When DH and I went to Southern India during Christmas break this year, I had a very memorable gluten-free sweet at a local sweets shop in downtown Bangalore called Rasgulla. This wonderful spongy milk dessert was served in sweetened, flavored liquid with shaved pistachio, and it was so good I thought I was in heaven. I was also highly paranoid that it contained wheat (quite likely, although in small amounts) but everyone insisted it didn’t, including DH’s co-workers who were kindly treating us. It was good, and without the paranoia would have been perfect, but I resolved to make my own fluffy bite o’ heavenly cloud (yes yes, I know, but it IS that good!) in the safety of my own kitchen later.
I even bought a book called Mithai while in India specifically to learn how to make rasgulla. Once I got home, of course I was far to busy to make an elaborate sweet that takes half (or all of) the day to prepare, but I could look at my cookbook and dream. Happily for me, just as school was ending for the year, the hostess of our local gluten-free support group decided to host a potluck with an Indian theme- and I immediately thought AHA! Time to make rasgulla! And this time, it won’t be just for me and the DH, but for a whole crowd of GF intolerant folks, so it will be perfect. I was still nervous about it though, so I decided to enlist a local specialist in exotic cuisine and desserts, my new friend JM. I first noticed her mad skills at our last GF potluck when she brought killer Dolma (both veg and non veg), Orange Slices with Honey and Cinnamon, Turkish Delights, and Dugh (a FIZZY Yogurt Beverage). The mysterious and finicky turkish delight dish that she brought made me think she would be the perfect tech (and moral) support for a rasgulla experiment. So, one day before the party MS. JM came over to my itty bitty apartment (soon to be ex-apartment) and suffered through my cramped little kitchen to help me make my very first batch of rasgulla ever. We separated milk, strained it, kneaded it, shaped it and simmered it, and while it was lots of fun (especially because I wasn’t all by my lonesome going through these instructions) it was HARD WORK and took FOREVER. And for me, Ms. elaborate cooking project to say something takes forever, well, just trust me on this one. It took forever! The end result of our slaving in the kitchen was interesting- hard little disks of sweetened cheese. I tasted it and it TASTED all right, but somehow it just didn’t feel or seem right. What happened to those heavenly cloud puffs of sweet milk I’d enjoyed in India? What magic did they perform to give them that texture? The next morning when I pulled them out of the refrigerator and found the disks had shrunk even more, I resolved to find the answer.
Luckily “Mr. Google” (As DH insists on calling it, usually when I ask him to look something up) saved the day. I found myself with entire pages dedicated to rasgulla, with videos and helpful hints from grandmothers (and moms) located in or from India. Their expertise led me to realize a few things. One, the instructions in Mithai weren’t very helpful when using American ingredients where the sugar is refined. For example, in America no “Gray impurities” come to surface when sugar simmered in milk- around which half the instructions in my cookbook were focused. Further, when we’d shaped the rasgulla disks we only belatedly covered them with a damp towel- the rasgulla had dried out a bit before simmering and that was NOT conducive to fluffy rasgulla goodness. And finally, our main problem was that although we kneaded the chenna dough (the cheese stuff), we didn’t know how long to do so, and because we didn’t knead it enough the resulting rasgulla could only be called… well, lumpy. It was actually great that the first recipe didn’t turn out that well, because it allowed me to figure out how to do things properly the second time around. My most significant eureka moment (of which I am ever so proud) was that instead of hand kneading, using a food processor to knead the dough might be just the ticket. After I figured out what the problems had been, somehow I found myself standing in the middle of my kitchen, working out a second and simpler, but improved, batch of rasgulla for the party that evening. Thank goodness I had enough time (and am just a tad obsessive with fancy recipes). To my delight, this time after whirring up the cheese in the food processor, it achieved THE MAGIC TEXTURE. I didn’t know there was a magic texture, but when I saw it, I knew that was what it was. The cheese glistened like taffy, but was magically light and airy- oh, it was thrilling. I shaped them into disks, put them into the flavored liquid to simmer- and covered them, as one of my consultants online had suggested. Miracle of miracles, the little disks swelled and puffed to twice their size- and I had done it (thanks to JM and my online advisors, but mostly to JM for getting me through the recipe the first time around!)- I had created a rasgulla that rivaled the freshly made one I’d enjoyed in Bangalore, India. To me, working with recipes like this is like engaging in alchemy- literally creating form from the most basic elements, and nothing is more fun- unless maybe it’s eating the thing you’ve created!
Interested in Rasgulla?
According to Wikipedia, “Rasagolla was the first of the syrupy Indian cheese desserts. It became the precursor for many other Bengali and Oriya delicacies, such as rasmalai, raskadam, chamcham, pantua, malai chop, and kheersagar. Rasagolla, along with chhena gaja and chhena poda, forms the classic Oriya trinity of chhena desserts. In Bengal, rasagolla and a variety of other chhena sweets such as sondesh, are collectively referred to as Bengali sweets.”
And now, with no further ado, here is my own, original recipe for Rasgulla, for your very own gluten-free kitchen. (I’m so sorry it is not dairy-free. If anyone comes up with a dairy free version that works, I’d love to hear about it. But never fear. There are all sorts of potentially vegan sweets recipes in Indian cuisine and I WILL be experimenting with them in the future).
Gluten Free Rasgulla Recipe
4 cups 2% milk
2 scant tbsp. fresh lemon juice
4 cups water
dash of fresh lime juice
Make Chenna (the cheese base for the sweet):
Bring milk to a boil in a large pan (I like the ceramic lined dutch oven type for milk recipes) over medium high heat. Stir frequently, because it likes to burn on the bottom. You also want to avoid skins forming on the surface, so keep stirring. A wooden spoon works well.
When milk has come to a low boil, add your lemon juice and watch the whey separate, leaving white bits in the pan. When the whey looks clear, turn off the heat. Prepare a strainer with a dampened, thin towel (flour sack type is perfect) or cheesecloth. Pour your cheese into the strainer and rinse it with cold water to get rid of some of the lemon flavor. Lightly squeeze out water until only solids remain in a ball shape.
If you have one of the mini bowls in your food processor, it’s perfect combined with the small metal blade attachment. Put the cheese in the mixing area and process it until it sticks together in a sleek, creamy ball. It will almost be glossy, like taffy. This is the magic state of perfection. (Oh, so satisfying!) Take it out of the bowl and separate it into sixteen equal parts. Form them into balls and flatten slightly so they are little round discs. Place on a plate and cover with a damp towel so they don’t dry out.
Wash your dutch oven and fill it with 4 cups water. (You have a lid, right? This is very important! You must use a wide pan- a saucepan won’t work unless you do multiple batches.) Bring the water to a boil and then decrease the heat and stir in all your sugar. Stir it for a few minutes on low. Once the sugar has dissolved, add your cheese discs. They will double in size, so give them room to grow! Cover and let them simmer on low for 15-20 minutes*(see note).
Make the syrup – I use 4 c water and 1.5 c sugar, in the video she uses 4.5c water and 1.5c sugar. put the water in a LARGE pan (she uses a pressure cooker). I boil it, then turn it down immediately and quickly add the sugar and simmer on a low heat for a just a minute or two. The sugar dissolves more quickly that way.
Add the ras gullah, remember that they are going to expand to double their size as they cook. Leave plenty of room for them to expand. I cook for 15 to 20 minutes on the stove on a low heat, covered until the cheese is cooked all the way through. Remove the cheese to a plate. A spoon with holes is ideal- the rasgulla is delicate and can easily be marked, so be careful.
Add lemon Juice to the remaining sugar water in the pan. Stir. Add Rose water to taste and let the liquid cool to be just barely warm. Add the Cheese discs back to the liquid. When it cools a little more, put it in a tupperware with as much of the liquid as you would like to save and refrigerate. You can add pistachios or edible flowers to the sugar water if you like. Serve cold.
The food processor kneading is my secret trick for these things. The first time i made them we tried to knead the dough out by hand, and we never got a great texture. On my second try, I had a brainstorm. Many people knead dough in a food processor, so why not try this stuff?
I am so proud of this recipe! Second time’s the charm!
*Check if the rasgulla cheese disks are done by dropping one in a bowl filled with cold water. If it sinks, they are done.*