Food Mysteries: Broken Alfredo (Sauce)

Friend of The Food Geek Greg Turner of Kitchen Sojourn tells a sad tale of a broken Alfredo sauce, a tale that I am not unfamiliar with. Back in the day, I used to make Alfredo sauce much the same way he did, and while it was tasty, you could feel the arteries clogging while you were chewing, not just after you swallow. Also, it's a finicky sauce. Let's take a look at general path he took to make it:
heat some heavy cream (about 1/2 a cup) over medium heat Begin adding fresh grated Parmesan cheese, whisking gently Taste Add more cheese, whisk Taste Add some butter, a little cheese, whisk Taste At this point the detail become a little fuzzy. I may have added a splash of milk (2%) to the mix because I was all out of cream. Then, on the final addition of cheese, the sauce absolutely came apart, separated like curds and whey and I was left with a soupy mix of small cheese crumbles (each about the size of a bacon bit) and a watery liquid that was more like skim milk than heavy cream.
A perfectly good, perfectly tasty recipe. Unfortunately, at some point he had to use a milk for a bit of the liquid, and he added a bit more cheese, and the whole thing broke. Clumps of cheese and mess everywhere. Delicious mess, but not delicious enough. The great thing about this Alfredo sauce is that it's a combination of fat, fat, umami-laden cheese, and salt. You give to guests, they enjoy, and shortly thereafter you break out the home defibrillator. The evening ends with a toast to your health, and everyone considers the dinner a success. The bad thing about it is that it's, well, too much of a good thing. There's a much easier way to make this kind of sauce that incorporates most of the flavor with not nearly as much death-dealing cholesterol and in a non-breaking manner. Consider this: with the above recipe, what's providing the structure for the sauce? It's not the cream, and it's not the butter. It's certainly not the salt. Which leaves the cheese. What you're attempting to do is to melt the cheese in the right way so that the protein loses its rigid form and turns into a connected mesh around the liquid and fat. You are, in effect, making a stretchy bungee-cord net, but out of cheese, for all of the rest of the ingredients. What most likely went wrong? With a cheese sauce, chances are that there was too much stirring, and the net collapsed into little patches of protein strands, much as if you stretched the strings of the bungee-cord net too far and several broke at once. The fats in the cream and butter stayed with the cheese, because the cheese also contains fat, so it all just stuck together and the water was the odd man out.* In any case, you're going about this sauce the difficult way. Don't force the cheese to define the structure. Let something else do that work for you, and allow the cream and cheese to provide flavor. Get some sort of starch to do the heavy lifting, and maybe an egg for some emulsification. Try a bechamella.** There's Mario Batali's, which is perfectly good. Add some cheese to it at the end, and you're set. No muss, no fuss. That's an egg-free version, but you could do eggy if you wanted to. That's what I do with my macaroni and cheese. So, in this case you have the starch in the flour that absorbs liquid and, once it reaches a temperature around the boiling point of water, springs out in all directions. Instead of being a taut bungee cord, it's more like a bunch of springs that are still trying to push out of the confined space. Nothing's getting out of that structure, but it's not in such a precarious position as the protein net. Also, because you're not forcing the cheese to provide structure, you don't have to use cream, as the cream is less likely to curdle for reasons which I won't go into now, but involves casein. Some other time. In any case, plenty tasty***, healthier, and less fussy. How great is that? That a heap of great. *- Had the fat separated from the sauce, I would have suspected overheating it. Then the protein strands would have bunched together and squeezed out all the fat. **- Or, if you haven't gone to the Italian re-education centers like I have, a b├ęchamel. ***- You can go overboard on the cheese reduction, though, so don't skimp there. You still want to taste the parmesan.

Food Mysteries: Liquid Frosting

One of my favorite food activities is when someone is having a problem with a recipe and ask for help. Whether it's asked directly to me or just in my vicinity, it gives me a chance to test what I've learned and see how well I'm doing. There's nothing like taking some basic problem, breaking it down as best I can, and attempting to come up with a solution. Sometimes I'm right, often I'm wrong, but it's generally worth the effort. In this particular instance, one of my twitter friends asked: Broken_Recipe.png This was a little vague, but my mystery-loving nose was a-twitchin', so I asked for more information. What she told me was that she had this coffee mascarpone frosting recipe that she'd used for forever. Normally it went together with no trouble, but this time it was much more fluid than solid, which is generally not what you want with a frosting. The recipe was:
  • 1 cup chilled whipping cream
  • 8 oz mascarpone
  • 1/4 cup ground coffee
  • 2 to 3 cups confectioner's sugar (depending upon how thick you prefer frosting)
Whip up whipping cream in mixer until soft peaks begin to form. Fold in mascarpone and coffee grinds. Then while mixing over low speed, slowly add the confectioner's sugar one cup at a time, being careful not to over whip frosting. Okay, all well and good. Comparing with other frosting recipes, it appeared that the sugar should be more than enough to thicken things up (although sugar does not thicken in the same way a starch does, it can still do its share under the right circumstance, generally by dissolving itself into water and preventing the water from moving about). As the coffee is ground and not, say, a liquid, it wasn't likely to throw anything off. I asked if perhaps she was using a different brand of whipping cream with more liquid, or a different mascarpone, but no, that was all the same. As the cream was being whipped, there was a possibility that it was the culprit. It's easy to break a whipped cream with too much heat. So I suggested that perhaps something were warmer than usual and that may have caused the trouble. Finally, I noticed that other recipes, rather than whipping the cream first then folding and mixing, just threw everything together and mixed that way. I suggested that, if she still had everything together, perhaps she could give that a go. The responded to tell me that, yes, it was the temperature. Hurrah! But, instead of being too warm, the mascarpone was too cold, and bringing it to room temperature fixed the problem. Hurroo. So I was half-right, and I was helpful, and I learned something. That's all good. As I get better, hopefully I will be right more than I am wrong. As with most of life, the important thing is to never stop learning.