I love the Mediterranean penchant for having small bites with a glass of wine or an aperitif. At Barbounia, a rather large, lovely restaurant on the corner of Park and 19th, you can sit at the bar with an icy summertime glass of rose and some tasty meze, and feel like you are on vacation in Santorini or Taormina. For those of us with the soul of a Sicilian or a Greek, but the passport of an American, this can be a real treat.
Last week I did just that with a star trio of recent ICE pastry grads, Shari Tanaka, Sapna Shah, and our own Tia Cannon. I had been raving about a particular dessert that I had had there on several occasions, and wanted to see if the ladies shared my enthusiasm for this somewhat unusual sweet. We met there one evening and of course couldn’t resist having a few glasses of wine and sharing some wonderful meze and appetizers.
One item especially stood out – a salad of arugula, fennel, fresh figs, pecorino romano, and green almonds. This salad was so well composed and well balanced in flavors that we all went crazy for it. Green almonds aren’t common here on the East Coast, and we rarely see them as they have a very short season. Unripe or immature almonds are picked and eaten before they have a chance to harden into what we normally identify as an almond. They have a fuzzy green exterior and a soft squishy inside reminicent of a lychee. The flavor is very intriguing, kind of grassy with a slightly bitter edge. In any case, the combination of this unusual fruit with the saltiness of the cheese and the sweetness of purple figs is quite delicious.
Now on to the dessert that I was so enamored by…it’s called Silan, and it’s kind of an eastern Mediterranean ice cream sundae. It is a scoop of caramelized espresso ice cream drizzled with silan (date molasses), sprinkled with caramelized almonds, pistachios and rice krispies then finished off with shredded halvah. The ladies and I all agreed that this dessert is a textural masterpiece, exotic yet comforting, and absolutely addictive!
I wanted to try out a dessert of my own with the “shredded halvah,” so I went to my go-to place for exotic ingredients, Kalustyan’s on Lex and 28th. (If you were ever my student, you would know about Kalustyan’s because usually at some point during the mod, I become very insistent that all students go there on a self-imposed field trip.)
Kalustyan’s did indeed carry a couple of versions of this special ingredient. I did some research, and found that many Middle Eastern and Asian countries make different versions of it. One version, imported from Turkey and called pismaniye, or “Turkish cotton candy,” is basically cooked sugar, pulled over and over into fine strands, or “floss,” and coated in toasted flour. The Israeli version, which the pastry chef at Barbounia uses, is made with sesame, hence the term “shredded halvah.” In Iran, a similar sweet exists and it s called “peshmak.” Almost anyone from this area of the world is familiar with this candy, although it’s still unusual to see it here in the U.S. In any case, it’s wonderful stuff, and below is a recipe that I came up with to showcase it. If anyone else has used this ingredient in other ways, I’d love to hear about it!
Toasted Sesame Gelato with Pismaniye and Roasted Figs
For the gelato:
1 qt. milk
½ qt. cream
4 oz. sesame seeds, lightly toasted and still warm
2 fluid oz. honey
½ teaspoon salt
5 oz. sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
-In a large saucepot, bring milk and cream to a simmer. Remove from heat, toss in sesame seeds, and let infuse for about a half hour.
-Put cornstarch in a small bowl and whisk two tablespoons of the milk mixture into the cornstarch.
-Add honey, salt, and sugar to remaining milk mixture in the pot and bring to a simmer again.
-Whisk cornstarch slurry into the simmering milk and continue to cook for a minute or two, whisking constantly.
-Strain the gelato base into an ice bath and let cool completely.
-Process the mixture in an ice cream or gelato machine. Freeze until ready to use.
For the Roasted Figs:
12 fresh purple figs
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon honey
-Preheat oven to 400F.
-Place whole figs on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and honey.
-Roast figs for 5 minutes, remove from the oven and let cool.
For the Sesame Crunch:
2 oz. sesame seeds
1 Tablespoon confectioners sugar
1 Tablespoon brandy or rum
-Preheat oven to 400F.
-Toss all ingredients together on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until seeds have turned a light toasted brown.
-Cool, then chop coarsely.
With a pairing knife, cut an “x” in the top of each fig, about 1½ inches deep. Place a small scoop of gelato in each fig, sprinkle with the sesame crunch, and top with some of “pismaniye” or shredded halvah. Serve immediately.