smart science: pasta edition

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Given the past post, and given my inability to stop staring at that twisty bowl of fettuccine… we’re gonna chat about pasta.

We’re gonna chat about the best way to make pasta, to achieve that perfect al dente bite. If you’re into really overcooking your pasta until it’s mushy and sad… take this to heart. I promise you it’s better.

Let’s break it down:

  1. Keep the water at a rolling boil – which means waiting until the pasta reaches a rolling boil until you put your pasta in. A rolling boil is when the whole surface is rapidly bubbling and wild-like.
  2. If you’ve been not adding salt to your pasta water… add it now. Making the water taste like the sea is a good level, but generally add in a bit more than you think you should.
  3. If you’ve been adding oil… stop. There’s no use for it. It’ll all pour off when you dump the water out. Oil and water just don’t mix.
  4. PASTA WATER IS LIQUID GOLD. Take this to heart, and scoop out some just before you drain the pasta. If you toss a bit of this water into your pasta as you’re tossing it with the sauce it’ll add flavor, texture, and help your sauce stick to the pasta. No one wants a pile of pasta sitting on a soup of sauce. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
  5. Don’t rinse your pasta after draining it. We need that starch on the pasta so the sauce will stick.

All of these ideas are backed up by scientists who work to make sure pasta tastes the best it could… what a job, right?

Here’s some more information:

have a beautiful sunday, friends!

creamed spinach and sausage pasta

To start, I was not planning on writing a blog post about this spinach and sausage meal. In fact, I only took a picture because someone suggested it, and I snapped a quick one on my phone without looking back – so forgive the quality.

Then I tasted it, and you bet your ass I looked back.

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This pasta is creamy and comforting, with bites of peppered ricotta and creamy spinach. For those people (like myself) who sometimes have a moment of hesitation when foods start with the word “creamed”… worry no longer. Embrace it. I embraced two whole bowls of it.

The balance between the creamy spinach, the salty sausage, and the soft ricotta is bomb. Add in toasty pine nuts and a grate of nutmeg? Sheer brilliance. Also, as I was writing this up, I realized that it’s a remarkably easy recipe to remember – lots of 1 pound weights… it’s like the pound cake version of pasta. Spinach and sausage, and everything in between.

creamed spinach and sausage pasta
recipe from joy the baker

1 pound fettuccine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 pound spinach
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg
Parmesan

how-to: 

Place ricotta in a large bowl, and season with salt and pepper.

In a medium-large skillet over medium heat, warm olive oil. Add sausage and cook, breaking up, until browned and crispy looking. Drain the pan, and wipe clean with a paper towel. Toast the pine nuts over medium heat, being extremely careful not to let them burn. Take off heat and place in a small bowl.

At this point, heat up some water for the pasta in a large pot, and add a generous pinch of salt. Cook fettuccine until done, and drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water. While pasta is cooking, cook garlic in the same skillet until golden around the edges. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add spinach and cook until wilted (depending on the size of your pan you might need to add in batches, just keep adding a bit more). Add the cream, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 2 minutes, or until thickened a bit.

Add pasta to the cream sauce, and toss to combine. Add sausage. Then, transfer pasta to the bowl with the seasoned ricotta and toss until slightly combined, but leave some big chunks of ricotta. Top with pine nuts and parmesan and enjoy.

things i’m thinking about

Hey guys! Here’s some beautiful flowers from Palermo, and some thoughts of mine this week.

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As always, it’s been awhile. I didn’t have time this week to whip up a recipe post – and my brain is so stuffed full of science I thought I wouldn’t bore you with whatever wisps happen to sneak out. They’re probably about plants, definitely about water, and possibly about fossils. Just good ole incoherent ramblings.

Instead, here’s some ideas for dinner, things I’ve been thinking about, and a technique I’m becoming obsessed with (hint it’s the one with eggs):

  • Here’s how to make a french omelette, aka my current obsession. I can’t even play it cool and dramatically move it to the end of the list, because all I want to do is talk about it.
    I like mixing herbs and aromatics into the eggs, and then sprinkling cheese on right before I roll it on up. My dinner omelette last night was scallions and basil in the eggs, with sharp cheddar cheese. Mmm so soothing for hearts and minds and so quick for dinner.
  • I always listen to Nicholas Kristof in the wake of horrible events. He always sets up a nice clear path: and after the Vegas shooting, this opinion piece is no exception. Let’s take some steps in the right direction, for once.
  • Helping feed Puerto Rico while eating food? Sounds pretty good to me. Can’t make it to a participating restaurant? Just donate directly to the World Central Kitchen.
  • Now that it’s getting chilly, let’s eat these tahini chocolate chip cookies warm out of the oven. Have a glass of wine with it, and impress your friends with your knowledge of how it came to taste that way. Greatest fall party trick ever.

stay sane, everybody. xo.

roasted peaches with honeyed cream and almond brittle

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Whoa, what a mouthful this recipe is. You need all the information you can get though – information is power, and power is these roasty toasty peaches. I’m also not ashamed to say that I was eating this whipped cream out of the bowl, with a spoon. It’s that time of year. I’m back at school, and trying to get in the swing of things – so here’s the late posts. Posts might be late these days, but I like to think we’ll all survive.

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This is a recipe for when you forget that you want to make dessert, or when you feel as though you’d like some fresh fruit involved. You can leave out the almond brittle, switch up the cream, or just guzzle the roasted peaches straight – I won’t tell.

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This recipe is also one where the exact amounts don’t matter so much. Toss your peaches with a bit of cinnamon, rub the pan with a bit of butter. For the cream, one glug of honey and a pinch of salt should do it. Dump some sugar in a saucepan, melt it down, and toss with some sliced or slivered almonds. Boom – brittle. I think that these are the best types of recipes – the ones that give you the flexibility to make the food you want. Whether that be significantly sweeter roasted peaches, no-salt whipped cream, or peanut brittle instead of the lowly almond. It’s your pick. Congratulations, this just might be the one thing in your entire life that is completely under control. Relish that.

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roasted peaches with honeyed cream and almond brittle

ripe peaches
cinnamon
brown sugar
unsalted butter

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup sliced or slivered almonds

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 glug of honey
Pinch of sea salt

how-to:

Preheat oven to 425F. Rub the inside of an 8×8 pan with the unsalted butter. Feel free to use a larger pan if you’re using more peaches! Halve the peaches, pick out the pits, and cut them into quarters. Toss with a couple of pinches of cinnamon and a spoonful of brown sugar. Place in pan, and roast until they’re your desired level of roastiness – you can go really far, or keep them somewhat firm.

While they’re roasting, place parchment on a sheet pan and spray with nonstick spray. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir around with a spatula every once in a while, until melted. It might look weird at various stages up until this point. Stop stirring once melted, and bring to a deep amber color. Stir in the almonds, and pour out onto prepared pan. Smash the brittle into a flat shape – relatively thin. Let cool completely, and break into shards of desired size.

Lastly, place the cream, honey and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk until soft peaks.
Place roasted peaches in small ramekins or bowls and top with the cream and brittle. Enjoy warm and melty.

smart science: sweeteners edition

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If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop, you’ve seen the brightly colored packets of artificial sweeteners kicking around on the table. You’ve probably also seen drinks proclaiming the health benefits of stevia, or a smoothie sweetened only with agave. Today, we’re gonna chat about these guys. Not only what they’re made out of, but whether or not the health/diet/superpower claims are true. Let’s start with Splenda.

  • Splenda is made out of sucralose, which is about 600 times sweeter than normal table sugar. It also contains very few calories – hence its popularity on the diet circuit. Since it’s approval by the FDA in the 90’s, sucrolose, in the form of Splenda, has become extremely popular. Additionally, it was thought to be biologically inert – meaning that it had no actual, chemical effect on the human body. Recently, an article published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health has shown that sucralose does have an effect on the mechanisms involving glucose and insulin – both hot button topics due to their involvement in diabetes. This study did not definitively prove that sucralose contributes to Type II diabetes, but it merits further study. To add insult to injury, another recent study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental heath suggests that, in mice, sucralose might contribute to some malignant cancers. Strike two.
  • In this vein, many of the artificial sweeteners like Splenda (aspartame, for one) have been embroiled in far more dangerous controversy. Some sides say it’s completely safe, some don’t. All sides merit further study. Aspartame, (name brand: Nutrasweet, Equal), was discovered in the 60’s by a man attempting to make an anti-ulcer drug. Displaying poor scientific practice, he licked his finger reaching for a piece of paper, and discovered that whatever he was making was extremely sweet – and aspartame was born. Before aspartame, other low-calorie sweeteners all had significant health concerns. So, when aspartame hit the market, it seemed like the best option for a low calorie sweetener. Its scientific significance was broad, in that it momentarily filled a hole in the low-calorie sweetener market, and also provided a new structure for sweet compounds. But – there is serious conflicting evidence that aspartame contributes to serious health issues, including insomnia, headaches, neurobehavioral difficulties, and seizures. Additionally, mice and rat studies have shown an increase in malignant tumors after long-term exposure to small amounts of aspartame. Animal studies are significantly different than human studies, so this does not by any means indicate that aspartame causes cancer in humans. As always in science, more research is needed.
  • Moving onto agave. Agave syrup is made from the agave plant, which is the same plant used to make tequila! It’s long been marketed as the healthy alternative to any other sweeteners, whether that be honey, sugar, or artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame. In theory, agave syrup should contain a lot of inulin – a fiber-rich, sweet compound. But – agave you buy in stores is highly processed, and most of that inulin is broken down into fructose. Fructose is found in all sugars, in varying amounts – and the higher the amount, the more unhealthy for you it is. Think…. high-fructose corn syrup! We all know that’s bad. Now, when agave gets processed, it is equally as dense in fructose as HCFS, if not more! Essentially, it’s genius marketing, since ingesting high levels of fructose actually interfere with digestion, among other processes. Agave isn’t healthy – despite what people on Instagram might think.

Essentially, when looking at any version of sugar, whether that be normal white sugar, artificial sweeteners, or agave, limiting the amount you eat and drink is definitely a good move. Eating diets high in sugar contribute to a bunch of health problems, not just limited to things like diabetes or heart disease. Additionally, if you eat a diet high in artificial sweeteners, your body and brain might forget what a normal sweetness level in foods is, leading you to consume even higher levels of these sweeteners. Bummer – since we should all be able to remember the natural sweetness of a ripe strawberry!

For tons more information, check out the links below!

  • For more information on the affect of Splenda on insulin levels, check out the Huff Post article here.
  • Cancer experts tend to think that aspartame is safe to use, but they also like to provide all the information. Check out this detailed factsheet here.
  • Lots of general information here and here from Harvard about artificial sweeteners, their brand name counterparts, and some crazy facts about how much sweeter than normal sugar they are!
  • A doctor has some harsh words about agave in the HuffPost…. all rooted in science!

earl grey and gin cocktail

I love a good cup of tea. I cart around a 20 ounce thermos of tea all year round, and fill it up multiple times a day. It might be too much. I’m not terribly picky about what kind of tea… give me gas-station english breakfast or fancy-schmancy herbal blends. One of my go-to morning choices is any type of earl grey – plain jane, lavender, or whatever weird concoction Tazo thinks of next. Andrew thinks that it tastes like fruit loops, but that fits right on into the morning theme, so I think it’s okay. Today – we’re messing around with earl grey and gin.

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We can’t relegate poor earl grey to live only in mornings! What if it wants to get out about town, meet up with some friends, and grab a drink? Without smashing this joke over and over again…this is what happens when earl grey grabs a drink.

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It gets all mixed up with some sugar, and cooked down to form a simple syrup. It jams along with some freshly squeezed lemon juice, some gin, and some club soda. It has a ball.

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This is too easy not to make, and it’s something that you can impress your friends with. Feel free to infuse all sorts of stuff in simple syrup to make cocktails with….I want to try with plain black tea, but I’m also tempted by grapefruits.

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earl grey and gin cocktail

1 1/2 ounce gin
1 1/2 ounce earl grey simple syrup (recipe follows)
3/4 ounce lemon juice
Club soda, to top

Fill glass with ice and top with gin, simple syrup and lemon juice. Stir around with a spoon or something to combine. Top with club soda, swirl, and enjoy! Feel free to mess around with proportions – you’re making your own drink, after all. Regardless, the earl grey and gin flavor combo is bomb.

earl grey simple syrup

4 earl grey tea bags
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Once the sugar is melted and the mixture is bubbling, add the earl grey tea bags and steep for 10 minutes (taste to tell if you want to go more!). Strain and let cool completely. Store the rest in a jar in the fridge.

eclipse fudge brownies

Is an eclipse even an eclipse without eclipse-themed desserts? Probably not. I spent yesterday teaching my little sister how to make a pinhole camera (science major, check), and staring at lights sources to ensure it worked. Although we only got a sliver of the eclipse up here in Portland, you could still see it through the pinhole camera. Too cool.

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For these guys, I first decided to not use any recipe, to test my merit in the kitchen with brownies…using only what I remembered about the best brownie methods – melt the butter, use cocoa powder, pray to the pastry gods, etc.

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I then decided to play with only light and dark.. because you can only take an eclipse dessert so far before it’s just a sugar cookie dressed up like a moon. Mint and white chocolate ganache is swirled into the fudgiest brownies of all time. Almost too fudgy to even call them brownies. For a second, when they came out, I was ready to call it a relative failure, since they were undoubtedly too dense and too fudgy. And then, my family descended upon them, stealing slices and half moons and crumbs. And a full moon is all that remains, and so the fudge brownies are movin’ onto the blog.

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All jokes aside, these brownies are melt-in-your-mouth fun. They’re not very sturdy, but they are really pretty. Plus, they lend themselves nicely to being cut into shapes – but beware, they will leave a bit of an oily stain behind. They’re an excellent snack to stress-eat out of the pans as you worry about Game of Thrones (I’m worried about everyone in the whole show, quite frankly), and an excellent snack to insta and pretend you’re cool.

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For my next iteration of these, I’m planning on including a little less oil/butter, and seeing if that leads to a more traditional brownie…. but these were an excellent pit stop along the way. Let me know if you try any tweaks.

eclipse brownies

6 oz white chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons torn mint leaves
Drops of mint extract, to taste

1 cup sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3-1/2 cup oil (fudgy vs. super fudgy)
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Drop of mint extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

how-to:

Place the chopped white chocolate in a heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the cream up until steaming, add the mint leaves, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. After ten minutes, heat the cream up until bubbling around the edges, and strain over the white chocolate. Nudge all the chocolate pieces down into the cream, and let sit for 4 minutes. After 4 minutes, using a spatula or whisk, start stirring in small circles in the center, and you’ll see it all come together into a glossy ganache. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease an 8×8 pan, and fit one piece of parchment into the pan, having it drape over two sides. To make the brownies, place the butter and the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, until the butter is melted. Turn off the heat.
In a separate, medium bowl, mix together the sugar, salt and cocoa powder. Add sugar mixture to the butter mixture and stir well to combine. It will look a bit grainy. Add the vanilla and mint extracts and stir well. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring well to combine after each addition. Add the flour and stir until combined. Then, stir quickly and vigorously for about 40-50 strokes. Brownie batter should look delicious. Pour into the prepared pan. Drizzle the ganache (I didn’t use all of it) on top in stripes, and stir around with a butter knife to make pretty swirls.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and it’s pulling away from the edges a bit. Let cool for a while, then enjoy still slightly warm.

 

oeufs mayo

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As much as French culture usually nails the appetizing part of life, these little guys I was wildly skeptical about. Compared to buttery croissants, oozy crepes and macaron, hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise seems possibly like the very last thing you would want to eat.

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But, my friends, per usual, the French have it right. The combination of the egg, a homemade herby mayo, fresh heirloom tomatoes and butter lettuce is killer. It almost feels as though you are eating all the best bits of egg salad, without the sad, cafeteria undertones.

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Also, if you haven’t made mayonnaise, nows the time to start. There is a time and a place for the good ole jar of mayo (a.k.a the perfect BLT, coming soon), but homemade mayo I could eat with a spoon.

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In fact, I was indeed eating it with a spoon. For testing.

Using a food processor allows this mayo to be hassle free, and the same technique could be applied to make garlic aioli, my other favorite French condiment that I also eat with a spoon. For testing. No other reason.

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This would make a good appetizer for a Frenchy meal, or a good snack eaten straight out of your fridge. I was finding myself rolling the egg, tomato and mayo all up with the lettuce to create an all-in-one snack parcel perfect for one-bite eating. I recommend it, if only for testing.

oeufs mayo
adapted from david lebovitz

1 large egg, at room temp
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
3/4 cup neutral oil (I used sunflower, canola would also work)
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1-ish teaspoon chopped dill
1-ish teaspoon chopped basil
1-ish teaspoon chopped chives
Pinch of granulated sugar

9 hard-boiled eggs
Heirloom tomatoes, for garnish
Butter lettuce

how-to: 

Crack the egg into a food processor and add salt, lemon juice and half of the mustard. With the motor running, drizzle the oil in, very slowly to start. Once you’ve gotten about halfway you can add a bit more quickly, but still slow. Add the shallots, herbs, and sugar and pulse to combine.

Place butter lettuce on plates, top with halves of the hard boiled eggs and tomatoes, and spoon mayonnaise on top. Garnish with fresh herbs. Bon appetit!

smart science: butter edition

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Okay. If I’ve ever said a science post is my favorite.. take it back, take it all back now. Butter is my favorite, this post is my favorite, and let’s all go to France and eat some butter.

Now, onto the science.

  1. Butter is a pretty cool substance, and has been around for a long time! A recipe for butter dating more than 4,000 years ago involves an animal skin, a small hole, and a contraption to swing the bag around a wooden pole until butter is formed! But – in order to get the cream to make butter, you’d have to let the milk sit out and still to let it separate, since the first mechanical butter separator wasn’t invented until around 1900. Why does milk have the potential to do this? It’s a liquid called a ‘colloid’, which means that there are tiny particles suspended in another liquid. For milk, this is a bunch of tiny fat globules. Once you let fresh milk sit undisturbed, you’re allowing all these molecules to float to the top, creating cream. Additionally, these fat globules are responsible for the creamy taste and mouthfeel of cream – they’re too tiny for us to detect as particles, but they bring the texture nonetheless.
  2.  Now, almost all butter is definitely made in factories, but you can still shake some cream up in a jar to see how it works for yourself. The agitation of the cream globules causes them to bundle up together, and eventually they clump up enough to make butter! This takes a lot of agitation though, and can be done in a variety of ways! Easy as pie, delicious as pie, essential ingredient in pie… we’ve got this.
  3. But – while butter may have had a place in human diets for a while, it’s recently gotten a lot of flack. If you walk by a dairy cooler, any frozen food aisle, or really any aisle at all in any grocery store, you’ll be flooded with low-fat and non-fat options. But, in 2014, an article was released saying that saturated fat (the ‘problem’ with butter) doesn’t actually correlate with heart disease the way that everyone was up in a tizzy about. And to put some buttercream icing on this cake, the study even suggested that in our craze to substitute fat in our diets, with sugars and and empty carbs – which are even worse for us.

Let’s make butter with heavy cream, and eat it all in one fell swoop. Stir some dill in and pile it embarassingly high on country bread if you want to be like me, but, no pressure. Check out this links to get butter-blissed out:

bittersweet chocolate pudding with earl grey cream

There comes a time where we all must revert to childhood and eat pudding. Even better if the pudding could possibly exist in a pudding cup-type ensemble, and possibly eaten with the foil top because oops you have no spoon. All jokes aside, though, I honestly don’t actively crave pudding most of the time because I’m too busy craving bread and whipped cream and rose italian sodas. Correction – I didn’t actively crave pudding, because now I sure as hell do. It’s on the list – for good. Here’s why.

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It’s at the point in summer where everything feels like one of those fast action videos – things are moving far too quickly and there’s also far too many things to do. Between real-life work, this delightful blog baby of mine, a temperamental sourdough starter and the impending return of a school year where the lab hours seem to keep multiplying… I’m ready to move to New Zealand for a while just to calm down. No joke – been researching working holiday visas and requirements and plane tickets.Let me know if you’re feeling like New Zealand is where you’re headed too. We can hang.

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In a snap back to reality yesterday, I was forced to stop googling New Zealand and instead had to make something to share with you all. Probably good, because I’ve been in such a whirlwind lately that blog baby has taken a hit because temperamental sourdough starter has taken all of my free time because there’s so much real life work so there’s limited free time…..okay okay okay breathe. Think of New Zealand. Loop back around. I decided to make you all pudding. Because pudding is easy and it is good and it is pure of heart.

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To class it up – add earl grey cream and swirl and feel as much like an adult as you can considering you’re moving to New Zealand. To summer it up, add peaches, which I’m sure grow in New Zealand. To enjoy fully, share with friends, to convince them to move to New Zealand. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.

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bittersweet chocolate pudding with earl grey cream 
adapted from salt fat acid heat

4 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 cups half and half
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 heaping fine sea salt
3 eggs

earl grey cream:

2 tablespoons earl grey leaves (about 4 teabags)
1 cup heavy cream, separated into 1/2 cup and 1/2 cup
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
Splash of pure vanilla extract
Sliced peaches, for topping
how-to: 

Place the chocolate in a large, heatproof bowl and place a mesh strainer over it. Crack the eggs into another medium bowl and whisk lightly to break up and combine a bit. Mix the cornstarch, cocoa powder, salt and sugar in yet another medium bowl. Place the half and half in a medium saucepan – and now we’re good to go.

Heat the half and half on low heat until just steaming and simmering. Don’t boil this – it won’t ever be the same. Pour the half and half into the cornstarch mixture and whisk to combine. Return to the pot and cook over medium-low heat, constantly stirring, until visibly thickened and the pudding can hold a trail on the back of a spoon. While whisking, stir about two thirds of the half and half mixture into the eggs, and then return all of it to the pot. Cook on low heat until visibly thickened again. You’ll know when it’s ready. It might take a minute, it might take ten. Just keep stirring and let it take it’s own sweet time.

Pour thickened pudding through the mesh sieve and onto the chocolate. Use a spatula to push the pudding through. Let the heat melt the chocolate, and then blend with a stick blender (or a normal blender, do your own thing), until silky and smooth and it looks like you want to eat it up. Adjust salt as needed, and pour into whatever cups for serving. Let come to room temp, or put in fridge for cold pudding.

To make the whipped cream, heat 1/2 cup of the cream in a small saucepan over low heat, until just steaming. Turn off the heat. Steep the leaves in the cream for 10 minutes, and strain. Add the rest of the cream and chill until very cold. Add the sugar and vanilla and whip up to soft peaks.

Pile earl grey cream on pudding cups and top with sliced peaches or other fruit. Breathe in, eat pudding, breathe out.