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March 06, 2006

Weekend Cookbook Challenge #3: El Bulli's caramelized trout roe

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Cooking from an El Bulli cookbook is a little bewildering, but from the moment I started reading El Bulli: 1998-2002 I was transfixed.  Almost all of the flavour combinations, techniques, and ingredients leave you scratching your head.  It is as if, after years of devotion to the craft of cooking, you have to start all over again.

For those who are unfamiliar, El Bulli is at the vanguard of a new wave of gastronomy.  Ferran Adria, El Bulli's chef, is this movement's leading practitioner.  The philosophy underlying this emerging school of thought and taste is complex.  First and foremost, it questions the received knowledge of our accumulated culinary traditions, and subjects those assumptions (because that's what they are) to the rigour of scientific analysis and the liberation of creative license.  Nothing is sacred in the postmodern culinary world.

Last summer, Adria delivered his 23-point culinary manifesto at the Madrid Fusión symposium. Adria's manifesto is, to this point, the most complete expression of the philosophy behind this emerging food movement I have read, and it is essential material for anyone with an interest in the field.

This discipline is so new that it does yet have an agreed upon name.  At the Madrid forum, Adria rejected the most common label, "molecular gastronomy," because it focuses strictly on the scientific nature of his work, while omitting any reference to the creativity underlying the  preparations.  Some, though not Adria himself, have suggested the name "Ferranism" or "Adriism."  Other possibilities include "new nouvelle cuisine," originally suggested by The New York Times in 2003, as well as "hypermodern."

Nomenclature aside, when I read about the orange theme for Weekend Cookbook Challenge #3, I searched the El Bulli CD (yes, it includes a CD) for an appropriate recipe.  When I found the recipe for caramelized trout roe I was ecstatic -- orange, and a jewel-bright orange at that.  More importantly, the preparation was relatively simple and the ingredient list, though challenging, not impossible.

The caramel is made from 100 grams of fondant, and 50 grams each of glucose and Isomalt -- the "molecular pantry," as I call it, deserves a post of its own -- all heated to 160C.  The mixture is then rolled out between Silpat liners until it is very thin.  At this point things get tricky.  The recipe calls for a small spoonful of trout roe to be sandwiched between 3 cm squares of the caramel.  The problem is that cutting the squares involves delicately heating and re-heating the caramel, because the sheet never remains pliable long enough to cut it all.  Sandwiches assembled, it's then time for another quick trip under the broiler to melt the caramel over the roe.

The caramelized trout roe should be eaten warm, almost immediately after emerging from the heat.  The first taste is sweet, and the first textures are a mixture of chewy and crackly caramel.  Take the first bite, and the mouth floods with a salty-sweet brine as the trout roe burst on the tongue.  Chew further, and the sensations begin to blend and complement each other.  Dazzling.

The underlying formula for this recipe is similar to that for white chocolate and caviar, a signature Heston Blumenthal dish I recently prepared for Sugar High Friday.  Both dishes combine flavours deemed incompatible by culinary orthodoxy; both dishes are superb.  Those, "I never would've thought of that, but it's damn good" moments, are why I so enjoy sampling the dishes of molecular gastronomy chefs.  It's also why I look forward to experimenting with the El Bulli cookbook for a long time to come.

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Comments

MM

Jaysus, that was incredible ballsy of you to try an El Bulli recipe! I am super impressed!

Bea at La Tartine Gourmande

What a colour!! Impressive!

Sara

Wow! That is crazy!

rob

Hey, MM. If you like that one, stay tuned. I've got another up my sleeve for Sugar High Friday.

Thanks for the compliment, Bea.

Sara, it is crazy, but it's a lot of fun.

MM

Oh you tease. Hurry up!

You know, on this note, was reading all the egullet discussions about Ferranism or molecular gastronomy or hypermodernism or whatever you wanna call it and it's all very interesting. Would like be interesting to see a blog discussion about it among "normal" (sic) people, ie. us cheese sammich bloggers. I read the sumamry of the manifesto and there are points I agree and disagree upon but I lack the intellectual and culinary knowledge to process it all. Your thoughts?

Michelle

It's gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. I'm quickly developing a massive craving for caviar, after my first bite, I was sold! You're so brave - although I'm positive I would devour the El Bulli cookbook's every word, I would probably be too scared to actually try a recipe!

rob

MM, don't fret, Friday will arrive all too soon. As for the broader intellectual discussions surrounding molecular gastronomy, I think they're all for the better. Let's face it, because of movements like MG and Slow Food, people are finally starting to put some thought into what they eat. I'd also add, that many of MG chefs are trying to make "gourmet" food using ingredients and techniques that are "everyday." Heck, one of the El Bulli recipes is microwave popcorn in a blender. Fat chance you'll catch a traditional French chef doing that.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Michelle. I also love the taste of pretty much any fish egg. You shouldn't be so intimidated by MG. I've seen what you can cook, and I know you could make virtually any recipe in the book, provided the right ingredients and equipment.

Danielle

I just found you via the WCC #3 roundup. This looks so stunning. I'm generally not much for caviar, but now I really want to taste this and see if it makes me appreciate the brine. I really go for salty caramels and chocolates, after all.

Anyways, gorgeous photo and inspiring work. Now, I must check out that cookbook...

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