The Charms of a Malai Toast

By Madhulika Dash
There is something absolutely mesmerising about the heady sweet aroma of a toasting bread and then watching a blob of butter slowly melting into the honeycombs of the toast. It is Food Porn at the best to say the least.

That added to the outrageously delicious taste of a Malai Toast – buttered toast to the world – may be the single most factor that defines why this 18 th century innovation can make even an adult go weak in the pants. C’mon, it is the pillow-like sweet fresh cream on a warm toast we are talking about. In fact, for the 90s butterhead crazies, it was the only treat that could brighten up any moment. Malai Toast, which many believe breath first in the bylanes of the Chai gully in Colonial Calcutta (now Kolkata), is to every Indian what snow peaked merengue toast is to an Italian. (Yup, it was the toast that led to the creation of Tiramisu).

But where, when and how did the timeless love affair begin? While breads as we know them today were introduced by the Portuguese along with our other favourite potatoes; it wasn’t till the British rule that Indians learnt the art of enjoying sliced bread (twice thicker than the slice versions of today) slathered with butter – in our case cream. In fact, it was designed by the local vendors who took shop around office complexes to make the tea time equally fun for the working Indians. It was in erstwhile Calcutta that the art of one turn bread twice toasted and slathered with sweetened cream became popular. For Mumbai, of course the bun maska, which began as clotted cream before moving on to white butter and then Amul, started the whole affair of the buttered toast.

But the edible model everyone is familiar with – that of a medium-browned toast slathered with the pillowy sweet goodness of fresh malai – began with the forces. In fact, legend has it that Caesar would often celebrate his victory with this exclusive treat to his forces, and would often call it the “sweet slice of victory.” In 17 th century France, bakers who made bread for such buttered-up toast were declared to as powerful as the nobles, second only to the church.

Fascinatingly though, toast that got its name from the Latin word “tostum” began its journey as burnt stale bread in 3000 BC in the Roman and Egyptian empire. Bread which was back then given as wages often tend to dry out soon, and charring it gave them more shelf life and taste. Who invented the art of buttering toast? While the wedding was in place by the time of Cleopatra who enjoyed hers with honey, grapes and a sliver of goat cheese; foodlore gives the credit of using whipped cream Renaissance-era mathematician and astronome, Nicolaus Copernicus, who began the trend of using white clotted cream as a solution to contract plague believed to be originating from toasted bread.

In India of course, it was more of a class thing that led to the rise of Malai and Toast. It was considered too greasy for the unsalted butter loving British. But for the native Indians, it made the bread – double roti – more palatable. In fact, the Nizam household was known for their love for a bread slathered with balai (whipped cream). Such was the love for Malai Toast that it made it the Army Handbook of Breakfast must – and a bowl of whipped malai would often be on the table as a rule. For homemakers of the 70s to 80s, it was an easy treat that kept that evening ‘choti bhook’ at bay. Such was the popularity that there were many versions of this simple three ingredient treat – with honey, marmalade, chunda, grapes and even chocolate. And the reason for this, says Chef Dhiraj Dargan (Executive Chef, Comorin), “is the versatility. The toast allowed the liberty to be more creative.”

But, adds the Malai-Toast addict, “nothing upped the simple charms of a well done malai toast. And by well done I do not mean just the act of toasting the bread and slathering it with whipped malai but doing it right.” Chef Dargan, who has revived the old favourite as a breakfast special in Comorin insist that the mark of a good Malai Toast is where the Malai takes about a minute to melt down and disappear into the honeycombs of a good toast. That, he adds, “is what creates the perfect harmony of a malai toast.”

For his Malai Toast – that goes by Cheeni Malai Toast – Chef Dargan uses a fresh brioche instead of a slice bread. The reason, says the chef, “is that slightly buttery texture and pastry-like character, which makes it a better choice to a slice bread. Once toasted, the bread is allowed to warm down to enable two things: the yeast and sugar to mingle and cooling down, adds Chef Dargan. “ensure the cream wouldn’t melt down.” To get the right texture, he uses the fresh cream of an overnight cooled down cows’ milk (buffalo milk cream makes it too dense), lightly folds it with fine sugar to have a smooth mixture and the uses the back of the spoon to give it a height with the hardened side facing upwards. This, he adds, “will ensure the cream doesn’t melt all together.”

To finish, he adds a few chunks of a honey comb made of caramalised sugar and baking powder for the added crunch. “Using regular sugar actually makes the cream weight down, best is to keep it divided this way.” Another trick to keep the malai from melting down instantly is to add a layer of honey or clean jam. This would give it the sweetness and allow the malai on the toast to hold on for a few more minutes – enough, says Chef Dargan “to take a picture and gobble it all up.”