I’ve always found Indian sweets rather daunting. I put this down to the fact that I really do not eat them that often. When you go for Indian food, by the time you’ve filled up on rice, bread and delicious curry, the last thing you are looking for is something sweet and heavy to finish the meal. Maybe, at a stretch, I could manage a little mango sorbet at most, but certainly not fried milk-rich sweets like gulab jamun or rasmalai.
However, I was keen to have a go at making some Indian sweets as I’ve had a hankering to try them for a while. I’ve done some digging recently, and it seems that a lot of them are actually incredibly easy to make. And so it is with rava kesari. There is a little work to be done in preparing some of the ingredients, but you’re not required to do much more than prepare a sweet, spiced syrup and then add it to a ghee/semolina mixture. You’re essentially making a white sauce, but one that is brightly coloured and sweet, which is then cooked until thick, then left to set and cut into fancy shapes. But doesn’t it look pretty?
If you were trying to guess the ingredients here, you would probably not guess that this is mostly made from semolina. Forgot the nasty, grainy stuff you might have suffered at school. In this recipe, the result is firm but smooth. And you’re probably already guessed how these sweets get their brilliant yellow colour. They are flavoured with saffron, and I must confess that my pictures don’t really do it justice. The colour is amazingly vibrant. The saffron is balanced with ground cardamom (which seems to be to Indian sweet treats what vanilla is to British baking), and they are finished off with some toasted almonds and sultanas.
One of the other vital ingredients is ghee, and so I had to have a go at making it. I was able to buy it in a local shop, but I was going all-out on this one. Recipes often say you can switch ghee for clarified butter, but a quick peek in a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook confirmed that it is slightly different, but not unfamiliar – in fact, it’s simple browned butter. Just throw butter in a pan, leave over a gentle heat, and then wait until the solids darken and the butter has a delicious toasted aroma and flavour. This is well worth doing, as it adds a subtle nuttiness to whatever you are making. It is also so ubiquitous in Indian cooking that it would be a shame not to use it here.
Frankly, I could not have been happier with how this turned out. Sure, there is a little faffing about with skinning some almonds, making the ghee, leaving the saffron to infuse the milk and in grinding the cardamom seeds, but nothing is too taxing, and all of these steps could be easily done ahead of time. The actual process of making rava kesari is a doddle – just cook the semolina in the ghee, then add the liquid and sugar, cook until thick and spread in a tray.
My version was not too sweet (which was the first shock, I was expecting something tooth-aching) and the combination of cardamom and saffron was light, fresh and aromatic, a combination of resinous and slightly minty with the warm flavour of saffron. I remember at Christmas being pleasantly surprised by this spice combination in a festive loaf, so it was a welcome reappearance for this duo in these sweets. I also loved how the pieces looked when cut – you can see pieces of sultana and almond, flecks of black cardamom and flashes of orange from the saffron threads.
Before service this, I had kept the rava kesari in the fridge. This had an unexpected but welcome impact on the flavour, and it meant these sweets had a very cooling quality. Served like this, I can see how they would be welcome at the end of a meal. In the interests of culinary exploration, I also tried a piece when it had come to room temperature, and while it was still delicious, on balance, I think the chilled version is better. Now, all I have to hope is that I’ve done justice to this delicious sweet!
To make Rava Kesari (makes 24 pieces):
• 80g unsalted butter
• 3 generous pinches saffron strands
• 360ml whole milk
• 360ml water
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom seeds
• 160g semolina
• 30g toasted slivered almond
• 35g golden sultanas
• 24 whole almonds, to decorate
1. Put the milk into a saucepan until warm. Add the saffron and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.
2. Make the ghee: melt the butter on a low heat, and watch it. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Strain and put to one side.
3. In a pan, combine the milk, water and sugar. Heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just starting to foam. Add the cardamom, stir and remove from the heat.
4. Prepare a large tray (20 x 30 cm) for the rava kesari. Brush with a little of the melted ghee and set aside. I used a glass tray with no other lining and had no problems with sticking.
5. In a large pan, add five tablespoons of the ghee. Heat until melted, then add the semolina. Cook on a low heat for two minutes, stirring all the time (it should not go brown).
6. Now start to add the liquid mixture to the semolina. This is a bit like making a white sauce, so start with a ladle of liquid, and stir well. Repeat two more times, then finally add all the liquid. At this point, whisk the mixture until smooth and there are no lumps. It should be bright yellow and smell glorious!
7. Cook the mixture on a medium heat until it is very thick and starts to come away from the sides of the pan. You can test whether it is done by dropping a small piece onto a cold plate – it should quickly become firm.
8. When ready, stir in the almond slivers and sultanas, then pour the whole mixture into the tray. Flatten the mixture (a rubber spatula is ideal). Use a knife to score diamond shapes, and place a whole almond in the middle of each piece.
9. Leave the rava kesari to cool, then chill in the fridge. Before serving, use a sharp knife to cut along the score marks to separate into individual pieces.
Worth making? This is a really different and delicious sweet. It’s fairly easy to make, and you get a really good result from ingredients you might have in the cupboard already. Recommended!