Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chocolate from Scratch

And now for a more exotic story about taking advantage of local food resources, my sister has written in to share her experience in Costa Rica making homemade chocolate. She’s staying at Finca Luna Nueva this summer in northwest Costa Rica to do research for her masters in conservation biology, looking at the types of plants that grow in old ginger fields.

There’s a relic of a cacao orchard on the property from 30 or 40 years before the current owners bought the farm, and most of the trees are bare, the fruits having been eaten by squirrels or overtaken by mold. But another farm intern joined me to scout out a bunch of ripe cacao fruits, which are football-sized and bright yellow, and we decided to take on a little side project: making chocolate from scratch. The cacao pods are dark red or green when unripe, and they grow right from the trunk and branches, a characteristic somewhat common in the tropics, called cauliflory.

cacao pods, picked

The first thing you do with a ripe pod is smash it on a rock to split it in half - that’s the technical protocol. The outside of the pod is about 3/4 of an inch thick, but should be easily breakable via this method when they’re ripe. On the inside is a mass of about 50 one inch long oblong seeds covered in a copious amount of white goo. This white goo is 1) the actual fruit of the cacao 2) a little bit sour and a little bit sweet 3) unlike any other fruit 4) amazingly delicious 5) kind of really disgusting looking, especially when you zoom in on it.

cacao fruit

Take all the seeds out and lay them intact on a plate to let them ferment in the sun for 7 days, making sure to bring under some sort of shelter if it rains (this part became quite a saga for us considering that we’re in the rainforest, running up and down the stairs several times a day to protect our precious little cacao experiment!). Once the seeds are fully fermented, they white goo will turn a dark reddish brown and become sticky.

cacao fruit drying

Then you’re ready for the most tedious but enjoyable work - peeling the seeds. At this point, they smell pretty damn amazing (like some dank dark chocolate cake), but it took us about two hours for the both of us to shell 60 seeds. The seeds begin as a dark purple color when the fruit is ripe, and after fermentation and drying become a deep, dark (what else) chocolate color.

shelling cacao beans

After this is done, all you need to do is finely grind the beans in a coffee or spice grinder to get pure cacao powder.

cacao beans, before and after shelling ground cacao

This is a quintessential local Costa Rican food experience that I was pretty thrilled about, since it’s something that I’ve always wanted to learn but never had access to in the United States. Plus, (I’m not gonna lie) it was almost more satisfying than my academic research project. I’ll be bringing some of the cacao powder back for my sister, so she can make me something really delicious without the guilt of using an incredibly non-local product. Hooray!

Ok I better start thinking about what to make! Fudge, brownies, chocolate ice cream...?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blueberry Lavender Ice Cream without a Machine

I don't know why the idea never occurred to me before, but agirl recently enlightened me to the realization that ice cream can be made by hand, without an ice cream machine. David Lebovitz agreed, with detailed instructions on how to check and vigorously mix the ice cream mixture every half hour or so. I figured that if I can make bread, which involves a similar process of light work periodically over a few hours, I could also make ice cream, especially with the help of a food processor.

It was not quite so simple, but I did end up with an extremely rich and sweet ice cream - a day later. I'm not sure what the problem was, but my ice cream took several hours in the freezer before it started to freeze around the edges, and a day before it was frozen to the right consistency. Most likely I should have let the mixture completely cool in the refrigerator before moving on to the freezer. I used a food processor rather than mixing the ice-cream-in-formation by hand every now and then to help thoroughly break up ice crystals, and the final product was not as smooth as the real thing, but definitely good enough.

I searched around for inspiration and hit upon a blueberry lavender combination, which was a great way to use the fresh lavender growing on my patio, as well as ripe blueberries in season now at the farmers market. But, wow, were the flavors were dominated by the sweetness of heavy cream from Milk Thistle Farm. This ice cream ended up so rich that I can't have more than a few spoons at a time, although I think an a la mode pairing with vanilla cake would go down well. Next time, I will go a little lighter on the cream, eggs, and sugar in my ice cream. In the meantime, the recipe I used is below.

Now, who wants to come over and help me finish this container of blueberry ice cream?

Extra Rich Blueberry Lavender Ice Cream
adapted from David Lebovitz's basic vanilla ice cream and The New York Times Dessert Cookbook's lavender blueberry ice cream

1 cup milk
3 tbsp fresh lavender
3/4 cup sugar
5 egg yolks
2 cups cream
1 1/2 cups blueberries

Warm milk, sugar, and lavender over medium heat in a saucepan for a few minutes, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and infuse for approximately 30 minutes. Strain out lavender sprigs.

Whisk egg yolks in a bowl. Gently pour and stir milk mixture into the eggs, to temper the eggs, then return the mixture to the saucepan.

Stir in cream and cook over low heat until mixture thickens into custard that coats the back of a spoon.*

Puree blueberries in a food processor or blender and fold into the custard.

Pour custard into a bowl, and nest in a larger bowl filled with ice. Place ice bath in the refrigerator and let cool completely, overnight.

Prepare in an ice cream machine. Alternately, place in freezer, mix thoroughly every 30-60 minutes with whisk or food processor for at least a few hours, until ice cream reaches desired consistency. Store in airtight container in freezer.

* I will admit that I had difficulty knowing if I properly reached this stage, since my mixture seemed to coat the back of the spoon from the start...and then after some time on the heat the custard started getting lumpy, so that's when I took it off. Anyone know what was going on there?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Camping, Again

I have figured out that I like camping because it is simple living at its truest. It's a reminder of the bare minimum that we need to dwell on the earth. We needn't shower or wear make up every day. Comfortable and strategic layering can be more important than nice clothing. We don't need constant access to electricity or gadgets. Barring extreme weather, we can live out of tents and cars. We can eat simple meals, and find entertainment in peaceful reading and walking and talking. Sometimes we can just be.

I went spent the long Fourth of July weekend camping at Quechee State Park in Vermont near the New Hampshire border, about five minute drive to White River Junction and about 15 minute drive to Dartmouth College. Home to Vermont's deepest gorge, the park is a bit of a tourist attraction with hiking, a rocky beach, and antiques, restaurants, and farmers market within walking distance. It is a decent campground with brand new restrooms (with what looked like solar panels on the roof) and shady, albeit not necessarily private, sites, though I suppose I got a bad spot for making last-minute reservations. Also be warned that the bar across the street from the campground entrance has live music on Friday nights, so cover songs and jam noodling could be heard faintly into the wee hours.

This was Milo's first camping trip. Spencer stayed in a kennel in Brooklyn because he is a jerk*, but Milo is mostly a sweet smiling delight so he got to come along and have room to run around, play frisbee, sleep in the shade, hike, and splash in the gorge.

A tie-out stake and long leash allowed Milo to explore the perimeter of the campsite and chase squirrels without risk of running away, which I highly recommend.

In this oppressive heat wave, the shaded campground was the most comfortable place to spend hot afternoons, proving that leafy trees are nature's own version of air conditioning.

I amsupposed to go camping again this weekend, and I am working a guide to packing for camping to share with you.