occasions like house guests or birthdays or dinner parties she made one from her repertoire of kheers and halwas – sooji ka halwa, chawal ki kheer, seviyan ki kheer, carrot halwa, moong dal halwa and unusual combinations like lauki ki kheer and kaddu ki kheer. I waited for any occasion when we would get dessert.
When I left home to go to the US, I missed having those sweets on my first Diwali. I wanted to know that there was a festival happening so I made the simplest thing for me – seviyan ki kheer and for a first attempt it was awesome. Since then every time a festival rolls around I always try to make something to mark the occasion. But sadly my baked dessert making skills don’t extend into the Indian sweets realm. I think it’s because I have seen my mother work so hard to make them that I am scared off by the idea of all the hard work. Plus I am intimidated by deep frying. There I have said it. It’s my weak spot. The discovery of the right temperature is impossible – too cold and it will disintegrate, too hot and it will burn. That’s why I like baking – set the oven to 350F and you are done. I will do anything to avoid deep frying and have even tried to develop recipes for baked everything to avoid frying. I know deep frying is also governed by temperature rules similar to baking but who knows them? All our moms test the fat or just know when it’s ready by experience! How will I learn? I need precise instructions.
But there was one Diwali a few years ago when I decided to delve into Indian sweets making and chose a set of sweets that involved no deep frying and some fusion Indian sweets that could be baked off. I made pista milk burfis, besan laddus, kalakand (mom’s recipe) and a saffron rava badam cake and a coconut cheese burfi (the last two are baked). I used many short cuts like substituting the canned evaporated milk which is available in the US instead of actually reducing whole milk. The hubby was traveling so I used the time to make sweets. I started off one afternoon and cooked all the way into the night until I was done. A friend who was visiting the area from the San Diego area dropped in and questioned my sanity for wanting to make so many sweets. But it was such a thrill – even though in the Bay Area there was no way to not know that an Indian festival was happening, the fact that I was making mithai at home made the occasion all the more memorable. All the sweets were decent (even though some were better than others) especially given I was making everything except kalakand for the first time. On Diwali we lit candles and got together with friends and guess who brought the sweets! I also gave out little boxes of sweets to friends and for a week afterward whoever visited us got sweets! I think the real thrill was that I could recreate the atmosphere that I grew up in – cooking for the people you love to make your lives together memorable. How do you know one day from the next otherwise?
My son has inherited his parents sweet tooth. On Ganesh Chaturthi he went down to see the puja with the security guard in the building. He was barely a year then. All the kids fed him the prasad, which was modak and according to the security guard he ate at least 4 modaks at a time. So I am pleased to bits that I can make some of these sweets for him someday when he doesn’t mind me being in the kitchen so much. Until then we will have to wait it out and eat store bought sweets.