Molecular gastronomy at home with Cheeky Monkey

The guys at Cheeky Monkey have launched a spherification kit for wannabe scientists who want to try molecular gastronomy at home. Jellied spheres of flavoured liquid that burst in the mouth can be found in most Michelin starred dishes and this kit includes everything you need to make them yourself:

  • an idiots guide to the two most common techniques, “direct” and “reverse” spherification
  • one recipe for each, including melon “caviar”, the dish that persuaded Ferran Adria that spherification had a gastronomic future at El Bulli
  • sachets of sodium alginate (a natural seaweed extract) and calcium lactate, the chemicals that cause the spheres to form
  • pipettes and a syringe

The process isn’t difficult, even my shaky hands produced perfect liquid filled spheres, and the base recipe can be easily adapted. For example, Phil Howard uses this technique at his 2-michelin starred restaurant to add shots of pure red, green and yellow pepper juice to his gazpacho. Just be aware if you do decide to experiment that the acidity of the liquid will impact the quantity of chemicals required and the choice of direct or reverse spherification - get this wrong and you'll end up with a bowl of jellied gunk (I speak from experience)!

As well as the melon caviar, I also made some simple mango carpaccio garnished with blueberry caviar and passion fruit ice cream - delicious, easy to make, and good fun too.

At just £7.99, the kits are great value. The last time I bought something similar from the Ferran Adria Texturas range it cost me nearer £100 – admittedly it contained more in the way of base chemicals, but unless you’re a serious Heston Blumenthal wannabe it’s unlikely you’ll ever use that much anyway.

My verdict: if you're interested in molecular gastronomy, this is a great introduction. Some people will get hung up on whether it's “proper cooking”, but if you want to intrigue your dinner party guests and have some fun in the process who cares?

*Cheeky monkeys provided me with a sample kit to review for this post

Book review: Brazilian Food, Thiago Castanho

As host of this summer's world cup and next year's Olympic Games, it's no surprise to see Brazil's chefs cashing in on the world's attention - so I was intrigued to see whether there was any substance behind Thiago Castanho's latest offering, "Brazilian Food".

The book is certainly beautiful, capturing the essence of Brazilian culture with its evocative photography of vibrant street food, churrascaria barbecue restaurants and amazing seafood from the rivers and Atlantic ocean.

It's also an education. As somebody with a borderline food obsession, it's rare to come across such an unexplored cuisine - my previous experience being limited to the odd caipirinha... The book is filled with dishes I've never cooked before (fish skin crackling anyone?) and ingredients I've never even heard of (jaboticaba?).

With two restaurants, including one of "Latin America's 50 best", 26 year old Thiago Castanho grew up in the Amazonian region of Brazil. This means he, and the other contributing chefs, have access to the world's most abundant larder - which is certainly more exotic than my local Sainsburys or Waitrose. Combine these unusual ingredients with a food heritage that takes from Portugese, African, Italian and Japanese cooking and the results are spectacular. Ultimately though, even a keen cook will struggle to source everything needed for these recipes - however, they will be rewarded with an insight into a truly unique cuisine.



Torresmo de peixe com molho de acai 

Fish crackling with acai

Serves 4

Fish crackling

  • 500g fish skin, from small lean fish
  • 150g coarse rock salt
  • vegetable oil for deep frying
  • sea salt flakes

Acai juice

  • 100g acai pulp
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • salt, to taste
  1. Clean the fish skin removing the scales, Prepare a brining solution with the rock salt and 500ml of water in a bowl. Soak the fish skins in this liquid for 20 minutes.
  2. To make the juice, mix the acai, lime juice and sugar together with a pinch of salt.
  3. Bring some water to the boil in a saucepan. remove the fish skins from the brine and scald them briefly in the boiling water. Drain and cool.
  4. Using a sharp knife, remove any remaining flesh from the skins. Cut the skins into 10cm squares.
  5. In a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan, preheat the oil to 180C. Use the kitchen paper to thoroughly pat dry the squares of fish skin. Working in batches, deep-fry the squares until they crackle.
  6. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Sprinkle with sea salt befoe serving with the acai juice.

Recipe taken from "Brazilian Food", Thiago Castanho, Mitchel Beazley, 2014

In search of perfect…focaccia

I've never had "ok" focaccia. Most of the time it’s just bad - usually a tasteless square of cardboard served up by generic “Mediterranean” restaurants to buy more time to microwave the starters.

Once in a while, though, it can be really good. A light, honeycombed crumb hidden beneath a golden crust, moist with extra virgin olive oil, a hint of sourdough and crunchy flakes of sea salt. The truth is, good focaccia is one of life's simplest joys.


Of course, there's only one foolproof way to make sure you get the best stuff on your plate - and that's to make it yourself. Afterall, it’s only flour, yeast, olive oil, salt and water, so there's no excuse for eating bad bread - but there are a few things that separate the substandard from the sublime:

  • the dough

Focaccia should have a light, sponge-like texture that can soak up the last remnants of olive oil or pasta sauce from your plate. The only way to achieve this is by making a really "wet" dough - you'll be tempted to add more flour, but don't. To make things more manageable do the majority of the kneading in a bowl to stop the sticky goo finding every nook and cranny of your pristine kitchen, use only one hand to do the kneading (so that you always have a clean hand available - believe me you'll need it), and oil everything that comes into contact with the dough to prevent it sticking.

  • kneading

As well as traditional kneading, repeatedly stretching, folding and turning the dough will add structure to the bread.

  • proving

Good focaccia should have a slight sourdough taste. This means giving the yeast time to do its thing. Allowing it to work slowly is the key to great taste, so proving overnight in a fridge is the only way to go.

  • make olive oil your friend

It's in the dough, it's used to stop things sticking, it’s drizzled on top; and mixed with balsamic it is the perfect accompaniment. This is a good thing - remember, olive oil eating countries have some of the longest life expectancies on the planet...and it makes the bread taste great!

  • the dimples

The traditional dimples you see on focaccia are there for a reason. They reduce the air in the dough and prevent the bread from rising too quickly. After proper kneading and proving there will be plenty of large bubbles in the dough. If you try and bake the loaf at this point, they will expand and burst, causing the bread to collapse. To avoid this, you need to dimple your loaf with wet fingers or an oiled wooden spoon handle. This will also increase the surface area allowing you to drizzle over even more extra virgin olive oil. If you do decide to add extra flavourings you can push these into the dimples so that the bread swallows them up as it bakes.

  • toppings

You can be as creative as you like: cubes of mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped olives… you get the idea. However, I wouldn’t look any further than a traditional sprinkling of sea salt, picked rosemary leaves and, of course, a drizzle of olive oil. 

Try my rosemary and sea salt focaccia recipe and you’re guaranteed a gorgeous, light bread every time.

Beer - more than a match for curry and kebabs

For most people, food and beer matching is an anathema – odd, when you consider how well-matched wine transforms a simple meal into a special occasion. I recently hosted my 40th at a restaurant run by Roux scholar Kenneth Culhane who offers both a beer and wine flight with his tasting menu. Almost everyone tried the beers, and had a much more interesting time because of it, showing how well good matching can work. 

To help understand the process better, I’ve enlisted the help of craft brewer and CAMRA member Jon Kirby. Over the coming months we’ll taste a variety of his brews and develop recipes that work well together.

The beer

Jon’s first offering, Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, is a “strong Mild with a deeply rich character, the crystal and black malt giving a dark colour and an acid bite to finish. Despite the strength it has a smooth character and plenty of malty flavour.”

Where to start?

When matching any beer, you first need to determine its key flavour notes. As well as helping to identify foods that will work, this is a great exercise in developing your palate and appreciating the elements that make each beer different. 

For this particular brew, it didn’t take a lot of “taste testing” to identify the predominant flavours of malt, dark chocolate, coffee and red fruit.

Even for newcomers to the art, picking out individual flavours this way makes it easier to start identifying food matches. From the simple list of ingredients above, most people could start to imagine dishes that might work well.

Complement or contrast?

The next consideration is whether to complement or contast the beer with the main flavours in the food. Either approach works well, but in this case, the bitterness would complement any big savoury dish, such as a robust game stew, whilst the chocolate and coffee notes would work well with toffee or caramel dishes such as crème brulee. Keep in mind that you do not always have to match the main protein element, i.e. the fish or meat, but might match a dressing, sauce or side dish.

Match strength with strength

Finally, you need to think about the beer’s strength in terms of alcohol, flavor and colour. This ruby mild is pretty strong on all three fronts and so requires a robust food match - this isn’t something to drink with lightly poached white fish…

The result

I decided to match Jon’s beer with a cherry and chocolate clafoutis. As a warm dessert, it brings back memories of drinking dark beers by a roaring country pub fire. To complement the colour and flavour profile I’ve added bitter chocolate to the batter and macerated the cherries in kirsch to really maximize their “cherryness”. Serving a scoop of vanilla ice cream completes the black forest gateaux homage, which works brilliantly with the chocolate and red fruit notes in the beer, as well as providing a temperature and flavour contrast for the dish itself.

Cherries, chocolate and booze - what's not to like?

For those who struggle with the idea of drinking beer with dessert I also created a welsh rarebit as a more conventional alternative. The mature hard cheese, sage and onion make this a particularly savoury version and there is just enough of Jon’s beer in the recipe to tie the food and drink together.

Hopefully we’ve got you thinking that wine is not the only option when matching food. Celebrity chef Tom Kerridge famously serves a shot glass of dark ale with his chocolate ale cake at the two Michelin starred Hand & Flowers - and if it’s good enough for him…