Anatomy of a Dish: Boca Negra with Many Complimentary Flavors

When I set out to replace the mud pie (gasp!) with something less sweet that would also accept many more complimentary flavors and hence be able to evolve seasonally, I faced a bit of a conundrum – we’ve been working very hard to avoid cliches lately, or at least rework them in a way that freshens them up and gives them new appeal. The mud pie was sooooo sweet and therefore difficult to pair with beverages and other flavors. It is also the quintessential South Coast chocolate dessert (except in Acadiana, where it might be something they call “chocolate yummy.”) So, we could rework the mud pie to make it less sweet and easier to pair with other foods and beverages, or come up with an entirely new dessert.

A fancy gateau was appealing, but I’ve already made my feelings known about refrigerating cakes. Something changes. A flourless chocolate cake would be appealing in that it’s also gluten-free, and doesn’t suffer a lot of the problems other cakes do when they are refrigerated. Still, it’s a cliche, and not even a Southern one we could refresh. I felt the same way about mousse, and pudding didn’t seem like it would lend itself to the kind of presentations I am trying to work up for dessert without spending a lot of money on parfait ware. Efforts to rework the mud pie were fraught with issues, and I’ve been dying to purge the last two processed foods in our kitchen – in fact the only two processed foods we have ever had, brought in solely because they are mud pie essentials: Oreo cookies and marshmallows. True, we can and have made our own marshmallows, but in an increasingly busy small kitchen, I’d rather turn our efforts to items that are a little more compact and easier to store in a hot humid restaurant kitchen, or at least be able to keep under refrigeration, which definitely doesn’t work for marshmallows.

Lots and lots of reading and research brought up a recipe called Boca Negra, or black mouth, something you’re left with after you eat something so decadently rich and chocolaty. It’s essentially a bittersweet ganache set with eggs and a touch of flour. Finding the resulting texture a little too gooey, (is that possible?) I found that by replacing the small amount of wheat flour with a slightly larger amount of gold rice flour, I could escape the odd waxiness that sometimes results from the bonding of fat and the particular kind of gluten found in wheat, and the rice flour gave the cake an exquisite crumb that is very finely grained but super creamy on the tongue.

A word about so-called molecular gastronomy is apt here. We’ve caught some (not much really, but it’s there) criticism for embracing some of the ingredients of the more progressive kitchens of the day. Some say it betrays our focus on “comfort food” and others say it betrays our emphasis on foods in their natural state.

The first criticism is horse hockey because we have never purported to be a comfort food restaurant, even though some of our foods are most definitely comforting. Pad Thai is comforting to me, does that mean Big Jones should be doing Pad Thai? What is comfort food? I strive every day to create cuisine that is delicious, nourishing, sometimes soothing, other times exciting. Tuesday fried chicken dinners have become very successful, but I think it’s because we do fried chicken well, and people like fried chicken. I love fried chicken, but I don’t think of it as comfort food, even though I grew up with it. So, please save the comfort food label for someone who wants it.

When we first opened, we took a fair amount of flack for the phrase “Contemporary Coastal Southern” because some folks thought we shouldn’t be messing with Southern Food that way. We used the word “contemporary” to signal that this was not going to be your grandma’s Southern kitchen, even though we love to resurrect the old and make it new. We’ve always planned to be forward-thinking, and to me that means looking to the past for inspiration as industrial conglomerates and chain restaurants have annihilated America’s food traditions. That doesn’t mean I’m not cooking for now. In the end, we decided to strike the “contemporary” from our tag line because it seemed redundant to us. This is 2010 Chicago, and we are going to cook like it.

The second criticism isn’t exactly horse hockey, but it’s not really valid either. Grant Achatz’ hatred for the term “molecular gastronomy” is well known because it doesn’t make any more sense to label an alginate sphere by a new culinary term when it’s no more transformative chemically than the act of leavening a muffin with baking powder and then baking it. We have stayed away from a few of the stranger modern kitchen ingredients, but the ones we have embraced are no more unnatural, and in many cases less processed, than things like corn syrup, cornstarch, baking soda, cream of tartar, and the current commercial formulations of baking powder that are widely accepted ingredients by all but the most strident whole-foods advocates.

NaCl is a chemical that occurs in nature. So is agar. So is calcium lactate. The delightful aromas and tastes we get from chemicals created by the “Mailliard reactions” (chemical reactions that result in browning, or caramelization aromas and flavors) are not found in nature. They are created by applying heat in varying degrees to a raw food to cause a chemical reaction to create those smells and tastes, characteristic of baked bread as well as a good pot roast or seared zucchini.

Maltodextrin is a very simple thing, and anyone who objects to it should also stop using corn starch, corn syrup (it’s possible to make candy recipes without it but seriously, just try) and taking vitamin supplements, natural or not. The same is true of gellan gum. It’s a bacterial product and anyone who doesn’t accept it should also give up guar gum, xanthan gum, and all sorts of vegetable gums that are used to make some of your favorite brands of ice cream and vegetarian and vegan foods found in the natural foods store. I don’t advocate using them to replace real food as the food processing industry has done. However, used with proper and due restraint they can enhance and embellish good food by increasing our available tools to express the great raw ingredients with which we start.

So, we have Boca Negra, puffed Carolina gold rice, raspberry, and almond granola, bittersweet ganache, benne ice cream, and vanilla-cherry gelee. Be sure to use good chocolate. We use a dehydrator to make our puffed rice and dried raspberries, but if your tools are limited you can use a good natural foods brand of puffed rice cereal and buy dried raspberries that are sold as a snack food in natural foods stores. Tapioca maltodextrin and gellan F are available from multiple sources online. The absolute best thing about this dish is everything can be made in advance and assembled at will. The granola will keep well tightly covered in a cool dry place for a week, ice cream keeps a good long while when cared for properly, the boca negra and gelee will keep well refrigerated up to one week.

For the Boca Negra:

Makes one 10″ cake. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter well and dust a 10″ cake pan with rice flour and set aside.

  • 12 ounces 72 percent bittersweet chocolate (anything in the 70% range should be suitable)
  • 1/2 teaspoon top-notch cayenne powder, around 50,000 scoville units
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup dark rum
  • 1/4 cup espresso or strong coffee
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces butter, cut into small bits and softened to room temperature
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup Carolina gold rice flour
  • 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder

Shave the chocolate into small bits and place in a stainless mixing bowl with the cayenne and set aside. Put 1/3 cup sugar, the rum, espresso, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a rolling boil, stirring often. Once at a rolling boil, remove from heat and immediately pour over the chocolate shavings, whisking to melt the chocolate. Add the softened butter and stir to melt in. In a separate bowl, combine the other 1/3 cup sugar, the rice flour, and cocoa. Whisk eggs in a separate bowl and add the dry mixture by sprinkling evenly over the eggs while whisking constantly to prevent clumping. Pour egg mixture into chocolate, stirring constantly until the entire mixture is smooth and integrated. Turn into the prepared baking dish and place in the oven to bake for 25-30 minutes, until set. There should be a thin, dry crust on the top. Remove from heat and place on a cooling rack, still in the pan. Cool for fifteen minutes or so, until still warm but not hot to the touch, around 120 degrees. Tie a clean dry towel around the top of the pan and invert the cake onto the towel, being careful not to plop it onto a hard surface. Gently set onto the counter top and invert a serving tray over the bottom of the cake. Using the towel to keep the cake taut against the serving tray, invert again so that the cake is sitting right side up on the serving tray. Can be stored at room temperature for a day, or refrigerate covered for up to a week and reheat as needed in a low oven.

For the granola:

  • 2 pints fresh raspberries
  • 1 cup slivered raw almonds
  • 1 cup cooked Carolina gold rice
  • vegetable oil, for frying
  • 1 Tablespoon dark toasted pecan oil
  • 1 cup tapioca maltodextrin
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Place raspberries on a clean tray in the dehydrator. Place cooked rice on another clean tray. Dehydrate at 130 degrees. The rice will be ready after about 6 hours, hard and dry little grains. The raspberries will take up to two days, depending on rain conditions before harvest and storage time and conditions. They will dry into crispy, tart little miniatures of themselves. Once dry, put them in an airtight container in a cool dry place until needed. they will store for months as long as humidity is not extreme.

Place two inches of vegetable oil into the bottom of a deep kettle or stock pot. Using a strap on thermometer, raise the oil temperature to 450 degrees. Sprinkle a tablespoon of the dried rice over the oil, being careful to avoid splatter. The rice will fall to the bottom for a few seconds, rise, and puff several times its size. Fry a few more seconds until golden brown, then quickly remove and drain on paper towels while repeating until all rice is fried. Turn heat off oil and allow to cool thoroughly before cleaning up. Set the rice in an airtight container and keep in a cool dry place until needed, It generally will keep several weeks or more, but is best within a few hours.

Place pecan oil in a small mixing bowl and add maltodextrin. Mix thoroughly, breaking up with a fork, until all is integrated into a fine powder. Add powdered sugar and salt. Place in an airtight container in a cool dry place for up to one week.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread almonds evenly on a cookie sheet and toast until golden brown, about fifteen minutes. Cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container in a cool dry place.

It is best to wait until plating time to assemble granola. Make sure all ingredients are perfectly dry as any moisture will cause the maltodextrin to turn gummy. Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and toss to combine.

For the benne ice cream:

  • 1 cup raw hulled sesame seeds
  • 1 quart non-homogenized heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup local orchard honey
  • 1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 10 large egg yolks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread benne seeds evenly on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven until golden brown, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature. Place cream, sugar, honey, vanilla, salt, and toasted benne seeds in a 2 quart stainless saucepan and bring to a low boil. In the meantime, in a separate 4-quart saucepan, place the egg yolks. Once the cream mixture boils, whisk into the egg yolks in a thin steady stream and place over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom and sides until the custard is thick enough to coat a spoon a reads 168 degrees on a thermometer. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature for one hour. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. The next day, place in an ice cream freezer and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Turn into a freezer-safe container and freeze until solid, about six hours.

For the vanilla-cherry gelee:

Note: we make this from the liquid reserved after we macerate cherries before freezing them for a frozen cherry salad on our calas dessert. You can follow the same method, and freeze the cherries after draining for a fun snack, or simply use the flavored cherries in cocktails such as Manhattans or Corpse Revivers that call for maraschino cherries.

  • 2 pints tart cherries, pitted
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1-3/4 ounces good brandy
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • pinch kosher salt
  • 6 grams gellan gum type F

Place cherries and vanilla bean in a glass jar with room to spare. Place sugar, water, brandy, pepper, and salt in a stainless saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over the cherries and allow to cool to room temperature. After a few hours, cover tightly and refrigerate for three days or up to seven. Strain off the liquid, reserving cherries for other uses. Measure one liter of liquid and transfer to a 2-quart stainless saucepan. Sprinkle gellan over liquid and allow to bloom for five to ten minutes. place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often to prevent scorching. At the boil, pour liquid into a shallow glass or stainless pan to cool. As the liquid cools, it will begin to gel on the surface and around the edges. Use a fork to gently break up the gel as it cools, repeating again and again until the entire gel has cooled and you have a “salad” of cooled gel that can be piped in a pastry bag. Place in an airtight cooler in the refrigerator for up to one week. Stir gently to break up the gel before placing in pastry bag to pipe.

Note: Gellan F has some notable advantages over agar and gelatin for this particular application. We want a gel with excellent flavor release properties, which both agar and gelatin also provide. However, agar sets into a more opaque gel, and we are looking for something more jewel-like in its plate appearance. Gellan is supremely crystal in appearance once set. Agar also has a distinctive taste that is noticeable with simple fruit gels like this. Gellan has no discernible taste. By contrast, dairy products contain fats and electrolytes in quantities that cause problems with gellan, in which case agar is suitable because its flavor blends seamlessly with dairy products and it is less susceptible to disruption by the fats and minerals in dairy products. Gelatin creates a gel that is more brittle than gellan or agar, at least in its ability to be pureed or stirred after the gel is set. Both agar and gellan will hold a shape once the set gel is mixed while gelatin will tend to dissipate, making it a poor choice for this application.

For the bittersweet ganache:

  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup espresso or very strong coffee
  • pinch freshly ground Ceylon cinnamon
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and softened to room temperature
  • 1 Tablespoon VS cognac
  • Cocoa powder for dusting

Cut chocolate into fine shavings and set aside in a stainless bowl. Place cream, coffee,and cinnamon in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Immediately pour over chocolate shavings and let stand for five minutes. Stir well and mix in the butter and cognac. Place in an airtight container and allow to cool to room temperature uncovered. Once cool, cover and refrigerate for up to one month. When needed. use a melon baller or small scoop to scoop out small balls and roll in cocoa powder before serving.

As I mentioned earlier, the great thing about this dessert is that in spite of its intense and vibrant flavors, all of the components may be prepared in advance and assembled when it’s time for dessert. So once your mise en place is done, you can relax, enjoy your company, and plate at leisure! To ad a touch of super fresh summery flavor to the plate, add some Thai basil, pineapple mint, or even minced chilies!