Growing up, dessert wasn't something we ate very often. In fact, our eating habits in India were rather weird, particularly with my mum being a working woman.
We would always have a filling and hot breakfast, something I have no idea how my mum actually managed. She used to wake up at 5 AM so we could have hot breakfasts... I realise now how lucky we were! Then mum would cook lunch for whoever was at home, make up our lunchboxes and rush out to her school, where she worked as a teacher. Everything was sorted by 8.15 AM, cause she had an hour commute to get to work. And if you've ever commuted in India, you will know exactly how stressful it is with the heat and dust, and crowds all pressing in. My mum is a supermum, and now that I am a mum myself, I find myself appreciating her more and more every passing day!
Getting back to the point, we would end up eating lunch at school, and then have a heavy tea at about half past four when we got home. Tea usually meant snacks as well, and so we would be well filled up for when mum got home at about five. Dinner was around eight, and we never really had a formal 'sit-down-round-the-table' dinner. We'd get a shout when it was ready, and we went and served ourselves, got yelled at for not taking enough vegetables... grumbled a bit about 'fish again...? I hate fish... moan, mutter'... and usually ate in the front of the TV after a little fight with dad about what we were going to watch (dad usually won, unless there was something mum wanted to watch, in which case, mum won!)
So essentially 'family dinners' as we know it here weren't a big part of my life, growing up. Neither were desserts. The only time we got to eat sweets was usually at tea time when we would grab something from the local bakeries. Or when we had relatives over, in which case we would all pile in and head to the local (hugely famous) ice cream parlour and stuff our faces.
The other conspicuous absences in my childhood were cookbooks. Indian recipes, as is well known, are usually passed down as oral traditions, or on scribbled bits of papers. Even today, I rarely see mum referring to a cookbook. She actually gets amused when I try and pin down quantities so I can write them up for the blog. Her usual method of explanation goes along the lines of 'well, add a handful of this and a pinch of that, and a spoon of this and a couple glugs on that'. Yep, helpful. Not! On ocasion I saw mum using a recipe that was found in a local weekly paper. But we never had those glossy coffee table style cookbooks that everybody seems to own now.
So you can imagine the excitement when my Uncle W showed up from Germany with a crateload of cookbooks (along with a housefull of academic ones, but those were of no interest to us work shirkers). The cookbooks were exotic ones for what we saw as dreamy desserts like jam filled doughnuts and aurora cakes, and meringues and sachertortes. Uncle W was very protective of his books. We were only allowed to look at them in his house, and not allowed to take them away anywhere out of his sight. We oohed and aahed over them, but then went home to what we considered ordinary and everyday food. Even today, I look at a pretty dessert book, and I am scared to touch it, haha.
But one fine day Uncle W allowed us to take a book back home. It was an Indian cookbook, by a lady called Rohini Singh. I don't remember the name, and I don't think its in print anymore. To my childish eyes it was a marvellous and beautiful book, with a lovely purple cover. It too, was filled with exotic Northern Indian dishes like murgh makhani (butter chicken), malai kofta (meatballs in a creamy curry) and desserts like sandesh (a bengali dessert) and rasmalai.
The one recipe that stands out in my head though, is for this phirni. We pestered our mum over and over again to make this dessert, and in exasperation, she finally acquiesced. It was, hands down, one of the best desserts of my childhood, and I fondly remember it even today. I don't know what happened to the book. Our house back in India is just a tip, filled with myriad mementoes of a few lifetimes, and sadly the book may have been one of the casualties. However the taste has never eluded me in all these years and I was determined to recreate it.
I remembered enough of the recipe to be able to have a very good idea of the ingredients. The rest was a matter of working through flavours and techniques, which, thankfully now comes easy to me.
Phirni is a simple and elegant rice pudding, flavoured with Indian spices and garnished with nuts. Its very easy to put together, and can be the vehicle for pretty much any flavour combination you can think of. I made two versions. This one is a classic saffron and cardamom flavour with pistachio nuts. I'll also be doing one soon with rosewater and pomegranate, a flavour pairing I think will work brilliantly too.
For me, this dessert was a straight throwback to my childhood. I've realised that the more I write this blog, the more memories I remember and preserve via the medium of food. That, as a person, a mum and a blogger is what drives me and keeps my blog going. I would do good to remember this when I moan about not getting enough pageviews or stress about my photographs being not good enough :-)
¾ cup basmati rice
3 cups whole milk
1 cup half and half (10% cream)
¼ cup sugar + a little extra if you like your phirni sweeter
2 pods cardamom, seeds removed and crushed lightly
A generous pinch of saffron
A handful of unsalted pistachios, shelled and chopped roughly
Put the rice in a food processor or blender, and whirl until coarsely powdered.
Place the powdered rice in a heavy pot, then add the 3 cups milk and crushed cardamom seeds.
Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 - 12 minutes, stirring ocasionally, until the rice is tender and cooked. I like a little texture to my pudding, so I prefer to keep my rice a little on the undercooked side, but you can cook the rice completely to make it super soft. Just simmer for an additional 5 minutes or so.
Add the half and half and the sugar, and stir. Add the saffron. Bring the heat back up to medium, and cook until the pudding is thick and creamy.
This dessert can be served warm or cold. If serving cold, pour into small bowls and chill in the fridge until set. Serve with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios on top.