Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fragrant Rituals: Chemex Coffee

“Coffee should be black as Hell, strong as death, and sweet as love”--Turkish Proverb

The alarm clock rings at 5:30 a.m. It’s dark and quiet. The kitchen refrigerator enters a cooling cycle and broadcasts a familiar melodious hum. The ingredients for a coffee breakfast wait inside the door. A single tug of the handle and the long strips of foam tape that insulate the frame of the refrigerator door are released from their conjoining magnetic sleep. The refrigerator light goes on and it’s the only light that illuminates the room.

A sleepy hand takes out a canister of coffee beans and deposits it on the kitchen counter next to a curious hourglass-shaped carafe corseted by a wooden frame and tied with a simple piece of rawhide adorned by wooden beads. The device is a Chemex®, a uniquely designed coffee maker found in the kitchens of coffee purists who take Masonic pride in owning a kitchen appliance displayed in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Electric coffee makers corrupt coffee’s flavor—a cardinal sin and olfactive sacrilege of the highest scientific order. With .1% volatile flavor components coffee is the most aromatic substance on earth. The smell of coffee tells the brain that an awakening is about to transpire and creates a revivifying prelude. The pot warmer of an electric coffee maker destroys many of coffee’s 800 fragrant constituents. No thank you. I will take my pyrazines, furans, vanillin and tri-syllabic molecules straight up; you can leave overdone blackened coffee to the devil.

Morning light rises on the autumn horizon. Even the sun knows it’s time for coffee. I fill a pot with four cups of filtered water and set it on the burner. The flinty click of the pilot ignition makes staccato sounds that resemble the snapping fingers of a flamenco dancer. There is something comforting about crown of blue flame on the burner that is familiar and mesmerizing. I flip the light switch and reach inside the cabinet next to the stove where the unbleached Chemex® filters are kept. You’ll never see white coffee filters in my kitchen because bleached filters leave an aftertaste in coffee that distorts its delicate flavors. Unbleached filters have a natural vanilla odor (think wet paper shopping bags in the rain) that complements coffee, which is why they are always the right choice.

Fitting the square-shaped paper filter into the top of the Chemex® is a pleasurable act of minimalist origami. The filter, which comes folded in quarters, is opened so that one layer is separated from three, forming a shape that looks like an upside down sail or the exaggerated mouth of a hungry bird. The filter is nestled into the top of the Chemex® in preparation for the addition of coffee grinds. I have a very specific ritual for measuring and grinding coffee beans and can do it in my sleep; four tablespoons of beans, three grinds and three short pulses. Coffee ground for a Chemex® is slightly finer that coffee prepared for an electric drip coffee maker. This is because the first step in making coffee in a Chemex® involves the “blooming” of the beans.

The kettle whistles and the flame is turned off. I steady the weight of the pot in my right hand and add enough boiling water to cover the coffee grinds. This process allows the grinds to swell and prepares them so they can release their flavor with additional infusions in boiling water. Small iridescent bubbles form on top of the wet grinds as the aroma of coffee begins to fill the kitchen. The wet grinds look like flourless chocolate cake batter.

When the water settles to the bottom of the carafe the first of two rounds of boiling water are slowly added to the Chemex®. The perfume of coffee intensifies with each pouring and gets in my hair as I inhale the fragrant steam that rises from the top. How does the perfumer keep his nose out of the alembic, I wonder? Why would anyone want to brew coffee any other way? I reach for a coffee cup handmade by a local potter. It is shaped like a short drinking cauldron and keeps the coffee warm. I pour the first cup. Steam rises and curls upwards as if a message could be found in the vapors. I cradle the cup in my hands anticipating the first sip.

Notes:

Chemex coffee makers and brewing supplies can be purchased at Sweet Maria's.

If you want to learn more about the sensory evaluation of coffee Ted Lingle's The Coffee Cupper's Handbook is highly recommended. It is priced at $38.00.

Image of Chemex from The Coffee Roaster.

Image of Chemex filter from I Need Coffee.

Image of Coffee Bean Roasts from Sweet Maria's.

Image of Coffee Flower by Tim Wilson.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Crumiri: Cornmeal, Vanilla & Memory

My father introduced me to fire when I was seven years old. He watched over me as I stood on a step stool and cracked two eggs in a pan. The familiar popping and crackling sounds that define the melody of fried eggs began, followed by a soft cacophony of squealing that resembled the chatter of hungry baby chicks. I asked my father if he could hear the chicks under the pan lid. He smiled, making several attempts to conceal his laughter. When the eggs were done I turned down the flame, opened the lid and slid two sunny-side-up eggs onto my plate.

My father was a better eater than a cook. When he chose to prepare a meal he had a hodgepodge style of assembling savory dishes that involved caramelizing onions before adding potatoes, meat and any appropriate leftovers he could find. Dad never indulged in pastry making but there was one unusual exception; cornmeal dough designed for catching carp. My father had a precise method for cooking the bait so it would form a firm, but malleable ball when it was finished. The recipe was simple; one cup of water, one cup of cornmeal, one tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. Vanilla, according to my father, was the magic ingredient that lured carp. On one occasion my mother, who regularly used vanilla to bake cookies and cakes, chastised my father for using the “good vanilla” in his bait formula. While searching for an alternative a European butcher he knew recommended powdered vanillin, an assertive artificial vanilla used by bakers to add creamy vanilla flavor to pastry. Vanillin powder was a hit with carp which left my mother with a new dilemma; she had more fish to clean.

On May 30, 2009 I lost my 82-year-old father to pancreatic cancer. I am filled with comfort each time his spirit visits me through memory. How and when these moments occur is not predictable, but they are most intense when I am around food or nature; two of his great loves that were generously passed down to me. The story you are reading is the result of a blotter of vanillin I smelled while in perfumery class at Givaudan in September. One whiff and I instantly remembered the smell of my father’s carp bait cooking, the way he shaped the dough in his hands and how his hazel eyes gleamed when he said it was good enough to eat. I wanted to find a way to immortalize that memory with something I could eat. The resulting search led to crumiri, a Piedmontese cookie made with cornmeal. Crumiri can be flavored with a variety of extracts and spices; just like a master dough. Piping the cookies is the traditional manner in which crumiri are shaped, but I chose to roll the cookies individually by hand in order to enter into communion with the memory of my father shaping his cornmeal dough.

Glass Petal Smoke’s recipe for crumiri has a digital lineage that begins with Father Giuseppe Orsini's Italian Baking Secrets, migrates onto the pages of Ivonne's Cream Puffs in Venice and finally lands on Clotilde Dusoulier’s Chocolate & Zucchini website. I have modified Ms. Dusoulier’s recipe to suit my tastes and memories. Since the cookie is Italian in origin and cornmeal is yellow, it seemed appropriate to add Italian bergamot (Citrus bergamia) for a bright twist.* Food grade essential oil of bergamot for this recipe was obtained from a flavorist. One and one half teaspoons of lemon extract will deliver superior results if you don’t have access to food grade bergamot.

Crumiri
Yield: 4 dozen

Ingredients:
· ½ cup (plus 5 tablespoons) unsalted Land O’ Lakes Butter, at room temperature
· ½ cup (plus 3 tablespoons) organic cane sugar
· 2 large eggs, at room temperature
· 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
· 10 drops of food grade Italian bergamot oil (or 1½ teaspoons of lemon extract)
· zest of one organic lemon
· 2 cups Hecker’s All-Purpose Flour
· 2/3 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
· ½ teaspoon non-iodized sea salt
· ¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Instructions:
· Divide oven racks into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F.
· Line two baking sheets with unbleached parchment paper and set aside.
· Soften butter in the microwave for 50 seconds. It should be partially melted (not warm) when it is done.
· Cream together butter, bergamot oil (or lemon extract), lemon zest and sugar. In a separate bowl beat the two eggs and vanilla. Add the butter mixture to the egg mixture and incorporate.
· In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, nutmeg and cornmeal. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and incorporate.
· Shape one teaspoonful of dough at a time by placing it between your hands and rolling it between the centers of your palms, pressing down very slightly. Place onto baking sheet in rows of four.
· Bake for 15 minutes, turning and reversing trays from top to bottom at 7.5 minutes and continuing to bake for another 7.5 minutes or until slightly golden around the edges.
· Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
· Store in an airtight container.

Notes:

*Italian Bergamot essential oils found in health food stores or online aren’t necessarily food grade. Find a reputable stockist that states that the essential oil of bergamot they sell is cold-expressed from the peel and food grade. Enfleurage in NYC is a good source. Dose conservatively as food grade essential oils are highly concentrated.

Cornmeal dough recipes are commonly shared among carp anglers, but claims regarding ingredients that give the bait its power vary with folkloric regularity. One angler cites several ingredients common to perfumery including; bergamot, cumin, fennel, lavender, lovage, sweet birch, orris root, peppermint, rue, tonka bean, wintergreen and valerian. Carp have a highly developed sense of taste and smell which contributes to their survival as bottom feeders.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my father, Paul Krell, born Perec Krell in Brzeziny Poland on May 1, 1927. Brzeziny was named for the town's numerous birch trees and was home to a blossoming textile industry that gave birth to many generational tailors. My father was one of those tailors. As a young man he survived Auschwitz as a child laborer, making uniforms for prisoners in the concentration camps. He was interviewed by Beth B. Cohen in "Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America," a book about the immigrant experience and post-DP life of Holocaust survivors.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chuao Firecracker Chocopod: Chocolate for the Senses

A Chuao Firecracker Chocopod invites suspicion at first glance. A connoisseur would never consider eating premium Venezuelan dark chocolate blended with “pop rocks”. Chocolate doesn’t need gimmicks that are so sacre bleu, so yesterday's El Bulli, so ridiculously infantile. Warning: the first time you eat a Chuao Firecracker Chocopod be prepared to eat those doubting words.

Chocolate lovers are used to cacao bars that play on complementary and contrasting textures using ingredients like nuts, dried fruit and crisped rice. Adding compressed carbon dioxide crystals to chocolate creates an inverse experience of “crunch” because you don’t have to bite down to experience tactile sensations; the presence of water in your mouth act as a catalyst for passive mouthfeel (an extension of the sense of touch). Touch isn't the only sense activated in the Chuao Firecracker Chocopod experience; you can hear the carbon dioxide crystals popping when the chocolate melts inside your mouth.

To fully embrace the effects of a Chuao Firecracker Chocopod follow this cardinal rule; no biting. Begin by placing a small piece of chocolate on the tongue, allowing it to melt slowly. You’ll notice the heat of chipotle chili as it gently grazes the tongue and mingles with the distinctive flavor of dark Venezuelan chocolate. Compressed carbon dioxide crystals snap and crackle as the chocolate melts, creating the sensation of 1000 little fingers tickling the taste buds. This feeling causes most first-time “Firecracker” eaters to cover their mouths in order to stop themselves from laughing out loud. Others smile pensively as they try to get inside the tasting experience for the first time. There are a brazen few who wonder what it would be like to kiss someone with the candy inside their mouth.

Chuao Firecracker Chocopod is more than a novelty; it's a chocolate lover's excuse to indulge in playful connoisseurship. The pleasure of eating a "Firecracker" is just as thrilling as watching someone having the experience for the first time. If this qualifies as a type of confectionery voyeurism, so be it. No one is going to arrest you.

Notes:
While you’re on the Chuao Chocolatier site consider trying the Chuao Salted Chocolate Crunch Bar, another Glass Petal Smoke favorite. One bite and you’ll ditch that old “crunch bar” jones for a new and improved version that uses Japanese Panko breadcrumbs in lieu of crisped rice.