Vella cheedai, payasam and appam form the sweets, while savouries include uppu cheedai, and thattai for Janmashtami. These offerings are made to the Lord Krishna after prayers. All the preparations are gluten-free. Vella cheedai is traditionally deep-fried and I make it every year whether or not I make anything else.
The traditional deep-fried version is something I have nailed, but something happened this year – I cannot recall what it was – that prevented me from frying them. I think I added a tad more liquid than needed which made the dough soft. I knew it immediately that the cheedai would not fry well. It would disintegrate in oil. I tried frying one, and it did. I could not waste the rest of the dough and it struck me that I could try baking. It worked. The baked version was nearly the same as the fried ones. The fried ones have a crisper exterior and the hot oil caramalizes the outside evenly to a dark golden. The baked version will not have the same texture. It is however hard on the outside and soft, crumbly inside, and the taste cannot come closer than this.
After trying the baked version several times I now feel confident sharing the recipe. Preferably use organic brown rice flour and jaggery. Sweetness varies with the variety of jaggery used. Some have an element of salt. Preferably use sweet ones. The jaggery should be of the soft variety that can be shaved easily. The quantity of jaggery and the stage to which it is cooked is crucial to this recipe. If the jaggery is increased by a 1/4 cup it will not make much of a difference but beyond that, it may result in the cakes not setting properly.
Testing the syrup:
As in many Indian sweets, the important thing here is the syrup stage. The correct stage is reached when a drop of jaggery syrup placed in a a tbsp. of water will not disintegrate, and when rolled with fingers it will immediately form a soft ball. If it turns hard you have cooked it too much and if it disintegrates into threads or melts in the water, the syrup is undercooked and needs a second or two more of cooking.
Recipe: Vella Cheedai, baked version
Yield: About 20 rectangular pieces
Brown rice flour – 2 cups / 260g
Jaggery, cut into small pieces or shaved – 1 cup / 144g
Water, to melt jaggery – 1/4 cup level / 39g
Coconut milk – 1 to 1.5 tbsp.
Fried slivers of coconut [optional]
White sesame seeds – 1 tbsp.
Mix the rice flour, sesame seeds and fried coconut, if using, together and set aside.
In a heavy wok, and place the jaggery with the water, on medium heat to melt. Sieve the jaggery syrup as soon as it melts, through a clean muslin cloth to remove impurities, if any.
Place the melted jaggery back on heat and cook for about 3-5 minutes. After 3 mins check for the ‘soft ball stage’ (described in the introduction). Cook till the jaggery syrup reaches the correct stage, a minute or two more. Do not leave the sweet unattended.
As soon as the ‘soft ball stage’ is reached, add the flour mix to the wok. You must work quickly now. Mix with a slotted spoon so that you can form a dough, cut, press and mix, while the syrup is hot. If it does not come together in two mins add a tbsp. of coconut milk. By now it should be warm. If comfortable use your hand or just continue with the ladle. Form a dough. The dough should be hard as for puri but pliable enough to be rolled or patted.
Pre-heat oven to 180 deg. C. Drop the dough into a rectangular, 7″ x 5″ jelly pan, lightly greased and dusted with rice flour. Press it evenly across the pan. You can brush oil on the surface and smoothen the surface with the back of a bowl.
Sprinkle and press sesame seeds on top. Bake in the center rack at 180 deg. C. for 12-15 minutes. Remove and make sharp rectangular cuts using a scale with a knife. Dust flour on the knife to prevent sticking.
Return into oven and bake for another 10 minutes or till golden on top. Don’t let the top burn, as it will taste bitter. If your oven leaves burn points rotate the tray appropriately. Remove tray from oven when done, and cool completely. When cool, lift the pieces off with a pancake turner.
It should have a bite on the surface but the interior should be soft and crumbly, not gooey.
I am guilty of having a less sweet palette than most other people. Cheedai is traditionally a much sweeter preparation. Add 1/4 cup jaggery to the quantity I have used if you like things sweet, as described in the introduction.
If your cheedai is soft inside (doughy), it means that the syrup was not cooked to ‘soft ball stage’. Alternatively if you are not able to mix the flour, it would mean that the soft ball stage was crossed.
Instead of turning on to a baking tin, you can make small ping pong sized balls of the dough and bake them like cookies. They cook faster, and will end up like nan-khatai. You can use a round cookie cutter instead of cutting into pieces. You can also use only half of the dough at one time, and make thinner cookies. The baking time will vary depending on the shape and size.
The dough cannot be worked upon once cool as this is how jaggery works.