How excited were we, after having experienced our very first molecular gastronomical meal on a recent trip in Mexico, to hear about a contest sponsored by Simon & Schuster, Inc. to prepare a dish of our own in the spirit of elBulli and to celebrate Lisa Abend’s new book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season In The Kitchen At Ferran Adrià’s elBulli. Well, I can tell you from the moment we found out about this contest, we started investigating all the different techniques and reading about all the different additives and their reactions with incredible focus and utter fascination. It was as though we were back in college and in Chemistry class. But this time, paying very close attention and longing for an “A”. If you would like to join in the fun, or want to check out the book, go here.
Ferran Adria is one of the most influential and impactful chefs of our times. He created a new culinary language and taught us how to yearn for a higher level of cuisine and how to experience pleasure with every bite. He transformed our thinking and the way we understand food. By breaking down barriers and by using simple foods, masterpieces are born out of that desire to create the extraordinary from the ordinary.
And what could be more ordinary than a street food that millions of people eat all the time? So for our first foray into this world extraordinaire called molecular gastronomy, we choose to recreate Chicken Satay. Hoping to construct an indulgence that would satisfy the staunchest of critics, we knew that each element must remain true to its original purpose. The sauce is a sauce; the salad is a salad. And the chicken, well, it’s still a chicken. Albeit, in a much more interesting form.
To begin, we thought of all the components of a chicken satay as their own entities and then how they work together. The chicken is usually marinaded in a spicy sauce, served with a peanut dipping sauce and slices of cucumber. What if we gave that spice sauce it’s own stage and power to shine. We wanted to create a layer of spice in both the physical and metaphorical sense. It was then necessary for the chicken become a vehicle for that layer of spice after it had been gellified. Thus, we transformed chicken on a stick into a chicken mousse that could be eaten as single bites.
Chicken Satay Mousse
1 lb chicken breasts, diced into 1” chunks
3 egg whites
2 tsp. lemongrass juice
2 cloves garlic
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2” slice of ginger, peeled
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. cumin
1 ½ tbs. dark soy sauce
1 ½ tbs. fish sauce
1 tbs palm sugar
1 cup heavy cream
Place all of the ingredients except for the heavy cream into a food processor and process well, stopping periodically to scrape down the sides. While running, slowly add the cream. Process until smooth.
Transfer the smooth mixture to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a half hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 6×9” pan well. Spread the cooled mousse into the pan with a spatula. Cover with a buttered piece of parchment paper (butter side down) directly on the top of the mousse.
Place the pan inside a larger pan and create a water bath by adding water up the sides of the pan about ½ way.
Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes. The internal temperature should be 165 degrees F minimum before taking it out of the oven. Remove from the water bath and cool in the refrigerator.
Now it was time to create the Spice Layer using the Gelification method. For this, Agar Agar, a vegetarian gelatin made from seaweed, is used as the gelling agent.
Chicken Satay Spice Layer
2 tbs. dark soy sauce
2 tbs. fish sauce
¼ cup Mirin
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. turmeric
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbs. lemongrass juice
1 tsp. grated ginger
1 tbs. palm sugar
In a small saucepan, over medium heat, simmer all of the ingredients to blend the flavors, about five minutes. Pour through a very fine mesh sieve into another small saucepan, discarding the pieces of ginger.
This should yield about 140 ml of liquid.
To this, add .98 grams of powdered agar agar or about 1/3 tsp. Mix well and bring to a boil for 30 seconds. It must boil continuously for 30 seconds.
Pour the hot liquid into a small pan prepared with a silpat mat on the bottom. You must work quickly as it gels almost immediately upon contact with the pan.
For our first try, we used a cookie sheet lined with a silpat but the sauce ran too much and while trying to spoon it towards one side, it solidified and became a gelatinous mess!
Finding small loaf pans was ideal and sacrificing a silpat to make strips for the bottom appeared to be the best solution. (And a good excuse to buy a new mat!) We poured the sauce into the pan about ¼” thick and set it aside to cool and completely solidify.
The result was a beautiful translucent layer of spices that actually shimmered in the light and looked as if it were flecked with gold.
Having mastered Gelification, we moved into the realm of spherification. In spherification, a small sphere, much like an egg yolk, is created that consists of a thin gelled membrane and a liquid center. The membrane holds its shape until broken and the yolk runs out. It creates a burst of flavor in your mouth. You allow the sphere to sit on your tongue and then pop it for the liquid explosion. It’s a grand surprise!
The only difference between Spherification and Reverse Spherification is the placement of the Sodium Alginate. If the Alginate is in the liquid of the sphere, it is called Standard Spherification and the sphere will continue to gel over time. If the Alginate is in the bath it is called Reverse Spherification and the gelling will stop with the formation of the outside membrane.
We created the Peanut Sauce using Reverse Spherification.
Begin by creating an Alginate bath and a water bath.
Combine 1 liter of water with 6 grams of sodium alginate in a large deep pan. Blend thoroughly and set aside until ready to use. In another large pan, add plain clear water. This will be your water bath. Also set aside.
Satay Peanut Sauce
¾ cup coconut milk
1 tbs. red curry paste
2 tbs. fish sauce
3 tbs. white sugar
3 tbs. peanut butter, creamy variety
In a small saucepan, heat the coconut milk over medium heat. Stir in the curry paste and combine well making sure to break up all the pieces. When you see the red oil simmering to the top add the rest of the ingredients and mix until combined and smooth. Continue cooking about 5 minutes more.
Measure out 100g of the warm sauce and mix in ½ tsp. calcium lactate. Combine well. (Reserve remaining sauce to use another time. Keeps refrigerated for up to three days.)
Using a large spoon filled with the sauce, slide the sauce off and into the alginate bath to form a ball/sphere. This takes some practice and some patience to achieve beautifully shaped balls/spheres. Let the ball rest in the alginate bath for 10 minutes. Retrieve the ball/sphere with a slotted spoon or a skimmer and dunk into the waiting water bath. Remove to a large plate to drain and rest.
The spheres are relatively fragile and will burst if bumped or shaken too hard with the skimmer. One way to alleviate this is to leave them in the alginate bath longer, but this solidifies the sphere more and reduces the amount of liquid in its center.
Once you have created many spheres, you can set them aside in the refrigerator until ready to use. They can be rewarmed in a warm water bath when ready to use.
Watch how we did it:
Lastly, we created the cucumber salad that is traditionally served with satays using standard spherification method. We created lovely green cucumber caviar.
250ml cucumber juice made with 1 large cucumber, unpeeled and sliced into large chunks
½ tsp Sodium Alginate
1 tsp Calcium Chloride
In the bowl of your food processer, place the unpeeled cucumber and process. Pour the cucumber into a fine mesh sieve and strain it for the juice. Measure out 250ml juice. (Reserve the cucumber pieces to make cucumber finger sandwiches at a later time. In true elBulli form, nothing should be wasted!)
Mix the Sodium Alginate with the cucumber juice and blend with an emersion blender until fully dissolved. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill. The liquid needs at least half an hour for the froth to dissipate some and for the liquid to become semi clear.
In a large bowl, dissolve the calcium chloride in cold water and set aside. In another large bowl, just add plain water. This will be your water bath.
In the bowl with the alginate, use a fine mesh sieve to catch the caviar. Fill a syringe with the cucumber mixture. Holding it close to the surface of the alginate water, expel the liquid, drop by drop. The cucumber droplets will form small balls the size of caviar in the water.
Using your sieve remove the balls from the alginate bath and place them to rinse off in the water bath. Drain and place into a small bowl until ready to use.
Watch how we did it:
Cut a piece of chicken mousse that has been heated and is warm into a square. Slice a similar square out of the spice layer to fit the chicken piece. Set it gently on top of the chicken and then place half a roasted peanut in one corner.
In the bowl of a spoon or other small dish, place a sphere of peanut sauce. Fill a small glass, such as a shot glass with the cucumber caviar.
Serve immediately to wild applause.
At the beginning of this project, the naysayers thought it would prove too difficult for a home cook, but as we found out, it was really very simple. (Even the children made caviar!) The four components for the satay turned each bite into a magical experience and the results were truly beyond even extraordinary. I’d say we passed Chemistry class.
Our Youngest Daughter Makes CaviarNote: This post is being used as a consideration in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice recipe competition. If you’d like to take an inside look at elBulli, check out both the contest and the book HERE.