Monday, December 28, 2009

Pastisseria Escriba - Barcelona

I frankly do not have words to express how special this particular visit was. I was aware of this pastry shop and it was on my itinerary to visit, and fortunately, I was able to get a private tour with the chef-owner, Christian Escriba and his project director Xavier Marco, through PRODECA, the government arm of Catalonia that sponsored our trip.
This is a fourth generation owned pastry shop, 104 years old. Mr. Escriba, is the 4th generation, and his son is now in pastry school, readying himself to be the 5th generation to own the shop.
I was first dawn to Ecriba from word of mouth, and I came upon their website, which you can see here: ; there you can see that they definitely have a different twist on pastry.
I went to the shop the day before I was to return to New York, on December 17th. My appointment with Mr. Escriba was set to last from 9 to 11 a.m. It lasted a total of 3.5 hours in the end.
When I first met him, he was nothing but warm and welcoming, and what I noticed almost instantly was the fact that he was wearing golden sneakers. I would never be able to pull something like that off. He first showed me around the shop, which was nice enough, with a great assortment of pastries and turrones (traditional Spanish holiday candy bars) and some of he sugar rings he has become well known for.
He also showed me the back of the house, where production takes place, and it was rustic to say the least, but they were in the process of upgrading it little by little. Keep in mind hat it is a 104 year old establishment. That was all good and well, and I thought the tour was over for the most part, until he took me to the second floor of the building. It used to be where he, his brothers and his parents used to live. In other words, where he grew up as a child, directly above the shop. He transformed the entire place to be a showroom to display what he feels is his specialty: wedding cakes and his sugar rings. The video below is a room where he has a... well, just look at it. I took the video with the camera positioned vertically, so you may need to tilt your head to the left or turn your computer around 90 degrees.


The images below are the main foyer before you enter the cake display room:

These are some of the items he makes out of chocolate; also for display only. There are in the hallway, on the way to the display room:

When I say that wedding cakes are his specialty I cannot even begin to describe how much this man has put into making an impact in this market. I have never seen anything like it. I mean, sure, there are many talented wedding cake makers out there (I am so not one of them, never had and interest in manipulating fondant), but this man really takes it to a place where it is immensely inspiring.
He has this space which is a showroom where he talks to potential customers and shows them what he can do for them. The table he works on was made by him using different textures of chocolate, then framed (see here):


They have a projector and a screen in this room (which is always dimly lit, to kind of set the mood) where they show clips of the cakes they have made. I saw many that truly moved me, almost to tears (what!?). You see, he doesn't just make the cake and drop it off, he is almost a performance artist. Not almost. He is. He has blurred the line between pastry and art, making pastry truly an art (look at this clip: how cool is this?). The cakes are part of a performance that he puts together, a show if you will, with dancers and actors in costume. You should see the faces of the people who are present at these weddings. Nothing but sheer happiness. Just take a look at this clip, where there is a "flying cake"; basically an actual cake that is hidden by a square canvas with helium filled balloons attached to it; the guests then post their wishes for the bride and groom on the canvas, and once they are all the notes are attached to the canvas, they release it and then it flies up in the air taking all of the good wishes with it, and the actual cake is revealed:

And, as he says, that is what it is all about. He casually mentioned that Ferran Adria had prepared his first banquet gig ever for his wedding, and then he (Mr. Escriba) returned the favor by making Ferran Adria's wedding cake in 2002. Look at the clip:

He also showed me a new technique he has invented (discovered?), which he says is the next step in wedding cake making, and he calls it "augmented reality", where the cake is but a canvas, and you can virtually do anything with it. I found this clip on you tube which explains it better:

Wow! Have you ever thought this could be possible?

Just next to the wedding cake display area is the chocolate room, where all confections and chocolates are made. The walls were painted by an artist, commissioned by Mr. Escriba. I mean, who does that these days? Usually all the money spent for decoration is in the FOH not the BOH!

I was honored that he gave me so much of his time. He didn't know me from Adam and yet he spent a good chunk of his day showing me what he does. This was one of the best experiences pastry-wise of my life. I wish that one day you can also have a similar experience. It opened my eyes for sure.
One last thing, he has come up with this new concept (well, new to me) of a mural wedding cake, where instead of the normal stacked cake format, the cake is on a mural and attached to it are a variety of petit fours and mignardises, and the guests just grab what they want from the mural. Cool. Check it out here:
This is officially the longest posting in the short history of thequenelle.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

ESPAI SUCRE - Dessert... it's what's for dinner

I don't know if any other place has been able to pull this idea off for as long as Espai Sucre has. Correct me if I am wrong (Chickalicious (sp?) perhaps, but not as long as E.S.; (I actually spoke to one of the owners of Espai Sucre, Xano Sager, and he tells a funny story of visiting Chicalicious incognito, and while speaking to one of the owners of Chk, hearing that they had been inspired by Espai Sucre, well, you can figure out the rest of the story); as far as I know, they broke ground in this very specific niche, and keep going at it over a decade later. I had wanted to go since the first time I went to Barcelona a decade ago, but I did not have it together and did not reserve a table at this very small restaurant (you can check it out at; this year I finally scored a table on time (no thanks to me, but actually thanks to the good folks at PRODECA, who sponsored this trip). The premise is that at Espai Sucre they want to blur the line between sweet and savory. It does work to an extent, but to me the drive is clearly sweet, with some savory undertones. It is clever beyond explanation though, since all of us (and the group included savory chefs) did not feel like we had just eaten dessert after dessert. We were sated as if he had just had a normal dinner. And that, my friends, is pretty smart.

Watch the video. This is what appears in chronological order:

a) The table setting, simple and cool.

b) Chocolate sable, olives and licorice (good)

c) Cracker, pear, smoked paprika sausage, apples, honey.(good)

d) Pumpkin cream, pumpkin seeds and cream cheese (delicious)

e) Butter croissant roll (outstanding)

f) Duck magret with cacao cake and lemon (the rings are dehydrated onion) (delicious)

-A spoon that looks a lot like the upside-down quenelle spoon -

g) "Ginger Ale", Cucumber (wrapped in a cucumber gel) and Pineapple-tarragon sorbet (very good)

h) Extra virgin olive oil cake, white peach (agar gel and then a sorbet), green olive (croquant on top and puree at the bottom) and "San Simon" (a smoky cheese, used in a puree form at the bottom of the cake, next to the green olive puree). (Still unsure if I liked the combo... I liked the individual components though)

i) Truffle mushroom (gelee and oil), butter (ice cream), hazelnut (cookie at base), cocoa (crumbs). Topping is a sort of poundcake; it was soft, not toasted. I enjoyed this item... but I don't know why, since mushrooms and sweet don't usually work, but here they kind of did.

j) Tour of the kitchen... it's tiny.

They also have a school, which is the financial support for the restaurant, since according to Xano, they make no money from it. Now, that's love of the craft. It goes against all we have been taught (on how to make money). Oh how I want a place such as this!

BTW, Espai Sucre means "Sweet Space" literaly. It's in Catalan, so there is a chance I may be wrong on the translation.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Perfect Pastry Cream

I have come to realize that there are many more people in the world who are way way smarter than I. A perfect example are the people at Alicia, in this particular case Ms. Laia Badal (chemist, staging at Alicia) and Mr. Pere Castells (head of the Department of Scientific and Gastronomic Research at Alicia... you may have seen him before; he was in the Anthony Bourdain episode titled "Decoding Ferran Adria", when they are in the workshop testing items out, Pere (pronounced Pera) is the person in charge of the chemistry part of things, so in my book, a rock star), the chemists responsible for developing this method which I explain below.

They do have a bunch of cutting edge equipment and technology, but most importantly, a good head on their shoulders. One of the most remarkable experiences for me during this trip was the method that they had developed to make pastry cream. The original questions for them were, how do we make it better? How can we make it faster? How do we simplify it? And I think that this may be the core of Alicia, to find better and simpler ways to make great food. The theory was that pastry cream was complicated to make and more frequently than not, the result was lumpy and grainy. Believe me, I taught this method to my students and 95% of the time the result was not optimal.

This is the classic procedure:

Place 95% of the milk (or milk and heavy cream mixture) in a sauce pot with half the sugar, in another bowl, mix the remaining milk with the cornstarch and stir well, add the egg yolks and the remaining sugar; stir until homogeneous. Must be lump free (strain if needed).

Bring the liquid to a boil and temper the egg yolk - slurry. Return the heat and bring to first boil while stirring constantly. Take the pot off the heat and stir the butter in; cool off and cover with plastic to avoid a film.

The problem with this method is that it is very aggressive on the egg yolk and the cornstarch. Egg yolks begin to coagulate at 80 degrees Celsius / 175 degrees Fahrenheit and cornstarch coagulates between 80 and 85 degrees Celsius / 175 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The theory was that the mixture did not need to come to a boil after tempering the egg yolks in (which is what would over-coagulate the yolks and the starch, resulting in a lumpy, grainy cream), if you could get the liquid (milk or milk and heavy cream) hot enough to coagulate the yolks and the cornstarch in one quick shot.

This is the Alicia procedure:

Mix 95% of the milk with the sugar in a sauce pot; turn on to high heat.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining milk with the cornstarch and make a slurry. Stir in the yolks. Strain through a chinois to avoid lumps.
The milk and sugar mixture need to come to a rolling boil, so you need to use a tall pot. The milk needs to come all the way to the top of the pot, then you dump it all at once into the milk-cornstarch - yolk mixture while stirring constantly (so ideally two people are involved). And then magic unfolds before your eyes as you stir. You have the smoothest, richest, creamiest, lump free pastry cream you have ever tasted.

This method does not work with recipes smaller than 1 liter, since the milk cannot reach the desired temperature that can coagulate the yolks and cornstarch instantly. But who makes only 1 liter of pastry cream?
I know a lot of folks who would frown down on this method, but, the proof's in the pudding. Enough said. Method embraced.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bubo - Carles Mampel and why Barcelona is so special

I apologize for the delay in posting, it seems that my computer was not working so well in Spain and had trouble uploading videos. I am presently back in NY since yesterday, so I will be posting on all I should have posted while I was gone.

The first video below is from a pastry shop in the heart of the Gothic quarter in Barcelona, Bubo, owned by pastry chef Carles Mempel. I must admit that it was not on my itinerary since I had forgotten it was in Barcelona, not sure why (age?). I literally stumbled upon it while walking around. What is quite incredible is that it was at 12 a.m. and the shop wouldn't close for another hour! Where else do you see that? (rhetorical question). They were understandably low on product (it was midnight after all), but nonetheless what they still had was something to recon.


The video below is not pastry related but nonetheless a snapshot of the curious/amazing nature of this city. This is a bar called "Espai Barroc", and it is set inside a very old building. At the front door there is a "bouncer" of sorts, dressed in a Baroque outfit,and basically lets you in or not depending on the impression he gets of you, not the clothes you wear or how attractive you are, which is fortunate for me on both counts. Once you enter, there is a patio with antique paintings and a lush vegetation. Inside the bar, well... you will see. It's like an antique shop on steroids. And the gin and tonics were quite nice.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Oriol Balaguer / Ramon Morato (Cacao Sampaka)

As soon as I could I went to my first destination: Oriol Balaguer. And my first impression was: its' tiny. But, I have to say, the design is spectacular. Size is irrelevant. I wish my shop were this small. Really. I won't babble on about the place, just look at the photos.

The set below was in the chain of chocolate shops owned (?) partially by Ramon Morato (if you do not know him, please google him, you will be impressed) called Cacao Sampaka. I only shot outside beacuse they would not let me shoot inside. Why? What could possibly result from that? Ridiculous. So, since I could not shoot a photo, I shot video... to be posted later.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

On my way to Spain

I am very fortunate to be leaving tomorrow for Spain, specifically Barcelona and the surrounding area (Mon Sant Benet), where a wonderful place, named the ALICIA Foundation is located. This foundation's main objective is (copied from their website):
AlĂ­cia is a research centre focusing on technological innovation in kitchen science and the dissemination of agronourishment and gastronomic heritage. It has a clear social mission in that it is open to the public, and is aimed at promoting good nourishment.; for more detailed info, see here: Ferran Adria is mostly responsible for the foundation's direction and growth. It is because of him really that this trip is happening, since his visit to the CIA's campus in March of this year, part of his agenda was to establish a close connection to the school. One of the results of this connection or relationship was to start an exchange of chefs from the Catalan region of Spain and members of the faculty, staff and students from the CIA. I was one of the very lucky faculty members to be selected for this tremendous honor.

There are many activities planned for us, some hands-on work shops, tours and generally an immersion into Catalan cuisine, classic and avant garde (don't call it molecular gastronomy...).

I will be posting as I can, mostly video and some photos, until I return on December 18th.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More sameness

This is a semi-new dessert inspired by seasonal flavors. The original idea was to create a dessert that would loosely reference a pumpkin pie. It is a pumpkin panna cotta (to serve as the doppelganger of the pumpkin custard in pumpkin pie) dusted with freeze dried pumpkin powder, pumpkin seed streusel coated in atomized chocolate (the pie shell), creme fraiche (the cube next to the quenelle, acting as the whipped cream) and finally a completely unrelated item: the quenelle is a milk chocolate chantilly coated in a pumpkin seed velvet spray. This is actually an interesting component, made with a combination of pumpkin butter and pumpkin seed oil, which is naturally that actual green that you see.
Oh, also, I love squares and rectangles, with straight corners and also with curved corners. I think they are the perfect shape for desserts. It's the easiest way to divide a dessert if one is into sharing, but it is also a great way to be able to line desserts up.