Category: Baking

Top-down will ruin your life.

This cake is a study in information processing.

In the realm of neuroscience, “top-down” and “bottom-up” are terms that describe the direction of the flow of information. Top-down processing involves higher cognitive processes coming into play to make sense of information, whereas bottom-up processing is driven by information from the more “basic” and ostensibly “lower” level, from the level of the senses (touch, sight, hearing, etc.) without the higher levels in the more executive parts of your brain necessarily coming into play.

So bottom-up processing is the relatively simple perception of your surroundings, while top-down processing can create a kind of filter for processing information and for biasing your perception, sometimes to aid in the accomplishment of a goal.

And so my experience of this cake has been entirely ruined by top-down processing.

It’s a red velvet cake, but with the red dye left out and replaced with just water instead. It’s a non-red velvet cake. Now, I love red velvet cake. On my birthday a few weeks back, Chris made me a red velvet cake (red dye and all) and it was fantastic. This cake in the photo – it’s basically the exact same recipe, but without the dye.

And condemn it to red velvet hell forever if it doesn’t taste exactly like a normal chocolate cake and nothing like red velvet cake.

My brain perceives the colour of this non-red velvet cake and it biases me towards thinking it’s just a plain old chocolate cake, because it should taste like all the hundreds of chocolate cakes I’ve had before that look like that. And honestly – it tastes like chocolate cake. I fought my brain; I desperately tried to find some semblance of the red velvet taste in that cake. It’s just not there. It’s… kind of depressing.

Solution: eat this cake blind-folded, so the sight of it doesn’t bias me towards perceiving it as a chocolate cake, and so my experience of it is only driven by the taste and smell of it.

Stupid brain, ruining my cake.

(I’m sorry I called you stupid, brain, I love you.)

Anyway, speaking of brains, I’m going to another conference about brains and the things brains do in a few weeks’ time. And it’s in San Francisco. Hurrah!

So: recommendations of must-visit locations, must-see things, must-eat-at food places in San Francisco?

I’ll also be in New York, but I’ve already got a list of a million places I didn’t get to when I was there last year, so I’ve got it all pretty much planned out (although I’d still like recommendations if you’re just dying to tell me about somewhere in particular).

Have at it.

Chocolatuuuunnnnggghhfffffff.

Chocolate! Oh my god, chocolate. Chocolate! Master/mistress of our hearts! Emperor/empress of all sweet things! Ruler of our minds! Don’t you know, it has chemicals that make us happy! It has compounds that are the ones that also flood your brain when you’re in love! Or during moments of passion! Chocolate contains chemicals of passion! And love! And happiness! And joy! And all of that! Right? Right?

(Can you just imagine my withering gaze right now? You should get a chill up your spine.)

It’s not right, actually. Of course it isn’t. Of course. It’s never that simple. But saying that chocolate contains happy/lovey-dovey/alluring chemicals is a nifty thing to say, even if it’s not necessarily true, or not true to the extent we think it is. It plays into our beliefs, seems to confirm our existing expectations, and makes us all feel warm and fuzzy and comforted – chocolate will always be there for us, to hold us and nurture us and to spur us to neglect urgent work in favour of going on an epic mission to find chocolate, to console ourselves in its melty embrace, to search desperately through the pantry until we are totally convinced there’s not any chocolate in there, and then to search again just to make sure, and then to walk or drive or ride in a horse-drawn carriage to an appropriate vendor of chocolate-related delights.

But what say you, Science? (Science should be the true master/mistress of everyone’s hearts, OK?)

Science says things just aren’t that clear. Unsurprisingly. Oh, Science. Oh, oh, Science.

Firstly, the most widespread inaccuracy: that a chemical in chocolate – phenylethylamine – is the chemical that also responsible for the feeling of love in the brain, or the feeling of passion, or whatever the latest churnalism article in the Daily Mail (yeah, I’m not even in the UK and I’m going to point my finger at it) or whatever hobbling excuse for a newspaper has regurgitated.

While it is true that chocolate contains phenylethylamine, and that phenylethylamine may have effects on cognition, mood and emotion, very little of the chemical could ever get to the brain, since when it is consumed, most of it is converted into a different chemical by the protein monoamine oxidase-B (Suzuki et al. 1981). Barely any phenylethylamine makes it into circulation in the blood and from there into the brain.

Oh and high levels of phenylethylamine are associated with psychosis, particularly in certain individuals with paranoid schizophrenia (Janssen et al. 1999). Just out of interest.

So everyone can quit jabbering about phenylethylamine. It is really not the magical aphrodisiac love-drug that people make it out to be.

Right, moving on. Theobromine! That’s the next chemical to which people ascribe chocolate’s beautiful, bewitching powers.

There’s actually a little bit more validity in that one, although it’s still not totally resolved and is open to debate.

In one study (Smit et al. 2004), participants were given either:
a) pills containing an amount of cocoa power that would have the same theobromine and caffeine amounts as a 50g bar of chocolate
b) pills containing the same amount of theobromine and caffeine as a 50g bar of chocolate (plus some inactive cellulose as filler)
c) pills containing just inactive cellulose as filler (the placebo condition, naturellement)

Participants in conditions (a) and (b) had faster simple reaction times and reported feeling more energetic than those in the (c) condition. That certainly suggests that theobromine and/or caffeine could be having psycho-active effects: they’re doing something to the brain. But it remains unclear whether it’s just theobromine that’s responsible for the effect, just caffeine, or a combination of both.

To make the conditions of the study a little more relevant to the real-world, doses of theobromine/caffeine were also administered in a second experiment using actual pieces of chocolate. The chocolate was made so that it either had no theobromine/caffeine in it (like white chocolate), a small amount of theobromine/caffeine (the same as milk chocolate), or a larger amount of theobromine/caffeine (the same as dark chocolate). When participants ate the chocolate with the large amount of theobromine/caffeine, it greatly improved reaction time. Chocolate with the small and large amounts of theobromine/caffeine improved working memory (tested by getting participants to press a button when they saw 3 odd or even numbers flash up in a row in a constant stream of numbers on a computer screen). The large and small doses of theobromine/caffeine did not result in participants feeling more energetic compared to the chocolate with no theobromine/caffeine or compared to placebo.

Both of the experiments also found, or rather, didn’t find, something rather interesting: there was no strong, clear effect of theobromine/caffeine on “hedonic tone”, a measure of the participants’ levels of contentment and pleasure. So it seems a bit tenuous that theobromine is this magical chemical that so many people assume must be in chocolate in order for chocolate to exert its effects upon us. But people want there to be a chemical in chocolate that explains why so many people love it – I think people get a kick out of imagining that they’re messing with their brain chemistry in order to elevate their mood or to experience enjoyment, thereby associating chocolate consumption (rather loosely) with illicit drug-taking and getting a kick out of the fact that they’re doing something vaguely taboo like that, albeit on a very diluted scale.

Maybe we should, then, look at what other possible ways chocolate could have established its lauded position as reliable and beloved comforter to many. Is it the chemicals? Or is it something else? Or is it the chemicals and something else?

But maybe I’ll get into that next time.

(See, if I leave you with this tremendously epic cliff-hanger, I’ll feel bad for not following it up again soon, so that will give me the impetus to blog again. It’s like training a puppy! But not really like that at all.)

The photos in this post are of the birthday cake I made for Dr Tash PhD last year, and I tried to make said cake as sour as possible (per her predilection for sourness). I can’t actually remember how I made this cake – I think it was a lemon drizzle cake sandwiched in between two layers of white chocolate mud cake, but I could be wrong. I also have no idea what the purple stars are, except that they were some sort of sour agar gel I made and are not, contrary to appearances, slices of beetroot. Just so you know.

References
Suzuki et al. 1981. Oxidation of beta-phenylethylamine by both types of monoamine oxidase: examination of enzymes in brain and liver mitochondria of eight species. Journal of Neurochemistry, 36(3), 1298-1301.
Janssen et al. 1999. Does phenylethylamine act as an endogenous amphetamine in some patients? International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2(3), 229-240.
Smit et al. 2004. Methylxanthines are the psycho-pharmacologically active constituents of chocolate. Psychopharmacology, 176(3-4), 412-419.

Up with this sort of thing

Here’s a pint of Guinness. Now, slán go fóill, y’all, because I’m off to Ireland!

Well, not immediately. (And why yes, I did bake a cylindrical Guinness chocolate cake and carve it into the shape of a pint glass and top it with Guinness foam. Because Guinness cake has been done a million times before so it was time to take it up another notch. BAM!)

But I leave in a bit under two weeks to go and work with collaborators in Dublin for a couple of weeks to analyse the data I’ve been collecting over the past 16 months. Could I have even hoped for better-located collaborators? I think not. After that, my boyfriend Chris and I will be hanging around in Ireland for a few extra days before hopping over to London and taking in as much of the UK as we can over the course of several weeks.

So, any suggestions for particular places we should go? Seriously, anywhere in Ireland or the UK is up for consideration, especially if there is food involved. Leave a comment or e-mail me with suggestions, as they will be greatly appreciated.

Also, since we’ll probably be, you know, hopefully, sort of, kind of busy, it means that once I leave I probably won’t be updating the blog very much until I’m back next year. I’ll do what I can, but alas – I can’t make any promises. I won’t be blogging about my travels since I think of this as more of a food/science blog than a personal blog (if I do come across anything particularly amazing in terms of food and/or science, I’ll certainly try to post it).

However, if you want to follow along with my travels, leave a comment or send me an e-mail to let me know and then when I start uploading photos to the online photo album I use, I’ll send you the link. Last time I was overseas, in April this year, I was pretty good at uploading photos every day.

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Peking Dux cupcakes


When I am in conversation with respected dignitaries and important diplomats and they ask me, “Jessica, what would you say your motto is when it comes to baking?”, I usually recite what has become a critical and apropos phrase for me: “I do not take requests – I accept challenges.”

And challenges they must be, or I cannot quite find the motivation to give a damn. Someone recently made a request for me to try making white chocolate cake with raspberries (try, as if I hadn’t done it dozens of times before and as if it would be an attempt that might fail because it was just too overwhelming and complicated), or a hummingbird cake. I struggled not to fall asleep during that request. Maybe if the hummingbird cake was a hummingbird cake because it was made out of hummingbirds… no, too gruesome, but maybe if I had to collect fresh nectar from plants and make that into a cake? Now that’s a challenge that I would consider accepting and be motivated to achieve. Actually, let me write that down in my notebook in case I want to eventually challenge myself to it.

The brain is interesting (you should expect this by now) when it comes to being motivated to achieve a goal or rise to a challenge. Apparently I don’t even need to be consciously aware of a baking challenge in order to be motivated and to try to improve my performance – research has found that subliminal incentives are enough to make people try harder to achieve a goal. And my entire brain doesn’t even need to be involved. Just half of it.

The study got people to squeeze a hand-grip as hard as they could (the hand-grip can measure how hard the participant squeezes it), and motivated them to do so by offering them money. The amount of money varied, and the harder the participant squeezed the hand-grip, the greater percentage of that money that would get. So, the idea was that they would be more motivated to squeeze the hand-grip harder when the amount of money on offer was greater so that they would get a bigger pay-off.

But the thing was, the participants weren’t consciously aware of the different amounts of money on offer in each trial, because the amount was indicated by an image of coins that was flashed up subliminally – too quickly for the participant to consciously be aware of. Not only that, the image was only presented to either the left half or the right half of the brain. This was done by only presenting the image in the left half of the visual field (information from which is processed by the right hemisphere of the brain) or the right half of the visual field (information from which is processed by the left hemisphere).

Participants did squeeze the hand-grip harder on trials where the coin image told them that larger amounts of money were on offer. Also, they only did this when the image was presented to the brain hemisphere that was also in control of the hand that was squeezing the hand-grip. So if the subliminal image popped up in the left visual field, which feeds into the right hemisphere, which controls motor actions on the left side of the body, and the hand-grip was in the left hand, the participant squeezed harder on trials involving more money. But if the image was presented to the left visual field, which feeds into the right hemisphere, which controls motor actions on the left side of the body, but the hand-grip was in the right hand, which is controlled by the left hemisphere – no effect of the amount of money on motivation to squeeze harder.

So obviously the upshot of this is that you can challenge me subliminally using pictures of, say, blue cheese and an empty muffin pan, but if you present that to my left visual field… I’ll… only make the recipe… with my right hand? Whatever the case, motivation can occur within one half of the brain and one half of the body, seemingly independent of the other halves, which I think is pretty cool.

And I was challenged (in quite a superliminal way, really) over dinner one Friday night to make Peking duck cupcakes, by someone who comprehends what constitutes a challenge for me, and so I was motivated to rise to this challege. And these cupcakes were named Peking Dux cupcakes in honour of he who created the initial concept of them through this very challenge.

After the challenge was issued and some research revealed to me that Peking duck makes a good flavour-pairing with bourbon whiskey (and it does, oh it does – the combination is almost like fruitcake somehow, sweet and rich, and the cupcakes were a runaway success enjoyed by all), it was a crazy downhill ride from there. And as I step off my toboggan of learning, I bring you this message: bacon isn’t the only meat you can put in a dessert. And this is a message I intend to re-emphasise in the near future. Until then…

Read on for the recipe for Peking Dux cupcakes (Peking duck & bourbon cupcakes).

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Delusional idiots, choice blindness & jam


I love how stupid the brain can be. The way it’s wired can often result in some pretty stupid behaviour in, say, the human possessing the brain. And I love it. I find it entertaining, in a bizarre and somewhat despairing way, and I find it informative, because it tells us about the elaborate, multi-coloured, lumpy-textured blanket of self-serving sham and deception that our brains crochet for us to protect our precious egos and make us think we’re, like, totally awesome ‘n’ stuff and so much better than, I don’t know, that random guy over there – just look at that idiot. He thinks he’s so good, but he’s not. But I am. Seriously. You probably don’t even know how good I am, because you’re probably an idiot too. Poor, stupid idiot.

My favourite example is the better-than-average effect, a convenient self-serving cognitive bias that means that a lot of people think they’re, hmm, better than average. A lot of people, as in 80% of the population… which is interesting when, by definition, only 50% of people can be better than average. So for things like sense of humour, or driving ability, 80% of the population thinks they’re better than at least 50% of the population. Awesome, well done on the mathematics there.

An extension of the better-than-average effect is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which makes me want to laugh until I vomit in disgust or something, because it is bitterly funny and depressingly amazing. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the tendency for incompetent, unskilled people (i.e. the worse-than-average people on a given task or skill) to completely overestimate their ability. So now it’s not just people thinking they’re kind of more awesome than the majority – it’s the certified idiots thinking they’re great. The effect is perfectly summed up in the title of the original paper by Dunning and Kruger, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. There was also another chap who put it quite nicely, more than a century before:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
-Charles Darwin

(And following on from that, another twist in the story is that competent, skilled people are also unaware of their competence or skill – but they tend to underestimate it. So, basically, we’re mostly kind of useless at judging the difficulty of tasks and at assessing our own competence when it comes to said tasks. There are people who are good at those judgement calls though – people with depression. Sigh.)

So our brains like to protect us from realising how incompetent or inaccurate we are, which isn’t surprising, because if you spent your life not being confident that your judgement in general was at least “adequate”, if not “amazingly blindingly fantastic and infallible”, you’d be crippled by self-doubt and unable to make decisions. Consequently, our brains have become pretty good at telling us “Oh hey, you know that decision you made? Brilliant. Well done, you. No doubt you made the right choice there. Help yourself to some ice-cream or something.”

For instance, you give me two photos to look at briefly:

I have to choose which one I think is more attractive:

Then, in a sleight of hand, you swap the photos without me knowing, and give me the one I didn’t choose:

And you ask me to explain why I chose that one. And I’ll do a fantastic job of explaining, and I won’t have noticed it wasn’t the one I originally chose. This is called choice blindness, and the theory is that I don’t realise there’s been a deception and a swap but I think that I must’ve chosen that particular photo for a reason, so my brain does a fantastic job of retrospectively justifying that “choice” because, hey now, I wouldn’t make a bad choice. Not me. Oh no.

Kind of unsurprisingly, this extends into the realm of taste, flavour and food. In an experiment by Hall and colleagues, participants had to make a choice between two types of jam or two types of flavoured tea. The bit of the experiment that thrills me no end is the way the sleight-of-hand was conducted – jars with secret compartments. Ah, brilliant!

So in one instance of the experiment, there would be two jars and the participant would take a spoonful of jam from an opaque white plastic jar (and maybe it was cinnamon-apple jam) and taste it, and the experimenter would ask the participant to rate how they liked the jam on a scale of 1 to 10. While the experimenter was distracting the participant by asking for the rating, another experimenter surreptitiously turned the jar upside-down. Then the participant tasted a sample from an opaque blue jar, this time containing a different jam (maybe grapefruit). Again the participant was asked to rate how they liked the jam, and again the other experimenter turned the jar upside-down without the participant noticing. And the marvellous thing is that the jars contain two compartments, so when you turn them upside-down and take a sample of jam, you’re getting the other jam – turn the cinnamon-apple jam jar upside down and you get a jam that looks identical, but is actually the grapefruit jam. Turn the grapefruit jam jar upside down and you’ll get the cinnamon-apple jam. Gah! So cunning!

So the participant was then asked to re-sample the jar that they had given the higher rating to out of the pair. Say they rated the cinnamon-apple jam higher. The cinnamon-apple jam jar has now been turned over, and the participant takes a sample of jam (which is now grapefruit jam) from the same jar and tastes it, and now… they’re asked to explain why they preferred that jam to the other one.

And they do explain.

And they generally haven’t noticed that the jam has changed.

In fact, in two-thirds of these jam-tastings, the participants didn’t realise the jam had been changed.

It was the same case when the participants sniffed the flavoured teas. They’re less likely to detect the change when the two samples are somewhat similar (e.g. blackcurrant jam vs blueberry jam) but even when the difference seems like it would be obvious (e.g. cinnamon-apple jam vs grapefruit jam, or aniseed-flavoured tea vs mango-flavoured tea), more than half the time the change was not detected.

In the case of the cinnamon-apple jam vs grapefruit jam, just over 20% of people immediately noticed that the jam had been changed and that they had been given the jam that they hadn’t originally preferred. Another 20% reported, when asked, that some quality of the jam they had preferred had tasted different the second time, so maybe it was a bit stronger or a bit sweeter, but they still didn’t notice the change. And less than 10% said “Hey… umm… was that a different jam?” or something along those lines towards the end of the experiment, well after the change had occurred. For apple pie-flavoured tea vs honey-flavoured tea, the change was only detected immediately about 7% of the time, it was detected retrospectively about 7% of the time, and no other change in the qualities of the tea was reported. So the change went completely undetected 86% of the time. The change between ginger jam and lime jam went completely undetected about 63% of the time. The change between blackcurrant jam and blueberry jam went completely undetected about 80% of the time. Seems kind of unbelievable, doesn’t it?

It’s not that the flavours were difficult to distinguish: another part of the experiment showed that participants had no trouble telling apart the different jam or tea flavours. Participants were often very surprised or voiced disbelief when they were told that the samples had been switched – they genuinely (unless they are very good actors with strange motivations) did not notice the change.

And in addition to this experiment being dastardly and clever (everything you want in an experimental psychology study), the authors are people I want to hang out with, because they made this paper fun to read with its rhetorical questions and random embellishments. I’ll leave it to them to outline the limits of the insight with which this experiment provides us:

Obviously, an experimental finding like choice blindness is bound at the limits by choices we know to be of great importance in everyday life. While it lies close at hand to speculate about couples at the altar solemnly affirming their choice of partner, and then (after the minister pulls some unearthly sleight-of-hand!) bringing home a complete stranger, no one would fail to notice such a change (and this, we hope, includes even those involved in the most hasty of Las Vegas marriages).

So true, Hall et al. (2010), so true.

In my own clunky attempt at sleight-of-hand, I’ve created what I consider a nose-bleedingly amazing triumph: Vegemite in a dessert. These Vegemite caramel pots with dark chocolate ganache are are nose-bleedingly amazing because Vegemite isn’t one of my favourite things (I don’t mind it scraped over water crackers, but that’s about it) yet I have made a dessert that, to be frank, impressed me.

It impressed me because the flavour works amazingly well (Vegemite and caramel – the new flavour pairing that will take the world by storm, just you wait and see) but also… it may be the world’s richest dessert. It’s so rich it could probably buy several hotels in Dubai. The Vegemite jars I served the stuff in that you can see in the photos – that much of this stuff would feed about 4 people. I ate about three tablespoons before I started to feel like my stomach was going to start convulsing in protest. Which means: my work here is done.

Read on for the recipe for Vegemite caramel pots with dark chocolate ganache.

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