Monday, February 26, 2024

Starting small, succeeding large: Chef R Kaleeswaran’s journey into the world of baking

The fragrance of melted butter and browning flour permeates the food laboratory of a college in Tiruchi with hope as amateur bakers test their skills under the eagle eye of R. Kaleeswaran, veteran baker and a scion of the family-run Desotta Bakery of Karaikudi.

“Anyone can learn to bake. Practise regularly and focus on following the recipe,” he tells the assembled group of 18 men and women, who had enrolled for the two-day course on how to bake traditional and millet-based cookies.

With over 40 years of experience behind him, Kaleeswaran, 61, is the proprietor of New Bakery Desotta, in Karaikudi, and the brains behind the Desotta School of Baking which offers training courses in Coimbatore, Chennai, Tiruchi and Erode besides his hometown. He is also the honorary secretary of the Karaikudi Bakery Owners Association.

“My father Desotta Ramachandran, who began baking at the age of 16, started the business in 1962, with a sum of Rs. 120. After his demise at the age of 47, his elder brother Ganapathy mentored all of us to learn baking and carry forward our family’s legacy,” he says.

An ornamental salt dough bread baked in the shape of a dog by chef Kaleeswaran.

An ornamental salt dough bread baked in the shape of a dog by chef Kaleeswaran.
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Something for everyone

Bakery Desotta is known in Karaikudi for its ‘macaroons’ baked in the Thoothukudi style. These Indian versions of the European meringue cookies use ground cashews instead of almonds. “Our master, Sankaran Pillai, worked with Ponniah Fernandes, among the last of the bakers at Spencer and Co, Madras, who specialised in British Raj-era recipes. Since Fernandes was from Thoothukudi, we picked up all his recipes, including the ‘macaroon,’” says Kaleeswaran.

The bite-sized cookie, made by mixing cashew flour, beaten egg whites and sugar, is usually piped out by hand and baked for over six hours in a slow oven.

The bakery’s coconut biscuits, which have a shelf life of six months, are popular as gifts among customers in the Chettinad region, who like to send them packed in tins as gifts for family members in Singapore and Malaysia, he says.

A graduate in zoology, Kaleeswaran says decades of learning on the shop floor have helped him to keep innovating with the New Bakery Desotta’s repertoire of heirloom recipes.

“Cakes used to be considered a delicacy in the 1960s, and we would have just around one or two in the display case. But now, they are all the rage, and no celebration is considered complete without them. This year we are concentrating on millet flour cookies, which can be a nutritional supplement, especially for children. Making diet food tasty is a challenge,” says Kaleeswaran.

Cookies by New Bakery Desotta

Cookies by New Bakery Desotta
| Photo Credit:

Burgeoning industry

Joining the family business in 1979, Kaleeswaran has seen the ovens change over from firewood to electric, diesel and gas. But the ingredients and recipes have largely been left unchanged. Butter figures large, as it adds a depth of flavour missing in other cooking mediums. “Since we do not use chemical additives and preservatives, the shelf life of our breads is only three days. Some recipes, such as banana cake, need leavening agents. We permit only our experienced staff to handle the baking powder and soda according to the ratios specified by Food Safety and Standards Association of India (FSSAI),” he says.

There are some pluses to being a veteran baker. “Usually my students gift me cakes on my birthday, so I don’t have to bother making them myself,” he laughs.

He has an interest in making ornamental saltwater dough breads for special occasions.

Kaleeswaran’s courses, being offered since 2007 for entrepreneurs, retraining professionals and bakery unit consultants, have been well-received, with the Tiruchi workshop being its 137th batch.

With over 23,500 organised bakeries and growing in Tamil Nadu, the sector can be a lucrative employment opportunity, especially for those who are from underprivileged sections of society. “If one works hard, and prepares food with passion, I believe anyone can succeed as a baker, irrespective of their education,” says Kaleeswaran.

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