She Who Must Be Obeyed and I honeymooned in Italy, a ten-day package tour that began in Rome and ended in Venice at the Hotel des Bains, one of the shooting locations for the 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice. We were the only two Bostonians in a tour group of New Yorkers, which meant separate departure arrangements had to be made on the last day. We had to get up so early that we would miss the breakfast service, but the hotel kindly provided a “meager snack” of fruit and pastries, enough to fill a large lunch bag for each of us. After a James Bond-esque speedboat trip across the lagoon at dawn, we settled in for the long flight home and happily consumed croissants, cheese, and blood oranges – the sweetest, most perfect examples of the fruit we had ever tasted. No domestic orange has ever approached our memory of that morning.
As I planned the menu for this year’s diner, I had a few ideas I wanted to incorporate:
- Use a taste or flavor combination that She Who likes. It was her dinner, after all.
- Make a pre-dessert amuse – like last year’s “dry caramel, salt” – that had an element of surprise.
- Know your audience: If possible, throw in a bit of science geekery.
This dish, which had been rattling around inside my head since I first read about it in Heston Blumenthal’s The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, met all three requirements. In addition, it would be simple to make once a few technical and timing difficulties were overcome.
I had to begin this dish in March, while blood oranges were still in season.
I wound up halving nine pounds of oranges in preparation for juicing.
I finally made use of the citrus juicer attachment of my food processor, which made short work of extracting a kilo of juice, which I strained and froze until needed.
The next step – extracting juice from golden beets – had the potential for disaster, especially after I read another blogger’s attempt to make the same dish. He had problems with this beet juice turning green, a result of heat generated during the juicing process. I had a problem in that I didn’t have a juicer, and didn’t know anyone who could lend me one. I discovered solutions to both problems while leafing through my recently-arrived copy of Modernist Cuisine. I would cut golden beets into half-inch chunks and toss them with a combination of citric and ascorbic acids, which would prevent discoloration. Then I would vacuum seal and freeze the beets before allowing them to thaw out slowly in the fridge, relying on syneresis (liquid weeping out of thawed food) to create the juice I needed.
It was a good idea, and it almost worked. Unfortunately, beets are very fibrous and don’t break down when thawed the way softer fruits and vegetables do. I went to plan B, which was borrowing a Vita-Prep blender and reducing the beets to loose pulp.
I forced the pulp through a china cap and wound up with 600 grams of bright orange juice.
I added 80 grams of sugar to the kilo of blood orange juice, then boiled and reduced the mixture to 600 grams. Making the jellies was as simple as adding softened gelatin sheets to each of the juices: 20 grams in the beet juice, 15 grams in the orange juice (less because of the sugar-activated pectin content). Still paranoid about discoloring the beet juice, I warmed up about a quarter of the volume and dissolved the gelatin before adding it to the remainder.
I passed each solution through a sieve and into nine inch square silicone molds.
After chilling in the fridge overnight, I cut each jelly into squares – much easier said than done – and plated them diagonally so as not to imply an order in which they should be eaten.
In order to preserve the surprise, I said “These are orange and beet jellies. I suggest you start with the orange.” Everyone ate the orange colored jelly first, and I could see the confusion on their faces until they followed with the purple jelly. It’s a clever trick, based solely on how our taste can be influenced by visual cues. One of our guests had seen me preparing the beets weeks earlier, so I figured he would catch on instantly, but even he said “This is just plain weird.”
Blumenthal sums up the effect with a quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
I still have plenty of the jellies left; I hope I can find some more unsuspecting victims.
Blood oranges, golden beets: Whole Foods