Recently, I got to thinking about the way we express our appreciation while eating good food. How do you do it? Are you the type to take a mouthful, put down your spoon, lean back, close your eyes and raise your visage to heaven, indulging in a moment of quiet quasi-religious worship of the food gods? Or do you open your mouth, aforementioned mouthful still visible inside it, and make a thick, guttural, primal grunt of 'ommagodatsogood'? Maybe you go for a short and sweet 'mm', delivered with vim and gutso, in the style of Nigella? Or a longer and more voluptuously drawn-out 'mmmmmmmmm'? Do you go all out and emit a rapturous and somewhat inappropriate moan of 'oh my goddddd', or do you eschew such drama altogether and simply express your seal of approval with a restrained 'this is very nice'?
A couple of weeks ago, I had a friend over for dinner. We'd just polished off a delicious (even if I say so myself) main course of Mexican spicy marinaded roast chicken thighs, pineapple and avocado salad and corn on the cob. I'd found a new dessert recipe I wanted to try. I sliced a fat, ripe papaya in half, scooped out the seeds and stuffed it with a mixture of amaretti biscuits, stem ginger in syrup, sultanas, lime zest and juice, yoghurt and pistachios. I baked it in the oven for just under half an hour, let it cool for a few minutes, then tucked in.
We were talking about something, I forget what. Or at least my friend was talking, and I listened intently as I dug my spoon into the soft, gooey papaya centre and placed it in my mouth. Completely involuntarily, I suddenly let out a loud and deeply guttural cry. I forget what the words were - something in the vein of 'Oh my GOD THIS IS INSANE' - but they are, by and large, unimportant. What is important is the tone in which they were conveyed, a tone of wild, primal, unadulterated and lascivious food lust.
I'm pretty sure I have never expressed such deep regard for a single mouthful before. I'm certainly one for conveying my appreciation of food in vocal and often inappropriately loud and involved ways, sometimes with a mouth impolitely half-full, but this was on a whole new level.
I'm just going to go right ahead and say it. All my recipes are delicious, OK? That's why I blog about them, because they taste good and I want to share them. But, to grotesquely mis-quote Animal Farm, some recipes are more delicious than others. This is probably in the top five of all time.
It's not something I can take total credit for. I discovered it in an obscure Asian cookbook of mine that I looked up on Amazon and discovered is now out of print and therefore would cost you hundreds of pounds if you wanted to acquire a copy. I've tweaked it slightly to adjust it more to my taste, and the result is just so ridiculously good that it would be a crime not to make it available to a wider audience.
You've never thought of baking a papaya before, right? Me neither. There are some fruits that beg to be baked into luscious desserts - pears, banana, apples, plums - but there are equally some whose very structure and fruity identity feels ill at ease enveloped in a batter or exposed to the searing heat of oven or pan: mango, for example; strawberries; and, until now, papaya.
You just wouldn't think it would work. Papaya flesh is quite watery, and possesses such a subtle flavour - surely the oven would just destroy its creamy, slightly grainy, texture and fragrant flesh? Not so. If anything, the flavour is intensified by the oven, the texture firmed up and yet simultaneously made even more meltingly delicious. The sweetness is multiplied tenfold, the orange colouring becomes much more resplendent.
And the filling is just something else. It's quite a strange assortment of ingredients - or, rather, there are lots of established pairings of ingredients in there, but alongside lots of other pairings, so it's a kind of strange medley. Ginger and raisin, yes; amaretti and pistachio; ginger and pistachio; ginger and amaretti; raisin and amaretti; raisin and pistachio; yoghurt and pistachio...you get the gist. But it all melds together in the heat of the oven to form the most incredible flavour-packed stuffing for the papaya. The top turns crunchy and golden, knobbly with nutty pistachios and biscuit, while the inside is soft and gooey, deeply spiced with ginger and with surprising little bursts of sweetness from the raisins. I added even more ginger to the original recipe, and omitted the extra sugar, because this is a very sweet dessert already (not overly so, and there's actually no added sugar - it all comes from the fruit, raisins and stem ginger).
I've made this three times already, and the second time I decided to pair it with a homemade ice cream. Specifically, a gelato (a milk base rather than cream) made with toasted coconut. This has a delicious deep, rich, nutty flavour and sweet coconut perfume that marries very well with the papaya - it takes the edge off its sweetness, and the contrast between the cold ice cream and hot, juicy, gooey papaya is fantastic.
It's a bit of a strange ice cream recipe (I adapted it from the excellent online cooking resource, Food52), in that you cook the ice cream base with half the coconut, then strain it out, only adding the toasted coconut once the ice cream is churned. It also doesn't thicken as much as traditional cream-based ice cream custard mixtures. Despite that, you end up with a lovely subtle coconut flavour, enhanced by the addition of a vanilla pod. There's something about vanilla that seems to bring out the flavour of coconut; I wonder if they have some kind of similar chemical flavour component.
I'm really excited about this recipe, and could hardly wait to share it. It's fabulously unusual, and I think it's one of the prettiest desserts I've ever made, too - the colours both as you prepare it (jade green pistachios, deep sandy biscuits, bright vibrant limes, silky yoghurt) and when you take it out of the oven (that deep marigold colour of the baked papaya, and the burnished golden stuffing) are mouthwateringly beautiful.
Let us not forget, either, that this tastes so good that - even if this isn't normally your style - you will be forced to throw all caution to the winds, and emit a raucous, guttural moan of delight upon your first mouthful.
Baked amaretti, ginger and lime papaya (serves 4):
(Adapted from The Ultimate Thai and Asian Cookbook by Deh-Ta Hsiung, Becky Johnson and Sallie Morris)
- 2 ripe but firm papaya
- 2 globes stem ginger in syrup
- 8 amaretti biscuits
- 40g pistachio nuts
- 3 tbsp sultanas
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- Zest and juice of one lime
- 4 tbsp yoghurt
Cut the papaya in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Place cavity side up on a baking tray. Pre-heat the oven to 200C.
Put the stem ginger, amaretti and two thirds of the pistachios in a blender and pulse briefly to roughly chop - you don't want a powder, but coarse chunks of nut and biscuit. If you don't have a blender, crumble the biscuits, finely chop the ginger and roughly chop the pistachios. Put in a small bowl with the sultanas, ground ginger and lime zest, then stir in the lime juice and yoghurt. Spoon the mixture into the cavities of the papaya, then roughly chop the remaining pistachios and scatter over.
Bake for 25 minutes, then leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with the coconut gelato.
Toasted coconut gelato (makes around 500ml):
(Adapted from Food 52)
- 190g desiccated coconut
- 4 egg yolks
- 160g caster sugar
- 480ml whole milk
- 1 vanilla pod
In a large wide frying pan, toast half the coconut over a low heat until golden and evenly browned, stirring occasionally (or place it on an oven tray and bake for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally). Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, use an electric whisk to beat the sugar and egg yolks together until thick, pale and creamy - about 3-5 minutes.
Place the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla pod and heat gently. Add the sugar and egg mixture, stirring constantly, then the (untoasted) half of the coconut. Continue to cook over a very low heat, stirring regularly, until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon (it won't thicken as much as regular ice cream or custard due to the lack of cream). This could take up to half an hour. Pour into a jug and chill in the fridge for at least four hours, preferably overnight.
When ready to churn, strain out the coconut and vanilla pod from the mixture, then discard it. Churn in an ice cream maker until set, then quickly fold in the toasted coconut, pour into a tub and place in the freezer to firm up (preferably for at least six hours).