Homesickness sets in soon after I return from India. I crave potato paranthas fresh from the griddle, endless shelves of mithai (Indian sweets), at the bazaar, and the warm smell of spices drifting around the house. On such days, nothing brings me more comfort than standing in the kitchen and stirring together hot milk and sugar to make my own mithai. The recipe belongs to my grandmother, and that brings me closer to home.
As a child, I remember spending long summer days at my maternal grandmother Nani's house cooped up inside -- it was far too hot outside to leave. I’d spend a lot of my time in the kitchen, listening to the pressure cooker whistle and the mustard seeds crackle. I’d also eat -- a lot. Nani’s freezer was always stocked with my favorite mango-flavored ice cream bars. Usually there was also kulfi, but I’ll admit that as a five-year old, I would select the brightly colored mango popsicle over the kulfi. I loved smelling the spices, but couldn’t grasp the concept of including cardamom and saffron in dessert. I understand now that I was missing out. When I think of India during summer, two memories instantly cross my mind, both including kulfi. One is at Nani’s -- after a lunch usually consisting of Indian flatbread and vegetable and meat curries, everyone would sit around the table and devour kulfi together. The second is from when I lived in Mumbai. I remember stopping by the Parsi Dairy Farm store with my mother and watching a worker pull out a stack of elegantly packaged disks from a box smoky with liquid nitrogen: kulfi. I wondered how they had achieved such a sweet flavor and creamy texture.
Recently I found myself missing home and decided to make kulfi, so I called my grandmother to ask for the recipe. She explained the process to me, but couldn’t tell me the exact measurements for spices or sugar. “I just put however much I feel is right,” she said. That’s one of the things that I think makes a great cook -- the ability to add based on experience and instinct. She’s been making this kulfi for years, and it is flawless.
A typical ice cream calls for heavy cream and egg yolks to achieve a custard-like base, then it is churned. The same result can be achieved using whole milk and bread, as long as it is boiled until thickened. That is why it is important to use whole milk, as skim milk may not result in the same consistency and will leave you with a kulfi full of ice crystals. My grandmother doesn’t add cornstarch, but I found that it was easier to use for thickening the mixture. (It is, of course, optional.) I like that this recipe doesn’t require an ice cream machine, but its texture is still smooth and creamy -- think somewhere in between gelato and an ice pop. Kulfi doesn’t necessarily have to have nuts, but pistachios are full of flavor and compliment the spices so well. My grandmother adds nuts and I don’t question her. Kulfi is a classic -- Indians have been making it for centuries to escape the heat -- so I hope you try it out, too. You’ll be thanking Nani.