Almost a year ago, there was a piece in the New York Times. I’m not sure where I found it – most likely someone posted it on Facebook – but it struck a chord. It’s called “When a Food Writer Can’t Taste,” by Marlena Spieler, a James Beard Award winning food writer. In the article, she writes about how a car accident, in which she broke both arms and sustained a concussion, completely demolished her ability to taste and smell.
Now, that sounds horrible no matter who you are. But when a food writer loses the senses that bring her the most joy and allow her to work, it’s devastating. Her descriptions of tasting what had once been some of her favorite foods are heartbreaking: “Cinnamon drops, a childhood favorite, were bitter, horrible.” “Bananas tasted like parsnips and smelled like nail polish remover.” “Gently sautéed mushrooms seemed like scorched bits of sponge.” Luckily, the nerves were only damaged, not severed, meaning that she would, in time, recover. She created her own rehabilitation plan, eating and tasting a huge range of foods, forcing herself to taste things like chocolate over and over again, starting with milk chocolate and slowly upping the cocoa content. Things she hadn’t particularly loved before – fish, especially – became a daily craving.
In the end, she recovered most of the way, and though her senses still occasionally go haywire, she can enjoy food to an incredible extent. But I’d like to focus on a specific part of this story: about halfway through the article, she tells us how, though she used to “lack a sweet tooth,” her sweet tooth now couldn’t be ignored. She lists a few things she baked, and they all sound delicious, but one jumped out at me: miso sticky toffee pudding.
When I studied abroad in London, I became a fan of sticky toffee pudding. It’s not pudding like we think of in the states. It’s a cake that is sweet but not too sweet, drenched in a warm toffee sauce that seeps into the cake, resulting in a moist, warm, absolutely fantastic dessert. Now I have looked for a recipe for Spieler’s mystical dish, and I am not the only one. The day after the article was published, someone tweeted at Spieler asking for the recipe. There’s a Chowhound thread asking if the recipe can be found anywhere (yes, I commented). But I couldn’t find it, and it seems, neither could anyone else. There are recipes for miso toffee, and for sticky toffee pudding with miso ice cream, but not this exact dessert. So, after talking with my baker friend Caitlyn, we decided to make one ourselves.
We decided to adapt David Lebovitz’s sticky toffee pudding recipe, and really, there were only a couple simple changes to be made. (In retrospect, I should’ve used Spieler’s sticky toffee pudding recipe, but I never happened upon it until I was sitting down to write this.) The resulting dessert is sweet, salty, caramelized, strong, and unique. Its flavors are perhaps a bit confusing at first, but I think the way they swirl around your tongue, combining to create a balance of sweet and savory is a fun adventure.
Miso Sticky Toffee Pudding
Note: I have made this recipe now with both red and white miso paste. While I personally liked the white miso better, Caitlyn, Jonah, and Caitlyn’s boyfriend Dylan liked the red. On one hand, I think the deeper, more caramelized flavor of the red miso was nice, and on the other, the white provided a little more brightness, while bringing the same level of saltiness. Both are good, so it’s up to you which you use.
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup muscovado sugar (if you don’t have that, demerera or dark brown sugar will do)
2 1/2 Tbl molasses (we used Blackstrap)
2-3 tsp miso paste (start with two teaspoons, and add up to another teaspoon to taste)
1-2 Tbl toasted sesame seeds
6 ounces pitted dates, snipped into small pieces
1 cup water
1 tsp baking soda
1/3 cup candied ginger, chopped
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt, preferably fine
4 Tbl unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
toasted sesame seeds, to serve
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F, and butter an 8 1/2 inch porcelain soufflé dish, or something of a similar size.
In a medium sized saucepan, bring the cream, muscovado sugar (or other dark brown sugar), molasses, and miso to a boil, stirring often to melt the sugar, and keeping a close eye to make sure it doesn’t burn. Lower the heat and let simmer for about five minutes, stirring constantly, until the sauce has thickened and coats the spoon. Try your best to break up any chunks of miso. Pour roughly half the sauce into your buttered baking dish, sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds over the toffee sauce, and place the dish in the freezer. Set the pan with the rest of the sauce aside for serving.
In another medium saucepan, bring the dates and water to a boil over medium heat. Once boiling, remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda and ginger. Set aside, but keep slightly warm – leaving it on low heat isn’t a terrible idea.
In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a large mixing bowl (you can use an electric mixer), cream together the butter and granulated sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, and then the vanilla, stirring to combine. Add half of the flour mixture, then the date mixture, and then add the rest of the flour mixture, stirring between each addition. Be careful not to over-mix the batter.
Remove the baking dish from the freezer and pour the batter in over the toffee and sesame seeds. Bake for 50 minutes, or until it passes the toothpick test. Allow it to cool slightly before serving. To serve, warm the toffee sauce, spoon portions of the pudding onto plates or bowls, and top with the warm toffee sauce and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream will make a nice topping. I’ve also topped mine with some homemade anise-cardamom ice cream (based on the anise ice cream from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop).
According to Lebovitz, if you’re making the pudding in advance of serving, bake it without the toffee in the bottom of the dish. Close to serving time, poke the cake about 15 times with a chopstick or skewer, and distribute half the toffee sauce over the top. Cover with foil, warm in a 300 degree oven for about 30 minutes, and then follow the serving instructions above.