When we pack up the kids to visit family in our tiny hometown in Florida, there are all kinds of favorite foods that we look forward to.
Some are familiar and eagerly anticipated, and then there are the unexpected surprises.
This town, Melbourne Beach, is a little slice of paradise right in the middle of Florida’s Atlantic coast. This means really fresh seafood, and our first stop is always Hioki’s, my brother-in-law’s Japanese grill and sushi bar.
I think about trying something new, but instantly order my favorite, the green dragon roll.
Sticky rice layered with crunchy tempura shrimp and fresh cucumber, all wrapped in traditional nori seaweed. It is skillfully rolled up and artfully topped with paper-thin avocado slices.
I intentionally put too much wasabi on my roll and enjoy the quick intense burn of Japanese horseradish playing against the cool seafood and cucumber and the creamy avocado.
It has taken me awhile to get the hang of raw fish, but when it is this fresh, it is truly a delicacy.
I am slowly converting, and sneak tastes off my husband’s wooden platter, the “chef’s sushi 10” — velvety slices of super-fresh fish, accompanied by a tower of pink pickled ginger and sesame-spiked seaweed salad.
After our ethnic entry, Mom welcomes us with her fabulous coffee cake for breakfast.
Just as the sun rises in the east, Mom makes the coffee cake, unprompted. It is an iconic staple from childhood — buttery dough, wrapped around a sticky cinnamon filling and loaded with plump raisins. Complete comfort.
The sushi night, the coffee cake. These are the absolutes when we trek to Florida.
And then there are the surprises.
My sister-in-law, Jan, has a culinary wild streak that is totally contagious. She loves trying new recipes and is happy to have some extra hands on deck when she sets out experimenting. She created a gorgeous feast for dinner and needed a little assistance with an over-the-top dessert.
She found the recipe on Epicurious.com: Boca Negra Chocolate Chipotle Cakes — individual cakes, intensely chocolaty, with a tweakable kick of smoky-spicy chipotle. Looks like chocolate cake, tastes like none you’ve ever had before. And for that over-the-top effect, the little cakes are drizzled with two sauces: a tangy-sweet tomatillo sauce and a creamy vanilla custard sauce, both of which can be made days in advance.
I love rolling up sushi, but it doesn’t come close to the fresh-from-the-sea art that is served at Hioki’s.
And I occasionally make my mom’s heirloom coffee cake recipe, but it never tastes quite as good as the real thing.
I will commit to re-creating Jan’s luscious spiced chocolate cakes and their luxurious sauces, though, as a delicious reminder of family dinners there on the faraway coast.
Spicy Chocolate Cakes with Sweet Tomatillo and Vanilla Custard Sauces
Create an unforgettable dessert for your next special occasion. The combination of flavors here is deliciously unique. Makes 8 individual cakes.
6 ounces (1½ sticks) butter, plus additional for greasing ramekins
1 cup sugar, plus additional for dusting ramekins
6 tablespoons orange juice
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (a bag of Ghirardelli bittersweet chips works well)
2 canned chipotle chilies, rinsed, seeded and finely chopped (or a bit more or less to taste)
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
Sweet tomatillo sauce (recipe below)
Vanilla custard sauce (recipe below)
BUTTER eight 4-ounce ramekins and sprinkle evenly with sugar. Tapping to remove excess.
HEAT oven to 325°.
BOIL orange juice and 1 cup sugar in a small saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved.
PLACE chocolate in a large heat-proof bowl and pour hot syrup over, stirring until chocolate is melted
ADD butter to chocolate mixture and stir to melt.
ADD eggs, one at a time, whisking after each addition.
STIR in chopped chipotle, flour and salt.
DIVIDE batter among ramekins.
BAKE in a hot-water bath (see note) just until firm and top is starting to look dry, about 50 minutes.
TRANSFER ramekins with tongs to a cooling rack and let cool for 5 minutes.
UNMOLD warm cakes directly onto dessert plates (they will be difficult to remove if they are cool).
SERVE, with sauces, within 2 hours of baking.
Note: To prepare a hot water bath for baking, put your ramekins is a large baking dish and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Sweet Tomatillo Sauce
Tangy tomatillo is sweetened and spiced for a unique combination — a must for the chocolate chipotle cakes and fabulous on vanilla or cinnamon ice cream. Makes 1 cup.
½ pound small fresh tomatillos, husked, rinsed and coarsely chopped
¾ cup turbinado sugar
¼ cup water
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
COMBINE tomatillos, sugar, water and cinnamon stick in a 1- to 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil.
REDUCE heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tomatillos are very tender, about 15 minutes.
REMOVE cinnamon stick.
ADD vanilla extract.
PUREE mixture in a blender or food processor until smooth.
CHILL, covered, for up to one week.
DRIZZLE cold sauce over cakes.
Vanilla Custard Sauce
Add this classic dessert sauce to your repertoire. It pairs beautifully with the spicy chocolate cakes and is wonderful on fresh fruit. Makes 2 cups.
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
2 cups half and half
½ cup sugar
SCRAPE seeds from vanilla bean into a 2-quart heavy saucepan, using the tip of a paring knife.
ADD the pod and half and half to the pan and heat over medium heat, stirring, until it just comes to a boil.
REMOVE from heat.
WHISK together eggs and sugar in a bowl until well combined.
ADD hot half and half mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly.
TRANSFER custard to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 10 minutes (do not let boil).
POUR custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl, discarding solids.
SET bowl in a larger bowl of ice water and stir custard until cool.
CHILL in refrigerator, covered, until cold, or up to 2 days.
SERVE drizzled over the chocolate cakes, or with fresh fruit.