Decisively British, far as us Indians at least, few Colonial Desserts have attained the kind of balmy reception as this simple pudding of custard and caramel sauce.

By Madhulika Dash; Images: Zest

Ah Caramel Custard. Or as Wooster would call it, “that feather light of a dessert that tiptoes little ripples of happiness through sheer deliciousness.” One really doesn’t have to be in Mumbai or know a Parsee – the community that elevated the dish by creating the scrumptious Lagan Nu Custard – to know of or to fall in love with this regimental mess staple that is in parts is an ode to the British (and ancient Roman and Aztecs) love for a good custard puddings and that of sugar, the ingredient that changed the way desserts were made across the world, both in the medieval world where the white sugar was worth its weight in caviar, and in modern times too.

For most Indians, the caramel custard is as embedded in our culinary tradition today as perhaps is the French toast or bread pudding. Between the two custard versions we know today, the caramel thanks to its attractive caramel crowned appearance – it almost looks like a dessert dressed for the ball, says Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Zest) – is valued not only for its bitter-sweet taste and the balmy sense of satiation that settles it soon after but also because of its ancestry. It is the heritage too, adds Chef Seth, who had his first caramel custard in a club followed by the time in catering college, where making and mastering this simple and curiously dicey dessert was part of becoming a better chef. Concurs Chef Pradeep Tejwani (Chefpreneur, Young Turks) who finds the connect with a dessert to do more with the taste than the history. “When it comes to custard, this older brother – it was the first iteration to arrive in India courtesy British and their Dak Bungalows - wins on its sublimity which gives it that aura of being a lighter more sophisticated dessert than the yellow custard and jelly version that appears and taste both rich and heavy. Then of course there is the fact that the dessert is steamed, which has helped caramel custard become a part of an often indulgence like the kheer.”

And this, incidentally, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “when it isn’t not. Caramel custard is as calorie dense as any other dessert thanks to the use of eggs, milk and sugar. Yes, today’s version of the caramel custard does have more processed sugar than the earlier ones, where the sugar was used to just create the caramel crown. However, where the custard scores is in its dual fat composition and the fact that it is steamed. This allows the nutritive value of the fat and calcium to remain in the custard which is easily digested too. It is thanks to the amount of fat in the custard that is interpreted by the tongue as taste and that aids in quick digestion. The other advantage of the fat here is the instant calmness that the dessert provides in terms of calming a craving metabolism, a reaction that we interpret as indulgence. Fat is the main source of energy for the brain and its presence ensures a zen like calmness as it helps rejuvenate and destress the brain. A response that we often correlate as happiness – and is stowed away as nostalgia in the brain.”

This, she adds, “is the reason we often reach out for caramel custard because of the sheer engagement it gives to our senses, minus the guilt that is often associated with too rich por heavy sweets and desserts.”

While that explains why caramel custard has had such a long, fruitful run not just in India but across the world – the Japanese credit their custard desserts to the Portuguese who  introduced them to the art of custard making, especially caramel custard; and America to Spain that got them a lighter version of the Mexican flan to work with and Europe to the French cooks who not only brought in milk into the traditional practice of custard making that used cream and eggs initially, but also added caramel – a Moorish cooks innovation where they lined their baking dish with caramelised sugar – to give the otherwise simple custard, its refined , sophisticated look and mouthfeel that we today identify as caramel custard.

So how did Caramel Custard originate? While there are plentiful theories of how the Romans were the first to create something that looks like the first brethren of custard, says Chef Seth, “that was elevated once the Arabs took sugar from India (and South East Asia) to rest of the world for the table of the rich. Then there is the Aztec version too that may have inspired the creation of the caramel custard. However, both the versions are today proven to be the earlier iteration of the flan and the Crème Brûlée but given the ancestry they may have inspired the presentation and the making of it in a ramekin bowl. Then there are the traditional desserts in Asia that too could have been the muse behind the custard, especially the way Kharvas is being made or topli paneer. However, what most culinary anthropologist and chefs agree on is the British side. Given that the average household had a pen for hens and cows, the culture of custard making seems like an obvious presence here. There is a common consensus that the art of custard making – whether it was the only egg kind or egg, milk and cream ones may have found its fertile home in a medieval British home and then moved on to the royal kitchens where thanks to the French chefs even the most rustic dishes took on a gourmet avatar.

“The original charlotte, a fruit pudding with a lady finger shell (created in a mould), is said to have been named for Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III of England (Mad King George, 1738-1820) is one such example.”

What however is not up for any form of presumption, continues Chef Seth, “is how the custard making technique reached India. There is a good likelihood that the Dak Bungalows kitchens were the first place where custard were made in India and slowly as the British grew in power, the know how shifted from the humble hearth to the more organised regimental kitchen of the cantonment.

In all likelihood, adds Chef Tejwani, “it was sometime between the garrison life and the army cantonment establishment that the caramel custard was revived, given that sugar that was once a privy of the Lord, Dukes and the King was now much affordable to the officers only. Early handmaid journals and housewife books would often pen down how to make the custard pudding, which was initially cooked in a double broiler before English style brick ovens and bakeries came forth (especially in the Jail) to make huge batches of the dessert that needed few, readily available ingredients to make it.”

The difference was that while custards was often a meal staple offered as a dessert especially after the dinner, the caramel custard, say the experts, “was for special occasion purely because of the use of white sugar that till World War 2 remained a privileged commodity.”

Incidentally, while burnt sugar was still a part of the caramel custard that arrived at the sparsely populated British guesthouses, we call the Dak Bungalows today, the making differed. Back then, thanks to paucity of resources in a Dak Bungalows, the caramel custard was made sparingly since the sugar was carried by the housewives visiting their husband – and was used in the quantity of perhaps salt in food. So while the custard was made in these small bowls that were placed in a vat of boiled water and steamed, the use of sugar was done often the way it was done in Tudor pudding: dusted on the top and then lighted with an iron ladle that literally burnt the sugar turning bitter. To balance it, molasses or corn syrup was added to it depending on the availability.”

The evolution of caramel custard began mostly during the Elizabethan era, given that the Queen was fond of sweets, sugary sweets specifically. However, it was the Tudors and Queen Victoria who would be credited for bringing in sugar into their desserts especially custard that was reshaped by French chefs who redesigned the way British food was served thanks to Catherine De Medicci.

The role of French chefs in fact, adds Chef Seth, “in shaping British cuisine has been immense. In fact, they were as much in demand by the British as a good khansamas and later on an experienced Anglo India cook was for the Indian royalty. There is a good possibility that the caramel custard one sees today, which is this upside down custard pudding could be the work of a French chef that was then standardised by the likes of William Harold.”

Whatever be the case, by the time British became the undisputable power in India, caramel custard had become not just the crown jewel of puddings but a staple at every formal meal – and tea engagements. Armed with ceramic ramekin bowls, the custard could finally be served in  a bone China dish – and the sugar work had gone more caramel instead of burn.  This is the version that also made it to the books and was the standard procedure followed by all regimental cooks. The recipe that had this slight eggy taste to it was finally tweaked by Alfred Bird who introduced an egg free version.

Interestingly, by this time, there were plenty of versions of how to make caramel custard, with two communities mastering the art: the Parsee and the Anglo Indian, thanks to the proximity to the British. It was, however, the fall of white sugar prices that brought this Club-only dish to the many restaurants and made it a popular dessert, says Chef Seth, who finds the inclusion of milk into the otherwise egg dessert one of the French masterstrokes. The addition, he says, “gives the dessert its lightness and the fat from the milk that layers of subtle sweetness and can be that line between a good caramel custard to the really memorable one.”

What benchmarks a good caramel custard? While both Chef Seth and Chef Tejwani concur that there is no simple formulae to the same – it is a simple case of caramel and basic custard steamed into a flan like consistency – the few things that matter in the result is not just the way the sugar is caramelised – dry caramel making is more apt – but also the fat in the milk used – for Chef Seth it is any milk with 2-3% of fat - and of course the time of steaming that takes a soft, velvety custard to a chewing mess.”