Mmmm… kulfi. I first learned about kulfi (pronounced kool'-fee) while reading Midnight's Children. Ah, that’s a book to get your mouth watering! Saleem Sinai reminiscing in a pickle factory about his youth, and dropping phrases like green-chilli pakora with grasshopper green chutney. His aunt fed him kulfi to fatten him up and make him feel better. Mind you, I didn’t know what most of the things he named were. All I knew was that they were magical words, full of richness and nostalgia for a place I’d never seen.
Well, I wrote my thesis on Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh so I celebrated its completion by trying all sorts of delicious foods from a local Indian restaurant that just happens to be fantastic. I had pakoras and chapatis with chutney, and biryani, and naan, and saag paneer and many many other things, finally satisfying a hunger that had been building for months. And I had kulfi with pistachios. That was a meal to remember, and every once in a while, I get a craving for kulfi that must be answered.
Kulfi is similar to ice cream, but at the same time very different. It is cool, creamy, smooth and meltingly soft, sweet and milky. It contains no egg, and is unbelievably rich but not heavy; the flavor of the milk is the real star. The primary ingredient is milk which has been simmered until it thickens and reduces by half. This reduced milk product is called khoya and is a staple in several dishes (see Sweet Foods of India for more information). The khoya is sweetened, flavored, and frozen. There is no churning involved, no special tools, and there are very few ingredients. A perfect recipe for the home cook.
Actually, there is one caveat. Depending upon how you reduce the milk, the results will vary widely. But I’ll explain in the recipe and you can decide for yourself which way to go.
An article I found explains that kulfi has been street food in India for a very long time; a sweet copied from the Persians by the Mughal Empire.1 As street food, they are frozen in cone shaped molds with a stick, like popsicles. These are still available, from commercial manufacturers, restaurants and mom and pop vendors. A few minutes of web searching and you can find scores of home recipes for kulfi. At home or in restaurants, they are placed in shallow, single serving molds, and then un-molded into dishes for serving.
or 1 person who doesn’t like to share. Honestly though, unless you’ve just eaten a huge meal and are ready to keel over, you’ll want seconds.
4 c. whole milk (The freshest, most delicious milk you can get, organic if possible.)
8 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. cardamom, ground (The original recipe called for 1 tsp., I’ve reduced it so the flavor of the milk is more apparent. It is still quite cardamomy! If you're not sure if you like cardamom, I recommend reducing it to 1/4 tsp..)
1/2 tsp. saffron, toast it lightly before you use it, and crush it into the milk at the right point. (kesar kulfi)
or - 1-2 tbsp. pistachios, chopped (pista kulfi)
or - 1/4 c. almonds, blanched and chopped (badam kulfi)
Place the milk in a 2 quart pot and reduce by half over medium heat. There are two ways to do this:
Method A: The first requires very little effort. Simply bring the milk to a simmer and let it simmer without stirring until reduced. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t boil over. If it threatens to do so, reduce the heat. Pull aside (but leave in) the skin that forms on top every once in a while, and pay attention as it nears the halfway point as it starts reducing faster. The downside to this:
The milk will skin over repeatedly, and you will be left with globs in your milk. You can strain them out, but that reduces the richness of the kulfi. You can leave them in, but they mess with the texture a little. You'll have slightly chewy bits in the finished kulfi, so it won't be quite as smooth. You can run it through a blender before you freeze it, if you don’t mind washing the blender carafe. It still won't be quite as smooth, but no one will really notice. Don't worry about it at all if you are using nuts. The texture of the nuts will mask anything else.
The milk will stick to the bottom of the pot and begin to caramelize and turn brown. This will color the entire pot of milk a light tan, and introduce a cooked caramel flavor to the resultant kulfi. This is not a bad thing as far as the kulfi is concerned. If you like the flavor, by all means do it this way. However, I do find the resulting layer of milk proteins caked onto the bottom of the pot to be a bit of a pain to scrub out.
Method B: The second requires constant attention. Basically, once the milk gets warm, stir it. Break up the surface continuously, and scrape all around the bottom of the pot. Keep the milk moving so it can’t form a skin and no solids stick to the bottom. The milk will remain quite pale and retain a sweet, light fresh milk flavor. When it has reduced by half, it will be the color of heavy cream, a very light golden.
At no point while the milk is hot, can you stop stirring, or else a skin will form. If that happens, carefully gather up the skin and discard it. The upside to this method is the fresh flavor and the extra richness of no milk proteins lost to skinning over or sticking to the pot. The downside is boredom and a tired wrist. Some nodes to read can help.
Once the milk is reduced, add the sugar (and the saffron, if you are using it), stir well and cook it for a few more minutes. Once the sugar is well and truly melted and incorporated, measure it. Ideally you will have about 2 –2 1/8 c. If it is less than this, top it off with a little cold milk. This maintains the proper sugar to liquid ratio.
Next, add the cardamom, stir it in, and let the mixture cool to room temperature. Pour it into 4 molds or cups, cover tightly, and freeze. I don’t have much room in my freezer, so I pour the mixture into a square, flat plastic container and pop the lid on. Once the kulfi has frozen hard, I cut it into 4 portions with a sharp, heavy knife, and then let it soften up before serving. Alternately, if you just can't wait that long (I can't), you can scoop it into dishes when it's still runny in the middle. Just make sure everyone gets a good bit of the thoroughly frozen edges.
Now, regarding single serving molds, make sure to freeze the kulfi at least until it is just firm, and dip the molds into hot water so they will release the kulfi. You can eat it at this point. In fact, kulfi is best eaten a little soft, and melting around the edges. It should not be served hard as it will be icy and difficult to eat. If it has frozen hard, leave it out for a while before serving and then refrigerate it until you are ready for it, or microwave it for a few seconds just to soften it up a bit.
There you have it! Your very own kulfi. It’s a luscious thing, and not nearly as high in fat as ice cream.
Some good advice:
momomom says re kulfi: I make a milk based icing that requires reduction of the milk. Do method #2 in a very large, preferably non stick skillet so there is an increased surface area for evaporation. Way easier. Also, do you know about boiling a soapy water to ease the pan cleaning chore?? Boil it IN the pan that needs to be cleaned, just a few drops of dish detergent and a lot of water. It loosens most goo right up.
Upon being asked for possible additions --
Ouroboros says re kulfi: strawberries are the obvious choice, those tiny ones sold as ''eild.'' Folded in, if the tiny 'wild' ones, or dried(!), on top if slices of fresh. I'll have to get some for the su muhallebisi I'm making this afternoon.
1 Kalita, S. Mitra. September 5, 2001. Accessed April 3, 2004: http://www.desiwriter.com/clip_kulfi.html -This article is more a reminiscence of kulfis past and present.
This recipe was adapted from one I found at Deeps Cookbook on March 30, 2004: http://www.wondersky.com/deepscookbook/2001922123646.htm
A number of recipes I found added quantities of heavy cream and white bread to make the kulfi richer and thicker (without so much cooking), and I found several which used sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk instead of fresh milk. I avoided all of these versions as I firmly believe that the milk is the focus. The milk should be impeccably fresh and delicious from the start, and the preparation should do everything necessary to preserve these qualities. The richness should come from reducing the milk, although a small amount of cream can be added if desired. Canned products can introduce a tinny and overly cooked flavor, which I object to. That said, there’s nothing like convenience. Just keep in mind that fresh does make a difference in this recipe.