The hallmark of Autumn is when the leaves start to turn and there's a nip in the air. The transition of summer into winter brings with it stunning fiery colours, a glut of apples, pears and plums in the garden and a treasure trove of cosy autumnal comfort food goodies. Halloween, Bonfire night, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all food dominated celebrations, lest we forget the pinnacle of all Hindu religious celebrations, Diwali.
Diwali (or Deepavali) is the festival of lights, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and is always observed in the month of Kartik, which falls between October and November, on the night of the new moon, which also happens to be the darkest night of the year. Diwali signifies good over evil, light over darkness, truth over falsehood, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair.
Diwali is a joyous, colourful and vibrant celebration signifying the return of Prince Rama and his wife Sita, to his kingdom Ayodhya, following fourteen years of exile. Legend has it that Rama, Sita and Rama's brother Lakshmana were exiled to the forest, by their father, King Dashratha on the insistence of their stepmother Queen Kaikeyi, who had aspirations for her own sons to be in line for the throne, thus ousting her stepsons. Whilst in the forest, Sita was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, so Lakshmana and Hanuman (the monkey king), battled with Ravana and his army to rescue Sita. After defeating the demon king Ravana, oil lamps or diyas were lit to help guide the royals back home.
Diwali honours Lakshmi the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity. The occasion is marked with prayers, fireworks and the lighting of lanterns, diyas and candles to invite Lakshmi to bless our homes. It is traditional to wear new clothes and making household purchases is considered auspicious. Diwali is a time of feasting with family and friends and mithai really is the protagonist of the festival.
Indian mithai, or sweets, are not only gifted, but are devoured throughout the Diwali season. Ladoos, barfis and halwas are all sweets made with semolina, carrots, lentils, dried fruits, nuts, cream and usually embellished with saffron, cardamom or nutmeg and blinged up with gold or silver leaf.
Unlike Christmas, there is no set meal for Diwali and it's really open to family interpretation. My own family tend to feast on various chaats, pakoras, daals, curried chickpeas, paneer dishes and pilaus with moreish flaky breads. Despite the stiff competition from extravagantly packaged mithai, its always Gajar Halwa that's trending in my home. This is a rich carrot and creamy milk based dessert with subtle hints of saffron and cardamom with added almonds and pistachios and although slightly time consuming, it's so worth the effort.
Gajar Halwa (Carrot Pudding)
2 litres Jersey Gold Top Milk
1 kg Carrots, finely grated
4 Green Cardamoms, finely ground
1 tsp Saffron Strands
3 tbsp Ground Almonds
3 tbsp Pistachio Nuts, finely chopped
3 Sheets of Silver or Gold Leaf (optional)
Place the milk into a heavy-based pan and bring it to the boil.
Lower the heat to medium and add the carrots, sugar, saffron and cardamom.
Stirring occasionally, cook until all the liquid has evaporated. This should take about an hour and a half.
Once the liquid has reduced, lower the heat to a low flame, stirring constantly, as the mixture tends to bubble up and keep cooking until the carrot mixture becomes slightly darker orange. Add the ground almonds and chopped pistachios and stir in.
Allow to cool slightly and place in a serving dish. Decorate with silver leaf. Gajar Halwa can be served either hot or cold.
If you don't have any silver leaf, you can decorate with some chopped pistachio nuts.
The halva freezes well also.
I use a coffee mill to grind the green cardamoms and nuts, which I keep only for desserts.