I like asking people “what’s the last good book you read?” I just finished Neil Strauss’ “The Game“, an autobiographical account of the author’s foray into the world of pickup artists and their “gurus” (self-described geniuses at the art of picking up/seducing women, a la Tom Cruise’s “Frank TJ Mackey” character in “Magnolia”). The first half of the book is about Strauss transforming himself from skinny nerd into (he claims) the world’s greatest pickup artist. It’s predictably douchey and full of braggadocio and chauvinism, but Strauss balances his elaboration (in extremely-full detail) on the results of his conquests with very complete descriptions of the nearly-scientific prescriptive approach he takes in learning how to master this ‘skill’ as well as frequent descriptions of his failures. It’s this balance that makes this a good story and kept me turning the pages instead of throwing them across the room.
The book is a compelling read not only for the obvious titillation factor, but because Strauss circles around a thesis that’s inherently interesting to me: is it possible to teach onesself how to be really good at something given enough determination, tenacity, and patience? Or is excellence a predisposition?
He ends up landing near the same place I do, which is “it could be either one.” Sometimes excellence at a particular thing comes naturally. But I think that the old joke “Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A: Practice.” can be true too. For some, being really good at something isn’t a product of their aptitude but their willingness to just keep trying over and over and being able to not get discouraged.
This idea is reinforced in another cool book I read over Christmas: “Elements of Dessert” by Francisco Migoya. This book has nothing to do with picking up women. It’s a textbook of sorts (and a brilliant one at that), containing not only recipes but broad lessons like “categories of pastry” and “how to architect a dessert”. Migoya casually peppers common sense throughout his instruction, which is beautiful and reassuring to read. One part in particular I loved: he notes that when he has an idea for a dessert, he allows himself 4 tries to get it perfect. If, after 4 tries, the dessert hasn’t come together into something really great, he scraps the idea or reworks it. This acknowledgement that even the best fail often or have ideas that don’t work — however obvious to someone with better perspective than I — is somehow comforting and reassuring to me.
But I fear getting too mired in my own head makes for boring reading here, so how’s about we talk about some food? This dish was as fun to film with Sarah as it was to make; it brings to bear a lot of fun new techniques with cool expressions of ones I’m familiar with, and the flavors are all over the place.
Sarah’s video starts with a baguette that’s sliced thinly on a meat slicer (in this case, a super-duper-duper shitty slicer I found on Amazon, used once, then sent back because it smoked the entire time I was using it! Huzzah!). The thin baguette ribbons are sprayed with mists of olive oil and simple syrup, then dusted with cinnamon and cocoa powder and left to dry for several hours. I draped them over a few rolls of side towels so they dried into a wavy, curvy shape. They taste sort of like a very delicate cinnamon toast potato chip of sorts…very sweet and light and subtle, but delicious.
To make Egg Yolk Glass, I mixed several raw egg yolks with vanilla beans and some simple syrup, then dried this in my dehydrator to yield very thin sheets of crispy egg yolk.
More egg yolks were separated and frozen in sphere molds, then dipped in chocolate to make Chocolate Eggs…sort of like a cadbury egg, except way more badass and way less shitty. THERE I SAID IT CADBURY EGGS ARE SHITTY I’M NOT EVEN SORRY SUCK IT CADBURY.
While the yolks were freezing, I worked on “Chocolate Tea”, a concoction that sounds questionable but was pretty tasty. I made some tea with a ton of English Breakfast tea, then gelled it with Agar and pureed the gel in the blender until it was smooth. This was mixed with melted 72% chocolate to yield a sort of puddingy-textured, um, pudding.
At the same time, I worked on “Tea Bubbles”, a slight misnomer because they included no small amount of Pomelo Juice, an eponymous hero ingredient here. Pomelos look (and indeed taste) a lot like grapefruit. They have the same citrusy flavor of grapefruit but are less tart and acidic…the gentleman’s grapefruit, if I may. The skin of the pomelo is super-thick though, nearly an inch or so, which makes squeezing/juicing these things a bit of a pain in the ass. For the tea bubbles, I juiced a pomelo and mixed this with brewed English Breakfast tea and some soy lecithin to stabilize the bubbles when agitated by an immersion blender.
While working with the pomelo, I also made “Pomelo Confit”, which involved cooking a long (long, long, long) strip of pomelo zest in a mixture of honeybush and oolong teas, saffron, pomelo juice, and sugars until it was very tender. I cut the zest into thin strips for the final plating, and reduced the aforementioned mixture to a thick syrup to garnish the plate. This “Pomelo syrup” is magic; it tastes grapefruity and saffrony and so, so delicious. The final plating only calls for a tiny bit of this stuff, but I kept all of it and have been using it in Old Fashioneds.
This recipe also calls for freezing a pomelo in liquid nitrogen, then shattering it a la minute to get the pomelo cells for a garnish on the plate. While I love shattering things with liquid nitrogen as much as the next man, getting and holding LN2 is a giant pain in the ass (I have like a 60-minute window to use it or lose it) and I had my hands full with the rest of this recipe, so I opted to just separate the cells by hand like some sort of Alinea plebe.
I’m not gonna lie, my favorite thing to make for this dish was Smoke Gel. I had Smoke Gel when I ate at Next’s El Bulli menu (well, “smoke foam”, but I asked how they made it and the answer was a precursor to this component). The idea here is that I smoke some ice cubes at as low of a temperature as I can manage. The low temperature is to prolong the melting of the cubes, and the prolongment (?) of melting is to maximize surface area. Smoke isn’t very penetrative, especially with water, so maximizing smoke flavor is a product of maximizing surface area. Alinea doesn’t have a smoker per se, so they do this using a stovetop method that they describe in an inscrutable 2 sentences that I decided to ignore completely in lieu of figuring this out on my own. I suck at maintaining low temperatures on my small Weber kettle grill; my ice had melted in about 10 minutes and so didn’t absorb as much smoke as I’d have liked. To remedy this, I took the half-smoked water and dumped it in my blender, then made use of a pretty-cool birthday gift Erik gave me last year. Using some small cherry wood chips, I pumped smoke down into a blender while blending my water on a low speed. The agitation maximized surface area, and in a couple of seconds I had some super-smoky-tasting water that I added sugar to and gelled using Agar before pureeing into a puddinglike consistency yet again. Smoke Gel. Totes awesome.
The piece de resistance here is the “Brioche Plaque”. I start by cooking some brioche with cream, sugar, and vanilla, then freeze this mixture in a shallow baking tray until it’s solid and brittle. I break it into shards, then spray it with a mixture of 72% chocolate and cocoa butter (mixed in equal parts and melted) to cover it lightly with a thin shell of chocolate. The chocolate freezes on contact with the frozen brioche cream. I put the sprayed shards in the fridge for several hours to let the interior cream thaw (it takes on sort of a thick, creme anglaise-like texture…not super-runny, but definitely liquid), but the chocolate remains solid.
The plaque is cracked open sort of like a creme brulee (slightly less crispy), as is the chocolate egg. There’s a lot of runny stuff involved here, but the crispness of the chocolate and baguette keep textures interesting, and the flavors here and so odd and interesting that the whole thing just works…it’s fascinating. This is one of those dishes that makes me feel like a real newbie; I finish eating it and sit back and think “Ok, how the hell did you guys come up with this?!”.
I still have a lot to learn.