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Pineapple Pastry: The Game Changer

Tucked away in the corner of the fresh cream pastry section today, this classic may not eke the cult-like enthusiasm like back in the day, but that does little to dent the path breaking innovation it brought to the world of desserts. 

By Madhulika Dash 

 

Pineapple Pastry. Yes, the pastry that gets its distinction from the feather-like placement of a slice or wedge of pineapple on the top. The one that has always been about the fresh cream and vanilla sponge with a hint of tartness coming from the canned pineapple. The one essential in the line of fresh cream and fruit-based pastry. And the one that, despite being the cheapest, does a fair job at indulgences – especially if it is the smooth velvety-ness of the fresh cream and a good quality vanilla sponge you are looking for. 

Yet, to all its plain-ness, the story of pineapple pastry, the toast of much of the late 80s and 90s, is far from vanilla. Hidden within the creamy folds of pineapple tartness is a story that, recalls Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “changed pastries and cakes forever in India. The advent of the pastry in fact started the culture of not only fresh cream cakes and desserts but fruit based ones too. If you today see the strawberry pastry with the mango one, and the delightful fruit cream cake standing shoulder to shoulder on the dessert alley, it is thanks to the pineapple pastry, an innovation that not only put real fruit into the pastry but fine tuned it to such an extent that it led to some of the fascinating dessert creations today. It standardized the way citrusy fruit or those with a tart tang can blend with the cream without breaking the latter down.”

Concurs pastry expert Chef Avijit Ghosh, who considers a mastery in pineapple pastry making “the essential for innovation in the world of dessert making.” It may appear to be, says Chef Ghosh, “a simple play of a sweet-tart fruit with cream but it ain't as simple as mixing fresh cream with fruit. It takes a good understanding of how to work the acidity in the pineapple that would lend itself beautifully to the creaminess of the cream without affecting its light composition. The benchmark of a good pineapple pastry is in fact the correctness of the technique that makes the pastry such a palate delight.” 

Seconds Chef Gaurrav Gidwani, who finds the pastry itself not only a study in making delicious, less on sugar sponges but also that of assembling a treat that has a balanced flavour profile instead of just being saccharine sweetness interludes with creamy heaviness, which, he says, “the buttercream or whipped cream versions that were popular before aced in.”

 

The Idea Was Born

For a country where pastries were all about the stiff buttercream or whipped creams thanks to their better shelf life, with still developing commercial chillers, there was little need for changing to fresh. The whipped or buttercream were not only easy to mold but held their shape for a long time even when in room temperature. This ensured that the pastries looked pretty and tasted good too, thanks to the use of vanilla, sugar and a good amount of heavy whipped cream, an ingredient that post independence was supplied by the likes of RICH and were often non-dairy in nature. Result, these buttercream pastries could be made in bulk, had better shelf life and sold cheap – the three essentials that made any over the counter treat a success. And success, it was, until excess and one brand's need to stand out became the reason the pastry wheel was reinvented. 

The year many, like ace Chef Vikas Seth, believe was somewhere around the time when the white revolution was at its peak, and milk and milk products were available in bulk pan India. And Indians who had perhaps experienced mature cheese and cream as part of the British tables in Clubs and Gymkhanas could now pick it up in the kirana store around them. And bakeries, both new and the famed ones, had started reworking the books to create dessert that now suits the palates of an independent, young India. And commercial chillers were attuned to take in not just cakes, but milk products like sweet curd, curd, paneer, chenna and cream. 


That was only possible around the mid 60s and 70s that saw the coming of two big names in the world of commercial chillers, Kelvinator Western Refrigeration among others. The new technology changed the bakery counters and chillers that till then were made to suit the needs of ice cream. 

While there is little by way of history that is available to ascertain where and how the pineapple pastry made its debut, there seems to be consensus on one brand that made pineapple pastry, a household name: Monginis. And for good reasons. 

The famous cakes brand that first opened its brand in Churchgate Street in Bombay in 1902 and by the end of the colonial rule had earned its stripes as a brand synonymous with quality cakes and desserts with bigger stores mushrooming across the city was positioned well to bring in such an innovation. The Italian owner LU Monginis had the means by way of chefs and ingredients and the finest clientele of  Europeans and elite Indians who would appreciate such innovation. Thus, making the brand likely a candidate for such a creation. After all, with the slew of European owned bakeries mushrooming across the main cities of India, standing out was one of the ways to kill competition and bring business. 

 

From King of Fruit to Canned Commoner

Which brings us to the curious question of why pineapple. By the early 20th century, India fruit basket had come to include fruits that the powers to be were fond of including jackfruit and the once global favourite and pride, pineapple. Such was the craze for the pineapple that once the fruit bore fruit in the colonial land, canning centers were established so that they could be preserved year long. The reason for this was pineapple's long standing reputation in European countries where the fruit was considered a symbol of wealth, prosperity and abundance. 

In fact, carving a pineapple in  the facade of the house was a way to showcase wealth and status in the society for much of the 16th till the 18th century. A pineapple was often part of the formal table and often was kept there till the fruit turned inedible, and was promptly replaced with a fresher one. Part of the reason for such instant supremacy that pineapple had in European society during the time Spain, Italy, France and Britain set about colonising new regions was its sensual reputation. 

From Gonzalo  Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés who wrote pineapple is unprecedented in “beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, excellent flavor,” and that, “of the five corporeal senses, the three which can be applied to fruits and even the fourth, that of touch, it excelling above all fruits” in 1535 to King Ferdinand of Spain who declared “its flavor excels all fruits”to English writer Charles Lamb paying ode to the tropical fruit as “Pleasure bordering on pain, from the fierceness and insanity of her relish, like a lovers’ kisses she biteth”. 


Pineapple in its heydays enjoyed the finest PR work to appeal to the rich and powerful. Such was the charm of the sunshine yellow sweet Caribbean export that a consignment arriving at the European ports would send the Spanish, British and Dutch court into a frenzy to procure it. Soon pineapple became a part of the Great European Gardening Off, an intensive conflict between the English and Dutch on growing the finest exports from the world. A fortune was spent on gardeners who could bring in results for such expensive produce. Incidentally, in the case of pineapple, Dutch proved to be the winner. The first pineapple that was grown in Europe was in the estate of a female botanist named Agneta Block in 1685. 

It would take another century, another Dutchman gardener to perfect the tanner's bark that was crucial for pineapple cultivation. Made of coarsely grounded oak bark, the bark provided enough heat for the fruit to ripe well. 1714, Dutch gardener Henry Telende grew the first pineapple in Britain in the estate of Sir Matthew Decker. That led to a whirlwind of pineries across Britain, and the British first tasted the sweet tropical fruit in all its glory and got addicted. 

The sheer labour that went into pineapple growing helped the tropical fruit keep its crown for a long time thanks to refrigeration and faster shipment. That was until the British came to India and decided to bring the royal fruit to India. 

 

The Charm of Plenty in a Colony

While it is believed that it was the Portuguese who brought pineapple to India around 1558, but if agro-historians and anthropologists are to be believed than the fruit had already been popular since the Maurya period thanks to our trade relationship with the mongolians and countries on the silk and spice route. A proof of this lies in the fact that the pineapple sculptures inked in many old monuments are said to be built during the Gupta era or before. The other reason for believing is the bountiful cultivation of pineapple in most parts of Assam and regions around. 

Whether the British were faced with the plentifulness of this once rare, hard to grow fruit or the general attitude of colonial powers to shaming down the produce and culture of colonies, pineapple soon found itself being pushed down as a “lowly fruit.” This typical colonial habit did little to undermine the importance of canned pineapple which was part of not just the military ration and regimental breakfast, but a food of sustenance during the wars. 

Despite the change in pineapple's appeal to the colonial powers, by the time India became independent, canned pineapple had become a kitchen staple – found in every household pantry and used for custard and cakes, especially the upside down pineapple cake. For bakeries, it was the next option to cherries for decoration. 

 

The Change of  Frosting 

Was it the excess or the familiarity that made a pastry chef work the pineapple with cream to create the first pastry is still a puzzle, but going by how most fresh cream cakes came to life, says Chef Dhruv Oberoi, “that seems to be a fair assumption. Pineapple, even when canned, has this interesting play of sweet sourness that can play an interesting contrast to any pastry. After all, that is how key lime pie, the famous American dessert too, came into being.”

Working with pineapple, continues Chef Oberoi, “however was a different game. There was no rind that could be added for infusion. One had to work with fruit, whose tartness would de establish the cream.”
Fascinatingly, in the case of canned pineapples where the sugar gets rid of some of the acidity that was not the case and chunks of pineapple could be folded into the whipped fresh cream without breaking it. 

The beauty, says Chef Seth, “wasn't just the realisation that cooking away the acidity could be a great way to pair the fruit with cream for a memorable palate play. The innovation allowed the use of the syrup too, which made the sponge sweet and soft. Thus reworking the canvas of pastry making where the flavour profile of the pastry could be changed, tweaked and elevated to bring in a  more luxurious mouthfeel.”

 

The only non-negotiable aspect was that the pastry had to be assembled in a cold room and then the temperature had to be maintained in a way that the cream didn't melt. Thus, says Chef Gorai, “the need for the right proportion and technique was of paramount importance, even more than the chiller it would often be stored in.”

This, adds Chef Ghosh, “was also required because of fresh cream, the delicate nature as it tends to pick flavours very easily. And in the case of pineapple pastry, unlike chocolate, there is no way to hide. One small mistake and the flavour profile, mouthfeel and even appearance may go wrong.”

This perhaps explains why, says Chef Gidwani, “why the pastry is considered a classic with the basic making never experimented with by not just Monginis who sold the pastry as one of the signature offering but almost all bakeries around the 80s and 90s where the pineapple fresh cream cake was touted as their best offering – and the pastry, a litmus test of the baking hand.”

What, curiously, helped us Indians work this intricate marriage better was, says Chef Gorai, “our age old usage of makhan and blending fruit. Add to that the baking techniques that came to India were fully developed. So we began baking and curating at par with the world. And for those who had trouble with the cream, there was always RICH non-dairy cream for support.”

 

Becoming the Best and Beloved

The advent of RICH made the outreach of the pineapple pastry a rage of its time as even the tiniest of bakeries could whip up a batch that tasted good, if not the best and came with the quintessential pineapple wedge on the head. Such was the lure of the first fresh cream pastry and cake that it even made its appearance in films and the popular TV series Zaban Sambhal Ke where the birthday of Mohan Bharti was celebrated with not one but seven different pineapple cakes. 

The popularity of pineapple pastry and eventually cake finally led to the creation of another equally popular version, the strawberry cake. But unlike the classic, the new add-on over the years were replaced with colour rather than the needed pieces thus continuing the reign of pineapple pastry till another became the hallmark of delicious, fresh, good pastry – the black forest pastry, which had both chocolate shaving and a cherry on the top with ample fresh cream to paint a moustache. 

With the march of time, like every ruler, pineapple too has left its throne to fresher innovation, the charm of the white lad with a golden feather has far from diminished. One would still find the pastry in every bakery worth its whip, and is an easy choice when others leave you confused. Call it nostalgia, the sheer joy of simplicity or the ace of an innovator, the thing about pineapple pastry, says Chef  Sandeep Sadanandan, “is when it is made right it can win hearts, palates and souls. One of the reasons that this classic would always be around even making a gourmet comeback once a while.”

Like in case of Chef Gorai, it was a round pastry instead of the wedge with pineapple plastic chutney as its crowning jewel; while in case of Chef Seth, it is a play of caramalised bits in the sandwich cream with a dehydrated slice as the feather; and with Chef Oberoi, it is a double take: the first, a pineapple pastry – macaron where the shell is filled with vanilla pastry cream centered with fresh pineapple jam; and Nostalgia in a glass – daiquiri in which pineapple cake washed bourbon shaken up with lime, topped with pineapple tepache; and in Chef Sadanandan's version, one that has a spiced, star anise and clove infused pineapple jam filling with air dried pineapple slices on the top.