Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Restaurant food, like everything else, has its share of fads and trends. Beef Wellington, vichyssoise and chocolate soufflés are certainly delicious, but they don’t see much action these days, being relegated to that dusty shelf in the back, labeled “old school.”

I don’t know who was the first person to discover the secret to making faux caviar using alginate, but Ferran Adria of El Bulli is credited with being the first to serve it in a restaurant. He and others abandoned the cherished trends of the day and struck out using foams and powders and science to propel their food. Of course, this was more than a decade ago. What started with just a few restaurants has now propagated its way through the food world, changing how we look at what we eat.

My boss bought a caviar making “kit” a few months ago, on a whim. He played with it once or twice, without moderate results, and so soon we both forgot about it, going back to things we were more confident with. It wasn’t until recently that I got the motivation to play around with it again. During a lull in the dinner service, a co-worker and I decided to try making some spheres. I suggested espresso, seeing as I had a coffee-flavored dessert on the brain. In no time, we were brewing espresso, reading and re-reading the vague recipes and instructions, and assembling a caviar-making station.

Sodium alginate is a hydrocolloid; it’s similar to gelatin or agar agar in that it creates a molecular web that suspends water molecules. Unlike gelatin or agar agar, though, it does not need heat in order to be dissolved and dispersed. Instead, it will begin to set in the presence of calcium. To make the caviar, then, it is simply a matter of dripping small drops of a liquid containing the alginate (in my case, the coffee), into a water bath spiked with a little soluble calcium. On contact, the calcium begins to “cook” the coffee mixture, forming a skin around a liquid espresso center. The longer the caviar balls are left in the calcium bath, the thicker the skin will be. Once removed from the calcium bath, the balls get a quick dip in a regular water bath to wash off any calcium that may be hanging around before they are ready to serve.

The texture certainly added something to the final dessert; a Vietnamese Coffee Tart, with Condensed Milk Chantilly, Miso Caramel, and Espresso Caviar. They were like little tapioca pearls that added an extra kick of espresso flavor. It’s not a technique that I plan to use often, but certainly one to keep in the repertoire.

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