Carrot halwa is a traditional Punjabi sweet made from carrots, milk, and sugar. My first taste of it came last year, on a cruise ship. Arne and I were with his parents on a glorious trip to Alaska – my first-ever cruise. Spoiled as I am, my least favorite part of the experience was the lauded cuisine. I am no fan of buffets, as a rule, and the food in the grand dining room was elegantly served and lavishly described on the menu – but it never lived up to those descriptions, leaving me disappointed.
Except for one memorable day, when the taco buffet on the pool deck (the pool was almost never used, but it was fascinating to watch the water slosh with the movement of the ship) was given over to an Indonesian rijstaffel (Dutch for “rice table”) in honor of the almost entirely Indonesian crew. I loved the pisang goreng (banana fritters) and the sambal telur (hard-boiled eggs in spicy sauce), but the dish I couldn’t get enough of – I ate two bowls full, and considered sneaking another back to my room for breakfast the next day – was the rich, sweet carrot pudding.
I was somewhat surprised to learn later that the dish was actually Indian, not Indonesian. Buit whoever invented it, it was luscious – and Diwali, when sweets are traditionally shared among loved ones, was a perfect time to try making it myself.
I looked up a bunch of recipes on the internet, which were all similar in the basics, and one in my old copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking. The big difference in Jaffrey’s was that she advised stirring the pudding constantly as it cooked. Since not a single other recipe mentioned obsessive stirring, I decided to ignore that advice. It worked out fine. The process can take a while, but is very low effort. Let the pot simmer on the back of the stove while you’re doing other things.
I blended together several recipes to end up with the one below. The flavor is deeper and more complex than the simple ingredients and method suggest. The cardamom adds a lot, but if you don’t like it, leave it out – the pudding will be delicious anyway. Another ingredient you can omit if you like is the powdered milk. It was only in a couple of the recipes I looked at, but when I saw it I recalled the words of Christina Tosi in the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook: “…think of milk powder as MSG for bakers. MSG doesn’t taste like anything; it just makes everything taste better. Milk powder works in the same way. We use it in recipes because it has an amazing way of adding a terrific baseline flavor.” I had a box in the cabinet, so I threw some in, and it amped up the sweet milky richness in a way I loved.
The recipes online used twice as much sugar as I call for, but I found that the carrots and raisins were already pretty sweet. Feel free to add more if you want your halwa candy-sweet. The toasted cashews are delicious and look beautiful, but again are not central to the recipe. You could make this with nothing but carrots, milk, and sugar, and it would be wonderful. I made half as much as most of the recipes did, so the pudding should double very easily.