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2013, here we go.

Technically this dish falls in the Autumn menu for Alinea, but last year I didn’t get to make it through as many fall dishes as I’d have liked, so I’m hoping to cherry-pick a few of them throughout the Winter season to try to catch up a bit. The one super-seasonal ingredient here is Persimmon, which is still around in markets in the Bay Area but won’t be for long. Thankfully, Hachiya persimmons are right at their peak of ripe deliciousness; soft enough to feel like an overripe avocado, you can cut these things open and scoop them out with a spoon. They taste like sugary pumpkin, sort of spicy and sweet and very luscious.

What I did with the persimmons was new and peculiar to me; the pulp was pureed and mixed with egg white, all-purpose and pistachio flours, sugar, butter, and nutmeg to yield a mixture sort of the consistency of pancake batter. This mixture was sealed in a vacuum bag and cooked sous vide for 3 hours. There’s no leavening in the mixture at all. What I ended up with was a very dense, moist cake sort of like what you see in a bread pudding.  It had an almost-gooey quality, and tasted warm and spicy.

As a side note, I found pistachio flour a little tricky to come by — it’s not sold frequently in markets and is a little expensive. Since I was buying a lot of whole pistachios for the rest of this recipe, I wondered about trying to make my own. My Blendtec blender claims ability to make flours, but I didn’t need a ton of it, so I turned to another gadget that I’ve found surprisingly-frequent use for in the kitchen: the Magic Bullet. The small container (meant for individual-size smoothies) is perfect for making, say, a half-cup of nut flour (among lots of other uses friendly for home-scale production).

The cake is accompanied by a small scoop of “caramelized milk ice cream”. The base of this is made by combining some whole milk, half and half, and a small spoonful of honey in another vacuum bag and cooking at for 12 hours at 79C. This again was something really new to me; apparently the long cooking time causes the lactose (sugar) in the milk to caramelize slowly. I did a bit of googling about this; there are several sites that mention using this method to make Dulce de Leche (which is superior because you avoid the risk of scorching the milk), though the base almost always starts with sweetened condensed milk.

The book indicated that the milk should turn a tan color once the process was complete; mine was barely, barely tan and definitely had a different taste from uncooked milk, but the flavor was still quite mild. I’m not sure if this was ‘correct’ (compared to condensed milk, I think I had less sugar in my mixture), or if I could have eeked the temperature up by a few more degrees to get better caramelization. Still, pretty neat trick.

One of the coolest components to me were the Red Curry Raisins. I started with a mixture of carrot juice, red curry paste, xanthan gum and calcium lactate. I filled some spherical molds with this mixture and froze it overnight.

The next day, I transferred the frozen spheres to a warm bath of sodium alginate and sugar. The warm water causes the spheres to melt, and the alginate bonds with the calcium lactate to form a thin membrane around the contents of the sphere. The process of spherification isn’t one that’s terribly new to me on this project, but the next steps definitely were: after having some egg-yolk-like red curry spheres, I cured the spheres in a bowl of sugar for an hour; the hygroscopic sugar draws some water out from the spheres, thickening their texture a bit. This hygroscopy is balanced by the xanthan inside the sphere; the interior contents thickened to the consistency of honey.

After the curing process, the spheres were dehydrated for about 6 hours or so. During this time, they withered and crumpled to resemble red raisins. Again because of the xanthan they never fully dried out to the point of getting crisp; rather they more or less took on the texture of a real raisin. I think this is just so damn cool and inspirational — it’s easy to think that spherifying something is an end in and of itself, but carrying it past that point to hand-make flavored ‘raisins’ just reinforces to me how important it is to never stop being curious.

At the same time I was working through the curry raisins, I also worked on making ‘normal’ spheres from an infusion of ginger. I again froze spheres of ginger liquid and calcium lactate, and used the same alginate bath to spherify them. You can see how, around jagged areas of the frozen spheres, I get small imperfections on the surface of the final sphere…to get around this I flip the spheres over when plating them so we just see a perfectly smooth surface.

Garnishing the dish are shards of Hyssop Glass and a small Spice Aroma Strip. The former is meant to be made by pureeing fresh Hyssop leaves (which have sort of a savory mint-like taste) to yield a bright green shard of glass. I had trouble tracking down a fresh hyssop plant big enough to support how many leaves I needed for this, so I defaulted back to using dried hyssop and making a tea from the leaves. This tastes recognizably different (dried herbs have a definite cooked/dried taste compared to fresh ones, and I knew I was sacrificing flavor here). The hyssop infusing is mixed with Pure-Cote and left to dry on a sheet of acetate overnight to yield a thin ‘skin’-like sheet that I ripped up and dehydrated until it was crispy.  I last did this years ago, and learned the hard way how to optimize this process.

The texture ended up decidedly glasslike, but the final flavor wasn’t great. This was definitely due to using dried hyssop. The upside was that it was so mild that it really only offered a crispy textural component to the dish, which was still nice. I also forgot to flash the hyssop before letting it dry to get rid of errant bubbles, so it could have looked a bit prettier.

For the lackluster-ness of the hyssop glass though, my Aroma strips turned out quite nice. I toasted several fistfuls of clove, nutmeg, mace, and allspice, infused some sugar and water with the spices, then mixed the infusing with more Pure-Cote and poured this onto a second sheet of acetate. This mixture isn’t dehydrated, which leaves it floppy and similar in texture to a Listerine Breath Strip. The idea is that you’d eat this at the beginning of the dish, and (like a Breath Strip) it would stick to the roof of your mouth and dissolve slowly, contributing spicy aroma to every subsequent bite of the dish.

Because of surface tension, the Pure-Cote mixture does an interesting thing when poured onto acetate; it draws back up on itself a little, leaving these interesting, raggedy edges that I think are quire pretty. Alinea trims these away and presents the strips in small squares, but I kinda liked how the ragged edges looked.

The Grinch-Finger-looking thing is a glazed carrot; I chose a couple bunches of small baby carrots with intact roots at Berkeley Bowl, then cooked them en sous vide with honey until they were sweet and tender.

Standing apart from the main assembly of components is a small island of braised pistachios on a pool of puree made from dates and port. The pistachios are braised in a mixture of honey, water, and pistachio oil until they’re very tender. The cookbook specifies use of Iranian Pistachios for this component. On researching what sets Iranian Pistachios apart from Californian ones (answer: it’s not obvious that anything does), I found out that it’s actually illegal to buy Iranian Pistachios are the moment because the US has trade sanctions put into place by President Obama a few years ago because of Iran’s nuclear defense policies.

Finally, the bulk of the dish is covered (to the point of near-obscurity) by an amazing mix of ‘crumbs’. This crumb mixture contains pistachio brittle, pistachio shortbread, pistachio powder, honey crystals, and crispy carrot foam shards. The pistachio brittle is made by toasting some pistachios, then mixing them with sugar cooked to 342F (medium caramel stage) and baking powder. The baking powder causes quick leavening of the sugar, making it froth and lending the final crumbly texture to the brittle.

The pistachio shortbread was a bit different from other shortbreads I’ve made in that it uses “pastry flour”, which I learned is a low-protein whole-grain flour that’s useful because it can produce limited gluten bonds in doughs. This leads to very crumbly pastry, which is perfect for this dish because I ultimately needed to process the shortbread into a bread crumb-like texture.

Pistachio Powder is made with confectioner’s sugar, tapioca maltodextrin, and several cupfuls of pistachio oil. The sugar makes this stuff deliciously sweet, and the powder collapses instantly on the tongue, bathing it in rich pistachio flavor.

To make Crispy Carrot foam, I mixed carrot juice with a bit of water and sugar, then chilled the mixture overnight. The next day I mixed in some Methocel F-50 (I needed the mixture to be chilled to evenly-disperse the methocel), then whipped the mixture at high speed for 10 minutes until it took on a meringue-like consistency…very light and fluffy and airy. I smoothed this mixture onto a few dehydrator trays and dehydrated for several hours to yield some impossibly-light and crispy carrot shards, which I broke up and crumbled into the rest of this crumb mixture.

Finally I mixed in some “honey granules” (this is specifically what the book calls for). Honey Granules can be found at places like Whole Foods, but I find the term misleading; the product marketed in this way is usually small granules of Sucanat (crystals of unrefined cane juice) with a bit of honey added to lighten the color. The product has a molasses-y taste sort of like mild brown sugar, but isn’t much like honey at all. It’s entirely possibly Alinea uses this exact product as a textural thing in addition to adding some sweetness (the granules are a bit crunchy).

But, in placing a large order with The Spice House a few weeks ago to prepare for a few upcoming dishes, I came across a curious product on their site called “Crumiel”.  Some research taught me that it’s part of El Bulli’s “Texturas” line of products, and is crystallized honey. I hadn’t played with it before, so I snagged a small container. The crystals are small (like salt flakes, but not powder) and crispy, and taste much more richly of honey than Honey Granules, so I opted to use them instead.

The final Crumb mixture is very light and fluffy (thanks to the help of the pistachio powder), and looks like “autumn dirt”…the browns and oranges and greens are very fall-like. The taste of this stuff is just beautiful; it’s sweet and warming and spicy, and the carrot notes give it an interesting dimension.

The final assembly of the dish is surprising for Alinea; they usually are pretty specific about separating flavors and ingredients into disparate zones on a plate, but this is just a ‘pile of stuff’: the persimmon cake and caramelized ice cream are plated in a well on top of some verjus sauce (made with golden raisins and verjus), then topped with a big pile of the crumbs and garnished with a carrot, a ginger sphere, a red curry raisin, and some small dice of pear. It’s hard not to just scoop up a big bite of everything, and difficult also to pick apart the flavors…but that’s ok because it’s so delicious. There’s a nice contrast of temperatures (ice cream and cold ginger spheres, warm persimmon cake and carrot), and the flavors are just beautiful. There’s a lot of nice textural contrast going on here too. I love the Aroma Strip; it tastes nearly like chai tea and lingers on the palate throughout the time eating the dish. And though the flavors are clearly and obviously autumnal, I’m not going to complain about eating it in the dead of winter.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Joey says:

    I LOVE the Spice House. I find myself stopping in there almost every time I’m tackling a new dish. It’s a simply amazing mom and pop shop.

  • Katie says:

    Wow, totally jaw-dropping and beautiful. I especially like your wispy carrots.

    I recently made a sort of stove-top version of the caramelized milk mixture you mention with just milk and sugar, reduced for about 45 minutes. Quite frankly, it just looked and tasted like condensed milk. Bon Appétit called it “milk jam.”

  • CoreyA says:

    I just stumbled upon your site – it’s inspiring to say the very least. Wow…just wow.