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Ajay Kurnauth: Pastry as a language

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Why does Ajay Kurnauth, pastry chef at Canonnier Beachcomber, look so young, despite his 52 years? For three reasons: he has travelled widely, he’s passionate about what he does, and he still lives in the same courtyard in Triolet, Mauritius, with his family and his mother.

 

When Ajay Kurnauth contemplates his pastry creations, he has the same dreamy look as when, as a child, he stood outside the Chinese shop of his youth. It had everything: hair curlers, lamp oil, sweet potatoes, and those little pink pastries. Today, you can find almost the same biscuits in the guestrooms at the Canonnier Beachcomber. They’ve taken scenic route to get here, though. For, just like the other ’Neapolitan slice’, created in the US, this exotic Napolitaine is steeped in the pastry-making history of the Italian seaport.

Ajay too has travelled world. His father and mother were pastry chefs at the Club Med in Mauritius. He attended the local hotel school, but then his feet started to itch. He went to work at the Club Med-Eilat in Israel, then came back to Mauritius (at the Novotel), then Saint-Malo and Cancale in Brittany, and the Lenôtre school in Paris. He took part in competitions all over the world: India, Russia, winning medals (double gold in India), then spent some time at a pastry academy in Malaysia, where he learnt to make a concoction of pandan leaves… And all that to come back and settle down in the Beachcomber  group, where he’s been for twenty-five years.

 

 

Which is to say that these little Napolitaine cakes have a history. And when they first pass your lips, you close your eyes and see the film of Ajay’s story slowly unfold. This will bring on another story: that of Mauritius. For these delicious little shortbread biscuits with their delicate filling of guava jam have their own story to tell. To start with, just look at their irresistibly kitsch colour, a delicious pink that make you think of Queen Elizabeth’s hats. That baby pink, candid and perfect, like a wide-brimmed hat made of icing sugar, a delicate stole. This royal icing made with icing sugar, egg white and syrup is the British touch. If it’s the French touch you’re looking for, Ajay immediately thinks of jam, and shortbread biscuits. And for the local touch, cane sugar, plus of course the knack. When he talks of his charming little Napolitaines, Ajay is like a child who wants people to know that he’s more than just that. He can do other stuff. For he is a champion of artistic desserts. He would hate to be known only for those pensive little domes. He loves the miracle of spheres. He’s mad about chocolate, and he’s an aficionado of artistic sugar contests. His signature dessert? A tropical composition made of pineapple, based on a compote, with a zest of kaffir lime, coconut, and a thin biscuit made with muscovado (the local sugar) and a shortbread biscuit made with manioc. This is what brings Ajay joy, as he sees that people understand him in his professional dimension. When you are passionate, the first thing you do is teach: first his team of pastry chefs and bakers (15 people, no less!), but also in the Beachcomber Training Academy.

He draws his inspiration from all his travels, from his regular round-the-world trips. But also from Mauritius. If you want to bring a smile to his face, talk to him about the beach at Balaclava. You’ll find him there with his family on Sunday afternoons. By the way, what do you think is his favourite gesture as a pastry chef? 

A fist bump, just to show they’re all in this together, as a team.

 

How to make Ajay’s Napolitaines

 

 

For the shortbread

250g flour

175g butter

20g icing sugar

100g guava or strawberry jam

 

For the icing

500g icing sugar

50g egg white

40ml sugar cane syrup

 

 

1. Mix all the ingredients but the jam, until they form a soft dough.

2. Leave the dough to rest in a cool place for half an hour.

3. Roll out the dough until it is about 3-4mm thick.

4. Cut rounds using a 5cm pastry cutter.

5. Preheat the oven at 180?C, bake for 10-15 minutes.

6. Leave the biscuits to cool, then stick theme together face to face with the jam.

7. To make the icing, whip all the ingredients in a bowl and heat in a bain-marie. When the icing is soft enough, ice the Napolitaines.