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Down the Rabbit Hole

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:53 pm
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Next up were gnocchi made from nothing but grated parmesan mixed with a solution of methylcellulose (“Methocel”), a fascinating substance that forms gels when heated. Different formulations form gels ranging from soft and fluid to brittle, and at different temperatures. Anctil feels that it’s probably the single most useful of all the high-tech powders, but often seems the most daunting because of the number of versions available. “It can replace eggs or gluten, and it has a fatty mouth-feel. It just needs to be blended in water about four hours ahead of using it so it can fully hydrate.” She served the tender, richly cheesy gnocchi in an agar-clarified pea consommé made by pureeing a fresh pea broth with a small amount of agar, a gelling agent derived from seaweed. By using a much weaker proportion of agar than one would to gel the soup, freezing it, and then slowly thawing it in the fridge over a colander, the agar holds the solids and pigments together but allows the highly flavored water to drip out, a process called syneresis. This technique works with just about anything imaginable, and in this case yielded a crystal clear liquid that looked like light apple juice and tasted intensely of peas.



Breakfast for Dessert
For dessert, Anctil soaked Cheerios in milk and cream overnight, and strained the liquid into a saucepan. Using agar again, this time at full strength, she gelled the mixture in the fridge for about an hour until it set, then cut it into rounds. For a sauce, she thawed and puréed frozen strawberries and put the pulp in a colander over a bowl, explaining that “freezing in a consumer freezer, because it takes a while, causes large ice crystals to form, which rupture the cell walls of plants, meaning that we can get much more juice from them than from fresh [fruit and vegetables].” She then thickened the ruby juice by blending it with a little Ultratex 8, another starch, so that when she spooned a graceful stripe of it on the plate, it stayed where she put it. Finally, she garnished the dish with crunchy crumbled freeze-dried strawberries and bananas and powdered Cheerios. The result was a sophisticated (read: unsweetened, except by the cereal and fruit) and evocative reimagining of a childhood standard.

Rediscovering that youthful joy is essential to understanding what this marriage of technology and cuisine provides. There’s no doubt that this kind of cooking is a rabbit hole, but it’s one that leads to pleasure; rather than simply making shelf-stable processed garbage food, these ingredients also allow for full-blown flights of fancy, where our imagination and skill are the only constraints, and our relationship with food and flavor can be taken to exciting new places.

There are plentiful resources online where recipes and inspirations can be found; as with many cutting-edge concepts, blogs and websites are the richest and most democratic repositories of knowledge. (Though it should go without saying that your results may vary, and practice is required.) Molecular gastronomy has done for cooking what digital technology did for music: culinary mash-ups, remixes, and mind-expanding juxtapositions—all in the service of gustatory bliss—are now within reach.


Parmesan Gnocchi in Pea Consommé
A digital kitchen scale is probably the single most useful piece of equipment for this kind of cooking; many of the additives are normally used in proportions specific to the total weight of ingredients, and metric measurements are therefore much easier to work with.

For the Parmesan pasta:
70g water
2g methylcellulose SGA 150
200g grated Parmesan
Blend water and methylcellulose together with an immersion blender and set in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours to hydrate. Add the solution to grated Parmesan a little at a time—just enough to form a dough—and shape as desired. The easiest way to handle them is to roll them into little snakes and then cut them into gnocchi. Poach in simmering water until they float, then remove with a slotted spoon and place in bowls of hot consommé. Garnish with sautéed pea shoots.

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