Ever tried gur chawal or shakkar makkhan roti as the cold bites into you? Even non-dessert people will fall for these sweets.
I think the best part of a saag and roti meal is the dessert that inevitably follows: shakkar makkhan roti. Roti is, of course, makki ki; of corn or maize, but the word shakkar is usually misunderstood.
People usually ask whether I mean cheeni, sugar, and I know that is what shakkar means in common parlance. But even when I say no, the next question is “Oh, you mean powderd gur?”
No, it's not powdered gur. It's amorphous, soft, damp, brown, unrefined “sugar”, not very sweet. So if you take a spoon of sugar in your tea then you should take at least two of shakkar.
Travelling by road in winter in the North you sometimes drive past a local farmer extracting sugarcane juice and processing it into gur and shakkar. In U.P. they add flavourings like dried ginger to the gur but it's perfectly fine just plain.
Mild, malty flavour
Gur and shakkar have a mild malty flavour, and I can visualise my father's glass of hot milk at breakfast: he stirs in a few spoons of shakkar, the milk turns a pale pinkish brown and becomes thick, the sound of the spoon striking the glass as it stirs changes from a sharp clink to a small dull thud.
He takes the first sip, his moustache gets coated with froth, and he pronounces it better than hot chocolate. But my favourite way to consume shakkar is with the last makki ki roti at lunch, a hot one, crisp at the edges. The butter must be unsweetened, soft and white, running all over the roti as it melts. This is topped with a little mountain of shakkar that dissolves into the butter, and they are all eaten together. No more satisfying smell and taste can be invented.
Gur is of course made into chikki, peanut brittle, but I remember a chikki parcel someone brought me from Pakistan: pistachio and chilgoza, with more nuts than gur, which had been used only as a medium to bind the nuts.
The other hot favourites to crunch after lunch in the bright winter sun are gajak and rewri and I once had the opportunity to watch them being made. Extremely complicated and time-consuming; no wonder they're always bought.
I remember some very cold winter nights when even non-dessert lovers like me would crave something hot and sweet. While we were still eating dinner my mother would melt some ghee, fry some almonds, walnuts and cashews until they were golden and crisp, then stir in a cup of grated gur, which would melt and form a toffee which you ate with your last roti.
Another, slightly less rustic winter dessert was gur chawal, served with cream or dahi.
Winter brings another similar but different sweetness in Bengal: khejur or nolen gur, date palm jaggery. Agile young men shin up the trunks of date palm trees, attach earthen pots and tap the sap. This is cooked to make the liquid or grainy jhola gur and the solid patali gur, which is used in winter in certain sweets. Sandesh is sometimes sweetened with it, and there is a delightful variety that looks like an owl with its two raisins that look like eyes, which delivers a surprise when you bite in: a small filling of the treacly new gur.
Baking with shakkar
When I get a consignment of gur and shakkar from home I can't really use much of it in the traditional ways. So after the shakkar has been sifted, my thoughts turn to baking. Brown sugar, Muscovado, dark brown, golden brown are all Western and I don't think gur, shakkar or nolen gur are the same. But they suffice to give a malty undertone to your cakes and cookies.
Brown Sugar Brownies
1½ sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup soft butter
1 cup shakkar, tightly packed
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Method: Preheat oven to 180º C (350º F). Lightly grease a 9-by-9-by-1 3/4 -inch pan. Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Set aside. In large bowl, using a wooden spoon or hand-held electric beater, beat butter, sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. Stir in flour mixture. When it is well blended, stir in nuts. Spread evenly in prepared pan. Bake for 25 or 30 minutes, or until golden brown. The surface should spring back when pressed gently with a fingertip. Cool slightly, but while it is still warm, cut into bars. Prise out brownies and cool on wire rack.
1 cup rice.
1 1/2 cups grated gur
2 cups water
2 tbsp ghee
1 tbsp raisins, soaked
2 tbsp almonds, blanched and slivered
Method: Wash and soak rice. Dissolve gur in half cup water. Heat ghee. Strain rice and add to ghee. Sauté for a minute or two, until colour changes slightly. Add 1 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. When water is visible only as bubbling little “wells”, reduce heat and cover. When rice seems almost done, stir in hot gur solution. Simmer, covered, until rice is fully done and gur absorbed. Serve hot, garnished with raisins and almonds. Whole black peppers and cloves (4-5 of each) can be sautéed in the ghee if you want to add some spiciness.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi.