I sometimes find myself out of synch with the seasons.
Like last week when I had to talk myself out of making spaghetti with jalapeno tomato sauce— a simple, summery sauce of barely cooked ripe tomatoes— because it was November.
Or, like yesterday, when I booked a holiday cocktail party and my head filled up with visions of sugarplums and other wintry fare.
Today, the rake calls. It's all about the leaves.
Raking leaves is definitely not my ideal of fun. But like all chores, once I find a rhythm, it becomes meditative. Not today though— I'm too preoccupied with cocktail parties... and hors d'oeuvres.
Cocktail parties prevail in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years. To my clients, a few hours of drinks and passed hors d'oeuvres means that they can entertain without the stress of formal dinner parties. There are no expansive (or expensive) menus, multiple place settings, or seating arrangements to deal with— just a well-stocked bar, a tasty selection of finger foods, and a capable staff to serve and execute.
I've seen a lot of hors d'oeuvre trends come and go in 20 years of catering. The once popular notion that anything wrapped in pastry or made in miniature was de rigueur is long gone. Modern tastes favor lighter fare with clean, bright flavors. (That said, I welcome the occasional request for pigs-in-a-blanket and sliders)
Presentation, too, has come a long way. I remember etched silver trays with elaborate floral arrangements complete with trailing ivy that the servers carried around like bouquets. The food became lost in these. Nowadays, I aim for vibrant food, simply arranged on white porcelain platters. When the food lacks visual interest, I don't hesitate to add something to the plate— but only if it makes sense and adheres to the philosophy that nothing belongs on a plate of food that is not edible, functional, or relevant.
As I tackle the leaves, I think about canapes and how they're a fitting model for the perfect hors d'oeuvre.
Canapes cover a broad range of foods that we eat with our fingers. They run the gamut from basic cheese and crackers to the old-school French vol-au-vents and barquettes. In between are smörgås (open-faced sandwiches), crostini, and savory tarts. Their common denominator is a dry, crisp base that makes them neat and easy to pick up and eat, and a moist, often creamy, topping. The textural contrast between the two— dry and wet, crisp and creamy— are a basic gustatory pleasure and primed for an update.
Cheese & Crackers
goat cheese on carrot-beet-parsnip crisps
And as the leaves pile up, I think, again, about crisp.
How to reinterpret cheese and crackers?
Start with the cracker and add flavor.
Crackers are basically flour, water, and fat. Certainly, doughs can be flavored with concentrated liquids or with dried flavor in modest amounts, but these introduced flavors are often muted by the large ratio of flour that is required to produce a crisp product. If the ratios are thrown too far off, we lose crisp.
Pure flavor can be extracted from produce with a juicer into liquid flavor and can be further concentrated or distilled, or the solids can be dehydrated and ground into powder. Potentially, these flavor-packed products can replace water and flour. But, of course, it's not that simple.
Juice is not just flavored water, it contains fine solid particles and compounds. Fruit juices may also contain acids, pectin and reactive enzymes that effect texture. Ground dehydrated solids may resemble flour but do not possess the gluten that will allow it to behave like milled wheat. Luckily, we are not limited to wheat flour— or even starches from grains— to produce crisp.
There are other starches that gel liquids. They are so effective that only small amounts are needed. They don't interfere with base flavors because they are odorless and colorless. The gels, when dehydrated, form flexible films that turn crisp when heated. Technically, these are called glasses.
Unlike raking leaves, glasses are fun to play with.
Ultratex is a tapioca-derived modified food starch that thickens liquids much like cornstarch, but does not require heat to activate. Adding 2-3% of Ultratex to a cold, thin liquid will instantly tighten it into a sauce. Thicker gels (5%) are quick to dehydrate and form crisp brittle films that are slightly papery.
Tapioca Maltodextrin is also derived from the cassava root. It is a mildly sweet polysaccharide. TM is best known for its ability to stabilize fats and transform them into powders. It forms slightly stickier films than Ultratex. When the two are combined, (at a rate of 18% TM to a 5% Ultratex gel) they form sturdy glasses that when baked at a high temperature during the final stage of dehydration (while they are still flexible) they make the most stable glasses, even in the presence of humidity.
Methylcellulose (A types) and Hydroxypropylmethylcellulose (E, F, and K types) also form films that dehydrate to glasses. Methocel glasses differ from Ultratex and TM in that when they are finished at a higher temp (100C), they turn from shiny and transparent, to matte and opaque.
Texturally, all of these additives produce thin, brittle crisps.
Visually, the methocel crisp looked most like a cracker, albeit,a fragile one.
It needed more bulk.
Aeration gives the illusion of bulk without actually adding any.
Methocel F types are used to create and stabilize whipped things.
To be clear, I use the term 'cracker' loosely. These are not crackers in a conventional sense— they lack flakiness. More accurately, they closely mimic the texture of a tuile or gaufrette wafer, but with the pure flavors of carrots, beets, and parsnips, un-muted by starch.
I'm dreading the acre of leaves that still need to be gathered and disposed of.
In joyful procrastination, I've created another pile of leaves in the kitchen.
The irony is not lost on me.
As always, nature inspires.