After 45 years, an oasis in the dessert desert
The writer crosses a culinary frontier with reasonable success but is wary of doing it again
This week, I did something I have never done before, something I never thought I would do, and something I knew nothing about.
I made a dessert.
Yes, good and gentle readers who have tolerated my ramblings for more than a decade (yes, it’s been that long), you should know that over the 45 years I have made culinary notes, there has never been one on anything that caters to a sweet tooth, which I do not possess.
I have nothing against desserts. It’s just that I list them among many things I dislike. I don’t drink tea, coffee and beer or eat bhindi (okra)—I do now eat vegetables though, so I will abstain from further comment on this matter—and I have stayed away from desserts all my life. This situation is not something that my fellow countrymen understand because to avoid desserts is to be un-Indian. So, the comments flow, thick and fast—and boring.
“Dieting?" (have you known me to shun food?)
“How can you not like sweets?" (how can you like them?)
“You’re missing something!" (um, no.)
“Are you Indian? (this is your idea of a joke?)
My dessert desert—sorry—did witness a few oases over the past decade, during which I developed a liking for a few sweet things, mainly tiramisu, crème brulee and rasmalai. I understand the first two are foreign and so do not really count in these hyper-nationalist days. This does not mean I have developed a sweet tooth; I may have three-four spoonfuls of any of these three maybe once a month.
When I cook, friends and family know not to expect dessert. The wife arranges for ice cream from outside or offers chocolates (I may partake of a square inch or so after mutton curry and rice—again, once a month or less). All this may sound severely limiting to the average Indian, but it is what it is. Kindly adjust.
So, why did I make that dessert?
Well, partly because I thought that after more than half a century of living, I should try something I have never had. But the leading reason for entering this brave, new world was because of my friend Junu, or Vinita Thapa as the world knows her. It was at her house in Singapore that I recently had the most amazing dessert I have ever tasted. Junu is particularly adept at turning out delicious—mostly—healthy meals, leaving us lesser mortals stricken with envy by posting her culinary achievements on Facebook.
After a dinner of salmon on a bed of herbed potatoes and exquisite baked chicken and couscous, she produced dessert. I have no interest in this, I was about to say—maybe I did say it—but then realized I was, perhaps, being somewhat rude, so I reluctantly took a spoon.
Birds warbled, the stars shone and bells chimed.
It was the most amazing bread pudding I had ever eaten. Of course, it was also the first bread pudding I had ever eaten, but my dessert-minded friend across the table confirmed it was spectacular.
It was inspired by a Nigella Lawson recipe, and, as you can see, is a triumph of minimalism, using as it does stale croissants and a dose of bourbon, whisky (or rum) from a home bar. We were drinking some particularly exquisite American bourbon, and that is what had gone into the bread pudding.
I made my own tweaks, adding in rosemary from my wife’s growing kitchen garden and using good old Old Monk. My mother said it was good—she is too loyal to her son to say otherwise—but my father, the ultimate nitpicker and dessert connoisseur, greedily finished the pudding, carefully scraping out the last bits.
Am I now a convert?
I doubt it.
I might make the bread pudding again because it’s easy to make, and the family, which has many sweet teeth, loved it. Doubtless, it also fills a void in my culinary repertoire and may delight dinner guests, but I am not about to upend my comfortable world for a pudding that is still inherently unhealthy, awash as it is with sugar and cream—although I reduced the amounts substantially.
I feel strongly about the Indian penchant for unhealthy living and uncontrolled eating. I was taken aback during a recent visit to Punjab to see how—there is no other word for it—fat many young people were, diving into their butter- and ghee-laden food with nary a worry about tomorrow (or the coming night).
So, while I might make the bread pudding, if you really want it, I may now cross the other unbreached frontier—baking bread.
Watch this space.
Stale croissant pudding with rosemary and rum
2 stale croissants (two days old will do)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
2 eggs, beaten, with salt
9-10 leaves of rosemary, shredded
2-3 tbsp Old Monk rum (or bourbon or whisky)
2 tbsp water
1/2 cup cream
Break up the croissants and scatter in an oven-proof dish. Sprinkle the shredded rosemary. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
In a saucepan, mix the sugar and water, stirring mildly so it starts to dissolve. Place on medium to high heat and allow the water to nearly evaporate. Do not stir. After 3-5 minutes, the sugar should caramelize and turn a deep gold. Add the cream. It will splutter. Whisk the mixture for a minute. Add milk and rum and continue whisking. You may find some of it solidifying into toffee—whisk it, and it will dissolve. Add the beaten eggs and keep whisking for 30 seconds. Then pour over the croissants and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Serve hot.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets @samar11