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Just desserts



Take a pinch of turmeric, some fresh coriander seeds and a cupful of millet. Chop the zucchini and the bottle gourd. Bring out the red chillies. What does that spell? A nice vegetable-and-grain dish, did you say? Think again.

For, chefs are now using these ingredients to craft delectable desserts. Turmeric is the colour and flavour in your ice cream; coriander water goes into your chocolate, the millet replaces the flour in pastries, and the vegetables add texture and taste to your cakes. And, chillies? Just perfect to pep up a sweet dish and add spark to your Christmas.

There’s a revolution taking place in the world of sweets, and Indian chefs are working overtime to conjure up desserts that boggle the mind. So, even as the holiday season approaches promising sinful desserts that can melt many an iron resolution, the focus is on health, innovative fusion and visual or even multi-sensorial appeal.

“All’s well that ends well,” says Chef Vikramjit Roy, recalling his Shakespeare. The chef, now with POH (Progressive Oriental House), a Mumbai restaurant, believes that the last course is the most important one in a meal, for that’s the impression diners carry back with them after the last morsel has been eaten. And that’s the reason why chefs have been focusing on various kinds of new desserts to tickle your palate and drown your senses.

For a while now, they have been marrying Indian sweets with recipes from other parts of the world. Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, Delhi, for instance, serves mishti doi cannoli with amaranth laddu, besan laddu tart or a warm doda barfi with treacle tart. And, trust us, that’s just the tip of the ice cream—literally.

Ever heard of kheer payesh sushi? Chef Sambit Banik, who runs the Spice Kraft restaurant in Kolkata, makes some kheer with Bengal’s well-known gobinda bhog rice. When the kheer thickens, he spreads it on nori sheets dipped in sugar syrup. This is filled with some khoya over which he pipes in mango crush, orange crush and kiwi crush. The sheet is rolled up, and then cut into sushi-like shapes. “The younger generation wants something new; they are tired of the old Indian sweets,” Banik says.
Clearly, one of the new trends is the restoration of old-fashioned desserts, but with a contemporary twist, as Chef Abhishek Basu of The Park in Delhi puts it. “We add unusual flavours and textures to old-fashioned desserts,” he says. “We provide the comfort of a dessert with an ‘anything but ordinary’ experience,” he says.

So, the creme brulee or baked custard gets a suitable makeover. At the restaurant Fire, Basu adds kaffir lime and ginger to the custard, giving it an identity that’s familiar, yet new. The mildly-flavoured chamomile-baked custard comes with a crisp garnish of popped amaranth lavash.
One of the most sublime sweets of all time, the daulat ki chaat—an incredibly light dessert prepared with the foam of milk and, legend has it, in cold, moonlit nights—gets a makeover at the Indian Accent. The raw and ripe mango daulat ki chaat, with mango candy brittle, is one of Chef Mehrotra’s specialities.

“Today foam and air are the rage in molecular gastronomy. India has been eating milk foam since Mughal times. Daulat ki chaat in Delhi, nimish in Lucknow, makkhan malai in Kanpur or malaiyo in Varanasi—they are all the same milk foam treat made only in winter,” he writes in Indian Accent Restaurant Cookbook.

To the airy dish, he adds a large helping of ripe mango foam, which is topped with large dollops of raw mango foam. “The past is being dug out for its goodness and positivity,” says Bengaluru-based Chef Harpawan Kapoor of ITC (product development), who has been studying new trends in desserts for a while now.

Dessert-makers admit that the primary problem with sweet dishes is the fact that it is full of calories and has few health benefits. This is an area that challenges chefs, who have been coming up with ways to make a dessert less sugary, and thereby more healthy.

Among those seeking to add a health quotient to popular desserts is Chef Nishant Choubey of Roseate House, Delhi, who has been preparing his desserts with ingredients such as fresh turmeric, garlic, black carrot and walnuts. The turmeric goes into flavouring ice cream, while garlic gives a new dimension to his kulfi, and the black carrot and walnuts gel together in a cake.

“These ingredients have positive and healthy characteristics,” Choubey says. “Turmeric is a natural antiseptic and we have fabulous white turmeric as well as mango turmeric (amra haldi) in India,” he adds.Roy likes to use coriander seeds in his desserts for taste, health—and to inject an element of surprise. A ball of bitter chocolate has a filling of coriander water and is flavoured with dehydrated coriander powder, coriander seed caramel and micro coriander sprouts. And, why only coriander?

Charcoal is being used by quite a few chefs, too. It injects an interestingly dark colour into a dish, as well as infuses it with a healthy dollop of goodness. Chef Neeraj Tyagi of Shangri-la Eros, Delhi,
uses the powdered form of activated charcoal in cake mixes, macaroons, ice creams and waffles.
“It is good for adding colour—and for detoxification,” Tyagi says. His chocolate gelato is prepared with cream, milk, food grade-activated charcoal, milk powder, sugar, egg yolk, ice cream stabiliser, lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla extract. The chocolate macaroon with golden ganache is a combination of water, sugar, egg white, almond powder, icing sugar and charcoal powder.

Ingredients such as black garlic and activated charcoal are being discussed across the world today, Choubey points out. “They add natural colours to a dessert,” says Choubey, who uses charcoal for his platter of three kulfis—black, red, and saffron. The first gets its colour and health measure from charcoal, the second from beetroot, and the third from saffron strands.

Another trend that has caught up in recent times is the use of fresh seasonal and mostly organic ingredients in desserts. Basu uses fruits and vegetables that are organically grown and fresh from the farm, which, he says, never fail to create a buzz.

“It is the era of the oxymoron. On one hand, the need of the hour is for ‘over the top’ desserts, while, on the other hand, the new age customer also wants ‘everything in moderation’. The hottest concept of using fresh, local and organic ingredients is a two-way street. It helps in creating a mark and aids in generating a customer base that is devoted since the guest can get a pesticide-free, healthy and fresh meal, including desserts,” he says.

The new winter dessert menu at the Fire restaurant includes a dish made of Ludhiana’s local doda with a seasonal gajak (from Morena) crumble and a nolen gur sauce, prepared with new gur—the most delectable palm date jaggery of the east.“For the adventurous guests, all that is nice is not just sugar but everything spiced,” says Basu. “We believe in adding some Indian spices to our desserts,” he adds. Increasingly, chefs are merging sweet and savoury tastes for new kinds of desserts.

Some light pungent soy can add a new dimension to a dessert, Roy believes. The sauce figures prominently in his apple, cooked with soy and baked with onion puff, served with a soy caramel ice cream; pineapple cooked in soy crisp and sweet soy reduction.“It’s an unusual combination,” he says. Many of the chefs also use fresh vegetables, fruits and leaves for desserts. Chef Ranveer Brar bakes a cake with bottle gourd and carrots.“I get a kick out of sneaking vegetables in this dessert,” says Brar, who also believes that zucchini is a good ingredient for sweet dishes.

Rose flavours and fruits give a punch to Roy’s rose-almond milk and rose pannacota, with textures of fruit, foam of raspberry and a lavender honey poached crio-fried edible rose.The leaves of the gondhoraj—a wonderfully fragrant lemon mostly found in the east—are another great ingredient that the chefs swear by. Choubey flavours the Odisha favourite chhena podo—a delightful baked chhena dish—with gondhoraj leaves. “This dessert that I created for the Odisha Literary Festival was the most talked of dish at the event,” he says.

The idea, says Chef Kapoor of ITC, is to give a customer a multi-sensorial experience—food that appeals to the palate, to the eyes, and to touch. There is a word for this: organoleptic, which means involving the use of the sense organs.He uses millet for some of his cakes to add texture to the dish, and sometimes, instead of a sponge cake, he uses a layer of crushed nuts. “Once you cut through it, you get a different texture. Textures are all-important,” he stresses.

For all this, new equipment is being brought in to overhaul desserts and give them a new taste, feel and look. Kapoor refers to spray guns for finer finishing and velvet looks, silicone moulds for shapes, freeze driers for powdered purees and whippers for foam.Of course, in all these new desserts, the focus always is on visual appeal. Kapoor has been painting pictures in his nature series—with the warm tones of earth being depicted by a frozen chocolate piece with red peach dust, yoghurt sugar and candied hazelnuts, and milk chocolate ice cream lying underneath.His Japanese fall is a mélange of yellows and oranges in a dish that consists of raspberry and beet croquant leaves, bitter chocolate and lemon thyme ice cream, black current, caramel scarves, orange rind puree, beet gelatine and puffed wheat with almond praline.

You leave the table, with the taste, the presentation, the flavours and the innovation lingering in your mind. “Dessert is one of the most important phases of a meal since it is the last thing our guest remembers before he exits the restaurant,” says Basu, echoing Roy.

The last dish of the meal, clearly, has to leave a lasting visual impact. Roy used to fracture chocolate into small pieces right in front of you, scattering colours and edible dust from a dehydrated rose.
He now dazzles his customers with a piece of chocolate that looks like it has been gnawed at by a hungry mouse. When the customer notices the missing bit, the server promptly takes out a little spoon—which fits right in there where the hole is. That is the remaining part of the dessert, he says.
“It makes the customer inquisitive. I enjoy that,” he says.As the bard—and Chef Roy—put it, all’s truly well that ends well. With perhaps… just a nice little burp.

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