For me, Makar Sankranti has always been about eating halwa (sugar granules coated in sugar syrup) and homemade tilachi vadi and buying kites that I would then attempt to fly on our terrace with my father & grandfather! My grandmother and mother would sometimes join a haldi-kunku celebration (haldi = turmeric, kunku = vermillion worn on foreheads) and the tradition was to wear black sarees with kasuti work on them. I luckily possess one such saree in my ever growing saree collection.
But as with all festivals in India, Makar Sankranti is about food and for me in particular it was my paternal grandmother’s tilachi vadi (sesame cakes). Indu aaji was an exceptional cook and she was also extremely fond of cooking – two things that bode well for all my holidays to Nagpur. Her melt-in-your-mouth tilachi vadi, which my mother faithfully makes every year, contain only 3 ingredients. Equal weights of sugar & roasted, ground sesame seeds and some roasted dry coconut (dry not fresh coconut) for topping. Our home recipe does not use peanut powder, cardamom powder or any other ingredient.
First slowly roast white sesame (unpolished if available) till it acquires a golden hue. Once it is cool grind it slowly in a food processor. Place the sugar in a pan and cover with just enough water. Gradually melt the sugar for about 3 mins. To test if it is done, place a dot of the sugar syrup on a plate and tilt the plate. If the syrup stays in place it is ready. Our grandmothers didn’t have the luxury of candy thermometers as we do today, so they relied on kitchen logic to determine when the sugar was cooked enough for the preparation they needed 🙂
Once the syrup is ready, add the roasted and ground sesame and mix to incorporate well. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool slightly but not completely. The mixture will develop a slightly creamy layer on top. Once it is cool enough to handle (i.e. you don’t yelp as you try to handle it), take a tablespoon of the mixture and shape it with your hands or use a mould. My grandmother had these beautiful wooden moulds that she would use to shape the vadis. Once the mould is fully stuffed, the wooden handle is used to push the vadi through and release it on a plate. Once the mixture has been used up, decorate each vadi with a little roasted dry coconut. ta-da! meltingly soft tilachi vadi for you to enjoy.
I enjoy these a lot more than the jawbreakingly hard tilache ladoo that you normally find in stores.
As we got to the end of 2016, we began to think of new dishes to incorporate into the BHDC menu. One of the things I enjoy the most is to take the unusual flavours of many Marathi dishes and innovate with them. My most successful experiment to date has been the Puran Poli Inside Out and with Sankranti approaching, I began to wonder what I could do with the tilachi vadi as a starting point.
I started exploring sesame based desserts in Asia, as black sesame is very popular and Japanese kurogoma (roasted black sesame) ice-cream and Chinese tang yuan (glutinous rice balls with black sesame paste) are two of my favourite sesame based desserts. So I figured it was worth featuring a little bit of black sesame in whatever I managed to create. I came across a lot of matcha and black sesame cakes, puddings and all manner of black sesame cream-filled things. But all of them strayed too far from the taste of the tilachi vadi.
I turned my research back to India and then to the Middle-East where I finally struck gold. I had forgotten about my other favourite sesame product – tahini! I was delighted at the prospect of using it, because the creaminess of tahini could be used to great advantage to retain the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the tilachi vadi.
Finally after a lot of elimination, I decided on a tahini cheesecake with a black sesame & biscuit base! Not wanting to forget the lovely roasted coconut on each vadi, I paired the cheesecake with coconut ice-cream and topped it off with some kakvi – jaggery syrup. It may sound like an unusual take on the original dish, but that tahini cheesecake and coconut ice-cream combination does taste a lot like my grandmother’s tilachi vadi. Now I wonder what she would have to say about it 🙂