My new workspace at the office.

After a one-month hiatus, I’m back to blogging. Despite the lack of updates here, the past four weeks have been more story-worthy than usual. Below were the highlights:

  • I fell victim to the January Boston rhinovirus epidemic.
  • I made three trips to New York, including a visit to wd-50 and TEDxManhattan.
  • I’m back to experiments in the lab. I found out about the ProPraline project, which shows that scientific research into chocolate is legit. I’m also making videos of one aspect of the bacterial biofilm reproductive process.

In addition to the above, a steady stream of lab tours and other encounters has laid the foundation for future serendipity.

I spent more time observing (and eating) microbes over the several days than the past several months, which broke down my post-a-day routine. Here were some of the highlights:

  • Taking three-dimensional scanning electron microscope images of the fungal hyphae in soft cheese.
  • Eating more¬†huitlacoche than I thought possible.
  • Realizing that the biological effects of ethanol (and people) are still a bit of a mystery. The microbiology of champagne production is fascinating.
  • Talking with biologists about the sex lives of bananas, the communal stomachs of ants, the ejaculations of whales, and the family trees of ant colonies.
  • Making mozzarella with curds from New York, since a more local importer was closed down due to mafia ties.
  • Taking a tour of a cheese microbiology lab, which is getting into the culinary consultancy business.

This changed the way I look at beer. More specifically, this is what I saw in the sediment at the bottom of various beers with a 60x optical microscope. I think I like this fermented beverage even more now.

Harpoon UFO

Harpoon UFO (60x)

Lambic Beer

Lambic Beer (60x)

Hefeweizen

Hefeweizen (60x)

I’ve been spending the week looking at microbes in food:¬†http://www.msi.harvard.edu/graduates/microscopy.html. I think all my favorite foods and drinks (natto, yogurt, tempeh, beer, wine, chocolate, coffee, bread, cheese, kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, nutritional yeast, mushrooms…) have some bacteria, fungi, or yeast involved.

Cooking: The Exhibition

coming soon....

One area of food science that I find quite interesting is how to reverse engineer traditional dishes with unconventional ingredients. One example is the dairy-free Dulce de Leche ice cream from Turtle Mountain:

INGREDIENTS:FILTERED WATER, ORGANIC SOYMILK (FILTERED WATER, ORGANIC SOYBEANS), ORGANIC DEHYDRATED CANE JUICE, CARAMEL SAUCE (TAPIOCA SYRUP, WATER, MOLASSES, SOY PROTEIN, NATURAL FLAVOR, COCOA BUTTER, SODIUM CITRATE, SALT, CARRAGEENAN), ORGANIC TAPIOCA SYRUP AND/OR ORGANIC BROWN RICE SYRUP, ORGANIC SOYBEAN OIL AND/OR ORGANIC SAFFLOWER OIL, CHICORY ROOT EXTRACT, CAROB BEAN GUM, GUAR GUM, ALGIN (KELP EXTRACT), CARRAGEENAN, YUCCA EXTRACT, TAPIOCA SUGAR, SEA SALT, NATURAL FLAVOR.

It’s a whole syllabus of food science in an ingredient list. Here are my best guesses:

  • To replicate the browning reactions of milk, they use tapioca syrup and carrageenan for the viscosity, cocoa butter for the melting behavior, and sodium citrate for the slight acidity.
  • The soybean and safflower oils provide fat, but the chicory root extract, carrageenan, algin, and gums are needed to stabilize the emulsion.
  • Yucca extract could be a saponin (soap-forming molecule), which is also used in root beer.

Another example is Babycake in New York City. Here is the ingredients list for the chocolate cupcake recipe (full recipe available here):

  • 1 cup garbanzo and fava bean flour
  • 1/4 cup potato starch
  • 2 tablespoons arrowroot
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 2/3 cup agave nectar
  • 6 tablespoons applesauce
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup hot water or hot coffee

I’m intrigued by the mixture of polysaccharides (chickpea and fava bean flour, potato starch, arrowroot, and xanthan gum) and the flours also have a considerable protein and fat content. I haven’t been able to find more quantitative information yet, but I would like to compare this to regular pastry flour. The coconut oil is high in saturated fats, so its melting range would be similar to butter. The pectin in the applesauce could help stabilize the batter. I’m not sure about the role of the baking soda.

Yet another example is vegan meringues. Here’s the ingredient list from Angel Food:

Ingredients: rice starch, emulsifiers 475 and 471, tapioca starch, methylcellulose, xanthan gum. All ingredients are plant-derived.

Emulsifier 475 is a “polyglycerol ester of fatty acid” and E471 is some type of salt of a fatty acid (thanks Food Additives).