Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Roaring Twenties Slice of Chocolate Malted Milk Cake

The Old Foodie is the Bee’s Knees. She’s given me an earful about retro cakes and now she’s got me goofy over Chocolate Malted Milk Cake.

I don’t know from nothing about Chocolate Malted Milk Cake, so I get a wiggle on and see what I can learn.

The yarn is nifty. Malted milk is dreamed up in 1887 by William Horlick in Racine, Wisconsin. The Midwest brew of extract of wheat and malted barley is supposed to be a health food that helps digestion, but whip smart soda jerks mix it into milk shakes and invent the Chocolate Malted. “Burn one,” is the lingo to order a chocolate malted milk.

The Roaring 1920s blaze into town. The Charleston, Charlie Chaplin’s “Gold Rush” and malt shops are the rage, and Chocolate Malted Milk Cake is all dolled up in hometown bakeries in the U.S. of A.

I don’t want to beat my gums, so I get right to baking. The batter looks just keen and the creamed sugar and shortening, evaporated milk and malted milk powder fluffs into tawny copper peaks.

The pans go into the oven, the tangy scent of chocolate does the Fox-trot through the kitchen, and the finished layers are the berries.

The icing is just a bit ornery and doesn’t hit on all sixes. The malted milk powder doesn’t quite dissolve, but the evaporated milk and gelatin whips into a topping that’s hotsy – totsy and glossy.

Here comes the Chocolate Malted Milk Cake, as stacked as a contestant in the 1921 Miss America Pageant.

The taste? It’s the Cat’s Pajamas. The cake is light and airy and the velvety flavor is just like a rich chocolate milkshake, but without a paper straw. I feel like the Big Cheese. I’m as dapper as a sheik in a raccoon coat, as brave as fly boy Lucky Lindy and as audacious as Harry Houdini.

I’m kinda stuck on Chocolate Malted Milk Cake.
Now beat it.
Click here for more slang of the 1920s.
©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Molecular Mouthful

Transportation technology has nearly failed me (one stalled subway and a bellicose taxi driver) but I still managed to arrive at wd-50 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for my 7 p.m. reservation. I am joined for this immersion in molecular gastronomy by my friend “Lee Sloan,” a Grande Dame of food and wine on the New York circuit.

One cannot be dubbed a “Grande Dame” without a certain level of experience and outspoken opinion, and Lee has all these qualities in abundance. I’ve taken a certain perverse delight in inviting Lee – a staunch traditionalist – to join me in this futuristic culinary voyage that could easily equate to a visit to Captain Kirk’s kitchen. This promises to be nothing like Grandma’s home cooking.

wd-50 on 50 Clinton Street in New York City has been given one star by the 2007 Michelin Restaurant Guide, which classifies the food as “Contemporary.” While the guide makes no mention of the term “molecular gastronomy” it does use precious words like “experimental” and acknowledges that it’s hard to know if Chef Wylie Dufresne “is a chef or a mad scientist.” Yet, wd-50 is generally thought to be the epicenter of the molecular gastronomy movement in New York.

Lee and I have come to get a better understanding of what this movement is all about. Is it food, art or science? Lee has located some data on the five basic tastes – bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami. What is umami? It’s a Japanese world that means “savory” or “meaty” and means the ability to detect glutamates found in meats, cheeses and protein-rich foods. In 1908 this fifth taste was clearly identified My pre-dinner research has turned up some debate on the term molecular gastronomy. A group of ground-breaking chefs recently issued a joint statement in the London Observer that focused on embracing excellence and innovation as the key principles of their work. The statement, in fact, rejects the trendy term molecular gastronomy as a descriptor of their cooking. We’ll leave the debates on linguistics and terminology to others. Tonight, our taste buds will boldly go where they’ve never gone before.

The exterior of wd-50 is unassuming – weathered red brick, a large tinted picture window, and that quirky pairing of initials and digits in neon at the lower corner of the pane, oddly reminiscent of the symbols used in the periodic table of elements. Inside, it is sleek and modern, decorated in shades of slate, blue, light wood and stone. There is a glimpse of chrome in the open kitchen at the far end of the room.

We are seated and review the wine list. “Is the wine molecular, too?” Lee asks wickedly. We order glasses of bubbly cava and Lee begins to quiz our waiter – What is the food all about? What makes it different? He seems somewhat bemused by her questions, and admits that no one has ever really asked. Instantly he launches into the credo, “This is molecular gastronomy, and the kitchen is a chemistry lab. The tastes and textures of the food involve all your senses.”

That sounds good to us and we’re glad we’re all on the same page. “While you’re at it,” Lee asks, “can you take out all the calories?” The waiter chuckles at her request. Apparently there are some miracles even science can’t accomplish.

We strike up a conversation with the couple seated next to us. The gentleman, named Lew Shomer, is a true devotee of the movement, and he and his wife just returned two weeks ago from a visit to The Fat Duck in the United Kingdom. “We’re experimental,” he tells us. Lew explains the principles of molecular gastronomy, and how foods are transformed, liquefied and turned into foam and concentrated flavors to engage the senses. It’s a little like having our own interpreter. He’s even attempted the techniques at home. “We’ve fooled around with the foam,” he confides.

Lee and I study the menu carefully, trying to find the optimal range of space-age selections. “I really hope my taste buds are up to this,” I tell her.

The restaurant is now filled with an attractive and fashionable crowd. We select three appetizers to share and two entrees. A member of the wait staff brings us a rectangular box filled with sesame flatbread, parchment paper-thin and speckled with pale ivory seeds. The nutty flavor of the sesame is intense and the flatbread crackles at the touch.

Our appetizers have been chosen for maximum variety. Corned duck, rye crisp, purple mustard, horseradish cream is split between us. Strips of duck sliced like bacon are rolled and stacked on a crisp cracker base, with a dollop of mustard and cream at the center. Lee takes her first bite and looks deep in thought. The horseradish is sweet and biting at once and the duck is smooth and rich. “I taste different things,” she says as she contemplates the flavors. “There are different sensations depending on where the food hits the tongue. This really does work.”

Lew gives us each a taste of his hangar tartar with the addictive, deep aroma of beef dressed with béarnaise ice cream. We sample slow poached egg, chorizo, pickled beets, dried black olives, and foie gras, mole lentils, quince yogurt. It’s not an excessive amount of food, but each flavor is intense, and the familiar is transformed or re-engineered. All of the action and satisfaction is olfactory and taste-oriented. The dust of dried black olives offers a concentrated mouthful of brine. Chorizo is presented as a savory liquid reduction. Tiny pinpoint-sized lentils pop like pasta. Foie gras is as soft as feathery custard.

“It must be fewer calories,” I tell Lee. “The servings are smaller.”

She laughs out loud. “As my mother used to say, from your mouth to God’s ears!”

The technique of eating reminds me of a wine tasting exercise. We each take a bite, roll it on our tongue and immediately experience a chorus of staccato flavors and sensations. It’s not about eating to satisfy the stomach, but to make the tongue come alive. Bland, it certainly is not.

Beef shortrib, cabbage, cheddar, Pink Lady apple features glossy rectangular slabs of short ribs stacked over greens and a sunny pool of melted cheddar, scattered with crispy onion rings. The dish evokes smoky chipotle and caramel flavors.

Parsnip tart, quinoa, hazelnuts, bok choy is actually an artistic composition of brambles and grains. Crispy shreds of parsnip taste like they’ve been roasted over an open flame, and the quinoa has the sweet taste of summer fruit.

“This defies definition,” says Lee. “Your satisfaction is stimulated by something completely different. It’s about body, mind, spirit and palate, of course.” Indeed, the five basic tastes are dancing as fast as they can.

The dessert plates are perhaps the most thrilling in flavor and visual appeal. Each resembles a three-dimensional Salvador Dali dreamscape. Yogurt parfait, pine, apple, pineapple, is a field of snow white, with logs of tangy yogurt decorated with spun gold. White chocolate cream, black sesame, argan oil, carrot is a Halloween color scheme of deep orange, black and white. The quenelles of carrot ice cream are velvety deep essence of carrot and supple white marble-sized marshmallows are like puffy clouds.

We pay the check, and the beverage manager Glen Goodwin graciously allows us to visit the kitchen. There are no beakers, lab coats, or pocket protectors – just a battalion of young culinary professionals working at an efficient clip. The kitchen is orderly and immaculate. There are chrome fixtures and a European-style stove in the center of the room. The kitchen is laid out scientifically, with hot foods prepared at the back, and cold foods and desserts prepared at the front near the dining area.

As we talk with Goodwin, our insight begins to catch up with the sensory experience we’ve just had. Goodwin explains that this style of cooking comes from chefs who “ask why too much.” He describes culinary professionals that are intensely curious. Here, the kitchen is a collaborative place where ideas incubate and come to life. Anyone can suggest the idea or hypothesis for a dish, and they keep trying it out until they get it right. Goodwin says this is a breed of classically trained chefs who have made the cassoulet a hundred times, and “now they want to try and make the cassoulet with pine nuts.”

In the taxi returning to midtown, Lee and I try to deconstruct the formula for molecular gastronomy – flavor, texture, color, matter, animal, vegetable, mineral and a little molecular action. Is it science? Is it art? Is it culinary avant-garde? We settle on revolutionary and unexpected with a stunning injection of physiology, psychology and imagination puréed, dissolved and freeze dried to perfection.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Test Tubes in the Kitchen

Let’s get one thing straight. In my mind there are chefs, and there are chemists.

Trying to mix the two is like trying to blend oil and vinegar.

I’ve spent a lot of time learning chef skills, but chemistry has never been a core competency. In high school, I would get excited when the Language Department hosted the annual International Dinner, or when the Home Economics Class invited me to taste test their final project. But, I would frequently nod off during Chemistry class, and in fact, earned the worst grade of my entire student career in Chemistry.

Given a choice between the Periodic Table or Tarte aux Pommes, I’ll take the pastry every time.

So, even I admit to being baffled by my current fascination with that odd hybrid of chef and chemist, the molecular gastronomist.

The term molecular gastronomy is a mouthful, with a dash of pretentiousness, advanced degree snootiness and food snobbery mixed in for good measure. It is a term that is still only whispered in the geeky fringes of the culinary movement. You’ve heard the rumors. These are folks who like to shake things up, manipulate tastes and textures and inject the flavor of foie gras into doughnuts, or serve beef tongue that tastes like a bologna sandwich. Who are these people who care more about molecules than mouth feel? Are food scientists chefs, foodies or a different breed altogether? They are reported to be a strange fusion of three-star chef and deranged scientific genius. Perhaps even more provocative, is molecular gastronomy art or science?

I’m intrigued by the questions, so I get in touch with my inner Louis Pasteur and decide to investigate this odd phenomenon of Bill Nye the Science Guy Meets the Galloping Gourmet.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it is a distinctly unscientific investigation.

I quickly latch on to a recent text – a Bible of the movement called, quite simply “Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor” written by Herve This. Monsieur This is a physical chemist, and the author of several books about food and cooking. Immediate answers may not be forthcoming. Monsieur This starts by discussing what molecular gastronomy is not. It is not cooking, and it is not food science, nor is it food technology.

According to Monsier This, “…food science deals with the composition and structure of food, and molecular gastronomy deals with culinary transformations and the sensory phenomena associated with eating.” (p. 3)

So are we talking about some sort of higher calling here? At the very least, Monsieur This seems to be engaging in a game of analysis, investigation and myth busting. He wants to challenge culinary convention and gain a deeper insight into what works in the kitchen, and why it works.

Monsieur This says, “Time-honored maxims, proverbs, old wives’ tales, folk beliefs, and culinary rules are millstones round our necks that weigh us down when they are false and wings that carry us aloft when they are true. Hence the importance of molecular gastronomy, whose primary objective is first to make an inventory of such rules and then to select those that have withstood careful analysis. Culinary art has everything to gain by separating the wheat from the chaff of empirical observations.” (p. 12)

So, I guess it’s not enough to be thrilled by the fact that your soufflé actually rises (thank, God, by the way). The Molecular Gastronomist wants to know why the soufflé rises, and wants to improve the soufflé’s chances of rising higher. (That sounds a lot like the last employee motivation program I went through.) And it better taste darn good, while you’re at it. If we know why food molecules do their thing, we can manipulate the molecules, the techniques and our equipment to get better and more fantastic results.

Monsieur This writes: “Whoever understands the reasons for the results he or she obtains in the kitchen can improve on them.” (p. 17)

Then, there’s that aura of culinary enlightenment. I suppose those who can unlock the mysteries of the kitchen, are then able to go on and create phantasmagoric edibles like foie gras doughnuts, or beef tongue that tastes like a bologna sandwich, and will ultimately achieve inner peace. Is this a tastier version of yoga?

I am still left with many, many questions. At the top of my list: “Is molecular gastronomy really different than “cuisine” and what does the food actually taste like?” I enlist my friend Lee Sloan, a Grande Dame of food and wine to join me on a little tasting excursion to a restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan where the proprietor is reported to be both Chef Extraordinaire and Mad Scientist. We are about to subject our refined palates to a little culinary atom smashing.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Chelsea Market:

Cooking virtually is fun, but sometimes, a little in-person culinary diplomacy is in order. The eternal search for good food brings me and Jill from Ottawa to New York City for some of the best ingredients and eating on the planet.

We arrive at New York’s Chelsea Market in late afternoon on the day before the big storm, and enter the brick façade of the former site of the National Biscuit Company. If the name sounds familiar, National Biscuit was later shortened to a catcher brand name, and yes, they make Oreos. This place must have good karma.

We’re keeping a sharp eye out for celebrities. Jill’s friend -- who wants to be known as “Medusa” -- will probably consider the weekend a bust if there are no celebrity sightings. She’s opted for a power shopping trip downtown while we explore Chelsea.

If a food market is a chef’s fantasy, our first stop would make a kid’s sweet tooth jump for joy. We stop at Eleni’s, resplendent with walls painted a shocking Barbi-pink and cake stands stacked with hundreds of luscious cupcakes in a full palate of playful pastel colors. It looks like the inside of a Crayola Crayon box.

We wander through the Italian market. I pick up bags of chestnut flour, almond flour and hazelnut flour for future pastry projects. On a healthier note, Jill purchases Farro wheat.

The halls are lined with burnished brick and stone, and are reminiscent of a journey through a Gotham City railway station. There are shops and stands tucked into every nook and cranny. A crowd of people are learning to do the tango in the lobby outside the Food Network studios.

We step into a seafood shop that smells of brine where we marvel at the ice mountains crowned with lobster, blue fish and flounder fillets.

I’m obsessed with the cupcakes. We stop back to Eleni’s and indulge in a few bites of mini-cupcakes with swirled pastel tops, just to tide us over.

We head out of the market and nearly collide with actor Victor Garber. He looks intense -- a man on a mission. Medusa is going to be awfully upset that she abandoned us to go shoe shopping. We set off in the direction of Greenwich Village. There is a Mac and Cheese - the specialty at Deborah on Carmine Street -in our future.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Julia Lives on DVD!

Did you ever fantasize about cooking side-by-side with a famous chef? Ever wish you could hear a tidbit of kitchen wisdom straight from the lips of a renowned gourmet? We all have our "Food Network" fantasy pairings, which is probably why Iron Chef is so successful.

The DVD series from PBS, "Julia Child! The French Chef" is the real deal, an up-close and personal glimpse of a true artisan at work, not to mention a fascinating view of the earlier days of television, before fancy camera work, editing and special effects.

There's nothing fancy here -- it's just Julia and classic French cooking techniques. The food isn't always picture perfect, but it sure is genuine. The camera work is sometimes erratic, and there are long stretches (that would probably be cut by a production team today) where all you see is Julia's capable hands rythmically massaging butter into brioche dough or beating pate a choux into shape. Sometimes, it's even downright messy. Tell me that isn't true to life! I was captivated by long stretches of Julia using her physical tools, namely her hands. No mixers, no gadgets. Just her hands.

"Julia Child! The French Chef" DVD series is a culinary time capsule for any food lover and an extraordinary personal look at a master at work.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Windy City Comfort.

My colleague, Splint McCullough is a mess.

We’re on assignment in the Chicago area and he’s looking a bit like the travel companion from hell. Splint’s allergies have invaded and are doing a shock and awe number on his head, leaving him a pitiful mass of sniffles and snorts. On top of that, he’s penniless. A moment of confusion back home means he’s without his wallet forcing us to rely on my fragile credit line to temporarily bankroll all our expenses.

We sit in snail-like traffic on route 90, pointed in the general direction of Chicago, but going nowhere.

“You’d hardly qualify for road warrior of the year,” I point out, somewhat unsympathetically.

“Just shoot me,” Splint moans.

“You need comfort,” I suggest, softening a little.

“Would that be Southern Comfort?” he asks, perking up.

“I’m talking about a square meal, the kind of comfort that only comes from Mom’s home cooking.”

“Brilliant idea, but my mother lives in Texas,” Splint snaps peevishly.

We finally arrive in the city, and Splint perks up a little, referring to points of interest like a double-decker tour bus guide.

“You’ll notice that traffic is not so bad here and the roads are much wider than what you would find in New York,” he points out. “That’s the benefit of having the city burn down and having to rebuild all the main roads. What was the name of that cow, by the way?”

Despite this surge of energy, Splint is still a bit surly. Our quest for the restorative powers of food lead Splint, me and a young colleague we’ll call “Babs Gordon” to the South Water Kitchen on N. Wabash Avenue. The restaurant’s slogan – “Reminiscent of a day when the kitchen table was the cornerstone of American cooking.”

We descend a steep and dramatic staircase worthy of Norma Desmond, to a cavernous sunken dining room that is about ten feet under sea level. There is warm brown paneling, copper highlights and charming sepia murals of old time Chicago on the walls. The decibel level is manageable, and accented by an occasional baby screeching. Oversized ceramic salt and pepper shakers are the size of bell clappers.

We settle into a booth and are given light and tangy cheese bread as a starter. Splint orders an Olympic-sized bowl of tomato soup, while I request the winter beet salad, and Babs gets the Caesar salad. Splint says his soup is so rich it tastes like a pasta sauce. My beets are swabbed with horseradish and buried under a mountain of peppery watercress. Babs is pleased with the generous shavings of parmesan that accent her salad.

The main courses arrive and Splint is beginning to seem like his old-self again. He dazzles us with stories of his culinary triumphs in the kitchen, from that ‘extra special something’ you can achieve by adding a dash of dried basil to scrambled eggs, to the time he accidentally added cumin to his oatmeal instead of cinnamon. (“I was sleepy,” he protests.)

Our entrees arrive and Splint revels in his Chicken and Handmade Buttermilk Dumplings with Peas and Carrots. “It looks like a pot pie that exploded,” he chuckles with glee. Indeed, the dumplings are the size of hockey pucks.

Babs orders fresh duck breast from Indiana with a bright orange peak of whipped sweet potatoes. I dig into a stack of roasted salmon and shitake mushrooms in a rich balsamic glaze balanced atop a cake-like slab of sweet cornbread. The flavor combination is satisfying and sublime evoking the ocean, the forest and the heartland. For a little over-the-top indulgence, I sample a side of creamy baked mac and cheese and the kitchen table symbolism is all but complete.

For dessert, the usually mild-mannered Babs opts for a chocolate banana martini, with a dramatic curl of banana garnishing the rim of the glass.

Splint acknowledges that he is now full of comfort, to the point where the buttermilk dumplings are weighing a bit heavy. Yet he still finds room for a serving of blueberry sorbet, because blueberries are a good source of antioxidants. Still there comes a point where all that comfort and healthy ingredients can overwhelm even the most seasoned of diners.

“I’m so stuffed, these antioxidants are killing me,” says Splint.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Spring is reluctant in the Northeast. Daffodils and crocus shiver and symbols of new life struggle to be seen and heard, yet eggs are abundant in my kitchen as preparations for Easter commence.

The egg is legendary and full of wonder, a miracle in a translucent oval shell. Egyptians thought their deity created the egg from the sun and the moon, and Phoenicians told a story that an egg split in two at the beginning of time to form heaven and earth. The egg is a symbol of renewal and rebirth in the Christian faith, consumed devotedly during the Easter season and used to decorate traditional Easter breads and confections throughout Europe.

Made of 14 percent protein with abundant vitamins and minerals, the egg is often described as “incredible,” and frequently referred to as the perfect food. Eggs are friends to bakers and chefs, and are ubiquitous within the kitchen lending viscosity to sauces, golden hue to pasta and custards, richness and luster to breads and extraordinary rise to cakes and soufflés.

On a cold and almost wintry Sunday, my Easter Brunch celebrates pastoral flavors and aromas and the renewal we long all for. Throughout, the egg offers its miraculous nourishment to our gathering and our spirits.

A Sparkling Pear n’ Cranberry Cocktail tickles the nose with the luscious nectar of pears and sparkling wine and a sweet, woodsy whiff of Rosemary.

Mom brings Carrot Salad, vivid with raisins and crunchy sunflower seeds, in honor of that floppy rabbit associated with this day.

French Toast “Eiderdown” with Herbs & Bacon from “Michael Roux Eggs” is a vibrant rite of spring, a kitchen garden of fresh eggs, tarragon, and chives, bursting with soft golden layers of bread, nutty cheeses and herbaceous vitality. The eight eggs give the “eiderdown” a vivacious lift from the center of the baking dish.

With four eggs, The Ricotta Cake is creamy but still light, perfumed with just a hint of fruity olive oil and tangy lemon zest.

Hope springs eternal and what chef lacks hope when he has a basket of fresh eggs close at hand?

Happy Easter, Happy Spring!

Michael Roux Eggs
Food Lover’s Companion, Third Edition, Sharon Tyler Herbst
Larousse Gastronomic

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 01, 2007

How Do I Love Thee, Lady Baltimore?

It began as an innocent flirtation. It was the name that first caught my attention – Lady Baltimore Cake. It was regal, slightly aloof, with a mid-Atlantic pedigree. I wanted to know more. Who was this mystery woman?

Way down under in Australia, The Old Foodie dipped into her culinary archives and told me a tale, perhaps a century old. I had to acknowledge that this Lady Baltimore had a past and there had been others before me. Born in the pages of romantic fiction and immortalized in a Charlestown tea room, her history was intricate, her story far-reaching.

The flirtation becomes infatuation. I pour over cookbooks craving a glimpse of her name. I note numerous admirers from Beard to Rombauer and Becker. There are even rumors of a Lord Baltimore, but I am not deterred by potential rivals. I must have her. Nothing will prevent me from sweet unity with my Lady Baltimore. She has won my heart, and I will conquer hers.

I cannot sleep and I cannot eat. She is my obsession. I will create the Lady Baltimore of my dreams. Like all relationships, this one is complex and the Lady requires great attention. I carefully cream butter and sugar and dotingly separate eggs, whipping the whites into a froth.

I chop figs and raisins to create her tantalizing filling, a sensual potion with a provocative dash of cognac and toasted pecans, a nod to her Southern roots.

My heart beats with desire as I spread the succulent filling between three perfect layers, and finally wrap her in glossy, alabaster frosting. My Lady Baltimore is complete – pure, statuesque, alluring, elegant and every inch a lady.

At last, my search is over. For some time, I can do nothing more than gaze upon her radiant countenance. I feel clumsy and foolish. My words falter, but something is aroused deep within me and I am drawn to her. I succumb to the temptation.

How do I love thee, Lady Baltimore Cake? Let me count the ways. Frothy and light with a playful splash of vanilla, you are delectable. I relish the silky feel of the icing, the demur and tender snowy-white crumb, the dewy richness of raisins and figs and the bold hint of cognac.

Alas, there are other suitors who clamor for this Lady’s affection, and our time together is all too brief. Before the day is over, she has vanished, and I am wistful. I have changed. There will surely be others who will try to seduce me but none are likely to approach the rapture, the ecstasy, the sweet bliss of my woman in white, the luscious Lady Baltimore.

With thanks to The Old Foodie for telling me the story!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved