Mauer: 'Modernist cuisine' -- something completely different

Mar. 26, 2013 @ 11:16 AM

As frequently said on Monty Python's Flying Circus: "And now for something completely different."

Today I'm not writing about trimming the amount of sour cream in a recipe or baking with applesauce. I'm diving into new waters called modernist cuisine.

I recently received a copy of "Modernist Cuisine at Home" (aka MC@H) by Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet and have this to say about it: If you're hungry, do not open MC@H without a bib or napkin handy because you're guaranteed to drool after just a few pages.

You may never use the ultramodern, scientifically sound cooking techniques carefully explained throughout the cookbook’s 462 pages, but you'll want to sample all the tempting tidbits captured in the exquisite photographs.

Not only is this one the heaviest, if not the heaviest, nonprofessional cookbooks ever published (nearly 11 pounds), but also its $140 price tag is rarely seen on cookbooks. If you've ever paid $75 to $100 for a cooking class, this book is its equal and then some. MC@H even has a helpful website,

I don't have enough room here to cover everything that MC@H shares, so I focused my lean lens on Myhrvold's many low-fat and fat-free recipes that rely on sometimes unique techniques to boost flavor. I found turkey breast injected with seasoned milk, restaurant-quality pizza dough made with no oil or fat whatsoever and a range of pressure-cooked vegetables that cook quickly with no fat at all. That's not to say this is a fat-free cookbook or one that includes nutritional information — it isn't and it doesn't.

If you want to dig deep into modernist cooking and ALL it has to offer, you'll need some equipment. If you have a pressure cooker, blender, convection oven or vacuum sealer you're ready to jump in but may still want to add a sous vide machine (a temperature-controlled, circulating water machine; about $325) or a whipping siphon ($60-plus) to your kitchen inventory.

You'll also need to shop for ingredients, some with which you may be familiar — gelatin, Wondra flour or whey powder — and some you have to seek out — sodium citrate (derived from citrus fruits; used to keep cheese from separating) and xanthan gum (derived from sugar fermentation; used to thicken and stabilize emulsions; you've seen it in salad dressings).

Myhrvold's techniques and recipes are exacting and precise and may require more effort than some of you are willing to give, but keep in mind the outcome is great tasting low-fat meals. So borrow a copy from the library or a friend and take a stroll through what is au courant in tomorrow's kitchen.

Try this recipe: I've loved macaroni and cheese for decades (it's one of my top comfort foods) and wanted to see how Myhrvold attacked what he calls "Fat-Free" Mac and Cheese.

The recipe does not require any unusual ingredients but it is prepared in an unconventional manner — with a sous vide machine. Don't have one? Me neither. So I created a sous vide-like cooker by heating a large pot of water to 176 degrees (as explained in the book) and holding it at that temperature for 30 minutes.

A completely different approach to familiar comfort food for sure.

'Fat-Free' Mac and cheese


5 ounces (5/8 cup/150 ml) water

1 1/2 cups cauliflower, thinly sliced

2 1/8 cups water

4 cups finely grated, Monterrey Jack cheese

4 cups finely grated, Gruyere cheese

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 1/4 cups dry macaroni

Salt, to taste


Combine the cauliflower and 5 ounces water in a pot and simmer until very tender, about 30 minutes. Drain.

Purée cauliflower until smooth. Pass the purée through a sieve; measure 1/4 cup and reserve.

Fill a large soup pot three-quarters full with hot water from the tap, place over medium heat until it reaches 176 degrees (use an instant-read digital thermometer). Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to hold the water at that temperature.

Combine 2 1/8 cups water with the cheeses in a one-gallon zip-top bag; remove as much air as possible and seal (this bag needs to sink into the warmed water). Cook in the water bath (sous vide) for 30 minutes. Remove bag from the water bath and cool at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Strain cheese-water mixture through a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth. Measure 2 1/8 cups of the cheese water for use in the next step and discard or reserve the solids. (Refrigerate or freeze solids for another use, or use to make Cheese Crisps, see related recipe.)

Add the cheese water and sugar to a medium pot; stir to dissolve and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir macaroni into the cheese water, and reduce heat to medium. Cook until most of the cheese water has been absorbed and the macaroni is just al dente, about 7 minutes. Fold the reserved cauliflower purée into the mac and cheese. Season with salt to taste and serve warm.Serves four to five.

Nutrition values per serving: 135 calories (3.7 percent from fat), 0.6 g fat (0 saturated), 27.5 g carbohydrate, 1.2 g fiber, 4.4 g protein, 0 cholesterol, 496 mg sodium.

Adapted from "Modernist Cusine at Home" by Nathan Myhrvold with Maime Bilets (2012)

Cheese Crisps

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Evenly spread the cheese solids left over from making "Fat-Free" Mac and Cheese on a baking sheet, and bake until golden, about 45 minutes.

Cool to a handling temperature and break into smaller pieces. Use as a garnish for baked potatoes or green salads or as a savory cracker substitute.

Nutrition values per ounce: 113 calories (71.2 percent from fat), 9 g fat (5.5 g saturated fat), 0.5 g carbohydrate, 0 fiber, 7.7 g protein, 29 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium.

"Modernist Cuisine at Home" by Nathan Myhrvold with Maime Bilets (2012).