Thursday, January 12, 2006

Concepts in infusion

Christmas brought my Santa through town. His name is Chris and he came directly from the atomic workshop of Heston Blumenthal in Bray, the north pole of molecular gastronomy. Just like the intelectual gifts he filled my culinary brain with on my last birthday so far from home, he brought with him a big bag filled with ideas and inspiration, and a few memories I almost forgot I had.

Durring the dinner we shared, one word brought back a concept I started to grasp at The Fat Duck. Not a method, not a recipe, not a new food I have never seen. The simple word "tea" reminded me of a new way of thinking about infusing flavors.

Imagine the way we make tea. Boiling water, a relatively large amount of flavorful leaves, and a resting period to steep. Now take this gentle treatment of beverage, and apply it in thought to other liquid infusions.

"We tea our stocks" Michael told me at midnight one late evening as we stood in the rain preparing to store the cooling stocks made that day. The bones and aromatics are infused with the water over a low heat, and then left to steep. After this is done, the stock is strained from the top down, leaving the sediment, bones, and what not on the bottom. The last 2 inches of liquid are also left. It is the pure clean liquid on the top that is of value. The pot is never tipped, the sediment never disturbed or redistributed into the stock.

Take this concept and apply it to icecream. Mint icecream. Fresh mint icecream that immediately brings a garden to mind. You want a clean fresh mint flavor in your icecream rather than one that brings menthol and toothpaste to mind. While reason and often recipe dictate us to boil cream and add a handfull of chopped mint before we make our custard, lets take a step back. Lets "tea" the mint by making a custard and pouring the hot liquid over a larger amount of whole, unbroken mint leaves. After a steeping time of 10 minutes the custard is strained off and chilled. The resulting flavor is clean and bright, and rather than remind us of mint, will mentally transport us directly to a mint patch.

This concept does require a bit of added time. A last minute infusion, while effective, requires us to break the herb, crush the nut, crack the seed, to release more flavor in less time. This is fine and dandy for adding a bit of rosemary to your chicken dinner. But if you are looking for a gentle, true rosemary flavor to make a baked custard sublime, tea the flavor instead. Dont dammage the herb to extract it's taste, bathe it, washing its flavor into your food.

I am going to take one more step here. Think of the flavor of a hot cup of black tea. Thin, aromatic, and tannic. Now, remember the taste of sun tea, made by leaving tea leaves in cold water in a jar on your window sill. The flavor is cleaner, milder, and much of the bitterness, or tanic quality that marks tea is left behind.

Transport this cold infusion with a long period of time to cooking. Imagine steeping a cold stock with tarragon overnight. The result should be a refreshing bright herbal note rather than the dragons bite the herb is named for.

Now if you try this at home (by all means do) and you find that it results in a weak flavor, dont fret! Don't think, "well that was a waste of time." Don't give up and resort to last minute infusions with chopped leaves. Add more herbs. Double, tripple, maybe even quadruple the amount of fresh leaves. If we use 2 tbsp of dried, concentrated tea leaves for an 8 oz beverage, imagine the amount of fresh leaves you might want for a half gallon of liquid.

Wether we apply this concept on a regular basis, or just carry it around in our minds as a way of seeing flavor addition doesn't matter. Sometimes just seeing things from a different point of view is as valuable.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This idea works very well with the flavor of coffee. Pour your liquid over whole beans (cold) and let it infuse overnight before making the ice cream base. The coffee flavor is intense without the bitterness, nor is any color leached out resulting in a white coffee ice cream.

January 16, 2006 9:38 PM  
Blogger shuna fish lydon said...

I like how this post is about thinking about the same things a new way but also about speaking of them differently.

Mint chocolate chip ice cream has always been my favorite but I made the best mint ice cream with Nepotella.

To add onto your method, making a milk only anglaise and then mounting it with cold cream is a nice way of chieb=ving these less-cooked tastes.

January 24, 2006 10:57 PM  

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