By Ella Walker
Writer, photographer and food stylist Nik Sharma is based in LA, California. A city of farmers’ markets and cutting-edge restaurants, tacos you’d sell a limb for (if pushed), and ridiculously fresh produce.
“The food scene in LA is the most vibrant in the US,” says Sharma. “You can get the most delicious and inventive meals at different price points, so everyone has access, which is amazing.
“It’s also always unexpected,” he adds. “You never know what you’re going to walk into and that’s what I love.”
Covid has put a hold on much of that, however. Like most of us, he’s been cooking a lot at home. But as a food writer who cooks at home for a living anyway, he admits during the pandemic he’s had to remind himself he “can’t make desserts all the time, I need to cook savoury food…”
If you’re new to Sharma’s food, he describes it “adventurous and fun”.
At its core is an awareness of science and the role of science in the kitchen. With his new cookbook, The Flavor Equation, he’s “trying to show that science and cooking coexist harmoniously in the kitchen” and that neither side needs be afraid of the other. “I want people to see the kitchen is a lab,” he notes. “What you’re doing in the kitchen, it’s actually science.”
Born in Bombay, Sharma relocated to the US to study molecular genetics, before deciding food was the one for him. Writing recipes that he shoots and styles himself, his work appears in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and on his blog, A Brown Table.
The Flavor Equation follows his debut cookbook, Season, and sees him using science to extract deliciousness; investigating how perception affects how we eat; and considering the impact of emotion, sight, sound, mouthfeel, aroma and taste on flavour.
Gingerbread Cake with Date Syrup Bourbon Sauce
(Serves 12. Makes one 23cm square cake and 480ml sauce)
165g unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
1tbsp ground ginger
1tsp ground black pepper
1tsp ground green cardamom
1tsp lime zest
350g all-purpose flour
1½tsp baking soda
½tsp fine sea salt
55g crystallised ginger, chopped
320g unsulfured molasses or sorghum
120g crème fraîche
2 large eggs, at room temperature
240ml water warmed to 70C
For the date syrup bourbon sauce:
2tbsp unsalted butter
240ml date syrup
240ml heavy cream
2tbsp honey bourbon or whiskey
¼tsp fine sea salt
Lightly sweetened crème fraîche
Fresh lime zest
Ginger and black pepper gives this cake its warmth. The aromatic molecules in the spices and lime zest are extracted into the butter, the fat phase, in which they are highly soluble before they are incorporated into the cake batter.
- Grease a 23 cm square baking pan with a little butter and line with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the ginger, black pepper, cardamom, and lime zest. Let steep for 10 minutes.
- Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl. Reserve two tablespoons of the flour mixture in a small bowl, add the crystallised ginger to it, and toss to coat well.
- Preheat the oven to 160C.
- Place the sugar, honey, and molasses in the bowl of a stand mixer. Scrape out the melted butter from the saucepan with a silicone spatula and add it to the mixer bowl. Using the paddle attachment, mix on medium speed until it turns a toffee-brown colour, four to five minutes.
- Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl, add the crème fraîche, and mix on low speed until combined, one minute. Stop and scrape down the bowl. Mix in one egg at a time on medium speed until combined. Add the sifted dry ingredients in one addition and mix on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the speed set to low, add the water in a slow, steady stream and mix until combined. Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl. Fold in the crystallised ginger and transfer the cake batter to the prepared baking pan. Bake until the cake is golden brown on the surface and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean, 50-60 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely in the pan. Run a knife along the edges of the pan to release the cake and transfer to a serving plate.
- To prepare the date bourbon sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Swirl the butter in the saucepan until the milk solids start to turn red. Whisk in the date syrup and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream, followed by the bourbon and the salt. Transfer to an airtight jar and refrigerate until ready to use. You can make this sauce two days ahead of time.
- To serve, cut the cake into slices and serve with sweetened crème fraîche, a little lime zest, and a generous drizzle of the date bourbon sauce.
The Flavor Equation: The Science Of Great Cooking Explained + More Than 100 Essential Recipes by Nik Sharma, is available now