No Diwali celebration is complete without platefuls of barfi, besan laddoo and halwa – and homemade sweets are the best
Monisha Bharadwaj and Homa Khaleeli taste their barfi. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the GuardianIndian sweets are extreme. Plump with clarified butter, glistening with syrup and luridly coloured, they are not for the fainthearted. But it is hard for me to walk past a shop where slabs of the jelly-like Karachi halwa, topped with almonds, or newly fried bright orange jalebis sit enticingly in the window, and not find myself at the counter.
These sugary confections have an emotional pull, too, from their association with happiness, good luck and festivals. Celebrating a new baby, a promotion at work or straight A*s in your GCSEs is incomplete without a plate of mithai (sweets). When I told my aunt I was getting married I made sure I secured her to make the sweets in the same breath. My husband was alarmed to discover that on the wedding day we would be faced with toothpick-wielding relatives trying to force feed him pastel-hued squares of milky barfi for good luck.
Yet somehow their violent charms seem to have frightened away most British devotees of India’s savoury dishes. A home cook’s everyday repertoire might include Keralan fish curry or dhal – dishes that show the increasingly sophisticated appreciation of south Asian cuisine. But it’s still rare to see a non-Asian face in any of the multitude of Indian sweet houses in London’s Southall or Manchester’s Rusholme. The colours can seem vulgar, the sugar content too high for uninitiated palates – just two little balls of my favourite, gulab jamun (a fried sweet of milky dough bathed in syrup) can be as much as 380 calories.
Food writer and cookery teacher Monisha Bharadwaj thinks this is a shame, and insists that sweets made at home are completely different. Not that she is claiming they could be called healthy (although she does helpfully point out that gajar ka halwa – made from carrots – might count as one of your five a day), but it is possible to tame the sugar and fat. “In shops the sweets all have the maximum amount of sugar, colour and ghee in them. At home they taste very different – you don’t feel like you can’t eat more than one bite.”
I have arrived in Monisha’s immaculate kitchen (cleaned twice a day, she tells me cheerfully) to learn how to make some favourites. It’s the perfect time – in nearby Southall, the shops are already filling up with lamps, candles and fireworks in preparation for Diwali. The five-day festival of light, celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, starts on 5 November.
“There are no specific dishes you eat in Diwali but you must eat sweets,” Monisha insists. “Making them is part of the buildup, with the children getting involved. Then when you go visiting you will be offered them at everyone’s house. At the end of Diwali you should be completely sweeted-out.”
Variety is important, so we start by making two sets of barfi – solid cubes of condensed milk. Coconut is first – it is the classic version. We grind cardamom seeds, popping them from their dried pods to release their strong scent, then boil double cream, add sugar and milk powder and turn it into custard. Finally we add the coconut and cardamom and pour the mixture into a shallow dish, leaving it to cool. I can’t wait for it to fully set though – we dive in with teaspoons. It’s delicious, with a stronger caramel flavour than a shop-bought version, and, as Monisha promised, not as overpoweringly sweet. Next up is the chocolate barfi, which is also tastier than the dry commercial offering, where flavour feels like an afterthought.
The problems start when I try something a little more tricky – besan laddoo. These cheery little beige spheres, made from a mixture of chickpea (gram) flour and semolina, and flavoured with almonds and cardamom, should shine gently with the butter. Monisha shows me how to roast the gram flour, butter and semolina until the flour’s raw and slightly bitter smell disappears. But once we have added the sugar and flavourings, and begin to shape the sweets, they turn into a sticky mess in my hands. “Too much ghee,” Monisha swiftly diagnoses. But even her magic fingers can’t make the plumpness last, and within seconds it melts. “Never mind,” she announces, quickly sticking a sultana in the top. “We’ll just say you were cooking a flat pedhe instead.” I would have thanked her, but my mouth was too full.
• For more information on Monisha’s Dilwali food walk, cooking classes and cookery books, see cookingwithmonisha.com
200g besan or gram flour
4 tbsp semolina
100g caster sugar
4 tbsp sliced almonds
1 tsp cardamom powder
A few raisins to decorate
Put the gram flour, semolina and ghee in a heavy saucepan and fry on a medium heat for about 10 minutes or until an aroma develops. Make sure to keep the heat down and keep stirring so the flour roasts right through.
Turn off the heat and allow to cool until just warm.
Stir in the sugar, almonds and cardamom.
Take a small fistful of the flour and press into a ball. Put a raisin into each one to decorate.
Chocolate barfi (makes 20 squares)
120g cocoa powder
400g tin condensed milk
4 tbsp mixed chopped nuts
2 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp for greasing the dish
Pour the condensed milk into a heavy saucepan. Add the butter and the cocoa. Cook on a gentle heat stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and begins to draw away from the side of the pan.
Grease a flat dish with the extra butter. Pour the thick cocoa mixture in and smooth the surface with a spatula.
Allow to cool and set.
Sprinkle with the mixed nuts and cut into 1in squares. Barfi can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
Coconut barfi (makes 20 squares)
150ml double cream
150g milk powder
120g caster sugar
75g dessicated coconut
½ tsp cardamom powder
Put the cream in a saucepan and bring to the boil, lowering the heat when it gets hot. Add the sugar and cook on a low heat until it bubbles and forms a single thread consistency – this should take 8-10 minutes.
Add the milk powder and stir for a couple of minutes until it begins to leave the side of the pan.
Add the coconut and cardamom and cook for a couple of minutes. Turn out onto a greased plate and allow to cool. Cut into squares.