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.

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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.

The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey, with Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt

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Left: Laila El-Haddad, Right: Maggie Schmitt                           Photo: Ashlyn Frassinelli

I’ve never seen the authors of a cookbook less interested in talking about recipes, and thank goodness. When I sat down for Laila and Maggie’s lecture, I expected to hear about local cuisine and staple foods of the region, maybe about their own experiences preparing food. But after five minutes, Maggie told us that she initially became interested in Gaza through her humanitarian work. And Laila admitted to having little connection with the kitchen. She explained that her mother, grandmother, and aunts rather shirked traditional female roles because they viewed them as antiquated chores. She explained how confused her family was when she said she decided to write a cookbook, that it was undoing the progress they had worked so hard to achieve. Immediately I realized that this was not a presentation designed to show us how to prepare Gazan cuisine at home. This was an effort to document and preserve the ancient foodways of one of the world’s most volatile regions.

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Left: Laila El-Haddad, Center: Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Right: Maggie Schmitt                                                                     Photo: Ashlyn Frassinelli

When I think of Gaza, I think of uncertainty. Those who live there expect the sounds of gunfire and explosions the way we expect to hear car horns. The last thing that comes to mind is the kind of food I might eat if I lived there. But for the people who live in Gaza, food is a comfort the same way it is for us. Laila and Maggie spoke of conflict and impossible living conditions. They said that parts of the area could be without power for hours or even days at a time. Maggie pointed out that it was hard enough for a mother to help her children with their homework and have dinner on the table under “normal” circumstances. But what about mothers in Gaza? At a time when life there is so tumultuous, Maggie and Laila were able to show how food is in many ways, the great unifier. That despite the uncertainties of daily life, people still take the time and gather to eat.

Cuisine in Gaza is based on what’s available. Like other places in the Middle East, that means lentils, cous cous, olive oil, chickpeas, lemon, and chili pepper among others. But at one point someone asked what the defining characteristic of Gazan food was. Laila immediately responded with the word, “heat.” She said that red chili pepper was in most of the food she associated with the region.

Laila also said that sour flavors are found in many dishes. Tamarind, sour plum, and pomegranate are used along with sumac to achieve what she called, “a gripping tartness.” These flavors combined with seasonings like za’atar, clove, cinnamon, sesame, dill, and garlic, aren’t exactly subtle. And while I know that heavily seasoned food isn’t uncommon in the regions surrounding Gaza, as I listened to Laila answer more questions, something occurred to me. The tone with which she spoke, her conviction, they were exactly like the ingredients she was talking about. These weren’t delicate, restrained flavors. They were purposeful, delightfully in your face. Certainly you don’t use clove, chili flakes, or sour plums without clear intention. They are statement-makers. And so was Laila. She and Maggie couldn’t have been better representatives for the kitchens of Gaza. Together they constituted a serious force.

They talked about the difficulties of obtaining traditional foods because of border closures, and how reliance on white flour and sugar were causing health problems associated with malnutrition among many citizens of Gaza. Maggie showed a photo of fisheries that were created as a result of limited access to the sea. They spoke of one-pot meals and a category of dishes Laila hesitantly allowed Maggie to refer to as “mush.” But after two hours of listening to their stories I was struck by what I really saw. Two mothers. Two very poised, confident women trying to tell the story of, quite possibly, the most unstable place in our world.

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Available on Amazon

For hundreds of years tribes of people have converged upon this small region. This has given way to a culinary tradition created from necessity, trade, and war. But despite the constant state of unrest, Maggie and Laila were able to paint a clear picture of a Gazan people who were unwavering and incredibly proud of their culinary heritage.

-Written by Chelsie Lincoln, MLA Gastronomy Student