|gaajar halva with a squiggle of milk pak cream|
winter is the season of indulgence. it calls for the richness of butter and cream; of dark meats and root vegetables.
in england, my adopted home, winter is the time to eat roast meats with potatoes to sponge the juices. soft cheeses high on fat are eaten with sharp chutneys made from apples, quince and beetroots. desserts feature steamed puddings, deep dark ones heavy with vine fruits or soft sweet ones with delicate constitutions. both love a little cream or custard to mellow the heat and sweet. in pakistan, my erstwhile home, december is wedding season, so alongside the kormas, paalak and fragrant pilaus are trays of my favourite dessert. gaajar halva (carrot halva) is made from laal gaajar (literally red carrots). these are particular to the sub-continent. they are distinct from the orange ones that i use in england. they are crisp and sweet and an almost transparent red in hue.
the word halva originates from the arabic root word ‘hulw’ meaning sweet. the term straddles a range of confections across the middle east, central and south asia. in the sub-continent, halva making became a specialised trade and craft leading to a caste named ‘halwai’. in modern parlance ‘halwai’ refers to both those who inherited the family name or are associated with the trade.
that said, there is an equally strong tradition for homemade halva.in my family, it was my dadi who was famed for her halva making. she could transform the simplest ingredients into pleasure. i still dream of her malai halva (made with three simple ingredients: sugar, fresh buffalo milk cream, and cake-rusk crumbs). i grew up with the legend of her ‘habshi halva’. the word habshi rather inappropriately translates to ‘negro’ and refers to the colour of the halva; a dark shade of brown. habshi halva is made from flour, sprouted wheat, sugar and aromatics such as rose essence and cardamom. the ingredients are cooked for hours in ghee and buffalo milk until the grains plump with the dairy and come together in a sticky paste. whole nuts like almonds and pistachio are stirred through the halva before it is cut into rough squares.
in pakistan, halva is made from a variety of ingredients. as a child, i loved suji halva, a soft confection made with semolina toasted in ghee and then simmered in sugar syrup until fluffy. besan halva (made from toasted gram flour) is a family favourite. we like it cooked to the point that it is stiff enough to be cut into diamonds. pakistanis also make halva with lentils, specifically channa and maash. the latter are cooked in milk, sugar and ghee. mama loves maash daal halva which contains gummy fragments of tragacanth gum. i prefer channa daal halva. o’s phoopo makes one that melts in the mouth, its silken texture broken only by the crunch of almonds.
when it comes to gaajar halva, i draw a firm line. simply put, i think mama’s is best. i like my gaajar halva to be vermillion hued with a balanced sweetness. mama achieves this by frying the carrots with the sugar until they caramelise and darken in colour. this process is called ‘bhuno’ and is an essential technique in the repertoire of a south asian cook. most halva making is time consuming and it makes sense to make a large batch, neatly packaging and freezing the halva to keep through the winter. on my last trip to pakistan, mama and i found time to experiment in the kitchen. she took to the kitchen with ‘sugared orange: recipes and stories from a winter in poland’; a cookbook i bought for her to celebrate her heritage. i made some of my favourite egg recipes for brunch as well as pasta with yoghurt sauce for dinner. we dedicated one afternoon to the annual cooking of gaajar halva, with extra elbow grease from a (our cleaning lady). it took several hours to make, but it was worth it.
when we were done, baba and i had a generous bowlful with a squiggle of snow-white milk pack cream.
i say it is the cook’s prerogative.
three kilograms carrots, coarsely grated*
two kilograms full cream milk
eight green cardamom pods
one and a half kilograms sugar
three hundred and fifty grams butter or ghee
a handful of golden sultanas
a handful of slivered almonds
double or clotted cream (optional)
double or clotted cream (optional)
silver leaf (optional)
*’laal gaajar’ can be bought at south asian grocery stores in england. please note that the weight is of grated carrots so you will need a little over three kilograms to obtain this yield.
you will need a heavy bottomed pan large enough to comfortably hold the carrots and milk with plenty of headroom on top. a sturdy wooden spoon is important for stirring.
bruise the cardamom so that the pods slit and reveal their seeds somewhat. add these to the carrots and milk. place the pan on medium heat. bring the contents to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the carrots are soft, stirring every so often to ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom.
this can take up to an hour and a half. check the carrots from time to time by squishing them between your fingers. once the carrots are tender, turn the heat up and allow the milk to evaporate completely. continue to stir the contents of the pan at regular intervals to avoid burning.
when the milk has evaporated fully, reduce the heat to medium and add the sugar. you will find that the contents of the pan will become runny again. do not worry. the sugar will melt and then integrate. you will need to stir the mixture consistently during this stage. it is most likely that you will need to adjust the heat from time to time if you find that the mixture is likely to stick. check the rim of your stirring spoon and if the carrots are too dark, you will know that you need to lower the heat.
once the halwa has come together as a composite whole, add the butter or ghee. there is plenty more stirring at this stage as at first the halwa will absorb the fat. you will need to continue to cook, stir and ‘bhuno’ (fry) the halwa until it begins to turns a few shades deeper. the halwa is done when it bleeds some of the butter, which will be visible as a brick coloured rim of oil, and the carrot mixture appears glossy and almost translucent.
remove the halwa from the heat. add the sultanas and almonds and mix to distribute evenly.
gaajar halwa is best served hot. i like mine with cream simply because the cream counteracts the sweetness and also adds coolness. if you want to decorate it, anoint with silver leaf.