Adventures in Mediocre Sweetmaking

For the first time in decades, I’ve been trying to systematically expand the range my cooking skills. I’m pretty decent at Indian cooking, and passable at similar adjacent ones like Mexican, Chinese, and Thai, but haven’t learned a new skill or tried a new recipe since around 2004 probably. Now I’m expanding into Indian sweets. It’s somewhere between regular cooking and candymaking. Requires more precision than Indian cooking, but not as much precision as western baking. I’m not a precise person so this is a somewhat challenging new endeavor.

Ironically the impetus was being diagnosed with prediabetes a few years ago, and discovering via CGM (continuous glucose monitor) experiments that Indian sweets (especially the purely milk-based ones) and savories (chanachurs, which are like spicy trail mixes) seem to spike glucose much less than typical western desserts (cakes, cookies) and savories (chips). And many are surprisingly easy to make at a passable-enough quality that beats what you can get at the typical indifferent-quality Indian sweet stores. Especially if you’re willing to use condensed milk and store-bought mawa/khoya (milk powder/solids) rather than starting from scratch with milk like purists. My early experiments with the simpler sweets don’t look great, but mostly taste better than what I’ve typically managed to buy. Some samples:

Peda: condensed milk and mawa, or milk powder, slow-cooked on low heat with some cardamom in a heavy pan to doughiness, stirring constantly, balled, pistachioed, squashed into pucks. Grade: B- (too dry; more milk next time)


7-cup cake: 1 cup each chickpea flour, coconut, milk, ghee, and 2-3 cups sugar cooked together in heavy pan, stirring constantly, until melted and starting to detach from sides, poured onto a greased tray and cut into diamonds. Despite the name, it’s a burfi, a sort of hard fudge, not a cake. This is a simplified 101-version of the technically much harder 501-level sweet known as Mysore Pak. Grade: A- (perfect taste, could look better)

Besan laddoo: Chickpea flour toasted lightly in ghee, then mixed with more ghee, sugar, dry coconut, and toasted cashews/raisins to form a crumbly, greasy mixture, then balled into laddoos. Easiest of the lot but I screwed up in two ways: not toasting the flour properly, and then lazily using Trader Joe’s coconut flakes which are too big. For the 7-layer cake which I made later, I wisely threw the flakes into a blender for a few seconds first. Grade: D (tasted crappy and slightly undercooked compared to what I remember, and looked terrible; the shape is lumpy, the color is too dark due to too much ghee I think).

Carrot halwa: Grated carrot briefly sautéed in ghee and cooked with condensed milk, and garnished with toasted cashews and raisins. Grade: F (As in, I didn’t enjoy eating it. I think mostly due to poor-quality carrots, and undercooking; really needs the sweeter red carrots).

I’d like to try the technically more advanced sweets, which are probably more familiar to non-Indians, such as gulab jamun (this one is terrible for glucose though, as bad as cookies and cakes), Mysore pak, sooji halwa, badam halwa, and my personal favorite, soan papdi. The common factor is having to deal with precisely controlled sugar syrup of specific consistency (measured in terms of “one string, two string” dead reckoning gooeyness measures rather than a candy thermometer).

I’ve made two common desserts, rasmalai (a farmer’s cheese in thickened flavored milk; ricotta kinda works) and kheer (rice or vermicelli pudding) before. Both are much easier than these, but are sort of in a different category in my mind for some reason. Closer to the icecream category. Speaking of which, my wife has made kulfi (Persian-origin Indian icecream) a few times, and it’s really easy. But I think my target is mainly dry sweets that are closer to candy you can eat a bit of, rather than fullish desserts. All freeze really well.

I don’t intend to get excellent at any of this. Just mediocre enough to eat myself, since even mediocre Indian sweets are surprisingly hard to find. Visual presentation especially, is not worth the marginal effort for me (perfect spheres, diamonds, pucks with embossed decorations, colors and such). But who knows, maybe I’ll get tempted to go down that road.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Kyle Mathews says

    On thermometers — I just went down a rabbit hole last night looking for a good clip-on on w/ alarms as I was annoyed at slightly overcooking my wife’s birthday cake (cakes should cook until ~205 degrees and I took it out at ~214 so it was fairly dry). Judging when things are done seems like the hardest part of a lot of cooking and I’ve been finding precision thermometers really helpful elsewhere (sous vide + an instant read thermometer) so clip-on and leave seems like it’ll fix the remaining parts of cooking where I find precision difficult to achieve.

    This is the one I choose