A rhubarb sorbet made today took my thoughts back 10 years to the first menu I had creative control over. I had just started my tenure as pastry chef at a wine bar named Eva, a small farm-to-table restaurant in a tiny seattle neighborhood called Tangletown. I’d grown up visiting the little pocket of dead-ending streets near Greenlake as a child, a ritual outing with my grandmother that always resulted in story time at the childrens bookstore and cinnamon rolls from the long gone Honey Bear Bakery. Her name too was Eva, a fact that immediately endeared me to the restaurant, built in the shadows of our memories.
I interviewed for the job over the phone with the owner Amy, sitting on the edge of my single bed in a rented room in Bray, England. It was a characteristically cloudy march day, and I had a month remaining of a 3 month stage at The Fat Duck. Knowing only that I wanted to redirect my cooking career away from the savory path I was on and into pastry, I responded to an ad on craigslist for an entry level pastry chef. By the time I said my goodbyes to the cast and crew of the michelin 3 star restaurant, I had accepted the position.
My arrival home to Seattle and into my first pastry chef role was smack dab in the middle of rhubarb season. I was unfamiliar with the long fibrous stalk, almost as unfamiliar as I was with making sorbet.
At the time, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I rooted through the large cookbook collection I was amassing and found a recipe for rhubarb sorbet. I copied it onto a yellow legal pad, and followed the instructions to a tee. The recipe involved a sorbet syrup made by boiling granulated sugar and water with lemon juice, a step I followed blindly but now know breaks the bond between the glucose and fructose that bind together to make sucrose. This inverted sugar syrup was blended with cooked rhubarb and a little lemon juice. Once cooled, the sorbet was placed in the pre-frozen canister of my counter top cuisinart ice cream machine, and as it began its 30 minute churn, an eggwhite was dropped in.
Old fashioned and very straightforward in flavor, the sorbet was rhubarb, plain and simple.
The memory of this rhubarb sorbet reminded me of the way I conceptualized flavor in those days. I liked big, bold, singluar flavors. I placed them next to each other, strikingly individual in character, in no more than twos and threes. This rhubarb sorbet was paired with lime whipped cream and coconut cake. There were no subtle nuances interlaced in the components, and the flavors never crossed. There was no lime zest infused into the sorbet to tie it into the whipped cream, or any subtle nuances shading the dish. The menus I wrote held no secrets, nothing left unmentioned in the descriptions, undertones that whispered to the flavors described. I was painting with bright primary colors. Building with big Duplo blocks. Rhubarb, coconut, lime.
The rhubarb sorbet I made today included multiple sugars, used to control water activity and augment percieved sweetness, and included both cooked rhubarb puree and fresh juiced rhubarb. Vermouth was added, the botanical flavors intertwining with the vegetal quality of the fresh juice in an incredible manner. Additional acidity was added with malic acid, an ingredient that allows us to brighten dishes without adding lemon flavor. Finally, the sorbet was finished with Verjus, another tart nuanced flavor that deepens the quality of fruit sorbets. The ratios were carefully calculated, and the brix were tested and confirmed to be 28, just where we like our sorbets.
The sorbet we made today is advanced in it’s technical quality. The botanicals in vermouth intertwine the cold scoop with a complex plated dessert including Japanese knotweed, hibiscus, toasted almond, and yogurt. It’s quite grown up from that first sorbet, much like I am from the girl who made it. But I look back at the big bold flavors I played with then with a great deal of fondness. The desserts were clean, simple, and easy for both myself and the guests to understand.
By committing myself to these simple expressions of flavor, I was able to present desserts that weren’t muddied by my own gaps in knowledge or misunderstandings of the craft I was just beginning to delve into. The complexity came, with time, as my knowledge and ability increased with experience.
I urge younger cooks and pastry chefs to consider this tactic. We now have an onslaught of media available to us every day, a din of flavors and techniques slipping under our fingers as we swipe the screens of our smart phones. The temptation to tinker with complex and abstract pairings is strong, and the noise of information we are inundated with daily can be hard to see past.
But trust me when I suggest this. It might read better on a menu description,but it will taste better if you keep it simple. Just for now. Consider your early dance with flavors a waltz . One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. As your technique improves, as your palate grows deeper, so too can the complexity of the dishes you create. But for now, just for now! Paint with a few strokes of clean, bold flavors, and I promise, with time, your masterpieces will come.