In Part I of this series, I talked about Mandy Aftel‘s Chef Essences, and focused on the Ginger, Basil, Blood Orange, Rose Absolute and Pear. Now, I’d like to look at six more: Pink Pepper, Cepes (Porcini Mushrooms), Cognac, Coriander Leaf (Cilantro), Tarragon, and Chocolate, before ending on a personal note about why I think these Chef Essences are so significant.
According to the Aftelier website, the Pink Pepper Essential Spray is composed of berries from Kenya and its aroma is described as “fresh wood and warm-peppery.” I found its spiciness to be piquant, fruity, and a bit tart as well. It also made me realise something: I do not like pink peppercorns. I’ve always had issues with its fruity, gooey, jammy aroma in perfume, but I never really thought about how I avoid cooking with them, or how I actually pick out the pink peppercorns in any pepper mix. (Same with the green ones, actually.) I will put up with the lightest, barest sprinkling, but not much more. Which is why the intensity of the Aftelier Chef Essence came as a little bit of a shock to my system.
It is just like the real berries, with layers of nuance and, yes, the woodiness mentioned on the Aftelier website. I’d previously been told by a few people that the Black Pepper Chef Essence was astonishingly good on ice-cream, so I thought that the same thing would apply to the Pink Pepper one. To my surprise, it really was decent on vanilla ice-cream, though it took me a minute to wrap my head around the flavour combination. It’s certainly different, and captures your attention in the same way that sea salt does on things like cookies, chocolate, or other seemingly inapposite items.
Yet, I have to say, the vanilla ice-cream was the extent of my appreciation. In all honesty, the flavour left me feeling a little queasy when I cooked with it or sprayed it on other dishes, though that occasionally occurs with the real, actual pink peppercorns as well. I think there is something about the woody aspect of the spiciness which doesn’t sit well with me in general. There are obviously few thing more dependent on personal tastes than actual food (or spices), so this is my own quirk. If you are a fan of cooking with pink peppercorns in general, you should check out its bionic version in the Aftelier sprays or oil.
Cepes are a French name for porcini mushrooms, and the Aftelier website describes the Essence as: “(Absolute from France) — from the wild porcini mushroom. Earthy, wet moss, intense and delicious.”
I had quite a bit of difficulty with the Cepes at first because it has an enormously meaty, earthy, almost dirty and leathery funk to it. The last time I was in France was during the cepes season, so I cooked them for a friend with whom I was staying (a saffron, sherry, and cepes risotto), and the flavour was never as rawly intense as this Absolute.
Given my prior Aftelier adventures, I might be forgiven for thinking that almost everything would work with ice-cream. Even the Cepes. So, that is actually where I starting. It turns out that I was in error: ice-cream does not have magical, transformative qualities, and the Cepes Absolute most certainly does not work with it! (I cannot repeat that enough: do not try the Cepes with ice-cream!) After that, I turned to applying a drop of the oil in a cream-based soup. That was another miscalculation. The earthiness was simply discordant, and the funk over-powered everything else in a way that I didn’t enjoy at all.
So, I wrote to Ms. Aftel in desperation, seeking for guidance, and she said to sautée a drop in some butter with… duh…. mushrooms. Presto, we had lift-off! It was tasty. The oil enriched the butter, turning it to something like nutty brown butter. In turn, the butter smoothened out the Cepes’ funk. Both of them enriched the common, generic, white mushrooms, elevating them to something more luxurious, decadent, and complex. I suspect that the Absolute would work in a similar fashion for other sort of sautée or stir-fry dishes, and it may be ideal for vegetarians who want a meat-like taste without actually using a protein.
After that, I tried the Cepes in a few other things, always focusing on dark or heavy dishes. I tried it with beef in a red-wine sauce (Beef Bourguignon), and in a quasi-Cajun stew with Andouille sausage, tomato, smoked red-peppers, dirty rice, and beans. If I do say so myself, I rather hit the jackpot on that last one. I would give you a recipe if I ever used such things when I cooked and didn’t go freestyle, but let me tell you, when the Cepes works well, it works well.
Lest my experiences have not made it perfectly clear, the Cepes Essential Absolute involves a definite learning curve. It’s not merely the quantity of drops that one needs to figure out, but the actual sort of dishes with which it will work and, even then, it will take some tinkering. If, however, you’re patient and enjoy cooking for the process of exploration as much as for the actual end-result, you may like the challenge posed by the Cepes Chef Essence.
The Cognac Essential Oil was another exercise in experimentation, but it was an easier product to use than the Cepes once I figure out that it is absolutely requires a very sugar accompaniment, the cooking process, or both. This is not an item that I recommend just dripping onto food and then tasting. That will not go well, as my (never-ending) first test with ice-cream proved. The simple reason is that the Cognac really does not taste like the namesake product when left untreated.
In fact, I was quite bewildered at first. My adorable, little mini came filled with mint-green liquid, and its taste was slightly medicinal, bitter, and almost like peppermint. I’m sure the colour had something to do with that last impression, but I can tell you that it did not look, smell, or taste like cognac to me at all. On the Aftelier website, the oil is described as having a “clean, light and fruity” flavour, but not to me. So, I sent off another email to Ms. Aftel who suggested putting a drop on ice-cream.
Well, that hadn’t worked out well for me, so I thought about my experience with the Cepes Essence and decided that heating or cooking would be required. I sautéed slices of Anjou pears in a bit of butter, added two tiny drops of the Cognac Chef Essence, and waited for the result. The softened, heated pear brought out the fruit’s sweet juices which worked wonders for the Cognac. And, yes, it now actually and finally tasted more like the actual product! Cognac-cooked Pears is a delicious, quick, easy treat that I recommend, but it also taught me something else: this is one of the Chef Essences that, in my personal opinion, can be helped by the heating process.
I also think it has to be in a dish which has some sort of sugar or sweetness to it, whether natural or added. As you will see in the Chocolate section below, I used some of the Cognac Essential Oil in a cookie batter with the Blood Orange and Chocolate. It was good by itself, but the Cognac took everything to the next level. No, really, WOW! The Blood Orange already enhanced the cookie batter, but something about the Cognac really gave it a refined, more complex finishing touch by adding depth and richness, along with subtle nuances of nuttiness and golden sweetness. The other elements, in turn, impacted the cognac as well. Its flavour was no longer thin, green, slightly medicinal fruitiness but something different, even in its uncooked, pre-treated state. It was now, finally, like cognac.
It makes sense if you think about it from a chemistry and fermentation standpoint. Cognac or brandy is really just fruit that goes through a chemical, transformation process with sugar. The Aftelier Chef Essence conjures up images of what cognac must be like in its infancy when it’s merely a thin, green, fruity liquid. It requires time and for the fruits’ natural sugars to seep out in order for the baby to grow and become ready for its birth into the world as a full-blown liqueur.
That said, I’d like to stress that the Chef Essence never tasted particularly boozy to me. It’s certainly not overpoweringly alcoholic. What it does, it seems to accomplish more through the power of suggestion and through fragrance. When handled properly (ie, used with something sugar and perhaps cooked), it tastes like sweetened fruit with golden warmth and a touch of nuttiness — which is what actual cognac really comes down to, if you ignore the alcohol content issue. That flavour profile is underscored here by a very subtle, fruity, cognac-like aroma, but neither of them screams “BOOZE!” Not even remotely.
What was interesting, though, is that both the Cognac and the Chocolate essences in my baking experiment seemed weakened by the cooking process, while the Blood Orange was almost the same and only a hair less vibrant. I’m one of those people who loves raw, frozen cookie dough, and I found the taste of the first two Essences to be much more noticeable before the batter was cooked. So, if you want a really strong cognac taste in the final product, perhaps for a Christmas Plum Pudding or sauces to accompany dark proteins, then my suggestion is to make the uncooked version doubly strong. Still, it’s all going to come down to personal tastes, so experiment to the point you enjoy. Keep in mind, though, that the use of a few tiny drops of Chef Essence in lieu of any liquid that your recipe may normally call will impact the overall wet-dry ratios, its moistness or its density, so you may have to make other adjustments accordingly.
With the holiday season is drawing close, I think that the Cognac holds so many possibilities to really elevate your celebrations. From hot mulled wine to Christmas plum puddings, cookies, eggnog, stuffings, a Christmas goose, and more, I think the Cognac Chef Essence may be one to consider. It’s only $20 for a 5 ml bottle, but a little goes a long way. No, it’s not idiot-proof and, yes, you may need to play around with it a little, but follow some of the guidelines I’ve set here and it won’t be hard. Plus, half the fun of cooking comes from the process, no?
Fresh coriander or cilantro seems to be a hugely polarizing thing, a true source of aversion for some people. The main reason why is that they find cilantro to taste like soap.
I’ve never had that problem and I love fresh cilantro, but I’m afraid I didn’t like the Aftelier Chef Essence. On the company’s website, the Coriander Leaf (which I received in the spray version) and its flavour is described as follows:
(CO2 Essential Oil from India) — gorgeous green color and aroma — even more aromatic than fresh cilantro leaves — warm, rich, with a hint of sweetness.
I’m afraid it didn’t taste like the fresh cilantro bunches that I frequently buy and it actually did taste like soap, both when sprayed directly on my tongue and, on several occasions, when I used it in cooking. The soapiness was slightly less prominent when the dish was heated or cooked, but the other difficulty that I had is that the cilantro or coriander leaf taste itself wasn’t noticeable as a whole unless I sprayed on quite a bit. So, in other words, either the flavour was present and felt soapy, or it wasn’t really detectable in a substantial way.
I tried the Coriander Leaf in a few different dishes. First, I tried it in a Middle Eastern dish, but the other spices completely obliterated or over-whelmed the taste. So then, I tried it on roasted potatoes with a garlic, parsley mix and it was better, but then I used a lot of garlic and the coriander wasn’t particularly noticeable, perhaps because I only applied two small sprays from my sample atomizer. (I think my minis generated a small amount than what you’d get from a regular Aftelier spray bottle.) It was the same story with a pre-prepared Wonton Soup that I had from Trader Joe’s.
I became determined to try something that really let the Coriander Leaf stand out on its own, so I could see what it tasted like properly. So, I made a raw fennel salad with pomegranates and asparagus. I gave the fennel three or four tiny sprays of the Chef Essence, spritzed the vinaigrette sauce lightly as well, added the other ingredients, and then tossed the whole thing. I found that the Coriander Leaf imparted an odd medicinal taste at first, then soapiness, a subtle lemony nuance, and an unexpected, hard to pinpoint, aromatic whiff that was almost floral in a way, but not quite.
I have to be honest, I really did not like the coriander’s flavour. At all. (And I wasn’t particularly keen on the mystery aroma, either.) After my raw fennel salad, I tried the Chef Essence in the cooking method and sprayed it on some raw salmon that I later steamed. It was the same taste combination. Sautéing the fish didn’t help matters, either. At no point did it taste (or smell) like the fresh cilantro that I buy from the supermarket.
In a New York Times article on the Aftelier Chef Essences, the journalist specifically mentioned how the Coriander Leaf (in the non-spray, drop form) added a fragrant touch to a crab salad with pomelo citruses. She seemed to really like it, so perhaps its taste is one of those things that will appear differently to others.
In 2012, it was discovered that people’s aversion to cilantro stemmed from a gene for smell. Actually, it may be three specific genes at play, and a good number of Europeans supposedly have two copies of gene OR6A2, “which is very sensitive to the aldehyde chemicals that give cilantro its distinctive flavor.” In my case, however, I have never once — until now — thought that cilantro tasted soapy. My only explanation for what happened here is the fact that the Chef Essences really magnify an ingredient’s natural flavour to intense, super-saturated degrees. Then again, the NYT journalist seemed fine, so it must be an individual thing.
Tarragon is in the anise family and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I really love it in small doses. It was my maiden step into using Chef Essences in a non-spray form, so it initially required a little more of a learning curve for me.
I started by using a single drop, shaking it out onto a spoon before adding it to a Blanquette de Veau recipe. That’s a creamy, white-based French stew, but since I don’t eat veal for ethical, animal-abuse reasons, I tend to use chicken instead. In this case, I had rather a large pot of Blanquette de… er… Poulet, so I worked my way up in terms of the quantity of Tarragon. Four drops (as little as roughly 1/4 of a teaspoon) ended up being as the perfect balance, such that it didn’t overpower the rest of the flavours but was still a very strong presence.
In contrast, a similarly large-sized dish of salad for a family lunch only required two tiny drops of the Tarragon for the oil-based sauce. The simple reason why: salads (and vinaigrette sauces) are lighter, less rich or heavy, so you will want to use only a tiny quantity. In general, my favourite use for the Aftelier drops has been in sauces, like a tarragon cream sauce for fish, chicken, or potatoes, or in vinaigrettes for salads.
In all cases, none of the tarragon that I’ve ever used before — either fresh bunches or dried flakes — has ever risen to the taste level of the Chef Essence. There is such an intensity to the flavour that it almost felt as though I were experiencing something new. As a whole, tarragon can be quite a bitter taste, so I don’t think this Essence is as versatile as the Basil, and definitely not as much as the Ginger, but I’m really glad to have a bottle in my pantry.
Aftelier’s Chocolate Chef Essence is an absolute made with French chocolate, and it should probably be a staple in any baker’s pantry. I had mixed results with this one, depending on how I used it. The simple reason why is that the Chef Essence tastes like raw cocoa nibs, the sort of unrefined chocolate that has no innate sweetness whatsoever.
I first tried a drop on vanilla ice-cream, but I wasn’t hugely enthused. It was just okay. Ms. Aftel told me that she uses it with all kinds of beef. She added that it doesn’t impart a chocolate taste at all, but simply makes the beef richer, almost “like magic.” I liked the idea at first, but later hesitated. The combination of beef with chocolate seemed a little strange to me, even with Ms. Aftel’s explanation about the taste, and it definitely was outside of my comfort zone. I really do not cook with chocolate in any shape, size, or form.
I didn’t know what to do but, since I wanted to give the Chef Essence a proper, fair testing, it seemed necessary to brave the baking territory. Have I mentioned yet how I normally avoid baking at all costs? Or my deep-seated fear of numbers, maths, and chemistry? Have I talked about how I hate following recipes with the sort of precision that baking requires (nay, demands), or how I can screw up even the simplest one when it comes to sweet things? It’s all true. Baking is not my friend, which is why my first attempt to use the Chocolate Essence did not go well. At all. Yet, somehow, the end result ended up being utterly delicious in terms of taste. Wholly unphotographable (and looking like a hot mess from hell which is why I’ve used a professional photo below), but my goodness, chocolate, blood orange, and cognac are a truly stunning flavour combination when done with the concentrated Chef Essences.
I tried to follow Wilton’s recipe for Chewy Dark Chocolate and Orange Cookies. However, it called for 2/3rd of a cup of unsweetened chocolate, and I only had some lousy, stale Hershey’s Cocoa. It seemed best to skip that. Plus, being an idiot, I thought the Aftelier drops would compensate. The problem was, I had no clue what 2/3rds of a cup would translate to in terms of tiny Aftelier drops. So, I tossed in about 6 drops, as well as about 4 tiny spritzes of my mini Blood Orange, and 4 drops of the Cognac Chef Essence.
I suddenly realised another complication which was that I only had Baking Powder, not Baking Soda, or possibly it’s the reverse. I forget which since they both seem like the same damn thing to me but, apparently, there is a significant difference between the two that is critical for baking. Turning to the Internet, I learnt that one can make one’s own Baking Soda if one adds something acidic, like lemon juice, so I thought, “Hey, Orange and Chocolate Cookies. I can use orange juice! That’s acidic and citric. It should work, right?” (Are you seeing where this is heading?) So, I added a chug of Tropicana’s pulpy orange juice to the batter, tasted it, added a few more spritzes of the Aftelier Blood Orange, and some more drops of both the Chocolate and Cognac for good measure as well.
I mean it quite sincerely when I say that it was the absolute best, tastiest, and most delicious cookie dough I’ve ever had! I kept thinking that someone should bottle the smell, too, for it was far better than Jo Malone‘s Bitter Orange and Chocolate fragrance from her Sugar & Spice collection last year. In fact, my cookie dough smelt better than a number of gourmand fragrances that I’ve tried.
But baking is a precise art, and one of my several screw-ups along the way badly affected the delicate chemistry ratios and end result. My baked “cookies” ended up as a smear of … thin goo. Very tasty goo, I grant you, but the whole thing had merged into one, spread across the baking sheet, and was thin as paper. I found myself in a kitchen that looked like a war zone, sitting huddled on the floor in a corner next to a flour-dusted Hairy German, eating frozen Chocolate, Blood Orange, and Cognac frozen cookie dough out of the bowl, and wondering why I needed to cook the damn thing at all.
I’m not quite sure what happened next. Frustration, hatred of the baking gods, and a sugar high has made it all a bit of blur. Time passed in some sort of fugue state and, somehow, I came up with something like holiday Chocolate, Orange, and Cognac Balls. I think I made some sort of variation of a Chocolate Bourbon Balls recipe, combined with the other one for the cookies, but don’t ask me how because I haven’t the foggiest notion. Still, I must emphasize that, once again, the end result was really tasty and it’s due entirely to the Chef Essences.
What my (mis)adventures showed me is that the Chocolate Chef Essence would be amazing in the hands of someone who knows how to bake, but that it may take some playing around to figure out the quantities. I think it might work best as an addition to recipes which don’t already call for a substantial, actual chocolate presence, because the fact that you’re adding only a few drops won’t subsequently impact the ratios. In other words, it’s not as though you’re adding real liquid to upset the dry-wet balance. I also think sugar is necessary in some way to bring out the flavour, though Ms. Aftelier’s use of the product on beef dishes seems to belie that point. Finally, I noticed that the cooking process seemed to weaken the taste of the chocolate, so you may want to compensate by adding a little more if you want a really robust, strong chocolate presence.
I haven’t experimented further with the Chocolate Absolute, but I do have some plans that don’t involve the traumatizing baking realm. I think it would probably make a killer Hot Chocolate by adding extra-depth without any extra sweetness. It would probably go well with fruit smoothies or cocktails like White Russians as well. More than anything else, though, I plan to use it to amplify the natural chocolate undertones of a balsamic vinegar reduction which is one of my favorite sauces for strawberries, peaches, bananas and, most of all, filet mignon. (Take balsamic vinegar, and reduce it down while adding small pats of unsalted butter throughout. You can add a dash of port if you like, as well. It should turn into a sticky, dense glaze which is simply stellar with filet mignon and has a tart, tangy cherry, chocolate, almost port-like taste. Superb, and the Aftelier Chocolate Absolute should amplify all the basic, delicious goodness to sonic levels.)
All in all, I think this is a really good Chef Essence, and I would recommend it. As some of my examples above should show, you don’t have to be a baker to use it, but you must have patience to learn its quirks because it’s definitely not idiot-proof. I’m a prime example of that. Yet, even in my hands, the result was tasty, so give it a try for yourself.
ALL IN ALL:
There is a reason why I think the Chef Essences are so hugely significant, but I can’t really explain it properly without putting it in a personal context. I rarely talk about myself, but this detour may be a slightly lengthy one, so I hope you will bear with me.
I meant it when I said in Part I that food and, in particular, gastronomy are incredibly important to me. Significantly more than anything to do with perfume, which is mid-way on my lists of interests. As I noted in Part I, it all began with the French film L’Aile ou La Cuisse when I was 6-years old, and gastronomy instantly turned into an obsession. I’m not trying to boast but simply to provide a context when I say that I went to numerous Michelin three-star restaurants as a small child, and the most famous chefs would come out to the dining area to see who was this tiny creature who was grilling waiters about the dishes and how they were made. When I was nine, far before Zagat’s was ever invented, I had a journal with a detailed ranking system covering and analysing all the restaurants that I’d gone to with my parents. And I would pour over each new Michelin Guide until the red cover fell off. Now, as an adult, I read about the lives of chefs the way a normal person reads about politics, history, or celebrities. I care more about the Bocuse d’Or than the Olympics. And the names Grant Achatz, Eleven Madison Park, El Celler de Can Roca, El Bulli, or Noma hold a wealth of significance for me that makes me sit up and quiver. Frederic Malle? Eh. Jean-Georges? Now I care. The names may not mean much to some of you (which is why I’ve provided links), but they are truly my gods and it’s at their altar that I worship:
You must be wondering what all of this has to do with the Aftelier Chef Essences but, if you will bear with me a little longer, I’ll get to the point soon enough. Food — really good food — is something that holds monumental power for me, even if I can’t make it myself. And I can’t, you know. I may be a good home cook, but I couldn’t compete with the left toenail of the lowliest line cook at The French Laundry, and let’s forget about anything in the same galaxy as the food in the photos here.
Yet, Mandy Aftel’s Chef Essences make me feel as though I had a small chance of making a dish whose taste might — perhaps, by some huge miracle, and if I were really lucky — be at least tolerable and one galaxy closer. It’s the first time I’ve ever come across a product that creates that possibility, no matter how foolish or illusory.
And that is why I think the Chef Essences are so important. Read any chef bio — from “Prune” to “Heat“(which is a hilarious, entertaining, and absorbing book that I highly recommend, by the way) — or listen to anything ever said by Eric Ripert or Thomas Keller, and the same point is made time and time again: the first and most important consideration in making good food is the freshness of the ingredients. But it’s often not enough just to have fresh tomatoes or free-range chicken; you need to amplify flavours, layer them, and make them really pop.
The Chef Essences are a way for an ordinary home cook to achieve that goal. It makes everything come alive in a way that you or I might not otherwise achieve. It gives us a fighting chance and an expert’s arsenal (at reasonable prices) to make something that actually might be closer to the level of the food put out by my culinary gods. Two of those gods, by the way, use the Chef Essences themselves in their Michelin three-star, world-famous restaurants: Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller.
The New York Times said that the Chef Essences can’t make bad food good, but that they can make good food extraordinary. I think they’re correct but I also think that the Chef Essences can elevate “bad” food, even if it’s merely to the realm of “okay.” And there is truly something magical about them when they work right, an alchemical transformation that occurs when everything clicks and you take that first bite that is like nothing else ever produced in your kitchen. It makes you think that you may eventually achieve something of which Thomas Keller himself would approve.
I’ve never encountered anything that holds such a promise, not with any of the extracts, concentrated pastes, or flavoured oils that I’ve tried, and certainly not with anything dried. Nothing can come close to the purity of the taste, or the affordable, practical, and time-saving convenience aspects of the Essences, either. One or two simple drops… that’s all it requires. How can anyone beat that? It seems like such a common-sense idea now to use essences in food, and such a simple invention, but it’s not. Not with this level of flavour purity, lack of additives, cleanness of taste, richness, or potency. It was pure genius on the part of Ms. Aftel and Chef Patterson, I really believe that.
I’d be the first to tell you that it can take work, experimentation, patience, and, yes, making simply “okay” food before you find the right fit or balance. The Chef Essences aren’t a magical bullet all by themselves. You have to play with them, find the perfect ratios, and experience a few funky miscalculations until you figure out their little quirks. But that’s the whole fun of cooking, isn’t it? And don’t you want the chance to make dishes that taste (not necessarily look, but merely taste) a tiny bit like something that Daniel Humm might have whipped up in his spare time away from Eleven Madison Park? (I’ve been dying to eat there, more any other place in America except Alinea, but have never managed to get a reservation on those occasions when I’ve gone back to New York. The wait-list is endless.)
None of these cooking feats may ever actually occur in your or my kitchen, but the Chef Essences give you the illusion and dream that perhaps you might achieve that sort of greatness. Just as perfume holds a certain transformative promise, so, too, do these potions. If you have absolutely any interest at all in good food or cooking, you really should really try them for yourself.
Disclosure: My samples or bottles were kindly provided by Aftelier Perfumes. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.