Of all the holidays, Christmas remains the one I look forward to most. In my childhood household in Mumbai, India, the first weeks of December were entirely devoted to preparing loads of cookies, cakes, and sweets. The sweets were made ahead of time because, like the cashew-based milk cream recipe I’m sharing today, they kept well for a couple of weeks (provided they were stored in an airtight container), ensuring that there was always something delicious and sweet around.
Cashew-based sweets are quite common in India because the nuts are grown in the warmer parts of the country, like the western state of Goa. At holidays like Christmas, Easter, or Diwali, cashews inevitably make an appearance in some form or another, whether it’s as cashew-based marzipans, milk creams, kaju katli, or even as garnishes or toppings on cakes.
I like that milk creams are one of the simplest sweets to make. They require only a few ingredients and a little bit of patience, but other than that, the trickiest element is knowing when the “dough” (more accurately, a flourless taffy-like mixture you’ll form in a mold) is ready to knead. This is a family recipe that I’ve tweaked quite a bit over time, swapping out some ingredients, tinkering with the technique, and incorporating a few tips from my mom, who still makes this sweet every Christmas.
The Key Ingredients
Before I get to the technique, here are a few notes on the ingredients:
- Milk: Typically, milk creams are made with whole milk that’s been sweetened and then simmered over low heat until it reduces to about half its original volume. However, using sweetened condensed milk obviates the need for both this time-consuming step and the need to add any more sugar.
- Cashews: You can use store-bought cashew flour in this recipe or you can grind raw, skinned cashews at home in a food processor. I strongly recommend purchasing cashew flour (available at Amazon and many other online vendors), since grinding your own is both labor- and time-intensive. Regardless of which route you choose, you must pass the ground cashews through a fine-mesh sieve or strainer to remove any large pieces. Forgo this step and your milk creams will be gritty instead of melt-in-your-mouth smooth and creamy.
- Fat: Your choice of unsalted butter or ghee is used as an ingredient in the “dough,” but it’s also used to help knead and shape it, as the fat prevents the dough from sticking to your hands. While the amount of butter/ghee in the recipe is fixed, if you use too much fat for kneading and shaping, the milk creams can end up being quite oily, so try to avoid using any more fat than necessary.
- Flavoring extracts: I usually use vanilla extract to flavor the milk creams, but almond extract is also a good option. In either case, I add the extract after the “dough” has been cooked sufficiently, as extracts contain volatile essential oils, and heating them for prolonged periods of time will drive most of those aromatic and flavorful oils out.
Tips and Troubleshooting
While this recipe only has a few steps, I want to emphasize how important it is to monitor the temperature of the mixture of condensed milk and cashew flour as you heat it up on the stove. It must get hot enough to evaporate some of the liquid in the condensed milk, but not so hot that it begins to caramelize the sugar present in the mixture or starts to burn the nut flour, or else the milk creams will take on a toffee color and an acrid flavor. Try to keep the temperature of the mixture below 180°F (82°C) (a good instant-read thermometer is very useful for this!), which will reduce the amount of caramelization that occurs and prevents the condensed milk from seizing up.
Careful attention is also necessary when it comes to determining when the pot of “dough” is ready to be removed from the heat, and when the dough is ready for kneading. This is less a matter of cooking the mixture for a set period of time than it is paying attention to visual and textural cues, since the time it takes to evaporate off much of the water in the mixture is highly dependent on how hot the mixture is. If you manage to keep the mixture at a constant 179°F, it will take about 15 minutes, but if the temperature is lower than that (which can easily occur if you’re taking the pot off the hob to regulate the temperature), the process will take far longer.
The final “dough” consistency you’re looking for before incorporating the butter and vanilla extract is akin to very thick creamy peanut butter. The mixture will easily come off the sides of the pot as you stir, and it does not flow so much as it glops off the spatula into the pot if you lift some of it up. Referring to the process photos will help you immensely, but there is also another way to test whether the dough is ready: Take a walnut-sized piece of the hot dough mixture and drop it into a bowl of ice-cold water; within a minute, the mixture will be thoroughly chilled, at which point you can use your fingers to remove it from the water and attempt to form it into a ball. If the mixture is pliable and it easily forms a ball that isn’t very sticky, it’s ready. If not, continue cooking the mixture and try again in a few minutes, and keep doing so until the dough passes the ice-water test.
For kneading, instead of calling for kneading the dough when it’s warm (as some recipes suggest), I find it much easier to knead the dough once it’s cooled to room temperature, as it’s less sticky and requires less fat to knead and shape it into milk creams. Again, the more fat you use for this step in the process, the more oily the final milk creams will be, so go lightly when greasing both the plate the dough cools on and your hands.
The final important step here is drying. Once the milk creams are shaped into bite-sized pieces, they must be left out to dry overnight to allow them to firm up.
I find a heavy bottomed saucier to be much better than a saucepan for stirring the mixture as it cooks. A non-stick pan can also be used, but again, the heavier it is the better because it will ensure more uniform and efficient heating of the mixture.
I also strongly suggest using a flexible silicone spatula to stir the mixture, as opposed to a wooden spoon or other stirring implement, as it’s easier to maneuver the dough as it cooks and it’s much easier to efficiently scrape the sides of the pan, which will reduce the chances of caramelization or burning.
Typically, silicone molds of various shapes and sizes are used to make these treats. However, if you don’t own any, just shape them by hand into small balls or flat discs and then prick the surface with a fork or knife to make a pattern. The final look of this sweet is up to you!