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Zafra

301 Willow Ave. Hoboken, NJ 07030

(201) 610-9801

After leaving Cuba, Maricel Presilla traveled in Europe, where the castles of Spain inspired her to pursue a Ph.D. in medieval history. She taught medieval history at Rutgers University for a while, but realized her real passion lie with food and food history, so she started a restaurant with two colleagues.

I met Presilla while working on an article for The World & I entitled "The Chocolate Revolution." As a chocolate importer (she has many hats), Presilla was suggested as a good source of information. That was an understatement. In fact, she was working on a book for Ten Speed Press entitled The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao and was a wealth of information and supplied many of the photos.

A few months later, I met Presilla at Zafra, her restaurant in Hoboken, New Jersey, for a fantastic lunch. (The word zafra refers to the wind blowing through the sugarcane fields of Cuba.) Everything was made from scratch. The restaurant menu is a compendium of childhood Cuban cuisine accented with the best food from her travels in Central and South America.

Here is a sampling of what we dined on for lunch: a refreshing limonada, fried yucca with a cilantro dip, skirt steak marinated in Seville oranges and lime juice, and delicious empanadas. Dessert was chocolate flan instead of her signature chocolate creme brulee served in a coffee cup, but that only means I will have to return or pray she opens a restaurant in D.C.

Chocolate espresso brulées
       

For these creamy brulées, Maricel Presilla was inspired by the Cuban cortadito--a dark espresso toned down with a little frothy milk. Like the cortadito, these are a perfect end to a meal when served in 4-ounce commercial demitasse cups or ceramic ramekins and topped with crushed cacao nibs. Makes nine 4-ounce coffee brulées. (Used by permission of Maricel Presilla.)

1 whole egg
4 egg yolks
2 oz. sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
2 cinnamon sticks
3 star anise pods
1 vanilla bean, split open
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup dark espresso
8 oz. milk chocolate (preferably El Rey's Caoba or Valrhona's Jivara)

     or a bittersweet chocolate ( El Rey's Bucare, Scharffen Berger 60 percent,

     or Guittard Onyx), chopped fine
1 cup white sugar
cacao nibs (preferably Scharffen Berger)

       
To make the chocolate espresso cream: Preheat oven to 335*F. Whisk the whole egg, egg yolks, and half the sugar together; set the mixture aside. In a saucepan, bring to a simmer the heavy cream, milk, and the rest of the sugar, cinnamon, star anise, vanilla beans, vanilla extract, and espresso. Remove the cinnamon sticks, star anise, and vanilla bean.

Turn off the heat and add the chopped chocolate. As it melts, whisk to combine. Do not overwhip! Gradually stir the warm chocolate mixture into the whisked eggs and combine thoroughly.
       
To bake the coffee brulées:Strain the mixture into a beaked container and pour into nine 4-ounce demitasse cups or ramekins. Place the cups or ramekins in a large baking pan. Place the pan in the middle rack of the preheated oven, and fill the pan with very hot water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake at 335*F for 35 minutes or until set.
       
To caramelize the topping: Cool the ramekins to room temperature. Sprinkle each one with a little white sugar. Caramelize the sugar with a chef's torch or under a broiler. Sprinkle about one-half teaspoon cacao nibs over the caramelized topping while still hot.
       
Captions: Top: Owner Maricel Presilla (left) with co-owner Clara Chaumont. Bottom: Specializing in Cuban and other Central and South American cuisines, Zafra in Hoboken, New Jersey, is one of only a few "real" restaurants on the East Coast.