Sunday, May 18, 2003

Peppers can be such sweet heat

By Thayer Wine
The Tennessean

Hot peppers do way more than give your chili a punch, your scrambled eggs a kick and your salsa some zing.

Hot peppers mixed with sugar make sweet, sexy desserts - and soon, Tristate gardens will be producing plenty of peppers.

When served at the end of the meal, "they add extra stimulus to the palate to create a subtle excitement," says Michael Cribb, chef at Nashville's Bound'ry restaurant.

"The little underpinning warmth that comes through (from the peppers) only heightens the senses," he says.

Hot pepper in a dessert isn't such a stretch. After all, we've tried jalapeno cornbread and have loved that. What kind of leap must be made to blend apples with hot peppers or even chocolate or sweet potatoes?

Paul Prudhomme, the well-known New Orleans Cajun chef and master in the use of hot peppers, once gave a class on using hot peppers with sweet fruits. The effect of the hot and sweet was to enhance both. The sweet banana or pineapple Prudhomme used with his hot chilies worked almost like an antidote to the hot by modifying the heat considerably so the true flavors of the ingredients emerged.

Using chocolate with hot peppers is one of the best combinations, according to Paul Ent, chef de cuisine at Sunset Grill in Nashville. Think of the mole sauces from Mexico and Central America. These sauces usually are made with a long list of spices and chocolate and served with savory dishes such as chicken and mole sauce.

Many Asian cuisines blend hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors. Consider the chutneys used in Indian cooking, which incorporate the sweetness of fruit, such as mango, with vinegar, hot peppers and sugar. Though the chutney is served as a condiment with vegetables and meats, and not so much as a dessert, the idea works in fruit desserts, too, says Cribb.

For Cribb, who likes to blend ethnic cuisines, a dessert might be a light cake such as a genoise (a light but rich sponge cake), topped with a fruit compote tinged with a sweet/hot sugar syrup. Or maybe a poached pear with a creme anglaise and a hot pepper caramel sauce.

In desserts, you don't need a lot of hot pepper to provide that interesting - but not at all mind-numbing - background. It's often like a hint of heat that catches up with you on the second or third bite, especially when you mix a habanero caramel sauce with vanilla ice cream or a hot sugar syrup with brownies.

One way to get the heat to meet the sweet is to cook fresh hot peppers or crushed hot pepper flakes with sugar syrup, coconut milk, milk, chocolate sauce or caramel sauce, then strain them out. Use the spiced syrup, milk or sauce to flavor the rest of the dish. Another way would be simply to add a hot pepper sauce or sambal, an Asian condiment made with hot peppers, sugar, salt and sometimes other seasonings.

Most people know that the habanero and scotch bonnet peppers are among the hottest you can find, Ent says.

"If you bite into the flesh, it's hot, then it's over, but they have a little sweetness to it," Ent says of the habaneros, one of the 50 to 60 varieties of peppers he has in his seasonal garden.

When you add something sweet to the hot pepper, it diminishes the fear factor, Ent says.

One of the longtime favorite desserts at Sunset Grill is the habanero bread pudding. "It's both sweet and hot," he says. It calls for lots of sugar and butterscotch chips. Sometimes when fresh habanero peppers aren't available, he uses Tabasco Habanero Sauce.

The Asian chili sambal, a sauce usually used as a condiment in Indonesian, Chinese and other Asian cooking, is another handy ingredient to use in dessert recipes. Ent especially likes to use it in his flourless chocolate cake.

Chocolate Sambal Decadence Cake

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup butter
8 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
11/2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons chili sambal (see note)
1 pinch salt

1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Grease and flour a 9-inch springform or regular cake pan. Line bottom with a circle of parchment paper; grease and flour parchment and set pan aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt chocolate with butter until smooth and remove from heat.

Beat egg yolks with 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Add vanilla and sambal. Slowly add chocolate mixture to eggs, a little at a time to temper the egg mixture. Beat in remaining 6 tablespoons sugar.

In separate bowl, beat egg whites with salt until they form stiff peaks.

Slowly fold egg whites and chocolate mixture together. Do not over mix.

Spread batter into prepared pan and bake 30-to-35 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool on wire rack. Remove from pan after 10 minutes and finish cooling completely, if using regular cake pans.

Whip together the heavy cream, powdered sugar and vanilla. Spread on top of cooled cake. Makes 12 servings.

Note: Look for chili sambal, or Vietnamese hot chili sauce, on the ethnic foods' shelf in the supermarket or at specialty, ethnic-food stores.

- Chef Paul Ent, Sunset Grill, Nashville

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