Mystery Box 2

Here we go again!

Last time we tried this mystery box thing, it was a trial run, there were a few flaws, and it was pretty damn hard!

I had only 5 ingredients, as opposed to the standard 8-10 and I only gave myself 60 minutes. 1 hour may seem like such a long time to make something, but I’m telling you, when you are under pressure, 1 hour feels like a second!

This time things were much better. There was no lemon rose water or string cheese and I had many more fresh ingredients to choose from.

When I lifted the lid, I giggled and got really excited- my trusty mystery box putter-together-er chose every single main ingredient I have featured on The Forked Ring so far.

Beautiful lemons, rosemary, mangoes, avocado, fresh Maine blueberries, homemade maple syrup, and farmers market beets. All of my favorite ingredients in one basket! What an amazing feeling- the only problem was, with so much inspiration, I wondered if I could focus on an idea well enough to come up with something brilliant.

IMG_3946The clock started- this time at 90 minutes because A) 1 hour is torture and I wanted to give myself an opportunity to make something better than soup 🙂 and B) The theme of the basket was DESSERT!

I haven’t made a dessert in a while, so I was excited. I had beautiful fresh sweet flavors with tart lemons and bitter beets and knew there was so much potential. I felt like 90 minutes would last a century! And I could do a million things.

I thought of a lemon tart, blueberry ice cream, rosemary shortbread, all of these delicious sweet confections, but I struggled to find how they would fit together.

In the end I thought I would try making a pan cotta since I had gelatin floating around, and it would be flavored with burnt maple and rosemary. To go with that I wanted something tart and refreshing, so I fused the beets and mango with a little lemon together into a curd, ribboned with fresh pops of Maine blueberries for texture and sweetness. Finally I decided on a pastry to stretch my dessert muscles, and I couldn’t stop thinking about choux pastry. Choux is the batter that makes eclairs, cream puffs, croquembouche towers and fried into churros. It’s delicious and pretty easy to make and I decided to flavor it with lemon. I also made some garnishes further on in the cook, but I’ll get to those later 🙂

Here we go!

90 minutes left

To make the burnt maple and rosemary panna cotta:

1 cup whole milk/cream
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp fresh maple syrup
2 big sprigs of fresh rosemary
1/2 sheet platinum strength gelatin

I started with an element that I originally intended to freeze- so I started it first to ensure it would have the maximum amount of time possible to chill and churn. I grabbed a few sprigs of the fresh rosemary and decided to pair it this time with the Maine maple syrup.

My goal was to make a rosemary and maple ice cream to go with a more bitter and tart dish. First I separated 4 eggs into yolks and whites and combined the yolks with sugar, whisking until pale yellow and ribbony.

In a medium saucepan I added the cream to cook over medium heat until slightly hot and not boiling, to prevent curdling. I immediately added the sprigs of rosemary to infuse into the beautiful milk that would thicken together into an ice cream later, and the smell of the rosemary all ready was delicious.

I decided that to infuse the maple flavor into the dish, I needed to alter the flavor somehow to avoid an already sweet cream becoming too sweet and sugary. To do this I got another small saucepan and added a small amount of the syrup and turned the heat up to  medium-high. Now, normally this would be a really bad idea and a dumb move, because obviously the syrup, packed with sugar, would burn. In this situation, that slightly burn and caramelized bitter flavor was exactly what I wanted.

Once the syrup started to slightly smoke and bubble, I poured over the hot cream mixture to deglaze the caramelization on the bottom of the pan and adopt that bitter flavor. I immediately stirred this together and then strained the mixture into the bowl of egg yolk/sugar mixture, whisking quickly to prevent the eggs from cooking.

At this point the clock had a little under 80 minutes left, and it dawned on me that without a fancy ice cream churner or liquid nitrogen there was no way this thing was going to freeze in time- so I adapted and changed the creme anglaise into a custard!

To do this, I simply put the strained egg/milk/sugar mixture back in a saucepan over a gentle heat and added a half sheet of gelatin until it completely melted and dissolved into the mixture. When that was ready, I took the mixture off the heat to cool slightly and then poured the batter into silicon semi sphere molds. Gelatin is a natural thickener and once cooled in the freezer, in a smaller mold, I was sure the parfait/custard type thing would set beautifully.

75 minutes left!

Next, I decided to satisfy my craving for some sort of pastry. I hadn’t made a really good risen dough treat in a while and I contemplated in my head which pastry to make and what would make the most sense in only slightly over an hour. I knew the hero of that specific ingredient would be lemon, so I got to work zesting and juicing them.

And then I thought of one of my favorite things, choux pastry! Choux is just eggs, flour, butter and water with salt for taste, and it’s usually used to make eclairs, cream puffs, etc. The first time I ever made the recipe was at age 14 when I got home from school for Christmas break.

I remember it being my freshman year of high school and I was exhausted by the mental politics and drama of being a blossoming young adult, trying to balance academics and friends and sleep and felt like I was going crazy. I decided on a whim to make something to make myself feel better, and I wanted a huge challenge to take my mind off things.

On one of my mom’s food magazines in the past week or so, I saw this gorgeous tower of pastry balls held together with caramel with spun sugar decorations and the recipe was 5-6 pages long. It was croquembouche, a french pastry tower sometimes served at weddings, made out of choux pastry profiteroles, filled with pastry cream, stacked into a conical tower that resembled a Christmas tree.

I fell in love with the thought of it, spending the entire day in the kitchen, perfecting the technique, and presenting a gigantic pastry tower when my parents got home.

Long story short it was a struggle, and a MESSY struggle! I went through the kitchen like a tornado and burnt my little teenage hands on scalding hot caramel and remember moaning when each sphere fell, or didn’t rise enough, or the pastry cream didn’t thicken.

Since then I’ve made choux pastry many times, and it’s exponentially easier the second time, third, fourth, and so on.

So after my train of thought veered off into pastry/croquembouche land, I got out the eggs and started to work!

To make the lemon eclairs: 

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
Zest of 2 lemons
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup AP flour
4 whole eggs
1 egg yolk + splash of milk for egg wash

Preheat your oven to 375 F.

With only 70 minutes left, I heated a medium saucepan and added the water, lemon juice, zest, and butter, then, as it warmed up, adding the flour until it formed a solid ball. It should be solid enough to not melt or break apart but also not so solid that you need a body builder to stir it for you.

Cook the dough over medium heat for several minutes, stirring constantly, to cook the flour taste out of the dough.

For the next step you can either get out your fancy Kitchen Aid mixer or do this step by hand, it’s up to you. One choice is much easier, and of course I insisted upon choosing the hard way.

Take the dough off the heat and with 4 room temperature eggs, add each and stir in stages until each is incorporated fully into the batter. After the addition of the last egg, the batter will be loose and slightly pourable but not liquid, nor a thick dough.

IMG_3962Now, if you want perfectly shaped, artisan profiteroles, transfer your dough to a large pastry bag with any tip you would like. If you want to be like me and take a risk and go for a more artsy, rustic approach, just try spooning the batter and manipulating into the shape you want with a wet finger.

Pipe them onto a non stick silicon baking sheet and brush lightly with an egg wash (1-2 eggs and a slash of milk whisked together) and then transfer to the oven to cook for 13 minutes.

55 minutes left

Once they have cooked 13 minutes, DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN! Yes, it’s very tempting, but they will deflate and you will be sad.

Turn the temperature down to 325 and cook them another 10-15 minutes until they look golden brown and puffed up.

Once they have cooked again, DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN! I know, so frustrating, you just want to look at them, but if you do, they will deflate and you will be sad.

Turn the oven OFF, completely! Let them sit in the oven to dry the insides for another 10-15 minutes. This is important to make sure they are semi-hollow and have a crunchy exterior and soft, airy filling.

Once they have survived all this, OPEN THE OVEN! Yay! Let them cool until you’re ready to plate.

IMG_3964So, needless to say, this took a good chunk of my time. While they were in the oven I made the other components for the dish, but when they came out of the oven there was about 5 minutes left on the clock. AHH!! I’ll get back to that later…

To make the blueberry/beet/mango curd:

2 large mangoes
2 peeled red beets
1/3 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
1 whole egg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/3 cup fresh Maine blueberries

I knew from the start I had to use the beets, since they’ve become one of my all time favorite ingredients. They work so well for both savory dishes and sweet dishes, so I knew it would help that salty/earthy/sweet complexity I was looking for.

I also love making curd, since it’s super easy, and I love eating it, because it’s super tangy and bright- perfect to go with the rest of my sweet and salty components.

This curd was made by pureeing together mangoes, beets and lemon juice. It has that complex earthy beet flavor with a burst of tang from the ripe mangoes and tart lemon. It’s something I’ve never tried before, but it’s a winner!

Once I strained the pureed beet/mango/lemon juice mixture through a fine sieve into a saucepan, I added sugar and cinnamon and started to heat the mixture of medium, stirring constantly.

Then I added an egg to help thicken the curd and kept cooking and stirring for 5-10 minutes. Once you are happy with the taste and thickness (a semi-loose sauce), fold in your fresh blueberries and transfer to a heat proof container to chill and thicken in the fridge! Easy as that.

18 minutes left

Custard- chilling, curd- chilling, choux pastry- baking…time to make the finishing touches!

I decided, similar to my beet recipe, to make fried beet chips as garnish. This time I used candy stripe beets for added sweetness to reinforce the dessert, and I also decided to chop up some beet leaves.

To make the fried beet chips and beet garnish:

1 peeled and squared rainbow beet
1/3 cup canola oil
Chiffonade of fresh beet leaves


Once I finished prepping the beets and I heated a small pan with oil over medium-high heat.

10 minutes left

Choux is still in the oven, and I need to finish my garnish. Here we go again, cutting it super close! Too close for comfort..

I quickly popped the beets into the hot oil and stirred them with a fork for only about 30 seconds, then flipped them, cooked another 30 seconds, and they were done!

I transferred them to paper towels to drain the oil and started to gather all of my components.

5 minutes left

At this point I’m feeling better than last time with what felt like ages to just plate the dessert. But what ensued was another hectic, nail biting 5 minutes that felt like seconds..

I take the pastry out of the oven finally and scoff at myself for not starting it earlier. I knew it wouldn’t cool in time so I had to be strategic with plating. But at least it looked good!

I took the curd out of the fridge and it looked and tasted great, a bit more firm than before but still loose enough to be a sauce.

Next, the moment of truth!

2 minutes 30 seconds

In the freezer I took out my silicon semi-sphere mold and prayed to Ina Garten it was set.


It set perfectly, thanks to the gelatin, and I knew I made the right choice not going with ice cream. It would have still been a puddle at this point, and the custard came out so perfectly and flawlessly that I took a moment to pause in disbelief.

1 minute left

To Plate:

Okay, so I had 60 seconds to plate, so I knew it had to be rapid fire artistic genius! No time for second guessing or rearranging..

First I put down a smear of the curd. Next I placed the chilled semi-sphere on top, and the eclair separately to its right to prevent the custard from melting.

With about 20 seconds left I grabbed my garnish and like a mad man placed around some beet chips and sprinkled beet leaves.

10 seconds left.

It needs something. Definitely a good idea with 10 seconds left.

It needs more color, maybe some…Yellow??

I spot a half a lemon on the cutting board next to me and grab it, grab a knife, slice a thin ring for garnish, and I practically throw the thing on top with about a millisecond left.

And the timer goes off.

I actually finished!!! And it looked gorgeous. And best of all, it wasn’t lemon rose/mackerel/parsley soup!

The tastes were beautiful- One thing I noticed was that the small Maine blueberries were a pop of freshness and sweetness in the tart/earthy curd, almost like a sweet caviar. The coldness of the custard next to the still warm eclair tasted beautiful and strange. The eclair had a delicate lemon flavor but carried notes of butter, that familiar crust/savory not all good dessert have. The custard itself wobbled a little but held its shape and it tasted so much like rosemary! Almost like pistachio ice cream, but with a note of toasty maple and herbs. The beet chips provided a nice crunch, and the whole thing was actually delightful to eat.

So all in all, this has to be my best mystery box so far (out of 2)! But I would be happy to serve this at my restaurant in the future.

Next time, I promise to you, and to myself, I will finish with more than 10 seconds left, okay? We’ll see..


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