Category cocktails

Modernist Dinner, a post-mortem

Last night, I made dinner for a group of friends, in lieu of my usual July party celebrating moving to the island.  The change in format was stimulated, primarily, by the publication of Nathan Myhrvold’s magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine.  I was an enthusiastic early adopter, preordering the book last winter, and Myhrvold and his team really delivered.  It’s a rich vein of modern culinary knowledge — the Escoffier of the early 21st century, without a doubt.  My friend (and superb chef) Madden Surbaugh described it as “a post-graduate degree” in the culinary arts, and he’s right.

My goal in planning this dinner was really to try techniques.  I had no preconceived notions about what I’d make, but I started making lists of recipes about two months ago, after Nicole and I went to Napa and did Three Nights of Keller, and later when Scott, Nicole, and I made the pilgrimage to Chicago for Alinea and Aviary.  My method in planning the dinner was suitably nerdy on several fronts:  I treated it like a research project, and had a lab notebook, and being a software guy, the lab notebook was in the form of a wiki.  I kept notes on recipes, techniques, ingredients, possible menus, and so on.  It was fun to see how things evolved.

I tried a number of dishes that never saw the light of day.  I was taken with a “shrimp terrine” dish by Ideas in Food, but since several guests were allergic to shrimp, I turned it into lobster.  But I was also taken with Chang’s ramen from Momofuku, and ended up trying to make lobster meat “noodles” by tossing lobster tail chunks with Old Bay and Activa RM, vacuum sealing, and rolling it into a flat sheet.  After an overnight chill, I cooked the sheets at 55C and chilled, before cutting into fettucine.  This worked fairly well, although the noodles were definitely fragile (I didn’t want to use enough Activa to ruin the flavor or texture).  The noodles, served in an english pea dashi (kombu, shittake, english pea pods, bonito flakes), absolutely sucked.  They had the texture and feel of bad imitation crab.  The moral of the story is don’t do this!.

I won’t bore everyone with the full list of failures, partial successes, or things that “worked” in a technical sense but simply yielded nothing terribly interesting.  I will say, do not bother coring out and stuffing asparagus spears.  It’s not worth it.  Unless you have asparagus with a serious obesity problem, you can’t get enough tasty stuffing inside before they split and explode for anybody to really notice.  It’s an interesting idea, and if it had worked out would have elicited that “wow, cool” surprise noise that every chef is hoping to hear from their diners….but it didn’t.

What works:  tapioca maltodextrin.  Make dry caramel.  Now.  Make parmesan nuggets, or bacon powder, or….hell, grab a tasty dairy or fat and spin it with TM and serve it in some interesting way.  I happened to have a sheet of apple cider sea-salt caramel that had gone all brittle because I’d prepped it too far in advance, so I needed a new presentation than what I’d originally planned, and I remembered that Grant Achatz had done a “dry caramel” powder, and it worked.  Boy, did it work.  It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was a happy accident, and something I’ll be doing again, especially early in a meal with savory and smoky elements, like the dehydrated double-smoked (house-cured) bacon I paired it with.  Get some TM and start screwing around.  Seriously.

Also:  low-acyl gellan.  After some futzing with other gelification agents, I was wary.  I clearly need more practice with methocels, for example, before I’m ready to unleash something on unsuspecting diners.  But low-acyl gellan:  brilliant.  Sherry vinegar gel cubes to serve with oysters were a breeze.  Measure carefully but then, it just works.  It exhibits a first-order phase transition when the liquid cools below the magic temperature — one second it’s a liquid, the next, it’s a semi-brittle gel, boom.  Stable and still tasty after storage in the fridge, it’s forgiving and completely within reach of cooking at home.  Highly recommended.

What I hated:  working with transglutaminase.  I did the “Checkerboard Sushi” from Myhrvold.  Twice.  The first time, I destroyed way too much nice maguro and hamachi from Mutual Fish when the “slurry” got gloopy (which it does in about ten seconds), and I ended up with blobs between the fish slabs.  You have to work fast with Activa.  What they don’t tell you, is that “fast” means “superhumanly fast.”  The second time, I dusted the slabs through a tea strainer.  It didn’t bond nearly as well and the resulting slabs were fragile, but they looked great and tasted great, and that’s what counts.  It just limited me on presentation possibilites, where a full bond would have been more robust for draping or whatever.  But I hated working with the Activa.  I have a full bag of it, and will probably do it again, but it’s certainly not something I’ll whip out for my own pleasure and use in the kitchen.  Too much hassle and fuss.

Silica gel packets and a food dehydrator — wonderful tools.  A food dehydrator that isn’t circular and takes a rectangular tray would be even better. I sense one in my future.

And if you don’t have an iSi cream whipper, stop reading now and go to Amazon and buy one.  I used this dozens of times in the course of a couple of days, it’s perhaps the handiest tool I have for doing modernist dishes.

I’ll probably have more notes in the days to come, especially as I review my lab notes.  But get in the kitchen and play around!

MxMo Monday: Curacao Punch

Mixology Monday this month, brought to us by Dennis at Rock and Rye, highlights “forgotten cocktails.”

I suppose everyone has a different threshold for when a cocktail recipe is “forgotten”…the average person who doesn’t frequent “serious” cocktail bars wouldn’t recognize a Japanese, for example, but if you’ve hung out at Rob Roy or Vessel in Seattle regularly, you’ve probably had one in the last year.  Again, if you’d read Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, then you’d probably say that Curacao Punch was no longer “forgotten.”

But try to walk into a bar, even most of the serious ones we tend to frequent, and Curacao Punch isn’t easy to find.  Murray Stenson looked at my blankly, and so have a number of other serious bartenders in several cities.  So I’m going to claim that Curacao Punch still fits this month’s theme.

Frankly, the recipe in Ted Haigh’s book is something I find damned near undrinkable.  He uses 2 full ounces of Curacao, compared to 1 ounce each of cognac and rum.  Let that sink in, in its sticky orange glory.  This might be historically accurate, but unless you’re looking for an adult orange snowcone, dial back on ratios here.  My own favorite was posted by Adam Elmegirab, of Boker’s Bitters in Scotland fame, and I’ve tinkered with it a bit here.

In particular, I find that I prefer a mix of overproof aged Jamaican rum, aged agricole rhum, and cognac.  The nice thing here is you can tailor this to local conditions and ingredients, so if all you get is Appleton V/X, you’re still gonna be seriously happy.  The Curacao should not be Cointreau, this demands richness rather than the drier crisper Cointreau.  Clement Creole Shrubb or the original Senior of Senior Curacao are optimal here.

2 oz  cognac (here:  Remy VS)

1 oz aged Jamaican rum (here:  Smith and Cross Navy Strength)

1 oz aged Martinique agricole rhum (here:  Saint James Ambre)

1/2 oz curacao (here:  Clement Creole Shrubb)

1/2 oz lemon juice

1 oz water (not soda water, just cold filtered water)

1 heaping barspoon cane syrup (3:1 in this case)

Shake and strain onto cracked and shaved ice, garnish with berries or whatever you have.

The effect here is a subtle mix of brandy and rum flavors, with a bit of orange on the finish.  The overproof Jamaican rum  adds a decent but mellow burn, so you’re not going to mistake this for a soft drink.  (Don’t use white Wray and Nephew here, by the way, you want aged flavors, so sacrifice overproof for aged.  Appleton 12 is amazing here too, the Reserve is great, and the V/X is perfectly sufficient)  The sweetness stays in the background, and I find this much more balanced than the recipe from Ted Haigh’s book (sorry, Ted).

Not complicated, but a classic which deserves to be much more well-known in the bars of the West Coast.

MxMo: Vieux Caribeño

This month’s Mixology Monday theme was fun, especially since I’ve been working with rum recipes lately, learning the history, and focusing especially on agricole.  Lime and rum have been paired flavors for centuries, probably since the rum ration under Admiral Vernon (“Old Grog”) included limes and citrus and was found to ward off scurvy.

Early in my cocktailing days, back in college, friends and I drank an unnamed cocktail from Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, lovingly described as gin, green coconut water, lime, and bitters, served tall in a glass wrapped in wet paper towels to keep it cool in the tropical heat.  The drink was unnamed by Hemingway, and in the late 80’s the resources simply weren’t easy to find to do good historical research.  We added tonic water and simply called it the “Hemingway” and still sip them to this day.

Something like this is made by Mr. Martin Cate down at Smuggler’s Cove, under the name Caribeño, and since I just finished a batch of barrel-aged gin (in a former Tuthilltown rye whiskey barrel), I thought I’d go with the following:

Vieux Caribeño

1.5 oz barrel-aged gin

3 oz young coconut water (fresh is best, some of the asian canned varieties with pulp are fine)

3/4 oz lime juice

1/2 oz cane sugar syrup (for fun, use Lyle’s Golden)

1 dash Angostura

Shake the ingredients and pour over fresh rocks in a collins glass with lime shells.  In the pictured presentation I’ve added a sugar cane stir-stick rolled in powdered lime zest mixed with a small amount of cane sugar.

This works, but my barrel-aged gin is pretty vanilla-forward right now since it’s the first batch through this particular barrel.  The next one I’ll probably cut the straight barrel-aged gin 2:1 with london dry to mellow out the vanillin a bit.  Otherwise tasty!

The importance of sugar: Smith and Cross and Lyle

Smith and Cross and Lyle

When making cocktails at home, I’ve noticed that a lot of folks don’t pay close attention to the sweetener they’re using.  A good simple syrup, hopefully.  But it turns out that the kind, and form, of the sweetening agent you use matters a great deal.

One of my favorite rums is Smith and Cross Navy Strength Jamaican rum, imported by Haus Alpenz, and constructed of pot still rums in combining the lighter Plummer and heavier Wedderburn styles, it weighs in at 114 proof.  It’s not necessarily easy to mix with given the strength, but one of my favorite ways to use S&C is very simple punch or a variant on Navy Grog.

My usual starting point is a recipe from Cocktail Virgin Slut, a group of folks on the east coast who drink great cocktails, get seriously nerdy about their ingredients, and only write about one thing:  recipes, and how well they worked.  Their Smith and Cross punch is excellent, if a trifle….stiff.  Usually I tend to mellow it by using a bit of Trader Tiki’s superb Orgeat with it, which if you’ll notice essentially means I’m a mint leaf and some proportions away from having a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai made with Smith and Cross.

But I’ve been researching Navy Grog a bit lately, and the tradition of the Royal Navy’s rum ration lately, in preparation for a possible chance to taste Black Tot Rum later this year, so tonight I decided to stick to the basics.

Which means keeping the proportions the same (final recipe below), but perhaps playing with the way it’s sweetened, to match the boldness and burn of the Smith and Cross with a sweetener with enough body.  Molasses came to mind, but that’s too heavy.  I don’t keep Karo syrup in the house, and agave nectar seemed like the wrong flavor profile.  The answer is….Lyle’s Golden Syrup.  You may never have bought it, but I’ll bet you’ve seen the can on the shelf or the newish squeeze bottle in the specialty baking/dessert section of a good market.

Turns out, Lyle’s Golden Syrup is essentially old school pure cane syrup, partially inverted sugars and a rich, caramel flavor without the bitterness of molasses or Lyle’s Black Treacle.  Dear lord, I’m not one for sweet things, don’t put sugar in coffee or iced tea, and prefer salty snacks to sweets any day.  But if I ever slide into a diabetic coma, there will be a pile of Lyle’s tins somewhere nearby.

Historically, many of the rum drinks actually consumed by islanders in the Caribbean were fairly simple punch-like, or grog-like.  Ti’ punch, for example, mixes rhum agricole with a squeeze of lime and cane syrup.   This punch mixes aged Jamaican pot-stil rum with the same, and smoothes the harshness of the rum, allowing it to really express its funky self:

Smith and Cross and Lyle

2 oz Smith and Cross Navy Strength Jamaican rum

1/2 oz lime juice

1/2 oz Lyle’s Golden Syrup

3 dashes Angostura bitters

Construct by squeezing the lime into the shaker tin, then adding the Lyle’s.  It will require a lot of scraping to get the sticky mass into the tin, keep at it.  Then use the lime to thin out the Lyle’s before adding any cold ingredients.  Once cold liquids or ice hit the Lyle’s, it will turn into a sticky and solid mass like hard candy.

Once thin, add the other ingredients, ice, and shake like hell until your fingers stick to the shaker.  Really mix that gooey syrup in there.

Strain over rocks and garnish with lime and shaved nutmeg.


Sugar matters because ingredients matter.  If a recipe doesn’t seem quite right, tinker until it is.  Enjoy.