Spring Thaw

Drinking in the sunshine with a bottomless thirst, tiny shoots burst forth with renewed vigor after a long winter’s slumber. Awakened by the warmth, heads still full of dreams, they blossom with intoxicating brilliance. Splashing color like splattered pant across cracked sidewalks, breaking through the earth’s crust in empty alleyways, everything is fresh and new again. Anything is possible.

Spring is the season of renewal, a shift toward forward motion that I can feel acutely in my bones. At last, I can throw off heavy knit blankets and rise with the sun again. At last, I can take deep, restorative breaths, not sharp and shallow gasps, to fill my lungs with the scents of freesia, jasmine, and lilac.

Inspiration abounds; from farmers markets to urban foraging, there’s no shortage of new, novel, inspiring ingredients. One unconventional source has haunted me for years, though, like a promise unfulfilled. Back when I aspired to a career in fine pastry, crafting fancy plated desserts in Michelin-starred kitchens, El Bulli positively captivated me. Creating dishes based upon nature but crafted with startlingly sophisticated, scientific methods, it was like nothing I had seen before. I spent all my allowance money on obscure, out of print cookbooks, trying to decode their magic. That’s where I first came across the concept of “Deshielo,” also known as “Thaw”

Deshielo was inspired by the ice melting in spring with the first shoots sprouting out of the frozen blanket. The description of the dessert itself is as daunting as it is confounding. “Coffee and licorice sponge and yogurt gelatin with concentrated lemon sorbet, rose sugar, and frozen water powder. Different herbs and flowers blooming in matcha tea sugar.”

Many years later, modified, simplified, my rendition has finally blossomed into a reality. Cake is now the feature, infused with robust coffee flavor and the licorice-y perfume of fennel. Crisp cacao nibs contrast sharply to the soft, moist crumb beneath, but that’s only the beginning. Lemon granita lends a unique chilling effect which draws out the citrus elements of the brew. Matcha sugar, a study in balance between the bitter tea leaves and pure crystalline sweetness, peeks out from this frigid topper, crowned with a glorious shoot of fresh mint, a few fallen candied rose petals at its side. Yes, it’s quite a lot of flavors all in one bite, many that would seem to conflict on paper, but they coalesce into a stunning springtime celebration on the plate.

It’s not quite molecular gastronomy, far more humble than fine patisserie, but a genuine, passionate ode to the spirit of the season.

Continue reading “Spring Thaw”

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Around the World in 80 Plates: Buenos Aires, Argentina

These past few weeks of constant culinary travel really did wear me out, so I can only imagine how the chefs actually making the trek must feel! After a much needed one week intermission, we’re back on the road again, pounding the pavement in search of new edible inspiration. Today, our path brings us to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Buenos Aires, alive with bright colors and lively music through all hours of the day, immediately brings to mind tango dances and beautiful beaches, but desserts? Not so much. Luckily, there does seem to be a universal craving just beneath the surface, and everyone from school children to their grandparents can agree that dulce de leche is pretty much the unofficial sweet spread of this capital city, and beyond. Whereas peanut butter or nutella might be commonplace on breakfast toast in the US, you’re much more likely to find a sticky jar of caramelized milk jam on the table here. It truly shines, of course, when it comes time for dessert, and that often means wedged between two delicate shortbread cookies in the form of alfajores. Though found in many parts of South America, there’s a good amount of variation between cultures, with some containing no gooey dulce de leche filling at all. Argentinians win the honor of calling Alfajores their own, by my own estimation, since they firmly hold the title as the world’s largest consumer of those addictive sugary sandwiches.

[Glass platter provided by Steelite]

Still in the grip of a killer heat wave back at home, all I can think about are chilled, frozen, or otherwise cooling treats, so ice cream is still front and center on my mind. Whipping up a dulce de leche-flavored creamy concoction with the help of my coconut milk-based Dulce de Coco from Vegan Desserts, the rest of the plated dessert came together effortlessly. The plated version pictured above includes a fluffy crown of whipped coconut creme and long ribbons of toasted coconut flakes, calling to mind the optional dip in coconut flakes that some alfajores take, and harmonizing beautifully with the subtle coconut essence of the ice cream. No need to get so fancy if the heat becomes too much to bear; Just slap a scoop of the ice cream between two cookies, roll in coconut flakes like the original, and you’re good to go.

Check out Around the World in 80 Plates, this Wednesday 10/9c on Bravo, to see if the remaining chefs also indulge in dulce de leche, or stick to the savories in Buenos Aires.

Ice Cream Alfajores

Dulce de Coco Ice Cream:

1 Cup Dulce de Coco (Vegan Desserts, page 213)
2 1/3 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Shortbread Cookies:

5 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine
1/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/8 Teaspoon Almond Extract
3/4 Cup Cornstarch
1/2 Cup + 2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
2 – 3 Tablespoons Full-Fat Coconut Milk

Garnish:

Additional Dulce de Coco
Whipped Coconut Creme
Lightly Toasted Coconut Chips
Mint Leaves and Nasturtium Blossoms or Other Edible Flowers (Optional)

Beginning with the ice cream, be sure to have the dulce de coco prepared and fully cooled in advance. Whisk it into the non-dairy milk in a medium saucepan, and vigorously beat in the cornstarch as well, ensuring that all lumps of starch are broken up and incorporated. Set the pan over medium heat on the stove, and whisk occasionally, until it comes to a full, rolling boil. Turn off the heat before stirring in the vanilla and salt. Let cool to room temperature before thoroughly chilling the mixture in the fridge, for at least 3 hours. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When finished spinning, smooth the still soft, freshly churned into silicon hemisphere molds for a plated presentation, or simply transfer to an air-tight container. Store in the freeze to set up solidly; at least 5 hours, to be certain that it won’t immediately melt on the plate.

Meanwhile, to make the cookies, preheat your oven to 325 degrees and line two baking sheets with silpats or parchment paper. Set aside.

In your stand mixer, beat the margarine briefly to soften, and then cream it together with the sugar. Beat thoroughly until homogeneous, and then add in the zest and both extracts. Mix to incorporate.

Separately, whisk together all of the remaining dry ingredients in a large bowl. Incorporate them into the stand mixer with the speed on low in two additions. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl as needed, to ensure that everything is being mixed in smoothly. Finally, drizzle in the coconut milk 1 tablespoon at a time, just until the dough comes together when pressed. It should be a fairly firm, almost crumbly dough, so don’t go crazy with the added liquid. If it’s too sticky, it won’t roll out properly.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, and use a rolling pin to flatten it out to about 1/8th of an inch in thickness. Cut out rounds with a 2 3/4- or 3-inch fluted cookie cutter, and transfer the shapes to your prepared baking sheets. Bake one sheet at a time for about 15 minutes, until the tops of the cookies no longer look moist, but not so long that they look browned. The finished cookies should remain very pale.

Cool completely on wire racks, and chill further before applying the ice cream.

To make a simple ice cream sandwich, just take one shortbread cookie, plop a scoop of the ice cream on top, and finish it off with one more cookie. You can wrap them individually and store them in the freezer, to be doled out as desired.

For the plated presentation, start by piping out a few decorative dollops of coconut whipped cream on top of one cookie, and artfully sticking a handful of the toasted coconut chips into it. Place a second cookie on the plate, and pop out one hemisphere of solidly frozen ice cream. Stack the ice cream puck on the plain cookie, and carefully balance the decorated cookie on top. If it threatens to slide off, lightly melt the top of the ice cream dome with a hot knife or metal spatula, just enough to flatten out the peak slightly. Finally, garnish the plate with additional dulce de coco, mint leaves, and nasturtiums if desired.

Makes 6 Plated Desserts, with Extras for Nibbling

Printable Recipe

For participating in this competition, Bravo has compensated me for my time, but all recipes and opinions are solely my own.