Three Dessert Custards with Vanilla Tuile and Espresso Cream

Friday, October 26, 2007

Finished Custard Cups

This little set of desserts was an experiment. It all started when I went to Teo, home of both the best espresso and the best gelato I've yet had in Austin. (In fact, David Lebovitz sent Matthew, owner of Teo an email, which is printed out and taped to the register, saying that in a recent tour of the United States, theirs was the best gelato he had -- the best in the nation!)

I was sitting outside enjoying my usual short double cappuccino and small gelato, and Matt came out and handed me a cup. "Here," he said, "You have to try this. It's great." It was a few shots of their Italian espresso with a scoop of their "Texican Vanilla" gelato. I swirled it together with my spoon and half-slurped, half-spooned it into my mouth. It was a fantastic combination.

It was also my third, fourth, and fifth shot of espresso, so my heart damn near exploded. It was worth it.

It got me thinking about flavor combinations and how we choose the flavors we assemble into dishes. I tend to think of both vanilla and coffee as relatively European, in terms of dessert. When I think of vanilla I think of pastry cream, creme brulee, caramel. When I think of coffee, I think of tiramisu.

But thinking about them that way is kind of a dead end. It doesn't really help me think of new ways to use them.

That day at Teo I realized that they're connected in a totally different way: by their region of origin. Mexican vanilla and coffee beans come from the same region of the world. And I think flavors from a given region often have a natural affinity for one another. Not always, of course, but it kind of feels right to me, seems intuitive that they should work together.

I decided to play around, and figured I'd take this vanilla & espresso and add other flavors from Central and South America or even the Southwestern United States. I picked three: squash, corn, and bananas.

I started this whole experiment thinking primarily about flavor, but texture is no less important. I juggled a bunch of ideas. Soft warm cakes of banana, squash, or corn, sitting in a small pool of cold espresso and topped with a warm vanilla custard? Thin rolled tortillas of the three filled with a vanilla gelato and coffee syrup?

Anything could have worked, I suppose. But I decided to go with little custard cups. Each of those three ingredients became a custard, sandwiched between a crispy vanilla cookie base and an espresso whipped cream garnish.

Vanilla Tuile & Espresso Whipped Cream

First, then, the cookies. I've never made tuile cookies, but I love the light, wafer-thin crispiness, and they're often made with vanilla, so I took the first Google result for "tuile cookie recipe" and mixed up some batter, adding some extra scraped vanilla bean.

The technique for making these cookies took some practice, and is relatively unlike what the recipe claimed. First, the only way I could get them thin enough was to take a glob of batter on my index finger and swirl it on a silpat into a disk, like these:

Tuile Batter

The key is to move in concentric circles so you end up with a disk of perfectly even thickness. It needs to be exceedingly thin, too. To top it all off, you need to move quickly because if the batter heats up too much from your fingertip, it stops sticking to the silpat and you're just dragging it around.

I baked the cookies for just a few minutes, until the batter had bubbled a bit on top. The goal here was to get them just solid enough to lift off the silpat, but no firmer. Then, pull them from the oven, lift them off the sheet, and press each cookie into something oven-proof and cup-shaped. I used silicone muffin molds:

Tuile Cookies, Second Baking

Ramekins or custard cups would likely also work. Then, I baked them for another minute or two until the edges were brown and the whole cookie was at least golden.

Tuile Shells

They still aren't the most precise-looking cookies, but they do the job and just have a certain, uh, hand-made-ness to them. Ahem.

For the espresso whipped cream, I just cold-brewed some coffee so it was nice and strong, and then poured a little bit in with some whipping cream as I whipped it, adding a bunch of ground espresso beans right at the end. Voila.

Now, for each custard. Err, soup. Err, whatever. I'm calling them custards because it's convenient, and because they are custard-like, but they're all actually different. The squash component is technically a pudding, thickened with a bit of starch (oatmeal). The corn component is just a simple puree. Only the banana component is an honest-to-goodness custard, cooked with egg yolks in a double-boiler.

All of this was pretty ad-hoc, so I'm not doing a formal recipe here, but they're really pretty hard to screw up, so if you follow my imprecise lead, you'll no doubt have something quite good.

Butternut Squash Cup, Finished

I'll start with the squash because it's the one I made first, although it's the one I liked the least, in the end. I sliced up a butternut squash and boiled it with just enough water to cover and a small handful of old-fashioned rolled oats and cooked until the squash was tender.

Butternut Squash Soup

On the side, I chopped up and toasted some Scharffen Berger cacao nibs, and mixed them into the puree. Then I sweetened that with agave nectar to taste.

The oatmeal gives it a nice silkiness and a sheen; as starches go it's a good one for thickening soups. The problem was that the squash wasn't really very ripe, and boiling it won't really accentuate the flavor much, so the soup tasted extremely bland, but sweet, so it was pretty unremarkable. The prominent flavor, in fact, was the oatmeal. Hmm. Not what I'd intended.

Next time, I'd probably slice the squash the same way, maybe 1/4" thick, and oven-roast it with salt until it was a bit browned and tender, and then puree it with only enough water to make a nice consistency, and omit the oatmeal altogether. The squash has enough sugar to it that the browning flavors would be really nice, and a slight smokiness to the soup would be complemented well by the bitterness in the espresso and matched nicely by the warmth of the vanilla.

Corn-Guajillo Cup, Finished
Corn-Guajillo Puree

The corn-guajilla chowder was a superstar. It's a beautiful, vibrant orange, intensely flavorful, and was super-simple and easy to make.

First, I took a few dried guajillo chiles, sliced them into strips, removed the seeds and ribs, and soaked them in warm water to let them plump up and soften. Then I sliced the kernels off a few ears of corn, and sauteed them in butter for a bit. I added the chiles after about 10 minutes of soaking, added some heavy cream and good kosher salt, and simmered for maybe ten minutes to let the flavors mingle.

Then I pureed it, and it was perfect.

Corn-Guajillo Puree

If I'd been serving it on its own I would have added some more complexity -- a mirepoix or other base of sweated veggies, maybe another kind of pepper, maybe roasted the corn first, whatever. Since I knew it was already going with the vanilla cookies and espresso cream, I left it alone. Enough flavors, already!

It was fantastic. I served it at room temperature and then, later, chilled, and both ways it was great. Thick, creamy, and simultaneously sweet with the corn and a bit picante, acidic, and smoky from the guajillo, it was very full, comfort food, which went well with the vanilla and was offset well by the espresso cream.

The experience of eating one of these things, by the way, if you pop it whole into your mouth, starts with the cold, smooth slick of the espresso cream on your tongue, followed by the textural crunch as you bite through the cookie, after which the soup washes over your mouth, followed finally by the vanilla coming in and then the espresso mingling with the rest of the flavors for a nice combined finish. I think it's serendipity that I happened to sandwich the soup in between the vanilla and espresso, because I think it makes for a nice little experience, start to finish. In the case of the corn, if you tasted the corn and chiles first, it would overwhelm the rest of it too quickly.

Banana Custard Cup, Finished
Banana Custard

This banana custard was easy to make and delicious. What's more, it's not really that unhealthy. I used no added sugar, and only a little dairy; it's really just bananas and eggs. It came out so well that I've made it a few times since, especially when I've had leftover egg yolks or old bananas that are on the verge of going bad.

First, I took 3 bananas and pureed them in the blender with just a splash of cream to facilitate the blending. I mixed them with 5 egg yolks in a metal bowl and set it over a saucepan with an inch or so of boiling water over medium heat, yielding this improv double-boiler:

Banana Custard

I cooked that mixture, whisking it fiercely until it registered 180F on a thermometer. If you try this, you'll know it's getting there because it starts tangibly thickening around 150F and is really gelling by 180F, cohesive and pulling away from the sides of the bowl and all that.

Here it is at, I think, about 170F.

Banana Custard

For measuring the temperature I use my IR thermometer, which I love and wholeheartedly endorse, but I know it gives a reading significantly below the internal temperature (because the surface is so much cooler) so I compensate accordingly. You could also use a normal thermometer (here is the one I have, and it functions quite well) and it'll give a clear reading, but it's kind of in the way. Or, once you're comfortable, you could just do it by feel.

Once it hit 180F, I removed the bowl from the pan immediately and set it off the heat. I let it cool a bit, whisked it a bit, and when it was getting near room temperature, so I had some idea of its cooled consistency, I whisked in some more cream to thin it just a bit.

Subsequently I've used whole milk instead of heavy cream, and it comes out a bit less creamy, of course, but still tasty. And while I've always used entirely yolks (it gives it a nicer yellow color, I think, and lately I've had a lot of leftover yolks from meringues), you could substitute a roughly equivalent volume of whole eggs.

The custard is nice because it's hard to screw up. Fundamentally, as long as you don't wildly screw up the proportions (say, combine 8 bananas with one egg yolk) and cook it gently, the eggs will form that protein matrix. It's like making scrambled eggs with some banana puree mixed in. And an eight-year-old can scramble eggs! It's that easy. And impressively tasty.

Finished Custard Cups

I talked about the individual results in each section, but how were these things overall? They were really very good. I brought them to a party and one woman popped one of the corn-guajillo cups into her mouth and excitedly proclaimed it "The most amazing thing I've ever put in my mouth!"

Her boyfriend was standing nearby, but he seemed not to hear.

I wouldn't necessarily go that far, but they were good. The flavor, texture, and temperature combinations all go together surprisingly well, and I'm labeling this one a success. The only liability with it is its lack of portability: the tuile quickly sog with the liquids in them, so you need to assemble them moments before eating or the effect is seriously diminished (or, worse, the sogged bottom falls out and the effect becomes "Orange soup down your shirt.")

Assuming the portability's not an issue, though, they're definitely worth a shot. Plus, I like this kind of format: three major flavors in separate components with distinct texture and temperature, simply combined and eaten. I might have to play around with it some more. Maybe I'll try savory, next time.

How do the rest of you think up new ways to mix flavors? Any particular success stories recently?



At October 29, 2007 8:38 AM , Blogger Noel Llopis said...

Very nice and original recipe. Of course, coffee is from Mexico like tomatoes are from Italy, but that's not really important. I guess it just goes to show that plants native to very different regions do go well together.

I tend to go for the more traditional approach of mixing flavors. I usually just "think" about how they would go, but that's limiting. If I really want to try an odd combination, I do the usual smelling them together, and since taste is like 95% smell, the results are pretty close to what you'll get in the end.

Keep up the good job!


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