Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Ghost of Gluten-free

Torta de chile relleno. Oaxaca, Mexico. 

Or "How modern journalism works".

Keeping up with the scientific reports, I came across this link suggested by a popular science communication site. Dated 2 November 2015, it's a snarky blog post titled Millennials Seek New Ailment After Gluten Sensitivity Turns Out Not To Be Real - the gist of which is summarized in the first paragraph:
A new scientific study by the people who proved that gluten sensitivity is a definitely a thing has proved that gluten sensitivity is definitely not a thing.
Note the use of "new". Following the link, it leads to a ScieceAlert page dated 19 August 2015, which details a familiar shift of the issue from gluten to FODMAPs. Reaching the end of the article, we note that this was actually originally published in Business Insider on 16 May 2014. Which means that the journal article being cited as being published "last year" was relative to that date - indeed, it actually refers to the Gastroenterology paper published in Aug 2013.

So, like what was old is new again, thanks to the remix nature of internet reporting. Back then, the iPhone 5 was the hottest thing around.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The physics of frugal fluffiness

Hokkaido cupcake, Kamalan Bakery, Houston, TX

I've recently become fascinated by Hokkaido cupcakes (sometimes just Hokkaido cakes). The only purveyor I know of is the recently opened Kamalan Bakery in the ever expanding new Chinatown region of Bellaire in Houston. Based on my research, despite the name, the cake didn't originate in Japan, but rather in the ethnic Chinese enclaves of Singapore and Malaysia. It's a product of leveraging physics and frugality to accomplish a delicious product. At its core, the cupcake is a chiffon cake - a close relative to the angel food cake - the latter is basically a prime example of a physically leavened cake. Rather than using chemical leaveners such as baking soda, an angel food cake relies on a lot of egg whites beaten into a semi-stable foam to produce it's airy structure (some manufacturers may cheat, however, and use the foaming qualities of detergent to accomplish the same thing without less labor). In the chiffon cake, the egg yolks are not discarded, but used to emulsify and incorporate additional flavoring ingredients. At its most basic, that could just be some milk and oil, but any number of flavoring components can be used. Flour is then added, but at a smaller ratio since the gluten formed toughens the cake. The beaten egg white is folded in last just before baking to produce a fluffy cake much prized for its texture.

In a sense, a chiffon cake is basically a stabilized soufflé.

Due to the delicate nature of the foam, it needs to cling to the edges of the pan to promote rising, thus, chiffon cake containers cannot be lubricated for ease in unmolding, and the cake must be cooled upside down to avoid collapsing.  When baked in a flute pan with a central chimney, this is possible, but as a cupcake, cooling upside down is impractical. But the ever frugal inventors came up with a clever solution: reinflate the cake with filling:

A Hokkaido cupcake puts the Twinkie to shame with filling abundance. It can be filled with any number of fillings, from custard to basic whipped cream, flavored or unflavored, which serves not only to provide flavor contrast, but also provide basic structural properties to the cake. Numerous recipes and videos can be found online, though most will be Southeast Asian in tenor.

Note also the use of square cardboard cupcake liners. These are quite clever - the traditional fluted liner is there to facilitate removal from the pan due to the no-grease requirement, but still requires a traditional cupcake pan mold. The cardboard cups provide sufficient strength on their own to be used without the pan mold, and the square shape allow for more efficient use of oven space. However, they seem to be rather difficult to find in American groceries.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Science Behind Cooking Videos

Video is a powerful medium. I've noticed that when presented as a "documentary" format, people rarely question something presented as a video. Maybe because it can be compellingly presented with music and editing that can be emotionally engaging, or perhaps because in video, the presenter is in control. The viewer seldom can backtrack, and slow down the pace to digest the facts. Which is why quite often, something like the "Science of Macarons" video presented above, despite the appearance of precision, actually presents very little actual science. In fact, the baker exhorts the baking rules as if they were religious commandments rather than explaining what happens, for example, if the sugar to almond ratio were changed, or that the whipping speed order for egg whites were changed.

Some call this "science-y" rather than actual science.

In contrast, watch below for a well presented video on the effects of salting on food before and after cooking. Unfortunately, the title "Secrets of Salting" appeals to the quasi-mysterious nature of cooking, when in fact, science serves to illuminate.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Evolutionary Roads to Waking Up

Chai latte, Mercantile, Houston, TX
2015 marks 100 years of the iconic hour glass shaped Coca cola bottle, the contents of which was the progenitor of the "cola" drinks so pervasive the world over. The name cola derives from one of the original bittering agents: the kola nut, the seed of an evergreen tree. Among many African cultures, chewing the kola nut provides a rapid energy burst due to it's high caffeine content. Oddly enough, this practice of energizing plant products spans multiple times in human history, though not getting connected until recent advances in global communication.

In Brazil, the stimulant was guarana, a plant related to the maple. Elsewhere in Spanish-speaking South America, yerba mate is consumed in various incarnations. In Asia, perfusions of the  leaves of shrub Camelia sinensis is what we call tea, and its cultivation and trade has shaped the histories of countries from India to America. But the stimulant in all of these plants, though they are unrelated, is the same: caffeine. And by far, the most popular source of caffeine (in fact, the substance is so named from it) is coffee.

Despite the diversity of these plants, the caffeine the contain are all chemically identical (even though some health nuts claim that caffeine derived from one plant has a different effect than from another). In evolutionary terms, this is quite curious. Proteins are usually directly encoded by the genome, and when two organisms make the similar proteins, we can infer relatedness from their ancestry. But caffeine is an alkaloid that is made by several enzymatic steps (believe it or not, the raw material is the same stuff that is used to build DNA). And expecting all these relatively distantly related plants to have the same enzymes would seem to be unlikely. The sequencing of the coffee genome, however, revealed an infrequently discussed but important phenomenon in biology: convergent evolution.

Most commonly, evolution is discussed in terms of speciation, where a common ancestor's progeny adapt to different environments across generations, and start diverging in traits - thus, the same Prunus will give rise to the cherry and the apricot. But in some cases, evolutionary pressure can take different organisms to evolve similar, or, in this case, identical traits. Coffee and tea, for example, do not have the identical enzymes, but they have evolved to produce the same effect on the raw material xanthosine, in an identical chain of events that produces chemically identical caffeine. Which probably first evolved as chemical protection against insects.

So, whether the bottle reads guarana, Red Bull,'s the same stuff acting as the stimulant. And good morning.

Addendum: the chemical stimulant in chocolate, theobromine, turns out to be just one enzymatic step removed from caffeine.

Friday, August 7, 2015


Conch fritters with fried breadfruit
 While in the Honduras, I had the opportunity to sample some conch fritters. Unfortunately, deep frying in batter doesn't seem to be the best way to treat the mollusk, as the conch itself got rubbery, and the sweet flavor was overwhelmed by the heavy batter. However, the accompanying breadfruit fries were quite delicious. 

I'm puzzled by the poor availability of breadfruit in the Texas area. A staple in much of the world, the breadfruit is like a tree borne potato. When unripe, it is starchy, and can be cooked in all the various ways a starchy ingredient is used. On ripening, the fruit becomes sweeter and softer, and can be treated as much most fruits. The seeds are small and edible, the trees are propagated from cuttings, and can produce bountiful fruit for decades. The only issue is the tree grows only in tropical climates, but Texas should be close enough that a variety can probably be evolved to survive here. In a sense, the breadfruit reminds me of plantains - and we have a ready supply of that in the big cities. But, strangely enough, breadfruit remains remarkably rare.