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Eater Elements: Pizzeria Mozza's Butterscotch Budino

Welcome to Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy dishes.

Pizzeria Mozza pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez calls her now-legendary Butterscotch Budino "kind of a fluke." Someone suggested butterscotch pudding when she, chef Nancy Silverton, and the Mozza team were first planning the dessert menu at the LA restaurant, and the budino was added to the opening menu as a sort of "placeholder." That doesn't mean it wasn't carefully considered. The dish had to be inspired by Italian desserts and had to be as approachable as the pizzeria. A creamy budino — which Narvaez explains means a pudding, either bread or cream-based — was a natural fit. She developed a rosemary pine nut cookie to pair with the pudding in order to bring sophistication to the plate. Now, several years later, the Butterscotch Budino is a staple of the Pizzeria Mozza menu.

While some of the flavor combinations of the dessert are unexpected (rosemary, caramel, pine nuts), the heart of the dish is the creamy texture and the deep caramel flavors, set in contrast to a crunchy sprinkle of salt. "I don't know anyone who hasn't had a good caramel and salt experience," says Narvaez. Eater LA editor Kat Odell explains how the dish has impacted the Los Angeles dessert scene:

"Beauty in simplicity is a lesson learned via Mozza's Butterscotch Budino, a dessert now iconic to the city of Los Angeles ? the dessert has inspired chefs across the city with their own renditions. Gjelina in Venice does a butterscotch pot de crème, meanwhile Farmshop at the Brentwood Country Mart serves a butterscotch pudding. Similar dishes are also on offer at Jar, Craig's, and E. Baldi."Below, the elements of Pizzeria Mozza's Butterscotch Budino:

1. The Pudding

To start the butterscotch pudding, Narvaez begins by making caramel. She explains that she actually "burns" dark brown sugar as she heats it with water and salt. Her goal is to create a caramel that's "dark" and has "smoky flavor." She knows when the caramel is done because her "eyes start to water because there's so much smoke." She then adds cool dairy; both whole cream and whole milk. She chose to add both because it adds even more "richness and creaminess" to the final pudding, and cream in particular adds viscosity and thickness. The cool dairy makes the sugar in the caramel seize, so then it is melted over heat, creating the basic pudding. In a separate bowl, Narvaez combines eggs, cornstarch, and then incorporates the caramel pudding base. The eggs add "silkiness" to the pudding, and the mixture helps set the milk and cream and also acts as a binder. Just before the mixture is poured into dessert cups to chill, Narvaez whisks in butter and Old Smuggler Scotch. She chose Old Smuggler for its "notes of cereal, honey, and sugar cookie" (plus it's "reasonably priced"). She strains the pudding to ensure a smooth texture, removing any egg particles or bits that might have cooked in the process. The pudding is chilled for several hours.

2. The Sauce

The caramel sauce that tops the budino is always served warm because Narvaez like the temperature contrast. She combines dark brown sugar, corn syrup, water, and vanilla bean and cooks until the caramel is amber colored. To finish the sauce, Narvaez adds butter and cream which stops the sugars from cooking further.

3. The Toppings

The budino is topped with whipped cream and sea salt. Narvaez says that the whipped cream is "one of the hardest things to learn in my kitchen" in part because she's so particular about it. "The budino is such a signature of ours, it's got to be right," she explains. Narvaez begins by whipping cream, and then adds crème fraîche and whips the mixture to medium-soft peaks. She explains that the "tang" of the crème fraîche cuts through the sweetness of the dish, while the topping also adds another layer of creaminess.

The finishing touch of the budino is a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt. Narvaez says she decided to go with Maldon because it's a favorite of Silverton's and the other cooks in the restaurant. She also notes that its large flakes add "a nice crunch." Salt "rounds out" and "enhances" the flavors of the dish, and Narvaez calls it an "underrated" ingredient in pastry.

4. The Cookies

The budino is served with rosemary pine nut cookies. While creating the pudding was "easy," the cookies "were the hard part." In her effort to develop a cookie that felt Italian, but was also small enough to fit on the plate, Narvaez cycled through self-proclaimed "hideous" test batches that included cookies in the shape of M's. The cookie she settled on is made from two components: cookie dough and nougatine topping.

She begins with nougatine. Narvaez toasts pine nuts and puts them in a bowl with fresh rosemary so they take on the herb's flavor. She then creates a caramel, adding cream, honey, sugar, vanilla bean seeds, and butter. She adds all purpose flour, the pine nuts, and a sprig of rosemary. The mixture then chills.

The cookie itself is inspired by shortbread. Narvaez decided to add Anson Mills polenta to the dough, which also includes unsalted butter, cream, powdered sugar, and flour. She finds that polenta adds texture and "toothiness" to the cookie, and stresses that any way to get texture into a dessert is critical. She chills the dough before baking it to give it the chance to set which allows the cookie a pristine, rounded edge. Before baking, Narvaez adds a bit of the pine nut rosemary nougatine to the top of the cookie. By sitting the nougatine atop the cookie, Narvaez ends up with a contrast between the sticky texture and the caramelized, pine nut flavors of the topping and the crisp, chewy baked shortbread.

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