Usually, I can devour a new cookbook in the space of one or two evenings—reading all the front matter and back matter and giving a few thorough skims (and then some) to all the recipes in between. Not so with the recently released Alinea cookbook. Consuming this one has been a more protracted commitment, spanning a few weeks, filling the majority of my free time, and still, I feel as though I should pore over it a few more times.
This is no ordinary cookbook. This is a culinary tome. Before any recipes are introduced, there are several lengthy pieces—replete with heady analogies to art and philosophy and written by such heavy hitters as Jeffrey Steingarten,—set forth to frame the book and its purpose. The most exciting of these is the one written by the chef himself, Grant Achatz, which discusses in generous detail the thought processes and inspirations behind most of the 100 dishes featured in the book—a rare peek into the creative process.
Of the 600 recipes that follow, most call for special equipment, esoteric ingredients, or both, but this volume is not meant to be cooked from as much as it is intended to provide amazement, inspiration, and guidance. Certainly you are not supposed to run out and buy a $400 Vita-Prep blender, commission custom serving pieces, or track down calcium ascorbate in order to fully realize the Chocolate, Avocado, Lime dish at home. Rather, you might, after spending a bit of time with the book, develop a slightly different or enhanced understanding of the way flavors, textures, aesthetics, and aromas interact in the space of a dish, perhaps drawing a recipe or a technique or a general idea from here or there to incorporate into their own creations.
Although the book covers four separate 25-course tasting menus, with desserts generally lumped together about two-thirds of the way through the menu and again at the end, there is a persistent blur between sweet and savory throughout the courses. In "Hearts of Palm in Five Sections," presumably a savory dish (based on its location in the menu and the presence of roasted garlic mayonnaise), one of the five sections is stuffed with a sweet "vanilla pudding." In an orange dessert later in the book, picholine olives, olive oil, and basil play key roles. Throughout the recipes, sweet or savory, there are all sorts of novel techniques and juxtapositions that are just as valuable to the thoughtful dessert-maker as they are to any savory cook.
With no intention of recreating the many components of an entire dish or of buying new equipment or ingredients, it took some pondering and sifting to decide which recipe I would tackle to accompany this review. Eventually, because I happened to have all of the ingredients on hand and a bunch of concord grapes in the fridge that seemed like a nice match, and because these “puddings” are so ubiquitous throughout the book, I settled on the "chamomile pudding" that was part of the Orange, Olive Oil, Almond, Picholine Olive dish.
The instructions for the recipe were, overall, very clear, easy-to-follow and precise. That said, when I arrived at the third-to-last step in which the chilled agar-gelatin mixture is to be "blend[ed] on high speed until very smooth," I hit a wall. My blender’s version of high speed was no match for the viscous solution, nor was my food processor. What this job required, without question, was one of those godforsaken $400 blenders. Unwilling to head back into the restaurant in the cold just to use the blender, I settled with the result derived from my lowly residential equipment—a slightly spongy but decidedly puddingy paste that looked a bit like a smooth, light-colored apple sauce. It was a far cry from the sexy, gemlike dobs of translucent puddings captured in the book’s images, but with its pure chamomile flavor and decidedly unique texture, it wasn’t half bad. Here's the recipe »