Monday, July 7, 2014

The Unstoppered Bottle of Perfume

A perfume is known by its name, smell, shape and sometimes, its color. These attributes influence expectations in a perfume encounter. The unstoppered bottle is an invitation, a provocation, a dare, the gaze of a beautiful stranger that playfully intimates, "Would you like to get to know me?"  

Saying "yes" to the unstoppered bottle reveals an interconnected web of memories that belong to everyone and no one, intimate remembrances that reside in a compartment of the collective unconscious particular to smell. Scent can trill resonance, discord or a sense of the uncharted and does so against the backdrop of personal identity; it achieves this more affectively than any other sense.

Many hands are joined in the effort of making a perfume, but the terroir of human creativity is generally overlooked. This aspect rarely plays in the foreground because the eye's capacity for "knowing" is limited to what can be seen and we live in an occularcentric culture. The unstoppered bottle releases the invisible which begs the question; what if it were possible to connect with the memories of those involved in the production of a perfume?             

Would the memories belong to the flower pickers whose fingers are capable of reading the coolness of dawn in the slip of a petal? Fingers that know the perfect tension in the snap of a bud plucked from its stem at exactly the right moment? Maybe the memories belong to the distillers who gather the flower pickers' handiwork and are incidentally perfumed by the essences they labor to extract. 

Perhaps the memories in the unstoppered bottle belong to a less agrarian figure, a technician whose hands rest in the pockets of his lab coat after he's carefully weighed and measured the ingredients for a new perfume. He stands at the lab bench reviewing a formula written by la maître perfumeur who is in the habit of composing immediately after she dreams. The technician knows the rich persimmon ink that never bleeds through the pages of the mauveine notebook to which she commits her formulas. The flourish of her cursive inspires contemplation and the sense that one is viewing an autobiographical dossier.

It is the memories of la maître perfumeur that infuse the formula most. Using aroma she regularly transforms the linear notion of time by fashioning a galaxy orbited by timelessness. This is most evident in her classic compositions, many of which shook off their dust decades after they were launched and were not touched by poor reformulation when their bouquets were reborn. 

Each of la maître perfumeur's fragrances is marked by a floral signature free of the pantomimes of nature one finds in modern perfumes that are designed to appeal to the many under the guise of the impeccable taste of the few. To smell them is to know her most intimate memories without the benefit of words. It is in this intuitive milieu that timelessness abides and it's as real to the technician as the logic of precision that guides his hands as he works.

La maître perfumeur has her peccadillos, one of which is that she is occasionally discomforted by the use of mechanical automation that has become de rigueur at fragrance houses. When she looks at the glass-enclosed lab that contains the compounding robot la maître perfumeur utters a soft curse under her breath. The curse reaches the technician's ears as he adds the final drops of jasmine absolute to a formula that won't need modification. He considers the word merde, which means "shit" in French, but it only fertilizes his efforts at the lab bench as he is working with an indolic jasmine.

Memory has yet to leave the flower picker, the lab technician, the distiller and the perfumer, but the day will arrive when time dissolves a few of their remembrances. Some will be spared significant loss of identity while others will have their essence extracted like a fine perfume absolute. The onset of memory's departure is unsettling and yet a shadow of its sunset is key to transforming the unstoppered bottle into a memory maker. One must be open to the "new" while forgetting preconceptions forecast by the experienced, the indifferent and the jaded. Detaching from likes, dislikes and odious comparisons paves the path of personal truth and it is to this experience that every unstoppered bottle is dedicated.

So the next time you encounter the unstoppered bottle, consider whether you will be the same person you were before you opened it, or if you will become a truer rendition of yourself in the hands of collective memory. 

The first graphic that accompanies this post is a composite of two works from Wellcome Images: The first is of an illustration of a white magnolia blossom (Magnolia altifima) and its seed pod which was photographed by Mark Catesby. The second is an image of a model eye made by W. and S. Jones in London (1840-1900). The editor made additional embellishments.

The second graphic is an illustration fro m Hieronymus Burnschwig's Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis (Strassburg, 1512). It depicts distillation.

Other images created by Michelle Krell Kydd. 

La maître perfumeur means "master perfumer". 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bergamot and Chocolate: A Perfect Flavor Pairing (Brownie Recipe Included)

A person’s first taste of bergamot is typically experienced in a sip of Earl Grey tea. A refreshing and distinctive perfume greets the nose as steam rises from the cup. The tantalizing fruity floral aroma has the same affect on the senses as the invisible aromatic trail left behind by a beautiful perfume; it inspires the desire to encounter the source and merge with it. One sip and the scent is transformed into flavor on the taste buds as bergamot balances the astringent tannins in the tea leaves. Black tea and bergamot is a perfect flavor pairing, one that is easily understood by anyone who finds comfort in a warm drink.


Another flavor pairing that produces an equally sensual effect is that of bergamot and chocolate. Like its lemon, lime and orange cousins, bergamot marries well with chocolate and provides a complementary citrus contrast against chocolate's deep dark earthiness. Like all good flavor pairings, when bergamot is combined with chocolate none of the unique characteristics of the individual ingredients are lost. The edge between their differences blurs in harmonious transformation.

Bergamot has floral and citrus notes, both of which can be found in single origin chocolate. Spicy, nutty, winey and caramel-like aspects can make these delicate notes of bergamot harder to detect, but they are there. The contrasting notes have common ground in a specific medium. The trick is to find the space where they meet and consciously refrain from being distracted by the ambiguous fringes. This is difficult for many as ambiguity is irksome because it defies black and white distinctions. When it comes to ambiguity in flavors, notions of certainty disparate and give way to shades of gray that disrupt the senses. It is in this locus that new flavors are born.

Flavor pairing is an art and a science. Home cooks regularly build on flavor pairings that are particular to their culture (tomato and basil, garlic and ginger, shallots and tarragon, etcetera). Though it is true that one can taste harmony in an ordinary dish without donning a lab coat, innovative flavor pairings are evolving as a result of collaborations between chefs (artists) and flavorists (scientists).

Flavor pairing research has yielded an interesting though hotly contested result; when aromatic properties of ingredients are compared and analyzed for common molecules, chefs and flavorists are able to build bridges that result in flavor pairings between ingredients that appear to have nothing in common. "Whilst this [flavor pairing] is still just a theory it is a great tool for creativity," says Heston Blumenthal, chef at The Fat Duck.

Blue Cheese and chocolate. Bananas and parsley. Mango and pine. These are just a few of the flavor pairings that Heston Blumenthal has discovered and applied in his kitchen. His experiments involve cross-pollinating reference material from perfumery and gastronomy (this approach developed when Blumenthal consulted with scientist François Benzi of Firmenich). Blumenthal tests and applies innovative flavor pairings using Steffen Arctander’s Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin (known as the "perfumer's bible" in the industry) and Leffingwell’s flavor database. The approach is intelligent and intuitive.

Flavor extracts sold in supermarkets are the equivalent of food grade eau de colognes. This may sound odd but essential oils used in perfumery are the same ingredients used to make food grade extracts, with one caveat: essential oils used to create flavors are subject to stricter safety standards as end product is ingested. A growing trend in the use of food grade essential oils continues to influence chefs and mixologists (something White House pastry chef Bill Yosses and I evangelized at a flavor and fragrance event at the James Beard Foundation in May of 2006).

You don't have to be a professional chef to use food grade essential oils. With products like Aftelier's Chef's Essences home cooks can add unique flavor facets to their culinary creations. Glass Petal Smoke’s Bergamot Brownies utilize a bergamot and chocolate flavor pairing in a flourless pastry base that is gluten-free. The recipe is the result of a complete reworking of the Gluten-Free Goddess’ “Dark Chocolate Brownies”.*

Bergamot Brownies 
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd 
Serves 9-12 

·      5 ounces 72% dark chocolate (chips or broken up bar)
·      ½  cup unsalted Land O'Lakes® Unsalted Butter
·      2 large organic eggs
·      1 cup India Tree® Dark Muscovado Sugar
·      ½  cup almond meal
·      ¼ cup Arrowhead® Mills Brown Rice Flour
·      ¼ cup Bob’s Red Mill® Flaxseed Meal
·      ½  teaspoon non-iodized sea salt
·      ¼  teaspoon baking soda
·      4 teaspoons Mexican Vanilla Extract
·      8-10 drops Aftelier's Bergamot Chef's Essence

·    Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8-inch square baking pan with cooking oil spray and set aside.
·   Microwave butter in a glass bowl. Start with 20 seconds, adding 15 second increments until the butter is melted. The butter should be melted, not hot. Set aside.
·   Microwave chopped chocolate in a glass bowl. Start with 30 seconds, adding 10 second increments, stirring every time you add more time to the melting process. (Do not over melt as chocolate will crystallize and won’t be good for baking.) Using a dropper add essential oil of Bergamot to the melted chocolate and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
·   In another bowl, beat eggs by hand until combined. Add sugar and vanilla, making sure to smooth out any lumps. Fold the egg and sugar mixture into the chocolate and butter mixture. Blend until smooth and glossy.
·   In a separate bowl combine almond meal, rice flour, sea salt and baking soda. Mix together with a silicone spatula until well incorporated. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the chocolate mixture. Combine thoroughly.
·   Fill baking pan with brownie mixture, using a spatula to even out the batter. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Test for doneness by sticking a toothpick in the center of the pan; there should be no crumbs sticking to the toothpick. The brownies will be slightly moist. Do not overbake.
·   Allow pan to cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate the brownies until ready to serve. If you don’t plan on serving all of the brownies at once you can wrap individual pieces in foil and store them in an airtight bag in the freezer. Thaw or microwave to soften when the craving for a brownie strikes. 

*Flavor modifications include: use of chocolate at percentages higher than 70%, substitution of dark muscovado sugar in place of light brown sugar, use of butter in place of coconut oil (very important if you don't want coconut to be part of the flavor profile), substitution of brown rice flour in place of sorghum flour, the addition of flaxseed meal to improve texture, and use of Mexican vanilla in place of Madagascar vanilla for a creamy woody caramelized tone. Food grade essential oil of bergamot is utilized to complete flavor pairing synergies. 

Food grade essential oils are highly concentrated and should be dosed with a very light hand. A primer on baking with food grade essential oils can be found here.

Bakto Flavors manufactures a bergamot extract that is excellent and easy to use (the essential oil is diluted in soybean oil). Add to 2-3 teaspoons of the bergamot extract per batch of brownies. 
Bergamot is a top note in perfumery which means it evaporates more quickly than middle and base notes. If a middle or base note was used in this recipe the amount of essential oil would be cut by at least 50% as middle and base notes evaporate more slowly and evoke stronger flavor effects. 

Blood orange, Ginger, Jasmine, Neroli, Rose, and Ylang Ylang would work nicely in the brownie recipe should you choose to experiment in a chocolate flavor pairing using food grade essential oils.

Glass Petal Smoke predicts that national brands like McCormick will produce gourmet flavor extracts inspired by materials used in fine fragrance. The materials will have acceptance in existing cultures and expose consumers to new flavor combinations that will balance the exotic and the familiar. Growth in local food movements across the U.S. will increase the chances of palatable flavor pairings rooted in authentic foodways (e.g. Midwest). 

Images by Michelle Krell Kydd are marked as such (all rights reserved). 

Image of flourless chocolate pastry is taken by Karen Neoh (some rights reserved).  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Why Chanel No. 5 Smells Like Babies

The sway of flapper fringe that defined a generation of liberated women in the 1920's inspired the creation of Chanel No. 5. Nine decades later the world's best selling perfume now defines the smell of baby products. The Perfume Heretic, who is not a fan of Chanel No. 5 says, "A cheap knockoff of Chanel No. 5 is now the default scent of almost all baby shampoo."   

The Perfume Heretic is not alone in her opinion. A page on Facebook is dedicated to the fact that Chanel No. 5 Smells like baby wipes. Conversations on fragrance boards across the web reflect similar observations with regard to baby products that smell like Chanel No. 5. Most opinions are fixed on the powdery notes in the perfume. Is this an example of the trickle down effect (when an expensive luxury product influences the introduction of cheaper versions to the market) or is there something happening on a cultural level that influences what appears to be an unlikely parallel? The answer is yesto both.

Aromatic ingredients provide a tangible foundation for understanding scent's ability to shape memory, especially when raw materials are identified alongside olfactory descriptors. The universal "manufactured smell of babies" is built on the aroma of perfumed talcum powder, which is applied to skin to absorb wetness and to deodorize. By itself, talcum powder smells neutral and somewhat clay-like. When consumers refer to the smell of powder they are usually referencing ionone molecules found in the root of the Florentine Iris (also known as orris root). Ionones possess a quality of tenacity that resembles the experience one has in the presence dusting powder after it's been applied (when you can see the powder in the air). Ionones derived from orris root smell cool, steely and violet-like.

Historically speaking, perfumes added to talcum powder vary based on function. Rose is commonly added to face powder and luxury dusting powders, adding an element of boudoir to associations with powder. Orange flower, lavender and orris root are ingredients associated with wig powder which was popular with men in the 18th century. When it comes to understanding the relationship humans have with "powder", in all its scented forms, one must examine powder's functional purpose and associated aesthetics. Perfumes added to baby products add a refreshing quality to the experience of diaper changing and bathing, something that makes the unpleasant smells encountered during these rituals tolerable. The smell of baby products are associated with cleanliness, innocence and new life, qualities which are reinforced each time pampering products are applied.

The aromatic palette of "baby powder smell" varies based on culture, climate and rituals associated with new life. For instance, the smell of rose and vanilla are favored in baby products sold in the United States, (rose being a Victorian influence that cast its spell in the New World). Babies in France and Spain are perfumed with products that include the scent of orange blossom, a flower that is common to both countries and part of each country's flavor and fragrance culture. Floralcy aside, powder notes in most baby product formulas are derived from ionones. In this respect the smell of powder is a bridge to "baby smell" cultures.

In an article titled "Ah, There's Nothing Like New Baby Smell" New York Times science reporter Douglas Quenqua asked me to describe the smell of baby products. I offered the following olfactory descriptors; powdery (dry, chalk-like, violet), aldehydic (soapy, fresh, citrus), lactonic (milk-like, creamy), fruity (apple), floral (rose, violet, orange blossom), vanillic (woody, balsamic, sweet), and musky (clean, fresh and sweet). Two types of musk commonly used in baby products are galaxolide and ethylene brassylate. Both musks, with their superhero-like names, support the structure of a fragrance formula and are the last notes to evaporate on skin. They are also featured in most luxury perfume formulas which make them familiar strangers when they migrate from fine fragrance to functional fragrance.

The skin of a baby that has been dusted with powder and massaged with lotion possesses its own scent, which is veiled by the cultural interpretation of "baby smell" in pampering rituals. Delicate bottoms are powdered for comfort. Protective unguents are used to keep baby's skin free from irritation, most notably barrier creams which have the tenacity of Vernix caseosa, the wax-like, milky "human cold cream" which protects the fetus in utero and has a fatted lactonic aroma. New life has an inherent quality of freshness which is why some baby care products have a crisp apple note in the fragrance formula, (double symbolism here as a baby is the fruit of the womb and the apple is the fruit of temptation which led to the existence of the baby in the first place).

If aromatic plants smell extraordinary at first bloom why should human children be any different? Humans and plants are part of the same ecosystem. Can you imagine a baby born without a natural aroma? Author Patrick Süskind did when he created Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist in  "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. As a foundling, this bastard child of an infanticidal mother possessed a peculiar characteristic that unhinged his caretakers; he lacked a natural aroma. As an adult, Grenouille combined his hyperosmic sense of smell and skill as a perfumer with an inherited proclivity towards murder. He procured the essence of virgins via enfleurage to forge his own identity via perfume. Grenouille was the ultimate narcissist, extracting the essence of others to obtain power and a sense of self. The charade proved destructive.

There is a parallel between the innocence with which one comes into the world and the innocence lost to the pleasure and power of sex. Both mark the start of a new beginning. Nothing traverses these two seemingly contradictory worlds better than perfume. A perfect example is the similarity between Chanel No. 5 and the scent of Johnson and Johnson Baby Shampoo (original formula). Perfumer Yann Vasnier of Givaudan confirms the similarity: "Baby products have used popular fragrances as inspiration and Chanel No. 5 is probably the clearest example. The parts used in Chanel No. 5 that have influenced baby products are: the aldehyde accord, rosy notes, jasmine notes, ionones and methyl ionones (from orris root), balsams, coumarin, vanilla and musks (especially nitro musks* which are commonly used in baby products). The addition of orange flower and salicylates are also used as these shape a softer and cleaner rendition in a baby product formula." *Nitro musks are no longer used in fine fragrance in Europe and have been replaced by polycyclic musks. They are also less commonly used in the United States.

The formula for Chanel No. 5, created by perfumer Ernest Beaux, steered clear of floral bouquets and worshipful soliflore compositions (perfumes inspired by single floral essences) that were typical of perfumery in the first half of the 20th century. This was achieved by several natural and synthetic ingredients in Chanel No. 5's formula, the most well known being an aldehyde accord that included 12-carbon aldehyde 2-methylundecanal (a molecule which appears in the skin of kumquats). Other raw materials in the formula worked in combination to gently sublimate the immediate floralcy of rose and jasmine, including ylang-ylang, a tropical smelling flower that is at once woody, balsamic and creamy. Aldehydes produced the effect that answered Coco Chanel's desire for a fragrance that smelled like freshly scrubbed skin. The feeling of "powder" in this fragrance comes from a touch of ionones. Knowing the olfactory qualities of the aroma chemistry in Chanel No. 5 makes it easy to understand why aspects of the perfume would be co-opted in baby products; baby products are about cleanliness and freshness.

Dressing the skin in a perfume that is reminiscent of the smell of babies allows the wearer to indulge in the ultimate of beginnings; that of new life. When looked at through an archetypal lens what appears to be fetishist on the surface is transformed into something that makes perfect sense. An infant is innocent, fresh and filled with potential. These qualities can be resurrected throughout the life cycle as there are degrees of innocence in life that have nothing to do with sex, (something the fragrance industry should take advantage of).

Newness offers opportunities of discovery that lead to transformation. When desire is stripped from these encounters authenticity is magnified and one arrives at pure human essence, (something Süskind's Grenouille attempted to replicate using all the wrong tools and intentions). Exponential newness is the ultimate aphrodisiac. In this respect the fact that Chanel No. 5 smells like babies makes perfect sense; it's a tangible example of purposeful ambiguity in an abstract bouquet that remains timeless. Perhaps it's why Chanel No. 5 remains the best selling woman's perfume in the world.

Those that find aldehydic perfumes bitter and overbearing should steer clear of the Eau de Toilette version of Chanel No. 5 and try the Eau de Parfum and Parfum versions. Chanel No. 5 Eau Premiere is completely devoid of the cold aldehydic slap that offends some noses. The formulaic tinkering by former house perfumer Jacques Polge would probably infuriate Ernest Beaux if he were alive today as Beaux's love of aldehydes comes from personal memories of Russian winters.

The Eau de Parfum version of Chanel No. 5 is a knockout. The base, middle and dry down phases are distinct, and the shift from clean to complex is downright sexy (it takes 8 hours for the full effect at the EDP concentration so the aromatic shifts are like little presents that unwrap themselves on your skin). Ernest Beaux's memories of icy Russian winters are transformed to a tropical paradise in the drydown which smolders of tonka bean, jasmine and ylang ylang. Wear Chanel No. 5 EDP when it's snowing and start your day in the story of the scent. Let serendipity determine where it takes you. You might experience what Liesl Loves Pretty Things did; an olfactory revelation that transcends associations with baby powder.

Powder notes aren't the only aromas that ring the "baby smell" bell in the olfactory minds of perfumistas and consumers; polycyclic musk notes that have replaced nitromusks are ubiquitous. Take a trip to Whole Foods and smell Oriental Musk by Kuumba Made and you'll find it hard not to nose trip on baby memories.

Glass Petal Smoke recommends reading "From Rallet No. 1 to Chanel No. 5". The article appeared in the October 2007 edition of Perfumer and Flavorist and offers interesting insights with regard to the use of aldehydes in perfumery and the work of perfumer Ernest Beau.

Jean-Louis Froment curated "No. 5 Culture Chanel" at Palais de Tokyo in 2013. The exhibition is now online and a "must see" for fans of Chanel No. 5.

Perfumers Françoise Caron and Pierre Bourdon used functional product association to advantage when they re-purposed an aroma used to scent vintage face powder in the formulation of Jean Charles Brosseau's Ombre Rose (L'Original). Consumers instantly recognized something familiar and nostalgic in the powder notes and continue to be drawn to its powdery feminine bouquet. The fragrance, which is quite beautiful, can be found in drugstores and online.

The layered graphic at the start of this post is built around a Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle. It has a hidden image; my goddaughter Francesca. Her head is in the blue portion by the bottle and you can see her eye to the left of the cap, her body is behind the bottle. This is a purposeful design as the "smell of babies" doesn't dominate Chanel No. 5; it's one of countless olfactory aspects.

Woman Blowing Powder off Powder Puff by Gjon Mili. Rights revert back to the artist.

Graphic of Grenouille from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer illustrated by dodochiyu. Rights revert back to the artist.

"L'Oiseau volage" by artist Georges Barbier is from the book The Romance of Perfume by Richard La Gallienne.

Photograph of Chanel: Livre d'Artistes, a by Irma Boom, from the No. 5 Culture Chanel exhibit. The book utilizes embossing instead of ink and is available for purchase online. It is a limited edition.

The layered graphic at the end of this post is built around a Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle and a beautiful image of Gabrielle Chanel from the No. 5 Culture Chanel exhibit. What you don't see is who she's looking at; Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch. It's in the "A Love Story" section of the site. The photographer is anonymous. The picture was taken in 1921.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lemon Ginger Sunshine Cake

Bright flavors not only please the palate, they bring cheer to the spirit and delight to the senses. Lemon and ginger complement each other beautifully, especially when food grade essential oil of ginger is used in place of grated or candied ginger. Flavor is distributed evenly and synergies are seamless. One bite of Ginger Lemon Sunshine Cake and taste buds cannot tell where lemon ends and ginger begins.

Lemon Ginger Sunshine Cake
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
(Serves 9-12)

·      2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
·      ½ cup organic evaporated cane juice
·      1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (non-aluminum)
·      ¼ teaspoon baking soda
·      ½ teaspoon sea salt (non-iodized)
·      3 ½ ounces organic Hunza raisins (available in health food stores)
·      1 cup low-fat, low sodium buttermilk (room temperature)
·      3-4 drops Aftelier Fresh Ginger Chef's Essence 
·      2 teaspoons Mexican vanilla extract 
·      2 large eggs (slightly beaten, room temperature)
·      zest of one small organic lemon
·      ⅓ cup sweet unsalted butter (melted and cooled)
*Hunza raisins are golden raisins that are processed without sulphur. You can substitute regular golden raisins if you like. 

·      Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
·      Grease one 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pan (or three 5.75 x 3 inch loaf pans) with cooking spray.
·      In a large bowl sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt.
·      In a medium-size bowl, mix eggs, melted butter, vanilla extract, lemon zest, food grade essential oil of Ginger and vanilla extract. Add buttermilk and raisins to the wet mixture and incorporate.
·      Make a well in the center of the bowl with the dry ingredients and add wet ones. Combine wet and dry ingredients together, folding gently with a silicone spatula. Be careful not to over mix.
·      Pour batter into prepared pans and spread evenly. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes (30 to 35 minutes for smaller loads), or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean.
·      Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from pans and place on a wire rack to continue cooling.
·      Refrigerate or freeze for future use. The large loaf yields 10 to 12 slices, the smaller loaf yields 5 to 6 slices.

Feel free to add dried blueberries to Glass Petal Smoke's Lemon Ginger Sunshine Cake, in place of Hunza raisins. The fruity floral essence of blueberry works well with lemon, ginger, and vanilla.

Click here for an in-depth look at using food grade essential oils in baking.The post is a favorite with readers of Glass Petal Smoke.

Images of lemons (André Karwath) and vanilla (Nlian) via Creative Commons.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sofrito: A Savory Recipe for Fabulous Flavor

Sofrito is the mirepoix of Latin cooking. Daughters learn how to make this savory flavor base by spending time with family matriarchs in the kitchen and listening to their stories. During my childhood in the Bronx I learned that there wasn't a difference between a nonna and an abuela when it came to keeping recipes secret. This was especially true if the creation in question was the culinary signature of a good cook in the culture.

The Puerto Rican abuelas and Italian nonnas I knew as a child had a healthy respect for memory because that is where they kept most of their recipes. If you asked nonna for a tomato sauce recipe or abuela for a sofrito recipe the answer was the same, "a little of this and a little of that" or "my English is no so good." The language barrier always puzzled me as these women seemed to understand more than they led on. You could see it in their eyes when they listened to conversations at the dinner table; you couldn't hide anything from them.

Grandmothers who cooked regularly didn't have to write recipes down because instinct took over when they prepared their signature dishes and sauces. They read their creations as they cooked like one reads words in the pages of a book. They'd smell, taste and make adjustments with preternatural finesse. As a child I had a deep sense of curiosity about the work of their hands. The perfect balance of flavors in their food made you feel like you were floating on air as you sat at the dinner table. The more you ate the more you felt like all was right in the world, and that you were loved unconditionally. That is what eating a good home-cooked meal does and it's what motivates the busiest of people to continue doing it today.

Figuring out how to make a delicious tomato sauce is possible if you have access to a variety of Italian cookbooks and the patience for squeezing San Marzano tomatoes by hand. Finding a good recipe for sofrito is an all together different affair. I became obsessed with procuring a genuine recipe for sofrito in 2008, after I tasted Puerto Rican Sweet Plantain Lasagna. When the cook yielded her recipe, it came without handwriting. Josephine Nieves gave me a salad dressing carafe filled with her boricua sofrito and told me, "It has a bunch of culantro, a head or more of garlic, sweet red bell pepper and extra virgin olive oil. Make it and taste it. You'll know when it's right." I listened closely to my friend Josephine, beloved abuelita of Jacob.

The perfume of sofrito is sublime. Its flavor supports many dishes as it melds with meat, dairy, fish, poultry and vegetables. I used my sense of smell and taste to configure the exact proportion of ingredients used in Josephine's sofrito and created my first few batches of sofrito using culantro, an herb that can be found in neighborhoods where Puerto Rican culture thrives. Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for sofrito makes use of cilantro in place of culantro (sanctioned by Josephine) as the flavor profiles are similar and cilantro is more readily available, (culantro is stronger and earthier than cilantro and is sold in small bags at market). This sofrito recipe in this post includes annatto and oregano which add earthy qualities that cilantro lacks when compared to culantro. You can leave these two ingredients out if you prefer.

After you make Glass Petal Smoke's sofrito try it in an omelet to see how beautifully the ingredients meld together, (1 teaspoon for up to three eggs). You can also add sofrito to chicken stock (1 tablespoon for each quart of stock) and make soup using chicken, vegetables and pasta. If you use your imagination there is little that will not taste good with sofrito; including spaghetti sauce.

Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 1 to 1 1/2 cups

  • 1 bunch of cilantro (rinsed, stems removed)
  • 12 cloves of garlic (up to 15 if you love garlic)
  • 1 1/2 medium-sized red bell peppers (two are fine if you prefer)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground annatto seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Mexican oregano (ground distributes flavor evenly)
  • 1/2 cup and 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (fruity type)
  • Peel garlic cloves and slice vertically so the pieces look like small discs, (see first image in the Sofrito Flavor Cube that accompanies this post). Allow the garlic to rest for 15 minutes, as you continue prepping the sofrito ingredients. This will increase flavor and allicin content.
  • Rinse cilantro in cold water to remove residual soil. Separate leaves and discard stems (the later will make your sofrito stringy and watery, even if you use a food processor).
  • Rinse, seed and slice red bell peppers in preparation for use in a food processor.
  • Pour olive oil into a small measuring cup.
  • Measure dry spices into a small bowl.
  • Layer ingredients in a 3-4 cup food processor, with the exception of the olive oil.
  • Add olive oil to the layered herbs, vegetables and spices.
  • Alternate between the chop and grind setting on your food processor until you have a paste. The cilantro should be thoroughly macerated.
  • Store in a glass jar or freeze for future use.
The flavor cube photo includes four ingredients used in the sofrito recipe. They are (clockwise, from top left to bottom right): garlic, annatto, red bell peppers and cilantro leaves. Design by Michelle Krell Kydd.

Cilantro is sold by the bunch in supermarkets. It is usually two hand spans wide at the top.

Annatto adds flavor and color. It has a sweet, woody and earthy profile.

Mexican oregano is more floral and less medicinal tasting than the Turkish variety. You can substitute marjoram if Mexican oregano is not available.

If you have access to culantro use 1 and 1/2 bunches in place of cilantro in this recipe, (two bunches if you amp up the garlic).

Visit The Posh Latin Cook and follow Elena Carlo as she takes you a flavorful journey regarding all types of sofrito. Es muy sabroso!

When Celia Cruz sings "Yo Le Pongo Sazón" (translation, "I use seasoning/flavor") she means it. It's no coincidence that half of the video for the song, which includes Celia's recipe for an enduring marriage, is filmed in a kitchen. Cruz and husband Pedro Knight Caraballo were married for 41 years, so it's worth taking a cue from Celia and adding a little sazón to your life using sofrito.