Not baking

The grand monkey gland

To tide you over until the imminent cessation of this blog’s unexpected hibernation, here’s some of what you come here for: food and science. Well it’s drink and science in this case. And the science part is that there are beakers and gloves involved. And that most of the people at the table were scientists.

May I present the Monkey Gland Hand, a cocktail at Salon Lounge here in Brisbane. I went there with a group of friends for my birthday very recently and we partook of some rather elaborate and creative cocktails.

(Harvesting the Monkey Gland Hand is a precision operation.)

The Monkey Gland Hand is Beefeater gin, Kubler Swiss absinthe, blood orange juice and homemade grenadine glaze: a slight variation of the original Monkey Gland cocktail, served as you can see in a surgical glove, on a surgical tray, with surgical scissor and a beaker. The person who served it to us also gave us a slightly garbled version of this Wikipedia article on Serge Voronoff as an explanation for the drink’s origins (short version: attaching monkey testicles to people for purportedly therapeutic purposes in the 1920s – of course).

Above is The Ego, inspired by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It contained Beefeater 24 gin, white chocolate liqueur, oolong tea, vanilla syrup, lemon juice, pear juice and cucumber foam. I had its complementary drink, The Alter Ego, which was Beefeater 24 gin, peach liqueur, orange bitters, mandarin glaze, lychee juice, mandarin juice, lemon juice and a frozen liquid nitrogen crust.

Espresso Head: Havana Club Anejo Reserva rum, Pernod Ricard, tonka bean sugar syrup and espresso, topped with vanilla and milk foam.

If you’re now in the mood for cocktails but the contents of these seem a bit too encyclopaedic or unattainable or hatefully complex, don’t forget 12 Bottle Bar for something maybe a tiny bit more simplified, but just as effective.

However, you must always consider surgical gloves as serving vessels for all imbibable liquids, from this day forth. I know I will.

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.

Thinking about pink

I guess with a little bit of imagination you can figure out what these are. Officially, they’re called minne di vergine or minne di Sant’Agata. That’s virgin’s breasts or Saint Agatha’s breasts respectively. I’ll spare you all the awful background behind these otherwise lovely Sicilian baked pastries stuffed with ricotta, fruit and chocolate; you can look up the tale yourself if you really want to. All I can say is that it takes a special group of people to decide that something barbaric needs to be commemorated with funny little cakes (and a certain demographic of my readers will know exactly the subtext there).

Maybe someone out there’s thinking, “You’re a bit late for Pinktober, Jessica”. And maybe these cakes are so appropriate for Breast Cancer Awareness month in October that they swing right back around into the “inappropriate” category. I’m giving the science a miss in this post, in favour of some sociology and some bona fide awareness. I hope.

I noticed throughout October that a lot of people on food blogs really got on the Pinktober bandwagon in an effort to increase breast cancer awareness – a lot of otherwise non-pink items suddenly became a soft shade of pastel pink wherever possible. Cupcakes, macarons, sugar cookies… if it could be made pink, it would be.

This all made me squirm a little bit. Do not get me wrong – I think it’s fantastic that people are showing support for a worthy cause and are trying to spread a health message through the blogging medium. But I couldn’t help but think – what is it really achieving? Is it making a difference, or just making us think it’s making a difference?

Because honestly – the people who have enough money for a computer and an internet connection, enough leisure time to run a blog or to peruse food blogs, and enough disposable income to spend on non-essential baking ingredients, are they the ones that really need to be told to do breast self-examinations regularly or to get a mammogram once a year? They also probably have enough money to afford to go to the doctor regularly, who would hopefully remind them about breast health. To put this in context: here in Australia, for example, breast cancer is the most common cancer in Aboriginal women, a socioeconomically and otherwise disadvantaged group that more often has limited access to healthcare service, which means a lessened likelihood of either being screened or receiving treatment for cancer. Are posting photos of pink macarons on a blog and saying “Don’t forget to get screened!” going to help them? Very probably not. But they’re one group that really needs the help and support.

So this isn’t to say “Don’t you dare waste your time making those adorable little cookies with pale pink icing!”. You can do whatever you want, and if you want to post pictures of pink baked goods and remind people to get screened, that’s great. Maybe that will remind someone reading your blog to phone their clinic and book a mammogram. But if you really want to make a difference, a guaranteed difference, maybe save up that money you would have spent on ingredients (even if it was, like, $7.84) and donate it to a reputable charity that supports breast cancer research or healthcare outreach to disadvantaged groups.

The other thing that is so important to keep in mind is the prolifation of pink products on the market. Everyone knows about them and has seen billions of them. But please, if you’re going to buy a pink product – read the fine print. You might think that some of the money from your purchase of a pink product is going to go to breast cancer charity, but it really quite possibly might not be the case. A lot of companies cap their donations; they’ll donate 50 cents from every product sold up to $100,000, say, but… maybe they’ve already reached that cap and therefore absolutely no money from the product you’re buying will go to charity, just into the pockets of a corporation. Nevermind the fact that some of the companies with pink products sell products that are pretty bad for your health and kind of contrary to the health support effort (see KFC’s “Bucket for the Cure” pink bucket campaign… try not to laugh and vomit at the same time).

In any case, please make an effort to be aware and be educated on the issue as a lot of companies are capitalising on the pink affiliation for not exactly altruistic reasons. Think Before You Pink has some interesting information about how companies have co-opted the breast cancer cause in order to make a financial profit, and there is a PDF of a list of questions you should consider before you buy something because it’s pink.

And finally… I have an issue with the pink, full stop. The pink colour connoting breast cancer support was a choice made almost 20 years ago, and I wish a different choice had been made. It was selected for its inherent association with femininity, for better or for worse in a world that insists on drawing an almost impermeable line between the genders and reinforcing rules for what is and what isn’t “gender-appropriate”. So in a huge proportion of modern culture, pink is essentially a symbol of femininity. As such, pink in association with breast cancer certainly marginalises the hundreds of men around the world who die of breast cancer each year. But just as critically, it marks breast cancer as a female problem, for females to deal with (a sentiment echoed by this writer who has been through a breast cancer health scare). There is nothing to be gained from gendering a cancer by colour-coding it.

I have a similar issue with Movember – as fantastic as it is to support worthy causes such as fighting prostate cancer and depression in men (and it undeniably does raise money to support these causes), Movember inherently excludes females from participation because, hey, you’ve got to be able to grow a moustache to participate. Any woman whose genes mean that she actually is capable of growing a moustache would still be largely ridiculed for violating the gender expectation of not having any obvious facial hair, even if it’s for a good cause. I remember at one point that a rudimentary attempt was made for Movember to include women by allowing them to grow their knee hair in order to participate. This did an utterly fantastic job of again reinforcing gender roles by assuming that women must be constantly removing their leg hair anyway and that abstaining from doing so was worthy of money and plaudits (but only for one month of the year and only for charitable purposes). Limited participation by females in Movember means that it doesn’t have the impact it could have as a fund-raising effort, and it also means that men are active in trying to fight these diseases and disorders while women can only look on passively (and give affirmation in the form of a donation when required). Maybe it’s just me, but these are roles that seem, well, not exactly progressive or constructive. All in all, this makes prostate cancer and depression into male issues, rather than what they are – human issues that we all, as humans, need to help to fight.

So show your support for worthy causes, but please make educated and informed choices about the ways in which you do, so that your support is as constructive and effective as possible.

And that’s my tedious tirade on the topic. All because I made some morbid old recipe that reminded me of something else. Go ahead and make the little dome-shaped pastries because they really are delicious. But I hereby rename them igloo cakes and divorce them from their dreadful back-story. Go forth and make igloo cakes! I’ll be back with the regularly scheduled science chatter and bizarro recipes (trust me, the next few are going to be extra-bizarro, Francisco Pizarro) in the next post.

The bitter truth – now in genotype form!

Isn’t this a fantastic scenario: you’re sitting at your desk and a mysterious white powder floats through the air and lands on your face. Some of it lands on your lips and, being the risk-taking individual that you are who is apparently not averse to putting unidentified powders in your mouth, you taste it and immediately complain to your colleagues about how disgustingly bitter it is. The powder has landed on their faces too and they taste it too and… no, it doesn’t taste of anything, actually. It’s not bitter in the least, they say to you with suspicious eyes and 50% of their eyebrows raised. Well then, aren’t you quite the weirdo? Please take your imaginary bitter taste and go sit in the corner.

This is how they discovered that people can experience tastes quite differently from each other. It was only 1930 when A.L. Fox accidentally released some phenylthiocarbamide into the air in his lab while trying to create an artificial sweetener and it landed on the faces of his colleagues (good work!), and while some of them complained of its bitterness (you’d think that would be the least of their problems if they’re working in a lab where chemicals routinely drift onto their faces and into their lungs), Fox himself couldn’t taste the bitterness. It turned out that about 30% of people find phenylthiocarbamide tasteless, whereas the rest find it moderately to intensely bitter.

It’s not exactly uncommon knowledge now that the ability to taste bitterness varies from person to person and that this is down to genetics. A whole heap of studies over the years have looked at how genetic variants within the TAS2R family of genes mean that some people taste bitterness of particular substances more easily than others. For TAS2R38, the gene that codes for the protein that allows phenylthiocarbamide to be tasted, you can have one of three possible combinations of variants, allowing you to be either a non-taster, a medium taster, or… a supertaster, in which case you can taste that phenylthiocarbamide better than about 75% of the population! Well done, you.

So, like I was saying, we know bitterness perception varies from person to person due to genetics, but it’s kind of boring if you just look at that within the scope of “Oh, Person X can taste this very specific chemical really easily whereas Person Y can’t taste it at all”. Pretty limited relevance. The interesting part is how it affects behaviour — how well you can taste bitterness can affect how much you like particular foods, and that can have a reasonably big impact on eating behaviours.

Studies have been a bit inconclusive when it comes to bitterness gene variants and liking for somewhat bitter vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale and cucumber), with high-tasters of bitterness sometimes liking these vegetables more than low-tasters, and sometimes less. However, sensitivity to bitterness changes with age, so maybe you need to look at these things in particular age groups to get a clearer picture. Certainly, some studies have found that in children, non-tasters who aren’t so sensitive to bitterness find these vegetables more pleasant to eat than the tasters who are sensitive to bitterness, and non-tasters generally eat more vegetables than tasters. Some studies have found the same in adults.

Consumption of bitter fruits can also be affected by genes, with female adult supertasters finding a drink containing naringin (a compound from grapefruit peel) less pleasant, and the same went for just plain grapefruit juice. It looks like the intensity of the bitterness matters too, since taster children were no different from non-taster children when drinking a mixture of 25% grapefruit juice and 75% orange juice, but then the tasters disliked a more bitter mixture of 50% grapefruit juice and 50% orange juice compared to non-tasters.

So it all sort of makes sense — people who are more sensitive to bitterness kind of dislike things that are a bit bitter. However, the intrigue continues with research that has found that genetic variants for bitterness are also associated with different perception of sweetness and saltiness and sourness, the detection of the pungency or flavour of food, and also the ability to discriminate fat content in food and drinks.

But I will go into detail for those in future posts, and for now, you can make some Pimm’s Cup cupcakes. Complete with whipped lemonade and simulated cucumber! It’s a bitter orange and cucumber gel, cut into sticks, to which I attached real cucumber skin. Don’t you want to do something so convoluted and arduous too?

Read on for the recipe for Pimm’s Cup cupcakes.

The art and not-really-science of pretty plating

So I finally decided to give making an amuse bouche a go, spurred on mainly by the singularly amazing amuse bouche spoons Jenn posted at My Boyfriend Cooks For Me. “How precious,” I thought. “I must put tiny amounts of tiny things on tiny spoons.” So I did, and the things were: blueberry foam (because I’ve been wanting to try making a foam for ages), baked flour nuggets (because I could kind of imagine what baked flour tasted like but I wanted to try it for real to confirm) and poor man’s sous-vide blueberries (where you use a sandwich bag, your lungs and a bowl of water over a saucepan of boiling water because you don’t have the $3000 of essential professional sous-vide equipment).

Then I arranged it all as prettily as possible on the spoon.

Then science told me I did it wrong.

That arrangement — all wrong. Shameful. Offensive.

Well, I don’t know if I’d say science told me, per se. This type of thing is a bit on the way to earning the inverted commas of “science”, but at the moment it’s more like you call it science but you narrow your eyes when you say it and look sideways in a shifty manner. Like, yeah… sciencesure

This study looked at the effect of balance and complexity of food arrangement on a plate upon the perceived attractiveness of that food, the willingness of people to try the food, and the ultimate liking of the food. Balance was investigated by making the food arrangement either (durr) balanced or unbalanced, whereas complexity was investigated by using either a monochromatic or coloured palette for the bits of food.

Now I have to say upfront that I have a number of issues with this study. The food presentation would baffle most people except perhaps the hardiest degustation-menu-ordering molecular-gastronomy-lovers. Seriously, it’s slices of water chestnut along with smears of tahini, and the tahini is either normal coloured or artificially coloured to be red and green. How something so stylised and so blatantly unappetising can be used to generalise results to, say, how to plate a confit salmon fillet and wilted greens or how to arrange berries as suitably as possible on a tart… I don’t know. But I’ll work with what I’ve got. I’ll try.

From the ratings given by the 68 undergraduate New Jersey university students, we find that balance and colour do affect the attractiveness of the food (at least to undergraduate New Jersey university students). And because the photos in the paper are copyrighted by the publisher, you have the honour of seeing my beautiful diagrammatic illustrations instead. Keep in mind: the little circles are water chestnut slices, the dot and the stripes are smears of tahini.

So, using colour in a balanced food arrangement…

… vastly improves attractiveness ratings compared to monochromatic balanced food arrangements…

Strangely enough, however, incorporating colour into an unbalanced food arrangement…

… makes it less attractive than a monochromatic unbalanced food arrangement…

Now the authors say that the explanation for these findings is that colour adds complexity in the balanced arrangement and is therefore visually pleasing, but the colour carries with it weight (it is perceived as being visually “heavier” than a lack of colour). So adding colour to the unbalanced arrangement causes the addition of weight towards the right-hand side of the plate, therefore causing even less balance, and the plating is perceived as less attractive. That’s certainly an interesting interpretation… given that there was actually no significant difference reported between the attractiveness ratings colour-unbalanced and monochromatic-unbalanced arrangements. Colour significantly increased the attractiveness of the balanced arrangement (from 16.8 on a rating scale of -100 to 100 for the monochromatic-balanced to 48.7 for the colour-balanced), but the colour-unbalanced and monochromatic-unbalanced just weren’t that different (12.4 and 19.4 respectively).

But we have to keep in mind that this is just ratings of attractiveness, as if the food was simply an artwork to be evaluated. What would be more interesting is the effect of balance and colour on the willingness of people to try the food. And it turns out… monochromatic is better. People were significantly more willing to try the monochromatically presented food:



But then I don’t buy that either. Sure, monochrome colours might make people feel like they’re taking less of a risk than bright colours (the authors explain that the plain brownish colours of the monochromatic arrangement might be more normal and familiar to people). However… maybe if you want to know if people are willing to try something colourful or not, you shouldn’t manipulate colour by adding it to something that’s not usually that colour. It has the texture of tahini, it has the smell of tahini… but it’s bright red. What the hell is it? Whereas if it was a bright red tomato purée… not so weird, huh?

In the end, we find out that the final outcome being assessed, liking for the food, is not affected by balance or colour — hurrah! So the effects of balance and colour on liking were non-significant, although I do wonder if increasing the number of participants would detect a difference, because there seems to be a trend there: monochromatic arrangements were enjoyed more than coloured arrangements, e.g. a rating of -1.7 for colour-balanced versus 13.3 for mono-balanced, and 2.2 for colour-unbalanced versus 13.6 for mono-unbalanced. (Granted, the standard deviations for the ratings are massive, i.e. the ratings were all over the place, so it’s difficult to know if it is an actual trend or not without the original data plus more data.)

So there you go. Maybe opt for a balanced food presentation, and maybe make it coloured. Or don’t. Or recreate a Piet Mondrian artwork with your food and see how that goes with your dinner guests. Who knows? Science doesn’t. Yet.

ETA: Check out the compositions from the Ikea cookbook — adhering to the science or defying it??

(Now I feel dirty for having written about such an underwhelming and inconsequential bit of research. It’s a little bit nifty, but… I promise arrestingly interesting genetics in relation to food in the next post. How do your genes influence your response to food? Ah, you wish you knew! But I’d need a shower first.)

Read on for the recipe for deconstructed blueberry pie.