Conjuring old culinary magic


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Like her parents, Minnie is a great foodie and like her Dad, her interest in food extends to cooking as well. One of the things that Minnie and I had therefore decided we would do over her summer holiday in Sierra Leone is to cook together.

Now there are many things father and daughter can cook together. I therefore thought I will take this opportunity to pass on to Minnie some of the family culinary secrets that my Mother had inherited /conjured and passed on to the next generation. We decided to recreate an exquisite ‘Shondesh’ – a subtle Bengali dessert that my mother used to make.

There are a thousand varieties of ‘Shondesh’, but the one my mother made was unique and I haven’t had it in any shop or in any other Bengali house. Neither too heavy, not too light, neither too dry not too soggy or creamy, it was perfectly balanced and had a subtle and fresh flavour which lent it, in the absence of a better word, an unusual elegance and lightness.

I am sharing this recipe with friends and probably it is getting out of the family for the first time. But then why not, for isn’t it is in the very nature of all good things that they be shared?

First we reduced one and half litres of full cream milk to solid milk, called ‘Kheer’ in Bengali and ‘Mawa / Khowa’ in Hindi. Then we made some cottage cheese (known as paneer or chena in India) by adding fresh lemon juice to three litres of full cream milk. We mixed the two gently so as to retain the slightly granular texture of the cottage cheese and ‘Mawa’ and added 1/4th the total volume of sugar and a pinch of salt.

In a non stick deep pan, the mixture was gently stirred over a medium flame and as the mixture turned pale yellow / off-white and started separating from the pan, we added finely crushed green cardamom, mixed it gently and turned off the flame.

On a flat plate, we smeared a few drops of ghee (clarified butter) and spread the mixture flat (a little less than 1 inch thickness) evenly into a large square. On top we sprinkled a fine layer of dry granular ‘mawa’.

After the flat mixture cooled down, we cut it into small square pieces and it was ready to eat.

I have often wondered what makes this ‘Shondesh’ so unique and different from the others of its type and I think there are quite a few reasons.

Firstly, it is important that the cottage cheese is made with fresh lemon (not lime) juice because it adds a very subtle lemony flavour to the desert, which complements the full bodied flavour of green cardamom. Secondly, one needs to approach the dish very gently so as to retain the soft granular texture of the cottage cheese and ‘mawa’ and not make it into a homogenous paste. Thirdly, I think the pinch of salt takes the edge off the sugar and enhances the sweetness of the dish. Finally, the magic lies in right tempering of the dish. One has to ensure that the mixture is not over cooked because that takes off the softness and freshness of the cottage cheese and kills its natural flavour.

Minnie assisted me throughout and I explained the details of the entire process to her. Much to my delight, she turned out to be an enthusiastic and quick learner. I am delighted that the family tradition will carry on with her. Finally, I hope my friends will be able to recreate the magic that my mother did in her kitchen and that Minnie and I did on a lovely Saturday morning in remote West Africa.