Michael Laiskonis is at the forefront of contemporary pastry. He is the executive pastry chef at famed three Michelin starred Le Bernardin in New York, James Beard award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007, and was featured on “Iron Chef”, “Martha Stewart Show”, etc. Michael generously documents his experiments in molecular gastronomy and creative processes in a blog, Workbook which is a paragon of excellence, in both thoughtfulness and content. While much of his writing may be orientated towards restaurant professionals, it is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the intersection of science, pastry and art. So when I perused the latest catalog from the ICE and saw he would be teaching this session, I immediately stopped what I was doing and registered for his class (or two!).
(Left) Michael Laiskonis tempering chocolate; (Right) “les herbes du jour”: basil, tarragon, rosemary and thyme
Admittedly, I write this post with a vague sense of apprehension, conflict, questioning. I feel apprehension over the thought of writing about molecular gastronomy, of which my experience is non-existent. Michael Laiskonis drew molecular diagrams and and presented various percentages or equations for the perfect ice cream, somewhat reminiscent of watching an Alton Brown show. I was simultaneously taken back to chemistry classes at Stuyvesant High School in New York, where I struggled to grasp a scientific concept while secretly marveling at the demos. I feel conflict over the dichotomies of the much-debated role of “molecular gastronomy” in light of my current reading of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, where the deconstructionism of the modern diet and somewhat anti-science stance seem at odds with this movement of molecular gastronomy (I may get in trouble here and could expound upon this at greater lengths, but will perhaps save this for a later date). And I question the direction of this little blog o’ mine, as really neither a food critic nor professional chef, wondering – is this blog really a reflection of me – what has my life morphed into? At times, I have felt that I am not quite this and not quite that, never really following a predetermined path. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that I am what am, where I am, that I am the cumulation of my experiences, and that is just fine.
Roasted Pineapple, Sesame Pain de Gênes, Rosemary Ice Cream: I loved this black sesame seed cake with almond paste and can’t wait to try this again on my own. The white rectangles are neutral caramel – a sugary, pineapple dust that fuses to create the ethereal crisp that tops the dessert in the upper left hand photo.
In my experiences taking recreational classes at the ICE, there has always been such a diverse range of students, but there was a roster of more serious students this time, from culinary school graduates to chefs at The Modern, Bouley Bakery and other establishments. I was concerned I might be in over my head, especially after seeing ingredients like trimoline (an invert sugar used to retain moisture), locust bean gum, and glucose atomisé (powder) listed in the recipes.
Vanilla Parfait, Tarragon Meringue, Grapefruit Sorbet: The green disks are tarragon meringues “baked” in a dehydrator; there was also a separate batch baked on silpats in ovens, but those meringues were more brittle and difficult to work with. The dessert was tart and refreshing, the flavors were so nuanced and refined.
Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta, Basil Seeds and Foam, Strawberry Pearls, Lemon Purée.
The glassblower in me still holds an affinity for bright, shiny things and translucence, so I was a bit assertive or ambitious in choosing to do the above dessert, which entailed creating strawberry pearls. The ingredients in the pearls included fresh strawberry juice and agar agar (a gelling agent derived from seawood). The salmon roe-resembling pearls certainly have a great ‘ooh’ factor, and are incidentally rather addictive. Another dessert component that resembled caviar, or the black specks on the spoon, was actually basil seeds hydrated in sweetened water.
Part of the appeal of pastry and working with my hands is being immersed in action unfettered by the mind. Taking Michael’s class, however, has been thought provoking, challenging the symbiotic use of the mind and hands. What I take away from this class will remain to be seen – sometimes there is a potential disconnect between knowledge and experience, in that knowledge and ideas can get ahead of your hands…And sometimes knowledge inspires, and forces development.
For more about Michael Laiskonis, visit his blog.