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May 03, 2009

Sweet potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon

If this were baseball, I'd have to shut down the blog, because three strikes and I'm out, kids.

Strike one: my pineapple glass was so not glass.  Strike two: my rosewater envelope was so not an envelope.  And now?  What is so lovingly and beautifully featured on page 366 of the Alinea cookbook was rendered by yours truly to not even come close to resembling the final product, let alone County Fair-worthy food-on-a-stick.

And the worst part?  Wasted bourbon.  Almost a whole bottle down the drain, literally.

Actually, that's not the worst part.  The worst part is the fact that even though I think I'm a pretty smart person with decent intuition and deduction skills, I still can't figure out where this all went wrong. I mean, I have a few ideas about one or two of the steps, but overall?  This isn't a difficult dish, in my estimation and I hate that I couldn't successfully pull it off.  In fact, I kind of don't even want to write this post.  I would rather just put up the photo of the final result and have you all ridicule it, heckle it, give it a wedgie, dip its braid in an inkwell, boo and hiss and tell me to pack it in and call it a day.

But I know that Bea Arthur would want me to put on a floor-length vest, hold my head up high and get on with it already, so I will.  Except for the floor-length vest part.

This dish, ultimately, is supposed to be a cube of bourbon gel, a cube of sweet potato gel, and a cube of brown sugar candy, all tempura batter-dipped and deep-fried on a stick of cinnamon that you then light on fire and blow out so that you can eat this dish while inhaling the aroma of cinnamon.  I think it sounds like the most perfect thing, don't you?  Let's kick things off with the bourbon gel.

I poured 600g of bourbon (nearly the ENTIRE BOTTLE, the rest of which I just drank straight after the final plating *snort*... and you, too, will snort when you see how loosely the term "final plating" truly applies, but NO PEEKING... stay with me) into a saucepan and added the 7 grams of Kelcogel JJ gellan gum.

Not to go off on yet another tangent, but doesn't JJ gellan gum sound like the name of a detective from the 70s, or perhaps some old-timey investigative reporter with a "scoop" card in the brim of his hat?  "Yeah, I'm J.J. Gellangum, see?  Gonna bust this joint wide open, see?"

Oh, let me also note that I started this dish at 7:30 in the morning... not the ideal time to be smelling bourbon, but let's return you to your regularly scheduled program.

So, bourbon, gellan gum, saucepan.  I mixed it with my immersion blender until it was fully incorporated, and brought it to a simmer over medium-high heat.



I poured it into a shallow pan and waited for it to cool to room temperature, at which point, it was also supposed to set.


After five hours at room temperature, it still hadn't set:


So, I put it in the fridge, thinking THAT might help.


After two hours in the refrigerator, it was still the consistency of loose, runny, hospital Jell-O.  With all apologies to the Jell-O corporation for the comparison.

So, I put it back in the refrigerator and figured I'd check it again when I was ready to do the final step.  Oh, I love my optimism...

During the first bit of bourbon-gel-non-setting time, I made the sweet potato gel.  Or, as I like to call it, Hey, Velveeta!!

First, I peeled and cut 500g of sweet potato into slices and let them simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes in some cream with some salt.


How sad that the only high point in this whole process was that I was able to eyeball and select a sweet potato that was just two grams shy of the 500g requirement.  Boo-ya!


I strained the potatoes (reserving the cream) and put them in the blender with 300g of the reserved cream, and blended on high speed until it was smooth:



I'd been soaking 10 gelatin sheets in cold water, so I squeezed out the water, and added them to the sweet potato purée, which I'd poured into a mixing bowl, stirring to incorporate everything:


I then poured this mixture through a chinois and onto a plastic wrap-lined sheet tray, which I put in the refrigerator to set, per the book's instructions:


While the sweet potato gel was setting, I made the brown sugar candy -- again, something that was supposed to sort of solidify into something I could cut into squares. 

Into the saucepan went water and yellow pectin, which I blended like mad with my immersion blender until it had dissolved and was fully incorporated.  Then, I blended in the sugar and citric acid and brought it to a boil.  Once it had begun to boil, I carefully added the Trimoline, glucose, and brown sugar, and brought it all to 230 degrees.


I poured the mixture into a plastic wrap-lined baking pan (my sheet trays were otherwise engaged)


The brown sugar candy, when I touched the surface of it after two hours, seemed firm and ready to be used.

At this point, the bourbon gel had been trying to "set" for nearly nine hours, and still, it was runny and not even close to being anything that could be cut into 3/4" squares.  So, I abandoned that part of the dish and figured the sweet potato and brown sugar on their own would be pretty good on their own, so I soldiered forth with hope, optimism, and a sense of pri.... CRAP.

Look what happened when I tried to cut the brown sugar candy:


I put it in the fridge for an hour or two, and nothing.  Not quite runny, but looser than marmalade or chutney. 

Even after being in the refrigerator, it stayed the same consistency, and the solid globs that you see above only got more pronounced (and they weren't there when it was poured in as a liquid)

At this point, I had to decide what to do next.  Cry?  Cut the sweet potato stuff, which had gelled nicely, into squares and slather the brown sugar gel on it before tempura battering it?  I tried that with one, and it just wouldn't stay on and got even gloppier, so I just decided I'd batter the sweet potato squares and deep fry those, adding a little extra dusting of brown sugar as I pulled the hot, fried, tempura-battered sweet potato out of the oil.  That's how I'd make sure it tasted like brown sugar.  Yeah, that's the ticket.

So, I speared my gelled potato cubes with a cinnamon stick (of course, the sweet potato gel set exactly as it should have), lightly dredged them in flour, then the tempura batter, and cooked them for three minutes in canola oil that had been heated to 375 degrees, per the book's instructions.

Yeah.... sounds easy and straightforward doesn't it?



Dude, that ain't County Fair-worthy, let alone Alinea-worthy.

Toothless carnies can make this, but I can't? 

And, see what I mean by "Hey, Velveeta!!"?

Let's have a side-by-side comparison to further illustrate how badly this turned out:



I didn't even bother to light the end of the cinnamon stick on fire before tasting this, because I was certain I would've caught my hair on fire, so I decided not to tempt fate and just took a bite of the crispy tempura batter and gloppy, melted sweet potato.  What did it taste like?  Well, I don't know, because I burned the roof of my mouth.



Except, I guess it kind of is.  Sort of.

But it's really, honestly, frustrating.  I feel like my kitchen is cursed.  Maybe it's the tonka bean from Capricorns (sic) Lair that put some sort of creepy hoodoo mojo on my house.  I think I'll spend the next few days waving veal bones around while singing like Karen Carpenter, or burning sage and chives and wafting it into the corners of the kitchen... some sort of culinary exorcism is in order, methinks, because this scourge must stop.  I have to get my groove back.  Lieutenant-Detective-Investigative-Reporter J.J. Gellan Gum, you let me down.

Up Next: Could be Oyster, ginger, steelhead roe, beer; or, might be Licorice Cake, orange confit, anise hyssop, spun sugar.

Resources: Sweet potato from Whole Foods; David's kosher salt; gelatin sheets, trimoline, and glucose from L'Epicerie; Organic Valley heavy cream; Maker's Mark bourbon; gellan gum, yellow pectin, citric acid from Terra Spice; Domino light brown sugar; cinnamon sticks from H Mart; tempura batter ingredients from my pantry.

Music to Cook By: David Bowie; Let's Dance.  Sort of prescient, because I need to go put on my red shoes and dance the blues right about now.

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Sorry to see this happened to you. On the bright side, though, I see that you do have some Hoegaarden in the fridge... things can't be all that bad.

Your poor soul.....how frustrating. And the waste of the bourbon.....can think of a hundred cocktails it coudl have gone into. Better luck next time. Are you going to try this one again??


Poor Carol. :( That's the problem with working with these arcane substances; if something goes wrong, it's impossible to know how to fix it. It sounds to me like you needed more JJ gellan gum in the bourbon - but how would you know that? And could you put it back in the pot and melt it down again? or would it break, or be unmeltable? Impossible to know. Maybe you should try repeating one of the successful recipes to break the bad streak. :)

Wasted bourbon on Kentucky Derby day no less! Now that's what I call alcohol abuse. I wonder if you could take the bourbon, mix with with some sugar and poor it over mint ice cream for a mint julep dessert... I dunno, maybe that's gross.

Hey Carol, I see you have Hoegaarden witbier in your fridge! Nice Belgium beer, good to see some of our products out there. Hope you had one the wash-down the bourbon failure! Anyhow, keep up the good work, so inspirational (already bought French Laundry, Alinea now shipping, ready to give Under Pressure a try...)!

Huh, what kind of bourbon did you use? Maybe a higher proof bourbon interfered with the setting of the gel.

Despite (or sometimes because of) the occasional screw-up, I really enjoy reading about your journey through this book. I hope to make a few of these recipes myself some time.

Terra Spice will sell to individuals? Their website made it seem like they only did wholesale. I'll have to send them an email or something.

"biere blanche". At first, I read that to be "beurre blanc", and wondered why the Germans were making it.

Thanks for posting the failures though. Makes me feel like less of a schlep.

I feel so sorry for you! But I have to admit this post made me feel a little better as I just failed my Ceasar sallad dressing and my ex-mother in law is coming to join me for dinner any minute!! I really enjoyed "French laundry" and now Alinea, keep it up!

PS Maybe Scotch whisky" would have done the job? :)

oh, man. that bites!

maybe your bourbon was higher proof than what the Alinea crew uses? (that would explain the softer set). And it looks like your sweet potato was actually a yam -- wonder if that would make a difference. But jeez, I can't imagine putting all that effort into a dish like this (and the last two) and having it go sideways. So sad :(

So'right, dont worry. Go buy some of your favorite cookies and eat one in the car before you even get home. Then eat the rest of them when you do.
Shake it off, and get back in there- Rub some dirt on it. The bad ju-ju only exists if you let it.
The NEXT one is the one...go kick it's ass.

There has been a hex on my kitchen as well. The fridge broke last weekend right before my entire family descended on our home for a birthday party, the granola I made on Friday went from just under golden brown to Kingsford briquette in the blink of an eye, the pancakes this morning were battery in the center, and I have scorched 2 loaves of bread in the last week. Maybe it's that there's not ENOUGH witchy stuff in our kitchens? I'm going to get out the sage and have a cleansing smudge, except I fear I might set the house on fire.

After seeing comments about the proof of the alcohol affecting how the gelatin sets, I did a quick Google search and found this site that experiments to see how much vodka could be put into a batch of Jell-o shots. It definitely makes a difference... too much alcohol will lead to problems just like you had.


Carol, I feel like you've just started a new trend by saying "but Bea Arthur would want me to..." and for that, I love you.

Good for you for having ambitious enough goals to fail wildly every once in a while! Perhaps allow yourself the pleasure of revisiting a previous success from this book or French Laundry to recoup? No doubt there have been plenty you've looked forward to making again. More cream of walnut soup perhaps? :D

If it makes you feel any better, I burned matzoh ball soup last month - on Passover. Yep, I burned SOUP. Didn't realize the broth had evaporated and then the matzoh balls fused to the bottom of the soup pan. I cut off the burned part and served in new broth. They had a very mild and genuinely pleasing smokiness about them.

Maybe this calls for soliciting readers' wildest culinary failures post - that would be fun!

This post demonstrates most ably why so many of us are in love with your efforts. The dramtic arc; comedic misteps; the denouement. It just makes it so easy to realize - hey, I can do that.



Don't feel too badly...I must tell you that we had this course at Alinea in january, and as fabulous as it sounds, we all agreed it was a big miss. Not one of us enjoyed it. It rather tastes like a marshmellow left too long in a campfire. Another part of the problem, which i think Grant really needs to address, is that the tables are so close together in his space. We smelled burnt cinnomon all night as that course was brought to table after table...and let me tell you...some of our courses really didn't go well with burning cinnomon! The smell really played havoc with our taste buds. By the time the old stick made it to our table, we were over the smell. It really affected our experience. The holder the potato comes on was really cool, though.

When it rains, it pours.

Well Carol, you do make us laugh for sure. How did it taste after it cooled down?? I made the yolk drops with asparagus with my boyfriend this week and they turned out great!

Was it particularly humid or damp? While growing up and learning to cook certain foods from my great grandmothers and grandmother I remember several lessons about foods that could not be cooked when it was too damp or humid because they would not set up properly.

I loved reading about the dish - even though it did not turn out as you wished.

Keep up the good work.

I feel for you! and the worst part is that we don't know why???? it did not work.
Personally I did not like this dish at all , the presentation is beautiful but the textures bah! I liked the pb@j and even the pheasant (similar??) better.
the pineapple glass you should try again.
I had tried other dishes and often only one or two of the components of the dish turned out great .I still think you can do it.

I was really looking forward to your attempt at this because (unlike Carey above) this was one of my favorite dishes from my dinner back in April. The crips batter seemed almost filled with sweet potato goodness that oozed out. Once I get all the ingredients, I'm looking forward to giving it a go.

Oh man! The thought of wasting perfectly good bourbon makes me want to cry. As much as I have oogled over my Aliena Cookbook I have decided to leave it on my coffee table as food porn.

I commend you for having the good sense to not try and salvage the bourbon gel.

I'm thinking that some bordelaise sauce followed up by lobster and pea shoots might put a smile on your face =-)

Very long time reader. (since FLAH) but not a big commenter.
I am however, a wine/spirits broker. Don't know what happened with the rest of it, but you definently had the wrong bourbon.
It sounds like you needed a high sugar content, and went for something else.

I do so enjoy your posts, and I wish I had the time to attempt half of what you do. As it is I have to settle for eating there while other's are cooking.

Please don't get discouraged. You inspire so many people.

I'm starting to wonder if it's not you at all. I read along with your French Laundry adventure so I know you're pretty damn serious in the kitchen. I love Alinea but I'm wondering if perhaps the book could have benefited from some external editors after all?

cue Kate Bush..."Don't Give Up..."

Carol - If I had a dollar for all the FAILS! in the kitchen (personally and professionally), I'd be living quite comfortably right now. I think a few of the previous comments are spot-on; high-sugar content can wreck it, high-alcohol content could really wreck it.

Nonetheless, you're still a STAR! Keep on cookin!

Carol - anyone can fail while attempting a recipe, especially a recipe as difficult to pull off as this. But you do it with flair, wit, and an unmatched style all your own.

Keep rolling. When you nail these recipes it gives us all hope that it indeed can be done at home. We're in your corner. :-)

Looks like someone else had a similar issue with the Bourbon. The suggestion from the Alinea chef (I think Dave Beran is/was at Alinea) is to use Agar instead since that's what they did at the restaurant in subsequent iterations of the recipe. Maybe Kelcogel is temperamental?

Here is the thread about it:

Phil wrote:
> When you nail these recipes it gives us all hope that it indeed can be done at home.

... and it's true, but I would go even further: even failing at things and making it public offers guidance and hope to those of us who would dare to follow.

I noticed that the 'Sweet and Sour Spectator' was able to produce pineapple glass, with the aid of an acetate sheet and a dehydrator. They say Sir Edmund Hillary pointed at Everest after a failed attempt and said "You've grown all you are going to grow, but I'm still growing!"

Hey, you get a million Big Gold Stars for even trying these dishes. I have absolutely no patience with these sorts of recipes, and you are totally my hero for hanging in there.

Way too many variables and too many new techniques going on at once for me. But it makes stupendous blog-reading!

Tempura fried potatoes, bourbon gel and brown sugar cubes on a stick??!! You are brave!!

The wasted bourbon (is 7 am *really* too early for bourbon on Derby Day?)....the absolute frustration...I feel for you. Having made (and still sometimes make) jello shots, you can over-do the alcohol content and will get mush (tasty mush, but mush nonetheless). My vegetarian daughter makes them with agar and has a lot of luck getting them to set with a higher amount of booze per shot.

Still giggling over the post - you're an inspiration to all of us so keep up the good work and don't lose heart! It really is funny...

Burn sage. Dried (put it in a bowl so you don't have flaming embers of sage floating around your kitchen) works as well as fresh. Wave in around the corners of the kitchen (start at the door and walk counter-clockwise and end at the door and toss the burning sage out the door when finished) telling the icky Capricorns (sic) Lair evil forces to get lost. (Don't ask me how I know this works... really.). Maybe it's the work of the forces of bad use or non-use of apostrophes and the possesive?

I think you've been jinxed ever since you gave in and got a juicer.

Carol, I found this blog via Michael Ruhlman's page, LOVE HIM. And as soon as I realized you had done French Laundry at home, I stopped reading this. I am at the part when you just went to Portland. I LOVE LOVE LOVE your blogs. I am looking forward to reading this one.

You're still my hero. :) I won't even deep fat fry anything and I've declared candy-making verboten after too many sugar burns.

Burn some sage, and have a cocktail, and even if you produced nothing edible, you still produced an eminently readable blog installment!

I still think this book has typos , somethings got lost in translation (editing).

Better luck next time, chef. At least in the end they looked alright, and certainly looked fine for those of us who don't know what they're supposed to look like anyway!

Hey at least you picked one of the best songs ever to act as soundtrack. can we call this a foul, not a strike?

Carol do NOT burn sage unless you want your house to smell like marijuana for DAYS. It is funny for a bit and then it is TERRIBLE. The caps are merited.

Speaking of kitchen failures, did you know that crock pot stoneware does not go on top of the stove? I didn't. Luckily my stuff is electrical and I cleaned away most of the soup liquid that spilled out when the stoneware cracked. The remaining soup was still tasty.

I felt really sorry for what had happened!
By the way, I like the song!
Thank you for sharing!

to Anita:

As per your comment about sweet potatoes vs. yams, I thought I should point out that what we in America commonly call yams are, in fact, sweet potatoes. True yams are another tuber that is very starchy and not at all sweet, and hard to find in most grocery stores. So it is unlikely that Carol used a yam by mistake.
You will also note that the sweet potato portion turned out fine.

better luck next time carol.

Your song may have been Bowie, but everything after the Bea Arthur mention was read with the Golden Girls themesong in my head. I have no doubt the mojo will come back, it always does. Plus, if this is a baseball analogy post, your batting average is still hall of fame worthy.

This reminds me of the book Don't Try This at Home, which is all about professional chefs mistakes in the kitchen, I think you may have the goings for Volume II.

Great post, sometimes I think I like it better when you do fail, it makes the rest of us feel human.

I am so glad you posted this. It definitely makes me feel better about all the things I messed up in the kitchen that didn't look ANYTHING like this picture in the cookbook!

Carol, Carol, Carol do you not realize that Mercury is retrograde? Put down the emulsifier and walk away from the cutting board. The planet will realign on May 30th.

We had this at the restaurant last week, and it was wonderfully unforgettable. So it's worth the occasional failure.

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