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Cooking With Chemicals: How Liquid Nitrogen and Weird Starches Become Dessert

Patty Canedo is a pastry chef at a famed, private country club on Palm Beach and writes weekly about her kitchen exploits.

Banquet Chef Darren walks out of his office holding a notebook. He explains that tomorrow's party just went from 60 to 100 guests. The head chef wants a "wow" factor to the plate. And he thought I would like to observe.

"You ever work with chemicals before?" asks Darren. He pushes up his thick, black glasses and flips through his notebook. Known for being into the "chemistry" of cooking, I was eager to see what he had in mind.

"No, chef," I answer.

"OK, we are making a chocolate mousse served with raspberry ice cream finished with cinnamon toast cream," he explains. Nothing seems too crazy about that. "So," he takes a deep breath, "first thing is the cinnamon toast cream. Toast the cinnamon raisin bread at 350 till it's nice and brown." He's talking rapidly as he rushes over to the

oven to make sure a pot of water is boiling. "Then I put it in a bag

with some cream and seal it. We are going to boil this for about 20

minutes or so, strain it, whip it with some powdered sugar to soft


He drops the bag in the water. I'm writing frantically.


we need our chocolate mousse and raspberry ice cream," he says before

dashing into the walk-in. I hurry to follow behind. He finds what he's

looking for and dashes back out the door. He takes another breath,

offers me his book, and instructs me to write down the recipes as he

explains his technique.

"I just put chocolate and cream in a

sealed bag in boiling water for five minutes and cooled it off," he

says. He remembers the cinnamon toast cream, pulls it from the water,

and brings it to our station. "Do you mind grabbing me a chinoise, please?"

I drop my notes and run quickly. "You don't get very much from this

'cause the bread drinks up most of the liquid, but this is enough for us to

use." He pours out the bag into the chinoise to strain and sets it


"Now the fun part." He dashes into his office and brings out a styrofoam cooler. "This is liquid nitrogen."


opens the box. Smoke billows, and my eyes widen. "It's negative 300

degrees. I made this raspberry ice cream earlier. Here, take down the

recipe." He flips to a page in his book. I scribble it down while also

looking at the creamy red ice cream.

He drops dollops of the

ice cream into the nitrogen. It freezes instantly. Chef Darren

chuckles. "Now we're going to break them so they look like rocks." He

pulls one out and drops it on the table. It shatters like glass. "See,

the large pebbles is what we want."

I try one, and it melts in

my mouth, giving away a tart raspberry flavor. But the cream texture is

gone. He stores the raspberry rocks in the freezer.

"For the chocolate mousse, we are going to pour the chocolate cream into an iSi."

He fills the container with the mousse, screws the lid on, and charges

it with nitrous oxide. He sprays some on a spoon to show me, and I

notice the cream immediately fluffs.

"Wow, it's like whipped cream?" I say.


This is used for whip cream, mousse, anything you want to give air to.

Now we are going to 'cook' the mousse." He sprays the rest of the

fluffy chocolate mousse into a container and drops it into the

nitrogen. He leaves the chocolate rocks a much larger size. We rush the

mousse into the freezer, where he hands me a silicone tray.


need these." He's still searching. "Oh, and the algin bath." At our

prep station, Executive Chef Travis has come over to watch. "This is

our maple broth spheres. So to make these, what I did was dilute a

little maple syrup with some water and froze it. This is an algin bath

-- 1,000 grams of water to five grams of algin." He takes a torch, "I

just want to warm the bath slightly and take out the air bubbles in it."


few cooks are watching now. He pops a frozen maple ball off the

silicone tray and drops it in the algin bath. "Algin is the component

we need for spherification," he says.

He pulls out a sphere.

It's a perfectly round ball with a dark brown, clear color. "Here, try

it." The sphere bursts with a rush of maple liquid in my mouth. It

surprises me and is almost too much liquid. He watches as I swallow it

and waits for a response.

"The maple thawed out?"


He's excited. "The guest will pop it on the plate and give the flavor

to the rest of the dessert. OK, so now to put it all together." He

rushes around and grabs all the dessert's components. "This is walnut

oil powder." He hands me a deli cup with crumbles in it.

"Walnut oil powder?" I try it; it has a deep walnut flavor and graham cracker texture.

"The recipe for it should be right there," he says, pointing to his book. The important ingredient is tapioca maltodextrin.


work in the kitchen has stopped. Everyone's waiting for the completion

of the plate. Chef Darren places one large mound of walnut powder on

one end of a plate and a small mound on the other end. A healthy amount

of cinnamon toast cream goes on top of both mounds of crumbs. He

carefully chooses raspberry rocks and places them along the edge of the

creams. The large rounds of chocolate mousse rest on toast creams

slightly angled by the raspberry rocks. A sphere of maple broth is

placed in one nest of walnut oil powder.

"Can someone grab me

a sprig of thyme, please?" A cook runs into the walk-in. Chef Darren

smiles and steps back to assess the plate. It looks like a coral reef.

Head Chef Travis complements the "wow" factor. 

A pastry cook

brings in the other option for the guest, three small portions of

classic desserts: vanilla crème brulee topped with a black berry dusted

with powdered sugar; a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry coulis

and chocolate garnish; and a simple key lime tart with graham cracker

crust, topped with a rosette of whipped cream and a raspberry. Travis

takes both dishes to present to the guest.

"I have been cooking

this way for three years now," Chef Darren says. "You'd be amazed at

what you can do." He walks into his office.

Amy, the pastry cook, stops by to ask what I've been up to. "Just observing Darren," I respond.

"Oh, watching the craziness," she laughs.

Chef Travis comes back into the kitchen. "She went with the trio."

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Patty Canedo

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