Nankhatai - An Indian Buttery Cookie: A Guest Post by Magpie Recipes

I am so happy to re-launch my 2011 India Series with a line up of talented bloggers. First up is sweet Rose blogging over at Magpie's Recipes.  Rose is the co-creator of Kerala Kitchen, a cooking club for those who are in love with Kerala, a southern Indian, cuisine. I am tempted to share more about Rose but her writing below will unravel some fascinating food and history. I was mesmerized by this carrot and rice pudding. Look at the first two photographs, such a stark contrast though so complete. Brainstorming with Rose was a snap. We quickly settled on Nankhatai, a buttery, crumbly Indian cookie my mom used to make while we were growing up. My mom didn't use nuts and she used all purpose flour. It is probably one of the only Indian cookies that is similar to the traditional Western cookie. It is egg free like shortbread and a snap to make for the holidays. Without further ado here is Rose...

I love Shulie's blog and enjoy discovering many new things to try from her Jewish heritage. Several times I have been happily surprised to learn about Jewish dishes that may have been influenced those that I grew up eating all the way in Kerala in the south of India, among my Syrian Christian community there. I am very excited that I am getting to do a guest post for her inspirational blog as part of her Indian Food Series, which has featured some of my most favorite Indian food bloggers. 
Since I had just baked a batch of these Nankhatais for a cookie swap I asked her if she would like a post on these and I was happy when she said she loved them and that her mom used to make them for her.  Nankhatais (Nan-kaa-taai), are buttery, fragrant Indian shortbread cookies, which I think make great edible gifts this holiday season for the people you love. They are very easy and quick to make  (perfect last minute gift) and a sophisticated cookie swap option.

But first, let me share a little bit about me. I blog over at Magpie's Recipes. And like Shulie, I love to cook and also may be slightly addicted to baking. Then there is this thing. I love dried fruits and nuts and I love cake but ironically, I do not like fruitcake. Never have. Sure I will eat it if you offer it to me, but secretly wish it was chocolate instead. So being a Malayali, it was that one thing about Christmas that was a bit of a nightmare, because during Christmastime, Malayalis (other than myself and my siblings) go nuts for fruitcake.

I don't know how they ended up being so popular. Probably because of the strong British influence in Kerala and several other states.  All I know is my aunts would begin soaking the fruits and nuts in brandy months and months in advance and start churning out cakes by the dozens come December.
Our holidays were always spent at my grandmother's home in Kerala and my father would drive us up and down the entire state to visit nearly every member of our large extended family. Every home we visited, we were offered fruit cake baked with love and pride by the lady of the house. If we dared to decline there would be furrowed brows and pinched lips from our parents and no end to the lecture on manners when we got back home. So we smiled weakly and ate. My poor kid brother would cram the whole slice in his mouth and swallow in the hope that the torture be over fast. But then our aunt would mistake his haste for enthusiasm and offer him several slices more!

Even if we managed to avoid or survive those fruit cakes during the visits, they would be waiting for us at home. A whole army of them. Neighbors, well wishers, distant relatives would all come home bearing them. When someone joyfully thrust a box in my hands I would wish hard that it was a doll or a book... but no, it would just be another dreaded fruit cake.
Then this one time we visited an aunt who didn't bake much and when she heard we were coming over she had bought some of these buttery biscuits from a bakery near by. They had a hint of cardamom and we joyfully pounced on them! Today when I make them in my own kitchen, I always remember our relief and glee!

When I moved to the States I was ecstatic to find that no one seemed to exchange fruit cakes here. Instead they exchanged cookies! Glorious cookies of different shapes and sizes and flavours! While I know there are many fruitcake haters like me out there, I have never met anyone who refused a cookie, or accepted them with that resigned, silently suffering face I know so well.

Especially when it comes to these cardamom scented and nutty wholewheat cardamom Nankhatais. I read in different places that these not overly sweet, buttery cookies apparently originated in Surat due to the influence of the Dutch there, or were brought over from the middle east by Iranians. In any case they are popular across the country in different forms. And why not. When flour, butter, cardamom and sugar combine, magic happens!In Kerala they are commonly called "Venna" (butter) biscuits. I like them with tea or coffee ( yes I am a dunker) and I think they would go equally well served with alongside wine.

In some places whole wheat flour or the atta used to make chappatis is used to make them which gives them a rustic nutty taste that I love. In Kerala they are commonly called "Venna" (butter) biscuits and usually made with all purpose flour which makes them more tender and melt in the mouth. Some people even add besan (garbanzo bean flour) or semolina for a different texture. I add a handful of chopped pistachios, but you can add any nut of your choice, or even pumpkin seeds but you don't have to. I love the taste of the cardamom which perfumes your kitchen as you bake them, but feel free to swap with your favorite spice instead- cinnamon, nutmeg, even a little anise, cumin or fennel which I am increasingly loving using in sweets these days. To brighten things up you can even add some citrus zest, or other creative add ins like chocolate chips, M&M's, sprinkles, crunchy cornflakes..though they are quite perfect just as they are. 

I hope you enjoy them! My best wishes to you Shulie, to your readers and all your loved ones.

Recipe for Nankhatais
adapted from Manjula's Kitchen 
Makes about 35 small cookies or 24 regular sized ones

1 cup whole wheat flour ( I have also used atta and sometimes white whole wheat flour. You can also use all purpose flour if you prefer) 
1/4 tsp salt 
1/2 cup chopped pistachios, pumpkin seed or other additions (optional- can omit) 
1/4 tsp cardamom powder ( or cinnamon, nutmeg, a pinch of cloves, a few saffron strands, fennel or any other spice you prefer) 
1/2 cup fine granulated sugar or you can use icing sugar as well 
1/2 cup butter that is softened and squishy or 1/2 cup ghee 

Preheat the oven to 350 F Put the butter/ghee and sugar in a bowl and mix well with a spoon.  Pour all the other ingredients into another bowl and stir well, no need to sift. < Now mix in the butter/ghee and sugar mixture and gently knead into a soft dough. Don't overwork it, we just want it to come together into a ball.  If the dough is too dry to come together, you can add a tablespoon or so of milk and mix again.

If the dough seems too oily which can happen if you use ghee or if it is very hot where you live and your butter has melted too much, just stick it in the fridge for 10 mins and it should be easier to work with.  Roll into even sized balls or what I do is to use a half tablespoon measuring spoon to scoop the dough, scraping away any excess.

Slide the little half sphere out onto an ungreased, unlined baking sheet.
(This ensures that all the cookies are the same size and bake evenly.)

Bake for 10-15 mins if you use the 1/2 tbsp measure or a little longer 18-20 mins if you rolled them larger, until they turn a light golden brown, especially at the edges. 

They may seem soft and crumbly but they will harden when cooled.They taste best warm and freshly baked like all cookies do. But once cooled can be stored in an airtight container for atleast a week and I have even frozen them in a vain attempt at portion control!