A Delicious Tussle with Molecular Gastronomy, or How I Learned to Torch

by Kelly on February 17, 2011   

Like (one of) Lada Gaga's outfits on the Grammys -- sheer, transparent, bumpy

Three important things came together in this dish:

1.  I prepared this dish, as instructed, for a “dinner club.”
2.  I bought a torch, took back a torch, bought another torch, took it back, and finally bought the right one. Then I learned how to use it.
3.  I tackled the finer points of a recipe written by one of the preeminent molecular gastronomy chefs in the country, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago.

First off, I’ve never attended a dinner club, though I’ve heard about them. The husband and I were invited as the guest couple, and warned in advance that we’d be asked to prepare a very specific dish and bring wine to go along with it. I happily agreed, and a few days later got a fax of the recipe. It was a little tough to read, so I checked out a blogger who is working her way through the cookbook in question. Some of her first words were “…I made this dish over two days…” — ack! This will often scare me off a recipe, but I was committed.

My recipe was “Transparency of Manchego Cheese” from Alinea, Mr. Achatz’s cookbook for regular folks. He is a pioneer of molecular gastronomy — for those of you who are still scratching your heads, it’s cooking by chemistry, using science to inform choices about ingredients and flavors and to understand the underlying transformation that food undergoes when it is cooked or combined. For a great explanation and funny video, check out Chow. Now I’m not the most precision-oriented cook, nor am I terribly good at carefully following a recipe, and this doesn’t jibe too well with this kind of cooking. However, I bravely dehydrated olives, without a dehydrator and the wrong kind of olives. It does take hours, so plan ahead. I roasted peppers, garlic, dried out croutons, but then came the olive oil pudding — what?

What is olive oil pudding doing on a cheese course? What is olive oil pudding? Not only that, I couldn’t get any purchase on the recipe since it was written in grams. Yes, even the liquid measurements were stated in grams — that’s weight, not volume.

Yessir, 60g olive oil -- by weight! -- is in my world 1/3 cup

It’s all up in the lab, here. Well, I’d already bought a torch (later) and squirt bottles and dang it, I didn’t own a digital scale so I used my little postal scale — hah! Very cute but it took a couple of attempts to nail it just right. But I do have it down, and wow, olive oil pudding may just be the food of the gods. All questions or concerns about its presence on this dish are hereby settled.

That would be 525g whole milk, yep, 2 cups

On to the torch, though. I confess I’ve never torched anything. I’ve worked with hot grills and flames and experienced all kinds of incendiary moments, but no hand-held torch. I’ve wanted one, though. So I bought one for this recipe at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Cute but tame

Brought it home, juiced it up with butane, but the wimpy little flame would hardly hang on! So I took it back and exchanged it for another one. Much better…or so I thought.

I took this fun new purchase to the dinner club, along with all the other parts of the dish — the anchovies (okay not “white” anchovies), dehydrated Calamatas (sorry, they didn’t have pitted Niçoise!), garlicked-up crostini (well, croutons seemed so small), roasted peppers, and roasted garlic (with rosemary, because that seemed more…interesting), and the olive oil nirvana pudding (not in a squirt bottle, though, because gee, that seemed silly).

Well, the other couples were bringing their A-game to this dinner. We started off with a beautiful salmon carpaccio in a cone thingy, stuck into rock salt. A-m-a-z-i-n-g. Then a crab dish with a flavor-of-the-sea gel, a perfectly grilled tenderloin with an agar-thickened sauce, some foam thing somewhere, it was all fantastic. My turn. I assembled the dish, layered on the manchego and my poor little flamer pooped out on serving #2. Fortunately my hostess had the real deal out in the garage. Yes, folks, go for the industrial strength of a propane blowtorch. You’ll feel like a welder!

If you keep it clean it won't look like you brought it in from the garage

I have now made this dish a few times, each time tweaking the ingredients and the process. The dried-out olives and peppers are such breakthrough flavors for me that I’m considering a dehydrator. I think I’ve got it down, and with apologies to Mr. Achatz, I present my version of Transparency of Manchego Cheese.

Not Quite Alinea’s Transparency of Manchego Cheese | 8 servings

1 cup pitted Niçoise or other black olives (40 in all)
1/2 pound mini sweet peppers or mini bell peppers
Ciabatta or other crusty bread for crostini
Olive oil
1 garlic clove
8 anchovy fillets
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 pound Manchego cheese

For the Olive Oil Pudding:
2 cups whole milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to its lowest setting (mine is 170°F but some ovens go lower). Scatter the olives on parchment on a large baking sheet. Halve, seed, and remove the ribs and tops of the peppers. Scatter them with the olives on the parchment.

A colorful array

Place the baking sheet in the oven until the peppers and olives are very dry, approximately 6 hours.

Slice the bread into four large or 8 small 1/2-inch slices and toast on both sides. Brush immediately with olive oil on one side and rub lightly with the cut side of a garlic clove.

Brush one side with olive oil

Just a light rub of cut garlic -- raw garlic is strong, so one clove will be more than enough for 8 pieces

Cut larger bread slices in half for two servings -- make extra of this to serve on the side

Have the anchovy fillets on hand.

I found nice, mild anchovies packed in oil with peppers

To prepare the olive oil pudding: In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the milk to a boil over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and salt together until blended.

The mixture may be a little dry, but just scrape it out of the whisk with a knife and keep mixing until its blended

When the milk has just boiled, scoop out 1/2 cup of hot milk and pour it into the bowl with the egg yolks, whisking to incorporate the hot milk. This tempers the yolks.

Whisk in the hot milk quickly and vigorously until smooth

Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and whisk to blend. Reduce the heat to low and bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking almost constantly. This may take another 5 to 7 minutes.

If you whisk *too* constantly, you'll actually keep the mixture cooled off so that it won't come to simmer

When the mixture simmers, remove it from the heat. Pour in the oil, whisking constantly to incorporate and cool the mixture. Pour into a bowl.

Whisk in the oil, quickly and vigorously -- you're making an emulsion, so you want to do this with gusto

Allow the pudding to cool for about 10 minutes, whisking periodically to keep it from forming a skin. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on top of the pudding and cool to room temperature.

You'll find you want to "taste" this pudding several times...just to make sure...of what, I can't tell you!

Chop the dried peppers and set aside.

This was my substitution for roasted peppers, and they are fantastic -- I'll be making these often, to add flavor to dishes and salads and pastas. Same is true of the dried olives

To assemble the servings: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, reduce the balsamic vinegar until thickened, about 5 minutes. Drizzle this along the centers of 8 heatproof plates. Arrange a large spoonful of pudding, an anchovy fillet, 5 olives, and a crostini.

Very thinly slice the Manchego cheese using a sharp cheese slicer or a mandoline and arrange in one layer covering everything.

The saltiness of the anchovy and olives is perfectly offset by the pudding

Fire up the bad boy torch and broil away

Using the torch (or under a broiler or salamander), melt and scorch the cheese over the ingredients.

I recommend it -- don't know why I waited so long to get myself one of these, because the scorch has its own particular flavor

Sprinkle the chopped dehydrated peppers over the top of each serving.

Now that you know I won’t follow a recipe, you’re crossing me off your dinner club invite list, right?

Kelly McCune © 2011
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