Awhile back, we hosted an epic Chinese New Year day of feasting. Throughout the continual grazing, I had the chance to catch up with my friend, Golden. I learned that he spends up to 6 months of the year in Madagascar, and is also quite the cook. As a thank you for all the tasty dumplings he dominated at our party, he invited us over for some African home cooking, Berkeley-style.
I love dinner parties – there’s just something wonderfully intimate about getting to know someone in their element, through the food they’ve taken the time and thoughtfulness to prepare. On the menu this evening was a Senegalese-style Mafé, a tomato-based groundnut stew, and for dessert, Bread Pudding with Malagasy Vanilla Rum Sauce.
As we dug in, we learned more about Golden’s studies and travels throughout Africa, and particularly, in Madagascar. Amazingly, what started out as a third grade book report on lemurs, has turned into a total immersion of Malagasy culture and language for the past ten years. Golden is pursuing a PhD at Berkeley in Environmental Science and Public Health, and studies “the interconnectivity between bushmeat harvesting, sustainability, conservation policy, nutrition, and disease.”
Tangentially, he apparently also studies the art of barefoot trekking, hunting with blow-darts, building waterwheels, great reggae, and starring in local music videos.
We eagerly drank in visions of a land filled with lychee trees and mango fruit, and tales of exotic animals (like the fosa – pound per pound, the deadliest carnivore on Earth); we listened, captivated by stories of friendships made and adventures had.
We also discovered a new ingredient! Golden used these curious looking pods to flavor the stew.
They vaguely resembled brown cardamom pods but with a tougher shell. They had a pleasant woodsy flavor to them, tasting a bit like licorice, with notes of ginger and camphor.
Upon a little research on the interwebs, I think that it may be Melegueta Pepper. Is anyone familiar with the spice, and can you confirm or deny my speculation?
Whatever it is, it brought a wonderful aroma to the stew. This was also the first time I’ve tasted a stew made with a ground nut base, and it was surprisingly, very hearty for a vegetarian dish. In Madagascar, they would have made the base by grinding up peanuts. Here, we used smooth peanut butter…and threw in some shitakes and leeks sourced from the farmer’s market (ok, maybe not completely traditional, but 100% delicious). The mushrooms were a great call, they soaked up all the savory goodness from the sauce enriched with coconut milk.
For dessert, we were treated with a slow-cooked Bread Pudding topped with Malagasy Vanilla Rum Sauce and whipped cream.
To be fair, I never met a bread pudding I didn’t like, but this one was especially good. The slow-cooker did wonders to it, turning the middle into a rich custard and the crust into a caramelized, golden bite of heaven. It was so good, I was convinced that it was just doused in heavy cream and sugar, but it turns out, it was just made with regular milk and not an obscene amount of sugar…which is more than I can ask of any bread pudding.
The best part, though, was the fruit that was hidden inside! Plump homemade raisins, big pieces of dried plums, and sweet white peaches (more loot from the farmer’s market). You can of course, use whatever fruit you’d like, and however much of it, maybe none at all. But, I highly recommend you go with this version. I wouldn’t change a thing.
The clincher was the Vanilla Rum Sauce made from homemade Malagasy rum flavored with vanilla beans (that he grew himself)! Since we don’t all have access to a distillery and vanilla beans in our backyard, I’m sure this sauce would be totally acceptable with store-bought vanilla-flavored rum. Or, if you are going to be really lazy about it, you could also just spike some melted vanilla ice cream and voila, sauce done. I won’t tell a soul…
Recipes courtesy of Chris Golden, scientist, Malagasy music video star, blow-dart hunter extraordinaire.
24 oz. crushed tomatoes with basil
1 ½ cups smooth peanut butter (roughly, half of a standard-sized jar)
3 cups chopped shitake mushrooms
2 cups chopped leeks
8 oz. coconut milk
8 pods of Melegueta pepper (substitute brown cardamom)
2 tablespoons ground ginger powder (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste
Bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped
1. Combine the crushed tomatoes and peanut butter in a large skillet or pot and simmer slowly, stirring every so often so that the peanut butter doesn’t burn.
2. In a separate pot, cook the chopped mushrooms and leeks in the coconut milk until softened. You can make your own by soaking some shredded coconut meat in hot water, or you can use the canned variety.
3. Once the mushrooms and leeks are softened, add everything to the skillet with the tomatoes and peanut butter.
4. Add the pods of Melegueta pepper (or cardamom). To release the flavor even more, crush the pods with the back of your knife (like you would crush a clove of garlic). They should pop open slightly.
5. Add ginger powder, garlic powder, dried red pepper flakes (or harissa), salt and pepper.
6. Allow the mixture to thoroughly combine, and come to a simmer. Stir in the chopped cilantro and serve immediately.
7. Best served with couscous, but also good with rice.
Bread Pudding with Malagasy Vanilla Rum Sauce
1 ½ loaves stale French bread, sliced into thick pieces
2 cups milk
1 stick butter
½ cup sugar
1. Slice the bread into thick pieces, about 1 ½ inches thick, and leave it out for a day or two so that it hardens up a bit.
2. In a slow cooker, add the bread and milk. If you want to be extra decadent, you can use half-and-half, but it’s not really necessary.
3. Stir in whatever fruit you like. Our version (highly recommended) used homemade raisins, dried plums, and white peaches, sliced up. You can choose how much or little to put in.
4. Stir in a melted stick of butter.
5. Beat together the eggs and sugar. Pour over the mixture.
6. Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 3-4 hours. Once a knife comes out clean, you’re good to go. Try to wait for the bread to be golden brown.
7. Top with Vanilla Rum Sauce and whipped cream right before serving.
Vanilla Rum Sauce:
Aggressive Version: Make your own vanilla rum by soaking split Malagasy vanilla beans in rum for several weeks.
Ambitious Version: Mix together 6 shots of store-bought vanilla rum with 3 tablespoons of sugar, and ¼ cup of cream (or half-and-half). Gently heat it over low-heat until the sugar dissolves and the ingredients combine.
Slacker Version: Melt some vanilla bean ice cream into a “sauce” and stir in some rum.
And for all you loyal fans who made it all the way to the bottom of this post…a Special Hidden Track just for you
Along with the African-Dinner-themed shots of Malagasy Vanilla Rum (which for the record, burns so good, right down to your core being), we also imbibed in some other beverages – not so much African, but very much Golden. I present to you, the Tabasco Margarita.