How to Play with Your Food with Johnny Iuzzini and Dave Arnold

With his first ever cookbook, Johnny Iuzzini, executive pastry chef of restaurant Jean Georges, brings a bit of experimental cuisine to home baking. Dessert Fourplay presents recipes in Chef Iuzzini's signature quartets, simplified for the home cook. The recipes highlight his particular style of pairing opposing flavors and textures: spicy and sweet or soft and crunchy. The book is truly a treat for the experimental home cook or culinary fan. Whenever I've gone to either Nougatine or Jean Georges I've enjoyed the desserts tremendously. I really do think that even though desserts are traditionally served last, they can be the highlight of dinner—and Johnny's desserts always come in first place.

Rather than describing the book further, here is the super talent that I witnessed at last week's monthly meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective, which was held at the French Culinary Institute. Chef Iuzzini with his friend and fellow scientist in the kitchen Dave Arnold, director of technology at the French Culinary Institute, presented on compression and carbonation methods currently being utilized by experimental chefs throughout the world such as Ferran AdriĆ , Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, and Thomas Keller, among others. Not simply a presentation, the demonstration lasted for almost three hours with a full tasting of everything the two chefs created. What follows is the extremely ingenious foresight and method by Dave Arnold and talented application and execution by Johnny Iuzzini that go into making such unique desserts in the restaurants and in the book. This is how to justifiably play with your food using science.

Dave Arnold began by explaining the science behind the vacuum sealer, a piece of equipment commonly used in many restaurant kitchens for preserving food, but now used also as preparation for the sous vide cooking method popularized by Thomas Keller. The machine can also alter food structure and texture as Chef Arnold demonstrated with marshmallows and white sandwich bread. The marshmallows (vacuumed directly in the machine) immediately quadrupled in size and then shrank to become raisin-like whereas the bread (vacuumed in a bag) remained the same size before becoming flattened. Bread, like a sponge, is porous and filled with air pockets—the machine simply removes all the air. Eggplant also can be prepared in this way but to a benefit: the vegetable absorbs less oil when fried. We were treated to vacuumed and fried eggplant and vacuumed and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which were chewy, gooey, and ultimately tasty.

The vacuum sealer also works exceptionally well with liquids, which can be used to intensify the flavor of products. Arnold showed that water can boil in the vacuum sealer without getting hot because of the internal pressure. Most people think that to boil water all you need is a high temperature, but pressure, according to Arnold, is key. This explains why at higher altitudes it takes longer to boil water since the atmospheric pressure is lower. Chef Arnold used watermelon for the first experiment with liquid. Cubes of fruit were vacuumed in their own juice while other cubes were vacuumed alone. We were able to compare the results with a control (a fresh piece of watermelon). The vacuumed piece was hard and unappetizing whereas the piece that reabsorbed its own juice was the essence of watermelon flavor. The experiment showed that any fruit or vegetable could be transformed by using the vacuum sealer to inject flavor. Chef Iuzzini utilized Arnold's methods to inject apple dices and pear slices with a mix of simple syrup and yuzu juice and also apple dices with curry oil. The process also works well for flash pickling, such as pickled onions. However the vegetable is not preserved by flash pickling as it is in the traditional brine-pickling method.

Next we moved onto carbonation. Chef Arnold warned that even the smallest particle such as a vanilla bean cannot be present in the liquid, because it would hinder proper carbonation. He also emphasized that overly carbonated liquids actually lose carbonation more quickly. Using two different gases for carbonation: carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (laughing gas), the team carbonated water in three different ways for the audience to taste: one with the nitrous oxide, one with carbon dioxide, and a third with a 75% carbon dioxide and 25% nitrous oxide blend. The nitrous oxide sample was carbonated at 30 psi (pounds per square inch); it had a creamy taste that hit the taste buds on the sides and back of the tongue whereas the carbon dioxide (30 psi) had a prickly taste. Many people think that the prickle in soda is from acidity, but it is just the nature of the gas. The mix (45 psi) combined the prickliness and creaminess into a flavor that was just right.

Chef Iuzzini also shared some of his creations using the carbonation methods developed by Arnold. He created a dessert drink of vanilla soda with a calcium lactate encapsulated salty caramel bubble. The combination of the vanilla soda and caramel created a cream soda effect within the mouth. Next Iuzzini demonstrated another creation this time using his specialty, chocolate. He first blended milk and agar agar, then into it melted chocolate and added whisky. The mixture was cooled, carbonated, and then placed in the vacuum sealer, which removed all the air, leaving behind bubble craters once the mixture solidified. The result was a chocolate sponge ganache.

The evening was truly a hit with the audience. We not only tasted the elements that Chef Iuzzini uses to make his unique desserts, but before the evening was over we had the pleasure of trying some alcoholic beverages made by Chef Arnold. At over 130 proof, we were warned to only taste less than a cap full of the distilled beverages: habanero, horseradish, hops, and pine as well as infused pine and peanut-infused Scotch. We finished with flat sparkling wine and then two samples of sparkling wine re-carbonated at two different pressures. It was a meeting hardly to be forgotten.