During my growing up years in the Northern plains of India, Holi celebrations held a very dear place in heart. The festival of colors, was a grandeur event there. The day the whole township would come together. Everyone played colors, and visited each other to wish. How I miss all that fun now. There’s not as much that happens on Holi, in this part of the globe. Though I loved the Holi festivities as a child, I wasn’t a big fan of colors…and I loathed the water based colors the most. With March mornings still being somewhat chilly, I was the last person who’d love to be all drenched in a violet, red, blue and yellow from head to toe and shiver! But who listened? I was never spared, not a single year, not by one I knew. To my melancholy, I lived near many of my classmates, family friends and the countless uncles and aunties, who didn’t seem so dear on Holi. I would be chased and dabbed with more colors than I saw on a rainbow!
Each Holi, early in the morning, I’d tell my parents how determined I was to not participate in the color-smearing fun. And every time I said, Ma-Baba made me apply generous thick layers of oil on my body, face and hair. My hairs were then pulled back into a tight and neat pony tail. “This is just in case you get the colors on you. The oil will make it easy to wash them off”, they’d tell me. My usual Holi dress would be an old, outdated, aging set of clothes that didn’t fit me well anymore and the one Ma wanted to get rid of. My footwear would either be the over worn and slightly torn/ripped pair of shoes that wanted a dignified funeral to finally RIP; or my good old Bata’s classic blue and white “chappals” that were too easy to wash and clean.
On Holi, my brother and I were not permitted to stay at home, since that would attract our neighborhood friends into our rooms. And for all good reasons, playing Holi inside the house is strictly unacceptable in most households. With shiny oiled bodies, wearing overused clothes, and armed with a new pichkari (water gun), 2 packets of gulal and a bucket full of color solution to refill, we siblings would be politely asked to get out. Once out, on our by-lanes, I tried several excuses for color-me-not. When I said I had cold and cannot get soaked, my friends and neighbors had the dry “gulal” colors for me. When I said I had sensitive skin and was allergic to “bits of mica” in gulal, they had the pure herbal ones. At times, even before I could scream a no-no-no, they’d pour down on me a pail full from their balconies, as I stood below with learned helplessness. There was even a Holi-day, when upon seeing a friend on a lookout to color me; I had escaped into my bathroom with a pretense to be in shower. She had knocked and patiently waited outside. As soon as I stepped out clean, in no time, my favorite set of pink PJs, was turned motley colored. “Mou, it’s customary for me to dab colors on you today”, she said with a wink, as I miffed, looked down on my sobbing clothes and had gone back in for another shower!
Though I had this love-hate relationship with colors on Holi, I believe somewhere down I had loved everything about it. We had about 12-15 families living around that were close friends with one another. It would start from one end of the stretch. As the “rangeela” Holi group would visit each house, the families would join in and the group would grow. By the time that group came into ours, it would be a mini-crowd with a head count of 30-40. It is a tradition on Holi to serve several homemade sweet and savory snacks to visiting friends/family/guests, alongside some often homemade sharbats, diluted squash or Thandai. Ma therefore had had to make enough quantities and types of snacks before the festival day. We had this huge orange melamine serving tray with multicolor geometric square design that was almost exclusively reserved for Holi. It was larger than the largest trays I’ve ever seen in stores till date. Ma would step out with that tray holding 4 to 6 assorted snack-platters, a few glasses of cool drinks and put them down for the guests to party on. The snacks would all be gone in no time!
Holika Dahan precedes the day of Holi, and everyone looked forward to it the whole year through. As for Ma and her friends in the neighborhood, the ritualistic Holi preparations would begin a week prior. The making of such humongous quantities of snacks and the bulk varieties was too much of a Herculean task for one to do. So each noon, the ladies would group up and visit one home, per plan. They would spend 2-3 hours assisting the lady of the house in her kitchen with the snacks and sweets. No Holi in north India is complete without Gujias, the sweet Indian empanadas…these are deep fried dumplings filled with coconut, nuts, sugar and khoya (dried whole milk). They could be relished as is, or dipped in syrup before serving. And I always loved and loved the more convinient, mess-free dry version. Then there would be Shakarparas, laddus and namkeens (fried savory snacks), to name the least. The ladies would cooperatively roll out large batches of Gujiyas and other snacks in a kitchen, each afternoon. They’d form an assembly line. One lady would knead the dough, another one rolled out the dough, the third in line filled the dough rounds, the fourth one folded and sealed, while the fifth one fried them, all while they gossiped and giggled non-stop. Any other lady that participated acted as temporary fill-ins and whole heartedly participated in the “gossip-while-we-make-gujiyas” task!
Gujiya is an age-old traditional Holi food-item. It isn’t one of those make-in-a-breeze recipes and involves elaborate yet easy procedures. The all-purpose flour needs to be primed optimally with oil before kneading. The filling must be well cooked and sufficiently sweet and enriched with nuts, coconuts and flavors. The filling should be stuffed, folded and sealed neatly…Then fried well for a golden-brown crispy, flaky outer coat and a soft, comforting filling.
When it comes to making intricate traditional snacks or desserts, I find myself being lazy…very lazy most of the time. Who’d do all the cooking work? Isn’t it easier to put on a jacket and stop by at the local sweet shop and buy some? Well, for gujiyas, I was done with the often stale, hard shelled, greasy, lonely looking pieces with lean fillings that they mostly sold here. They never tasted good. Moreover, big-J has never known gujiyas so far, or the ritualistic making of it.
So yesterday, I picked myself up for the kitchen marathon and made gujiyas, albeit a whole new way differently than Ma did. I used her recipe for making the flour-shells and base khoya-mawa-coconut filling. I added some blended paan leaves (betel leaves) to my left over gulkand and Mukhwas (colorful Indian after-meal mouthfreshner mix) to make what I call Banarasi paan ki gujiya. It has been a timeless tradition and our culture to offer paan after a meal in India. Banarasi meetha paan easily reigns higher than its counterparts in the category of after meal mouth freshners. And what better way to greet a guest or to finish a supper than with these gujiyas? These beauties have the paan and the dessert come together so beautifully! I was proud of myself. The gujiyas were like no other I’ve had before. It was extremely refreshing, colorful and a welcome innovation from the regular gujiyas, I had ever made. Crisp flaky flour shells gave way into the soft, moist bright green “Paan” filling with delightfully interrupting crunch from the nuts and mukhwas. Friends and family, who happily gobbled them down, validated and grew the happiness many manifolds. I don’t remember the last time I was so gratified with a new culinary outcome. But this one was totally worth…worth every bit.
I am sure you all will love it too much too, and I look forward to hearing back from you. Do let me know how they turned out and how you liked them. In the meantime, have a colorful happy Holi you all and stay blessed!
Banarasi Paan ki Gujiya, RECIPE⇒
Makes about 25 if using gujiya cast; and about 20 without it
For the Paan filing, you will need:
- 4 large or 5 medium Paan or Betel leaves
- 4 tbsp cold milk
- 6 heaped tbsp or 2/3 cup (5.3 oz or 150 gm) good quality Gulkand (sweetened rose petal preserves)
- 1 can (14 oz or 396 gm) sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup (8 oz or 230 gm) finely desiccated coconut
- 6 oz or 170 gm Khoya (slab of dried whole milk used in South Asian cuisines)
- 1/4 cup (2 oz or 57 gm) golden raisins
- 1/2 cup (4 oz or 113 gm) your choice of mixed nuts (I used 1/4 cup cashew nuts plus 1/4 cup pistachios)
- About 1/4 cup (2 oz or 57 gm) fine granulated sugar — you may have to slightly adjust this amount of sugar, based on the sweetness of the gulkand and sweet condensed milk you use
- 1/4 cup (2 oz or 57 gm) your favorite Mukhwas (Indian mouth freshener mixture)
- A few drops of bright green food color — Optional
**You’d find and can grab these ingredients at your local Indian stores
Preparing the Paan filling:
- Chop the raisins and nuts.
- Grate the khoya.
- Clean the paan leaves. Cut off and discard any small leaf stalks that you may see. Roughly chop/shred the leaves.
- In a blender, add cold milk and the shredded paan leaves. Blend/pulse till you get a coarse paste.
- In a clean and dry non-stick frying pan over medium heat, add the grated khoya and dry roast it for a couple minutes. Keep stirring during this time to prevent khoya from burning/sticking. You will see that as it is fried, the khoya reduces in volume and gets crumbly. When done, the khoya would leave the pan greasy, give out a strong milky/dairy smell and should have slightly turned creamish in color. Take off from stove and transfer fried khoya to a mixing bowl and allow it to cool completely.
- In the same frying pan over medium heat, add the desiccated coconut, sweetened condensed milk, the paan leaf paste and food color (pic-1). Heat and stir occasionally for about 3 to 4 minutes to evaporate excess moisture and mix (Pic-2). Reduce down stove heat to medium low and heat for another 3 to 4 minutes with frequent stirring. By the end of this time, all of the mixture should have come together into a sticky, yet somewhat lumpy mass and would easily leave the pan base upon stirring (Pic-3). At this stage, take off from stove and let it cool completely.
- After the green coconut mixture has cooled, transfer it to the mixing bowl containing khoya. Add the nuts, mukhwas and gulkand. Mix them well together (Pic-4, 5 & 6). Since the mixture is tad bit sticky, I use my hands to mix them well together.
- Taste the mixture for sweetness (the mixture should be slightly higher on sweet, because the gujiya’s flour shell isn’t sweet, and thus it’ll all balance nicely at the end). Based on the quality of gulkand and sweetened condensed milk used, you may need to adjust the amount of finely granulated sugar mentioned in the list above. I used 1/4 cup sugar. Add the sugar to the mixture and mix well. And the Banarasi paan filling is ready!
For the Gujiya, you will need:
- 2 cups (16 oz or 453 gm) all purpose flour (maida)
- About 1/4 cup (2 oz or 57 gm) light olive oil or Ghee (clarified butter) — I use olive oil
- About 3/4 cup (6 oz or 177 ml) water
- Other things: rolling pin, a clean moist muslin cloth, gujiya cast (optional), a few tsp of water for sealing gujiya dumplings, the Banarasi paan filing you just made, a deep frying pan, sufficient oil to submerge and deep fry gujiyas, slotted spoon, adsorbent kitchen towel, etc.
The making of Gujiyas:
- Take the flour in a mixing bowl. Add 1/4 cup oil or ghee to it (pic-7).
- Dry mix them well. You’ll see that the flour becomes crumbly. Then do what Ma calls the “handful flour test” (pic-8). Take a handful of flour and tightly press with fingers of your fist. When you open, the dry flour should hold the form. If it does, the flour is ready to be kneaded for gujiya. If it doesn’t hold and falls apart, then add 1 tbsp of the oil/ghee, mix and repeat the test.
- Now add about 3/4 cup water and finish the dough smooth. Knead for 1 or 2 extra minutes and the dough should come out clean (pic-9). If the dough is dry and hard, sprinkle some drops of water and finish. Alternatively, if the dough seems too sticky, sprinkle some all purpose flour till it’s smooth.
- Divide the dough into 20 ping-pong ball sized portions (pic-10).
- Roll out each dough-ball into approximately 4 to 4.3 inch rounds (pic-11). The rolled rounds shouldn’t bee too thick or too thin. Roll them like you’d roll for “pooris” or “luchis“
- Using dumpling cast for Gujiya: Place the rolled out dough on the cast, covering the edges. Place about 1 tablespoon of the paan filling on the lower half, keeping sufficiently away from the sides. Dip a finger in water and line the sides of the lower dough half with it (pic-12) — this helps in sealing and securing the gujiya ends together. Close and press the cast ends tightly to seal the gujiya (pic-13). Pull out excess dough that sticks out, and preserve them (pic-14). Carefully take out the gujiya (pic-15).
- Making Gujiyas without the cast: Take a rolled out dough round that’s about 4″ in diameter. Place about 1 tbsp of the paan mix below the fold,towards the center and keeping the side ends free (pic-16). Line one half side-ends with a finger dipped in water to secure sealing. Bring the upper half on the lower half to fold into a half-moon shape, covering the filling completely (pic-17). Using index finger and thumb pinch, fold and press to seal the gujiya across the ends (pic-18). The ends must be well sealed to avoid the filling spilling out in the oil during deep frying (pic-19). You may also use a stainless steel fork to press down and seal folded gujiya ends!
- Keep the dough as well as the gujiya-dumplings covered with a clean and moist muslin cloth to prevent the dough from losing moisture and drying up (pic-20). If you are using the cast, the extra dough pieces cut out and saved could be reused to make a few more gujiyas.
- Heat sufficient oil in a deep frying pan over medium heat. Once the oil is ready and hot, drop a pinch of dough into the oil. The test-dough should rise/float up on the oil and begin to fry. Fish it out and discard.
- Carefully drop a couple of gujiya dumplings into the hot oil. Do not overcrowd the pan and leave enough room for flipping the gujiyas (pic-21).
- Flip the gujiyas mid-way during frying to ensure both sides are evenly cooked and browned.
- When the gujiyas are uniformly golden brown, fish them out using a slotted spoon and place on an adsorbent kitchen towel (pic-22). Fry all the gujiyas in similar batches. Once cool, store the gujiyas at room temperature in an air-tight container, in a cool, dry place.
- Serve them warm or at room temperature. Pair them with your favorite soft drinks or eat them as is…they add all that special festive spark to your Holi!
- Though Gujiyas have a long shelf life at room temperature and keeps well for about a week to 10 days or more, they’re best consumed within the first 2-3 days.
- For enjoying warm crispy gujiyas, heat them in an oven at 170°F (80°C) for a couple minutes, before serving.
- For making Gujiyas dipped in sugar syrup: Since these type of gujiyas are dipped in sugar syrups, you’d want to omit the sugar addition while preparing the paan filling. You could also add less gulkand to keep the sweetness optimally balanced, based on your preferance. Prepare syrup by heating about 1.5 cups sugar in 1 cup water. Dissolve and boil, till the syrup is thick and reaches a single strand/thread of syrup consistency. Dip the gujiyas for a few seconds on each side and take them off before the flour shell turns soggy or too soft. Place them on a serving dish. Garnish with some mukhwas/Indian mouth freshener mix, chopped nuts or desiccated coconut.
- Always heat the gujiyas in medium heat, so they cooked well and are uniformly browned. Heating at higher temperatures causes blistering on the flour shells, and browns them too quickly, before the inside gets cooked.
- You may not end up utilizing all of the paan filling you made. Whatever remains, shape them into bite-size laddu. Then roll these balls over some dry desiccated coconut, store in an air tight container and refrigerate till consumed.
- These gujiyas are not just great for Holi, but they’d also make an impressive welcome snack or a post-dinner treat on weddings, potlucks and festive parties!