This weekend is my birthday. Yesterday, some friends and I went to do my favorite thing in the Bay Area: drive an hour north to Tomales Bay to eat fresh raw oysters pulled on-demand from the sea and drink a shitload of Coors Light and Bud Light Lime. My tradition so far has been to make a smattering of salsas and sauces to top the oysters with; this year I wanted to surprise everyone so I ordered some Blis roe to kit out our toppings selection. It was a dazzling collision of extremely highbrow and extremely lowbrow; I loved it.
Then this morning I woke up and was offered this gift from Sarah. She’s…she’s really somethin’, that one. 5:30pm Yountville Time can’t get here fast enough.
While I wait in shivery anticipation, I’ll talk about last weekend’s cooking project. It centers around a bar of olive oil ice cream and orange sorbet sitting on a plank of frozen liquid sable. The ice cream bar is topped with a tuile made of crushed marcona almond, and is plated with dots of olive sauce, chamomile pudding, and basil puree. There are also nearby cubes of olive brine candy and piles of vanilla-olive oil powder. The dish is garnished with buds and flowers from various species of basil plants in the garden.
This dish features “Picholine” olives; “Picholine” refers to the cultivar of olive (which is French). It’s widely regarded as the go-to olive for cocktails; when you think of just a regular ol’ green olive, that’s the Picholine. They’re cured in salt brine usually, and taste fundamentally ‘olivey’.
In this dish, they’re used in a few capacities; first I needed 500g of Picholine olive brine to make olive brine candy. This one really blew my mind; I had to buy 5 jars of olives to get enough brine for this. I cooked the brine with glucose and pectin just to set the mixture, then cut it into small olive-briney cubes. These things are so wild; at first they’re sweet, then the salty olive taste follows gently. The two flavors work well together, rather than clashing loudly like I imagined they might. Moments like these, I’m always left thinking “Ok, who figured this out? Who ate some sugar and olives and was like ‘yo, this is delicious’?”
The olives themselves were dehydrated for about 24 hours, until they were small little crispy olive-pellety-things. I blended these with some nice olive oil (the same kind I used for the Edible Stones) to yield an “olive sauce”. The book doesn’t instruct this but I imagine Alinea strains this sauce through a chinois to remove chunkier bits, which give the sauce a sandy kind of texture. I kind of liked this though, so I left the coarser grains in.
The basil pudding is made by blanching several healthy fistfuls of fresh basil leaves, chilling them quickly in ice water, then blending the leaves and a bit of the ice water with some salt and sugar to season and heighten the flavor of the basil, and stabilized with Ultra-Tex 3.
The olive oil ice cream starts with cooking a milk/cream/sugar base with some ice cream stabilizer (the book again uses a Louis Francois stabilizer, but I used Le Sanctuaire’s Stabi-3000. I’m still trying to get the hang of this stuff, as its included use instructions are vague, but I think I got it working really well here. I shorted the recipe’s recommended dosage by 0.5g, and the ice cream was stable without having that ‘snotty’ texture that overuse of stabilizer can create). A few cups of olive oil is whisked in, the mixture is churned in an ice cream machine, then I spread it onto a sheet tray and froze it.
The orange sorbet was even simpler; just orange juice and sugar mixed with Stabi Sorbet (again from Le Sanctuaire), churned, spread on a sheet tray, and frozen. Again I shorted the Stabi Sorbet by 0.5g, and again it really worked well. The sorbet had that nice icey granularity without being overtly snotty. The two layers of frozen mixtures are then pressed together and sliced into bars.
It took me a while to understand why stabilizers are used in ice creams: they help the creams hold their shape after being removed from the freezer (rather than melting and running all over the plate). They’re also useful for helping ice cream keep a nice texture during multiple freeze-thaw cycles, like you might have in a restaurant constantly bringing out ice creams to serve and then returning the canisters to the freezer. For my own part, they’re helpful for photography as well; the dish stays ‘prettier’ for longer without making a big runny mess on the plate.
The base of the bars is ‘frozen liquid sable’. A ‘sable’ is sort of like a shortbread: sugar, eggs and some flour are combined to make a thick dough. I let it rest in the fridge for several hours before rolling it out, transferring it to a sheet tray, then baked until it was golden brown. There’s no water used in a sable, so very little gluten forms and the result is a very crumbly texture (“sable” in French translates to “sand” in English). The sable here is processed in a food processor with some olive oil, yielding a wet-sandy fine mixture that can be again spread on a sheet tray and frozen. This is cut into small slices, and the frozen orange/olive bars are pressed on top.
To make Vanilla-Olive Oil powder, I whisked together olive oil with seeds from 10 (!) vanilla beans, some confectioner’s sugar, and some Tapioca Maltodextrin. Tapioca Maltodextrin is one of my favorite funky ingredients to play with; it binds with fat, and depending on your ratio of fat to malto you can get either a light fluffy fat-flavored powder or something with more tack that’s gently moldable. It’s fun to play with. Here, the resulting powder is sweet and collapses as soon as it hits your tongue, bathing it in olive oil flavor without feeling oily or coating.
The Chamomile Pudding recipe included here was odd to me; by and large, ‘puddings’ recipes in this book involve making a flavored liquid, setting that liquid with enough agar to yield a firm gel, then shearing the gel in a blender to a smooth gel-like consistency. The recipe here used what seemed like way too much agar, then added a lot of gelatin as well. If it had just been too much agar, I would’ve corrected it back to a percentage I know to usually work (around 0.05%). But the inclusion of gelatin here made me wonder if this wasn’t a misprint; it seemed very deliberate. So, I decided to try it and see what I’d learn.
I made a tea of fresh chamomile flowers, water, and some sugar. After letting the tea steep, I strained it and added the gelatin and agar, then let the mixture set and transferred it to a blender. It took a minute or two of blending, but the mixture eventually collapsed into what looked like a smooth gel; I was kinda surprised at this. I transferred the gel to a squeeze bottle (it had warmed from being processed in the blender) and refrigerated it.
When I took it out a few hours later, it looked like the gel had re-solidified. I shook up the squeeze bottle to see if I could break it up, but when I squirted some of the gel out, it had taken on a really crumbly texture.
Bleh. This is kinda unpleasant to eat. I felt a little frustrated, and in trying to figure out what to do next, I picked up a blob of the crumbly gel and rolled it around in my fingers. I noticed as I was thinking that as the gel warmed in my hand, it smoothed out again. So, I took the bottle out of the fridge entirely and set it near my stovetop where it could warm up. Sure enough, the gel collapsed again into a smooth texture.
I’m not sure what to make of this; I can’t tell if it’s deliberate or not (the book says nothing about final serving temperatures of the gel). It seemed to only ‘work’ when it was warm. Either way though, I think this is really neat; it basically turned out to be “warm chamomile tea gel”, and was a great contrast to the cold ice cream! Deliberate or not, I’m earmarking this particular pudding recipe as “notably interesting and different”.
To make the marcona almond tuille, I first made an ‘almond brittle’ with toasted marconas and caramelized sugar. I also cooked some isomalt, glucose, and fondant to hard crack candy temperatures and poured this onto a sheet tray to cool into a crystal-clear piece of sugar ‘glass’. I was meant to crush these both together in a spice grinder to a fine powder. In the past, I’ve used a coffee grinder to do this; it’s always been a huge pain in the ass. The chamber is small and the blade spins very fast, and usually what ends up happening is the sugar melts a bit and I get a sticky mess.
A few weeks ago though, my officemate Vincent moved apartments and brought some stuff in to work to get rid of. Among his stuff was a barely-used Magic Bullet. He was getting rid of it so asked if I wanted it. I was curious how useful it might be (or not), so I brought it home to play with it. This thing is dangerous as hell; there are warnings all over the place on it, and it seems pretty easy to get a fast-whirling blade going with no protection. But whatever; I tried throwing my almond brittle and sugar glass into this thing to see if it handled it any better than the coffee grinder. Turns out it totally did! The chamber for the Bullet is much larger than the coffee grinder, and I think the blades spin a little slower. There’s much more room for heat dissipation, so the brittle/sugar mixture was pulverized into a powdery, dry, light sugar powder. It was totally great.
I tapped the sugar/almond powder onto a silicon sheet, then baked this for a few seconds until it melted to form one big sheet of almond ‘glass’. I broke this into smaller shards; these shards top the ice cream bars when plated, and I used a small kitchen torch to melt them a little to cause them to wrap around the bar a little. This stuff is delicious and fun to eat; it’s like an almondy creme brûlée topping that you tap with a spoon to crack through.
The last step before plating was to peel an orange and separate it into segments. With some tweezers and a lot of care, I removed the outer membrane of each segment and all white pith, leaving just the inner orange juice cells. Then I plated everything and garnished with some fresh thai, opal, and green basil buds and leaves, as well as some lavender flowers.
I found the flavors of this dish as compelling as those of the Brie/Avocado dish, which is one of my favorite dessert dishes so far. Everything is gently but staggeringly delicious; by that I mean nothing feels overwhelmingly over-flavored or ‘loud’. The olive oil ice cream has a bit of olive oil flavor but if you don’t know that’s what you’re tasting, you’d just think it was really delicious ice cream. The orange sorbet pairs nicely with it but isn’t overly acidic, just modestly bright. The vanilla olive oil powder adds a nice sweet vanilla note, and the olive brine candy offers the same gentle sweetness but interesting end flavor. The loudest notes are from the fresh basil, which add lovely accents to the whole dish. Sarah loved it as much as I, though she had been very skeptical of the olive components.
Now, I need to go get ready for dinner.