Sunday, November 28, 2010

Custard Pumpkin

Custard Pumpkin

My first-ever Thai meal was at Sawatdee in St. Paul, MN, and I capped off a good dinner with a great dessert: a slice of rich, spongy custard embedded with diced pumpkin. Since that day I've rarely passed up a chance to eat Thai custard, preferably cooked inside a hollowed-out pumpkin, and served by the slice with a side of coconut black sticky rice.

Since I don't always have a retail source, I resort to making my own about once a year, usually around Thanksgiving when the prevalence of pumpkins acts as a mouth-watering reminder. My results have been mixed. True Thai custard calls for duck eggs and palm sugar, so my chicken egg and cane sugar version is bound to be a bit off. For such a short recipe, it also contains a daunting number of variables, from the size and moisture content of the pumpkin, to the volume and freshness of the eggs, to the eccentricities of whatever ersatz steaming contraption I've rigged up. Added to that, I tend to try a different recipe every time, which I realize is not the best approach in terms of trouble-shooting. Accordingly, over the years my "custard pumpkins" have overflowed, fallen, or failed to set--and on one dramatic occasion, the pumpkin sprang a leak and bled out all over the steamer.

But still, this stuff is so good and--theoretically--so simple, that by the time pumpkin season rolls around I'm always ready to try again. Here's what I tried this year:

Slice the top off one smallish kabocha or sugarpie pumpkin (for reference, that's a salad-sized plate in the photo above) and scoop out the guts. Pop the pumpkin into whatever steamer you prefer (I set it on a steel steamer basket inside a crockpot), add water and get the steam going. If you have room you can put the pumpkin lid as well. Mix 1c coconut milk, 1c brown sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, and 1/2 tsp cinnamon. In another bowl, whisk 4 eggs until foamy. Gently combine the eggs and coconut milk mixture and pour into the pumpkin; ideally the liquid should be pretty close to the top of the opening (the contents will rise and then fall) but I'm never sure what to do if it isn't. Steam until the custard is completely set and the pumpkin is soft but not mushy. Cool, slice into wedges, and serve.

Custard pumpkin 2010 might have been a little short and oddly lumpy, but it was quite delicious. I already have my eye on this recipe for custard pumpkin 2011.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Black Sesame Cereal

Black Sesame Cereal
Greenmax, $6.79/16 servings

With my demanding sweet tooth, instant desserts always seem like such a good idea. Embarrassingly often I come home from the store with boxes or sachets or envelopes full of magical powder that requires only water to transform into jelly, pudding, gruel, or some species of thick, sweet beverage for which there is no word in English.

Unfortunately, my sweet tooth is almost as discerning as it is demanding, and once I've welcomed them into my home, most of these over-sweet, artificially-flavored, and additive-laden treats languish in the cupboard until the packages are as dusty as their contents.

The one big exception to this rule is Black Sesame Cereal from Greenmax, a Taiwanese company that has been making seed- and grain-based convenience foods since the 1960s under the banner "Make Healthy & Beautiful Wish". Since Greenmax shuns colorings, artificial flavors, preservatives, and non-dairy creamer their sesame cereal looks like sun-bleached asphalt but tastes like the real, comforting, and delicious things from which it is made.

Black sesame cereal contains just eight ingredients: sesame, black beans, brown rice, Job's tears (barley), wheat germ, medlar seed, licorice root, and brown sugar. Amongst my entire collection of just-add-water treats, this is the only instance in which sugar comes anything but first on the list of ingredients.

A little hot liquid renders each packet into a creamy and respectable breakfast with 143 calories, 2.6g of protein, and 4.7g of fiber, plus 11 vitamins and minerals including calcium and iron. Mixing it with coffee instead of water intensifies the nutty, roasty flavor--and adds a little kick.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flavigny Violet Pastilles

Anis de Flavigny
Maison Troubat, from $3.50

When I was growing up in Tennessee, a trip to Disney World was a sort of middle school rite of passage. In the weeks leading up to my family's pilgrimage, I pored over guidebooks and drafted daily schedules that would maximize my time on the park's best rides.

But as we all know, even the best-laid plans change. In this instance, Epcot Center was my undoing. At the time, I hadn't yet been to any of the countries represented by the pavilions in Epcot's international area, and I found even those lite versions more intriguing than roller coasters. I spent hours wandering the souks in "Morocco," pawing through trinkets in "China," and drinking sweet, milky tea in "England".

It was in "France" that I first tried Flavigny pastilles, small round white candies packed in floral-print tins. The hard sugar balls clacked against my teeth like tiny marbles, discouraging any attempt at crunching down. I learned to wait patiently for the flavored sugar to dissolve before biting into the single, tiny aniseed hidden in the center for a hit of herbal flavor. Whenever I was able to tear myself away from Epcot's gentler pleasures for a ride on Space Mountain or Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, I perfumed the air with anise-scented screams.

It turns out that Anis de Flavigny are even more evocative than my 12-year-old self could have imagined. If you've seen the film Chocolat, you've seen Flavigny, the picturesque village in Burgandy where the candies have been made for more than a thousand years. In some sense their history dates back even further, to a period more than 2,000 years ago when Roman soldiers introduced aniseed to territory they'd won from the Gauls, and a retired general called Flavinius settled on the hilly site that still bears his name.

Like so many dainty and labor-intensive delicacies, Anise de Flavigny were once produced by a religious community. The Benedictine monks of the Flavigny Abbey made their pastilles from the most exotic and expensive ingredients, including perfumed oils and distillates that required tons of herbs or blossoms to produce. Their candies found an enthusiastic following among the French aristocracy; Madame de Pompadour was one famous fan. Following the dissolution of monastic communities during the French Revolution, a number of local candy makers took up pastille production.

Today anis de Flavigny are made by a single, secular company, La Maison Troubat. The third generation of candy-making Troubats work in buildings that were once part of the Abbey complex, and use a recipe that dates from 1591. They offer Anis de Flavigny in a range of 10 all-natural flavors: plain anise, blackcurrant, lemon, orange blossom, ginger, tangerine, mint, liquorice, rose and violet.

The technique used to make anis de Flavigny is known as panning. This ancient process has an almost pan-global history; it has been used to make sweets as diverse as Portuguese confeito, Japanese konpeito, Jordan almonds, and Boston Baked Beans. Placed in large copper kettles over gentle heat, the aniseeds and flavored sugar syrup are tumbled together so that the sugar slowly builds up on the seed. It takes 15 days of careful spinning for to grow a pastille to the size of a pea.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Olive and Sinclair Chocolate

Sea Salt Bar

I hate to think there's any cause-and-effect going on, but Nashville has gotten so much cooler in the years since I moved away. There's the Frist Center for the Arts, the new Country Music Hall of Fame, Bongo Java coffee and Las Paletas popsicles, plus countless cool shops and restaurants in neighborhoods where I would not previously have dared to tread.

And to cap it all off, now there's Olive and Sinclair, the South's first bean-to-bar chocolate maker.

O&S chocolate is made in small batches using cacao from Ghana and the Dominican Republic (when available). Their plain chocolate bars are good, but it's the topped and flavored bars that create converts. The frosty white flakes scattered on the Sea Salt bar bring out the fruity flavors of the chocolate and mesh nicely with its stone-ground texture. The equally delicious Salt and Pepper bar has an additional sprinkle of coarse black pepper.

O&S chocolates also look as good as they taste, with a logo and labels that recall Hatch Show Print's vintage wood-block posters for noted Nashville products and musical acts.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Wagner's European Bakery, $3.59

From a storefront only a few blocks from the Washington State Capital, Wagner's European Bakery has been selling German-style pastries, breads, and lunch items since 1938. I like to imagine that much important legislation has been hammered out in a corner booth over kuchen and coffee.

The bienenstich is classed as a cake although the dough is yeasted and similar in flavor and texture to brioche. The pastry is baked in a single thick sheet under a coating of sliced almonds and honey, then split in two and filled with a generous layer of custardy Bavarian cream.

The cake's name is German for "bee-sting" and explanations for this range from the ho-hum to the historically sublime. Sure the name probably refers to the honey-laden cake's potential for attracting vengeful bees, but the romantic in me prefers to see bienenstich as the legacy of a scrappy 15th century military victory. As the story goes, a Bavarian village was buckling under siege when two young bakers turned back the invaders by pelting them with beehives. As an encore, they invented bienenstich--so that cake-eating future generations would never forget their quick thinking and verve.

If you're hankering for some bienenstich but nowhere near a German bakery, this
recipe from the blog "Mennonite Girls Can Cook" looks promising.

Wagner's European Bakery and Cafe
1013 Capitol Way S
Olympia, WA

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dia de los Muertos

Mark Sanchez at PW Kerr's, $30-48

The Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos sees families gather together to honor and celebrate loved ones who have died. Coinciding with the Catholic Church's observance of All Saints' and All Souls' Days, Day of the Dead festivities are distinguished by dark humor, dramatic pageantry, and touching personal details. Altars are built to commemorate specific individuals and decorated with pictures of the deceased, objects representing their hobbies or passions, and favorite food and drinks.

The skull, or calavera, is one of the celebration's most visible symbols. Serving as masks, decorations, or offerings, skulls may be fashioned from materials such as cut tissue, papier-mache, plaster, bread, chocolate, or sugar. Cast sugar skulls are a popular Day of the Dead gift; the skulls are intricately embellished with icing or caster sugar and labeled across the forehead with the name of a loved one--either living or dead.

PW Kerr's
612 West McGraw St
Seattle, WA