Birthday Science

"mad scientist" birthday cake

A fascinating piece by Kathryn McGowan about the industrial changes that gave rise (HAR) to the modern birthday cake.

Before the invention of roller mills (about 1870) flour was made using grind stones resulting in flour that contained some of the bran and all of the germ of the wheat. To get white flour the miller then had to sift or boult the flour through a succession of cloths of differing weaves which filtered out the bran and the germ. The oil that comes out of the germ during milling stayed in the flour giving it a gray-ish yellow color. The presence of that oil shortened the shelf-life of white flour to about six months after which it would go rancid. All of these limitations meant that white flour was expensive and used only by the wealthy or for special occasions.

When flour is ground using rollers, the grain passes through two rollers moving at different speeds the slower one holds it and the faster one strips it. Scraping off the germ before grinding meant that no germ or germ oil got into the flour. And so was created the first truly white flour, ground solely from the endosperm of the wheat. It was a snowy white and due to the lack of wheat germ and wheat germ oil, it had double the shelf life of the old style “white” flour. The new technology made it much less expensive and the longer shelf-life meant that it could be shipped all over the country. Everyone could have white flour.

The other invention important to those towering, sugar-laden birthday treats is baking powder. It was Initially created in England in 1843. The first American manufacturers were Evan Norton Horsford and George F. Wilson who founded the Rumford Chemical Works in Providence, Rhode Island in 1857. Before chemical leavening, cakes had to be raised with the power of eggs alone, which requires a lot of elbow grease with a whisk (remember, no stand mixers in the 19th Century), and speed to get it into the oven before it begins to collapse. It took an expert baker with lots of skill to make a fluffy, high angel food cake. Baking powder changes all of this, anyone could just add some to their recipe and poof, a cake as light as a cloud.

She also makes a “birthday cakes” recipe from 1870 and goes on a search for candied caraway seeds. I could have done with more SCIENCE! and less BAKING, but still.

Ice Cream Mecha

photo of haley joel osment from the movie AIHave I mentioned my love of the movie A.I, Artificial Intelligence? It is amazing, and so so so so so sad. If you don’t know the story, a couple whose son is in an irreversible coma adopt a robot boy who has been programmed to love. He bonds with the parents and they begin to be a family, until their biological son unexpectedly recovers.

The bio-sun comes home and he is a total little sneak and plays tricks on his robot brother, ultimately triggering a self defense mechanism that nearly kills them both. The mother, trying to prevent the destruction of her robot son, drives out into the woods and lets him go, saying, “I’m sorry I never told you what the world is like.” OMG IT IS SO SAD.

The robot, Henry, just wants to love. It is like the weird inversion of that video with the rhesus monkeys and they are clinging to the fake monkey mom and crying. EVEN SADDER.

But the Yaskawa-kun ice cream robot isn’t sad! It gives you ice cream! According to Eater:

Designed for kids, after making their selection on a touchscreen, the robot selects a cone, fills it with soft-serve, drizzles sauce over it, adds toppings, and passes it to them through a window, all while maintaining a perky smile.

Now I want to cry. And have some ice cream.

PS: Science!

Pour Champs Like a Champ

my handwritten note that says "last night we went to a diner on union and they served us champs in MUGS"

My paperblog of the event.

Last week I excitedly told Meatball about a place I went for dinner that served us champagne in MUGS. I even drew a picture for emphasis.

my line drawing of a mug with "life size" handwritten on it

"Life size"

Turns out I was totally on trend! BBC news reports today:

Researchers, based (appropriately) in France’s Champagne region, say the effervescent drink should be poured “like beer” in an angled way, down the side of the glass.

Gerard Liger-Belair from the University of Reims and his colleagues measured the loss of CO2 gas from champagne as it was poured. They compared three champagne temperatures – at 4C, 12C and 18C – and two different ways of serving.

Infrared imaging showed the clouds of CO2 escaping from the drink as it was poured.

The beer-like pouring method, where the champagne flowed along the inclined flute wall, was much less turbulent and released less gas than the more traditional pouring method.

How awesome is this? Studying champagne with infrared imaging? That’s FRENCH SCIENCE.

For the History-Loving Foodie

Cherry flummery! from Gourmet Mama

I love the History Chef blog! It has entries on Dolley Madison’s love of flummery and other exciting histo-culinary nuggets. (Did you know Zachary Taylor died of gastroenteritis? She doesn’t give that recipe!) She even explains how steamboats work. SCIENCE and HISTORY.

FAST FACT: If you’ve ever watched steam rise from a cup of hot chocolate or coffee, you might think that a steamboat is propelled by steam. That makes sense, but that isn’t exactly how a steamboat works. In a steamboat’s engine, wood or other fuel is burned to heat water in a boiler, and the steam that rises from the water is forced through small spaces (piston cylinders) to increase the speed at which it escapes, similar to the release of a valve on a pressure-cooker. The concentrated steam then hits and moves a paddlewheel which, in turn, propels the steamboat through water!

If there was ever any blogger who should get a book deal it is History Chef’s creator, Suzy Evans, J.D., Ph.D.  Or a museum deal!


Image taken in the Food Tasting lab in bldg 17: Bags of Space Station food and utensils on tray.

Image taken in the Food Tasting lab in bldg 17: Bags of Space Station food and utensils on tray.

If you pay any attention to us at all, you know that we love Science. And there’s nothing more Sciency than space travel. Which brings me to these two fascinating stories on the Discovery Channel website: The Top 10 Worst Space Foods and The Top 10 Best Space Foods. There is nothing that is not interesting in these pieces, especially because you can figure out whether or not you are living an orbital lifestyle here on Earth. Or let’s say for example you were planning a space-themed wedding. Now you know what to serve!  (It’s not too late, Chelsea!) Here’s highlights:

Graham Crackers: Bad in Space They hold together well in microgravity, but the crumbs fly about and you breathe them in. (Plus, dry mouth, amirite, astronauts?) The NASA folks tried shaving down the sides to make it work, but even the best minds in the world couldn’t get graham crackers to work. Since I thought graham cracker-eating adults like myself were a small minority of the world’s population I am heartened to read that interstellar travelers also enjoy them, if only on Earth.

M & Ms: Good in Space This is hardly breaking news because M & Ms, along with french fries and burritos, are among natures most perfect foods, but still good to know.

Carbonation: Bad in Space Turns out that burping while in orbit is kind of a downer. This is troubling, because other than coffee, both Meatball and I drink carbonated beverages almost exclusively (seltzer, kombucha, and champagne derivatives being our mainstays). However, I can buy into bubbles as a terrestrial phenomenon, because if you think about it, they are like drinking space, and why would you do that in space?

There’s more–including the story of astronaut John Young smuggling a corned beef sandwich onto the Gemini III mission. Actual dialogue:

Grissom: What is it?

Young: Corn beef sandwich.

Grissom: Where did that come from?

Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

Grissom: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.

Young: Is it?

Young: It was a thought, anyway.

Grissom: Yep.

Young: Not a very good one.

Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.

Young: Want some chicken leg?

Grissom: No, you can handle that.

Grissom: What was the time of that booster again? What elevation?

THEY COULD SMELL THINGS? This opens up so many questions that I may never sleep again, not to mention the fact that there is an entire Space Food section on  Where’s that movie, Tom Hanks?

Enviropig to the rescue!

From The University of Guelph:

The Enviropig™ is a genetically enhanced line of Yorkshire pigs with the capability of digesting plant phosphorus more efficiently than conventional Yorkshire pigs. These pigs produce the enzyme phytase in the salivary glands that is secreted in the saliva. When cereal grains are consumed, the phytase mixes with the feed as the pig chews. Once the food is swallowed, the phytase enzyme is active in the acidic environment of the stomach, degrading indigestible phytate in the feed that accounts for 50 to 75% of the grain phosphorus.

Wow.  I wonder if the foodie spies are in on this too?

(More transgenic animals reported on here, so you too can blow your mind about the genetically modified food you may or may not be consuming)

Who’s the Foodiest of Them All?

Bundle, which is an interesting site that studies how people spend money, just released their report, “The truth about food spending in America.” I haven’t gone through all of it yet, but it’s super interesting.

The data reflects, generally, what we already suspect about our own behavior: How much we spend on food — like how much we spend on anything — is most directly a result of how much money we have. People making $40,000 to $50,000 spent $5,560 on food in 2009. People making more than $125,000 spent $12,655 — more than double. Did they buy twice as much food? Not likely, says Hayden Stewart, an economist at the US Department of Agriculture: they buy more expensive food. “Better cuts of meat, more organic foods, more gourmet or prepared foods — they all cost more, and when people have the money, they’re often willing to pay.”

Thanks to the kitchn for finding this!

Science Says: Shut Up, Bacon!

Sorry, baconaters! A study published in the American Heart Association journal “Circulation,” (get it?) says that:

Consumptionof processed meats, but not red meats, is associated with higher incidence of CHD and diabetes mellitus. These results highlightthe need for better understanding of potential mechanisms ofeffects and for particular focus on processed meats for dietaryand policy recommendations.

“Processed meats” is, of course, science talk for sausage and bacon. Maybe baloney, too.  The Times, in reviewing the study, says the the villains are salt and chemicals: “Processed meats had about four times more sodium and 50 percent more nitrate preservatives than unprocessed meats.”

Sadly, little-to-no research has been done on the deleterious effects of bacon pillows, candles, and manicures, but that stuff can’t be good. —Snacktime


I love this person!

The Periodic Table of Dessert:

And the even more awesome Flavor Wheels of the World.

Describing tastes has always been a fuzzier proposition, and it’s not because taste has more dimensions than color or pitch. As I say above, that’s a false analogy: vision and hearing have more dimensions than color and pitch! I think taste is fuzzier because we can discriminate lots of tastes — they vary much more than sounds, I’d say.

(Or perhaps sound varies more, but we’re willing to tolerate more slop in describing sounds. There are many brassy honks, but if you imagine something even remotely brassy and honking, then my description was good enough. Whereas people are very picky about flavors.)

Images vary even more, but we are exposed to lots and lots of images, so we have more exemplars to make descriptions from. We give children books full of animal pictures. But it’s perfectly possible to grow up without ever tasting asafoetida, and if you do, what am I going to compare it to? It isn’t like anything but itself.

I can’t even describe, you need to go see it for yourself. I LOVE HEEM. OR HER. LOVE.—Snacktime