Some Like It Hot

Whatever happened to puddings?

Nobody seems to make them at home anymore. You remember the old staples of course. Chunky comforting bread and butter pudding, made every time there was an avalanche of bread in the refrigerator. Obstinately unfashionable cheesecake from the days before people even knew what ricotta was, smothered in lashings of condensed milk on an unsteady base of crumbly Krackjack biscuits. And that never-fail chocolate biscuit pudding, a tower of Marie biscuits softened in milk, all layered with a gooey cream of decadently over-sweetened chocolate.

Now, desserts seem to be all about the swank-factor. If it’s not ridiculously difficult to make, involving hours of back breaking labour in the kitchen, it better have exotic ingredients. And exotic in the times of New York-today-Tokyo-tomorrow world is not an easy requirement to fill. At the very least it requires something along the lines of semi-naked tribal people gathering under the moonlight and singing to the mountains as they process/ pluck/grow the ingredients. (Also difficult in this day and age. You’ll need to confiscate their BlackBerries for one. And I don’t mean the ones you use to stuff an old-fashioned piecrust.) So how do you keep up with the Joneses in such competitive times?

Return to the good old days, of course. When puddings were made with whatever was in your larder. When cakes were expected to be more tasty than pretty. And portions didn’t come accompanied by calorie counts and hysterical health warnings. The main difference really seems to be the fuss involved.

Suddenly baking is seen as an occupation for just chefs. People who can easily whip up an elaborate meal for an entire family go into a tizzy at the prospect of making dessert. So it’s either outsourced to a caterer or bought from a bakery/restaurant/hotel. The thing is, a pudding is actually far easier than making a chicken curry, or biriyani or payasam. Anything you make at home is likely to taste better than what you buy, even if it’s just thanks to the superior ingredients you’re likely to use. Besides, you don’t have to worry about desserts necessarily being elaborate, hip or wickedly lavish. That’s a current trend that’s likely to die a natural death. Just like tightly permed hair, hot pink tights and those hideously uncomfortable, vertigo-enhancing platform heels.

I went to a boarding school in Ooty where pudding was the natural ending to every supper, and they managed to dish out a different pudding every day of the week for hundreds of hungry students. Admittedly not all were great. There was the ghastly Grape Mould, which arrived warm and frighteningly purple. The exasperatingly healthy Blancmange, made from all the extra milk delivered. And a dry sponge cake, dribbled with thick jaggery. But their trifle pudding, a delicious jumble of cake, jelly, fruits and custard was clearly the hot favourite. Ironically, it was also probably the easiest to make.

That’s really the best thing about puddings. Often, the most memorable ones require very little work, and yet look astonishingly impressive when they’re done. Think of a fruit filled melon. Or a chocolate fondue. Or even bits of cheese and pineapple chunks stuck into a big, unpeeled pineapple. Homemade puddings don’t even need to be exceptionally pretty, because everyone loves culinary nostalgia. Besides, your biggest fans are likely to be children. And it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a child that draws himself up snottily and demands chilli-tinged chocolate mousse, specifically from Ghana, when he’s handed a still-warm pastry shell, laden with tangy, golden, sweet lemon curd.


Shake, Rattle And Roll

Vodka in a bucket. It used to be the quintessential college hostel drink in India. One ugly (more often than not) plastic bucket. Chipped coffee mugs. Ice. This is where it gets startlingly creative. Juice. Water. Cheap Rum. Syrupy wine. Dodgy vodka. Anything goes. It tastes of nothing — and everything at the same time. And it kicks like a mule with a black belt.

Of course, now the bucket’s probably listed in history right besides Jello shots. Once a staple at boisterous American-style parties, these semi-solid shots, made with jelly and vodka, were as much of a fixture as mini skirts, bad behaviour and semi-soggy potato crisps. Now it looks like this is the age of the evolved cocktail. It’s grown up, it’s multi-ethnic. It’s edgy.

The world is now discovering that cocktails have the unique ability to simultaneously express local culture, even as they remain powerful symbols of pop culture. Add to all these factors the easy availability of both exotic ingredients and know-how (in the form of the Internet, talented bar tenders and footloose mixologists), and perhaps it’s inevitable that a large section of people prefer to experiment with cocktails instead of merely adhering to the monotony of a single signature drink.

The popularity of mixologists is certainly a big factor in this new wave of cocktails, which are vibrant, sophisticated and twanging with fresh flavours. Yes, the term sounds almost unbearably pretentious. After all, bartending today does involve a lot more than listening to my-girlfriend-dumped-me-for-a-Prada-handbag stories these days. Thought it must be pointed out here that discreet sympathy has always been a duty of the bartender, judging by this extract taken from the archives of the Museum of the American Cocktail. According to Herbert Green, in an 1895 article titled Mixed Drinks, a “sensible clerk will not appear to listen to what (the customer) is saying, and if he hears anything in spite of himself it should find an eternal grave in his heart — never to be resurrected even (for) money.”

Today’s mixologists are bar scientists, really, constantly innovating, refining traditional techniques and experimenting with modern technology and ingredients. They’re expected to be cocktail historians, capable of concocting American Eggnogs, fragrant Nordic Glogg or Classic Sidecars. And they’re expected to be wildly inventive.

Take Aisha Sharpe, who even grows her own Blue Agave, a base ingredient of Tequila. She’s founded a New York-based company called Contemporary Cocktails, which believes “that a bartender should put the same effort into their cocktails that a chef puts into his or her cuisine.” Her Thai-gave, for instance, unifies the kitchen and the bar with its blend of cilantro roots and galangal with lime juice, agave nectar and Partida Blanco tequila.

It’s a revival in every sense. Cocktail bars are back in vogue. San Francisco, home to cocktails since the late 1800s, even boasts a speakeasy, Bourbon & Branch, reviving the Prohibition of the 1920s, when alcohol was illegal. They operate from a site that was an actual speakeasy from 1921 to 1933. It features five secret exit tunnels for getaways, including a special ‘ladies exit’ which granted safe passage to women tipplers, who could stagger out graciously at a street one entire block away. Today, you still need a password (available on their site) to enter their secret cocktail library bar.

Drama. That seems to be the bottom line. Cocktails have drama that elegant wine, snobbish whiskey and hip Vodka can’t ever really hope to achieve. Besides, who can resist a drink with such a colourful reputation? Beginning right from its first mention in a New York newspaper in 1806, when Thomas Jefferson was president. The editor’s note states “It is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also; to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.” Which makes you wonder, really, about what his opinion would have been on tequila shots.


June 2009