IMBB#15: All Jelled Up and Nowhere to Go


Quartet of espresso gelées: clockwise from top left are curry, lavender, star anise and fennel.

It seemed like such a unique idea. After all, who would think to JELL coffee? Well, I’ll tell you who: other adventurous food-bloggers (as I write, THREE jelled coffees have already been posted by Santos, Joone and Barbara, and I thought that being in Europe I was ahead of the game!).

The Recipe:

I chose this recipe after realizing that I had senselessly squandered my all-time gelatin favorite for last month’s IMBB. I was tempted into trying jellied coffee by epicurious, who among all their gelatin-laden delights offered me this chance to combine COFFEE with CURRY, a pairing I never would have dared dream about, much less invent myself. Suitably intrigued by this unorthodox duo, I decided to branch out and not limit myself to one unexpected flavor combination, but FOUR. I mean if you’re going to do something, go ahead and do it right. Even if most of it ends up down the drain, at least your horizons will have been stretched that tiny little bit more.

The Verdict:

Coffee with CURRY: This was the original, and every single person who reviewed this recipe online said it was unexpectedly good (of course there were plenty others who unabashedly bypassed the curry). I must say I agree. The flavor of the curry is amazing subtle, and I would even go so far as to say it’s unrecognizable as curry. It just tastes like very intriguingly-spiced coffee. Used with restraint, this was my favorite of the lot.

Coffee with LAVENDER: This turned out to be the most disappointing. I think lavender’s grassy, herbal flavor is better suited to pairings with fruity or creamy, rather than bitter.

Coffee with STAR ANISE: I kept thinking of Thai coffee as I ate this, the kind that comes iced and tooth-achingly sweet. The combination of star anise and coffee was good; not quite as complex as the curry, but very fragrant and hauntingly exotic. A definite success.

Coffee with FENNEL: This surprised me by how much I liked it. I thought fennel would echo lavender and clash with the bitterness of the coffee, but the opposite was true. Thinking about it, I realized that coffee and aniseed are old buddies (think coffee with sambuca, for example), and fennel and aniseed are very similar. Two thumbs up, and a nice complement to the other three flavors.

Will I make it again? No doubt. It is unbelievably easy, the flavors are sophisticated and intriguing, and the recipe offers almost endless possibilities for experimentation. I wish everything I cooked was like this!

And by the way, thanks to Elise for hosting this month’s event. Can’t wait to see the roundup!

Quartet of Espresso Gelées with Curry, Lavender, Star Anise and Fennel
Serves: 6

For the Coffee Gelée:
1 cup freshly-brewed espresso
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brandy or other liquor (optional)
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin

For the Spiced Cream:
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar or mild honey
1/8 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon dried lavender
1 star anise
1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Soften the gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water for 1 minute. Combine with the espresso, boiling water and sugar in a large bowl and stir until the sugar and gelatin have both dissolved. If things have cooled too much by this point for this to happen, heat it gently in a saucepan until there are no granules left. Add the brandy (if using), and do one of two things: either spoon the mixture into individual cups or bowls, or else keep it all in one bowl, and then put it in the fridge to chill for several hours.

In the meantime, using a clean coffee grinder grind the lavender, star anise and fennel separately. Reserve.

When the gelées have set, whip the cream with the sugar or honey. Separate the cream into four bowls; into each portion fold in one of the reserved spices. If you’ve chilled the gelée in one bowl, spoon it out now into individual cups or bowls. Top each portion of gelee with one spoonful of each of the differently-spiced creams. Or you could serve four communal bowls contianing the gelee and different creams, and let people help themselves to the flavors they like.

Note: I was really impressed with the flavor possibilities of this simple dessert. I can think of many other traditional and nontraditional flavors I would like to try here: lemongrass, cardamom, chili, grapefruit, rosemary, ginger, saffron – basically anything with enough punch to stand up next to the dark, malty espresso.

Tasting Notes

A cask-strength whisky given to Manuel for his birthday: a nose of burnt bacon, followed by memories of a sweater you wore by the campfire last summer, rounded out with a rusty barbed-wire fence and the scent of wet asphalt on a Tuesday morning.

And you thought you knew whisky. Oh sure, you probably knew that there is whisky without an ‘e’ from Scotland, whiskey with an ‘e’ from Ireland, whisky from Canada and the US, whisky from Japan, and whisky perverted into things like bourbon and rye by people who thought they could make a good thing better. You may know that whisky can be distilled once or three times; it can be single malt or blended, it can be aged in casks that previously held sherry, port or rum, and it can be reasonably affordable or unfathomably expensive. You probably even know it has varying flavor profiles, running the gauntlet from throat-scratchingly smoky to deliciously smooth, sweet and mild. But I’ll bet there’s some things about whisky you don’t know.

If you’re a wine aficionado you know that there is an entire vocabulary connoisseurs use to describe their favorite libation: fruity, jammy, leathery, oaky, chewy, floral, peppery, round, lengthy and complex are all common terms used to attempt to pin down wine’s elusive and enigmatic qualities. If you’re just an occasional drinker you probably scratch your head when reading such descriptions on the label, thinking, well, to me it tastes like WINE. Maybe a little sweeter at times, maybe a little vinegary at others (depending how much you forked out for the bottle), but all those fancy adjectives just seem like they’ve been made up to keep sommeliers in a job.

Well, have I got news for you. Did you know that in terms of vocabulary, in terms of nuance, and in terms of lunatic imagination, the world of whisky tasting has the world of wine tasting beat hands down by about a BILLION to ONE? Take the Scotch Malt Whisky Society as an example, an international membership organisation with headquarters in Scotland that specialises in buying single barrels of particularly good cask-strength whiskys, bottling them under their own label and making them available to members for purchase. Each barrel they acquire goes through a rigorous evaluation process by their panel of tasters before being given the seal of approval. After making their final selection, the tasters write up summaries of their findings, ostensibly to give members a head start on deciphering the subtle nuances of each bottle. These tasters have evaluated the finest whiskys in the world, and they have the vocabulary to prove it. Luckily for us, the Society releases their tasting notes to the public.

Below are some excerpts cobbled together from their voluminous archive of notes, accessible to anyone through their website. There is no joke here; each and every description below has appeared in their (very reputable) newsletter. I must warn you – reading through them is like taking a bungee jump for the mind. You may never look at things (or at least at whisky) in the same way again.

The nose is wonderfully fragrant – marzipan and wallpaper paste, soap flakes and rose petals. It drinks well at natural strength, with a thick mouthfeel and an oily aftertaste. The taste is sweet, hot, mouth filling and long, like the sun on a heathery hillside. Enjoy a bumpy, exciting ride with a whisky that is old enough to know better.

The nose is rich, deep and complex: reminiscent of well-worn church pews, hymn books, and even a distant trace of incense, but not musty. The first taste is of shellac and bay rum, with ripe peaches and over-ripe bananas. This resolves into boiled candy, before becoming deliciously waxy with expensive furniture polish.

The first impression on the nose is Kit-Kat chocolate, still in its wrapper. The palate continues in the same vein with a burnt twig finish. The unreduced nose evokes orange peels, cooking chocolate and the caramelized part of an upside down cake, all sitting on top of a leather armchair.

The first nose is of ashes in a grate, wet paper, ground cloves and dead wood. The flavour is peppery, with cigar boxes and pencil shavings. Behind this is a light phenolic note of band-aids and crepe bandages. Water brings up the Speyside character, but there remains a slightly musty, mossy note, or, as one panel member observed, the scent of a clean dog.

The taste is deliciously mature and rich, with a little heat on the mouth, and a delicate hint of pencil eraser. Once diluted, ripe melon and bicycle tyre aromas appear. In the corner a girl wearing perfume is doing her nails.

The initial nose is of peaches, soft toffee, ozone and dusty barns. Diluted, it tantalises with a touch of science classroom or the smell of skin after a swim. And then comes a baked pastry quality, fresh from the oven. A sweetly coy and charming dram with a frivolous wink.

After a while the scents of a carpenter’s shop emerge: fresh wood shavings, wood glue, teak oil. Tasting at this stage is not advised: it is hot and fiery, with white pepper and chillies. Water unfolds the true character of the whisky: candlewax, scented smoke – think of a high church just after mass has concluded – with a light medicinal note, like a footbath in a swimming pool.

Pass your nose over the glass and there is subtle smoke and pancetta – boy scouts are frying something nice in the forest.

It is a glowing gold whisky and noses of oil and rubber and steam; standing on a bridge while the Flying Scotsman rushes beneath, or the wooden work bench at Swan Hunter’s shipyard. If you want to experience the industrial revolution in a glass, here it is.

That’s pretty convincing stuff, eh? There’s obviously more to whisky than meets the eye. To find out how you too can become a member of the Society and try all these mind-boggling flavors for yourself,  just click here to learn all about the membership opportunities in your country.

Of course, you could just try heading down to your corner liquor store and asking for "something mossy, with a hint of old dog". They just might know what you mean.

The List


It’s springtime in Edinburgh.

Apart from the return of the birds who have drowsily emerged from their winter stupors, and apart from the first green shoots struggling to gain a foothold in the mud, and apart from the incessant daylight which provides extended viewing opportunities of the rain outside your window (just in case you missed it over the winter), spring is the time for the annual debut of The List.

The List, or more accurately, The List Eating & Drinking Guide, is an offshoot of The Weekly List, a popular events magazine. The List foodguide comes out once per year, and reviews every restaurant, bar, cafe and food shop in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is regarded by many as Scotland’s food bible, and several people I know base their dining choices exclusively on its recommendations. When I first arrived here I thought it must be a godsend to foodies, perhaps a local Gault-Millau or Zagat-type treasure. I had a lot to learn.

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I have actually grown to hate The List. I mean, I know it happens to be the only comprehensive catalog of all places with things edible, and amazingly its authors manage to (re)review just about each and every place mentioned in the guide before its annual issue. I also freely admit that without The List, I wouldn’t know half of the places to eat in this city. But this pales in comparison with the reason I hate The List: the reviews, to put it in plain English, suck. I’m tempted to say that the reviewers outright lie, but that may be courting impoliteness a little too intimately. Let’s just say I have learned the hard way that I have to take every restaurant review with a bowlful of salt. The thing is – and this should set off warning bells no matter where in the world you are – that they never have a bad word to say about any restaurant. In Scotland to not have a bad word to say about any eating establishment is like wearing shorts and flip-flops all year round. It is indicative of a severely frayed connection with reality.

Here’s a story to help you understand my history with The List. Despite the fact that several of the worst restaurants I had eaten at in Edinburgh had been the recipients of faultless reviews, I still decided to trust The List to pick out a ‘special occasion’ restaurant to celebrate an anniversary several months ago. The restaurant we chose was marked with The List’s special Orange Square, which means it is one of their favorites in the category (which, by the way, was the ‘pretentious and expensive’ category). The review itself was particularly glowing, with descriptions of the way in which this restaurant had remained at the top of Edinburgh’s dining scene for more than a decade due to the unwavering commitment of its legendary chef in sourcing the finest ingredients available, and how this particular chef’s preparations were delightfully cutting-edge, yet wholesomely unpretentious. Well, the atmosphere in the restaurant was delightful, which now that I think back, formed a suspiciously large part of the review. The food, on the other hand, was just okay, at least I think – you see, we didn’t actually get to taste very much of it. The meal consisted of retro-trendy nouvelle-cuisine sized portions of ‘rustic Continental favorites’ (which translated, apparently means tiny portions of simple French food). It didn’t actually look very rustic to me, but then again I didn’t have a microscope with me. For two small courses each and a bottle of their ‘house’ wine (we were too dismayed to risk dessert), we forked out around $200. It was at that moment I swore to fire bomb The List’s head office.

I might have done so, too, if a small nugget of wisdom hadn’t been recently imparted to me by someone who has lived here a bit longer. According to my informant, there is a code you need to learn before you can use The List. It basically involves learning that certain words have a deeper, subliminal meaning. The cheat sheet looks something like this:

cozy = cramped
cutting-edge/elegant/trendy = obscenely expensive
unpretentious = drab/ugly/plain
reliable cooking = unimaginative slop
rustic = plain/dull/simple, or in the case of food probably involving potatoes
pleasant = unpleasant
safe = unexciting
easygoing atmosphere = inattentive service
"the perfect eatery for those who crave choice"
= an eatery that has nothing going for it but the length of its menu

Thus informed, the reviews in The List actually make a lot of sense. When the new issue recently came out, for example, I found myself chuckling vindictively as I saw that the reviewers were ruthless indeed, and that all those horrible places I’ve been to got slammed with the reviews they deserved. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even started entertaining the possibility of eating out again based upon its recommendations. I’m convinced now that there must be dozens of fabulous restaurants out there, just waiting to reward my newfound code-breaking skills. For the first time in four years, good food may be within my grasp!

I’ll let you know just as soon I can afford to find out.