Sugar, Lime and Bitters
Consider a gulab jamun, that magical orb of khoya or milk solids fried in hot oil and dunked in a sugar syrup. It has a thin crust and a rich, luscious interior. You could elevate it by flavouring the syrup with saffron, rosewater or cardamom; or by stuffing it with dry fruits or gulkand. But try eating ten of them in one sitting, and you probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Why? Because the sweetness starts to slowly take over your palate, and there is nothing (apart from the glass of water at your table, perhaps), to relieve that sweetness.
Dessert is sweet. I’d be delusional to suggest otherwise. But it doesn’t have to be just sweet. Don’t get me wrong, the gulab jamun is probably one of my all-time favourite Indian sweets. Although the gulab jamun, with its subtle notes of rose or cardamom, is definitely not one-dimensional, dessert can go way beyond the realm of monotonous sweetness, and when the balance between sweet and the other tastes is just right, the end result is magnificent. In this series, we will put four of my favourite desserts from restaurants around Kolkata under the microscope, each of which highlights the importance of balancing the sweetness in a dessert by the other tastes.
Alright let’s start with sour. As we saw last week, acids in sour foods stimulates our salivary glands. We can perceive taste only when the compounds in food are dissolved in the saliva. In short, sour foods make our mouths water which helps us taste food better. We’ve already talked about the five tastes earlier in the blog. If you haven’t read it already, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our FATS series. But how sour can a dessert get?
The gondhoraj tart at Monkey Bar, Camac street is the Bengali interpretation of the classic lemon meringue pie, which we dissected in some detail in our egg series. Instead of a lemon curd, it uses a curd made of gondhoraj, a variety of lime highly prized for its complex aroma, used widely all over Bengal. The pie crust is reduced to a biscuit base, making this dish look more like a cheesecake than a lemon meringue pie. Apart from the biscuit and the citrus curd which form the body of the dish, it is topped with torched dollops of soft meringue, with a gondhoraj gel dotted around the dish, along with a few pieces of sponge cake and a candied rose petal.
Most of the components on their own are either very sweet or very sour. The sponge, meringue and rose petals are very sweet when had on their own. The curd is refereshingly sour, and the gel is almost too sour. It is when you eat all of them together that the magic happens. The sourness makes us salivate, and adds a note of freshness to the dish. And this is why the dish seems vibrant, not stodgy. The tart is creamy, the gel is a fresh burst of flavour, and they keep our palate engaged. The sweet elements help keep the sourness in check, allowing us to enjoy the acidic tang without being overwhelmed by it. And it is this subtle yet intricate balance which makes us go back for more, and more, and more….
Bitterness doesn’t sound like something that should ever work in a dessert, but think a little harder and you’ll remember that some of our most beloved dessert flavours, chocolate and coffee, are bitter. It is not the bitterness which makes it appealing, but the complex flavours which can often be masked by it. The trick is to underscore the bitterness so that their inherent complexity shines through. The affogato at Fabbrica della pizza, Rabindra Sadan is perfect a case in point.
The affogato is an Italian dessert of vanilla gelato served with a shot of espresso. The dish looks simple: a slab of olive oil cake, a large scoop of gelato, a shot of espresso and a runny, 70 percent Belgian chocolate ganache. The last two components are quite bitter; have them on their own and you taste almost nothing but bitterness and an unpleasant astringency. But mix it with the other components and things start to get interesting.
The gelato is sweet, and the cake is really sweet, intentionally so because it is meant to be eaten with the coffee and chocolate. Eat them together, and the sweetness of the cake undertones the bitterness, bringing out subtle nuances naturally present in an espresso and a good Belgian chocolate. What seemed incredibly bitter before, now springs to life. You can still taste the bitterness, but it is now a background note, with the fabulous flavours firmly in the foreground. A simple, yet highly effective dessert, this. Chocolate and coffee deserve in-depth discussions themselves, but that will have to wait for later.
So far, we have seen how sour and bitter can be incorporated in desserts to make them more interesting and varied. Next week, we will push the boundaries further and throw in salt and spice into the mix.