Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kitchen Table Project: Molecular Eyeball Cookery

So in the spirit of trying to catch up on stuff before the Lunar New Year, I have a lot of half-started blog posts that I'm going to try to put up here.

And here's the first one, our first foray into the arcana of molecular gastronomy. Actually, since Marcel Vigneron on Top Chef I had had a sense of MG as a kind of dark art, but frankly since then I've come to realize that pretty much all cookery is molecular gastronomy. Applying heat to break chemical bonds, creating emulsions, resting bread dough to relax glutens. It's just some techniques are older than others.

Anyway, so Ms. Food Snoot was brainstorming with us about how to make eye-ball themed items for her Santa Lucia party in December. (More on that later. ) I mentioned spherification, the technique used almost commonly now, in which a liquid or puree is mixed with sodium alginate and then dollops of it are submerged in a bath of calcium chloride. As the two chemicals mix, the outside of each dollop will gel forming a sort of "skin" made out of itself, enclosing the puree or liquid inside. This season's top Chef contestant Fabio recently used the technique (actually he used reverse spherification where you mix calcium into the olives and put it into a bath of sodium alginate) to make pseudo-olives -- a recipe perfected by Ferran Adria at El Bulli.

It was an excellent excuse to actually buy something at Le Sanctuaire -- a laboratory-like museum that my Omnivore and I had visited, very cautiously, walking around like skittish cats in a new home, sniffing at things and tentatively touching before backing off. They have a fabulous catalog of items for the adventurous cook, but the showroom has the air of being just barely tolerant of those who don't have a Higher Purpose for being there. That is, those who don't know what fancy chemicals or sous vide equipment they want to buy.

As it was, on the day I went there--feeling unaccountably triumphant that I Had a Purpose--I was still cowed into buying some sodium citrate along with the algin and calcic. Just in case, the guy said. Just in case what? I still haven't figured out what it's for.

So as I mentioned, we were looking for ways to make eyeballs, spherified eyeballs for Santa Lucia. Not knowing what the hell we were doing, we hatched some tentative plans to try making spherified eggnog as well as more standard things like Spherified Tea Ravioli.

We did some research and decided that the eggnog, having a higher calcium content, would be better made with reverse spherification.

The Tea ravioli I would do with what I called Forward spherification.

First thing was to make the baths, because they needed to sit for a while after blending to let all the bubbles and froth settle. Some of our recipes suggested waiting hours, but we didn't have that kind of time so we decided to just eyeball it-- if you'll pardon the pun-- and when it looked settled, we'd proceed. The whole experiment was really a bit of a handwaving process in fact, becuase the recipes we had called for us to weigh out ridiculous small amounts like 1.5 grams. My current kitchen scale only goes in 5 gram increments, so obviously THAT wasn't helpful. We wound up making some estimates as it was-- not very scientific.

Kids, you can try this at home, just do it better than we did.

The sodium alginate tends to clump automatically when it hits water I guess, so it really does need the help of a blender to get it mixed into the solution. And the help of a kitty.

The sodium alginate bath was for the reverse spherification of the eggnog, and it was fairly frothy at the end and we poured it into a glass dish to watch as it settled.

In the mean time, we worked on the other forward spherification of the tea ravioli. We mixed the algin into the tea and it was quite frothy really.

After about fifteen minutes though, it had visibly settled, and after another fifteen minutes it looked pretty much ready.

By that time, the algin bath for the eggnog was ready, so we went ahead with the reverse spherifying first.

Armed with the eggnog in a squeeze bottle (a helpful tip from Lee Anne Wong on Top Chef that I think is worth repeating), Ms. Food Snoot measured our first glob into the bath.

Truth be told it didn't look like much-- you have to kind of close up the globs with a finger so that they form a skin all the way around and they looked rather like badly formed siu mai floating in water. We left them in for probably too long, worried as we were about getting a good skin.

Unlike the pretty, evenly shaped olives in Ferran Adria's video, our looked pretty lumpy and one burst and spread out all over our solution anyway.

But when it was fished out of the bath it had a pleasantly eyeball-like look to it.

Of course neither one of us wanted to be he first to try it, so we marched it back to my Omnivore-- let's give it to Mikey... He gamely tossed it back, in much the same fashion that I imagine the Queen of England did when eating a sea slug at an Imperial Chinese banquet.

And then he made a face. A really odd face.

"That's... that's..." he struggled with the adjectives filed away in his head labelled "food."


Ms. Food Snoot and I looked at each other. Perhaps not the reaction we were hoping for.

"It's odd," he repeated.

Okay, obviously we were going to have to try one of these things. So we made some more, and down the hatch.


More specifically, there was nothing wrong with the flavor, it was just that the texture of the smooth slippery skin which burst into eggnog flavor was so foreign and unexpected that it kind of made your brain skid a bit. On the unpleasant side the skin didn't dissolve in the mouth, but instead stayed behind, a sort of gelatinous lump that I spit out. Altogther? Odd.

We did try it a few more times, with a blueberry for the pupil of the eye, but ultimately concluded that we needed more time to figure this spherification thing out before serving it to unwary guests.

We did go ahead and try making the tea ravioli, although I think my handwaving proportions of the chemicals wasn't quite right, because it seemed that they were too delicate and burst easily just under their own weight. But after the skin-job effect of the eggnog, I was reluctant to leave them in longer. So we left that for more experimenting on another day too.

Ultimately this is what we ate for lunch: molecular gastronomy I can understand-- cured salumi, toasted pecans, Matos family St. George cheeses and smoked salmon.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


ME said...

Hi Ruth! Nice to see you here. Thanks so much for the comments -- I'm afraid I haven't been very good about posting lately, but hopefully I'll get back to work on it in April!!