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molecular cooking » digest LA
chefs working with liquid nitrogen

Chef Whitney Werner and Chef Martin Gilligan working with liquid nitrogen

I am just back from a very long Molecular Gastronomy class at Sur La Table. Maybe it was because it was my fourth class in two months, but I wasn’t feeling this one as much. We did make an amazing NY Strip Steak with a coffee rub and parsnip puree. I also learned why my reverse spherification turned out so awful. It ends up I used Calcium Chloride instead of Calcium Gluconate. How silly of me. The teacher, Chef Whitney Werner, said that Calcium Chloride is toxic! Luckily for me, I don’t think that is true. It does, however, taste awful.

We used a different technique for reverse spherification in this class. The juice to be spherized was frozen in a half sphere shape. It was then dropped in a hot batch of sodium alginate. I am not really clear on why the algin was hot, but freezing the juice means that you don’t have to worry about creating perfect spheres.

On foam… We made foam in this class for the roasted beet salad. It turns out, that you make foam exactly the way I accidentally made foam the other day. You use an immersion blender and introduce air to the mixture and et voila. You got foam. I don’t think I will be making any foam in the near future, but at least I know I am an idiot savant of foam making.

Some pictures from the class

Roasted beets with Walnut Tuile and Parmesan Air

Roasted beets with Walnut Tuile and Parmesan Air

This was pretty delicious actually. I have made tuiles before, but not since I got a Silpat so it may be time. The beets were delicious and I loved the dressing with shallots.

Coffee Rubbed New York Striploin with Cauliflower and Parsnip and Rocky Mountain Wild Blueberry Spheres

Coffee Rubbed New York Striploin with Cauliflower and Parsnip and Rocky Mountain Wild Blueberry Spheres

This was by far the winner of the night. The rub on the steak was delicious, but the sauce that Chef Gilligan made was amazing. Also, who doesn’t love a good cauliflower and parsnip puree?

Swordfish and Cous Cous Involtini with Yuzu Foam and Blood Orange Gastrique

Swordfish and Cous Cous Involtini with Yuzu Foam and Blood Orange Gastrique

I wasn’t a big fan of this one because I just didn’t love the taste of the swordfish. I did learn, however, that you can make your own cous cous at home.

Chef Gilligan Pouring Liquid Nitrogen

Chef Gilligan Pouring Liquid Nitrogen

I think this is how chefs have fun.

It is funny the types of things that irritate you about someone after living with them for years. It is like the more you love them, the more irritating they become. No, I am not about to badmouth my ex. Actually, I was talking about myself. I think the two things that drove James nuts the most were 1) I love using as many bowls as possible when cooking and 2) I always forget to salt food. Now I know these are both pretty unforgivable things. I think that growing up watching cooking shows with my dad, I loved all the tiny bowls filled with perfectly chopped veggies. I just never really thought about who has to wash all those bowls. And salt, well sorry mom, but you weren’t the best at salting food yourself.

For those reasons, Egg 63 with Ratatouille and Salt Glazed Potatoes is the best recipe for me to make. I “learned” this recipe when I took a cooking class a few weeks ago with Marcel Vigneron at Sur La Table. The reasons are that first of all, all of the vegetables in the ratatouille are diced (knife skillz, ding) and then cooked individually before cooking them all together for an hour. That means they have to wait in individual bowls for their turn in the pan. And the potatoes are cooked using a method (I forget the name) where you boil them in very salty water (like sea water) until all of the water is boiled away, leaving you with delicious salt-glazed potatoes. I can’t forget the salt in that recipe because it is a main ingredient. Egg 63 is a soft boiled egg cooked at 63 degrees celsius, which is supposed to be the best temperature to cook all the different bits in the egg. Without an immersion circulator, I had to rely on the old fashioned method of a thermometer, a stove, and cold water to regulate the temperature.

ratatouilleThree grueling hours later I had really delicious ratatouille, eggs with overcooked yolks and really really salty potatoes (some salt water ratio was way off).

Here is the finished product. I “plated” with the egg, but then took it off because it was terrible. The saltiness of the potatoes was really nice in the ratatouille, but I definitely have to fix the salt to water ratio next time.

cooking eggsFor egg 63, I would need an immersion circulator or a sous vide machine to even bother trying again. Granted, this candy thermometer technique was a pretty half-assed attempt to begin with. On the plus side, cooking sous vide requires a vacuum-sealing system, which appeals to my faux obsessive compulsive tendencies and love of gadgets. I can’t wait to vacuum seal everything.

Regarding my inability to remember salt, I bought the teeniest Le Creuset pot that they make and filled it with kosher salt. I keep it next to the stove. I like that it makes me feel like a real chef to grab a pinch of salt and throw it in the pan. Plus it is so cute, how could I ever forget salt again?


Recently I took a cooking class with Marcel Vigneron at Sur La Table. I previously made fun of LA for being celebrity-obsessed, but I do have to admit that I took this class just because Marcel had been on Top Chef season 2. I started watching Top Chef at the end of that season. In fact, I think the infamous hair shaving episode was the first episode I ever saw. So I didn’t have any strong feelings for Marcel one way or the other, but I was excited to take a class with a Top Chef.

I didn’t expect to learn anything useful, but I thought it would be fun. The class was rescheduled with short notice because of Marcel’s time commitments to his new gig at Bar 210. Thanks to that change only a really small group ended up taking the class. On top of that, Marcel was about the nicest person you could imagine. He kept everyone busy working on recipes and was pretty charming. Okay, I did get a little crush when we shared a potato (my sister just rolled her eyes when she read that). So while we got the super small class with hands on attention, I did notice from another blog that he brought Chef Ludovic Lefebvre (from Top Chef Masters) as his sous chef the last time he taught the class. Well, at least I got to share a potato.

Anyway, surprise surprise, I loved the class and went home with 2 to 3 completely viable recipes to make at home. My favorite was Egg 63 with ratatouille (and potatoes!) that I am going to make for my sister when I visit in a few weeks. We also made deboned chicken wings stuffed with blue cheese that I will make as soon as the Eagles are in the Super Bowl. Last we made a pine nut bizcocho in the microwave that I loved, but it requires a soda syphon. No big deal, except I just bought a Soda Stream. Does my kitchen require this much carbonation?

So of all these recipes, I decided to try the one I thought I would never make – grape spheres with peanut butter powder brioche toast. This recipe involves creating a thin membrane around a sphere of grape juice so that you can place it as a solid “jelly” on your brioche, but it explodes back into juice when you put it in your mouth. For this recipe, you need to purchase some chemicals to create the membrane. The grape spheres are created using a reverse spherification process, which means calcium is added to the grape juice and the mixture is then “cooked” in water that contains sodium alginate.

these are the wrong shape

I mixed up my chemicals the day before as per the instructions. I added Xantham gum to thicken the grape juice and Calcium Chloride. The first problem came when I opened the grape juice and found a thick layer of foam from the immersion blender. I am not making foam, I am making spheres!

First, I tried skimming the foam off. Every time I dropped the grape juice into the algin, I ended up with silly string shapes instead of spheres.

The I made the mistake of tasting one. It was disgusting. Like a salty seaweed blob. The I remembered that Marcel said something about soaking it in grape juice in case the spheres are going to absorb any flavors. So I put my blobs in grape juice and soldiered on.

Next, I tried dropping the grape juice with foam into the algin. The foam made the grape juice more buoyant and it formed spheres. However, the spheres had little tails that made them impossible to pick up with a slotted spoon. The tail would slip through the slot and the whole thing would break open. I remember Marcel using scissors to cut off the tails, so I started trying that next. With foam and scissors, I managed to make one remotely sphere-like shape from the entire batch of grape juice.

perfection... not really

Heady with the triumph on my one sphere-ish shape, I decided to give up and just make lots of tiny spheres (like caviar) because that was easy enough to do. I used up the rest of the juice making grape caviar and soaked it all in grape juice.

After all this, I just didn’t have it in me to attempt to powder-ize peanut butter. Peanut butter is fine, in fact, that is how we had it in class. I toasted some brioche from the farmer’s market, spread on the peanut butter, and delicately placed grape blobs on each. I was kind of hungry by this point anyway, so I grabbed a piece of toast and… still completely disgusting. Why am I making these?

Now that I have that recipe out of the way, I can try to make one of the recipes that I actually wanted to make from the class. If you want to try this for some reason, here is an Instructable for making carrot caviar.


UPDATE: I found out later that I had used Calcium Chloride in the grape juice, which is not meant for consumption. I should have used Calcium Gluconate. That is why this recipe tasted so bad.