Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jell-O Pudding: "The funnest sacrifice"

I’m writing this post as quickly as I can because the clock is ticking. According to the ancient Mayans, the world is coming to an end. We’ve only got until 12-21-12, a few days from now.

Happily, there is something that just might save us from impending apocalypse. No, it’s not a heartfelt prayer and no, it’s not an arcane ritual. Quite on the contrary, it’s something you’re likely to have in your kitchen at this very moment.

Corn? Beans? Potatoes? No way. If you were a Mayan god—Quetzalcoatl, say, or Kukulkan —wouldn’t you be bored after untold centuries of agricultural offerings? How much succotash can a god eat, after all?

Now, you might be thinking that what the gods really want, what would really avert the doom that’s hanging over our heads, is some vital internal organ or other, or perhaps a liter or two of blood, or some other such result of human sacrifice, but once again, you’d be wrong.

Chocolate pudding. That’s what the gods want—at least according to the folks at Jell-O Pudding. Who ever gets tired of chocolate pudding? The new Jell-O commerical features a guy slogging his way through the jungle, wading across a river, and dragging a huge wooden crate up the side of a pyramid, all in order to present his offering to the gods in the hopes of averting global catastrophe.

“Call me loco,” he says, “but I think this is gonna work.”

Well, you can’t fault them for trying and those of you who like a bit of culinary history will be happy to learn that the Jell-O folks are in good company. In the late seventeenth century, a Frenchman by the name of Henri Misson visited England and, although he was far from ecstatic over the food he was served, you might be surprised by the one thing that he did wax poetic over: pudding.

Blessed be he that invented pudding, for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people; a manna, better than that of the wilderness, because the people are never weary of it. Ah, what an excellent thing is an English pudding! To come in pudding time is as much as to say come in the most lucky moment in the world!

One has to remember, though, that Misson was not referring to chocolate or butterscotch pudding, but to such traditional English fare as black pudding—rich with blood, fat, and spices, stuffed into lengths of intestine, and boiled in water. To be fair, he did also mention sweeter puddings of “flower, milk, eggs butter, sugar, suet, marrow, raisins”—which might put you in mind of Plum Pudding, found just about everywhere around Christmas Time, but still, even Plum Pudding is a far cry from the silky smooth chocolate puddings beloved by children and gods alike.

How such stodgy puddings were transformed into the creamy concoctions on offer at supermarkets today is a matter I considered in a post last year and if you’re interested in such transmogrifications, you can check it out here.

For now, I’ll simply note—ever aware that the clock is ticking and 12-21-12 is fast approaching—that if I were a Mayan god, I might indeed prefer chocolate pudding to Black Pudding (although there is that blood connection, so I might want to give the matter some more thought). But then again, if I were a Mayan god, I think I’d prefer something along the lines of a Mexican Chocolate Flan with Kahlua (there’s no beating Rick Bayless’s recipe from his Mexican Kitchen) to the instant puddings the Jell-O folks are hoping will keep the apocalypse at bay. 

Stay tuned. As the commercial voice-over says, “Fingers crossed, we’ll see you on the 22nd.”

Mexican Chocolate Flan with Kahlua
(adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen)
(makes 6)

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
4 ½ ounces chopped Mexican chocolate (Ibarra is the brand I use)
1 inch cinnamon stick
1/3 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp Kahlua
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract

Pour the cream and milk into a medium saucepan. Pulse the chocolate in a food processor until pulverized. Add to the milk & cream, along with the cinnamon and 1/3 cup sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally’ then cover, remove from the heat and let steep for 20 minutes.

Whisk the eggs, Kahlua, vanilla and almond extracts in a large mixing bowl until combined. Slowly whisk in the hot milk mixture; return to saucepan and stir until the mixture coats the back of the spoon. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup. Then pour into custard cups, cover with plastic wrap (to prevent a skin from forming), and chill until firm.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Corona with lima? Or is that limón?

A guy walks into a bar and orders a Corona with lime. No problem. He’s gets his bottle, icy cold, with a wedge of lime stuck in the top. That would be the small green citrus fruit that goes by the name of lime. At least that’s the name it goes by here in the United States. That’s why we call the color “lime green.” Because around here, limes are green.

By the same token, in these parts, the larger yellow citrus fruit is a lemon. That’s why we call the color “lemon yellow.” Because to an English speaker, lemons are yellow.

But go south of the border and order what you think is the exact same drink in Spanish—“una Corona con lima”—and you’ll get your icy cold bottle of beer but now it’ll be adorned with a wedge of lemon.

In lots of Spanish speaking countries—in Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, for instance—the small green citrus fruit we call a lime is known as a limón, while the larger yellow one is a lima. Aunt Clara, of Aunt Clara’s Kitchen, a delicious blog of traditional Dominican recipes, tells me that in the Dominican Republic, lemons are sometimes even referred to as limónes amarillos, or “yellow limes.”

On the other hand, in Spain itself, the mother country as far as Spanish is concerned, limas are limes and limónes are lemons. And get this one: in Portugal, a limão is yellow and a lima is green, but in Brazilian Portuguese, it’s exactly the reverse.

Why all the citric confusion? What happened during the transatlantic crossing?

As with so many fruits, the confusion is the result of a lot of history, a lot of meandering, a lot of hybridization, and a bit of climatology as well. In the case of citrus fruits, the story begins in the part of Southeast Asia bordered by Northeastern India that’s the original home to both the lemon and the lime. Citrus trees hybridize easily, so it’s hard to know what was what, especially given the linguistic confusion involved back then. Ancient Indian medical treatises use the word jambiru (which you can still find in Ayurvedic sources), but it’s not clear whether lemons and limes were meant. The Hindi word nimbu is usually translated as lemon, although it might have referred to lime as well, and it appears to be the source of both words. How did nimbu become “lemon,” you might wonder? According to linguists, when the “n” in nimbu is “denasalized,” it sounds like an “l” (you can ask your linguist friends about this one), which is precisely what happened to transform the word into the Persian “limu” and the Arabic laymûn from which the European languages got their various citric vocabularies since there was no native Greek or Latin word for any citrus fruit. [Citrus itself, in case you’re wondering, comes from the Greek word for cedar, κεδρος kedros, perhaps because of a similarity in smell.] 

So was the fruit that grew back then in northern India and Southeast Asia yellow or was it green? It depended on the variety planted, natural hybridization, and even on the weather—as it still does. When winters are warm, citrus fruit remains green, but if the temperature drops, the fruit changes color as it matures.

When citrus reached the New World in 1493, certain varieties took better to subtropical regions where the cooler winters turned the fruit yellow, whereas in the hotter tropical regions, the fruit remained green. In both cases, the staple citrus was known as “limón.” “Lime,” for whatever reason, was reserved for the less important member of the family, whether that country cousin was yellow or green. The lime barely registers in cuisine north of the border, and the lemon rarely plays a starring role in Hispanic cookery.

Which is why when you ask for a Corona with lime in the US, you get a wedge of green fruit, but unless you like lemon in your beer, remember to order “una Corona con limón” when you’re south of the border. Or at least specify “lima verde.”