Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Pear Patina -- A Roman Empire Dessert Custard

I have acquired several Roman Empire recipe books over the years but the one I am attracted to the most was purchased in England and written by Sally Grainger.

ISBN 1-903018-44-7
I first wrote about it here, where I tried her recipe for modern day liquamen, a fish sauce used in many, many Roman dishes.  I stand behind my previous statement that the recipes she redacts are reasonable for the modern kitchen and the modern palate.  This recipe, a "fruit-based egg custard flavored with cumin" made me doubt that just a little, although her comments assured me that this "has been one of my more popular dishes at dinner parties and at reenactment demonstrations".

You may wonder why I doubted.  The answer is
the addition of fish sauce to a dessert always causes consternation until it is tasted.  Anyone who saw the television series What the Romans did for us with Adam Hart-Davies may possibly remember it was called a 'fishy custard.'  They gave it this name because they couldn't get past the fish sauce and see how delicious the other ingredients (honey, raisin wine) could be.
So I put my trust in Ms. Grainger and went ahead with the patina.

Pear patina, Apicius 4, 2, 35

1 1/2 lb Conference pears
200 ml red wine
50 ml passum  (see my notes, below)
2 tbsp clear honey
1 tbsp olive oil
1 - 2 tbsp fish sauce
4 eggs
1 tsp cumin
generous freshly ground black pepper

Fish sauce on the right
Peel and core the pears and chop them roughly.  Cook them till soft in the wine and passum.  Pass the whole mixture through a sieve or process it until smooth.  Add the honey, olive oil, fish sauce and 4 eggs and beat smooth again.  Dry-roast the cumin and grind to a fine powder.  Add it to the custard, then season with black pepper.  Pour into a greased casserole dish and bake for 20 minutes, or until it sets, in a moderate oven (375 degrees F, 190 degrees C, mark 5).  Serve warm with a final sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper.

My Notes

I did not have passum, which she describes as
a dessert or raisin wine made with grapes that were either allowed to shrivel on the vine or dried on rush mats.  More sweet must, from other grapes that had not been dried, was used to aid the pressing of the fruit. ... It is not a process we can duplicate but there are modern varieties of sweet wine that correspond to this. ... Any very sweet dessert wine such as a heavy muscat or a heavier Sauternes will also do.  Passum could either be dark or pale as long as it has that raisin flavour.
I had looked around for something like that but wasn't certain that I was getting the right type.  My flash of insight was to use a sweet Chardonnay (but not too sweet; I knew my dinner guests!) and to add dried raisins to simmer with the pears.

My latest visit to the local farmers market provided me with some very bumpy but lovely Bartlett pears. I used two (not both pictured) to get to 1 1/2 pounds.

The fish sauce was my latest rendition of reduced grape juice and dark fish sauce in a 1-to-2 ratio.  Yes, it tasted fishy on its own but I trusted the recipe and even used two full tablespoons.

The soft pears, raisins, and wine mix were pureed in my blender.  They were still hot from the cooking so I worried a bit about putting in the eggs and having them cooked right there.  However I didn't waste any time getting the eggs, honey, olive oil, and fish sauce put into the blender and processing the mixture until smooth.

I'm very glad I roasted the cumin seeds and ground them.  They smelled good.

A word of caution:  my blender jar holds five cups and it was very full.  I put the lid on and held it tight while processing the whole mix.  If I hadn't, there would have been patina mix all over the kitchen!   For the cumin and pepper, I mostly stirred it with a spoon and then lightly tapped the button to complete the mixing.  I probably should have put it into my food processor instead.

Too full!  Hang on tight!
I used a large casserole dish so the resulting patina was thin.

A pretty pink puddle
The custard was set after the recommended 20 minutes.  I let it cool a little while we ate dinner.

The surface looks almost bread-like
The Verdict

I served small pieces to my three guest tasters because it was so different.  Everyone liked it, including the person who does not normally eat desserts.

Visually it was pink (from the red wine) and lightly bumpy in texture, and it smelled spicy and sweet.

Looks like a pink brownie.
Each bite was a complex taste experience.  The cumin and pepper were there and needed to be there but did not announce themselves as distinct flavors.  Just a lovely spicy note.  I could taste the honey very clearly but my guest tasters didn't without thinking about it.  The pear flavor was dominant for me and I was glad.  The custard part came across as the right base to present the other flavors and stayed in the background.  No, none of us tasted anything fishy.  Just very, very good.

Fruity, spicy, creamy (with the crunch that pears bring), with just the right amount of umami to make the flavor deep.  I loved it!

One guest thought I should have used a smaller casserole dish, to make the patina thicker.  I agree although the thin version was certainly lovely.

Another guest told me he did not like the texture.  He does not like creamy foods much (like ice cream, and yet we are still friends) but prefers the creamy to have chewy or crunchy with it.  So we discussed options and agreed that a topping of chopped, toasted almonds would have been a stellar addition.  I would serve a bowl of the nuts on the side to allow my guests to choose.

There were leftovers, which I tried rewarmed -- very good, almost better than the first time -- and cold, which was also lovely.  Sometimes I put pepper on top and sometimes not.  Still very excellent.

Yes, success.  I would do it again.  An intriguing flavor mix with just enough fruity pear flavor to make it seem like a dessert.

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