Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The chemistry of an epic meringue

Next in the series of food and its chemistry is: meringue!

This sweet, white, perfectly angelic confection has an almost mystical quality – how does it get so shiny, so crunchy on the outside, and yet remain a little chewy inside? Or, conversely, how does it stay perfectly soft in a meringue pie, yet still maintain its height and structure? Read on for the answer.

Meringue is made from some very simple ingredients – egg whites, sugar, and sometimes cream of tartar or cornstarch, as a binding agent, mixed together to make a foam.

A what?
A foam.
That’s all meringue is. Air, essentially.

A standard recipe is one egg white for every quarter cup of superfine, caster, or baker’s sugar. The egg whites are first beaten into soft peaks, the sugar is added tablespoon by tablespoon, while beating all the time to stiff peaks, which are very shiny and glossy, and remain stiff when lifting the beater.

That’s a general recipe – now on to the science!

The answer to a meringue’s feather-light baked structure and its voluminous height topping a lemon pie lies in the egg whites. These parts of the eggs are teeming with protein, and as such, they provide structure for the meringues. The amino acid bonds in the protein are denatured as the egg whites are beaten, which traps air into the fixture. Beating therefore serves the double purpose of breaking up amino acid bonds, and incorporating the all-important air into the meringue foam.

Next comes the sugar – this is the reason everything actually comes together and is stable. The proteins in egg whites cannot stretch and break down completely, which is what would happen after beating and baking them. The sugar, added bit by bit, bonds to the proteins and lends them more strength and elasticity.

The foam should be 5 or 6 times the volume of the unbeaten egg whites. Either spoon the foam into individual meringues on a baking sheet, bake a whole crust of meringue for a pavlova or a cake base, or use the foam on top of a pie. Meringues usually are baked long and low, that is, for an hour at least, and at a low to moderate temperature. With the heat, the air expands, the water naturally in the egg whites evaporates and no longer poses a problem to the structure, and the proteins coagulate to harden and form a crispy, shiny, light meringue. Perfect!

Some DON’TS:
DON’T allow any speck of yolk into the egg white mixture when separating them. This introduces fat to the mixture, which will kill the structure
DON’T use a plastic mixing bowl, or any bowl that is not meticulously clean. Again, fats tend to stick and therefore would contaminate the egg whites.
DON’T stop once the sugar has been added and the eggs are being vigorously beaten. The mixture will break otherwise
DON’T start making meringues on a rainy or humid day, or store the finished product in the fridge, or allow any water to come into contact with the meringue. Water softens and destroys meringues.

NB: no actual recipe is provided. This is a general look at what substances go into meringues, and how each reacts chemically. When actually baking, use a real recipe (like one with measurements and oven temperatures.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A little cooking chemistry

Ever wonder how flour becomes layers of pastry? How egg whites crispen into perfect angelic meringues? How a soufflé stays up? How caramel doesn’t burn or turn into rock (hopefully)?

Thanks to the blogger’s experience as an ex-chemistry major, these questions can be answered.

Let’s examine pastry to start. Pastry dough is, in its most primitive state, made of flour, butter, and a little water. The butter should be cold, so that the molecules that make it up will best retain their structure. Likewise, the water should also be cold so that the butter does not start to melt. Essentially, the kneading of the butter-flour-water mixture should not melt the butter, instead, the butter and water remain cold and just change shape – into a ball of dough.

The kneading has combined the water and the butter, however, they do not completely mix because of the chemistry of the two molecules. Water is a polar molecule, which means that it has a permanent charge in one of its molecules that is not cancelled out by another charge in the opposite direction. Fats are nonpolar; as they are much larger molecules than water, they have more charges in opposite directions that eventually cancel each other all out.

As everyone knows, mixing oil and water does not work – the two repel each other, because one is nonpolar and the other is polar. This same principle applies to baking. The water and the butter do mix inasmuch as they form a dough with the flour to clue everything together, but they do not actually combine – the butter and water rest as layers of sand, unmixed.

Then, when everything goes into a hot oven, the water evaporates into steam as it cooks, the steam expands into bubbles in the dough, leaving behind inflated layers of pastry with lots of air in between.

In the end, when the dough comes out of the oven, it takes the form of flaky, crispy, buttery pastry. Success!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The quiche is no longer kitsch

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!!!

While the US celebrates this holiday today, let no one forget another very important, if slightly underappreciated, holiday from this past weekend.

Pi Day!!!

Yes, Saturday, March 14th (3.14) was Pi day, also known as Pie Day. And in honor of this, let's explore something a little less traditional than the average, all-American pie - quiche. Now, according to Food Network and various modern cookbooks, quiches have become kitsch in the last few years, and what was once a cool and cosmopolitan food, suitable for impressive dinner parties, has fallen from grace. And a good thing too, because quiche has regained its humble origins - as a French pie filled with egg and cheese, and other random vegetables and meat lying around. That doesn't sound too fancy, does it?

So, the questionable part is whether a quiche can really be called a pie. To answer this, let's dissect the anatomy of a quiche. The crust - identically made as that of an apple pie, with one minor addition - an egg. The insides - well, a quiche is, by definition, filled with savory eggy cheesy things, therefore is unlikely to have apples, cherries, peaches, etc. residing inside its crust. But the principle is the same. Bake the whole thing, serve warm, room temperature, or cold, and you're good to go. The quiche is the counterpart to sweet pies. And since almost everyone's made a pie in their lifetime, there's no reason everyone shouldn't also try making a quiche.

The following recipe was harvested from at least four online recipes and some old cookbooks. Use at own risk, however, it probably will be delicious.

1.5 cups flour
1 stick butter (cold)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp cold water
1 egg white

Mix flour, sugar, and salt. Add the cold butter in half-inch cubes, mix with fork and hands into course meal (if blessed with a stand mixer, use this instead). Add the beaten egg and cold water, knead, and fold into a ball of dough. Wrap dough in plastic wrap, refrigerate for an hour.

Prepare a 9-inch pie pan with butter and flour. Roll out the dough, fit it into the pie pan, and refrigerate another 45min- 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400F. Wrap dried beans (or pie weights, if you're fancy) in foil, place on top of the dough in the pie pan to weigh it down, and bake for 20 minutes. This is called blind baking.

Remove the weights, prick the crust all over with a fork, and return to oven without the weights for another 10 minutes.

Remove from oven and decrease heat to 350F, let cool for a while, then brush with the lightly beaten egg white. Meanwhile, prepare the innards for the quiche.

1 onion, chopped
1 cup chopped Portobello mushrooms
1 cup chopped ham and/or bacon
1 green pepper, chopped
1 leek, chopped
0.75 cup milk
2 eggs, plus one egg yolk
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (or gouda, gruyere, swiss, fontina, asiago - this recipe is not picky)
1 cup shredded havarti cheese (ditto)

Heat some oil in medium pan. Cook onions until browning. Add mushrooms and vegetables, and cook until tender and their liquid has evaporated. Add the ham/bacon, and cook until crisp.

Mix the shredded cheeses with the milk and the eggs, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Coat the crust with the vegetables and ham. Gently pour the egg and cheese mixture on top. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the quiche doesn't jiggle too much.

Now, as quiche was a peasant dish that one could put anything into, don't hesitate to add or subtract. This would taste great with spinach, potatoes, and tomatoes too. And probably most cheeses that you can get your hands on.

And with that, Happy (late) Pi(e) Day


Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

CloFu - the food of the future

In recent years, the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle has been publicized with ever-increasing attention. Nowadays, there seem to be many more substitutes for meat, cheese, and dairy products than there are actual meats, cheeses, and dairy products - tofu, tempeh, seitan, mock meats, veggie and Boca burgers, soy milk, rice milk...basically any combination of soy protein, wheat gluten, nuts and vegetables.

But this post is not an exploration of all the different options offered to vegans and vegetarians. Neither is it a criticism of the plethora of these products that seem to be choking meat eaters. It is, instead, going to showcase one particularly ridiculous product. A product that has not yet been made, but that will no doubt become a clamorous issue for vegans, meat-eaters, and George Clooney alike.

George Clooney? Yes. George Clooney. In the article below from World Entertainment News Network, PETA describes another publicity measure to convert people (most likely the female demographic, age 18-59) to veganism.

PETA Bosses Eye Clooney-Flavoured Food

12 March 2009 3:00 PM, PDT

Bosses at animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are sweating over a new idea to turn George Clooney's perspiration into a tofu flavour.

PETA president Ingrid E. Newkirk has written to the movie star asking him for his permission to market CloFu.

The wacky idea came about after Newkirk was offered a vial of handsome George's sweat - apparently taken from a gym towel he used during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.

Unsure what to do with the sample, Newkirk took it to PETA's boffins, who assured her it could be scrumptious.

In her letter to Clooney, the president writes, "The technology actually exists to take your perspiration and make it into George

Clooney-flavored tofu. We could do that and give the tofu away.

"Of course, your fans would swoon at the idea of eating CloFu, but what interests us most is that we would attract many people who don't try tofu because they worry that it would be bland or that they wouldn't know how to cook it. CloFu will help people be healthier and more environmentally friendly and will spare animals from being killed for the table."

And taste expert Dr. Harry Lawless of Cornell University insists the idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds: "It is no different than making artificial chicken flavour for instant gravy."

PETA spokeswoman Amanda Schinke says, "We believe CloFu would be delicious on its own or served over rice with a light soy sauce and sauteed collards, in a casserole with melted vegan cheese and olives, or perhaps pressed with vegan pesto in a panini."

But Clooney's initial response isn't all that encouraging. In a statement through his representative, the movie star says, "As a mammal, I'm offended."

Verdict has yet to be passed on whether PETA is serious, whether Clooney is willing, and whether Cornell University has lost any credibility.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Those pesky fruit and vegetable requirements again...

While the mainstream diets seem to be ever-changing - from all-meat, to no-carbs, to single food groups (grapefruit diet? cabbage soup diet?) - the "official" recommendations seem to sensible. The USDA recommends "Two cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables per day" in their Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

And yet look at a measuring cup. Does anyone get that much really? 2.5 whole cups of vegetables seems a daunting task. Therefore, entrepreneurs have increasingly developed "get fruits and veggies quick" schemes, particularly in the form of V8 fruit and vegetable juices, and Naked fruit smoothies.

V8 is no longer just a thick tomatoey juice that one must drink down with one's nose pinched. V8 produces 100% vegetable juice, V-Fusion, a mix of fruit and vegetable juices, and V8 Splash, a low-calorie fruit juice. One serving of V8 provides 1.5 cups of vegetables (therefore, 3 out of 5 servings of vegetables each day), one serving of V-Fusion provides half a cup of vegetables and half a cup of fruit (a full serving of fruit and a full serving of vegetables), and Splash just seems to be a diet version of juice.

Naked juice similarly appeals to this trend of liquefied fruit and veggie servings, and provides, in each of its 24 flavors, "a pound of fruit in every [15.2oz] bottle." Take, for example, the "Red Machine" flavor - it boasts having 13 raspberries, 11 strawberries, 3 cranberries, 1.5 apples, a quarter of a pomegranate, a third of an orange, half of a banana, and 7 grapes. On a conservative estimate, that seems to be about 4 cups of fruit. Double what the USDA recommends! Can it really be so? Jove and my stars be praised, it's a miracle juice! In 15.2oz of liquid one gets twice the recommended daily servings of fruit!

Well yes, it certainly wouldn't hurt to consume this drink, as long as it's clear that it's not a low calorie food, nor is it a substitute for water. The fruit juices do provide various vitamins, but it is the pulp and fibrous content of the fruit itself that provides sustenance and digestive benefits, not the juice. The juice is fine for a snack or as a supplement to whole pieces of fruit, but munching on an apple daily and popping some grapes are still essential for good health.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Yes, this is why we're fat (meant in the nicest way possible!)

This link is a little different than the previous one posted – while FoodPornDaily presents its pictures in wonderful clarity and resolution, with gourmet taste pairings and appealing colors, ThisIsWhyYoureFat has no regard whatsoever for the “art” of food. Rather, it implores the viewer to feel the primordial ooze of grease drip down their lips; to marinade in a sea of corn syrup and MSG.

It gives a candid, but completely unapologetic look at “why YOU’RE fat.” For every wannabe gourmande that delights in the exploration of new flavors, there is another foodie – the one that deep-fries anything that can be dipped in batter, and wraps every foodstuff in bacon.

Cornell has its own answer to “why you’re fat” – in the form of the Hot Truck (on West) and Louie’s Lunch (across from Risley). The stench of grease smacks you in the face like an old moist sock anytime you pass within 30 feet of these trucks, yet all is forgiven and forgotten when you have that innocuous brown bag with oil stains petering through.

The trucks are fine for occasional late-night cravings, study breaks, makeshift dinners; but please do not make this a regular feature in your diet. The morning after a double tully burger with Cajun fries does NOT feel so good.

As with the freshest fish and the ripest vegetables, flavor is fleeting, therefore use it well and with care at Louie’s and the Hot Truck. Best eaten still warm, on the walk home.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

French Toast vs. Crêpe

Dessert for Breakfast? Yes please!

Crêpes are a seminal French food - for snacking, a quick lunch, a dessert. The best in Paris is Banana Nutella, but standards include cinnamon, lemon and sugar, as well as ham and cheese. The closest you can get to that in Ithaca is Synapsis Café, in Weill Hall. Their version is even more Frenchified, because it is in fact Banana Nutella French Toast.

So French Toast is about as French as Chinese food is Chinese, but the concept is correct - French Toast is bread dredged in milk and egg, and crêpe batter is basically milk and egg.

Therefore, go forth (before 10.30am!) and order a baby-sized serving of Banana Nutella goodness. It'll wake you up, then put you in a sugar coma. But at least it's a serving of fruit.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Pinesburger CHALLENGE

Anyone who is an Ithaca local must have heard of the infamous Glenwood Pines - home of Ithaca's best burger, and its even better CHALLENGE.  This is the kind of challenge that is only for the big, brave, and hungry.  Now, their burgers are already large and delicious - 6oz of beef, slice of cheese, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and thousand island dressing on a large french roll.  Sounds good already.  

The CHALLENGE, then, is eating four (4) of these monstrosities in under an hour.  I went to this illustrious restaurant this weekend, with four males in search of sustenance and glory, a polaroid on the walls of the restaurant, and a free t-shirt.  Three other females accompanied me, and made up the cheering and lecturing section of the table.  

So, to describe the contenders.  A, 21-year-old senior, works at Louie's Lunch therefore is around burgers quite a lot.  B, 21-year-old junior who takes pride in his inability to eat vegetables, subsists entirely on pizza and french fries (no joke).  C, 22-year-old non-Cornellian senior, here to visit and try out this infamous challenge.  D, 20-year-old younger brother of non-Cornellian, is obviously a boy amongst the men.  

The eight of us are seated at the table.  The four girls get various other levels of fried goodness, but nothing to reach the level of the CHALLENGE.  The four boys order their burgers.  Once the burgers arrive, all four at the same time, the contenders are not allowed to leave the table.  They must perfect a fine art of balancing the dry fillingness of the bun, the heaviness of the beef, the variety of the sauces - thousand island, mayo, ketchup, and hot sauce - and their water intake in order to trick their brains into ignoring the fullness of their stomachs.  At 7.30pm exactly, the CHALLENGE began.  

7.35pm. Contestant A is into his third burger already.  B and C are enjoying themselves, and agreeing on the fact that their CHALLENGE does not seem that hard in person.  D is laboring with his first burger.  

7.39pm.  Contestant A has, against all odds and aghast looks, finished the CHALLENGE.  4 giant burgers in 9 minutes.  We ask the waitress, she admits it is impressive, but tells us that someone has in fact finished in 7 minutes.  Nevertheless, A never broke a sweat, never struggled, never belched - he polished them off cleanly and effortlessly.

7.50pm.  Contestant B has finished his CHALLENGE too.  His trick was spicing up each burger, making it taste different and more interesting to his overloaded tastebuds.  B also ordered fries, and at the end he was still able to each them with relish (figurative). 

7.54pm.  Contestant C finishes his CHALLENGE.  He is possibly the smallest physically of our contestants, and therefore I had some doubts, but he was steady to the end. He also maintained a very positive mind frame, insisting to himself he would be able to finish.  Quality effort, good ending.  

8.00pm.  We are halfway through the CHALLENGE.  3 out of the 4 contestants have impressively finished entirely.  Contestant D, however, has encountered some difficulties.  He has finished 2 out of his 4 burgers, but he is tiring fast.  He was mentally unprepared, and decided to participate so as to be part of the male team.  He even went so far as to dip his bun into water to soften it, making it easier to swallow.  Slowly and none too steadily, D continues onward. 

8.17pm. After several queasy moments and some close calls wherein I ducked behind contestant A, D decided to throw in the towel.  Pale and belching, with the wreckage of one burger remaining, D decided his own mental and gastronomical stability was more important to him than the glory from the restaurant, respect from his friends and diners, and sense of worth from himself.  The waitress came by with a knowing look, and took his plate away - she didn't want to risk anything.  Luckily, my fellow female diner and I and not had any of this famous burger, so we decided to try some of it.  Certainly good, possibly Ithaca's best.  

8.20pm.  Contestant A bravely took it upon himself to finish D's last burger.  In effect, he had eaten almost 5 burgers in less than an hour.  After that, he ordered dessert to share with C.  I also ordered dessert to share with fellow female diner.  Their special, the Kentucky Derby pie, was sinful.  Unbaked chocolate chip cookie dough in a pie, topped with nuts, chocolate, and pie crust.  Steaming and melty, with ice cream on the side. 

Perfect end to the evening, except the precarious ride home for D, who was teetering on the edge of a burger coma.  Unfortunate, but the CHALLENGE is not for the weak.