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Malai owner Pooja Bavishi holds a pineapple and pink pepper ice cream cone outside her Carroll Gardens store on June 7. Photo credit: Jeff Bachner

It’s part of a summer series spotlighting New York’s ice cream parlors and other cold treat specialists.

Pooja Bavishi opened the permanent storefront of his ice cream business, Malai, on March 2. The location may be new, but Bavishi’s love of making desserts for others is not.

At the age of 10, she tried a white chocolate cheesecake recipe from Debbie Fields (aka Mrs. Fields) and went all wrong. What stood out to her, however, was how much the imperfect cake delighted her family.

“I made this connection that desserts make people happy,” Bavishi says. Years later, she was making ice cream to accompany a dessert for dinner when she realized the potential of the “very empty palette” of ice cream.

Cinnamon-roasted almond rose, left, and orange-fennel ice cream are some of Malai's favorites.
Cinnamon-roasted almond rose, left, and orange-fennel ice cream are some of Malai’s favorites. Photo credit: Linda Rosier

“There is one side of my kitchen that my mom always stocked, and I called it ‘the Indian side’,” she says.

“I just took two spices from this side and flavored the ice cream. My friends – who had enjoyed my dessert creations for years and years – said they had never tasted anything like it before. It was a bit like this “a ha” moment.

Making ice cream with flavors from her Indian culture was a natural fit for Bavishi, who grew up in North Carolina, but says the aromas and flavors of Indian spices never felt separate or “other.”

“Ginger, saffron, cardamom and rose were flavors so ubiquitous in my childhood,” she says. While Indian flavors were considered “exotic,” she says she knew everyone would love them and thinks they’re actually quite affordable.

One of the first flavors Bavishi created was orange fennel (still one of his favorites today). Fennel is a common palate cleanser in Indian restaurants, but this pairing is also classically European. At the start of Malai’s sale at the Hester Street Fair, a customer told Bavishi that she was grateful for the memories of her Italian grandmother’s cookies that the orange fennel scoop aroused.

“It’s only food that can do it,” says Bavishi. “You think these are exotic flavors that you might not be familiar with, but in reality they’re going to taste familiar and you’re going to have your own connection to them. I take something from my own memories and create something nostalgic for you in a completely different sense.

After four years of working with some of the city’s most reputable markets, from the Hester Street Fair in Smorgasburg to the Gotham Market in Ashland, Bavishi decided it was time for a showcase. She didn’t initially want a permanent location, but interacting with her clients made her realize how special it would be to have a home forever.

So far, Bavishi has loved the instant community around Malai, located at 268 Smith St. in Cobble Hill, both customers and neighboring businesses. She also cherishes the freedom to experience that a permanent space offers her and her team. It is thanks to this that the store recently launched pies, starting with a roasted strawberry ice cream with a pistachio fennel crumble.

“There is something really powerful about knowing the people who buy your product. It really is a special connection. You get instant feedback, you can talk about the product, you can start new things, you can tell them what’s next. … As we move towards online shopping for everything, that connection isn’t going away, ”she says. “I think the ice cream itself is quite a nostalgic product. You always want to go out and get a cone on a warm summer evening. I wanted this experience to be there.

COOL FACTS

Malai serves 22 flavors at all times, taking inspiration from the 26 owners Pooja Bavishi has developed since starting the business, as well as new monthly flavors and seasonal additions. A vegan option, Pineapple with Pink Pepper, has just been released.

Rose with Cinnamon Toasted Almonds is # 1 with customers, and one of its originals, masala chai, comes next.

The toppings include peanut chikki, a type of brittle from India, and a cocoa nib and cardamom shortbread that is sprinkled on scoops. Malai has also just launched its own cone made from jaggery, an unprocessed sugar that is a common sweetener in India.

Malai is located at 268 Smith St. in Cobble Hill. For more information, visit malai.co.

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