I feel blessed that life has given me yet another reason to cherish. It was a Friday family lunch, but not with the usual members. The gathering was the same, family trickling in after the Friday prayers, Umma's fabulous Biriyani wafting through home and the little ones running amuck in the lawn under cloudy skies. It was my mother's family, her siblings and their children all gathered to welcome my maternal grandmother. Veramma has finally joined her family in the UAE.
Let me tell you a bit about Veramma. During the summer holidays, once my father left for the UAE after his holidays, we would go stay at my mother's house for a week. I used to love staying in a house bustling with cousins. I'd wait for them anxiously to come back from school and college just to spend time with them. During the day, I would spend time with Veramma while she cooked in her kitchen. I (still) love boiled eggs and being a chubby child, Umma would monitor the number of eggs I had in a week. Veramma would call me aside and hand me a boiled egg and tell me not to tell Umma. It has been a few years since I found out that she would give Umma a boiled egg and tell her to have it without me seeing it. It still makes me chuckle. She had a gift of making you feel special, like you were the dearest of them all to her. I'm sure if I felt it, the others would have too.
Kesari isn't too popular in Kerala but I have always loved it. Kesari reminds me of Veramma's elder sister. I have a faint memory of her making Kesari in Veramma's kitchen but sadly can't remember tasting it. It's her Kesari that Umma mentions when we eat it at a restaurant and listening to her describing it makes me wish I had Muthumma's recipe. Kesar means saffron and I'm assuming it is the addition of this spice that gives Kesari its name. The ones I have tried in restaurants are undoubtedly artificially coloured, mostly orange and the perfume of a generous sprinkle of saffron is lacking. Traditionally, saffron is rubbed into a few drops of warm milk and rested and it slowly pigments the milk to a bright yellow. Semolina is toasted in pure ghee to a golden colour and cooked till it thickens in either milk or water. Sweetened with sugar, the final step is to fold the saffron tainted milk through the mixture, deepening the golden hues. The colours of sunshine with the warmth of love on a plate, who can resist Kesari?
The recipe calls for under five ingredients. The main ingredient is Semolina, a coarse wheat flour made from durum which is popularly used to make pasta. To me, a great Kesari lies in the texture - perfectly moist without being too greasy. My friend Saman makes a similar dish known as Sheera Halwa. Watching her whip it up effortlessly in a few minutes motivated me more than once to recreate it at home, albeit unsuccessfully. With my heart set on perfecting this recipe, I started reading a few recipes to figure out what I was doing wrong. I wanted to know the origin of the Kesari and was surprised to find that it is a popular Ottaman recipe with the omission of saffron milk. The Turkish version is called Irmikli Helvasi, the Persian and Greek recipes are similar although the latter uses a Bundt Pan as a mould to serve it. After reading a few Indian Kesari recipes, I found a distinct step in the cooking method. Toasted semolina is taken off the heat and added to boiling milk when cooking Kesari, while for the Halwa, milk is added directly to the toasted semolina.
It was a great afternoon and one of the rare occasions when all of us female cousins got together. The conversations that used to be about movie stars, the latest designs of Salwar Kameez and eye make up techniques have given way to discussions about good schools, their children's current cartoon obsession and methods of (hopefully) effective toilet training. Although I am collectively 7 children away from contributing to these talks, I was happy when my dessert became the subject of interest. The Kesari slowly disappeared from all our bowls and we sat reminiscing the years gone by.
The recipe I wanted to try yielded two servings. I had to cook the recipe for up to 20 members of the family. I multiplied the recipe but underestimated the size of the cookware required which meant I had Kesari ready to boil right off the pan. It also made for a great upper arm workout trying to stir the sugar into the semolina now that it had doubled in volume. I patiently continued working the mixture and it started bubbling beautifully. I couldn't wait to plate them up and start shooting while it was still piping hot.
I spent more than an hour photographing these and I would love to put all of them if I didn't have to worry about clutter. If you'd like to see more photographs, head on here.
Rava (Semolina) Kesari
Recipe barely adapted from Sharmi's Passion
- Semolina - 1/2 cup
- Sugar - 1/2 cup
- Melted pure Ghee - 3-4 Tbsp - for roasting
- Pure Ghee - 1 tbsp - to be added in the final step.
- Water OR Milk - 1 and 1/4 cups
- Saffron - A generous pinch
- Warm Milk - 1 Tbsp
- Salt - A pinch
- Cashews and Almonds - As required
- Soak saffron strands in lukewarm milk and set aside.
- Toast cashews and almonds plainly in a pan on low flame till it begins to change colour. Make sure not to burn them.
- Chop or slice the toasted nuts and set aside.
- Heat ghee till it melts and roast the semolina on a low flame till it relases a nutty aroma.
- When it starts to change colour, switch off the heat and transfer it to a plate.
- Add water OR milk to the pan and allow it to boil.
- When it starts to bubble, tip in the roasted semolina slowly and stir continuously.
- Be very careful taking care not to form lumps.
- If you want to add food colour, add it at this stage.
- Keep stirring continuously on a medium flame.
- Cover the pan for a minute to ensure the semolina is fully cooked.
- Once the semolina is cooked, add the sugar.
- The mixture will start to loosen and it might start bubbling but keep stirring continuously.
- Add the final tablespoon of ghee and keep stirring till it forms a mass leaving the sides of the pan.
- Add saffron milk and chopped nuts and give it a quick stir.
- Take off heat and transfer to a greased serving dish.
- Don't skimp on the Pure Ghee. This is what gives Kesari it's true rich flavour.
- Watch out for lumps forming through the process. Just break it down if you see them.
- If you are planning to double the recipe, make sure you use a larger saucepan or cookware as the semolina fluffs up when cooked in liquid.
Have a good food day.
Please take a moment to remember one of my first food prop purchases that shattered beyond redemption during the shoot.