Sweet Potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon

A couple of the more frustrating parts about cooking from the Alinea cookbook is that sometimes I put a lot of work and money into a dish and either 1) the individual component recipes produce way more than I need for the final product, resulting in a lot of stuff being thrown in the trash, or 2) I just can’t quite master one part of the dish and end up with only one or two presentable servings. I suffered both of these unfortunate events with Sweet Potato.

What we have here is a cinnamon skewer with a fried, non-descript, ball at the end. Inside that fried ball is gooey sweet potato, bourbon, and brown sugar candy. The cinnamon stick is lit at the end briefly before serving so you get the scent of cinnamon as you eat.

Brown Sugar Candy

I started with the brown sugar candy a few days ago. I began by blending some yellow pectin into water. Then I added some sugar and citric acid and brought it to a boil. Once it was boiling, I added some Trimoline, corn syrup (the book calls for glucose, but corn syrup hasn’t made a difference yet), and the brown sugar and I brought it 230 degrees. Finally I set it into a pan to cool down and set.

One thing I’ve learned in the process of working with these recipes is to be extremely patient and attentive when making any sort of candy. When sugar reaches certain temperatures, it goes through some sort of chemical change that I do have the education to adequately explain. But when it’s going through those changes, the temperature will not rise again until it’s “ready.” At the beginning, I thought I had done something wrong or that my thermometer was broke as I sat there just waiting for the temperature to rise again to the degree I needed. I fretted about the possibility that I was overcooking the sugar. Now I know that I just need to wait a little longer and appreciate how cool sugar looks when it’s boiling.

Two Technical Notes: 1) The book is extremely vague when it says “yellow pectin.” Research indicates this term is not even widely used. I read somewhere that yellow pectin is the stuff you can find at the store, but I didn’t find that advice helpful because I know that most pectins sold at the grocery store have varying additives in them. I did some more research and concluded that I should be using slow set high methoxyl pectin. Seemed to work well here. 2) Trimoline is an invert sugar syrup readily available in mass quantities to professional bakers and chefs, but not to lay people such as myself. I found a recipe that seemed to do the trick well. I would advise against buying the $20+ “home chef” tubs that you can find in some online stores and follow that recipe instead.

Sweet Potato Gel

Next, I worked on the sweet potato. I peeled two sweet potatoes and sliced them to 1/2″ pieces. I then cooked them in heavy cream until they were tender. I strained the potatoes, reserving the cream, and pureed the potatoes in the blender with a little bit of the reserved cream. Finally, I mixed in a lot of gelatin, strained the puree again to make sure it was really smooth, and poured it into a pan to set and cool.




Bourbon Gel

Lastly, I made the bourbon gel. This was the easiest part. I only had to mix the bourbon with gellan gum, bring it to a simmer for a bit, and then let it set at room temperature. I didn’t realize it until I was done, but I essentially made bourbon jello shots (and had a lot left over.)

Technical Note: The book calls for Kelcogel JJ gellan gum. As far as I can tell, this particular variety of gellan gum is no longer made, but was a mix of low acyl gellan gum and high acyl gellan gum. I ended up buying each and mixing them together in equal quantities. This worked.

Finally, it was time to put this all together. The book calls for Ceylon cinnamon sticks. I bought some of these but they were far to delicate, once trimmed down, to support the component parts. Instead, I used some generic cassia cinnamon sticks.

I thread my gels onto the cinnamon sticks, starting with the sweet potato, followed by the bourbon and brown sugar.

To cook them, I heated some canola oil. I dredged each skewer in flour and dipped them into a batter made with sparkling water, flour, cornstrach, and baking powder. This is where stuff started to fall apart a little. As you can see, I started out with 6 skewers, but ended up with only three presentable ones. I learned that it is very important to make sure that flour covers the entire edible part before dipping into the batter, or else the sweet potato will melt and ooze out of any uncovered part. I also learned that if your skewers aren’t long enough, you’ll risk burning yourself over the hot oil. And unfortunately, the brown sugar candy was prone the falling off as I dredged the skewers in flour and dipped them in the batter. So in the end, I only had 3 good servings (one of which was missing the brown sugar candy and another which had sweet potato oozing out of the underside, to be completely honest.)

All in all, I enjoyed making this. I know if I tried it again, I would do better since I know now what not to do. And the skewers that did survive the cooking process were very good (even though I forgot to season them with brown sugar and salt before eating).

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Idiazábal, Blis maple syrup, smoked salt

Ah, my first post of 2013. It feels like it has been too long but holiday craziness and lack of funds necessitated a small break.

Here, we have what is essentially an adult cheeto made out of idiazábal cheese, coated with the most phenomenal maple syrup, smoked salt, and maple sugar. I never before could have guessed how a cheeto is made, but apparently it requires steaming, dehydrating, and frying!

Idiazábal is a Basque-Spanish sheep milk’s cheese know for its smoky flavor. I’ve read conflicting information about whether the smoky flavor naturally occurs in the cheese or whether the cheese is smoked in the production process.  No matter what the true case may be, the smokiness is undeniably present.

To start, I made a dough of cheese by grating the idiazábal with my Microplane and tossing it in the food processor with tapioca flour, a small bit of salt, and water.



I then flattened the cheese dough with a rolling pin between two pieces of plastic wrap until it was about 1/8″ thick.


I steamed the flattened dough on each side for about 12 minutes to “cook” the cheese, ripped off the plastic wrap, and transferred the cheese-sheet to my dehydrator for a few hours.

The recipes instructs one to dehydrate the cheese until it’s crisp. Mine never reached that point all the way through, so I ended up breaking the sheet into pieces and letting it dehydrate a little bit longer while my boyfriend made hamburgers for dinner. I think breaking it up helped a little bit, but I still wouldn’t call the final product “crisp” out of the dehydrator.

The final step in the cooking process was the frying. The recipe calls for heating canola oil to 425 degrees, but my cooking thermometer only goes up to 400. I believe 400 worked just fine.

Once they were fried, I coated the chips with Blis Bourbon Barreled Maple Syrup, sprinkled some smoked salt and maple sugar on them, and grated a little bit of more cheese over the top. I put them in the oven for a couple minutes just to let the cheese melt over the maple syrup.

How did it taste? All four tasters liked it!….I may have eaten 4 of the chips while offering little in terms of seconds to any of the others.

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Winter Rundown

The seasons have changed, which means that I can turn to a new chapter of the Alinea cookbook. The following five recipes are those I hope to complete in the next 3 months or so.


Yuzu, pine, black sesame, shiso: This recipe presents both odd ingredients and techniques that I do not feel very confident about. On the ingredient side, I need to find pine scotch oil, yuzu juice, and micro shiso (or perhaps just regular shiso). On the technique side, I need to perfect my abilities as working with, presumptively very fragile, frozen strands of food. You read correctly there. Frozen strands of food.


Niçoise Olive, saffron, dried cherry, olive oil: This recipe is essentially an elaborate pastry. I do not think I’ll have too many difficulties in completing it, so long as I practice the pastry making bits of the recipe enough, but I definitely need to get myself a kitchen torch and a spice grinder first. I’m excited for this one because it’ll also give me an opportunity to try making an invert sugar at home (Trimoline, specifically). I believe the biggest obstacle will be finding freeze-dried cherries.


Bean, many garnishes, pillow of nutmeg air: Bean will be the most labor intensive and complex recipe I’ve made so far, should I actually be able to complete it this season. One of the major difficulties will be producing the aromatic aspect of the recipe. I know very well that I will not be able to create a “pillow of nutmeg air” just yet, but I have various theories of how I could create the same effect in other ways. Once I figure out the aromatic component, there are nearly 15 other components of this recipe to figure out. Most of them seem to be fairly simple in execution, so the daunting aspect of this dish is the labor and time management inherent in the process. I also need to get my hands on a pressure cooker and a tamis. But seriously guys, I am so excited as the prospect of completing this recipe.


Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint: I feel like I’ve already done a lot of recipes in this cookbook that, at their simplest manifestation, are flavored gelatins with something else in it. See Green Almond; Blackberry; Pear. This is another one of those recipes.  This time, however, I’ll be using a relatively exotic filler ingredient (sea urchin “roe”). I can’t wait, especially since I feel very comfortable now with working with gelatin in this fashion.


Sweet Potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon: This recipe is a combination of flavors that I love without qualification. It might as well be called “Happiness, rainbows, sunshine, glitter” in my mind. I need to track down a couple special hydro-colloids first though. And I might want to purchase the unique serving piece that it’s presented on, because I don’t think I have any adequate substitutes laying around for this kind of dish. Oh, I should mention that in case the flavors didn’t get you excited already, this dish is fried. Deep fried.

There are, of course, more Winter recipes that I may complete but these ones are my priorities. And I still have some Autumn recipes that I want to try before too much time passes.

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Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin


So what if I told you that I was going to serve you a broth made with kelp, shaved dried fish, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin? And for extra flair, the broth has water lily buds in it? And that what I’m serving you is truly from the best restaurant in America? Well, you’d probably think I’m nuts. But I do not lie, this recipe is from Alinea.


The star of this recipe is junsai. From what I can best tell, junsai are (is?) the mucus covered buds from the underside of lilies. They are cultivated as a vegetable in the Akita region of Japan. In English, the plant is known as brasenia. It’s worth noting that the English wikipedia article barely makes a mention of its culinary use, whereas the Japanese wikipedia article seems to focus on it (at least according to hardly readable Google translation).


It took me forever to find junsai and I was almost convinced that I was never going to find it. You see, a few years back other Alinea bloggers were attempting to find junsai and spent a lot time doing so. One decided to use enoki mushrooms as a substitute. Another finally found it on a couple French websites that shipped to the US. The third latched onto that find and quickly made it. And then more than a year later, here I am trying to find it and in between the time I bookmark the French website and actually decide to do the recipe, junsai disappears from my bookmarked French website. Just. My. Luck.

Thankfully, a second look at Martin Lindsay’s blog reminded me that he did in fact find a couple French websites that sold it and I had only bookmarked one of them. The other, Nishikidori Market, still had it! Without hesitation, I pulled out my credit card and spent the most money I’ve spent so far on a single ingredient in this book.

Almost equally impressive as the junsai is the dashi that it floats in. Dashi is a Japanese soup stock made with kombu (a type of seaweed) and bonito. Both of these ingredients are at the Whole Foods near my apartment, but I decided to visit one of the nearby Asian markets to get them at a cheaper price.


Every ingredient in this recipe (besides the water).

In making the dashi, I believe I departed from the Alinea recipe in a significant way for the first time. The recipe instructs me to soak the kombu in water overnight, then drain it and simmer it in a new batch of water for 20 minutes. After looking up many recipes for dashi online, I noticed that all of them cook the kombu in the same water it was soaked it. That made more sense to me because I imagine a good amount of the flavor from the kombu gets distilled into the water it’s soaked in. So I decided that I knew better than Grant Achatz and didn’t drain the kombu after soaking it.



Once I was done simmering the kombu, I added the bonito shavings (aka kastuobushi) for about 10 minutes. The book doesn’t specify how long to let them sit, but most of the online dashi recipes recommended 5 to 15 minutes.


I then strained the broth into a large bowl, added some soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin, and chilled the dashi in the fridge overnight.



This morning, I rinsed the junsai in water and poured the dashi over it.


Junsai does not have much flavor, but it does have an extra creepy texture. The mucilage that surrounds the buds feels like it sounds: mucus. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed this dish because the dashi is amazing. It’s pure umami. I’ll be interested to see what the other people who are trying this later today have to say about the dish.


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Dry Caramel, salt

This recipe is probably one of the three easiest in the entire book. Or so it seems at first glance. All I had to do was make caramel, mix it with a weird super-light powder and serve. In reality, I had to make this twice. And I want to try it a third time once I’m back home because I feel like it could be better still.

This dish was also  my contribution to the Thanksgiving dinner at my boyfriend’s parents place. I’ve been planning to make this for Thanksgiving for some time because it is easily transportable, and thus I could make it at home and work out the kinks there. I’m glad I did.

To start, I measured some sugar, light corn syrup, butter, and heavy cream (clockwise from top). The book calls for glucose, but the the light corn syrup was an adequate substitute.

The book says to heat the ingredients to 230 degrees and then pour the resulting caramel onto a silicone lined sheet tray to cool. The first time, my caramel stopped heating up at 220 degrees. After letting it cook at a steady 220 for at least five minutes, I decided to pour it. I figured that something was wrong with my thermometer and I was already over cooking it. It ended up cooling into a mostly liquid form that didn’t react with the aforementioned weird super-light powder as it should have. And I created the biggest mess I’ve made so far trying to add more weird super-light powder to the caramel in the food processor.

Pictures from the bad batch.

The weird super-light powder is tapioca maltodextrin, a food starch that adheres to fat instead of water. Tapioca maltodextrin can be found easily online. The powder is extremely light; the one pound bag I have is the size of a pillow. Because it’s so light, it makes a mess easily, I found. Mixing enough tapioca maltodextrin with any fatty substance will turn that substance into a powder. When that powder comes in contact with moisture, such as saliva, it re-constitutes into what it was before.

I did some more research after the first failed batch and learned that there was a reason why my caramel stopped heating at 220 degrees. Turns out that the structure of sugar begins changing at the stage. I just needed to wait longer. So I did that. But still, the second time, once the sugar mix had reached 230 degrees, it still wasn’t browning the way that caramel appears. So I let it reach 240-245 before taking it off the heat and pouring it out to cool. I knew that if I let it heat up any more, it would cool to a hard candy-like consistency instead of a soft-caramel consistency. Anyway, the difference is clear between the first and second batches. (I also halved the recipe for the second batch because it produces way more than you need).

This time, after cooling, the caramel mixed much better with the tapioca maltodextrin. I still had to add more than the book said though and in the end, my dry caramel was more crumby than powdery.

Nevertheless, the family loved it. The dry caramel truly does turn back into a soft and chewy caramel after being in your mouth for about five seconds.

I still want to try this recipe again and see if I can get more a powdery texture to the dry caramel. Based on what other people who have tried this recipe have said, it seems that the tapioca maltodextrin mixes better with the dry caramel the harder the dry caramel is at the beginning. Alas, that’s an experiment for when I get back home.

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