In Cheap Tricks we’ll help you make the most out of everyday supermarket staples. Today, how to make gulab jamun with pancake mix.
One of the greatest delights of South Asian dessert fare is the gulab jamun. They’re syrupy, bite-sized fried treats, often gently perfumed by cardamom or rose water, and they’re a mainstay: Gulab jamun can be found sealed in sticky cans at South Asian grocery stores, at the end of Indian restaurants’ lunchtime buffets, or fresh-fried and swimming in thick sugar syrup at sweets shops. In my home, every occasion—potlucks, celebrations, family gatherings, Indian festivals—was always prefixed by my mom’s homemade gulab jamun. But the issue with making them yourself: The way it’s traditionally made can be inaccessible to the home cook. Enter the Bisquick hack.
While there are many regional variations, gulab jamun is usually made with khoya, the milk solids left after simmering full-fat milk until all of the liquid has evaporated. When my parents first moved to the US in the early 90s, khoya wasn’t as readily available (and neither were conveniently located South Asian groceries). Because milk needs to be slowly simmered and constantly stirred to make excellent khoya, it’s time- and labor-intensive to prepare at home.
Enterprising immigrant home cooks discovered the magic of the milk powder and pancake mix combo that uncannily replicated khoya when fried up: a slightly squeaky, not quite cakey, tender gulab jamun texture that’s a sponge for sugar syrup. Milk powder hydrated by whipping cream takes on the qualities of khoya, while pancake mix adds enough structure and leavening for it to hold up in the fryer.
Aunties shared recipes communally at house parties, or scrawled them down on post-it notes as approximate ratios and passed them around at work. Pancake mix and milk powder has become a common shorthand for khoya-based sweets. My memory of gulab jamun has always been my mom patiently rolling batches of the tacky dough into perfect spheres, the smell of hot oil as they fried up, and the sight of them bobbing up and down in saucepans of simple syrup. Now, no store-bought gulab jamun has quite the same nostalgia for me as the Bisquick-and-milk powder ones I’ve grown up with.
Here’s how to make gulab jamun
Mix together 1 ½ cup milk powder with ½ cup pancake mix, such as Bisquick, until combined. Work in about ½ cup heavy whipping cream until a dense, sticky dough forms. Roll the dough into a log, and then section and roll it into about 18 to 20 smooth balls. Keep them firmly covered with a damp paper towel as you work on the next few steps—it’s important to make sure they don’t dry out.
Make a simple sugar syrup in a large saucepan by heating up 3 cups water and 3 cups granulated sugar. Then add a flavoring of your choice; my favorites are whole cardamom pods, a pinch of saffron, or a splash of rose water. Boil it until the sugar is completely dissolved, and the syrup lightly clings to the back of a spoon. Set aside.
Heat a neutral oil like vegetable oil in a large skillet to 350 degrees, and deep-fry the dough, about 4 to 5 balls at a time, constantly moving and turning with a slotted spoon to evenly brown. It will take about 60 seconds. Immediately take them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and add to the sugar syrup you’ve set aside. Once they’re all submerged in the sugar syrup, they’re technically ready to serve, but taste the best after they’ve been soaking for 30 minutes to an hour. Enjoy served warm or room temperature, or snuck out of the saucepan before guests arrive.