photo credit: Always Hungry NY
I signed up a few weeks before the event and although I wasn't sure what I was going to make, I knew I wanted it to contain either Indian or Thai flavors. My initial thought was to do a small round individual multi-tiered chocolate cake-like creation: brownie, ganache, meringue, mousse, and a final brownie layer, all enrobed with ganache. What made it interesting was that each layer would have one single flavoring that, when eaten together with the other flavors/layers, would combine to evoke the taste of either Indian or Thai food. I nixed this idea because I wasn’t really behind it mentally. It didn’t feel very “me” so out the window it went.
I was sitting on the subway one night and the idea came to me: ice cream served in a cone with a topping, with each component containing various Thai flavors. I jotted down a list of major Thai flavors/ingredients and came up with this:
- Kaffir lime
- Thai bird chilies
- Thai basil
- Holy basil
- Palm sugar
Then I started doing a little matching game across columns – which flavors would go into the chocolate ice cream, the cocoa cone, and the topping? Into the ice cream went coconut, palm sugar, Kaffir lime, and Thai bird chilies. The cone got ginger, galangal, and Thai basil. The topping got peanut, Kaffir lime, and Thai bird chilies. Lemongrass and holy basil were not invited to this party.
A week before the event, I made my first test batch of the ice cream. I made a custard-based ice cream, with coconut milk replacing some of the milk and cream, and I infused the cream with Kaffir lime leaves and Thai bird chilies. I love Thai food and have been on a huge kick of it lately so I really had a good sense of the amount of heat the chilies had and how much flavor the Kaffir lime leaves would give off – and as a result I got the proportions of the lime leaves and chilies down on my first attempt. The strained hot cream mixture went over a good amount of chopped 70% chocolate, and while that sat, I got started on the custard portion. I heated milk with sugar – instead of white sugar (which I generally use only in meringue frostings) I used palm sugar and turbinado sugar, which go great with chocolate – mixed it with egg yolks, and cooked until just thickened. It all got mixed up with the chocolate-cream mixture, cooled at room temp, then into the fridge overnight to chill. The next night I churned it then let it hang out in the freezer for a few hours to firm up. Matt and I sampled it later that evening and it was good. Success. Now onto the cones.
The cones were not as straightforward as the ice cream. I was originally going to make tuiles, but Matt’s grandmother had bought us a pizelle maker for our wedding, so I thought I would use that to make the cones. My first attempt was a raging failure – the recipe I used was terrible and the cones had a very bizarre texture. Not to mention that I was having major issues rolling them into cones. I tried another recipe and, while the texture was better, I still couldn’t roll them. I came to the conclusion that the pizelle maker was just not going to work. The rounds were far too big and, more critically, the pizelles weren’t thin enough to roll into tiny cones – they’d be good for making cones slightly smaller than regular sugar cones. Way too big for the Chocolate Experiment, so the pizelle maker got put away.
The next night I started the tuile experiment. I started out with a plain batter just to get the texture and technique down, figuring I would add the flavoring ingredients once I got a handle of it all (why waste all that tasty Thai basil!) The first batch was a mess. The texture wasn’t quite right and they wouldn’t crisp up properly. I then moved on to a different method and hoped for the best. I put down little teaspoons of batter and spread them out into a circle with the back of a measuring spoon, making it as thin as possible. Obviously none of the tuiles were evenly thick so they were not cooking evenly – some spots were thick, some were too thin and cracked when I rolled them. However, the texture in the spots with the right thickness was perfect. I had an idea of how to get even thickness, but given that it was 2:30 am on Friday night, I went to bed. That’s right – no cone in place and the Chocolate Experiment was less than 48 hours away.
Saturday was insanity. I made lots of ice cream base and was freezing it intermittently throughout the day. (I had made some on Friday, as well). I started on the tuiles around noon and decided that this final attempt was going to be it or I was just going to have to serve the ice cream in those dreadful plastic cups that are the same ones hospitals use to dispense meds to patients. Not appetizing, but I was going to have to do it if these tuiles didn’t work out. I made a small batch of batter and added the cocoa, ginger, and Thai basil to it (galangal got cut – I realized it would be too woodsy). To make the tuiles, I cut 3.5” circles out of a thick sheet of cardstock, lay it down on a Silpat, then spread a small amount of the batter over the circular opening using an offset spatula. I repeated this twice for a total of 6 tuiles on the sheet. Into the oven they went, and 5 minutes later, they were out. Now the fun part: rolling hot tuiles around cones. If the nerve endings in my fingers weren’t dead before, they certainly are now. I’ll post the full directions for the tuiles and cones sometime soon, but suffice it to say that you should either 1) wear latex gloves when doing this to protect your delicate fingertips, or 2) already have hot hands that can handle this type of pain. The first few batches came out ok, but after those initial batches, I got the thickness down just right and I started cranking out tuiles. Do you know how long it takes to make 350 cones? When you’re doing them in batches of 6 and they take 5 minutes each to bake? That’s right – ALL FREAKING DAY. I was up until 3 am because I had to finish them that night. I was on a roll and wasn’t going to stop.
The next morning we were up early and I got cracking on the peanuts. I decided a few days earlier that more Kaffir lime and chili in the peanuts was a bad idea, so I scaled back to just coconut. I used raw peanuts and fried them in a little bit of peanut oil, which is what’s commonly used in Thai food – roasted peanuts from Trader Joe’s just aren’t right. After draining for a few minutes, I tossed the hot peanuts with coconut milk powder and confectioners sugar. Some of the peanuts were left whole for use in the bottom of the cones (the cones had small holes at the bottom, so I needed to use something to stop them up – thanks to Matt for this idea) and the remainder went into my mini chopper with some more coconut milk powder and sugar and were pulsed into a chunky powder. And there was my topping.
Around 10:30, Matt went out to buy ice and returned with a whole lot of it. Into the cooler it went (which Matt had purchased the night before at Target and walked quite a distance with – the subways were all messed up) along with the 10 quarts of ice cream that I had made over the past two days. The tuile cones were safely packaged and they, along with all my other equipment, were tucked into a box and ready for the trip.
We got to the Bell House a little after noon (never using Cobble Hill Car Service again) and commenced setup. Since the ice cream had to be scooped to order, I just put out a display of cones sitting in cups of turbinado sugar atop a bed of Kaffir limes, Thai bird chilies, and Thai basil. A lot of people still weren’t there at 12:30 so I didn’t get to see most of the entries. The people on either side of me weren’t there at 12:45 weren’t there so I thought I was going to get some extra elbow room. However, one of them did show at 12:55 – just in the nick of time. The adorable Amy Cao was two stations over from me with her minty Nanaimo bars and the person between us didn’t show, so the two of us did get some extra room, which was much needed given that there wasn’t very much of it to start with.
The next few hours really flew by – I totally love serving people and explaining what I’ve made, so I had a blast making cones for the ~350 people who made the rounds, although I did not particularly enjoy having to shout my ingredients over the extremely loud music. I got a lot of great feedback about my ice cream, and a number of people came back for seconds – a good sign! The ice cream started getting soft around 3:30, and at 3:45, it was done – it was thick, but totally unable to hold its shape. We had already run out of cones, so I put out a few little cups of ice cream custardy goodness, topped it with some peanuts, and walked around and ate the plate of food that Matt had put together for me (and that I polished off not realizing that he didn’t have his own – oops!)
A little after 4, we were called to the stage for the awards. With my friend Juliana at my side, we listened as Theo announced the judges’ awards. I was really hoping I won something, but you never know… I heard Theo announcing first prize and heard him completely mispronounce someone’s name – mine! I was really thrilled – I had worked so hard and had given my entry a lot of thought, and I thought it was quite good, so it was wonderful to have all that validated by a really impressive panel of judges (I was terrified of serving ice cream to Ben Van Leeuwen!). My prize for that was a Mexican hot chocolate pot and stirrer (oalla and molinillo), lots of drinking chocolate, a Jacques Torres book, and a bag of chocolate from NY Cake. Next up was the audience awards, and – holy crap – I won that, too! (Nick decided to just use my first name – a good move.) The prize for that was really sweet (no pun intended) – a bottle of Rogue chocolate stout, $150 in cash, and a $600 gift certificate to Ricard chocolates. Oh, the best prize of all, pride and glory.
When I walked off the stage, I was grabbed by a pretty blonde woman (Sarah Haines) who told me she wanted to interview me for the Today Show! They had been filming all day for a segment for their website and since I won, I had the honor of an interview with them. I’m not quite sure when it’s going to be posted but I’ll link to it once it’s up.
Speaking of links, here’s a roundup:
The Food Experiments (official site) – list of winners
My photos (Picasa)
Carnivore Hearts Herbivore – Theo Peck’s blog (he’s one of the masterminds of the Experiments)
The Village Voice
Amy Blogs Chow – a well-written and insightful recap by the adorable Amy Cao
Thin Crust Deep Dish - recap with photos
Amateur Foodie Adventures - recap with some kind words for my winning entry
AOL’s The Insider
Smith and President – the Gowanus Yacht Club’s blog
Time Out NY – a smattering of photos
Always Hungry NY – photos and a brief recap
NYC Metromix – photos
NYC Foodzie’s photos on Flickr
The Chocolate Life
La Vida Cocoa
Experimental Culinary Pursuits
A big thank you to everyone who voted for my entry and also to my husband Matt for being an amazing assistant and my biggest cheerleader at the Chocolate Experiment and in life in general.