Illustration for article titled Adventures in baking with jaggery, a sweet South Asian pantry staple
Photo: Pooja Makhijani

I love jaggery, a caramely, salty unrefined sugar used in both sweet and savory dishes across South Asia and the diaspora. My mother uses jaggery in sweet-and-sour tamarind chutney, nutty gram flour ladoos, and occasionally in dal to balance the lentil dish’s saltiness, spiciness, and sourness. My grandmothers touted jaggery’s nutritive and digestive properties, making me consume it with gingery chai or milk, and it played an important role in religious and cultural traditions as a child: provided as an offering to a deity or consumed before a long journey, a lucky charm of sorts. It’s fruity, earthy, nutty, and buttery, and I ate chunks of it on its own like candy. It’s a pantry staple, used widely in cooking. Now, though, as the family’s designated baker—Western-style baking was something that I learned as an adult, mostly via cooking shows and YouTube tutorials, not my South Asian relatives—I wondered: Could I bring jaggery’s familiar and complex flavors to bear on cakes and cookies?

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A bit of background: Jaggery is made either from palm sap or from sugar cane juice, and its flavor profile depends on the plant itself, the country in which it is produced, and the methods used to produce it. “Jaggery does so much more than act as a sweetener—its unrefined character adds a lot of different components, from a mild saltiness to a bit of smokiness depending on the type of jaggery,” said Nik Sharma, a blogger and author of Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food.

Jaggery is sold in all sorts of shapes, such as the hemispheres my grandmothers had in their kitchens (to be grated or shaved with a knife), as well as in powdered form. Jaggery ranges in color from light gold to chocolate brown, and since it’s unrefined, it varies in texture, hardness, and mineral content. Sharma also explained that jaggery is more acidic than other sugars (acidity can vary from batch to batch, brand to brand), and it’s hygroscopic, so it tends to absorb moisture.

All of this variation in product seemed less important in the South Asian cooking I grew up with, but I knew that in sweets like cakes and cookies, which require a precise balance of acidity in order to rise, jaggery’s chemical differences from granulated white or brown sugar, as well as its unpredictableness, would be a challenge, especially in a delicate and temperamental shortbread—my first kitchen experiment. “Because jaggery sugar content can vary, and because it comes in a variety of grades and colors,” Sharma said, “I try to pay careful attention to how it behaves in a dessert recipe, where the amount of sugar present [can affect] texture and outcome.”

I took some inspiration from Hetal Vasavada, another blogger and author of Milk & Cardamom: Spectacular Cakes, Custards and More, Inspired by the Flavors of India, who has successfully used jaggery as a brown sugar alternative in cookies, brownies, and bread. Jaggery imparted a “molasses-y and earthy saltiness” to caramelized white chocolate and toasted milk cookies, Vasavada explained. “Jaggery, like brown sugar, adds softness,” she said. “But jaggery also gives the cookies a distinctive chew. It’s so unique!”

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In an early attempt to make shortbread, I reached for the convenient half-shaved palm sugar dome in the pantry and grated off the amount I thought I needed, equivalent to the brown sugar used in my recipe. Bad idea. This was far too much sugar: The cookies spread and came out brittle and dark. And because the chunks of jaggery in the dough were far from uniform, they didn’t fully incorporate into the dough, melting haphazardly and leaving gooey, lace-like shards along the tops and edges of each cookie. Tasty, in a way, but not what I wanted.

I then bought sugar cane-derived powdered jaggery, which is available in most South Asian grocery stores and online, and sifted it to remove any lumps. And it worked! Powdered jaggery was far easier to measure and cream, and it melted more uniformly.

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My shortbread is a mash-up of Scottish shortbread and nankhatai, a biscuit popular in parts of the subcontinent that’s often referred to as “South Asian shortbread” and served as an accompaniment to chai. There are many nankhatai varietals, but all are made with flour (all-purpose white, wheat or, in many cases, semolina); butter or ghee (clarified butter); spices such as cardamom or nutmeg or saffron; and sugar (from granulated white to confectioners to jaggery).

Friends who have grown up in India or Pakistan and tasted my shortbread have said that it evokes both the flavors and some of the crumbly texture of nankhatai. The jaggery adds deep, caramel flavor notes, and the cardamom lends a real kick. And because the cookies are made with ghee instead of sweet cream butter, they truly melt in your mouth.

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Ghee and Jaggery Shortbread

Yield: 24 cookies

(Note: I prefer following this recipe by weight measurements, because they’re more precise. But for those without a kitchen scale, I’ve included the volume measurements as well.)

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  • 124 g (9 Tbsp.) clarified butter (ghee), at room temperature; the ghee should be opaque
  • 66 g (½ cup) powdered jaggery, sifted
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 175 g (1 3/8 cup) all-purpose flour
  • Demerara sugar (optional)

Sift together flour and cardamom and set aside.

In a stand mixer, beat together ghee, sugar, vanilla, and salt on medium speed until fluffy and light. Reduce speed to low, then add flour mixture and continue mixing only until well combined. Shape the dough into a log about 12 inches long.

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Transfer the log onto parchment-lined half-sheet pan, and refrigerate at least 4 hours. (As an optional step prior to refrigerating, spread a layer of demerara sugar on a piece of wax paper, then roll the log in sugar until completely coated.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and set chilled dough out at room temperature for about 10 minutes to soften. Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut the dough log into 1/2” rounds. Arrange the rounds on a parchment-lined half-sheet pan and bake until golden brown, about 12-13 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

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