The Pud Thickens (Part 3)

The Old and the New

We’ve reached the final part of this interesting trilogy, a survey of thickening methods using five “puddings” as our guide. We’ve explored the phirni, the panna cotta and an array of baked custards. This time, we will look at two more desserts, one very old and another relatively new, which rely on rather unconventional thickening methods.

The posset was originally a British hot drink from the 15th century, made with spiced milk curdled using wine or ale. It finds mention in  Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth uses it to drug the guards who stood watch at King Duncan’s bedroom :

“The doors are open, and the surfeited grooms

Do mock their charge with snores. I have drugged their possets

That death and nature do contend about them

Whether they live or die”

Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 2

In the 16th century, the drink evolved into a cold set dessert made with cream, sugar and citrus. The most common version is the lemon posset, which has a creamy texture not very unlike a phirni or a panna cotta. The way it attains this texture however, is incredibly different.

Traditional posset recipe (Courtesy : Shakespeare and Beyond)

A lemon posset has exactly three ingredients : heavy cream, sugar and lemon. Unlike the baked custards or the phirni, it has no saffron or vanilla for flavour reinforcement. The lemon in the recipe plays a dual role of flavour and thickener.

The technique of making the dessert is ridiculously simple. Add heavy cream, sugar and lemon zest in a saucepan, combine and reduce the mixture. Take it off the heat and add 6 tablespoons of lemon juice. Let the mix cool slightly, pour into ramekins and chill until set. That’s it.

So, what exactly happens here? How does a mixture with no conventional thickeners achieve a perfect set? The answer lies in the ingredients. Milk contains a protein called casein. When acid is added to milk, the casein proteins clump together and the milk goes grainy: it curdles.

Cream on the other hand, has ten times as much fat as casein (the ratio is 50-50 in milk). The large amount of fat helps keep the casein molecules apart, preventing them from rapidly clumping together. Instead, they interact slowly, causing the mixture to thicken uniformly. And finally, the sugar adds viscosity, giving the mixture structure and a creamy texture.

Luscious lemon posset (Courtesy : What A Girl Eats)

Of course, you can play around with the choice of citrus, since lemons aren’t that easily available in India. In the winter you could use orange, although you would need to boost the acidity with some lime. For me though, the ultimate version would be a summertime gondhoraj lime posset.

The main issue however, is a relatively limited access to heavy cream with a high enough fat content here in India. You could try skimming the cream off the top of a refrigerated tetra pak of light fresh cream, but it seems way too labour intensive, considering the much easier access to gelatin.

That being said, this is a dessert which piques my curiosity beyond belief. With no starch, eggs or other thickeners to dull the flavours, what you get is a dessert with the pure taste of citrus. Once I get my hands on some good quality heavy cream, I’m definitely making this. Paired with fresh berries and a piece of shortbread , it is the ultimate summertime dessert.

Lemon Posset with Berries and Shortbread (Courtesy : The Herald)

Our final dessert is something we’ve seen already in our review of Ottimo; that mysterious chocolate sorbet which ditches the dairy altogether and creates a luscious dessert using just chocolate and water using a pacojet (check it out here). If you love chocolate as much as I do but don’t have money to buy a pacojet, I’ve got some good news. You can make it at home.

This recipe, called Chocolate Chantilly, was devised by the French chemist Herve This, whom we mentioned in our molecular gastronomy series (check it out here). A Crème Chantilly refers to whipped cream, sweetened with sugar and usually flavoured with vanilla. This dessert however, has no cream. All you need is some good quality chocolate (60-70 percent atleast. Don’t skimp on this, please), water, a bowl of ice and a whisk.

Combine the chocolate and hot water in a bowl and stir till the chocolate melts. Then set the mixture over a bowl of ice and start whisking (a hand-held electric mixer will save some of the labour). And in no time, the liquid mixture transforms into a luscious creamy consistency which you can then serve up on its own or with a few berries. But, how does it work?

Chocolate Chantilly (Courtesy : Blue Jean Chef)

Any baking 101 course will tell you that chocolate and water are arch rivals; get even a drop of water into a bowl of melting chocolate and the whole mixture seizes up into a clumpy, grainy mess. Well, that depends a lot on the proportion of chocolate to water. Add a few drops and the water destabilises the emulsions in chocolate, making the solid bits clump together and the mixture goes grainy.

Add enough water however, and you basically create a fat in water emulsion, the fat here being the cocoa butter in chocolate. Whisking introduces air bubbles into the mix, which get smaller and smaller with progressive whisking. Each of these miniature bubbles now gets coated with the fat. Cool it down and the fat solidifies, trapping the air bubbles in. And voila, chocolate mousse.

The mechanism at work here is similar to how whipped cream is made. All you need is a fat in water emulsion with the enough fat to coat the integrated air bubbles. Use an emulsion with a lower fat content and there won’t be enough fat to coat and trap the air bubbles; the mixture wont fluff up. Adding just the right amount of water to the chocolate creates an emulsion with a fat to water ratio similar to heavy whipping cream, which causes it to whip up into a luscious mousse.

Chocolate sorbet at Ottimo, Hyderabad

What makes chocolate chantilly so great? Since we are relying here on the cocoa butter rather than milk fat to fluff up the mixture, we can do away with dairy altogether. Without any dairy to dull out the flavours, the pure, clean flavour of chocolate shines through. And what is why it is mandatory to use the best quality chocolate you can manage to get your hands on.

Once you’ve got the basic formula set, you can play around with the flavours any way you like. Swap some of the water for orange juice or a strong espresso or add a few drops of mint oil or a sprinkling of ground cardamom or chilli powder, and you can create classic yet spectacular combinations. Chocoholic’s nirvana indeed.

Lemon posset and chocolate Chantilly produce delicious, familiar end-results in the most mysterious, unfamiliar ways. Although they may be separated by half a millennium, both desserts have unbelievably pure flavour profiles, thanks to the lack of conventional thickeners. All it takes is a handful of good quality ingredients and the right technique.

From fresh and fruity to light and creamy, from wobbly and caramelly to luscious and chocolatey, there is something in it for everybody in the world of puddings. On the way, we looked at some traditional and nontraditional thickeners in both savoury and sweet territory. Puddings are super underrated, and are anything but boring. It is time to bring pudding back into the limelight, and give it the respect it deserves.

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