“Shondesh” is what it is called in West Bengal, “Sandesh” it is elsewhere, & Cheese Fudge is the closest translation I can come up with. “It’s dry yet moist in sweetness. It won’t exactly melt in your mouth but its sweet aftertaste lures your taste buds to bite into more such soft wonders. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the mysterious charm of Sandesh — a term meaning news — a bearer of good tidings for those away from home.” (The Times of India)
This is probably the longest post I have written in a year. I need to elaborate on the Sandesh & the concept, all the more since I found out that even the Wikipedia has incorrect information about this so authentic recipe. This also is a post heavy with nostalgia & memories; memories of festivals & special occasions, of pots of milk boiled, of big brass plates where the “Sandesh” were neatly arranged while we tucked ourselves, sat on the floor & looked in awe as they got magically moulded with experienced fingers, of giggles & laughter & happiness & mouthful of homemade Sandesh melting away smoothly while the little palms stretched asking for more – typical scene in every home.
If you want the recipe right now, scroll down for an illustration of the procedure. It is a fairly easy recipe.
For those of you who are not aware, West Bengal is a state on the Eastern Regions of India, with the southern parts hugging the coasts of the Indian Ocean & the mountains lining the northern parts. In Bengal “sweets” & the culture is interwoven. “Bengali” is the language spoken in Bengal, & is known to be the “sweetest” – it is lyrical, poetic & beautiful. So are the cuisine & the people. Can you say I belong to West Bengal?:-)
Life in my state revolves around “Mishti” (Sweets), Fish, Adda (Gossip/Chat/Dialogue) & Literature. The cuisine is varied, with a love affair with everything sweet. The everyday meals are incomplete without a sweet note – usually some kind of sweet fruit chutney. When guests grace the home, what is offered is a big plate full of sweets along with tea, either store bought or home made. No they are not cakes & cookies.
To be precise, Sandesh & most of the sweet meats of Bengal are made from only “Chenna“ (A soft fresh Paneer/the Indian Cheese made with curdled milk), & Sugar in their basic form, butter or ghee is rarely being used in these; forget the flour, cornflour & the condensed milk used in the “modern” versions. Using flavorings, garnishes & other ingredients like fruits, pulps, etc. are an option. The variety, flavors & texture depends on the time of the year & occasion. With all the sweetness flowing, it is only fair that every occasion is marked with multitude of sweets. During weddings & other family celebrations, “Moiras” (people who make the sweetmeats) are hired to come & make a plethora of sweets at home. I would have my grandfather sitting on a chair while the sweets were made, examining them with hawk eyes. One will be amazed by the capacity of a “Bong” to consume these! There are a zillion variety in different shapes & sizes; some are dry (Sandesh), some are syrupy & soaked (Chum Chum, Kalojam, Pantua, Malai Chom Chom etc), others floating in sugar syrup (Rasgulla or Roshogolla). Often the sweet meats are made to look pretty & attractive with nuts, saffron, silver foils & rose petals as garnishes. So Sandesh is not just the food; it is a big part of our culture too.
On every street corner is a shop, where you can see the heaps of very attractive “sweets” neatly arranged on shelves, mostly in a pyramid. Sometimes in the shops you will be able to see the sweets in making. I come from a small town. There still exists a shop there, named “Mahesh Moira“, which must be almost 100 years old, run by a family which sells the best stuff in the town. They do not have lot of variety, only a very few kind of the best “Shondesh”, Rasgulla & Misthti Doi (Sweet Yogurt). They also have not allowed the modernization touch them. This is a shop worth an experience, a visual & a sensual treat. There are different section of the store where one can see the workers do different things. One corner there is someone is boiling & coagulating the milk to make the “Chenna” – the first step. Next comes the kneading of the cheese, which is done on enormous wooden plates, done the primitive way with the palms & fingers. After this, the cooking is done towards the interior. Then the owner along with the others help give the final touch – roll them in shape, in spheres, no fancy shapes here. Sometimes it is sold just as warm “Makha” ( the prepared & ready Sandesh, but not moulded in any shapes; in a lump). There is usually a long line of customers to buy this Makha, freshly ccoked while it is still warm.
During winter the sugar is replaced with “Nolen Gur” (Runny sap of Date palm collected before dawn), transforming the usual white Sandesh to a pale beige & “Nolen Gurer Sandesh” (Sandesh made from Nolen Gur) is an unforgettable flavor – an ultimate ecstasy!
The Sweet Bengali culture of eating & making sweets run in the veins of every Bengali home. While the shops that sell the sweets are in abundance, every home make their own too. Ours was no exception. The recipe is naturally handed down from one generation to another as are these moulds – heirlooms! I got all of moulds that my mom had. I was very little then, but I remember my dad’s grandmother use these; these had been in our family for ever. The moulds are often used to give shapes to Coconut Burfi (Coconut Fudge) too. Most of these moulds are carved out of stone, while some are of wood. If you notice, there is one in the shape of a fish, illustrating the Bengali’s love affair with fish & sweets.
Jai & Bee of Jugalbandi is hosting Meeta’s Monthly Mingle this time. They have combined the theme for the Mingle & the Click, a fantastic theme: Heirloom! I am sending the Sandesh to the Monthly Mingle: Heirloom. I have tried the Ricotta & the Microwave, but I really could not rejoice at my success, for it tasted very far away from home. I cannot let pass this opportunity to pick up my memories & inspirations to create my own moments for my family now – the very authentic way. Ok, now let us get ready for an ultimate gastronomic experience.
Sandesh: Cheese Fudge
Ingredients: (yields about 20 of different sizes & shapes)
To make the Paneer:
- 1 Gallon Whole/Full Fat Milk
- ½ Cup Distilled Vinegar/Lemon Juice
For the Sandesh/Fudge:
- A Generous Pinch of Good Quality Saffron (Optional)
- 3/4 Cup Fine Sugar (more or less to taste)
- 3-4 Tablespoons Pistachios & Almonds combined, made into a powder (The powder should be about 4 tablespoons; dry grind the nuts in a blender or coffee grinder. The powder should be ground to a texture where you can still feel the tiny pieces, but not so coarse that it will not let you mould the cheese.You can use either of the nuts or combine them, or use none at all) + more Pistachios & Organic Rose Petals chopped for garnish (Optional)
Heat milk on medium heat & bring it to a gentle boil. Keep on stirring during this process so the milk does not get burnt at the bottom of the pan.
Stir in vinegar & increase the heat a bit. The milk will start to coagulate.
The coagulation will be completed in a few minutes. Do not overcook/over heat. The moment you see the clear greenish water, switch off the heat. Over cooking will make the chenna/cheese stiff.
Line a colander/sieve with fine cheesecloth. (If you do not have a cheese cloth, any fine cloth will do) Transfer the contents into the lined colander. Spray the coagulated milk with cold water. This washes off any remaining acidic taste. Gather the cheese cloth from the sides & twist it at the top. Let it drain for 45 minutes to an hour.
(Now if you want to make only Paneer and do not want to proceed with the Sandesh, this is what you do: after it drains, wrap the paneer with several layers of paper towels or cheese cloth or muslin cloth and place something really heavy, like a cast iron pan or a pot or stack several pans to add some pressure on the cheese. Leave it that way for about an hour to hour and a half. Remove the pan(s), unwrap, and cube the paneer for use in grilling or in a curry.)
This is how it should look:
Continuing with the Sandesh -
Take out the Chenna/Paneer after draining.
It is time to knead the chenna now. You can use a food processor, but I usually do it with hand, using the fingers & the heel & the middle of my palms.
Knead evenly for about 7-10 minutes. During the last 3 minutes, add the sugar & the crushed saffron. Knead the chenna/cheese along with the sugar. By this time the chenna/cheese should be very smooth & not grainy at all. You will feel the fat from the cheese glisten on your palms & the cheese itself.
To test if it is done & ready for the next step, take a portion of the chenna/cheese & roll it in a sphere between your palms. The sphere should be very smooth on the outside with no cracks.
This is the crucial & tricky step. The Chenna will be cooked just enough so it does not have the raw cheese taste. If it gets overcooked (which might happen in few minutes time), they will be too crumbly to be moulded, but they will still be edible in the “Makha” form.
Take a non stick pan, & put the entire chenna/cheese in the pan. Switch on the stove at a low heat. Spread out the chenna/cheese, & cook it on low heat, while constantly stirring with a spatula so it does not stick at the bottom of pan. This should be done for about 12-15 minutes. You will see it slowly change into a slightly darker shade. The texture will change too. When it is towards done, the chenna/cheese will no longer stick to the pan; it will form lumps & kind of gather together. This particular procedure is called “Paak”.
(Note: While doing the Paak, if you notice that the Chenna is releasing water instead of drying up quick, it would mean that it was not drained well. Don’t panic. It just means that the cheese needs to be cooked a little bit longer. Increase the heat a little bit & cook while contantly stirring & mashing it down with spatula till it reaches the above mentioned state.)
See in the picture below.
Once this stage is reached, quickly take it off the heat & transfer it to a bowl. If the chenna/cheese is heated beyond this, it will form crumbs & you will not be able to mould it into shapes.
The Chenna/Cheese is now ready to be given shapes. This is called “Makha” – the prepared but not yet moulded Sandesh. You have to mould it right away while it is still warm to touch. If left alone for long, it cannot be moulded anymore.
Moulding the Sandesh: Take a portion of the makha, & roll it to a ball or oblong whatever kind of shape you are aiming for. Press it down on the mould, smooth the edges with the fingertips for an even outline & carefully take it out. It helps sometimes to have a bowl of water on the side & wet your fingertips while doing this. Garnish with pistachios, rose petals, saffron - whatever you want it to be.
They will harden a bit & won’t be as fragile when they cool down.
These are the few Sandesh I made with the moulds:
The BIG Sandesh – now that is a bearer of “sweet” tidings…This picture below is being sent to CLICK:Heirloom.
The rest I shaped into little spheres, flattened them & garnished them with pistachios & rose petals.
I cannot even describe in words the joy I got just out of making these. My kids stood & watched me mould the Sandesh, with the same awe & excitement in their eyes, as I would have. This was the best part!
They were just perfect & tasted like home. The ones we get in stores here, are tasteless pieces of mush. I have no idea what they put in them to make them taste so awful. Most of the times the Chenna is not cooked enough or not cooked at all; they are just rolled out into shapes right after kneading them. Often times flour or cornflour is added to the Chenna & that takes the entire essence out of the concept of Sandesh.
The few 20 pieces I made were gone in a few hours & I had to make lot more in the next batch. Arjun has a sweeter tooth then I do; he was REALLY happy with these. The happiness & appreciation I saw in my family’s eyes – ah! one unforgettable moment.
Storing the Sandesh – Cool them & store in the air tight containers in the refrigerator. They stay good & fresh for a week.