Hungry Scientists’ Handbook Outlines Nerdy Delights
When does a recipe become a science project?
Is it when the compulsion to create an edible electrical circuit keeps a cook up all night, wrapping Twizzler string licorice in pure silver?
Is it when a baker decides to bake 20 equilateral-triangle-shaped pecan pies for Thanksgiving, then attach them together with magnets to form an 80-serving icosahedron? (The recipe begins with 30 cups of flour and two large sheets of 24-gauge steel.)
Certainly, when the urge to build a better chocolate fountain — and then fill it with 10 gallons of hot gravy — becomes irresistible, some line between cooking and science has been crossed.
“It’s not really about culinary excellence, the way someone who wanted to make better bread might experiment with floor tile and firebrick in their oven,” said Patrick R. Buckley ’03, a mechanical engineer who has collected 20 food-science projects into a new book, “The Hungry Scientist Handbook” (Collins Living), with Lily Binns, a food writer. “It’s about seeing if something can be done. And even if you fail, you’ve learned something — just like in the lab.”
Any cook who has pulled a fallen cake out of the oven or tried to speed-cook short ribs has encountered the immutable laws of food science. And among the most revered chefs working today are those who embrace the kitchen as a laboratory, like Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, and Thomas Keller.
But some professional scientists (and a few amateur lab rats) are taking the research in a different direction. Rather than scenting mozzarella cheese with rose petals, they’re sticking metal forks into hot dogs and cooking them by electrocution. They’re using Play-Doh extruders to make pixelated sugar cookies.
More high-school science fair than hushed temple of flavor, this subculture embraces projects that are big, loud, dangerous, smoking, absurdly time-consuming and seemingly pointless — although the process is treated with great solemnity.
As a cook might taste a sauce and draw on a lifetime of flavor memory and experience to figure out what it needs — acid, sugar, salt, fat? — these scientists draw on laboratory experience and academic training to answer arcane questions such as: What is the best way to fling marshmallows over a long distance?
“As in all research, it’s a question of taking on a problem and thinking and thinking and thinking about what could be used to solve it,” said Windell Oskay, a design engineer at a scientific instruments company, and developer of an edible eye composed of malted milk balls, gelatin capsules, and cake decorations.
On websites like instructables.com, evilmadscientist.com and hungryscientist.com, teams of researchers — many of them in the San Francisco Bay area — comment on, assist and build on one another’s work.
These sites are rife with Halloween-ready projects like a bubbling dry-ice martini (stirred, not shaken, or it might explode), a watermelon sculptured into a model of the human brain and a pumpkin transformed into an elementary camera.
Oskay and his wife, Lenore Edman, are the fertile brains (and nimble fingers) behind evilmadscientist.com. He has a Ph.D. in physics, she works at a biotech company, and they live in Sunnyvale, Calif. Normally (if the word can be used in this context), their culinary work ranges from the seriously daunting (they built a three-dimensional printer that uses sugar, not paper, as its two-dimensional medium) to the merely exhausting (butter cookies shaped to illustrate a fractal pattern known as the Sierpinski carpet, in which a square is endlessly divided into nine smaller squares — like a tic-tac-toe board — with the center square removed).
“It’s important that the dough not rise too much or be too buttery, so the pattern remains crisp,” Lenore Edman said. “I found the Cook’s Illustrated recipe worked perfectly, but you could also do it with marzipan or hard candy.”
Turkey Tek, an occasional Thanksgiving gathering of Bay Area scientists, has created some of the largest and most ambitious pieces, like the 20-sided pecan pie. “They have done a lot of work on the traditional crust-to-filling ratios,” Oskay said.
While a student at MIT, Buckley worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, the vast government research center in Livermore, Calif., dedicated to national security, as part of a team assembling 200 giant lasers to study thermonuclear reactions.
“It was incredibly precise and demanding work,” he said. “I think many scientists enjoy cooking because it’s a little like lab work, but not too much.”
Two weeks ago, Buckley took gallons and gallons of liquid nitrogen to Austin, Texas, for Maker Faire, an annual gathering sponsored by Make magazine, one of the bibles of the do-it-yourself movement. Like tens of thousands of other craft types, they were there with a project: Microbatch Cryogenic Ice Cream. The mixture of heavy cream and liquid nitrogen freezes almost instantly at room temperature, so patrons can make up their own ice cream flavors, mix and eat them on the spot. (Most authorities recommend protective gear when working with liquid nitrogen.)
“What I learned at Maker Faire is that people never think that their own flavor creations are bad,” Buckley said last week at Binns’ apartment in Brooklyn, calmly splashing the smoking gas over his outstretched palm into a bowl of heavy cream, sugar, muddled mint leaves and rye whisky. “Even if everyone else thinks it’s disgusting.”
Last summer, Buckley drove his cryogenic ice cream truck (a DHL truck he bought on Craigslist.org and converted himself) to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, stocked with every flavoring he could think of.
“Fresh mint, pomegranate syrup, single-malt whiskey, beets, cucumbers, popcorn, garlic salt, avocado, you name it,” he said. He hadn’t reckoned with the demanding Australians. “They wanted Vegemite,” he said. “And they were quite determined about it.”
The impressively delicious mint-julep flavored ice cream that emerged from the stainless-steel bowl after about 30 seconds of vigorous stirring was creamy and brightly flavored, with the mouth-coating density of premium ice cream. “It freezes so fast that ice crystals don’t have time to form,” Binns said. “That is what makes the texture so creamy.”
The two, who met as high school freshmen in 1994, say liquid nitrogen is obtainable at welding-supply stores, though three such places in New York City flatly said they would not sell it when this reporter inquired by phone. Moving and storing it requires a Dewar, a double-walled flask available at medical-supply outlets.
(Liquid nitrogen is used for cryogenic preservation of specimens, and also “for freezing off warts and moles,” Binns said. “It’s not very appetizing.”)
Flavor may not be the point of these projects, but it is not completely irrelevant. While trying to develop a cake frosting that conducts electricity to light a birthday cake with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) instead of candles, Buckley and Binns rejected frosting made of Gatorade, which seemed promising, because of its high-electrolyte formula. They also tried to make frosting out of electrode gel, the conductive substance smeared on human skin before electrodes are attached for medical procedures, like cardiac stress tests. That, Binns said, simply tasted disgusting.
The solution, one of the most grueling and yet heroic projects in the book, involves covering a frosted cake with a lattice of string licorice, each string wrapped in edible silver, a traditional garnish for certain luxurious Indian dishes and sweets.
Powered by batteries, the silver conducts enough electricity to light tiny, glowing LEDs, which shine in different colors. When finally alight, the cake is delightfully colorful, festive and engineered for efficiency: there is no dripping wax, no risk of house fire, no worry of how to carry a flaming cake through a drafty hallway without extinguishing the candles.
However, it does deprive the birthday girl or boy of the chance to blow out the candles and make a wish.
When this potential flaw in the project was pointed out, there was a short silence from the researchers.
“Well, you could always stick a candle in the middle,” Buckley finally said. “But only if you really had to.”