Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hollandaise Morning

Omelette's hope is lost, forsaken
silken buttercup betrayed
a lonely memory of clouds

What fine divisions once entangled
endless texture in one whole
now whisked instead to curdled flocs
as these

Slimy yellow platelets floating
clotted in salty plasm
drifting on autumnal surface
like leaves

Emulsions form and are broken
fatty gobbets find their own
their segregated souls departed
like dreams


Okay, I know it's terrible poetry, but I had to drain it from my head.

Chemically speaking, emulsions are mixtures of insoluble liquids (usually water and an organic liquid--oil--of some kind) that are separated into very small domains. What makes emulsions different from your run-of-the-mill suspensions is that they're relatively stable thanks to the action of a surfactant, a chemical that has an affinity for both the oil and the water phases, and keeps them apart at a microscopic level. The result is a soft and pillowy "phase" that, depending on its composition, can sometimes be made to float forever between the pure oil and water regions of a mixture. Which is neat.

The structure of the emulsion microdomains is actually quite subtle and fascinating, ranging from isolated droplets, to columns, layers, and intricate spongelike extended structures. Here's a sylized phase diagram that I once put in a proposal, taken from somebody's review (H. T. Davis Coll. Surf. A, 91, 9, 1994).

When you separate an emulsion, it's called "breaking," which is an interesting choice of terms because you're not breaking the true phases (they are already broken up), but combining them into bigger chunks. You can probably make this a metaphor for human interaction: a bunch of us relating individually across a large network makes for a nice fluffy existence, but when we segregate ourselves (by religion, appearance, geography, whatever), the system goes all to shit.

Which happened in my kitchen this morning, a pitched battle. I like to cook, and I'm good at it, but I've never figured out emulsion sauces. I was, however, so buoyed by my success at making proper French omelettes last week that I just had to give it a go this morning. I added the butter too fast, and that creamy Hollandaise broke up into nasty, salty bits. Dammit.


Artemesia said...


I like your poem despite the addled curdling. Its all in how you temper the tempering..Tricky stuff. My favorite Chef is the blind grandmother in Bradbury's 'Dandelion Wine.'

When her family bought her glases she couldn't cook, but when she went back to her 98% blind self..Her fingers and hands knew what to do.

I deleted a Hollandaise recipe by Julia and Jacques. Too late to hyper-link it now. She died in her 90's after all that butter and puff pastry..I really enjoyed her.

You turn a good plate of metaphors! Now is the season to bake cookies with the kids..

fluffy black puppies said...

chemists are frequently good cooks. i am. my ex was. the only thing he ever made that i refused to eat was some kind of sauce [i forget what, but it involved milk] that curdled.

and you can be an honorary chemist, too. i'll let you.

i have to admit, i've always made hollandaise sauce from a package. i'm impressed by anyone who'll make it from scratch.

[this identity seemed appropriate here]

twiffer said...

i've never really tried to tackle french cooking. not for any particular reason; just never occured to me to do so.

but hollandaise is yummy. so are omlettes.

damn you, now i'm hungry.

Keifus said...

artemesia: my conclusion is that the egg yolk lecithin is just a poor emulsifier. Where's Dow chemical when I need them?

I spent all of yesterday making cookies. I shooed the kids out of the kitchen for it though. Too much needed to be accomplished if you know what I mean. (I'm an ogre.)

And also, 90+ years on a French pastry diet, now that's livin'.

fluffy: I'm not too far from a chemist. Depends on teh day of the week. But next time I need to whip up some credentials, I'll be sure to cut and paste that one.

And I have to admit that I still haven't made it from scratch. It's a challenge now. (But I think I'll be keeping a package on hand anyway.)

(And yup, good choice of nic.)

twiffer: I wasn't trying to make anyone hungry! Kind of the opposite.

Never did much French myself, for similar reasons. But I'd been thinking lately that it's about time I tried (and the omelettes were kickass).


LentenStuffe said...


I like the poem and must confess it exists in my mind completely independently of the esoteric editorializing that follows. The metaphor of the poem is sufficient unto itself and I loved that the flawed objective still affirms the 'departure of segregated souls like dreams'. That's truly a powerful image and has legs all its own.

I view your scientic gloss as a kind of prose poem anyway: it has poetic turns of phrase that lift it out of the quantitative realm. It doesn't explicate or supplant the poem, but that's not what you were going for, right?

Keifus said...

Thanks, man. The theatrical exaggeration turned into a final line that I liked too, though I'm not sure it excuses the 14 other ones. I liked writing it anyway.

The second part is almost like explaining a joke, isn't it? Oh well, I liked writing that too.


P.S. (I know you love that): as for your latest "Janus" post, read it and think I have somethign to say, but need to think on it more before I do.

Persephone said...

I just love that you had to have a scientific diagram to follow your poem . . . .

Keifus said...

Thanks. Fortunately, I'm at ease with my essential nerdiness.

catnapping said...

never was much on hollandaise. good thing too, cuz i can't make it. (i'm more of a yeast/dough/bread person, meself.)

i liked your analogy fluffy emulsions=happy planet. cool.