Frightening fire, in a super-hot pepper

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Ghost Pepper-Pear Jam

Makes 2 half-pints

The heat for this jam comes from the Bhut Jolokia, the scorching Indian chili often called the ghost pepper. Wear protective kitchen gloves — and avoid touching your face — while handling the peppers.

2½ cups pears, peeled, cored and finely chopped

1 cup water

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon seeded and minced Bhut Jolokia chili peppers (see headnote)

3 tablespoons low-sugar pectin

⅔ cup sugar

Sterilize 2 half-pint jars and lids according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Keep them in warm water until ready to use.

Combine the pear, water, lemon juice and Bhut Jolokia in a large saucepan over medium heat. Gradually stir in the pectin and increase the temperature to high. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring constantly.

Add the sugar and return the mixture to a boil. Keep stirring for a full minute at a rolling boil, then remove the saucepan from the heat. Skim off foam as necessary.

Ladle the hot jam into the warm sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch of head space at the top, and let the jam cool to room temperature. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate.

To preserve the jam, fill a large stock pot with enough water to cover the jars by 2 inches and bring it to a boil over high heat. Add the jam to the jars, leaving ¼ inch of head space. Wipe the jars clean of any spilled jam. Affix the lids and tighten the bands securely, but not too tightly. Use tongs to transfer the filled jars to the boiling water. Boil for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the pot lid and let the jars sit for at least 5 minutes. If the jam has been properly preserved, the lids should not move when pressed.

The bright red pepper has a shriveled appearance, as if a bulbous clown nose had somehow wilted into a long, twisted witch's beak. Between its wrinkly complexion and its nasty reputation, the Bhut Jolokia, better known as the ghost pepper, generates fear and fascination. YouTube is littered with videos of bros pumped up enough to eat a whole one -- only to crumple to the floor, pounding down milk.

When I cut into my first ghost pepper recently -- while wearing food-safe gloves, at the urging of practically everyone who has an opinion on the subject -- I was first struck by the aroma. My kitchen was filled with the sweet, tropical fragrance of passion fruit. You quickly learn that the aroma is a trap, designed to entice the innocent and ignorant into tasting the pepper. You will almost certainly regret any attempt to eat the fiery fruit straight up, with seeds and ribs.

I tried a small seedless dice of the pepper, approximately the size of a pea, and within seconds, my right eye was streaming tears down my cheek, my nostrils were dripping and, worst of all, I began to hiccup uncontrollably. Milk provided little relief, until the burn began to subside on its own some 10 minutes later.

The Bhut Jolokia is one of a rare breed of peppers: The nonprofit Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, N.M., calls them, without any whiff of comedic hyperbole, "super-hot" peppers. Believe it or not, these freak-show specimens are slowly creeping into some farmers markets.

I've seen super-hot chilies at D.C.-area markets, where heat seekers sometimes treat the peppers more like schoolyard dares than take-home produce -- just the latest example of that seemingly never-ending human desire to try to eat fire.

Lana Edelen, co-owner of Homestead Farm in Faulkner, Md., once had a customer approach her stand at a market and stare at the colorful carnival of hot peppers for sale -- not just Bhut Jolokias, but their cousin, the similarly piquant Dorset Naga, as well as Trinidad Scorpions, Jamaican Hot Chocolates and Habanero Caribbean Reds. "He said nothing was hotter than a habanero," Edelen recalls. You can almost hear her sigh over the phone at the man's arrogance.

So Edelen cut open one of her flamethrowers and offered a piece to the man, but with a neighborly warning. "It's hot," she told him. "I'm telling you beforehand." He popped a piece into his mouth and told Edelen, "It ain't too bad. There ain't no heat yet," she remembers.

"Then all of a sudden he was looking for something to eat," she adds. An hour later, she spotted him again and "his teeth and lips were still on fire."

To some, Edelen's anecdote would be a cautionary tale. To others, it's a come-hither "Body Heat" signal of seduction. But before anyone attempts this new daredevil stunt, they should know something important: Some of these super-hot peppers can be twice as fiery as the habaneros and Scotch bonnets often used in hot sauces.

To join the elite class of super-hots, peppers must register an average level of 1 million Scoville heat units in replicated, scientifically controlled trials. To give you some point of comparison, a common jalapeno tops out, depending on what source is cited, at 10,000 SHUs. Habaneros and Scotch bonnets can range from 100,000 to 350,000 SHUs.

At present, only a handful of peppers are members of the super-hot class. Aside from the ghost pepper (an average of 1,019,687 SHUs), the other ultra-hotties include the Trinidad Scorpion (1,029,271 SHUs); Trinidad 7-Pot Jonah (1,066,882 SHUs); Douglah Trinidad Chocolate (1,169,058 SHUs); and the mother of all tongue-

destroying peppers, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (1,207,764 SHUs), according to a recently published Chile Pepper Institute scientific study. Two Trinidad Moruga Scorpion plants in the study topped 2 million SHUs.

This desperate chase for the world's hottest pepper -- and whatever commercial applications it may hold for the record holder -- is a separate issue, of course, from the people who want to consume them. You might be shocked to learn that not all consumers are heat junkies looking for their next starring role as a human test dummy in a YouTube video.

The reason Homestead Farm entered the hot pepper market was pure and simple consumer demand.

Since 1992, Homestead Farm has tapped into an African market that desires foods from back home. Almost every day, Edelen says, customers come to pick sweet potato leaves, "garden egg" fruits, jute leaves or hot peppers. At first, Lana and her husband, Joseph, started planting more moderately spicy varieties, such as cayenne and jalapenos, before graduating to Scotch bonnets. Nothing was hot enough for their African customers, however, until the couple began planting ghost peppers and Jamaican Hot Chocolates and even Trinidad Scorpions.

"I have people from Africa who buy them," she says. "I have people from Jamaica who buy them."

Which brings us back to an issue that Lester raised: Do these carpet bombs for the mouth fit into dishes that are actually consumed by people with functioning palates? Danise Coon, a senior research specialist for New Mexico State University and program coordinator for the institute, thinks "some of these are completely inedible. … They're not for food consumption, that's for sure." Then again, Coon notes that the institute sells a brownie mix, Dr. B's Bhut-Kickin' Brownies, made with ghost peppers. You can buy the product online.

Coon says the brownie mix includes only about a teaspoon of ground Bhut Jolokia powder, which is key. To use these peppers in the kitchen, you have to temper their heat and find a way to emphasize their other qualities, such as the floral, fruity aromas of the ghost pepper.