Module 2: Chemical Madness
This week we ventured into unchartered waters – those of the fantastical world of Molecular Gastronomy and Food Science as they merge with the world of Haute French Pastry!
Molecular gastronomy is a way of thinking rather than just techniques or weird chemical processes. It is very difficult, even for seasoned chefs.
Need I say more!!
It was like a scientific pursuit for making mousses without cooking, gels without gelatine, foams without foaming … Well not exactly but it sounds great!
It was also an experiment for our chef and the scientist from Cuisine Innovation – both have not run this particular module before, yet given they are extremely experienced and knowledgeable in their fields everything worked out in the end.
Therefore, even more so, we were all exploring this new world together – the meeting of science and gastronomy!
This was the next module for the second level of “Advanced French Pastry Training” and the six of us were joined by two very experienced and seasoned Chefs here to take this unique module and delve into this new world with us.
We started off with the basic theory behind this mountain of research and development.
It was a thrilling morning of lectures and discussions about foams, gels, mousses, pearls and chantilly and the myriad of ways of making them both traditionally and in the new age.
We learnt about the chemical properties of each product and how they react with different ingredients and the qualities they imbue on the final products.
So here for the class photo are the chemical toys we got to play with for 3 days – from left to right – Xantham Gum, Citric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Methylcellulose A and B, Sodium Bicarbonate, Soy Lecithin, Agar-Agar, Calcium Salt, Sodium Alginate and let us not forget the absent stars of the show the Carrageenan Brothers – Iota, Kappa and Lambda (they were a little late for class having been lost and later found)!
Technological Tests were scattered throughout the three days with trails and test subjects, created and then dissected for our culinary pleasure.
Once again I quickly realised this would be a very different experience both in Pastry and Intellectually.
All of my high school chemistry and physics was being thrown back at me all over again and I tried to dive right in – pH, temperature, chemical structures and bonds, hydrophobic and hydrophilic molecules, long and short chain molecules, cleaving and forming enzymes, phases of liquids, elasticity and sheering forces it was like instructional video and it came rushing back!
Like any good high-school chemistry class we had multiple errors and testing phases. The multiple accidents taught us important lessons but with perseverance we had reasonable outcomes and sparks of inspiration for how to improve the processes next time.
Lunch was a welcome break after the lectures before the onslaught of the afternoon – but instead of relaxing we all had more questions…
These classes were focused on some of the more common processes but using novel molecular pastry techniques to recreate them in new ways.
One of the weirdest processes we employed was that used to make the coconut spaghetti using syringes and plastic piping and a difficult mixture of coconut milk and carrageenan – we all had fun playing in our laboratory.
Each of the desserts was not just a plate of scientific madness but a carefully calculated melding of the worlds of haute French pastry and Molecular Gastronomy.
We combined a molten chocolate tart with coffee spheres, whisky foam with coffee crème brûlée and milk foam with white chocolate cups and fruit minestrone.
And so after two and a half days we finished at 1pm on a Wednesday with more questions and a short introduction to this foreign landscape of patisserie.
We said good bye to the two great foreign chefs as they received their certificates and our friendly gastronomic scientist who was a wonderful resource of knowledge in her field.
We were spoilt with constant tastings throughout the module yet we all had clear favourites with each of the flavour and texture combinations having supporters and critics!
Sadly, none of the desserts made it’s way home, all being too difficult for transport or produced in very limited quantity.
And so once again for your enjoyment, and this time, spirited discussion and inquest, here are photos of my unusual Molecular Pastry creations …
Let’s focus on the most unusual one first, a banana sorbet milkshake with avocado foam and shortbread biscuit with ginger honey and lime zest – the banana sorbet milkshake was fantastic and really tasted of natural fresh banana, had a great texture and was cool and refreshing. The avocado foam was made with chicken stock, lime and soy lecithin – so it was not only unusual, as you would expect, eating savoury avocado in such an unusual form was in no way advantageous for the dish except that we got more practice with the siphon.
The next, one of the simplest, although novel, could not compare to the brilliance of a classic vanilla panna cotta, but this unusual beast was interesting for its use of a vegetarian gelification medium in place of the usual gelatine – the not so special sounding Caramel Custard without Cooking – was deceptive as you did heat the cream and milk with the carrageenan, the caramel was cooked and was a little to sticky for my liking.
This dessert proved to be one of the most difficult to master with multiple revisions being required for each one of the elements except the chantilly cream. The steamed herb sponge cake was a nightmare to cook, we had made it too thick and so the centre remained gooey and the final outcome was too dense when pared with the rest of the dish. The strawberry juice was difficult to extract from the frozen strawberries and had to be redone when there was a mistake with the rest of the ingredients. The strawberry jelly which was intially to fragile, and too thin, was extremely difficult to roll around the soft strawberry mousse. The mousse was too soft and became misshapen with any movement or work. And so it became a very heated topic of discussion of our collective problem solving abilities – by chance we learnt of some secret techniques from one of the chefs in the kitchen – and the chef came up with great ideas of his own – and so in collaboration we have a master plan for the next attempt.
A steamed herb sponge cake with strawberry jelly, strawberry mousse and chantilly cream a great summery dessert – the herb sponge was flavourful having been seasoned with mint, lemon thyme and tarragon based on an almond flour sponge but it was too dense for my liking – however, I did like the technique of steaming the cakes.
Coffee flavoured Crème Brulee was a classic, with no new twists to be seen, the reduced milk ice-cream based on reduced milk and marscapone was smooth and creamy and the baileys milk foam had great volume to it – it was all delicious but it needed some contrasting textures, some crunch – it needed the brulee top for the crème.
A Molten Chocolate Tart posed no new issues or interest, despite being really tasty and a great simple dessert, and the accompanying coffe spheres were simply a bitter coffee liquid that ruined a nice tart. They were however more welcome practice at the so called ‘Normal’ technique for producing pearls with a sodium alginate preparation dropped into a clacium salt bath. What really excited me though was the ideas this dish later brought into my dessert focused mind – how about a creamy coffee ice-cream frozen into small spheres and dipped from a chocolate alginate preparation into a chocolate calcium bath producing small balls of coffee ice-cream in chocolate gel cases placed on top of the cake and then split open for your eating pleasure.
Our second foray into the normal technique for creating pearls was more satisfying mimicking their original structre and producing a great taste sensation in the mouth – mandarin caviar – but the soapy like campari emulsion or sea foam based on campari and soy lecithin was nothing to write home about – it divided the class heavily and luckily at least one student liked the campari emulsion.
The next two desserts were my clear favourites and introduced many great ideas into my rapidly expanding repetoire…
The first, included the most interesting processes, spaghetti, milk foam, fruit minestrone, frozen spherical mousses, hazelnut meringue for contrasting textures it was all worth the painstaking work. Coconut spaghetti, a white chocolate cup filled with pineapple, mango and passionfruit minestrone, crisp hazelnut meringue, a sphere of frozen coconut mousse and thick milk foam sprinkled with roasted coconut. It was fun, child-like, flavourful and interesting.
The last was a little weird and a little great – French Toast, otherwise known as Pain Perdu in France – baked in the oven with a rich vanilla custard rather than fried in butter in the pan – paired with crunchy hazelnut meringue and liquefied mango spheres using the inverse technique so that like an egg yolk they oozed out their precious sweet contents.
What was most important from this module was not the recipes or our final presentations – rather it was a beginning to a new way of thinking both in gastronomy and pastry. I am not saying that I will create spheres with sodium alginate and calcium salt baths every day, and I will definitely not make Campari emulsions or avocado foams again; but, under special circumstances I may break out a fundamental idea or two and maybe a few chemistry lessons will come in handy!
So after a very interesting two and a half days we headed to lunch and then straight into the third module – PLATED DESSERTS!!!