Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Upside Down Pie

Four posts in and it's already time for a mix-up.  Up to this point, my examples of "Unconventional Cuisine" have focused on unique ingredients that most home cooks may have passed in a well-stocked grocery but were clueless about how to use.  Although I fully intend on continuing this line of exploration in future blogs I do understand that some of my readers are also looking for cool stuff they can try with items they already have in their kitchens. This week's post does involve prickly pear and kumquats, both technically "unique" foods, but the real star of this simple dish is an underutilized cooking technique for the home chef. Couple this with the fact that readers can substitute whatever they want (within reason people) for the oddball fruits I chose and STILL end up with something delicious means we have a winner.

The Wonderful World of Curds

Without getting into a big history lesson tracing the importance of curds dating back to the Medieval age (although that would be fun) I'll just say that they're old and they're delicious.  The technique that produces curds is hardly a 'lost art' but rather a simple technique used frequently in production cooking, but one that most home cooks either avoid accidentally doing, have no idea they're taking part in, or simply never think of exploiting to their advantage.  One of the simplest curdles, and one I'm sure most people are familiar with, is when lemon juice is added to milk. The resulting lemon-chunk-mucus drink is pretty gross and not the least bit appetizing as a quencher but what if you could easily control the process to get a desired result? What about instead of thick chunk-cobs you could achieve a uniformly thickened gel?  What if I told you this dairy gel went by the very sexy name of posset? Interested? I thought so. Read on.
I recently made a posset on a whim, thinking I would surely find a use for it in an upcoming dinner party I was throwing.  A traditional posset, according to Merriam and/or Webster is "a hot drink of sweetened and spiced milk curdled with ale or wine".  Again, without going into the saga of curds, their purported medicinal uses or how similar (or different) they are to caudles, I'll simply state that possets can take many forms. The traditional posset IS curdled with ale or wine but the posset I made was an updated version using no alcohol, and had I added egg yolks to the mix, could easily have been called a custard.   Despite its pedigree, my posset never made its way into anything 'official' for dinner but at the end of the night, when everyone was finishing off the last of what seemed like a dolium of wine I put it out (de-posseted?) it on the table for my guests. I've used the 'everyone's had a lot of wine, and although they just ate a 9-course dinner, will pretty much still eat anything' scheme in the past to rid my fridge and cupboards of a number of  random foods nearing the end of their useful lives but this offering totally earned its keep.  There was just something so elegant and creamily-satisfying about this simple curd dish that it easily could have passed for a well planned finalĂ©.

As I stated earlier the curdling of milk proteins with acid technique is hardly a new one.  This insta-curdle method is what gives fresh cheeses such as mascarpone, ricotta and paneer their body and has been used for ages. Rather than simply demonstrate how to curdle milk in an ancient manner, I put together a complete dish (recipe follows) using posset as the base, or in this case, the middle. Because of the tart, almost-lemony flavor of  the posset made from this following recipe, I thought it would be fun to use it in an upside-down play on lemon meringue pie.  Keep in mind that this posset is more than delicious on its own but pairs remarkably well with a myriad of toppings. Beyond the basics of the curd, feel free to substitute whatever items are in season or that you like best. Most importantly, this one's almost impossible to mess up so just have fun!

Prickly Pear and Kumquat Upside-Down Meringue Pie


Heavy Cream 1 1/2 cups
Sugar 1/4 cup
Citric Acid 1/2 tsp (may substitute 1/4 cup lemon or other citrus juice)
Seasonal Fruit
Meringues (homemade or store bought)

note: There are many great reasons why recipes should, and are beginning to be written in  measurements of weight rather than volume. For the sake of this post being geared for use in the "common kitchen" I've standardized the measurements into old skool cups and tsps.

Heavy Cream, Sugar
Measure Cream (1 1/2 cup) and Sugar (1/4 cup)

Citric Acid
Measure Citric Acid (1/2 tsp) (or citrus juice (1/4 cup) if substituting)

Heat to 190F
Mix cream and sugar and heat to 190F; stirring constantly. When temperature is reached, remove from heat and stir in citric acid or juice.  Allow mixture to sit for 10-15 minutes to cool slightly then place in the refrigerator for 12 hours to fully thicken.  The posset will thicken up noticeably within several hours and if you're happy with the texture, it can be used at this time. I think the viscosity is prime when left overnight to gel, but if you're in a hurry the taste will be identical beforehand. 

Prickly Pear
Dice whatever fresh fruits you've chosen to make a compote. In this case I used kumquat and prickly pear.

Prepare Meringue

Use a circle cutter to carefully score a circular ring in your meringues, removing the interior to create a bowl (this becomes the 'upside down' part of the "pie").

Finish and enjoy

Fill the meringue cavity with posset, top with fruit compute and dabble additional posset on top. 

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