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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Old-School


Today I received a great surprise. There is a gentleman whose mother (now deceased... that's not the great surprise) was an avid collector of antique metal chocolate and sugar molds. My dean, Thomas Vaccaro, went to see this collection of nearly 700 molds. 700 molds! Who has 700 of anything? I am not sure what the motivation was for starting this collection, but then again, why does anyone start collections? I collect books, I suppose. But I don't think I am close to 700. Not by a long shot. Maybe by the time I am an old man. I hope.

The surprise was one of those chocolate molds. And it was perfect. Four little pigs sitting down. Soon after it was given to me, we cleaned it well (with Vodka nonetheless to sanitize it and to keep it from rusting), polished it, and Bryan, our chocolate guy, got to tempering dark chocolate right away.


I though that to do this piece justice it had to have a special ganache filling. And it didn't take long to realize that nothing could be better than a bacon ganache. We had made this ganache before to fill large Valentine's Day chocolate hearts, using not only cream that was steeped with bacon, but we also dehydrated bacon, pulverized it and added it to the mix. The flavor in the heavy cream alone does not add enough flavor, you have to add actual bacon. Why fill hearts with bacon ganache? Because bacon = love.

I saw a few more pictures of the other molds that are still in storage and they look absolutely great. The school will be purchasing some of them and the owner will donate another few. There are shapes and forms that are not used anymore, which is why it would be great to bring them back. I can think of so many ways to use them, from small pieces to large ones.

I also couldn't help but appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into the mold. Nowadays most chocolate molds are made from polycarbonate plastic, and they work great, which is why I don't want to get into "things were so much better made then"... polycarbonate is easy to use and it is much easier to keep clean than metal. But these metal molds were still producing a very shiny chocolate. I have no way to know when the mold was made, I wish I did, but I do know that it was made in Germany.

If you keep your eyes open, you can sometimes find these molds at flea markets. sometimes their owners have little idea how valuable they are, at least to someone who appreciates their worth.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Terrarium - Revisited


Individual desserts can also translate into cakes, but sometimes they require some adjusting. The "Terrarium" posted on Wednesday April 22, has some components that just cannot translate into a cake, such as the milk chocolate soil. If you think about it, the soil is loose and it will not have any structure, which could make the cake hard to cut and eat.
So instead of using milk chocolate, we used the milk chocolate to make a milk chocolate mousse, which is the body of this cake. The almond and cocoa soil are at the top of the cake, and yes, it is a loose component, and to resolve this the top layer was coated with chocolate spray, which when set, hardens and keeps everything in place.



The meyer lemon and espresso curd, as well as the litchi jelly are used as inserts. The sponge cake is matcha tea genoise.

I think this cake does nature justice. And it tastes good too.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Eggshell as a Perfect Vessel



The eggshell, naturally, contains an egg. Everyone knows that. On average a large egg weighs (without the shell) 50 g. For me that is the ideal weight of a small dessert. The shell also happens to be highly impact resistant, making it easy to transport and handle. Its design is practically flawless.
We have a set of desserts we call "petit plaisirs" (small pleasures, if you will) which all weigh between 40 and 75 g. The item pictured above is simply a dark chocolate pot de creme, garnished with chocolate covered puffed rice for texture; the circular wafer paper with the farmhouse design is purely aesthetic, but it also implies rather obviously the idea of the egg coming from a farm, and this egg did come from an actual farm. Originally, this pot de creme was made and baked as such, in other words, the custard base was made on the stove and then it was portioned into egg shells that had been carefully topped and their membranes removed, then baked in a water bath in a oven until set.

It occurred to me that it might not be necessary to bake this custard. I could make it as a creme anglaise and then add the chocolate while it was still hot. The chocolate almost acts as cement in preparations like this or as in a mousse. It did in fact work as I had expected it to, but I think this was just a lucky strike, because you could not make a pot de creme in this way (as an anglaise) with any other type of pot de creme that did not contain chocolate. For example, we also have a maple sugar pot de creme on the menu which we bake in a 60 ml mason jar in a waterbath in an oven. We could never get away with simply cooking it on the stove, since, if anything, it would only thicken as much (or as little, depending on how you see it) as an anglaise does.



But this brought me to another thought. When you make any custard on the stove, you usually bring the dairy mix (milk or milk and heavy cream) up to a boil with half of the sugar, and then you have a bowl on the side with the yolks, the other half of the sugar (and the cornstarch, if you are making pastry cream); once it boils you temper the egg yolks and continue according to the type of custard (either finished on the stove or the oven). While this is a generally accepted practice and the resulting products have been around for years, it is not necessary to take all these extra steps. You technically can start with all of your ingredients in a pot and slowly stir over medium to medium-low heat until you reach the texture you are looking for. For example, if I wanted to make a creme anglaise, I could place the ingredients in a pot along with the probe of a good thermometer (or even better, a thermo-whisk, which is a whisk that doubles as a thermometer, displaying the temperature at the top of the handle of the whisk), place it over medium-low heat and cook it until it the egg yolks have been properly coagulated (82 to 85 degrees Celsius), turning the heat down slightly and stirring until the custard has thickened properly. The same could be said for most items that are started on the stove and then finished in an oven, such as creme brulee bases, creme caramel bases and pot de creme bases.
This idea came from a method for making ice cream bases, in which you add certain ingredients as the dairy gets warmer and warmer. In this method, the egg yolks are added when it reaches about 35 to 40 degrees Celsius, but in reality it could be done sooner.
Is this a better method? No, it is just different, and in reality it can take longer to make than with the traditional method, since in the traditional method the boiling liquid speeds up the cooking process of the eggs. Except if you own a Thermomix (which I do), a machine that I plan on posting about soon, which is essentially a blender with a heating element; it can be switched to scale out the ingredients. You can program the time and the temperature you want to cook it at, and then you can turn it on and walk away. But that is for another day.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hard Candy



I am in awe of the product that the people at papabubble do (http://www.papabubble.com/) and I am not afraid to say that I want to be as good as they are at making candy. What is amazing, besides the qulity of the product they make, is that it is done almost totaly by hand. They only have one automated machine they use to cut out individual hard candies, but that's it. Also, as if that was't inspiring enough, they are heavily involved in art and design and they use artists to design the stickers they apply onto their packages. The stores are an exercise in simplicity, where the product is the main atraction.
I have never been to a store. I know all this from the web and from people who have visited their stores.


One of my sous, Bryan Graham, was in Manhattan recently and he literally stumbled upon the store. We had spoken about this place a few times, because I wanted Bryan to spearhead our yet to debut hard candy offerings, and to try to become if not as good as papabubbles', at least in a close proximity. Bryan is great with chocolate and confectionery in general, so this task suits him well.
He brought back a few samples and they were outstanding. Most intriguing was a rice milk hard candy, which was heavy on the cinnamon, but it was also crystallized. On purpose. That is terrific, because we have all learned that it is bad to crystallize sugar. These guys say it's OK.




Bryan tested a few different varieties. I only photographed two of the ones he made. The one at the begining of this posting is a test to see if we can make a design inside a hard candy. It is just a test, which is why it is simply a circle down the center. The pieces above, are filled with fizzy powder. I think this was a great start and we'll see where we go from here.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Micro-bread


What happens when you cook bread in a microwave? This was the question that started this experiment. And you are indeed cooking the bread, you are not baking it, which is what occurs in a hearth oven. Although technically a microwave is an oven, it doesn't bake, it cooks.

What I wanted to replicate was what is called an "oven-spring" which is the quick expansion a dough should go through in a hot oven in order to become enlarged and stretch out the dough to make the crumb light and filled with pockets. Those pockets in the crumb, depending on the bread, the larger and more irregular they are, the better.
Now, what would happen if you took the oven spring and sped it up ten times faster? The result is in the picture above and below. We used a regular lean dough with a poolish as a pre-ferment. We use this dough regularly for baguettes. So it is a strong dough with sufficient gluten development. But I wasn't sure if the gluten would withstand such a quick expansion without ripping.
The dough was placed in a cryovac bag and sealed, without vacuuming the air out. So it was just a pouch. This sped up the fermentation process, since the heat that was generated by the yeast activity was concentrated in a closed environment. After about one hour of proofing the dough, we made two air holes in the cryovac bag, placed it in the microwave, turned it on to high and set the dial to two minutes.
Within seconds the dough began to expand, and by the 45 second mark it had expanded to twice the size. I could still see it bubbling in the bag, which to me meant that the protein had not fully coagulated yet (the bread wasn't cooked all the way), so I let it go the full two minutes until it stopped bubbling. There is a point in the dough when the gluten expands enough in relation to how fast it is coagulating, that the strands cannot expand any further, so the growth and enlargement is stopped. The problem with a microwave is that it will not produce a firm crust. It is soft like white bread. Because what is really happening in the bag is that the dough is getting cooked two way: through the microwave electromagnetic radiation and through the steam from the moisture that is in the dough itself, which is much a more violent steam bath than it would be in a regular steamer.


We immediately placed the bread in a hearth oven, steamed it and finished baking it until it had formed a beautiful dark brown crust.
The result was a perfectly acceptable loaf of bread. The shape was not ideal (it was shaped like the bag it had been cooked in), but the crumb was spot on as you can see, and crust was crusty.

This is not to say that we are going to change the way we make bread. Not at all. We just know how to make it another, non-traditional way, with excellent results.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Peaches and Cream




This is a new dessert we started this week. The idea was to use the basic precepts of the classic dessert of "Peaches and Cream". That is, we would use peaches and we would use cream, but it would be nothing like the actual dessert.




The components are:

  • Peach nectar: inside the "balloon". This balloon is nothing more than plain old kitchen plastic wrap. We used a sausage metal clip to secure the twist. The actual nectar is lightly gelled so that when the balloon is popped, the liquid oozes out like an egg yolk.

  • Inside the bowl: a layer of creme anglaise with toasted almond clusters and peach compote. Surrounding that, is a vanilla panna cotta.
  • The surface is made up of a purple joconde, which, after baking, was diced, blast frozen and pulverized in the thermomix.
  • A pin. How else would you pop the balloon?
This item is definitively interactive and the customer has to be told how to eat it. And to be aware of the pin.
Sometimes when I am confronted with an interactive dish, I tend to resent the chef for making me do the work he or she is supposed to do for me. But in this case I am the chef that is putting the customer to work.



The look of the balloons reminds me of a tomato. Which gave me the idea to do something with tomatoes in this way when they arrive in the summer. Obviously not a dessert.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Breakfast in a jar

When I think of convenience foods and fast food restaurants I usually don't usually associate them with particularly good food. In fact not at all. What I do associate them with though is efficient and smart packaging. If you think of the way this food is packaged and how quickly, efficiently and conveniently it is delivered, you have to acknowledge that these establishments do a very good job about it. Not very environmentally friendly though.

Why is this exclusive of fast food chains or supermarket foods? I think that convenience can absolutely apply to good food.
A few weeks ago, Erin Snyder, one of my sous-chefs, and I, were thinking about a new breakfast item to replace a dish that was proving to be too finicky and inconsistent. We wanted something that was good, easy and practically fool-proof. The result was the breakfast in a jar. The idea was to be able to put the following items together in a jar:

.Vegetable or potato
.Protein (optional)
.Eggs (coddled)
.Cheese (optional)
.Bread, toasted for texture.

With these starting points there could be endless combinations. All that was needed was to have the mise en place ready, assemble all of the ingredients in a jar, and serve. This of course gives us the option of a rotating menu, where we could change it daily if we wanted to.

The item in the photo is made up of grilled ramps, sauteed shiitake mushrooms, rendered Canadian bacon, two coddled eggs (sans shell) and toasted brioche cubes.

Some other ideas:
  • Potatoes fried in duck fat, caramelized onions, eggs, Gruyere, toasted sourdough.
  • Chorizo, leeks, eggs, manchego, buttered baguette.
  • Smoked salmon, green onions, eggs, creme fraiche, toasted bagel (diced).
  • Wild mushrooms, eggs, fontina cheese, buttered and toasted brioche cubes.
  • Eggs Benedict in a jar: julienned Canadian bacon, eggs, hollandaise sauce, toasted cubed English Muffin.
  • Sauteed morels, grilled asparagus, eggs, pecorino tartufo cheese, rye bread toast.
  • Maple bacon lardons, grits, eggs, brioche French toast







Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Terrarium


Inspiration or emulation?

This is a dessert meant to look like something that is not a dessert. The question is, does a dessert need to look like a dessert or not? Which raises yet another question: what is a dessert supposed to look like? There are as many opinions as there are people. And no one is wrong.
©Francisco Migoya

Is this dessert inspired by nature or does it emulate nature? I don't have the answer to that, so this is not a rhetorical question. Yet, what is most important here that should not be overlooked is quite simple: does it taste good? If the answer is yes (which in my opinion it is), then does it matter at all what it looks like? This is a rhetorical question. It absolutely matters what it looks like. But does it matter as much as how it tastes? No. But it is a close second. To put it in a better context:


Flavor = A

Visual appeal = a (not B or b)

I think this dessert is intriguing and it makes me want to find out what is going on. I see it and I think of soil and plants (obviously), and if this will be good to eat or is it just for show. Is it just a dessert that is meant to shock more than anything else?
I think it is important to realize that if anything, it will make you think. We forget to really think about what we eat. It is so automatic that we don't take a second to ponder the food that is about to enter our bodies.

These are the components of the dessert (from bottom to top):

  • Litchi jelly (agar gelled litchi juice; litchi reminds me of flowers (like elderflower) and fruits (like raspberries))
  • Milk chocolate "soil" (frozen milk chocolate put through a Thermomix to obtain a fine powder; adds necessary sweetness and acts as a background flavor... a supporting role if you will)
  • Meyer lemon and espresso curd (lemon and coffee is one of my favorite flavor combinations; tart)
  • Almond and cocoa soil (a combination of almond flour, cocoa powder, sugar and butter, toasted in the oven; this adds a crunchy texture to the dessert)
  • Matcha tea genoise powder (sponge cake made with matcha powder, diced, dehydrated and pulverized in the Thermomix; adds yet another texture, but also the herbiness (not a real word) of concentrated green tea)
  • Balsamic vinegar crystals (pearl sugar, doused with balsamic vinegar, then dehydrated; contributes crunch, sweet and tart)
  • Elderflower dew (elderflower liquor reduction combined with a neutral glaze; for the elderflower taste parallel with the litchi)
  • Organic micro greens and sprouts (sunflower sprouts, tangerine micro-herb (looks like a fern), pea tendrils (yellow), wheat grass). The element of the greens and sprouts adds an extra herbiness and sweetness different from sugar.

I should also add that this was not only inspired by nature, it was also inspired by a line of desserts in the book "Natura" by Albert Adria, pastry chef of "el Bulli" in Spain. Not one of the ingredients or components in the "Terrarium" came from his book, it was simply the idea that nature, which is right in front of us, can be interpreted into food in other ways than we are used to. In other words, we find our food in nature, obviously, but can an image found in nature be translated into a dessert successfully? The answer is a resounding "yes". The trick is to do it wisely, otherwise there is a fine line that when crossed turns your dessert into a bundle of sadness.


Sean Pera, one of my collaborators at the CIA, initiated the idea for this dessert. After some discussion and brainstorming with the rest of the team we came up with an extended version of the original thought. This is one of my favorite things about my job, the collaboration and the thought process which yields such amazing results.


©Francisco Migoya

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Messing with bread

There have been so many innovations in food during the last decade that it is hard to keep up with it all. I would say that, the moment I personally realized that things would never be the same for me was during a conversation I had with a cook at The River Cafe (where I was employed), about ten years ago. We were talking about these guys in Spain who were making something called foams. The notion was so novel and exciting we just had to try it and we did. And it was fun because it worked and it was easy and you could do all sorts of funky flavors and combinations. We used it a lot. Too much maybe.

And then the world was drowned in foam.
But what I have also come to realize is that there hasn't been that much going on when it comes to bread. Is it because you are not supposed to change bread? Leave good enough alone? Pastry and cooking seem to be at the forefront of it all, having all the fun. While bread has steadily remained true to its origins, method and technique for decades. I would enjoy putting an end to all that; or at least finding a way to think differently about bread. There are two people on my staff, Matt Waldron and Justen Nickell who are helping me with such projects.

Today's "experiment" used a basic lean dough (which we use for baguettes and epi's), vegetable ash (the kind used for goat cheese) and black Oregon truffles. The point of this experiment was to see the effect of ash on bread, in it's crumb and on it's crust, as well as the potential flavor transfer of truffle into the crumb.

There were two approaches:
In the first, we took 1000 g of lean dough, shaped it as a round (boule), flattened it like a pancake, coated both sides with vegetable ash, placed a 60 g black truffle down the center of the disc of dough, and wrapped it as if it were a dumpling.

The second approach consisted in taking the same amount of dough, shaping it as a round as well, and then studding it with 5 small black truffles. After the truffles had been added, we brushed the dough with the ash on its entire surface.

Both dough rounds were placed on a couche (bread linen). The first dough (with the large truffle), seam side down, the second, seam side up, and then covered with the same couche. They were proofed for 1.5 hours at 27 degrees Celsius with 85% r.h. (relative humidity).

The first dough (with the large truffle, seam facing down), was flipped over onto our bread loader, seam side up. When doing this, it is not necessary to score the dough. The opening from the seam works as though it was scored.

The second dough (with the smaller truffles, seam facing up), was also flipped over onto the bread loader, seam side down. This dough did in fact need to be scored.

After baking in a deck oven (also known as a hearth oven) at 255 degrees Celsius, (initially steaming as soon as the oven was loaded and then, on the onset of color, venting to form a crust), we waited for the bread to cool down completely.

The exterior obviously had a very dark hue because of the ash, but the actual browned crust was visible under the ash. The crust remained crisp. So the ash had at least no negative effect on the bread. The ultimate test would be what the crumb looked like and most importantly, what it tasted like.

In the first dough, the crust had a crisp, minerally, but not unpleasant at all taste. The appearance of the crumb was visually arresting, since the ash that had been folded into it had left a striking pattern inside of it; the truffle itself was smack down the middle. Unfortunately the aroma of the truffle was very subtle. Had we used the real deal or a white truffle, it would have been another story.




The second dough was similar to the first with regards to the crust and the crumb, but the small truffles throughout the crumb were visually unappealing and had little flavor.
Hands down, the first dough was the winner. But more importantly, is this a better piece of bread than if it would have been left as the original lean dough? I would say that it cannot be considered better or worse, just a different type of bread made from a very familiar dough. It would have been terrific with a real truffle, but then again, who is going to pay hundreds of dollars for a loaf of bread? Bread is considered to be the food of the masses. The stuff you eat when there is nothing else, right?

Which is exactly why we should put a real truffle in it next time. Bread as a luxury item. That's an idea.

Our next test on lean dough includes a cry-o-vac bag and machine, a microwave and a deck oven.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Re-interpretations


Since I do not have a starting point, a logical progression or an established action plan for this blog, I am just going to go ahead and start with a random item I was working on today.

I was thinking about apple pie and what it is about it that I (and others) like. There's the crust, which has to be flaky and crisp (and stay that way for at least a full day; that is the difference between a dough that was properly made and baked and one that was not). There is also the apple part of course. It doesn't matter whether it is a par-cooked filling or not (raw) before the pie is baked, in the end what matters is a pronounced cooked (baked?) apple flavor and apple pieces that hold their shape and stay in place when you cut the pie. There's also the spices used, most commonly cinnamon, and then, as if it was necessary, clove, nutmeg, allspice, sometimes even ginger. But let's face it, cinnamon is at the top of the list. And a warm slice of pie needs some whipped cream. The real kind, not the aerosol.
With these elements, how can you make a dessert that embodies all of those factors? What I came up with was this:

A French macaron (crisp) filled with apple butter (very concentrated apple flavor), a quenelle of slightly sweetened whipped creme fraiche and heavy cream, and a pipette filled with a sweet and intensely flavored Vietnamese cinnamon infusion. How do you eat it? You take the macaron and spoon some of the cream on it, drizzle a few drops of the infusion and take a bite. There is also a rectangle of Granny Smith apple skin powder. The fern is simply a stencil, airbrushed with black cocoa butter.


But this does make me also think that re-interpretations are personal, especially when it comes to foods that people expect to be a certain way. Apple pie is apple pie, and many people have the same idea as to what makes it good or not good to eat. So when you take the usual comfort elements of food and you shake them up, you might not make apple pie lover's very happy.

Which is great. Haven't there been enough great apple pies made?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Thequenelle.com day 1

Well, here we go.
I started this blog to serve a very simple purpose: to be a means for the discussion and illustration of ideas on pastry, confectionery, bread baking and cooking (and anything related to food and drink) from a professional standpoint for professionals and for serious food enthusiasts.
I will be posting frequently and I look forward to hearing from all of those who share these interests and look to become better at their craft.

Why the name "thequenelle.com"? For me, the quenelle, the oval, egg-shape that is (not the dumpling), when it is properly spooned, it's shape is a display of finesse and knowledge of technique. A quenelle can be a sweet or a savory item, it doesn't matter. It takes a skilled hand to deliver it consistently.


(photo © Ben Fink from "Frozen Desserts" by Francisco J. Migoya (Wiley & Sons 2008)