Mishti Aloor Pakon Pitha (Bangladeshi Sweet Potato Pastries)
- Prep time 1 hour 30 minutes
- Cook time 20 minutes
- makes 16
With the advent of the cooler months pitha is often on my mind. Pitha describes rice-based sweets and savories which celebrate the winter rice harvest in Bangladesh, bringing festive cheer to any occasion. From delicate crepes and fried cakes to steamed puddings and dumplings, there are literally hundreds of varieties of pitha which add to the intangible heritage of Bangladesh and can range from rustic in look to works of art.
This recipe for fried, sweet pitha includes mishti aloo, or sweet potatoes, which add softness and color to the steamed rice dough. The pithas develop a slightly crispy exterior while retaining a little chewiness inside. Drenched in a simple syrup scented with green cardamom and saffron, every bite evokes joy.
Growing up, I loved spending cozy afternoons around the kitchen table helping my mother and grandmother shape pitha. Pitha-making is a task best shared, as it’s rooted in the communal living of villages. Everyone is welcome to join in over conversations culminating in a teatime treat. Traditionally, special pitha such as these would be made by the women of a family and gifted to a bride or groom's family during wedding celebrations. They are intricate in appearance—made from a smooth dough which is hand decorated by cutting into the dough with a sharp instrument. It was said designing patterns on the pastries was an expression of the women’s inner thoughts, drawing on the environment around them, in particular flora and fauna.
The steamed dough was traditionally decorated with palm thorns, and eventually pitha molds began to be used to impress pretty motifs. If you can source molds from a Bangladeshi store, do try them; however, a combination of small cookie cutters, toothpicks, and a bread lame will work just as well (and is more fun in my opinion!). This recipe makes for a wonderful weekend or holiday project and can easily be doubled if you have a large group. Leftover syrup can be stored in the fridge for up to 1 week and is delicious poured over pancakes or French toast. —Dina Begum
(113 g, about 1 medium) sweet potato
1 1/4 cups
(300 ml) whole milk
2 tablespoons (135 g) white rice flour (not sweet rice flour), plus more as needed
Rice flour, for dusting
Vegetable oil, for brushing and frying
- Sugar Syrup
1 1/2 cups
(300g) granulated sugar
green cardamom pods
finely chopped pistachios
- Peel the sweet potato, then cut it into 1-inch cubes. Place the potato and the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender enough to be easily mashed with a fork, about 10 minutes. Use a potato masher or fork to thoroughly mash the potato pieces into the milk.
- Stir in the rice flour and salt to the milk and potato mixture until a dough forms, then take off the heat. Cover the pot with a lid and allow the mixture to rest for 5 to 6 minutes, until the dough is cool enough to handle but still warm. Transfer the dough into a large mixing bowl. Knead for about 1 minute, until the dough is smooth and crack-free but not sticky. If the dough sticks to your hands, add extra rice flour as needed, one tablespoon at a time, until you get the right consistency.
- Lightly dust a work surface with rice flour and divide the dough into four portions (place three under a damp cloth to prevent them from drying out). Roll out one portion of dough until it is 1/2-inch thick. Use small, 2- to 2 ½-inch round or square cookie cutters to punch out shapes from the dough (each piece of pastry should give you around 4 pitha). Repeat this process to make pitha out of the remaining three portions of the dough, re-rolling any excess dough for more pastries. Transfer the pitha to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
- Fill a small bowl with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Using your fingertips or a pastry brush, very lightly brush the surface of each pastry with oil.
- To decorate the pithas by hand, use toothpicks, a small sharp knife, or a bread lame to score the surface (no more than one-third of the way deep) into patterns of your choice—leaf and floral motifs are traditional. Use curving motions for the design instead of straight lines for a raised effect. To decorate with a pitha mold, use your fingertips or a pastry brush to lightly coat the mold with a bit of oil before pressing the dough into it. Cover the pitha while you make the syrup.
- To make the syrup, place the sugar, saffron, cardamom, and 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (265ml) water in a 2 quart saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then cook for 6 to 7 mins, or until the mixture is the consistency of maple syrup (but remains light in color), then turn off the heat. The syrup will thicken slightly as it cools.
- Set up a sheet pan or large plate lined with paper towels. Pour 1 1/2 to 2 inches in depth of oil into a large 12-inch high-sided skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat and heat to 320°F (160°C). Once the oil comes to temperature add as many pitha fits in a single layer without overcrowding. Once the pitha are in the pan wait 1 minute and then reduce the heat to low and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, turning once halfway, until the pastries are evenly golden all over. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon, letting any excess oil drip back into the pan, and place on the prepared sheet pan or plate. Bring the oil back up to 320°F (160°C) then repeat the frying process with the rest of the pitha. Depending on your pan size you may need to do this in 3 batches. Cool for 10 minutes.
- Pour half of the warm syrup into a baking dish that’s large enough to fit all the pitha in a single layer. Place all the pastries on top of the syrup and pour the remaining syrup on top. Swirl the dish around a few times to coat evenly and allow the pitha to cool to room temperature, 15 to 20 minutes. This will help them absorb the syrup.
- Remove the pitha from the syrup and transfer to a serving platter, spooning some of the extra syrup from the baking dish on top. Sprinkle each pitha with crushed pistachios and serve immediately. These pitha are best eaten within a few hours but can be stored in an airtight container for 1 to 2 days at room temperature if the weather is cool, or in the refrigerator in warm weather. If refrigerated, leave them out until they come back to room temperature to serve.
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