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Makhanmalai, a creamy winter dessert set by the dawn dew

Some dishes are inseparable from the landscape where they are created. MakhanMalai is one of them. This sweet winter dessert is celebrated in the Northern Indian cities of Lucknow and Kanpur. 

The name of the dish translates as ‘cream butter’, which gives a strong clue to the contents. ‘Makhan’ can also be used to describe using flattering words to someone, similar to ‘buttering them up’; if you’re lucky enough to find someone to make this delicacy for you, the kind words are sure to flow after the first taste. 

Preparing makhanmalai is a labour of love. Cows are milked in the afternoon, and a huge pot of the fresh white milk is placed over a fire to boiling point. Cream is then added, and the mixture is returned to the boil. Then it is left to hang in clay pots for around eight hours, slowly cooling under the winter night sky. 

Indian cooks insist on the makhanmalai being left to absorb the morning dew by being left overnight in this way. The dew is said to help the dessert set and make it incredibly light and fluffy. In the early hours of the morning, when the dew has seeped into the mixture, the churning begins. 

Churning – done by hand by more traditional cooks – takes two to three hours and takes a great deal of energy. The mixture will have thickened just before dawn. Now comes the delicate flavouring: cardamom powder, rosewater, sugar, saffron and pistachio. 

By around 7am, makhanmalai vendors are wending their way into the towns and cities to sell their frothy, creamy golden produce, which hangs in steel tubs from the handlebars of their bicycles. Alternatively, it is presented in vast mounds, protected under a pointy glass cover. 

The buttery, light dessert is a celebrated favourite among North Indians, and only prepared during winter months. Legend has it that it was developed to please Mughal emperors, whose tastes were so refined that they requestedfoods that required no chewing, as this would distract from the marvellous flavours.

Makhanmalai is wonderful to eat, with a rich, creamy flavour and a texture that is remarkably light and soft. The gentle flavours linger on the tongue long after the last spoonful. 

Similar desserts are to be found outside of North India. In the winter months, inhabitants of Delhi enjoy a scoop of daulatkichaat, meaning ‘milk puff’ while in Varanasi the foaming, fizzing joy of malaiyois served into tiny clay pots to the delight of everyone, young and old. 

These milky desserts are a great seasonal product for cooks who prepare vast quantities of sweet, milky lassi to cool people down during the hot summer months. In winter, the milk can be used for this fluffy yellow pudding instead. 

The love of milk and butter is very strong in Indian traditions. The Hindu god Krishna is said to have been an avid lover of butter as a boy, to the extent that his mother had to hang butter jars from the ceiling to keep them away from him. The story goes that the mischievous Krishna would whistle for other children and monkeys, climbing on their shoulders to reach the sweet butter in its hanging pots. If you’re ever lucky enough to try makhanmalai, you might try anything to get a second helping too.
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