I grew up in a city that didn’t have a candy shop. We had one-cent candies and nerds you could buy at the convenience store, but the closest I got to an actual candy shop was the store in the Halifax airport that sold 20 flavours of candy canes when I was 10 years old.
Now, however, at 26 (come tomorrow), I understand the simile. I remember the first time I walked into a real candy shop in Toronto on Yonge Street and stared in awe as though I’d just walked into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. That simile would have been lost on me at the time – Johnny Depp not yet having graced the big screen with a golden ticket – but the same feeling of giddiness descends on me every time I walk into a brightly coloured store piled high with pez, jawbreakers, specialty chocolate bars and gummy worms.
Which is why when Chef Johnny Zhu from the Modernist Cuisine Cooking lab where I was all last week started pumping out homemade olive oil and peanut butter and jelly gummy worms (recipe in the upcoming Modernist Cuisine at Home – they call it “MCAH” for short), my opinion of the lab as a candy-filled Wonka-esque land of plenty was reinforced.
“What do you want to make?” asked head chef, Maxie Bilet (now “former” head chef, as last week he decided to end his 5 year run at the lab). I didn’t come to the lab expecting to get to make anything I wanted, but if someone tells me I can make anything my little heart desires, I’m going to take advantage of the offer. And I’d made a list, just in case…
Bilet looked it over, considering my options of tamari caviar for salmon belly nigiri, egg yolk sous vide custards, mackerel with marshmallows. Why marshmallows? I’d read an article on Chef Jean-Paul Lourdes and his combo of black sesame seeds, whipped lychee, mustard ice cream, and mackerel, and I’d forgotten where I’d heard about it. I thought it was a different article I’d read or something I’d heard about foods that go together on a molecular level. Mackerel and black sesame and lychee all sharing some common trait that brings them together in a single delicious mouthful. But no, I have a poor memory, and the dish’s inspiration was all Lourdes‘, from whose kitchen I would surely be ousted for imperfectly slicing coconut noodles into thirds, as I did that first day at the Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab.
Besides, a kitchen that pops out pasta noodles made from geoduck twisted and coated in a rich rotary evaporated chicken essence or uni mousse, I figured the sky was the limit.
And the sky really was the limit. I figured I’d had to add lychee juice to the grocery list, but instead I just thawed some from one of the freezers. I don’t think there’s a spice they don’t have here, except asafoetida. They might have that but I didn’t see it. Instead I saw dried elderberries and pomegranate seeds, chamomile powders, different kinds of blueberry, raspberry and pear vinegars (every kind except white wine), more dried peppers than a Mexican dry goods store, and container after container or starch, emulsifiers, gums, and other things that end in “ase” and “llulose.”
In the course of this recipe for lychee marshmallows I discovered that:
1. Induction burners are incredible. They heat so fast and I burn myself significantly less with them.
2. Digital weigh scales – also incredible. Adding ingredients directly to a bowl is easier than measuring in separate cups. If you have 100 grams of sugar in a bowl and need to add 40 grams of water, you just pour from any receptacle until the scale reads 140. Simple. Just pour carefully. And tiny scales are perfect for powders and other slightly intimidating powders that end in chloride and may cause skin irritation. They do, however, make fabulous pickles.
3. Kitchen aid mixers are great. I already knew that, but it’s nice to have it reinforced in a professional kitchen. My friend says they’re an engagement present or wedding present, but with neither of those celebrations looming, it was nice to be spoiled for a week.
There are a few things that could have contributed to wrecking my marshmallows. All I had to do was bloom the gelatin and add some sugars and thickeners, whip to stiff peaks, cool for 4 hours, and slice. I was even skipping the powdered chorizo step. And replacing passionfruit with lychee shouldn’t have made a difference. But I used agave in place of fructose, which resulted in a softer gel. And maybe my peaks weren’t stiff enough. It wasn’t the Kitchen Aid’s fault, clearly.
But when I sliced into my marshmallows after letting them set in the fridge overnight, and tossing them with potato starch and black sesame seeds (the former to try to keep them from sticking to each other), they weren’t being very cooperative. So I salvaged about 10 and chucked the rest of the marshmallow blob in a few half sphere molds. They made good slices, though, and with my sous vide mackerel (63.3 degrees Celcius with a little salt and black sesame seeds for 30 minutes) and grainy creole mustard (pommery with a little Worcestershire and tabasco), I’m a Jean-Paul Lourdes convert. The sweetness of the lychee with the acidity of the mustard and savoury fat of the fish…mmm…each flavour popping in when you least expect it, and the marshmallow re-hitting with each chew…
I also massacred the mackerel a little. Can you massacre something a little? 30 seconds on each side in a cast-iron skillet on an induction burner was all they needed to brown, but they were so tender after sous vide cooking that they fell apart. Maybe a little too tender? I don’t think so. Just messy. So the plating is ugly, but it’s not going on a restaurant menu anytime soon.
Turns out that in my candy shop there’s mackerel. Modernist marshmallows and mackerel – a contemporary Willa Wonka’s factory full of spherified tamari caviar and sweet and savoury wonders.