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Jan 13 2011

What Is It For?

by Dea Anne M

Take a guess as to what this is.

Its components are described as: “…falling chocolate trunk filled with frozen chocolate powder, on a forest floor of lime-and mint yogurt, with almond praline, puffed quinoa, and green-pistachio streusel.

…or how about this…

Some of its (many) ingredients include frozen green pine cone powder, green pine cone “infusion”, and liquid nitrogen.

Give up? Both of these are desserts from Spain’s famed El Bulli restaurant. Set to close in 2011, the restaurant is considered by many to have led the way in innovating the most advanced of avant garde techniques in cooking today, and El Bulli’s pastry chef , Albert Adria, is one of a handful of chefs whose work is profiled by by Adam Gopnik in the article “Sweet Revolution: the power of the pastry chef” in the January 3rd issue of The New Yorker.

Having given up sweets, both at homes and at restaurants, Gopnik begins to puzzle over the purpose of dessert. Certainly,  humans seem to be hard-wired, for the most part, to gravitate toward the sweet in food. At its most basic level, sweetness indicates  ripeness and serves as a marker for what food is good to eat. However, up until fairly recently, substances that make food sweet were scarce and were used sparingly and mostly by the rich. All of that changed during the seventeenth century with the advent of what Gopnik calls a “hideous invention” (an assessment with which I agree) of the West Indies sugar plantation. Cheap sugar led to a revolution in dessert cuisine in France with, as Gopnik describes it, “the pastry chef as hero.” At New York’s WD-50, Gopnik speaks with pastry chef Alex Stupak who says: “I happen to not like sweets. It’s an idiosyncrasy of mine. I decided to become a pastry chef because it gave me autonomy. Whether you think your desserts are manipulated or not, they are!…Pastry is the closet that a human being can get to creating a new food.” It’s clear that for this chef creating dessert is creating art.

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