Sunday, 16 May 2010

Alchemical Desserts

Alchemy, and let's just get this out of the way, was a marvellous science of its time. Alchemists plunged into the world of cooking up a storm in a retort, discovered quite a few things along the way (including the properties of alcohol and the art of dyeing), and showed a determination in the face of failure that can only be admired. Their goal, to understand how nature works to transform metals in the earth and make bags of bones and blood, the human body, function, still drives many a young child to become a scientist today.

Before you scoff at the lead-into-gold thing: it's been done. With particle accelerators, just a couple of years ago. Admittedly the cost was higher than the reward, but the feeling of living an ancient dream? Priceless!

Still sceptical? Let me ask you: do you think science can find a cure for cancer? Are you sure? And if you have a smidgeon of a doubt - should all cancer research be stopped right now? You see, alchemists had no reason to believe that it was not possible to transmute lead into gold. And that's what makes them not the figures of ridicule they became in centuries after their heyday, but rather people who are curiosity and tenacity personified.

These days, 'alchemy' is an overused and fuzzy concept appearing in the titles of businessmen's self-help books and in the culinary area. But at the risk of flogging a dead tofu: I still marvel at things that happen to ingredients when mixed together and heated up in processes that are handed down from generation to generation. There really are many parallels between alchemy and cooking, starting with the use of recipes and ending with the unpredictability of the outcome, especially for the apprentice alchemical/culinary whiz.

Today's recipe stands for all those things that you cannot even imagine working when seeing the recipe. Lead into gold? Bah, humbug! Pumpernickel in a pudding? Blech, pass the humbugs, please. But trust me, this recipe transforms a few simple ingredients into something more yummy than its parts.

This dessert appears to be of Westphalian origin (hence the pumpernickel), and is perfect for a cold spring like this year's: substantial, with the promise of summer and a hint of decadence. Like many concoctions of mine, this is even better the day after the preparation. In the true alchemical spirit, why not make two portions and test this theory for yourself?

Black Forest Mess
(aka Westfaelische Herrenspeise)

500g quark*
1 cup single cream
a little sugar
lemon to taste (optional)

500g sour cherries in a glass**
a dash of Kirsch or other spirit of your choice (optional)

100g milk chocolate***
100g pumpernickel****
1. Whip the cream and stir it together with the quark, a dash of lemon and sugar to taste (see ** below).

2. Drain the cherries, and if the spirit takes you, marinate them in the tipple for a little while.

3. Crumble the pumpernickel into small crumbs, grate the chocolate with a knife and mix it under.

4. Assemble: layer quark, cherries and crumby chocolate in glasses or a large bowl, finishing with the quark. For serving, grate a little more chocolate and place, of course, a cherry on top.


* Quark is a milk product, a pre-stage in the cheese making process. In emergencies it can be replaced with non-fat Greek yoghurt (the good, expensive stuff)

** Really sour cherries are best. If you can only get cherries in syrup, reduce the sugar in the quark mass

*** This has to be good stuff, with 35-40% cocoa (not more, not less). I recommend Ritter Sport or Green&Black's

**** This is an unnegotiable. It has to be packaged pumpernickel, not dark bread. It is available in the UK and the US, though you might need to look carefully before spotting it

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