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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cooking with chocolate... and Lady Arianna

     Chocolate is my perdition.  If I could eat some every day, I would.  Sadly, I have come to realize that after turning 40, it adds to my waistline tremendously if I have it for a few days in a row.  However, I do try and have some every week.  These days there are tons of mysteries – my other favourite genre after food writing – that are set in the gastronomic field and include recipes.  My latest discovery are the Regency mysteries starring Lady Arianna Hadley and Lord Alessandro Saybrook, penned by Andrea Penrose (which I briefly mentioned here)

     I came upon these series browsing at my local Barnes & Noble, and after reading the blurb of the books, I instantly came to like them.  The first installment, entitled Sweet Revenge, introduces the reader to both characters as the golden couple of future adventures to come.  Arianna, disguised as a Chef inside the kitchen of a prominent society lady, is seeking revenge from the injustices done to her father, the late Lord Hadley, who was forced into exile after a dubious gambling scheme in England.  Her plans appear thwarted, to say the least, when the Prince Regent of England succumbs during dinner after tasting one of Arianna’s chocolate creations.

     It is here when war hero Lord Alessandro De Quincy, the Earl of Saybrook is called to investigate under a special service to the Crown.  The pair run into quite a scheme, similar to what is known as the South Sea Bubble, which was, quite literally, the first big financial meltdown of the world.

     There are several books and online resources about the South Sea Bubble so I will not go into detail here.  A website I found quite informative is by economic analyst Jesse Colombo.  Suffice it to say that the scheme came into being after the war of Spanish Succession, where Britain was granted exclusive trading rights with the Spanish colonies in America and the West Indies.  The South Sea Company was created to assume Britain’s war debt, and almost everybody in the country bought stock into it, on the premise of outstanding returns based on the (expected?) existence of innumerable amounts of gold and silver in the colonies.

A stock certificate from the South Sea Company
     Of course, such existences were grossly overrepresented, and when the British government just could not hold their finances together any longer, the bubble popped and stock prices plummeted out of control.  The South Sea Bubble holds great historical significance as a case study into the movement of the financial markets and the principle of greed.  Andrea Penrose’s novel, although a cozy mystery, is also a scientific book with thorough research of the subject.

     The other part of the book that is of much interest to me is the chocolate trivia and recipes that precede each chapter.  You see, Alessandro De Quincy had a Spanish grandmother, not only that, but one who loved chocolate so much she kept a diary about it, full of recipes and history.  Since the Prince Regent appeared to have been poisoned by chocolate, Lord Saybrook is the only one that has true knowledge of the new product, hence to making him the ideal candidate to investigate the crime.

     Of the 25 recipes offered, so far I have selected 2 which have left me very fauvorably  impressed.  The first one is a cake, very rich, and goes fantastic with a strong demi-tasse accompanied by a liqueur.  It uses spelt flour, a grain from antiquity.  It is this ingredient that gives it a unique rusticity.

Chocolate Espresso Spelt Cake


  • ¾ cup unsalted butter, European style, softened, plus additional for the pan
  • ¾ cup unsweetened Dutch processed cocoa powder, plus additional for dusting pan and cake
  • 1 cup boiling hot water
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. instant espresso powder
  • 1 ½ tsp. Mexican vanilla
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 14 Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 2 cups spelt flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 1 cup packed Moscovado sugar
  • 2 large eggs

     Stir together boiling hot water, espresso powder, vanilla and baking soda in a bowl, then add dates, mashing lightly with a fork.  Soak until liquid cools to room temperature – about 10 minutes.

     Put oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 350F.  Butter a 9” springform pan, then lightly dust with cocoa powder, knocking out the excess.

The batter before going into the oven
     Whisk together spelt flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt in another bowl.  Beat together butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy.  Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until just combined.  Beat in the date mixture (batter will look curdled), then reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, a bit at a time, mixing until just combined.

     Spoon batter into the springform pan, smoothing top, and bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes.  Cool cake in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then remove side of pan and cool it on rack.  When almost cool, sprinkle with cocoa powder.  Serve warm or at room temperature with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream.

     The second recipe is for a delicious mousse with an Asian twist.  It is as simple as it is dense.

Mocha Mousse with Sichuan Peppercorns

Ingredients for 4 servings:

  • ¼ tsp Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 ½ tsp ground coffee beans
  • 4 oz 70% cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • Whipped cream for garnish

     Grind the peppercorns with mortar and pestle.  Bring cream, coffee and pepper to a simmer in a small saucepan.  Remove from heat and let steep, covered, for 30 minutes.  Strain liquid through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids.

     Melt the chocolate in a large bowl.  Stir in the cream.  Let cool slightly.

     Beat the egg whites with the sugar using an electric mixer until they just hold off stiff peaks.  Fold into the chocolate mixture gently but thoroughly.  Spoon the mousse into pots or glasses and chill at least 3 hours.  Serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pigging out in Winter Park

     Who can resist a restaurant by the name of The Ravenous Pig? First of all, anything pig perks up my attention. Maybe it is the fact that when I converted to Islam I was told pig was a big no-no. I tried to not have it and succeeded for about 18 months, and then… plunged into it like a savage.

     I learnt about this restaurant while volunteering at a local greenhouse that supplies their organically grown produce. Chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis are firm believers in the green movement that Central Florida is experiencing and want nothing but the best for their restaurant. This translates into greens that can be eaten right off the root, since they are grown on irrigated towers that avoid the plants from actually being in contact with the earth. Literally, they grow on air.

     This restaurant is in the heart of Winter Park, the chicest district in Orlando, Florida.  One can almost drive by it without noticing it – and that would be a pity.  It has a few tables outside but I recommend inside sitting.  The ambience is very lively, modern where it has to be, but also sleek and sophisticated.  There is a bar area and 3 small dining rooms.  I sat in the middle section when I went, and was immediately and was always waited on with timely and undivided attention.  The servers will always ask about drinks you may want to start your meal with (as they are very keen on cocktails in this restaurant).  I ordered The Ravenous Pig Old-Fashioned, a classic old-fashioned but infused with bacon.  It had the crunchiest, perfectly shaped bacon slice on top, which gave the drink just the right amount of flavour.  It was excellent.

     For those days when we just want to get drunk and hug our blues, I recommend the Ginger in the Rye, a smoky, highly complex cocktail that will carry you over anything.  It is made with Rittenhouse Rye whiskey, Cynar aperitif, ginger liqueur and Dolin French vermouth.  The ingredients are poured over a block of ice the lasts forever, so it will not taste watered down, not even as you finish it.  The mint garnish provides a note of freshness.  Drinking this cocktail is like smoking a robust Cuban cigar.

     As my starter I tried the House-made Charcuterie and Artisan Cheese platter.  It seemed to me the best way to honour the nature of the place, as well as its intent of focusing on gastro-pub cuisine.  What exactly is gastro-pub cuisine?  Basically, the concept entails bringing pub fare into a more sophisticated experience.  No other course could be as representative of the concept as this one.  It came beautifully presented on a walnut chopboard, and it included a jar of pickled vegetables, a chicken foie gras topped with chocolate bits, two of the thinnest sliced salumis – sopressata and tartufo, a truffled terrine, rustic toasted bread, a slice of sheep’s cheese from Wisconsin and Dijon mustard.  Each bite was a delicacy to be savoured, and the perfect food to linger on with a group of friends on an informal outing.

     Another one of their traits was the Umami “Bloody Mary” Oyster Trio, composed of three New England oysters in a sort of di-structured Bloody Mary – one with vodka and celery, the other with a hint of spicy tomato and the last one with Worcestershire sauce (this last one my favorite).  We chose champagne as the drink, and a basket of deliciously warm and very cheesy Gruyère biscuits with smoked sea salt butter to accompany it.

     A fulfilling, yet light lunch potage, the Tomato Soup is much more than the concept we might be accustomed to for this dish.  Made with seasonal, organic heirloom tomatoes, it is both warm and cool, as the dish in itself is served warm, and is topped with a cool basil crème fraîche.  Whole cherry tomatoes of all colours and green tomato crostini provide the incipient mixture of flavours from the garden.  I could have this every day.

    Last but not least, dessert came in the form of a what I would call a hint of a custard; a Zellwood sweet corn panna cotta, elderflower strawberries and Earl Grey twille.  It was as light as a plume, making for the end of a pub experience that carried none of the heaviness usually associated with it.

     If one is not as light as one would hope after the main course (a probable feeling), one can always order The Sweets Board, an assortment of home-made salted caramels, raspberry marshmallows and chocolate chip cookies made with beurre noisette.  Two of each, they are perfect to round up the meal with a nice espresso.

    The one concept that pervades at The Ravenous Pig is that nothing is left to chance.  Even in the bathrooms, the cozy decorations are detailed and unique.  Where else could one find a copper water can in the shape of a pig?

     Apart from the food, this was hands down my favorite feature, because it shows the dedication and passion put into this place. 

     If planning on going, be aware that the menu changes with the seasons, and new experiences keep coming up all the time.  Also, if going on a Friday or Saturday, reservations are de rigueur at least 3 weeks in advance. 

     You can get some of the recipes and an explanation of the concept of the restaurant in their book, which includes excellent photos and be purchased directly from their website at