This Christmas I was aiming to give you all something a little different. I have conceptualized three desserts that (hopefully) capture the spirit of Christmas without being too literal! If you minmize the visual identity of any occasion you will find that it all boils down to just a combination of colors and shapes. The Christmas tree is green, Santa is red and the snow is white. With those three colors and a touch of gold, I set off to bring you this trio of berries, creams and herbs.
Food plating as a form of art is all about the creativity in altering shapes and textures to create something that is visually intriguing, while still keeping its best flavor attributes intact. Molecular gastronomy is a food science that focuses on elevating everyday flavors and textures to take them to that next level creativity. There is so much time and effort that goes into the innovation behind each element in these fine dining dishes that you could easily end up breaking down one dish into 5 different mini recipes. Some elements may take several days to produce, just to be devoured in a matter of seconds. The money goes towards the eye-candy and the purity of flavor, which is precisely what makes these experiences so pricey.
It’s not just a bunch of fancy-schmancy garnishes scattered on a plate. A chef worthy of their titile should think long and hard about what their dishes are to communicate to the consumer. If we sprinkle edible flowers on a commercial pizza from the takeaway shop, it will still be affordable comfort food.
The first part of my Christmas project this year was to actually conzeptualize the desserts and sketch them on paper. This helps me get a general idea of what is going where on the plate, so that I can plan the process in the kitchen more easily. The sketch also helps me decide which cooking methods I will use to give me the desired look of the dish. If you blanch some leaves in water, you will end up with a completely different thing than if you were to fry them. I think about how these pieces will behave against the laws of physics when I plate my dish. Will this be stiff enough to stand upright on the plate? Will this be soft and pliable enough to form the shape that I want it to? Will that sauce be thick enough to give me some nice height and a shiny highlight? All of these questions need to be answered in the plan for putting together the final dish.
Let me take you deeper into the art journey and the kitchen experiments behind my Christmas trio.
For the strawberry tart, I started by washing, cutting and cooking my base strawberry sauce. From it I made a dehydrated strawberry fruit leather and rolled it up into cute little logs with a spiral top. The same sauce was reduced a little further to give me a paintable strawberry fluid to create my spiral design on the plate I will be using. With some gelatin in the sauce, I managed to create a strawberry caviar, consisting of tiny sweet strawberry spheres. I wanted to have three different colors and sizes of spheres in my final dish, which will help me echo the circle and spiral theme even more. Tapioca pearls were cooked in rosemary infused water because I wanted to use a twig of rosemary as garnish to resemble part of a tree. Now this where I felt that I couldn’t just add that rosemary garnish without having incorporated its flavor in the product somehow. The last type of spheres were white sugar sprinkles to give us a feeling of snow. Last but not least was the actual strawberry tart with a strawberry pudding filling and a gold painted pastry shell. Some meringue peaks to give us ‘snow-covered mountains’ and a fresh strawberry with mint leaves and micro-greens for that very Christmasy red and green contrast.
The raspberry panna cotta was pretty straight forward. Half vanilla, half raspberry cream with a diagonal pattern and some fresh raspberries on top. I forgot to tell you about the candied lemon peel strips that I had made! These golden brackets were ideal to impart the scent of Christmas fruit cakes into the desserts, while adding a much need kick or zing on the palate to offset the thickness of the cream and the sweetness of the sugar. The extraordinary touch in the raspberry panna cotta dish came in form a sugar dome that was carefully decorated with small mint leaves. The final impression gives you a sense of some sort of halo around the panna cotta. For a super-velvety finish, I used freeze-dried raspberry powder and some luster dust to cover the plate in texture, color, flavor and sparkle. Micro arugula was my green of choice here… so refreshing!
Having used tapioca pearls and agar agar (to set the panna cotta) in the first two dishes, led me to go back to my Asian comfort zone. “The Eurasian fusion must follow through!”, I thought. The result of my third concept was a Goji berry ice-cream, or Parfait Glacé to be more accurate with a mint gel. This was the perfect way to round up my fraternal triplets while staying true to the theme of berries, creams and herbs. The hardest part of making this dish was most definitely the quenelle. If you have no clue what I am talking about, the quenelle is an ultra-fancy way of presenting a scoop of ice-cream. It has a very distinct American football shape and takes a lot of practice to perfect. The ice-cream needs to be cold but not frozen and certainly not melted, while the spoon used to shape the quenelle needs to be hot. Yeah, I am a bit of a masochist, I know. It took me two hours and about twelve failed quenelles to get something half-decent in the end (which I am still not entirely satisfied with). The challenge here was also in the delicate whipped cream on top of the croquant sugar disc that I was serving as a base under my ice-cream. There was lot’s of melting and re-freezing of the ice-cream in between quenelle attempts, but in the end I just had to wash the plate, dry it and start all over again to be able to give you the final shot.
You can see that each and every one of these desserts was a construct of lots of elements that were each treated in their own individual recipes. So this post is (looong, I know… Sorry!) not to give you guys a recipe, but more to inspire you to go and create. I hope that the chefs in this country take note of this as well and give Egypt something worth eating and talking about, because I am honestly not willing to pay the prices charged at fine dining restaurants for a molten chocolate cake, with a scoop of cheap vanilla ice-cream and store-bought chocolate sauce on top.
Wishing you all an inspiring, creative and merry Christmas this year. 🙂