This post is my second entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. Click here to see my contestant profile. Voting begins Monday, September 27, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first round, I appreciate all of your support!
Growing up, our family’s diet was very all American: meat and potatoes. Our meals offered very little in the way of exotic flavors beyond that of our favorite Chinese restaurant. And while as a child I certainly had no complaints, it wasn’t until college, when I was first out on my own, that my palate really began to expand. Living so close to San Francisco, I was able to discover food from all over the world: Thailand, India, Japan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Peru, and many other places. These were new flavors. Exciting flavors. Flavors that, even to this day, remain some of my very favorite. It was as though up until then, I had been eating my way through a black and white world and suddenly stumbled upon a Technicolor buffet.
Since I genuinely enjoy cooking and baking so much, I find that I very rarely eat at restaurants these days. When I do, I am attracted to those dishes that I don’t venture to create with much frequency in my own kitchen: most often, Sushi, Thai curry, and Indian food. And while I have certainly tried my hand at some delicious homemade curries, rolled my own sushi, and explored North African, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian cuisine at home, I have rarely experimented with international desserts. It’s ironic, because as you can no doubt tell by my posts here on Jacob’s Kitchen, desserts are typically what most inspire me. Ina Garten always says that people will often not remember what you served for dinner, but they will always remember what you served for dessert. I agree. And so, challenged to create a dish from another culture, I figured the time had finally come to venture out into the exciting new world of international sweets.
After much deliberation, I decided upon my very favorite Indian dessert, gulab jamun. Which are, if you have never had them, much like Indian doughnut holes, soaked in a rose water and cardamom flavored sugar syrup. The dough is rich, moist and spongy, and it has a deep milky flavor and aroma. The syrup is sweet and fragrant, and together they make for the perfect end to any Indian meal.
I scoured my cook books and the internet and came up with five or six different gulab jamun recipes that were, essentially, all the same. The only difference seemed to be that some called for a pinch of saffron, and some did not. While the saffron does add a beautiful color, since I found myself almost out of it, I decided to exclude it from my recipe. The rose water is a key ingredient, however, that really cannot be omitted. (“Gulab,” after all, being the Hindi word for rose.) Luckily, having made baklava only last month, I had a nice big bottle of it in my pantry.
I began by mixing together the dry ingredients: two cups of non-fat dried milk powder (which you can typically find in the cereal or baking section of your grocery store), one half cup of all purpose flour, one fourth teaspoon baking soda, a half a teaspoon of ground cardamom, and a large pinch of salt. To that, I added six tablespoons of room temperature butter, and, using my fingers, gently blended the butter into the dry mixture. When it was thoroughly combined, I added half a cup of warm, full fat milk, mixing the dough together with a fork. Once the dough came together and everything was fully moistened, I covered it and set it aside, allowing the dough to rest for ten minutes.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan, I combined two cups of granulated sugar, four cups of water, one half teaspoon ground cardamom, and a splash of rose water. The rose water I purchased isn’t as concentrated as others that I have used in the past. Here I used roughly a fourth of a cup, which is a shocking amount, but you will want to add a few drops incrementally, and decide after sampling if you would like more. In the end, you want the syrup to be fragrant without tasting like perfume. Once the syrup reached a boil, I reduced the heat to low, and allowed the mixture to gently simmer while I tended to the making of the balls.
In a non stick skillet, I added enough canola oil to reach approximately one inch up the side of the pan, and set it over a medium low flame to slowly heat. I removed the rested dough from the bowl and kneaded it by hand for four or five minutes until it was very smooth (the dough should still be very soft and relatively sticky at this point). The dried milk powder absorbs a lot of liquid, so if you find that your dough has become too stiff, that it is cracking, or no longer holding together, don’t be afraid to add an additional splash or two of milk until you reach the desired consistency. Once the dough is very smooth, pinch off portions of dough about the size of a ping pong ball, and roll them in your hands until smooth. All of the recipes I referenced stressed the importance of the balls being very smooth before frying, and I found this step to be particularly troublesome. And while, in the end, I didn’t arrive at perfectly smooth balls, I discovered that dipping each ball halfway into milk, shaking off the excess, and then rolling them more easily facilitated the formation of blemish free balls.
To test the oil, carefully place a small scrap of dough into the pan. If the oil is hot enough, the dough should sink to the bottom, slowly bubble, and rise to the surface in approximately twenty seconds. If it rises much faster than that your oil is too hot; if it takes much longer your oil is too cold. Gently place the formed balls into the heated oil, and fry for six to eight minutes, periodically turning them to ensure evening browning. Don’t rush this step, as you want the balls to be deeply golden brown and fully cooked through. Remove the finished balls from the pan, place them on a paper towel lined baking sheet to absorb any excess oil, and allow the balls to cool to room temperature. Place the cooled balls into the warm syrup (now taken off of the stove) and soak for at least fifteen minutes but for up to four days. Serve the galub jamun warm with a little bit of extra syrup. Optionally, you may also choose to garnish with a sprinkling of finely chopped pistachios, almonds, cashews, or even some toasted coconut.
One of the greatest things about food, which never ceases to amaze me, is its ability to transport you all the way to the other side of the world. All you need is a fork and a healthy sense of adventure. With a few simple new techniques and exotic ingredients, you might find yourself whisked away to Morocco, Paris, or Dubai, exploring the flavors and traditions of Bangkok, Brussels, or Bangladesh, without ever having to leave your kitchen. Little mini meal vacations, with no passport required. I hope the ease of making these simple, but delicious Indian treats has inspired you to pick up a new ingredient or experiment with some new flavors in the kitchen. You don’t have to be intimidated by the idea of having to recreate numerous courses of international cuisine. Start small, test the waters, and soon enough you’ll be cooking your favorite foreign classics like a pro. The most important attribute to have in the kitchen is fearlessness. After all, it’s just food, what’s the very worst that can happen?