Indian desserts unfortunately have received a cool reception in the West—they are often considered just too sweet. Sadly, this reputation was created by Indian restaurants that serve only the most sugary of sweets. In South India, desserts are generally a part of festive occasions, not everyday meals. And on these occasions, paayasam (pudding) is the traditional dessert. Although we have a wide range of sweets, they are prepared at festivals and most frequently served with tea or coffee.
Not all of our desserts are very sweet; several of them are only mildly sweet. I call them sweet treats because they are a feast for both the eyes and the mouth. During holidays and temple festival days, most homes will have a good supply of these sweets. Some of these sweets are prepared at our temples as offerings. Brown-sugar sweets have a rustic look and a homemade taste, and they make a healthy snack food. Sweets prepared with refined sugar are delicate, vibrant, and bursting with the flavors of cardamom and ghee, and they make excellent desserts.
The major ingredients used in making these sweets are white and brown sugar, ghee, besan flour, and cardamom. Besan flour is made from hulled Indian brown chickpeas (chana dal). It is very fine in texture and pale yellow in color. Indian grocery stores sell two kinds of besan flour: one is extra fine, and the other is slightly coarse. Use the extra-fine variety for sweets. It is also available in gourmet and specialty food stores. My personal favorite brands of these ingredients are Imperial brand pure cane sugar, Land O’Lakes brand unsalted butter, and Laxmi brand besan flour. All of these sweets are stove-top preparations, and they are not very complicated or time consuming.