Of Nuts and Chocolate
by Siobhan Phillips · March 26, 2009
Two months ago, our Pro Vercelli Serie C1 promotion dish served up a fundamental combination of world cuisine—beans and rice—which comes to a subtle perfection in the borlotti-rich risotto that is Panissa vercellese. Last month, our Serie B promotion celebration turned to an even more essential marriage of flavors that is even more elevated in the history of our hometown’s environs. I speak—deep breath here—of nuts and chocolate.
If you have doubts that Piedmont marks the dead-center hub of Europe’s best habits, look more closely at the story of cacao: though continental citizens drank chocolate from the time beans arrived from South America, where several cultures had consumed this food of the gods for over a thousand years, it was northern-Italian confectioners who first discovered the magic of solid chocolate in the eighteenth century. Piedmontese artisans, moreover, first thought to mix the stuff with the nuts that grow nearby. In 1964, this history culminates in nothing less than Nutella, which brought the subtleties of gianduja to eaters around the globe. The popularity of this spread, a staple everywhere from South Africa to Singapore to Scotland, rivals that of certain sports one could mention.
I did not, however, simply crack open a jar for Brian to mark his Serie B ascent. We pursued something a bit more particularly Piedmontese, something almond- rather than hazelnut-based: a bonet that sets amaretti in a rum-touched chocolate pudding which is then covered in burnt-sugar sauce. Custard and cookies, caramel and cream, crunch and silk, cocoa and almonds—this dish checks off the complete list of dessert facets we most fervently wish for. But it does so subtly. Or fairly subtly; I have to confess that I adapted this recipe from sources that include the restaurant Babbo. Perhaps our swift climb in the rankings has prompted some aspirational cooking.
The recipe is in two parts, cookies and custard. The cookies I remember from childhood celebrations, where a big red tin would sometimes be passed after dinner. Everyone else would watch in still, silent awe as the paper amaretti wrappers were lit on fire-only to slowly ascend upward, like eerie kitchen angels, till they burnt out completely and expired mid-air—but I was generally busy licking up the last white globs of pearl sugar from my plate. Making these confections at home means an even better, more almondy flavor, though it precludes the fun of the wrapper spectacle. That’s all right, though; I figure we can hold off on fireworks till we win Serie A. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy this dessert of Serie B celebration.
makes two servings
for the cookies:
1 ½ cups raw almonds
½ cup sugar
2 egg whites
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
for the custard:
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon instant coffee powder or espresso
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon rum
for the caramel:
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
¼ cup whipped cream (optional)
1.) Make the cookies. Preheat oven to 300 F; grease a baking sheet. Grind almonds and sugar in a food processor or blender until they form a very fine powder. Add the egg whites, vanilla extract, and almond extract; process till the dough is smooth and well blended. Divide into 15 sections; shape each into a ball. Place these in rows on the baking sheet and flatten each slightly. (The cookies do not spread much during cooking.) Bake the cookies 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Allow the cookies to cool completely.
2.) Make the custard. In a small saucepan, whisk together the milk, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the coffee, and the cocoa. Bring this mixture to a boil, then remove it from the heat. Allow it to cool for 15-20 minutes. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the eggs, the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar, and the rum. Pour the cooled milk mixture into this egg mixture. Stir well, then strain the resulting mix through a fine sieve into a medium-sized pitcher.
3.) Make the caramel. In a small saucepan, heat the sugar and water together, stirring. Bring the mixture to a boil and allow it to boil, stirring, until it turns a deep golden color. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool till the mixture becomes a deep amber color.
4.) Assemble and bake the dessert. Have ready two small oven-proof ramekins, one large oven-proof baking dish, and a kettle of boiling water. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Pour a good dollop of the caramel into one of the ramekins, swirling it up the sides to coat the whole dish. Crumble two cookies and press the crumbs into the caramel. Repeat this process for the other ramekin. Pour half of the custard mixture into each ramekin. Arrange the ramekins in the large baking pan so that they do not touch each other. Pour boiling water into the baking pan until the water comes at least halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Slide the baking pan into the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes. The custards are done when the center looks well set.
5.) Prepare and serve the dessert. Allow the ramekins to cool for about an hour in the pan with the water bath. Then transfer the ramekins to the refrigerator and allow them to cool for at least 4 hours more before serving. To serve, slide a knife around the edge of the ramekin. Invert the ramekin over a dessert plate, tap the bottom, and wait till the custard slides out. The caramel sauce should pool around the base. Top with whipped cream, if desired. Serve a few extra cookies on the side.
You will probably have some caramel left over. You will also, of course, have some amaretti left over. You can probably find a good use for both.
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