From school canteens to hostel mess and the bakery just around the corner, this little sweet treat was perhaps the most gourmet of dessert of our childhood – and now.
By Madhulika Dash; Pictures and recipe courtesy Chef Avijit Ghosh
Ah, Cream Rolls! That flaky cone with a delicious, cloud-like sweet butter cream filling that made everything look infinitely better. If you are a kid from the 40s down, you would know about this little treat that filled a day with goodness – and made any occasion, celebratory. Such is the fascination with this conical treat that even today we can recognise it from afar – and instantly be reminded of the delicious taste. In fact, if there was one treat that completely monopolised the jingle ‘no one can eat just one’- it was the Cream Rolls, our papa’s day ‘gourmet’ treat that was extremely affordable for us too.
Concurs seasoned pastry chef Avijit Ghosh, who fondly recalls his first tryst with the roll as a kindergarden kid. “Even though I loved cakes and chocolates like everyone else of my age, I took an instant fascination to it at one of the bakeries closer to school. Slightly warm and extremely easy to bite into, it was one of the fascinating treats that I couldn’t get over with.”
Growing up, cream rolls for Chef Ghosh turned into an experiential. “I would find out different ways to eat the roll – in fact even ask friends how they liked it and tried their way.” What fired the seasoned pastry chef’s adventure that for a generous part of his life, cream roll remained an omnipresent treat that he got in pairs – or more. Fascinatingly, the most expensive cream roll I have had was for rupees five – and still I could afford it in twos!
The one hotelier who shared the award wining chef’s penchant for the treat was of course the famous Jit Paul, who brought Flurys after the original owner decided to sell the 1927 café and move back to their country. By the time the famous industrialist got the brand, not only he but hundreds of café goers had fallen in love with the treat. It was also the time when, adds Chef Ghosh, “cream horns – the first iteration of the treat – had became cream roll, and not just in appearance but in taste as well.”
In fact, adds Chef Ghosh, “unlike the delicate flaky, cigar-like roll that came here which had a generous helping of cream cheese stabled with butter so that the pastry wasn’t soggy, ours was more sturdy and could take any kind of cream including the Bhopali Balai – clotted cream.”
But how did the cream roll originate? As cream horns. In fact, there are many theories as to how the actual cream horns or as Schaumrolle the erstwhile Austrian- Hungary people call it was innovated. While one legend credits the modern dining curator Catherine De Medici – Queen of France – as the maker of the cream puffs, an equally delicate cream pastry, as the whimsical brain behind it. After all, it was the royalty job to demand extraordinary dishes that led to many discoveries. There is another school which believes it was purely a renaissance bakers’ handiwork to create a treat that was both stunning, filling and addictive. Of course there is another where a certain Austrian baker was credited for finding a new way to use all the left over dough.
For Chef Ghosh, it is the latter that fits the bill. Bakers during the renaissance period, he adds, “were much more advance in their knowledge and techniques when it came to the dough – and created a wide variety of pastry including the puff pastry. So it is likely to be the work of one of them.”
Fascinatingly, both the pastry horn and the cone that helped them make it were designed side byside, it was, if historical lore are to be believed, the cream that was needed a lot of work. Much during the renaissance period and after, says Chef Ghosh, “it was clotted cream and cream cheese that pass the muster for a sweet filling or topping. But given that clotted cream, which was easily available and turned the treat affordable tended to turn the pastry soggy. Result, the cream horns were filled right before they were handed over to a smiling happy customer.”
But for royalty that trick didn’t cut the grade – and so began the experiments with butter and cheese began to see what held fort hours after these treats were made. The answer, says the pastry wizard, “came in the form of butter and cream cheese. It was sweet, had that same cloud-like lightness and could add an interesting zing to the horns. More importantly, it could hold fort without turning the horns into mush for hours.”
Folk lore has it that it was one of the many things that Queen Mary Antoinette was very fond of, and even had it as part of her holiday home where she would often have her children fill the horns. But that many believe is a myth, much like Queen Medici lore of inventing the cream horns.
Cream horns travelled to India with the Britishers around the latter part of the revolution – and instantly became a mainstay at most of the Dak Banglows and cantonment. In fact, the first few bakers who travelled with the Memsahibs to the coast of India were chosen especially for three skills – the know how to make breads, cakes (tea cakes to be specific) and of course cream puffs.
Interestingly, the term cream puffs for cream horns was a nickname given off zest as it resembled a cigar – a sweet one at that.
The onus of taking it out of the cantonment and messes was that of the bakers who followed. Essentially, confectioners like Swiss, like Flury, or Italian, like the Bombellis of Bombay and Barnetts of Allahabad who turned it into a fascinating offering.
But the cone like shape, says Chef Ghosh, “was a creation of our indigenous bakers who took the technique and the cone – and decided to use every inch of the latter to create an Indianised version of this Vidheshi treat. And in doing so, even changed the pastry, which was created by lesser confectioners of the time using the dough technique that Mughals expertised on.”
Seriously true, says the chef, “for the first few iterations that came from other bakeries had a thicker coating of the puff pastry, was browner because of butter being basted on it, and was a cone that allowed easy eating.”
This indigenous-ation of the cream horns or cream puffs made it a treat that became easily available – and affordable too. So much so that by the 1940s, one could see smaller hole in the wall bakeries making the treat with ease – and sweetmeatseller selling it by the basket on a thela.
The difference of what made a cream roll good, better, best was the cream filling inside. The litmus test, ends Chef Ghosh, “was one that would not turn the pastry damp even from the inside.” Little surprise that this erstwhile treat is seeing a resurgence among pastry chefs.