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February 10, 2006

SHF #16: White chocolate and caviar

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Want to see our full collection of molecular gastronomy posts?  Click here.

No, that's not a misprint.  We really did make white chocolate and sturgeon caviar, and, yes, it was delicious.

I suppose I need to begin with a little confession: I am completely fascinated by cutting edge gastronomy.  By "cutting edge," I'm referring to innovators like Ferran Adria at El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, Grant Achatz at Alinea, and other chefs who are pushing the culinary envelope using new ingredients, new technologies, and a lot of imagination.  I'm so fascinated by what these people are doing that I've often thought of buying one of Ferran Adria's cookbooks, and then blogging my way through every recipe in it (not an original idea, I know, but it sure sounds like fun).

This cutting edge cuisine is known to some as "molecular gastronomy," a term coined by a French scientist, Hervé This, and an Oxford physicist, Nicholas Kurti, and discussed in greater detail in This' eponymous book.  Think of it as chemistry and physics applied to the pleasures of the palate.

Of course, this Sugar High Friday is supposed to be about romance, not physics) though I suppose that means a little chemistry might be appropriate).  When I saw Heston Blumenthal's recipe for this dish, I was immediately struck by just how appropriate it is: the aphrodisiacal properties of chocolate require no elaboration, nor does the link between caviar and romance.  Beyond this, I was struck by the simplicity of the recipe -- by having just two ingredients -- and how that mirrors one of the most obvious qualities of human romance.  Finally, there are few more powerful symbols of fertility and sex than the egg, especially when we're talking eggs in the quantities you find in a tin of caviar.

Before I go any further, I am aware that the UN has now banned caviar exports from the Black Sea, and I want to assure you that the caviar we enjoyed is not Black Sea caviar.  I bought it at the St. Lawrence Market from Caviar Direct. The caviar there is from wild, Canadian sturgeon, and, according to the man who helped me, is said to have a flavour profile similar to Osetra.  Not surprisingly, he seemed a little shocked when I said I planned to eat a CDN$95 tin of caviar with white chocolate.

Anyone can make this, and if they like caviar, they should.  The only "cooking" involved is melting 125 grams of good quality white chocolate in the microwave.  Beyond that, you need only spread the melted chocolate on parchment with a palette knife, then cut out little discs of white chocolate after it's chilled.  Spoon a little bit of caviar on top, ignore the "you really must be insane" look from your loved one, then grin smugly as you both marvel at how good this is.

The taste is different, but undeniably good.  Blumenthal recommends placing the disc on your tongue, then letting it melt such that the first sensation is from the white chocolate, which is followed by stronger and stronger salty and fishy tastes as the caviar hits the tongue.  That first sensation is all about chocolate.  It's the richness, yes, but it's the sensual feeling of it melting that also leaves a strong impression.  I find the taste of our Valrhona white chocolate to be creamy and fatty, but within seconds the saltiness starts, and continues to build until the chocolate is melted off the tongue.  You're rewarded with a surge of fresh salty flavour, and the soft burst of the caviar.

If I had to compare it to anything, I guess I'd have to choose a really good cookie.  The one thing I always notice about cookies I enjoy is that they have a subtle, yet noticeable saltiness.  The combination of white chocolate and caviar is like that: cookies and cream with a mild salt and fish finish.  My description doesn't really do it justice, because even a "tasty" cookies, cream, and fish mixture still doesn't sound tempting, but I would happily eat this combination again.  Rachel, though skeptical when I told her, tasted the white chocolate and caviar and immediately liked the pairing despite her expectations.

This begs the obvious question: why is this combination appealing to the human palate?  The underlying idea behind Blumenthal's recipe is that sweets, whether they be cookies or chocolate, require salt to fully develop their flavours.  Nothing dictates that the saltiness must come from regular salt, however.  In his experiments with white chocolate, Chef Blumenthal discovered that cured duck ham "worked quite well," but that he was "shocked" by the effects of caviar.  He discussed this with François Benzi, who works for the Swiss perfume and flavourings company, Firmenich, and was told that it had to with the high amine content of both caviar and chocolate.  Amines are "are a group of proteins that have broken down from their amino acid state but not so far as to become ammonia. Amines (hello, molecular gastronomy) contribute to the desirable flavours that we find in cooked meats and cheeses, among other things."  To learn more, click here (this is also the recipe link).

I wish I could say that the combination of white chocolate and caviar led directly to romance, but, sadly, it did not.  Rather than making this on a quiet night when Rachel and I could spend some time together, I chose the night when I play dodgeball (yes, there is actually a league for grown men and women who do this).  I recognize this is something of a perversion of the inspiration for this event -- instead of romance with the love of my life, I chucked balls at perfect strangers -- but it was tremendously enjoyable and tasty, anyways.

If you're looking for more resources about molecular gastronomy, there's a wonderful round-up at à la cuisine.

Apparently the timing of this article is rather fortuitous.  There is a new article from NPR.  On a more Canadian not, there's an excellent review of The Fat Duck by Joanne Kates in the February 11 issue of The Globe & Mail.  To top it off, Food Network Canada is about to broadcast an episode of Chef At Large that features Dominique and Cindy Duby, Canada's own "molecular" chocalatiers/patissiers.  Included on the Food TV website is the Duby's recipe for Braised Short Ribs with Chocowine Broth.

I've tried very hard to find a link to the Maclean's article about molecular gastronomy mentioned by Christine at Occasionally Christine, but have so far been unable to find it.  If you know of a link, please let me know.

Update:

How much do I love the blogosphere?  And Raspberry Sour at The Sour Patch? A lot, really.  No sooner did the call for a link to the Maclean's article go out, then RS added a comment with the link.  So, here's the article.  When you've finished reading the article, please visit The Sour Patch and amuse yourself further.

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Comments

Torie

I just stumbled across your blog, and am enjoying reading about your culinary adventures. I'm a former Torontonian currently residing in Paris, and while I mostly miss the diversity of the food in TO, I also miss playing dodgeball...haven't found a team here in Paris yet. I hope you had a good game after your caviar/chocolate treat. It sounds delicious!

Ivonne

Fantastic, Rob! What a creative, unique dish. And I think it's wonderful that you are continuously espousing the incredible food resources, such as the St. Lawrence Market, that we Torontonians have available to us.

Not for nothing was the St. Lawrence Market named one of the 25 best markets in the world by Food & Wine magazine!

And who wouldn't want to eat caviar and play dodge ball???

Jennifer

I can't tell you how badly I want to try your dessert. It's certainly an idea I won't be able to get out of my head. What a fabulous dish!

Thanks for taking part in this month's Sugar High Friday!

Christine

Did you read the article on Molecular Gastronomy in this weeks Issue of Macleans? I don't normally like caviar but this appeals to me.

Nicholas

Wow, now that's a combination I've never heard of. White Chocolate and Caviar!
Nice one Rob.

rob

Thanks for the comments, everybody.

No, Torie, our dodgeball game did not go so well. Though leading 10-7, we lost 12-11. I hope you're enjoying Paris, it's one of our favourite cities. You might be interested to know that http://www.oswegotea.com/ is a food blog written by another transplanted Torontonian in Paris.

Hi, Ivonne. We do consider ourselves lucky to be in Toronto, and just a block from the St. Lawrence Market. This really is one of the best cities in the world in which to cook and eat.

Thanks for the compliment, Jennifer, and thanks for the all the effort you've put into this event.

Hi, Christine, thanks for the tip. No, I did not realize there was an article about molecular gastronomy in Maclean's, but will definitely check it out.

Raspberry Sour

Hi Rob, it looks like they may have only just posted it. Here's the Maclean's link:

http://www.macleans.ca/topstories/science/article.jsp?content=20060213_121374_121374

Cheers, RS

fiordizucca goes english

THAT is beautiful Rob. Wonderful combination, a must try! :) bravo!

Tania

Excellent and informative post, Rob! Interesting point about salt being necessary to bring out the sweetness in something. I once baked a coffeecake and completely forgot to add salt; it was just a teaspoon or so, but without it, the cake tasted dull, flat, lifeless. It was an amazing demonstration of what salt does to a sweet.

Speaking of being amazed ... White chocolate and caviar?? Oh my goodness! Now that's sexy!!!

Raspberry Sour

Aww, shucks, thanks for the love Rob :). I'm a 'ablushing.

Clement

Hi Rob, that looks amazing! I'd definitely like to try the white chocolate/caviar combination sometime. I'm currently experimenting with a few other Blumenthal dishes. They seem so illogical, but so far they're delicious!

keiko

Hi Rob, what an intriguing combination! I really enjoyed reading the post, thanks so much for sharing (and your picture looks great ;))

Anita

Hi Rob,
What a fascinating post! I am interested in the "molecular gastronomy" too, and I think you've really captured the spirit with your creation! Wish I could try it!

rob

Thank you, everyone, for your comments. It really was a fun dish to try, and an easy dish to make. You know, once you start looking for molecular gastronomy, it's pretty easy to find.

Now I must try more, more....

Cin

That was a fascinating read, Rob. I have some Valrhona Ivory lying around so I just need to track down some caviar....

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