Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Night of Experimental Cuisine

Last night, I attended a lecture in the Secret Science Club series at Brooklyn's Bell House. The talk was conducted by two speakers, Dr Kent Kirshenbaum of NYU's chemistry department, and pastry chef/alchemist Will Goldfarb, a go-to guy for esoteric baking ingredients. These two men are founding members of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.

The program began with an effort by our intrepid lecturers to realize the grand dream of creating a combination floor cleaner/dessert topping. Dr Kirshenbaum gave a quick chemistry lesson about soaps, which have molecules with a hydrophilic end, and a hydrophobic end, which tend to aggregate in a water-based solution as micelles. In the quest to form an edible "soap", Dr Kirshenbaum and Mr Goldfarb decided to use an extract from the Curaca Agave, a saponaceous plant from Peru. A bit of Curaca extract was added to water, and whipped into a foam in an electric mixture. The resulting "foam" was described by Dr Kirshenbaum as "smelling like wet newspapers". A batch of the "soap suds" was mixed with a simple syrup, and eight audience volunteers were brought up on stage to sample the "soap/dessert topping", sprayed on a brownie. The team that devoured their soap-browines received a prize. The "foam" was also used dipped into liquid nitrogen and flash-frozen to create vegan "Floating Islands".

The quest for a floor-cleaner/dessert topping a success, the talk shifted to other projects being undertaken by the Experimental Cuisine Collective, including a long digression on Turkish salep- based ice cream called dondurma. Not only is dondurma resistent to melting, the salep contains a polysaccharide called glucomannan, which also acts as a soluble dietary fiber. Dr Kirshenbaum jokingly described a hypothetical dream-dessert which was high-fiber, could counteract type 2 diabetes and tooth decay (mastic has been proposed as a tooth-decay fighter), and even an aphrodesiac (the folk-etymology for salep is a word combination meaning "fox testicles", a reference to the plant's appearance). On a more sober note, he added that the salep-orchid is endangered due to overharvesting. Happily, the good people at the E.C.C. have determined that the common konnyaku or "Devil's tongue" can be used as an acceptible salep substitute (I will add that konnyaku is also used to make shirataki noodles, a great addition to a well-made nabe).

Futher consideration was given to the use of liquid nitrogen as a culinary tool, gum arabic as a thickening agent, and the tension between the traditional and experimental trends in cuisine. Dr Kirshenbaum was of the opinion that the techniques pioneered by the Experimental Cuisine Collective were not necessarily at odds with the precepts of the Slow Food movement. He mentioned a hilarious ban on the use of liquid nitrogen in Italian restaurant kitchens. A shout-out to experimental cuisine titans Ferran AdriĆ  and Wylie Dufresne. Left unmentioned was Abel Gonzalez, Jr. the mad genius who came up with fried Coca-Cola.

After the lecture, the audience was given samples of vegan "meringue" cookies, made using the tried-and-true techniques of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.

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