To say that I have been doing some Indian cooking lately is like saying that I picked up a granule of sand on the beach. Indian cuisine dates back over 5000 years and each region has its own traditions, religions and culture that influence its food. Hindus tend to be vegetarian and Muslims tend to have meat dishes, although pork is forbidden. Indian food has been influenced by Mongolian, Persian and Chinese cuisine, among others. It is rich and varied and I love it.
While I have done some Indian cooking before, I had only made Kheer as a dessert. I was intrigued by what I had read about Halwa – not to be confused with the Middle Eastern halva.
Like semolina cakes in the Middle East, there is no one single recipe for making Halwa. They all share the same basic ingredients of carrots, ghee, sugar, cardamom and a dairy milk, but the quantities, cooking times and additions make each one unique. And probably each Indian family believes that their version is the best. One thing that they all have in common is patience.
This is not a difficult recipe but like Indian rice pudding (Kheer), it takes time and almost constant stirring to end up with an amazingly velvety, fragrant and utterly satisfying treat. Make this when someone is around that you want to share a nice long chat with while you stir. It is so worth it.
While I think this is a perfect dessert anytime of the year, in India, it is especially relished during Diwali and the colder, wetter months. It is the perfect comfort food.
In order to come up with this version, I read at least 4 different recipes from Indian and vegetarian cookbooks and watched over 6 YouTube videos. Some versions were made with sweetened condensed milk and others were cooked down to form almost a cake-like consistency that was cut into little diamond shapes. I’m sure that they are all wonderful and I’d be happy to eat any of them. However, this version is my amalgam of what I believe to be the best halwa and one that made my husband incredibly happy. Okay, it made ME incredibly happy too! It won’t disappoint.
Yield: About 8 servings
6 cups peeled and finely shredded slim carrots (DO NOT use large, thick woody carrots. They are fine for soup and feeding horses, but will not have the sweetness and tenderness needed here.)
3-4 Tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter
3/4 cup raw or granulated sugar
About 1.25 cups of whole milk (Exact amounts are not essential. Pour in enough to almost but not quite cover the carrots. You can always cook this longer if you added a bit more than you had intended.)
1/4 cup half and half (or additional whole milk) mixed with about 1/8 teaspoon of saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped blanched almonds
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped cashews
3 Tablespoons raisins (preferably golden/Sultanas)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom
In a large, preferably non-stick skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of the ghee. Add all of the carrots and mix through. Add up to an additional Tablespoon of ghee, if needed to coat the carrots.
Cook over a low heat, stirring FREQUENTLY for 40-45 minutes. This is tedious but necessary to prevent burning and to get the carrots to a velvety texture.
Now add the milk and half & half mixture and stir through. Add the 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom and mix through. Cover the pan and on low heat, cook the carrots for 20-25 minutes more. Stir OCCASIONALLY. You want to cook until the milk is just absorbed but the carrots are not dried out
While the carrots cook, melt the remaining ghee in a small skillet and lightly cook the nuts, raisins and remaining cardamom. You just want the raisins to swell and the nuts to release their oils. Set aside.
Uncover and add the sugar and mix through. Now add the nuts and raisin mixture and stir through. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes more. The resulting mixture is incredibly moist, velvety and unctuous. It can be eaten warm or at room temperature. This is quite rich and satisfying and 3-5 ounces per person is more than enough. While the halwa does not need any garnish, you can add a little lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving.