Bengali sweets will always have a special place in my heart and this Vanilla Rasmalai is my favourite kind. Much like the Gujarati enthusiasm for savoury snacks, the culture for sweet-making in West Bengal is vast. With dozens of varieties of (mostly) dairy-based desserts, the selection is rich as the creamy Rasmalai (Rassomalai) and spongy Gulab Jamuns treasured across India.
Rasmalai is one of the most famous of Bengal’s desserts. Made from pieces of chhena (another name for soft, homemade paneer), you knead it until smooth, divide into balls, boil in sugar syrup and then finally, soak in saffron and cardamom milk (masala doodh). Wanna hear why it’s so magical? Without any additional ingredients or raising agents, the chhena balls inflate to double their original size and take on a ridiculous, puffy, spongy texture. They are made to soak up sweet masala doodh.
Vanilla Rasmalai are soft, spongy cheese dumplings soaked in sweet vanilla, cardamom and saffron milk. Inspired by the classic Bengali dessert, this version is served chilled and the flavours are reminiscent of the Indian ice cream, kulfi.
Like many, I grew up eating ready-made Rasmalai from a box. The mere thought of making my own cheese, boiling it in sugar syrup and then leaving it to soak for eight hours seemed like an impossible task. When I was 12, I had my first taste of my mother’s Rasmalai recipe she learned from her father. Many of you will know that he was a confectioner and made incredible versions of all the classic Indian sweets. I quickly fell in love with her liberal use of vanilla.
These homemade Rasmalais have a beautifully-scented masala doodh. Together, they taste like if my favourite vanilla ice cream and kulfi had a Rasmalai-shaped baby! Since then, homemade Rasmalai has always won over the watered-down shop-bought version.
Full fat cow’s milk (4%). The chhena requires the fat for binding. Using milk lower in fat will result in hard, crumbly Rasmalai. Using higher-fat milk (such a gold top or buffalo milk) will make the chhena release too much fat during kneading and the malai pieces will become greasy. I don’t recommend using nut milks or soy milk for making this Rasmalai. I have not tried making it with lactose-free milk or cow’s milk alternatives such as goat’s milk or sheep’s milk so cannot comment on how these would work.
Yes, but it must be full-fat cow’s milk powder. Reconstitute 600g milk powder with 400ml cold water and then boil as directed in the steps for making the chhena.
No. This dessert is a labour of love and requires the chhena to be made from full-fat milk, boiled and then separated using a form of acid. My recipe uses lemon juice but you can also use distilled vinegar or citric acid dissolved in water.
Once the curds have separated from the whey, the curds must be rinsed well to remove any acidic flavour. Next, the (now) chhena should be pressed for around 30 minutes using a cheese press or a few cans of beans. You can also use a saucepan of water.
Once pressed, use absorbent kitchen roll to pat the chhena dry. It then should be kneaded on a clean surface using the heel of your palm until completely smooth. This will take 10-12 minutes. Take your time and do not rush this step or take any shortcuts.
No. The chhena must be kneaded by hand when making Rasmalai. Using a food processor will overwork the chhena and could cause fat to be released. In the event this happens, the chhena will feel extremely greasy and will not come together in a cohesive mass. Once the fat is released, the chhena cannot be used for making Rasmalai. Kneading with your hands and feeling the smoothness of the chhena is one of my favourite parts of this recipe and a great skill that can also be applied to the art of making Rasgulla and Cham Cham.
Of course. Simply omit the vanilla pod from this recipe to make classic Rasmalai.
I used a whole vanilla pod. The seeds are scraped and added to the masala doodh, along with the whole pod to extract as much flavour as possible. If you don’t have a vanilla pod, you can also use 2 tsp pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste. Don’t use artificial vanilla flavouring for this Rasmalai — it doesn’t taste great. If you can’t get good quality vanilla, leave it out.
Making a vegan Rasmalai would require a very different set of ingredients and directions. Therefore, this recipe wouldn’t be suited to directly swapping ingredients for vegan alternatives. I’m working on a vegan Rasmalai recipe and will share it once it is throughly tested.
Use a sugar thermometer. Unless you are a pro confectioner and making Indian sweets every day, the traditional “tar” method (which is basically eyeballing it/testing using the “string” method), simply will not be accurate. Halwais can use this method because they are working with sugar syrup all the time. They are accustomed to the various stages of cooking sugar syrup and what each stage looks like. A sugar thermometer will ensure your syrup is perfect.
I get dozens of messages from people asking why their mithai is the wrong texture and 99% of the time it’s due to inaccurate sugar syrup temperatures. Eyeballing sugar syrup or using the traditional Indian “tar” method if you’re a home cook isn’t an accurate way of cooking, even when following a recipe that calls for this method to be used. I always use a sugar thermometer because I don’t work with sugar syrup every day and am not a pro confectioner. You can buy sugar thermometers online — they don’t have to be super expensive.
I add a slurry of cornflour (cornstarch) and water to the boiling sugar syrup to ensure each chhena piece cooks evenly and keeps a uniform shape.
This could be due to a number of reasons. The most likely cause for them not expanding is that the sugar syrup is too concentrated. Thin it out with more hot water and test another piece. Ensure the syrup is boiling hard and the lid used to cover the pan is a tight-fitting one.
Again, broken pieces of chhena or broken finished rasmalai could be down to a number of reasons. Primarily, the issue could be due to the moisture content and texture of the raw chhena. If the chhena is too dry, your cooked rasgullas will be hard and crumbly. However, if your chhena is too moist, it will be too sticky to form into balls and will mean the cooked rasgullas are too soft.
It was pressed for too long. Add a few drops of water and knead again.
This one is trickier to fix, especially if you’re working in a humid environment. If you haven’t yet kneaded the chhena, press it again. If you have already kneaded the chhena, you need to let the excess water evaporate away. Spread it thinly on the work surface to expose as much surface area as possible now either place a fan directly beside it and let it run for 15 minutes, or use the cool (COOL not hot — important!) setting on a hairdryer to blast it for 5 minutes before testing again to see if it rolls (I’m serious). If it doesn’t, keep doing it until it does. The chhena will need a good final knead.
Make the chhena again. The greasy one can be used for another recipe, or for adding richness to paratha fillings or malai kofta.
This Rasmalai will keep well for a week, refrigerated in an airtight container.
This Rasmalai is not suitable for freezing.
Chill the Rasmalai in the fridge for 8-10 hours. This is because resting will give the flavours a chance to develop and the chhena patties to absorb the masala doodh. The result will be spongy, soft Rasmalai that keeps its’ shape beautifully.
Serve the Rasmalai cold, straight from the fridge for a gorgeous dessert following an Indian meal. This is a popular choice at Indian wedding banquets.
This Rasmalai is suitable for those with gluten-free diets. However, many commercial brands of milk powder are manufactured alongside wheat and other flours in flour mills, so please check packaging if you are using milk powder and/or are preparing this for someone with a severe wheat or gluten allergy. Similarly, this applies for those with a soy or nut allergy.
Finally, my recipe requires the use of a sugar thermometer. I use this one, however you can use any that gives an accurate reading for your sugar syrup.
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