If you’ve never tasted this Indian dessert before, allow me to introduce you to (arguably) thee most delicious Indian sweet you will ever sink your teeth into. These pillow-y balls of sweetness are fragrant with the unmistakable aroma of saffron and boast a gorgeous golden colour with a soft white interior. The texture inside is cake-like. Imagine, if you will, cake balls which are made from milk, butter and flour then deep fried until they are soft and fluffy. Their sweetness is derived from the sugar syrup in which they sit, slowly soaking up simple syrup which is beautifully infused with fragrant saffron.
This dessert is popular in countries of the Indian subcontinent which includes India, Pakistan and Nepal. The name of the dessert is derived from the Persian word ‘gulab’ which means flower and the Indian word ‘jamun’ which is a fruit which is similar in size and shape. Indian desserts are often given the reputation of being tedious, technical and even fussy. Truth be told, most Indian desserts are somewhat difficult to prepare because they so closely rely on carefully calculated temperatures, exact textures to indicate doneness and require constant stirring and monitoring. To nip that problem in the bud, I’ve provided step-by-step instructions and photos to walk you carefully through this process of creating these sweet little balls of goodness.
If you’ve tasted gulab jamuns in the past and haven’t developed a taste for them, I can safely assure you that you have not lived until you have tried this recipe for gulab jamuns. It’s a recipe that has been developed and perfected by my mum over the years and will, no doubt, blow any gulab jamun you have ever tasted right out of the water. A friend of mine who hated (yes, ‘hated’) gulab jamuns (presumably because she has had too many bad gulab jamuns in her life to develop any love for them) tasted these at my urging after turning her nose up at them. Needless to say, she ate her fair share of these after tasting one and has rekindled her relationship with these addictive little sweets.
These are traditional dessert fare at Indian weddings and I hate to admit it but I, too, have tasted too many bad gulab jamuns to count (you know the small unattractive ones you get at weddings that are swimming in obscene amounts of syrup, are overly sweet, largely tasteless and almost inedible?). I’m willing to bet that at some time or another your own experience with these sweets was marred by a poorly prepared gulab jamun that met its fate at your fork.
Even my husband has developed an unrelenting fondness of these (despite his general distaste for Indian sweets) and is now known to enjoy an entire gulab jamun in one bite — no utensils needed — before returning for another (and another) before he is satisfied. Try these and I assure you that you’ll be shamelessly indulging in them too!
The leavening agent in these gulab jamuns is baking powder. You cannot substitute this for baking soda if you are out of baking powder as they both react very differently to hot oil and will effect the texture of the final product. The skim milk powder can be found at most local grocery stores in small and large quantities.
The texture of the dough, when it is mixed correctly, can be compared to a soft sugar cookie dough (right after it’s been mixed and before it has been chilled in the fridge). It should be slightly tacky but not so tacky that it won’t roll out. You should be able to roll the soft dough between your palms to form a ball with ease. Work quickly preparing the balls as the dough will begin to harden fairly quickly after it is mixed. If the dough begins to harden too much before you finish rolling them, just add a few drops of milk and run the food processor again to return the mixture to the same soft, pliable consistency.
Roll the balls between both of your palms in a circular motion to form perfect little rounds which are an inch in diameter. You should be able to get 30 in total, so that should give you an idea as to the size they should be.
To avoid hot oil splattering as the balls of prepared dough are dropped, place the rolled balls on a slotted spoon and lower them into the oil rather than dropping them into the oil. Once they hit the oil, agitate the oil constantly to ensure that they don’t settle to the bottom for very long.
The gulab jamuns are fried in equal parts Crisco shortening and vegetable oil which produces perfectly golden gulab jamuns that are soft and smell heavenly as they fry.
Here’s where technique is key: if the oil isn’t constantly rotating around the pan, the gulab jamuns will not brown evenly and there will be both dark and light spots on them. You have to run the spatula around the sides of the pan to keep the oil rotating without touching the gulab jamuns very much. If you start to touch them with the spatula before they start to brown, they will get marred by the edge of the spatula and since they are still soft, they may open up or start to break. Keep the oil in constant motion to allow the gulab jamuns to move freely and even brownly. Do not stop agitating the oil for even a second. They fry up quickly so keeping a close eye on them is not as tedious as you may think.
The gulab jamuns should be allowed to cool for just a minute on a paper towel after they are removed from the oil and submerged in the saffron syrup. If they cool completely, they will not absorb the syrup at all and since the sweetness comes from the syrup, you’ll be left with unsweetened, hardened gulab jamuns. If they are submerged in the mixture right out of the hot oil, they will open up and become overly mushy which is not a good thing!
Use a slotted spoon to remove the gulab jamuns after they have been bobbing in the mixture for a few minutes. They will plump up and become heavy which is your indication to remove them onto a flat bottom bowl or baking sheet to rest.
After they have cooled completely, spoon the leftover syrup over the gulab jamuns to allow them to slowly soak in more of the syrup. These can be stored at room temperature for about 2 days and keep well in the fridge for up to two weeks. They should always be stored in about a quarter inch of syrup to keep them from drying out.
4 cups water
4 cups granulated sugar
a pinch of saffron
2 cups (250 ml) vegetable oil
2 cups Crisco all-vegetable shortening
2 cups instant skim milk powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1/4 lb) unsalted butter
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon 3.25% M.F. whole (homogenized) milk
1 tablespoon baking powder [*see note at bottom]
In a large pot, combine water and sugar. Add a pinch of crushed saffron threads. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil and allow to boil for about 3-4 minutes to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the stove but keep the pot on the warm burner to allow the mixture to stay warm.
In a large flat bottom wok or pan (large enough to accommodate 30 gulab jamuns), combine the Crisco and vegetable oil. [Note: if you don’t have a pot that is large enough, you can fry them in two batches but I don’t recommend this as the balls that are rolled and sitting will begin to dry while the others are frying which may effect their texture]. Keep the mixture over medium-low heat for the Crisco to dissolve and the oil to keep warm while you prepare the gulab jamuns. (They need to be fried immediately after rolling so ensure that the oil is warm but be very careful not to turn your back on the hot oil for very long!)
In a food processor, combine milk powder, all-purpose flour, butter, homo milk, baking powder. Blend to combine until the mixture pulls away from the sides and forms a sticky dough. The dough should be soft like sugar cookie dough but should not be so tacky that it sticks to your fingers. Working quickly, roll the dough into 1 inch balls, making sure they are smooth all the way around and perfectly round. You should be able to produce 30 balls.
Increase the heat for the oil to medium. Use a large slotted spatula to lower the balls into the warm oil by placing 4-6 balls on the surface of the spatula and quickly lowering it into the oil to avoid burning your hands or getting any hot oil splatter. Once the balls are all lowered into the pot, quickly agitate the oil to keep the balls from settling and browning on one side. You can agitate the oil safely by moving the spatula along the sides of the pot to keep the balls spinning in a constant circular motion, being careful not to touch the balls with the spatula as you move the oil around. Fry them until they are beautifully golden then remove them onto a paper towel lined tray. Allow them to sit for about a minute. While they are still warm, dunk them in the warm sugar syrup and allow them to sit for 2-3 minutes to soak up the sugar syrup. You will know that they are ready when they are soaked with liquid and become plump and heavy. Remove the gulab jamuns and place them on flat tray with high sides. Allow the gulab jamuns to cool completely before pouring the remaining syrup over them. They can be kept at room temperature for about 2 days. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 weeks.
[* Note re Baking Powder. I have always used the brand “Magic Baking Powder” and have always used 1 tablespoon of it in my gulab jamuns and my results are always perfect. I received a comment on my blog recently from someone who tried the recipe and said that her gulab jamuns couldn’t maintain their shape during frying. She mentioned that she had added 1 tablespoon of baking powder and was unsure if she was to add 1 teaspoon instead. I tried the recipe again to clarify before I wrote back to her but this time, I used another baking powder brand: “Fleischmann’s baking powder”. Perhaps this baking powder is more potent than “Magic Baking Powder” as my gulab jamuns also turned to mush while frying. I had to adjust the recipe to 1.5 teaspoons of “Fleischmann’s Baking Powder” and they turned out fine. Finally, I tried the recipe again with 1 tablespoon of “Magic Baking Powder” (i.e. the way the recipe was originally written and the way I always make it) and they turned out perfect! Different baking powder brands react in different ways (particularly when you are frying rather than baking), so only use 1 tablespoon of baking powder if you are using “Magic”. If you are using another brand, I would suggest adding 1 teaspoon of baking powder to the mix, then fry one gulab jamun to test and if they are not pillowey and cake-like and they require more leavening, add another teaspoon and do another test gulab jamun to see if it is perfect and so on.]