Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ghost Chili Cupcakes: Waiting for the Burn

What do you feed a foodie friend with only a few days in New York? Brooke, a personal chef from Chicago, had enjoyed our weekly “Gyro Night,” eaten sweetbreads and tripe at La Porteña, and expertly slurped soup dumplings at Chinatown’s Shanghai Café. But she still hadn’t experienced an “only in New York” food moment.

“Guinea pig?” I suggested. I knew of an Ecuadorian café in Jackson Heights that served grilled cuy. She responded enthusiastically, but Adeet grew squeamish. Then it occurred to me:

Ghost chili cupcakes.

Pinisi Bakery makes chocolate cupcakes infused with ghost chili, the hottest pepper in the world. I had tried a cupcake in March, and it was a revelatory experience. I’d tasted chocolate and chili together before, but never in a way that swerved along the pleasure/pain border with such abandon.

Adeet called Pinisi to make sure they had the cupcakes available. It was a hot and humid evening, and we didn’t want to expend energy only to end up empty-handed. “Come by in 30 minutes,” a woman told him. We headed to the subway and made our way to the East Village bakery.

Bianca, the attractive woman behind the counter, greeted us with a smile, but when we asked for three ghost chili cupcakes, her face fell. She told us that Andy, the baker, had left to deliver a wedding cake. It was only her third day on the job, and she didn’t know where he’d left the recently made batch of spicy cupcakes to cool.

We stayed and admired the red velvet cakes and tiramisus on display. But as the bakery’s one fan waged a losing battle against the heat, we decided to take a walk and try again in another 30 minutes.

After a few blocks, we found ourselves at Pommes Frites. French fries may not be unique to NYC, but the expertly fried potatoes and dipping sauces make Pommes Frites a worthy destination for any food tourist. Not wanting to spoil our appetite for cupcakes, we split a small and shared a trio of sauces: Irish curry, Vietnamese pineapple mayo, and “war sauce” (European mayo, peanut satay sauce, and raw onion). The pineapple proved the most refreshing, but we made quick work of all three.

Now it was back to Pinisi, where Bianca informed us that Andy had called and was looking for parking. We settled in on a nearby stoop where we could people watch and critique the parallel parking skills of neighborhood drivers. After 20 minutes, I started to entertain disturbing scenarios: What if the baker had grown exasperated looking for a space and gone home? Or maybe a careless driver had rear-ended his van, and he was embroiled in a shouting match.

When he finally arrived, I had to resist the urge to run up and hug him.

Our quest wasn’t over yet, however. We had to wait several more minutes while Andy disappeared to get our cupcakes. Bianca seemed relieved that our mission was almost complete and chatted with us about her recent move from LA to NYC. She’d traded a modeling career for one in screenwriting, and I doubt that she’d anticipated placating a group of ghost chili seekers in her new life. At last Andy emerged with the cupcakes on a golden cake board.

My first bite into the cake was spicy, but not dauntingly so. However, each taste built in heat and culminated in the sinus-clearing chili jelly that filled the center of the cupcake. I ignored the cream-cheese frosting, wanting to prolong the not unpleasant burn. Andy pointed out that the cupcakes were now “jumbo” sized, and they were considerably larger than the first one I’d had. I don’t normally mind more of a good thing, but I think a smaller version might have a greater impact. A mini chili cupcake would pack an almost guilt-free punch, and could pair nicely with a single, bracing shot of espresso.

We chatted with the quick-to-smile Andy between bites. He and Brooke discussed the capsaicin levels of various peppers, and he explained his technique of soaking the ghost chilies in water and using the juice in his cupcakes. We compared notes on New York patisseries—he told us to try Payard, and we recommended Cannelle. Andy’s originally from Indonesia, and when we asked if good Indonesian food could be had in NYC, he laughed, “If I want Indonesian food, I just make it myself.”

When Adeet asked Andy about the name “Pinisi,” he explained that it’s a type of Indonesian schooner. He wanted to associate his bakery with the role ships have played in bringing food into port cities. I imagined people languishing in tropical heat as they waited for the latest arrival of goods and decided his bakery was aptly named.

Adeet and I exclaimed over the cupcakes a number of times, and Andy appeared touched by our effusive praise. When we left, he held his palms together in a quick “namaste.”

And what did Brooke think of her ghost chili cupcake? She bought two more to take back to Chicago.

I wonder how long she waited before taking a bite.

128 East 4th Street • New York, NY
photos by Adeet Deshmukh


Urbanus X P P said...

Jumbo size? I'll be sure to bring my holy water next time.

Adeet said...

One of the most unique things I have ever tasted. If you live in New York, make the trip. It's well worth it.