Foaming at the mouth: El Bulli's Americano and Piña Colada cocktails
It may seem hard to believe, but El Bulli -- hell, maybe even molecular gastronomy as a whole -- is a phenomenon built on foam. This is something of an oversimplification, sure, but the advent of espumas, as they are widely known, propelled Ferran Adria and his restaurant from the ranks of the well-known into the culinary stratosphere. As impressive as that may be, the legacy of these foams is greater still, for they represent the first of El Bulli's techniques to make the leap to the non-molecular kitchen.
Given its impact, I was surprised to learn that foams were discovered somewhat by accident. Adria and his team had been dabbling with the concept for a couple of years without success, and then, one day, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time:
In the winter of 1993-1994, while we were helping our friend Eduard Roigé to draw up the menu of the restaurant Bel-Air in Barcelona, a customer asked for a dessert with whipped cream. To our surprise, the cream was served in the kitchen with a gadget they took out of the fridge, from which whipped cream emerged by pressing a lever at the top. Suddenly we saw the light, and we reckoned that this siphon might solve the foams problem. So we borrowed the siphon, and in a matter of just a few days, our dream became a reality.
The siphon in question is an iSi cream whipper, which I'm sure many of you who frequent coffee shops will recognize. It is, I must say, yet another kitchen toy that makes this boy very happy. In Toronto, you can find both the siphons and nitrous oxide cartridges at Home Outfitters and Canadian Tire.
"You must crawl, before you can walk," they say, which is why I began my experiments with foams by preparing cocktails from El Bulli: 1998-2002. "Crawl" is the operative word here, because most of the cocktails pack a real punch.
Take the piña colada, which is a mixture of 500 grams of pineapple juice and 150 grams of white rum topped with a spectacular coconut milk foam. That works out to more than five shots of hard liquor in the equivalent of about one and a half pop cans of juice. No matter, because the coconut milk foam really steals the show: light and airy on the one hand, but with the rich, creamy flavour of full fat coconut milk. A proper sip -- one with both foam and liquid -- is a powerfully enjoyable taste of the beach.
I made the Americano for two reasons: first, the primary ingredient is blood orange juice, so I had to make it now, while blood oranges were still available; second, the alcohol in this drink is entirely in the foam. The alcohol, in this case, is equal parts Campari, a ruby red Italian bitter, and Martini Rosso vermouth. Bitters are not really a liquor I enjoy; frankly, I find them just too bitter, and that was somewhat the case with the Americano. I can understand the combination, however, because the blood orange juice is sweet enough to mellow some of the bitter tones and create a pleasant harmony of flavours.
On the upside, I had no troubles making the foams for either drink. The basic formula is simple: dissolve some gelatin in a little of the liquid to be foamed, add the liquid to the foaming canister, charge, chill, and enjoy. The composition of the liquid (like the fat in coconut milk) and the amount of gelatin dictate the consistency of the foam -- from the semi-stiff peaks of the coconut milk to the soap bubbles of the Campari and vermouth.
The foam era has begun in this household, so now, much to Rachel's dismay, I view most liquids as "foams-in-waiting." I've restrained myself so far, but curiosity normally gets the better of me, especially with a book full of ideas and nineteen more cartridges sitting in my cupboard.