How do I put into words my glorious relationship with this one product? Brownies are so intertwined with my life that they are a part of me, my identity, my childhood, my youth and my entire adult life. I am sometimes introduced as ‘Mumbai’s Brownie Queen’ on TV programmes or radio shows and I feel such privilege and gratitude to be associated with brownies in this way. My relationship with brownies spans every stage of my life, my involvement with brownies has grown and evolved with each decade, and my company is a brownie company in the eyes of our guests before it can even try to become anything else.
My brownie history is as much Mum’s story as it is mine. It was nearly 25 years ago that Gulzar, a pregnant lady in our building, asked Mum to bake her some brownies. She had lived in America and was craving them again when she was pregnant. Mum had never eaten a brownie, so at first, she brushed aside the request. After a few gentle reminders, she found a walnut brownie recipe in one of her cookbooks, baked her first batch and delivered them upstairs. Gulzar loved the brownies and ordered them many times after that. Mum started offering brownies to her other customers through her catering business and they loved it too. This was the beginning of the brownie craze that would sweep over our city in the years to come.
Around this time, Mum’s friend Nirmal Sethia dropped by for a visit. He tried one of Mum’s brownies, and said he enjoyed it. Sometime later, Nirmal uncle ordered a brownie at Cream Centre, a vegetarian restaurant at Chowpatty, and was appalled by what he was served. He complained to the manager and told him about Mum’s brownies, suggesting they contact her if they wanted to try the real thing. He left Mum’s number with the manager on a whim, certain that it would be discarded after he left. Much to our amazement, Mum got a call from Cream Centre the following day.
Cream Centre (then part of Blue Foods, a restaurant chain) is a vegetarian chain of restaurants, so Mum began experimenting with how to create a moist brownie without eggs. Soon, she was supplying brownies to Cream Centre, as well as New Yorker, New York New York, and Copper Chimney, which were all part of the Blue Foods Group. When Blue Foods began opening restaurants across India, they even transported Mum’s brownies by train to cities including Chandigarh, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. The brownies were so popular that at one point, a member of Mum’s staff was offered a large amount of money to part with her recipe. When Mum found out, she marched into the office of the person and said that she would stop supplying brownies immediately. An apology followed and assurances were given, and Mum continued to supply them with brownies for many years after that.
Mum delivered the brownies to the restaurants herself, and after I started driving, I shared that duty too. She had designed stainless steel racks that enabled us to deliver 20-odd trays at a time. The individual trays of brownies, held separately but on top of each other, were mounted onto a slotted rack and carried with a metal rod-like handle at the top. When Blue Foods started transporting Mum’s brownies to other cities, we had to deliver them to Sion Bus Depot and Victoria Terminus station (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus). It was impossible to find parking at these locations, and we were constantly harassed by parking enforcement. One day, Mum had quite enough. She visited their office and set out her demands. She needed to stop at these locations for less than 10 minutes every day, and wanted to avoid the daily stress and hassle. She offered a monthly arrangement and brownies, and she always paid on time. We were never troubled by them after that.
What I recall most vividly from that time is the smell of brownies. The aroma of freshly baked, warm chocolate was everywhere – in our house, clothes, building and cars. We woke up to it and we went to sleep with it. At times, it became unbearable. Yet, when I got into the OCLD and moved to Delhi, I longed for a whiff of that familiar fragrance. When I spoke to Mum over the phone, and she asked me what I wanted from home, I didn’t need a moment to think. ‘Brownies,’ I said. Mum sent me a batch and I instantly became popular with my teachers, batchmates and staff. Everyone loved Mum’s brownies and I was so proud of her because she always baked them with so much love.
As we set out on the Theobroma journey, we knew one variety of brownie (Mum’s walnut brownie) was never going to be enough. So, Tina and I set about developing an entire range of brownies. Fresh out of OCLD, I was bursting with new ideas and energy. As always, Tina was my enthusiastic taste tester.
Our Millionaire Brownie is an adaptation of an English classic, the Millionaire Shortbread. As a young girl, I made Millionaire Shortbread more times than I can remember, often in the middle of the night to share with my best friend Dilly. The crunchy biscuit base of shortbread seemed an unworthy repository for gooey, buttery caramel and a seriously thick layer of chocolate, so I experimented with layering caramel and chocolate over a brownie base. It was an instant hit, and for 15 years, Millionaire Brownie has been one of our most popular creations.
Then there is the Chocolate-Chip Brownie, created for a guest who did not eat nuts. Simple and classic, it eventually dethroned our well-liked Walnut Brownie and reigned supreme for our first decade or so.
When Mum was in London for Tina’s first delivery, they made a very chocolatey chocolate brownie, and added chopped chocolate to the batter. This became the Overload Brownie, which today outsells all other brownie varieties available at Theobroma.
During one of my visits to the UK, I had the brownie at Carluccio’s restaurant in Bicester Village. Its construction and decoration inspired our Truffle Brownie, which was chocolate ganache on a bed of walnut brownie and the company name piped on top. Much in demand, it was discontinued a few years ago to make place for our Rum & Raisin Brownie.
Tina’s current favourite is our Cookie Brownie, and her children, Riya and Varun, love it too. Cookie Brownie is chocolate- chip cookie dough, which is baked on top of our chocolate chip- brownie batter. Tina is always encouraging customers to try our Cookie Brownie and gets exasperated when they buy something else instead. We always carry loads of boxes of Cookie Brownies to London when we travel; Tina freezes them and often eats them at night after her kids have gone to bed.
My favourite is the Chocolate-Chip Brownie, the simplest brownie that we make but I am a girl who loves the classics. We fold chocolate chips into the batter, which melt in the oven just enough so that you cannot see them but you can taste them when you bite into the brownie.
I’m always looking for new brownie recipe ideas, and find that inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. One time, I was making marshmallows for Rhea, then 4 or 5 years old, one of my most loyal young customers. I put the leftover marshmallow on a brownie base and hey presto, a new brownie was born! We call the Marshmallow Brownie our ‘girlie brownie’ as it has become a popular way of finishing off a shopping trip among girls of a certain age.
We have made a few blondies too, but they were never as popular as our chocolate brownies. Instead of using melted chocolate or cocoa powder to flavour the brownie batter, blondies get their colouring from caramel-like brown sugar, aromatic vanilla extract and rich white chocolate. We offered Lemon or Apple Blondies for a while but they had limited appeal. We then created our Red Velvet Brownie with a cream cheese swirl, which has a cult following today.
When we opened our doors way back in 2004, our brownies made us an overnight success. We sold as much as we could make; guests queued up for our brownies during the festive season and customers would even fight over who would get the last few pieces before we sold out. For almost every year that we have been in business, we have run out of brownies in the days leading up to Diwali and Christmas. This, despite the fact that my brownie team works around the clock during this period, with only short naps on the bakery floor.
This excerpt from Baking a Dream: The Theobroma Story by Kainaz Messman Harchandrai with Tina Messman Wykes has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.
Subscribe to our YouTube channel.