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Sweet surprise

At Vivanta by Taj in Bangalore, executive chef Arzooman Irani likes to play a little trick on his regular guests. When it’s time for dessert, he offers them a kheer that has them asking for more and demanding to know its ingredients. “That was a garlic kheer,” replies Irani, serving up the answer with a mischievous grin.

Or watch director, food production, chef Sharad Dewan of The Park, Calcutta, in action as he conjures up desserts from the most unlikely combination of ingredients. Dewan whips together a green tomato curd cheesecake for adventurous guests looking for something they haven’t tried before. “The tomato is roasted and blended with curd and cheese which works very well with the sweetness of the cheese,” says Dewan. If that’s not innovative enough, the dessert’s also accompanied by a candied orchid that’s very much for eating.

Would you fancy a dessert with bits of bacon or garlic or even kidney beans (rajma to you and me)? There’s no need to make faces and go green around the gills. Some of the country’s leading chefs are working overtime to serve up scrumptious desserts made from ingredients that you don’t normally find on a dessert trolley.

“The idea is to offer something new every time a guest visits us,” says Irani. This is an age of creativity in the world of cuisine and chefs are practising their magic arts to come up with desserts that will ‘shock and awe’ and, of course, impress their guests.

Stop by at Calcutta’s ITC The Sonar, where executive chef Harpawan Singh Kapoor is taking his dessert offerings to another level. He decided to experiment with savoury ingredients and came up with the idea of putting crunchy bits of bacon in ice cream.

Chef Arvind Kumar of ITC Royal Gardenia in Bangalore draws from Japanese cuisine for his nori crème brûlée

The result is an oak-smoked bacon ice cream served in a sweet Parmesan cheese shell. The bacon strips complement the sweetness of the ice cream and the Parmesan cheese shell. “The sweetness teamed with subtle salty bits add a sense of adventure to the palate,” explains Kapoor.

If that isn’t daring enough, Kapoor has also begun experimenting with Thai red chillies in his desserts. He spikes his chocolate mousse with the Thai chillies before putting it all in the freezer. Guests who dig into the dessert get a pleasant, mild aftertaste of the chillies.

And for health watchers, Kapoor has even used aloe vera in his candied aloe vera condé. Condé, Kapoor says, is the Western version of kheer. To prepare this condé, the pulp of aloe vera is cooked with khoya so that the aloe vera takes on its taste.

For executive sous chef Ravi Kumar at Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel, New Delhi, the name of the game has been to introduce unusual elements into the dessert menu that he picked up during his 10 years in the United States and Britain. He was always fascinated by green peppercorn ice cream he had seen being made in the US so he has now created something similar — a green peppercorn panna cotta. “You need to have such innovations so guests don’t get bored,” says Ravi Kumar.

Meanwhile, at The Park, Calcutta, chef Dewan has been assembling a long list of different desserts. He’s been experimenting both with Indian and Western desserts and even with exotic fusion offerings. So, diners at The Park can try the coffee-flavoured rasgulla tiramisu or avacado cheesecake with burritos and coriander ice cream, or even lahsoon ki kheer shots.

Alternatively, diners can satisfy their sweet tooth cravings with spoonfuls of olive oil ice cream. And, if they’re really adventurous, they might want to try the rajma and chocolate cake with grapefruit cream. Yes, you read that right — rajma. “You won’t get the kidney beans in the dessert but the puréed kidney beans are finely blended in the batter of the chocolate cake and teamed with grapefruit cream,” says Dewan.

Of course, ingredients like garlic and bacon or even rajma beans wouldn’t work in desserts unless their flavours were toned down. So many guests mistake the garlic cloves for almonds when they taste Irani’s garlic kheer. To achieve that effect, he cooks the garlic in milk. “Once the garlic cloves are cooked with the milk, the smell and pungency of the garlic vanishes and it almost tastes like almonds,” reveals Irani, who has also created a sinful tofu and sweet potato cheesecake and a green tea mousse to whet his guests’ cravings for unusual creations.

Chef Harpawan Singh Kapoor of ITC The Sonar, Calcutta, offers a not-so-sinful dessert in the form of a candied aloe vera condé
Pic by Rashbehari Das

The key element in most of these off-the-beaten-track offerings is combining something sweet with an edgy flavour. Take a look at The Oberoi Gurgaon, where executive chef Ravitej Nath offers litchi and black pepper sorbet. And for those who prefer it sweet with a hint of sourness, there’s a mini meringue basket with sweet tamarind sorbet which is almost like having a golgappa. The meringue is filled with the sorbet which exudes sweet and sour flavours.

Similarly, whether it’s Dewan’s lahsoon ki kheer or Ravi Kumar’s green peppercorn panna cotta, it’s the extra tang that counts. For instance, what works for the green peppercorn panna cotta is the soft, silky texture and creamy flavour of panna cotta that contrasts well with the slightly bitter and spicy green peppercorn.

At The Oberoi Gurgaon, chef Ravitej Nath serves up jackfruit halwa and jaggery ice cream sandwiches inspired by Syrian Christian cuisine

At times, the chefs are inspired to innovate by foreign guests who want something with a twist. Ravi Kumar once treated a visiting Russian delegation to his version of a dessert he called the black goat cheesecake. In this, instead of using the customary Philadelphia cheese, he used cheese prepared from goat’s milk that has a black coating on top. The goat cheese lends a smooth distinctive flavour to the dessert and sets it apart from regular cheesecake. “Not only well-travelled Indians but European guests, who know their cheese, appreciate such ingredient combinations,” says Ravi Kumar with pride.

Modern Indian chefs have the world at their feet and can look both West and East. Many are seizing their inspiration from the East. Irani, for instance, uses green tea for his green tea mousse which is created by brewing and steadily reducing the green tea that is then added to the mousse batter to give it a refreshing green tea tang. “It’s a perfect dessert for anyone who likes the mild aroma of green tea,” says Irani.

Similarly, when the ITC Royal Gardenia in Bangalore launched its fine dining Japanese restaurant Edo, pastry chef Arvind Kumar began borrowing ideas from Japanese cuisine. So, taking a leaf from his Japanese counterparts who often play with nori sheets, you’ll find Arvind Kumar torching the seaweed brûée to perfection. But he admits this one may not be for everyone. “This dessert is more an acquired taste. Not everyone becomes an instant convert when it comes to nori,” says Kumar. He has created not only one but two nori-inspired desserts — nori crème brûée and orange and marigold crème brûée. In the second one, he employs orange zest and marigold flowers. “As a chef, your sense of smell and taste tell you which ingredients go together,” he says.

Another unusual influence from the Orient has been black sesame ice cream. “Sesame paste is popular in Japan for desserts and cooking,” he adds. Keeping up with the new ingredients, he has also created a jalapeno ice cream for sweetaholics looking for adventure.

The rajma and chocolate cake with grapefruit cream, dished out by chef Sharad Dewan of The Park, Calcutta, uses puréed kidney beans blended in the cake batter

Also, in Bangalore, Irani is looking Eastward for ingredients. One of his recent creations is black garlic panna cotta which comes studded with black garlic cloves flown all the way from Korea. He also puts the black garlic on the panna cotta dessert and makes a beautiful leaf-like design with cloves on a white plate. Irani says he had heard about the use of black garlic in savoury Korean dishes but wanted to incorporate it in one of his desserts. “Black garlic is actually white garlic processed to black,” says Irani. The garlic goes through an aging process which not only changes its colour but also its taste and texture. “The strong aroma of the garlic is reduced and it gets a chewy, sweet and mildly sour flavour,” says Irani.

Others are innovating using local flavours. At The Oberoi Gurgaon, Ravitej Nath is turning out ice creams made from extremely disparate ingredients. There are, for instance, the jackfruit halwa and jaggery ice cream sandwiches. “The jackfruit halwa is a pasty halwa inspired by the halwa that Kerala’s Syrian Christians prepare,” says Nath. The jaggery ice cream complements the flavours and aroma of the halwa.

What will turn up next on the dessert menu? The answer could be just about anything. Chefs are looking East and West and, for customers who aren’t afraid to experiment, the results are often unexpectedly yummy.