Two themed foodies events I look forward to every month are "Is My Blog Burning" (IMBB) and the dessert event "Sugar High Friday" (SHF) and this month, they have been consolidated into one HUGE Holiday Virtual Cookie Swap, hosted by Jennifer, the creator of SHF and Alberto , the creator of IMBB. They challenge us to come up with our favorite cookie recipes and share them, so we each will have a stash of tried-and-tested recipes to turn to.
All regular readers of this blog know that I am not much of a baker. My cookie-baking experience is rather limited, and I have definite problems:
1. The cookie recipes I use that use eggs end up tasting rather eggy. That is what happened when I tried making biscotti.
2. My cookies always burn at the bottom, while the top remains undone. What's up with that? Anyway, I decided to plunge right ahead and give cookies another shot.
Almost every culture has their favorite cookies, and some of my favorites are the Italian biscotti, American gingersnaps and the East European rugelach. What about India? Well, cookies (or biscuits as they are called in the British tradition) are very popular in India. Numerous varieties are sold and consumed in vast quantities with "chai" (tea). But these are store-bought cookies...the ones made in huge factories and packaged for sale. Cookies are rarely made at home. The reason? Very few Indian kitchens own an oven! Indian cooking is all stove-top and may involve clay ovens like the tandoor. But a conventional oven like the one you find in US kitchens? It certainly does not come as part of a kitchen unit. If you want an oven in India, you have to go out and buy a little one that can sit on the counter-top.
Having said that, in all Indian cities, there exist a few beloved bakeries. Bread loaves, cakes and yes, cookies are sold at these places. These foods are western-influenced recipes uniquely adapted to the Indian palate. For instance, you will get "veggie puffs", puff pastry parcels stuffed with a spicy vegetable mixture, and "masala toasts", little crunchy toasts spread with a dry chutney mixture. Here too, you will find the one truly Indian cookie, called "nankhatai". I have no idea what the origin of nankhatai is, but these are little shortbread cookies, rich and tasty. They come in a variety of flavors...spiced with cardamom, studded with nuts...one of my favorite varieties is coated in cornflakes.
For my version of nankhatai (a first attempt at making these), I chose the classic combo of kesar-pista or saffron-pistachios. Kesar-pista ice cream is as popular in India as say, strawberry ice cream in the US. The color combination is also that of the Indian flag! As my friend SR reminded me, nankhatai also comes in savory forms, flavored with salt and cumin seeds. I looked up many nankhatai recipes from the internet, and came up with my own variation, given below. A shortbread cookie is ALL about the fat, and I never use margarine, so I used a combination of butter and ghee. I think it worked rather well. [Recipe edited on 11/30/05: After making the cookies once more, I realized that shortbread-style cookies HAVE to be made with cold butter cut into the flour instead of softened butter as I used before. The cold butter gave the cookies much better texture the second time around and I modified the recipe to reflect that]
(makes 18 cookies)
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
1/4 cup ghee (clarified butter)
1/4 cup powdered pistachios
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cardamom
1/4 tsp saffron
pinch of salt
strands of saffron
Method: "Cut" the butter into the flour using two blunt knives or a pastry blender till the mixture is sandy. Mix other ingredients into the dough. Knead very gently to form a dough, using a little water as necessary. Place the dough in the refrigerator for 5-10 minutes if it is too sticky. Form 18 balls with the dough. Flatten each ball to form a fat disc. Decorate with some pistachio slices and 2-3 strands of saffron. Here are the cookies before they went into the oven:
Place on ungreased parchment paper on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F for about 10-15 minutes till the bottom of the cookie is just browning. Turn off the oven and let the cookies stay inside the warm oven till the top is slightly golden. Cool completely on a rack.
The verdict: These were delicious! Duh, you mix flour, tons of butter and sugar and it better be good. All the same, they were a bit more crunchy than "real" nankhatai should be, so I will keep working on this recipe. The best way to enjoy these rich sinful cookies is to share them, so you don't wolf 'em down all at once. I sent a box off with V to his workplace, and everyone there seemed to like them very much. Thanks, Jennifer and Alberto for hosting! This event was really fun!
12/9/05: I just found out that these cookies made it to the top ten of the virtual cookie swap! Thank you, all you lovely folks who voted for my little cookies!