A Stirring Christmas
My trials and errors at traditional sweet making
Christmas is a time to celebrate with family and friends. But I’m always pulled in two different directions for this. Should I participate in community choral events, bake cupcakes and cookies and stay the pre-Christmas season in suburban Bandra,(my home)in Mumbai? Or should I experience deep dark cold Indian winter nights at rural Alonda in Vikramgad taluka, which has been my second home for 30 years? This means I cannot participate in the community choral events or attend Christmas concerts as I usually do if I'm in Bandra but will have some time to try my hand at traditional stovetop cooked sweets on my farm. The first option is emotionally stirring because it involves music and group singing. The second option is also stirring because it involves physical stovetop stirring- all- the -while -till -done traditional sweets like milk cream and rekaejao.
This year I've chosen the second option. I decided to try making a traditional East Indian sweet called milk cream, which is also sometimes called vanilla cream. Milk cream is made chiefly from milk and sugar with a small amount of ground cashew nuts and flavoured with vanilla and rose water. The milk is boiled down to half of its volume, then sugar is dissolved and other ingredients added. This mixture is stir-thickened over stovetop heat, stirring almost continuously to a soft-ball consistency and then hand moulded into creamy white shells. A laborious and time-consuming process resulting in a delicious confection which I believe is superior to marzipan. And unique to this corner of India.
When I first got married and started living on a farm, my attempts to make this particular sweet were not perfectly successful. Our farm being primarily a fruit orchard, I did not have access to fresh milk every day. The nearest small dairy was in another village quite far away to go to daily. The Mumbai city network of milk distribution booths and door to door delivery does not exist in Alonda. So I got fresh milk only if the neighbours' cows or buffaloes had calves. Hence we used to stock up on homogenised tetra packed milk purchased from Mumbai. This was convenient because till you opened a pack it could be stored without refrigeration. A big plus point in rural India with its lack of consistent electric supply. So I thought it was because I was using homogenised milk that I was not successful at making milk cream.
Which brings me to the source of the milk I use now and my reason for re-experimenting with making milk cream
Recently we bought a few indigenous brown Indian Gir cows. This year two calves were born — one in October and one in November. Unfortunately on the birthdays of both calves I had to be in Mumbai for a couple of days for some other work to be done... So I missed those beautiful moments of calves being born at our farm. The calves look adorable and are very playful. Besides each other, they have our 3 pet dogs as companions. The sight of newborn calves and adult dogs frolicking about together is as amusing as it is heartwarming. Especially since our great dane and the calves are approximately the same size. And our golden retriever and pariah dog are the chief instigators of mischief! So I sometimes wonder if the calves know that the dogs are dogs and not slightly different looking calves!!
Every morning the cattle are led out of the stable to graze on grass growing on a large fenced off area of our farmland. The young calves are allowed to suckle from their mothers and then roam about for sometime in the morning afternoon and evening. The rest of the day they are tethered under a thatch roof outdoor shelter, open on all sides. The calves are tethered so that they do not drink up all the milk from their mothers while the mother cows are grazing. Thus we can get milk for our own consumption and a little for sale. The mother cows are free to come to this shelter if they hear the calves calling out. So the calves do definitely have the milk that they need to suckle. In the night the whole herd is herded into the stable. Milking for our own consumption is done in the morning and evening. This is a cruelty-free way of milking cows. And the milk that we get is far more tasty both before and after boiling than homogenised UHT buffalo or cows milk available in tetrapaks.
So this year I tried making milk cream using fresh milk from our own cows. Again I was not absolutely successful but not disappointed either. The first lot reached the required soft ball consistency, so I was able to roll it into marble-sized balls between the palms of my hand. But I was at my farmhouse and had forgotten to bring along my shell-shaped rubber moulds which were in my city house. So I made milk cream ladoos!! The second lot got slightly underdone and was too gooey to mould, and had to be eaten by the spoonfuls. But both lots were delicious though not texture perfect milk cream. Most expert home cooks I know in our tiny community don’t seem to use a candy thermometer to take the guesswork out of the correct setting point. But I now think it might be wise for me to ask Santa for a candy thermometer.
While milk cream has milk and sugar as its chief components, Rekaejao uses curdled milk and sugar (Requeijao in Portuguese means curds). It is also a delicious sweet but seems to be out of fashion nowadays. Modern sweet making ladies will take orders for milk cream, marzipan, walnut fudge, cashew nut cordial, coconut cordial, guava cheese and jujubes, but not for rekaejao.
So I also bravely embarked for the first time ever on making rekaejao. Knowing only that it was made from curdled milk and without any tried and tested recipe from any of the older ladies in my extended family. I had to rely on my taste bud memories of the two or three times I had tasted rekaejao. Dear oh dear! I ended up with a delicious toffee but definitely not looking like rekaejao as I remember, which was cut into creamy white rectangular bits, each bit decorated with one very fine pale pink flower and two pale green leaves in icing sugar. Mine was a golden orange sweet and sour toffee which I have christened “ shreekhand fudge”. (shreekhand is a creamy textured Indian dessert also made with curds and sugar).
I came back to Mumbai a few days before Christmas because we've always celebrated Christmas Day in Bandra. So my stirring sweet making has been temporarily suspended. However, I perused through three authoritative East Indian community cookbooks. And only one had one recipe of rekaejao. It uses curdled milk, sugar, blanched almonds and stiffly beaten egg whites. My good friend Gina who has supplied me with lots of milk cream and marzipan over the years (she takes orders for both of these but has never taken orders for rekaejao) told me more about rekaejao. “ The finished sweet is sweet and not even a hint of sour because there's fresh curds used with all the whey drained out” She further explained that “in the old days — the 1960s and before — rekaejao was the most expensive sweet. It was also labour intensive. But in those days everything was handmade from scratch so more than the labour involved it was the cost of the expensive ingredients, that determined the final price of the sweet.”
It was no wonder then that I ended up making shreekhand fudge instead of rekaejao, as I had used only curds and whey and sugar stirring all the while till setting point. Unknowingly I had “ fudged it” ( pun intended) as Gina's husband Salim joked. Salim though not an East Indian is a whiz at cooking all kinds of cuisine and is something of an expert with East Indian sweets. And he has a home science approach to the techniques of sweet making, willingly sharing all his experiences of the same with me. Which is a refreshing change from mystical sounding reasons like “ you should have a good hand….or its the extra love that you pour into the making process” to be successful at making Christmas sweets, as some gracious older ladies or inexperienced younger ones would have you believe!!.
Meanwhile while in Bandra I hope to do a spot of baking for Christmas. At my farmhouse being as it is in rural India I do not have an oven, due to a still highly erratic electric power supply system. But when I do go back there for the proper 12 days of Christmas (which is from December 26th of the current year to January 6th of the next year) I plan to further fine-tune my experiments with a ‘stirring’ sweet making Christmas. I hope I manage to do that.
Additionally, there are other soul-stirring benefits of living on a farm. Moonlight illuminates the village pathways and unpaved roads. Fireflies light up the bushes. Silent nights are the norm at our farm. If the silence is broken it’s with the hum of insects chirping. Or with the sounds of cattle lowing. And quite often nomad shepherds who come from other parts of Maharashtra and India in search of grazing pastures for their goats and sheep, camp out in the open fields, under a star-studded sky and keep watch over their flocks by night.