Keeping Up With Food Research

Even in modern society, where so many people are doing research about so many things, there are surprisingly many things we still don’t know about food. The Maillard reaction– important in browning of foods- wasn’t really understood until 1948, later than atomic bombs were launched. Nicholas Kurti famously said in 1969 that “it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.” We don’t know that much about what role food played in human evolution, or what tannins in wine really are. That’s why it’s fun to keep up with food research.

Of course, there are many books to read from which you can learn. The Kitchen As Laboratory, for example, has many up-to-date examples of food research. But these are usually a few years out of date, and most books of these types are summaries of research, not the actual results themselves. On the other hand, there are academic food journals. Many are designed for people in industry- those actually dealing with food science in their jobs- and some articles can be rather technical. However, don’t get put off by this, as often just reading the title or paper abstract will give you the knowledge you want. Example of journals include Food Biophysics (some open-access) or Meat Science (no open access), and every now and then Science or Nature does a food article. Just to show that research articles are accessible, I’ll give some example papers from a new journal called Flavour, a journal I particularly like because it is entirely open access, meaning you don’t need to pay to read it.

The edible cocktail: the effect of sugar and alcohol impregnation on the crunchiness of fruit.
This paper looks at what happens to the crunchiness of fruit when you inject alcohol into it, with applications to cocktail making. Unfortunately, in all their tests, it doesn’t look like there is a way to keep fruit crunchy, and alcoholic.

Heritable differences in chemosensory ability among humans.
This review paper looks at the genetic underpinnings of why we form flavours differently, with examples of genes involved in sweet and umami tastes.

Q&A: The Nordic food lab.
An interview with Lars Williams, head of the Nordic food lab, who talks about trends of scientific techniques in restaurants and some of his current areas of research into food, particularly de-bittering, that is, making foods taste less bitter.

Assessing the shape symbolism of the taste, flavour, and texture of foods and beverages.
This review paper looks at how we perceive foods and drinks, based on their shape. “For example, [people] typically match more rounded forms such as circles with sweet tastes and more angular shapes such as triangles and stars with bitter and/or carbonated foods and beverages…. Given that consumers normally prefer those food and beverage products that meet their sensory expectations, as compared to those that give rise to a ‘disconfirmation of expectation’, we believe that the targeted use of such shape symbolism may provide a means for companies to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.” Some interesting applications to food presentation here.

Discrimination of roast and ground coffee aroma.
This paper looks at evaluating the different aroma profiles for different stages in the coffee brewing process.

Review of ‘Educated tastes: food, drink, and connoisseur culture’ edited by Jeremy Strong.
A book review of a recent book to come out, on socio-economic food tastes.

Interesting stuff, in my opinion.

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Barbecue Ribs and Homemade Baked Beans

Barbecue ribs are hardly something new, and I’m not claiming to be doing something unique with them here. But they give me a chance to sing the praises of marinading and slow cooking. Ribs aren’t a cut of meat where you look at them beforehand, inspect them, and imagine they are a prime cut that you are going to get a lot of meat from, but when given time and attention, they can turn into a very worthy meal. If you are not a confident cook, food like ribs, which benefit greatly from marinading and slow cooking, are a great place to start, as they don’t require a lot of effort, you don’t need fancy equipment, and the results will impress if you are cooking for others. All that is required is to rub some spices into the meat the night before, put the meat in the oven at a low temperature, then wait. I’m sure even the least enthusiastic cooks could accomplish that.

Homemade baked beans always seemed the perfect complement to ribs. Almost like a bean hotpot, you get earthy, warm flavours, while bulking up the less-than-filling ribs. Canned baked beans, like Heinz and Branston, are so ingrained in the British culinary landscape- I think I remember QI suggesting that the British consumed over 90% of the world’s baked beans. We almost think of them as an ingredient in themselves- I might make sausages, wedges, and beans, and not give baked beans a second thought as part of the meal. But the homemade version is really worth trying, again very straightforward to make, and will impress guests (and your own stomach).

Barbecue Ribs

I’ve included a recipe for barbecue sauce here, which I have made a handful of times- it’s a real winner. You may not want to make as much sauce as the recipe provides, and this recipe will make a whole load of ribs, but quantities are easily halved. But if you don’t have time to make it, or the resolve, a store-bought sauce will do well too. Similarly, you can use a barbecue spice mix instead of making your own. All recipes here are adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s America.

Ingredients:
Spice Rub:
1tsp fennel seeds
2tsp paprika
zest 1 orange
1tsp dried thyme
1tsp brown sugar
2 cloves garlic
Barbecue Sauce (makes 500ml):
1 onion
10 cloves garlic
2 chillies
10 sprigs fresh thyme
10 sprigs fresh rosemary
small bunch fresh coriander
10 bay leaves
1tsp cumin seeds
2tbsp fennel seeds
2tsp paprika
6 cloves
zest and juice of 2 oranges
200g soft brown sugar
6tbsp balsamic vinegar
200ml tomato ketchup
2tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2tsp English mustard
200ml apple juice
1tsp sea salt
1tsp ground black pepper
Ribs:
1 quantity barbecue rub
1 quantity barbecue sauce
500ml apple juice
4 racks pork ribs, approx 400g each

Recipe:
1. Make the spice rub. Place all of the spice rub ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
2. Make the barbecue sauce. Finely dice the onion, peel the garlic, and de-stalk and the chillies. Fry in a pan with olive oil until browned. Meanwhile, place the thyme, rosemary, coriander, bay, cumin, fennel, paprika and cloves into a blender and blend until smooth. Toss the spices in with the onion mix and add a little more oil, the orange zest and juice, and the brown sugar. Stir well and boil for a few minutes until the mixture becomes a little thicker. Add in the rest of the ingredients to the pan, and reduce until at the required consistency.
3. Marinade the ribs. The night before, dunk each rack of ribs into a bowl containing the apple juice. Coat the wet ribs with the spice rub- really rub it in to get the flavours into the meat.
4. Cook the ribs. Heat the oven to 130ºC and place the ribs in for around 3 hours. About an hour before you want to eat them, take the ribs out of the oven, coat the ribs in the barbecue sauce, then put back in the oven.

Baked Beans

Serves 6-8. Again, adapted from Jamie’s America.

Ingredients:
4 onions
2tsp paprika
2-3 dried chillies
4x400g tins pinto or cannellini beans
2x400g tins chopped tomatoes
4 bay leaves
2tsp dark brown sugar
8 rashers streaky bacon
125g stale bread
100g grated cheddar
1tsp dried rosemary

Recipe:
1. Fry onions and bacon. Roughly dice the onion and fry in a pan with the paprika. Finely slice the chillies and add to the onion. In another pan, cut the bacon into small chunks and and fry until brown.
2. Make breadcrumb mix. In a blender, make breadcrumbs from the stale bread. Add the cheddar and rosemary and mix until homogeneous.
3. Bake the beans. Pre-heat oven to 180ºC. Put everything except the breadcrumb mix into a large casserole. Cook for around 1hr30, then sprinkle the breadcrumb mix on top. Return to the oven and cook for another 45 minutes.

Does using different flour make a difference?

Flour is something we use everyday in cooking. There are so many types of flour available in supermarkets, too. When cooking, I always want to produce the best food I can, but you can only go as far as your ingredients will take you. So, in cooking, which flour is best for which food? Is it worth paying more for more expensive flours? How much do you “lose” for using the wrong type of flour? I don’t have a lot of experience with flours, so I decided to find out.

The main consideration in flour is gluten. Gluten is a complicated mix of wheat proteins that don’t dissolve in water. When wetted, though, the proteins can change their shape, forming and breaking bonds with each other. The gluten network changes its shape under pressure, reverts back to the original shape once the pressure is removed. This means when yeast produces carbon dioxide, the walls of the dough don’t break, important for bread-making. Similarly, this elasticity relaxes with time, keeping the dough taut. This network of dough and air gives the bread its texture: lightest, high-rising, chewy bread from high-gluten flour, as opposed to denser, crumbier bread from lower-gluten flour. So for some applications, you want lots of gluten, for others, you don’t:

Not all baked goods benefit from a strong, elastic gluten. It’s desirable in yeasted breads, bagels, and in puff pastry; but it gives an undesirable toughness to other forms of pastry, to raised cakes, griddle cakes, and cookies. For tender preparations, bakers intentionally limit the development of gluten (McGee on Food and Cooking, p523).

For bread, where we want the gluten network to develop, will be affected significantly by different types of flour:

“Bread flours” are milled from high-protein wheats, require a long kneading period to develop their strong gluten, and produce well-raised loaves with a distinctive, slightly eggy flavour and chewy texture. Lower-protein “all-purpose” flours give breads with a lower maximum volume, more neutral flavour, and less chewy texture, while flours from soft durum wheat with weak gluten proteins make denser loaves with a tender, cake-like crumb (McGee on Food and Cooking, p535).

Cakes on the other hand, don’t want the gluten network to develop, so we would expect softer flours to actually perform better:

A cake’s structure is created mainly by flour starch and by egg protein. The tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture comes from gas bubbles, which subdivide the batter into fragile sheets, and from the sugar and fat, which interfere with gluten formation and egg protein coagulation, and interrupt the network of gelated starch (McGee on Food and Cooking, p554).

So to test out which how different flours fared for different baking purposes, and how this theory turned out in practice, I got 5 varieties of flour, and then made some bread, and some cake. I usually make bread for everyday consumption, so price does factor in choice of flour considerably, but every now and then I would like to be able to make something a bit more exciting. Cakes I make much less often. Typically cakes are made to be eaten by others- birthday cakes, tea and cake, for example. So when I do make a cake, I want it to be good, so I’ll probably pay for better ingredients if I can. But just understanding how different types of flour worked, and what the end results were, was interesting in itself. The five varieties of flour tested were: Mcdougall’s Self Raising Supreme Sponge Flour (£1.78/kg), Tesco Everyday Value Self Raising Flour (£0.35/kg), Tesco Plain Flour (£0.60/kg), Tesco Strong White Bread Flour (£0.40/kg), and Allinson Strong White Bread Flour (£0.67/kg).

For reference, according to McGee on Food and Cooking, I would expect the bread flours to have protein contents of 12-13%, the all-purpose flours protein contents of 7-10%, and the cake flour 7-8% protein content. This is just part of the story though, there will be a lot of differences in milling methods and how the flours are processed, which contributes to the final product.

When making the case, I tried as much as possible to be scientific, although since I did not want to be overrun with cupcakes, I only made small quantities, and so relative measurement errors will have been higher. The recipe was as simple as I could think of: flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, so that any effects of different flours would be more easily seen. The cupcakes came out as follows:

Cupcake 1: Supreme Sponge Flour
Definitely the lightest and fluffiest in texture. Also, interestingly, this one came out the most bright, a very appealing yellow. The butter flavour had integrated really well into the flour, and there wasn’t a fatty taste leftover.

Cupcake 2: Everyday Value Flour
Crunchy, and with an uneven distribution of texture- the butter and egg seemed to have sunk to the bottom and not integrated properly with the flour. Poor development of flavours.

Cupcake 3: Plain Flour
Quite reasonable, the best of the rest. A little crispy, meally, and dry. I got more floury flavours coming through, so thought this one was the bread flour.

Cupcake 4: Bread Flour
Good crispiness on top, a little meally, but an uneventful cupcake. Very similar to the plain flour, hard to tell apart.

After we made the cupcakes, my resident cupcake enthusiast and I swapped the order around and tried to guess which was which. The only one we both got correct was the supreme sponge flour cupcake- significantly better than the others, it wasn’t really close. I thought the everyday value flour was easy too, having a significantly poorer quality texture. Neither of us could tell the plain flour and bread flour cupcakes apart, though. Conclusion: it’s probably worth paying the extra for supreme sponge flour, and don’t use cheap flour.

For the bread, I was more interested in the differences between different types of bread flour, but also how plain flour fared. It was particularly difficult to be scientific here, as I could not knead all the bread at once, so some batches had 15-20 minutes more rising time than others. As with the cupcakes, the bread recipe was as simple as can be, flour, water, salt, yeast. The rolls came out as follows:

Roll 1: Supreme Sponge Flour
A very white roll. Hardly rose at all. Bad aftertaste from the baking powder, but otherwise pleasant taste. Smooth texture, but very dense.

Roll 2: Everyday Value Flour
Less dense, and crusty. Tasted poor, with the bad aftertaste from the baking powder. A little meally. Didn’t rise a lot.

Roll 3: Plain Flour
Very crusty, dry, and dense. Neutral flavour. Didn’t rise a lot

Roll 4: Tesco Bread Flour
Good texture, nice leathery crust, risen considerably more. Nice bready taste.

Roll 5: Hovis Bread Flour
Very similar to the Tesco bread flour, no discernible differences.

Overall the results were pretty clear: you need a flour with high gluten content to make a good bread. The plain and everyday flours rose poorly, and, worse of the lot, the supreme sponge flour barely rose at all. Using different flour makes a big difference, so definitely buy some bread flour here. Within the bread flours, I didn’t notice any difference in the finished product, so the difference in price is what will drive my purchase here. Perhaps the Tesco bread flour is unexpectedly good. Conclusion: buy bread flour, it seems that the difference in gluten is more important than flour quality, as the theory suggests.

A fun afternoon’s baking, but I am pleased with the results. Of course, there are a lot of other things going on with flour than gluten, but it’s a start to understanding flours. It’s worth having confidence in the ingredients you use, and understanding properly what processes like kneading will do to the finished product. If you understand these, you’ll help get the cooking right, and food will taste better, which is really what it is about.

Wild Mushroom Picking in Denmark and Oxford

During my recent trip to Denmark a friend and his father offered to take me mushroom picking. and I jumped at the opportunity. I’m a big fan of mushrooms in cooking, particularly the more prized varieties like morels, ceps, chanterelles, and of course truffles. Mushrooms like these add a lot to dishes, particularly in sauces, but usually come with a big price tag, and aren’t usually sold in supermarkets. So when we went foraging, I wasn’t expecting to find any truffles- just given the location we were in- but if I learnt to find some of the popular cooking mushrooms like chanterelles, I’d be pretty pleased.

Of course, one of the main things that makes foraging for mushrooms different from other kinds of foraging is the fact some of them are poisonous. Blackberries and lavender are very easy to forage. Even elderflower, for example, is fairly straightforward to recognise the smell of the flower and the shape of the leaves- and if you get the wrong thing, like cow parsley, it just tastes bad. But with mushrooms, something that looks slightly different- a yellow tinge on the stem, for example- can be the difference between edible and deadly poisonous. So this can make it difficult for beginners to start picking wild mushrooms with any confidence. One way to avoid this, as I was lucky enough to be able to do when in Denmark, is to go picking with people who already know what is safe and what isn’t.

But if you don’t have this luxury, there is still hope. I was told that you can pick a poisonous mushroom, take it home, identify it, and throw it in the bin, all safely (just don’t eat it). So if you get hold of a good field guide (I was recommended Roger Phillips ‘Mushrooms‘), you can pick with much more confidence. Similarly, if you can’t tell whether or not the mushroom you picked is edible, or can’t figure out the variety, just don’t eat it.

So how do you go about foraging for wild mushrooms? The most important thing to bear in mind is that mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with trees, that is that they help the trees, and the trees help them. So when you see a mushroom, it’s connected to some tree underground. Consequently, if you figure out which kind of trees to look for, and what kind of environment to look for, that’s the first part. Big, old trees are better, and woodlands, like forests, provide good growing environments. Mushrooms will grow in the same place year to year, so if you find a good crop in one place, remember where it is for next year. Most mushrooms are in season during Autumn and early winter, but a few, like morels, come out in the spring, or other times of the year. In picking the mushroom- pick the whole stem out of the ground- you are spreading the spores around, so helping the mushroom reproduce. Perhaps this is why they have evolved to be so tasty- being picked, then presumably eaten, helps them to reproduce.

In Denmark we drove out a little way into the countryside, and just pulled up at the side of the road running through a forest- clearly somewhere my guides had been before. We had to have a good look around to find the mushrooms, of which I would say around 1/3 were edible. Apparently, due to the weather, 2012 has been a terrible year for mushrooms, as it has for apples and other fruits. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that we didn’t find the chanterelles and ‘horn of plenty’ that we were looking for. However, after a trip to a local park, we had a handful of mushrooms to bring back (see picture at top), probably enough for a sauce, but not enough to dry any to keep for later use.

Looking for mushrooms in the UK has yielded less luck. During a few trips around local parks in Oxford, notably University Parks, I’ve barely seen any mushrooms, let alone edible ones. When I was visiting my brother and his wife in Bournemouth recently, we took a trip into the New Forest to see what we could find. Here we found many mushrooms (including some really poisonous ones). We saw loads of a variety called ‘puffballs’, but as with Oxford, nothing that could be identified as edible. Perhaps the areas we looked had already been foraged over.

But recently, just on a walk around my local estate, we found some ‘shaggy inkcaps’ (also named lawyer’s wigs, picture above left). The field guide described them highly common, and with their unique shape, we felt confident we had got the identity correct- it really couldn’t be anything else. What’s more, the book had the magic word ‘edible’, and even said they were “good” to eat. So eat them we did- steak, wedges, and fried mushrooms- and indeed they were good, if the texture was a little wanting. But, as usual with foraging, don’t rely on finding your dinner out there, and you might not even find anything. You’ll always get a nice walk in the woods, if nothing else, so give it a go.

Simple wild mushroom sauce

Ingredients:
30g dried mushrooms
100ml dry sherry or white vermouth
300ml double cream

Recipe:
1. Soak the mushrooms. Soak the mushrooms in 250ml water for 30 minutes. Keep the water you are soaking the mushrooms in, but strain it through a muslin to get rid of dirt.
2. Make the sauce. Add the sherry and mushrooms to the water. Bring to the boil, add the double cream, then reduce down to the consistency required.

Food and Wine Pairings III: Creating a meal around sweet wines

Often when I start out cooking a meal for guests, I have no idea what to cook. It’s not that I don’t have enough ideas, although sometimes I am less inspired, but too many, thanks to many good cookbooks and internet sites that are available. I can never consider a dish and say to myself, “yes, that will be really good”, and know that there is not a better choice out there. Similarly, you want the courses to complement each other, it’s no use doing smoked salmon to start, and then salmon for the main. This is all before the practicalities of the dinner are considered- how much time do I have to cook, how much can I spend, when can I get any specialist ingredients, for example.

Lastly, there is the wine. Perhaps not so important to some, I really feel line a good food-wine pairing can make or break a meal. You need the right wine for each course. If I don’t have the bottle I want at home, I don’t want to put a wine order in for just one bottle, so that might change what I want to cook. Little things, like the seasoning of a dish, can make a big difference, too. So recently, I’ve taken a reverse approach to planning meals for guests: start with the wines I want to drink, then figure out what I can cook which will work. I’ve found it remarkably helpful, as you move from “I could cook almost anything” to “I have to cook something very specific”. Also, it’s a fun challenge and learning experience for my food-wine pairing skills.

A friend came around recently who I know has a sweet tooth. So I thought, why not try some sweeter wines throughout, and see if I can’t find the right food to go with them? If I went wrong, the wines would still be good, and the food would still be good, just not as good together. Equally, this would allow me to experiment a little with flavours, particularly the sweet-savoury match. All the wines I had planned came from The Wine Society, which I thoroughly recommend.

Course I: A salad of pan-fried scallops, pancetta, warmed goats’ cheese, roasted fig, and cos lettuce.
Wine pairing: Vouvray Les Coteaux Tufiers Demi-Sec 2010.

The wines we drank. From the right: Vouvray Demi-Sec 2010, Trimbach Gewurztraminer 2010, Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

The wine here is a demi-sec (meaning semi-dry), a chenin-blanc from Vouvray, in the Loire valley in France (on the right of the picture). What the demi-sec translates to is a small amount of residual sugar, not something we noticed in the main body of the wine, but in the finish, there was just a touch of sweetness. Otherwise, a fairly neutral wine, with good acidity to cut through food. At £7 a bottle, this wine was great, and I imagine would be very popular in general.

This, I think, was the best pairing of the night. With so much going on in the salad, particularly with the goats’ cheese and fig, the wine didn’t need to contribute much in terms of flavour. But the acidity, working with the lettuce, calmed everything down and balanced the meal out nicely. The sweetness worked well with all of the components, perhaps not surprisingly as they are often paired with sweet things themselves. (Of course, with the pressures of entertaining, I forgot to take a photo of the salad, so you’ll have to live with a photo of the wines instead.)

Course II: Monkfish and Tiger Prawn Crêpe, Sauce Saffron Suprème, Curried Squash.
Wine pairing: Trimbach Gewürztraminer 2010.

Gewürztraminer is a grape which typically gives you stone fruit flavours, spice, and lychee, in a medium bodied, medium alcohol framework, with no residual sugar. It comes from Alsace in France, a region close to Germany, so no surprise that a lot of grape varieties which are traditionally German, like Riesling, are grown there. The body, alcohol, and acidity here are important- being a bigger wine than the Vouvray, it needs to be given something a little more robust, food-wise.

The robustness here comes in the sauce. The monkfish, prawn, squash, and crepe were all relatively light, really just providing flavours and textures. The sauce is thick and heavily saffron flavoured, in some sense providing the bulk of the dish. Overall I would say that I think I tried to do too much here, the dish was too complex (although sadly not in colour), too many flavours and textures were present. Perhaps something simpler, like a simple sea bass dish, would have provided the backdrop for the wine to do its thing better. Still nice, but not the pairing I was hoping for.

Course III: Giant Macaron with Raspberries and Peach Cream.
Wine pairing: Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

Here I had a dilemma I often have with a meal. My guests have brought a bottle of wine- a nice one at that- but I’ve already planned a wine for a certain course  (or a course for a certain wine). Do you alter the meal and drink the wine they bought, or do you go with what you had planned? In this case, the choice was reasonably easy, as I was planning a white Bordeaux, but it could be easily substituted by the Tokaji. For those who haven’t met Tokaji before, it’s a Hungarian desert wine, made from a grape called Furmint, and is well worth checking out.

The macaron itself doesn’t add a lot of flavours to the dessert, so you can consider this, flavour-wise, as raspberries and orange with peach cream. The fruit flavours complemented the wine well, but I feel like anything reasonable you put with pudding wine is going to be great. The Tokaji was a nice bottle, and was allowed to express itself fully with the fat in the cream, tartness of the raspberries, and juiciness of the orange. I’ll do this one again.

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, and Food and Wine Pairings II: Wines for a Wedding. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.

Giant Macarons with Raspberries and Peach Cream

Macarons are very fashionable at the moment in the world of cooking. Their fame started in Paris, when famous patisseries like Pierre Hermé and Ladurée began producing these small, coin-sized, delicate almond biscuits, which were sandwiched together with a cream filling. These patisseries could show their culinary creativity through macarons, with flavours like passionfruit and dark chocolate, jasmine and green tea, and even some savoury ones like curry or beetroot and horseradish. The colours produced were bright and contrasting. Soon most patisseries began making them, their popularity perhaps aided by the fact they are lighter and healthier than many patisserie treats. You can find them in a good number of Oxford patisseries, like Gatineau in Summertown, or Chateau Gateau on St. Clements.

So what are macarons? Not to be confused with the coconut-chocolate biscuit that is the English macaroon, these biscuits are made from a very light and airy dough made up of almond flour and egg whites. There’s not a lot of flavour from the biscuits themselves, so usually they are filled with a butter cream of some sort. The filling is piped in the night before, which allows the biscuit to absorb a little, creating a softer, smoother texture. Often they are just eaten as a snack, but they can be made into giant macarons, and used as the base for patisserie items, like the raspberry and peach creme dessert presented here.

Creativity and taste aside, another lure of macarons is that they are quite tricky to make, despite the ingredients being relatively simple. Macarons have their characteristic ‘pieds’, or ‘feet’, a mythical part of the cooking process, caused by a combination of egg white rising, and surface tension of the dough. Particularly important is to get the macarons to have perfectly formed feet- if you don’t get the feet, or the feet aren’t even all the way around, you lose marks for presentation. I don’t really know how to shape the formation of these feet, but they seem to define whether or not you have done a good job. I feel like macarons react to confidence- if you are scared of things going wrong when you are baking them, things are more likely to go wrong- perhaps not unlike all French patisserie, though.

However, I think macarons can definitely be made well, domestically. You’ll need a bit of kit- piping bag, nozzle, pastry scraper (and an electric mixer helps)- but once you have these, the recipe is that not that complicated (a bit like making a cake or biscuits), it’s just a little fiddly. The piping particularly can be difficult if you don’t have a lot of experience with a piping bag, as I don’t. But I would recommend just having a go at them, even if they don’t go right from a presentation standpoint, the result will still be delicious, and with a bit of practice, you’ll make prettier pastries. And when they do go right- like solving problems in science- it makes it all worthwhile, and only motivates you to do more cooking.

Just baked macarons. Notice the feet- the ruffled bases- on the bottom of the macarons.

Giant Macarons with Raspberries and Peach Cream

Recipe for macarons taken from Mad about Macarons. You could easily substitute the peach liqueur for another flavouring, like passionfruit, orange, or blackcurrant, just by adding the appropriate liqueur. You could probably get 6 portions of patisserie-style giant macarons here. Measurements should be as exact as possible.

Ingredients:
150g egg whites (aged 4-5 days)
100g caster sugar
180g ground almonds
270g icing sugar
Pink food colouring
300g raspberries
200ml double cream
3tbsp peach liqueur

Macaron dough piped onto a baking sheet. My piping skills clearly need some work.

Recipe:
1. Make the macaron dough. Whisk the egg whites until firm peaks, gradually adding the sugar as you do so. Put in enough food colouring until you get a rich pink (note the almond colour will take some of this away). Sift the almonds into a large bowl, add the icing sugar, then fold in the whipped egg whites.
2. Work and pipe the dough. With a pastry scraper (or spatula if you don’t have one), work the dough to press out some of the oxygen from the whites. Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with a plain nozzle (1cm around tip). Line two baking trays with baking sheets, then pipe your macarons onto the sheet.
3. Cook the macarons. Preheat the oven to 160ºC, and bake for around 15 minutes. There is quite a fine point when they are done, so get to know your oven and adjust cooking times slightly if necessary. Leave to cool on the sheet, then slowly (as they are delicate) peel them off.
4. Make the desert. Whip the cream until firm peaks, then incorporate the peach liqueur (or add more to taste). Assemble the dessert as shown above.

Book Review: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Considering the evolution of humans in the context of food and cooking is a fascinating subject. Why do we eat the foods we do, as opposed to the food chimpanzees eat? How did we develop cooking, and what effect did it have on our morphological development? Why do we like the flavours of the foods we do? ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human‘ examines the hypothesis that it was actually the development of cooking which was a major evolutionary transition. The physical composition of cooked food is different from that of raw food, changing the costs of digestion like chewing, resulting in different developments in humans, like smaller jawbones than chimpanzees. Similarly, the way societies evolved, and the community structure we have is based around the collection and distribution of food. There were a lot of key advances in human society due to culinary developments, and ‘Catching Fire’ is one of the few books I have seen that looks at them.

Perhaps more of a popular science book than a food book, you won’t find any recipes or many applications of the evolutionary ideas to modern day cooking. But you will find a good amount of theory- well sourced and ideas clearly explained- concerning our culinary development. I might have hoped for a little more detail in developing the ideas, and perhaps some discussion of how these ideas affect our gastronomy today- the book has a large font and, without the ‘notes’ sections, only totals around 200 pages. There are many interesting examples for each idea presented, looking at tribes which developed society independently of ours. Overall, there are a lot of good ideas presented, and it’s worth a read, from both a science and a culinary perspective. 8/10.

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