Saving the best for last

Mango sorbet, cassava pone, pumpkin fudge, pommecythère pie…Franka Philip dreamed of delicious local desserts – but had a rude awakening

Illustration by Tessa Alexander

One of the best things about a visit back home to Trinidad & Tobago is, of course, the food. Before I left London for my recent visit, I got the usual talk from my friends about what I should eat on their behalf: “Girl, when yuh reach home, eat ah doubles/roti/bake and shark fuh mih, please.”

But to be honest, what I really longed for was delicious desserts. I knew mangoes would be in season at the time, so I couldn’t stop thinking about mango sorbet and mango ice cream, and how much I’d enjoy having that at the end of a fabulous meal.

Imagine my disappointment when, at almost every restaurant I visited, the options were identikit cheesecake, chocolate cake, and generic-tasting ice cream.

Where were the inventive desserts I’ve seen in cookbooks and magazines? Why were so many chefs ignoring the bounty of amazing fruits – growing right down the road – that could have been used to create amazing desserts? Inspired by television cookery shows and books, I think about different ways of incorporating fruits like guava and soursop into desserts – for instance, soursop semifreddo, or guava jelly with rum sauce. So why was this not happening at so many of the popular restaurants at home?

Now, I don’t want to be accused of making sweeping generalisations. I know at the high end of the market there are some wickedly creative chefs. I wondered if I was being harsh, so I asked a proper chef whether my opinion was valid. Renata Dos Santos, a Trinidadian chef who now lives in South Carolina, agreed with me.

“We’re often offered European options like cheesecake, chocolate cake, tiramisu, ice cream. If you’re lucky, Black Forest cake or pineapple upside-down cake. Where’s the local flavour? Where’s the celebration of our culture? If a restaurant is offering cheesecake or ice cream, then why not offer dessert of whatever fruit is in season, like mango cheesecake or pommerac ice cream?”

In the UK, chefs are using seasonal fruit like gooseberries and elderflower, which are abundant in the summer, but not necessarily as common as strawberries and raspberries.

Chefs are also revisiting some traditional snacks and desserts that get taken for granted and I asked Renata whether we should do the same.

“Most of our local desserts are so much a part of our daily culture that we do take them for granted. Indian sweets like khurma, gulab jamoon, ladoo and barfi, as well as toolum, pawpaw balls, cassava pone, jub jub, sugar cake, guava cheese, fudge, bene (sesame seed) balls are all wonderful, glorious desserts. Even though they’re snacks or candy, they can be reinvented as special desserts.

“I can’t recall a single restaurant in Trinidad offering any of these celebrated snacks as part of their menus. I’m positive that if they were incorporated in a new fashion or presentation, they’d be the talk of the town.”

She seemed a bit exasperated that you find desserts that scream “Caribbean” more regularly in other countries than you do at many restaurants at home.

“Why do we have to find local ingredients being honoured at the dessert tables of foreign restaurants? For example, Le Bernardin in New York had passion fruit cream enrobed in white chocolate, ginger caramel, and orange sorbet on their menu.”

Some of her suggestions for making the most of our humble snacks and fruits are guava cheese tart or pumpkin fudge with coconut chocolate sauce, paw paw ice cream with candied ginger, drunken pineapple over ginger ice cream, pommecythère pie, and portugal tarts.

Those dishes sound dizzyingly delicious, but how easy are they to reproduce for competent home cooks who want to show off at their next dinner party?

“Desserts are pretty easy to do and often the simple things are the best things. Don’t try to be complex unless you feel confident enough to try a complex dish.”

She suggested starting with easy things like ice creams, sorbets or granitas. “Just find a base that works for you, and utilise any seasonal fruit for the flavour.

“Cakes are fun. Challenge yourself by using local fruits or vegetables as the main flavour.”

Even though desserts do take some serious thought, they are meant to be the joy at the end of the meal, a point that Renata was keen to stress.

“Desserts make us happy. If you’re frustrated by the process, it will show in your final product. So have fun! And whether you’re making a dessert to feed family or friends or just yourself, it will be enjoyed so much more by all!”

Recipe: Nata’s Mango Cheesecake with Coconut Crust

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

Crust
1/2 cup sweetened ?aked coconut
2 cups finely crushed graham crackers
1/2 cup finely crushed oats and honey granola bar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Filling
2 1/2 cups chopped ripe mangoes
1 lime (juice and zest)
2 lbs cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon dark rum
4 large eggs

Topping
1/2 cup white sugar
6 tablespoons of remaining mango purée
1 large firm but ripe mango, peeled, pitted and sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices

Method

Toast coconut for crust:
1. Preheat oven to 325°F
2. Spread coconut in an even layer in a pie plate and toast in middle of oven, stirring occasionally, until golden, 10 – 12 minutes

Make crust:
1. Mix together toasted coconut, graham crackers, granola bar and butter until dough just begins to form a ball. Line the bottom and sides of a nine-inch pie plate or dish with crumb mixture
2. Freeze until ?rm, about ten minutes

For filling:
1. Purée chopped mangoes, lime juice and lime zest in a food processor until smooth, about a minute
2. Set aside two cups mango puree (reserve any remaining puree for topping)
3. Beat cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and rum in large bowl until smooth
4. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition
5. Add two cups mango puree and fold until well blended
6. Pour ?lling over crust in pan
7. Bake cake until set and puffed and golden around edges, about an hour. The centre will be jiggly
8. Remove from oven and place pan on a cooling rack
9. Immediately run a thin knife between the cake and the sides of the pan to loosen the top. This will prevent cracking as the cheesecake cools and contracts
10. Cool cake completely.

For Topping:
1. Boil sugar and mango puree in a heavy small saucepan until liquid is reduced to 1/2 cup, about three minutes
2. Slightly overlap mango slices in a concentric circle at the centre of cake
3. Pour glaze over top of cake
4. Refrigerate uncovered overnight or at least 12 hours
5. Run a warm thin knife between cake and sides of pan to loosen
6. Transfer cake to platter
7. Cut into wedges and serve

Renata Dos Santos’ website is at http://mypersonalchef.wordpress.com