Being a humanities nerd, I almost failed high school chemistry but molecular gastronomy has ignited a new passion for science I never knew I could possess. Molecular gastronomy blends physics and chemistry to transform the tastes and textures of food into new and innovative dining experiences. My curiosity about this interesting way of eating was piqued when I discovered a TV show called Heston’s Feasts. In the show, (my not-so-secret celebrity chef crush) Heston Blumenthal, owner of Michelin-starred English restaurant The Fat Duck, experiments with exotic ingredients and tests unusual cooking techniques to prepare magical feasts for celebrity guests.
Through shows like Heston’s Feasts and Masterchef Australia, molecular gastronomy is gaining momentum in mainstream cooking and transforming the way we eat and cook at home. Sous vide machines (a water bath with precise temperature control) are the fastest growing kitchen appliance to be sold for the home, so I've heard.
In the name of scientific research, I decided to turn The Food Avenue test kitchen into a science lab and create an ambitious sounding and visually appealing dish – raspberry panna cotta with mango caviar and strawberry soil. Basically, a fancy pants panna cotta.
But I wanted to see if I could do it without too many weird ingredients or gadgets - so that others could recreate this dish, fairly easily.
This dish has three components and requires three recipes – one for panna cotta, one for the mango caviar and one for strawberry soil. Click on the links below to go to the separate page for each recipe.
The dish sounds like a fair amount of work, but you can pre-make every component of the dish and if you have dinner guests, all you have to worry about is plating it all up!
Raspberry panna cotta This is an Italian dessert made by simmering together cream, milk, sugar and gelatin to create a rich and creamy pudding. You can use any panna cotta recipe, but I used the Chamomile panna cotta recipe in Heston Blumenthal at Home and infused the cream with a raspberry tea rather than chamomile.
Strawberry cornflake soil This is the crunch element of the dish and will add a textural contrast the creaminess of the panna cotta. It’s absolutely addictive and dangerously easy to make. I adapted the recipe from Christina Tosi’s Cornflake Crunch from Momofuku Milk Bar and used strawberry-flavoured milk powder instead of regular milk powder. Then, using my mortar and pestle, I crushed the Cornflake Crunch down to a “soil-like” texture.
Mango caviar (gelification) The weirdest ingredient out of all three recipes is in this one – and it’s not even that weird. It’s agar agar and you can find it in pretty much any Asian grocery store. Agar agar is really cheap, comes in powder form and sets any liquid at room temperature. It was as easy as boiling a tiny amount of agar again with mango puree and letting droplets of the mixture fall into cooled vegetable oil. This process created tiny little solid balls of mango puree, which served as a visually appealing decoration. I also tried the same process using beetroot juice and the deep purple colour was stunning against the white panna cotta. The flavour and colour combinations are endless! While I was happy with the visual aspect, the texture wasn't quite like caviar because there was no bursting liquid. I think the next step will be to try the spherification technique, which will mimic the "bursting" effect of real caviar.
I’m still a while away from recreating lickable wallpaper and meat fruit but I had so much fun with my first attempt at molecular gastronomy that I won’t be surprised if I soon begin showing up to work looking like a mad scientist!
Have you done any experimental cooking in your kitchen? I'd love to hear about your molecular cooking attempts - hit me with any disaster or success stories!