Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's in a name? Gajrela or Gajar-ka-Halwa

The carrots back in India were a bright-red color, very tender and as juicy as can be. They appeared in the markets every year in mid-November, gave way to purple carrots around early March before disappearing altogether till next winter.  My mom was a huge fan of gajar-matar ki sabzi (which my dad and I wouldn't even look at). The two of us (my dad and I) could munch on kilos of raw carrots, everyday, for as long as they were available; much to the amusement of my mom.  My brother held the fort for carrot-haters in my family.  But we all came together and were united in our liking for the dessert made out of carrots; called Gajar-ka-Halwa; or Gajrela, as it was known in the Punjabi families around us.   Between the four of us, we probably bought a kilo of gajar (carrots) everyday, for the entire season. And as far as I can remember, we were never out of gajar-ka-halwa for as long you could buy carrots at a reasonable price.

Then I came to US, and was delighted to find that you could find carrots throughout the year here. I still remember calling home after my first grocery shopping trip and excitedly telling my dad about the huge pack of large carrots I'd picked up. I could almost hear the envy in his voice then- for in late-April, carrots in India were a distant dream.  Sadly, I soon learnt the the American carrots weren't just a different color- they also had a tasteless woody center and no juice, so to speak of.  Well-meaning friends pointed me towards baby carrots; which, despite being better than the large ones, were definitely nowhere like the ones I munched at home.  The only way I can satisfy my carrot-buds here in US was in the form of Gajar-ka-Halwa- and that is true even today. 

Gajar-ka-Halwa is pretty much a staple in my house, and calories or not, I'm the biggest 'eater' when it comes to this dessert. Here I have a very generalized recipe for how I make my Gajar-ka-Halwa.

Gajar-ka-Halwa/ Gajrela
(Carrot fudge)

Carrots- grated   3 cups
Sugar  3 cups (or to taste)
Milk   3 cups
Ghee/ clarified butter/ unsalted butter  2Tbsp
Kishmish/ Golden raisins about a fistful (washed and soaked in water or milk till needed)
Crushed nuts  a fistful (I typically use almonds and cashews)
Elaichi/ Cardamom powder 2tsp (or about 5-6 pods, crushed)
Saffron a pinch, soaked in milk
Khoya - crumbled about 1/2 cup (optional)

The rest is easy!!

  1. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat the ghee and slow roast the grated carrots till slightly caramelized in their own juices. Typically about 15-20 minutes. (Just make sure that the carrots don't turn dry, or burn)
  2. Add the milk, sugar, saffron with it's milk and cardamom powder. Bring to a boil, the lower the heat to simmer, with occasional stirring. (You do have to keep a close eye on the pot and give the whole thing a good stir ever 5-10 min.)
  3. About halfway through, mix in the crushed nuts and raisins. 
  4. The halwa cooks for quite a while typically 45 min. to an hour till the liquids are totally absorbed and the carrots come together in a mush. 
  5. Towards the end of your cooking time, drizzle in some crushed khoya, cover for a few minutes to let it integrate, and enjoy!
My two cents:  The most painful part of making gajar-ka-halwa, for me, is grating those carrots. But since I bought a food processor a year ago, I make this at the drop of a hat. Even for the halwa, baby carrots are better than the big ones (unless you can find the long, slender ones- which work fine).  If your halwa feels dry to taste, you probably over roasted them in the beginning.  And it is really easy to burn them as well....

After adding the milk, you're safe, as long as you come back and give it all a good stir every once in a while.  I am pretty lazy about presentation aspect of food, so all I'll do is scoop it into bowls and eat (that also works because I like to eat it warm). If you wanted, you could actually spread it into cookie sheets and let it cool before cutting it into squares (I did that for a friend's birthday last year, and that was a huge effort on my part- just for her though!!).  To do that, I actually use unsalted butter instead of ghee for roasting carrots; because to me, cold ghee tastes sort of funky......

Now we come to khoya- this is not as readily available to me as it was back in India. Indian grocery stores do carry a frozen version, which tastes nowhere like the one I'm used to.  On the brighter side, you don't HAVE to use it- the halwa tastes just as good without it.  I do without it all the time, and don't miss an ingredient. I've also played around with substitutes- Mawa powder (available at all Indian grocery stores) is my first choice, followed closely by ricotta cheese. Roast the ricotta cheese slightly, in a separate pan, and then crumble it over the halwa as you would with khoya.

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