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In the Lab

I squeezed the plastic dropper and watched the first tiny glob break away and plummet into the big bowl. The droplet was supposed to slip through the surface of the liquid and end up at the bottom of the bowl as a tiny, perfect sphere. Instead, the amber droplet smashed against the water’s surface like a bug on a windshield and just floated there.

“Ugh. Why didn’t it work? I bet it’s the air bubbles from the hand-mixer. I read something about that being a problem,” I said.

“Why don’t you watch the DVD again?” asked David. “Your laptop is right here. Just pop it in and — ”

“No. I just want to do it and have it work,” I snapped. I squeezed again. This time, the droplet did what it was supposed to do. I had created an orb of peach schnapps liqueur inside a bowl of water. But I soon realized my perfect circle was a fluke. The next and the next and the dozen or so droplets after that, all splattered on the surface of the water, just like the first. My experiment was a failure.

“Well, I guess I’ll start cleaning up this huge mess I made,” I said, my head hung low.

“Chemistry is an exact science,” David said.

“Who said anything about chemistry? This is molecular gastronomy.” I paused as I felt the epiphany burst like a bubble in my brain. I thought I had been playing with my food — but all those measurements and mixtures… “Oh,” I said. “Well, if I’d thought about it that way, I wouldn’t have even tried. I hate chemistry. The only reason I skated by with a C-minus in my high school chemistry class was because I made a deal with my lab partners that I would handle all the paperwork if they would take care of the boring stuff. I wanted to do this because it looked so pretty and easy in that video. And, you have to admit, my idea was innovative — they don’t even have it in their recipe pamphlet — little red balls of Chambord floating around in a glass of champagne? Pretty and tasty.”

David smiled a knowing smile. “This was not an unexpected outcome,” he said.

“So, you knew as you were over there watching me all this time that I was going to eff it up? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I’ve never seen you so excited about a project,” he said. “I didn’t want to discourage you.”

“I guess I should have realized this wasn’t going to work out the moment I decided a ‘pinch’ of sodium alginate was probably ‘close enough’ to 1.6 grams.”

“Like I said, it’s an exact science,” David said. “You can’t guess at chemistry. You know how I’m always saying there’s room for error with cooking, but not with baking? That’s because baking is more like chemistry. Well, cooking is also chemistry — however, with cooking, there’s more flexibility; you can rescue things if they’re going wrong. Whereas, with baking, once things are set in motion, it’s all over. Certain ingredients react with other ingredients in a very specific way.”

“Well, I’m happy I used the peach schnapps as a tester. Imagine if I’d just wasted a whole cup of Chambord — that stuff’s not cheap. Okay, well, back to plan A. It’s your job to take all this and create something magnificent both to look at and to taste.”

“No pressure,” David joked. But it was his own damn fault my expectations were so high. He’s spent years demonstrating his aptitude for both cooking and baking. So of course when I learned about the artistic possibilities provided by the latest trend in food science, I wanted to see what kinds of avant-garde creations my live-in chef could devise. That was why I’d bought him the kits (one for cocktails, one for cuisine) — so that he’d come up with crazy and cool concoctions. For me.

Each kit included some tools, packets of strange powders, and a DVD with simple instructions about a process that is anything but. For my first and last stab at kitchen chemistry, I probably should have chosen one of the recipes that had been provided, rather than attempting to wing it. As David continued to tell me, you can’t “wing” chemistry. But I’d had no choice — our kitchen scale wasn’t sensitive enough to parse out exactly 1.6 grams of sodium alginate, a binding chemical derived from seaweed.

If I’d done more studying, I could have created something beautiful. In my mind’s eye, the Chambord caviar (balls of liquid floating around in a thin gel casing that dissolves in the mouth) would be vibrant, scarlet balls of the raspberry liqueur dancing on the bubbles of the golden champagne. Gorgeous, decadent; a way to surprise and delight cocktail-party guests or to enjoy ourselves.

“You have to make this happen,” I said. My failed experiment couldn’t be the end. David had to make things right. He was the only person who could — he’s patient, experienced, and, most importantly, he would be willing to take the time to do all the necessary research. I’m the kind of person who bitches when something takes longer than four minutes to microwave.

As I rinsed the gelatinous peach schnapps from the giant glass bowl, I turned to catch David’s eye over my shoulder. “Do you think I’m stupid? I mean, because I never really ‘got’ chemistry? Because I don’t have the patience for this kind of thing? I mean…what I mean is, are you disappointed in me?”

“Look,” David said (the way he always does when he wants to pave the way for a big delivery). “There are some things that you’re good at and some things that I’m good at.”

“So, what you’re saying is I should go sit over there and sip my wine so you can have your kitchen back and finish making dinner?” David nodded. “I’m cool with that,” I said.

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