Thursday, April 30, 2009

Conceptual desserts that are actually good


"Conceptual" usually doesn't taste good. In fact, I cringe at the thought of having a plate of food in front of me that is really only understood by the chef and his cooks (sometimes), and he/she expects me to understand it too. I have rolled my eyes when hearing that word in more than one occasion.
One of the strangest desserts I've had was simply a long rectangle of meringue with the name of an island stenciled on it (I think it was Tahiti). I didn't get it. Was it supposed to be white like the sand of an island, hence I am eating the island? I thought for many days after eating this meringue about its meaning. The server had explained, a little too late, that this was the pastry chef's idea of paradise. Meringue, you see, was his favorite thing to eat. Who could possibly understand it? But I will concede that it made me think. I just wish that what the server had told me would have been on the menu description of the item in question.
So... can one make a dessert that is conceptual, but also good? Or do you start with a good product and then make it conceptual...? No, that would be cheating. More importantly, why even make a conceptual dessert at all?
For the item you see here, I wanted to basically use rhubarb in a non-traditional mix of flavors that are usually associated with it (strawberry, almonds, cream, balsamic vinegar, etc.). I thought of elderflower, with its sweet floral-fruity flavor as a good balance to the tartness of the rhubarb. I also wanted to preserve the color of the rhubarb but what could logically be coked with it that would enhance its flavor and contribute some sweetness; most times rhubarb looses its color during the cooking process. To resolve this I chose to poach the rhubarb in grenadine. Real grenadine, the kind made with pomegranate juice; I have always loved grenadine, even though I was not 100% sure of what it was, it made seltzer water taste. There is no such thing as real grenadine available around these parts (most commercially available grenadine is artificially flavored). To make your own real grenadine, simply add equal parts sugar to pomegranate juice, and boil until the sugar has dissolved. And there you have your 100% natural grenadine.
The procedure for cooking the rhubarb was very simple: I peeled the rhubarb and then cut it into nearly perfect long batons and reserved them in a hotel pan; then I boiled the grenadine and poured it over the rhubarb batons, wrapped the pan and let them get to know each other overnight in refrigeration.
The next day I drained the rhubarb batons, patted them dry and placed them into two separate steel square frames over a flat sheet of Plexiglas lined with acetate. One frame had the rhubarb neatly arranged and straight. The other had the rhubarb batons randomly placed. This set-up went in the blast freezer for a few minutes.
I then made an elderflower gelee (with gelatin... I am not a fan of agar... at all), waited for it to cool down and then poured it into the frozen frames. I let it set without moving it around so as to keep a smooth flat surface. I took the frames off and I trimmed the borders to make a neat square and the result is what you see.

What is the meaning behind this conceptual dessert? What is conceptual about it? Well, initially, you must see that it doesn't look like anything you may have eaten before, or at least, not a whole lot of. Secondly, the dessert is just that, elderflower gelee and grenadine poached rhubarb. Soft, chewy, and slightly toothsome (the rhubarb). It is sweet without being cloying or overbearing, it is also tart in the way rhubarb can be, but also sweet from the grenadine bath with its particular pommegrante-like flavor, and it is also floral and fruity from the elderflower. The balance was there, with just two ingredients.

So this is the concept: It is a two component dessert, with more flavors than components. I think this is easy to convey and easy to understand its intention. And it tastes good.

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