“I made Christmas sugar cookies and the kids are painting them today,” says Alisha Da Lima Leitao. She is a home-chef who runs Whattay Pão in Bengaluru. Her eclectic menu features homemade Goan paos stuffed with meat, vegetables or chocolate.
Leitao hails from the small town of Vasco in Goa and I was curious to know if hand-painting cookies is a Goan food tradition during Christmas. “Lol, no,” she responded, and added, “It is a family ritual.” So, what are traditional Christmas sweets in Goa? Leitao shared a heartwarming story of her Hindu neighbours pitching in to prepare festive specialities: 10 days before Christmas, our two lovely Hindu neighbours—Baya and Shashi—would visit to help in the kitchen. Every day a different sweet would be prepared. There would be neuris (crescent-shaped pastries filled with ghee-fried dried fruit, semolina, coconut and sugar), kalkals (a fried snack with patterns of parallel lines, and ours looked like tiny caterpillars, because they were made using small combs my grandmother reserved specially for the occasion). We would make nankhatais, bebinca, dodol (a blackish halwa made with coconut milk, eggs and palm jaggery), Christmas cookies, doce de grao ( our version of kaju katli with chickpea flour and coconut replacing cashew) and 15 kgs of my mother’s special, extra boozy Christmas cake. On Christmas eve, the sweets were portioned and packed into boxes to be distributed among friends and family in our small village. In Goa, these sweet boxes are known as Consuada.
The Hindu influence on Christmas food in Goa is well known among those interested in food history. In the book Cozinha De Goa, author Fatima Da Silva Gracias has meticulously recorded the cultural intermingling of food between the Portuguese and the Hindus. Gracias writes sweets like nevreo, kulkuls and shankarpalis are additions from a Hindu kitchen. She highlights the practice of sending Consuada to homes of married daughters and bereaved families too, for a family mourning a death would not prepare festive sweets.
Coconut is prevalent in Goan cuisine; from everyday meals to special occasions, this star ingredient makes its presence felt. For Christmas, there are cookies, named Bolinhos, made with grated coconut and semolina, and a lesser known sweet called Gons which has thick stripes of tender coconut coated with sugar and favoured with vanilla.
Leitao shares the recipe for Bolinhos and adds, “Thanks for your questions. They made me think of my Hindu neighbours who are no more, but I can’t forget how they helped us prepare for Christmas.”
Bolinhos de coco (coconut and semolina cakey cookies)
Makes: 24 bolinhos
250 g sugar
4 tbsp butter or ghee
¼ tsp salt
1 coconut grated and ground into smaller pieces but not powdered or pasty
250g thick semolina sieved
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 tsp cardamom powder
2 medium eggs at room temp
1. Dry roast the semolina for 8-10 mins on low flame till they start changing colour to a golden brown. Cool completely.
2. Cream the butter, salt and sugar with an electric beater till they are combined.
3. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until combined
4. Add the semolina in 2 batches. Add ground coconut, vanilla essence and cardamom powder and mix into a wet doughy batter.
5. Cover the bowl and leave in a cool place for 5-6 hours for the semolina to absorb all the liquid and fluff up.
6. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius for 10 mins and line your baking trays with parchment/ wax/ baking paper.
7. Portion the dough into lime-sized balls and place on the paper with a 2-inch distance from each. Gently flatten the top of each cookie with a fork to get the indentation, or take a knife and mark a cross.
8. Bake for 30-40 mins or until the cookies turn golden brown.
9. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.