Rachel Bennett

Posts Tagged ‘Heston Blumenthal’

Icarus and the Great Melt

In Food on July 22, 2011 at 05:09

‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way . . . Travel between the extremes.’

– Ovid, Metamorphoses.

High hopes. I laid the pieces of my gateau out on the countertop, delicately, like jewels or fine china. There was a madeline biscuit base, a chocolate sponge and a gelatinized Kirsch cream. Behind these sat a jar of cherries in syrup I had canned the day before, a piping bag of chocolate ganache, and a plate of vanilla beans, sliced lengthwise and fashioned into knotted strands to mimic cherry stalks. Continuing with fierce concentration I assessed this mis en place.

The only item absent was the aerated chocolate and my heart sunk at the thought of it – what a failure. Heston Blumenthal’s recipe for this particular element does require special equipment including a vacuum cleaner, vacuum-seal storage bag, Tupperware container with a small hole bored into the lid, and a whip cream canister with nitrous oxide cartridges. The process, however, looks simple, deceptively simple. Heston instructs the reader to melt milk chocolate and stir in a little peanut oil. So far so good. Then he tells us to pour this mixture into the whip cream canister, charge with the gas, and spray the contents into the Tupperware container. This I dutifully completed, but then the trouble began. Placing the Tupperware inside the vacuum-seal storage bag and aligning the hole in the container’s lid with the valve in the bag, the reader is then instructed to turn on the vacuum cleaner and place it’s nossle on the bag’s valve. In theory the bag deflates, the chocolate aerates (expanding and becoming riddled with little tongue-tingling bubbles) and the job is done.

Being academically inclined, I’ve always found theory less complicated than practice and today was no different. I turned on the vacuum cleaner. Alas, instead of the vacuum-seal bag deflating my Tupperware itself deflated complete with chocolate inside, the plastic container crumpling into a distorted wreck reminiscent of a car that has encountered a solid stone wall; there was no hint of airy, honey-combed chocolate. I tossed the failed aeration away and tried to shrug it off, my ego threatening to deflate in tandem with the Tupperware.

All the other components were ready and my spirits rose. It would still be a beautiful, multilayered cake, even if lacking an element of intrigue that a layer of aerated chocolate might provide. So I assembled the cake in a loaf tin, just as Heston instructs: first the madeline biscuit base brushed with a layer of apricot glaze, then the chocolate sponge sprinkled with Kirsch and cherry syrup, topped by piped strands of chocolate ganache and dotted with cherries, and finally a layer of Kirsch cream. Having made double of each layer I then departed from Heston’s instructions, piling a second layer of each element on top, the resultant cake a tottering tower threatening collapse. The final step involves making a chocolate mousse and pouring it around the layers (inside the cake tin) and freezing the whole until set.

As in any good fable, it is always the last step before reaching the pot of gold at which the protagonist stumbles. My cake might have held together if it had not been for my impatience. Thinking the mousse had set I lifted the gateau out of it’s tin onto a serving platter. Alas, instead of holding firm, the creamy confection dissolved around the cake, oozing earthward leaving my masterpiece naked and swimming in a puddle of dark and glistening chocolate. Like Icarus abandoning his guide I paid the price, the laws of nature triumphing over artifice.

Eventually, I managed to repair the cake to some extent and with the help of chocolate shards, a good dusting of cocoa powder, and garnished with cherries it looked quite beautiful. As I cut into it however, the cake succumbed to gravity again, dissolving into a faintly sickening mass as I sorrowfully served it around the table. Suddenly I was profoundly tired of this food, and thought wistfully of a simple, steaming cherry pie—how much better that would have been—and made a solemn vow to eschew Heston, his vacuum cleaners, and all other forms of culinary pretension for good.

Several days later, however, I have had time to lick my wounds. I am still resolved to devote all culinary efforts to good honest food but I am glad I made the black forest gateau. It was never only about showing off; it was also a whole lot of fun. To pour over an unfamiliar recipe, drool over the pictures and search out strange ingredients—all of this is delicious and absorbing. It piques creativity and adds a dash of invigorating frivolity to the kitchen. After all, perhaps that first Egyptian goatherd who tossed some Arabica beans onto the fire was breaking the rules or wandering in rebellion from tradition. We shall never know; but today we have coffee.

Never regret thy fall, 
O Icarus of the fearless flight 
For the greatest tragedy of them all 
Is never to feel the burning light.

– Oscar Wilde


Of Cake and Peasants

In Food on July 15, 2011 at 07:12

The food I like best is simple. In winter hearty soups and stews, slow simmered oxtail and whole baked pumpkin. In summer big leafy salads and bowls of olives, thin slices of salami and piles of fresh cherries. And at all times bread—good crusty loaves the color of hot sand. It is the sort of food labeled today as ‘peasant’ cuisine, a rather fanciful label that bares scarce resemblance to the monotonous and meager diet of most of the world’s peasants throughout most of their history. But is sells well and has a nice ring to it. (Whereas plain old ‘bread’ can only sell for a couple of dollars, ‘peasant bread’ sells for at least double, an extra dollar tacked on to the price for each additional adjective. A loaf of ‘crusty Provencal harvest bread baked with heirloom wheat and kneaded by a sweaty, foul-mouthed, and cigarette smoking French baker’ would threaten the fattest wallet.) The modern gastro-science of gels and foams and spherified pig’s urine is interesting, in an abstract sort of way. And yet, for better or worse it is that straightforward and soul-warming, pseudo-peasant food that I like best and always return to cook and eat.

That said, I have an alter ego obsessed with culinary perfection and a mania for creating knee wobbling mouthfuls of something so unearthly—so blindingly blissful—that is silences the table.  I do not claim to have achieved such a feat, but sometimes the alter ego takes charge and I find myself launching into frenzied attempts. Now and then it feels good to toss aside mundane considerations, like work and budgets, and bake a cake so complicated it takes a week to complete and requires obscure and outrageously expensive ingredients.

My excuse for this latest mania—a recipe by the wizard chef Heston Blumental for a monumental Black forest gateau—was my birthday. My parents wanted to take me out to dinner. Wouldn’t it be nicer, I suggested cunningly, if we had a BBQ at home? I would do the cooking, naturally. And bake the cake. We could even make it a double birthday celebration as my brother’s was around the same time. My mother agreed, unwittingly committing herself to pay for my explorations in the land of culinary absurdity, unaware that Heston insists on the use of the best chocolate and the most extravagant kirschwasser (cherry liqueur) in his gateau. But it was my birthday and I won.

Making this cake is more a combination of middle school science and architecture than baking. There are eight separate elements including ‘cherry stalks’ fashioned out of dried vanilla bean and an aerated chocolate that requires the use of a vacuum cleaner. The barbecue is this Sunday and so far I have only complete two elements: the basic chocolate sponge and kirsch cream. That leaves six to go and I know Saturday will be chaos. And yet I’m going to love every minute of it. From figuring out how the vacuum cleaner is supposed to aerate my chocolate to making my own ‘wood effect’ base on which to present the cake, this is just the sort of indulgence my alter ego needs. Then it will leave me in peace to eat my peasant food for another six months, until Christmas perhaps.

And I still hold out hope for a culinary masterpiece of magnificent, knee-wobbling proportions.