Have no fear--there will be no re-enactments of this anywhere in this post. Instead, attempts to shuffle truffles will strictly be limited to those involving Tuber melanosporum mixed in various forms: juice, oil and fresh. Since it’s truffle season and dinner at Alinea is not in the foreseeable future, the next best thing seems to be attempting to make their famed Black Truffle Explosion. It’s a ravioli filled with a truffle gel that liquefies when cooked. In the Alinea cookbook, Michael Nagrant described it as “like experiencing a water-balloon fight in your mouth.”
Tips, anecdotes, and insight are always appreciated, especially when they come from someone who knows his way around the Alinea kitchen. Named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2010, John Shields worked at Alinea from 2005-2007. These days, he’s making delicious creations along with his wife, Karen Urie Shields, at Riverstead, the renovated farmhouse bed and breakfast in Chilhowie, Virginia. Although they aren’t exploding, truffles are part of his current repertoire. Recently, he has been making tantalizing creations like a black walnut and black truffle taco. Served warm, the shell is made with milk reduced to create a caramelized crust, brushed with crème fraîche, filled with a bit of black walnut praline butter, and, of course, fresh black truffle.
Based off a Chinese soup dumpling, the Black Truffle Explosion is the dish that secured Grant Achatz a spot at Trio, Alinea’s predecessor. Although they’re not one of the more technical dishes at Alinea, Shields points out they’re not exactly simple, either. “They’re basically these tiny little ravioli that take some finesse, let’s say that. They’re a real pain in the ass,” he tells me.
“It’s a stress filled environment and people are expecting a lot and when things go wrong, it can be huge.” Beginning as a tournant, Shields recalls some culinary misadventures. “I would float around from station to station and sort of help out throughout the evening service. Wherever the busiest part of the night was, I would congregate in that area and once I would move towards that [Black Truffle Explosion] area, I just saw many guys lose hair and hate their lives, basically. A lot of angry things being said and thrown. I felt bad for the guys. It was tough.”
Fortunately, our attempt won’t have the pressures associated with being ranked the 9th Best Restaurant in the World.
The recipe begins with the explosion, the ravioli’s filling.
BLACK TRUFFLE SPHERES
8 1/2 gelatin sheets, softened
14.1 oz black truffle juice
0.2 oz kosher salt
4.2 oz butter, cut into ½ inch cubes
0.7 oz white truffle oil
There are different types of gelatin sheets, Shields explains--silver, gold, bronze--they all have varying levels of gelling. “Basically, silver has become the standard that a lot of recipes are based off so most chefs end up using silver,” he says. “There are a few that use gold but most use silver because it’s more of a universal measurement.”
The gelatin sheets should be immersed in ice water until they’re pliable, about 5 minutes. Then, squeeze excess water out of the softened gelatin sheets and set aside.
The Alinea cookbook provides a recipe for black truffle stock, but at one point in time, they used canned black truffle juice, which can be found online and in specialty shops.
Combine truffle juice with salt in a pan and bring to a simmer. Then, remove from heat and whisk the butter in, one cube at a time. When that is blended, add the truffle oil, then gelatin, and stir until it’s dissolved.
Filling squeeze bottles with the truffle juice mixture seems to be the best way to transfer them into hemispheric molds. The molds should be one inch in diameter, filled three-fourths of the way and the spheres should be refrigerated until they’re set, about two hours.
Once the spheres are set, they’re unmolded and two half-spheres are combined to create whole ones and then returned to the refrigerator until needed.
“I will say one of the smart things that happened with that ravioli was the fact that when you chill the truffle juice in the demi-spheres, the fat, the butter would rise to the top so the gel on top made its own kind of culinary glue that would stick the two sides together and hold them together.” Without that, Shields says they’d be nearly impossible to keep together. “Grant had a smart solution, not only adding flavor but the fact that they held together like that.”
Next, it’s time to make the pasta dough, which I suspect may be the most difficult portion of the recipe. Confirming my suspicion, Shields tells me this is the part of the recipe that makes it such a pain in the ass. “The pasta has to be perfect.”
Shields became sous chef following his time as a tournant, so he avoided making the famous dish. “They’re funny to me because I never had to actually make them. I never had to work that station, thank goodness.” He recalls just how stressful they could be for others, though. “I just saw so many people go down on them--people ready to walk out the door just because they’re so frustrating to make. And of course, you know, nobody is going to be nice to you about it, like, Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your dumplings. It’s more like, Wtf is wrong with you? Why can’t you make ravioli?”
Luckily, these two don’t have any pasta making trepidations. Although there is no fool-proof pasta, Shields says the key is to have strong hands, determination and a dough that has been worked enough, so the gluten can give the pasta the right texture. He adds that the dough also needs to be thin enough because it has a tendency to tear. Having a solid seal is critical--without one, the ravioli can rupture and cause the truffle juice to leak. Shields estimates that sometimes as much as 60% of the ravioli could be lost because of this--not exactly cost effective, plus it also creates a dilemma of how to accurately gage the amount to prep for the night’s service.
Once the pasta is rolled, the black truffle spheres are placed on top, three inches apart. The pasta is brushed with beaten egg, hopefully ensuring a seal that will stay put. Then they are cut and refrigerated until they’re ready to be cooked.
The ravioli are placed in simmering water for about three minutes. Then slices of parmesan, strips of wilted romaine, and a slice of freshly shaved black truffle are placed on the ravioli. If you aren’t sure how to shave a truffle, it basically goes like this:
Yes, rain is required to make truffles but in order to purchase truffles, you really need to make it rain. French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once deemed truffles "the diamond of the kitchen". Like diamonds, they are incredibly expensive. And just another way they’re like drugs--truffles can cost more per ounce than most narcotics.
When all was finished, ours turned out like this:
And the explosion caused this reaction: