Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fernet Branca marinated fig ice cream

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With squinting eyes and a hacking cough I spat out my first gulp of Fernet-Branca.    It’s a common reaction with Fernet virgins – so why didn’t the liquor salesman or the pastry chef warn me?   My startled nostrils and taste buds were screaming Robitussin and Listerine.  The dark brown concoction was highly medicinal with a strong dose of Pine-Sol - and nasty to put it kindly!   After shelling out a pretty penny for the bottle, I realized that I should have done my homework and goggled it before I planned to use it with my small but precious harvest of figs!   Just look at my blog header and you’ll understand my love of figs

I considered trashing the bottle but local pastry chef Plinio Sandalio recently tweeted that “fernet branca makes miracles”.   I’m not sure what planet he comes from (ok, I know he’s from Bolivia) but I believe he was thinking “miracles” with desserts.  Upon further research I discovered that Fernet is a miracle potion for those with hangovers!   It’s considered the national drink of Argentina and is wildly popular in San Francisco.  I tried it with iced coke, a common mix which I found a little more palatable, but I was still thinking that I was not going to let this Fernet fool around with my beloved figs!

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So who am I to question a professional chef?   As you can see, I sacrificed a few figs to find out that this overzealous digestif does indeed have special powers…when used in small amounts.   I found a marinade in Cooking Light magazine from San Francisco chef Luis Villavelazquez and marinated them for several days…just because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them just yet!   Eventually I decided upon fig ice cream and made a rich custard base from a recipe by ice cream wiz David Lebovitz.   Rich in egg yolks and cream,  the classic custard base was the perfect complement to the brazen marinade. 

The result was brilliant!   We were swooning with delight as we scooped spoonfuls into our mouths.  It was a beautiful marriage of velvety sweet figs, rich custard, and a gentle hint of herbs and spices.   A miracle!

FYI:   Fernet began as a medicinal potion compounded by Bernardino Branca, a chemist in Milan.  It was taken to ease stomach ailments, hangovers and cramps.   The list of ingredients is incredibly long – over 40 with some still remaining a secret.  Based on grapes, it also contains a sizeable portion of saffron, myrrh, mint, cardamom, aloe, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, Echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John's wort, sage, galangal, peppermint oil – and the list goes on!  Today it is made by fifth generation Fratelli Branca.  It is aged in oak barrels for 12 months and contains over 40% alcohol.  The alcohol content in the marinade prevents the ice cream from hardening rock solid.  Even after a few days it remained the perfect scooping texture.

A vintage labelimage

Fernet Branca marinated fig ice cream

Fig marinade adapted from Cooking Light, August 2010

¼ cup water

¼ cup honey

1 tablespoon Fernet Branca (a little goes a long way!)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

pinch of salt

6 fresh figs, stems removed and then quartered

Combine water, honey, Fernet Branca, lemon juice and salt in small saucepan.  Bring to a boil.  Remove from heat.  Place figs in a glass container.  Pour marinade over figs and cover.  Refrigerate for up to 3 days - the longer the better!  Keep chilled until ready to add to the Custard base.


Custard base adapted from David Lebovitz’s Vanilla Ice Cream recipe in The Perfect Scoop

1 cup (250ml) whole milk

A pinch of salt

3/4 cup (150g) sugar

2 cups (500ml) heavy cream

5 large egg yolks

Combine the milk, salt, sugar and heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Scoop out ¼ cup milk and set aside.

Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl to combine. While whisking, add ¼ cup milk drop by drop to warm the eggs and prevent them from curdling. Pour the egg mixture into the milk in the saucepan and whisk continuously. Return saucepan to the heat and bring to a boil. Cook for 1 minute until it thickens slightly and then set aside to cool completely. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight until thoroughly chilled.

Freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions for 10 minutes. When ice cream starts to thicken, slowly add the marinade but hold back the figs.   Continue to freeze in the ice cream maker (about 10 more minutes) and then add the figs.  Freeze until well blended and set.  Transfer to a container and freeze.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010


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“What’s that buzzing sound?”,  we asked each other within the first few minutes of the first football (soccer) match in World Cup action last month.  Not to be outdone by any other nation in WC history, the spirit of native South Africa rang through vuvuzelas – the long plastic instrument evocative of kudu horns used by tribal leaders to announce meetings.  The unmistakable droning sound led me to believe that a plague was imminent and the stadium was about to be attacked by a swarm of bees!   

South Africa FIFACongratulations to the country of my childhood for setting the standard for other African nations.   The South African team of Bafana Bafana (“the boys” in Zulu) captivated the world by showing that they can compete on the world stage.  Troubling issues in the shadows of the state-of-the-art stadiums temporarily took a back seat as the world watched the biggest event in sporting history unfold for an entire month.   Who can forget Landon Donovan’s winning goal against Algeria, the drama behind Ghana’s painful loss to Uruguay in penalty kicks, and Puyol’s header that took Spain to the finals?

Sadly off-the-scale ticket prices made it impossible for many locals to attend.  Horrendous refereeing – particularly during USA vs. Slovenia - and the unpredictable Jabulani ball revealed the pros and cons of technology.  An extraordinary octopus named Paul predicted the outcome of all of Germany’s games and in the end favored team Spain walked off with the gold-plated trophy.

It was an interesting month for me because I had a connection to several participating countries:  Serbia because it is my birthplace;  USA because I am now a proud citizen; and South Africa because it provided my immigrant parents the freedom to succeed and therefore offered us kids a wonderful childhood.  I spent 16 of my formative years in South Africa, oblivious of the racial tension that would erupt after our emigration.  

My beautiful mother, Emilija with me (in the back) and my brother and sister, Božidar and Vesna on Durban beach

Durban beach

Because we rarely ‘ate out’ back then, we experienced new foods during family trips.  During our holidays in Durban, we stayed at the Killarney Hotel where there was a curry dish on the menu every day.  We fell in love with Indian food and were mesmerized by the brilliant spices at the Victoria Street Market.  We also enjoyed Bobotie, a definitive South African dish which is believed to have originated with the Cape Malay slaves.  Settlers, beginning with the Portuguese and followed by the Dutch, French, English and Indians, brought spices from their homelands and incorporated them into the local fare.  The Dutch East India Company managed trade between Europe and the Far East and brought many slaves to the Cape Province from Malaysia and Indonesia.  The addition of sweet components to meat dishes is common with the Malay.  In Bobotie (hear bobotie pronounciation) the egg custard sets the spicy, sweet meat, crunchy almonds and plump golden raisins.  It is typically finished with fresh sliced banana, grated coconut and eaten with chutney and yellow rice (plain basmati below). 

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Bobotie adapted from African Cooking by Laurens van der Post

Serves 6

1 slice wheat bread, broken into small pieces

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter

2 pounds coarsely ground lamb, beef or a combination of both

1½ cups finely chopped onions

2 tablespoons curry powder

1/2 - 1 teaspoon spicy masala (I used a home made masala brought to me from India by a friend)

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 eggs

1 medium-sized tart apple, peeled, cored and finely grated

½ cup golden raisins

¼ cup almonds, coarsely chopped

4 small fresh lemon, orange, or bay leaves

To finish:  grated coconut, freshly sliced banana, chutney and basmati rice

Preheat the oven to 300º F.  Combine the bread and milk in a small bowl and let the bread soak for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a heavy 10- to 12-inch saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat. When hot, add the ground meat and cook it, stirring constantly while breaking the meat up until the meat is completely cooked.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat into a deep bowl.

Discard all but about 2 tablespoons of fat from the saucepan and add the onions.  Stirring frequently, cook for about 5 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent but not brown.   Add the curry powder, masala, sugar, salt and pepper, and stir for 1 or 2 minutes. Then stir in the lemon juice and bring to a boil over high heat. Pour the entire mixture on the meat.

Using your hands, squeeze the bread until the milk runs dry.  Reserve the drained milk.  Add the bread, 1 of the eggs, the apple, raisins, and almonds to the meat mixture.  Mix with both hands until the ingredients are well combined.  Taste for seasoning and add more salt, curry or masala if desired.   Transfer the meat mixture loosely into a 3-quart oven-proof dish and smooth the top with a spatula. Tuck the lemon, orange or bay leaves beneath the surface of the meat.

With a wire whisk or rotary beater, beat the remaining 2 eggs with the reserved milk for about 1 minute or until they are frothy.  Slowly pour the mixture over the meat.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until the custard is set and the top is light golden brown.

Lemon leaves are tucked into the meat and the custard is poured over the mixture and baked  

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   Serve hot with yellow rice, fresh banana slices, grated coconut and chutney of your choice

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