June 14, 2009
By Chris Tan
Q I understand that the buah keluak nut is poisonous and needs to be soaked for several days. I usually soak the nuts overnight in several changes of water and scrub them well before cracking. But I have been told to soak them for seven days or boil them for 15 minutes. I am really confused now. What should I do? Also, can I freeze the nut paste?
A The buah keluak tree's wood, leaves, fruit and nuts (actually seeds) are all poisonous. When they are bruised or crushed, a glycoside compound they contain converts to hydrocyanic acid, also known as cyanide.
Some vegetables also share this property, such as bitter almond kernels and some kinds of cassava and bamboo.
In parts of Indonesia, the plant's lethality is exploited to make pest repellent and to stupefy fish and prawns - broken up keluak tree bark is simply thrown into the water - so they can be easily caught.
In Sabah, a little crushed dried keluak nut meat is added to a pickled fish dish to prevent spoilage. Some Indonesian tribes crush and sun-dry the nuts, then pack them into cleaned, fresh-caught fish with a little salt, in order to preserve them for a few days' travel.
However, fear not. All buah keluak nuts sold for culinary use have already been rendered safe by various permutations of soaking, boiling and burying in ash, processes which leach away or inactivate the glycoside, and let the nuts ferment into their chocolate-hued edible state. So soaking the nuts for 24 hours, preceded and followed by a good scrub, is perfectly fine, as you are only looking to clean and soften the shell enough to crack it easily.
Once you have cracked the shells and extracted the nut meats, wipe the latter off with damp paper towels, pack them into thick resealable plastic bags, press out the air, seal and freeze. They will keep in the freezer for a few months.
Cake oozing with choc
Q I love sinful fondant au chocolat but I just cannot seem to get it right. My recipe calls for mixing whipped egg whites with melted chocolate and flour. But after seven to eight minutes' baking, the result is more like a rich chocolate cake with many air pockets. How do I get the signature oozing chocolate centre?
A Unlike souffles, fondants au chocolat do not require an amply aerated batter. You do not need those whipped whites.
Perhaps the most famous (though not the first) recipe for these molten-centred chocolate cakes was by French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It calls for eggs and egg yolks to be first beaten with sugar until thick. Subsequent whisking in of melted chocolate, butter and flour deflates the yolk foam, resulting in a dense mousse texture that bakes up quite gooey.
You can find this recipe in the New York-based chef's cookbook Jean-Georges: Cooking At Home With A Four-Star Chef. As long as you use a good chocolate, an accurate oven and keep a stern eye on the clock to avoid over-baking, it works well.
Heston Blumenthal's chocolate fondant recipe, in his cookbook Family Food: A New Approach To Cooking, does not bother with aeration. It calls for stirring melted chocolate and butter into unwhipped egg whites. The result is silken and fragile rather than mousse-like.
Should you feel uncomfortable about eating half-cooked cake batter, you can also achieve a molten centre by dropping a frozen chocolate truffle into each batter-filled mould before putting it in the oven. When the cake is cooked through, the truffle should still be soft and runny.
Going to pod
Q Having read about the substitution of ingredients such as palm oil for cocoa butter in chocolate, I am considering making my own chocolate. Is it too ambitious to start from the cocoa pod itself?
Dominic Peter Mason
A That depends on your stamina, wallet and palate. If you favour smooth, ultra-refined, European-style chocolate, you will have to exercise extreme care in obtaining, fermenting and drying the beans, then cracking, roasting and winnowing them, milling and pressing the cocoa nibs, and mixing the cocoa liquor with cocoa butter, sugar and other necessary ingredients. Then, you have to conch (knead) the chocolate for at least a day to improve its texture and mature its flavour.
Finally, you have to temper and mould it. Frankly, I am perfectly happy to pay the folks at Amedei, Valrhona and so on to do this for me. But if you really yearn to have a go, explore www.chocolatealchemy.com for tips.
Somewhat easier to emulate is the Mexican and Filipino tradition of grinding rustic-textured, intensely flavoured chocolate at home. Start with top-quality roasted cocoa nibs (pictured above), which you can buy from high-end chocolate houses or online. Warm them in the oven, then grind them to a paste, ideally with a pestle and mortar or grinding stone (domestic food processors tend to overheat).
In Mexico, almonds, cinnamon and vanilla beans are commonly added to the nibs for flavour and in the Philippines, peanuts. When you have a gritty paste, add sugar (fine raw sugar or golden caster is good) and some cocoa butter if you like, and continue grinding until the chocolate smoothens out. Then simply form it into patties or spoon it into moulds and let it set at cool room temperature. Store the unmoulded patties in resealable bags in the fridge vegetable drawer.
Try a ratio of six parts nibs to four parts sugar and an optional half-part of cocoa butter, by weight. You can nibble the chocolate as is, use it in baking (do not expect it to act exactly like its Euro cousin) or best of all, whisk it into hot milk or water for frothy hot chocolate.
You will be rewarded with deep, complex nuances that show off all the fruity, nutty, earthy, winey, floral, smoky, spicy and bitter faces of the cocoa bean.