Sondesh is something that is quintessentially Bengali and you will find it hard to find a Bengali who doesn't like this subtly flavoured fresh cottage cheese sweet. I'm not crazy about it but I do enjoy a couple of them once in a way, and always have a few when I'm in Kolkata.
Over the last couple of visits there I have bought myself quite a pile of sondesh moulds. These are available in the markets in Kolkata, usually in the shops that sell paraphernalia related to religious functions and rituals.
I also had a pile of fragrant gondhoraj lemons waiting to be used. So I decided to make sondesh with gondhoraj lemon zest for flavour instead of the usual cardamom.
Sondesh with Gondhoraj Lebu
2 litres full fat buffalo milk
1/2 cup lemon juice. I used Dabur Lemoneez
3 tbsp castor sugar
zest of 2 gondhoraj lemons, or of 4 regular limes
Sondesh moulds smeared with ghee
Bring the milk to a boil in a large vessel. Pour in the lemon juice and stir well. The milk will split into solids and whey. Let it boil gently for a couple of minutes so that the whey and the solids are completely separated.
Line a colander with a fine cheesecloth or large piece of muslin and then pour the split milk into the colander carefully. Let the whey drain out.
Gather the cloth together to make a bundle and hang up the fresh cottage cheese to drain. Squeeze out as much whey as you can, but be careful, it's hot. Let it hang over the kitchen sink tied to your faucet for 30 to 45 minutes. While you want most of the whey to drain off you don't want a dried out cheese. It must remain moist.
In a clean plate take out the drained cheese.
Now's the time to use that elbow grease! Knead the cheese well for a as long as it takes to get a smooth texture that is as free of granules as possible. I broke it up and then pushed it to one side of the plate. Then little by little I pressed the cheese down on the plate with my thumb. In this way go through all the cheese, squashing and kneading as you go. I think a pav bhaji masher might be useful here, but since I don't have one I went the traditional way. Eventually you should have a smooth ball of soft cottage cheese.
Add the sugar and the lemon zest and knead it all in well for another 3 -4 minutes. Taste the mixture and add sugar if you need it.
Now comes the fun part. Take out your best non stick pan or wok and cook the kneaded cheese for 4 to 5 minutes stirring all the time. Make sure the pan is squeaky clean because the cheese will absorb any smells or flavours from the pan. I tried to mash the cheese further with a wooden spatula as it cooked. The cheese will get soft and pliable. Don't wait for it to harden or your sondesh will not form into the shapes, it will crack. That's because the cheese hardens as it cools.
Remove the cheese from the heat. Now take small amounts of the sondesh mixture and put it on the greased mould. Press the mixture in gently so the impression of the design comes through nicely. Leave it in the mould for a couple of minutes and then unmould gently and arrange your sondesh on a pretty plate. Work as quickly as you can and heat the sondesh mixture slightly if it has gone cold.
If you don't have the traditional moulds you could even use the silicon chocolate moulds, or simply make little balls and press down to flatten like we do for pedas. Sprinkle some lemon zest on top of the ready sondesh and they're ready.
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