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April 13, 2006

Foaming at the mouth: El Bulli's Americano and Piña Colada cocktails

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It may seem hard to believe, but El Bulli -- hell, maybe even molecular gastronomy as a whole -- is a phenomenon built on foam.  This is something of an oversimplification, sure, but the advent of espumas, as they are widely known, propelled Ferran Adria and his restaurant from the ranks of the well-known into the culinary stratosphere.  As impressive as that may be, the legacy of these foams is greater still, for they represent the first of El Bulli's techniques to make the leap to the non-molecular kitchen.

Given its impact, I was surprised to learn that foams were discovered somewhat by accident.  Adria and his team had been dabbling with the concept for a couple of years without success, and then, one day, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time:

In the winter of 1993-1994, while we were helping our friend Eduard Roigé to draw up the menu of the restaurant Bel-Air in Barcelona, a customer asked for a dessert with whipped cream. To our surprise, the cream was served in the kitchen with a gadget they took out of the fridge, from which whipped cream emerged by pressing a lever at the top. Suddenly we saw the light, and we reckoned that this siphon might solve the foams problem. So we borrowed the siphon, and in a matter of just a few days, our dream became a reality. 

(To read this and other fascinating excerpts from El Bulli: 1994-1997, click here for Part I or here for Part II.)

The siphon in question is an iSi cream whipper, which I'm sure many of you who frequent coffee shops will recognize.  It is, I must say, yet another kitchen toy that makes this boy very happy.  In Toronto, you can find both the siphons and nitrous oxide cartridges at Home Outfitters and Canadian Tire.

"You must crawl, before you can walk," they say, which is why I began my experiments with foams by preparing cocktails from El Bulli: 1998-2002.  "Crawl" is the operative word here, because most of the cocktails pack a real punch.

Take the piña colada, which is a mixture of 500 grams of pineapple juice and 150 grams of white rum topped with a spectacular coconut milk foam.  That works out to more than five shots of hard liquor in the equivalent of about one and a half pop cans of juice.  No matter, because the coconut milk foam really steals the show: light and airy on the one hand, but with the rich, creamy flavour of full fat coconut milk.  A proper sip -- one with both foam and liquid -- is a powerfully enjoyable taste of the beach.

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I made the Americano for two reasons: first, the primary ingredient is blood orange juice, so I had to make it now, while blood oranges were still available; second, the alcohol in this drink is entirely in the foam.  The alcohol, in this case, is equal parts Campari, a ruby red Italian bitter, and Martini Rosso vermouth.  Bitters are not really a liquor I enjoy; frankly, I find them just too bitter, and that was somewhat the case with the Americano.  I can understand the combination, however, because the blood orange juice is sweet enough to mellow some of the bitter tones and create a pleasant harmony of flavours.

On the upside, I had no troubles making the foams for either drink. The basic formula is simple: dissolve some gelatin in a little of the liquid to be foamed, add the liquid to the foaming canister, charge, chill, and enjoy.  The composition of the liquid (like the fat in coconut milk) and the amount of gelatin dictate the consistency of the foam -- from the semi-stiff peaks of the coconut milk to the soap bubbles of the Campari and vermouth.

The foam era has begun in this household, so now, much to Rachel's dismay, I view most liquids as "foams-in-waiting."  I've restrained myself so far, but curiosity normally gets the better of me, especially with a book full of ideas and nineteen more cartridges sitting in my cupboard.

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Comments

sam

my jury is out on the foams. And the smears. I am not convinced by them yet, although you are starting to put forward a very good case. I am not sure I want any messin' with my Americano (one of my favourites).

But I do LOVE whipped cream.
(well, any cream actually).

Bron

Hehe, love that you are viewing all liquids for potential foaming now... have a fun foaming weekend!

Mersmann

Each of your successes makes it harder and harder for me to resist buying this cookbook!

So either keep up or please for the love of my pocketbook cease the good work!

Anita

Uh oh, you're going all-out old-school Bulli now, are you? Maybe you'll need to throw a party to justify making all those cocktails!

Some of his recipes in the Cook's Book look intriguing as well - the siphon may have to move up on my wish list!

Happy foaming!

Tea

Hey, Rob.
Thanks for your comment on T&C. I must admit that I know of you from comments to Ivonne and Tania (which make me feel like I want to move to Toronto just so I can hang out—and eat—with you all). Your blog is amazing—the photos, the humor, the freakin' ravioli with no skin! You can play mad scientist with my dinner any time.

And what's your fave Thai noodle dish? I might be on an experimental Thai noodle kick...

Bea at La Tartine Gourmande

I tell you, you are a real researcher and need a lab! Great stuff! So instructive. Is it the lib rarian in you?

MM

You've done it again. I am the whipped cream addict bar none. I once amused all the waiters at the Ritz Carlton when I asked for a large bowl of whipped cream. That's all. And I ate the whole thing too.

Pity I will never be able to taste pina colada since I am allergic to pineapples but the Americano looks gooooood!

Tania

"The foam era has begun ..." I love it!

I love cocktails with a good splash of bitters, so this Americano sounds particularly appealing. You do realize, though, that any dinner party of yours and Rachel's will now HAVE to include foams in one or all courses ...

Sandra

Rob like Ferran...;-)
I meet him in Milan at Identità Golose...It's a very kind person!!!
Happy Easter Rob!!
Un abbraccio from Turin...

rob

sam, I have to admit I was a little dubious about foams also, but with the right ingredient they can be fantastic. The coconut milk foam, for example, is exceptional. We are of one mind on whipped cream -- I could eat bowls of it with a broad smile across my face.

Bron, I can't wait to see what this canister can do.

Mersmann, two things: first, buy the book if you want because it's unlike any cookbook you've ever seen; second, don't worry, I plan to keep cooking from that book for a long time to come.

Anita, I just got my hands on a copy of The Cook's Book and turned immediately to Adria's foam section. I'm actually planning to make one of the recipes from that section in the very near future.

Tea, thanks for stopping by. I know you from reading your posts, and you write with an exceptional voice. My favourite Thai noodle dish, and I doubt it's traditional, is Thai Basil noodles from Salad King. The dish is rice noodles with dried shrimp, chicken, chillies, Thai basil, and lots of other goodies. I want that recipe so badly....

Bea, I'm not the librarian, Rachel is, but I love trying new things and I love researching.

MM, you're allergic to pineapples? That's a shame. As long as you can indulge in whipped cream, that's a certain amount of compensation, I'd say.

Tania, I'm intrigued by the number of people who like bitters. I've always found it one of the more difficult flavours to enjoy. As for parties with multiple foamy cocktails, that would require an investment in multiple siphons. I need to chat with Rachel about that....

Sandra, you met with the man himself, eh? That sounds like quite a thrill, though I'm at a stage now where just eating at his restaurant would be reward enough. Happy Easter to you too.

sam

Nice post Rob. I agree with you on the foam issue: when paired with the right food, dessert or drink, they can be absolutely amazing. However, making foams just for effect often seem exactly that! Cheers and Happy Easter

chrisG

What model of the isi siphon you are using? The only two models I can find are the Dessert Whip and the Easy Whip and i've read these models are not supposed to be used for foams (not sure why, could be something to do with the aluminum). Thanks in advance and thanks for the great blog!!

Filipe

This blog is AMAZING, I've discovered it today while googling for El Bulli's Golden Egg.
I had exactly the same feeling u had when I got my iSi Whipper : every liquid is a "foam-in-wait". That's really how it felt.By the way, which whipper did you get? I got an iSi Thermo Whipper,which allows me to make both cool and cold foams. And don't worry about gelatin on the cold ones : use agar agar flocks or sheets, it gelifies at an higher temperature than ordinary gelatine (just don«t use it in the presence of citrus elements, it just won«t work)

Pille

We bought the Gourmet Whip last Friday, and have since tried the Pina Colada Espuma (twice; recipe in the accompanying booklet; wonderful), Pistachio Foam (Ferran Adria's recipe in The Cook's Book; interesting, but we need to work on that); and flavoured whipped cream (not so keen on that, we prefer the texture of regular whipped cream). But it was great to read another recommendation for a whipped cocktail (Campari & blood orange that is:)

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