Yesterday as I was mentally composing this post in my head, I decided rather than titling it the name of the dish, I was going to title it “The Importance of Failing”. I realized, though, that I only really wanted to do that because it sounded ominous and dramatic. Ultimately, by many standards, this result is far from failure, but this is how I feel having completed it.
The dish itself is composed of huckleberry soda, and five tiny (1/2″) cubes of flavored gels: lemon verbena, fennel, smoked cream, chocolate, and hazelnut. A large part of the magic, for me, is in the presentation. The cubes of gel are placed alongside each other, each impossibly perfect, each laying on a long horizontal strip of huckleberry gel. Looking behind the curtain, this is accomplished by building a terrine of the gels; layering each flavor starting with the Hazelnut horizontally in a pan, then slicing the result like bread, then slicing each ‘bread slice’ into strips that can be placed horizontally for service.
The problem with this approach is commitment. Once you’ve placed the first layer of gel, each subsequent layer is placed atop the last, and there’s no going back. The success of the dish depends entirely on the success of each individual component, so there is no forgiveness here at all. If one layer goes wrong, you either have to resign yourself to failure or start all over again.
To give a bit of context:
15 punnets of huckleberries, $4 a punnet — $60
2 lbs of Hazelnuts — $15
3 bars of chocolate — $12
4 bulbs of fennel, the bulk of which are not used — $10
3 large lemon verbena plants, enough to get me 110 grams of verbena — $30
Soda siphon and cartridges — $50
25 sheets of gelatin – $30
There are various other costs involved here, but the grand investment for this was easily over $250, for a dish of final dimensions of less than that of my forefinger.
It’s not even really the cost of things that make me feel so frustrated right now though. It’s more that as soon as I knew something was wrong, and that I had to make the choice of being ok with a flawed final product or starting all over again, the fun of making this was lost.
What happened was this: the hazelnut, chocolate, and cream layers all worked pretty straightforwardly for me. The hazelnut base layer is a 2-day affair of letting cream steep in hazelnut fragments before being strained into the bottom of the pan. Once set, the chocolate layer goes in next, then the smoked cream. Each of these was pretty easy; smoking the cream was done on my Weber grill with some hardwood chips and as much indirect heat as space would afford. It was the fennel layer where things went wrong; after 2 hours of setting time, the fennel mixture was notably more flimsy and fragile than the other layers; it was very wobbly and broke easily when I poked at it. But what could I do? I could either press on or try to scrape it off and make it again, the latter of which sounded nearly impossible. I topped it with the final verbena liquid, which was ever-so-slightly warm when I poured it on. It melted the fennel layer under the pour site immediately, then ran UNDER it partly, lifting it off the cream layer. The verbena gel was flimsy as well. This made dealing with the imperfect terrine extremely difficult. Cutting through it caused the fennel layer to break and squirt out everywhere, and trying to find a solid slice to work with for plating was infuriating. It took me two hours of wrestling with it, and destroying nearly a bread loaf’s worth of the terrine, before I had to just give up and photograph what I had. The gripe that’s bending me all out of shape can be seen on the left side of the assembly, where the gel is sagging and obviously flimsy, and there’s a thin strip between the second and third cubes from the left, where you can see the verbena gel where it crept under the fennel gel.
My friend Kris came over before I plated this but after I’d already screwed it up. I was in a pissy mood, and was venting about all this work down the drain. She encouraged me to show something broken here though, to make it clear how difficult this stuff is. It’s a good idea, despite the fact that it makes me angry to do so. But through being angry I’ve realized a few things. Firstly, I find that even if something tastes fine (which this definitely does), I don’t consider something a success unless it LOOKS pretty. For me, the pretty photos are the most satisfying thing I walk away with for each of these. Sure, eating this stuff is super-great, but I don’t reflect back on flavors as frequently as I look at my photos and feel pride. This says something loudly about the fiber of my being, and is a bit of a reality check here.
My stated goal for this project is to hit perfection every time. I realize too that my tolerance for taste perfection is much wider than my tolerance for visual perfection. And I take the visual perfection thing way too seriously. The fact that I feel angry right now should probably not be a factor in something that’s basically a glorified hobby. This should be fun. For the first time since I’ve started this, I didn’t have fun once I learned I wasn’t going to end up with perfection. And the reason I’m not going to go back and make this one again for the sake of shoring up that little green cube is, in addition to financial cost, largely because it wouldn’t be fun. I’d be angry at myself and frustrated the entire time remaking it; what went wrong was silly.
So why am I writing all this? I think, from a story standpoint, it’s probably boring to read “OMG look how awesome I did AGAIN” over and over. So far I’ve done pretty well, but showing only the successes is boring and is also a little arrogant, as if I’m implying I (or these recipes) are infallible or something. There’s a dude I worked with in New Zealand who takes the most jaw-dropping photos, but he was so protective of his process that he rarely pulled back the curtain to talk about how he did what he did, and he NEVER showed things that he deemed failures. I would have found that fascinating; no one’s perfect, and we make mistakes, especially when we try to do difficult things. So, here’s a mistake I made. If I could offer advice to anyone trying to do this recipe, I’d tell them to let each cube mixture gel ON ITS OWN, to check firmness, before remelting it, letting it come to room temperature, and then adding it to the terrine. Also, don’t try to freeze the gels for the sake of making them easier to work with. I tried this; they ARE easier to work with when frozen, but they never warm up to their original gel texture really well, and they weep badly when they thaw.
I’d love to see something the Alinea kitchen just fucked up completely. It’d make me feel less lonely on days like this.