Monday, April 2, 2012

Ginger milk pudding

Milk and China don't seem like an obvious pair. In fact, many of my Chinese friends are so lactose intolerant that they can't even enjoy ice cream. But there is one place in southern China -- one village, to be exact -- where milk is turned into the most amazing dishes. And what's more, these turn out to be impeccably Chinese.

Located south of the capital city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province, the Shunde district boasts one of the most famous schools of Cantonese cooking. Shunde is nestled in the Pearl River delta, a land of inventive fish, chicken, and pork dishes. Freshness is most likely the defining characteristic of the local foods, and so classic creations like White Cut Chicken (baiqie ji, the bird gently poached and served with simple but pungent dipping sauces) and simple steamed seafood draped with aromatics are what first come to my mind when I think of Shunde.
Bamboo teeth

But there is a small place there called Daliang where cow's milk has taken hold of the imagination and is turned into sweet and savory creations that baffle the mind and delight the palate.  

Stir-fried Milk (chao xian nai), which combines fresh milk and egg whites to form a light custard, results in a pure white pillow that cossets bits of fresh shrimp, chicken, crab, or whatever the chef takes particular pleasure in that day. It is one of the most comforting foods imaginable, sort of like nursery food for a baby emperor, but also so terribly sophisticated that I could see someone like the Duchess of Windsor devouring it with glee.

Ginger fibers left behind
As can be imagined, milk is also given a sweet turn in a number of the local specialties, like Deep Fried Milk (zha niunai); here, the milk is thickened with cornstarch and flour, and the resulting batter is cooled, cut, and fried, so that the crunchy outside contrasts with a molten interior. A light sugar dusting completes the dish.

Another is Double Skinned Milk (shuangpi nai), which is a true custard of sorts that celebrates the skin which forms on boiled milk as it cools. Like I said, these really are impeccably Chinese, and so things that Westerners care little about -- like the skin of milk or the skin of fish -- are often treasured mainly for their texture in Chinese cuisine.

Squeeze out the juice
Today we're going to enjoy a purely magical dish called Ginger Milk Pudding (jiangzhi zhuang nai, literally "ginger juice bumping milk"). You have to try this if for no other reason than to prove to yourself that fresh ginger juice really causes hot milk to gel up into a perfectly soft and creamy pudding.

Fresh ginger juice is a snap to make. All you need is a coarse grater and a fine sieve. I adore my bamboo ginger grater, which you can find in some Chinese hardware stores, but any good grater will do. If you do get your hands on a bamboo grater, beware of its sharp teeth, which do an admirable job of separating the stringy fibers in the ginger from its fleshy pulp, as well as the flesh from your knuckles.

With agave nectar
Some Chinese recipe books will tell you to wrap the grated ginger in muslin and squeeze out the juice. I've always found that too much bother. I just scoop the ginger into one hand and squeeze it dry over a fine strainer placed inside of a small measuring cup, and keep grating and squeezing until I have the amount needed. A juicer could be used, too, but that would call for cleaning the machine, and I think that's too much bother, too. Hence the grater and the sieve.

Traditionally, sugar is used in this pudding, but agave nectar provides an additional subtle layer to this dish, and I have taken the liberty of drizzling a little more on top to add a final punctuation to the silky surface. A tiny pinch of salt is also something I like here; it's virtually undetectable, but adds a slight balance to the sweetness.

Use the absolutely best full cream milk you can find. If it is at all possible, get something local and impossibly fresh. Like all dishes where one ingredient is the star, use the finest quality you can because there's no place for that ingredient to hide.

This is served warm according to traditional recipes, but chilled is to my mind beyond delicious. The pudding takes on a firmer texture in the fridge and becomes even silkier. It's startlingly good this way.

Whenever you're having children over, make sure to have them help you with this because it really is kitchen magic.

Ginger milk pudding 
Jiangzhi zhuang nai 薑汁撞奶  
Makes 4 servings

1 large finger of fresh ginger, either young or brown-skinned (see Tips)
Large pinch of sea salt
4 tablespoons agave nectar, plus more for the topping, or sugar to taste (see Tips)
2 cups fresh, organic, full fat milk

1. Grate the ginger. Squeeze the pulp over a fine grater placed on top of a small measuring cup until you have 4 tablespoons of ginger juice. Set out 4 dessert bowls with little more than half a cup capacity. Stir the juice and pour a tablespoon into each bowl (see Tips).

2. Add a small pinch of salt to each bowl, as well as a tablespoon of the agave nectar, or a teaspoon or more of sugar.
Yogurt-y texture

3. Heat the milk in the microwave or on the stove until it almost boils, and then pour half a cup of the hot milk into each of the bowls. Don't stir the milk, as it will mix with the ginger juice and sweeteners as it pours into the bowl. Let the bowls set up, which only takes a minute, and don't stir or disturb them. Serve the puddings either warm or cold with a swirl of agave nectar on top, if desired.


Try to select the plumpest, heaviest "hands" of ginger you can find, as these have the most juice. Hawai'ian ginger is good and often is organic.

Younger ginger will have a very mild heat, and older ginger will of course be hotter. Both are good, so use what is available and what you like.
Ginger juice portioned out

Grate the unpeeled ginger over a small saucer to collect all of the juice and pulp. 

Please use full fat milk that is the best you can find, as you'll taste the difference. I am extremely fond of Straus Family cream top milk, which comes from California's northern coast.

Honey is tasty here, but it doesn't dissolve fast enough when the hot milk hits to blend into the pudding. Also, if you pour it on top of the cold or cool pudding, it seizes up into a sticky clump. Agave nectar behaves well.