Eat: The Secret to Amazing Mango Kulfi Comes in a Can
Alphonso mangoes grow in India, and when they’re ripe, they’re so saturated with juice and perfume that I don’t just want to eat them; I also want to stand very close to them, like some kind of creep, and inhale. They’ve got skin the color of leaf-filtered sunlight and impossibly sweet, creamy flesh, but they’re not in season for long — a few months, starting around April — which means most of the time they’re not around at all.
A few weeks ago at a dinner party in upstate New York, when it came time for dessert, the cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey chopped up fruit, while her husband whipped cream to soft peaks. She layered the fruit and cream and scattered crushed pistachio praline over the top. But there was something else, something familiar, drifting up and hitting me like an intoxicating inhalant. It was August, and fresh Alphonso mangoes were out of the question, but Jaffrey had opened a can of purée and spooned a little neon pulp into each bowl. It was brilliant.
The idea that fresh is always better than canned is both simple and false. Cans are vital, preserving and transporting flavors that might be impossible to find out of season or out of range. When we lived in rural France, my family would hear about the beginning of mango season in India through a series of pale, see-through aerogrammes, filled up to the edges with cursive. There were stories about street vendors belting out romantic songs by their piles of fruit, about my cousins chilling the squishiest mangoes in cold water before piercing them with their teeth and sucking them like vegan vampires. It wasn’t the same as gossiping on the patio at the height of the season, surrounded by aunties and uncles, but we had some cans. And when we used the pulp inside to make kulfis and lassis and trifles, the distance seemed smaller. We ached less.
The most famous Alphonso mangoes come from Ratnagiri, in the southwestern part of Maharashtra, and some Indian canning companies will specify that their pulp comes from that area as well. Once it’s processed, the fruit turns into a thick, bright, smooth purée; it’s usually sweetened. After school, I’d pour some into a bowl and dip a warm, buttered baguette right into it, as if the bread were my grandmother’s deep-fried puris, shining with oil. My mother turned to the cans to make us instant kulfi, mixing the pulp with condensed milk and heavy cream. She’d put it in the freezer on a cool, drizzly Friday, and on Saturday she’d dunk the pan in warm water and slide the kulfi onto a plate. “If we go to India next year, your aunt will take you for the real stuff,” she’d say, apologizing. But we’d cut thick slices and eat them with a spoon, sucking at the crystals and tipping the bowls back at the end so we could sip what had melted. For us, it was real.
Traditional kulfi starts with cooking milk down for many hours, until it becomes thick and tastes almost like butterscotch. The base might be seasoned with cardamom or mango or pistachios or rose water; then it’s poured into metal cones or plastic tubs and frozen. Unlike ice cream, which is churned to take in air as it freezes, kulfi sets just the way it is, eggless and motionless, creating a totally different texture that’s dense and crystalline and quick to melt. It’s the protein and fat in those milk solids, a much higher concentration than in most ice cream, that makes kulfi so satisfying to eat.
I love the instant version, but my plan was to adapt a more time-consuming kulfi recipe for a party, to buy some fresh fruit and a block of the protein-rich evaporated milk solids that are often available at Indian grocery stores, which can replicate the intense caramel milk flavor. I wanted to reduce cream and amplify it with the milk solids, to end up with something slightly closer to the real stuff, but I went to three stores with no luck, and I was running out of time.
Then I remembered that I had a can of Alphonso mango pulp at home, and that there was sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream at my bodega, and that some recipes were important because you could follow them anywhere, anytime. I made the kulfi that I knew by heart.
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