October may the month for many to celebrate Fall: pumpkins to be carved, gourds to be displayed, costumes to shop for, and candy to be collected. Burnt orange and other autumnal hues are seen everywhere in my hometown of Austin, but mostly due to Longhorn mania and not the changing color of tree leaves.
But in the kitchens of many Indians of the Hindu culture, the religious occasions of Navratri and Diwali are celebrated. And what better way of celebrating than with sugar?! Skittles, M & M’s, and Sweet Tarts might be popular with the little ones in October, but I enjoy cheddar-crusted apple pie, mocha pecan pie, and pumpkin chocolate chip muffins. I also enjoy ras gullas, ras malai, and gulab jamuns!
Though I’ve never been to India during this time of the year, every October as a child (or late Sept/early Nov–the Hindu calendar follows a lunar schedule) my parents and all my family friends always embraced both cultures, participating in dressing up and trick-or-treating and also organizing lavish dinners and preparing delectable dessert trays.
As a family woman myself now, October is a busy month for us because of my continued attempt and desire to hold on to these two cultures. We adore Halloween but we reminisce about and re-live the light and decor and sweets of Diwali, the festival of light. We decorate ebony and orange cookies in the shapes of bats and ghoulish goblins but the next day, we might sprinkle colored sand in the intricate designs of a rangoli or two on our driveway. We trick or treat with neighbors and take pictures in pumpkin patches, but we also host or attend Diwali parties and playdates. We dress up in character costumes one day, and the next we garb in beautiful silky sarees and dance a garba in mirrored and sequined Indian femininity. October is an expensive month for us Indian-Americans!
Since the weather is perfect for baking (and I LOVE to bake), I have always in the past used the spare time I have for baking for Halloween and autumn goodies. But this year, I will spend more time making Indian sweets. I’ll start with Gaajar Halwa which is a beautiful burnt orange color so I don’t feel too guilty about getting away from my Fall fix and I willfully make my die-hard Longhorn fan hubby happy. Here’s my recipe which I taught for University of Texas Informal Classes about a year and a half ago.
1 pound carrots, grated in a box grater on the coarse side, or in a food processor
3 tablespoons ghee
2 cups whole milk
1 cup half and half
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (use the freshest possible)
½ cup sliced almonds
1) Heat ghee in a nonstick shallow pan over medium high heat.
2) Pour in all the grated carrots, coating them with the ghee.
3) Cook for 5-10 minutes, allowing the carrots to release some of their liquid.
4) Add the milk and half and half. Stir well and bring to a boil.
5) Add raisins. Mix well.
6) Lower heat and simmer 45 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally. The idea is to allow the liquid to evaporate and the carrots to absorb the milk. Eventually the halwa will begin solidifying and when you stir, the mixture will come together, easily coming off the sides of the pan.
7) Stir in sugar and cardamom. Mix well and cook 5 minutes or more if there is still too much liquid.
8) Spoon halwa into a gratin dish or casserole.
9) Sprinkle with almonds.
10) Serve warm or at room temperature possibly with ice cream or kulfi ice cream.