Do Try This at Home

One Blogger, One Impossible Recipe at a Time

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008; Page F01

"O Grant, why hast thou forsaken me?" Carol Blymire says as she places a bowl of popcorn on a kitchen scale. She's in the midst of making a recipe called Caramel Popcorn, Liquefied. The 75 grams of kernels have netted 106 grams of popped corn, not the dictated 125 grams, which Blymire needs to cook with butter, sugar and salt, then puree, then top with a caramel foam.

Grant is Grant Achatz, the wunderkind chef of Chicago restaurant Alinea who is famous for using industrial gums and powders along with classical techniques to transform food into a kind of gastro-theater. Blymire is a Washington PR executive and self-taught home cook who has vowed to make every recipe in the new Alinea cookbook in her Takoma Park kitchen and blog about it.

Blymire is wont to talk aloud to Achatz as she works her way through recipes with deceptively simple titles such as Bacon, Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme, which instructs cooks to use homemade butterscotch to glue ribbons of apple leather to dehydrated bacon and hang them from what one of her friends called "miniature sex swings." Such directions would raise questions for even the most fearless cook, and they prompt something like an "oh my God, Grant, are you kidding me?" from Blymire.

Two months in, she still sees Achatz as an awe-inspiring, benevolent master. "I don't hate him yet," she jokes. "But when I get to the wild bass recipe that's six pages long, with 25 separate recipes -- yeah, totally."

Making every recipe in a cookbook isn't an original idea. Julie Powell turned it from a hobby into a genre back in 2002 when she blogged about her year-long quest to cook the 536 recipes in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." The blog generated a lot of buzz and a book contract for Powell; the movie version of "Julie and Julia" starring Meryl Streep will be released next year.

Powell's site also spawned a slew of copycat blogs, including Nose to Tail at Home, Cooking Bouchon and Blymire's first blog, The French Laundry at Home, which Blymire began as a way to raise her game. But Alinea at Home (http://www.alineaathome.com) is apparently the first to tackle one of the new crop of cookbooks dedicated to so-called molecular gastronomy. Along with the Alinea book, this new genre includes "Under Pressure," French Laundry chef Thomas Keller's guide to the technique of sous-vide cooking, and "The Big Fat Duck Cookbook," a 532-page illustrated tome of sci-fi-worthy recipes such as sardine-on-toast sorbet.

For Blymire, 40, the Alinea cookbook was a natural next step after spending 18 months working her way through "The French Laundry Cookbook." Alinea presented a new culinary Everest and another vehicle to demonstrate that fear has no place in the kitchen. But Blymire's crusade, if she succeeds, also will help answer a pressing question in food publishing: Can a home cook -- without an army of sous-chefs and pricey gadgets -- actually make this food? More important, would anyone even want to?

Blymire sets aside about one day a week to cook. She runs her public relations business from her home, so sometimes she'll prep while on a conference call. Mostly, she experiments on Saturdays, when neighbors can join her for post-cooking taste tests. Before beginning, she lays out ingredients and appliances on the two counters of her modest kitchen so it looks like a low-budget Food Network set. For recipes like these, being organized is key.

At close inspection, none of Alinea's recipes requires terribly advanced techniques. There are unfamiliar ingredients, such as soy lecithin, a commercial emulsifier, and tapioca maltodextrin, which helps transform liquids into powders. But the dishes are intricate, requiring patience, time -- and a lot of dishwashing. To make the liquefied popcorn, Blymire used 17 bowls, pots, strainers, utensils and glasses for weighing, cooking, blending and serving the tiny post-dessert shot. And that was one of the easy ones.

Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas admits that the book isn't written for home cooks. In fact, he and Achatz were determined not to dumb it down. For example, though many of the recipes call for simple syrup (sugar dissolved in an equal amount of water), the book never explains how to make it. The only concession is that the recipes yield smaller quantities than the ones Alinea's 58-member staff uses each night in the restaurant. "One of my big frustrations in buying books from big chefs is that I know it's different than what I had in the restaurant," Kokonas says. "Here, we're doing the opposite. We give the real information. Take it or leave it, as you choose."

That puts Alinea's book out of reach of some cooks. But Kokonas believes the recipes will find an audience. Already the book has defied expectations, selling about 60,000 copies since its release Oct. 15. "We don't expect everyone to do the exact recipes in the book. For a home meal, why would you go through the 22 steps to make what is essentially a fancy tomato salad?" he says. "What's interesting about Carol is that she's trying to cook them exactly. She shows people that if you can follow directions and have sticktoitiveness, it's really not that hard."

Tell that to Blymire as she ponders a recipe called Yolk Drops, Asparagus, Meyer Lemon, Black Pepper. The main component involves poaching dot-size drops of yolk in clarified butter and tossing them with 1/8 -inch asparagus buds. For the Meyer lemon puree, to be streaked across the plate, the recipe called for quartered lemons to be blended. What it didn't say was whether to include the peels. In the end, Blymire left them out. The result was a salty Meyer lemon juice.


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