accidental discovery: walnuts can make things purple?

So I’ve made this recipe belonging to a buddy of mine about five times without any anomalies and consistent flavour. It’s a simple method using an immersion blender, comes up a creamy golden brown, with a little separation continuing after a cloth-straining (no big deal as it’s blitzed into a creamy drink). It’s walnuts, honey, vanilla, water.

Out of nowhere this week, and originally to my absolute horror, as I began blending the walnuts into the honey it began to turn purple… and then black. What the hell had I done? What new element had I introduced? It was practically inky and the foam on top was cement grey-purple.

Turns out this is one the coolest accidents to come my way. It was an acid that is commonly found in the skins of walnuts, called gallic acid. After a bit of google searching I ended up on baking and beekeeping forums, and the wikipedia page of an ink used between the 15th-19th centuries, and this is what I’ve got:

  • A problem for bakers is having their walnut breads turn purple because of gallic acids found in the skin.
  • A highly sought after and quite rare type of honey that occurs naturally is dark purple. Many apiarists believe this is because of high acidity in the soil in the vicinity of hives.
  • Iron gall ink was prepared using iron salts and tannic acids from oak gall nuts (where the name for gallic acid is derived.) A well prepared iron gall ink would gradually darken on the paper to a dark purple colour.

I totally triggered a chemical reaction accidentally. Perhaps the honey contained something that interacted with the walnuts? Maybe I didn’t bring the water entirely to the boil?

Now where do I find this actually purple honey, though?

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using acid to clarify homemade orgeats

For a while I was looking for a method to get my pistachio syrup stable, be it cloudy or clear, without using metres of muslin cloth. (pistachio syrup with xanthan). I actually solved this a little while back and after making it a few times have pretty much nailed down an easy method.

The recipe I was using had a splash of unexplained vinegar in it. For most of the time I have been making it I assumed it must have been included as a preservative measure, as with shrubs, as there was no mention of it in the recipes method. One day however, as I was melting sugar into my pistachio milk on the stove, I noticed a thick skin forming on the top of the liquid, and I began to skim it off, as you might while clarifying butter. So many things clicked in my brain at the same time (citric acid in cheesemaking, alternative milks like soy and almond curdling in hot coffee) and that unexplained splash of vinegar suddenly made sense.

Now I bring that stuff to the boil, stand over it at a simmer with a large flat spoon, and skim as much of that gunk from the surface as I can, and then it’s just one pass through few layers of muslin for a perfectly clear syrup. I wouldn’t necessarily use vinegar in every orgeat recipe I made. In this recipe it works because the pistachio syrup is used in combination with a shrub that also contains the same type of vinegar, so the distinctive flavour is balanced in the final drink. It’s definitely worth looking into how small an amount of acid you can add to encourage it to curdle, to reduce the chances of altering the flavour.

concept development

I’ve been reading a lot lately about chefs and bartenders who develop recipes by seeking inspiration from other creative spheres. I stumbled across this blog post today, (Meadowlark). The writer spent some time creating a drink to match an album by Sufjan Stevens. The drink was fairly simple, but I was immediately struck by the depth of research that went into creating it. She spent time looking at the artist’s inspiration, and used that to inform her own creation. Each ingredient was reasoned, and the recipe read well because of it. (btw, I noticed that huge amount of rosewater too, but in an earlier post she has a recipe for ‘rose water’ which is actually more of a petal tisane, which would definitely work at that volume.)

In this article from last month on Punch, Drew Lazor explores different approaches to concept development (How To Develop a Concept Cocktail). I’m smitten with Chantal Tseng’s ‘limited edition’ menus at The Reading Room, in Washington D.C, that revolve around the book she’s reading that week. She uses narrative, geography, characters, and the author’s persona to inspire her ingredients.

Cerebral stuff isn’t necessarily the way to go every time, but I’ve always found that the best names and recipes (of my own) are always tightly knit together by a solid concept that drew inspiration from a clear source.

A recent recipe comes from, at first, a pretty vague space that slowly developed into a combination of dew drops on winter green, Fern Gully, the flavours I associate with the word “nectar”, and how sweet and clean I imagine this water tastes to this little guy:

dewdrop
I truly believe it would definitely taste like Dolin Blanc

The idea hung about in my head and in a few variations for about a six months. By the time I got around to making it, I’d spent so long messing with the concept and had such a clear idea of how I wanted it to taste that it took less than 20 minutes to nail down a recipe. The drink ended up as a light, clean, carbonated thing with a hint of sweetness that is balanced with tartaric and malic acids to give the impression of a sparkling wine.

Who knows if people are going to taste the idea of a fairy with a dewdrop cupped between their tiny, webbed fingers. I doubt it, and I’m not going to tell them that they have to. I’d be delighted to hear that someone has drawn that conclusion independently, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that having a concise and well developed concept helped to develop a good recipe.

 

the origins of fat-washing

Read this excellent run down of fat-washing on Serious Eats. I refer to it often, as my knowledge develops, and the more scientific elements the author discusses make more sense to me each time. The best thing to me though, is the discovery that the origins of fat-washing lie in an antiquated perfume extracting technique called enfleurage. There are two types of enfleurage: cold and hot. They’re used to infuse odourless and flavourless animal or vegetable fats with the scents of flowers like jasmine or tuberose that are too delicate for other infusions. In cold enfleurage that fat is spread out in a flat tray and the fresh petals are pressed into the fat. They are left to infuse, and once spent, are replaced with a fresh batch a few times. Once the fat is saturated with the scent, it is washed with neutral alcohol to extract those essential oils. This article on Punch  mentions a peanut butter infused spirit where the creator used this second step of the cold enfleurage method to extract the flavour. Hot enfleurage is faster and good for scents like lavender and rose. The flowers are submerged in hot oil and like with cold, they are spent and replaced a few times, and then the oil is washed with alcohol. I asked a perfumer what kind of oil she used for infusion and she recommended safflower.

I’m hoping that I can use this technique to make my own perfumed fat-washed alcohol. So it might carry some of the silky texture, but mostly it will be far more to create a more aromatic spirit. Like maybe cognac pumped up with rose.

creative vs commercial production

One of the things I enjoy most at work is the act of translating a small scale experimental recipe into something that makes sense on a high volume menu. Often when someone brings a syrup or infusion recipe to me it’s something they have made in small batches to workshop the recipe until they can achieve desired proportions. Sometimes that means that the methods originally used are a little unwieldy, and it’s quite interesting to figure out how to adjust it into something that makes sense in terms of time and money, while still retaining the right flavours and the intentions of the person who created it. If something takes hours of work and multiple pieces of equipment to produce, then it’s unlikely to sit well amongst a large cocktail menu, no matter how delicious it is. It also means that it may be hard to reproduce the same flavour consistently when there are so many variables at play.

Some inconsistencies are truly beautiful things. The way a fruit changes throughout its season, and the different flavours you can find between hard to distinguish species is so interesting, but unless you’re willing to make that difference a staple on your menu, then sometimes it’s just not going to work for you. I recently developed a recipe that required fresh peaches, and I know that this may be a problem in the long term. I’ve done my best to specify between species as I know that white peaches show a more consistent, although less rich, flavour profile through their season and ripening stages than yellow peaches, but what happens when their season ends? I’m going to need to develop an alternative method to keep that drink on the menu. If I can find a high quality peach nectar to mix then I may be on the right track, (a puree probably won’t work in this circumstance), and then I will also cut down on techniques and save on production time. I just have to force myself to let go of the fresh fruit, trust that someone else out there knows what they’re doing, and let them handle a small part of my recipe for me. I’ll call it outsourcing.

absence of flavour

I like to write ideas down to research later, so I often find snippets written down on the backs of receipts used as bookmarks or stuffed at the bottom of a bag I last used a few weeks ago. Then I get to decode my scrawl and try and figure out where the curiosity was focused.

This one was pretty interesting,
if you ate something that tastes like absolutely nothing would it enhance or dull an accompanying drink?

Turns out, there’s not much that tastes like nothing. Maybe just water that’s free from the chemicals our nose or tongue can detect, straight from a pure source. There is a neutral baseline, but it’s kinda gross so it killed this idea pretty fast. It’s our saliva. That’s why pure water tastes neutral. Our saliva is 98% water. The other 2% is made up of substances such as electrolytes, minerals like sodium and potassium, mucus, antibacterial compounds, and enzymes.

On a side note, a pretty neat trick for nosing spirits and wine is to smell your own skin to set a neutral baseline, (obviously this wouldn’t work if you use very fragrant soaps or perfumes.) This is helpful when you get overwhelmed with trying to pin down that one elusive note as well.

I think that potentially you could make a food very neutral flavoured, perhaps with gelatin, but if it were to enhance the drink then it would need to have some interesting textures going on, and that would be pretty hard to achieve while still retaining as little flavour as possible. Also, you’re trying to replicate the flavour of saliva, and I just don’t think you can sell that.

exponential flavour extraction from strong herbs and spices

I’ve basically been asking as many people as possible this question for the past few months, and am slowly gaining some progress. Distillers, chefs, and experienced colleagues have given me answers that have pushed me slowly in the right direction as I continue the search. I have a solution, and it seems to be a more than adequate fix for the problem, but it’s my curiosity that is driving this question now. I want to know why.

This was first pointed out to me while I was cooking a rhubarb syrup that contains juniper berries. I had tripled my recipe, because I needed to make a huge batch that week. The sous chef was alongside me prepping for the evening service, and he noted that the syrup smelled different to usual. (We make this syrup weekly, so he’d become used to it on the stove for a few hours every Wednesday.) The aromatics of the juniper were much heavier than normal so as we chatted about it he suggested an idea that was wholly new to me: There was no need to multiply the amount of juniper in the recipe in proportion to the other ingredients, because it would continue to extract flavour at an exponential rate in a bigger recipe.

This was pretty confusing to me. I’m a pretty logical person, so this was a kind of frustrating wild card. How could I change the flavour when everything is the same, just bigger. But it’s not the same. Today, I finally considered that there is actually one variable. The recipe is being cooked for longer. The larger volume of water and rhubarb takes longer to heat, and longer for the rhubarb to break down, so the spice element is being infused for longer.

Special thanks to r/AskCulinary, where a user suggested to me that large volumes take longer to cool, so would continue infusing for longer. At first, I thought it wasn’t relevant because I strain the syrup as soon as possible while still hot, but actually it was just what I needed to take the tiny leap of considering the reverse of this.
And also to Mitch Keane, who distills for The West Winds Gin, for allowing me to pick his brains about the balancing act of capturing those strong spice flavours.

There are other ways that you could accidentally over infuse a recipe, which I’m still wrapping my head around, but I’m so pleased to have figured this one out.