BY JOE DISTEFANO
There are dozens and dozens of South Asian sweets to be had in the teashops and cafes of Jackson Heights, Queens from blocks of fudgy Indian chum chum in day-glo orange and green and grainy laddoo to red sugar-syrup soaked Bangladeshi kalojam.
But there are no South Asian sweets quite like those made by Chef Michael Mignano at Farine Baking Company.
The Sicilian-American pastry wizard recently introduced a pair of confections that combine South Asian sweets with classic American desserts: a cheesecake with an Indian flourish and cupcake with a Bangladeshi accent.
The gulab jamun cheesecake came first for a recent wedding, in which the former pastry chef of The Pierre Hotel reprised a sweet treat he used to make at the hotel for Indian weddings. It was served in individual cups, with the sweet cheese ball hidden at the bottom.
At the bakery, Mignano showcases the gulab jamun. Each slice sports a cross-section of two gulub jamun. Another of the golden brown orbs — topped with gulkand, or candied rose petals — crowns the whole slice. The cheesecake itself, flavored with cardamom and a hint of rosewater, sits atop a graham cracker crust. It eats like a South Asian version of a classic New York cheesecake, but really it’s the first ever Jackson Heights cheesecake.
“When I posted it [on Instagram], it went viral with a lot of my South Asian followers,” says the chef who’d whipped up four cakes that proved to be insufficient for the demand. “On Sunday, people were waiting on line at 7:30 in the morning like it was a cronut.”
Young second generation South Asian foodies pass by colorful display cases of mithai as they are known in Hindi or mishti in Bangladeshi and it’s almost like they’re a dessert museum, Mignano points out.
By combining American and South Asian sweets, the former Iron Chef winner has given the new generation an exciting, delicious way to enjoy treats that they previously may have only associated with their grandparents.
“Adding conventional Desi sweets to conventional American confectionaries is the new trend we never thought we needed,” wrote Instagrammer @muslimfoodies, after trying the cheesecake.
The second of Mignano’s South Asian fusion creations takes two shopworn desserts—cupcakes and pumpkin spice—and combines them with Bangladeshi confectionery to create a treat far greater than the sum of its parts. With its hot pink frosting scattered with almonds it looks many other fancy cupcakes, but the Kalojam Pumpkin Cupcake has a secret. Cut it open and you’ll find a ruby red core of kalojam at the center of the pumpkin cake.
And that pink frosting? It’s flavored with Rooh Afza, a syrup made with a medicinal gourd, various herbs, and rosewater that is reputed to have a cooling effect in hot South Asian summers. As cupcakes are to American kids so Roof Afzah is to Bangladeshi’s of a certain age who have fond memories of drinking milk based beverages made with the syrup.
“It’s like a Bangladeshi Shirley Temple,” says Mignano who gave the new cupcake to own of his Bangladeshi servers without telling her what flavor it was.
“The look on her face when she bit it into was priceless,” he recalls. “‘It tastes just like my childhood,’ she said.”
For more on Farine Baking Company, visit their website.