Chiltepin Caramel

Hey folks, it’s sunday and time for another recipe but, as I mentioned in my thursday post, I’ve not been at my wellest this month. In fact, at my worst, I was physically incapable of keeping down anything with a strong flavour.

Yet, as much of an inconvenience as that was, I don’t bring it up just to whine at you. I’m mentioning it because that time led me to appreciate the delicacy of vanilla, egg and nutmeg in a custard tart – The british dish on which today’s little dessert is based. The starting point, if you will, for the recipe that follows.

But, much as I’ve come to love that pudding, this one’s a little bit different and it contains, as you might expect, my own chilli twist.

What you might not expect, though, is the source of that twist: The sonoran desert between the US and mexico. Home of the wild “chiltepin” pepper.

Fresh, the chiltepin is known for its small size, citrussy taste and fast, short lived, intense burn. It’s used to pepper just about anything in its desert home and is a big favourite among birds yet, here in the UK, it’s only available dried.

Eaten that way, it’s different. Savoury, almost smoky, definitely earthy and really very red chilli flavoured. No hint of citrus remains and, while I’m sure it’ll still work its way into mexican cookery, it’s certainly not the same pepper.

This one lends itself to an entirely different pairing, going wonderfully with the burnt sugar notes of real, homemade caramel. And yes, I am just going to be drizzling that caramel over a baked egg custard but, trust me on this, there is nothing more ideal than that creamy, flan-like base to balance out the dry heat of this desert chilli.

When everything comes together, it makes for a truly superb crème caramel. But what exactly is everything?

TepinGredients

250ml milk

80ml boiling water

2 large eggs

50g icing sugar (or other, fine-grained variety)

8 tablespoons granulated sugar

20 dried chiltepins

1 large pinch of nutmeg

1 lidful of vanilla essence

And a dash of salt.

A huge number of chillies, yes, but they’re absolutely tiny. In terms of volume, my peppadew risotto still has today’s recipe beat.

In terms of heat, however, this one’s going to be pretty strong. Not crazy, like using twenty chillies might suggest, but a

3.5/10

Heat

all the same.

One that pricks the tongue, warms the sides and kicks the throat, hitting different parts of the mouth in different ways as it works its way down. And one which definitely benefits from being offset by sweetness and paired with dairy.

We are, in fact, going to start with that dairy, today. Largely because it takes rather longer than the topping and doing so will allow us to serve both warm.

To begin, measure out your milk, add the icing sugar and whisk in your nutmeg pinch. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and remove from the heat.

Beat together two eggs until even in colour and continue to whisk while you gradually add in the sweetened milk. Do not go too fast or you could risk cooking them, though any small solidified lumps will be removed in the next step. Which is, of course, to sieve the mixture.

Now, personally, I prefer to use a tea strainer and strain into martini glasses but a real sieve and a ramekin will do just as well. Either way, though, straining/sieving is essential for the final texture and we do want our custard as smooth as it can be.

When sieving the custard into its baking container, though, be sure to leave at least a centimetre and a half of head space – It will expand in the oven and there won’t be room for caramel, otherwise.

TepinCustard

Also, just a heads up, do make sure that your glassware is properly heat-proof beforehand. Not every drinking vessel is meant for hot beverages.

Depending on what container you do end up using, cooking time may vary a tad but, for me, it took a nice, consistent twenty minutes at 180°c to get the solidity and light browning of the edges that we’re looking for:

TepinBaked

After that, the custard “crème” is done and it’s time for our caramel.

Pour your granulated sugar into a small saucepan and add a dash of salt, sized to your own taste. Some like it barely apparent, others want it super noticeable in their caramel. I tend to prefer the second option but lent towards the first when testing this recipe.

Warm up the pan and keep heating on max flame, stirring constantly until the sugar melts, turns a golden-brown and is only just beginning to bubble at the edges. Too much more and all the sweetness that it possesses will turn to bitterness as it blackens.

As you’re doing this, ensure that you have a partially-filled cup of boiling water at the ready. You’ll need to add it right away but try to do so from the greatest distance you can. Water boils at a far lower temperature than sugar and the difference will cause the contents of the saucepan to spit dangerously.

Once it’s safe to do so, drop the heat to medium and begin stirring again, to ensure that the water and sugar have properly combined. When they have, it’s time to crush in the chiltepins.

You can wear gloves for this and, honestly, I’d advise it, but they’re not superhots. Their oils will wash off if you don’t. You’ll just have to clean your hands very thoroughly.

In terms of method, though, just crush them between your fingers, right into the pan. They don’t require anything complicated and the fragment size isn’t too important when their flavour is about to infuse in, anyway. They’re simple peppers to work with, really.

To make that infusion happen, though, we do have to cook them into the caramel for another five minutes. Which is why we stopped the sugar just a little earlier than we could have done. Because it will only continue to darken, while it’s soaking up that chilli flavour.

Finally, though, once you’ve finished infusing the caramel, all that remains is to drizzle four to five tablespoons of the stuff over each glass of your dessert. Then, the cooking is over and you have a delicious, sweet, creamy, fiery treat like this:

TepinDone

Or three or four, ready to impress any chilli loving friends or savour by yourself. Their genuine burnt sugar providing a more sophisticated, slightly bitter edge, when compared to most commercial caramel flavouring, that takes the edge off of the sweetness and compliments the savoury chiltepins.

I can see myself making far too many of these in the future. Enjoy.

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