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Marcona Almond, White Ale, Pink Pepper, Lavender

By January 21, 2011Cooking

5 times.  I made a part of this dish 5 times.

Well, if you count the Chestnut experiments, I’ve actually tried to do this trick of making a nut-and-beer spiral 7 times.  I’d like to say the 7th time was a charm for me, but…no.

Let me back up a bit here. I’ve been eyeballing this one for over a year; it involves beer, which automatically elevates it into the “want to pay special attention to this one” category for me, plus the photos in the book are just ridiculously beautiful and compelling. It looks even more impossible and precise than normal, so this thing was already on a bit of a pedestal for me before I ever started it.

The hero ingredients here are marcona almonds and beer. Marcona almonds, I learned, are shorter, squattier cousins to the almonds most of us are familiar with. They’re supposedly milder and sweeter, though it’s very hard to find them raw. Most places online sell them roasted and salted, the traditional spanish way of eating them. Such was how I found them at Berkeley bowl. The recipe actually called for “Marcona Almond Paste, 50% sugar”, which, for the first time in Alinea Cookbook history for me, was completely impossible to find. No amount of internet searching, calling around, or ferreting out clues could tell me how to get such a thing.

Making some seemed trivial though; I measured out equal parts marcona almond and confectioner’s sugar, processed in a food processor, then had to do a little trickery to match additional weights of oil and sugar until I got a pasty, ‘nut buttery’-like paste that I figured was within the ballpark. I worried briefly if the fact that the almonds were roasted and salted would result in something odd, but at 50% sugar, any saltiness was completely overwhelmed by the sweetness. It was, in fact, really, really darn good paste. Not quite as ‘brown’-tasting as almond butter, a bit sweeter and lighter.

The beer called specifically for was Allagash White. In New Zealand, I had anticipated replacing this with something like an Epic Armageddon or an 8-Wire IPA, both of which are 100% delicious.  This, though, would have been a mistake. Allagash White is nothing like either of these beers.

I love beer. I mean, I LOVE it. I would make babies with it if I could. Little nearsighted, obsessive, alcoholic babies. I like to think I know enough about beer to be able to handle it adeptly.  So when I saw Allagash White in this recipe, I was at once both curious and confident that I could pick a suitable substitute if needed. Perhaps, even, I could IMPROVE the recipe, such was my opinion of my beer knowledge.

I searched high and low for Allagash White in the bay area and as it turns out, like everything else Alinea, it is exceptionally difficult to find. After months of searching, I found one dusty 4-pack on the bottom shelf of City Beer Store in San Fran. More than anything, I wanted to just taste it to see what neighborhood I needed to be in if I wanted to try substituting a different beer.

As it turns out, Allagash White Ale is very, very hefeweizeny. It’s not as cloudy as, say, Blue Moon, and it’s MUCH more complex than any hefeweizen I’ve ever tasted. It’s practically exploding with citrus flavors and spices. My beer arrogance was promptly knocked down several pegs; no way could I think of a beer that had the character this one did. I need to drink way, way more.

ANYWAY. Marcona paste and Allagash White in hand, I set about building up this dish. The idea for the main spiral here is that I make a layer of beer gel on a cookie sheet, then pour atop it a mixture of almond paste, sour cream, heavy cream, and gelatin, which yields a firm, custard-like gel layer over the beer. After both layers set, I roll the entire thing up like a sushi roll, then slice it into neat, tidy little beautiful servings.

At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

This is where I got derailed, and quite frustrated. Firstly, pouring the beer layer was very difficult. The gel sets at a pretty high temperature, so pouring a thin (< 1/8″) layer onto a sheet tray caused the fluid gel to set almost immediately as it hit the pan. It was impossible to roll around to distribute evenly. After discarding outright the first two batches of this, I realized that kappa carrageenan is thermoreversible, so with some delicacy, I could reheat a mis-pour enough to melt it down and try again. I could only do this a few times, though, before the heating caused the beer to go off, and it lost it’s fruity scent. I ripped through most of my beer just trying to get this right. In the end, I just couldn’t. The gel was insanely brittle, and when I tried rolling it with the cream gel, it would break, causing a loss in integrity to the whole roll. In seven different batches, this represents the absolute best of what I could get out of it:

To compare, here’s what it looks like in the book:

You can see specifically that they’ve managed to roll the thing exceptionally tightly, with zero breakage, and cut it perfectly, with no ‘chipping’ of the disc, both of which I had a really hard time with.

After the 6th misfire of this, I sort of reached an impasse. I put up a question on the Alinea Mosaic again, but activity on these boards seems to have gone way down since my first visits to it; no one offered any suggestions as to what I might be doing wrong or what trick I might employ to get this done more perfectly. So I decided to make it just one more time, and do the best with what I ended up with.

Out of maybe 30 little slices, I had about 3 that were intact enough for me to try to plate and photograph. I employed a super-technical trick we use in the visual effects business pretty frequently when dealing with imperfections: I covered that shit up with something else. In this case, it was with Allagash Foam.

Knowing I was hiding something, that this didn’t work out EXACTLY PERFECTLY, irked me again, the way it did with the Huckleberry dish. Looking at my semi-sad little spirals and having the vitriol of 6 prior failed attempts coursing through me, I almost didn’t even want to eat the thing. But I did anyway.

And that was the thing I did exactly right for this dish.

This thing is hands-down my favorite-tasting dish I’ve made so far. IT. IS. AMAZING. I felt semi-ok about my progress with the Chestnut variation of this I played with a few months back, but tasting this made me realize I’m light years away from being able to build something like this up from scratch. The complexity was just amazing. The spiral is topped with Allagash foam, orange zest, a lavender flower, tonka bean, malted milk powder, a pool of almond jam, and crushed pink peppercorn. That is a LOT of garnish, and I could taste every single thing. The various toppings dove in and out of the flavor of the beer, and the almond rode right alongside it just perfectly. It feels like every dish I’ve made so far is either a parade of flavors or one holistically ‘good’ thing, but this was — impossibly — both at the same time. It was absolutely delicious.