El Bulli's vanilla transparent fruit pâté is neither transparent nor fruit... discuss!
If you were going to make "vanilla transparent fruit pâté" and were handed the following list of ingredients, what would you think?
1000 g water
5 vanilla pods
100 g sugar
30 g NH pectin
150 g glucose
150 g inverted sugar
15 g citric acid
Perhaps you'd see the mixture of sugars, pectin, and acid and think jam, or maybe you'd wonder what inverted sugar is in the first place. Would you question the need for five whole vanilla pods?
Me? Well, I, for one, was trying to figure out where the hell the fruit was. I re-read the recipe repeatedly. Nope, still not there. I checked the US and Spanish versions on the CD. Not there either.
Then I did what I inevitably do when attempting a Ferran Adria preparation: I just take the plunge, and trust that the end product will, in fact, be a reasonable facsimile of the finished dish in the little photo attached to the recipe.
Guess what? It worked again. Somehow the three star Michelin chef was right, and the three ring circus amateur was chastened yet again.
What surprised me most was that, despite its total absence, the pâté has a remarkably fruity quality. The first flavour is a bright, citrus tang, followed quickly by intense sweetness and a mild vanilla final note. That citrus punch is indispensable, because it screams fruit so loudly that the palate assumes its presence. Texturally, the pâté brought me back to the two cent, sugar-coated fruit jellies of my childhood, though the mouthfeel is silkier and less chewy. It's a very clever, inventive way to mimic flavours and invoke taste memories, and the outcome is delicious.
As you may have noticed, this pâté is far from "transparent." If anything, it's picked up the colour of the lightly caramelized sugar, and is somewhat opaque. I don't think I did anything wrong, however, because the picture of this dish in El Bulli: 1998-2002 is far from transparent and because, when viewed in the proper light, the thousands of vanilla seeds emerge like constellations in a vast galaxy.
I've done a little research since making the pâté, and I've come to the realization that what I made was just a fancy sugar preserve, really. According to On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, a sugar preserve contains three essential elements: sugar, pectin, and acid. When heated to between 103-105C, enough water is evaporated from the mixture to create a gel. The fruit pâté mixture is heated to 106C, so I suppose it contains a little less moisture, but that's really the only difference between the two.
Ferran Adria is not the only molecular gastronomist making this dish, though his team invented it. A Google search led me to tastingmenu.com's review of Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo, which serves a vanilla pate de fruit that seems identical in taste and presentation to this one, even down to the sprinkling of sugar on the finished product.
Jelly. Pâté. Who am I to question the chefs at El Bulli? This dish is candy, anyway, and candy is supposed to be fun.