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[Ed: A treat for everyone today - a new guest blogger all the way from Port Colborne, ON (I think our most far flung contributor yet!). Everyone give Robin a warm welcome...]
My stepmother carries chocolate pudding with her wherever she goes. She once dreamed that she found a baby by the side of the road, and she wants to be prepared.
While you and I may not view chocolate pudding as one of nature’s great restoratives, it is true that puddings, historically, were not the frivolous foods that they are today. Medieval puddings were made from highly seasoned meats or fowl, more like sausage than dessert; the pease pudding of nursery rhyme fame was a thick soup of split yellow peas boiled with a ham bone. By the 1800s these savory puddings had evolved and were sweeter, often made with nuts or fruit, but were still boiled; plum pudding is a prime example. Pudding as we know it today is more closely related to custard. The ancient Romans (from ancient Rome, I mean, not elderly Italian cooks) realized the binding properties of eggs, and made sweet flans flavoured with honey and cinnamon; these custards evolved through time into such delights as creme caramel (custard baked on a layer of caramelized sugar which when inverted provides the sauce), Bavarois (custard with whipped cream, gelatine, and fruit or chocolate flavouring), and many other classic desserts.
So there’s pudding for you, in a nutshell. To be honest, even though I spent most of my working life as a cook, I haven’t made much chocolate pudding. I, myself, don’t even care for the stuff. It smacks of invalids and toothlessness, and lacks both textural interest and complexity of flavour. However, when I was a kid, it was a different story. We lived on a farm and had parents with back-to-the-land leanings; oh, how I coveted my little friends’ lunches! Wonderbread, Wagon Wheels, Twinkies, and most of all, those cunning plastic pots of Jell-O Pudding; I would gladly have traded the entire contents of my red barn lunchpail (with silo thermos) for just one Pudding Cup. My mother tried to placate me with homemade chocolate pudding, but I was not deceived. Her pudding came in an earthenware bowl, was topped by a leathery skin, and tasted faintly of goats; I craved pudding that tasted like the sound of that unctuous voice from the Kraft commercials that aired during the Carol Burnett Show.
But today, oh yes, today is Chocolate Pudding Day! A mere three hours ago, I cast aside my culinary snobbism and prepared chocolate pudding – not hot chocolate sabayon, not even pot au chocolate, but straight-forward chocolate pudding, the kind that tempts you to drop the ‘g’. I whisked together a quarter cup of sugar, two tablespoons cornstarch, a quarter cup of cocoal powder and a pinch of salt, then added two cups of whole milk and brought the mixture to a boil, whisking steadily, as is my wont. I beat a couple of egg yolks in a small bowl and whisked in a little of the hot mixture, then added the yoolks back into the saucepan and whisked some more, being careful not to overcook the egg.
Then I took the saucepan off the heat, beat in four ounces of chopped dark chocolate, added a little vanilla, and poured the mixture into four six-ounce ramekins. I toyed briefly with the idea of putting a bit of parchment paper on top of the ramekins to prvent the dreaded puddinskin [Ed.: Great word!], but felt that this was somehow a betrayal of tradition. I chilled the cups for two hours, then tasted.
You know what? It wasn’t that bad. Given a choice I would have preferred to have gnawed the four ounces of chocolate directly from the block, but maybe that’s just me. The pudding’s texture was pleasantly smooth but had the mouth-feel that cornstarch-thickened food always has, faintly glutinous. Using cocoa as well as chopped chocolate gives the pudding much-needed depth and the egg yolks add the richness that whipping cream and/or butter lend to more sophisticated chocolate desserts. And while the puddings did develop a bit of a skin, for some reason it wasn’t nearly as repulsive as I’d remembered. Really, the only thing missing was that little plastic pot, that, of course, and the partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, assorted emulsifiers, and artificial colour and flavour…
Happy Chocolate Pudding Day!
Lobster Newburg is a dish full of history. The recipe was developed in the late 19th century at the one of the most famous eateries on the planet. Delmonico’s opened its doors in the heart of the New York financial district in 1837. The iconic establishment on Beaver Street, long known for its succulent steaks, is still a fashionable dining destination today. But Delmonico’s is much more than an old-fashioned steak house. It is also the home of several gastronomic firsts – it was the first formal dining restaurant in the United States, the first to serve hamburger, the creator of Baked Alaska, the creator of Eggs Benedict, and of course the creator of Lobster Newburg.
Lobster Newburg is itself a fantastic bit of culinary lore. As the story goes, a wealthy sea captain and regular patron of Delmonico’s came in one night in 1876 announcing that he had discovered a new preparation for lobster. Ben Wenburg called for a chafing dish and demonstrated his new recipe on the spot. Chef, Charles Ranhofer, and owner, Charles Delmonico, were suitably impressed with Wenburg’s creation. Ranhofer tweaked the recipe and added “Lobster a la Wenerg” to the menu soon after that fabled night. The creamy lobster concoction was an instant hit with diners. Then the story takes a dark turn. Delmonico barred Wenburg from the restaurant after the two quarreled. Over what, no one knows. Wenburg was thus deemed persona non grata and the dish he helped create was renamed Newburg. Despite its sordid past, it remains one of the most popular dishes on the Delmonico’s menu.
Now that we’re done with the history lesson, you may be asking what exactly is Lobster Newburg? Put simply, it is pure decadence. It is lobster with a sherry and cognac infused, egg-thickened cream sauce. Trust me, you don’t want to count the calories on this one. Suffice it to say you’ll have a log a few hours on the treadmill to work off a Newburg. That said, every day is a good day for lobster.
I have to admit, I’ve never made Lobster Newburg before. I haven’t even tried it in a restaurant, so the first thing I had to do was to go in search of a recipe. I settled on the Lobster Newburg recipe from Epicurious.com. I followed the recipe to the letter with the exception of adding a squeeze of lemon at the end and serving it over parpadelle instead of toast points. I served my Newburg with a heaping helping of asparagus to help ease my unhealthy conscience. Coincidently, asparagus also goes really well with a rich creamy sauce.
And the verdict… I loved it! The rich, luscious sauce paired with the sweet tender lobster was a brilliant combination. That said, if I were to make it again, I’d serve it as an appetizer. A little bit of rich is fantastic, too much is just too much. The other thing I might do is to replace half of the cream with lobster stock to turn it into an almost-any-day pasta sauce. It also occurred to me that crab, prawns and perhaps even scallops would pair nicely with the Newburg cream sauce.
So there you have it… 134 years after its first appearance Lobster Newburg is still winning fans. You know, I’ve always wanted to go to Delmonico’s. I think the next time I’m in New York I’ll have to make a pilgrimage to the home of the original Newburg. Maybe I’ll try the Baked Alaska while I’m at it.
You might be wondering why it is that I have posted a picture of a whisk when the topic is National Whipped Cream Day. In theory, I suppose I should have posted a picture of mounds of creamy, pillowy, delicious whipped cream, but the thing is, without this whisk, there is no whipped cream – at least not in my house.
I feel rather passionately about whipped cream, making me a bit of a shoe-in (is that how you spell it?) for this post. As I mentioned on National Cream Puff Day, I am a bit of a purist. I like my whipped cream made fresh and preferably not tampered with a great deal. I loathe the idea of whipped cream in a can. Dea and I have debated this at length as she is a proponent of the canned cream. I understand her perspective. Whipped cream in a can is convenient, mess-free and keeps longer than the fresh stuff. There is no labour involved whatsoever and no dishes other than the ones you eat from.
For me, however, it is simply not worth it. The texture of canned cream is all wrong and it is, almost without fail, too sweet and kind of chemical-y tasting. There has been more than one occasion when I have walked out of Dea’s house late at night in search of a container of whipping cream in order to service whatever dessert we are having; this despite the fact that there is a perfectly useful can of whipped cream already in her fridge. Reading this you are probably in agreement with Dea and whichever other house guests have been present on such occasions – yes, I am a little nutty. I won’t deny it.
I used to work in a restaurant that used whipped cream in a variety of things, including special coffees and most all the desserts. We used those whipped cream canisters that use those little Whip-It cartridges. We would pour a litre of whipping cream into the canister and then add just one small packet of sugar before screwing on the top and putting in the cartridge. This is when I came to the understanding that whipped cream is really just better on its own. A tiny bit of sugar – 1 teaspoon to an entire litre – is really more than enough to flavour it. You might add a smidgen, just a smidgen, of vanilla too. But whipped cream is sublimely decadent and is usually paired with desserts that are verging on the obscene when it comes to sweetness. You need a delicate touch to balance that out.
I do not use Whip-It cartridges at home. Whipped cream that is produced via the instant injection of nitrous oxide bubbles is unstable and a little light in texture. It won’t hold it’s “whip”, so to speak, and reverts to liquid form too quickly for my tastes – particularly when served over a hot food, beverage or … I leave it to your imagination.
I also don’t use a power mixer to make my whipped cream. Why? Because when I use my magical whisk, I am faster and less messy than any electric beater. I recently confirmed this at Christmas dinner at my parents’ house where I used their electric mixer and managed to spray the entire kitchen, top to bottom, with little white droplets of cream; and it took ages for the cream to thicken.
The trick to good and fast whipped cream is to use the freshest whipping cream and to chill the cream and the stainless steel mixing bowl in the freezer for 5 – 10 minutes before whipping it. And you have to have the right whisk. Note the large tines of my whisk and how there are multiple layers of tines set in different directions. This whisk aerates the cream so fast you hardly have time to think about it before you’d better stop or you’re making butter.
I would be remiss if I did not note the fact that whipped cream and its accoutrements have and are used for a variety of illicit and naughty purposes. The notion of whipped cream as sex toy is so common as to be cliché, and surely more than one high school student has enjoyed experimenting with a few Whip-Its from time to time (if you didn’t know, Whip-Its are canisters of nitrous oxide, a.k.a. Laughing Gas). But these things simply add to the Whipped Cream Mystique, the aura of the forbidden, the decadent, and yes, the divine.
Whipped cream is more than just a garnish. Indeed, it can be a dessert in itself (as witnessed at Christmas dinner this year when my sister-in-law, N, a woman after my own heart, chose to forego the pumpkin pie and simply have a bowlful of whipped cream for dessert). It is deceptively light and utterly delicious and I can eat dangerous amounts of the stuff.
Whipped cream is one of the top 5 reasons I took up triathlon.