Monday, April 17, 2017

Besan laddoo - a special treat picked up on a journey down the memory lane

The excitement would start building from the moment nammamma announced sometime during dinner time in her gentle voice, "this time kelasa is on so&so day".  The message was for my father more than anyone else but we all had our ears tuned to the adult discussion :-). When we were kids, in addition to the festivals and celebrations, there used to be one or more 'special days (called Thithi or shraadha')' reserved to remember an elderly soul in the family who had passed on. Like in many traditions around the world this day is dedicated to remember and celebrate the life of a beloved grandmom or a grand dad. We had 2 special days celebrated every year. These days don't go by the Gregorian calendar but rather by the ancient Indian calendar and anna would mark them at the beginning of every year on the Bangalore press calendar as soon as he got it home and the calendar would hang conspicuously in the living room. We used to wait for these days as eagerly as any festivals since the food on the day would be an ultimate feast for foodies and non foodies alike. Distinct in taste, different menu than the festival days yet balanced in all nutrients, the lunch was something to look forward to. At that age we turned this naturally somber and reflective day into a day of fun and food as we not only got to eat delicious food but also got to meet cousins and aunts and uncles.
The only part of the day I didn't like much was that the kids were literally banished from the main part of the house where the rituals were performed. Our standard breakfast before school that day was uppittu (A big vessel full of hot uppittu would come to the room along with some pickles and a container of yogurt) before we headed off to school. No wonder uppittu is fondly referred to as 'cement' by many people as it solidifies once inside and stays put for a long time :-). My uncles would feed us kids after bath and then go back into the kitchen to help nammamma, a lot of food preparation and they divided up the chores. If we were home, we had to be quiet as mice and show up in the pooja room only when called. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, chikkappa (dad's younger brother) would call in his school master voice, "come in and take blessings", which was the sound we would be hoping for since morning :-).
What followed a quick 'blessings' session was the 'prasada' session and then the full on lunch :-). Prasada session had chikkappa standing with a big plate with different varieties of dishes prepared on that day, he would nicely break them into tiny pieces and drop into the little hands. We wouldn't get more than a sampler of any variety as he told us that we shouldn't be filling up before lunch (oh yeah, we had stern upbringing!!). I actually hoped that these special days came on school days since atleast we would be in school and not salivating the whole time at the fragrance and aroma from the kitchen. Everything would be done by the time school ended and as soon as we reached home, we would attack the food. If it was on a school holiday, the wait was all pure torture :-). A late lunch on that day only meant we got to stuff up for the delay as well and we took complete advantage of it. I can't imagine how nammamma cooked for so many people on an empty stomach and yet everything turned out just delicious.
Nammamma had a cousin brother and family living in Mysuru as well and they would invite us when they had special days at their home.  'special' days came to their home. So in addition to 2 days in our own home, we had access to 2 more at this cousin's place. But my parents never allowed us to bunk school for our own 'special' days and taking a day off for going to the cousin's house was not even imaginable :-). Most years nammamma would go there by herself after the rest of the family left for work, school/college. Though we missed the elaborate lunch, the cousins always sent amma home with prasada/food. They would send exactly one each for each of us of the different varieties of sweets and savory items :-). Which is why we perked up whenever nammamma made that announcement at dinner time :-).

Although I devoured on the vade (Urad dal deep fried dumplings) from the prasada bag, I mostly looked forward to these sweet, melt in the mouth beauties that was a signature dish of nammamma's cousin. These were the tiny marble sized balls, bright in color, sweet on the tongue with a fine sand-like texture. The besan unde or besan laddoo had to be there every time. It was also precious because nammamma never made them at home. Nammamma was a specialist in making the coveted Mysore pak and for her besan unde was a step down, so she never cared to make it. For us kids, it is always the forbidden fruit that is the juiciest and hence we would wait for the besan unde from outside. Not only were those undes the best besan laddoos I ever eaten, they were one of the tiniest as well, just about the size of a marble, fit for one gulp in a little kid's mouth.
For me these besan laddoos have always been associated with that cousin's family and though it has been many years since I visited them or had the laddoos at their home, the taste is etched in memory. I am not the Mysorepak expert that nammamma was so this is an easy go-to dish for me as my family loves it. I have also found a lot of fans of this laddoo as everytime I have made it and taken it on social events, they just vanish like magic. Other than patiently roasting the gramflour, there is no expert skill required to make this dish at all. It stays well and is travel friendly. I made a batch last week and packed them off to DD, they still seem to be on their way as either fedex or her mailroom goofed up and she didn't receive the package before the weekend which makes me a little bummed. Hoping that she gets it when the services open back on Monday. Update today: Yay!! the package reached my little girl and am happy!!

The south Indian besan laddoos are not coarse in texture rather very fine sandy textured. I prefer this over the north indian version made with coarse besan (called laddoo besan), it is just a personal preference. I have seen and been part of besan laddoo making in temples where we have sat roasting the besan in gallons of ghee in huge kadais to make hundreds of laddoos at one go. The aroma of fresh ghee is so overwhelming, I just wouldn't be able to bring myself to even look at ghee for a month after that :-). The texture and consistency of the laddoo is such that it breaks easily but doesn't crumble down entirely, feels like very fine sand in the mouth and melts away. The laddoos glisten with the ghee when freshly shaped but lose the moisture after a little while.
This is a very simple recipe but you definitely want to pay attention to a few things. It is not technique heavy as the mysore pak where you need to watch for the 'done-ness', but you do need to watch the gram flour so it is neither under nor over roasted. I start dry roasting the besan before adding the ghee to make it easier. There are microwave versions of this dish which are quicker, easier to make without needing as much baby sitting as this stove top version but somehow I like the traditional way making it.

I don't add cardamom as I love the flavor and aroma of the roasted besan as DH doesn't really care for cardamom so much and I am hoping that changes someday :-). I love adding finely chopped almonds into this as they not only add to the texture but also makes the unde more nutritious. You can experiment with unsalted cashew nuts and pistachios as well to see which tastes better for you. Sometimes I toast the nuts, powder them and mix into the gramflour for a richer flavor too.

Unde (pronounced as 'vun de') is a reference to a circular ball in kannada and most laddoos go by this name with an qualifier attached such as rave-unde(laddoos made from semolina), Besan-unde (laddoos made from gram flour) etc.

What do you need to make besan unde?
2 cups fine besan/gram flour/chickpea flour
1+3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup ghee (melted)
1/4 cup almonds

Utensils/gadgets: 
A heavy gauge wide non stick pan.
A wooden spatula

How do you make besan unde? 
  • Melt the ghee if it has solidified, I like to make fresh ghee from butter for this recipe as fresh tastes better :-).
  • Dry roast (you can toast them in the oven at 350F for 10 minutes) almonds, let cool and chop into tiny bits.
  • Sieve the besan/gram flour to get rid of any lumps and measure 2 cups of sieved flour into the pan. 
  • Keep the pan on the stove on the lowest heat/flame and start to roast, keep stirring frequently. 
  • After about 5-6 mins, add the ghee into the pan and mix everything together. 
  • Continue roasting on low flame for the next 30-35mins until the gramflour turns a golden pink and starts to emanate a wonderful nutty aroma. The 2 cups I used took me a total of 45mins from start to finish. 
  • I add the chopped almonds a couple of minutes before switching off and let them roast along with the flour. 
  • Once done, switch off the stove, take the pan off heat (especially if you are using an electric stove that retains heat long after it is switched off) and continue stirring and mixing for another 5mins so as to not let the mix get burnt. 
  • Keep the roasted flour to cool down for about 20-25mins, add the powdered sugar and mix it up completely.
  • Pinch off desired amount of the mixture and shape into a ball. 
  • Lay the shaped laddoos on a plate and let them cool down before storing in a dry container. Ah, I forgot the part about eating, didn't I? start eating anytime once you add sugar :-), it is equally delicious in crumbles as it is in a firmly held ball.
  • The unde/laddoo firms up as it cools and dries for a while after shaping.
Notes: 
  • This dessert is all about the roasting of the gram flour, I cannot stress that enough. Low heat, constant stirring and oodles of patience are the primary ingredients for this dish to turn out best. 
  • Use a pan just wide enough for the amount of flour you take. If the pan is too big, besan has more chances of getting burnt while roasting.
  • Watch for the nutty aroma of the roasted gram flour and the light golden hue before switching off. 
  • Wait for the roasted gramflour to cool down before adding sugar or it will turn into a sorta syrup. 
  • You can add other nuts like unsalted cashews, pistachios or a mix of all of them as well. 
  • When you measure ghee, make sure you have melted it so the quantity is accurate.