If you've ever eaten at an Indian restaurant, you have probably tried—and fallen in love with -- samosas. Usually served as an appetizer, these fried, jauntily triangular pastries may be filled with meat, vegetables, or both. The most popular version is the spicy potato and pea filling of aloo samosas (pronounced ah-LOO sah-MOH-sahs; aloo means potato).
In India, samosas are eaten as a light nibble enjoyed in tea parlors and coffee houses, or sold by street vendors from pushcarts. But I'll serve them along with some soup and salad for an informal family meal. Samosas are also wonderful finger-food for cocktail parties; they're great for buffets because they're delicious at room temperature.
Get a flaky-crisp crust by rubbing the fat into the flour
What I like best about samosas is their crisp and flaky crust, called khasta. Its unique texture, with the delicacy of pie crust but some of the chewiness of bread crust, is achieved by incorporating solid fat into the flour with a technique called moyan, or rubbing.
Rubbing the flour entails picking up some fat and flour with one hand, and then sliding the other hand against the flour and fat from heel to fingertips. The action should look a little like you're warming your hands by a fire, except that instead of rubbing back and forth, you pick up more fat and flour and repeat the forward sliding action again.
The trick is to rub gently —
you don't want to compact the flour and fat like clay. Rather, the combined fat and flour should feel dry and crumbly. The even distribution of fat makes a tender pastry by coating the proteins in the flour and discouraging the formation of gluten. Rubbing gently keeps the pieces of shortening somewhat intact, allowing them to form flaky layers in the dough when the fat melts and steam pushes the layers apart. Compared to puff pastry, in which the fat is incorporated to create many whole layers, the samosa pastry will puff rather unevenly, giving the crust its characteristic bumps and bubbles.
And unlike pie crust, which is not kneaded (to keep gluten from forming), samosa dough is briefly kneaded to allow the partial formation of gluten. This makes the crust a little stronger to hold in the filling and gives it some elasticity, which keeps it from cracking open when fried.
When incorporating the liquid ingredients, add just a little at a time until the dough comes together in a mass that can be kneaded. Depending on the humidity and the flour, you may need more or less liquid.
Samosa dough can be prepared up to five days ahead —
Seal it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it. Bring the dough to room temperature before working with it. You can also freeze it longer; just let it thaw in the refrigerator before bringing it to room temperature.
Spice up a potato filling with ginger, cayenne, and garam masala
The potatoes for the filling should be boiled whole with skins on until they're very soft. In fact, it's fine if they burst and crack. Let them cool completely before peeling. Potatoes that have been boiled a day earlier and refrigerated are ideal. The long rest tightens the texture and reduces the potatoes' moisture content.
Because the potatoes are very soft, some will crush and crumble as you cut them up. Don't worry: this coarse-mashed texture is just what you want.(But don't be tempted to actually mash them or the filling will take on an unappealing brown color.) I often just break the potatoes apart with my hands into roughly 1-1/4 2-inch pieces. But I recommend using a knife at first because if some pieces are left too large, they may push through the skin of the dough during frying.
The spice mix garam masala gives samosas their essential flavor —
Garam means warm or hot; masala means spice mix. The traditional, or Mughal, garam masala (pronounced gah-RAHM mah-SAH-lah) is a blend of four aromatic spices: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper. Like curries, garam masalas can take on different flavors. Flavorings like fennel, nutmeg, and bay leaves are often added. A spicier mix that includes cumin and coriander seeds is the preferred version for aloo samosas. You can buy garam masala at Indian and specialty grocers, but if you make it yourself, you'll get a more fragrant, fresh flavor (see recipe: Garam Masala).
The spices in garam masala are toasted to bring out their flavors and to lend a smoky aroma to the mix before they're ground to a powder. Toasting and frying spices -- as the coriander is fried in the first step of the filling -- is an important facet of Indian cooking. Cooking spices brings out their fragrance and flavor and can change the character of a spice.
When toasting spices, use your nose and eyes as guides —
Take the spices off the heat when they smell fragrant and begin to darken. Only toast whole spices; add ground spices (like the nutmeg in this recipe) to the mixture off the heat. Your garam masala will taste best soon after it's made, but covered tightly and kept in a cool, dry, dark place, it will keep for about three months.