Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cooking: Dairy-Free, Sugar-Free Chocolate Custards

Chocolate Egg CustardMy love affair with baked egg custard goes back a lo-o-ong way, to my childhood. My paternal grandmother, the one who lived on a farm her entire life, used to keep some in the refrigerator, which was the first place I'd head when we visited.

There's something so comforting in this easily-digested treat, made at its simplest with just eggs, milk, and sugar.

Now that I'm all grown up, I find myself still craving this childhood treat, but wondered if I could adapt it to be free of dairy and sugar. This led to some internet research, where I learned that egg custard can be made with coconut milk. I am fortunate to have inherited my grandmother's custard cups, and mixed the custard in my mother-in-law's old Pyrex glass mixing bowl (the kind that came in four colors in graduated sizes), which added a note of nostalgic satisfaction to the process.

For the first batch I made, last summer, I steeped crushed lemongrass in some warmed coconut milk, strained it out, then proceeded to add eggs, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. While not as creamy as a traditional custard, it was pretty tasty, especially paired with fresh berries.

I had been experimenting with combining unsweetened cocoa powder and mashed banana in things like muffins, and that became the base of this latest experiment. The addition of some extra-spicy Vietnamese cinnamon added a lot of flavor.

These custards have more the texture of a panna cotta than a traditional, gelatinous baked egg custard, but they satisfied my craving just fine.

Baked Chocolate Egg Custard
makes 6

5 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup well-mashed very ripe banana
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I used strong Vietnamese cinnamon)
1 cup coconut milk

Preheat oven to 325° F, with a rack in the center of the oven.

Combine banana, cocoa and cinnamon and mix well to blend. Set aside.

Beat eggs, vanilla, and a pinch of salt until slightly frothy. Whisk in the banana-cocoa mixture and mix well.

Divide custard between 6 custard cups or individual ramekins. Place in larger pan, then pour hot water into the larger pan until it is halfway up sides of custard cups.

Bake 30-45 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Be careful not to overbake. Remove custard cups from water bath; let cool 10 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cooking: Yukon Gold Gnocchi with Roasted Beets

Gnocchi with Roasted BeetsMost days, I aim to keep cooking simple. Once in a while, though, it's fun to try something more elaborate. This dish, Yukon Gold Gnocchi with Roasted Beets and Beet-Merlot Reduction, is certainly that.

Adapted from a recipe in The Artful Vegan, a cookbook from San Franciscso's Millennium Restaurant, this is one of those dishes that demands some prep, starting the day before with the making of a dark roasted vegetable stock, rich with red onions, mushrooms, herbs, and wine, carefully reduced and strained. It's the kind of thing that happens daily in restaurant kitchens, rarely in home ones, where what seems like an enormous amount of vegetables are converted to a couple of quarts of intensely flavored stock. When people ask me what one thing they can do to improve their home cooking, I often suggest making their own stocks. This is usually met with silence and stares, but unless you've done it, you don't know what depth of flavor you've been missing.

Chioggia beetsThe day of serving started with baking Yukon Gold potatoes for the gnocchi and roasting red and Chioggia beets. Chioggia beets are perhaps the most beautiful of all the root vegetables, striped internally in red and white.

The recipe called for peeling the beets, which I suppose is de rigueur if you're a high-end restaurant, but at home I don't peel most vegetables. I simply want the vitamins that lay just beneath them, as well as the fiber. The beets got tossed with some vegetable stock, a tiny bit of oil, salt, allspice and cloves, then were roasted at 400°F until just tender, about one hour. They got set aside, and were re-warmed prior to plating the dish.

Yukon Gold gnocchiOn to the gnocchi. The potatoes, baked at 400°F until just done, then cooled to room temperature, were peeled (the skin comes off with just a little help from a paring knife), then mashed. Flour and a little salt was added to make a soft dough. In hindsight, I could have added more flour, as my gnocchi teetered on the edge of falling apart when cooked, but they were very tender.

The dough was rolled into a rope about one inch in diameter, then sliced into 1/2 inch slices. They got pinched in the middle to make little bone shapes, then went onto a flour-dusted sheet and stuck in the freezer for at least an hour.

On to the reduction. This starts with lightly caramelizing halved shallots in some olive oil, then adding a quartered red beet, some rosemary, some thyme, and some dried porcini mushrooms. After a brief sauté, a couple cups each of the dark roasted vegetable stock and a good Merlot are added. After reducing by half, this mixture is strained, dried cherries are added, and the sauce reduced by another third. The smell was intoxicating.

Another of the garnishes suggested by the book is tarragon oil. This is made by blanching fresh tarragon, shocking it in ice water, drying it, then blending the leaves with oil. So green!

To finish the dish, the roasted beets were re-warmed in the oven and the gnocchi went into a large pot of boiling, salted water. When they floated to the surface, they got transferred to a plate with a little olive oil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, more olive oil was heated with some minced garlic. The gnocchi went into the skillet to sizzle a while, until they just started to brown, then chopped parsley was added.

To plate, mound up some gnocchi in a soup plate. Arrange some roasted beets around it, then add 1/4 cup of the reduction sauce. Garnish with a few chopped walnuts, drizzle with some of the tarragon oil, and a final dusting of parsley.

This dish has an amazing depth of flavor, intense and rich, while containing very little oil or salt, and no black pepper or other strong seasonings. Not something I'll be making regularly, but good to have in the repertoire for special meals.

Plus, there is enough of everything left to have it for dinner again tonight. Happy New Year, indeed!