Budino takes pudding on an adventure

Special to The Times

TECHNICALLY, it's just pudding. But mention the word budino to an Italian chef and eyes light up, chattering hands dance through the air and unabashed creativity is unfurled.

"Budino is BUDINO! Its big flavor hits your palate at once, so pure it dissolves right on your tongue," says Nicola Mastronardi, chef at Vincenti. "Nothing else is in the way -- just custard and concentrated flavor."

A budino can be sweet, like the creamy chocolate one at La Botte in Santa Monica, or savory, like the Fulvi pecorino budino Evan Kleiman recently offered at Angeli Caffe in L.A. It can involve bread, as Kleiman's does, or polenta, as in the creamy, soft cake-like budino with a lemony brulee crust at All' Angelo, the new Italian restaurant in West Hollywood. It can be "like a souffle, or flan or panna cotta," says Mastronardi, "but much more."

There are lots of compelling budini around town these days. But a few really stand out as impossible to resist.

At Mozza, Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali's pizzeria, the butterscotch budino -- with amazing, deep buttery-caramel flavor and a gorgeous, thick, velvety texture -- is topped with caramel sauce, a dollop of creme fraiche lightened with whipped cream and a pinch of fleur de sel. The whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.

Across town in Brentwood, Mastronardi is fairly obsessed with budini. When asked about how he achieved the rich flavor and beguiling texture of his chestnut budino and whether he had any more budini up his sleeve, Mastronardi flew into a frenzy of budino creation. His chocolate one, which relies on Valrhona chocolate with 70% cacao rather than the cocoa powder that's typically found in home-style chocolate budini throughout Italy, is chocolate pudding the way you always dreamed it would taste but somehow it never did. Then there's a soft, pillowy ricotta and pear budino. And an aromatic, custardy apple budino.

But Mastronardi doesn't wait till dessert to get them going -- in his hands, the budino is also a cunning first course. He tops an artichoke budino with paper-thin black truffles and baby artichokes that have been shaved and deep-fried golden brown. His flan-like Parmesan budino is heightened by tender tripe in a bright tomato ragu. A beautiful green budino gets its depth of flavor and substantial texture from green peas. (And hurray! He cheats and uses frozen ones.) That's topped with sauteed and Manila clams and sepia (cuttlefish; our recipe substitutes squid); their sweet brininess provides terrific contrast to the budino.

In Italy, savory budini have started turning up over the last few years in what Silverton calls "fancy" restaurants. Mastronardi says he was inspired by a leek and ricotta budino sauced with a lamb ragu he tasted at Al Fornello da Ricci in Puglia last spring. Traditionally, they were always sweet -- a simple pudding most often served at home.

"There was a trend in Italy maybe five years ago mixing savory and sweet, like using savory ingredients with classically sweet techniques and vice versa," says Michael Young, chef instructor at California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena and formerly executive chef at Enoteca Drago. "Basically that's what happened with the budino. It used to be a sweet dessert mainly, but not anymore."

In Italy, savory custards are likely to be called sformato rather than budino, says Kyle Phillips, an American-born food writer who translated Pellegrino Artusi's "La Scienza in Cucina e l'arte di Mangiar Bene" ("The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well"). And they're likely to be similar in texture to flan. "But if you come right down to it," he says, "sformato and budino can be similar in texture, and what you call what's on the plate is a matter of semantics."

So how do the local budino masters achieve their delicious ends? That depends on the budino.

Mastronardi uses vegetables or cheese to give flavor and texture to a basic egg custard.

When it comes to the pudding-like style of budino, the answer is cornstarch: That's how both Silverton and Mastronardi achieve their beguiling velvety or silky textures.

"To make the pudding taste more of cream than eggs, I use cornstarch so it's smoother, richer," says Mastronardi. "When you just use eggs, it's more like flan."

"Lots of times I'll think about a dish or ingredient that an Italian uses and apply another cooking technique to it," says Silverton. "Here we wanted to make a budino that's denser and creamier, like a classic butterscotch pudding. Cornstarch, a very American ingredient, gives that feel."

When additional ingredients such as rice are added to Italian custards, it's best done with a light hand. The rice budino with strawberry sauce at Pecorino in Brentwood is a billowy mound of lemon-scented custard dotted with grains of al dente Carnaroli rice. Whipped cream folded into the cooled custard keeps the pudding delicate.

What could be more perfect for spring?

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food@latimes.com

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Chocolate budino

Total time: 35 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: From chef Nicola Mastronardi of Vincenti Ristorante

7 ounces dark chocolate

(preferably 70% Valrhona), cut into 1-inch chunks

4 tablespoons cornstarch

6 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar

2 1/3 cups milk

3 1/2 tablespoons butter

2 egg yolks

1. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the chocolate with two tablespoons water. Stir to prevent scorching; remove from heat.

2. In another, heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar. Whisk in the milk and melted chocolate. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until creamy, about 3 minutes. Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes, stirring constantly.

3. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter. Temper the egg yolks with some of the pudding by carefully whisking one-half cup pudding into the eggs, followed by a second half cup, to bring up the temperature. Add the yolk mixture to the pan, stirring to fully incorporate.

4. Immediately strain the pudding into a medium bowl, and promptly spoon one-half cup into each of 6 serving dishes. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days before serving.

Each serving: 390 calories; 6 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 27 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 95 mg. cholesterol; 44 mg. sodium.

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Pea budino with squid and clam ragu

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: Adapted from a recipe by chef Nicola Mastronardi of Vincenti Ristorante. To make up to two days ahead, bake until center is lightly set, refrigerate. Heat in a hot water bath in the oven.

Pea budino

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot

3 cups fresh or frozen peas (not thawed)

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

5 1/2 tablespoons whole milk

5 1/2 tablespoons cream

4 eggs

1 cup loosely packed finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the shallot and saute until transparent, about 2 minutes. Add the peas, one-half teaspoon salt, one-half teaspoon pepper and one-half cup water. Cook until tender, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat; cool 10 minutes.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a blender, puree the peas, milk, cream, eggs and grated cheese.

3. Meanwhile, butter 8 (3- to 4-ounce) ramekins. Divide the pea mixture among the 8 ramekins. Place the ramekins into a (9-by-13-inch) baking pan with at least 1 inch space between ramekins; add about 4 cups boiling water, filling to halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

4. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the baking pan halfway through, until a knife inserted into the custard emerges cleanly.

Ragu and assembly

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

3/4 cup white wine

30 Manila clams

2 cloves garlic, unpeeled

7 ounces fresh squid tubes, roughly chopped into strips

Pinch red chile flakes

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1/8 teaspoon ground pepper

1. In a medium saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the wine and clams. Cover and steam until the clams open, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

2. In a medium saute pan, heat the remaining olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the squid, red chile flakes, parsley, pepper and clams with their cooking liquid (about 1 1/3 cup). Saute until just cooked through, about 1 minute.

3. Using a slotted spoon, remove the squid and clams from the pan and reserve. Continue to cook the sauce, reducing the liquid by half (to three-fourths cup), then remove from heat. Remove and discard the clam shells. Return the clams and squid to the sauce; toss and reheat briefly. Remove the garlic; adjust seasoning.

4. To serve, run a knife around edge of each ramekin and unmold onto a serving plate. Spoon an equal amount of ragu on top of each.

Each serving: 277 calories; 15 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 198 mg. cholesterol; 214 mg. sodium.

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Butterscotch budino with caramel sauce

Total time: About 45 minutes

Servings: 10

Note: From Nancy Silverton and pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez of

Pizzeria Mozza. (For the recipe

for the cookies shown, go to latimes.com/food.)

Butterscotch budino

3 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cups milk

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 egg

3 egg yolks

5 tablespoons cornstarch

5 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum

1. In a large bowl, combine the cream and milk and set aside.

2. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, combine the brown sugar, one-half cup water and salt over medium-high heat. Cook to a smoking, dark caramel, about 10 to 12 minutes. Sugar will smell caramelized and nutty and turn a deep brown.

3. Immediately whisk the cream mixture carefully into the caramel to stop the cooking (the mixture will steam and the sugar will seize). Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to medium.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks and cornstarch. Temper the hot caramel cream into the egg mixture by adding a cupful of caramel at a time, whisking constantly, until half is incorporated. Pour the egg mixture back into remaining caramel, stirring constantly with a whisk until the custard is very thick and the corn starch is cooked out, about 2 minutes.

5. Remove the custard from the heat and whisk in the butter and rum.

6. Pass the custard through a fine mesh strainer to remove any lumps and divide among 10 (6-ounce) ramekins leaving one-half inch at the top. Cover with plastic wrap and chill several hours or up to three days.

Caramel sauce and assembly

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/8 vanilla bean, scraped

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons corn syrup

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons fleur de sel

1/4 cup whipping cream

3/4 cup creme fraiche

1. In a medium saucepan, heat the cream and vanilla over medium heat, until simmering, about three minutes. Add the butter, turn off the heat and set aside.

2. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the corn syrup and sugar. Add enough water to make a wet sandy texture, about one-fourth cup. Cook over medium-high heat, swirling the pan just slightly to gauge the caramelization, until the sugar becomes a medium amber color, about 10 minutes.

3. Remove the caramel from heat, carefully whisk the cream mixture into the caramel (be very careful -- it will steam and bubble). Whisk to combine. Place the pan in a large bowl of ice water to cool.

4. In a chilled bowl with a wire whisk, beat the whipping cream until it begins to thicken. Add the creme fraiche; whip until thick and fluffy.

5. Before serving, warm the sauce over medium heat. Spoon one tablespoon on each budino, sprinkle with one-eighth teaspoon fleur de sel and add a dollop of cream topping.

Each serving with 1 tablespoon cream topping: 549 calories; 4 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 41 grams fat; 25 grams saturated fat; 209 mg. cholesterol; 510 mg. sodium.

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