How I Invented Strawberries & Cream Kulfi

Awanthi Vardaraj brings together two beloved desserts from different continents to create something special for her ailing grandfather.

Many years ago, on a cool summer's day in Ootacamund, my family and I were lunching at our favourite restaurant. The restaurant’s sumptuous wood-panelled interiors were as familiar to me as my own bedroom. Outside, a light drizzle punctuated the eucalyptus-scented air, and inside, a very important decision was being made. My grandfather was poring over the dessert menu, torn between his two opposing loves: plump juicy strawberries slathered in thick yellow cream with a generous sprinkling of sugar — a carryover from his student days in England — and kulfi, the dense creamy Indian ice cream studded with green pistachios, and served in an earthen pot. 

Eventually, he picked one or the other, but sometimes he couldn't (or wouldn't) choose, and ended up eating both. As a child, this dilemma both fascinated and emboldened me: I could eat two desserts if I wanted! I inherited my grandfather's love of food, and his incredible sweet tooth, along with his adventurous spirit, and love of the bizarre. As I grew older, I understood his conundrum better; the tug of war of the desserts represented the two identities inside of him that were at constant odds with one other — his love for England, and his eventual love for India.

Oddly enough, both desserts first evolved in the sixteenth century, albeit in different parts of the world. In sixteenth century England, strawberries and cream was invented by an unnamed chef working in Hampton Court, home to the largest kitchens in Tudor England that fed up to six hundred lords and ladies in a single day. The dish was likely born out of a desire to come up with a quick and easy pudding that required no cooking. In sixteenth century India, kulfi — a word derived from the Persian word for a covered cup — likely originated in the Mughal empire.

Unlike other ice creams, kulfi is prepared by evaporating sweetened flavoured milk over a slow flame, continually stirring so that the mixture does not catch and burn. When the volume of the milk has reduced by half, and when the sugar has caramelised during the cooking process (adding to kulfi's distinctive taste), the semi-condensed milk is frozen in tightly sealed moulds that are submerged in a mixture of salt and ice to speed up the freezing process. During Mughal times, saltpetre was used for refrigeration, although Himalayan ice was also transported to warmer areas for use of freezing and refrigeration. In Mughal times, kulfi was flavoured with saffron or pistachios, but now there are flavours like gulab (rose), almond, and even chocolate.

As I adventured around the world in my twenties, I often dreamed about eating kulfi with my grandfather again. He sent me letters that I received in Hong Kong, in Prague, in New Zealand. I was living and working in Ireland when my sister emailed to say that he was very sick. It was cancer. I returned home to India, home to my grandfather. He was lying in his bed when I arrived, the windows thrown open so he could see the garden beyond, where exuberant bougainvilleas flourished beside the neem tree. Although he was pleased to see me, his appearance shook me; he was weak and sunken and diminished, somehow. He seemed to have lost a battle with himself, and as the days went on, I would learn just how much. More than anything else, he had lost his appetite, both for food and for life.

Chemo injections left him too weak and too sick to ever feel hungry, but he had rare good days when he would ask for a favourite dish, and everyone would scramble to make it for him. Those were rare occurrences, though, and as the weeks went by, they happened fewer and farther between. But one day, when he was sitting up in bed and flicking through television channels, he asked for strawberries and cream. I'd just bought punnets of strawberries, and it wasn't hard to send out for packets of thick cream. I gently teased him, asking if he wouldn't like kulfi instead. He hesitated, and I felt rotten. But on my way to the kitchen, I wondered: Could I make strawberries-and-cream kulfi, and give my grandfather a really unexpected treat? 

I set about experimenting, and the following recipe was the result. I hope that you will enjoy making it, and that you don't mind my shortcuts (using condensed milk). Mostly, I hope that it will become your family's favourite, and that it will give you as much joy as it gave my grandfather that day. It was the last time he ate anything with gusto and enjoyment, and we lost him two weeks later. But he will always live on in the hearts of the people who loved him, and now, I hope, in your mind too, whenever you make this recipe that brings together his two deep loves.

RECIPE: Strawberries and Cream Kulfi

1.5 cups strawberry puree, strained
¼ cup chopped strawberries
1 can condensed milk
1 can evaporated milk
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup granulated white sugar
¼ cup chopped pistachios
A couple of drops of natural red food colouring (optional) 

Heat the evaporated milk ( or make your own by cooking milk down slowly; for one cup of evaporated milk you must cook down 2 ½ cups of full fat milk).
Add the condensed milk to it. Mix well and add in the heavy cream when it has cooled a bit.
Add the strained strawberry puree and the sugar to the mixture and combine well.
Add in the food colouring at this point if you're using it.
Gently fold the chopped strawberries and the chopped pistachios through the mixture, and pour into kulfi or popsicle moulds. Cover with aluminium foil and freeze for half an hour before inserting the popsicle sticks.
Leave to set for several hours or overnight.
 To serve, simply run the kulfi moulds under running water; they should unmould easily enough. Enjoy.

Awanthi Vardaraj is a writer and editor based out of Chennai. You can tweet her here.