Panela Hot Chocolate

Durham enjoyed a white Boxing Day, and so did Fred and I. We made a snow kitty.

Yes, it is wearing a bowtie and playing a recorder. It is probably not necessary to say that these items were Fred’s idea.

And we walked through the neighborhood, still aglow with Christmas decorations.

When we were happily tired and chilled, we repaired back to the house, where I made Fred what might have been the first cup of homemade hot chocolate he’s ever had.

I won’t dwell on how ghastly it is to live in a culture that uses hot cocoa mixes combined with . . . (I can barely say it) water when the homemade version is so simple and so much better. Let’s just say that since this was Fred’s first experience with hot chocolate from scratch, I wanted to do a good job. So I decided to lace it with my newest addiction–Latin America’s culinary answer to crack–panela.

Panela is raw sugar cane, boiled down until it forms a firm cake. You might recognize it from your local market as a brown, cone shaped item that can easily be mistaken for a candle (not that I ever would have done that, of course). Also known as piloncillo or papelon, it tastes like brown sugar infused with the richness of molasses, with smooth overtones of maple syrup. In Central and South American it is grated, shaved, or broken off in pieces and added to recipes. Despite its firm texture, it grates easily and dissolves quickly in hot liquid.

I discovered panela when I made asado negro for Fred, from a recipe that appeared in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month. Asado negro is a Venezuelan dish consisting of roast beef simmered with leeks, onions, peppers and garlic in a thick, dark, caramel-like sauce. The magazine column, “The Cheat,” explained how to create the sauce with a combination of white and brown sugar, but indicated that the roast would be “spectacular” if you could find some panela. 

Remembering the little candles, I immediately trotted over to Compare Foods to get one. There I found that panela comes in different shapes and sizes. There was the candle, but there were also large round cakes and these smaller beauties, which I decided to bring home.

The asado negro didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped (the cooking time in the recipe ended up being too long for the meat), but none of this mattered. After my first taste of the panela, I wanted it in everything. I put it in my oatmeal. I sliced it over cheese. I cut off chunks and ate it all by itself. 

So when the need for hot chocolate arose, I knew panela had to be involved. Its smoothness is the ideal  complement to cocoa’s rich bitterness, and I’m glad to say that Fred’s first cup of homemade hot chocolate was the best I’ve ever made. 

Panela Hot Chocolate

For each serving, you will need:

1 cup milk
1/4 cup half and half
1 1/2 tbsp. Dutch processed cocoa
Dash salt
2 T grated panela, packed (more or less to taste) (if you can’t get panela, white or brown sugar would be fine)

Pour enough milk for all servings into saucepan and on high heat. Into each cup, add half and half, cocoa and salt. Whisk with small wire whisk (or a fork) until well blended. Add panela and whisk again until panela has begun to melt. When milk is hot but not boiling, fill each cup. Whisk again until panela has melted. Add a dash of cinnamon or ground chili pepper for garnish if desired.

Microwave version: Follow directions as above but do not heat milk in saucepan. Instead, add cold milk to cocoa mix in each cup and microwave each serving until milk is hot, about one minute. Remove from microwave and whisk ingredients until well blended before serving.

Blue Plate Extravaganza

If you’re a professional chef, coming up with an entire dinner of blue food in three hours is probably a snap. If you’re not, here’s where you need to start:

Blueberry Martini

1 heaping T pureed fresh or frozen wild blueberries
1 ½ – 2 t fresh squeezed (as if I have to say it) lemon juice
1 very large jigger gin (Bombay Sapphire, of course)
¼ very large jigger triple sec
Pour over ice into martini shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass.

A normal person probably would have been happy with just a Blue Velvet Cake recipe for the Amateur Gourmet’s Blue Food Contest. But, as was established during the creation of Sunday’s lurid Greenish-Purple Velvet Cake, that would not be me.

Instead, discovering the contest only on Sunday and having to travel all day Monday, I set out to make ENTIRE DINNER of blue food on Tuesday. After work, starting at 7. With no food coloring involved.

The menu was in my head: blue cornbread, buffalo steak salad with bleu cheese, and, of course, the Blue Velvet Cake. Ingredients were purchased. (The Blueberry Martini was merely a last-minute, desperate effort that resulted from a lack of wine.) All I had to do was invent–and, for once, write down–the recipes.

For the blue cornbread, I turned to Southern Cornbread in Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe. Why I turned to a cookbook written by Yankees to make Southern cornbread I don’t know. But at least it was blue:

That is, until you cooked it:

It WAS blue on the inside, but I was too ashamed of how flat it was to take a picture. (I hope my mother doesn’t read this. Also, please don’t tell her I really like that sugary Yankee cornbread.)

Below is the recipe for blue cornbread that I WOULD make if I had time and didn’t have a full-time job. Please feel free to try it and let me know if it works.

Blue Cornbread

Preheat oven to 450. Chop 1 medium onion and saute in about 1/4 c. melted bacon fat in iron skillet.

Mix together:
1 1/2 cups blue cornmeal
1/2 c flour
2 tsps. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsps. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 finely chopped dried chipotle or poblano pepper

Stir in 2 lightly beaten eggs. Add 1 – 1 1/2 cups buttermilk. Add sauteed onions. Don’t overmix–stir just until all ingredients are moistened. Pour mix back into iron skillet and bake for 25-30 minutes until brown.

And now I have to go to work. More later.