pots of serious indulgence

Any dessert that starts with chocolate and cream can only be a good thing. One of those things that demand immediate and undivided attention. And alcohol.

After a lot of marinating in butter, re-usage of leftover tamarind sauce and coming up with a very Taylor Swift-esque post title, we ended the weekend with another potluck featuring Arpi’s chicken makhani that made me weep with pleasure, eggs in mustard sauce and some more rosogollas [as if we weren't Bengali enough the first time around]. And Sunday morning the only way I was able to get out of bed was the promise of Tums with a glass of water.

But the only thing that can cure over-indulgence, dear readers, is more indulgence. In the form of cream. With chocolate. And cognac. In a dessert that’s brazenly named Pot de crème. As if a pot of cream is the most natural thing to eat in the world. I don’t think any other dessert comes with a in-your-face name like that. Pot of cream. As simple as that. Take it or leave it.

In my world that is ruled by quickies such as chocolate mousse and cocoa, waiting around for something that require the setting up of a bain marie, or needs about an hour in the oven and then a couple of hours more in the refrigerator to set, can be voluminously unattractive. But the idea of a luscious pot de creme has been in my mind for quite sometime. More accurately, since Nik (of A Brown Table) posted an unbaked version of rose and almond pot de crème. Rose and almond. It sounds like something ancient Indian royalty would have for breakfast.

But anyway. That happened more than a month ago. And now this. The idea has finally culminated. I, apparently have no problems with delayed gratification.

These pots de crème start ordinarily enough, by heating milk and cream together, followed by the addition of chocolate and the whisking in of eggs. And then comes the cognac. Anything majorly chocolate is always a blank canvas for creativity. And normally, I like that. I like adding chilli to my chocolate. Or the occasional citrus. Or nuts and berries. But these pots are devoid of such froufrou-ness. They are serious, snooty and formal. They take 40% alcohol and they can hold their drink quite well, thank you.

Chocolate and Cognac Pots de Creme
adapted from a recipe by Stefano Faita 

120gm (4oz) dark chocolate (60-70%)
3/4 cup double cream
1/2 cup whole milk
Yolks from 3 large eggs
Pinch of salt
3 tbsp of cognac
Whipping cream, to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 170° C. Place 4-6 small ramekins/cups into a baking tray with high edges. Chop the chocolate and sit aside. Heat the cream and milk in a saucepan till the mixture just starts to bubble up. Don’t let it boil over. Add the chopped chocolate to this mixture and stir till the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Let it sit for a minute. Meanwhile in a separate bowl whisk the egg yolks with a pinch of salt till pale. Pour in the chocolate-cream mixture into the yolks whisking continuously. Stir in the cognac. Strain into ramekins, cups or moulds. Fill up the baking tray with boiling water till the water comes half-way up the sides of the ramekins. Loosely cover the entire tray with foil and punch a few holes in it with a fork. Bake for 50-60 minutes or till the edges are set and the centres are still wobbly. Take out of the water and cool for 30 minutes before popping them into the refrigerator. The pots need to set in the fridge for at least a couple of hours before serving. For best results try chilling them overnight. Serve with softly whipped cream or with sea salt sprinkled on top.

black pepper and chocolate mousse cake

This one slipped under the radar, I swear to God.

Black Pepper and Chocolate Mousse Cake

It somehow got lost in the crowd. Which is ironic because this is not a cake you want to forget. I made this mousse cake a month back – and somewhere between all the mushroom-roasting and crispy-frying and egg-ruining, I forgot all about it. Excuse me while I go hang myself by the neck.

The cake was put together in the blink of an eye and was devoured even quicker. I think I was in the middle of readying the fourth camera shot when the slices started disappearing off the table. Plus I blame my camera for running out of charge. And I got busy with work the very next day – structural plans and sections wreak havoc when you least expect them too.

Does it seem like I’m making too many excuses?

I don’t know why though, because this cake is worth a thousand compensations. It’s set in chocolate through and through and speckled beautifully with cracked black pepper. Its chocolate mousse sitting atop a dense fudgy base and I highly recommend eating light before you attempt to dig into this, although I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ll be able to handle it easily.

Now that the introductions have been made, I’ll leave you two alone.

Black Pepper and Chocolate Mousse Cake

Black Pepper and Chocolate Mousse Cake (Not for the faint-hearted, or the chocolate-purists)
recipe for mousse adapted from BBC Good Food. I forget the month of issue.

The cake base uses a recipe based loosely on a birthday cake that I make, with a few obvious tweaks. And the mousse recipe that came on Good Food was a plain classic version of the dessert. The black pepper I added was totally on a whim. A planned whim.

For the cake base:
3/4 cup ground almonds
4 tbsp natural unsweetened cocoa powder  (not Dutch processed)
4 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil (eg, canola, peanut, sunflower etc but not olive)
1/3 cup sour cream

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and grease a 8″X8″ square tin or a 8-9″ dia round tin. Line the bottom with parchment. Grease the parchment too. Mix almonds, cocoa, flour and salt in a small bowl and whisk eggs, sugar, oil and sour cream in a bigger bowl till the sugar dissolves. Add the dry mixture into the wet and stir till just combined. Do not overwork the batter. Bake for 20-25 minutes and cool in the cake tin for a half hour before turning out on the rack. Line the same cake tin (washed and dried) used to bake the cake in, with cling film, making sure the film hangs over the edges of the tin. This just makes it easier to lift the mousse cake out after its frozen. Place the cooled cake back into the cling-film lined tin and leave to rest in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

For the mousse:
4 eggs, separated
2 tbsp freshly cracked black pepper
2/3 cup (150ml) double cream
10 oz (about 300gm) dark bittersweet chocolate
2 tbsp powdered sugar (granulated sugar ground in a processor)

Melt the chocolate in the microwave in short bursts, or in a heat-proof bowl sitting over a pot of boiling water. Keep aside to cool for minute. Whisk the egg yolks and pour in the warm chocolate while whisking continuously. Whisk the double cream till soft peaks form. Fold the egg-chocolate mixture into the softly whipped cream. Use a large bowl for this, since the egg whites will also be folded into this later. Whisk the egg whites in a separate (clean) bowl with the electric beaters on high, till the whites start foaming (this will take about a minute). Start adding the sugar a teaspoon at a time while still whisking the whites, till the whites form stiff glossy peaks. Take 1/3 of the whisked meringue and stir it quickly into the chocolate-cream mixture. Add the rest of the meringue and the black pepper in and fold gently. Pour this mousse on top of the cake and smooth out the top with a palette knife. Sprinkle the top with freshly cracked black pepper.

Freeze the mixture for 4-5 hours in the freezer. Once its frozen, it can easily be lifted out of the tin by grabbing the overhanging edges of the cling-film. Carefully peel off the film before cutting the cake into slices and serve. Alternatively, allow the cake to defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or so before serving, if you want the mousse to be softer.

 

learning to choose crème caramel

You can either be a tea person. Or a coffee person.

It is the sort of situation that we are born into. A Universal Rule, that the entire world be divided between important matters such as choosing dogs over cats, tea over coffee, milk chocolate over dark, summer over winter, soup over salad. Or vice versa. And so on and so forth. And against all my efforts to be an equal-opportunity cook – or eater really – I’ve failed miserably. But I try. I really do.

For example, there was the time when I lugged home a 3-pound sack of Brussels sprouts (that’s almost one and half kilos of sprouts, if you’ve been metricised like I have), seemingly adamant that for once I was going to try and eat more than just 3 or 4 of them. I wanted to like vegetables as much as I like pork. I wanted to give them equal-footing. I was going through the phase where I wanted to add a salad to every meal. Stuff dreams are made of.

The phase lasted about 12 hours – a personal best – and it did lead to two very good meals. Both meaty, glazed with fat and buried under mountains of sprouts. They will be forever remembered as The Two Meals That Would Make My Mother Proud. Two hours following that, I emptied the sack dividing its remaining contents among several small Tupperware boxes, and distributed them between my college-mates. Considering what a raging carnivore I am that was an honest effort. And that has to count for something. Right? RIGHT?

Believe me, dear reader, I have grown since. And the wisdom I have acquired over the last two years allow for a diet generous in vegetables. But a girl’s got to eat what a girl’s got to eat – I would always choose meat over veggies. And as a general rule endorsed by my family, I would choose winter over summer, salad over soup, pork over Brussels sprouts and dark chocolate over almost anything.

Also, I am a coffee person. Which is, for lack of better words, out-of-place in my world. This is a serious hitch. The tell-tale sign of a prospective black sheep. You see, I’ve spent all of my life within the expanses of two countries who don’t get out of bed without tea. Any sort of greeting from any citizen of either country is always followed by the inevitable question: Would you like a cup of tea?
Amidst all that, I sit traitorously nursing my morning latte.

But I have a crème caramel here with me today that transcends all favouritism. It overlooks all treachery and weirdness. It could kick any damn Universal Rule’s arse in a flash if it wanted to without even blinking its caramel-coated eyes. It is infused with tea. Darjeeling tea.

Its baked chai with a wobble and a silky texture and a melting robe of powerful, powerful caramel. It tears away at the slightest touch of a spoon and slithers down your throat leaving a trail of milky tea behind. Its a sexed-up housewife in fishnets. The tea infuses the eggy custard with a fragrance the way only Darjeeling’s finest can. And for a coffee-lover, that’s saying a lot.

Then there’s the ginger. It wouldn’t be chai without ginger now, would it? The ginger does not blare out loudly like it does in most ginger-infused goods. Its gentle and nurturing in this case. And the best bit is the high pleasure-to-effort ratio. The pudding is utter gorgeousness compared to the minimal effort I put in it. There is this deep satisfaction that courses through your body when you run a sharp knife along the edge of the ramekin and turn it upside-down over a plate. The pudding softly plops down onto a pool of burnt amber glaze – something that could easily make you want to bathe in it.

For this pudding I’ll choose tea over coffee any day. In fact, if I weren’t so close to my skinny jeans, I’d say this could easily replace my morning cuppa.

Crème Caramel for Non-believers, with Darjeeling tea and ginger

2 cups (500ml approx) of whole milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp good-quality Darjeeling tea leaves
4 eggs
2 tbsp ginger paste
2 tsp vanilla extract
For the caramel:
1 1/2 cup of granulated sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup of water

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Grease the ramekins lightly. Set them on a deep baking pan.
In a bowl crack the eggs and whisk them lightly. Heat milk in pan and stir in the sugar till the sugar dissolves and the milk just starts bubbling. Take the pan off heat and add the tea leaves. Cover pan and set it aside to steep for 10 minutes. Strain the mixture and pour the milk into the bowl with the eggs. Keep whisking while pouring taking care that the eggs don’t scramble. Squeeze out the juices from the ginger paste through a sieve and into the custard. Discard the pulp. Add vanilla and stir to mix.

Set the custard aside and make the caramel. Stirring the sugar, lemon juice and water together in a pan over medium heat. Stop stirring the moment the mixture starts to bubble. Let the mixture foam, sputter and froth all it wants but make sure you don’t take your eyes off it. The caramel will become golden at first and then very quickly thicken into a slothy amber syrup. Take it off the heat immediately and carefully pour into the ramekins to coat their bottoms. Be careful – this is boiling sugar we’re talking about.

Pour the custard over the layers of caramel to fill the ramekins 2/3 of the way. Pour boiling water into the deep baking dish so that the water comes about half-way up to the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 30-40 minutes. To check if the puddings are done  give them a quick shake – the centres should still wobble a good deal. Touch the surface of a pudding lightly with the tip of your index finger and if it doesn’t break away, then they’re done. Cool the ramekins on a rack and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. To serve, just run a sharp knife along the edge to loosen the pudding and quickly turn over on a plate.

This crème caramel doesn’t really need adornments but you could add a few pieces of crystallized ginger if you want.

  

chili-crusted chicken or how to juice up a breast

Alright. Grab your coffee and pull up a chair because we need to talk about this chicken.

This chicken is hot property. In fact, I can still hear the two leftover pieces sizzling in the baking dish in the kitchen. And its been at least three hours since I’ve had dinner.

Every time I roast whole chickens, I whip up a concoction of ginger-garlic paste, soya sauce, white sugar and Xiaoxing wine and pour it over the chicken and under its skin. And I’ve always served it with roasted red peppers and cucumber salad.

I’ve always felt that as an Indian I should automatically tip towards khichdi or daal as comfort food. But as much as I hate to admit it, it is true — roast chicken calms me down.

If my mother’s reading this, then we’ll have a lot to talk about very soon.

And yes, coming to the subject of breasts and thighs; I’m a thigh-person through and through. I go straight for the dark meat. No apologies. Besides, what is it with all the oohing over chicken breasts? Unless cooked sous vide or doused in sauce, those breasts usually have a tough time staying plump and juicy. I worry about that.

And that is exactly the reason I winced when I read a recipe of black-pepper crusted chicken breasts. I wanted to try making something “crusted” and the recipe seemed appropriate. Except those breasts. They loomed before me with a sneer in their faces.

In the end I settled for smoky chili and garlic instead of black pepper. And to keep the breasts moist, some orange juice. That’s right. You heard me. Orange juice.

Kind of a botched very-weak poulet version of duck a l’orange.

P.S. – If you’re wondering about the strawberries swimming in cream….well, as an homage to my grandmothers who moved to England 70 years back at the tender age of 16 or 17, I decided to have their favourite dessert for breakfast. And also, I had a ton of strawberries lying lonely in the fridge.

Chili-garlic crusted chicken

4 chicken breasts
1-2 tsp of unsalted butter
1-2 tbsp of olive sauce
2 tbsp of minced red chili (leave the seeds in, if like me you like it hot. For a milder taste, remove the seeds)
1 tbsp of dried chili flakes
2 tbsp of minced garlic
1 cup of orange juice (with pulp)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 160 deg C. Prepare a baking tray by greasing it.
Make diagonal cuts on the skin-side of the breasts; each cut just about quarter of an inch deep. Rub in the garlic, chili flakes, minced chili and butter into the cuts. Drizzle orange juice and olive oil over the breasts after placing them in the tray. Add salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast for about 30-40 minutes, or till the juices run clear.

In the picture I’ve served it alongside a watercress and arugula salad dressed in a mint-pecorino dressing.