Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dinner with Norpois (IV): Nesselrode Pudding

Ah, what’s this now? What, another Nesselrode pudding! After such a feast of Lucullus, it will behoove me to take the waters at Karlsbad! Mind you, Swann may well have sensed that it would have all been far too difficult.

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 38

The dessert in Norpois dinner is indeed a showstopper! It is splendid in its simple and elegant decoration. A frozen dessert made of chestnut purée, Nesselrode Pudding need not be frosted with sweet icing but merely decorated with marrons glacés—the crystallized chestnut candies that I could not find anywhere! Out of the unavailability of marrons glacés, I replaced the candies with chestnut rosettes made from combining the puree with a chestnut spread and a bit heavy cream to thin it out.

Nesselrode Pudding was a great complement and ending to a scrumptious dinner because of its simplicity. Its light creamy taste balanced the heaviness of hams and boeuf mode en gelée. With its texture sitting somewhere awkwardly between ice and ice cream, Nesselrode Pudding seems related to its Italian cousin: semifreddos. Yet, with all the dried fruits bits randomly spread in the dessert, Nesselrode Pudding is more elegant and “fancy” than the humble semifreddo. Also, if semifreddo is soft and creamy, Nesselrode Pudding is harder with characteristics similar to that of a red bean ice bar, a common frozen snack in Taiwan.

I mention Taiwan because Nesselrode Pudding relates to a little 8” layer cake that a friend of mine brought me from an Asian bakery—Fay Da—as the dessert for a dinner gathering. It never was served that evening because I didn’t know that he would bring a cake. So I had decided to bake him an all-American experience of an apple crumb pie. A day or two later, his bakery cake, somewhat forgotten, was still unopened in the box in the refrigerator. Between its age and having been store bought, I didn’t expect much at all. However, I was very surprised by the brownish purple filling spread between the layers of sponge cake. It made me wonder. I knew the taste of this spread, with its nuttiness and roasted flavor, its sweetness as well as the hidden, subtle floral flavor. I was amazed this local Queens bakery used a very Taiwanese ingredient—dried longans—to make the spread. How quickly I made the association to Taiwan, where this is a brand new baking ingredient, part of what has been Taiwan’s food revolution in recent years (e.g. many new ingredients have been experimented with and incorporated into common food to create a new definition and dimension for the food we usually have). I was so proud that I could identify the spread in question, in between the layers of this bakery cake, and associate it with a fruit (e.g. longans) with which I have always been familiar ever since my childhood. I can still remember the giant longan tree just outside of my grandmother’s house. My brother and I often tried to jump up high in the air and attempt to grab a bunch of longans. While he enjoyed the honey sweetness from the fruit by cracking the shell and pooping the fruit in his mouth, I was always punctilious about the complexion of each fruit and wondering if there were any worms in it.

It was the Nesselrode Pudding, however, that suggested my wondering about longans had turned into a wandering. I had been nicely convinced, and served a delicious helping of memory in the process, that the bakery cake was filled with a longan spread. Yet, that was hardly the case, or the taste. I realized this when I was testing the rosettes made of chestnut purée. It turns out that what I tasted in the cake was not longan spread at all but actually chestnut purée. In the words of Jonah Lehrer, I had experienced the “fallibility of our senses—their susceptibility to our mental biases and beliefs—[which] poses a special problem for neutral reductionism” (70). What I experienced was not what I sensed. Instead, what my first tasting experience of the chestnut purée suggested was in the sensation interpreted by the brain, which always attempts to explain the present from memories and our own idiosyncratic desires. Without any memory of the purée, my brain could only tell me it was the mashed longans. Perceptions and senses are deceitful! My tasting experience also told me that, I, like Proust, am always struggling at defining the indefinable from the memory library of my brain in order to make a vacuum meaningful.

Nesselrode Pudding
(Adapted from Dining with Proust by Jean-Bernard Naudin, Anne Borrel and Alain Senderens)

½ cup chestnut purée
¼ cup crystallized (candied) fruit
½ cup candied orange peel
½ cup Malaga wine
½ cup each of dried currants and sultanas
1 tablespoon Maraschino liqueur
2 cups whipping cream
Some marrons glacés to decorate
For custard:
2 cups milk
5 eggs
¾ cup granulated sugar

If you are making the chestnut purée yourself, remember that it must be very smooth. Dice any large pieces of crystallized (candied) fruit and candied orange peel and macerate them in the Malaga wine. Wash the currant and sultanas, then soak them in warm water. When it is time to use them, remember to drain and dry well in a clean cloth.

To make the custard, boil the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Separate the eggs. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until the mixture becomes light and frothy (about 5 minutes). Pour the boiling milk over this mixture, then return to the saucepan. Blend together over a low heat, using a wooden spoon or spatula to get right to the bottom of the saucepan. After 5 minutes, the custard—which must not be allowed to boil—should have a thick consistency, coating the back of the spoon with a thin film. Strain through a sieve.

Mix the chestnut purée, the Maraschino liqueur and the custard together well, then add the crystallized (candied) fruit, candied orange peel, currants and sultanas. Whip the cream until very firm and fold in carefully. Pour into a 7 inch charlotte mould, lined with greaseproof (waxed) paper (or, better, buttered plastic wrap). Cover the mould with aluminum foil and put in the freezer at least overnight.

Just before serving, turn the pudding out and decorate with marrons glacés.

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