Monday, December 5, 2011

Pseudo-Sandesh Recipe (AKA Baked Ricotta Cheese-Almond Squares)

Who knew making sandesh would be so easy? Oh, wait...[at least it tastes good]!

15 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar
1 cup blanched slivered almonds
(optional -- I didn't use it) yellow food coloring

You'll Also Need:
a mixing bowl, a baking dish (ideally, a 9x13, but I only had an 8x8 handy so that's what I used), an oven

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. In mixing bowl, mix the ricotta cheese, sugar, almonds (reserve a few for garnish), and food coloring (if you're using it).
 3. Use a spatula to spread the mixture into a baking dish (ideally, a a 9x13). Bake for about 45 minutes, starting to check for doneness at 30. (It's done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.) Garnish with the rest of the almonds. Let cool and cut into squares.
Makes about 20 small squares.

The AHH Factor: I thought it was a simple request.

I e-mailed my mom for her sandesh recipe so I could make it for Diwali. (I have to e-mail her for recipes because if I ask her for one over the phone, I get a lot of "you know what I mean" when it comes to ingredient names. Except that I have no idea what she means.) For anyone who's not familiar with it, sandesh is a traditional Bengali sweet. It's creamy and snow white, sometimes with hints of yellow, if it's fancy and has saffron. A color it is decidedly not is the color shown in my photos.

So how did this pseudo-sandesh come to be?

"Sandesh is little bit hard the way I make it, especially for first-timers," responded my mom.

All of a sudden, I was thrust back to my teen years. In my mom's kitchen, I make a genuine offer to help her make dinner. Even then, I had a budding interest in the creative process of cooking and I loved to see all of the disparate ingredients come together into a completely different whole. And my mom was a great cook. There was a bit of mystery in her cooking to me, as it seemed to somehow materialize on the table as soon as I got home from school, without much effort at all.

Generally, after rebuffing my first several offers, she'd relent. Sort of. "OK, you can stir this," she'd say, nodding to a pot on the stove. At least it was something to do. Cooperatively, I'd stir it. Then hang around waiting for the opportunity to stir it again. But, whether she realized I saw her or not, as soon as I glanced in another direction, she'd rush over to the pot and stir it herself.

Because I guess stirring the contents of a pot is "a little bit hard," and best left to the experts.

To this day, I don't understand why she didn't want me to learn how to cook. I think part of it is she was primarily a stay-at-home mom, and cooking may have felt like her big contribution to the family. She may not have wanted anyone, even her own daughter, to take that away from her. Maybe a more positive spin on it is that, having spent her formative years in India, my mom saw that there it was primarily the housekeeping staff who tended to the cooking and cleaning and she felt it shouldn't be a homeowners' responsibility to cook. I'm pretty sure she's never enjoyed cooking, but she felt it was her obligation. Maybe she didn't want to pass that "burden" onto me.

Maybe someday she will tell me the real reason.

I learned to cook mostly from cooking with friends in college, then from watching the Food Network constantly (it's still the main thing I use my DVR for), and from collecting cookbooks. There was a lot of trial and error in college, but, for the most part, I think I'm up to speed at this point. When my mom finally saw that my interest in food wasn't going away, she did start responding when I asked for recipes, and she started genuinely giving me tips on how to make items turn out correctly.

That's why I was sad to see that she thinks I can't make sandesh. I'll be back on my blog later after I can get the true sandesh recipe, with the likely source being a different relative. I know it involves making fresh paneer and it doesn't involve an oven. (Most homes in India don't even have ovens.)

In the meantime, I'm sharing the recipe my mom placated me with. To be fair, it does taste great. It's sticky and sweet, and everyone who's tried it has raved about it. I get requests for it often. And the flavors do taste Indian (maybe despite what you'd expect from the list of ingredients), so I'd recommend finishing any Indian meal with this sweet dessert. And, of course, it's super easy.

But then again, any recipe can become super easy if you just give it a chance.


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