Something New Under the Frozen Chocolate Sun

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
October 2014

Biography

Restaurant

It looks like tulle and tastes like cool joy. Pastry Chef Rick Billings first became infatuated with Taiwanese shaved ice last year when he came across it in Los Angeles. Rather than flakes of brittle ice crystals, imagine a tissue paper-thin ribbon of creamy frozen custard that’s been shaved off a block and piled high in rippling mounds. “It was the texture, it’s insane,” says Billings. “These long flowing ribbons that don’t melt right away. It’s not as sweet as most ice creams, and it’s much lighter.” With the mantra of a former boss (Alex Stupak) in mind—“You can do a thousand new flavors, but if it’s the same old technique it’s nothing new”—Billings bought an inexpensive ice shaver online (an upgrade is in the works) and went back to the lab at Ku Noodle to experiment.

Shaved Chocolate Hay, Toffee, Freeze Dried Ginger, Candied Ciabatta Bread, Olive Oil, Maldon Salt, and Coriander Blossoms

Shaved Chocolate Hay, Toffee, Freeze Dried Ginger, Candied Ciabatta Bread, Olive Oil, Maldon Salt, and Coriander Blossoms

Pastry Chef Rick Billings of minibar - Washington, D.C.

Pastry Chef Rick Billings of minibar - Washington, D.C.

Shaved Chocolate Hay, Toffee, Freeze Dried Ginger, Candied Ciabatta Bread, Olive Oil, Maldon Salt, and Coriander Blossoms

Shaved Chocolate Hay, Toffee, Freeze Dried Ginger, Candied Ciabatta Bread, Olive Oil, Maldon Salt, and Coriander Blossoms

Pastry Chef Rick Billings of minibar - Washington, D.C.

Pastry Chef Rick Billings of minibar - Washington, D.C.

When testing an eggless chocolate base on his ice shaver, Billings stumbled across an intriguing texture. “When we went to shave it, instead of long soft ribbons, it was like shards, like pine needles or hay,” he says. “But it was amazing! It’s almost like there’s a contradiction between the way it looks and the way it feels in your mouth.” Billings had discovered what he calls chocolate hay. The dessert combines all the richness of a classic creamy chocolate ice cream experience with an unconventional presentation and an unexpected lighter-than-air texture. “The fact that [shaved ice] is so common else where, is awesome. No one is doing it [here], but it’s right in front of our eyes.”

With more experimentation Billings and his assistant, Andrew Nelson, discovered that freezing temperature and sugar density were responsible for the brittleness of the chocolate ice and it’s soft yet shattery mouth feel. While they applied this knowledge to perfect their soft Taiwanese-style shaved ice desserts at Ku Noodle, back at minibar by José Andrés in Washington, D.C., they decided the chocolate hay deserved menu space of its own. To consistently yield the hay, the freezing temperature of the base must be between 10°F and 20°F—higher than for delicate ribbons—and the sugar density has to be lower.

The chocolate hay dessert at minibar is light and minimalist to highlight the hay, sharing a cold plate with frozen toffee, dehydrated ginger powder, caramelized bread, Maldon salt, and olive oil. The base doesn’t need to be kept super cold to produce the flakey effect when shaving. The shards are subtly sweet, the lack of elasticity-inducing sugar being part of what contributes to their singular texture. Billings maintains his frozen chocolate discs between 10°F and 20°F, preparing small batches of hay prior to service. When orders come in, his staff is able to neatly spoon the product onto a chilled plate, maintaining its integrity for a good 5 to 7 minutes before melting. While Billings experimented with stabilizers in hopes of further extending the life of the dessert, it was to no avail. “It’s a paper thin shard of ice. It’s going to melt one way or another.”

Billings has opened up a whole new world of texture, and other chefs are taking note. Ferran Adrià was sighted at Ku Noodle in mid-September, and it’s reported he ate five bowls of shaved ice himself. And it’s not only pastry—at minibar, Billings has concocted a base of uni and dashi, and served the frozen shavings with ponzu-seasoned tapioca, soy crystals, and fresh wasabi. The flavors might be familiar, but the technique and the texture are brand new.

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