Heston Blumenthal on Finding the Perfect Recipe

Heston Blumenthal

Heston Blumenthal, from the cover of In Search of Perfection. hide caption

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Heston Blumenthal talks about his book In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics and his search for the perfect recipe. Blumenthal is the proprietor of the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, England, which has been awarded three Michelin stars.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION.

And now to the search for the perfect recipe. Any chance that your menu today includes sardine on toast sorbet, mango and Douglas fir puree, or for dessert nitrogen scrambled eggs and bacon ice cream? Well, no, not in our house either. But those are some of the dishes at the famous Fat Duck Restaurant.

In 2005, The Fat Duck was voted the Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine and it sports the maximum three stars in the Michelin Guide. The Fat Duck is about an hour outside of London, along the M4 motorway in the village of Bray and Berkshire, England. And there, in the kitchen of his modest country house you'll find The Fat Duck's chef and owner, Heston Blumenthal.

Now after 11 years of experimenting with food from a scientific - some might say bizarre - approach, Heston Blumenthal is on a new journey. He wants to find the perfect recipe for simple classic dishes, like pizza, steak, and fish and chips.

Well, we invite you to join in. when you make your comfort food classic, what makes yours special? What makes it perfect? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@NPR.org.

Heston Blumenthal is with us from the studios at the BBC in Chelmsford, England. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. Blumenthal?

Mr. HESTON BLUMENTHAL (Author, “In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics”): Yes.

CONAN: Welcome. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Hi, Neal. How you doing?

CONAN: Very well. And I have to -

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Just going to say Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Well, a very different holiday here than it - and, of course, it's not even celebrated there.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: No.

CONAN: I never understood, why. Maybe it's because that's the place they came from. Anyway. I have to begin by saying this search for these - these are really comfort food that you're writing about. Very different from what you serve in The Fat Duck restaurant.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yes, very different. What was interesting is when we looked at this, there were dished that we've kind of grown up with in Britain and made our own. And in a couple of instances there are dishes where we've taken the original authentic and we've changed it over like a 20,30 year period. It's just something that - in the case of Black Forest gateau is actually nowhere near as nice as the original one was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, gateau, of course, is the universal English word for what we call in America - cake.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Cake, that's correct.

CONAN: And what corrupted Black Forest cake?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, the original combination - the mixture of wonderful chocolate, great cherries, delicately scented with Kirsch and a little bit of lightly whipped cream is a marriage made in heaven. Now over the years, what we've managed to do in Britain was take glace cherries, really cheap alcohol, over whipped cream, and cheap nasty chocolate.

And by the time you mix all those together, you've actually got something which is very, very far removed from the original. Also there's so much over whipped cream. And I'm not sure if Black Forest people eat Black Forest gateau in the States at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: But in Britain it was one of those things I grew up with that was always - came out at a special occasion and it was on a paper plate and it was frozen. And you associated it with weddings or birthdays, but no one ever ate it because it was awful.

CONAN: Interestingly, what you've done in this book is go back and find the histories of these foods as they were actually developed and then present us with what should be the real recipe for something like Black Forest cake.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, we actually went over to Baden-Baden in the Black Forest, which is the home of the Black Forest gateau and went to a case factory. And we went to see a pastry chef whose family had been making Black Forest gateau for years. And we went to the place that supposedly the original Black Forest gateau was made.

And it was quite a different affair, so we came back with all of that information and sourced the best chocolate we could and the best cherries and then we just set about making this cake. And what's sort of interesting about making a lot of pastry works, particularly, cakes - it's quite similar to architecture. You need to look at it as you would do building a house - put all the thick heavy durable stuff on the bottom and all the really light stuff on top. Otherwise when you cut into it, you end up with a bit of a squashed mess.

CONAN: It's not going to stand up to the rigors of being served.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, exactly. And then we - we did a couple of interesting additions to the cake, and one of them was at the restaurant, we'd been serving these aerated chocolates made - we've got a vacuum oven in the kitchen, and you suck the air out of the oven, and the chocolate rises like a soufflé, and then it sets, and you get these wonderful bubbles, and we put some mandarin essential oil so you get this explosion of mandarin flavor. But of course, this recipe has to be doable at home.

CONAN: Right, and not many of us have that oven.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Exactly. So we set about with all the alternatives, and we ended up with a vacuum cleaner and those sealable bags that you put your bed linen in when you want to store them for a few months.

CONAN: Yes, yeah.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Well, you melt the chocolate and put it into a Tupperware container, make a little hole in the top, pop it in one of these sealable bags and then stick the nozzle of a powerful vacuum cleaner over the valve, and as it sucks the air out of the bag and the container, it sucks the chocolate up, and it rises like a soufflé. You then close the valve and leave it in the fridge, and you've got this wonderful aerated chocolate.

CONAN: Wow. I bet that might even work.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. We broke a few containers on the way. I just don't want to be blamed for people ruining their vacuum cleaners. But if you do it - if you follow the instructions, it's fine.

CONAN: I was also interested. You go back to something - obviously black forest cake, gateau is some special thing in England. Roast chicken and potatoes, I think, is certainly universal in this country, as well. And I was interested -first of all, you go to a lot of attention finding the very best free-range chicken you can find and then testing which type of potatoes it turns out will roast the best.

Now obviously, the selection's going to be different in this country than you might get in England, but nevertheless, the technique that you say this is how to go about finding out which one is the best, that's going to work anywhere.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Well, that was an amazing piece of information that we discovered. We went to see a company that analyzed potatoes, and you might say gosh, life's too short. Why on earth would you want to analyze a potato? It's just a potato. But potatoes consist of something called dry matter, and dry matter's everything that's not water, basically. And if the dry matter is high, then the potato will roast well and be crisp. If the dry matter's low, it means it's got a lot of water in it, and then it's really hard to get crisp potatoes with low dry matter.

So we then tested 30-plus varieties of potato that we knew the dry matter of, and we literally got that - you know, when I explain this, I really do think I need to get more often because it sounds worse when I'm listening to the words coming out of my mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: But we did find like a 1 percent band of dry matter where you get the most incredible potatoes. And I just think that -

CONAN: So you found the Goldilocks potato, the just-right potato?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: We did. It was a magic potato, the Holy Grail of the spud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But it sounds like this - this is an extension. You describe yourself as a self-taught cook, but you use a lot of scientific method in your kitchen. It's funny, we ended up our previous conversation talking a lot about science in cooking.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yes, actually, and indeed, Jose Andres is spot on when - I mean, I agree wholeheartedly with him when he's talking about the fact that when we cook, there are physical and chemical reactions that happen, and it's not about going into the kitchen with a lab coat and clip board, but it's just - if we could understand some of these reactions, it does make life in the kitchen and gives you more confidence. Also, it opens up a few more doors of sort of creativity and experimentation.

CONAN: We're asking listeners today to call up with whatever it is that makes their comfort food special that makes it a classic. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@NPR.org. And let's turn to Marsha(ph), Marsha's with us from Chico in California.

MARSHA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MARSHA: And I haven't made this for quite a long time, but I'm always interested to hear if people have heard about it. When I was growing up in the Midwest, we had often for Saturday afternoon lunch what my mom called goldenrod eggs. And it's actually something that was such a comfort food. I made it for my husband when we were first married.

I'm a cardiologist, so I don't make it very often now, but it was a white sauce, kind of a medium white sauce made in the top of a double boiler. It had peanut butter added. I think it may have come out during the Second World War when protein was in short supply. Then you would chop up hard-boiled eggs, mix them in, reserve a little bit of the yolk, and then grate that on top, and it was served on either toast or crackers for Saturday afternoon lunch.

CONAN: And called goldenrod eggs.

MARSHA: Goldenrod eggs. Every once in a while, I run into someone who knows that.

CONAN: And goldenrod, of course, grows naturally not just in the Midwest but like a weed all over the country.

MARSHA: And the goldenrod only had to do with the egg yolks - the cooked egg yolks that was grated on top.

CONAN: So it's like the famous egg-cream drink that contains neither egg nor cream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARSHA: I think so.

CONAN: I wonder, Heston Blumenthal. Goldenrod eggs. Are we going to see that on the menu at The Fat Duck anytime soon?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I've definitely never come across them before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I'm just thinking - I'm just picturing tasting them, the mixture of peanut butter and egg. Is it quite - is it sweet, is it quite sweet, or is it - ?

MARSHA: No, not really, and it would've been peanut butter without sugar. So it would be just a richer - you know, it didn't - I didn't even know white sauce much other than with that, but it would've been a richer, you know, sort of thicker white sauce.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I am certainly really interested to try it. As I said, I've never come across it before.

MARSHA: And I haven't found recipes for it, either.

CONAN: Well, Marsha, we may have unleashed something we may all regret sometime soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARSHA: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. Happy Thanksgiving.

MARSHA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking today with Heston Blumenthal. He is the author of In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics and proprietor of The Fat Duck restaurant, which is located in Bray in Berkshire in England, voted last year the best restaurant in the world.

If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, or zap us an e-mail: talk@NPR.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Betty(ph), Betty's with us from the road in North Carolina, a lot of people traveling today.

BETTY (Caller): Yes. My family had Thanksgiving in Charlotte for lunch, and I just left, and I'm heading to Columbia, South Carolina to have another Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Well, you drive carefully. We all know what that tryptophan can do to you.

BETTY: Yes, yes. This is - our comfort food is mashed potatoes. But in our family, we also love deviled eggs. And I started doing something a couple years ago, and it might not be so strange, but I put sour cream as well as the mayonnaise and mustard in my deviled eggs. And it was a huge hit.

And I started trying to put sour cream - I put sour cream in my mashed potatoes, and they're great.

CONAN: So the secret, I guess -

BETTY: (Unintelligible) ever did that.

CONAN: Betty's secret, Heston Blumenthal, is when in doubt add sour cream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, I have to admit doing something as a kid, which you've just reminded me of, and I don't think I've ever shared this with anybody.

BETTY: I'm sorry?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I don't know if I've ever shared this next piece of information with anybody, not for years. When I was about 10, 12 years old, I used to love the combination of potatoes, sour cream, butter, horseradish and a little bit of mayonnaise heated up. So it doesn't sound too far removed from what you're talking about.

BETTY: It really does add a very distinct, different flavor to them, especially the deviled eggs, and it doesn't make them too tangy, but it give them a different richness.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah.

CONAN: And if there's any cardiologists in the audience, they can start signing you up now.

BETTY: Well, I'm thoroughly enjoying your show while I'm on the road, and I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Well thank you, and one down and one to go, Betty, for you.

BETTY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go to - this is Nicky(ph), Nicky's with us from San Antonio. Hey, Nicky, are you there?

NICKY (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

NICKY: Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Happy Thanksgiving to you.

NICKY: My favorite comfort food, and what we've done to make it special, is tuna noodle casserole. But along with all of your regular ingredients and your cheeses and everything, we add about a cup of mayonnaise, at least one full brick of cream cheese and dill to taste.

CONAN: Dill to taste.

NICKY: Dill.

CONAN: No that's - I don't know about you, I would not think of dill with tuna, Heston Blumenthal.

NICKY: I stumbled across it by accident, actually, but it actually worked very, very well.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well dill is quite a classic fish accompaniment and does work very well - I can imagine it working very well with that dish.

NICKY: It's very rich, though. It will clog your arteries if you eat it too often.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Just go for more runs, more jogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah, this is - the day after Thanksgiving used to be the biggest shopping day in the year, but it certainly is the biggest day for everybody to start running. Nicky, thanks very much for the call. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

NICKY: You, too. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's another - we heard about adding sour cream. My mother, writes David(ph), my mother always told me everything tasted better when you added a stick of butter. Want a great turkey, he writes? Smear a stick of butter on its skin. Want great mashed potatoes? Add a stick of butter. In fact, if I was going to open a restaurant, I'd call it a stick of butter. Is that the genesis of The Fat Duck?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: We don't actually - we're not overly heavy on the use of butter, although I have to say mashed potato with a really generous percentage of butter, you can't go wrong with that.

CONAN: Now when you're making mashed potatoes, do you mash them with a physical masher, do you whip them? How do you do it?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: This is an interesting point. For the program, when we decided to tackle bangors and mash - I don't know if you know the term bangor.

CONAN: I lived in England for four years, so I'm quite familiar with the sausage known as bangor.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Bangor is a particular type of British sausage. Now, I thought, putting my gastronomic chef's hat on, okay bangors and mash is going to be a wonderful, ethereal, silk-like potato puree with loads of butter and a sausage like a Toulouse-style sausage, which is more of a chartreucerie(ph) piece. It's a real work of art.

But when we started doing the program and tasting sausages, I realized that it just wasn't bangors and mash, and the mash needed to be - mashed potato needed to be not the wonderful, silk-like puree that we make in the restaurant, but it needed to be slightly lumpy, so it's mashed by not completely pureed - pockets - I don't know if you can imagine eating - this same effect with a baked potato, where you've got cold butter melting on the potato, and you've got that mixture of the hot potato and the cold butter with this wonderful film of just slightly melted butter at the top, that is - and some black pepper, cracked black pepper, and some grains of salt. That for me was just - I'm actually making myself hungry talking about it.

But that is - it's interesting. There's no dictionary term or law as to what mash is, but it just seemed right to me that that's what I wanted for the bangors and mash.

CONAN: He writes about all of these classic meals in a book called In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics. Our guest, Heston Blumenthal, is also the proprietor of The Fat Duck. And In Search of Perfection, that's going to be a series on BBC TV?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yes it is. It's just started, and it runs until Christmas.

CONAN: Well, it'll be here soon. I have a strong feeling about that. Happy Thanksgiving, even though you don't know what it is, and we appreciate your time today. Good luck to you.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Thanks a lot, thanks Neal.

CONAN: Heston Blumenthal joining us today from the BBC studios in Chelmsford, England. Ira Flatow's here tomorrow with Science Friday; we'll see you Monday.

I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Recipe: Spaghetti Bolognese

Read Heston Blumenthal's recipe for Spaghetti bolognese.

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