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ACACIA CREAM AT CHEZ PANISSE
As a small child in Australia I helped my mother make wattle-flower flavored icing for donuts for the Parent’s Day at my school. The St Ignatius’ College, Riverview.
Had she known of the claims in Ayurvedic medicine that Acacia nilotica is considered a remedy for treating premature ejaculation, might she not have served something else?
Or had she known that a 19th century Ethiopian medical text offers a potion made from an Ethiopian species of Acacia known as grar as a cure for rabies, I am sure we both would have fed it in abundance to the Jesuit priests running the school.
Acacia is the largest genus in the family Mimosaceae, the Mimosa family, and Acacia pycnantha, or Golden Wattle, Australia’s floral emblem. My mother had me pick it from our Sydney garden. I loved its perfume somewhere between pastry’s finest frangipane cream and my mother’s closet.
Many years later I was walking to my restaurant Chez Panisse to cook lunch.
Photo Credit San Francisco Examiner
I saw a golden shower of Mimosa in someone’s garden. As an instinctive gatherer (though not hunter) I grabbed as much as I could carry and rushed into the restaurant yelling:
Photo Credit Australia Plants Online
Of my cookbooks in the Panisse kitchen only Larousse Gastronomique mentioned one dish and then only a salad, but who would want to eat the tough drought-resistant leaves of acacia? I remembered that my early childhood Aboriginal friend used the very nutritious wattle seed to make a type of flour and that he sometimes ate the seeds cooked in their pods. From those memories I just knew that the flowers would be superb in crème anglaise. Nothing for it then to make little babas, soak them in Luxardo Maraschino, and float them in a bath of Mimosa custard.
When my partner, Alice Waters, arrived later that day I pointed out the custard proudly, gesturing toward the bouquet of yellow mimosa on the kitchen table.
“Oh my god,” she cried, “Aren’t they poisonous?”
I said that I had survived several servings of them, including the custard a few hours before, and I felt fine. Furthermore, I told her, Berkeley will love it. A psychotropic plant with high concentrations of potassium, calcium, iron and zinc protein close to 23 percent, as well as mono- and poly-unsaturated fats. I didn’t tell her that was true only for the seeds.
“How will we describe the flowers,” she asked?
“Well,” I said, “take your choice of Thorn Trees, Whistling Thorns, Wattles, Yellow-Fever Acacia, or Umbrella Acacias. Tell everyone that the Burmese, Thai and Laotians use it in soups, omelet’s, curries and stews, and failing all else the Bible says that the Ark of the Covenant was made of wood from the Acacia tree (Exodus), whatever was left after providing the fuel for the famous burning bush scene. And for the early Greeks and Egyptians it was considered to be the “Tree of Life,” despite it not having any apples on it.
Now, of course, though perhaps not at Chez Panisse, I would tell the customer to look at the list of ingredients for Fresca, Altoid Mints, chewing gums, Full Throttle Unleaded Energy Drink, and other Powerades. I would mention also the tradition of acacia fritters in Mexican cuisine, the medicinal properties of the plant, and some of its associations even stranger than the Covenant.
The description of the burial of the builder of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem uses acacia as funerary symbolism signifying resurrection and immortality. I would like to think they were handing out fritters at that funeral, since even then they knew of the powers of the acacia (Osiris and Isis) even if they didn’t use the words we use now. The acacia’s alkaloids that defend it from pests and grazing animals are also psychoactive in humans and include the tryptamines DMT and NMT, amphetamines, mescaline, nicotine and a phenylethylamine.
Central Australian Aboriginals mix acacia and Duboisia leaves to make the drug Pituri, a stimulant, euphoric, and antispasmodic. Particularly in favor by boys becoming men for its pain killing effects in male initiation rites and puberty’s torture of circumcision.
“Could we just leave it Jeremiah’s Special Custard?”
She asked, while whirling out of the kitchen to her domain in the dining room.
VANILLA CUSTARD, CRÈME ANGLAISE
One of my favorite things in the world is custard.
For myself, I cheat and use half-and-half instead of milk. In the winter it can be turned into Eggnog, and then I am in heaven. Just empty most of the ends of your brown alcohols into the custard. Taste. Probably empty the rest.
If you are adding more liquid to the custard, cook it until it’s this texture:
Photo Credit Little Sunny Kitchen
Of using as a light pouring custard over fruit or cakes, cook until this thinner texture.
½ cup granulated sugar
6 egg yolks
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1-inch piece vanilla bean
Serves 4 to 6
Mix the sugar, yolks, and salt in a bowl and whisk until pale yellow (about 5 minutes).
Heat the milk and vanilla bean together until almost boiling, and pour slowly into the yolk mixture while whisking. Cook over simmering water in a double boiler, stirring constantly, until the custard begins to thicken and coats the spoon.
Remove from heat and place over an ice bath, stirring constantly with a spoon—this prevents the custard from overcooking (curdling) and forming a skin when it cools.
Strain and serve.
TO MAKE FLAVOR-INFUSED CUSTARDS
Infuse Armagnac-soaked nuts, fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, star anise, fennel seeds, orange or lemon rind into milk and follow directions for infusion in coconut custard. Or whatever dessert-suitable flavor sparks your fancy.
Crack the shell of a fresh coconut and remove the meat from the hard shell. Chop the coconut meat fine with a knife or in a food processor. Steep it in 2 cups warmed milk for at least an hour, or until the milk takes on the coconut’s flavor. Then strain the milk, discarding the coconut, and use in the recipe above. Some of the milk may be absorbed by the coconut, so correct the quantity before beginning the recipe.
Heat 2 cups of milk with ¼ cup ground espresso coffee until almost boiling; let sit for 30 minutes. Strain and proceed as in above.
Use 1 cup of the flowers for the two cups of warm milk, and follow as for Coconut Custard.