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You’ve probably had flavoured jelly growing up. The dynamic, jiggly dessert that comes in multitudes of pure flavours and bright colours, to many of us, now remains source of a much needed daily dose of sugar, or a remembrance of our fond childhood memories. As such, it might be a bit of a stretch to believe that this basic tea-time snack can be elevated to a position where it frequently features in numerous Michelin starred restaurants around the world.
Traditionally, people have made use of pectins or gelatin to solidify liquids (usually fruit extracts) to form jellies. The oldest recipes for jellies date back to the early 1400s. In them, collagen-rich pig’s ears and feet were boiled and then filtered into special bags. These early gelatin dishes offered medieval diners a novel form and shape-shifting texture coupled with a means of temporarily holding off spoilage for the jelly-encased meats and vegetables.
This novelty aspect of jelly holds up in the modern times as well; gelatin and its cousins (hydrocolloids), known for their characteristic colourless and tasteless properties, as well as their ability to be formed into any shape, flavour, or color are something of a chef’s dream, making a multitude of new food types possible. In the recent years, where there has been a tremendous interest in molecular gastronomy and molecular cuisine, these ingredients allow molecular gastronomy chefs to make innovative creations such as a jelly sphere with a liquid centre, jelly caviars, jelly spaghetti, jelly coatings for solid ingredients and many other creative gels that elevate the basic jelly into a dish of its own merit and stretch the boundaries of their versatile nature.
One of the most iconic food items in molecular gastronomy is the creation of ‘caviars’, solid jelly balls or gels with a thin layer of solid film on them that can be used to garnish dishes or served as an amuse-bouche. This is accomplished via the basic spherification technique, the submerging of a liquid with sodium alginate in a bath of calcium to form a sphere. Originally, the spheres were fully solid and did not have a liquid centre. In 2003, after a lot of experimentation, Ferran Adria, the head chef of the El Bulli restaurant and his team successfully created small balls with liquid inside (caviar), and, applying the same principle to larger spheres, made “spherical ravioli”
It is common to see in molecular gastronomy that upon the discovery of a new technique, chefs use their imagination and apply it to different contexts, so as to come up with entirely different dishes. This is what led to the creation of spherical noodles (jelly spaghetti).
The first spherical noodles were created using a syringe filled with a mixture of lychee-juice and sodium alginate, then drawing zigzagged lines over a calcium solution, resulting in lychee noodles. This concept, now, can be used to create many unimaginable flavours of noodles, such as the espresso pasta featured below.
These recipes that seem like they could belong in the menu of any first rate restaurant may appear to be too sophisticated to be made at home. However, this is far from the truth. Though many recipes involving molecular gastronomy do require specialized equipments and hard to find ingredients, many of these items are more readily available now than they were a few years ago, thanks to the rising popularity of molecular gastronomy.
From the days of boiled down animal cartilage in order to preserve food for long periods of time to today where many chemicals are used to make jelly in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, flavours and colours, jelly has come a long way in terms of its culinary depth. With new advancements in technology comes new discoveries that broaden the horizon of molecular gastronomy, and ignites the passionate curiosity, the childlike enthusiasm in us.