The sweet discourse

When it comes to the world of desserts and sweets, current trends and the move towards ‘elevated desserts’ are just the tip of the ‘iceberg’ of the age-old, all-encompassing, charming affair.

Two years ago, when Chef Dhruv Oberoi, Head Chef, Olive Bar and Kitchen, began reworking his dessert repertoire with local ingredients, it was for two reasons: one, his passion for desserts, especially cakes and puddings from across the world, “more vintage and classics, the better”; and the time in hand that enabled him to re-rediscover quite a few local ingredients, especially “in the form of berries and spices from the hills”. While the world fought the anxiety of uncertainty, Chef Oberoi regaled not just in rediscovering the lesser-known history of quite a few desserts including his personal favourites, torte, panna cotta and Amalfi to name a few, but had worked the methodology to give these classics an Indian twist with spices, edible flowers, and berries. Most of his experiments made it to the menu with a few under a segment called Chefs’ Play, which, says the cake specialist, “is a curative space to showcase and sample our tribe’s unconventional creations that are meant for people looking for a more elevated dining experience.”

Playing the sweet board

Chef dhruv oberoi has taken the classic millefeuille and reimagined it with locally available ingredients.
Chef Dhruv Oberoi has taken the classic Millefeuille and reimagined it with locally available ingredients.

One such creation that began its journey in the Chefs’ Play corner before it made it to the main menu is the Phalsa and Cacao Torte. In what appears to be a take on the famous torte, Chef Oberoi’s version is an ode to some of the fascinating ingredients that have laid the foundation of the Indian sweet corner at different periods in history.  Designed as a standalone course based on the concept of the do-gooder sweet, this dish, explains Chef Oberoi, “is essentially a torte layered with black wheat fudgy cake, puffed millet feuilletine, phalsa ganache, cacao mousse, finished with cacao glaze, phalsa coulis and bubbly ice cream. The addition of millet and phalsa gives it that interesting contrast in taste and texture. It also brings in the added goodness. Plus, the bubbly ice cream essays the role of a palate cleanser, cranking up the experience from having just another treat to one that is engaging at different levels.”

In contrast to this wholesome dessert is Chef Oberoi’s other innovation, the Millefeuille. Inspired by the Marie-Antoine Carême classic and his penchant for creating delicate desserts, this version is a 180-degree shift in composition. Created as a tea-inspired dessert, the current iteration is made with moringa zarai, in place of matcha, and uses Pahadi cheese for the crémeux. Served with a sake ice cream, it is, says Chef Oberoi, “fascinatingly light on the palate even with the trademark rich sweetness and aroma that we associate with desserts these days.”

Welcomingly, Chef Oberoi isn’t the only one smitten by the craft of elevated desserts. The concept, says seasoned dessert specialist Chef Avijit Ghosh of Smoor Chocolate, “has been the ‘secret ingredient’ behind the continuously transforming and evolving world of desserts, a facet of dining that began its journey as a medium to administer antidotes before becoming this outrageously addictive treat.”

That magic, he continues, “works not only on diners but also on chefs — those in pastry and otherwise — who have since eons invested their time, creativity and minds to creating some of the iconic desserts that are today the very definition of ‘happiness’ and ‘good times’.”

Sketching the past

Ashure is a dessert as old as time. Image: shutterstock/alp aksoy.
Ashure is a dessert as old as time. Image: Shutterstock/Alp Aksoy.

Take the case of Ashure. Considered to be one of the oldest incidents of an elevated dessert — by Islamic sources, it is the oldest dessert, in fact — Ashure was created to celebrated Noah’s victory and is made of ingredients that in the Middle East are still considered to be the prime food group. Made with chickpeas, beans, grains, nuts and fruits (dates, figs and apricots), this porridge/custard-like treat is a beloved sweet not just for its historical and cultural significance but its nostalgic taste and the nourishment it provides. In fact, many culinary anthropologists believe it to be the foundation pillar to the tray of lavish sweetmeats of the Ottoman empire.

But then the world of desserts, since the beginning of culinary history, has been one of interesting inclusions and fascinating experimentation. Take the case of our own sweets, says culinary explorer Nimish Bhatia of Nimisserie, “from kheer to halwa, malpua to even our combinations of doodh-jalebi, kheer-rasguliya, ghevar-malai, and the range of barfis, chamchams and ladoos, and the various sweet pithas. They are not only examples of how transformative the world of sweets and desserts is, but also how their role stretched beyond the present ‘finale to a good meal’.”

Old muses, renewed

In most ancient cultures across Asia and other regions, says Chef Bhatia, “you can find this delicious array of sweets and desserts that were designed to be as much part of the meal as the main course, and were made with as much thought and skill as any other dish — and much like the other courses had fewer limitations in terms of what to use and what not to.”

It was this thought process and the discovery of quite a few unique sweet treats like tamatar ka halwa, and lauki ka muzzafar a few years ago that nudged the molecular gastronomy expert to revive the old tradition of creating elevated desserts — “treats that do tease, treat and heal in equal measure,” says Chef Bhatia, who has created some fascinating plant-based desserts like coriander mousse, baked sweet potato yogurt and spinach cheesecake, to name a few.

A fact that culinary consultant Chef Amey Marathe also endorses. As an expert in Nizami and Deccani cuisine today, Chef Marathe’s research into the history of sweets in Indian culture, especially the royal table, has given him a different insight into a course that is conventionally served last. Traditionally, the brilliance of a dessert, he says, “stemmed from the fact that it was a course that could be served a la carte and at any time during the feast or a meal because they were effective administrators of the desired result. In the Indian context, mostly that means either to create an appetite, as a palate cleanser and, in some cases, even as a meal or to enable digestion. When served as a meal it would result in zen-like calmness and satiation. Desserts’ last role, in fact, completely explains (and validates) the presence of a wide variety of ladoos, kheer, barfi and halwa in our ledger. They were not only effective soothers and nourishers but also came with a booster dose of nutritive goodness.”

Fascinatingly, that is how desserts, says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai of Fabrica By Saby, “was viewed all across the world in the beginning, where sugar or sugar-like ingredients gained their fandom as they made some food groups likable.”

Milk chocolate ghewar with rabdi is the perfect blend of old and new.
Milk chocolate ghewar with rabdi is the perfect blend of old and new.

This was why sugar, says Chef Gorai, “for a good part of history remained a much-revered ingredient. It could make not just medicine acceptable, but also make many good-for-you dishes enjoyable. This was the reason that a lot of earlier desserts were meant as an antidote, be it the ladoos in India, gruel in the ancient Indus Valley and Mesopotamia, chocolate syrup, sherbet or even soda that made its debut like halva as this preferred garb that could disguise the distaste of medicine, and the food too.”

Chef saby's jurassic cake.
Chef Saby’s Jurassic Cake.

For most of the usage sugar had, and the different formats of sweet treats it created, says Chef Gorai, “sugar remained an expensive commodity till the mid-Tudor period when commercialisation of the ingredient began. But that lacuna led to more creative ways of making dessert through history where flowers, fruit molasses, fruits, nuts, and even sweet ingredients were combined to create dishes that could alter mood and thought. Thus, coining the concept of elevated desserts.”

The Indus food specialist, in fact, has used the same theorem to create some of the most iconic desserts in his kitty whether it is the Jurassic Cheesecake that combines the taste, texture, and goodness of three medieval period desserts — chenna podo, gaja, and khaja — to create a filter coffee cheesecake served on rose cookies or the Ragi Fudge Brownie, which is a rethinking of the traditional millet halwa.

Licensed to indulge

Dolcetto al mirtillo by chef stephenson simon, executive pastry chef, the leela ambience gurugram.
Dolcetto al mirtillo by Chef Stephenson Simon, Executive Pastry Chef, The Leela Ambience Gurugram.

Fascinatingly, the driving force behind the change in the way desserts are being looked at, says Stephenson Simon, Executive Pastry Chef, The Leela Ambience Gurugram, “in the past few years isn’t just the unquenchable urge to create exceptional masterpieces that has driven the space since the glorious years of Versailles where the concept of elaborate, over-the-top dessert and its place as the finale came into existence, but also the receptive diners and the urgent need to find sustainable and effective ways to create treats that could ring in the ritzy glamour with just the right dose of familiarity and newness.”

The result has been the gradual shift to first fusion desserts and then to desserts that aside from being art on the plate, he continues, “also score in creating a visual euphoria through colours, texture, techniques, and the use of a variety of unconventional ingredients. It has also led to the shift in re-discovering the original Mohicans of yore.”  

The foreplay

A soan papadi feuillentine crisp dipped in hazelnut rocher. Sweets are definitely getting elevated.
Soan papadi feuillentine crisp dipped in Hazelnut rocher. Sweets are definitely getting elevated.

A fine example of this new tapestry is Chef Nirata Kar, Sous Chef, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, whose creations bring in traditional sweets to create that experience. Be it with her Soan papadi feuillentine crisp dipped in Hazelnut rocher, or Boondhi peda dipped in mangonosa topped with mango coulis and Milk chocolate Ghewar with rabdi. Each, says Chef Kar, “while has that bit of familiarity also brings in the frills of a great dessert experience to the diner. On the chef’s part though, it helps bring in different ways to include healthier options in the fray.”

A facet that gives Sofitel Mumbai BKC’s Pastry Chef Nilesh Dewulkar’s dessert not just the uniqueness but also the “dessert can be a meal” feel. The thing, says Chef Dewulkar, “about elevated desserts, which is a thoughtful re-composition of a sweet treat with elements that can add to its palate appeal, is that in many ways it brings afore the goodness that desserts were once known for without compromising that feel-good pampering experience associated with desserts. How well a chef weaves this in with changing trends — which today veer towards healthier options and contrasting tastes — is what matters.”

This, he continues, explains why a mélange of a cheesecake made with an Indian blended Rajbhog or Gulab Jamun, or balsamic cheese Chantilly, or fruits macerated with liquor has found its niche and appeal.

If dessert is your favourite meal, this could be the perfect time to start.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

Read more.

Summer with TD: Lassi, the ultimate sweet indulgence

Indian Classic: Meethe chawal