Chapuline cookies

“One freezing night at the end of February, Dunkel, who is petite, with fluffy gray curls and rosebud lips, was puttering around her kitchen, a large pair of glasses suspended from a sparkly chain around her neck and an apron tied at her waist. She pulled out her old Betty Crocker recipe binder – she has had it since 1962 – and put on her glasses. She opened it to a page, yellow with use, for chocolate chip Toll house cookies. Like many cooks, Dunkel likes to make a recipe her own. Betty Crocker called for half a cup of chopped walnuts. In the margin, in a loopy hand – the penmanship of a girl who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin in the nineteen-fifties – Dunkel had suggested a substitution: ‘or fresh roasted crickets’.”

That’s from the August 15, 2011 issue of the New Yorker. I have been through a rather similar process myself, except in my case I opened a relatively un-aged copy of the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, and I chose to adapt the Momofuku peanut butter cookie recipe by removing the 1/2 cup of ground peanut brittle and replacing it with 25g of chapulines – fried, spiced and salted grasshoppers.

Back to Florence Dunkel, who was creating assorted insect-based culinary delights to provide some novel and insightful experiences for her students at Montana State University.

“Dunkel stayed up baking until three. The next day, at Insects and Human Society, she had her students do a honey tasting, reminding them that honey is, of course, the vomit of a bee. Then Ky-Phuong Luong, the T.A., stirred a wok full of vegetables and soy-marinated crickets, and Dunkel passed a plate of fritters with yellowish wax worms protruding from their centers. “We left out the bacon,” she said, smiling sweetly. The students talked about ethnocentrism (eighty per cent of the world eats insects with pleasure), sustainability, and the earth’s diminishing resources. After a while, they started, tentatively, to eat. A young man in a green wool ski cap said that he would be more enthusiastic if he had some beer to wash the insects down. Standing before a plate of brownies fortified with a mash of sautéed meal worms, he said despondently, ‘This is the future! You’ll eat worms and like it. You gotta eat something.’”

It’s a difficult thing to get your head around if you’ve grown up in a culture that associates insects with fear and filth, and certainly not with anything even resembling an edible meal. But that’s not really an adequate reason to go with the initial knee-jerk “ugh that’s gross” reaction and to think no more of it, because consuming insects could play a part in solving a lot of pressing problems regarding food production. The carbon footprint of meat production, the ethics of animal farming and slaughtering, the need to feed an ever-increasing global population – insects could play a part in the solution. To continue quoting with abandon from the New Yorker article, because in one single paragraph it eloquently sums up many of the arguments in favour of eating insects:

“From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small “footprint”; being cold-blooded, they are about four time as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef – fried grasshoppers have three times as much – and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions.”

The whole venture seems to make a decent amount of sense, but once the insects are cleaned and prepared for consumption, it would still require a bit of gentle easing into it all – not going straight for substituting the meat in a stew or casserole with scoops of whole mealworms or something like that, but getting the more hesitant people used to the idea by adding ground mealworms to chocolate or a scattering of fried crickets into a salad, as were offered to supermarket customers in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

Or by encasing some nice little grasshoppers in a delicious cookie.

Yuzu & kinako shortbread

I’ve started putting kinako (toasted soybean flour) in basically everything and I don’t even care if this behaviour is probably reaching pathological levels. I discovered kinako only recently, courtesy of the Hard Shake I had at Bone Daddies that was made from the softserve of the day – kinako softserve on this occasion – along with, I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect Japanese whiskey. Rather enamoured with the flavour, I rapidly acquired some sachets of kinako (pre-mixed with sugar) and then I found a large pack of toasted soybean flour at the local Middle Eastern store (they really have a lot of everything), so with an ample store of kinako safely stowed in the cupboard, I freely added it to whatever I thought could benefit from it.

Kinako is proving to be a great way of adding nuttiness and toastiness to things. I made sweet potato falafel with it. I added it to porridge. I made a rather viscous cocktail with it. And mixing it into milk and steaming the milk with your espresso machine makes a very excellent kinako latte. And, inevitably, I baked sweet things with it: kinako and yuzu shortbread for now, although probably basically everything from now on, at least until I get through the kilogram or so I’ve got of the stuff. There is surely nothing that cannot be kinakoed.

Yuzu & kinako shortbread

150g unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla paste
225g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
125g caster sugar
35g kinako (toasted soybean flour)
10g yuzu powder (optional)
70g candied yuzu peel, finely chopped

Beat the butter and vanilla together in the bowl of an electric mixer (or by hand) until light and fluffy and pale. Meanwhile, sift all the other ingredients except the yuzu peel together. Add the sifted ingredients and the yuzu peel to the butter mixture and mix on low for about 5 minutes. The ingredients will come together as a crumbly, loose mixture. Weigh out 30g of the mixture and squeeze in your hands to compact it, shape it into a sphere then flatten it slightly to make a disk about 1-1.5cm thick. Repeat this until all the mixture is used up. Wrap and refrigerate the biscuits for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 170°C. Place the biscuits on a paper-lined baking tray, about 2cm apart from each other (you might have to bake them in 2 batches). Bake for about 30 minutes, at which point the biscuits should be a soft golden colour. Remove them from the oven and leave them to cool on the tray until they’ve almost reached room temperature, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Bowls made of depleted uranium, what could possibly go wrong?

Just a relatively quick post, as things are have been and are continuing to insist upon being busy – I’ve had a round of assessment for my PhD (my mid-candidature review), participated in a speaking competition about my PhD, done a talk about “seducing with neuroscience” (maybe I’ll post something about that at some stage – it’s not food-related but it is very interesting, and despite the evocative name it’s actually about how neuroscience information influences people’s judgments about the credibility of explanations), and now I’m madly analysing data to get an abstract submitted for a conference in November prior to leaving for a conference coming up in September (yep, it’s overseas-trip-time for me again, for the fourth time in 18 months – more on that later too, I guess).

SO! Another one to file away in the “how to influence people’s perception of food” category – can you influence people’s perception of food by manipulating something as simple as the weight of the dish it’s served in?

YES! It seems…

In a study by Piqueras-Fiszma and colleagues, participants were asked to rate 3 yoghurt samples in terms of flavour intensity, density, price expectation and liking. The yoghurt samples were served in three bowls that were all identical except for their weight: they were white ceramic bowls to which a hidden weight could be attached, so that the lightest bowl was 375g, the intermediate-weight bowl was 675g, and the heaviest bowl was 975g. Each bowl was used to serve a 150g sample of plain old Greek yoghurt (important information for study replication: it was purchased from Tesco!).

Participants had to hold the bowl in one hand while they sampled the yoghurt, and each bowl was taken away before the next one was given, so that there was never a chance to directly compare the weights.

Of course, it was the exact same yoghurt in each of the three samples that each participant tried – the only difference was the weight of the bowl the yoghurt was served in. But the participants didn’t know that. They probably assumed they were taste-testing different yoghurts.

Results showed that the heavier the bowl, the higher people rated the perceived density of the yoghurt when they sampled it, and the more money they expected to pay for it. Also, the heavier the bowl, the more participants liked the yoghurt. Perceived flavour intensity was not significantly affected by the weight of the bowls.

So everyone go out immediately and buy really heavy bowls and plates! Serve your things in heavy dishes all the time! Force your dinner guests to hold the crockery in their hands as they eat! Make people think your food is more fancy, more expensive, more lovely!

Or not. These results probably can’t be generalised too much – maybe you only get this effect for particular foods, and yoghurt just happens to be one of them. Maybe the effect changes depending on other properties of the food, e.g. maybe the volume of yoghurt is difficult to visually gauge because it’s just a big amorphous lump, so people’s perceptions are only influenced when the amount of food is difficult to get an idea of. Maybe putting something a bit more discrete, like an apple, into the different bowls would get a different result.

And it would be interesting to do a study investigating whether the weight of the vessel influences the amount of food eaten – maybe if the bowl is heavier, the food seems denser, and perhaps the brain is tricked into thinking the food is more calorific and so satiety occurs sooner. Who knows? I mean, there are many cues that the brain uses to determine satiety, so maybe it would be difficult to detect an effect of serving dish weight, but it is intriguing…

Anyway, it’s brownie time. Or blondie, as the case may be, I don’t know what defines one versus the other. Do blondies simply lack the predominance of cocoa or milk/dark chocolate in the batter? Anyway, the photos above are of some ridiculously delicious blondies (we’ll go with blondies for the name), featuring one of the greatest things known to humankind: peanut butter. They are peanut butter and waffle blondies (they have waffle crumbs throughout them) with dark chocolate chips. I recently made a variation of the recipe, photos of which are below: peanut butter, waffle and malt biscuit blondies with white chocolate chips and strawberries. I made those for a friend who recently endured an incredibly difficult experience (understatement of the century) and has just gotten out of hospital.

Recipe for peanut butter blondies (and variations thereof)…

Panko panko panko

This might be the most difficult post I’ve ever had to write. Not because of the hours involved in devising recipes, cooking them, photographing them, going through countless databases and articles in order to find some interesting food-related scientific research to write about, actually writing the post, etc. The difficulty is mainly because of the title of the paper I’m writing about:

Overcoming the urge to splurge: Influencing eating behaviour by manipulating inhibitory control.

The 5th word in the title: absolutely the worst word in the English language.

I hate it so much. Who would have thought that a single word, by virtue of the mere sound of its phonemes, could conjure up such grotesque imagery and such a visceral revulsion in a person? I don’t understand how that word isn’t onomatopoeic for the sound of vomiting. It makes me want to vomit, it sounds like the noise people make when vomiting – it would be put to good use if it were employed in that manner.

I also hate the meaning that it stands for: some sort of unjustified failure of self-control, a lapse in good judgement, a lack of consideration and deliberation. People use the word in and of itself to try to attempt to justify their unjustified behaviour, as if the fact that the behaviour has a name means that it’s legitimate. Oh I just spent $900 on an antique Royal Doulton “Bunnykins” tea set from 1954, someone (I don’t know who) might say, but it’s OK – it was a… splurge. OH MY GOD. I would prefer if people just owned up to it and said they made an impulsive, spontaneous, poorly informed decision, but hey, it felt good at the time. It would be even better if they just made an informed, thoughtful, deliberate decision after a long and critical analysis of the pros and cons, but hey – humans as a species are nothing if not impulsive and irrational.

And I should know. Well, I should know something about it, to some limited extent. One of the things I study in my PhD is the ability to control behaviour, albeit in a bit of a simplified way: I use simple computer-based tasks that test people’s ability to withhold a response that they’re used to making. So my research participants press a button as quickly as possible to indicate whether they’ve seen an X or an O flash up on the screen, but sometimes, infrequently, a red box flashes up around the X or the O and that means the participant has to withhold the response they were going to make. This is a measure of a person’s inhibitory control. The greater your inhibitory control, the less trouble you have inhibiting your response when you see that red box, and this is something that naturally varies from person to person. A pretty straight-forward task, seemingly, but incredibly important in daily life – you have to constantly evaluate your environment and change your behaviour accordingly. You don’t want to be driving through a red light because you have trouble inhibiting your foot from pressing the accelerator.

But wow – I never anticipated the potential power of this simple computer task to actually improve people’s inhibitory control in a way that might improve their eating habits. All I needed to do was chuck in some photos of things like cupcakes or chocolate and I could have been doing all my participants a huge favour (and simultaneously wrecking my actual PhD project).

This is what my task looks like:

On trials like the one in the top stream, an X or O pops up and the participant has to respond as quickly as possible to identify the letter. But on trials like the one in the bottom stream, an X or an O pops up followed a fraction of a second later by a red box, the stop-signal, which indicates to participants that they need to withhold the response they were going to make.

If I adapted my task to be like the one used in the urge to spl*rge study by Houben, this is what it would look like:

Sometimes participants might see the top stream – M&Ms flash up and they press a button to indicate that they’ve seen a food item (the alternative is that they might see something like a chair flash up and they press a button to indicate that they’ve seen a non-food item). Other times, participants might see the bottom stream – chips flash up and they go to press a button to indicate that they’ve seen a food item, but then they hear an auditory tone that tells them that they have to withhold that response that they were going to make (again, the stop-signal).

The manipulation here is that one of the 3 different food items that are displayed (chips, nuts or M&Ms) is always paired with the stop-signal, one is never paired with the stop-signal, and one is only paired with the stop-signal 50% of the time. This is to see if participants might be pairing their response inhibition with a particular type of food and perhaps through associative learning they might become better at inhibiting responses to that food in general – maybe if they’re used to inhibiting their response every time they see M&Ms, and you give them some real M&Ms, they won’t be so impulsive and eat so many of them. Maybe.

And yeah, you kind of get that. If you take a subset of participants who have particularly bad inhibitory control (they’re more than 1 standard deviation below average for inhibition speed), you can actually decrease their consumption of the food that was always paired with the stop signal, compared to the food that was paired with the stop-signal 50% of the time (the control condition). So if they were always inhibiting their response to M&Ms but not to chips, after the experiment, they’ll eat fewer M&Ms than they perhaps otherwise would.

However, you have to be careful with this one – it has the power for both good and evil. If you take a subset of participants who have particularly good inhibitory control (more than 1 standard deviation above average for inhibition speed), it seems there is a trend towards them eating more of the food that was never paired with a stop-signal compared to the food that was paired with the stop-signal 50% of the time. So they get used to responding quickly and maybe impulsively to a particular food, and when you actually give them that food after the task, they eat more of it than they perhaps otherwise would.

There you go – if for some reason you desperately want to improve your ability to resist a particular food (have you had to take out a personal loan to finance your Valrhona habit?), all you have to do is spend a few thousands dollars on a computer and some task-programming software like E-Prime or Presentation, spend days or possibly weeks learning how to program a response inhibition task containing photos of the food you want to resist and voilà – if you’ve got poor inhibitory control to start with, you might be better at resisting that food, at least immediately after doing that task. Who knows how long-lasting the effects are? Actually, that would be an interesting study to do.

In the meantime, here are some maple syrup and panko biscuits. For those who don’ t know, panko are Japanese breadcrumbs. Panko’s potential for use in sweet recipes was first brought to my attention by the Chuao Chocolatier panko chocolate bar I tried in San Francisco – I found the bar kind of disappointing because try as I might I could not detect the panko flavour, but I believed it could still work well if done differently, which is why I came up with these biscuits. They’re delightfully crunchy and the panko gives them a nice wheaty flavour and trust me, you do not want to inhibit your eating of them.

Recipe for maple syrup & panko biscuits…

Baking for an idiot

Many moons ago now (October last year) a group of people came together to marvel at a very special person, a very gifted, very marvellous person, an iconic figure from whom we can draw so much wisdom and inspiration.

A roundy baldy headed Manc called Karl Pilkington.

And he probably knows more about science than I, as a scientist, do:


So we, a bunch of scientists, having listened to Karl on the Ricky Gervais podcasts, having followed his teachings, gathered to see him in his latest intellectual triumph, his odyssey of diverse cultural edification: An Idiot Abroad.

For the occasion of the viewing of the torrented files I’d gotten hold of because it would take a further 6 months for the programme to be aired in Australia after it premiered in the UK, I put together two baked items inspired by our Holy Father Karl.

Homemade Twix:

Because, as Karl observes, like the sage he is, in the podcasts: “You never see an old man eating a Twix”. And you don’t. It’s just a fact.

And of course, congress tart:


And it was a glorious occasion of much learning and mirth and young people eating Twix.

I would have made little orange-flavoured white chocolate truffles (perfectly spherical) and drawn Karl’s face on them, but I didn’t have the time.

Recipes after the cut.