"At last we meet!" told he to the bowl in front of him. Filled with a creamy syrup, it hosted little white sponges. What were they made from? "Cheese", somebody said.
The history of me and this sweet, rich Indian dessert dates back to at least two years ago when exploring the meanders of a virtual video gallery, I stumbled upon this video from "Show Me The Curry":
A few sentences shot in the chirping community of Twitter brought to another special and precious event; I met a new friend in Vindee.
From then the project of actually doing these treats slipped away between my fingers.
Thought to be daunting, or too sweet or just out of laziness I almost forgot about them until Aparna proposed we made them for this month Velveteers challenge.
What am I talking about? Ras Malai or their simpler siblings Rasgullas.
These sweet nuggets of paneer are another of the many ways this fresh cheese is used in India. Many of you might be familiar with paneer but I will briefly repeat what it consists of. It is actually a very simple and straightforward way of producing cheese at home; you just need to curdle some boiling milk using lemon juice; strain, press the solids and you got a nice block of yummy paneer to play with.
It is only me or this actually reminds a lot of ricotta cheese? In effect it is a close relative to the soft moist fresh Italian cheese. Traditionally made out of the whey leftover from cheese making, ricotta is obtained by a coagulation process utilising rennet. The resulting curds are moist, flavourful and low in fat. This process is quite cumbersome to accomplish in a common household since the yield of whey is very low (5-6%) so you would need a whole lot of it to make a batch of ricotta. To circumvent this problem, we can simply curdle milk with the more easily available lemon juice. The yield is higher but the cheese tends to be drier than its rennet version, nevertheless delicious.
My last experiment in curdling animal milk featured goat's milk; my aim was that of having a fresh batch of fully flavoured goat's ricotta (closer to the original Italian ricotta always made from sheep's milk). The only problem was that the milk was the UHT variety and so it didn't curdle at all, I had to throw the whole thing in the sink.
This time to avoid any possible problems, I went straight for the fresh milk. Unfortunately we can't get fresh goat/sheep's milk in here so I used cow's one.
It worked beautifully! All was set for my first home-made batch of Ras Malai.
It is always quite interesting when, looking at the origins of a particular sweet, I find that it was some sort of deep religious meaning. I believe that this is a reflex of the high "recognition" once enjoyed by sugar.
Considered as the gastronomically equivalent of gold, sugar was added almost to every dish cooked for a medieval banquet. The host's wealth was in effect measured by his "sweetness". Sugar or marzipan sculptures adorned the table as precious Baccarat's crystals might do nowadays.
Religious festivities and festivals were special occasions when also the peasants could have a taste of sweet treats as often prepared by the monks/nuns hosting the celebrations.
It is also true that these sweet treats were often used as fast reconstituent for the debilitated pilgrims who joined at the holy place just for the special festivities.
Rasgullas do not escape this history.
Rasgullas are in fact said to originate along with a popular religious festival in the city of Puri in the Indian region of Orissa. In Puri, at the end of the Rath Yatra, these desserts are offered to Lakshmi the consort of Jagannath, the main deity in the Puri temple, in order to appease her wraith for having been ignored during the festival times. The actual shape of Rasgullas, spherical, is also said to derive from the goddess’ round eyes.
The difference between Rasgullas and Ras Malai is mainly on how the paneer sponges are served. Rasgullas are simply boiled in syrup (Ras) either directly or after being deep fried while Ras Malai are instead served in a milk sauce thickened by evaporation (Malai) and usually flavoured with green cardamom and saffron.
The shape of the paneer sponges is also different, mainly due to this difference in the presentation way. As said previously, Rasgullas are spherical (Gulla) so easily eaten by picking them up with your fingers, perfect as street food; Ras Malai sponges are instead of a more flattened disk shape, perfect for being efficiently covered by the Malai.
So now that we have explained their name we can pass to the recipe.
Ras Malai in a nutty creamy sauce served with ginger-cardamom glass noodles
For the Paneer dumplings:
- 1 l fresh full fat milk
- 250 g cream (optional)
- 3-4 tbsp lemon juice
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
- 30 g ginger, peeled and chopped
- 5-6 green cardamoms, crushed
- 200 g almonds, peeled
- 60 g hazelnuts, peeled
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
- 2-3 tsp sugar
- 1-2 tsp rosewater (optional)
- 200 g syrup from the paneer dumplings
- 0.7 g agar
- 1-2 tsp chopped dill
- Orange zest, optional.
Place the milk and the cream in a non-reactive pot and, stirring regularly, bring it to a boil over a medium fire. In the meantime prepare a colander lined with moistened cheesecloth in your sink.
When the milk will come to a roiling boil, add slowly the lemon juice to it. Delicately stir the curdling milk between each addition of lemon juice. Keep adding lemon juice until the liquid separating from the curds, the whey, will run clear. Pour the curdled milk into the colander to drain, sprinkles some cold water on top of it so to stop further cooking and to make the paneer easier to handle.
Tie the paneer in the cheesecloth and hang it from the tap for roughly 30 minutes so to drain all the whey.
In the meantime soak the nuts in enough boiling water to cover them, do the same with the sesame seeds in a separate container.
After the 30 minutes will have elapsed, gently squeeze your paneer by hand to ensure that all the whey has drained out. Transfer the paneer into a food processor and mix it until you obtain a very fine consistency. This step is very important if you want to get smooth and delicate Ras Malai.
Transfer the paneer on a cutting board lined with plastic wrap and knead it gently till it all comes together. Divide the dough in 12 portions (divide the dough in half, then each half in half again and then divide each of these pieces into three). Roll each portion into smooth balls and then flatten them between the cupped palms of your hands. Try to give the paneer a simmetric shape by rotating it into your palms while you gently flatten it out.
In a pressure cooker mix the water with the sugar, the ginger and the cardamoms. Heat the water up so to just dissolve the sugar, add then the paneer dumplings to the syrup; close the lid and bring to pressure (I used the highest setting in my pressure cooker). Once the pot will have reached pressure, switch off the stove and set a timer to 5 minutes. When the 5 minutes will be over, transfer the pot into your sink and gently pour cold water over the lid to release all the leftover pressure.
Open the pot and let the damplings come to room temperature into the syrup. At this point, using a slotted spoon, you can gently transfer the paneer sponges into a bowl. Measure 200ml of the syrup and set aside, pour the leftover syrup (without the bits of ginger and cardamoms) onto the dumplings and refrigerate (you can either discrard the pieces of ginger or better squeeze them through a cheesecloth over the reserved syrup).
The nuts should be quite soft and well soaked by now, transfer half of them into a blender and reduce to a smooth pulp adding just enough of the soaking water to obtain this consistency.
Place a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and cover it with a damped cheese cloth, pour the blended nuts in the lined strainer and using a spoon delicately let the some of milk drain down into the bowl. And now it's time to start the hard work!
Close the cheesecloth around the nuts pulp and get squeezing it to extract all the milk. Toward the end you might also want to use a potato ricer to help in the process.
Continue like this until you are left with a quite dry mixture of nut flour, set it aside or discard.
Transfer the second half of the nuts into the blender and pour enough of the first pressed milk into the glass so to mix them well into a smooth pulp and repeat the squeezing process.
Transfer the nuts milk into a wide saucepan and let it come to a simmer over low to medium fire constantly stirring to avoid scorching. The milk will thicken and some of the enzyes from the nuts will be neutralised. Add sugar to taste (and rose water, if using) to the thickened milk and transef it into a bowl; cover with cling film and let come to room temperature before refrigerating it.
Now to the syrup noodles. Transfer the reserved ginger-cardamom sugar syrup with the agar-agar into a pot and bring it to a roiling boil over medium fire. In the meantime prepare a shallow rectangular container by lightly moistening it with water and lining it with plastic wrap.
You want to use a container wide enough so that the jelly sets into a thickness of roughly 5mm. To check if you got the size right you can measure 200ml of simple water, pour it into the container and check what height it will achieve.
When the syrup will be boiling, switch off the fire, add the dill and transfer into the prepared container and let set over a leveled surface for 30-40 minutes at room temperature.
To make the sesame milk, process the soaked sesame seeds in a small food processor or spice-grinder using a little water. Strain and squeeze the milk out of the pulp as you did for the nuts.
To serve your Ras Malai, place few tablespoons of the creamy nut mixture into the serving bowl; lightly squeeze 3 paneer dumplings from the excess syrup and place them over the nut milk.
You can also serve your Ras Malai at a warmer temperature by letting them stand into the nut milk at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.
Using a long bladed and oiled knife cut thin strips out of the syrup jelly so to obtain translucent tagliatelle and transfer them delicately over the serving plate topping them with some of the sesame milk and a little orange zest.
The 4 Velveteers was started by Alessio, Aparna, Asha and Pamela, who are passionate about different cuisines and food in general. Each month, we will attempt a new dish and share our experiences and the recipes we used. If you're interested in joining the Velveteers, please feel free to drop by our Facebook group.
Check out what the other Velveteers have come up with this month: