Monday, July 30, 2012

Molecular Gastronomy or That Time I Failed at Being a Chemist

I call this one the alien bug fail.
This may be hard to believe, faithful readers, but there once was a time that I was a chemistry nerd (Kicking (CH3)2CO and taking names!). It's ok; it was in college (that's what they meant by a time of experimentation, right? RIGHT?!?!). Despite being back in Houston for nearly ten months now, I had yet to have a joyful reunion with my former cool lab dwellers. This past weekend, I sought to fix that and assembled the rag tag group of chem geniuses Amanda, Phillip and Dr. Hennessy (I still feel weird calling her by her first name even though it's been 5 years since graduation.). I had recently received a molecular gastronomy kit for my birthday, so it only seemed fitting to share in the nerdy cooking with the people who helped make sure I never accidentally blew up the chem lab (I'm the best at science.). Surely, this would be an easy endeavor with several advanced degrees and a previously successfully attempt at the sweet food science with Mint Juleps and Mint Caviar. But, as is seemingly always the case, cockiness led to oh so much fail.
Mint caviar was so easy. A little too easy...
I decided I would start off the get together with a fancy cheese course. I would top some scrumptious brie with honey "caviar". Unfortunately, the culinary world had other plans.

Honey Caviar
From Cuisine R-Evolution
Time: 35 minutes
Servings: However many people want to eat a blob of honey stuck in oil

2 g agar-agar
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup honey
Vegetable oil
Water for rinse

  1. Chill the oil in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  2. Mix the water, honey and agar-agar together in a saucepan then bring to a boil.
  3. Pour the mixture into a bowl and fill up a syringe with it.
  4. Slowly drop the honey into the chilled vegetable oil. Collect the pearls with a slotted spoon and place in your water rinse bowl.
  5. Nervously laugh when that last part doesn't actually come to fruition.
It looked like it was working. Then it became one giant honey blob.
Everything seemed to be going quite swimmingly. Then it came time to remove the honey spheres from the oil. Either they had all come together or they would immediately break when they hit the air-oil interface. Things were not off to a good start, but it didn't make sense. The science was so in my favor. Think of agar-agar as super gelatin. We activated it by boiling and then were supposed to cause it to quickly thicken by introducing it to the cold oil. The only excuse for this failure had to be a temperature issue, but several different attempts kept producing the same disappointing results. Our brie would just have to be eaten sans fancy honey. 

Since I was oh so very confident in my fairly unproven molecular gastronomy skills, I decided to make a two-part dessert. It would feature a chocolate "wind" base complimented by raspberry "ravioli" spherifications.

Chocolate Wind
From Cuisine R-Evolution

2 g soy lecithin
85 g dark chocolate
1 cup water
Well, I guess I'm not the world's worst molecular gastronomer.
  1. Mix the chocolate and water together and bring to a boil. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
  2. Use a hand blender to dissolve the soy lecithin in the chocolate mixture and create foam.
  3. Collect the foam and freeze it for at least an hour.
My confidence began to grow as the chocolate "wind" started to form. This was actually fairly easy. Just make sure the bowl you are blending in has a good foam producing shape (think tall glass). While this may have been the only true success of the evening as far as looks go, it wasn't the biggest winner in taste. Just look at it. It's chocolate and water, so, in what should come as a surprise to no one, it tastes like watered down chocolate.

Science successfully at work! The soy lecithin is an emulsifier that helps promote the formation of foams or air/water emulsions when agitated. 

Raspberry Ravioli
From Cuisine R-Evolution

2 g sodium alginate
2 cups water
1 3/4 cups raspberries
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp calcium lactate
Water for rinsing
The ensuing horror was foretold.
  1. Dissolve the sodium alginate in water using a hand blender. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
  2. Puree the raspberries, sugar and calcium lactate together in a blender.
  3. Carefully drop the puree into the alginate bath using a measuring spoon. Let form for 3 minutes. Be careful not to let the ravioli touch one another or they will aggregate.
  4. Grab your ravioli with a slotted spoon and rinse in water.
  5. Close your eyes and enjoy.
Because you want your dessert to look kind of like a fetus...
The raspberry ravioli was technically a success, just not a very pretty one. The raspberries turned into proper spherifications in the alginate solution. Unfortunately, my delicate dropping skills need some work, and they weren't spheres so much as horror movie props (I'm fairly certain I saw these in the Basket Case series). Make sure that the entire raspberry gets its time in the solution or else it'll easily break (mine had a tendency to float to the top). They were bursting with delicious raspberry flavor for what we'll call a 2/3 win.

In case you're wondering how this works, the calcium rich raspberry puree has plenty of calcium ions with a +2 charge that can bond with two negatively charged alginate ions to form a dense gel network.
This is what happened after I said "Ok, this is gonna be the pretty one!"
Once we combined the structurally suspect raspberry ravioli with the rapidly melting chocolate wind, we were ready for dessert. Aside from the minor watery taste, it was a fairly refreshing and light way to end our night. Unfortunately, Dr. Hennessy's five-year-old son Joseph didn't agree as he gave the scathing review "I call it not very good!" And with that, I had a new nemesis.

Would they still love me after a lackluster molecular gastronomy showing? Hopefully all those late night problem sets and world's longest columns had forever entrenched me in their hearts. (Not Pictured: the world's harshest food critic).
Molecular Gastronomy II: The Reckoning!

That's a little more like it.
Like any good scientist, I was not going to let these minor setbacks deter me from total culinary domination. While writing this post (and drawing immense inspiration from watching Cupcake Wars), I set about conquering the honey caviar (plus, I was really jonesing for some brie). Failure was not an option, so I set about making sure all this was a well temperature controlled experiment by using a candy thermometer. Once the honey mixture started boiling (and was well above the 80 C required for agar-agar activation), I immediately transferred it to a bowl and started dropping it into my cold oil. I also noticed that the slotted spoon provided in the kit had holes that were a little too large to catch some of the smaller spheres, so I put the mixture into a strainer and rinsed it with water for a delicious success. I guess I'm not the world's worst chemist. Take that, Kurt Alder and your stupid reactions!

Pay no attention to the fact I didn't yield enough to cover the entire wheel. This was a total win. 
Sure it tastes exactly like mixing honey with brie, but it's infinitely cooler. 




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