Sharing an atypical Unconventional Baker recipe for a change (i.e. no “lazy day” dessert bars, raw cheesecake, or cute hedgehog cookies, etc.). I finally figured out a dairy-free version of one of my old favorite Indian desserts: rasmalai — something I’ve not had in almost a decade!
If you’re wondering what rasmalai (or ras malai) is, it’s a traditional Indian sweet that consists of cottage cheese-like balls in a sweet creamy and beautifully spiced sauce infused with the flavors of cardamom and saffron, and topped with chopped pistachios. The result is a sort of pudding that’s creamy, delicious, and just bursting with flavor.
Many years ago, going out for Indian food used to be something I did more days than not per week. I loved the super flavorful, spicy, and comforting warm food. The fact the area of town called “Little India”, bustling with some amazing Indian restaurants, was right on my doorstep didn’t lessen the habit.
Once, a server at one of my regular spots brought me a surprise dessert — I looked at it curiously because it didn’t look like anything I could recognize. Something white and saucy in a cup. But when I tried it I fell absolutely in love with this unusual but delicate, sweet and creamy little treat. Rasmalai became one of my favorite desserts from then on. Top favorite in Indian sweets, closely followed by gulab jamun and mango lassi.
After going dairy-free and refined sugar-free, moving out of the big city and away from the convenience of restaurants, and switching to mostly homemade food anyhow rasmalai quickly dropped out of the picture. But since starting this blog several years ago it’s been on my mind to attempt to make it at home. Only challenge: making dairy-free cottage cheese balls! I had no idea how to go about it. The prospect just seemed intimidating. I did make a few attempts on occasion, but never managed to come close.
Recently I’ve been on a bit of a separate spree of making different homemade vegan cheese. In the process I finally got workable little cottage cheese balls I can be proud of :) Rasmalai is finally back on the menu!
Traditional “rabri” sauce (the sauce rasmalai is served in) is usually a condensed milk-based sauce that’s prominently flavored with saffron and cardamom. The sauce part of this dessert was not super challenging to nail — cashews (aka dairy-free life-savers!) make for delicious creamy things, including a condensed milk-like sauce.
I sweetened my “rabri” sauce with maple syrup, went for traditional spices only (i.e. no vanilla here, etc. because I wanted it to stay close to the originals I loved so much). I did add some rose water in — I know not all traditional recipes use that, but my first and favorite rasmalai contained it and I absolutely loved it, so in it went, and I have no regrets.
There is a fundamental difference though to the process of making these dairy-free “cottage cheese” balls as compared to the traditional method of making “chena” balls. The traditional cheese balls are made through a process of curdling hot full fat milk with lemon juice, then straining out the liquid. The remaining mixture is (sometimes mixed with a bit of flour or cornstarch and then) kneaded and formed into balls that then get cooked in boiling sugar water before being added to the creamy “rabri” sauce for eating.
My recipe is definitely an unconventional workaround for this process. The cashew-based “cottage cheese” balls meant to replace the chena here take longer to curdle and form into a workable texture than the traditional (so plan to make a day ahead). Moreover, the initial resulting texture of the mixture is softer and although totally doable, it doesn’t hold up perfectly when boiled and the resulting “cheese” balls are a bit too soft for my liking using the boiling method.
I also from the get go didn’t like the idea of making the boiled “sugar” mixture because I use maple syrup as my sweetener, and it’s certainly not as cheap as plain sugar — to make the boiling syrup (which combines a good dose of maple syrup with water), only to discard this mixture when done boiling the balls felt somewhat wasteful.
So instead I lightly baked my “cheese” balls to firm them up a little and they worked out great. The texture comes out perfect that way, and the whole process is super simple.
There are two small down sides to this method however that I have to confess up front so nobody comes after me with pitchforks here ;) :
– When the traditional balls get cooked in the sugar water syrup they get infused with sweetness on the inside. Because I skipped that step, I opted for adding in some maple syrup into the “cheese” balls mixture instead. It worked, although they are not as sweet that way (compared to the boiled version I made of this recipe), but the sweetness of the sauce compensates for it. I thought the texture was more important here, and the baked balls worked great for that.
– In the traditional process of making the cheese balls part, the liquid gets squeezed out of the milk and lemon juice mixture really well, and as a result most of the lemon juice gets drained right out so that the tang is gone out of the recipe. In the recipe below though that doesn’t happen as I didn’t want to also squeeze out the maple syrup and lose some of the cashew liquid as well through the nut-milk bag in the process. As a result there is a mild lemony taste to the balls.
Of course, as I continue making this, I’ll keep experimenting and if one day I figure out a better work around to address the few small issues above I’ll be sure to update this space.
For now, I’m sharing this recipe with you knowing that it’s not 100% authentic, but comes very close to the version I used to love and have missed over the years. After experimenting with many, many batches of this treat I finally landed on something I personally enjoyed very much (and yes, there was a happy dance involved when it finally came together!), so I figured some of you out there would love to have this option, imperfect and all, for a dairy-free and refined sugar-free version of this lovely treat. It’s delicious, flavorful, a little unusual, and a lot of fun to make, and all those things make it share-worthy for me.
A refined sugar-free and vegan rasmalai alternative: a traditional Indian dessert consisting of soft cottage cheese balls in a sweet creamy cardamom and saffron sauce.
- 1 ½ cups raw cashews, pre-soaked and strained*
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
- 5 tbsp maple syrup
- ½ cup hot water (should be hot or very warm, not boiling)
- ⅛ tsp salt
- 1 cup hot boiled water
- a pinch of saffron
- 2 cups raw cashews, pre-soaked and strained*
- ¾ cup maple syrup
- ⅔ cup more water
- 1 tbsp rose water
- ½ tsp salt
- seeds from 2 green cardamom pods**
- ⅛ tsp cardamom powder
1. Blend all “cheese” ball ingredients in a high power blender until completely smooth. Pour this mixture into a nut-milk bag (over the sink), place the nut milk bag onto a small strainer over a bowl, gently twist the top of the nut milk bag closed, and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 8-10 hours).
2. Once the “cheese” is ready, pre-heat the oven to 350F. Line a small baking sheet with some parchment paper and set aside. When you open the nut milk bag you should have a formed soft ball of “cheese” at this stage and some liquid drained into the bowl underneath the strainer (the liquid can be discarded). Using a small cookie scoop (or can just use a spoon), scoop out about 2 tbsp of the “cheese” mixture and gently form into a ball with your hands. Place this ball onto the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining mixture (spacing the balls on the tray at least an inch apart) — you should end up with 7 balls in total. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 15 mins, then remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack.
3. While the “cheese” balls are baking, prepare the “rabri” sauce: place a pinch of saffron in a cup of freshly boiled water and allow to sit and steep for a few minutes (to infuse the water with the saffron flavor and color). Place this saffron water infusion (including the saffron strands) in a power blender. Add all remaining “rabri” ingredients and blend into a creamy smooth sauce.
4. Once the “cheese” balls are baked, they can be enjoyed with the sauce. You can either divide them into small serving dishes and cover with the “rabri” sauce, or can place all on one larger dish (or glass storage container). Garnish with pistachios and rose petals. Enjoy right away or allow the balls to sit in the “rabri” sauce in the fridge for a few hours to become more infused with the flavor of the sauce. Refrigerate leftovers.
*To pre-soak cashews: place in a glass bowl, cover with water, and leave to soak for 4 hours (or overnight in the fridge). Then strain and discard the water. For a quick pre-soak, cover with boiled water and soak for 15 mins, then strain and discard water. (Note: this technique doesn’t preserve the nutrition of the recipe as well as the traditional soaking technique above). Note: the purpose of soaking the nuts is to re-hydrate them and plump them up for blending into a smooth, cheesecake-like consistency. Proper soaking techniques also maximize nutrition and digestibility. If you’re interested in learning more about nut soaking and other dessert prep tips and tricks, I delve into these subjects in detail in my book Unconventional Treats.
**Lightly crush the pod shells and extract the round seeds inside (discarding the shells).
Disclaimer: this recipe contains affiliate links to the following: raw cashews, maple syrup, salt, saffron, rose water, cardamom pods, cardamom powder, pistachios, dried edible rose petals, high power blender, nut-milk bag, small strainer, parchment paper, and small cookie scoop.