Saturday, 3 November 2012

ITKP: "An Introduction to Molecular Gastronomy and Molecular Cooking"

clockwise from right: strawberry on top of chocolate mayo, asparagus on top of hollandaise, raspberries on top of dark chocolate mousse, asparagus on top of sauce kientzheim; plate also with mayonnaise-- all created with the molecular technique of emulsification
Many months ago, I discovered chocolate Chantilly ("invented" by the father of modern gastronomy, Hervé This; some recognise him as MG's godfather) and it forever changed the way I viewed chocolate. On some level of the culinary universe, bringing together chocolate and water is like creating a hybrid community from two competing subcultures. Okay, maybe this discovery wasn't all that dramatic, but it was amazing and is now relatively impressive that understanding the science behind food can aid in its transformation and the redefinition of relationships between foods that usually don't get along. This relationship with food--as presented as the kickstarter to our Food and Culture Colloquium's November focus on the intersection of food and the liberal arts--was the highlight to our fourth In the Kitchen Practicum.

Of the different tips shared throughout this practicum, perhaps the most important I highlighted and will overtly emphasize here before sharing what we cooked up is to not confuse "molecular gastronomy" (the science) and "molecular cooking" (the actual act of cooking). [As I see it, it is not a new-age term that combines culinary arts and culinary science as suggested here.] If those simplified definitions aren't self-explanatory enough, I highly encourage you to read this article, or to watch the above lecture which features Hervé. While the confusion does exist or at least arguably muddled, "molecular cuisine" kits do exist and help to merge the gastronomy with the cooking. For the purposes of this post, I find it important to note that we applied our understanding of molecular gastronomy (specifically the technique of emulsification because it's a technique that does not require special chemicals) to "cook" at the molecular level (though, it's hard to not admit the intrigue of these photos or to be in awe of these videos).

It's perhaps important to qualify my quotations around the word cook. As suggested by Jonathan Mandell in this article, cooking takes on many meanings, and the way I've made meaning of cooking is in viewing cooking as the preparation (usually a transformation) of one ingredient or group of ingredients into a different state of being. By some folks' definition, cooking requires heat to aid in this transformation whereas some may see cooking as assembling, thereby considering the composing of a salad to be cooking. I make this distinction as some of the dishes that we made required direct heat whereas others, on some molecular level brought about indirect heat (friction between molecules, I posit) and/or break up molecules into tinier and tinier pieces thereby altering the entire composition of our ingredients altogether. Indeed, molecular gastronomy and its associated techniques tend to confuse one or more of our senses (or at least the identities of food and how we relate to them) in this manner. Hmmm, so with this very basic explanation of molecular gastronomy, let's get to some molecular cooking!

After getting two small bowls and two larger bowls filled with ice into the freezer, I began melting two types of dark chocolate (Dove's and Lindt's) into two separate bowls over a pot of simmering water (i.e., double boiler action). Noticed it was missing after the fact, we added 1/3 c water to each bowl; clearly, this was the goof up of the day, but we were able to save it just in time. Be sure to add the chocolate to the warming water (i.e., water first and then chocolate), and try not to let the chocolate touch the bowl unless it's touching the water or let the chocolate sit unstirred for too long; otherwise, the chocolate will burn. Once melted, take out your bowls, nestling the smaller bowl onto the larger one with ice, and transfer the melted chocolate into the smaller bowl. Then, whisk like mad to incorporate as much air into the chocolate as possible as it cools. What you should get is something of a pudding consistency; and you know things have gone right if this happens within about 10 minutes.

We noticed the chocolat Chantilly didn't turn out exactly as it should have, as the chocolate ended up looking like my initial run-through which yielded a pot de crème consistency than the lighter, creamier form I was expecting; at this point, I contribute that to the low amount of cocoa fat because we used very dark chocolate with a high cacao ratio, as well as the chocolate cooling down too quickly with little air whipped into it. In the end, though, it was nevertheless tasty! Be mindful, as well, to not let the chocolate overcook/burn as it melts, as this will result in a rather grainy consistency (a result of the chocolate having separated). I should note, too, that the plate in the above photo shows why we don't typically mix chocolate and water: it seizes up and dries out quicker than you could even think of rescuing it.

homemade mayonnaise, after about 15-20 minutes of whisking by hand
With the first emulsion done, we moved onto making a mayonnaise, based on this recipe. And as Coral whisked together 2 egg yolks while slowly drizzling in about 1-1.25 c canola oil, and the juice of half a lemon, two handfuls of chocolate chips had melted and were ready for Daniel to whip into an egg white he had been whisking.

For our third emulsion, Daniel was working a chocolate mayo, the premise of which is fairly straightforward. In the case of our above mayonnaise, we were mixing two ingredients that shouldn't go together: a fat (the canola oil) and water (from the egg). With this in mind, Hervé conjectured that the fat from chocolate could replace the oil and when emulsified could create a chocolate mayonnaise. And wow, am I thankful for him being right! (Arguably, the science was right; This was the source of enlightenment). Because the cocoa fat is important in this recipe, I had melted two handfuls of semi-sweet chocolate chips; as the egg white is rather delicate and we don't want to deflate the air bubbles by mashing it with thick chocolate, we also need to thin out the chocolate with a tablespoon of water at a time (be sure to whisk this in quickly so the chocolate doesn't separate) until it's smooth, and just a touch under being too runny. Then, as has been the case for the other emulsions, whisk like no other. Here, we're looking for a mayonnaise consistency before you can stop whisking.

And while Coral and Daniel were at work, Katie worked on a hollandaise sauce based on (I think... at the time of me writing this post--17/11--it's been a while since this practicum took place) my recipe (we used a regular lemon instead of the meyer lemon indicated). After having had experience with both a mayonnaise and a hollandaise, our final emulsion was Hervé's own: the sauce Keintzheim, a name that pays homage to the Alsatian village from where his family hails. For the purposes of the practicum, we only made a half batch of Hervé's recipe, and began by browning a stick of butter. As I've forewarned in the past, pay attention to the butter, as it can transition from brown and nutty to black and bitter in an instant; to aid in this process, add to the butter a teaspoon of orange juice in three separate additions to slow down the rate at which the sugar crystals of the butter will caramelise, i.e., brown. Once you have brown butter, take it off the heat to cool (the cooler the better). Next, take your egg yolk and whisk it so it increases in volume and then slowly drizzle in the brown butter, continuing to whisk. It's important the butter has cooled and that you're whisking otherwise either--or worse both--variants can scramble the egg. When your emulsion looks like a mayonnaise, chocolate mayo or a hollandaise, you know you're done whisking. As noted in the aforementioned linked recipe, and is the case with most emulsions, it's very important to serve them as soon as possible. As the sauces cool, they tend to firm up a bit.

Whew, and done we were! Served with cooked asparagus (above, hollandaise vs. sauce Kientzheim) and berries (chocolate mayo vs. chocolat Chantilly turned chocolate mousse), as pictured in the lead photo to this post, we were ready to eat, and ahead of schedule (from start to clean-up, we were done in about two hours).

Suggested readings for this session:
"Please Don't Confuse Molecular Gastronomy and Molecular Cooking!" (Hervé This, 2009)
"Food for Tomorrow?" (Hervé This, 2006)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. For the complete album from this practicum, click here.

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