Panela and I were first introduced in Colombia. An unrefined sugar, typically sold in block form, it is commonly used in South American desserts. I brought some back to Canada and was interrogated by the US immigration officer as we transferred in Miami. I told him I had bought panela (pa-nell -la), a type of sugar. He explained to me that I wrong. It was pronounced pa-ney-ya. The women in the market that sold it to me spoke Spanish, and I heard her loud and clear: it was panela. With an L. In any case, when he told me I could bring my sugar across the border, I scooted right on out.
I rarely see panela in Canada, but have seen it countless times in Houston. Oftentimes, it is labelled as piloncillo, the Mexican name as panela is also a type of Mexican cheese. A small cone can be found for 70 cents or so, at most supermarkets but it can also be found in large blocks and possibly ground.
In the spirit of holidays, candies and confectionaries, I broke it out for my latest treat: Indian Burfi. It sounds more dramatic, but really it is similar to my maple pecan shortbread cookies because it is simply nuts and sweetener with an Indian twist from cardamom and saffron. I used panela as my sweetener of choice, but you could substitute brown sugar (likely coconut sugar, and possibly maple syrup or agave, too) which imparted a delicious molasses undertone.
I called these Indian Cashew Pistachio Bars or Kaaju Pista Burfi, as this was what Raghavan Iyer called them in Indian Cooking Unfolded. I have told you about this lovely cookbook earlier, but it bears repeating because I really like it. Iyer has taken Indian cooking to its elemental components and teaches you how to cook Indian from the ground up. The recipes span meat, vegetarian and vegan options, with limited ingredients. He has capped himself at 10 ingredients, and many recipes are far more simple. While he may sacrifice in authenticity, he does not sacrifice in taste, coaxing the most from limited ingredients.
I bring up authenticity, but I lay no claim to being an expert in traditional Indian cuisine (although we make killer dal). Iyer openly admits burfi is typically much more sweet than this recipe and is actually an adaptation of a raw recipe from Jugalbandi who seemed to have sinced moved to Nitrivore, but it too, is an abandoned blog. Soma’s recent post makes me think these treats are closer to katli instead of burfi, which she describes as a sugar-nut treat. Truthfully, my fusion spin with panela, makes them even less authentic but no less delicious. As Iyer promised, these are not uber sweet. There is a subtle hint of cardamom among the molasses-infused treat. Rob thoguht it needed more saffron but I thought it was perfect. I can not really taste the saffron, so feel free to omit it.
While I typically shy away from Indian desserts, I am thrilled that I tried these. They were delicious. While Diwali has come and gone, this would be equally suited for something different on a holiday cookie spread. I blame it on the cardamom. Or the molasses. Or the nuts. They all taste like hugs. :)
I really want to share this cookbook with you and I am thrilled because the publisher is letting me give a cookbook to FOUR lucky readers living in the continental United States. To be entered, please leave a comment here, telling me about your favourite Iyer recipe (he has also penned our favourite Indian cookbook, 660 Curries). If you haven’t made anything by Iyer yet, have a look through Indian Cooking Unfolded on amazon or google books (or my list below) and tell me what you want to cook the most. I will randomly select a winner on December 24, 2013. Good luck!
PS. Recipes from Indian Cooking Unfolded spotted elsewhere:
This is my submission to this month’s Cooking with Herbs.