Always the star of the party — this high-maintenance carrot dessert
After the most grueling fasting month of Ramadan in decades, the Islamic festival on Eid-ul-Fitr came last Wednesday, thankfully on the same day all over the country, but then tinged with a lot of sadness because of happenings elsewhere in the world, even during the holy month when any act of hate and violence is strictly forbidden.
After the morning congregational prayers, the few relatives we have in Alexandria, Va., gathered at my son Asad’s apartment on Manchester Boulevard for brunch. (My regular readers know my wife and I are in Virginia for our annual sojourn.) Among the several delicious dishes my wife Kaisari cooked, the star by consensus was the carrot halwa (also spelled halva), a painstakingly prepared dessert dish popular all the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.
2 pounds of good quality carrots
1½ to 2 sticks unsalted butter
2 heaped tablespoons ricotta cheese
½ to ¾ cup sugar, or to taste
¼ cup freshly ground almond (soaked and peeled)
2 whole cardamom pods
1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
Just a pinch of genuine saffron threads (optional)
1.Wash, trim and peel carrots with a vegetable peeler. Slice and place them in a pot and barley cover with water. Gently boil the carrots until just tender, about 15 minutes. Do not make them too soft. Strain thoroughly, cool briefly and then process into a smooth puree in a food processor, scraping the sides of the bowl a few times. (She did it in Asad’s Ninja food processor, set for “dough.”)
2.In a shallow heavy pot, preferably a high anodized aluminum pot, or even a large skillet, melt the butter, cut in pats. Add the pureed carrots into the foaming butter and keep stirring with a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula, over a fire held just above medium. Reduce heat if carrots stick, but just a bit of sticking, as would happen with high-anodized pans, may in fact be desirable.
3.After cooking and stirring about 15 minutes, add the cardamom pods and the ricotta cheese, crumbled, stirring and breaking up to make sure the cheese is uniformly mixed. Stirring frequently and keeping the puree moving from top to bottom so everything cooks uniformly is the key to success. There is no short cut for this time-consuming chore. Keep stirring 15 to 25 minutes more. The carrot color will gradually take on a darker hue and you will see some fat glistening on top. And you should of course smell a heady, buttery fragrance.
4.Add the sugar and the ground almonds and stir constantly to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved, cooking an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (Grind the almonds in a grinder or blender in batches so that the nuts are just finely ground but does not release any oil. Almond flour may be used, but we have never used it.)
5.The halwa should be ready at this stage, unless you opt for the added festive flavoring of rose water and saffron. In a small glass bowl, soak the saffron threads (beware, fakes abound) in the rosewater and mash the threads with the back of a teaspoon. Add the mixture to the halwa and cook another minute as you stir the flavorings in.
Serve slightly warm or at room temperature, with crackers or toast points, if desired. Keep leftovers refrigerated.