There’s life beyond the Blumenthal Tiramisu

Published: Mon, 08/19/2013 - 08:16 Updated: Mon, 08/19/2013 - 08:17

Surely, attempts to revive associations with the organic earth could be less contrived. No, Sir Blumenthal, this Masterchef experiment makes for a ghastly visual mistake
Ratna Raman Delhi

Celebrity chef Blumenthal’s top-notch restaurants are vetted by the bold and the beautiful and by connoisseurs of good food blessed with the ability to foot hefty tabs without flinching. Prolific cook book writer and television showman Blumenthal distils the worlds of science, aesthetics, history and art into his effervescent cooking.  Reviving meat fruit, a medieval English tradition wherein meat was crafted to look like fruit, Blumenthal’s creations easily outpace most practitioners in the genre of triomphe de l’oeil paintings (optical illusion created through realistic images). 

Columns, food shows, restaurants and recipes notwithstanding, this propagator of multi-sensory cooking gave us an aha moment on Masterchef Australia, unveiling yet another dimension of his gourmet-esque personality. Contestants were asked to recreate Blumenthal’s spectacular burger, chips and milk shake combo, an urban convenience food, available in most places in the world.   

Blumenthal’s seamless culinary moves: from the academic to the urbane, from elite chic to period history, and from couture to cart food, vouchsafes for his place among the cooking icons of our time. Which is why, his crafting of Tiramisu on a televised show hurtled me right into the dungeons of foodaholic hell. 

Blumenthal’s generation in Europe, America and metropolitan India is now familiar with Tiramisu, which also features on the wishlists of the very young. This late 20th century dessert, Italian in origin, is complex and layered. Lined with sponge fingers soaked in coffee, mascarpone cheese, marsala liqueur, eggs and chocolate, this avant garde dessert usually beckons through transparent glass, proffering narcissistic pleasure in single servings.

Lined with sponge fingers soaked in coffee, mascarpone cheese, marsala liqueur, eggs, chocolate, this avant garde dessert usually beckons through transparent glass, proffering narcissistic pleasure in single servings

Blumenthal’s elaborate version involves the use of both black and white chocolate, crystallized and caramellized, respectively. Opaque planters hosting the Tiramisu have their bottoms sealed with chocolate discs. This is followed by layers of coffee-soaked sponge fingers,  mascarpone and marsala cream, and chocolate discs, and topped with what looks like freshly turned soil and crushed grape nuts that, according to Blumenthal, will replicate the texture of stone and grit in soil. On screen, atop a garden table, several pots topped with chocolate mud can be seen with fresh green basil herbs stuck into them, rather like potted plants on display. 

The visiting audience, intrigued by the green potted plants on the table, becomes incredulous on discovering Tiramisu instead! The disconnect between programmed joy and the frazzled viewer becomes evident. Nervous tics that manifested at the sight of the opaque planters begin to trigger shock waves. There is something seriously wrong with the principle of making Tiramisu look like wet earth and grass and then zeroing in on a host of older people joyously eating what looks like wet mud and green leaves. Thankfully, Tiramisu does not demand raisins, so we have been spared a possible simulation of juicy slugs!

The aesthetics of eating Tiramisu while they are disguised as potted greens, fake mud and all, was completely lost to the Third World viewer in me. In fact, despite the availability of chocolate mud pie and Missisippi mud cake in coffee bars, the eating of mud actually signals an acute malaise. So, visuals of a group of middleaged adults who looked like they enjoyed chomping through leaf and mud (which was actually Tiramisu) can only generate extreme anxiety about their state of mind. 

This show left me wondering if there is a better way of stimulating jaded palates and whether connections between the food we eat and the bountiful earth it grows upon can be made in a less convoluted manner. Surely, attempts to revive associations with the organic earth could be less contrived. 

My other pet peeve has to do with the fact that chocolate is already always an awe-inspiring luxurious indulgence, mostly in the nature of a white consumable good. So why must it be mauled and scalded and then sprinkled atop a pot so that I cannot see what has become of it? 

No, Sir Blumenthal, this experiment makes for a ghastly visual mistake. On a Masterchef show this would perhaps receive low scores for plating and presentation. 

In India, the good old suji (semolina) halwas of the north evoke memories of creamy or brown damp sand, while the yellow pineapple kesari of the south recall sun-kissed yellow and orange sands. But, these are random natural associations, never grotesquely calibrated.

Holding grainy, warm semolina halwa in the palm of one’s hand,  moist with clarified butter and water and garnished with nuts and raisins, inhaling its aroma of crushed cardamom alone can explain why this is a comfort food, a votive offering and a festive dessert, all rolled into one. Transferring it in little collapsible bits to the mouth and recognising different textures and tastes as it crumbles between the roof of the palate and the tongue complete this incredible multi-sensory experience. 

Upma is a savoury version, garnished with green chillis, carrot bits, peas and curry leaves , and replaces the semolina’s sweet symphony with a synesthetic salty tango. Wheat gives us semolina while white and red rice and ragi allow us to make puttu, cylindrical steamed cakes of white and pink flours. The preparatory process involves making the flour damp with salt and spices, sprinkling it through a mould, separating one section from another through a layering of grated coconut and then steaming it. This is eaten with fruit as a hearty dessert or with lentil and vegetable stew as a main meal. The puttu cakes crumble at the touch and this rustic fare speaks for the earth from which the cereals originally sprang. 

Holding grainy, warm semolina halwa in the palm of one’s hand,  moist with clarified butter and water and garnished with nuts and raisins, inhaling its aroma of crushed cardamom alone can explain why this is a comfort food 

Another extraordinary dessert that comes to mind is the Okkarai, made especially on the occasion of Deepavali, the festival of lights. Bengal gram lentil or split chick pea is dry roasted till golden brown in a large open pan. The lentils are allowed to soak for a few hours in hot water and are ground with equal quantities of jaggery into a paste. This is spiced with cardamom powder. For a low fat option, the paste can be steamed with grated coconut shavings in a pressure cooker. 

The paste, steamed or unsteamed, is then added to a large pan with a generous sprinkling of clarified butter, cashew nuts and raisins. Powdered nutmeg and mace are added and the contents of the pan are stirred slowly over a low flame till the paste takes on the texture of crumbly soil. (Steaming achieves the crumbly texture almost immediately and uses less clarified butter.) The finished product is an orange brown mound recalling the rich loamy soil of the Deccan. Transferred into a bell metal bowl, the Okkarai is a sumptuous slow-food, and an eating experience that comes around once every year. 

Were Sir Blumenthal to factor in a visit to the kitchens of India, this stirring experience would certainly generate astounding food chemistry and pave the way for a new food cosmos. Will he?

Surely, attempts to revive associations with the organic earth could be less contrived. No, Sir Blumenthal, this Masterchef experiment makes for a ghastly visual mistake
Ratna Raman Delhi

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