Monday, August 31, 2009

TGRWT #18 - Profiterole of Blue Cheese Ice Cream with Li Hing Mui Coating, paired with a Blue Cheese Stuffed Umeboshi

After a hiatus since May, TGRWT (They Go Really Well Together) returned this month with a special challenge beyond just the pairing of two surprisingly compatible ingredients.

This round is hosted by Aidan Brooks, a pastry chef working at Restaurante Ferrero in the mountains of Valencia, Spain (Bocairent, specifically, for those more familiar with Spanish geography than I am). Chef Brooks chose Plums and Blue Cheese as the pairing challenge.

And to add to the fun, he's also made this round a competition with some extra rules and the possibility of getting your dish & name on the menu at Restaurante Ferrero - no small honor given that Paco Morales, its head chef, was named Spain's "Chef of the Year 2009" by Madrid Fusión. The restaurant, from what I've read, focuses on simple local flavors, with a touch of techno-technique (think squid ink made into caviar).

The extra rules, for those interested in vying for the win, were to make the dish a dessert that incorporates at least two non-sweet flavors - salty, sour, bitter, umami, pungent or astringent.

Not one to back away from a food challenge (and being more passionate about desserts than anything else, anyway), I knew I had to make time for this challenge. I immediately thought of blue cheese ice cream (as did others). It took a little thinking to come up with the secret ingredient that brings together plum with salty, sweet, sour, and umami flavors, all in one delicious powder: Li Hing Mui.

The name Li Hing Mui means 'traveling plum', and the powder is a concentrated combination of the dried plum with additional ingredients like licorice. I fell in love with it on the rim of my cocktails in Hawai`i, and have since enjoyed it in it's more traditional format of a coating on 'crack seed' (dried plums).

Since I love a small bite dessert that you can pick up and pop in your mouth, I decided a little profiterole would be perfect to deliver the flavors, so the final dish became a profiterole of blue cheese ice cream rolled in li hing mui powder. I hoped that having the powder coating the ball of ice cream would mean the intense flavor of the powder would hit the tongue first, followed by the wash of cold, creamy, savory/sweet blue cheese ice cream.

I decided a second small bite might be fun to go with it, or at least make it less lonely on the plate. Awhile ago, a UK blogger wrote a list of 100 things he thought every omnivore should taste, which included umeboshi - a Japanese pickle (tsukemono) made from the ume fruit. Up to that point, I'd never had one, so I picked up a packet and tried one - and was really struck by the intensity of the multitude of flavors packed in such a little thing. Ume are a fruit in the Prunus family, like plums and apricots, and the pickling method leaves them with a strong salty/sour flavor, plus umami lent by the MSG included in the cure. I pitted some and stuffed them with a little chunk of blue cheese.

After adding the blue cheese to the crème anglaise for the ice cream, both Dan & I tasted it. It had a nice sweet/savory mix and it was easy to see how plums would go well with it. I added the mixture to our ice cream maker, then froze it overnight before forming into balls, freezing again, and finally rolling them in li hing mui powder.

Dan & I sat down to enjoy these two little bites tonight, and talk about what we thought of them. Visually, I was a little disappointed in the plate, given the borderline monochromatic palette (tan, orangish brown, reddish brown). Dan joked that the photos make it look like falafel. I somehow remembered the li hing mui being brighter and more red, which was possibly a memory of the glass rims in Hawai`i, and not the powder we have here at home. At least it covered up the grey-blue-green color of the ice cream!

We started tasting with the profiterole, which we both agreed was imbalanced toward the blue cheese flavor, which overpowered the li hing mui. Had I made smaller balls of ice cream, the flavors might've been at a better ratio. The taste was good, though Dan said the cold blue cheese flavor made him think of salad dressing. He said it still seemed like a dessert, but I think it could've been sweeter, to push it more squarely into that category. A sauce of reduced plum wine (originally in my plan, but cut because it seemed like too much going on) might've done that, and also helped bump up the plum flavor.

The stuffed umeboshi was much more balanced, with the two intense flavors of the cheese and the fruit battling it out in our mouths - with neither side conceding to the other. I ate mine first, then enjoyed watching Dan as the waves of flavor hit him. The sourness stood out most to us both, but there was a lot more going on than that. The flavor definitely started as soon as the umeboshi hit ours tongue, then the blue cheese came out when we began to chew. Ume isn't exactly a plum (despite umeboshi being labeled as 'pickled plum' often), but a close relative - and I liked it's intensity with the blue cheese.

I think the profiterole could be a success with some additional work, but the umeboshi is something I would serve guests as is. I particularly liked that, sitting on the plate, it looked so unassuming and simple - then it explodes in your mouth like a flavor firework.

(For the profiterole, I used a recipe I learned watching Alton Brown's 'Good Eats' on Food Network. The ice cream recipe is based the one included in Michael Ruhlman's Ratio with 5oz of Wisconsin blue cheese added during the heating of the cream & milk. The li hing mui powder I bought at Seattle's Hawai`i General Store, and the umeboshi were picked up at Uwajimaya.)

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