I never knew at the time I was about to fall in love. You never really do. It was one of those moments when in a split second everything had changed; the past was grey hues and pale colours, the future a bright mosaic of endless possibilities. I’m not one to subscribe to life changing events, but there was no mistaking for me that things were now different; there was no going back to old ways. We would be seeing our days out together growing old, and those binds that hooked in from then would be as strong as ever at the end. It was love, for sure, and all because of a chocolate button …
It was so innocent when we first met; the end of a busy lunch service. The last diners had left, the glassware had been dried and put away, tables had been set for the evening’s service, linen ironed perfectly on tables without a crease in sight, bread crumbs swept away. The candles were on the tables but not lit yet, as we had a few hours to go before evening descended. The restaurant manager and I were going over wine matches for the evening’s degustation menu. It was there when we finally got to the dessert selection that the rose slowly started to bloom; the first part of my soon-to-be born new love: chocolate.
This wasn’t just any kind of chocolate dish though; it was Martin Bosley’s impeccable ‘5 Textures of Valrhona Chocolate’. I wish I could remember them all (believe me, there certainly weren’t just 5 …), but I do recall the chocolate terrine on the bottom, chocolate mousse atop that, a chocolate fudge hard-set ‘sail’ calmly placed at the top, sailing through what seemed an ocean of brushed-on chocolate, waves of irresistible Valrhona cocoa nibs scattered about. Visually stunning, a symphony of chocolate, it was just so … immaculate.
So what to match with that? A botrytis wine is like serving something sweet for sweet’s sake; they’re both there on the table, both sweet, but barely talking to each other. Port? That certainly could work, but this is no light and fluffy dessert, it has heft, a weight that unfortunately is not counter-balanced by the equally heavy port. Late harvest riesling? Same reason as the botrytis, only this time they’re wondering why their friends even thought they’d like each other. A muscatel was what I was arguing for; sweet raisiny goodness, with an acidity to cut through the richness of the chocolate.
But my manager didn’t agree. He was suggesting a sherry: Pedro Ximénez. I scoffed at the thought, asking if perhaps he wanted to bring his grandmother in for dinner, at least she’d like the sherry. He didn’t laugh (he never really did, I don’t think he really got my sense of humour. I don’t think many people do …) simply persevering in matching the 5 Textures with PX. Seeing he wasn’t making much headway with me, he proposed I try a small glass of Pedro with a chocolate button.
It’s a funny world we live in when such momentous occasions are wrapped up in seemingly mundane and small things, like trying a glass of Pedro Ximénez with a chocolate button. But hey, no one really understands love, least of all me. But I certainly know when it’s happened . . .
. . . And that was as soon as that drop of PX hit my mouth with the chocolate button.
There were no fireworks, trumpets blaring or loud exultant declarations of joy. My eyes simply widened as my brain could not figure out what the hell had just happened.
Love happened. I had fallen in love with chocolate and Pedro Ximénez. Life had changed, and the future was full of bright possibilities.
Firstly … What is Pedro Ximénez?
Sherry, which PX is classified as, is one of the most misunderstood fortified wines around today. Well, maybe apart from Retsina. Which is easy to understand really. Don’t drink it. But sherry, well, it should be the go-to wine for food matching, yet is almost universally criminally overlooked.
Pedro Ximénez is a style of fortified wine made in the southern part of Spain, in an area known as the ‘Sherry Triangle’, named after the three main areas of production for sherry in the province of Cádiz: El Puerto de Santa María, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and Jerez de la Fronterra (connect the dots between these three cities and guess what shape you get? … A triangle, you get a triangle). These three cities house the bodegas that slowly age the sherry using the near magical form of blending called the Solera process. More on that soon.
For Pedro Ximénez sherry, the grapes are picked at their optimum ripeness, which isn’t hard considering the Cádiz region itself receives more than 300 days a year of direct, intense sunlight, with the vines themselves being exposed to an average of 17.5 degrees Celsius over the active period of it’s ripening. Which all adds up to some super ripe grapes. Ripe of course means sugar, these grapes pack a fair whack of it, and those Spaniards know a thing or two about concentrating that sugar …
Once the PX grapes are picked, they are left out in the sun for a little under a week. Those 300 days a year of direct, intense sunlight get to work immediately evaporating the moisture content from the grapes. By the end of the process with most of the moisture gone, it’s the sugar that’s left. They are now ready to be juiced.
Which of course isn’t easy, given the desiccated nature of the grapes. There are a number of techniques used which are a little to boring to list here; suffice to say they are successfully juiced, placed into an oak vat, and fermentation begins.
Again, it’s the natural sugars here that the Spaniards pay attention to. Before the yeast has eaten all the sugar, very early in the fermentation, a grape spirit is added; raising the alcoholic level to one where the yeast can no longer survive and leaving all those sugars still in the juice. I like to think of it as the natural grape sugars forever now being in suspended animation …
Now the young sherry enters the most exciting part of its life, one where the assimilation begins, in the magical solera process.
Right … The Solera Process?
Imagine one barrel, with two beneath it, then three beneath that, sitting atop each other. These barrels are called a ‘crianza’; loosely translating to ‘breeding’, ‘upbringing’ or ‘nurture’. I always like to think of them as the nursery for the young sherry, a safe playground in which it can age and mature. For it is in the first barrel at the top that the newly fortified wine goes into, and through a thorough process of blending, the sherry is incrementally moved down to the next barrel, then the next, then finally into the bottle. The whole point is to give the young sherry at the top all the benefits of age and maturation of the older sherry at the bottom, and to also produce a consistent product year in, year out. This is kind of simplifying the process, but it should give you a general idea.
It is this painstaking blending that produces at the end a liquid that has a viscosity, an all-enveloping mouth-feel; one of molasses, raisins, chocolate, spices, all these flavours, that when married with chocolate combine to make one of life’s finest food and wine matches. In case you haven’t realised by now, I love it.
And science says you should love it too …
Next … Umami?
Ah yes, umami, the fabled fifth flavour profile of Japanese cuisine. It is neither sweet, nor sour, salty, nor bitter. The word itself derives from the Japanese ‘delicious’ and ‘taste’. No points for guessing what it means … I reckon you got it, but I like Claude Bosi’s explanation: “it makes your mouth water”.
The science? It’s fairly involved. I’m going to be a little lazy here and say this guy has it fairly well explained. But yes, science says you should love the combination. Hopefully.
But because of it’s rather esoteric meaning, being neither sweet, sour, salty or bitter, simply a delicious taste, how do you describe its flavour?
Well, I’m not going to lead you this far down the garden path without at least giving you some way of experiencing this mouth-watering flavour for yourself. And I believe there is no better way than through that combination I have come to love so dearly myself: chocolate and Pedro Ximénez.
Spiced Chocolate Pudding with Pedro Ximénez
In Melbourne I had the pleasure of managing a little tapas restaurant right in the heart of the city, Portello Rosso. Down a quintessential Melbourne laneway, with only a small dining space, Head Chef and Owner Aaron Whitney works a trade in stunning Spanish cuisine. It truly was an honour to work alongside such a talented cook who had an innate feel for tapas and Spain in general. Of course, being a Spanish restaurant I had plenty of sherry to play around with, and it was a day to day mission of mine to educate as many diners as possible to the beauty of sherry with food. His Spiced Chocolate Pudding (cooked to order, allow 15 minutes please!) was the perfect way to experience umami with Pedro Ximénez. It took a few years, but I finally think I found a worthy dish that could proudly sit on the table next to Martin’s ‘5 Textures of Valrhona Chocolate’. This isn’t the exact recipe, you’ll have to take a trip down to see Aaron for that (say hi for me …) but it’s fairly close.
- 150 grams Good Quality Cooking Chocolate (make sure it’s at least 70% cocoa)
- 150 grams Unsalted Butter (don’t think you can get away with the salted kind. You can’t)
- 3 Egg Yolks
- 3 Egg Whites (works out well doesn’t it?)
- 30 grams Almond Meal (that’s ground almond. You could use flour I guess, but then you can’t tell your friends “hey, it’s gluten free”)
- 50 grams Brown Sugar
- 60 grams Castor Sugar (super-fine if you want to be super. I use super-fine, because you know, I’m super)
- Cocoa Powder for dusting
- 1 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper (tread carefully here; maybe use more, maybe less, everyone seems to have a different tolerance to this kind of heat. You’ve been warned)
- 1 teaspoon Hungarian Sweet Paprika (same as above, though this has substantially less heat involved)
- Good Quality Vanilla Ice Cream (or Hokey Pokey, Goody Goody Gum Drops, Strawberry or any manner of ice cream you see fit to go with ice cream. I use vanilla. Goody Goody Gum Drops should be reserved for a summer’s day when the tar bubbles are just so on the road)
- 1 Bottle Pedro Ximénez (of course)
This makes around four 250 gram serves. Get your best tea-cups ready. Or buy some cool ramekins. I probably wouldn’t use the tea-cups. Nan would be upset.
First … The Chocolate and Butter:
Fairly easy step to start things off.
Break up the chocolate and add to a glass bowl with the butter (I did use a large pan the first time I prepared this dish, but the glass bowl is so much more professional). Place the bowl (or pan …) over a simmering pot of water on the stove. The idea is to allow the steam coming up to gently allow the chocolate and butter to melt together. The magic box can be used I guess, but again, that whole professional thing we’re going for here; let’s stick with it. Use a whisk to mix the two together until you have a glistening bowl of chocolate/butter goodness. This should take five or so minutes. Just be certain that it is melted through thoroughly; those sugars in the chocolate need to be fully combined to avoid any graininess later on in the finished dish. When done, take the bowl off the heat and set aside.
Next … The Egg Yolks and Brown Sugar:
Whisk these together until the sugar is dissolved. Carefully (very carefully, we’re making chocolate puddings here, not scrambled eggs) slowly pour the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate and butter, stirring constantly until they are fully amalgamated. This shouldn’t take too long, a couple of minutes at most.
Next … Spice it up:
Add the almond meal, cayenne and paprika to the mix, again stirring constantly. This is perhaps the most important step in the whole process, because it defines the dish itself at the end. This is why it is called a ‘Spiced’ Chocolate Pudding. Be wary of the fact it’s not called a ‘Demon Hell Fire Oh My God I Can’t Breath My Mouth Is An Inferno Shoot Me Now Please Shoot Me Just Make It Stop’ Chocolate Pudding. Got it? Everyone’s perception of heat is different: I used a teaspoon each of the cayenne and paprika and could just make out the heat in the background. My brother, however, screwed his face up coughing and ran to the freezer for more ice cream. Wimp. I’d recommend dipping a finger in and testing the mixture, adding less at first and moving up if needed.
Next … The Egg Whites:
In a bowl hand whisk together the egg whites with the castor sugar …
Seriously, you believed me?
In a bowl use an electrical whisk to beat together the egg whites and castor sugar, until stiff peaks are formed. My apologies if you’re arms and hands have cramped up badly due to all the hand whisking you may have done. Next time read the whole recipe through before getting started.
Some things to remember here:
- Have your eggs at room temperature before separating. Room temperature egg whites stiffen easier.
- A copper bowl is best (whole heap of science involved there) but a glass or aluminum one is fine. Plastic bowls tend to retain fats or oil, which the eggs don’t like. Wooden bowl? Leave that for the fruit on the table.
- Avoid getting any egg yolk in with the mixture, same reason as the plastic or wooden bowls. You won’t get the volume needed.
- Once stiff peaks are formed, stop beating. Keep going and they return to their original form. And stay there.
- Once you’re there, move to the next step straight away; beaten egg whites don’t like hanging around on their own. They get lonely. And deflate quickly. So …
Next … The Assembly:
Fold the egg whites in lightly with the other ingredients. You want to try and keep the fluffiness (I believe that’s the correct term …) whilst also fully mixing the ingredients together. This should only take a minute or two.
In some ramekins (or tea-cups from Nan …) pour the mixture in. There should be enough for four ramekins, hopefully. You might decide that when serving the puddings you want to have them free standing. In that case have the ramekins lightly buttered and dusted with a little cocoa powder before pouring the mixture in; they should slide out easily at the end. With a bit of luck . . .
Hopefully you have the oven on at 180 degrees Celsius fan baking. Pop the puddings in, set a timer for ten minutes, and pour yourself a glass of Pedro Ximénez. It’s time to get acquainted. Me? I pour my glass right at the start; we’ve been friends for a while now.
Once your timer has gone off, remove the puddings from the oven. They should be a little wobbly; if you think they’re too wobbly, back into the oven for another two minutes. You can over cook these, which isn’t a disaster; you simply miss out on the delight of the chocolate oozing out from the middle. Aim for ooze.
If you’re going to serve them out of the ramekins, place a plate on top, then flip over. Whisper a prayer before gently lifting up the ramekins. All going to plan they should be standing on their own. They grow up so quickly …
All you have to do now is scoop on some ice cream, take spoonful of the dessert, a sip of PX, and welcome yourself to the wonderful world of umami. Spiced Chocolate Pudding and Pedro Ximénez – It’ll make your mouth water.
But be careful: you may fall in love, and the past will forever be lost to grey hues and pale colours.
But what a wonderful future you have ahead. Enjoy.