Pooja Dhingra: Baby, it’s hot outside
Mumbai’s temperatures are pushing 40 degrees Celsius, and it’s not even May yet. We’re melting, and if you ask Pooja Dhingra, pastry chef and owner of Le15 Patisserie and Le15 Cafe, so are our desserts.
What does it take to make and maintain treats made with butter, cream and cocoa when the city is an oven? And how do we end our meals through these days—with something sweet, of course—and still feel lively after? What’s the ideal summer sweet?
In February, a month before the heat arrived, Dhingra’s latest book reached book stores. The Wholesome Kitchen (Hachette India) is packed with sweet (and some savoury) recipes made healthier, treats that will leave us feeling good. Naturally, Dhingra has some of the answers we’re seeking. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are the challenges you face every summer in dealing with delicate ingredients and techniques in a pastry kitchen?
Summer is disastrous for us. We use a lot of butter and chocolate at Le15. Chocolate, at 30 degrees Celsius, melts. Every summer we have to tweak recipes to make them more stable. I’d rather make ganache with more cream and chocolate, and less butter. The additional fat from the butter may melt and split the ganache, which will then look curdled. If I omit butter, yes, the ganache will be less shiny, but it will stay longer and retain its shape. In our cream cakes—the mango cream is most popular right now—the ratio of cream to sponge will change. We’ll also put more fruit, less cream, and we’ll tie the cake up in a plastic sleeve, so that the layers of cream don’t leak out. With macaroons, I have to add a bit more cream of tartar so that the meringue shell is stable despite the humidity. If I roll tart shell dough at room temperature, its butter will be liquid. So we have several dehumidifiers and air conditioners in the kitchen.
We start with really cold ingredients, we work in a very cold room, and we make sure that when it’s delivered to the customer, it follows the same chain, in a refrigerated van. When customers pick up pastry from us, we recommend that they don’t travel with it for very long. You’ll get a beautiful cupcake, but by the time you reach home, the frosting will be completely destroyed.
In general, I can’t use any of the recipes I’d learnt at Le Cordon Bleu here, and not only because of the quality of ingredients. In Paris, our kitchen would be minus 6 degrees in winter. We would wear chef’s coats and sweaters to work. Even so, when we made truffles, we would dip our hands into ice buckets before handling chocolate. It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t get into chocolates here.
Do customer preferences for dessert or pastry change in summer?
In summer, people want lighter options, like mango cream cake, and red velvet with cream cheese icing.... Right now, even if people want a chocolate cake, they’ll want a lighter mousse, or one with fruit in it.
We tend to eat less, in general, in summer, so at Le15 we tweak dessert to make it feel like it’s lighter. Our mango cakes are popular in this weather not only because we obviously associate summer with mangoes, but also because the Génoise sponge we use for it is so light (as opposed to the denser Victoria sponge used in winter). This year we’re bringing back Japanese flavours from last year’s spring-summer menu—cherry blossom, green tea, yuzu—lighter, citrusy flavours that go down easier.
Keeping these kitchen challenges and customer preferences in mind, what’s your perfect summer dessert?
A pavlova. I’d substitute the cream with ice cream. I’d layer fresh mangoes and kiwis, with some candied almonds and mint on top for added texture. This pavlova would feel like summer—it’s got tartness and acid, it’s got crunch from the meringue and almonds, and it’s got cooling ice cream.
What I also associate with summer are ice-cream popsicles—the mango and raspberry ones we grew up with. There is a popsicle recipe in my book as well. It’s easy to make, and it can sit in your freezer, ready for you whenever you want it. Also, sorbets are everything you want in hot and humid weather—they’re light, they’re cold, they have an icy texture, they’re citrusy.
Of the four sections in the book—Energise, Refresh, Indulge and Nourish—Refresh is great for summer. The whole book is all about making treats that are both healthy and delicious, but in Refresh especially, we have worked on recipes that are really light. There are a bunch of juices to hydrate us through summer, to replenish us at a time when dehydration is a big concern. From the section, the chocolate yogurt pie is my favourite because I still get my chocolate fix, but I try to lighten it up with yogurt. Another one that I like is the chia seed pudding, which is a take on falooda, but I use coconut milk instead.