How Coming Home helped pastry chef Pooja Dhingra find herself again
In an exclusive interview, celebrated pastry chef Pooja Dhingra opens up about her new book Coming Home, cooking in her family kitchen again after so many years, fusion desserts, food photography, baking hacks, and her plans for the future.
In the column Let's Talk About Women, Sneha Bengani looks at films, the world of entertainment, and popular media through the feminist lens. Because it's important. Because it's needed. And because we're not doing it enough.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced several businesses across the world to shut down. Among the countless people who had to pause, was Pooja Dhingra, celebrated pastry chef, author, and the founder and CEO of Le15 Patisserie, known for bringing macarons and other French desserts to India.
Just when she was ready to expand, the pandemic hit and she had to shut down half of her business, including her much loved Le15 Café in South Mumbai’s Colaba. It wasn’t easy for Dhingra. “I remember feeling completely alone, and it did not seem like there would be light at the end of the tunnel. I had a spot in my room where I’d sit on my couch every night with Excel sheets open on the computer. Most nights I cried myself to sleep. It was never about what would people say, it was never about being ashamed or embarrassed by failure. It was more the crushing of a childhood dream,” she writes.
But amid all this darkness and doubt, something beautiful happened. Dhingra, who now found herself at home, started baking in her family kitchen—simple recipes using simple ingredients she could find in her mother’s domestic pantry. And in experimenting with whatever she had, at a time when she thought all was lost, she found her love for baking again.
This is how her latest book Coming Home was conceived. And that’s precisely why it’s a lot more than just another cookbook. It’s the journey of a successful pastry chef finally returning to her home and rediscovering the joy of turning simple ingredients into food for the soul.
Coming Home feels like a warm, reassuring hug after a long day. Dhingra’s most personal book yet, it has little introductions at the beginning of each recipe telling you how it came to be, why it found a place in this book, and a bit about Dhingra—her life, and the person she is. Since the book was conceived in the pandemic, it is for everyone, especially those who took to baking in the last one or two years. Dhingra has kept the recipes simple and as mess-free as possible. They are quick to make and an absolute joy to have.
Here, she opens up about Coming Home, cooking in her family kitchen again after so many years, fusion desserts, food photography, baking hacks, and her plans for the future.
How different is Coming Home from your other books, especially Bake At Home?
The approach of Coming Home is very different from Bake at Home. I really wanted people to get to know me better and understand how my mind works when it comes to creating recipes. The book has recipes that have impacted my journey as a person and a chef and I wanted to share that with people.
How did you arrive at the book’s title?
The title was gifted to me by a friend. For me, it signifies my re-connection to my passion for baking. When you build a business from scratch and do it for over a decade, over time it’s easy to lose track of what’s truly important and why you do it. From me to the readers, the title signifies my culinary journey and recipes coming to their homes.
What was it like to bake again in your family kitchen for an extended period and experiment with new recipes?
Baking in my home kitchen in the first few months of the pandemic made me feel like I was 23 again. I was rediscovering what it meant to take simple ingredients and transform them into something delicious. I would start baking at midnight each night and really try to make sense of my mom’s pantry. It was truly a humbling and grounding experience.
I love how you’ve divided the book’s sections and named them. Especially the ones on baking basics and pantry essentials are really thoughtful. What got you to include those?
Thank you! A lot of people started baking in the pandemic and the questions I was being asked on social media, made me realize that a lot of people are really starting from scratch. I decided to include those chapters to help and make complete newcomers to the art feel at home.
You say you hate the word fusion desserts but some of your most-loved recipes, like chai hazelnut macarons, halwa cookies, makhana granola, and hazelnut coffee chikki, are incredible fusions…
I’m not a fan of the word fusion desserts because I feel like more often than not, it doesn’t do justice to the dessert—this is a personal opinion. For example, I’m not a fan of a gulab jamun cheesecake but I love baking techniques with different flavors. So I wouldn’t place gulab jamuns directly on a cake but I’d be inspired by it to create something. I love taking local ingredients and using different pastry techniques and flavors to make them my own.
A lot of the recipes that you have included in Coming Home are so simple, both in the method and the ingredients they require, that it’s a revelation. But was it a consideration that people might expect more elaborate, sophisticated recipes from you?
I like to write easy-to-follow, uncomplicated but delicious recipes. I do conduct workshops on the more elaborate recipes but the books, in general, have a very easy approach.
Of all the recipes in the book, which one do you enjoy baking and eating the most?
This is a very difficult question! I find it difficult to pick between my children.
A recipe that you were excited to experiment with but didn’t work out?
Uff so many! I really wanted to add a chocolate focaccia recipe but I just wasn’t getting it right.
The pictures you’ve included add so much to the book. Which three things do you keep in mind when shooting desserts?
Thankfully, I worked with a very skilled photographer and both of us had a lot of fun with the photos. We decided to keep it simple, shoot the desserts as they are, and use props that help the desserts stand out.
What was the most difficult aspect of putting together Coming Home?
Putting a book together in a pandemic was extremely challenging. We had to keep rescheduling shoots and everything just took a lot longer to do.
One baking hack you wish you knew sooner?
Not a hack but using a digital weighing scale to measure your ingredients is extremely important.
What are you looking at next?
A lot of travel for the book, new products and menus, and hopefully Le15 stores across the country.
When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.
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