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The Fat Duck Cookbook - Heston Blumenthal
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For some years I have been exposed to 'molecular gastronomy' in high end restaurants. At home, I am a dedicated and exploratory cook who tries to please my family while also showing them 'something new' from time to time. I look at books like the 'Fat Duck' out of general interest but also to look behind the 'restaurant' recipes for new tools and techniques that I can translate for home cooking. Blumenthal's book can be read in this way with profit: he presents a lucid review of equipment and of kitchen chemistry (that really just expands on familiar items like pectin, gelatine, cornstarch and arrowroot), using some less familiar but equally processed substances.
We hunt and have already been using an inexpensive vacuum sealer and this experience makes the equipment Blumenthal presents more approachable. Blumenthal is very understandable in his explanation of sous vide equipment and techniques, particularly their roles in preventing naturally low-fat products from drying excessively during cooking. Unlike others, he does not emphasize searing of an outside crust with a torch (you want to try that at home?); but he does regularly use a hot pan on a stovetop. One secret to actually using this book is to move away from the pretty pictures (they are breath-takingly well photographed) and to strip away the 'gourmet' proportions and fussy ingredients to focus on using the techniques on materials you want to prepare. Fish steaks and fillets can be done sous vide using his explanation of sous vide on salmon. Ideas for chicken and pork cuts are described. Adventurous eaters can move on to interesting preparations for quail and salmon. Other advanced technology is described for making fruit and vegetable purees, foams, gels and ice cream (this latter section gives a very understandable and informative explanation for controlling frozen crystal size and texture, for varying fattiness or sweetness and so on. It is unlikely that I will make any of his complete dishes but I will use some of the tools and tecniques at home.
To return to storage and portioning: sous vide bags provide an ideal way to pre-cook, store and then reheat practical portions for 'empty nesters' while moving beyond commercailly packaged 'dinners.' Blumenthal's description of using a less-known substance like transglutaminase to help beef, veal and chicken 'roll-ups' to keep their shape is a big help to me. Really, this is not a stretch in chemistry or in kitchen practice from using curing salts for hams and bacon. Using a precision machine to control water temperature is also a big help if you like a reliable way to make soft boiled or hard boiled eggs or if you want to pasteurize a custard base for icecream without worrying about it 'breaking.' Books like this very stylish production give home cooks the confidence to take what they can use and to actually apply the concepts with the help of the book's step by step guidance.
Other reviewers have spoken eloquently to the way Blumenthal explains his growth as a chef and the way that he uses logic and obsessive study and thought to develop original recipes and presentations. I enjoyed this aspect of the book as well. His idea of making a list of the characteristics he is looking for in a finished dish and using that list to find suitable ingredients and techniques to acheive his aim can be used by cooks at any level. I highly recommend this book for its information and for its entertainment level. It is a book that deserves to be kept before the public through continuing 'fresh' reviews.
- James Ellsworth, Amazon.com
Heston has an (scientific) obsession for making the best tasting and best looking food possible. This obsession is likely to make him legendary.
This is a cookbook for a small minority of customers. You must have an interest in molecular gastronomy methods. You must have a budget that allows you to eat at expensive restaurants. You must like odd people that don't conform to all the norms of society.
Other reviewers have pointed out the recipes are extremely complicated. A lot of details are given, but you should be prepared to shell out a couple of thousands of dollars on (used) equipment before you can get started. The book has some pictures of the dishes, but could do with more descriptive pictures.
However, this is just not a glossy book to boost the ego of its author. I find the discussion around taste, chemistry and visuals relating to each recipe very interesting. You really get a look into Heston's thought process. I don't think Heston has used a ghost writer. I would imagine this can inspire both professional chefs as well as amateur cooks, if so inclined. One place to start experimenting might be with the whisky gums, which don't require any expensive equipment.
Heston's general approach is to perfect a dish. You can set out to do something similar given your budget constraint. If you don't have a professional vacuum sealer maybe try with cheap 100 dollar device, and see what happens. Or my might use a vacuum cleaner to suck out the air of the bag. The only thing you need is time!
There is one other audience for this book and that is people interested in the creative process in general. The long biographical essay describes an obsessive person setting out to do something creative. It is written in a fascinating manner, if and only if you are interested in the creative process. Actually this section could serve as ispiration for some young people to follow their intuition rather than go for a very safe career. For this type of reader, I can also recommend Adria's "A day at Elbulli".
I would recommend this edition of the book. It is a normal hardcover edition. There is also a superexpensive big edition. I would not recommend that unless you want to have a thick tome to impress. The cheaper edition is hardcover too, so more than enough for most people.
I don't really like to review books online, as so much of the review is subjective. I'll make an exception for the Fat Duck Cookbook. It's that good.
First off, the recipes are amazing... as they should be, since they are the exact recipes used in Blumethal's world-renowned restaurant. They are also elaborate. If you decide to make one, think of it as a quest rather than as a traditional recipe to be made in an afternoon - most of these will involve a good deal of searching for ingredients, a large amount prep time, and sometimes specific equipment ranging from just hard-to-find to hard-to-find AND really expensive.
Even if you don't make the recipes... even if this book didn't HAVE any recipes, it would still be great. The photos and art are nearly worth the asking price on their own. Huge, glossy, detailed pictures of some of the most intricate and intricately plated dishes I've ever seen. Enough beautiful abstract art to justify it as a coffee table book in this respect alone. Furthermore, each recipe is accompanied by an essay on the development of that recipe and thoughts on exactly what makes that recipe work, or why previous iterations of it did not work as well. You don't have to make the recipes to find this type of commentary useful.
Then there are the other two thirds of the book. One is somewhere between an autobiography and a treatise on the author's culinary formation and thought process. Sound dull? It isn't. In part because of how well it is written - relatable, brisk, to the point. Even more so because of Blumenthal's enormous insight into both the art and science of cooking. He explains his process in creating and perfecting his food using specific examples. He alludes to the science he uses whenever applicable - his explanations are neither dumbed down nor are they a single bit more complicated or hard to understand than need be.
I found myself using a highlighter while reading it to mark things I wanted to look up later.
And as though Blumenthal somehow knew about my highlighter, he included as the last third of the book an index of terms, descriptions of equipment and ingredients, and essays on the scientific aspects of cooking and eating. Essay topics range from emulsions to how taste and pleasure are related via the brain. Most of these essays are not by Blumenthal - they are written by scientists who have influenced Blumenthal and added to his understanding.
I should point out, I guess, that this book is probably not for most culinary novices. The pictures might go over well, but the rest will be like showing calculus to someone who's still learning to add. But for pros and dedicated amateurs, I don't think a cookbook gets much better. It's inspiring, beautiful, and informative. As much as it can teach about the science of cooking, it has just as much insight into the art of cooking - what associations, effects, textures, contexts, and flavors make a dish great. In this way, it is just as invaluable to the classical cook as the cutting edge one. It prompts you to look at a dish and wonder 'In a perfect world, what could make this even better?' And suggests that whatever the answer is, it may well be possible.
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