"Do you need some pork belly?"
"That's a stupid question. I always need some pork belly," I replied.
Hank sat down on his knees and started to dig into his kitchen freezer before pulling out a slab of pork belly that weighed more than the pig it came from and handing it to me. "My pork guy loves me, so I sometimes get freebies. This is a bit too much for me to use though."
Hank, an avid writer, cook, and hunter, had decimated a small portion of the duck population this last season. Due to this he had plenty ducks in his freezer and each one of them was plucked, processed, and vacuum-sealed. (If you've ever killed your own bird for food before, then you know that just one is no small task.) Hank's freezer, now packed with birds (not to mention elk, pork, goat, wild goose, and many other of God's tasty creatures), was beyond capacity. To remedy the situation he had called me up to see if I would take some off his hands.
Now, it's illegal to sell wild duck in the state of California, so the only way to get them is to shoot them yourself or have friends who can handle a shotgun. Considering that the thought of crawling out of bed at 2AM to muck around in wetlands on a rainy day sounds as much fun as chewing tinfoil I happily took him up on the offer.
"Do you want some headcheese, too? I made it this morning with that spare pig head I had," said Hank nonchalantly.
"My God, I love you, Hank." Seriously. How can you not love someone who makes his own headcheese?
He cut off a piece of the head cheese slab and wrapped it up and plopped it in my bag where he had also put four ducks, the pork belly, some crab meat, a few homemade Chinese-style sausages, and a near bushel of candy-striped beets from his garden. A veritable bounty of meat and produce. The dainty half-pint of homemade kumquat-vanilla bean marmalade I had brought as a gift now seemed somewhat inadequate.
"I've also got a gallon of pig's blood if you need any," he casually noted.
I peered into the fridge to see a gallon jug whose crimson pitch contents, though perhaps not the source, were immediately identifiable. In any other house one would start wondering where the sacrificial glyph drawn with the ground bones of wayward children was and if there was time to call the police. Of course, this sort of ingredient sitting in the fridge was pretty standard fare for Hank's kitchen, so the only question I had was why there was so much.
"The guy I got it from only sells it in gallon quantities. I only needed a small amount for this pasta I made," he pulled out a ball of burgundy-colored dough wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. I had an image of Hank as Sweeny Todd except that instead of meat pies on Fleet Street he had been given a slot on the Cooking Channel to make Italian food.
"What on earth would I do with that? I bake and do sweet stuff. Seriously, what does a baker do with pork blood?" I threw my hands up into a relegated gesture and laughed.
"I dunno," said Hank as he looked at it, "make it into a pudding?"
It was one of those moments where you can feel creative impulse shock your brain. I stopped a moment before replying. "Hmm. You know what? Why not? Throw some in a jar. Maybe I can do something savory with heavy cream and make it all pretty and pink. I'll tell people it's strawberry." We laughed, though I admit I did consider this and how funny of a prank it would be.
At home I started to do some research on blood-based desserts. For the most part the only results I could pull up was an unidentifiable Taiwanese blood and rice cake that sounded generally unpalatable in flavor and an Italian dish called sanguinaccio. The sanguinaccio seemed to have potential.
A quick explanation: sanguinaccio is a special Lenten-treat in various parts of Italy and often made by local town butchers. It's a pudding made with chocolate, pine nuts, cinnamon, cocoa powder, and - yes - the blood of a freshly killed pig.
My research dug up a few pictures, descriptions, and recipes that shed some light on the recipe. Reactions and opinions were mixed; older generations revered it while the youngins' weren't having it. It seemed that it was a dish that was rarely eaten and often poorly made, which resulted in a gritty texture and metallic flavor. Still, it proved that pudding was a possibility.
I decided to simply take a more traditional pastry path and form my own interpretation of sanguinaccio. I made a basic chocolate pudding recipe, but cut out some milk for the blood and added some heavy cream to make up for the loss in milk fats and sugars. A heavy hand of chocolate and cinnamon would round it all out. Sanguinaccio is made only with chocolate and blood. I hypothesized that lack of milk to bind them together is why the results can be so texturally displeasing.
The cooking was a bit unnerving (the cooking blood had turned the milk a dark brown color long before I even added the chocolate). It also didn't help that BF kept hovering and quoting the Weird Sisters from Macbeth.
"When are you going to add the eye of newt?"
"Go away! You're not helping!" I yelled back nervously.
"Feeling squeamish?" he prodded.
"I'm either cooking or performing dark witchcraft. What do you think?"
Admittedly, I was a bit freaked out. Blood is the lifesource of animals. Yes, we may eat their meat which may have blood in it and that we often call juices to assuage ourselves, but how often to we really sit down and focus on, as Hank described it so eloquently in his post, the anima of the animal? More so, how often do we ever just eat it in its pure form? Probably never for most of us.
That is until you spend ten minutes over a pot stirring and whisking it together with milk and sugar. It's pretty much in your face by that point.
The pudding seemed to come together rather well. The cream and blood soon smoothed out into a perfect pudding consistency. I added in the chocolate and vanilla and gave the pudding a quick stir before straining the it into a bowl and letting it chill.
Pretty darn fabulous. It's a rich chocolate pudding with a smooth, though slightly silty texture. You don't really taste the blood. Instead, it just gives the pudding weight and density. It did add, however, a slight minerally and savory flavor in the back; a barely inescapable whisper of umami.
The real experiment of this recipe was partially to challenge myself and to push the limits of pastry. Could something as savory focused as blood be turned into something dainty and sweet? I'm pleased to say, yes.
More than that, I wanted to practice what I so often preach about eating responsibly. Hank is the most responsible eater I know. He kills his own meat and uses practically every single part of the animal. Like most people, I usually go to the store and get whatever cuts I want. I've killed and processed my own chickens and rabbits before, but I still feel generally disconnected to my food - especially dairy, eggs, and meat. Pastry people rarely have this opportunity to bond with the sources of more primal foods based on the nature of our work. There is little life and death involved in locally grown apricots and freshly foraged elderberries. This pudding was a chance to reconnect with food at a visceral level.
Pork blood isn't exactly easy to come across, but if you do find it for sale or know a guy who killed a pig I encourage you to make this pudding. It will challenge your ideas on pastry and your general understanding of what makes good food and how it can be approached. Aside from that, it's a flavorful dish that eaters will remember.
Blood and Chocolate Pudding
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup fresh pork blood
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 oounces semisweet chocolate
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. In the top of a double boiler or a large metal bowl whisk together the cornstarch, salt, and sugar. Slowly whisk in the milk, blood, and cream. Place over simmering water and stir occasionally being sure to scrape down the bottom and sides. Use a whisk if lumps form. As it cooks the blood will turn from red to dark brown. This is normal. After about 10-15 minutes it should thicken and coat the back of a spoon. Add the chocolate and stir until melted. Take off the heat and add the vanilla and stir.
2. Pass the pudding through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill for 30 minutes. Serve with freshly whipped cream.