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This brief introduction to modern techniques/ingredients etc (what’s often unfortunately labeled ‘molecular gastronomy’) is just in its infancy, I’ll come back to it and develop this blog entry to make it both more precise and cover more ground but for the moment I hope it gives a tiny introduction to those of you new to this stuff.
This is a very much over simplified and generalized post, (this won’t present information of great interest to my chef followers or those already quite familiar with the famous modern restaurants, chefs and techniques). But if you are new to alot of this stuff I hope it gives a little context and a start point for getting your head around it. For more detail others have written on this subject more eloquently than i ever could.
I should quickly note here though that I personally dislike the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ or ‘molecular cooking’ as do most chefs labeled with this term, I think avant-garde, modern or modernist are more appropriate, so from now on in this blog I will refer to the grouping of these techniques, ingredients and chefs as modernist or avant-garde.
For some this culinary movement is typified by the assortment of techniques and ingredients used by chefs at the cutting edge of modernist haute cuisine. From preparation methods like use of liquid nitrogen, foams and sous vide (cooking vacuum packed food in a water bath), to ‘spheres’ and ‘caviar pearls’ which burst into liquid in the mouth and even ‘flavouring’ the atmosphere around dishes with scent. These all allow the modern cook to potentally create an exceptional dining experience.
At the forefront of this exciting, ground breaking and sometimes controversial culinary movement have been creative, influential chefs like Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Tomas Keller and Rene Redzepi to name but a few. They have blazed a trail creatively, developed new techniques and popularized use of specialist ingredients, that have now become accessible for use in home kitchens.
Fundamentally though for me this aspect of cuisine is about creativity and aspiring towards excellence. It’s not about throwing out traditional techniques but exploring everything that is at our disposal and embracing innovation in many forms across various disciplines.
So how does all this fit with vegetarian cooking? In the past high end cuisine may have been characterised by foie gras and veal stocks, and these still have a prominent place in most haute cuisine restaurants. However this new movement has to some extent levelled the playing field for vegetarian cooks, with almost all of the ‘new’ ingredients being vegetarian and vegan, and by demonstrating that dishes can be built up in variety of ways (not simply with a traditional meat of fish central element) and be exciting and of the highest standard still. Ingredients are approached in new ways without expence or fashion determining their value. And I personally think, especially in veggie food, this imaginative, creative approach has opened up an exciting new range of possibilities for chefs and diners alike and where creatively and intelligently applied is playing an important role in taking modern vegetarian cuisine to new heights.
New techniques have given us new ways to give food fantastic textures and contrast, something that is arguably even more important when cooking without meat. Whilst modern ingredients offer another huge advance for vegetarian cooking in the form of various hydrocolloids such as Agar Agar and Gellan, which allow gelling and setting without gelatin. Meaning its possible to make things like vegetarian marshmallows, panna cotta, jellies and mousses, which were previously out of bounds. And that’s just the beginning, these same ingredients let us make flaming sorbets that don’t melt when they’re flambed, make hot mouses and gellees, do fast effective clarification and explore textures within a dish in increadible ways.
Finally bringing fresh creative thinking to our cooking and engaging with a sense of excitiment can be a great way to add spectacular impact to dishes that can really take people’s breath away.
A few pointers -
- Measure your ingredients exactly. Many recipes or ingredients require precision so weigh all liquids as well as solids in grams and use accurate scales, ideally that will measure to 0.01 of a gram.
- Be prepared to have a couple of goes at something to nail the technique. If its totally new to you it might not work first time but stick with it. And if something doesn’t work try to identify where it could have gone wrong before you try again.
- The most complex solution isn’t always the best. For example to alter texture in a dish simply slicing something in a novel way might be most effective.
- Most importantly make sure your food is delicious! The techniques and effects are great ways to augment your food but it still has to taste great! So always use the best quality ingredients you can and taste everything as often as possible while your cooking.
Fruit Glass (example of texture manipulation)
I decided I wanted to do something abit different this year so, after a fair bit of deliberating I came up with the idea of doing an ice cream, but to make it abit more interesting one you can set on fire. Because obviously nothing says Christmas like setting fire to ice cream, but honestly there is rational thought behind the idea.
I liked the idea of having all the spectacle of the flaming Christmas pudding but with a twist. My thinking was that few foods, for me at least, take me back to childhood in the same way that ice cream does. And that if the flavours were right the ice cream could really strongly evoke memories of Christmas and also of childhood treats.
What I came up with, after a trying a couple of versions, is a ‘Brandy Flamed ‘Christmas Ice Cream’’, flavoured with spices, brandy and candied fruit. This is definitely an adult desert, with all the brandy and spices but it really does taste of Christmas . In the end it was adding cloves when I was infusing the cream with spices that finally gave me the flavour I was looking for. And while it really is for an adult palate, I think its sort of fitting to have an adult dessert to evoke child like emotions around Christmas.
Flaming the dessert is the special final touch, it mimics flambéing the Christmas pudding on a day when it’s good for desserts aswell as people to be soaked in booze. In the end I used almost the same technique to make the ice cream heat proofed that I used to make a Flaming vegan sorbet (Dark Chocolate, Cointreau and Cardamom – Check out the recipe page), by using Gellan, (available from www.Modernist-Chef.com). Gellan Gum is a vegetarian gelling agent that has the useful property that, once set, it can withstand reasonably high temperatures.
The wicked thing about once you’ve flamed the ice-cream, is that not only does it not melt and hold its shape, but it does warm and soften a little on the outside while staying frozen inside so you get contrasts of temperature and texture, along with the chewy candied fruit. All together it’s a funky, Christmassy, fun pudding. I hope it’s going to go down well with the family on the day.
For the moment I’m serving it up a one scoop in a shot glass with a little brandy drizzled on top and then flamed, but I might still play with the presentation abit, maybe serve it in some homemade brandy snaps. We shall see.
Anyway have a gander at the recipe -
Brandy Flamed ‘Christmas Ice Cream’
300ml whole milk
300ml double cream
30g golden syrup
4 medium sized pieces of cinnamon bark
20 whole cloves
Zest of one lemon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon vanilla essence
One tea spoon nutmeg Grated
10g Gellan Gum powder - available from www.Modernist-Chef.com
5 egg yolks
80g caster sugar
130g mixed candied orange and lemon peel and raisins and sultanas
Place the cloves, cinnamon bark, vanilla essence, ground cloves, lemon zest and ground cinnamon and grated nutmeg into a pan with the milk and cream and bring to the boil then simmer for ten minuits. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for twenty minuits.
Meanwhile cream the egg yolks and sugar together till fluffy.
Then strain the milk though a sieve to remove the whole spices then stir in the golden syrup and then bring the milk and cream mix back to a simmer.
Once the cream is simmering poor bit by bit into the egg mix while stirring. Next mix in the brandy then finally shake in the Gellan powder bit by bit, whisking it through the mixture to till smooth. Then pour it all back into the pan and heat back up for about five minuits, stirring constantly
Now pour the ice cream mix into a glass bowl over a larger bowl of iced and salted water. Stir the mixture constantly as it chills. Once its completely cooled place the liquid in and ice cream machine and churn until almost frozen, adding the dried and candied fruit just for the final five minuits of churning.
Transfer to a container and finish freezing in the freezer overnight and there you are, you can forget about it until your ready to pull it out after dinner.