Besan Laddoos Deconstructed: The Science Behind This Indian Sweet

By: Sonia Dovedy

Growing up in an Indian household, I was often handed a precious, round morsel to savor during any holiday, religious festival, or simply as a doting gift from a relative. Known as “laddoo,” which translates to “round ball,” these beloved confections of clarified butter, various flours, sugar, dried fruit, and nuts have always held a sweet place in my heart.  For my food science class (MET ML 619), I took on the exciting task of exploring the science behind preparing the laddoo.

Some History

Historically, laddoos were created for their medicinal purposes. Comprised of healthful ingredients such as desi ghee, dates, chickpea flour, nuts and seeds, these sweets were meant to invigorate the weak and nourish individuals. Additionally, they served as a perfect ration for warriors and travelers because of their ease in transportation and long storage life. Then, when the British brought sugar to India, the entire purpose of laddoos dramatically changed. Recipes were re-created with the addition of the addicting sucrose, and laddoos became ubiquitous treats, necessary for every celebratory occasion. Today, laddoos come in all varieties – from traditional besan (chickpea flour) laddoos, to coconut laddoos, date laddoos, and more. Yet their shape remains the same – a small, round ball, in adherence to their namesake.

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The Project

Within Indian households, cooking is not a science; recipes come from stories, directions come from instinct, and the perfect flavor comes from experience. Thus, when asking the culinary experts of my mother and grandmother for help on decoding the “science” behind one of my favorite sweets, besan laddoo, I did not receive much clear guidance. For example, when asking how long to cook the besan, my mother replied, “I don’t know? Just cook it until it smells roasted. You will know.” After many attempts and questions, I was able to patch together the following recipe:

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The Science: I will now explain the science within each step of the recipe as well as the role that the different ingredients play during the process of making besan laddoo.

The Roasting

The first step is to roast the besan, or finely ground chickpea flour in the ghee. Ghee is essentially butter which has been cooked for a long time, until the milk solids have browned and caramelized. These milk solids of casein, lactose, and whey, are then strained from the mixture, and the resulting product is a clear liquid of pure milk fat with nutty, burnt caramel notes. The use of ghee in the laddoo is important for the following reasons:

  1. It adds nutty, burnt caramel flavors.
  2. Its high smoke point of 450F is well suited to fry the other ingredients.
  3. It helps to preserve laddoos for a long period of time. Laddoos store well for up to two weeks!

When the besan undergoes the Maillard reaction, it takes on golden hues, emits a nutty aroma, and transforms into a rich, savory ingredient, essential for this sweet. During the roasting process, it is imperative to roast the besan on a medium-low flame while stirring continuously. This slow, careful process ensures that each granule of besan is exposed to even heat, providing for an even roasting of the flour; this also prevents the besan from burning and becoming bitter.

The next step is to add the non-fat dry milk powder to the besan/ghee mixture, and roast for five more minutes. The use of non-fat dry milk powder in this recipe adds important depth in flavor; here, the concentrated dose of milk sugar, lactose, facilitates the Maillard reaction even further and imparts a sweet, burnt caramel flavor to the laddoo. It is important to note that the milk powder is added to the mixture towards the very end of the roasting process for a short period of time. Otherwise, the milk solids would burn.

The Flavoring

Once roasting is complete, the mixture is removed the heat and allowed to cool minimally – just enough so that it is able to be handled while adding the rest of the ingredients: confectioner’s sugar, cardamom, and a pinch of salt. It is important for the batter to stay warm because sugar and salt are much more soluble in warmer substances than cooler ones, and heat allows for the cardamom spice to release its fragrant oils. There is no concern about over-mixing the batter, because there is no gluten in this recipe.

Regarding sugar, in this recipe, the use of confectioner’s sugar is essential, not only to sweeten this dish, but also to achieve the melt-in-your mouth, creamy consistency that this particular laddoo boasts. Confectioner’s sugar, or granulated sugar that has been ground to a fine powder, contains the same chemical structure as ordinary granulated sugar, sucrose. However, it has a small addition of starch, which helps it to absorb moisture and prevents it from caking. Thus, in this recipe, the confectioner’s variety of sugar is crucial for texture. In addition, cardamom, a familiar spice used in Indian cuisine, provides warming flavor notes to the besan laddoo. When crushed and heated, this seed emits floral, fruity terpene compounds and cineole, an essential oil similar to eucalyptus. Finally, salt (my own personal addition to the recipe), or sodium chloride, intensifies the sweetness and adds a depth in flavor to this dish.

The Formation

The last step of the recipe is to take about two tablespoons of the batter and squeeze it together in your palm a few times in order to form a small round ball. At first, the mixture crumbles, but with firm repetitive motions, it begins to glue together. Here, it is helpful to lightly grease your palms with ghee, as this provides a seal around the laddoo, preventing sticky moisture from entering.

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As the laddoos cool, they transform from a soft, crumbly consistency into a firm, solid mass. This change in structure is due to the redistribution of the chemical compounds from the ingredients. For example, as the ghee in the batter cools, it returns to its solid state. In addition, the amylose and amylopectin in the chickpea flour realign in different places around the ghee, producing a thicker, more solid formation. These laddoos can be stored in an airtight container for up to three weeks, making them a suitable travel snack.

The final product of this exploration is a collection of precious confections: dense golden balls, with a crumbly centers that melt into a soft, creamy texture on the tongue. Flavor notes include nutty, roasted, and burnt caramel profiles from the roasting, as well as warm eucalyptus notes from the cardamom. While it is not necessary to know the science behind these round treasures in order to enjoy their sweetness, I would argue that this research adds even more depth to their flavor. Enjoy!

Read more from Sonia at  www.bakewithsonia.com and www.cookwithsonia.wordpress.com.

Article: Do Puerto Ricans know the origin of their typical food?

By Michelle Estades

This article was originally published in December 2014 in Diálogo, the newspaper of the University of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans, without a doubt, are passionate about eating. They are willing to try different foods, but when asked what their favorite dish is; rice, beans and roasted pork have the lead. According to Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, a History Professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao (UPRH), this is demonstrated at the start of each school year when he asks their students “what is your favorite dish?”

“Rice, beans and stewed chicken,” one responds, while another writes “Greek rice and breast with sauce.” There are some who indicate that they prefer “pasta with shrimp”, to which Ortiz Cuadra calls the phenomenon Macaroni and Grill. But there are students who always say that their favorite food contains rice: “rice, stewed beans and chicken” or “white rice with fried spam”. They also mention tubers with cod or other dishes with mofongo (mashed plantain).

“There is no doubt that domestic food is the favorite of people,” said Ortiz Cuadra. But do Puerto Ricans know the origin of their gastronomy?

The professor of the UPR in Humacao, who has specialized in capturing the history of Puerto Rican food, said that the Taino Indians and the Spaniards, as well as the Africans, influenced the gastronomy of the Island.

“Our food is a mongrel and mulatto food. It is a combination of food known to the Indians, food that came in the Spanish conquest, the result of slave trade and the desires for survival of Africans who came as slaves,” Ortiz Cuadra said.

Among the foods that the Puerto Rican cuisine adopted from the Tainos are: cassava, yautía, maize, beans, batatas, pepper, sweet and spicy chilli and recao. From the Spanish conquest were acquired foods such as pork, beef, rice, oil and various enriching flavors such as oregano, cumin, basil and almost all herbs used to make sofrito. While directly from Africa came the famous plantain, banana, yam, okra and beans, but also came a starter food in Puerto Rican cuisine, the gandules (pigeon peas).

Ortiz Cuadra clarified that Puerto Rican gastronomy was shaped as the result of a globalization after discovery. “After Columbus discovered America, there was something going on and on and food was distributed throughout the rest of the world. This was not from one day to another, this was something of centuries. This ours has to do with that globalization and with the transfer of food by the result of the movement of the populations,” he pointed.

Although Puerto Rican cuisine was created as a result of colonial and imperial projects of Spain, it has had the ability to adapt dishes from other parts of the world and turn them into something local. For example, Ortiz Cuadra mentioned arroz con dulce. This came from Spain where it is known as rice with milk. When they brought it to Puerto Rico they did not have the milk, but they did have coconut. Then they modified it to their realities and developed arroz con dulce.

“If you come to see, our food is the result of globalization, colonial projects and imperial projects. If Spain does not have as mission to create an expansion in America to develop Christianity and mercantile companies, these foods do not arrive. Same with the slavers, if they do not have the interest of bringing slaves to America, they do not get these foods,” he mentioned.

 

Rice with pigeon peas

In his book “Puerto Rico in the pot, are we still what we eat?,” Ortiz Cuadra highlight that although the rice was brought to Puerto Rico by the Spaniards this began to be cultivated by the Africans. Not by the Taino Indians because they did not know the food and not by the Spaniards because they “used it more as food than as a seed.”

The author indicates that when the Africans arrived to Puerto Rico they had to immediately relate to the agriculture of the Island and sowed and produced crops that they knew for their subsistence, including rice.

However, the rice culture of Puerto Rico began when they saw the potential for dissemination and the effective techniques to grow it by the 16th century. With this also came the different ways of cooking it. One of the techniques of cooking rice was incorporating other elements such as legumes or meats, which became known as compound rice.

To cook the compound rice, they started making the sofrito that at that time was simply the part of adding spices and other condiments to give it more flavor. But, why did Puerto Ricans start making rice with pigeon peas like the typical rice made up of parties?

According to Ortiz Cuadra, compound rice were specifically made on special occasions or parties because it was a way of cooking two different foods and “increased the volume of a food service.” Rice was also combined with ingredients that were available in seasons. This is the case of the pigeon peas.

“The absence of the plate [rice with pigeon peas] at Christmas Eve, New Year and Three Kings dinners, today would be considered a true lack of Christmas gastronomic tradition. But what is not known is that at the time when the kitchen was not modeled by the agro-industry, but by the agricultural cycles, the collection of the gandul (pigeon peas) coincided in the calendar with the Easter parties,” explained the author.

 

Recipe of traditional rice with pigeon peas

Since there is no Christmas in Puerto Rico and there are no parties without typical food, here we present a recipe of traditional rice with pigeon peas taken from the Sazón Boricua food blog.

Ingredients:

2 cups long grain rice or the grain of your choice

2 cans of green pigeons or 2 pounds of pigeons, softened (not drained)

3 tablespoons of annatto oil or canola oil

½ cup of diced ham

1 cup of pork, optional

3 tablespoons of sofrito

¼ cup of olives

2 cups of water or less depending on the type of rice grain you use

Salt and pepper to taste

1 red bell pepper

Cilantro or coriander to taste

Seasoning powder with cilantro and annatto, optional

Process:

Saute the pork for about seven minutes or until they turn pink, add the ham and knead it. Add the sofrito, olives, cilantro, seasoning, the pigeon peas and liquids, then cover the pot and cook for a few minutes. Stir the rice, taste, let it cook uncovered until the liquid begins to evaporate, stir and mix well. Then add the red bell pepper cut into strips and do not move the rice any more, cover it.

Note: If you wish to add a touch to the rice with pigeon peas, you can grate ½ green banana and add it to the casserole before adding the rice. You can also place a clean banana leaf on the rice after it has been moved. But first clean it and pass it over the burner or a hot surface to seal it.

Thanksgiving with BU Gastronomy Students

We hope you had a great Turkey Day and spent lots of time reflecting on what you are grateful for!  BU is off for the holiday and we were curious about how Gastronomy students spend Thanksgiving.   Meet Michelle and Catherine who have shared their Thanksgiving traditions with us!

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Photo: Oscar Rohena, Flickr CC Search

For Puerto Ricans, Thanksgiving, or the day of the turkey, is a very special holiday. It represents the start of our favorite time of the year, Christmas. All my life, on this special day, my family and I have gathered at my maternal grandparents house. My grandmother has always been responsible for preparing the turkey with a special filling of “mofongo” (mashed plantain) and ground beef, and to make rice with “gandules” (pigeon peas), which is our official symbol of festive food.

My aunt always brings boiled root vegetables and pieces of roasted pork (simply because a Puerto Rican party without pork is incomplete). While in my home we take care of the desserts, whether a good homemade carrot cake, a flan or a “tembleque”, which is custard made with coconut milk, cornstarch and cinnamon. In addition to that, at the table we will always find “pan criollo” (our traditional bread), potato salad with mayonnaise, “pasteles boricuas” (similar to Mexican tamales but based on plantains), “coquito” (a drink made whit coconut cream), and finally “ron caña” (a clandestine rum, illegal for not paying taxes and for not meeting the requirements of health and quality controls).

After chopping the turkey and serving all the plates, my grandparents, my uncles, my parents, my siblings and I stood around the outdoor dining table, and my grandfather lead a prayer of thanks. Once my grandfather finishes the prayer, we say to each other “buen provecho” (a typical phrase that is said before beginning to eat to desire a good digestion) and we run to enjoy the exquisite food that adorns the dishes. The evening is distinguished by the typical Christmas music of Puerto Rico, the loud jokes of my father and planning the parties for the rest of the Christmas.

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Photo: Oscar Rohena, Flickr CC Search

This year is the first time I will celebrate Thanksgiving away from my warm home, but with my extended family.

My Puerto Ricans friends who live in Boston will come to my apartment and we will recreate the typical Puerto Rican Thanksgiving party that I described earlier. I’m sure the only difference will be the cold weather and the possibility of snow, but we will do our best to bring Puerto Rico to us and spend it as warm as if we were at home.

“¡Buen provecho y que empiece la fiesta!”

By Michelle Estades, First-Year MLA Gastronomy

 

It’s All About Pie

One of the key elements of any Thanksgiving meal, arguably the most important, is the dessert. Of course no Thanksgiving dessert spread could ever be complete without the perfect pumpkin pie, at least that is how my family feels. Beginning at a young age I began to help my father make the annual Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. I began to help more and more until, around the age of eleven or twelve, I had completely taken over the pumpkin pie making duties. At that point the only thing I did not do was actually cutting the pumpkins in half. I don’t know many twelve year olds who have the upper body strength to chop a pumpkin in two, so my dad continued to make that contribution for several years.  

It is always vital that I make every bit of the pie from scratch, from the crust to the pumpkin puree for the filling. Absolutely no canned pumpkin in our house. What really turned the tables was the summer that our compost pile in the backyard began to sprout a mysterious vine. By the fall the vine was producing the most perfect pie pumpkins. Not only was our annual Thanksgiving pie made completely from scratch, it was also made from local, metro-Detroit pumpkins, grown in our very own backyard.  

Backyard grown pumpkins are not the only element that I use to create our traditional pumpkin pie. The classic pumpkin spice, the correct balance of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves, isn’t even the most important part of the filling. It is all about the secret ingredient, dark rum. The rich, molasses-like flavor of the dark rum brings the whole pie together in a way that no other ingredient can. Over the years other members of the family have tried to make other things for dessert, like pumpkin cheesecake, or pecan pie, and it is never quite the same. It simply would not be a Santrock family Thanksgiving without a rum flavored pumpkin pie. We usually like to be a little adventurous with our Thanksgiving menu, this year we are replacing the turkey with lamb, some years we don’t even have mashed potatoes! As far as I’m concerned, we could have our entire meal be pumpkin pie and we would still be keeping to tradition.

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Photo: Catherine Santrock
By Catherine Santrock, First-Year MLA Gastronomy

 

 

A Vegetarian Butcher

by Sonia Dovedy

I suppose I consider myself a flexitarian. Vegetarian most hours of the day, but always willing to expose my tastebuds to something other than what I know. That is, if it feels right.

Growing up in an Indian household, I was exposed to the smell of fresh mustard seeds toasting in the pan, the soothing hand-feel of smooth chappati dough, and lots of chillies! No one was allowed to leave home without nourishment. Food, as I understood it then, translated into love.

Continue reading “A Vegetarian Butcher”

Darra Goldstein Brings Classic Nordic Cooking to Life with Fire + Ice

By Amanda Balagur

Reindeer StewAlthough she’s best known as the Founding Editor of Gastronomica and Professor of Russian at Williams College, Darra Goldstein has a long-standing history with Scandinavian cooking. She first ventured to that part of the world in 1972, when she flew to Finland and took a weekend bus from Helsinki to Leningrad (she was studying Russian then). In 1980, she had plans to go to Moscow to research her dissertation, but unforeseen circumstances related to the U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympics resulted in a change of plans — she and her husband, newly married, ended up going to Stockholm, Sweden instead. Goldstein describes herself as being quite taken by Scandinavia, calling her latest cookbook, Fire + Ice, a “cultural excursion into the way people actually eat there” in contrast to the often innovative and highly conceptual New Nordic cuisine.

The cookbook focuses on four core countries: Finland, Sweden, Denmark Fisherwomanand Norway. The name Fire + Ice reflects the two key elements that define the region. Photos of snowy landscapes, silvery architecture and windows glowing with amber warmth gave the Pepin Lecture audience a feel for Goldstein’s inspiration as she described the local cuisine. Cold and warmth are reflected in traditional beverages such as glug, which is mulled wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom served warm in the wintertime, and schnapps or aquavit, a distilled liquor made from grain and flavored with caraway, ginger, cardamom or even young birch leaves.

SmorgasbordGoldstein explained the evolution of one of the most familiar Scandinavian offerings, the Smörgåsbord. It started out as a table displaying an array of schnapps, to which food was added until it became institutionalized as the feast we think of today. According to Goldstein, there is a certain way to eat at a Smorgasbord, which is broken up into five courses: his majesty the herring (a fish so important to local cuisine it’s admired in isolation like royalty!), other fish and seafood, cold meats and salads, hot dishes and desserts. After the Smörgåsbord was introduced to the U.S. at the 1939 World’s Fair, it became all the rage and eventually turned into the all-you-can eat buffets and salad bars that pepper the American landscape to this day.

Other items of importance in Scandinavian cuisine include brown bread, Dried Fishmade from grains like barley, oats and rye, which ranges from chewy sourdough to delicate crispbread, and pickled, salted and fermented fish, which range from mild (gravlax) to pungent (suströmming). Additional favorites include foraged greens, mushrooms and berries, and dairy products like cheese and butter. The region’s cuisine reflects seasonality, indigenous influences and Viking conquests – it’s no coincidence that spices like cinnamon, saffron and nutmeg, encountered centuries ago via the Silk Road, are now associated with Scandinavian cuisine. The art of preserving food, shaping anthropomorphic Christmas cookies and infusing liqueurs is as much a part of life in this realm as the extremes of light and dark. To learn more about Darra Goldstein and Fire + Ice, click here. Book Signing