Friday, January 30, 2009

Collection 2009 - Lobster Du Jour

Our celebration of lobster and coffee begins.

While many of my barista contemporaries were off playing with chocolate, cardamom and martini glasses, I've always been drawn to the stranger and darker side of coffee. A playground where coffee tries to meet cuisine in a venue other than simply dessert or eggs benedict. And while my friends were occupied theorizing and proving the number of stirs to be performed during a brew cycle (certainly important work for our craft), I've spent a lot of time trying to get out there and tasting as many flavors and textures as possible.

The one thing I have discovered through all of this is that nothing is truly original and that everything is based on basics. Culinary wizards like Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz would not have been able to achieve what they have accomplished had it not been for a thorough grounding in basics. I've tried to spend as much time as possible this past year going back, learning and shoring up my basic barista and cooking skills.

Like everything, what I'm going to discuss here is a work in progress. No matter the recipe, there's always a different and sometimes better approach. Several years ago, we developed a drink called "Coffee and a Cigarette." It became one of our most widely talked about developments and even the approach for that drink has changed over the years.

I've always been fascinated about bringing coffee together with savory flavors. But coffee tends to be quite difficult to work with. It's flavors tend to clash with many of the savory flavors out there. It needs to be tamed and it's so easy to screw up a shot of espresso that adding it to a dish utterly destroys it.

Then there's the color. Brown. It's quite unfortunate really. The brown color of coffee is so strong and so concentrated that it permeates everything and anything it comes into contact. So many ideas of presenting coffee with ingredients that offer an exciting and vibrant palette of color, but once it mixes with the coffee it turns brown. An ugly brown. A detestable brown. A brown that mucks up any and all colors. It's quite frustrating.

World Barista Champion James Hoffmann once reported attempting to separate coffee from its' color. A "clear coffee" if you will. A noble cause if you ask me. The complex flavors of coffee in an orange liquid? Exciting. While I don't remember the details, it had something to do with a centrifuge that separated the color from the liquid but also separated some important flavor components as well. Unfortunate, and I'm not ready to spend the multi-thousands of dollars for a large centrifuge.

In spite of my busy schedule, I try to get some seat time in my library to browse and read through my ever-growing collection of books on business, cooking, coffee and food. It helps to frame the mind, generate ideas and develop menus. For the most part, I think of recipes as guidelines. Suggestions on ingredients. The reality is that you might not have all the ingredients at hand, or in the quantity specified. How do you make do? For me, recipes are a springboard for experimentation. I see one chef/barista using a certain combination and I'm fascinated. How do those flavors go together and what about these flavors?

From there, we're off and running attempting what, hopefully, will be something exciting. Many times, the tests end in failure. Hmmm, perhaps there's a reason why we haven't had certain combinations (let's say chocolate, liver and coffee, for example) before.

Then other times, you stumble upon something fun and interesting, like rhubarb shave ice or thyme cotton candy.

This time, I was perusing a book by Eric Ripert, On The Line and his take on celery and lobster. Normally, lobster wouldn't be an ideal candidate for coffee but the celeriac? I bet that would blend nicely with coffee. And from there it started.

Fresh celeriac.


Mainly a winter vegetable, Celeriac (Apium graveolens Rapaceum Group) is also known as "celery root" and is grown as a root vegetable. It's a pretty darn ugly-looking vegetable with a thick, knobby outer skin that needs to be cut off rather than peeled. Unfortunately, Martin Farm had already gone through their harvest of celeriac so I was left with visiting the local Wegman's for a big, three pound knob of celeriac.

Making the base is pretty straightforward. Melt some butter in a casserole (this time my trusty Le Creuset oval in yellow) and lightly soften the diced celeriac. Add salt and white pepper to taste then fill with water. Simmer until the celeriac is tender then transfer celeriac dice to a blender, saving the cooking liquid.

Puree celeriac in blender, adding the cooking water to achieve the desired consistency. Adjust seasoning. Done.

Diced celeriac in a pan with butter.

For my purposes, I ended up with a slightly thick base that wasn't too viscous. I wanted a thicker base because I knew the espresso would loosen the mix. I also took it easy on the salt, not bringing it to the level I would normally if I were making a soup. The flavor can easily be adjusted once the drink is finished.

If you're not working with it straightaway, the celeriac base will keep for at least seven days in refrigeration and up to 4 months in the freezer. I expect it should thaw with very little affect from freezing.


For just about all occasions, I prefer Maine lobsters (Homarus Americanus) over other species, such as spiny lobsters or slipper lobsters. Those are fine in other parts of the world but nothing matches the rich and springy flesh of a proper Americanus.

I've never killed a lobster before. Usually when it's time to cook lobster, I drop them in boiling water or hit them with a boiling combination of water and vinegar. I've never made the mistake of placing them in a steamer and then turning on the heat, where they die a long, slow and agonizing death as the water heats to steam and slowly burns them to death as they, literally, scream in horror as they slowly die. It sounds horrible and my friends who've made that mistake tell me that it is horrible.

Our lobster awaiting his fate.

This time, I wanted to separate the raw meat from the shells for poaching and roasting, which meant I had to do that which I had never done before: dispatch the lobster with a knife. I've been party to death before: the shooting of cows, the evisceration of pigs, the slicing of chickens and the (accidental) running over of cats, but no matter how many times I've been a party to death, it never sits well with me.

I think it's a good thing that we learn how to kill our own food. It's a good thing to be reticent about the act. It's a good thing to suffer some level of remorse after doing the deed. It builds respect and recognition about our food that doesn't exist when it comes wrapped in shrink-wrapped plastic in the refrigerated aisle at the grocery store.

I had been told that the most humane way of dispatching a lobster is to place the tip of your chef's knife in the center of the head right at the first shell crease behind the eyes, with the blade facing the front of the lobster. Plunge the knife tip quickly into and through the head and rotate the blade downward, slicing the head in half. I expected it to be clean and sterile. It was anything but.


Like a chicken whose neck has been severed whose body flails about as death overcomes it, the lobster too has a similar, if less violent, reaction. It moves. It doesn't stop moving. The antennae move. The eyes move. Shit, did I not kill this thing??? Is it writhing in agony? Jesus Christ, I can't to anything more. The small arms move. Fuck, I don't know what to do. No one told me about any of this.

I'm worried that I didn't kill the lobster properly and feel utterly horrible. Not only have I killed a creature but I killed it with pain. I pray that the lobster truly is dead because my next action won't ease any pain it may be feeling. I rip the claws off with a twist.

But I don't stop there.

Next, I grab the body and the tail, juices steam out of the body cavity into the counter and run down my arm. I twist the body and tail in opposing directions. Snaaaap! The tail separates from the body and I'm horrified as two long, black sacks dangle from the body. Are those excrement sacs? Maybe their roe sacks? Shit, I don't know. I just want to get this over with as quickly as possible. I still have a second lobster to dispatch and I'm not enjoying this first task.

Now, I need to get the meat out of the tail. I grab it and try to break the fins off, no luck. Grab the knife, put it to the fins and, suddenly, Holy Craaap! The tail seizes into a ball. It's sudden, unexpected and I'm freaked out! I drop it to the counter and after recomposing myself, I straighten it out and try again. It snaps tight and I'm freaked again. Shit, this sucks.

Using the back of the knife, I crack open one of the claws but the meat is sticking to the inside of the shell. It's not coming out easily or whole. There's no way around it, I'm gonna have to blanch the lobster.

Right there I decide that I'm gonna blanch the other lobster as well. I'm really not in the mood to kill the second one with a knife and quickly heat a pot of water with just a little vinegar. Once it hits the boil, I'm just gonna dump the liquid over the lobster and it will be dead.

Thinking that it would be cruel and unusual punishment, I decide to put the second live lobster in a separate pot than the dismembered pieces of his now dead brother. Maybe the lobster isn't intelligent enough to know the difference but I would think it was torture if I were placed in a stainless tank with pieces of one of my friends scattered around me. I'm just not that cruel.

The idea behind blanching lobsters is to kill them quickly and loosen the meat without actually cooking it. Once the liquid reaches a boil, I pour it over the lobster. There's no struggle and the lobster is killed quickly. Leave in blanching liquid for two minutes and then plunge the lobster into an ice water bath to chill and stop the heat from cooking the meat.

From there, it's easy peasy. Separate the tail and claw meat from the shells and save the shells. We'll use those to create the cream.


I've been thinking that I want to add some of the meat to the drink as a garnish, either in the vessel or off to the side, maybe on top. Whatever happens in the end, we need to cook the meat. One of the best ways I've discovered is by poaching the meat in a Beurre Monte sauce.

To make the sauce, simply cut butter into tablespoon sized chunks and heat a couple ounces of water in a sauce pan until boiling. Slowly add the butter, one pat at a time, while combining with the water using a whisk. You're creating an emulsion with the water that prevents the milk solids from separating from the fat in butter (as you would do when clarifying butter).

Bathing the lobster meat in Beurre Monte at 59.5C.

Continue to add and whisk in butter until you've reached the volume of Beurre Monte you desire. In our case, I needed enough to poach the lobster meat in a small metal pan that I would hold at temperature in a sous vide water bath at 59.5C.

If using a controlled device, set the temperature to 59.5C. You can either float the Beurre Monte in a pan in the bath or make enough Beurre Monte to fill an entire deep hotel pan and use the immersion circulator directly in the Beurre Monte. I don't have the need for such a large bath so I just floated the pan in the bath.

Note: if you float the Beurre Monte in the bath, give it a good hour with lots of stirring to bring the Beurre Monte to the proper temperature.

The finished meat ready to eat and wonderfully tender.

Once at temperature, poach lobster meat in Beurre Monte at 59.5C for fifteen minutes. The meat will be cooked through and still very tender. It will be perfect. In fact, it will be so perfect that your family and friends may be unnerved by it. Having been so used to tough and rubbery overcooked lobster, they may be a little skittish about soft and perfectly cooked lobster meat, mistakenly thinking that it's undercooked. It's not undercooked, it's just that most people have only eaten overcooked lobster all their lives.

After fifteen minutes, pull from the Beurre Monte and hold until needed. Meat can be wrapped and refrigerated for at least three days.


Now that you have your lobster shells, rinse and clean them in cold water. Remove the gills, tomalley and guts. Save the roe.

Heat olive oil in a casserole and once hot, add lobster shells and roast for a few minutes until the shells are bright red.

Note: Break or chop the shells into pieces much smaller than in the photos. After starting to roast them, I discovered that they were still too big, making the whole roasting thing unwieldy.

Sizzling the lobster shells in brandy and tomato.

Add a couple tablespoons of tomato paste and coat the shells.

Add a couple ounces of brandy and reduce to dry.

After the brandy has reduced, cover the shells in heavy cream and simmer until the sauce has reduced by one fourth.

Adding the cream to simmer and finish.

Strain the now flavored cream through a china cap or chinois to remove shells. Strain sauce through a chinois as many time as you can stand to remove matter from the sauce, cleaning the chinois between each pass. The more times you pass the sauce through the chinois, the silkier the texture.

When ready, chill the cream in the refrigerator until cold.

Containers of Lobster Cream and Celeriac Base ready for transport.


Since our space at The Spro is limited, I end up doing most of the development work in my home kitchen or at Woodberry Kitchen's kitchen. The task is to develop the product and then drill it down for line production, i.e. how do we break it down to its' components to be reproduced in an environment that may not have all the necessary equipment (like burners and ovens). How to break it down to work in an espresso bar?

Of course, it would be ideal to build a studio kitchen where all development can be done but The Spro unfortunately isn't El Bulli or The Fat Duck, so we make do. One of the challenges is that I don't maintain an operational espresso machine at home. Sure, I've got a La Marzocco Linea 4EE in the garage and a E61 type La Valentina in the basement but none of them are installed since I hate cleaning up after myself and I'm a messy barista.

As such, all tests with espresso have to be done at The Spro where we have a fresh supply of coffee and a rip=roaring Linea 3AV and three grinders at our disposal.

Celeriac Base in a mini latte bowl.

Our tests took on several approaches and combinations. Do we add the celeriac base first? Or the espresso? Maybe eliminate the celeriac altogether and let the espresso and lobster cream stand on their own? Lots of questions and lots of possible variations.

After a few tries, it's obvious that the celeriac needs to go first. It's pretty thick compared to the espresso and needs to be mixed by hand. This means that if we took the time to add the celeriac base after the shot then we would lose some of the crema and its' volatile aromatics and flavors. By having the celeriac base in the cup during the shot we can combine the two immediately.

Pulling a shot over the celeriac base.

We also tried eliminating the celeriac, going with just the espresso and lobster cream. Immediately we realized this was the wrong direction. Like I had suspected early on, the celeriac balances the acidity of the espresso, smoothening it out. The base had to remain. Otherwise, it was just offensive.

Straightaway, we noticed a critical error in preparation. In an effort to infuse as much lobster flavor into the cream as possible, we heated it to a simmer. This heating changes the structure of the milk enzymes, preventing us from achieving a silky, velvet texture while steaming the lobster cream with the espresso machine. For the next attempt, I think a cold infusion will serve our needs better and allow us to achieve the silky texture without sacrificing flavor.

Mixing the espresso with the base and testing serving vessels.

Different ratios demonstrated wild swings in flavor balance. Some needed the enhancement of salt. Others did not. We were looking for a balance of the coffee and celeriac with an undercurrent of lobster. Or, more accurately, the structure of espresso, solidified with the celeriac, topped by the a lingering high note of creamy lobster.

Part of the solution is the serving vessel itself. How to present the drink gracefully while ensuring the proper ratio of ingredients. Some vessels may be the ideal size but are just too plain and boring. Others look interesting but are prone to spilling. Some are just funky but absolutely not functional.

One thing I always want to avoid are those vessels that have quickly become a cliche in barista circles. Stemmed glassware and martini glasses being the most obvious culprits, followed closely by Bodum insulated glassware and anything with cardamom.

Using sodium chloride to enhance flavor.

In the end, I think we came up with the correct ratio of coffee to base to cream that delivers what we set out to achieve. It's different. Definitely outside of most peoples preconceptions of coffee, perhaps too much so. As the weeks progress and development continues we'll refine our approach and technique. Already I'm wondering if the lobster cream can be dried into a hardened foam a la Paco Torreblanca.

Right now, I'm thinking that the drink color is better than the average brown but still needs enhancement. Maybe a topping of grated frozen lobster or grated black truffle might be the trick.

A potential contender.