Cooking with Watson: Caymanian Plantain Dessert

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson is a collaboration between IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Once a week, as part of an ongoing series, we'll be preparing one recipe from the book until we've made all of them. Wish us luck.

So for the second week in a row, Watson and his culinary interpreters are appealing to my sweet tooth. Except, where last week's pastries had a savory backbone to keep things interesting, the Caymanian plantain dessert is a full-on tooth-rotting sugar bomb. And a damn delicious one at that. Here's the thing about IBM's cognitive computing project: You never know quite what you're going to get. On the surface the list of flavors here seems like an obvious combination, but as chef Michael Laiskonis points out in the accompanying notes, it's in how they all come together. See Watson isn't just about jamming together seemingly incongruous ingredients. The idea is to push human creativity, in whatever area that may be. It just so happens that in this case IBM is trying to broaden your kitchen vocabulary.

There are a bunch of different things going on in this dish. Many different flavors playing off of each other and tons of different textures rubbing elbows. Let's work our way up from the bottom. That brown layer in this Caribbean concoction is caramelized banana. It's a thick mass of cream and sugar with small pockets of banana chunk and a bit of bite from the molasses. It's decadent, without crossing into cloying. Then you've got the coconut panna cotta, a gelatinous blob of mildly sweet tropical comfort, and on top a rich, tart lime cream that, while still sweet, helps balance out the piles of sugar below it. The whole thing is topped with a papaya salad that's dressed in orange juice, butter and cayenne pepper and a few fried plantain chips, both of which give you something to bite into and add a little crunch and body to the otherwise soft, almost silky texture.


This recipe also marks the return of slightly less common techniques, specifically the making of a panna cotta. That's not to say that it's some complex modernist creation, but it's not something the average home cook does regularly. That being said, it's an incredibly simple procedure that involves dissolving sheets of gelatin into cream and sugar and, in this case, coconut milk. For those who have never worked with sheets of gelatin before, it's not terribly different from making a box of Jell-O. Except instead of pouring a package of flavored powder into hot water, you mix in sheets of flavorless, processed animal collagen into your hot flavored liquid. Like that ubiquitous, jiggly dessert, though, everything in this recipe needs time to settle and firm up. So, while actually making all of the various components takes very little time, you'll still need about an hour and a half to two hours to let the layers solidify slightly.


So what did my taste testers think? Well, they were all big fans of the flavors (except one who really doesn't like lime). The coconut did get lost a bit between the heavy sweetness of the banana and the sour citrus on top, but the texture helped lighten up what could have easily turned into a brick of sugar. The three layers combined to create a loose, pudding like mouthfeel that when scooped up with some of the plantains sprinkled with cayenne definitely becomes something more than the sum of its parts. The two suggestions I'd make if you're going to attempt this dish, are to be liberal with the cayenne in both the papaya salad and the plantains, and to make a lot of plantains. If for no other reason than they're delicious.


Caymanian Plantain Dessert

Caramelized Bananas

½ cup heavy cream (35% fat)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
Water, as needed
2 large bananas, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1. In a heavy saucepan, combine the cream, one tablespoon sugar and molasses. Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and reserve.

2. In a second saucepan, carefully cook two tablespoons sugar and water to cover over medium heat until it produces a light amber color.

3. Reduce the heat and add the bananas, followed by the cream mixture. Over low heat, slowly cook down to a thickened consistency, stirring often to avoid scorching, for about five minutes.

4. Remove from the heat and cool. Stir in the butter until evenly distributed.

5. Divide the mixture among serving glasses and chill until firm, about 20 minutes.

Coconut Panna Cotta

¾ cup heavy cream (35% fat)
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 leaves sheet gelatin, bloomed and squeezed of excess water
¾ cup coconut cream or coconut milk

1. Combine cream and sugar. Gently heat to dissolve. Remove from heat and add the bloomed gelatin.

2. Add the coconut cream. Thoroughly mix with an immersion blender.

3. Deposit into the serving glasses on top of the caramelized banana mixture. Chill until set, about 30 minutes.

Lime Cream

2 eggs
¾ cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons lime juice
6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. In a heavy saucepan, whisk together the eggs and sugar, then add the lime juice.

2. On medium heat, stir constantly until mixture reaches a boil. Remove from heat.

3. Allow the mixture to cool, then emulsify the butter into a cream using a whisk or an immersion blender.

4. Once cooled, but still fluid, divide about half of the mixture among the serving dishes, creating a thin layer on top of the set coconut panna cotta. Refrigerate at least 20 minutes until loosely set.

Orange-Papaya Salad

¼ cup orange juice
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 cup fresh papaya, peeled, cored and small-diced

1. In a saucepan over medium heat, gently reduce the orange juice to roughly one tablespoon.

2. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and a pinch of cayenne pepper to taste.

3. Add the diced papaya and toss to combine. Transfer to a small bowl and allow to cool completely.

Plantain Chips

Vegetable or corn oil, as needed
½ plantain, peeled and very thinly sliced
Fine sea salt, as needed
Cayenne pepper, as needed

1. Rinse the plantain slices in cold water and thoroughly pat dry on paper towels.

2. Fill a heavy saucepan with oil (no more than halfway), and heat the oil to 350°F.

3. In small batches, carefully add the plantain slices to the oil and fry until light golden brown, about three to four minutes. Remove from the oil, drain on paper towels and lightly season with salt and cayenne pepper.

To Serve

Cilantro leaves, as needed (optional)

1. Remove the previously layered and chilled serving dishes from the refrigerator. Divide the papaya mixture among the individual desserts and finish with a few plantain chips and cilantro leaves, as desired.

This recipe and others can be found in Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson.