There is something about fresh chili peppers with berries. Fresh, ripe, red chilies are fruity and, for lack of a better word, exotic when you get beyond their heat. Depending on the variety of chili—and there are so many—you can get notes of citrus, red wine, dried fruit, smokiness, and so much more. Green ones have a crisp, grassy taste, almost like that of an over ripened green bell pepper that’s been picked fresh right from your garden. But those red ones… Those are the ruby jewels of my kitchen. I’ll put them in damn near anything I can, from something Thai or Italian-inspired, with seafood, beans, pasta, BBQ sauces, and even Carbonara (sacrilege!), but I think their true beauty shines when you take them to the sweeter side.
Boil some sugar and water with a bunch of fresh minced cayenne chilies (let’s say, for argument sake, 4 parts sugar, 3 parts water, and around half part minced cayennes) until the sugar dissolves, cool it down and pour in over cold vanilla or chocolate ice cream or slices of pound cake (and, ya know, whipped cream). Melt some butter with minced cayenne chilies, cool, steep and strain into a double boiler where you can melt some good dark chocolate for a mousse or brownies. A dried chipotle or ancho steeped in cream for a Mexican Hot Chocolate Ice Cream base adds a subtle warmth with a smokiness that somehow makes you feel as though you’re drinking a piping mug of hot chocolate even though it came straight from the freezer. I’m just thinking out loud here, but can you imagine a pineapple upside down cake with minced red chilies mixed in with the brown sugar-butter sauce the pineapple gets nestled in?
And sweet doesn’t have to mean dessert. Apricot preserves with fresh red chilies or chili flakes, thinned slightly with a little vinegar, is a great glaze for a roasted chicken or pork loin. Chicken that’s been braising in a mix of browned onion, sliced peaches and white wine can instantly get a lift from the precipice of being too sweet with some minced fiery red chilies sprinkled in. A homemade fruit or berry-based barbecue sauce can be too sweet, even with an array of savory ingredients added, so that burst of fire can keep that balance in check.
And here we are back to berries. Different berries obviously have different flavor profiles but they share similar qualities of sweet, fruity and a little sour. The heat of the chilies can bring out the fruity and winey flavors of the berries. One of my favorite ways to combine berries with chili is to heat some raspberries with a pinch of sugar and a red chili that you’ve split open. Cook it until the berries burst and the sugar dissolves, strain it out and pour it back into the saucepan. Toss in blueberries, sliced strawberries, and more raspberries (or blackberries) until they’re all coated and spoon over meringues before topping with a puffy cloud of whipped cream.
This sorbet, though, takes the cake. I had a ghost pepper raspberry sorbet at the Ann Arbor Art Fair last summer and it was fantastic. I wish I remembered the name of the makers of it because they deserve all the credit. Raspberries are so fruity and slightly tart and the heat from a chili not only helps to accentuate it but also provides a good contrasting foil to them. Even though ghost peppers are known for their blinding, engulfing heat, you don’t really get that here. There’s a lingering, almost throaty warmth to it that almost reminds me of cinnamon flavored gum or candy. It slowly creeps in as the sorbet melts in your mouth and down your throat, as the initial sweetness and intensity of the raspberries subsides. Given that Halloween is upon us I think the timing for sharing this recipe is perfect (get it… ghost pepper? It’s okay—I’ll laugh for the both of us).
Split the Ghost pepper in half lengthwise (wear gloves so you don’t get any capsaicin on your fingers that you’ll inevitably end up in rubbing into your eye later) and mix it with some sugar and water. Bring it to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Let it steep in the pan until completely cooled—about one hour—before straining through a fine-mesh sieve. If you taste it now it may seem like it’s a bit too hot and spicy and might overpower the berries but don’t worry. As with sweetness in a frozen dessert, you want the heat from the chili to be a little stronger than you might prefer because the intensity is numbed a little when it gets to such a low temperature.
Here’s where you have some options. If you don’t mind a bunch of seeds in your sorbet you can freeze the raspberries (or buy frozen berries), get the syrup really cold (and I mean really cold) and then puree them together with a little lime juice in the food processor until it’s all smooth. Immediately transfer it to a storage container and freeze until it has hardened up. No need for pulling out the ice cream machine for any churning.
Personally, I like to keep it smooth and silky so I puree the berries, strain them through a sieve to catch the seeds, and then mix with the syrup and lime juice before turning out into my ice cream maker. To add just a little bit of texture to it, I throw a small handful of berries that I held back from pureeing into the machine when the sorbet is perfectly churned.
Stash it in the freezer for at least 4 hours before serving. Even after days in the freezer, the syrup keeps it soft enough that there’s no reason to defrost it before you dig in.