Monday, November 19, 2007

Foaming at the mouth!

I don't feel like I did any cooking today, it felt more like I was back in high school chemistry playing around with stuff, only difference is we got to eat our creations.

Jason Santos came in to teach us a little about molecular gastronomy, a subject that a lot of the chefs have had strong opinions on, with most of them agreeing that its 'stupid' (to paraphrase). While I see their point, I still think it's interesting to view food from a purely scientific, play with your food way and enjoyed messing around with assumptions and traditions, all in the name of fun.

We made coconut and mango sunny-side up eggs, carrot cheese noodles in soup and strawberry caviar with cold coffee espuma over donut pancakes. The oddest part was that although we were creating food, none of it seemed remotely food related. Chemicals, testing consistency, blending, it was all very clinical.

Using chemicals all found in nature (or so he said) we changed up some ideas and flavors, it was a little like playing with edible play-doh.

For sunny-side up eggs, we used coconut milk boiled and pureed with carageenan and xanthan gum. Once it was poured out onto the dishes, the mixture set up very quickly, taking on the shape of the pour and setting up an 'egg white' for our eggs. Jason, to match the compliment the flavor of the coconut, had us use mango juice for the yolk. This had a longer process, but came out with very cool results. Using mango juice blended with a boiled mix of alginate and citrate, we dropped little spoonfuls of the cooled mix into diluted calcium chloride. The reaction between the chemicals allowed the mango to become a little sphere, encased by a very delicate skin of it's own juices. It's almost like how an egg yolk is kept together using a thin invisible membrane, the mango mixture reacts with the solution to form a membrane. Jason mentioned that the longer you left it in, the firmer the outside (and eventually inside) would become. We decided to leave ours in for a little while so they wouldn't break apart when we took it out and rinsed off the chemicals in a water bath.

When everything was set and ready to plate, it was unnerving to see the mango yolk sitting on the coconut egg white, the two elements together really did look like an egg. It was a fun little mind and taste trick - I think if someone just cracked into it not knowing that it wasn't a real egg, they would have been shocked. Unfortunately, it certainly looked a lot better than it tasted, although part of the reason may have been that we used mango juice instead of puree and coconut milk instead of the thicker (and fattier) coconut cream. If we had used the more concentrated, thicker textures of both I think it would have had a much stronger and more vibrant taste. I just don't know what you'd use it for.

Carrot cheese noodles sounded pretty gross to me from the beginning and it wasn't really a visual trick either, it was a very strange texture and flavor change. The final result was to have the carrot noodles in a dashi broth. I didn't really understand the rationale behind this, because it's not as though cream cheese and carrots are a natural flavor pairing to dashi, a traditional Japanese broth. When we had finished making the dish, it certainly looked beautiful because of the bright orange contrast to the translucent brown broth, but it tasted just awful to me.

After boiling some methyl cellulose and carrot juice, the mixture was added to softened cream cheese and simultaneously whisked and cooled to 50 degrees. Once it was ready, the batch was transfered to a squeeze bottle and squeezed into the dashi in long, bright orange strands. The noodles were soft and slippery and didn't have much structure--if you tried to pick one up with chopsticks, it just felt apart. This was a fun trick and would probably work great with some other noodle/soup combinations, but this one didn't work for me.

The donut pancakes with strawberry caviar and espresso espuma was a disaster for our group. The technique for the strawberry caviar was very similar to that of the mango egg yolk. I blended and strained fresh strawberries to make a juice that could be combined with a sodium alginate solution. Once the mixture was cooled, we tried to use a squeeze bottle to create droplets of the strawberry stuff into a calcium chloride bath, hoping it would create the same protective membrane it did on the mango juice. Unfortunately, somewhere between measuring out the ingredients and dropping it into the calcium chloride bath, the juice mix became too thick making it difficult to get nicely rounded droplets. Instead, because of our thicker liquid, the droplets all developed little drop tails, making our caviar look much more like pink tadpoles.

Both the coffee espuma (or foam) and donut pancakes weren't as scientific as I thought it would be: the espuma was mostly just coffee with gelatin squeezed out of a spray can, while the donut pancakes weren't anything 'usual' at all, just pancake batter made with donuts. I don't know where I got the crazy idea that we'd be using strange anti-heating devices or something, probably just a result of my overactive imagination. Funnily enough, I thought the least molecular of the foods we made today were the best. The pancake batter was a great twist on an old standard, and I liked the play on words Jason did by adding the coffee foam to make coffee and pancakes.

Today was a fun day, but I couldn't help but feel that all of it came at the expense of flavor. None of the foods that were made with chemicals had anywhere near the same levels of flavor intensity as (1) the real thing or (2) the foods made with no chemicals. It really just reinforced the idea that molecular gastronomy was a trend, fashionable because it's unusual but it does nothing to add to the overall craft of cookery. On the food trend scale, I'd probably rank this well below fondue, at least that still had the taste of good food.

If I had the chance to work with these things again, and I'd love to, I'd really try and use extremely flavorful ingredients to help intensify the flavors. I don't know if it was because we didn't use ingredients with concentrated flavors or if it was the addition of chemicals, all I know was everything tasted slimy and faintly of a food I sort of knew.