- Prep time 30 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour 10 minutes
- Serves 8, makes about 40 (1- to 2-inch) balls
Gulab jamun is a sticky-sweet fried dessert made from cooked-down cows’ milk and suspended in a saffron-infused sugar syrup. It’s commonly enjoyed when celebrating special occasions in India (especially for Diwali), Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, and all over the world by communities of people with Persian and South-Asian heritage, including in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica.
In The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin by Michael Krondl, he reports that the traditional Indian dessert actually has Persian roots. “A thousand years ago, when Persian-speaking invaders rode into the subcontinent, they made sure to pack not only the Koran but also recipes for all sorts of delicious pastries. This is how Pakistanis and Indians learned to make the candy-like tangles of fried dough called jalebi (a corruption of the word zulbia). The Muslim invaders also brought a round fritter that eventually became gulab jamun… The recipe [from India] is more complex than in the Middle East, requiring a mixture of dried and fresh milk thickened with flour. But as in Iran, the mixture is fried and soaked in rosewater syrup.” If you want to know where the name comes from, Times of India wrote a story called “The Untold Story of Gulab Jamun," which says: "The world ‘gulab’ was derived from the Persian word ‘gol’ and ‘ab,’ which respectively meant flower and water, which referred to rose water scented syrup. The other word 'jamun' is the Hindi-Urdu word for the popular Indian fruit Black Plum, which is almost of same shape and size. So, this is how your loving dessert got its name.”
This gulab jamun recipe was inspired by watching videos from YouTube creators Sanjyot Keer at Your Food Lab and Ruby Ka of Ruby Ka Kitchen. I found a variation in Authentic Recipes From India by Brinder Narula, Vijendra Singh, Sanjay Mulkani, and Thomas John, which I referenced when creating my own recipe. I also reached out to my friend Nabila for her thoughts on the dessert; she said it's usually too sweet for her tastes, and she helped me talk through ideas of how to change the flavor profile and to potentially bring in citrus or a woodsy herb into the syrup. That gave me the push I needed to add the optional but recommended lemon juice and lemon zest to the recipe and include salt to act as a counterpoint to the sweetness.
This traditional dessert is a love letter to milk, and the recipe is not only exciting because it’s essentially a doughnut, but because it involves transforming a simple ingredient—milk—into a completely different ingredient: khoya, or mawa, a sweet milk dough. As the milk cooks down, the water evaporates. This reduction, in conjunction with the clumping of the milk solids (and much stirring), allows it to become a thick sweet porridge-texture. With a touch more time on the heat, it further morphs into a soft, fudgy consistency with a comforting taste and a natural sweetness. I found that making khoya connects me to food memories made by my grandmother-boiled milk just has this unique smell and taste that brings me back to her.
While most recipes I researched for gulab jamun are made with store-bought khoya or are a variation made with milk powder, this recipe speeds up a technique that’s usually very time-consuming. If you are willing to give a little extra attention and care to a hot pot of milk for 25 to 35 minutes to prepare fresh khoya, it’ll be worth it! —Jessica Romanowski
- Khoya & Syrup
1 1/2 cups
cardamom pods, crushed
plus 1 teaspoon rosewater
saffron threads (or powder)
2 to 3 tablespoons
fresh lemon juice (optional)
- Dough & Assembly
finely grated lemon zest (optional)
ghee or vegetable oil, for frying
Slivered almonds or chopped pistachios, for garnish
- Khoya & Syrup
- Make the khoya: Pour the milk and cream into a heavy-bottomed, wide enamel or nonstick pot. Heat over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.
- Once the milk mixture is boiling, start stirring and scraping the bottom and sides of the pot with a wooden spoon or stiff rubber spatula every 2 minutes for about 30 minutes total. It’s important that the milk doesn’t brown on the sides or scorch on the bottom, so don’t stay away from the pot for too long. Every time the milk seems like it might boil over, stir and scrape to bring the level back down. As the milk reduces, your intervals between stirring will get shorter until your last 5 minutes, when you should be constantly stirring and scraping. Once it has thickened past looking like hot cereal and closer to a dough, and you can push the milk solids to one side of the pot and they stay there, remove the pot from the heat and quickly transfer the milk mixture to a plate to cool in a thin layer.
- Make the syrup: While the khoya is cooling, in a medium skillet, combine the water and sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the cardamom, rosewater, saffron, and lemon juice, if using. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cook for 3 minutes, until warmed through. Remove from the heat; set aside.
- Dough & Assembly
- Make the dough: Finely grate the paneer into a sturdy metal or glass pie dish. Using the heel of your palm or the fleshy part of your palm and thumb, press the paneer to smooth it out and break down any leftover lumps.
- Add the khoya and repeat the process, pressing it against the pie dish until smooth and incorporated into the mashed paneer.
- In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, lemon zest, if using, baking powder, ground cardamom, and salt. Add to the paneer/khoya mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula or knead by hand for about 2 to 3 minutes, until fully incorporated and the dough is smooth. Wrap in plastic and let rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.
- In the same pot you made the khoya (make sure it’s clean!), heat 2 to 3 inches of the ghee over medium heat. Reheat the syrup over low heat.
- While waiting for the oil to heat up, pinch off small portions of the dough and roll in the palm of your hands (coating your hands lightly in oil if sticking) into small spheres (aim for a consistent size between ¾ to 1½ inches; you should have about 40 total). Remember that they will double in size with a full soak and burn before cooking all the way through if they are too large.
- Fry the galub jamun: When the oil is hot and shimmering (a deep-fry thermometer should register about 350°F), reduce the heat to low and wait for 1 minute. While constantly and gently stirring the oil with a spoon and working in 2 to 3 batches to not overcrowd the pan, add the dough balls one at a time. Continue stirring the oil and the gulab jamun will cook evenly as they spin around for 1 to 2 minutes, until evenly browned. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the gulab jamun immediately to the warm sugar syrup. Let soak over low heat for up to 15 minutes before serving, or toss in the syrup if you want a slightly less sweet version.
- Serve warm or at room temperature in a bowl with a sprinkle of slivered almonds or chopped pistachios and a drizzling of the syrup.
- Note: If you’d rather try a milk powder version instead of cooking down milk, try substituting 8 ounces of khoya for 3 ounces room temperature yogurt, 3 ounces ghee, and 3 ounces milk powder. Follow all the other directions as written, but reduce the salt to just a pinch.