When food connects to memory, there is a sense of warmth that crosses the heart. That time, those days, chatter, loud laughter, the aroma of food, one thought after the other and I am suddenly transported to our home where my mom worked daily magic in the kitchen. It was love, through food, expressed in ways great and small. What sticks with me – the part that stays with me even after moving out of the house for almost a decade now- is that her efforts nourished my spirits as much as they filled my stomach.
Those sweet days are behind me but as I stir a couple of pounds of shredded carrot on the stove, I think about the days when gajar ka halwa was made, my mother just scrapped, peeled, and grated all morning sitting in front of the TV. There were no food processors in our home then so she used a stainless steel rectangular grater placed on top of a large bowl. In between, she chatted with the lady who came in to clean the house or the next-door aunty who stopped by for a cup of tea. She even stopped by to see what my brother and I were up to but the grating never stopped.
In India, Halwa is usually an after meal or breakfast treat. Made with different kinds of vegetables, grains, fruits, nuts, seeds and even with lentils, it is a very popular thing when it comes to desserts.
Gajar ka Halwa is an indulgent confection of shredded carrots slow cooked in milk and ghee (clarified butter) for hours. It is a winter specialty in northern parts of India. There are a lot of recipes which use khoya (solidified milk), condensed milk to make it rather rich and decadent. I don’t add those because I don’t want to steal away the taste of the carrots and also that much dairy makes it quite heavy. You can add a cup or so of khoya to this recipe towards the end if you like.
Ingredients (Makes 6-8 servings)
- 2 lb carrots (preferably organic, they make a lot of difference in taste)
- 2 tbsp + 1/2 cup ghee
- 1 cup + ¾ cup whole milk, warmed
- ¾ cup sugar (can go up to 1 cup)
- 1 tsp cardamom powder
- Almonds, cashews, pistachio and raisins for garnish
Peel the carrots and thoroughly wash them under running water. Air-dry the carrots completely before proceeding to grate. Using a food processor, shred the carrots.
In a heavy-bottomed pan (preferably cast iron) on medium heat, tip in 2 tbsp ghee, after it melts, add the carrots. Mix nicely so that the carrots are coated in ghee. Let the carrots cook for about 20-25 minutes, uncovered. You can stir occasionally in between so that they do not stick to the bottom. You will see a lot of steam coming up and the carrot shreds start to break down but this is fine because you want to cook off the moisture.
After 20-25 minutes of cooking, add warm milk to the pan. Be careful when you do so because there will be splatter. Combine the milk and carrots thoroughly. Now, again let the carrot and milk mixture cook on medium-low heat. You need to stir it so that nothing sticks to the bottom; keep the heat low medium. We want the carrots to cook in milk and let the water of milk liquid evaporate leaving behind milk solids. This will take approximately 2-3 hours (or more depending on how juicy your carrots are). This is indeed a labour of love. Phew!
You will see the carrots turning a dark shade of orange and little drops of fat (from ghee and milk) on the sides of the pot, some of it might start sticking to the bottom of the pan, reduce the heat to low or take off from stove for few minutes if that happens.
After all the milk has evaporated, add the sugar. Immediately the carrots will become watery again. Don’t worry, Keep cooking. In about 20 minutes the water from sugar will evaporate. Add the ghee and keep on sautéing the carrots on low heat for another 15-20 minutes. At this point, you can try to pinch a few carrots between your fingers, it should feel dry-ish. The point is to completely dry out the carrots, they should be glossy just because of ghee. The halwa will start clumping around the spoon and start leaving the pan. It will be darkish orange in color and you won’t be able to see long shreds of carrots you started with.
Take the pan off from the stove and add the chopped nuts, cardamom powder, and raisins. Combine. Let the halwa sit for 10-15 minutes to cool down a bit.
Whenever you want to serve, reheat, and serve garnished with more nuts.