To See a World in a Grain of Dry Ice

Heston Blumenthal, chef at the three-star Fat Duck in Bray, England, is one of the leaders of the molecular gastronomy movement, in which chefs look to science and technology for their cooking innovations. Not only is Blumenthal enamored with the technical gadgets he might use in the kitchen—ultrasound guns, filters, vacuums, and the like—but he is also a self-styled scientific investigator of food, seeking to augment the folk wisdom of the kitchen with hard numbers. For example, how does the dry matter in a particular type of potato, for example, affect its performance in the deep fryer?

The self-taught Blumenthal is also, of course, an imaginative chef, and the effect at the dinner table is a sumptuous meal of party tricks: frozen mousse poached in liquid nitrogen; a mysteriously whole but boneless mackerel, poached salmon in a gelled envelope of licorice, and the like. I had the opportunity to eat at the Fat Duck two years ago, and I found it both extraordinary and an altogether different category of eating. It was more like a five-hour Cirque du Soleil performance inside my mouth.

Blumenthal’s latest book, In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics (Bloomsbury USA, 2006), has recently been released in the United States. It is not a primer on how to make a tasting menu like that served at the Fat Duck, which would be nigh impossible for the home cook. Instead, it is a companion book to his BBC program of the same title. The book’s premise, and that of the television show, is Blumenthal’s quest to “perfect” eight classic comfort-food dishes: roast chicken and potatoes, pizza, steak, fish and chips, bangers and mash, spaghetti Bolognese, Black Forest cake, and treacle tart with ice cream.

Redefining Perfection

Blumenthal knows that messing with the word perfection is tricky, and he doesn’t take a universalist’s view with his recipes—they are perfect only insofar as he has customized them to his own ideals. In fact, he suggests that his concept of perfection is rather more akin to a very refined version of novelty, “which brings me to the second meaning of perfection: honing a recipe through continuous experimentation. Trying out ideas and then revising and retrying them until you’ve got something special, unique.”

Perfection thus redefined, the book allows readers to witness Blumenthal’s own quirky, obsessive creative process. It isn’t journalistic, of course, so we don’t quite witness raw process, but one does get a glimpse of the curious amalgam of inventiveness, scientific gestures, and theatricality that Blumenthal so winningly achieves.

For each food, he goes on a telegenic fact-finding mission: to Lyon to learn about Bresse chickens and chat up Georges Blanc; or to New York to eat and talk steak in a strip club with Jeffrey Steingarten, and to check out a simulacrum of a British fish-and-chips place in Greenwich Village. All of this voyaging is, in theory, fodder for his master recipes. A note of warning: This book is a slog for nonfoodies—hell, even for foodies. Blumenthal should have been better edited, and he comes across as tedious and pedantic in some of his essays. There are also only so many people who will get as worked up about the starch and water contents of various British potato varieties as Blumenthal in his full gentleman-scientist mode:

“It was exciting to find a potato that outplayed Maris Piper. But equally exciting to learn something about the limits of dry matter: all the high-percentage potatoes (Russet Burbank, Lady Rosetta and Bruise) had turned out too tough, and it seemed that as little as 0.5 per cent [dry matter] could make a huge difference to the end result. It was an area that clearly deserved more exploration in the long term.”

The recipes, on the other hand, are fun to read: to see where Blumenthal sticks to classic techniques (glazing carrots in a pan with butter, just like the rest of us mortals), and where he feels the need to embellish (gelling butter with agar to top a dollop of mashed potatoes, aerating chocolate with a vacuum bag). Blumenthal has tried to rein in the gadgetry so that home cooks can follow his methods, but these are recipes for the real enthusiast and the well equipped. You may already have the whipped cream canister (for fried-fish batter and chocolate mousse), the paint gun (for chocolate spray-painting), and the vacuum-seal bags (for bubbly chocolate) lying around from previous molecular gastronomical experiments, but I don’t.

More Is Better

On the whole, Blumenthal is a maximalist, happier in a crowd of ingredients than in a handful. I tried out his recipe for spaghetti Bolognese, which, at eight hours and four pots is one of the easiest recipes in the book. There is much of the classic ragu in Blumenthal’s recipe—it is basically an all-day braise, as it should be, of carrot-onion-celery soffritto, pork, oxtail, wine, and milk. Later in the day, the meat is supplemented by a fried-tomato concassé. But Blumenthal enhances his sauce with surprising herbs and spices (coriander, clove, star anise, and tarragon), and loads it up with umami boosters (Parmesan cheese, caramelized onions, oaky Chardonnay, Worcestershire sauce, and even nam pla). Just for good measure, he calls for a stick of butter at the end (a sure giveaway that his mentors are French, not Italian). If there is one thing an eight-hour slow braise does not need, it’s a stick of butter. The meat flavors were wonderful in the sauce, but Blumenthal’s ragu tasted too sweet to me.

Blumenthal is open about his deep interest in nostalgia. What he seems to be aiming for with these remastered recipes, as well as with other dishes, is a layering of nostalgia with the novel: new textures, new intensity, new refinement. It’s an ambitious goal, and of course one that’s fraught with difficulty. When one is dealing with those reptilian, limbic memories of smells and flavors, one can refine too much, and lose the originating nostalgic force. Blumenthal acknowledges this issue—he frets that his spaghetti Bolognese might be too far from the average Briton’s perception of the dish—but in the end he runs with it. Similarly, I was little tempted to make his roast chicken (and, in fact, I couldn’t: My oven will not cook at a low-enough temperature). I’m sure Blumenthal’s brined, blanched, blotted, six-hour-roasted, skillet-browned, and pan-juice-injected bird was a marvel. But in the photograph of the finished dish, the bird was pale on all but the breast and tops of the thighs. The thing that I most value in a roast chicken, the lip-greasing crackly skin, seems to have been sacrificed in favor of succulence. To each her own perfection, I suppose.

That said, it is interesting to see when a traditional method needs a modification, especially when the deviations are really not all that high tech. For example, he cooks a large steak, bone in, for 18-odd hours at 120 degrees, before dividing it in two and crusting it up in a hot pan. I like the sound of that. Now I just need to arrange a sleepover with a friend who has a fancier oven than mine.

The ice cream recipe (paired in the book with the treacle tart) follows, with my notes. It’s one of the simplest in the book.

Heston Blumenthal’s Ice Cream

For the Jersey milk ice cream:

500 ml Jersey whole milk {Getting milk from a Jersey cow can be tricky. Fortunately, my friend K. has a tiny Jersey cow dairy. I have noticed that raw Jersey milk is also available at my local Whole Foods; I’m not sure whether that’s universally true, however.}

300 ml double cream {OK, so we can’t get double cream (with a considerably higher fat content than heavy cream) very easily. For comparable fattiness I could have used mascarpone, I suppose, but I went with heavy cream here.}

80 g unrefined caster sugar {Caster sugar is finely granulated; fortunately, I had unbleached, superfine organic sugar lying around, the only ingredient that did not require a special trip.}

100 g glucose syrup {This, it turns out, is super-strength corn syrup, and I found it at a kooky, cluttered cake-decorating-supplies store.}

1 kg dry ice {Blumenthal argues that home ice cream machines just don’t freeze cold enough, and in place of the hard-to-handle liquid nitrogen he uses at the Fat Duck, he recommends that his readers try dry ice, which is –80°C, for home ice cream making. To get it, I grabbed a cooler and headed out to a company that sells liquid nitrogen and welding supplies, along with dry ice. They were very nice—my guess is they don’t get too many women customers.}

Preparing the ice cream:

1. Put the milk, cream, sugar, and glucose syrup in a pan, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and the glucose is liquid. Set aside.

{Let it cool or not? I wondered, but went ahead and processed it without cooling.}

2. Put on safety gloves… {fleece snow gloves in my case; all my leather gloves are covered with garden dirt} ...and protective goggles, and open the packet of dry ice. {my dry ice came in nuggets} Wrap it in a tea towel and then a hand towel… {I don’t have tea towels or hand towels, so I went with a dishtowel and a bath towel} ...and smash it into a powder with a rolling pin. (Make sure that there are no large lumps of dry ice, as these will remain as lumps in the ice cream.)

{Easier said than done—first of all, I found the rolling pin too mild-mannered for the job. Eventually, I took to bashing at the ice with a stainless steel pestle I have in my kitchen. After 15 minutes of crushing, I was still finding lumps, which I picked out as best I could.}

Unfold the towels and shake the powdered dry ice into a glass bowl.

3. Pour the milk and glucose mix into the bowl of a food mixer. (From now on, you need to work reasonably rapidly to avoid freezing up the equipment.) Shake a little of the dry ice into the mixing bowl and, using the mixer’s paddle, mix on the first (lowest) speed until the dry ice dissolves and its vapour clears.

{This instruction directly contrasts with the instruction to work rapidly, since it takes a long time for the vapor to clear. And things seemed to be seizing up rather quickly. I love my KitchenAid mixer and would be seriously peeved if this little experiment caused my machine to break. That said, this step is fun, if a little harrowing. After one enthusiastic addition of dried ice, the mixture boiled and bubbled all the way to the rim of the bowl, threatening to overflow like a clogged toilet, before subsiding at the last minute.}

Continue to add dry ice a little at a time until the ice cream has absorbed all of it. (It may be easier to do this in two batches. It’s important to add the dry ice in small quantities to prevent the ice cream from going grainy.)

{My ice cream froze before all the dry ice could be absorbed. I wondered, had I not powdered it enough? Had I gone too slow? Too fast? I was left with a vein of powdery dry ice in the ice cream, and scooped around it.}

Once the dry ice is absorbed, beat the ice cream on the second speed until smooth.

4. Quickly scrape the ice cream out of the mixer and into a container. Store in the freezer until required. It is best eaten within 24 hours.

{I met with only partial success here. Each bite I took was a little tentative, because I didn’t want to get into a pocket of dry ice. Maybe if I had batched it, or stopped when I thought the ice cream looked done, it would have worked better. I suspect that with practice I could get the process down just right, but unless I am looking for a way to entertain someone in the kitchen with all the vapors, I can’t really imagine trying too hard. That said, Heston is right about a few things: Temperature makes a bigger difference to ice cream than I’d imagined it would—it adds a distinct extra thrill. (I’m less fond of the carbonated prickles one gets from the sublimating dry ice.) Also, he’s right about Jersey milk: I applaud my friend K’s hard-working cows, and an egg-free ice cream mix like this really lets you appreciate the milk in question. Next time I’d just throw it in my Cuisinart ice cream maker and settle for slightly warmer ice cream. It might not be perfection, but at a certain point, I just have to leave well enough alone. Which is why I don’t run a three-star restaurant.}