Black cumin has a long and distinguished history. The seeds have been found in Tutankhamen's tomb, and the prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, "I have heard the Messenger of Allah, saying that the black granules . . . [are] the remedy for all diseases except death."
It's not entirely clear what black cumin is, though. Wikipedia has two entries for it: Bunium persicum, also known as black cumin, blackseed, and black caraway; and Nigella sativa, also called fennel flower, nutmeg flower, black caraway, Roman coriander, and black cumin. And those are just the English names: if you start looking at similarities in the names of the two species in Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Bengali, or dozens of other Asian languages, things just get more confusing.
According to Wikipedia, Bunium persicum, which is related to regular cumin, is the true black cumin. Nigella sativa, however, is more common—especially in black cumin seed oil, which is sold as a health supplement (it's an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and is rumored to cure pancreatic cancer). That's what Chris Teixeira, pastry chef at West Town Bakery and Homestead, used when challenged by Joseph Rose (Lockwood) with black cumin.
Nigella sativa tastes nothing like regular cumin, Teixeira said (nor is it related botanically). Instead of smoky notes, it has earthy, chocolatey, coffee notes, and it's very bitter when untoasted; toasting mellows the flavor, but doesn't eliminate the bitterness.
Teixeira first tried making a brittle with the tiny seeds. Big mistake. "I was cooking it with the sugar, and it started exploding everywhere, so there was hot sugar flying around the kitchen for a minute," he said. "It was like a death challenge."
Instead, he used the spice in a cheese course, pairing it with roasted and candied pumpkin, spice bread, and aged goat cheese. "I tried cumin that we're used to, and that was fantastic." But then he tried substituting the same amount of black cumin, and "that was kind of a horrible mistake," he said. So he dialed back the quantity, using the nigella as a "back note" for the pumpkin, "where the pumpkin is kind of the star and you definitely get the black cumin at the end."
Teixeira cut a pumpkin into wedges and tossed it with toasted, ground black cumin along with oil, salt, and pepper before roasting it until it was charred. He then threw it into a food processor, skin and all, to make a thick puree, and finished it with Banyuls wine vinegar. The black cumin also went into the candied pumpkin: pumpkin discs vacuum-sealed with maple syrup, salt and pepper, and more toasted black cumin and baked in a 160-degree oven. And Teixeira used whole black cumin seeds in a pain d'epices—spice bread with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and allspice. "I used a pretty hefty amount just because I wanted to cut through all the spices," he said.
The bread and two kinds of pumpkin accompanied a Vermont goat cheese aged for ten days in ash; the dish was topped with fried pumpkin seeds and nasturtium flowers and the plate drizzled with pumpkin-seed oil. "The first thing you taste is the cheese—it's pretty pungent," Teixeira said. "Pumpkin comes next. Black cumin . . . adds an earthy note to it." He was so happy with the dish that he decided to put it on the fall menu at Homestead, black cumin and all.
Patrick Fahy, pastry chef at Sixteen, working with quince. The fruit is coming into season now, Teixeira said, and has a texture similar to pears or apples. "It's not really consumable raw. It kind of has a fibrous taste, very astringent. Most applications it's cooked."
Black Cumin Roasted Pumpkin Puree
4 oz olive oil
2 t salt
1 t black pepper, freshly ground
1&frac; T toasted, coarsely ground black cumin
1 T Banyuls vinegar
Remove stem of pumpkin and cut in half. Remove seeds and cut into wedges. Place on baking pan and drizzle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and cumin. Toss and place in 375 degree oven for one hour. Remove from oven and cool. Place in robo coupe or food processor, skin on, and blend till smooth. Before serving heat on stove and add vinegar after removing from heat.
Maple Candied Pumpkin
20 one-inch discs cut from slices of pumpkin
5 oz pure maple syrup
1 t salt
½ t freshly ground pepper
1½ t toasted black cumin, ground
Punch out pumpkin discs and place in cryovac bag. Add maple syrup, salt, pepper, and cumin. Cryovac and place in oven at 170 degrees for about 25-30 minutes or until tender but not mushy.
910 g all-purpose flour
120 g rye flour
5 t baking soda
3 t cinnamon
3 t ground ginger
1 t salt
½ t nutmeg, freshly ground
½ t allspice
½ t black pepper, freshly ground
27 g toasted ground black cumin
110 g unsalted butter, softened
200 g molasses
280 g maple syrup
200 g honey
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray and flour half hotel pan. Combine all dry ingredients and set aside. Mix softened butter with eggs, molasses, maple syrup, and honey. Slowly add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, adding the water last. Pour into pan and smooth out top to make the cake even. Bake for 30-40 minutes until firm to the touch and dark brown. Remove from pan, cool, and freeze. Slice as thinly as possible. Place on sheet tray and bake at 195 degrees until crisp like a cracker.
Fried Pumpkin Seed
7 oz raw pumpkin seeds
Salt and pepper to taste
Fry seeds in vegetable oil till popped and slightly golden brown, then sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Pumpkin seed oil
Aged goat cheese
Drizzle pumpkin-seed oil on a plate. Arrange dollops of roasted pumpkin puree next to clusters of goat cheese and candied pumpkin discs. Top with shards of pain d'epices toast, fried pumpkin seeds, and edible flower garnish.