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

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.
  • 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. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Kuttida avalakki - a home made mix to make a delicious gojjavalakki in minutes

Long, long ago, there were two friends. As kids they grew up together, went to school together. One was called Sudhama and the other was named Krishna. They stayed in a boarding school (Gurukula) with their teacher and his family along with other students. The two of them bonded very well over the course 7 years of schooling. They were inseparable and could be spotted together in all activities in the school. Years pass, schooling comes to an end, they graduate and are both very excited to go out in to the world and start their adult lives. As it happens at every graduation, both Krishna & Sudhama are sad to be going separate ways, hug each other and promise that they will keep in touch always. And as it happens in most cases, they both become busy in their lives and the friendship, staying in touch takes a backseat.
Krishna goes back home and becomes very successful at what he does while Sudhama faces hard times and struggles to even feed his large family. Krishna's fame extends all over the kingdom and one day reaches Sudhama's little town on the other side. Sudhama's wife is worldly wise, a mother bent on making ends meet and taking care of her family. She talks to her husband and asks him if he would visit his rich friend and get something to help them get over their difficulties in life. Sudhama who is very proud tells her that he would never go begging from his friend. The wife doesn't give up easily and keeps telling the husband about how things could change if only he would do as she said and finally Sudhama relents and sets out on his journey to meet Krishna.
It is a long journey, Sudhama's wife comes up with a couple of handfuls of humble avalakki (poha) so the husband doesn't starve on his long journey. She puts it into an old cloth piece, ties up a knot and gives it to her husband. With no mode of transport to carry him quickly to his destination, Sudhama walks all the way, for many days and finally reaches Krishna's home town. It is a much bigger city, one he has never been to and is dazzlingly beautiful. Krishna being who he is, everyone knows exactly where he lives, so after finding out the address, Sudhama makes his way hesitantly towards the palace. The guard stops this dirty looking, travel weary person at the door and questions his intention. Not believing his story of knowing Krishna from childhood, the guard is suspicious though he goes in to report a visitor.
Krishna is relaxing in the afternoon sun with his wife Rukmini after a heavy lunch and orders the guard to bring the stranger in. Sudhama by this time is already scared and is thinking of the shame that awaits him as the guard pushes him into the inner chambers where Krishna is sitting. As soon as Sudhama enters, Krishna jumps out of his seat, runs towards him and embraces him in a bear hug. At that moment, there is no line between the poor & rich, successful and not-so-successful, they are both two good friends who had shared many, many memories together.
Krishna playing the host, washes the feet of his guest, makes him comfortable, gives him food to eat and when they sit down after food to catch up where they had left off years ago, Krishna asks Sudhama what he had brought for his friend as he was visiting him after many years. Sudhama is very ashamed and tries to avoid the question as he has nothing to offer. Krishna is insistent and playful and says that even if Sudhama had forgotten his friend, his wife would never send him empty handed and snatches the old thaili (cloth bag) that Sudhama is carrying. Inside it, he finds another small cloth tied into a knot. Krishna eagerly opens it up and squeals with joy when he sees the remaining couple of morsels of dried up avalakki (which was Sudhama's journey food) and greedily pops some into the mouth. His eyes close contentedly as he remarks, "Well dear friend, are you so selfish that you wanted to hide this delicious avalakki from me and eat it all by yourself"?. As he puts his hand for another morsel, Rukmini gently tells him, "hasn't there been enough already, my Lord?". Krishna, smiles and puts the thaili away and goes back to chatting with his old friend.
Sudhama has a great time with Krishna, as if they had never been away, enjoys the hospitality but never feels up to asking Krishna for help. After a couple days of stay, he bids farewell and heads back home. His heart is full having seen his old friend and he doesn't remember the poverty back home or the reason for his visit. As he approaches his home, he is shocked to see a palatial home in the place where his shack stood and even more surprised when his wife and children run towards him, well dressed and looking well fed and happy. He realizes Krishna's magic and is thankful for the friendship.
I don't know how many times I have listened to this story from nammamma and anna growing up. It was a story that had all the emotions in right proportions, there was friendship, there was surprise, there was happiness and joy. The charm never fades away and depending on your age and stage in life, you can interpret it at different levels. I am sure many of you would recognize this very popular story from the great epic. I have listened in rapture to these stories when little, read many versions of them myself as I grew up, questioned a number of times, and have gone back to re-tell them to my daughter when she was a kid. It is an endearing story of two friends and how nothing can come between a true friendship. For me, it also is a story that establishes the power of humble avalakki, eating a handful of which made Krishna shower all the riches on his poor friend. Ok, I am a little totally biased here :-).
Avalakki (also called poha or beaten rice or flattened rice) is such a versatile ingredient and makes many delicious dishes. It is also considered as something that can be consumed while you are fasting unlike regular rice. Avalakki also happens to be one of the most preferred travel companion in many south indian homes, as it stays good and is non messy to carry while on the road. One of my doddamma (mom's elder sister) always had this mix in her bag when she traveled as she had many self imposed restrictions on what she would/could eat and always fell back on her trusted avalakki mixture. I loved it so much even in its dry mix state that I would beg her to give me a couple spoons. Once the spicy, tangy, sweetish mix popped into the mouth, I would be the happiest girl in town :-).
Last week I was traveling on work and was away from home for the entire week. While I have become good at spotting vegetarian choices during lunches & dinners and have learnt to successfully stay cheerful on an overload of salads, bread and potatoes, I love to start my day off with something that reminds me of home as the delicious taste, the familiar smell helps me live off of it for the rest of the day. Today's recipe is something we as a family always carry while travelling on longer trips.

As usual, I made the mixture last weekend before heading out, packed a small ziplock bag and left some at home for BH. While I was perfectly fine eating the bf at the hotel for the first 2 days, I was craving for something other than cereals and fruits by day#3 :-). I mixed a few spoons of the avalakki mixture in a cup in the room when I got up and by the time I got ready 30mins or so later, fluffy, aromatic avalakki was ready for me to dig into. Just for fun, I took a picture of my bf on a whim and posted it on my personal fb the other day. I was thrilled to see so many friends writing in to say how this is their travel companion too. And there were many recipe requests that made me make another batch today and post it on the blog. We are not traveling this week but the mix will be eaten up more than happily for bf in the coming days :-), I have a big fan following for this recipe at home.

So what is special about this recipe? It is a dry mix that can be carried easily and made into a yummy treat just by soaking it in water for a short while. Kuttavalakki or kuttida avalakki refers to the process of pounding the avalakki and the rest of the ingredients together to make the mix. I don't use the old world gadgets anymore and nor do I hand pound the mix, rather it goes into my blender. So may be I should rename this as 'mixavalakki' or 'blendavalakki', what do you think :-)?. Whatever the name maybe, this is one delicious dish for sure, so go ahead and give it a try and take it with you on the go. Instead of soaked oats, you can enjoy soaked avalakki for a change. I list curry leaves below but I didn't have them today so you will not see them in my pictures.

What do you need to make kuttavalakki? 
Makes about 5 cups of mix
3 cups medium thick avalakki/poha/beaten rice
3/4 cup lightly packed grated dry coconut/kobbari (can be replaced with desiccated unsweetened coconut)
2 Tbsp crushed jaggery (can be replaced with brown sugar)
1 Tbsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/8 Tsp asafoetida/hing
To roast: 
2.5 Tbsp chana dal/kadle bele/split bengal gram
2 Tbsp sesame seeds (use either polished or unpolished white sesame and not black)
1 Tbsp urad dal/uddina bele/split black lentils
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 Tbsp black pepper
1 Tsp cumin
1/2 Tsp fenugreek seeds
1.5 Tbsp (or a key lime size) tamarind
3-4 dry red chilies (I use a mix of mild Byadagi and spicy guntur varieties for a balance of color and heat)
1/4 cup oil
1 Tsp mustard
1 Tbsp chana dal
1 Tbsp urad dal
2 Tbsp peanuts (more or less as you like)
1/4 Tsp turmeric powder
1-2 dry red chilies (optional and can be omitted)
8-10 curry leaves chopped small

How do you make kuttavalakki? 
  • Pick avalakki for any dirt and keep aside
  • Pick seeds, pith and strings from tamarind and make small flat pieces. 
  • Heat a heavy bottom pan and add chana dal from the 'To roast' list. Give it a minute head start on medium-low heat and add urad dal. 
  • Roast the dals, stirring frequently until they turn light golden in color. 
  • Add all the remaining ingredients listed under 'to roast' and stirring frequently roast them until you get a nice fragrance of the spices. Take care not to burn any of them. 
  • Add hing and grated coconut (reserve a Tsp for later) into the pan, stir it once and switch off. 
  • Let the roasted ingredients cool completely. 
  • In a mixer jar, take all the roasted ingredients and grind into a fine powder. 
  • Add salt, grated jaggery and give it another run of the blender. 
  • Take this into a wide mixing bowl or plate. 
  • Add avalakki/poha to the blender (in batches if you need to) and make a coarse powder. 
  • Add this to the same mixing bowl/plate. 
  • Heat oil in a seasoning pan, add all the ingredients listed under 'seasoning' and roast on low heat (lower the heat and longer the the roasting time, the dals and peanuts retain their crunch better) until mustard starts to pop and the dals turn golden pink. Add reserved coconut gratings. 
  • Switch off and pour it over the ground mixture. 
  • Let it all cool completely before mixing in (use your fingers and hand) to make a homogeneous mixture. 
  • Once cool, you can either make it into gojjavalakki (see below) or store it for later use in a dry ziplock bag or container. 
How do you turn the mix into gojjavalakki?
  • Take 2-3 Tbsp of the dry mixture into a bowl (or a cup or glass depending on where you are). 
  • Add quarter cup of water, thumb rule is to add enough water to form a thin layer on the top surface of the mix and every grain of the mix is soaked. 
  • Do not mix and touch it for about 15mins (thicker the avalakki variety, takes longer to soak but no longer than 30mins). 
  • After the soak time, using a fork, fluff it up all around and enjoy. 
  • If you have access to some home made yogurt, add a dollop on the side or mix it up right in and enjoy. 
  • Tamarind I get here is usually very dehydrated and does not contain moisture, warming it up in the hot pan makes it softer and easier to grind. If you have wet tamarind, ensure you spread it out to make it a little dry. 
  • While grinding the spice mix, take care to not run the blender for long, pulse it if you need to and get a dry powder. Running the blender continuously makes sesame seeds give out their oil and turns the mixture wet. 
  • Amount of jaggery, salt, and tamarind is mainly to taste here. Experiment and find your balance. Remember that the dry mixture taste gets diluted once you add water, so accommodate your quantities for that. 
  • Color of your gojjavalakki depends on the chilies and turmeric used, you can see the difference in colors between my two batches in the pics above. Not a big deal unless you are very particular about the aesthetics :-)
  • The dry mixture stays well for a couple of weeks and longer if you refrigerate it. 
  • Make sure the mixer/blender jar is dry and devoid of any moisture before you make the powders. 
  • Do not use the thin variety of avalakki for this recipe, it just makes it all lumpy and mushy. 
  • Nammamma used to spread avalakki in the sun to freshen it up but since I don't make her 'huge' quantities, I use it directly from the packet.
  • I am very liberal with dry coconut as it enhances the taste :-), reduce the quantity if you wish to.
Kuttavalakki wisdom: 
  • Thicker variety of avalakki absorbs more water and takes a few minutes longer to fluff up.
  • If you make a very fine powder of poha, the final product turns soft and mushy instead of fluffy.
  • After the soak time is up, make sure you fluff it up with a fork completely (from the bottom up) so it is homogeneous.