Archive for January, 2011

27th January
2011
written by scott

mac-and-cheese

It is undeniably fashionable, these days, for an upscale restaurant to serve “their take” on macaroni and cheese.  I’ve seen it prepared at least a dozen ways: with wild mushrooms, with truffles, with bleu cheese, with cave-aged gruyere, in mini-cocottes, on oversized platters, broiled, baked, and deep fried.  For the record, there’s nothing wrong with any of these preparations.  In fact, we served a wild mushroom and truffle oil mac & cheese at my wedding!  However, I wanted to take the concept to the extreme and produce the most hyperbolic, modernist version of the dish I could… just to see what happened.  The result: maltodextrin-powdered Beecher’s cheese with a tableside hot cream to make an “instant” sauce.

I originally thought I’d post my results as a joke – an over-the-top preparation that was to comfort food what the Dyson Air Multiplier is to climate control.  However, I was delightfully surprised to find out that this mac & cheese actually tasted fantastic!  The flavors are extremely pure and the consistency of the instant sauce was perfect.  Watch out, Kraft… you’ve got competition.

Makes: 2 snobby servings
Total kitchen time: 4 hours (45 minutes working time)

For the Powdered Cheese:

  1. Preheat your oven to its lowest setting (180-220°F).
  2. Combine the cheese, water and sodium citrate in a small saucepan.  Heat on low until completely melted.  Stir to ensure evenness.
  3. Transfer the cheese mixture to a small food processor and add 200g of tapioca maltodextrin and process until it forms a paste.  If you can’t fit all of the tapioca maltodextrin at once, add half and process, then add the remainder.
  4. Spread the paste in a thin, even layer onto a silicone baking sheet.  Bake until dry and brittle, 2-3 hours. 
  5. Crumble the cheese mixture into a food processor, or preferably a clean, electric coffee grinder.  Process until the mixture becomes a fine powder.  If necessary, add an additional 15g of tapioca maltodextrin.  The mixture should have the same texture as the powdered cheese in instant macaroni and cheese.

For the dish:

  • 1 cup pipe rigate (or any other type of macaroni you’d like)
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • Hawaiian black lava salt
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  1. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the heavy cream to a simmer.  Just before serving, divide the cream into two mini sauce pots (I used glass port sippers, shown in the photo).
  3. To plate, sprinkle a two tablespoons of the cheese powder into a small bowl.  Top with pasta, sprinkle with a pinch of black lava salt, and garnish with thyme.  To finish the dish tableside, pour over the hot cream and stir well to make the cheese sauce. 

I owe a big thanks to Maxime Bilet (author of Modernist Cuisine) for giving me a hand with the powdered cheese recipe.  If you aren’t up for ordering a pound of maltodextrin online, you can also use my simplified powdered cheese recipe from the Beecher’s Cheddar Cheetos article I wrote for Seattle Weekly.  However, tapioca maltodextrin (N-Zorbit) is pretty handy stuff for turning liquids into powders, and is a staple in modernist kitchens.

19th January
2011
written by scott

Looking out over the farm

It’s time I let you in on a secret. I fantasize all the time. I have wild, indulgent fantasies that sometimes go on for days and would make a hedonist blush. They’re detailed, vivid thoughts of sometimes sordid, occasionally illegal, always climactic experiences. I have these fantasies when I’m falling asleep at night, when I’m taking a shower, and especially when I’m cooking dinner. You see, these fantasies, believe it or not, are about food.

We’ve all had the occasional Iron Chef narrative run through our head as we toil away in the kitchen–the disembodied voice of Alton Brown commenting on the deftness of our knife strokes and pungent smell of our chiffonaded herbs, occasionally tossing in his prediction of our intent: "I believe the challenger is making . . . yes, that looks like a blanquette de veau." However, my fantasies are usually about a meal, the meal, in which all of my wildest wet food dreams materialize, if only for one supper. The strange part is that the fantasy comes in two flavors.

Fantasy #1 is what you might expect from me if you’re a regular reader: Ferran Adrià and a cadre of other chefs put on a modernist feast that lasts for hours and requires a team of 50 to prepare. The "kitchen" is stocked with colloid mills, spray freezers, centrifuges, particle accelerators, and at least one flux capacitor, which is critical to correctly execute the palate-cleanser between the 16th and 17th course. The dishes that emerge are full of surprises and textural transformations. There’s a non-Newtonian truffle foam that coyly evades my fork’s stabbing advances. Hand-sculpted lickable crystals, arranged in homage to Superman’s fortress of solitude, are shattered tableside to reveal a lilac fog that rolls over a champagne-fed morel-mushroom edible landscape. The spherified tears of a Siberian white tiger are served in orchid cups, topped with a magnetically insulated coconut plasma. The foods seem to defy the laws of physics, and flavors are so bold, vivid, and unexpected that I do a double-take with each bite. As I’m eating, I cleverly reverse-engineer the complicated processes that transformed the rare and exotic ingredients into the high-concept, impressionist dishes that emerge in a never-ending sequence from a buzzing stark-white kitchen.

Fantasy #2 is different . . . in fact, quite the opposite. I’m in a country house, sitting at a large wood table resawn from the heart of a felled tree. Just outside, embedded in the acres of manicured landscape, are rows of vegetable beds growing the most beautiful and succulent herbs, lettuces, red beets, potatoes, cauliflower, legumes, and carrots I’ve ever seen. On a shady patch of land dominated by a century-old evergreen, 10,000 wild mushrooms poke up from the soil, already washed clean by a passing morning storm. Near the house, a brown hog is slurping peacefully from his trough of maple syrup, 30 year-old brandy, and charred applewood. Later, when I visit him with my knife, he turns gleefully onto his back to offer me a slab of bacon from his ever-healing belly. On the rolling hills in the distance, a flock of argyle sheep have been standing guard outside the naturally dehumidified cave in which they age the wheels of cheese they lay each spring. In the kitchen, a silent chef wielding no more than a blade and an iron skillet prepares a feast over a wood fire. The dishes are simple and pure, requiring no seasoning except a generous lump of golden raw butter, churned à la minute.

First, a scramble of eggs, already fluffy and lightened by the hens’ daily intake of fresh Jersey cream. Next, a steaming plate of roasted root vegetables–carrots, beets, turnips, radishes–with colors so vibrant and pigmented that they stain the white platters. Then a soup of green peas, roasted porcinis, and cured ham. Loaves of crusty bread emerge from the crackling wood oven, glistening with flaky salt mined from a Himalayan boulder deposited by a passing glacier two million years ago.

Reaching for his ingredients, the chef opens the refrigerator door, which is actually a pass-through into the farm where a quartet of sage-coated border collies have been laying out the mise en place for the meal. The chef picks up a decadently marbled tenderloin which has been dry-aged by the wing flapping of swans and tenderized by the gentle, rhythmic humping of a dozen field mice. He sears the steak perfectly, releasing tears of demi-glace which I spoon atop a snowy-white mash of russet potatoes, already flavored by the Provençal herbs with which the land is fertilized monthly. Every dish is unadulterated, every ingredient is clearly identifiable. The flavors define purity, and the terroir is a tangibly connective thread throughout the meal and its backdrop.

I’m not the only one who has fantasies like this. At last night’s release party for the book "Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land" by Kurt Timmermeister, 200 people showed up to thank Kurt for making their fantasy #2 come true. For the past five and a half years, Kurt has served a Sunday dinner at his farm house on Vashon Island. And although he may have different methods for aging his beef than those I picture in my fantasy, his dinners have evoked the same emotion. All the ingredients (with very few exceptions) come from his 13 acres, and the food is transformed as minimally as possible on their short journey from his farm to his table. I wrote about my dinner experience there some time ago, but listening him speak last night, I couldn’t help but wonder if there is some amount of tension between my two fantasies.

Lots of folks have raised concerns that modernist cooking (or "molecular gastronomy," as it is often called) is an aberration or a perversion of cuisine, and that the chemicals used in the process are inherently unworthy of ingestion. After all, it takes a fair amount of manipulation to turn an olive into a powder, a gel, a sphere, a foam, or a flash-frozen tuille. Standing among a roomful of Kurt’s fans, I imagined how they would respond if I gathered up bushels of farm-fresh produce and proceeded to cryo-fry it in a vat of liquid nitrogen. My guess? They’d find other uses for the pitchforks besides shoveling hay.

Then, I imagined what it would be like at a release party for a modernist chef’s memoir. I’ve recently been reading the latest biography of Ferran Adrià, and I know his followers would attend in droves, bringing equally strong sense memories of their Fantasy #1-like experiences at el Bulli. Ferran is credited for contributions to cooking in the way Einstein is recognized for contributions to physics, and without his genius, the cutting edge of cuisine today may not have evolved past the iceberg wedge salad. Outside a small set of emerging modernist techniques, Western civilization has been cooking the same way for several hundred years. Yes, it is novel in 2011 to eat an entire meal gathered from a few acres of land, but for most of human history, you had no other choice.

davinci and picasso horses

Is there a tension between my two fantasies? No, not at all. If done with integrity, there’s plenty of room for both approaches. For example, I admire the anatomical realism of da Vinci’s drawings, or the way in which Vermeer accurately depicted natural light. But I also appreciate the emotive reinterpretation of the subjects in Picasso’s paintings or the stylized exaggeration in Modigliani’s portraits. In the same way, I love raw butter churned from the fresh cream of a happy cow, and the powdered bone marrow you might choose to sprinkle on top. Modernist cooking is not opposed to farm-to-table; in fact, I would bet Ferran’s groupies would love a dinner at Kurt’s. However, modernist cooking is new and new things scare a lot of people–especially people with limited information. Try this experiment: Tell your friends you’re getting into modernist cooking and so seasoned their food with sodium chloride, which you ordered off the Internet. Count the number of friends who freak out (they weren’t paying attention in 8th grade chemistry, or they’d know sodium chloride is table salt).

I’m glad that these two movements are happening simultaneously. It indicates that we as a society are starting to care more about what we eat and how. In a nation that has become monopolized by industrial food production, our own apathy is our biggest weakness against better eating. Although Kurt’s dinner series has ended, we’re lucky to live a short drive from some of the best small farms in the country . . . and they serve dinner too. Go eat something that was just picked from the ground, or just slaughtered for your dinner. Then go eat something modern and unexpected, designed to challenge your preconceptions. When dinner is over, you’ll have all-new fodder for your food fantasies.

14th January
2011
written by scott

make composite

My $75 DIY Sous Vide build make was just published in Volume 25 of Make Magazine, the premier publication for hackers, modders and DIYers and food geeks the world over.  I re-wrote the instructions for the build, adding detailed photos and tips for construction.  The folks at Make did a phenomenal job laying out and illustrating the article!

View a preview of the magazine article online

View the project page on Make

View the original $75 DIY Sous Vide article

Bonus! The nice folks at Boing Boing linked to the project on Make.

12th January
2011
written by scott

calculating the speed of light with cheese in a microwave

If you’ve been playing along at home, you know that I’m a teeny-tiny bit obsessed with the soon-to-be-released, 2400-page Modernist Cuisine book.  Well, my excitement skyrocketed last week when I had the rare privilege to peek at a few hundred [digital] pages of the book, guided by author, CEO and hero of geeks everywhere, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold.  I was honored by the invitation, which I can only assume was prompted by a prank phone call from the Make A Wish Foundation on my behalf.

Among the seemingly endless pages of stunning photographs, captivating history and practical instruction, the book is sprinkled with fascinating tidbits like this one.  Did you know that you can measure the speed of light using your microwave and a few slices of Kraft Singles?

From the section “Cooking in Modern Ovens”:

You can measure the speed of light by melting cheese, chocolate or even marshmallows in your microwave.  Microwave cooking leaves patterns of melting on soft, smooth surfaces that correspond to roughly half the wavelength of a microwave.  These patterns are caused by the way the microwaves crisscross in the oven chamber and either combine their energies or cancel one another out.

Here’s how to replicate the experiment at home.

  1. Cover a flat plate, platter or cardboard disc with soft cheese slices.
  2. Place the plate in the microwave.  If your microwave has a turntable, disable it, or remove the turntable platter and place the plate on an inverted ramekin to bypass the turntable motor.
  3. Heat on low power until it has melted in several spots.
  4. Measure the distance, in millimeters, between the centers of any two melt spots.  Double that number to get the wavelength. 
  5. Multiply the wavelength by the frequency, in MHz, of your microwave (listed on the back).  For example, if your microwave is 2.45GHz (typical), you’d multiply by 2,450,000.  [We multiply by MHz instead of GHz to fudge in a factor of 1000, which is the conversion from millimeters to meters.]
  6. Compare your value to the generally accepted value of 299,792,458 meters per second

The value I calculated was 306,019,200, which is is only off from the actual value by 2%.  Not bad for fake cheese! 

Between now and the release of the book in March, I’ll be highlighting a few more geeky food tricks from the book.  In the meantime, you can find more information at http://modernistcuisine.com/.  If you’re ready to pull the trigger, the book is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

05th January
2011
written by scott

pacojet-style frozen dessert
If you’ve ever been in an upscale restaurant and ordered a sorbet or ice cream with a consistency that seemed to defy the laws of physics, it was probably made in a Pacojet.  This $4000 machine is a staple in many restaurant and hotel kitchens for its ability to produce exceptionally smooth and creamy desserts and savory dishes.  However, if I’m going to drop four grand on a kitchen machine, it damned well better take voice commands and wear a skimpy outfit.

My method uses dry ice for instant freezing and Xanthan Gum, a popular soy-based gluten substitute, as a thickener for a more velvety texture.  In addition, I’ve added a small amount of Versawhip, which creates a subtle but stable foam, giving the finished product the unexpected lightness usually associated with mousses.  You can substitute the sorbet base of your choice, following the same basic steps.

Makes: about 6 cups
Total kitchen time: 10 minutes

Shopping list:

  • 20 oz. canned pineapple (crushed, slices, or chunks), including juice
  • 6 oz. fresh raspberries
  • 1 oz. (a small shot) St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur (optional)
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. Xanthan gum (also available in the baking aisle at better grocery stores. Look for the Bob’s Red Mill label)
  • 1/2 tsp. Versawhip
  • 1 lb. dry ice, crushed into 1/2” or smaller chunks
  1. Combine the pineapple (including juice), raspberries, St. Germain and sugar in the bowl of a large food processor.  Process for one minute or until smooth.
  2. Add the Xanthan gum and Versawhip and process until combined.
  3. With the food processor running, add the dry ice and continue processing another 1-2 minutes, or until the sound of the dry ice cracking has stopped.
  4. Remove from the food processor and serve, or store in the freezer.  Can be made 2 days in advance.

It is true that the Pacojet doesn’t require any added thickeners to achieve its magic consistency.  However, it does require you to freeze your sorbet mix at –20C for 24 hours before churning.  I’d love to do a blind taste test comparison between this method and the Pacojet. As soon as I trip over a pile of cash, I’ll let you know how the test turns out.