I’m an old soul in the kitchen. Many of my favorite recipes come from my first and only cooking teachers, my mother and her mother, and what I didn’t learn from them, I’ve picked up from homey illustrated compendiums published by women’s magazines like McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal or Good Housekeeping. I use butter, sugar, eggs and no mixes. I roll out pie crust with my mom’s old rolling pin. I tend to rely on recipes instead of making up my own.
Frankly, I’d never been interested in moving too far from classic in my cooking. But then, recently, I met Aki and Alex.
New York-based Aki Kamozawa and her husband, H. Alexander Talbot, chefs both, write Ideas in Food, a blog that chronicles their experiments with food fueled by their sense of wonder, fearlessness and an understanding of cooking chemistry (ideasinfood.typepad.com). In their blog as well as in the cooking classes they lead, “Flavor. Efficiency. Creativity” is one of their mottoes. “What is. What can be. What if?” is another. In their hands, parsnips become the stuff of ice cream and raw oysters are garnished with ethereal foam made from the oysters’ own liquor.
On the first day of their cooking class at Woodberry Kitchen in June, I watched them use the enzyme Activa RM, which is in yogurt, to “glue” two skirt steaks together to make a thicker, easier to cook, piece of meat. Then the duo used methocel (a product that allows chefs to form firm or weak gels at different temperatures) to stabilize hollandaise sauce even at high temperature. Finally, they showed visitors how to infuse strawberries with vin cotto (a thicker, more concentrated version of balsamic vinegar) by vacuum sealing them in plastic bags.
I was skeptical at first, but Alex explained, “We’re using these ingredients to improve and fine-tune our cooking. If there’s harm to the palate or the texture, it’s not working.”
This made sense, I conceded, and while I didn’t have any enzymes handy in my kitchen that night (check the Ideas in Food blog for mail-order sources), I was inspired to make mayonnaise (my substitution for hollandaise) and marinate strawberries in balsamic vinegar, which I served over Greek yogurt.
On the second day of the class, Alex used a pectin solution to join sliced radishes together in sheets that could then be used in terrines or other preparations to build what he calls “layers of flavor.” This phrase stuck with me, and when Alex began to construct a similar sheet made from maraschino cherries to be used as a cocktail garnish, I heard myself blurt out, “Those cherries taste best in a Manhattan!”
“That’s it, let’s make a Manhattan crisp,” exclaimed Alex as a staff member rushed to mix up a concoction of Maker’s Mark, sweet vermouth and bitters with which to infuse the cherries before joining them together in a fruit sheet bound by pectin.
That night, I stood in the kitchen and like a musician letting go of sheet music and throwing her soul into improvisation, I closed my eyes to all my cookbooks and a million food melodies came into my head. I thought about textures and imagined a garlic ice cream or basil sorbet to complement fresh sliced tomatoes.
Then, feeling lazy, I remembered the mayonnaise I’d made the night before. What would it be like frozen? I put a scoop in a plastic container, stuck it in the freezer and waited. Alas, when I pulled it out I could barely chip fragments off the surface and it had lost its fresh light flavor. Disappointed but undeterred, I moved on.
One of my favorite brownie recipes calls for a can of Hershey’s syrup and two icings, one flavored with crème de menthe. Since I had a bunch of mint in the refrigerator, I decided to make my own chocolate syrup and infuse it with mint along the lines of the “layers of flavor” idea. I made a simple syrup of sugar and water, poured it over chopped mint leaves, let it steep then added the strained syrup to cocoa, sugar and water. I brought the mixture to a boil, cooked it for a few minutes and voila, chocolate mint syrup! I followed the rest of the recipe as it was, substituting my homemade syrup for the canned one and adding a bit of the simple mint syrup to the icing instead of the crème de menthe. I was thrilled with the results. In the same way that chili pepper can give chocolate a bit of warmth and depth and tingle, the mint gave the chocolate coolness, depth and tingle.
Emboldened by my success, I thought of the Manhattan crisp and wondered how I could re-create that cocktail’s flavor in the classic pineapple upside-down cake. The topping of the cake is often a mixture of canned pineapple, maraschino cherries and pecans bound together with brown sugar, butter and rum. I decided to forgo both maraschino cherries and instead soak plump dried Rainier cherries in a bourbon-sweet vermouth mixture until they were soft, figuring I could use the soaking liquid in the butter and brown sugar topping. I also replaced the canned pineapple with fresh, and toasted the pecans so they’d have a deeper, richer flavor.
I also suspected ginger might be just the lift my cake needed, but since I didn’t want it to taste spicy like a Christmas fruitcake, I sliced about an inch of peeled fresh ginger into thin pieces and boiled them in the pineapple juice left from the pineapple (supplemented with some extra from a can) for several minutes before letting them steep.
I’d planned to use just the pineapple-infused juice only in the cake, but the steeped ginger smelled so heavenly that I chopped it up and threw it in the batter, too. I’d also planned to replace the vanilla with bourbon, but in my excitement, I forgot. In the end it didn’t matter. The cake was more complex and more delicious than I could have imagined. I couldn’t pick out the ginger specifically, but there was an underlying spicy slow burn that cut through the richness of the buttery cake. And, for once, I was eager to eat a candied cherry that gave off a small burst of booze.
In a couple of afternoons I had created layers of flavor by stepping away from the tried and true and letting my taste buds guide me. I’m not ready to give up my library of cookbooks quite yet, but I see my relationship with them changing. I’m no longer the student learning from my recipe mentor. I am a collaborator.