I have been attending the Harvard Science and Cooking Public Lectures, making it to roughly every other one in the series. I missed the inaugural lecture (now online here) which featured Ferran Adrià, Harold McGee, and José Andrés, so I made a concerted effort to attend Andrés’ solo lecture yesterday.
The topic of the lecture was gelation and spherification, two of the fundamental molecular gastronomy techniques pioneered by Adrià, Andrés’ mentor. The basic science involved can be summarized in two slides, presented by the course professor:
I know you’re all familiar with the underlying equations, but the second slide makes it clear that the thickness of the outer shell formed in a spherification reaction is dependent on time: shorter times = thin shells, longer times = thicker shells.
Andrés began by saying “Now that I’ve spent so much time here at Harvard, from now on my menus will not have words, only equations. You should all be able to figure it out by the time this course is over.” A look at the menu at his minibar restaurant confirms his trend toward brevity.
Like Grant Achatz and other chefs who preceded him, Andrés illustrated each technique with a video. This first dish, Spanish Clementines, Pumpkin seed oil, Basil, incorporates plain gelatin along with some unconventional manipulations:
Here, working with agar agar and methylcellulose, he creates “baby corn” (no sound for this video):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqNS29xZx0o
I know what you’re thinking: He used baby corn to make baby corn; it seems like a lot of work for a special effect. True, but which would you rather eat?
Moving on from the qualities of various gelling agents, Andrés provided a few examples of spherification. In its simplest form, the process involves adding sodium alginate to a liquid and then dropping it into a cold calcium chloride solution. The calcium ions cause the alginate to cross-link, and, since the liquid is submerged, it forms the shape with the ideal distribution of surface tension: a sphere.
Now that the process has become comonplace, our guest upped the ante with this dish, Idiazabal Cheese Egg (“Idiazabal, the superior Spanish version of Parmesan!”:
Egg yolks are suspended in cheese water to which alginate has been added, then dunked in calcium chloride and coaxed to cover the yolk. The dunk in olive oil keeps the sphere moist and water resistant while it is cooked sous vide to set the yolk. Lastly, it is plated with a modernist take on classic migas (bread fried in olive oil).
Presented with an opportunity to cook a dinner for noted wine critic Robert Parker, Andrés made a dish based on a Gewurtztraminer gel that incorporated the different tastes associated with the wine: vanilla, grape, balsamic, etc.. Each bit of the dish is meant to incorporate one of the surrounding tastes:
I noticed basic similarites in presentation between this dish and the “white bean” dish served at Alinea.
Andrés concluded his talk with a summary of the work he does with World Central Kitchen, where he provides solar stoves to the Haitian relief effort. He had just finished working with engineers to figure out how to bond a black coating to the outside of stainless steel pressure cookers, which would improve their heating efficiency in a solar stove. Very clever stuff.
As I watched the video presentations, I couldn’t help but think With a bit of experimentation, I could make those dishes. I’ve had an Experimental Kit Texturas sitting around unused for months; now it’s time to start cooking with it.
Andrés signed copies of his two cookbooks after the lecture. As I handed him my copy to be signed, I told him “I used to work at General Foods, where I did basic research on the properties of gelatin. I can tell you that 25 years ago we never imagined the techniques you use today.” He laughed, then added an extra message to his autoraph:
I’m not sure how one goes about “being a gelatin,” but I’m willing to give it a try.
Update (added 11-16-10):
The full lecture is now available on Harvard’s YouTube page, or you can watch it here.