A Couple of Cross Cultural Desserts

Or how I succumbed - yet again - to my terminally sweet tooth.
I love to make sweets and biscuits and cakes above all else, the sweeter the better. This is not a new development.
The first foods I ever made were Melting Moments, little buttery biscuits coated in oatmeal and Coffee Cakes, rich with Camp Coffee and Buttercream Icing. My favourite way to eat toast was spread with butter and sprinkled with white granulated sugar. Failing that, it would be golden syrup dripped from a dessertspoon (not a teaspoon) straight from the green tin, skipping the toast, and straight into my mouth
As I have gotten older, my tastes have refined slightly: from Cadburys Chocolate to Lindt 75% Dark Chocolate (although give me a bar of Dairy Milk and I’m happy), Sara Lee Triple Layer Gateaux to Lemon Tortes, from Chocolate Coated Marshmallows to Fruit Scones.
These changes aren’t necessarily for the best. My husband says he sometimes feels a bit jaded when he talks food to people because his own standards are so high now. I wouldn’t necessarily say that eating meatballs from a can represents a high standard but...
As for me, I am always prowling around for the next sugar high. I thought it was chocolate but I was wrong. I have found something so delectably sweet, so tooth-achingly saccharin that one small square will satisfy the world’s most prolific craver of sugar – Halwa.
I know what you’re thinking – “Isn’t this something you get from a Natural Health Store? How can that be so great?” Well, doubters and naysayers, have I got news for you. The word Halwa comes from a derivation of ‘Sweet’ in Arabic. Any confection that contains six whole tablespoons of pure white, completely refined sugar has got to live up to its namesake. Halwa does that with aplomb.
Indian sweets are not as popular in the UK as their savoury counterparts, curry being one of the most popular dishes in the country, but if anyone has tried one of these scrumptious squares (or balls) of joy, then you will be hooked for life.
There are many varieties, some containing honey, some containing ground Pistachios or Almonds, some made with Coconut. They can be scented with Rosewater or coloured with Turmeric. Some are made with honey-rich, batters, emerging like golden, shiny spirals. They all have one thing in common: eye-blinding amounts of sugar.
Because there are so many different types, and because the process of making some is quite complex, I chose a relatively simple dessert that seems like it might offer some nutritional benefits, Carrot Halwa.
There are several different ways to make Halwa (or Halva). The solid varieties are cooked with either Semolina or Tahini Paste, depending on whether you come from Northern or Southern India and are cut into squares, much like Turkish Delight.
Carrot Halwa is cooked with milk (or traditionally Condensed milk, to make it even sweeter!) and is a much softer confection, to be served as a dessert rather than a candy.
It is simple to make and would make a delicious and unusual finish to a meal. Despite its sweetness, the carrot gives it slight palate cleansing properties too. I eat it straight from the fridge, where I have a pallet knife ensconsed on top of it, so I can slice chunks off at any given sugar-craving moment. It hits the spot every time. I think it could be the new chocolate.
If you are particularly averse to Rosewater (and it can have a ‘bath-time at the nursing-home’ flavour if you’re heavy-handed), then just omit it.
450g Carrots, grated
1 Teaspoon Crushed Cardamom Pods (remove the husks, they are horrible to chew on)
1 Pint Milk
2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter or Ghee
6 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Teaspoon of Rosewater (optional)
Couple Tablespoons Raisins or Sultanas
Couple Tablespoons each of Toasted (hot oven, 5 minutes, 200c) Pistachios, Cashews, Almonds, toasted and crushed into chunks
Heat the milk, grated carrot, raisins and Cardomom Pods in a large frying pan. The frying pan is important because you need maximum surface space for the carrot/milk mixture to thicken.
Once most of the milk has evaporated, maybe 10 minutes, add the butter, nuts and Rosewater if using. Stir well to amalgamate and pour into a shallow dish. I used my Brownie Tin which is approximately 8” square. Chill until you are ready to serve, but at least 3 or 4 hours. Sprinkle with some more toasted nuts if you are serving as a dessert. Obviously no such frivolities are required if you are eating it straight from the fridge.

And from one traditional sweetmeat to another: the Eccles Cake.
Under orders from one of my husbands work colleagues (well, he did help us move some furniture and I suppose I owe him for terminally damaging his ego after beating him at Poker), I made him a batch of his favourite cakes, Eccles.
I had never eaten an Eccles Cake in my life. I hate currants, little black, chewy burnt tasting things that get stuck in your teeth. I won’t have them in the house. So, I have rid the Eccles Cake of its most traditional ingredient, the one that gave it the nickname ‘Squashed Fly’ cakes and replaced it with raisins. Sorry to all purists.
I spent a while online researching the Eccles Cake and came across various different recipes, some using puff pastry, some shortcrust and some flaky. Whilst I didn’t have the time to make the first and the last, I settled for Shortcrust, which, if well made, is very flaky and light anyway.
I eschewed all online fripperies such as dried blueberries, orange juice and golden caster sugar and used the ever reliable Jane Grigson’s recipe from English Food. Apparently these flat, unassuming little cakes gain their name via the town they were first invented, from the Greek word, ecclesia, meaning assembly. They have an interesting history too: when the Puritans came to power in the mid-1600s, the production and consumption of Eccles Cakes was temporarily banned because they were considered much too luxurious. I wonder what the Puritans would have thought of some of todays confections?
These spicy little cakes get their distinctive aroma from Allspice and fresh Nutmeg and the tart addition of candied peel. I think that this version, without the ‘squashed flies’ is perfect for non-currant eaters but if you are one of those people, just add them back into the mix.
ECCLES CAKES, makes about 6
Shortcrust Pastry
125g Raisins (or currants, or a combination)
25g Candied Peel, finely chopped
25g Sugar
1 Tablespoon Butter
Half Teaspoon Nutmeg
Half Teaspoon Allspice
Preheat Oven to 220c.
Make Shortcrust Pastry in the usual way, leaving to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.
Melt the sugar and butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir in the all the other ingredients and gently warm through until the sugar has dissolved.
Leave to cool completely.
Roll out the pastry to about 3mm thickness. Cut out 3" dia. Circles. Place a teaspoon of filling into the centre of half of the circles. Moisten the edge of the circles and place an unfilled circle on top. Using your fingertips, gently seal the two circles together. Flip them over and roll gently with a rolling pin. If any pieces of fruit poke through, carefully use a small scrap of pastry to cover it up.
Brush with some beaten egg, sprinkle with sugar and cut two small slits in the top.
Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool, if you can!


Carolyn Johnson said...

Freya, I'm all about the sugar too! lol I remember when I was a kid and would eat brown sugar by the spoonfuls straight from the bag. I think I do that only occasionally now. :) The halwa and little cakes look wonderful. I am sure it is a sweet-tooth quencher. :D

Kathryn said...

Hi Freya

I don't have a particularly sweet tooth apart from for chocolate, but then it is the dark bitter stuff that I crave anyway. I love bread and cheese and salty rather than sweet food. I'e never made eccles cakes or eaten halva, which looks delicious by the way!!! As do the eccles cakes.
I finished work this evening - hurrah! I will be more compos mentis tomorrow - I have now found your email address and will email when I am awake and alive. I am just ready to sleep now! The tooth ache is way better but still there, if you see what I mean. I hope it will be gone by tomorrow...!

Kathryn x

Saffron said...

your recipes are always really tasty!
I wish you and your fanìmily a wonderful Christmas!