Come on, tell the truth now. If you knew someone who had direct access to Ferran Adria’s brain, wouldn’t you ask the occasional teensy weensy question that requires an essay in response? I did feel a little guilty bending the ear of former El Bulli insider Katie Button, especially since she and her partner Felix Meana just opened Curate in Asheville, NC to uproarious acclaim, and we all know how life upends itself during the cadence-establishing birthing period of a restaurant. The problem was, however, that I kept staring at these beet roses in the Phaidon-published tome A Day at elBulli, and my life became singularly-possessed by the notion of perfecting them.
When I finally decided to dash off an email to Katie asking if she’d be willing to share the technique, I fully expected her to either
a. not reply
b. reply with regrets that the technique must remain secret, or
c. tell me how they did it, then kill me by Fedexing me a package of anthrax disguised as a shipment of rare methylcellulose.
Ok, maybe I didn’t really expect her to poison me with anthrax, but I certainly didn’t imagine she would carefully note every trick of the process. Katie basically took time out of her maddening schedule to write a crazy blogger a two page formula on how to do a secret thing she learned to do only because she was good enough to study under the best chef in the world. That is serious diligence, kindness and authenticity. Judging by the reviews of Curate, she infuses her restaurant with that same attitude, thusly making it one of the most-coveted reservations in the country. An imminent dining tour de Asheville is on my books.
The real trouble came when, armed with beet powder, a heat lamp and an acetate stencil, I navigated the nuances of the beet rose with the pompous attitude that I might actually succeed. That’s the big issue and the big asset to me in the kitchen- I think I can. I’m like the little engine that could, only with a much smaller caboose (I hope). What that childhood self-help tale doesn’t prepare you for is life repeatedly bitch-slapping you in the face. It’s a good thing my skin is thick and bouncy like a cork, because life has wholloped me with some doozies.
After three hours of trying, my beet roses came out more like beet tulips with leprosy. I guess it’s appropriate because I’m kind of like the leprotic tulip of the food world anyway. Let’s hold Martha Stewart up as the rose. She’s perfect, smells nice, can be a little thorny, and graces the tables of ticky-tacky homes across the country (well, her magazine does, anyway). Her face even looks pretty like a rose, although some people say roses look like the folds of a vagina. By contrast, I am spotted in the sense that I am part white and part black, my skin is always falling off because I’m terribly accident-prone, I rarely smell (which can be a good thing), and I don’t bend very well because I effing hate yoga, preferring instead to get my exercise doing prosciutto-plate-hand-mouth relays. If that doesn’t scream leprotic tulip, I don’t know what does. I think I’ll change the name of my blog.
Here is the thing, though- if you don’t try, you won’t fail. And if you don’t fail, you will never know how milky-sweet success can be. Just because my roses resemble me and not Martha doesn’t mean someone won’t want to eat them. In fact, I am learning that there are people in the world who actually prefer them to the perfect, prom queen, long-stemmed rose. Remember junior high? One girl read Teen Beat, while another read Sassy. It didn’t matter though, because both girls went to the spring formal and wondered what on earth that hard hot dog was doing poking into their stomach when they slow-danced to Eternal Flame with the really tall guy wearing Hammer pants.
My roses will find mouths that can taste their sweet beauty even with the leprotic spots. If it seems like I’m calling Ferran Adria’s roses the prom queens of the edible flower world, well, I am. But hey, when you dedicate thousands of dollars of equipment (freeze-dry machines, rubber molds, induction burners et cetera) to making an edible rose, it damn-well better be perfect. It’s like the prom queens of today- their daddies spend countless thousands buying them luminous noses, pert breasts, taut tummies and lineless visages all before they become of legal age to drive their Hummers. Those daddies expect a return on their investment in the form of their little girls growing up to be mini-queens of the balloon-bedecked gymnasium, of the pimply boys, the knock-kneed teachers, the science geeks, and the drama freaks.
So my rose is an imperfect science geek- at least I made a rose. And I discovered that it wasn’t that hard. I also discovered that store-bought freeze-dried beet powder is not as good as the stuff El Bulli makes themselves. It’s old and the color fades. The particles are too large to fully incorporate with the caramel dust that forms the base of the flowers. Without rubber molds, my shaping technique leaves a lot to be desired. But my husband, child and friends complemented my wonky roses with aplomb and devoured them along with the golden beet gelato accompaniment.
The golden beet gelato came from Thomas Keller’s recipe in The French Laundry. He is a man who has never let me down, and that, ladies and gays, is quite the rarity in this world. He does it with red beets, but I thought the golden beets would provide a welcome contrast to the red hue I imagined for my roses. For once, I was right. The whole bowl was, in a word, delicious. Here is the technique for the roses, courtesy of Katie Button:
Ok, so as I said we were using this technique for many many dishes. The first step is to make a hard candy out of isomalt, glucose and fondant, you use twice as much fondant as glucose or isomalt. So for example:
- 300 g powdered fondant
- 150 g powdered glucose
- 150 g isomalt
1. Combine the fondant and glucose in sauce pot and place on medium heat (we used an induction burner for these things)
2. Swirl the pot occasionally, when the fondant has melted into the glucose add the isomalt.
3. Continue to swirl the pot occasionally to mix the isomalt with the other products.
4. Cook the mixture to 160 C, then pour onto sheet pan lined with parchment paper. You want to tilt the sheet pan so that the candy spreads evenly over the parchment. Allow the candy to cool, when it gets to the point that you can mark it with a knife and the mark stays..you need to make a grid of small squares with your knife…this is so that once it cools completely you can break it into those small squares. If you try to mark it too soon, the marks disappear because the candy is still to hot…if you try to mark it too late and the candy has already set, you won’t be able to and it will be much more difficult to break into manageable sizes.
5. Store the candy pieces in a very dry place, at el bulli we would use silica gel under a sheet of parchment, inside a tuperware container and then put the candy in bags and puncture the bags will small holes so that the silica is never in contact with the candy but it keeps what is inside the tuperware very very dry. Here at the restaurant though, I’ve had success just simply storing it in a dry place.
6. Now you are at the point where you can flavor the candy with WHATEVER you want. We used freeze dried products at el bulli to flavor this hard candy. To do this, you put the candy pieces in the food processor with freeze dried fruit/vegetable powder and blend the candy to a powder together with the freeze dried fruit powder. What you get is a finely ground candy powder flavored with whatever you want. We used freeze dried raspberries and corn last year for this technique. You will have to play around with the ratio of candy pieces to freeze dried fruit to get what you want. At elbulli they have their own freeze dry machine so they can do whatever flavor they want…but you will be limited to what you can get your hands on.
7. The next step is to have a sheet pan with a silpat, and a laser cut stencil of whatever shape you are trying to make. you can make leaves, flowers, circles…anything. Using a seive, you sift the powder onto the silpat with the stencil, then remove the stencil and put the sheet pan in the oven. Once the candy melts, remove the sheet pan from the oven, slide off the silpat, and allow it to cool. With a spatula, carefully remove the candy pieces (circles, leaves, whatever shape you decided on). Now, in order to shape them to the shape that you want, we were using a heat lamp and rubber molds that we would press the caramel into under a heat lamp. you can also shape it by simply reheating it in the oven and then molding it while it is warm.