Huckleberry, soda, five flavors gelled
When I was in second and third grade, my friends and I would jump rope on the playground at recess. One of the songs, or rhymes, we'd jump to went like this:
And then, the girls would start chanting the alphabet as they swung the rope around overhead faster and faster, and you'd have to jump at hot-pepper speed, and inevitably, you'd miss a jump of the rope and the letter of the alphabet on which you did that was supposed to reveal the first initial of the boy you liked. I wasn't necessarily a boy-crazy little girl back then, so instead, I remember focusing extra-hard not to mess up on any of the letters of the boys who were really gross, lest my friends would think I liked that stupid, icky boy, or something. I mean, ew. Who knew jumping rope could be so stressful and potentially damaging to my 7-year old public image? [/weird kid moment #413,671,994,677]
Before making this dish, I'd never tasted a fresh huckleberry. I knew they were plentiful in the Pacific Northwest and in a few other regions of the country, but they are not commonplace here in the mid-Atlantic; meaning, they're not something you find easily at the farmers market or grocery store. They're not something found all that readily on menus here in town, either. So, I did some research online and called around and found that I could order some from producers out west, but it chapped my ass to think about paying anywhere from $40 - 100 for a few pounds of huckleberries, which would've arrived frozen... not that that's any big deal, but I wanted to know what fresh, off-the-bush huckleberries smelled like. I wanted to hold them in my hands and take a deep, olfactory-orgasmic whiff... I wanted to see if they tasted like a sunset. I wanted to know how the tastes and smells changed with heat. So, while I knew I could make some sort of berry substitution to make this work, I didn't want to give up that easily on my quest for fresh huckleberries.
However, just to be safe, I put out a notice on my Twitter feed asking for huckleberry substitutions (just blueberries? Blueberries with some raspberries and tarragon or star anise thrown in?) in case I couldn't get my hands on some, when lo and behold, my friend, Andy Little, chef at The Sheppard Mansion in Hanover, PA, texted me with this message: I have fresh huckleberries coming in tomorrow. Want some?
I think my reply was something along the lines of: DUDE. TOTALLY. YES. ZOMG. WTF. WHERE DID YOU GET HUCKLEBERRIES? HOLY CRAPSTICKS DUDE. WOOOOO-HOOOOOOOO!!!
I'm quite the professional business communicator, as you can see.
I called Andy, and he called his produce maven, Kathy Glahn, to verify and she said she'd have 3 pounds of huckleberries for him (me!) the following day. Andy had wanted to work with huckleberries this summer, so he asked Kathy to grow them for him, and she did. (love that!) So, the next day, I hopped in the car and drove 90 minutes to Hanover to spend some time with Andy and see what he was up to in the kitchen, and pick up my huckleberries. I love spending time in Andy's kitchen. The smells are intoxicating, and the quality of his final product rivals some of the better restaurants I've eaten in. Having grown up in south central PA, I know it's home to some of the most delicious and abundant produce, and it's such a treat to know a chef that can make the "food of my people" that much better.
Huckleberries in hand, I drove home to start working on this dish. The berries sat on the passenger seat of the car, and it was all I could do not to eat all of them right away. I tasted 3 or 4 of them in the kitchen with Andy before I left and loved how rich and fresh and dark and acidic and sweet and barely-a-whisp-of-anise-y they were. They were so, so ripe, so I had to start working with them that night.
I put the huckleberries in a saucepan with some sugar and lemon juice and brought it to a boil over medium heat.
I lowered the heat and let them simmer for about 12 minutes, until the berries had really released their juices:
I strained the cooked berries, discarded the solids, and set aside the juice to let it cool to room temperature:
After the juice had cooled, I remembered that I needed to set aside 300g for the huckleberry strips. The rest went into the siphon canister and into the fridge for the soda portion of our program during plating.
To make the huckleberry strips, I gently warmed the juice, and then stirred in some gelatin sheets I'd soaked in water for five minutes. I stirred the mixture until the gelatin had dissolved, poured it onto a small sheet tray, and put it in the refrigerator to set.
There was one more step I needed to do before going to bed -- start the first layer of the gelee.
Having grown up eating layered Jell-o "salads," I had high hopes for this dish. The layered Jell-o dishes from my childhood (red-white-blue, strawberry with banana slices, or rainbow layers with fruit cocktail and walnuts strewn throughout -- I know, barf) have become hilarious fodder among my cousins, and my one cousin, Ann, and I regularly send each other vintage Jell-o cookbooks when we find them at book sales or estate sales.
This dish was, to me, going to be a far tastier and far more refined Jell-o mold, so I figured my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage came in handy in not just the huckleberry procurement, but would also, surely help guide me in the making of this gorgeous layered gelatin creation.
The first layer was a hazelnut gelee. I toasted the hazelnuts over medium heat for about 10 minutes, and set aside 8 of them for garnish when the dish was complete.
The remaining nuts went into a large pot and were joined by some water, skim milk, sugar, and salt. I brought that mixture to a boil, then turned off the flame, blended everything with an immersion blender, then let the mixture cool to room temperature before putting it in the fridge to cool overnight. I'm not much of a hazelnut fan. I don't really love their taste (although, I don't hate it, either), but the way this mixture smelled as it warmed and then cooled? Divine.
The next morning, I strained the hazelnut liquid mixture and threw away the solids.
While the gelatin sheets were soaking, I warmed the now-strained hazelnut liquid, then stirred in the gelatin until it was dissolved. I strained the liquid again.
I lined (and built up the sides of) a square pan and poured 350g of the hazelnut liquid into it, and put it in the fridge to set.
While the hazelnut layer set, I started working on the chocolate layer.
The book suggests using milk chocolate for this layer, but I used a combination of dark-bitter and semi-sweet. Pure milk chocolate, to me, tastes like what licking a 9-volt battery must taste like, so I went a little darker.
I chopped 275g of chocolate, put it in a bowl, then poured some boiling water over it. I stirred it gently with a rubber spatula (careful to not aerate it) until the chocolate was melted. I added sheets of already-soaked gelatin, stirred until they'd dissolved, strained the liquid again, and poured it on top of the now-set hazelnut gel.
While that sat in the fridge to set, I watched an episode of Mad Men, started a load of laundry, and emptied the dishwasher, and did some minor pantry organizing. Why? Well, because I cheated on the next layer of gelee, thus giving me some free time I otherwise would've spent working on the smoked cream layer.
The book suggests actually smoking the half-and-half in a smoker with smoldering hardwood chips for an hour. And, since I don't have a smoker, I was going to ask to use a friend's smoker, but they were on vacation, and I didn't just want to waltz on into their backyard without permission while they were gone and use anything remotely related to fire.
So, instead, I added six drops of Liquid Smoke to warmed half-and-half before stirring in the gelatin, then layering it on top of the chocolate layer.
The next-to-last layer was a fennel stalk gelee. I blanched, ice-bathed, then pureed fennel stalks (adding some sugar and salt after straining the puree.
I added the gelatin sheets, stirred until they were dissolved, then poured the same amount -- 350g -- of this liquid atop the now-set smoked cream layer. I forgot to take a photo of this layer, but I'm sure you can imagine what it looked like.
The final layer was a lemon verbena gelee. I bought and planted lemon verbena this spring, solely for this dish, so I walked out into the garden and plucked the leaves fresh off the plant.
I brought some water and sugar to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolved the sugar, then added the lemon verbena leaves to steep for 10 minutes. I find most lemon verbena-scented things (soaps, creams, etc.) way too overpowering, but this steeping lemon verbena was just lovely. It made my whole house smell clean and fresh, and reminded me of how my garden smells after a light rain, and when the sun begins to dry the droplets on the plants' leaves.
I strained the liquid, added some salt and stirred until it dissolved. Then, as with every other layer in this dish, I added already-soaked gelatin sheets, stirred until they'd dissolved, then poured 350g of this liquid on top of the now-set fennel layer.
I let the gelee stay in the fridge for 3 hours, just to ensure everything was set.
The excitement of working with huckleberries for the first time, combined with what I knew was my innate ability to produce the perfect Jell-o mold, ramped me up so much I was giddy in the hours leading up to serving this. One of the families who usually comes over for tastings was on vacation, but their nieces and their boyfriends were housesitting, and they read the blog (hi Emily, Laura, Chris, and Tyler!) and were excited to be visiting when I'd be doing an Alinea dish... so I was thrilled that this was the one they'd be tasting. It sounded delicious, and it would be the prettiest one I'd ever made.
I mean, I'd been obsessing over this photo for weeks, and knowing, just knowing I could make my layers as perfect as this when it was removed from the pan and sliced in the manner that creates this presentation:
Beyond beautiful, no?
I'm sure you'll agree then, that I did a damn fine job of rendering mine to almost exactly, 100% resembling the original:
You know what? Life's too short to get pissed off about the whole dang thing splorging all over the place when it was removed from the pan, so I got out my serving spoon, made sure there was a little bit of every flavor in each person's bowl, and then added a bit of the huckleberry gelee (which I'd done in a separate pan before, remember?), along with the individual garnishes:
And you know what? It was AWESOME. Presentation? Not so much, but flavor? Really, really good, if I do say so myself. Everyone's bowls were licked clean, and some even went back to the cutting board to serve themselves some more of their favorite flavor gelee (my favorite was a toss-up between the chocolate and the fennel).
To try and redeem myself, I brought out the huckleberry soda and a group of glasses -- figuring we could do a toast to food with "inner beauty" -- and made a big dramatic move of getting ready to squirt the soda out (it's a fun party trick that people just love!), and, um.....
No fizz, no squirt, no nothing, really. Just a few drops of some sort of vampire remnants, and it just stopped working altogether. I'd discharged the CO2 cartridge earlier in the day and kept the soda chilled, so I'm not sure what happened... other than giving us an opportunity to have a laugh and spend some more time outside in the fading sunlight on a warm summer night..
It's been said that Mark Twain came up with the name Huckleberry Finn because he'd heard the fruit, huckleberry, was "of lowly, rustic origination and resists cultivation" much like the character he was writing about.
Kinda like me with this dish, huh?
Up Next: Octopus, eggplant, beans, soy
Resources: Huckleberries from Kathy Glahn via Andy Little at The Sheppard Mansion; Domino sugar; lemons and fennel from HMart; hazelnuts from the TPSS Co-op; Organic Valley milk and half-and-half; gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; Noi Sirius chocolate; David's kosher salt; lemon verbena from my garden; BLiS smoked salt.
Music to Cook By: Keane; Perfect Symmetry. I love the song "Better Than This," and I wish I could remember where I first heard it. Nevertheless, it snuck into my brain and stayed there for days, so I had to download more music from Keane. Some call them Brit pop, but I think it's more rich than that. It feels like a-Ha, some Beatles, a bit of early-80s U2, and a pinch of something else... I can't put my finger on it. Maybe New Radicals without the depression and angst? I just know I like it. I like cooking to it, and I like driving long distances to this and two of their other albums: Under the Iron Sea, and Hopes and Fears.
Read My Previous Post: Kuroge Wagyu, cucumber, honeydew, lime sugar