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Gulab Jamun with Caramelized Bananas — and an Indian Buffet Love Story

I have heavy scent memories of an Indian restaurant Mike and I used to frequent called Jaipur. They must have burned incense every night for years. Maybe the scent is something the owner remembered but couldn’t place — something from when his synapses weren’t yet refined enough for memory. His mother burning it in the kitchen in a now-faraway home on the subcontinent, and he, just a baby then, lying swaddled in a room down the hall, his blankets collecting particles of sandalwood in each fold.

It’s sweet to imagine what the little restaurant means to him. It means something sweet to me, too. The orange and pink and gold, the weight of the incense, the guttural cry of otherworldly Indian music accompanied by sitar tones — all of it connected to a pseudo-memory for me. A memory of dust, colors, street food, and lights — an India I’ve never visited except in East Asian art classes, narrow Indian restaurants, the marigold-filled scenes of Monsoon Wedding, and the memories and photographs of friends.

Jaipur was also special to me and Mike because it was “our restaurant.” I remember weekend after weekend of trekking across town in my now-long-gone Altima, arriving at the buffet after dark. I remember rationing each plate so that I could have seconds of some of my favorites — palak paneer and red lentils — and sopping up every drop with warm naan.

I remember the shy waiter who knew our order before we sat down, and the chef who stopped us before we could serve ourselves from the buffet if he had a fresher, newer batch of bread. I remember smooth, sweet mango lassis, holding hands across the table . . . and spooning up warm, fragrant Gulab Jamun into tiny bowls alongside fruit-studded rice pudding.

It’s literally been years since I’ve been back to Jaipur now, and these neon and curry memories are even more poignant with Mike living across the state from me. When I saw that Project Food Blog Challenge #2 was to make a classic dish from another culture that’s out of your comfort zone, I knew I had to do some justice to Jaipur and our times there.

Gulab jamun, named for their rose flavoring and a fruit they resemble, are cake-like, juicy dumplings loaded with a sweet rose, cardamom, and saffron syrup. They’re common at Indian weddings and were often the highlight of our dinner at Jaipur. I savored mine in two bites, while Mike devoured each dumpling in one gulp.

While these rosy, sticky dumplings are a joyful memory for me, making them wasn’t something I considered before reading Project Food Blog’s Challenge #2. They’re fried — and frying things is not something I love. My fry-phobia not about the health considerations (have you seen my blog lately?), but rather, the difficulty of maintaining an appropriate oil temperature, the mess, and the inevitable burnt/undercooked disasters. Remember the Tumbleweed Burger post, where my attempt to fry onions produced a sum total of one halfway acceptable onion (okay, even that one was pretty pitiful) that I used in pictures and then threw away?

I’m fighting for something I love, though, and I hope my steps away from my comfort zone are steps towards becoming the next food blog star.

It wasn’t enough to recreate my favorite, sultry Indian dessert — I wanted to bring something of my taste to the table. I paired the gulab jamun with caramelized bananas and pistachios, hoping to create a rich, floral, indulgent product that would be incredible served warm over vanilla bean ice cream.

My first version was a little too sweet, though (sugar syrup AND caramelized bananas). I reduced the sugar in the bananas and the gulab jamun syrup in the recipe below in hopes that it balances out. I’ll try it this way next time — no loss if it doesn’t work, because the bananas and dumplings are both delicious on their own as well!

What about you? What food stirs up important memories for you? Is it a type of cuisine, a certain dish?

Gulab Jamun with Caramelized Bananas

Recipe by: Gulab jamun by Show Me the Curry, and caramelized bananas adapted by Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 10-15 gulab jamun, depending on the size

Syrup Ingredients:
1.5 cups sugar
2 cups water
a few drops rose essence (or about 4x the amount of rosewater)
1/2 teaspoon (or to taste) ground cardamom
a few strands saffron (optional)

Ball Ingredients:
1/2 cup instant dry milk powder
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons yogurt
1 tablespoon ghee, clarified butter, or vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
oil for frying (at least 1.5 inches deep)
pistachios for garnish

Caramelized Banana Ingredients:
1 banana, slightly green, not quite ripe, sliced crosswise into 1/4″ slices
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1.5 tablespoons unsalted butter
dash of cinnamon

First, make the syrup. Combine all syrup ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Once it boils, reduce the heat and allow it to simmer while you prepare the rest of the recipe.

Begin heating the oil for deep-frying on low-medium heat. You want it to reach 230 degrees according to some websites, but I had more luck frying from 250-270. You want a slow, patient fry on these.

While oil heats, mix dry ingredients: milk powder, all-purpose flour, and baking soda. Add clarified butter (or ghee or vegetable oil) and then, slowly, the yogurt, mixing well to make a dough. Allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes (don’t worry if it looks wet at first — after resting it will be right). With oiled hands, form into 10-15 small balls (they will nearly double in size throughout the cooking and soaking process, so do make them smaller than you think you should).

Test the oil: drop in a small piece of dough. If it sits at the bottom of the pan for a moment before coming to the surface, the oil is ready. Drop in 3-4 balls at a time and, after they float up, rotate them continuously for an even color. Be patient — when the balls are a dark golden brown, remove them with a slotted spoon and let them drain on paper towels.

When all balls are draining, bring the syrup up to a boil again. Drop in the balls, turn off the heat, and cover the syrup. Allow balls to soak at least 45 minutes to overnight.

When about ready to serve, caramelize bananas. Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add half of the butter and let it sizzle for a few seconds before adding bananas. These should brown for about 30 seconds without being disturbed. Then turn them over and add brown sugar, cinnamon, and last half of butter. Shake the pan to keep the bananas moving and cook about a minute more, until sugar is melted and bananas are caramelized, but still solid. Remove from heat. Serve gulab jamun with caramelized bananas and pistachios to garnish. You can also serve warm gulab jamun and caramelized bananas over vanilla ice cream.

Willow Bird Baking is a contestant in Project Food Blog, a contest comprised of a series of challenges to find the next food blog star. To see my contestant profile, please click here. Voting for Challenge #2 begins on September 27 — will you consider voting for me? I’ll post a reminder and instructions on how to do so on that date. I am so grateful for your support!

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