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Devising a recipe

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A question I'm often asked is: how do you come up with your recipes? How do you perfect them? This is something I've already mentioned on this page, but I'll take this opportunity to go into a bit more detail.

So, how do I devise my recipes? Just like everyone else (I imagine), I start with an idea, an article I've read, a television programme, an ingredient I've seen in a shop or on a market, or just something I fancy doing. I make a first attempt, which usually fails! Sometimes I persevere, I start all over gain, often many times, and sometimes – maybe half the time – I end up with a good recipe.

Here's a real example: I wanted to come up with a recipe for my niece Elsa, who is away on a course on the Island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. In spite of the enchanting surroundings, she's emotionally up and down due to being so far from her family. I visited Reunion once many, many years ago. Although it's no doubt an over-simplification, the tastes that have stayed with me are coconut (ah – coconut punch!) and vanilla (the famous Bourbon vanilla, like pods Elsa gave me for Christmas).

vanilla pod

That was the starting point: coconut-vanilla, but where to take it from there? Some sort of biscuit maybe, with ground coconut mixed with flour and vanilla sugar? Hm, yes… classic, a bit too classic perhaps, and I've a dread of coconut biscuits and cakes (apart from rochers coco) being rather stodgy.

No – some sort of coconut-vanilla cream would be better, smooth and rich but with two complementary flavours. OK, here we go!

1sttry: a vanilla cream, with the powdered coconut left to infuse in the milk. Result: fairly good, but the vanilla is too strong and the coconut hardly noticeable. Failed! No, that doesn't work, better not to mix them. Two separate creams would be better, that can be turned out one on top of the other, then coated with caramel.

2ndtry: a vanilla cream made with eggs, like for a crème brulée, baked in the oven in a bain-marie, then moulded in a ramekin. Then a coconut cream made with coconut milk, a little sugar, and set using agar-agar. Result: the vanilla cream holds its shape quite well when turned out, but the coconut cream has set stiff because of the agar-agar, and when this is turned out on top, it squashes the layer underneath and the whole thing collapses. The vanilla cream is smooth, but the coconut cream is too firm in the mouth; there's too much contrast. And besides, the strong flavour of the caramel overpowers the rest and is the only thing you can taste. Failed again! It's still not right; the vanilla part works, but the coconut needs something better.

3rdtry: I leave out the caramel; I cook the vanilla cream with a circle on the bottom to make turning out easier. Once it's cold, I pour a little melted chocolate on top, then when that has set, I pour the coconut cream over. In the ramekin it all looks fine… Let's turn it out: disaster! The chocolate has acts like a skating rink and the coconut cream (which is still too firm) just slides off the vanilla. Another failure!

Right – time for a change of plan! No turning out this time, we'll cook it in a clear glass with the creams cooked on top of each other, and it can be eaten with a small spoon. Let's have a go!

4thtry: I cook the vanilla cream in the glasses, I prepare the coconut cream with less agar-agar to make it less firm, then pour it onto the cooked vanilla cream. Disaster! The vanilla cream is so fragile that the coconut cream goes straight through it and the two mingle and break up. Not to worry, for the rest, I pour the coconut cream gently over the back of a spoon and this works. Once cooled, there are two lovely layers of yellow (vanilla) and white (Coconut). The vanilla flavour is good but the coconut is still too firm, so still not right. Failed again!

So, the problem lies with the coconut cream, which needs a complete rethink. The coconut milk with agar-agar doesn't work because it sets like a firm custard.

5thtry: I try adding a little pouring cream to the coconut milk and I replace the agar-agar with gelatin. It's still slightly runny so much better on top of the vanilla cream – a good sign! Another tasting: oh, yes – that's it! There's the creaminess of the vanilla underneath and a very similar texture in the coconut on top. With two layers of different colours, it looks good as well.

Finished? Almost, but it was Nicolas's question that really clinched it: “What kind of cream did you use for the vanilla?” Reply: the same as for a crème brulée. Ah-ha! It would be great if there was a crust to break on top. So, more caramel? No – we've already tried that, and the flavour didn't work. What we need is some sort of thin crunchy biscuit, like an almond tuile. OK, we're off again!

6thtry: Vanilla cream, coconut and a thin coconut tuile on the top. This time, there's a real harmony of balanced flavours and it's in the style of a crème brulée, with a thin crust to break through.

coconut-vanilla cream for Elsa

All that remains is to sort through the photos and upload the recipe for “Coconut-vanilla cream for Elsa”.

I admit that this one is a real text-book case where I was very patient and because I was determined to create a recipe for Elsa.

In general, it's rare for me to go beyond a third try if that fails. Maybe the idea wasn't such a great one after all…

Last modified on: October 15th 2012

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