Illusion Burgers

My son spent the weekend with me. We made burgers.

That is, of course, not the whole story. It begins with a tradition of illusion foods that goes back to at least the Hellenistic era and was very strong in medieval Europe. Sotelties, dishes meant to look artful or simply represent something other than they were fascinated the rich and powerful. My son knows about this, of course – I keep boring him with history, but he does get the good bits. And for over a year, we were talking about producing an illusion hamburger whenever we passed though a station called Hamburger Straße. This weekend, we did it and inflicted the result on an unsuspecting grandmother.

Starting off with the basics: There are two kinds of burger patties. The darker ones are butter cookies made with plenty of cocoa powder. The recipe involved 220g of flour, 125g of sugar, 125g of butter, an egg, and 30g of cocoa. I baked them at a low temperature to produce thick cookies and overbaked them, having to trim some burnt edges. The lighter kind consists of 3 parts walnuts to two parts dates, processed together. It is best to first turn the walnuts to a powder and then gradually add the dates until you get the consistency you want. Then, you can hand-shape it into patties. In the process, I learned that adding some dried breadcrumbs to soak up excess oil is both practical and frugal.

Then, the buns. These are simply homemade brioche, a yeast-leavened dough of pastry flour, butter, sugar, milk and egg. I sprinkled them with sesame because this is common on hamburger buns here. Just buying brioche buns could have served much the same purpose – I do not like sweet bread with my burgers normally, but many do.

Of course, burgers stand or fall with their condiments. We served mustard, ketchup, and remoulade relish, with lettuce, tomato, onion rings, and pickle slices along with some extra spice powder. It was an unimaginative setup to be honest, but it worked, and of course none was as it seemed.

To start with the least convincing: The lettuce leaves were cut from edible paper, a task suited to the abilities and patience level of a seven-year-old. Actual leaves, perhaps of lamb’s lettuce, or a meadowsweet salad, would appear more convincing and still match the flavour, but it is February and this was what we did.

The mustard is supermarket vanilla pudding from a bag, beaten with a little cream and tinted yellow with commercial food dye. I could have used saffron, but the cost militates against doing that for a stunt. The same vanilla pudding also went into the remoulade, though it was made with less liquid for a firm consistency, then beaten to break down the jelly-like cohesion. I added finely chopped candied citron, pear peel, and grated baking chocolate to simulate garlic, herbs, and pepper. The ketchup is strawberry jam, in this case homemade, passed through the finest mesh of a foodmill and stirred until nearly liquid. Again, spices are simulated by grated baking chocolate. The process was so much fun that my son produced another bowl of chocolate powder to use as “extra pepper”.

Then there are the vegetables. The tomato slices are utterly unconvincing, but then, they were the counsel of despair. After several failed attempts to make commercial gelatin stand firm enough to cut or improvise containers that would make discs that could be unmoulded, I grabbed a bag of berry-flavoured fruit gum and melted it in a pot.

Poured out into the lid of a bisquit tin, it set firm enough to use a cookie cutter on the next morning, but of course it does not look at all like tomatoes and the sesame added for “seeds” does not help us suspend disbelief. Dyed apple rounds might have worked better.

The pickle slices, on the other hand, went very well. These are sections of thin, long-stemmed pears soaked in a heavy sugar syrup flavoured with lemon juice. I was going to add a few pieces of apple cut out with a melon baller for onions as well as shreeded peel for dill and paprika, but lacked the time and patience in the end.

Finally, the onion rings were cut from cross-sections of Granny Smith apples using a succession of round cookie cutters. Starting on the outside and working your way in got me the best results, but there is not a lot of material in an average-sized apple. I stored the slices in a mix of cold water and lemon juice until just before serving to stop them from turning brown, which worked very well.

And how did all of this end up tasting? Surprisingly good, actually. The mustard and remoulade were just sweet, but added a little much-needed moisture to an otherwise dry affair. Combining the brioche with the date-walnut patty worked better than with the crumbly, chocolate-y cookie, but even the latter was not bad. Adding pear and apple proved a winning combination for me while my son favoured the jelly tomatoes. Of course, just baking a cake could have achieved much the same end in purely culinary terms, but much fun was had by all. Hints of recreating this for a birthday party have already been dropped.

We invited grandma for cake in four weeks’ time. Plans are proceeding apace.

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