Red fruit caviar. Photo: Courtesy ThinkGeek.com
Perhaps the largest breakthrough in cooking in the last decade, molecular gastronomy -- or "playing with powder," as David Lebovitz puts it -- is an art form that has some diners widening their eyes in wonderment and others shaking their heads in disbelief.
Popularized by Ferran Adria's soon-to-be-shuttered El Bulli in Spain and, later by Wylie Dufresne at New York City's WD-50, the avant-garde cuisine takes the ordinary to extraordinary levels. As Frank Bruni put it in 2005, the "sci-fi cooking" has been known to "toy with unusual textures, play with wildly unlikely flavor combinations and generally venture in directions that might turn out to be silly, but then again might not." Pondered Lebovitz, "Just like Matisse was widely-panned for painting a woman's face with a green stripe down the middle, I think we're going to have to let time tell us if this is just a passing fancy or if it's something that's here to stay."
And though the still-kicking buzz of molecular cooking has died down - quite likely as a result of the prohibitively high cost of restaurants embracing it as their specialty - it may now create another stir, as it is released in a user-friendly form to the general public.
Think Geek has created a Molecular Gastronomy Starter Kit ($69.99) that offers a "brand new way to make dinner" by allowing ambitious foodies to play with food in their very own kitchens. Though the kit is admittedly basic, even somewhat reminiscent of high-school science projects, it's the first approach to making the high-end cuisine more accessible and comprehensible.
Though admittedly scientifically challenged, I managed to successfully complete two of the recipes: a Caviar of Red Fruit and the Sparkling Soft Toffees. The candies were a cinch, requiring cooks to only grind together powdered sugar, sodium bicarbonate and citric acid, and roll the soft toffees in the base -- though for someone tackling foreign chemical ingredients for the first time, the process was slightly daunting. The coating of sodium bicarbonate reacts with the acid in the presence of aqueous solution (your saliva), enlivening the candies with a nice citrus effervescence, similar to a tamer Pop Rocks tingle. What was most shocking is that the simple process took but about 10 minutes, shaking my perception of molecular gastronomy as rocket science.
Scientific, it may be. But after tackling the caviar, one might be convinced molecular gastronomy is time-consuming above all. The "caviar" recipe manipulated fruit juice into vibrant red berry bubbles in a few slow but simple steps toward "spherification." By dropping a combination of sodium alginate and juice into water with calcium salt, the droplets formed little beads in the water, due to sodium alginate's reaction with calcium ions, which form tiny liquid orbs similar to fish eggs. Although the results were marvelous as edible oddities, creating but one tablespoon was a process that took nearly 30 minutes.
The techniques used may sound more suited to science labs than kitchens, but they have the remarkable ability to toy with the chemical and physical reactions of cooking to create revolutionized versions of common cuisine. Nonetheless, molecular gastronomy is clearly not for the scientifically -- or mathematically -- challenged.
Is the kit an interesting, well-organized, easy-to-execute foray into molecular gastronomy? Absolutely -- but on a balmy afternoon in the heat of the summer, you'll probably find yourself preferring to leave the tedious task to the pros.