The festival of lights is here again, and this is the first time I’m not home for it. All morning I’ve been reminiscing of Diwalis gone by. The lighting of the oil lamps or diyas, the making of the rangoli, hanging garlands of marigold on the front door and strings of lights on the balcony – small rituals, signs that the festive season was upon us. As a kid, the major attractions were the firecrackers and of course, the sweets. I was never a rambunctious child and always preferred the beauty and elegance of the sparklers and rockets that exploded into thousands of colors in the sky over the boisterous noise of the ‘bombs’ that the other kids were so fond of. Even now, a display of fireworks will stop me spellbound in my tracks.
The preparations for Diwali would begin weeks in advance. New clothes and gifts would be purchased, the entire house would be turned upside down and every nook and cranny cleaned to an inch of its life, and moms everywhere would start making the snacks and sweets for Diwali day. My mom is an excellent cook and Diwali was the time she really showed off. Endless rows of mithai (Indian sweets) would be cooking, cooling or being wrapped, to be stolen and eaten on the sly when she was not looking. Come Diwali day, and plates of these homemade delicacies would be exchanged with neighbors, friends and family. The doorbell ringing had us kids scurrying out from our hiding places because we knew there were new treats coming in.
As we grew up, Diwali became more about getting together with friends and family. As soon as dusk set in, the glow of the lamps and the musical chants of the aarti would emanate from our house. Mom would guide us through the timeless rituals of the puja, the noise would slowly fade away as we stood still in silent prayer – something I find is getting increasingly rare today. The remainder of the evening was spent in meeting and greeting loved ones, getting together around good food and enjoying the confusion, chatter and laughter that is always the result of a big family gathering.
And today, I’m missing it all so much. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been away from home, and talking to everyone on the phone is just not the same as being there. But Diwali is not a time for sadness, the day doesn’t allow you to be melancholy. So I put on the dangling earrings I’d got as a gift last Diwali, wished everyone in office even if they didn’t completely understand what I was wishing them for (but they loved the sweets), and got together with my roommates around the kitchen table to make mithai.
Hilarity ensued as none of us had tried our hand at this before. I made Besan Laddoos (sweets made of flour, butter, sugar and formed into balls) and since my mom gives out recipes that have a heavy use of the word andaaz (estimate), I alternated between adding besan (chickpea flour) and ghee (clarified butter) until I had the correct consistency, but at least twice the quantity I’d originally planned. We then took turns in stirring and roasting the flour and butter – this is done continuously over very low heat for 40 minutes! But gossip with friends and cups of tea make it much easier. During the cooking stage, the flour will turn golden and then brown and the most heavenly aroma (and I mean HEAVENLY – I don’t use caps that often!) will pervade your kitchen. Off the heat, the mixture is cooled and chopped almonds and sugar are stirred in. The mixture still looked very wet off the heat but I took mom’s word for it and left it overnight, and sure enough it was the prefect consistency to shape into laddoos the next morning. The closest thing I can compare it to here is if you can imagine a smoky, nutty peanut-butter fudge, only better.
I also experimented with malai pedha – one of my favorite sweets; the easy version is made with paneer (Indian cottage cheese), condensed milk, sugar, rose essence and pistachios. I knew it was a success when someone in office refused to believe I’d made it at home. My mom was justifiably proud. I might not have her zeal for cleaning the house, or the ability to gracefully perform all the rituals that she does so effortlessly. But when it comes to sweets, that’s one tradition I know I can honorably carry forward.
Happy Diwali everyone!
P.S. I know this post is missing one important thing – pictures of the food. I’m having trouble recovering my Diwali pictures from my hard drive; so please bear with me. Middle 3 photos courtesy – Pooja and Kamal Punwani.
Recipe adapted from my mom’s kitchen
(You can find the ingredients easily in any Indian store)
Makes 20 small laddoos
2 1/4 cups besan (chickpea flour)
3/4 to 1 cup ghee (clarified butter) (depending on how indulgent you’re feeling)
1/2 cup chopped raw almonds (or as per your preference, I like more nuts in mine)
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1. Melt the ghee in an iron skillet or a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat.
2. Reduce the heat to low, add the besan all at once and immediately mix it well.
3. Roast over very low heat, stirring regularly until the mixture turns medium brown and emanates a rich nutty aroma. This will take 30-40 minutes. (Yes, it’s a labor of love but so worth it!) Make sure the mixture doesn’t burn.
4. Take it off the heat and cool to room temperature. Stir in the almonds.
5. Cover and leave at room temperature overnight. The mixture will have set by next morning. Break it up with a wooden spoon.
6. Add the sugar and mix it in completely. (I find a pastry cutter is a very useful tool here.)
7. Lightly grease your hands and form the mixture into small balls using a rolling motion with the palms of your hand.
8. Store in an airtight container at room temperature. It should keep for up to a week but I’ve never seen it last that long in our house.
Recipe adapted from Sanjeev Kapoor
(You can find the ingredients easily in any Indian store)
Makes 16 small pedhas
8 oz (240 gm) paneer (Indian cottage cheese), finely grated
8 oz (240 ml) condensed milk
1/4 teaspoon rose essence
1/4 teaspoon green cardamom powder (optional)
1/3 chopped pistachios/walnuts/almonds
1. Mix the grated paneer and condensed milk in a heavy-bottomed pan.
2. Cook over medium-low heat until the mixture starts leaving the sides of the pan and almost dries out – you still want it a little wet. This should take about 15 mins.
3. Stir in the rose essence and mix in the nuts.
4. Cool the mixture to room temperature.
5. Lightly grease your hands and form the mixture into small balls, squeezing out any excess liquid. The balls should still have just a little bit of moisture.
6. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for 2-3 days.