What I learned trying to make a gelatin masterpiece for the first time.
Starting a food and recipe blog has been a really cool journey so far. Having a reason to devote time to my creative side is something that I had been missing . This blog has given me a chance to explore two of my passions, food and photography. Though it hasn't been very long, I have already learned so much. One of which is to not be too serious and try new things even if I have no clue what I am doing. An example of this being the story of the aspic.
A few months back, my husband was talking to some friends of his who own a microbrewery out here in the Eastern Townships called Canton Brasse. They knew I had started a cooking blog and joked around with him that I should make an aspic. I had no clue what aspics were. Google soon gave me the information I needed and I realized I knew what they were I just didn't know they had a name.
Aspic is a classic dish that has been around for centuries, and it has a long and fascinating history. It is a savory jelly that was originally made by boiling meat or fish bones rich in collagen, then straining the liquid and letting it cool until it solidified. The resulting jelly was used to encase meat, fish, or vegetables, creating a beautiful and unique presentation. Basically a cold soup made into a Jell-O cake.
Aspic has its origins in medieval Europe, where it was used as a way to preserve meat and fish without refrigeration. The gelatinous substance provided a stable, bacteria-free environment that kept the meat fresh for longer periods of time. Over time, aspic became more of a decorative dish, with cooks using it to create stunning centerpieces for banquets and other formal events.
We often picture aspics from the 1950s and 60s when, with the help of the invention of powdered gelatin, they became easy-to-make table centerpieces often made with canned vegetables and leftovers. But in my opinion, real aspics should be viewed as culinary masterpieces. They are painstakingly long to make and should be viewed as delicacies. (The opposite of what most people think when picturing cold gelatinous meat cakes).
I really liked the idea of this challenge. I promised I would make an aspic (the powdered gelatin kind) as long as they promised to eat it. The brewery guys agreed (with hesitation) and said if I made one, I should incorporate one of their beers. Even better! It turned into a fun collaboration. Now how to actually go about making an aspic?
My first vision for this project was to make a large Bundt cake style masterpiece. I had visions of a beautiful transparent jelly broth with layers of neatly placed cooked vegetables that would look like a scene out of an enchanted forest.
I am laughing at myself now knowing what this project ended up entailing. I applaud my imagination. Maybe one day it will happen (I really want it to), but it certainly was not what I ended up presenting.
Nowadays, it's much easier to make aspic thanks to the availability of powdered gelatin. While you don't need to boil down bones anymore, making aspic with gelatin still has its challenges as I found out.
Never having used powdered gelatin before, I decided I needed to do a trial run before making the real thing. I didn't know how it worked, how much to use or even where to find it in the grocery store. I ended up finding it in the baking isle next to the rest of the premade flavored Jell-O packs.
The tree main tips I gathered in my research on what to know when making aspic were:
1. It is important to have a good quality stock or broth to use as the base of your aspic. Since this will give the encasing flavor to the rest of the ingredients involved, you want it to have a good flavor base.
2. In order for the aspic to be visually appealing, the food is added in layers. This requires each layer of gelatin to cool in between adding the various layers of food (in other words get your patience game on).
3. Grease your mold before adding any gelatin or ingredients, this will help in releasing the aspic once it is set.
I decided to try a variety of foods and made mini bite sized aspics and recruited my husband to help me taste test. I used hard boiled eggs, broccoli, gherkins, dried meats and pickled onions. I also layered a few herbs thinking they could give some visual interest. I used good quality ready-made organic beef broth and added the gelatin powder (not using any beer yet as not to waste it incase this trial went horribly wrong). Patiently I layered my other ingredients, refrigerating it after each layer, and crossed my fingers. Luckily, because the molds I used for the testers were so small, it did not take long to set. When it was time to get the aspics out, they didn't quite sIip-out as I had hoped. I decided to dip the bottom of the pan into hot water for 5 seconds to try and loosen the gelatin and flipped the pan. This time it worked.
The outside layer of the jelly seemed like it melted a little from the heat of the warm water, so they were a bit runny, but they looked pretty good. Step one, success. Now it was time to taste them.
In the end, our favorite combinations included the mini gherkins and dried meats as well as the hard boiled egg and dill.
Now that I knew where I would go with the ingredients and what the process entailed it was time for the real deal. In sharing my aspic adventures on Instagram, one of my insta-friends, Karine, suggested I use a silicone mold instead as it is easier to get the aspic out. So I bought myself a nice silicone mold oiled it with a very thin layer of vegetable oil and got ready to make the beer aspic using a special brown ale from Canton Brasse called "La Bière Mariage".
I decided to flavor the beef stock by first making some caramelized onions. Once the onions were ready, I added the stock and cooked it for about 30 minutes. I then added the beer and cooked it on medium low for another 15 minutes or so. Once I felt the flavors had properly mingled I decided to strain out the onions and dehydrate half of them in my air fryer to try and make a crispy garnish for the aspic. It was the first time I used the dehydration setting (a lot of firsts for me with this challenge) and I was super pleased at how quickly it worked. It only took about 10 minutes at 300F and they were crispy.
I added the gelatin to the stock mixture and started layering my aspic. I layered the broth with some chives, followed by caramelized onions (not dehydrated), gherkins, hard boiled egg slices and to finish, some very thinly sliced smoky Swiss dried meat called Landjager. The entire layering process took all day and I left the aspics in the fridge overnight to make sure the gelatin had set completely.
Before bringing the final product to the guys at Canton Brasse I tested out a "trial" aspic that I had made on the side using a silicone muffin cup. Just to see how it would come out of a silicone mold and what it would look like. I was a little disappointed that the broth wasn't as clear as I had hoped, so it was hard to see the layering of the inside, but it came out of the mold in one piece and with the toppings, it didn't look half bad. Apparently, as I found out in later research, cooking some egg whites in your broth helps clarify it, as any impurities get caught in the egg white and you can then scoop them out. A tip for the next time I try to make aspic.
In the end, the 'real-deal' aspics came out beautifully. The silicone molds were awesome. Much easier to get the aspics out. The taste wasn't horrible either. It wasn't absolutely delicious, but I think the bigger issue was the texture. Too much cold, salty Jell-O. Unfortunately, I was not able to change anyone's preconceived opinions about aspic with this challenge. It is still nobody's favorite. I am not discouraged though. I truly believe aspic can be something wonderful. I just think I have a lot more to learn and I am excited to work on an other one one day.
A few things that I learned from this particular experience:
Do not make the gelatin too firm. The broth jelly should easily melt in your mouth and bring flavor to the other ingredients. It should easily turn into a soup like consistency with the heat of your mouth. (My first trials had been less firm but I added a bit more gelatin for the final product in hopes that it would stop the gelatin from running.... but I think it tastes better with a softer texture. So less is more when making aspic).
Put more food bits into the jelly so that the jelly is not the main feature. (In this one I think there was way to much jelly so it just felt like you were eating cold Jell-O soup (sounds about as appetizing as it was).
Serve the aspic with bread or crackers. (luckily someone at the pub suggested this and it did make a bit of a texture difference once the crackers came out).
All in all, it was a fabulous experience and I am so happy I did it. I learned so much and had a great time. Sometimes you just have to give things a try even if you have no clue what you are doing. As they say, it's all about the process. I will definitely try making aspic again at some point. Just need to find someone willing to eat it with me!
If you are reading this and have aspic experience I would love to hear any tips or suggestions. Thanks Canton Brasse guys! Until the next challenge!