Molecular Gastronomy or Modern(ist) Cuisine 

Every time I attempt to describe what molecular gastronomy is, a jumble of words escape my mouth in my overexcitement and I can never satisfyingly unravel much more than: spheres, foams and balsamic caviar. I’m also certain the words “cool” and “awesome” materialize uncontrollably about 15 times per sentence. So, what is molecular gastronomy? Here’s how I understand it:

Traditionally, cooking and food preparation have always been considered an art or intuitive skill. We learn cooking methods passed down to us based on accepted techniques or we use our intuition to try (or discover) something new. Molecular gastronomy is a branch of food science that uses physics, chemistry and a bunch of really cool lab equipment to focus on the scientific investigation of cooking. Basic cooking methods and beliefs were put through extensive testing to see if they had any scientific merits to back up what was claimed. Cooking As Art met Cooking As Science and they went to work.

Though molecular gastronomy is a field of food science, one thing that perhaps distinguishes it from other fields (like food microbiology, sensory analysis and food engineering) is that practitioners of the field are cooks working in a kitchen, not scientists working in a lab. Although with some of the better-equipped restaurant kitchens, the line between kitchen and lab is a little fuzzy. This notion is so exciting to me. It seems like this science was developed purely for the love of eating.

Pioneers of scientific cookery were interested in debunking or explaining old wives tales about cooking, experimenting with existing recipes, inventing new ones and introducing new tools and technologies. They investigated the chemical changes during cooking in order to find the most favourable methods of preparing food. Some of their inquiries might have been:

Should beans be cooked with the lid on or off?

Will meat stock produce more flavour if I start with hot water or cold water?

What new cooking methods might produce improved results of texture and flavor?

The term “Molecular Gastronomy” was coined by physicist Nicholas Kurti and physical chemist Hervé This in 1992. It was also the title of the workshops they held, which drew scientists and professional cooks to discuss the science behind traditional cooking. Kurti became one of the UK’s first TV cooks when he hosted a cooking show called “Physicist in the Kitchen” in 1969. Some of Kurti’s demonstrations included making meringue in a vacuum chamber, cooking sausages by connecting them across a car battery and a reverse baked alaska which was hot on the inside, cold on the outside and cooked in a microwave.

Heston Blumenthal at work in his kitchen lab

Top chefs such as Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal (my personal hero) of The Fat Duck have become associated with the movement because of their scientific approach to cooking, although they are said to disapprove of the term because it makes cuisine sound inaccessible and snobby. Instead, they prefer to call it modern or modernist cuisine.

The objectives of molecular gastronomy today have changed somewhat. Though scientific approach is still the essence of experiments done in its name, the focal point is more on the experience of eating food and the techniques used to create unique and artful presentations. It is revolutionizing traditional cooking and transforming eating into a sort of multi-sensory experience. For example, scented air is often used to play with diners memories and emotions (the smells of leather chair and fireplace for a Christmas meal). When diners uncover their dish, puffs of air float into their nostrils titillating their sense of smell. Certain techniques have become quite popular and are now easily reproducible, such as making spheres, foams, gels and faux caviar.

Molecular gastronomy has now become more accessible to the at-home cook who doesn’t have expensive lab equipment hanging out in their kitchen. Products can be bought online to help you experiment in your own kitchen and instructional videos can be found on YouTube. Here are a few:

How to make food spheres

How to make foams

How to make faux caviar

How to make gels

I recently bought a few molecular gastronomy kits and have been experimenting in my own kitchen. It is a squeal worthy sort of satisfaction to change flavours and textures around. I will be posting my experiments and I hope they inspire others to think outside the box, too. Happy experimenting!

Order molecular gastronomy materials online here or here.

References
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_gastronomy
http://www.molecularrecipes.com/molecular-gastronomy/
This, Hervé (2005). Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. Columbia University Press.
Kitchen Chemistry (2007): Ted Lister, Heston Blumenthal

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Molecular Gastronomy: Cosmic Balsamic Vinegar Sheets + The History of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

You're a star!
You’re a star!

One of my major regrets about visiting Italy is that I didn’t find (or even know to look for) The Real Balsamic Vinegar. In an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations I recently viewed, I learned that the stuff most of us think of as balsamic vinegar is actually NOTHING like the real stuff. Like, at all. Commercial grade balsamic vinegar can be mass produced in only one day and tastes very different from the traditional product. Intrigued, I dug for more information.

balsamic toast balsamic sheet hand

Actually, I felt a little indignant that no one ever told me that even the nicest, fanciest  $20 to $30 bottles of balsamic I’ve become accustomed to using were all just rubbish imitations of a deeply rich product, made solely from grapes and can’t be imagined without actually tasting. Every drop of balsamic vinegar I’ve ever had was just a lie. The imitations often contain wine vinegar, grape juice, preservatives and caramel for colour. No one took care of me enough to inform me of the truth of traditional balsamic vinegar. No one but Bourdain. I feel as if the wool has finally been lifted from my eyes and the truth is glorious.

balsamic sheet star

 Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has only been made in Modena and neighboring Reggio Emilia since the 11th century. It is made from mostly Trebbiano grapes, which are harvested, pressed into juice and reduced by cooking on low heat for a few days. Once reduced to 30% of its original volume, the liquid (called must) is then placed in a succession of wood barrels to ferment, mature and age for up to 25 years.

balsamic toast 3

In the barrels, the vinegar slowly evaporates and becomes richer in flavour. None of the liquid can be withdrawn before reaching the minimum age of 12. At that time, part of the product is bottled as a 12-year old traditional vinegar and part is transferred to a smaller barrel to age further. At the end of the aging period (12, 18 or 25 years) a small portion is taken from the smallest barrel and each barrel is topped up with the contents of the next larger, or younger, barrel. Freshly reduced must is added to the largest barrel each year after the topping up process. This process is repeated for many years, meaning that trace amounts of the product could be 100 years old. How maddeningly insane is that? Very.

balsamic toast 2

There are three classifications of balsamic vinegar.

1. Authentic traditional artisan balsamic vinegar, the only kind that may legally be described as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionalein the EU.
2. Commercial grade balsamic vinegars produced on an industrial scale.
3. Condimento grade products, which are often a mix of the two above.

Someday I’ll return to Italy and head over to Modena, shell out $350 (yeah, that’s right) for a 25 year old 100ml bottle of balsamic vinegar and be able to die happy. Until then, I’ll have to live with the substitute.

Molecular gastronomy is the funnest. I enjoy unique experiences around food (thus my willingness to pay stupid amounts of money (when I have it) for something delicious) so flavour, texture and presentation are important to me. Making balsamic vinegar sheets is very easy, fun and would make an excellent addition to your hors d’oeuvres tray.

balsamic sheet 1

The only ingredients you need to make balsamic sheets are balsamic vinegar, powdered agar agar (acts like gelatin) and some water. The results are severely satisfying. It goes well with anything balsamic vinegar usually goes well with: chevre, olives, crackers, herbs, pesto, strawberries, etc. I recommend cutting them into small pieces and placing them on bite sized foods as they don’t tear well when you bite into them. Unfortunately, I don’t have video instructions of balsamic sheets, but similar instructions for rum sheets to give you an idea of how it works.

balsamic sheet 2

Balsamic Vinegar Sheets

Ingredients

  • ½ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tbsp powdered agar agar

Directions

Place all ingredients in a small pot. Stirring constantly, bring to a simmer to activate the agar agar. Simmer for 3 minutes or until agar agar has dissolved.

Remove from heat and pour a few tablespoons onto a plate and spread to a very thin layer by rolling the plate around. Try to spread it evenly. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

Cut into the shapes of your desire and carefully pull them up from the surface of the plate. Voila! Severe satisfaction at your fingertips.

balsamic star bite

Buy molecular gastronomy products here.

Molecular Gastronomy: Layered Grapefruit Screwdriver Cocktails and Gainful Employment

 

 

Nice stems
Nice stems

I know its been a while. It has been a non-stop hair pulling fest around here. For the past month I’ve been in a whirlwind of resumes, preparations for interviews, interviews, random panic attacks brought on by said interviews and finally: Employment. Got me a job. What what! Of course, while all of this was going on, I went on a few previously scheduled trips, not knowing just how busy and insane I’d be feeling. A week in the California to visit my awesome sister, her awesome wife and their awesome cats, Christmas in D.C. to visit my awesome brother, his awesome wife and their awesome baby and New Years in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to visit a group of about 30 of the awesomest friends possible. Tequila, maple syrup and merguez sausages (not combined…although that really wouldn’t be so bad). What a party.

So, I’ll be back in Seoul by the end of February of 2013 to teach English to little kindergarteners. From my interview with the director and my contact with a Canadian girl who is currently working there, my new place of employment seems like a relaxed and supportive environment. Teachers seem to feel respected, happy and appreciative of the management. AND they get paid on time. Though I’ve never experienced it personally, it is not so uncommon to hear of  hagwon (private academies) paying their teachers late (or not at all), holding passports and/or diplomas hostage, finding absurd reasons to fire someone in the 11th month of their year long contract so they could avoid severance payment and a return flight and other such practices of a horrible work environment. Luckily for teachers looking for work in Korea, there is the Hagwon Blacklist. There, unhappy teachers can post their woes and warn others about their shitty school. Before accepting the job at EPA, I checked the Blacklist and found nothing. To my delight, a google search uncovered POSITIVE feedback about the school.

molecular gastronomy screwdriver 3

Wanting to celebrate all of this positivity, I made some gelatin grapefruit screwdrivers with a touch of molecular gastronomy. They turned out to be like large, fancy Jello cocktails. They were visually stunning and quite tasty.

Also, they were very bizarre. Gelatin always is. If I were to make gelatin screwdrivers again, I would make each individual drink a bit smaller and therefore less intimidating. While I went for a second glass, some of my friends (A.K.A. guinea pigs) could only manage a few bites.

molecular gastronomy screwdriver 2

I added some licorice powder to some of the top layers, which, as you can see, caused the gelatin to bleed into other layers and set in less appealing forms. Still, they tasted great, were fun to make and successfully got the drinker closer to being drunk.

Grapefruit Jello Screwdrivers

Ingredients

  • 8 ½ oz (250 ml) of vodka
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 ¼ cup grapefruit juice
  • 2 tbsp cold water soluble gelatin

Directions

Mix 1 tbsp of sugar with 1 tbsp of gelatin and the vodka. Blend until dissolved. Divide evenly into as many cups as you like. This could be up to 20, depending on what size you plan on making your Jello cocktail. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Next, mix 1 tbsp of gelatin with 1 tbsp of sugar and the grapefruit juice. Blend until dissolved. Pour a juice layer on top of the vodka layer. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Repeat until you have 6 alternating layers of vodka and juice.

Scoop into mouth.

Here are video instructions.

Molecular Gastronomy: Bacon Wrapped Acorn Squash with Balsamic Caviar and Maple Sphere

Bacon wrapped acorn squash with balsamic caviar and maple sphere

I’m slightly concerned about my post titles being a bit too long. I can admit that they’re all a mouth full… and somehow, they manage to keep growing. To me, this isn’t exactly a problem as I think naming a dish according to the ingredients it contains gives my readers a clear idea of what the post (and recipe) is about.  I like to list the ingredients I feel are important to each dish, but since my recipe interests include things like flavour pairing and molecular gastronomy, I tend to think ALL of the ingredients are important. Woops. Predicament.

It’s also due to my own personal inability (or laziness) to come up with a catchy title. It’s clearly too challenging for me to plan a dish, make it, photograph it, write about it AND create a catchy title. That’s just taking it too far. Anyway, I personally like to see literal titles. Let the food speak for itself. Most people can look at the ingredients (if they’re relatively familiar with them) in a recipe and get a sense of whether or not they’ll like it. Right? The names and imagined flavours swirl around in your mind, forcing the idea of the dish into your mouth. I appreciate the honesty of a literal title… but again, there’s the whole length issue. What do you think? Let me know what sort of title catches your eye.

Bacon wrapped acorn squash with balsamic caviar and maple sphere

OK, so it turns out that this recipe is ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous in the best way. Nathan and Alex came to visit me some time ago. Just as passionate lovers never leave the bedroom, my foodie friends and I never left the kitchen over the three days they were around. Fevered moments of flavour creativity (some might say delirium) and collaboration were plentiful and virtuous food was abundant.  The guys brought with them a gorgeous array of fresh farmer’s market produce. Most important of this haul was bacon. Locally butchered, farm fresh strips of fatty delight. It created a revolution in my home and became part of almost every meal.

Bacon wrapped acorn squash with balsamic caviar and maple sphere

While we played around with my molecular gastronomy kits, futzing with spheres and such, Nathan remembered once again that we had bacon. How he could’ve forgotten, I’m not sure. I certainly hadn’t stopped thinking about it. Luckily, he took that thought one step further and remembered the acorn squash he’d brought. It came to everyone’s attention that wrapping bacon around grilled acorn squash would be painfully good. I’m still in pain now. Oy vay.

First, we blanched our cut slices of squash in boiling water for 3 minutes (only 4 at a time so the water doesn’t cool).

blanched acorn squash

Next, we grilled those beauties on a stove-top grill (pan frying is totally acceptable). Luckily, there was some bacon fat left on the grill which added extra flavour to the squash.

Grilled acorn squash

Now that our squash had those beautiful grill marks, we wrapped them (so hard) in bacon and baked them. Sadly, I must note that we had run out of bacon by that point, so not every piece of squash was wrapped.

I showed the boys how to make molecular balsamic caviar, which happily features in this dish.

Balsamic caviar

Maple spheres are also featured. And just look at that little guy! Beautiful, isn’t it?

maple sphere

Of all the maple spheres we made (about 8) this one was the only sphere presentable enough for a photo. When making spheres, it is important that your ingredients have a certain level of calcium in them for the thin film to form properly. Apparently, maple syrup is lacking in the calcium department and the film did not form well. They kept sticking and breaking when I tried to move them. In the hopes of getting one or two out of it, I left some in the sodium alginate bath for a long time (about 15 minutes), which paid off. If I were to try making them again, I’d add some yogurt to the mixture to avoid the same problem.

Bacon wrapped acorn squash with balsamic caviar and maple sphere

 

Bacon Wrapped Acorn Squash with Balsamic Caviar and Maple Sphere

Ingredients

1 acorn squash- cleaned of seeds (with or without peel) and divided into 8-10 pieces

Strip bacon- lots

Balsamic caviar (video instructions below)

Maple sphere (video instructions below)

Water

 

Directions

Preheat your oven to 350 °F/ 180 °C/ Gas mark 4.

Boil a large pot of water. Place 3-4 pieces of squash in the water. Blanch them for 3 minutes then remove them from heat. Repeat until all pieces are blanched.

Grill or pan fry the squash on high heat until the surfaces are beautifully brown.

Place bacon wrapped squash in a casserole pan and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Garnish with balsamic caviar and maple sphere.

Eat and be amazed.

Thanks guys! It was fun!

Molecular Gastronomy: Honey Wrap and My Dada

honey wrap: you are too sexy

Today is my father’s birthday. He would be 68. Were he alive, we’d probably celebrate by preparing him breakfast in bed, going to see a movie and taking him out to dinner. If he had it his way, we’d all go sailing (the rest of the family would probably protest the temperature, being November and all). In the spring of 2010, my parents moved back to the Abode after nearly 30 years away. They had plans to build a house on the land they had bought, but after a few days, it was clear that dream wouldn’t be possible.

Sid the Sailor. On a boat, dad was at his best.
Sid the Sailor. On a boat, dad was at his best.

 

My father, Sid Smallen; handyman extraordinaire, Sufi mystic, master woodworker and all around awesome guy, was struck on his back by a falling tree and paralyzed from the chest down. He sustained many other internal injuries, and after being helicoptered to the ER, we weren’t sure he would make it. For 10 months, he lived through one crisis after another; heart attack, appendicitis he couldn’t feel, not being able to eat, having to relearn how to breathe without aid, kidney failure, bedsores and at times not being able to talk due to the placement of his tracheotomy. He was moved to a rehabilitation hospital, and over those 10 months, he was never strong enough to leave it. Sometimes he was so filled with drive and energy that he was rockin’ his rehab exercises, sometimes infection and fatigue made it too difficult for him to lift his head. Finally, after being in a septic coma for 2 weeks, my father passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones and so much love on April 24th, 2011.

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Before the accident and as far back as I can remember, my dad was always doing something. He was an excellent tinkerer and could pretty much make whatever he put his mind to. He made most of the furniture in my mum’s home and built a house-sized, 3-story addition to a previous house we lived in. I don’t think he was capable of going a single day without thinking about power tools. He had a good mind for math and science and was also able to apply his creativity in design to his work. I have so much admiration for my father for his strength. He fought so hard when the going was really tough.

 

Dad opening presents: X-mas 2011
Dad opening presents: X-mas 2011

I wish to dedicate this post to my dad. Being my first post on molecular gastronomy, which is the science of cooking (started and cultivated by food tinkerers worldwide) I felt the scientific exploration behind MG accurately captures just the sort of tinkering he’d really appreciate.

 Bird's eye honey wrap

 

Since buying my molecular gastronomy kits, I’ve responded by either sitting around for hours watching the neat instructional videos and springing into molecular gastronomical action in my kitchen or glaring at the kits in overwhelmed disbelief of the possibilities they possess. In the beginning, I needed to take it slow, so I started with a honey wrap or sheet.

 honey wrap

Many of the gelification techniques in molecular gastronomy use agar agar, which is a gelatinous substance derived from algae and activated when boiled. It has been popular in the vegan/vegetarian movements as a gelatin substitute. It is tasteless, odorless, colourless and very easy to use. It can be ordered online and found at most health food stores.

Here is an instructional video demonstrating how to make a similar sort of sheet out of rum.

Honey Wrap

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup water
  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ tsp powdered agar agar

 

honey wrap: you are too sexy

Directions

Place all ingredients in a small pot.

Stirring constantly, bring ingredients to a boil.

Pour contents on plates or in bowls so they make a thin layer. Spread the liquid around on the surface but make sure they’re not too thin as their strength could be compromised. I’d suggest varying the thickness on each surface so you can understand what works best.

Place honey wraps in the fridge for 15-20 minutes. If they aren’t perfectly solid, give your wraps more time to cool.

Cut out a circle shape about the size of your hand from the middle of your wrap. Carefully pull the circle off the surface.

Place yogurt and/or fruit inside your wrap and enjoy.

To dad, from your little girl. Rest in peace.

 

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