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A list of some of the most popular desserts in India

Even though India is in the midst of a bakery boom and pastry chefs are now celebrities in the food world, have you noticed how, in much of the country, you still get the same old cakes and puddings?

Some of it is, of course, because they are classics and tough to improve on. But in many cases, it is just laziness.


Too many patisseries keep turning out the same old desserts and baked goods again and again.


   I’ve written about most of them over the years but it always surprises me when I go to restaurants and bakeries, looking for new products that I can write about, that so little has changed over the years.


   In fact, the only significant all-India innovation I can think of over the last decade is the ice-cream boom, consisting, on the whole, of eggless ice cream. (Sorry, but you can’t really make a world class ice-cream without a substantial fat content and real eggs.) Some of the new small-batch ice-creams are good—better than the big industrial brands certainly—but quality varies from brand to brand.


   But usually, I am always disappointed by the failure of the ice-cream makers to make a good Anglaise (the custard mix that goes into the ice-cream machine). They try and disguise this by thinking of unusual flavours. Some of them (many of them?) also use chemical additives (perhaps to make up for the absence of the egg) which makes me a little uncomfortable.


   The other great dessert boom is the cheesecake boom. As you probably already know, there are two basic kinds of cheesecake: baked and unbaked. The unbaked kind relies on a little gelatine to hold its shape but Indian pastry chefs often don’t know how much is enough and too many of the cheesecakes in the market are revoltingly springy and over-gelatined. And frankly, if the basic cheesecake is crap, blueberry or chocolate toppings are not going to rescue it.


   If you do have a sweet tooth, and as you may guess from the tone of this article, I’m not a dessert-maniac and will only eat a cake or a pudding if it is exceptional (wasted calories, too much sugar and too much maida ), then here is a list of some of the most popular items at Indian bakeries.


Black Forest: The New York Times has just called this the world’s favourite dessert on the grounds that it continues to be popular all over the world. It is a layered cake of chocolate sponge, whipped cream and what may be its defining characteristic: alcohol-soaked cherries. It is a 20th Century German creation (as the geography of the name suggests) and may have hit its glorious peak in the UK in the 1970s, when it was ubiquitous. In much of the West, including Germany, it is now regarded as an old-fashioned and not terribly interesting dessert. If you do find it on a menu in Europe, it may be because the chef is being ironic or because it is part of some retro-revival. But, as the NY Times accurately noted, its global popularity endures. The paper quotes the Calcutta-born chef Sujan Sarkar as saying that as a child he thought it was a local dish because he saw so many local bakers making it for the holidays!


"We often regard Crème Brulee as being much the same as Crème Caramel, to which it certainly exhibits some similarity. But the dishes have completely different origins."

Red Velvet: An American dessert, popularised in the 1930s during the Great Depression, it may be descended from the Devil Food’s Cake, a popular 19th Century American cake. Its rise in popularity may have something to do with the invention of red food colouring during the 1930s. It became less popular in India over the years but had a sudden revival a decade ago when the cupcake boom hit smaller bakeries. Perhaps because the idea of a red-topped cupcake appealed to many of the younger bakers and their customers, it became one of the more popular baking items of its era. The point of a red velvet cake (in any form) is the texture of the cake which should be velvety and smoother than, say, a regular sponge but the revival has focused on colour over texture.


Cupcakes: Apart from Red Velvet cupcakes, other variations were also popular at the height of the cupcake boom. Though the cupcake had been around for centuries, it owed its popularity in India in the early years of this century to the proliferation of small bakery shops and counters. Its appeal may have been the size. People like the idea of eating a little cake more than having to order a whole cake and cut off a slice. Its popularity is on the decline now and many of the small bakers who flogged cupcakes now devote the same attention to macaroons (or macarons if you want to get all French about the spelling.)


Tiramisu: I did an entire piece on Tiramisu not long ago. So I won’t repeat myself. But the thing to remember is that it is not a traditional Italian dessert. It was probably invented in the late 1960s and many Italian chefs are still ambivalent about it. When Massimo Bottura was in Delhi a week ago, an interviewer asked him to choose between a gulab jamun and a tiramisu. Massimo picked gulab jamun because, he said, it had tradition and history while Tiramisu was only invented recently.


   That said, most Italian restaurants now have to put it on the menu (though it is a dessert that first became popular outside of Italy before it began turning up at restaurants in Italy) because guests often ask for it. Most people enjoy it. And what’s not to like: it is basically a trifle with an Italian accent.


Crème Caramel: It is the one European dessert that you can make relatively easily at home and because you can make it in bulk in advance and store it in the fridge, it is a great favourite with hotels, banquet-chefs and caterers.


   It is a dish that has a huge international following even though it was probably invented at least as far back as the 19th Century. We call the Indian version Caramel Custard because of the caramel sauce poured over the set custard. In the Spanish-speaking world, ‘flan’ is used to describe the same sort of dish. (In the English-speaking world of course, ‘flan’ refers to a completely different dish.)


   You even find crème caramel on the racks of Japanese convenience stores where it is known as ‘purin’, presumably a corruption of the English word pudding.


   I often order it because it is one of the safest dishes to ask a pastry chef to make. You would have to be a genius to screw it up.


Crème Brulee: We often regard Crème Brulee as being much the same as Crème Caramel, to which it certainly exhibits some similarity. But the dishes have completely different origins.


   The point of a Crème Brulee is that it is a set custard topped with a hard layer of warm, caramelised sugar. The custard is usually richer than the custard in a Crème Caramel. And unlike a Crème Caramel, the final preparation has to be done just before service when the sugar is hardened, either under a grill or, more likely these days, by a kitchen blowtorch. There are ancient French recipes for a similar dish but it does not appear in cookbooks till the late 19th century. An alternative origin is from the kitchen at Trinity College, Cambridge where the dish was introduced in 1878 with the college crest branded on to the caramelised sugar on top. It had its moment of glory in the 1980s and now appears rarely on Western menus because it is regarded as too rich and too sweet. But it is still a classic and luxurious dessert.



Posted On: 10 May 2024 11:15 AM
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