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.

 

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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.

weight or volume

A lot of the experimenting or reading I do is based in finding out why we do things a certain way so I can set myself hard and fast rules for new ingredients or methods. Something that has haunted me for the 8 years that I’ve been making 1:1 sugar syrup, is how to measure the equal parts. Way, way back when I was a baby bartender I was taught a pretty basic method, measuring by eye into 700mL bottles. I figured out pretty quickly that something was going wrong. I’d fill the bottle up halfway (to the 350mL mark) with the caster sugar and then add 350mL water. Once the two were totally combined the bottle was no longer full. I was losing volume because of the tiny air spaces between the tiny pebbles of sugar, like how you can still add water to a full bucket of sand. I estimated that on average I was losing 10% of the volume every time. 1g of caster sugar is equal to 1.05ml. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re making litres at a time it blows out the numbers. So I was making something like a 9:10 syrup, which really, for many drinks, is probably close enough and not too hard to balance. I want 1:1 to actually mean 1:1 though, so you gotta measure by weight, not by volume, with sugar and water.

I then started working at a place that made a honey water for service, and this kind of stumped me again. Honey is a bitch to measure by volume coz it just sticks to everything, but its super dense particles are so much closer together and there’s no room for trapped air. Honey weighs quite a lot more than it measures in millilitres. 1kg of honey is approximately 735mL. I make a 2:1 honey water by volume because I don’t want to sacrifice too much flavour or the rich consistency, just for the sake of pour-ability.