Indians find this mildly insulting but the truth is that Westerners always scoff at our desserts. They regard our sweets and puddings with the amused contempt that we in India reserve for Chinese desserts. When the Chinese suggest that we eat red bean pancakes, we laugh derisively. So it is with Europeans and our
gulab jamuns, rasmalais, or jalebis
The principal objection to Indian sweets, as far as I can tell, is that they are too sweet. While the West has a long and globally respected tradition of patisserie and dessert making, India is treated as a nation with a first-rate cuisine that is sorely lacking in the dessert department.
Naturally, I do not share the West’s dismissiveness about our puddings. I concede that we do not have the range and variety of European desserts. Baking is not integral to the Indian dessert tradition whereas in the West most patissiers also double as bakers. While India accepted many of the ingredients that came out of the New World (potatoes, chillies, etc.), the wonders of chocolate passed us by. And so, while every Western dessert menu is at least one-third chocolate, Indian chefs give the cocoa bean a miss. (Why should this be so? Chocolate is as alien to Europe as it is to India. How come they grabbed and we did not? No idea.)
Europeans will tell you that their tradition is so different from ours that there is no possible meeting ground. This is not entirely correct. I can think of at least three desserts that India shares with the West. The first is kulfi, which is a close relative of ice-cream. The second is our kheer/payasam tradition which mirrors the rice puddings of the West.
And then, there is bread pudding. In the West, bread pudding changes as you go from country to country. American bread pudding can be stodgy (or even, in Nora Ephron’s phrase, ‘caramelised mush’) and is not overly exciting. The British bread and butter pudding is a nursery dish that remained something of a joke till the 1980s when it was reinvented by the Swiss chef Anton Mosimann. (The British also have variations on bread pudding: Summer Pudding, Cabinet Pudding etc.)
In France, they have pain perdu, which literally means ‘lost bread’, and can be – in the right hands – the most delicious of all bread puddings. (It is a cousin of the sweet French toast that is often served at breakfast time.)
The Indian bread pudding tradition is not, I will readily concede, some ancient Vedic ritual. But then, neither is our biryani tradition. Our bread puddings reached us from Western Asia and came to our shores along with traders, invaders and refuge-seekers.
The closest we get to a Western-style bread pudding is the Parsi version which is cooked in an oven and either has its roots in the Persian origins of the Parsi community or in the tendency of some Parsis to adopt British ways in the Raj era. It is not a dish that has spread widely in India. It is difficult to find outside of Parsi homes and a few clubs but even a mediocre Parsi bread pudding is usually better than a good British bread and butter pudding. (Perhaps one day Anton Mosimann will be hired by some rich Parsi – say the Tatas – to re-invent the Parsi bread pudding just as he transformed the British nursery staple.)
My personal favourite of all Indian bread puddings is the shahi tukda. It is not necessarily a sophisticated dish. All you have to do is to reduce some sweetened milk and pour it over pieces of fried bread. Put the pudding in a fridge for a few hours so that the flavour of the milk mingles with that of the bread and the texture is perfect and your pudding is ready.
I would guess that like most kebabs and biryanis, the shahi tukda is an Indian take on some Middle-Eastern dish. But if you ask a gifted Indian chef to make a shahi tukda, you are liable to end up with a classic that will put all of the world’s bread puddings to shame.
My favourite shahi tukda has always been the Dum Pukht version. This is a slightly fancy dish, not ideally suited to the home cook because the key to its success is the bread. In the hands of Dum Pukht’s chefs, the bread is enriched so much that it becomes a sort of cake. The milk that is poured over it also bears little relation to the ordinary reduced milk we use at home and is almost like the rabdi that halwais use.
Because of its richness, the Dum Pukht shahi tukda could be a soggy, greasy mess. In fact, it is a dish that is almost perfect in the engineering of its construction with the right cake-like texture and a wonderful moist sweetness. My guess is that its secret lies in the quantities and proportions. The chefs have figured out the perfect balance between the bread and the milk.
Till about a month ago, I would have said that the Dum Pukht shahi tukda was the world’s most amazing bread pudding. But now I think that I have found one that is even better. Poppy Agha, a brilliant and talented chef from Karachi, created the single-best shahi tukda I have ever eaten as part of a TV competition called Foodistan, that I am currently judging. (More about Foodistan when it starts on NDTV Good Times.)
Poppy’s shahi tukda plays around with ingredients and uses mascarpone cheese, apricots and a little cream. But it is so astonishingly light that the dessert course alone was strong enough to help the Pakistani team nearly defeat the Indian on that night. (Why do I say nearly? Well, you will have to watch the show to find out.) I asked Poppy for the recipe and she was kind enough to part with it for Brunch readers.
My hope is that Indian chefs will learn from our cousins across the border. While I do not share the Western aversion to Indian sweets, I have to concede that most of our chefs don’t bother too much with desserts. When was the last time that any Indian chef invented a great dessert that went on to become a staple on menus all over India? Can you think of any Indian chef who has reinvented classic desserts in the way in which Western chefs are always doing?
I called Poppy the sub-continent’s Anton Mosimann on the show because of what she had done to the shahi tukda. But I am sure there are many Indian chefs who, if given a chance, could re-invent all our indigenous bread puddings to similar effect.
The problem, I guess, is that we are too scared to even try. In case you want to take the initiative yourself, here are the recipes for my favourite bread puddings. The Parsi bread pudding recipe is from the Time and Talents club cookbook and no doubt hundreds of Parsis will claim that the version at their homes is better! The pain perdu recipe comes from Set’z where chef Nick Van Riemsdijk makes a killer version of the dessert. I would like to
give you the Dum Pukht shahi tukda recipe but ITC tends to make a fetish out of the secrecy of its recipes. So that’s not going to be possible.
Not to worry. Try Poppy’s recipe instead. And you will realise why the shahi tukda can be the king of all bread puddings. And this is one battle Pakistan has won.
Shahi Tukda with an Apricot Sheera [Golden slices of fried bread in a warm heavy custard cream, flavoured with a layer of apricot compote and topped with
Serves 4 topping it up Poppy Agha, a talented chef from Karachi, made excellent shahi tukda
1.5 litres milk
1 stick cinnamon
2 pcs green cardamom (elaichi)
2.5 cups sugar
Few strands of saffron
12 slices white bread
300 ml cooking oil
2.5 tbsp mascarpone cream
2 tbsp heavy double cream
50 gm apricots (small and dry with seeds)
* Boil 1.5 litres milk, add 1 stick cinnamon and 2 pcs elaichi (green).
* Add 4 tbsp heaped sugar.
* Cook the milk for approximately 6 minutes.
* Layer saffron in a serving dish and pour 2 ladles (approx 4 tbsp) of the milk mixture on top.
* Cut squares of white bread, and heat oil to deep fry in a pan.
* Add a star anise to the oil to flavour it.
* Once the star anise is bubbling, remove from the oil.
* Fry the bread squares till golden, and drain excess oil on a napkin.
* Place bread in the milk mixture with saffron and let it soak for 5 minutes.
* In a large bowl, whisk 2.5 tbsp of mascarpone cream. Add 2 tbsp of heavy double cream and 1 ladle of milk mixture.
* Whisk thoroughly, and place in the fridge to chill for 10 mins.
* Boil sugar in 1 cup. Quarter apricots and infuse with sheera.
* On a plate, layer a little apricot on the base.
* Place a slice of soaked bread on top.
* Spoon a little mascarpone mixture between layers of 3 slices. Drizzle some apricot sheera on top.
Plain Perdue with Orchard Fruit Compote(Bread and Butter Pudding) making it different Chef Nick Van Riemsdijk makes a killer version of the bread pudding
20 gm fruit compote (a mix of apricots and prunes)
10 ml vanilla sauce with cinnamon
20 ml milk with cinnamon
1 scoop vanilla ice cream
1 mint leaf
5 gm caramelised sugar
10 gm brown sugar
Ingredients for the brioche:
10 gm flour
5 ml milk
5 gm sugar
3 gm yeast
5 gm butter
* Soak brioche in milk and cinnamon and toss it in frying pan with caramelised sugar.
* Caramelise some brown sugar again over the top of the brioche.
* Place compote on the centre of plate, then brioche on sides.
* Pour vanilla sauce on the side.
* Garnish with caramel stick, fresh mint leaf and serve with scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream.
* Mix all the ingredients together (except for the butter) and make a dough.
* Melt butter and add slowly to the dough, shape it and keep aside for proofing (15 mins).
* Shape the brioche and bake it for 20 min at 200 degree Fahrenheit.
* Take out and rest it until it gets cool.
* Mix all ingredients and cook it on a slow fire with sugar and water.
* Accompaniment Vanilla bean ice cream.
Bread Pudding de Luxe
1 loaf of bread
2 tbsp ghee
6 cups milk
450 gm sugar (stir into the milk)
1/2 tsp saffron
225 gm mava
1/2 tsp nutmeg (powder) 4 cardamoms (powder)
30 gm almonds, sliced
30 gm pistachio, sliced
30 gm charoli
30 gm raisins
450 gm clotted cream
* Cut the bread into cubes, fry in ghee and drain on brown paper.
* Scald milk after adding one cup sugar, add fried bread cubes and saffron and cook for 15 minutes.
* Mix the remaining sugar with mava, nutmeg, cardamoms and a few sliced nuts and raisins.
* Add this to the bread mixture and bake in a slow oven for 45 minutes.
* Remove pan from oven and put the mixture into an ovenproof dish, spread with cream and decorate with remaining nuts and raisins. Serve hot.
From HT Brunch, November 13
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