The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Pooja Bavishi is the founder of Malai, an ice-cream company and scoop shop in Brooklyn. Loosely translated to “cream of the crop,” Malai reflects Pooja’s Indian-American upbringing, melding traditional Indian ingredients with classic American flavors. At home in Brooklyn, Pooja layered some of her favorite Malai flavors into a decadent trifle and recounted her nontraditional path to the world of ice cream.
I'm a first-generation Indian American. My parents immigrated here from India. Maybe it's an Indian quality, or maybe it was just my family, but there was so much generosity around food. You always had enough food if guests came over, and you always made everyone's favorite. There was never a shortage of good food, no matter what the circumstances were. That's what I was so drawn to at a young age. I had a natural curiosity about all of the traditions, but I was always fascinated by cooking. I found it truly magical to watch my mom or dad cook.
The earliest memory I have of cooking something on my own was one Saturday morning, watching a cooking show on TV with my family. The host was making a white-chocolate cheesecake, and I asked my mom, "Can I make this today?" She was like, "Sure, I'll take you grocery shopping, and the kitchen’s all yours." So I made the cheesecake, and it turned out terrible in a lot of ways because I was 10 and didn't really know how to properly make a cheesecake. I cut it while it was still warm … it was kind of a disaster. But I have a very distinct memory of scooping some out for my parents and my sister and them saying, "This is delicious, Pooja." I feel like anyone in the food business will relate to this. The one thing that we absolutely share is we love the hospitality around food. And I think that's what really drew me in. It's so gratifying to be able to share something you've made with other people and have them enjoy it. It's such a special feeling.
It's so gratifying to be able to share something you've made with other people and have them enjoy it.
My path to Malai was not linear. I always knew I eventually wanted to have my own dessert business; that's just something I would always say, but people have multiple interests, and I'm no exception. I was really interested in social justice, so I majored in public policy and went on to get my master's in urban planning to focus on affordable housing. I absolutely loved my career in that field, but I was at a point where there was no upward mobility at my job. It was also at the time of the economic recession, so it was a weird time to look for new jobs as well. My parents, who are entrepreneurs themselves, were like, “It's a great time to start that dessert business you've always talked about."
I decided to get my MBA instead to get some business acumen and learn a new language, basically. Around that time, I was hosting Friendsgiving and making the desserts, and, for the first time, I noticed the ice-cream maker my parents had gifted me. So I thought, Maybe I'll make some ice cream to go along with these desserts. My sister and I always joke that, wherever we move, my mom always stocks one side of our kitchens with essential Indian items; we call it the “Indian side.”
I pulled spices from there and made two very simple ice creams. I used fresh and dried ginger for ginger ice cream and star anise for star anise ice cream. I used them the way I know how to use it in savory Indian cooking, which is to say I really robustly flavored them. My friends were like, "We've never had anything like this before. Have you thought about ice cream?"
Malai was really the only one that combined the two things I loved from the very beginning of my childhood.
Looking back, I have notebooks filled with different concepts and ideas of dessert businesses, but Malai was really the only one that combined the two things I loved from the very beginning of my childhood. It brought together my curiosity in traditions and culture with something that makes people so happy. It was just like, This is my concept. This is what I've been waiting for.
The flavor-development process was actually pretty easy because I pulled all of the flavors from my childhood. Like cardamom, rose, and saffron — those are flavors I grew up with that seemed so ubiquitous to me but weren’t as approachable in things as Americana as ice cream. Growing up, rose ice cream was found at every single dinner party or family gathering; it was as common as vanilla. But I wanted to put my twist on it. That became Malai’s most popular, signature flavor: rose with cinnamon-roasted almonds. Or, like, our version of mint chocolate chip, which was my absolute favorite growing up in North Carolina. Again, I went back to memories of my grandmother and remembered that she had a holy basil, or Tulsi, tree in her yard. It's refreshing like mint but has the earthiness of basil, so that became our Tulsi chocolate chip. I pulled all of these flavor memories and then put our Malai twist on it, like, This is my North Carolina favorite, Malai-ified.
One of my favorite moments for my first summer of selling Malai was when I scooped a customer our orange fennel. We were still very much in the concept phase, and she left and then turned around and came back. I panicked, like, Oh God, why is she coming back? She was like, "I want to tell you that my Italian grandmother made orange-fennel cookies, and this is the first time I've been able to taste that flavor since I saw her last. So I just wanted to thank you." And that's the power of food, right? That is exactly why I'm doing this. I love that food is the only thing that can bring people together like that.
Today I made a big trifle with two flavors of Malai ice cream. To start, I baked two half sheet pans of chocolate cake with the eggless chocolate cake recipe that we use at the shop. And then I also made a fennel toffee sauce. To get the fennel flavor, I just toast fennel seeds and grind them really finely and throw them into a basic toffee sauce: equal parts sugar, butter, cream, and obviously a little bit of salt as well. I love that you get that nice little licorice finish at the end. I also made a chocolate-cardamom fudge sauce. It’s just like a basic fudge sauce, with sugar, water, cocoa powder, some salt, some vanilla, but then I took some pods of cardamom and ground them up in my mortar and pestle to add a little more flavor.
Then I started layering. It started with the chocolate cake, and then I did a layer of our Turkish-coffee ice cream. Then I poured that fennel toffee sauce on top, layered that with whipped cream, and sprinkled on some candied fennel seeds. They look like sprinkles but add little pops of fennel, which I love. And then I did the whole thing all over again. So more chocolate cake, then our orange-fennel ice cream, plus the chocolate-cardamom sauce, more whipped cream, and I finished it with more candied fennel seeds on top. I layered that all in the Dutchess, so it's a massive dessert. But, I mean, I've already carved into it, so I'm sure it'll be okay.