Friday, November 27, 2009

Indian Pudding

Indian Pudding

Until today I had never made or even eaten Indian pudding, an historical dessert that is neither "Indian" as in chai, nor "pudding" as in Kozy Shack, but one of the oldest truly indigenous American desserts. Key ingredients include cornmeal, a New World staple, and molasses, a sugar refining by-product that appeared in the colonies in the mid-18th century and, along with rum and slaves, shaped the triangular route of early Atlantic trade. Although it's more of a curiosity today, Indian pudding was a fashionable restaurant dessert in many parts of the country for much of the 20th century.

A number of recipes are available on-line; I chose the one given in this CSM article based on its modest butter content. The loose batter of eggs, butter, milk, spices, molasses and cornmeal is cooked slowly at a relatively low temperature, which simulates the embers of a colonial cooking fire. I heartily recommend cooking it in a class dish as it goes through several fascinating stages as it cooks, from initially curdling into something like a scrambled dishtowel steeped in beef drippings, to the late-stage growth of a leathery brown hide.

The final product is something akin to a rustic custard or souffle, with the cornmeal texture pleasantly present and the molasses aroma hovering over the dish like localized smog. It was delicious hot with ice cream, and addictive served cool with a splash of milk; if there's any left tomorrow I'm sure I will enjoy it just as much cold with a cup of strong coffee.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Trader Joe's Gingerbread Mix

Deep, Dark, Gingerbread Cake & Baking Mix with Molasses & Ginger
Trader Joe's, $2.49

I just bought 5 boxes of cake mix.

I discovered this mix last fall and came to take its spicy comfort for granted. I even figured out how to cook it in a slightly undersized pan so that the center would come out puffy and moist, like a gingerbread souffle.

When it disappeared from the shelves shortly after the holidays, I was caught off guard--but I really shouldn't have been. While few sweet treats remain tethered to their original seasons or occasions, many of those associated with the winter holidays remain resolutely unavailable at other times--though whether they're unavailable because they seem inappropriate, or vice versa, I can't say.

In Sweetness and Power, anthropologist Sidney Mintz observes that holiday treats are among the oldest continuing food traditions; as the mix box notes, "In the Middle Ages, intricately decorated gingerbread cakes were given by fair ladies to knights going into tournament battle. Still popular today, gingerbread abounds during the holidays as a celebration of the season."

I look forward to having a little bit of Christmas cheer in July--that is, if my 5 boxes last that long.

[Note: if you don't happen to live within Trader Joe's territory, Hodgson Mills makes a boxed gingerbread mix that was my previous favorite.]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pâte de Fruit

Pâte de Fruit
Above: William Dean Chocolates, $5/small box
Below: Paris Caramels, $15/large box

Like jam, condensed milk, or astronaut ice cream , pâte de fruit (pronounced not like liver pâté, but as in "Pat the Bunny") is a delicacy born from a difficult challenge: how to make a perishable surplus last a little longer. During the 10th century in France, someone figured out that you could preserve ripe fruit by cooking it down into a semi-solid, super-concentrated state. Sometime later, the shelf life of this fruit paste was extended again when makers began to coat each piece with granulated sugar, a natural preservative.

I first fell for pâte de fruit while visiting France, where the 1000-year-old treat is still a part of modern life. It's a prime souvenir of the Auvergne region where it was invented, while the high-end epicerie Fauchon displays gleaming cubes of every imaginable flavor in a chic display case, and most corner shops sell little plastic-wrapped bars suitable for a kid's lunchbox.

While the US is well-stocked with fruity gems, gels, and jellies, it's decidedly lacking in proper pâte de fruit. What do I mean by "proper"? No "fruit flavorings". No gelatin (first, because I'm squeamish, second, because fruit is packed with pectin, a natural substance that is ready and waiting to become squishy, and third, because fruit + gelatin = jello). No more added sugar than absolutely necessary (again, fruit is already full of sugar). And finally, NO corn syrup, NO artificial coloring, NO preservatives; any so-called pâte de fruit that includes these ingredients is missing the point.

Needless to say, I don't get to eat pâte de fruit very often! I was thrilled to find them for sale at the William Dean Chocolates display at the Seattle Chocolate Salon. The ingredients were staightforward enough (fruit puree, wine, sugar, pectin, glucose, tartaric acid) so I bought a small box including cassis, mirabelle plum, kiwi, pear, raspberry and passionfruit (pictured above). I got the Paris Caramels box (below) from ChefShop, whose website reports that the fruit used comes directly from small-scale French growers. The flavors of lemon, passionfruit, and raspberry come through loud and clear.

Since things can get a little grim during Seattle winters, I'm trying not to eat all of these right away; I can picture myself in the middle of January, self-medicating with a daily dose of these sunny little sweets.