Burfi is primarily a festive, dairy-based dessert that often includes a combination of nuts and/or flavorings. Aside from dairy-based burfi during this time of the year, I also like to sample besan burfi, which brings back fond memories of my Lucknow-Kanpur visit during the holidays with my brother in 1969. The burfi below is made of besan (chickpea flour) using unsalted butter along with khoya, sugar, chopped unsalted cashews and cardamom. While it is not my nani’s besan burfi, it tastes as great as my nani’s burfi, which was prepared with equal amounts of ghee, besan and sugar.
Making burfi is very simple as long as one has enough patience to roast the besan over low heat. Burfi is a perfect example of how much an Indian dish can vary from region to region. While it is essential to use five common ingredients – besan, fat, sugar, khoya and flavorings of choice – the rest is just up to the availability of ingredients on hand at that particular time. This improvisation is essentially the art of cooking and it’s a staple of my cooking style as I will soon explain.
Nani would never dream of making besan burfi with unsalted butter. The majority of the desserts are prepared with ghee which gives them a distinct, nutty flavor and extended shelf life. Ghee also provides a special aroma and texture that cannot be substituted by any other kind of fat. Similar to baking, there is no substitution for unsalted butter. It is safe to say that ghee is an essential ingredient in preparing most Indian desserts just like unsalted butter is a critical baking ingredient in the Western kitchen. However, I have been making besan burfi for about 40 years in the US and in the 1970s ghee was simply not available. As a result, I had to improvise and learned to perfect my own version of besan burfi using unsalted butter.
I particularly enjoy preparing besan burfi by combining different gluten free flour, pulverized nuts, and seeds (particularly amaranth and flax).
1 cup besan (chickpea flour), sifted
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 tablespoon milk
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground cardamom
1/8 cup unsalted cashews, chopped
1/2 cup khoya or milk powder
Cashew halves for garnishing
1) In a medium-size bowl, combine besan, melted butter and milk together with a fork. Using your finger tips or palms of your hands (or a pastry blender) rub the besan until the mixture resembles coarse meal. (Traditionally this besan mixture was kept aside for about five minutes and then sieved through a special stainless steel mesh sieve that gave it coarse cornmeal texture). It is not essential to follow this step but it gives completely different texture to finished product. Set aside.
2) To prepare the sugar syrup: Combine sugar, water and 2 crushed whole cardamom pods in a saucepan over the medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved completely. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and reduce the heat and let it simmer until the syrup reaches to the softball stage. Remove the crushed cardamom pods. (If you like to omit this step simply use the confectioners’ sugar to roasted besan mixture instead of sugar syrup).
3) Meanwhile, melt 1/2 cup butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan (preferably nonstick) set over medium heat without burning the butter. Add besan and stirring constantly to prevent burning until the mixture becomes quite fragrant or lightly golden. Add khoya, chopped cashews and cardamom and stir to mix.
4) Reduce the heat as low as possible and gradually add the sugar syrup, while stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula to prevent sticking on the bottom of the pan. The mixture will become quite thick and splatter.
5) Cook the mixture for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring vigorously with a heatproof spatula without scorching the bottom until the mixture starts to pull away from the bottom of the pan.
6) Carefully spread the mixture evenly onto a well-greased 8x8x2-inch round baking pan. If you like line the baking pan with a parchment paper before spreading the mixture. Score into diamond shapes and garnish with unsalted cashew halves and let the mixture cool completely before cutting. Serve the besan burfi at room temperature.
Yield: approximately 15 pieces.