Story Mining

What’s the recipe for simple syrup?

If you’re reading this, odds are good that you already know how to make simple syrup, a mixture of equal parts white sugar and water.

But, but! Equal parts by weight? Volume? Do you boil the water? Do you put both ingredients in a bottle and shake until dissolved? Do you stir? Whisk, spoon, or spatula?

Having spent about 5 years with my head in the mental space of the Alinea cookbook, I developed a habit of making simple syrup the way that book instructs: combine equal parts by weight of water and sugar in a pot, warm over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar completely. Let cool, reserve in an airtight container.

Near the end of that project, I came across a ‘hot tip’ (I think it may have been a tweet by Dave Arnold, but I’m not sure) that mentioned the idea of making simple syrup by combining tap water and sugar in a blender, blending on high until the sugar was completely dissolved, and storing in a squeeze bottle for easy dispensing. I loved this: it saved me time and felt efficient and cool.

So, when I sat down to transcribe the first Aviary recipe from “Chef shorthand” to the actual text you’ll eventually read, the first component I needed to write was for simple syrup. After brief consideration, I decided to describe it using the blender method above.

A couple weeks later, while shooting cocktails with Chef Ingi in our studio, he casually remarked that he and Chef Micah had noticed my recipe, and remarked to one another “that’s not actually how we do it here though.”

This, of course, totally piqued my interest. I assumed his implication was that the Aviary makes it the same way the Alinea book outlines, and so my second iteration phrased things exactly as the Alinea book does. This, I figured, made sense: both Chef Achatz restaurants, both the same pedigree and adherence to precision…surely the techniques are standardized across the restaurants.

So, I presented my Alinea iteration to Micah and Ingi, and was surprised to find that I’d again gotten it wrong. “We don’t heat the water in a pot,” Ingi informed me. “Doing this introduces the potential for evaporation, which throws off the 50/50 ratio we need.” Simple syrup comprises a much larger relative portion of any given drink than it does in a dish at Alinea, making consistency and accuracy of its preparation extremely important. Also, a prep chef here is managing a dozen or so tasks at once, so finding ways to remove the potential for errors (e.g. leaving a pot to boil a bit too long) becomes a significant factor in recipe structure.

This also exemplifies the issue of voice we touched on in a previous update. Are we interested in re-examining every little technique and trying to improve upon it as much as possible for the home chef? Doing this involves another octave of detail and consideration in translating these recipes, and also inaccurately portrays the methods and personality of the kitchen here. Our current thinking is that we do not wish to threaten the latter, so we’re deciding to remain as faithful to the Aviary techniques as possible. Besides, the measures of efficiency in our Aviary kitchens assuredly differ from that of a home kitchen (or any other kitchen, for that matter) and are unique to our setup here.

The spelunking involved in discovering and documenting this information is what a significant portion of my/Sarah’s time is spent doing at the moment. It’s probably easy to imagine we spend hours every day, snapping photos or typing up recipes. But most of our time is actually spent talking to various chefs, teasing out information or stories about everything we can possibly unearth to help build a complete picture of every drink in this book.

This, for example, is the Aviary’s Carrot Cake Ramos Rum Fizz:

It’s a creamy, delicious, rich cocktail that tastes like liquefied carrot cake. When served this drink at the Aviary, a guest may be informed that it took Chef Micah over a year to develop. This factoid suggests quite a bit of time spent problem-solving how to craft this thing, but I lack the experience and perspective to understand what that problem-solving might have looked like. So I asked Ingi if he might be able to tell me the story of this drink.

It started years ago, when Micah was attending Tales of the Cocktail, a prominent annual cocktail industry event held in New Orleans. On this particular year, Micah had the opportunity to taste a rum that reminded him of carrot cake. Inspired by this, Micah thought to try riffing on one of New Orleans’ most popular classic cocktails — the Ramos Gin Fizz — to develop a drink with similar characteristics that highlighted the carrot cake flavor he’d found so interesting.

A Ramos Gin Fizz, Ingi explained, is made with gin, lemon and lime juice, cream, simple syrup, egg white, orange blossom water, and soda water. The drink features a creamy, frothy head that — if made properly — is stable enough to rise up out of the top of the glass as the soda water is added.

Micah started by replacing the gin in the Ramos with the rum that had originally inspired him (one of you is going to ask, so I might as well tell you it’s Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Rum). He decided to enhance the carrot cake notes by infusing the rum with cardamom, ginger, mace, allspice, grated carrots, and other baking spices typically used in carrot cake. 

Micah next needed some acid, but lemon and lime juices both have distinctive flavors that could distract from the carrot cake flavor he wanted to highlight. Instead, Ingi explained, Micah mixed carrot juice with citric acid, which allowed him to “buy back” the liquid real estate that would otherwise be consumed by the citrus and push more carrot flavor into the drink.

Similarly, he replaced the real estate occupied by simple syrup in a traditional Ramos Fizz with more carrot juice, in which he steeped a gingerbread-flavored tea to further heighten the baking spice flavors. This heavily-flavored juice is mixed with sugar, replacing the water that would otherwise dilute the cocktail if only simple syrup was used.

The cream in the original Ramos is replaced with thinned cream cheese, which adds a unique lactic acidity that compliments the carrot flavor and provides a recognizable quality of carrot cake. And while the final step in a classic Ramos Fizz is topping the drink with carbonated soda water, Micah chose to replace this with a carbonated soda made from distilling green carrot tops and nuts.

I find this recipe infinitely more interesting understanding the insane development process, the trial and error, the difficult periods where breakthroughs weren’t coming and the concept needed to be shelved and picked back up weeks or months later with fresh perspective, and the sheer tenacity that went into bringing it to life. But accounts like these aren’t documented, and only take shape with significant time spent in the kitchens with the chefs, asking questions, taking notes, and trying to piece everything together. And even once we begin to amass a collection of these stories, we’re then faced with the challenge of fitting it gracefully into the book alongside the recipes in a way that feels, as everything else at the Aviary does, invisibly effortless.


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