The new-wave dessert culture is gearing towards conscious and future-proof production
A box of artisanal bonbons or gourmet pralines would cost you substantially more than a box of store-bought sohan papdi. But in spite of being oh-so-available and infinitely cheaper, the latter loses out on an experiential scale because let’s face it, what would you pick if you had a choice? And desi consumers at the moment have choices they had never been offered before.
“Everyone wants to stand out when they’re bringing a box of desserts to someone’s home. They want to be the first ones to introduce people to something unique, which is a really interesting trend,” says Vedika Tibrewal, a millennial who founded India’s first edible cookie dough label Scoopski. The brand was quick to market its minimal-effort snack as a DIY saviour, an instant dessert and a baking agent. “Indian dessert culture never had the concept of eating the dough as a dessert in itself, it was a western concept and wasn’t innate for us,” Tibrewal says about her label. And yet, the label has found voracious takers.
A curious sort of dessert modernism is on the rise, one that favours the mavericks. The big baking boom of 2020 cleared the path for a new rung of chefs and F&B entrepreneurs and helped them adapt a self-reliant approach to production, without compromising on brand philosophy. “I say this a lot, but even if everyone stopped eating my chocolates, I would still be doing this, so a target demographic was not something I had mapped out in detail when I started my label” says chef Prateek Bakhtiani whose label Ether Chocolate offers micro-batch inspirations from the chef’s ‘atelier’.
There’s also a new wave of expert-led production that’s conscious yet sustainable, trend-oriented without being gimmicky and definitely not steeped in cliche. However, getting a clear picture of this burgeoning artisanal culture is as complex as a Danish pastry braid and we sought help from some culinary pathbreakers to break down this shift:
Entisi’s hand-decorated bonbons or fruity dragees are a staple in corporate or curated festive hampers across the country. The chocolatiers have identified a few key strategies to balance the artisanal approach with a sustainable and organised scale of production.
“95 per cent of artisanal chocolates in the country are manufactured in a really unorganised fashion, maybe at workshops, scattered units or at home. The fact that we can do this on a much bigger scale gives us the leverage to develop products that match international standards. At the same time, we are not as big as Cadbury or Lyndt, where it wouldn’t be possible for us to listen to our buyers. It’s not mass-produced and neither is it home-produced,” says Nikki Thakker of Entisi Chocolates, who’s a London School of Economics alum and has also trained with chocolatiers in Italy and Belgium.
Creating a brand value is still crucial to names like Entisi since most contemporary dessert labels develop upon a specific USP, be it Sweetish House Mafia’s made-to-order cookies or La Folie’s tailor-made etremets. Repeat customers are a big mark of a brand’s overall viability, especially for those pursuing the boutique approach. “We do have quite a few repeat customers who keep coming back which is a good sign. These are luxury products, an adult’s indulgence, they have to taste good, irrespective of their design. With the exposure and the insight people in the country have today, be it because of social media or ease of travel, desserts have become all about the experience,” Thakker confirms.
The Bigger Picture
Can hip, Instagram-worthy gourmet options dismantle the milk and sugar hegemony of traditional desserts? Are new-wave brands even fighting that fight? "I would have to say no, we’re definitely aiming at a more conscious clientele who are looking for healthier and more stylised options, which wasn’t always the norm when it came to desserts. This is also why we’ve also introduced reusable packaging and a price-conscious line-up. Our ecosystem has also changed, we celebrate small wins now and not just birthdays and anniversaries, there are also so many impulse purchases, so the shift is quite substantial,” Tibrewal weighs in.
The modern consumer is looking for big moments with their food or at least a good anecdote about what's on their plate. And while Japanese Yuzu-flavoured cookie dough pints definitely get top-billing as a party favour, can it replace the good ol’ mithai ka dabba?
Patissier Aditi Handa, who co-founded India’s first national artisanal bakery brand The Baker’s Dozen brings out an interesting point. “We've always had a tradition of ending our meals with something sweet, be it gajar ka halwa or something else made in our kitchen. But there’s a reason Indians are gearing towards western influences in desserts. People are increasingly realising that desserts need to be more consciously designed if they were to be consumed on a day-to-day basis," Handa weighs in.
It's not necessarily an Anglicised shift, nor is it only restricted to the deep-pocketed. It simply signals a better way of living. "Even the Britannia or Monginis sponge cakes we grew up with as an after-school snack were quite sugary. People now simply want to eat more mindfully," Handa adds.
Man Vs Machine?
In spite of artisanal priorities, luxury labels can’t afford to shun automation, but they are striving for a balance structured around benefitting the core skilled artisan communities or craft bakers. “Our bon bons, for instance, are all hand-painted but we also used technology to perfect the texture or the filling. But the artisanal feel is of course, the result of an arduous process which employs hand-made techniques as well,” Thakker tells us.
Ishan Pansuria’s Ahmedabad-based fair trade label Tosca Chocolates has managed to divvy up the entire bean-to-bar production judiciously so the terroir of cacao beans show up in the flavour profile of the chocolates. “There are many aspects when it comes to commercialising a product. When we started out three years ago, it was difficult for buyers to understand why a homegrown chocolate brand is more expensive than European ones. But once we were able to communicate how we do things differently, we witnessed buyers steering towards artisanal products because there’s total transparency involved in how we operate” Pansuria shares.
But are the contemporary, niche labels competing against the bigwigs that have dominated the dessert market for decades? And more importantly, do they need to? “I wouldn’t say we’re competing with mainstream dessert brands which have largely been associated with Indian sweets. What we’re offering is so different, quality-wise, it’s so ingredient-specific. The target audience is also quite different but it's not about being upscale or premium. Our target audience is anyone who’s looking for something different, someone with an interesting taste, who are open to learning why it’s worth spending Rs 300 on a chocolate bar,” Pansuria explains.
Freedom of format
Convenience or DIY format is the sine qua non of this growing new generational trend; straight-from-the-jar desserts, pre-portioned/single-serve bakes, microwaveable packaging or travel-friendly design are winning big with the masses. Toska Chocolates, for instance, has designed something called an ‘elixir’ which has a formula that works as a chocolate spread, as a dip, as a cooking agent, as an instant dessert, and can also be used to make mocha or cocoa mix. It’s essentially a more sophisticated replacement for the jar of cooking chocolate in your pantry since it’s vegan, gluten-free and hand-made with single-origin, 70 per cent dark chocolate.
Tibrewal’s label Scoopski introduced edible cookie dough to the Indian market and just recently launched something called a ‘pizookie,’ which is like an oversized slab of cookie dough fashioned like a pizza. You can even make it at home as the kit comes with a custom baking tray, chocolate chips and the works.
“Our products are designed around the experience; of course, you can buy pints of cookie dough and consume it straight out of the jar but we’ve seen people get really creative with it, in the last few months. Many of our buyers ordered it in bulk to experiment in the kitchen. Since we were the first movers we took it upon us to educate the consumer on the possibilities of something this new,” Tibrewal shares.
The Chef’s Special
The Coronavirus pushed patissier and ‘macaron queen’ Pooja Dhingra to shut her maiden South Mumbai Cafe Le 15 Patisserie, after a decade. Post the closure the brand scaled up its retail production with its pre-mixes, made-to-order bakes, cupcake boxes etc. Sanjana Patel’s La Folie has also made its small-batch chocolates and celebration cakes available for virtual purchase during the course of last year. In a luxury retail environment, do designer curations have an edge over others? Does a chef-owned brand have more credibility than the rest?
“I don’t know if that adds an edge because every food brand relies on innovation that has been perfected by someone who understands food and culinary technology. But the people behind the recipes were not always the face of the brands, their passion for the product wasn’t always communicated as part of the brand philosophy. That has changed now for sure, which makes a difference," Handa remarks.
A lot, of course, depends on brand design. Le Cordon Bleu alum Prateek Bakhtiani moved to Mumbai in 2018 to set up his atelier Ether Chocolates that produces biannual collections. The Spring/Summer 2021 line for instance takes its inspiration from Japanese springtime, and boasts ingredients like yuzu, Sakura Cherry Blossom, Hojicha Milk Chocolate, crispy toasted japanese genmai rice and explores the 'umami' flavour.
"I feel the dessert culture here has always been quite homogeneous, there's not a lot of variation in approach. With Ether, I've tried not to fall into this sort of hegemony. We have tried to cultivate a strong point of view, we are inspired by our own design aesthetic and by how we source our ingredients. Even with the new-wave dessert culture, trends often take precedence over technique, this was definitely a weird experience when I first moved here. But I chose to not battle with it altogether and do my own thing," shares Bakhtiani.
Both Bakhtiani and Handa have introduced DIY paraphernalia to their brand. Handa’s brand The Baker’s Dozen offers everything from artisanal bread, gluten-free bakes, pre-mixes. Bakhtiani’s label Ether Chocolates added four bake-along DIY kits which assemble ingredients to create recipes like smoked flourless chocolate cake or Persian love loaf at home. The kits come with measured ingredients and a detailed note from Bakhtiani that also has his number so people can call him for any technical queries. Which begs the questions are the masters betting on the do-it-yourself approach? How far can the DIY boom really take us?
“It’s a big ask to expect everyone to understand the nuance of the whole process, but these kits are a way of getting your hands dirty in the kitchen, getting comfortable with using single-origin chocolate or other ingredients that would transform what would otherwise be a run-off-the-mill chocolate cake,” Bakhtiani shares.
For Handa, the DIY dessert boom in India is a timely one, a macro-trend that is cultivating creativity in the kitchen and also may be a close cousin of the self-love trend. “Fundamentally baking is really therapeutic, you can enjoy that process, even if you’re a kid or a parent. But it’s also not everyone’s cup of tea since it’s quite complicated. This is where something like a premix comes in, it ties up your experience. It offers a fool-proof way to make what you want, so the recipe doesn’t fail after you spend hours at something, which explains the growing demand for DIY elements,” Handa conclude