Happy New Year!!
Wondering why I am wishing a happy new year when the calendar is turning to month 4 in a day? New Year is celebrated on different days/months in different cultures and parts of the world. Where I come from, traditionally our festivals follow what is called as Chandramana calendar (based on the lunar months) and Ugadi is the beginning of new year, it is celebrated in the month Chaitra representing the beginning of Spring. Every year has a name and it is called 'Jaya' this time meaning 'victory'. I wish you all a wonderful year filled with many great victories. It is celebrated today in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra - three southern states in India. Personally for me Ugadi stands for tender green mango leaves adorning the front doors of every house, smell of raw, green mango chitranna and bele obbattu coming from the kitchen along with a serving of bevu-bella symbolizing the two facets of life :-). My bevu-bella has morphed into Ugadi pachadi ever since I got married (more flavors) but the rest of the menu remains pretty much same every year if I can pull it off.
Our local grocery stores ran out of green mangoes last evening, I saw many disappointed faces as I stopped for a quick shopping. I just turned a little smarter getting a mango a couple days ahead of time, honestly it as not planned :-). But the surprise package was the small packet of tiny white neem leaves nestled in a few inches of the stalk along with one or two tiny, green neem leaves. I got a packet too to add it into my Ugadi pachadi. With the sole mango I had reserved for the pachadi, I couldn't make the mango rice so switched to Puliyogare (recipe to follow) and as obbattu is already featured here on the blog :-), I chose to make a different sweet to celebrate the new year.
I have seen nammamma soak rice, grind, grind and grind some more of the coconut to extract milk, then grind, grind and grind more of the rice to eliminate any traces of the grain when you hold it in between fingers. I know I said grind multiple times, that was my way of emphasizing the grinding involved and the effort and time it took in the days when the kitchens were not equipped with high powered electrical blenders. Imagine doing this on a large scale, amma would be spending an entire day preparing the delicious halbai. Once the coconut milk was extracted and grinding done, the next phase is to reduce it to the required consistency by constantly stirring it on heat. This not only required a fair bit of patience but also a flexible wrist and some good muscle power in the arms. So when nammamma slipped and fell and had her right wrist broken, her first reaction was 'How will I ever make Halbai again' :-), funny priorities she has in life. But her hand healed well and she made many more halbais before finally retiring from the kitchen recently. I miss that texture and taste of her halbai, nothing can ever come close to that. The only reason I can think of for her astonishingly delicious, melt in the mouth halbai is her love in what she cooked and served.
A halubai/halbai is made with fresh coconut, jaggery, a little bit of rice and a tiny bit of ghee (clarified butter). When I introduce most of Indian mithai or burfis to my non Indian friends or colleagues, I say it is similar to fudge so they can relate it. However Halbai is not as firm as the other burfis we make, there is infact a word in Kannada called 'Baluku' - if I were to translate it without doing an injustice, it probably would be called 'swaying'. So if you held a piece of halbai at one edge with your finger tips, the rest of the piece should gently sway down without breaking into two, but it is a completely non-sticky piece unlike the halwa in Indian cooking. Hope I made the consistency clear with all that banter :-). The best part of halbai making is that it doesn't have a 'take me off the stove now or I am ruined' kind of consistency of the burfis, it will stay soft even if you go over a couple of minutes. If it is underdone and sticking to the knife, put it back on the stove and continue to stir.
Before you attempt making halbai, here is something really, really, really important (I am not trying to fill my page by repeating words though it may look like that, it is my feeble attempt at trying to drive home a point :-)). Use fresh coconut in this recipe, no canned coconut milk or reconstituted dry/desiccated coconut please. The short cut will just not cut here. Sometimes, jaggery tends to have impurities, if you do not get good quality jaggery, melt it on heat in a couple of spoons of water, strain it through a fine sieve and reserve the clean, melted jaggery for use in the recipe.
What do you need to make Halbai?
Makes about 15-18 1 inch pieces
2 cups grated fresh coconut (fill the cup loosely)
4 Tbsp rice flour
1 cup grated jaggery/palm sugar
1.5 cups water
1/2 Tsp ghee
1/4 Tsp freshly ground cardamom powder
How do you make Halbai?
- Grind coconut with water into a very fine paste. Texture of your halbai is determined by how smooth this paste is.
- If you have the time and inclination, pass the ground mixture through a cheese cloth or a fine sieve and extract the milk from it. This is recommended.
- Take the coconut milk in a pan (do not switch on the stove yet), add the rice flour and mix well to remove any lumps. The mixture will resemble a dosa batter at this stage.
- If you have good quality jaggery, you can pound them in a mortar & pestle and add it directly to the mixture at this time. Else, melt the jaggery in 2 Tbsp of water, sieve it to remove any impurities and add the sieved jaggery to the mixture.
- Prepare a plate (I use my steel plate, anything that can stand the heat and provides a flat surface to the halbai will work) by smearing a couple of drops of ghee on the surface.
- I like to add cardamom powder on top of the ghee so that my pieces get coated with the powder on their smooth surface (looks better in pictures :-)), you can sprinkle cardamom powder on top if you choose.
- Set the plate aside, add 1/2 Tsp ghee to the pan, switch on the stove and start stirring on low to medium heat.
- The quantities given here took me 30 minutes from start to finish once I switched on the stove. Side note: that mine is an electrical stove that takes a couple of minutes to heat up.
- The mixture starts to thicken and also change color gradually, do not rush the process, it needs to be done on low heat.
- After about 20 minutes, it becomes a blob and starts to leave the sides of the pan.
- At 25 minutes, you will see the minuscule half Tsp of ghee doing its magic and giving a shiny coat to the underneath of the blob.
- Watch the mixture at this stage, take a small blob, drop it on the plate and flatten it, if it doesn't stick to your fingers when you smoothen it, you are ready to switch off the stove. Else, continue for a few more minutes.
- Once done, pour the mixture into the prepared plate and flatten it to the desired thickness. Dip your hand lightly in water and smooth the top surface.
- Make markings to cut the piece with a sharp knife, let it cool down for about 10-15 minutes before cutting and separating the pieces.
- Enjoy the delicious, melt in the mouth Halbai.
- You will notice that there are no flavor agents other than cardamom here, that is to let coconut milk take center stage and play out. Do not add nutmeg, cloves etc that will overpower the halbai taste.
- I do not decorate or garnish the halbai with the usual dry fruits either, while it is not illegal to do it :-), it is just against the principle of Halbai.