Archive for October, 2007

Controlling Water

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

A little birdy once told me that all these modern techniques boil down to the simple act of controlling water molecules. Well, it wasn’t really a little birdy, it was Alex Stupak, but he dropped this bombshell in my ear with the casual effect of a little bird chirping their daily song.

With no prompt, he said simply, “You know, it’s really just about controlling water,” and walked away.

This simple phrase had the power of a plot changing hollywood one liner, too few words with more effect than realistically possible, delivered at a turning point at which you can see the characters shift indelibly. These words have shifted me.

These “magic white powders” that are given to modern technique, xanthan gum, gellan gum, agar agar, and various modified starches, are simply put, controlling water. And by controlling water, we are controlling texture.

While this fact was a revelation to me, what was even more thought provoking, was how much of my pastry work up to this point was based off controlling water. And it’s not just me folks, it’s you too.

Cornstarch, something familiar to every pantry is the modern staple in a long line of water controlling white powders used by home cooks for hundreds of years. Before that, home cooks were familiar with dry powdered potato starch and arrowroot starch as well. We use these starches to thicken things like gravy, and pudding. What we are doing is introducing little round starch molecules that when heated, absorb water and swell. These chubby little starches begin to crowd each other and move around lazily, much slower than the tiny swift water molecules. The end result is a thickening, or a specific change in texture do to the controlling of water molecules.

Gelatin, another ingredient familiar to professionals and home cooks alike is a simple act of controlling water. A vast web of gelatin protiens traps water, thus stiffening it. Pectin again is used to jell fruit juices to make jelly, a process that encourages the sugar chains to fold and entrap water. Even without additional pectin, we have learned to take fruits naturally high in the substance and cook them until jellied. From french cooking we have learned to cook butter and flour together to make roux, a thickening substance we rely on for so many traditional sauces. We even control water by simply eliminating it through reduction.

Most recognizable is controlling water by freezing it. Every home has a freezer, and we use it extensively for preservation. But countless times have I seen cooks throw something in the freezer before they cut it, a simple act of hardening the water making it more manageable. The entire process of ice cream, gelato, sorbet and granita is attributed to slowly creating ice crystals while agitating them, gaining a specific texture. Popsicles, even simpler, are a favorite treat made by temporarily solidifying the water in a fruit juice through freezing.

Where would our thanksgiving table be without jellied cranberries and gravy? Who hasn’t curbed their hunger with a little snack of jell-o or pudding? What freezer has never seen ice cream?

It’s clear our desire to control the water in our foods runs deep through professional and home kitchens, and back through time. Thus it’s easy to see that this fundamental fact of modern cuisine, controlling water and texture, is a core fact in all cooking. Whether you are using new white powders unfamiliar to most outside the commercial food industry, or old ones that you first saw in your grandma’s pantry, it’s a fact of the kitchen. As long as there is water to control, we will do just that.

Cheese and Dairy, Jerusalem, Israel

Sunday, October 21st, 2007


In a country (and a region) so culinarily rich, and so agriculturally focused, it’s pretty amazing how lame Israel seems when it comes to cheese and dairy. The classic iconic representation of this problem is that when you ask for cheese in Israel you only have two options: “white or yellow”. White cheese is liquidy but thick like a cross between sour cream and cream cheese. Yellow is kind of like thin slices of provolone but with less flavor. Not exactly a cheese lover’s paradise.

It’s true that in recent years Israel is starting to develop a properly diverse cheese culture (no pun intended). But as that develops it’s more interesting than one would realize at first glance what has been in place for decades. Beneath the “white or yellow” lies a narrow but deep set of diverse cheese offerings (the bulk of them being in liquid or at least spreadable form).

Here are some of the mainstays of Israeli dairy consumption that you may not be familiar with:

  • Leben. This is kind of a drinkable yogurt. It’s tart, and thick. Not a super smooth consistency, but the texture adds to the deliciousness.
  • White cheese. As mentioned above, it’s like you mixed yogurt and cream cheese together. Relatively smooth consistency with only a slight “grain”. It comes with different fat content comes in 3%, 5% and 9%. I like to mix together white cheese and leben and then combine with some israeli salad, a chopped up hard boiled egg, salt, and pepper. Sounds gross (kind of looks gross) but trust me. It’s scrumptious.
  • Labne. This is basically a cream cheese made of yogurt. Similar to white cheese, but comes from the Arab cooking traditions (to the best of my understanding). The best labne I ever had was on my recent trip to Israel. Labne can be anywhere from creamy to hard enough to form into balls (covered with zatar of course). The labne I had was made from goat milk and had an incredible acidic component. But the best part was that the consistency was somewhere between the silkiest butter you’ve ever had and whipped cream. (I hate to mention the dreaded Cool Whip, but the consistency of this labne was like what you imagine Cool Whip’s consistency to be like by looking at the package before you taste it and realize it’s an unholy creation spawned by the devil). The combination of the silky texture and the incredible sharp taste blew me away. There was nothing I didn’t want to spread it on. (That’s labne pictured above drowned in super flavorful olive oil and zatar. Yum yum.
  • Butter. I think by default the butter in Israel has higher fat content than its North American cousin. And that’s a good thing.

There aren’t huge choices in Israel quite yet when it comes to cheese, but this tiny slice of the liquidy/yogurty/spready cheese spectrum is rich enough to distract you for some time until you realize almost nobody there has ever heard of Epoisse.

Bread, Jerusalem, Israel

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

As we give context on eating in the “Holy Land” the bread deserves its own post. This one to be specific. Here in the U.S. some of us are lucky to have a handy source for fresh bread on a daily basis. (Perhaps they’re even baking it — nah, nobody has that kind of free time.) But more likely folks here buy it in plastic bags where it sits for a few days to a couple of weeks until the uniform slices run out and someone needs to get more bread at the super market. Maybe some folks go buy baguettes and actually get them fresh every 2-3 days. But in general the bread we most often consume is a sad affair.

My first memory of Israeli bread (and more accurately, Israeli bread culture) was in fifth grade when I lived there for the better part of a schoolyear. Every morning my parents gave me some change to head down to the local corner store and buy fresh rolls for breakfast. The choices were either plain rolls or braided ones. And some variations had sesame seeds sprinkled on top. There was also pita. It was all freshly baked early that morning (I was already buying it by 7am) and delivered to the average corner store in a garbage bag. The bag was unceremoniously ripped open by the shopkeeper and sat on the floor of the store for customers to scrounge through to purchase their rolls.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the bread cost less than my parents thought and I spent the bulk of the change on candy which I would hide for consumption later in the day (clearly preparing me for the life of crime I lead now). The fact that the bread was so cheap, fresh daily, available at EVERY corner store in EVERY neighborhood, and came in small portions (i.e. rolls) created the perfect environment in which a culture could truly appreciate fresh bread and demand that it be a part of their existence. We are nowhere close to this happening in the United States. Our bread is optimized for the minimum number of visits to the supermarket per month. It comes in large loaves, pre-sliced, and preserved. And the truth is, who would want more than a slice. The Israeli rolls don’t just eschew slicing cause they’re small, it’s also because they’re so delicious that it’s hard to just eat one much less eat a portion of one.

During our recent month in Israel I suddenly reacquired an old habit. Each morning I would try to purchase just the bread we needed for the upcoming day. But, sometimes I would misjudge and buy a little too much. I really do hate wasting food. I think it’s insulting and ungrateful. That said, the next morning, even if there were enough leftover rolls to cover breakfast, and relieve me of going to the market for fresh, I invariably threw them out. Life is short, and as bad as the waste was, I felt that not eating fresh bread which cost pennies and was sitting 60 seconds from our apartment was the far greater crime. It wasn’t all decadence. The pitas usually lasted at least 2 days. At least I think they did as we usually gobbled them up before the 48 hours was up. Kind of like a middle eastern Tootsie Pop challenge. No one will ever know.

Perhaps the single greatest expression of Israeli bread perfection is the generally Arab produced “baygeleh”. This elongated ovular ring of bread coated to the extreme [the previous three words said in Monster Truck Announcer Voice(tm) ] in sesame seeds and served with an optional side of zatar is an actual piece of heaven. Sold to the Israeli public typically outside of Arab villages on the highway, and most iconically off of carts by the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem’s old city. These creations are filled with a slightly chewy, not-too-airy, not-too-dense, filling and surrounded by a satisfyingly chewy with sparse regions of crunchy shell coated by an impossibly luxurious number of sesame seeds. The flavor is incredibly clean, and the sesame chewiness, slight oiliness, and flavor are super concentrated.

I have to admit to sometimes being relieved that we don’t have Israeli bread here in the U.S. or I think I’d weigh a lot more. That said, if you’re going to have a culinary tradition with a huge emphasis on fresh vegetables, having hugely available, properly portioned, delicious, freshly-baked bread is a foundational component. Israel has it, and a lot of what makes Israeli food great wouldn’t exist without this incredible bread.

Perfecting Panna Cotta

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Panna Cotta is one of those desserts that can be spotted on almost every dessert menu, in every city. After a surge of recent popularity, this once “it” girl has proved her staying power. A chic custard with a little shimmy Gordon Ramsey calls the “chi-chi-lina”, the panna cotta won hearts in the dining room with the simplicity of a comfort food, and has made friends in the kitchen with deceptive ease in preparation. A simple combination of cream, sugar, a little flavor, and some gelatin, and like magic you have a sophisticated dessert on your hands.

It is with the simplest preparations that the most care must be taken, and I have adopted various extra steps to ensure the simple preparation of panna cotta, often a casualty of mediocrity, carries not just a memorable flavor, but a perfect texture. With a simple flavor so easy to achieve, it is in refining the texture that panna cotta becomes a great challenge. Just throwing in the recommended dose of gelatin, throwing the mixture in the fridge to set will get you so-so results, most of the time. However, armed with a little information you can ensure your dessert will stand out each time.

Gelatin itself, we know, comes from animals. Thus it is easy to conceive that gelatin is a protein. Rendered most often from the collegen in the hide of four legged animals, this protein behaves much differently than most we are used to working with in the kitchen. Where as the protein in an egg will respond to heat by unfolding and bonding permanently to neighboring proteins (aka coagulating), the proteins in gelatin respond to heat by releasing their bonds to each other. The unusually long protein chains in gelatin, when cold, bind to each other into a triple helix, which cross link with others to form a web. This web interferes with the movement of the water the gelatin is dispersed in, thus gelling it into a solid.

Many things effect the final texture of a gelatin gelled liquid, particularly the manner in which it is cooled. The warmed liquid, necessary to release the proteins from their initial web and disperse them, is most often immediately placed in the refrigerator and cooled quickly. In doing this, the protein chains bond to each other immediately, and randomly, causing bulky and weak cross sections. By cooling the gelatin slowly, at room temperature, the proteins are allowed to mingle with each other, forming a tighter, more structured web. Thus, if you are creating weaker bonds, you would need more gelatin to set an immediate structure. This gelatin will progressively continue to firm over a period of time, thus the texture you gained the first day will be softer than the texture you have in 4 days. In my restaurant, I want the textures to be the same each day I serve the dish.

The way I have interpreted this information has led to this method. I heat a small amount of milk to dissolved the gelatin in. This sits on the counter until it is at room temperature, which takes about an hour or two, a time that is well within the limits of food safety. It is stirred occasionally, and once it is cool, the remainder of the cream is added.

I never heat the entire amount of the liquid used to make a panna cotta. I have found that in heating the cream, or particularly buttermilk, the texture of the liquid changes, and feels thin on the tongue. This fact I haven’t been able to fully support with reading. Everything I find suggests that the fat globules are encased in a membrane that is strengthened by heating. So I am not sure what about the heating process changes the texture of the cream within the gelled panna cotta. My only guess so far is that the heat will cause the protein clusters bound by caseins which float freely around the fat globules (think of a tiny tiny dust bunnies) to stick to the membrane of the fat globule (like a little dust bunny protective shield), perhaps leaving room for the water molecules to become more active in the cream. And perhaps this increased activity in the water molecules creates the feeling of thinness?

Either way, I can use the tried and true method used by chef’s for centuries, to assume facts by observation. I know because I can see it and feel it with my mouth that heating the entire amount of cream for a panna cotta feels thinner in the final product. And the thinner feel makes the panna cotta feel more like milk jell-o than a chic custard.

Recently, I have been withholding a portion of the cream, and very very carefully whipping it just enough to thicken it. To do this, the cream must be very cold, and have been very cold for a continuous period of time. When you whip cream, you are using the shear force of the whisk to strip parts of each fat globules protective membrane. The exposed fat is now sticky, and will adhere to two things; other naked patches of fat globules, and air bubbles. Thus, the air bubbles introduced by the whisk become encased in damaged globules and are trapped in place. When warm, the fat which is no longer encased in it’s protective membrane, is now capable of leaking out and collapsing the air bubbles. Thus the importance of the cream not only staying cold, but having been cold for quite some time.

What we are trying to do is not add too many of these air bubbles, and definitely not large ones created by pounding a whip into the cream. Rather, I whisk slowly back and forth by hand, standing in my walk in refrigerator if possible. I am encouraging the fat globules to stick to each other rather than encase brittle air bubbles.

To steep flavor into your product, I either employ a cold infusion over a period of 24 to 48 hours often with fresh mint, tea leaves, coffee and whole spices, use a liquid addition to the panna cotta like a pulled shot of espresso, orange flower water, and liquors, or steep the flavor into the small amount of liquid heated to melt the gelatin.

And finally, I always use sheet gelatin. Those of my readers that work in professional kitchens will know this product well. Granulated gelatin is second rate. The amount of gelatin and the quality of the gelatin within the granulated form varies. The powder can contain a high amount of broken protein that will never re-bond into the triple helix’s that create the web like junctions. It can contain more or less of viable proteins from batch to batch, creating stronger and weaker gels than you expect. Plain and simple, it’s inconsistent. Unfortunately, it’s the only gelatin readily available to the average cook. I highly recommend finding a source for sheet gelatin if you plan to use much of it at home.

So after a long winded post, I will provide a step by step recipe for a panna cotta perfect for the fruitless season arriving soon.

Kaffir-Lemongrass Panna Cotta

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

zest of one lemon, and one lime

10 kaffir lime leaves

1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and chopped fine

1 tbsp chamomile buds

3 cups cream, 1/2 cup held very cold

4 sheets gelatin


Place 1/2 cup of cream in the bowl you intend to whip it in, and place it in the refrigerator along with the whisk you intend to whisk it with.

Gather six 6-oz serving dishes or desired molds

1. Steep the milk with the sugar and flavors. Place the milk, sugar, lemon and lime zest, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and chamomile in a small sauce pan and heat just below boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and steep for half an hour. During the last 5 minutes, soak the gelatin sheets in ice water.

2. Add the gelatin. Strain the milk, and return to a sauce pan, rewarming the milk. Remove the softened gelatin sheets from the ice water, squeezing to remove as much of the water as possible. Add the gelatin to the warm milk, and stir until completely dissolved and evenly dispersed. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool on the counter at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Whip the cream. When the milk is cooled, begin whipping the 1/2 cup of very cold cream. Do this with gentle back and forth motions of the whisk, avoiding beating much air into the cream. You should see the cream begin to thicken in a minute or two, once the fat globules are damaged enough to adhere to each other. Continue gently agitating the cream with the whisk, stopping when the cream is thick enough to hold itself, but doesn’t quite hold peaks.

4. Add the cream to the cooled milk/gelatin. Add the unwhipped cream to the milk/gelatin mixture that has cooled on the counter with a whisk. Carefully now, add the whisk thickened cream and fold with a spatula until the two are evenly combined.

5. Fill the molds or serving dishes. Pour the panna cotta into the dishes or molds quickly, as the cold from the cream will now begin to fully set the gelatin. You will see the mixture is thick, and may need to tap the glasses a bit to obtain a flat top, or use an offset spatula to smooth the top of the molds.

6. Chill the Panna Cotta. Place the panna cotta in the refrigerator and allow to set overnight. It will take a full day of setting to achieve the propper texture.

Creating within restrictions

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

When I came back from my long trip, walked into my kitchen prepared to return to work, I saw something that had me a little, well, miffed. The chef had submitted the menu items for a November promotion we are participating, desserts and all. Only he hadn’t asked me for my dessert submissions.

So what I saw on the menu had me a little ruffled. I expected to see two of them there, one an inherited dessert that will never leave my menu, salted peanut butter ice cream, and another of my own creation that has been on the menu for quite a while. But the third dessert, Warm Almond and Carnoli Rice Soup with Ceylon Cinnamon and Orange Blossom, was new. And all I could think was sneer and think, “That’s not my dessert.”

My snit didn’t last long, just until the chef explained he didn’t want to disturb my trip and just put something up there. Our chef, you see, is probably the most considerate person I have met, and it’s hard to be a snoot when he had your best intentions in mind.

As he was talking to me, I remembered how much I love to create with tight restrictions. This was something I loved about school, art classes in highschool, photography in college, and everything in culinary school.

You are given an assignment with boundries, and forced to find yourself within them. I always loved seeing the finished projects lined up next to eachother, seeing how vastly different each one was. Even within the tightest restrictions, everything reflected the individuality of the creator.

So after rereading the dessert that was not mine, I put my ego in check, and began to treat it like an assignment. How would I make an almond and rice soup? How will I incorporate the ceylon cinnamon and orange blossom flavors? And as the wheels started spinning, confined and restricted, I began to love this dessert.

It was something I wouldn’t have come to on my own. My desserts are deep in americana, nostalgic, heartfelt, playful and modern. Shannon’s desserts are classic with much french influence, comforting, ellegant, and simple.

I began testing variations on the almond soup, which in description is much like an almond horchata. In my research I have found a traditional Polish soup taking body from the almonds and rice, and a bit of acid from golden raisins. The addition of fruit makes me ask, can I add body with subtle roasted pears?

Questions still remain, do we toast the almonds or leave them raw? Will the flavor of raw almonds be as distinct warm as they are cold? How thick, viscous, dense do I want this soup to be, and what do I use to achieve that?

We have tested warm rice puddings to garnish the bowl before the warm soup is poured table side, deciding on one flavored with caramelized ceylon cinnamon sticks. Most exciting for me is the venture into the world of poached and steamed meringues. I have only read about them really. The recipes promise a soft, tender meringue much like a delicate marshmallow. Classically presented in a dish called Îles flottantes, or Floating Islands, these pillowy meringues float in a pool of vanilla creme anglaise. Because I am who I am, I spend more time diving into american classics than french, and I may never have pushed myself to make these on my own accord.

Now we are working on including the aroma of cinnamon, either from smoldering cinnamon sticks hidden between the soup bowl and it’s liner, or in an aromatic fog released by dry ice. Either way, a subtle cinnamon should tease your nose as you enjoy the warm soup.

The moral of this story is easy to see. I could have lost out on a chance to grow and expand due to a stubborn ego. It would have been an easy road to take. But it’s a nice reminder to myself that looking around the kitchen, everyone is unique, and each has something to offer that you wouldn’t have seen on your own.