Pooja Bavishi remembers the moment that desserts first sweetened her life. She was ten years old, flipping through the channels at her North Carolina home on a Saturday morning, when she stumbled across “Great American Desserts,” a baking show starring Debbi Fields. Bavishi was well aware of Mrs. Fields, the cookie brand—she had been to the mall, after all—but she had no idea that the brand name represented an actual person, let alone someone so young and enthusiastic.
Captivated, she diligently took notes as Mrs. Fields walked her through that day’s recipe, a white chocolate cheesecake. When the show concluded Bavishi promptly announced that she would be making cheesecake for the family. Her mother sportingly handed over the kitchen. “That was the first dessert I ever made, and it was kind of a disaster,” Bavishi says. “But it made my parents and sister so happy, and as a result I made an important connection: desserts make people happy.”
More than two decades later, Bavishi is still spreading sugar rushes of happiness—not through cheesecake, but ice cream. Last year she founded Malai, an ice cream company that combines her love of desserts with her Indian heritage.
While Bavishi had fantasized for years about starting a dessert business, ice cream was always a second thought—something to be served on the side of her show-stopping cakes and pies. But she has long been intrigued by the way that spices and flavors work together, so when her parents gave her an ice cream maker as a New York City house warming gift in 2012, she seized the opportunity to see just how far she could push the frosty envelope beyond vanilla flavors like chocolate, strawberry and butter pecan. Her robust spice cabinet served as inspiration.
She debuted her first ice cream—a ginger-star anise concoction—at a Friendsgiving in 2014. Her eager audience responded with enthusiasm, to say the least. “They were like, ‘This is something we’ve never had before! This is your concept!” Bavishi realized it might be time to finally venture into professional dessert-making.
In this city of innovative ice cream makers, Malai’s 14 different scoops—all hand-made by Bavishi—stand out for their lightness, subtlety and eclectic yet oh-so-right flavor pairings. “I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve tasted similar things in this or that country, in savory or sweet foods, so I like that there’s multiple reference points for everyone,” she says. “I love having an approachable, familiar taste, yet nothing that’s ever been experienced in ice cream before.”
Masala chai, for example, invokes the creamy spice of a perfect chai latte, while sweet milk rings of condensed milk in ice cream form. Others are more unexpected. Orange fennel, Bavishi’s favorite, features citrusy brightness tempered with fennel’s licorice overtones; similarly perfumed flavor pairings include lemon cardamom, rose with cinnamon-roasted almonds and, for summer, sweet corn saffron. This winter will also see the release of toasted nutmeg—a heavenly match for any Thanksgiving pie.
Malai literally translates as “milk fat” in Gujarati, the language spoken in her family’s region of western India, but it is also a colloquial term for “cream of the crop”—an apt name, given the devoted following Bavishi’s ice cream has already amassed in just a few short months. Regulars stop by each weekend at the Williamsburg and Prospect Park Smorgasburgs, and sales online and at R&D Foods in Park Slope and Foragers Market in Dumbo are flourishing. She’ll soon expand to Foragers in Chelsea, the Greene Grape in Fort Greene and Mekelburg’s in Clinton Hill. Eventually, she hopes to open a brick and mortar shop.
“The Manhattan and Brooklyn crowds actually gravitate toward trying new flavors, and I love that,” Bavishi says. “There have certainly been ups and downs since starting my business, but when someone tells me that they’ve never had something like my ice cream before, or that this is the best ice cream they’ve ever had, I know that I’ve embarked on something special, and that this is all worth it.”