I’m easily seduced by the sight of orange carrots with their delicate green tops at a farm stall. Last week, Hearty Roots at the Clermont Farmers market had carrots that looked so earthy, so beautifully sculpted and so vibrant that I couldn’t forget about them. I didn’t buy any then thinking that I would find the pretty multi-colored bunches from Starbrite Organic Farm at the Hoboken farmers market on Tuesday. Unfortunately the market got rained out this week, and I had to content myself with supermarket carrots.
The idea of working with lots of spindly carrots always makes me mildly anxious. First I have to wash, then peel and then chop them. In India, people also remove the “bony spine” that runs down the center of the carrot, although I’ve never bothered to do that here. What would make all this work worth it?
Gajar ka halwa, of course.
This is a dessert that in its simplest form, uses lots of carrots, milk, and a little ghee, sugar and crushed cardamom. The grated carrot turns into sweet melt-in-your mouth bits as it first slowly roasts in ghee and then cooks in milk. Over an hour or two of slow cooking, depending on how much halwa you are making, the milk and carrot mixture reduces down completely into a rich near-solid mass. Sugar and crushed cardamom powder get added towards the end, as the milk boils down. The end result is a bright, soul-warming type of dessert that hums with goodness, celebration and comfort. I’d like to admit that there is a certain amount of sin involved as well here. The quantity that you end up consuming, especially over a few days, is quite sinful. This time, in the spirit of the good Christian school that I attended, I mutter “Dear God, please forgive me”, as I eat mouthfuls of this decadent dessert, sometimes cold and straight from the fridge, and sometimes heated with a little warm milk.
And somehow, every step of this, my first-time making of gajar ka halwa also turns out to be utterly pleasurable. The carrots give off a fresh from the earth smell as I peel them. I natter away with my mother-in-law as I grate the carrots on the biggest hole side of my box grater. The carrots turn the milk into a gorgeous golden pudding as the mixture bubbles on the stove. I taste plentifully along the way and find that once the carrots are cooked and the sugar gets added, the thickening pudding starts tasting like an incredibly flavorful kheer, only that it has carrots instead of milk. I giddily believe that I’ve invented a new dish, until I’m told that gajar ka kheer is not uncommon. In the end, I’m suprised by how easy the dish was to make and how simple the ingredients were. I’ve made a very traditional Indian sweet, and there’s a small feeling of satisfaction at having connected with all those halwa loving ancestors that I must possess.
Carrot halwa, serves 4-6
1 ½ lbs of carrots, coarsely grated
3 pints of milk, about 1.5 quarts (or a quarter gallon)
6 tbsps of solid ghee
½ – ¾ cup of turbinado sugar, depending on taste
1/2 – 1 tbsp of cardamom powder
1. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan with about half the ghee. Add the grated carrots and cook, stirring frequently, until the carrots are soft. Add the rest of ghee midway, when the carrots start looking a little dry. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat the milk and bring to boil.
2. When the carrots are ready, add the boiling milk and bring to boil again. When the milk boils, reduce the flame and allow the mixture to bubble away on lower heat. Stir occasionally to ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan.
3. Add the sugar when the milk reduces to a quarter or so of its original volume. Keep cooking, stirring frequently, until the mixture is reduced to a solid mass, but doesn’t look too dry. Stir in the crushed cardamom and decorate with chopped pistachios. Serve hot or at room temperature. note: can add a little milk when reheating.