Bônet alla Piemontese
Chocolate, caramel, nuts, custard. I sometimes joke that my heart is torn between these four great loves of my life, at least when it comes to dessert. While other people are happy never deviating from their one favorite flavor (my dad, for example used to ignore the rest of the menu if there was anything containing lemon on it), I can spend hours weighing the relative merits of a dessert menu that forces me to choose between a pot de crème and an almond tart. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I am entirely to blame for this; I suspect there may be a touch of astrology muddying the waters as well. I have the peculiar fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it), to have been born during a solar eclipse, a rare alignment of the sun and moon - the two most important astrological determiners, supposedly - in which both are briefly to be found in the same slice of the celestial pie. According to experts, the condition that results from this rare convergence is an effective doubling of the characteristics of that sign on the individual. Having been born exactly at the moment these two crossed paths in the house of Libra, I acquired in exaggerated form everything that Librans are typically known for, including plenty of optimism, diplomacy, and unfortunately, the crippling inability to make decisions.
My decision disability (or, as my dear husband likes to call it, my 'decision neurosis') strikes me often, and usually in the most inconvenient of situations - situations which, now that I reflect on it, seem to usually concern food: supermarkets, restaurants, ice cream counters, and in front of the menu for the Indian take-out place down the street. It can be as simple as not being able to decide whether I should buy raspberry or plum jam while doing my weekly shopping, or it can be as difficult as standing at the sandwich counter knowing I have to choose between thirty different fillings before the people waiting behind me start to contemplate attacking me with sharp objects. Considering my sweet tooth, however, no decisions are as difficult as the ones that concern dessert, and thus you can imagine what a relief it is to not have to make them at all. For me, the holy grail of dessert menus is one that offers me something that combines at least two of my favorite things, in which case I can let simple numerical weighting do the job: for example, anything that contains chocolate and nuts would naturally trump custard alone. Offer me a dessert that contains three of the four, and I've decided what I want even before the menu hits the table. Combine all four, and well... chances are I have a brand-new favorite dessert, and chances are, these days its name is probably bônet.
Let me tell you a little bit about my love affair with bônet. I was casually browsing Italian recipes online, not even looking for a dessert at all, when I happened upon someone's account of a meal they'd had in Piemonte, that green and mountainous corner of Italy sandwiched between France and Switzerland. The writer praised all the food highly, but especially recommended the dessert, a caramelized chocolate and almond custard supposedly typical of this region. Now, I don't know about you, but when I run across a description of a dish that a) I have never heard of before, particularly from a cuisine I thought I knew inside-out, and b) contains all of my favorite things, the rest of the world's demands on my time seem to magically melt away until I have learned everything I can about this mysterious delicacy. In my research, I learned that bônet is a dessert of long-standing tradition in this part of Italy, the type of thing that if you were lucky enough to be born here, would have been made for you by your nonna on a regular basis. It's a homely, rustic dessert, and thus carries along with it all the connotations inherent to this genre, namely, a multitude of variations and strong opinions on whose version is best. The basic concept of a bônet, though, is constant and is probably what flan would be if I had invented it myself. At its most fundamental it's a custard baked inside a caramel-lined mold - but not just any custard, one that has been buoyed by chocolate and pebbled with nutty crumbs of amaretti, all of it soused in a generous glug of booze. It can support additional flavorings as well - there are recipes including a few drops of espresso, or the grated rind of a lemon; some call for only milk and others for cream. A lone recipe even spices up the mix with cinnamon. The booze component ranges from dark rum to Amaretto, and occasionally seems to be forgotten entirely.
The version I finally decided to make, strikes, to my taste, the perfect balance between simplicity and sophistication. I decided to forego what I considered the distracting flavors like coffee and lemon, in favor of letting the chocolate and almond stand up for themselves. I added cream for unctuousness, just enough eggs to solidify it, and the haunting perfume of sweet Marsala (an admittedly untraditional touch), whose indescribable fragrance penetrates its wobbly magnificence to the core. The result is a dessert that combines my four favorite things in such perfectly balanced proportions that it somehow manages to even exceed the sum of its parts. It's quite simply - and I don't say this lightly - one of the most delicious desserts I've ever eaten.
It's just a pity bônet is so scarcely known - if only it found its way onto dessert menus more often, so many of my decisions would be already be made.
Bônet alla Piemontese
I'm very partial to the flavor of Marsala in this recipe, but if you can't find any or can't justify buying a bottle just for this, please feel free to substitute just about anything you feel like. Rum is the traditional choice, but if you're willing to deviate from tradition, the possibilities are nearly endless - Amaretto, Cognac, Grand Marnier and Kahlua all spring to mind as possible alternatives.
Source: Although I consulted many recipes, the one I ended up loosely basing my proportions on is Cindy Mushnet's version in Desserts: Mediterranean Flavors, California Style.
For the caramel:
1/4 cup (60ml) water
2 cups (400g) sugar
For the custard:
1 cup (250ml) coarsely crushed amaretti cookies
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
5 large egg yolks
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
4 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/4 cup (60ml) sweet Marsala
Equipment: 8 (6oz) ramekins or custard cups (you can also make one large bonet instead by using a 2-quart souffle dish)
First, make the caramel. Place the water in a medium saucepan, pour the sugar into the center of the pan (this helps prevent crystallization later), and set the pan over medium heat. Swirl the pan frequently until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear. Turn the heat to high and boil rapidly, swirling the pan occasionally (do not stir) so the sugar cooks evenly, until it turns a deep amber brown. Don't be tempted to take it off too soon - the flavor will be weak. It may smell a little burnt by this stage, but it will still taste fantastic (trust chocolatier Michael Recchiuti, whose signature flavor is burnt caramel!). Remove the pan from the heat and immediately pour the caramel into the custard cups. Working quickly, swirl each cup to distribute the caramel evenly around the bottom and sides, about an inch up from the bottom--be careful, the caramel is very hot. Set the cups in a roasting pan large enough to hold them all.
Preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Position an oven rack in the center of the oven.
To make the custard, place the cream and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to just below a boil. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs, sugar and salt. Sift the cocoa powder over the top and whisk until well blended. Slowly whisk the hot cream into the yolk mixture and blend well. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer into a pitcher or large measuring cup with a spout. Stir in the crushed amaretti cookies and the Marsala.
Divide the warm custard among the caramelized custard cups. Place the pan in the oven, then pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Cover the pan with foil and crimp it loosely around the edges (don't make it airtight). Bake just until the centers of the custards are barely set, about 45 minutes to an hour (they will jiggle like jell-o instead of looking liquidy).
Use a pair of tongs (or your hand protected with a kitchen towel) to immediately remove the cups from the pan and place them on a rack to cool, about 40 minutes. Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 6 hours or overnight before serving.
To unmold the custards, run a thin, sharp, flexible knife around the edges of each cup. Fill the roasting pan with about 1/2 inch of boiling water, and set the cups inside for a minute to loosen the caramel. Place a serving plate upside down on top of each cup, then, holding the two together, flip the plate right side up - the custard should slide out of the cup and onto the plate. If the custard is a bit hesitant, pick up the plate, hold the cup in place on the plate, and give the two a firm but gentle shake once or twice. If there is still a good bit of caramel hardened to the bottom of the cups, add a tablespoon of water and heat the cups in the microwave (or set inside a larger pan with a bit of water inside on the stovetop) until the caramel all melts. Believe me, this stuff is too good to waste.
The custards may be baked up to 2 days in advance. Store in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.