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. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Things go pear shaped

Velveteen pear
One of the virtuous terms being bandied about with it comes to food is "locally sourced", but sticking to this mentality can really hamper the exploration of the world of food. For example, though pears can grow in Texas, pears are definitely not in season in the summer. But in the Southern hemisphere, it would be fall/winter now, and pears are definitely at their peak there. And the varietals than can emerge, be it from genetic drift or controlled selection, need to be sufficiently intriguing to be worth the effort of export.

In my local grocery, I happened upon this New Zealand pear variety called a Velveteen Pear. 

The skin is a little thicker and more textured than the more common Anjou or Comice, which is probably where the velvet monicker is derived. But the flesh is far more intensely sweet than most pears. Unfortunately, I think most consumers fear the unknown, and don't consider this delicious variety. Another one to find if you have the chance is the Abate Fetel pear. A varietal credited to monks in Italy, it is a bit grainier than the usual pear, it is strongly aromatic and flavorful. And quite perishable.

Abate Fetel pear

Monday, July 27, 2015

Labeling is a process

Incidentally, the FDA is being told to define 'natural'

A recent bill passed by the US Congress is shaping up to be a major food fight - officially titled “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”, it’s derided as the “Denying Americans the Right to Know” Act by its opponents. And it doesn’t help that the media continue to parrot the line that it’s a bill designed to block labeling:

These are headlines from the more reputable sources, but there are numerous others. In this modern age of transparency - we can verify the account by reading the actual bill itself, nicely archived at the Library of Congress. And from the summary, it clearly writes out:

The FDA must allow, but not require, GMO food to be labeled as GMO.

The bill not only does not block, it provides specific language permitting labeling of GMO food. In addition, it provides guidelines for requiring specific labeling:

If the FDA determines that there is a material difference between a GMO food and a comparable non-GMO food, the FDA can specify labeling that informs consumers of the difference. 

GMO food labeling advocates should be celebrating - the Federal government has provided them a mechanism to compel the FDA to require GMO labeling. It is a reasonable process that enacts a common standard superseding the patchwork of legislation going through the states. They just have to provide proof of material difference. Ah, but that burden of proof has never been the purview of the antiscience fringe. Take, for example, the recent involvement of Hollywood celebrity Fran Drescher in demanding GMO labeling based on the predictions of her husband, Shiva Ayyadurai that GMO soy has higher levels of formaldehyde. Scientist Kevin Folta has offered an open collaboration, inviting Ayyadurai to be a co investigator in verifying this prediction by actually measuring formaldehyde. Folta has even offered to foot the material costs of the experiments - quite a generous offer - in addition to authorship in the paper. Ayyudarai and Drescher have thus far largely ignored Folta to continue the media flogging.

In the end - I find fault with the media. Our journalists should be held to a higher standard. The bill isn't some kind of obstinate refusal to label - it provides a process, and a standard, to approach the label. And in this case, the government has provided the transparency, but the desire to fabricate a fight is how the actual language gets concealed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mixing phases

Part of the fame of the restaurant Serendipity 3 in New York City is its iconic Frrrrozen hot chocolate. Decadent, over the top, it seems to be a contradiction in terms. Indeed, the idea of serving chocolate at ice cold temperature is intuitively problematic, as the cocoa butter will become waxy chips that lack that unctuous mouthfeel we associate with good chocolate. As I experimented with doing it at home, turns out the key is to use cheap instant hot chocolate - the kind that has emulsifiers to rapidly disperse the chocolate in hot water - and supplementing it with good chocolate for the flavor. I personally prefer using really good bittersweet chocolate bars, but using good cocoa powder also works, albeit with a smoother consistency. Commercial chocolate chips are often adulterated with different fats for good baking, but I have had problems with them in a cold preparation. The rest is just a matter of blending with ice and milk.

So, the basic procedure: melt the chocolate, if using, in a microwave. Mix in some of the hot chocolate mix, and enough hot water to make a thick liquid, like a chocolate syrup. In the blender, put in the crushed ice, and milk (I use full fat milk, but could experiment with coconut or almond milk, too). Pour in the chocolate syrup and blend immediately. Pour into serving glasses right away, and use a draw to drink from the bottom up. Whipped cream gilds the lily.

Monday, May 4, 2015

What we can learn from a burrito-maker

If you hadn't heard the news, Chipotle, the burrito chain, has declared that it'll be "GMO-free". While some are celebrating at this bold marketing move, others have accurately pointed out that this company capitalizing on anti-science hysteria. It's not really a surprise: Chipotle's demonization of industrial agriculture as a marketing stance is old news. GMOs just happen to be the convenient scapegoat.

And to be fair - Chipotle is perfectly within its rights to change their ingredient sourcing. They can certainly adopt these arbitrary production practices - efficient or otherwise - to cater to the whims of their customer base (while simultaneously creating a cultural divide). Despite what some entitled folks may think: Chipotle burritos are not an essential food group.

But what we can learn here is the tricky burden of carrying a label. One of more commonly used bromides used by the "Just Label It" campaign to get legally mandated labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients is that it's cheap. Just a label. Why fight it?

Well, had that law been passed, could Chipotle declare itself "GMO-free"? As many point out, the chain is keeping high fructose corn syrup sweetened sodas and standard cheese - which are products of the transgenic technology. The hypocrisy can exist because we aren't invested in an infrastructure to inspect for this - that'd be a waste of taxpayer money. As the question isn't something that is chemically detectible at the end - glucose is glucose whether is degraded from sugar cane or Bt corn - then it's the process that is in question. And monitoring that isn't easy. Try earning a kosher label. Moreover, as with any law, we should consider what penalties are in store for violators.

Arguably, Chipotle is violating truth in advertising laws, but we have bigger problems to deal with. And if you don't understand why sensible people are fighting against mandatory labeling laws (note, not "against labeling" per se, as it is often shortened to), then this is an example that illustrates the bureaucratic madness such laws portend. And "Certified Organic" is a big enough waste of money and time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Drinking chocolate another way

Chocolate chip cookie
When we say chocolate, the common thought is that it is a sweet of some sort, like those ubiquitous chocolate chips or bars. Those are fairly recent, though - initially, chocolate was a drink. Well, a better drink than what most places in America think of as hot chocolate. That milky, overly sweet concoction that is provided as a patronizing nod to children while the "adults" have (bad) coffee is a tragic waste of the potential of chocolate.
Drinking Chocolate, Bean Traders, North Carolina
That delicious chocolate bar is a complex emulsion of fat and crystals - some of that unctuousness can be conveyed by making sipping chocolates (rather than hot cocoa). The key is to use whole milk, or even half and half, and not to heat it too much as to cause the emulsion to break. And great restraint on the sugar - the complexity of flavors in chocolate can be overpowered easily. Sip slowly in the company of friends. 

The source of chocolate is the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao. The name literally translates to "food of the gods", and in its mesoamerican origins, chocolate was very much a drink for the gods. In Oaxaca, Mexico, hot drinking chocolate is prized even above coffee. Traditionally, it's made with water, not milk, and without the cloying milk fat, this style reveals more of the nuance on chocolate flavor. A foam atop the hot chocolate is great prized, as it has to manually beaten into a drink with relatively few foaming components. 

Chocolate de agua, Oaxaca, Mexicp
But there's a lesser known sibling to chocolate, a different product of the cacao bean: tejate.
Perhaps the ancestral energy drink, it is purchased as a pick me up the middle of the day, drunk out of  colorful gourd cups. The white layer atop the giant bowl is pretty much cocoa butter, released by the slow massaging of the ground cacao with masa and various ingredients. A tejatera (tejate is almost exclusively made by women) will scoop out the liquid and separately top it with the fluffy white mass.
Lime treated cacao beans for tejate
Sweetening the drink is optional. The flavor is floral, chocolatey, light. Tejate is refreshing respite on a hot day, but preparing it is a laborious and manual process (with a surprisingly large number of ingredients.
Key ingredient to tejate - the seed of the mamey fruit

Friday, April 10, 2015

Misinterpreting facts to promote fear

Did you know that turkeys are actually native to Mexico and the Americas? 
At least five people forwarded me an article on Gawker, penned by Yvette d'Entremont (aka ScienceBabe), dressing down the profiteering fear mongering by Vani Hari (self promoted "Food Babe" - no, I will not send her any additional traffic). At least two have plainly asked me if I helped write it. I assure you, I had nothing to do with it, though I sympathize with the sentiment. Hari has since posted a response chock full of ad hominem and evasion, and the media blogosphere as taken to reporting this as a type of blogger vs blogger fight. Just portraying it as any sort of "debate" lends false equivalence to to both authors, when in fact science is squarely represented by d'Entremont.

In Orac's blog, Respectful Insolence, he alludes to the entertaining nature of the virtual dressing down Vani Hari is getting straight in the title. Aside from recapping Hari's numerous historical demonstrations of scientific ignorance, and accompanying arrogance against being educated, he did point out a small tactic she uses: citing a scientific study based on peripheral relevance, and overinterpreting this proof of validity. In this case, she pulls out some preliminary cell culture papers to imbue kale with exaggerated cancer protective properties. This underhanded tactic cloaks an outlandish claim with unearned veracity, but Hari isn't alone in doing so.

Over interpreting science articles are common stock in "scienciness" articles in mainstream media.  Extrapolating from a few observations, one can paint up speculations of miracle cures or doomsday scenarios, even as the actual scientists publishing responsibly note restraint in interpretation. Last November, I noted that respected science journalist Maryn McKenna used such tenuous justification in linking "antibiotic-free" turkeys (if they even exist) to the rise of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. Hari is certainly a relatively easy fraud to spot given her loud and obvious trumpeting, but we should hold our other popular communicators responsible, particularly if they potentially profit from creating fear.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Wonder Technology Bread

In a recent trip to the market, I encountered perhaps the most outrageous bread product I've ever seen. It's crustless industrial bread. I realized that this thing is a wonder of technology. For one thing, given the vapid sponginess of this type of supermarket bread, the crust is the only textural contrast it has. While I'd like to rail against the act of cutting off the crust, I have to admit that this isn't exactly good bread crust. Maybe that is the source of why so many Americans regard crust retention on sandwich bread as distasteful. 

Reading the label though reveals how far along our technology has come when it comes to industrial bread. Note that there are no preservatives used, yet the bagged bread, naked and soft, is rated to last five months. Simply incredible. I can only guess that it must be due to the technique of packaging. 

And that is indeed the case, as spoilage apparently commences when the bag is opened. But here we find another impressive fact: this is imported Italian bread. Unlike any other Italian bread I've ever encountered. The combination of good preservation has made it feasible to actually manufacture crustless bread in Italy to sell in Texas. For all the quasi-Luddite homage to tradition food culture engenders, this is quite a feat of technological advancement. 

PS: I got it because it came with a free jar of speculoos cookie butter.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Seeking chepiche

The Mexican dish menudo is a stew of organ meats (usually stomach and tendons) with chiles, and sometimes hominy, often eaten as curative for hangovers. Eating Mexican stews demonstrates convergent evolution with Vietnamese soups: the hot bowl is presented with uncooked vegetables and herbs to doctor up as one eats.

But a distinct flavor comes from the herb chepiche. It is ubiquitous in the Oaxacan market areas, and is intensely aromatic. So, is there a substitute? Sadly, according to Gourmet Sleuth - there isn't. So, it's a novel ingredient worth looking for - the aromatic profile is pretty unique.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Travelogue 1: Quick notes on Oaxacan cuisine

Grasshoppers (chapulines) can be tasty. Don't eat the old bottled ones, the freshly cooked ones in the market are better, and can come spicy or not. And in three different sizes. 

Chocolate prepared with water as a drink delves more deeply into the flavors. And I have to think that the newfangled trendiness of foams arose from the traditional foaming of the chocolate drinks in Oaxaca.

A favorite snack in Oaxaca is a combination of an ice cream (more like an ice milk) of leche quemada (burnt milk) and a sorbet of prickly pear. I used to think that leche quemada is a kind of milk caramel, but it's quite different. The ice milk has a distinct smokiness of food that was burned, and it does pair well with the sorbet. The nieves (sorbets and ice milks) aren't very sugary, and thus will not keep in the freezer long before ice crystal growth degrades the mouthfeel. But if you sacrifice long term storage, very nice flavors not clouded by too much sugar can emerge.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Drug contamination in milk?

Or how to read statistics.

Goat milk ice dessert, Dosi Restaurant, Houston, TX
On NPR’s The Salt blog, Dan Charles painted an ominous tone about antibiotics in milk

“…a new report from the Food and Drug Administration reveals that a few farmers are slipping through a hole in this enforcement net.”
Appropriately and responsibly, he provides a link to the FDA report, “MILK DRUG RESIDUE SAMPLING SURVEY”. Reading the report itself, however, one comes away with a more optimistic tone:

“ the small number of positives in both the targeted and non-targeted groups is encouraging and the FDA continues to be confident in the safety of the U.S. milk supply”
So, what is going on? 

Let's dissect what's in the report.  What is the difference between “targeted” and “non-targeted”? The targeted group are farms known to have already violated drug residue tests in tissues from culled dairy cows at slaughter. The non-targeted group are controls - farms that don’t have violations against them. Milk from each group are tested for the presence of any one of 31 antibiotics - but even these tests aren’t all equal. For the ones with agreed safety levels, the test registers a violation if it exceeds that level - which is measured in parts per billion (ppb). For example, bacitracin has a tolerance limit of 500 ppb, while ampicillin has a tolerance limit of 10 ppb: these tests are highly sensitive. For antibiotics with insufficient information about their tolerance limits, just being able to identify them is sufficient to trigger a violation: that is, the tolerance limit is set at 0 ppb. Potential false positives should be expected for tests this sensitive. 

But the survey was good about population sizes - 953 farms were in the targeted group, 959 farms in the controls. And even among the targeted groups, only 1 sample had more than about 30 ppm in gentamicin. The 1% figure used by Charles is likely  by computing the 12 positive results/953 samples in the target group. 

This is a misleading use of the data, because it is really a matrix of 953 x 31 tests - or actually, 12/29543 = 0.04%. And most of those were in those 0 ppb tolerance drugs, the majority of which are are single positives for drugs set at 0 bpp acceptable limits. The main one was for the drug forfenicol, which turned out 6 positives. Guess what, 4 samples in the control groups also turned up positive for florfenicol. For numbers this small, they are really insignificant in a statistical sense. These could very well be just noise in the system. 

But the rest of the story tries to imply intentional use of banned antibiotics in the dairy industry - a desperate (IMHO) attempt at drumming up drama over data that could just be noise, experimental error that is normal in the course of large sampling surveys. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pricing Houston BBQ

It's Rodeo season in Houston, when everyone tries to be as stereotypically Texan as they can be around here, and when it comes to food, that means Texas BBQ. Like other cuisines with a strong entrenchment, people adhere to a certain propriety to the art of slow cooked smoked meat, even when the camps about which flavors are proper shift with history. But one of the fun things about such an entrenchment in cuisine is that people begin to expect a core set of dishes, and brook relatively small deviations from it.

And people get downright tribal about BBQ. BBQ Cookoffs are practically a spectator sport in Texas - well, more than most because the spectators get to eat. And people regularly judge for the best BBQ - anything less is unacceptable. Or is it? Such judgements, specially BBQ sold to the public, seldom take into account price. And as a consumer, one should consider the relative quality to cost ratio. For some, having the best may not be worth it if the close competitor is half the price.

So, I built a spreadsheet looking at the prices of BBQ around the Houston area, mainly as a way to explore the data. And found some interesting observations. This sheet looks primarily at meat that can be purchased without accoutrements - as straightforward as BBQ gets. Smoked brisket is the constant - just about everyone offers that, although the option to choose a fattier ("better" *wink*) cut at a nominal price change muddies the comparisons a bit. Rudy's BBQ may come as a good buy here; it is a well regarded chain for BBQ, not the very best, but pretty good - and is priced the lowest per unit weight. Comparing rib pricing is more difficult - some price by weight, others by the rack. Pricing for a whole BBQ chicken is fairly consistent, but smoked turkey is a remarkably popular option, present in more menus than pulled pork. Perhaps the pork shoulder market is saturated by carnitas.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Flatbread physics

“You must use a bread machine.” 

That’s the most common response when I reveal that I bake bread. Though I do have a bread machine, I seldom use it any more. For many, though, the limitation to making bread is the absence of an functional oven (I have heard anecdotes of ovens being used exclusively to store kitchen paraphernalia). In many parts of the world, owning an oven is a luxury - but that does not exclude one from exploring the range of flatbreads. 

Flatbreads can run the gamut, from pancake-like injera native to Ethiopia, to large towel-sized lavash of Armenia, but the main  point is the breads did not need the enclosed space of an oven to be baked. In fact, one could easily make naan or pita bread at home with little more than a broiler or even just the gas stove top and a concave pan. 

Physically speaking, naan and pita are very similar; the key differences are mostly cultural. Naan often incorporated ghee and yogurt for flavor. And both are subject to numerous variations depending on the situations. 

I have found, though, that one should start with a high hydration dough, about 50%. Regular all purpose flour will work just fine. Resting the dough is important to allow the gluten to form. While it's possible to do a chemical leavening (i.e., yeast-free naan), the required rest period means there’s little convenience in using chemical leavening. I advocate the use of yeast not just for the rise, but also the flavor. 

After the first rise (which isn’t strict - I usually allow for 8 hours), a second rise isn’t necessary. Scrape out the dough onto a working surface, dust with flour, divide into portions, and roll into spheres. Flatten out the dough with some kind of frissage - resulting in oblong flat shapes. Lay on a greased pan, and put under a hot broiler for 1-3 minutes, and flip over for another minute. Yes, it’s that fast. 

Flat breads can also be cooked on top of a grill, or even on a hot pan in a pinch. Come to think of it, pizza is just topped flat bread…

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Not all Vanilla is vanilla

Only one major food product comes from orchids: it's vanilla. Though also used as a synonym for being plain, the ubiquitous flavoring agent (I guess technically a spice) is complex, rich, fragile, and the object of great study. So today, as this press release from Xinhuanet trumpeting "China completes vanilla genome sequencing" starts percolating through the internet, I'm going to head the hype off at the pass.

First off, the article speculates about the creation of synthetic vanilla - but we already make that. We know the main component of vanilla is vanillin, and that is already synthesized in industrial scales. And in some applications, the artificial vanilla is actually better suited.

But all this talk of vanilla is actually a misdirection. The press release does not link to an actual journal article or database, so we cannot verify that this genome project was indeed completed, but it also talks about it being the genome of Vanilla shenzhenica. 

Commercial vanilla is produced from V. planifolia

Despite sharing the same genus name of Vanilla, this plant has nothing to do with vanilla. In fact, it was only first described in 2007 - hardly of great commercial interest. So, writers who want to find some interest piece about vanilla, don't use this as the jumping of point. It's not a floral opportunity - it's rather fishy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When is an experiment not an experiment?

Online video is a great teaching tool, but even great teaching moments can potentially mislead. One of the fun staples of chemistry "wow" is the reaction of concentrated sulfuric acid and plain sugar (sucrose). In this friendly video, Bucky uses pretty good cinematography to show the dramatic effects of sucrose breaking down in the presence of concentrated sulfuric acid. And kudos for emphasizing the safety gear to have around when working with a concentrated acid.

While entertaining, he makes the repeated mistake of calling these "experiments". This is one of those situations where the trappings of science are used in stark opposition to the process of science. Bucky vaguely makes some observations about the surface area of the different forms of sugar, but doesn't really formulate any hypotheses. His "experiments" lacked appropriate controls (after all, without a hypothesis to be tested, what's the point of a control?), and were imprecise (no measurements are taken) so replication is not even a consideration.

These serve to illustrate a known observation in science (the breakdown of sucrose), but doesn't really educate viewer about the scientific method - or why it is trustworthy. It is no different that doing magic tricks, and naive viewers can conflate the two.

For a better understanding of the scientific process using cooking, following Bethany Brookshire's Cookie Science postings is a much better bet.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What makes a ma-po?

For the last 30 years, Houston has been host to a Caesar Salad Competition, where different restaurants send their chefs to do celebrated riffs on the ubiquitous salad. The end result can look nothing like a salad - notable reinterpretations included cupcakes and jello shots. But the key there is to capture the essence of the "classic" dish - from lettuce to anchovies - and rearrange the ingredients in another imaginative way which hewing to the original.

This is by no means unique to Caesar salad - various deconstructions are still trendy in upscale restaurants to use highly sophisticated techniques to (often) recreate a familiar flavor and texture combination. One dish that I think deserves some celebration and reinterpretation is ma-po tofu. Loosely translated as "pockmarked old woman's bean curd", it's the unofficial poster child of Sichuan cooking - a contrast of intense flavors and cooling soft tofu. The commonality seems to be a thickened umami rich sauce base (often with fermented bean paste and bit of meat - yes, this tofu dish is not usually vegetarian), ample amounts of spice and ma - that numbing sensation from the headlining Sichuan peppercorns, mixed in with a bland contrasting item. Usually, that's silken tofu, but versions can be made from poached white fish.

So, how imaginative can you get with ma-po? Different sources of umami? Nuts? Ma-po turkey breast may be the right thing for next Thanksgiving. Or the sauce items can be embedded in tofu to be cooked and served like xiaolongbao.