So, I had so much fun with this one I’m not sure entirely where to begin.
The original dish as described by the Alinea Cookbook is called “Granola, in a Rosewater Envelope”. The idea of an edible envelope coupled with the beautiful and delicate photo of the dish made it immediately appealing. That, and it looked weird and hard and just the thing to captivate an obsessive-compulsive like myself.
The granola recipe is fairly straightforward; it took me a couple of tries to make it only because apparently granola is a high-maintenance endeavor and you have to babysit it as it cooks lest you end up with burnt oats. It’s made with “Old-fashioned steel-cut oats”, which are tough to find in NZ. Commonsense can import them from Australia; they’re referred to as “Coarse Oatmeal”. New Zealand can’t produce steel-cut oats because the process for making them requires a firmer oat than can be grown here. The recipe calls for hot and ‘sweet’ curry powder, the latter of which I couldn’t find so substituted with mild curry powder. Also included were wildflower honey, cinnamon, and other more-delicate spices that I looked forward to tasting, but in the end the batch tasted overwhelmingly like curry and little else.
The Rosewater Envelope was pretty fascinating and surprisingly easy to make; the basic idea is that you make a gelatin-like solid gel of the mixture, blend it (which turns it into something resembling pudding), then dehydrate it. 8 hours later, you have something resembling leathery plastic.
The whole thing, once assembled, was what I’d call off-balance. The rose water envelope was delicate and calm, then all of a sudden I felt like I got hit by a curry truck. Your grandma at a Kiss concert. Not really right at all. Also, while the assembled envelope was very pretty, I felt like it was a bit too frosted; I wanted to see what was inside. It also lacked a bit of color.
So I made a list of things I wanted to try to improve on the second go-around, and set up to try again.
For the second try, I wanted to try making the envelopes out of Orange Blossom Water. I also wanted to try to get a bit more color into the envelope itself, so I thought I’d try drying various herbs and spices into the orange blossom water film. Finally, I wanted the granola to be different; since I can’t find sweet curry powder, I thought I’d just deviate completely and go with ingredients I know.
The first thing I didn’t like about my original granola was the fact that I couldn’t taste any honey. I LOVE honey, and wanted it to be a recognizable ingredient. In the name of SCIENCE, I also decided I needed to research the best type of honey for my project. I wanted something inherently unique; something that reflected the coolest of what our country has to offer down here:
Guys. Contemporaneous honey tasting = AWESOME. I sat in my living room floor yesterday afternoon with a small spoon, studiously tasting each one. The ones I thought I’d like the most (Pohutukawa and Wild Thyme) turned out the be the ones I actually DID like the most. The Blue Borage honey was floral but bitter, and the Manuka honey was tasty but too familiar. I wanted something interesting and different, and the one I ended up going with was the Wild Thyme; it’s robust and has similar notes as Clover honey, but also something special that I can’t quite articulate.
Once the honey issue was sorted, I started thinking a bit about the other flavors I wanted. After making a few dishes from a different cookbook for Movida in Melbourne, I’ve become a pretty big fan of paprika. It unfolds slowly, not entirely unlike a flower, and I liked the idea that it would give room for a person to taste the honey up front before it kicked in. For heat I substituted Chipotle spice for the curry powder.
For the envelopes, I wanted to try embedding things in the film to add color and interest. I sprinkled some thyme leaves on some, some lime zest on others, and some cinnamon and paprika on others. Flavor-wise, they don’t contribute a ton, but they looked pretty.
Once assembled, I have to say I preferred the second batch. The envelopes had the same come-on-slowly-and-delicately vibe that the rosewater ones did. The granola, however, felt much more balanced, and had more of a ‘story arc’. This isn’t to impugn the original recipe, but rather my realization of it.
Oh, I almost forgot the most ridiculous part. So, the first time through, my envelopes had teensy bubbles that contributed to them being frosted. So I posted a note on the Alinea forums (Yeah, the chefs of the restaurant have an online forum, in which you can ask them and other contemporaries questions directly). One chef suggested removing the bubbles by putting the gel under vacuum before dehydrating it.
So I built a vacuum chamber to try doing exactly that.
Almost as exciting as removing the bubbles from my envelopes was trying to remove the chamber from my countertop…I forgot to build a release valve into it. But eventually it came loose.