Get out your lab goggles, Amateur Gourmet readers. Here comes a slew of scientific approaches to food presented to melt the frosty heart of Mr. Frost Street himself, Jeremy. Hopefully Jeremy will be able to choose the immunity victor by tomorrow night. Perhaps he will use regular reader comments to guide his decision? And surely, if for some reason he can’t cast an immunity vote, I’ll have to refer to your comments to select the immunity winner. Therefore, please comment heavily on the following… (presented in order of receipt)…
I knew I should have listened to my parents when they told me to study something practical in college. “Harry, a Near Eastern History major with a double minor in Mesopotamian languages and Fashion (concentration in 19th century Amish trends) isn’t going to cut it in this chaotic world.” Boy, were they right. When I first read this week’s AG Survivor challenge, I was immediately intimidated by what I viewed as a difficult equation that seemed more appropriate for someone with a background in the physical sciences rather than in the social sciences. I instantly cowered in the corner and cried like a little baby. Once I got it together, I put great thought into this challenge: A challenge where science and creativity met. Coming up with something both practical and original was proving difficult. I wanted to amalgamate the pleasure I derive from history with real science. And then it came to me.
The novel idea of evaporating 60 percent of water from milk, adding sugar and canning it has had serious cultural and culinary influences throughout the world. It’s used in fruit shakes in Laos, coffee in Thailand and Vietnam and in America it’s the corner stone for Florida’s Key Lime Pie. However, the Argentinean desert staple made from condensed milk takes the cake. I of course am speaking of dulce de leche, or “milk jelly” in English. Dulce de leche is caramelized condensed milk. That in itself doesn’t seem all that interesting. But creating this delicious nectar of the gods is not only scientific, but potentially life threatening. Intrigued? I was. And quite frankly, I was nervous. But there was no way I was going to back out. Thirty-six million Argentineans can’t be wrong; and a simple google search for “dulche de leche + deaths” didn’t turn anything up.
This is where science comes in. The very condensed-ness of the canned milk makes it in itself ready for cooking. The sweet milk utilizes the tin container as a readymade pressure cooker for caramelizing. All that’s left is to ‘turn on’ (ie. heat up) the pressure cooker so that the condensed milk can caramelize into sweet dulce de leche. The label of the condensed milk is removed and the can is immersed in boiling water for up to 5 hours, depending on the desired consistency. I wanted mine to be spreadable, so I cooked that baby for five hours. But if you want it to be pourable, cut the time in half. It is of the utmost importance that the can is always immersed in the water. If not, the can will explode, not only making a huge mess but potentially causing severe injury. Logic (and science?) tells me that the milk will never be heated beyond the boiling point of the water, so as long as the can remains immersed, it’s fairly safe. But don’t take my word on it because I’m sure the sugar content has some affect on the boiling point. I’m not a scientist, dammit.
I was paranoid so I checked the can every 15 minutes or so. If you choose to do this yourself, please heed my warning and be very careful. Five hours later, I carefully removed the can, allowed it to cool and cautiously opened it. A toasty, sugary smell immediately caught my attention. It cooked to perfect consistency. And I danced a dance of joy as the scent of caramelized goodness wafted throughout my home.
Dulche de leche can be used for making flan, ice cream (both as an ingredient and sauce), a topping for pancakes or crepes, filling for pastries etc. I decided to go the traditional route and make Alfajores, an Argentinean cookie. Since this is already long winded, please see my photos for a step by step demonstration. Good food. Good times.
Although yeast is not something you’d be likely to eat on its own (except, perhaps, on some weird dare), it’s an important little organism in making such things as beer and wine. Since it takes much longer than 3 days to create beer or wine, I chose to bake bread, instead, to illustrate the properties of yeast. Not just any boring bread, but Cardamom Bread! Cardamom Bread is a traditional Finnish bread that dates back to.. wait.. that was the previous challenge. Nevermind.
The yeast is a single-cell fungi. Yeast eat sugar, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste products as they do so. When fed glucose (sugar!), the yeast produces two molecules each of carbon dioxide and ethanol. One yeast cell can process its own weight of glucose in an hour. A packet of yeast contains billions of yeast cells.
Yeast also feeds on the sugars in the flour itself. The yeast turns the starch in the flour into maltose, another sugar. In a loaf of bread, this conversion accounts for most of the rising. Any added glucose in the dough is used up fairly quickly.
Yeast require a warm environment to work in. I started with 2/3c warm milk, 2T sugar and a packet of yeast and mixed them together in a large bowl. After a few minutes, the yeast began to foam, a sign that the yeast is active and well. Yay! While I waited for the yeast to become active, I sifted together 2 1/4c flour, 1/2 tsp salt and 1 tsp ground cardamom together in a smaller bowl. I then added 2T melted butter (cooled somewhat), a beaten egg and the flour-cardamom mixture to the yeast and milk.
Once everything was mixed together, I turned the dough onto a floured surface and kneaded it. Kneading develops long gluten chains within the dough that will trap the carbon dioxide released by the yeast. The resulting dough ball is smooth and elastic.
Once the dough is kneaded, I placed the dough ball into a lightly greased bowl and covered it with a damp towel (to keep the dough from drying out). I placed the bowl in a warm, dry place to let the yeast get to work. After an hour, the dough has doubled in size, thanks to the carbon dioxide being trapped by the gluten in the dough. Remember, alcohol is also produced as the yeast feeds on the sugars. The alcohol gives the bread flavor and aroma and will be cooked off during the baking.
Here, you can see the bubbles trapped by the gluten in the dough:
After the first rise, I punched down the dough and shaped it into a braided wreath. Punching down the dough releases some of the carbon dioxide and redistributes the yeast cells. I let the dough rise a second time, about 45 minutes. Now it’s ready for baking!
After a mere 12 minutes in the oven, the bread is golden brown and baked through. After cooling, I drizzled on a glaze made of 2T milk, 1/2tsp vanilla and 1 cup confectioners sugar. Then I sprinkled blanched almonds on top. The end result looks more like a coffee cake than a bread. The cardamom gives the bread an interesting flavor. I think maybe I don’t cook with cardamom enough.
The finished product, in all its glory! You can see that the baked bread has an airy texture, thanks to our Yeastie Beastie friends.
Back when Mr. Fae and I hadn’t been together very long, his mother, upon hearing about my animal-free eating habits, was perplexed. “Well, what can she eat? Can she even eat flour?” We laughed it off and wondered what on earth could make a person think a vegetarian couldn’t eat flour. I mean, there couldn’t be anything lurking in there, could there?
A peek under the microscope was in order.
B-Bunnies? Are those molecules shaped like bunnies?
Our blender is just too small for a task like this.
Hey, it worked! In retrospect, Bunny Bread probably should’ve been a tip-off.
Man, this makes me sick. But, there’s no point in wasting all this flour, so let’s make a cake! A carrot cake. I mean, if I were a bunny, I’d want to be baked into a carrot cake.
The batter, ready to go into the oven.
Upon removing the cake from the oven, I discovered the freshly-ground flour had a strange effect on the finished product.
*No bunnies (real, stuffed, or imaginary) were harmed during the making of this cake.
[Flickr seems to be down right now so I can’t attach a sample photo of Andrea’s work :( Please don’t count this against her…]
For the Biology Challenge, I was at first at a serious loss. After last week’s pemmican ordeal, I couldn’t stand the thought of meat, or rendering, or meat. But it was all I could think of. Hours of anguish passed, during which time my arteries noticeably hardened. I eventually settled on honey as my ingredient.
Here’s the biology bit: Honey can fairly accurately be called “bee vomit.” The primary ingredient is nectar, collected from various and sundry flowers by worker honey bees. When a bee collects nectar, it stores it in a special digestive sac called a “crop,” where the nectar’s natural sugars (sucrose) are broken down into fructose and glucose. Once the bee has made it home again, it barfs up the half-digested nectar and stores it in honeycombs. Next, days-old worker bees (who knew bees use child labor?) beat their wings to ventilate the open honeycombs, in order to reduce the substance to a purer sugar. When the moisture content falls below 18%, it is officially honey, all done, the cell in the comb is capped off, and the bees move onto other things, such as making additional honey. Except for the slacker bees, who do nothing but try to get laid, and who are driven out of the hive in the autumn to starve to death. I swear I am not making any of this up.
If the process is so… well… kind of gross… why, then, have people been jonesing for honey for tens of thousands of years? First, we had no idea how it was really made until fairly recently. But second, honey is pure, ungranulated, sticky sweetness, the likes of which is not available naturally from any other source. Sure, you can take your maple sap and your high-fructose corn syrup; but neither of these has that good ol’ sugar kick straight from the source. They require cooking and reducing and other inconvenient methods of processing to reach a similar consistency.
Even aside from the sugar factor, honey has a myriad of subtle flavors, depending on the variety of flower harvested by the bee. I tend to buy a raw wild honey, because it has a deep, rich flavor I really enjoy. Other people find it too strong, and prefer the citrusy aroma of orange blossom honey, for example. Honey cooks at a lower temperature than table sugar, as well, and sometimes results in an end product with a silkier texture. Sadly, this was not entirely true, in my case.
Honey also has some killer antibacterial properties, and because of this, combined with its low moisture content, it acts as a natural preservative. In my case, I decided to make a honey-based dessert, to take advantage of the sweetness, the texture, and the fact that it might kill any residual pemmican-related bacteria in my kitchen. Honeycake isn’t typically served until Rosh Hashanah, NEXT week, but what with the whole preservative thing, I figure the stuff will stick around until then in good shape.
- I’ve never used saffron before;
- I’ve never made ice cream before;
- I’ve never made meringue before;
- I’ve never separated so many freaking eggs in my life;
- There was an emergency change of venue somewhere in the middle of the preparation process.
The complete gallery of my adventure is available on Flickr. I got too close to my deadline to intersperse photos. Sorry, guys.
First, the ice cream. I chose this recipe, specifically, because it called for no table sugar whatsoever. Simmer some saffron, mix in some honey, check. Cream, milk, egg yolks, stirred into a custard. This is, I think, where things started to go wrong. I had not-quite enough cream, and substituted extra milk. According to the recipe, the ice cream base should have turned into custard within about ten minutes…but BE SURE NOT TO LET IT BOIL, the directions said. I stirred and stirred and stirred. Ten minutes passed with no noticable change of temperature. I fiddled with the temperature, whisked instead of stirred, desparately trying to get this stuff to thicken. It eventually became a bit thicker, after around thirty-five minutes. Where did I go wrong? Too hot, too cold? Was it the extra milk? Anyone? Bueller? At any rate, I eventually decided it was @$%& well thickened enough, and let the custard cool.
Next for the cake. The lovely, beautiful, honey spice cake. I did fiddle with the recipe, adding in about a teaspoon of orange zest. Also, I suffered from poor reading comprehension, and added in all the sugar too early, leading me to add extra sugar for the meringue, later on. The cake turned out beautifully, though.
During the cake-baking, we received a call from my in-laws. Lobster, their house, stat. We packed the still-hot cake, the cooling custard, the ice cream maker, mint for garnish, and a few hasty ingredients for the syrup into the back of my car. Also I walked into the web of a spider the size of, I kid you not, a nickel, while fetching the freezer bowl from the garage. This is not related to the food, but I was traumatized and so I have to share. Once we got to our destination, we set up the ice cream maker and ate our lobster. Mmmmmyummy.
After the requisite thirty minutes, the ice cream still hadn’t achieved the firmness I’d been hoping for, so we packed it into a deep freezer for another half hour or so. Meanwhile, I cooked the drizzle glaze: a tiny bit of leftover saffron-honey syrup, mixed with additional honey, orange marmalade, lemon juice, cinnamon, and some water and corn starch to thicken. It turned into a really nice glaze with a good, citrusy zing to it.
Now for…. the plating. I think it made for a really pretty presentation. And how did it all taste? The spice cake was a good, solid cake, and the orange in it went really well with the orange of the glaze. The ice cream ended up still pretty soft, like a custard, and was, sadly, a little grainy, not unlike tapioca. And although it had a nice color, the tea-like flavor of saffron in the original syrup was totally lost by the time the ice cream cooled. I don’t know if it was the recipe, or my own muddled execution. Still, the entire desert got kudos.
And nobody complained about being served bee puke, either.
[On Wendy’s site the pics were supposed to load up with the text, but for some reason they didn’t. Perhaps she can fix that and you can see that by following the link here.]
Eggs: Is There Anything They Can’t Do?
First of all, what the heck? I work in television. Science is not my bag, baby. Fortunately, the words “utter fabrication” were used in the challenge description, and that is indeed my bag, baby. So without further ado, may I present to you, the egg.
The egg, also called l’oeuf, is one of nature’s greatest enigmas. And in the cut throat world of food it shines through as a diamond in the rough. Despite the millions of other ingredients fighting for top spot, the egg boasts several biological characteristics which serve to make it a superior foodstuff in the competitive world of food versus food.
Observations: The egg surrounds itself with a natural defense mechanism known as the protective shell.
Rare is the ingredient that can destroy this barrier – some, such as the horny melon, have offensive properties which allow for shell breach. However, other foods such as ravenous jellos and marshmellows can only succumb to ultimate defeat. Thus the egg stands out as a preferable choice for human consumption. Fortunately for eggniverous beings, the protective shell is actually quite easily broken.
It is widely believed that in the future eggs may develop laser beams on their fricken heads to prevent egg-stinction.
The egg is also desirable because of its shapeshifting capabilities. This astounding ingredient can change from its original form to countless other delicacies with a little imagination and know-how.
To test the shapeshifting capabilites, several dishes were prepared. Fried eggs,
and scrambled eggs
were prepared, observed, then eaten. These, along with the omelet, continue to resemble the egg’s innards despite the varying forms. Most miraculous, however, is the meringue, which makes use of the egg’s amazing biological ability to separate into two parts.
The yolk, filled with nutrients and colour, is rich while the whites, full of protein, are much lighter. This allows for the tremendous skill of morphing into delicious meringues. The transformation from A
and finally C
is simply stupefying and a perfect example of biology at its finest. Note the changes in the pictures, which document the experimental cooking operation.
Further research proves that the egg can also shapeshift into dishes such as cake, fried rice, fritatta, and macaroons to name a few.
Conclusion: It is evident that based on the egg’s biological ability to protect itself from other foods, as well as shapeshift to avoid monotony and please humans, makes it a valuable ingredient indeed.
PS: Whisking egg whites by hand sucks.
[Similarly, Catherine’s text involved HTML that for some reason does not yield pics. Hence all the question marks. Maybe Catherine can post a link to the accompanying photos in the comments for this post? I tried to make it work, I really did.]
I am a college student, which usually implies poverty and a lack of refined ingredients. What’s more, I’m a college student in a foreign country, which implies that all my money goes to travel expenses, and not food. But what do college students always have plenty of? Anyone? That’s right, sugar!
Sugar, for all that it’s reviled by today’s fad diets, is not only delicious (OK, in proper form, not by itself) but is really useful. As some website says, “The sugars are the carbohydrates which are used directly to supply energy to living organisms.” And honestly, even if we can do without energy, which of us can do without the sweetness? Yummy.
Then I went to take a look at my refrigerator, and lo and behold! These were my ingredients:
How fortunate that I hadn’t chosen to do something like vitamins. I don’t have any. Except for the orange, and it accidentally got half-frozen. Do vitamins survive that?
Let’s see what I do have:
There’s the butter. I have entirely too much of this. It’s a remnant from what has been referred to as the Worst Baklava Ever Baked.
Mmm, apricot jam, my favorite.
Raisins… the raisins here are sub par. And why are the grapes on the package white grapes? The raisins are dark. I want my money back, dammit! They weren’t exactly cheap, either.
Yesterday this was tasty, crusty bread. Today the humidity has reduced it to soft, malleable white bread. Eh, I’ve eaten worse.
If the raisins are bad, the walnuts here are abysmal. Like, really really awful. They taste like they’ve been smoked. Nasty!
The ramen I considered the best ramen in the world until I had to eat it three times a week. I don’t know anymore.
Condensed milk. This isn’t an average college student food. Has to do with my Russianness and the way that een home count-rrry, ve hav no dezert, ve hav onlee kondensed milk. Not true… at least not all the time. Anyway, I like it.
The half frozen orange.
And, of course, milk, which didn’t make it in time for the group picture.
So, what can I make with this? Some sort of sandwich perhaps? Sugary ingredients? Check. These all have some sort of sugar in them, glucose or fructose.
So I cut up four pieces of bread…
Put some apricot jam on the slices…
Peeled the orange,
Got some segments (a tip that I learned in this chocolate buffet I went to–take off the skins covering the segments–so much better!) and put them on the slices of bread
Put a few raisins on for good measure
Pour on some condensed milk for, er, decoration (don’t go overboard though… it probably wouldn’t stay in place in large amounts)
And don’t forget the overpriced Australian milk!
Yummy. Except for the raisins. Those were a mistake.
Nick didn’t submit an entry for this round. Shall he be automatically booted? Readers, chime in.