Sichuan pepper, Szechwan pepper or Szechuan pepper, however you spell it, is a spice often used in Asian and specifically Chinese cooking. It is an essential component of five spice powder and is a well known pairing with incredible amounts of scorching hot chillis. The combination of Sichuan pepper and chilli is almost symbiotic, the Sichuan pepper numbs your mouth allowing for even more chilli heat.
But the Sichuan pepper is not related to either black pepper or chilli peppers. The 'peppercorns' are the seed husks of the Prickly Ash, a relative of the citrus tree. You can taste this relation by taking a husk and placing it on your tongue. It has an intensely floral and citrus taste followed by that famous numbing sensation. The numbing sensation reminded me a bit of the cooling sensation from a strong mint, which is why I decided to make some peppermints flavoured with a touch of Sichuan pepper.
I wanted a mint you could suck on without it disintegrating immediately and nibble on without breaking your teeth. I ended up adapting a recipe by famous Dutch restaurant De Librije, which appeared in an edition of the Culinaire Saisonnier.
- 580 grams of sugar
- 16.5 grams of glucose syrup (I made my own by boiling dextrose with water until it made a thick syrup)
- 200 ml water
- 200 grams of confectioner sugar
- 6 drops of peppermint oil
- 1 teaspoon of finely ground Sichuan pepper
Start by dry roasting some Sichuan pepper, making sure you remove any twigs and seeds. It only takes a minute or two but it releases all those fantastic aromas. Now pulverize the pepper in a pestle or food processor. Don't worry if you can't get it extremely fine, just sieve it to get some of the finely ground powder.
Put the sugar (not the confectioners), glucose syrup and water in a pan with a thick bottom. Now boil it until it reaches 123 degrees celcius (a sugar thermometer is very handy). You are at the low end of hardball stage. So if you drop a bit of the syrup in cold water and take it out it will form a ball without flattening but you can still easily squish it with your fingers.
Now take it off the heat and add the confectioners sugar. it will form an opaque paste. Now it is flavouring time, start with a couple of drops of peppermint and taste (take a bit out and cool it for a second). The Librije recipe added 2 drops for this amount but my peppermint oil really needed at least 6 drops to get the flavour right. Now add the Sichuan pepper, I used about a teaspoon to get the flavour effect without it being overwhelming.
The original recipe is for peppermint shards, which you get by simply spreading the paste on a stone surface (in my case a diligently cleaned segment of the floor) dusted with some more confectioners sugar. Now shards are not my preferred peppermint shape so I also tried out a couple of different shapes. One is a traditional round shape made by spreading the paste over a fondant shape mould.
I still had some left after the shard and mould methods, so I just broke off some of the hot paste (asphalt hands are an asset here) and shaped them into roundish very handmade but mouth friendly rocks.
After about 10 minutes drying time you can pop out the round peppermints from the mould and you can lift the big slab of the ground. This slap breaks easily into the shards you want.
The mints I made ended up with a sophisticated peppermint flavour with just the right amount of floral and citrus notes. The numbing and cooling effect is subtle but noticeable especially after you finished the mint. Especially if you suck on the mint for an extended time you will notice the roof of your mouth feeling a bit numb. They would probably also make very good soothing mints if you have a sore throat .
They will store for weeks (and quite frankly probably months) if you keep them dry. Though I don't think they will make it that long. You will probably also end up with some smaller peppermint grit, don't throw this away as it is an excellent addition to some chocolate ice cream.