On my list of 23 pantry items you absolutely, positively, have to have, black pepper sits at #3.
Now that I think about it, pepper should be #1. Tied with salt.
Because salt and pepper are an item.
Whoever first paired salt and pepper was a genius, like the person who cast Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, or Doris Day with Rock Hudson. Or the person who discovered that chocolate always tastes better with a tiny bit of vanilla.
Pepper is, in volume and value, the most important spice in the world; the best varieties grow in India and Malaysia, but there's not a cuisine that doesn't use pepper, either in spice blends (likebaharat, ras el hanout or adobo seasoning), or paired with salt, or on its own.
For years I bought into the "fresh ground" way of life. I tried one pepper mill after another -- the pretty ones that don't grind, the ugly ones that do, and the French ones that, like all things French, manage to look impossibly beautiful while getting the job done.
More than any other spice in my kitchen, black pepper gets a workout every time I cook, and I go through it at an alarming rate. So, for the past five years, I've been using Penzeys coarse-ground Tellicherry pepper. I buy 8-ounce bags for less than $7.00, and keep a working supply in my recycled lemon curd jar on the spice rack, with the rest in the freezer. I go through what's in the jar every month, so the pepper stays fresh. It comes in several different grinds, and I often have the super-coarse on hand, too.
Can you imagine black pepper and lime oven fries, black pepper crab, farinata with rosemary and pepper, maple and black pepper chicken, urad dal patties with black pepper, or milk chocolate and black pepper ice cream without pepper?
Neither can I. So, I really need to move pepper to the top of my can't-live-without-it list. Right next to salt.
Chocolate double ginger cupcakes
The first time I made these cupcakes, I felt something was missing. The next time, I added pepper, to help bring out the flavor of the ginger. Bingo! The black pepper did the trick. Adapted from Joy of Baking. Makes 16.
1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 cup boiling hot water
1-1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, roughly chopped
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1 Tbsp water, or a few drops more, as needed
Preheat oven to 375°F. Line 16 muffin cups with paper liners.
In a small bowl, stir the cocoa powder and boiling water until smooth. Let cool to room temperature.
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper and powdered ginger.
Then in the bowl of a stand mixer, or with a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth. Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture and beat only until incorporated. Then add the crystallized ginger and the cooled cocoa mixture and stir until smooth.
Fill each muffin cup two-thirds full with batter and bake for 16-20 minutes or until risen, springy to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into a cupcake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack. After 5 minutes, remove the cupcakes from the pan, and let them sit on the wire rack until completely cool.
When the cupcakes are cool, combine confectioners sugar and water in a small glass measuring cup, and whisk together until it forms an icing. If the icing is not a pourable consistency, add water, a drop at a time, and continue to whisk until you can pour the icing. Drizzle over each cupcake.
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