How often has this happened to you? You’re out at one of Mumbai’s many restaurants and you look through the menu as you try to make a choice between biriyani, rolls or masala dosa. Or if you’re craving something more western, you’re scrolling through a never-ending list of kinds of pasta and sandwiches. But whatever the restaurant might specialise in, you can take it for granted that the place of pride on the dessert menu belongs to the humble caramel custard.
For a dish that’s worked its way around the world before ending up on your table in India, the caramel custard has had its fair share of identities. In Europe, it’s commonly known as crème caramel, while the Americans call it milk flan. But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet and a caramel custard by any other name would taste just as amazing.
This simple dessert made of eggs, milk and sugar has survived wave after wave of dessert trend even as its much-vaunted and more sophisticated version, the crème brûlée, fell by the wayside. There’s much to be said about the simple appeal of a rich-tasting, yet somehow inexplicably light on the stomach, caramel custard. For many, it invokes memories of mum’s cooking for celebratory lunches and dinners which ended on a sweet note. And what’s sweeter and more familiar than a perfect caramel custard? Read on as we try to unearth what makes the dish so loved or skip to the end for a simple recipe.
The History of the Dish
Call it crème caramel, caramel custard, or even milk flan, but you can’t change the fact that this dessert was once a huge part of the European gastronomic experience. Perhaps this was due to the ease with which massive quantities could be prepared and stored for use later, but it’s entirely likely that its dominance was a result of just how delicious the dish is. As for when it made its first appearance in India, nobody’s quite sure. The prevailing theory is that it gained prominence in India during the British Raj and then grew to be a staple of several communities, primarily the Anglo-Indian and Parsi people.
An Indian Staple
Caramel custard is an integral part of Mumbai’s gastronomic trail today, but how did that come to pass? That it is on the menu (and is often the speciality) of every single Irani cafe in Mumbai is proof enough that its appeal transcends time and food trends. The amazing thing about this dish is that it can be found across the country – even in small restaurants that don’t offer a single western dish on their menu, the caramel custard is often included. What’s more, it’s one of those rare desserts that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of technique to prepare, nor does its quality improve massively in the hands of a trained chef. With the right, high-quality ingredients, your aunt is just as likely to make a fantastic caramel custard as a top dessert chef. Sure, the chef will try his best to elevate the dish by adding real vanilla instead of essence or even nutmeg to give it a finer taste, but even without those, the dish is still mouth-wateringly delicious.
In Anglo-Indian, Mangalorean, Goan, Malayali and Parsi homes across the country, it’s still considered a staple dessert dish to be rolled out at the end of the meal for dinner guests to coo over when the rich caramel sauce is poured over each wobbly little mound before serving. The Parsis took it one step further and put it on the menu in every single one of their excellent Irani cafes and there’s been no looking back since.
If Xerxes Can Do It, So Can You
We weren’t joking when we said that anyone could make this dish. Here’s a really simple recipe from one of India’s most accomplished chefs, Kunal Kapur.
500 ml milk
80 gms sugar
100 gms sugar for caramel
3 ml vanilla extract
1. Warm up milk and add sugar and vanilla extract. Take off the fire. Separately break eggs and beat them. While the milk is still warm, add the eggs and gently whisk together.
2. For the caramel, place the sugar in a thick pan and cook till it turns golden brown. Immediately pour a tablespoon of caramel in each of the custard moulds. Pour the custard into the mould.
3. Take a deep baking tray and fill with water. Place the custard moulds in this water bath. The water should be covering at least 1/3 rd of the mould. Place in a preheated oven at 150 degrees celsius and bake it for 15-17mins. Remove and refrigerate the moulds for at least two hours. Remove from the moulds and serve chilled.
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