On Monish Gujral’s Dessert Trail
The author and Moti Mahal custodian traces the history and recipes of desserts across the world.
Photo Courtesy: Monish Gujral
Richard Nixon, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi have dined at this restaurant that’s now as old as India.
In 1947, Moti Mahal launched with one humble restaurant in Delhi’s Daryaganj. Today it’s a global food chain with outlets across 55 Indian cities. Internationally, it has expanded up to Oman and New Zealand. Ensuring the 165 franchises fulfill the standards set by his grandfather Kundan Lal Gujral—the man who introduced India to tandoori chicken—naturally keeps Monish Gujral on his toes. Between expanding the brand, hosting food shows, writing culinary columns and experimenting in his Delhi kitchen, the third-generation restaurateur has, however, managed to write four cookbooks.
Three of them document the well-travelled chef’s tales about trailing some dish in some part of the world. The first one was a kebab trail. In the second, he scouted for the best of butter chicken. After chasing an appetiser and a main course, it is then unsurprising that the third instalment in the series features desserts.
On the Dessert Trail is a collection of over 80 recipes of local desserts from across the world, punctuated with stories of how or when Gujral first encountered them. Cakes, puddings, tarts, barfis, and all things sweets have found their way in the pages of the book. There are recipes too. “All recipes have been locally sourced from either countries of origin or from eateries or places where I first tried them,” says Gujral, 51, in an email interview. “After trying to recreate some of these desserts in my kitchen, I have tweaked a few recipes… adding my touch.”
Dessert lovers, foodies and bakers will need to get a copy for their fill on the 80-plus desserts. Until then, enjoy the stories behind these five desserts, along with their recipes. We have thrown in some trivia too.
1) Gers Ogaily, Kuwait
This moist, scented sponge-cake is a teatime staple in Kuwait. The crunchiness of toasted sesame seeds and the flavour of cardamom go well with the extra sweet, milky tea Kuwaitis love. The addition of saffron makes the yellow colour of the sponge very distinct. To add a bit of extra flavour, one can even top the cake with whipped cream and pomegranate. Gujral first tasted it in Kuwait, along with other desserts such as zalabia, fried dough balls soaked in a sugary lemon syrup with some saffron strands, and ghuaiba, cardamom-flavoured cookies.
Recipe (serves 6-8)
Preheat oven to 180⁰C. Sift 1 cup flour into a bowl. Sprinkle ½ tbsp sesame seeds into a lightly greased ring mould. Put 3 egg whites in another bowl, whisk, and then add yolks. Add ½ cup caster sugar. Continue to whisk. Mix 1 tsp powdered green cardamom seeds, 1 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp saffron strands. Fold in the flour. Add 1 cup oil and ½ cup milk. Whisk to form a smooth batter. Spoon the batter into ring mould. Sprinkle ½ tbsp sesame seeds on top. Bake for 30–35 minutes. Turn out on to a wire rack to cool. Dig in.
2) Quetschentaart, Luxembourg
An autumn treat, Quetschentaart can be found in bakeries across Luxembourg during the damson plum season. An open fruit tart, this one is special because of the plums used. Damson plums, or zwetschgen, are oval-shaped and deep purple in colour, and were a surprising find for Gujral, who, like the rest of us, assumed plums were only maroon and round! Despite being a tiny country, Luxembourg has a cuisine that is almost wholly theirs, German and French influences notwithstanding. The original quetschentaart recipe comes from a mid-20th century cookbook written by Ketty Thull, who is referred to as the ‘grand dame of Luxembourgish cuisine’. Since the original recipe was so good, not much of it has been altered through the generations.
Recipe (Serves 6-8)
Sift 250 gm of all-purpose flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Put 125 gm butter and 45 gm sugar in another bowl and whisk, till mousse-like. Add 1 egg and whisk again. Now add the flour and knead. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate for 30–40 minutes. Preheat oven to 200⁰C. Roll out the dough and spread it in a lightly buttered 9-inch tart pan. Cut 4-5 plums into half and remove the seeds. Slice them into 6 wedges. Arrange the plum slices like rose petals on the tart base. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven, and plate it. Let it cool. Dust with 2 tbsp icing sugar. Serve with whipped cream or light vanilla custard.
3) Umm Ali, Egypt
The origin of Umm Ali is rooted in many legends. One of the more unsavoury ones goes back to the 13th-century Ayyubid Dynasty. It is said that the second wife of King Ezz El-Din Aybek murdered his first wife, Umm Ali, and then distributed this rich dessert, with a gold coin inside, across Egypt. Some, however, claim otherwise. It’s said that the second wife was tyrannical and tried to usurp the kingdom, so it was in fact Umm Ali who plotted to get her killed. Umm Ali then distributed this dessert, with a gold coin inside, of course. Who killed whom remains a mystery, but the dessert is still called Umm Ali, after the first wife. Heavy on milk and cream, it is a crispy, caramelised and gooey version of the traditional bread pudding, and is easy to make.
Recipe (Serves 6)
Preheat oven to 250⁰C. Unwrap 400 gm of frozen puff pastry, lay it in a baking tray and bake for 10 minutes till the pastry sheets are golden brown. Remove them from the oven and leave the oven on. Alternatively, toast 400 gm of white bread. Put 2 ½ cups water, 1 can of condensed milk and 1 tsp vanilla essence in a pan over moderate heat. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add ½ cup chopped pistachio nuts, ½ cup seedless raisins and 1 tsp powdered cinnamon. Line a glass ovenproof dish with the pastry sheets or toasted bread. Pour the milk mixture over it. Top with ½ cup heavy cream. Bake for 15–20 minutes. Serve hot.
4) Beijinho de Coco (Brazilian Choco Balls), Brazil
Beijinhos are coconut-chocolate balls reminiscent of soft fudge, and are just as addictive. While there are various methods to make them—the recipes in fact vary across Brazil, some add more chocolate and some even add liquor—the one below is what Gujral tried in Rio de Janeiro. The chocolate versions are called brigadeiros and are named after Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, a revolutionary politician who ran for president and lost twice. In fact, the Manaus airport in Brazil is named after him. This dessert is a popular treat at children’s birthday parties. When in Brazil, do gorge on these.
Recipe (Serves 6-8)
Put 1 can of condensed milk, 1 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp of coconut powder in a heavy-based pan. Place the pan over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring continuously, till the milk reduces and becomes doughy. Let it cool. Roll the dough into small balls and set aside. Mix ¼ cup chocolate powder and 4 tbsp coconut powder and spread it on a flat plate. Roll the milk balls on the plate to coat completely. Refrigerate. Serve chilled.
5) Esh Asarya, Dubai
Think decadent cheesecake with Middle-Eastern flavours, rose water and pistachios being the most prominent. Esh Asarya is also known as ‘bread of the harem’ or ‘royal bread’. With a combination of sugar syrup and heavy cream, it has a fine, almost melt-in-the-mouth consistency, with nuts adding a bit of crunch. Because of it bread base, it may remind one of Umm Ali, but the texture and style of cooking lend the two desserts their vastly distinctive tastes.
Recipe (Serves 6-7)
Preheat oven to 200⁰C. Cut off the crusts from 7 bread slices and crumble them into a baking tray. Roast the crumbs in the oven for 10 minutes, till light golden. Heat 1 cup sugar and ½ cup water in a pan. Bring it to a boil, till the syrup turns sticky. Add a few drops of rose essence and stir. Reduce heat and toss in the roasted breadcrumbs. Cook till the sugar starts to caramelise and the bread turns light brown. Transfer the contents of the pan into a serving dish and press down to form a smooth layer. Whisk 1 ½ cup heavy cream with 3 tbsp sugar. Spread it evenly over the breadcrumbs. Decorate with crushed pistachio nuts and 1 tbsp seedless raisins. Serve warm.