Monthly Archives: September 2010

Black tea red velvet cake and fear of the unknown

I made this cake for Father’s Day (which was only a week ago for Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, in case you thought I was posting a recipe I made in June… or any other of the assorted dates Father’s Day falls on around the world) and, being the calculating and malevolent character that I am, I forced everyone to guess what this particular red velvet flavour was and refused to tell anyone until they guessed its exact identity. NO CLUES! And if they didn’t guess it, well, they would just have to live with never, ever knowing, and it would be all their own fault.

Apparently that was the wrong thing to do, according to research. According Okamoto et al., when a person knows what they’re tasting, they rate the flavour as significantly more likeable compared to when they’re just given something mysterious and have to taste it without having any idea what it is. Participants in the study were given a range of flavoured liquids to taste. In one condition, the samples were labelled with their correct flavour names (“lemon”, “caramel candy”, “consommé soup” and “coffee jelly”… this interesting selection of flavours may have something to do with the study being conducted in Japan). In another condition, the samples were just labelled with a random number. Participants rated their liking for any given liquid’s flavour on a scale of -100 to +100, and it turns out that they liked a liquid when they knew what it was much more than when they didn’t know what it was, even if it was the exact same liquid.

Moreoever, the average rating for name-labelled liquids was above zero, which meant people liked them, whereas the average rating for number-labelled liquids was below zero, which meant people disliked them — the exact same liquids. You can make someone dislike something that they might otherwise like, just by not telling them what it is! Not telling people what a flavour is is a bad idea! So I issue this public apology to my family, whose experience of red velvet cake may have actually been marred, nay, ruined by my megalomaniacal obsession with forcing everyone to eat the cake and guess what flavour it was.

Then again, I’m not sure if a label with a random number on it was a good control condition for that study. I would say that in the context of food and drink, numbers are usually associated with artificial flavourings and preservatives, and a lot of people like to avoid those wherever possible. Getting a mysterious liquid with a mysterious number on it: yeah, I might not like it so much either. If I liked it, I’d mysteriously number my own drinks to get that thrill of the unknown.

So consider not serving people something like, say, duck surprise, without at least telling them what the surprise is. Otherwise, no matter how good the surprise is (“It’s stuffed with red velvet cake!”), they might not like it.

Okamoto et al., 2009. Influences of food-name labels on perceived tastes. Chemical Senses, 34, 187-194.

Recipe for black tea red velvet cake (full name: Earl Grey black tea red velvet cake, just to get another colour in there) under the cut.

Site update

This has all been rather under the radar, but the eagle-eyed ones among you who don’t read The Island of Dr Gâteau through an RSS feed reader might have noticed that the blog is no longer a satellite orbiting — it has its own domain now. Welcome to

I thought getting an address that was easier to remember might be helpful to whoever those people are who had to look up my website by name on a search engine because the address wasn’t exactly brief or memorable. So to all the people who had to get to my site via a Google search for “island of dr gateu”, I hope your life is easier now. Although you could still to spell gâteau. Sorry. And sorry to the Francophone people who have to suffer seeing gâteau spelt without the circumflex in URLs. It irks me too.

You shouldn’t need to change your RSS feeds, since and are set up as mirrors of each other. If you try to visit, it will redirect you to, so links don’t really need updating if you don’t really feel like it (and is going to be around indefinitely, so the old address won’t become obsolete any time soon). All very convenient for you, my comrades in cake.

Thank you extremely muchly to my amazingly brilliantly amazing and brilliant boyfriend, Chris, who took care of everything between the point where I said “Hmm, I’ve been thinking of getting a domain for my blog” to the point that you see now, with everything transferred and directed and arranged oh so very neatly.

With the new domain, I’m also going to attempt a slightly new direction with the blog: same crazy recipes, but with the crazy biology and psychology of taste and food thrown in. I figure that’s what I can offer the blogosphere that other people might not. Up until now I don’t feel like I’ve done anything particularly distinctive with the blog. Lots of people write about food and post their own recipes, and lots of them do it much, much better than I can. What can I offer that’s different? Science! Not molecular gastronomy, per se, because I am not a chemist and lack the knowledge to explain or create chemical reactions in order to explore food and flavour in new ways. But I am a neuroscientist, so I can definitely explain the biology, the neuroscience and the psychology. What’s more — I really like all that stuff! Maybe you will like it too! (Because if you don’t… BAM!)

And of course, expect a new red velvet recipe very soon.

(Cover image of Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, June 2010. It’s a brain. I did a degree in brains and it still took me about ten minutes to figure out what I was looking at in this picture. I was like, “Wow, way to make a bizarre and suspiciously lumpy loaf of bread, Nature Reviews. Is it some sort of foetus shape?”)

Sweet potato red velvet cakes (with sweet potato icing and white chocolate, sweet potato & ginger truffles)

Red velvet variation #11, I think (I for one am amazed that the number is not close to 11 million, but apparently I have not been as industrious as I had previously thought or assumed). So, sweet potato and red velvet. Sounds like a match made in some sort of southern state in some sort of set of united states. And like the rest of the vegetable/cake chimaeras I have attempted, this turned out pretty well. Well done, Team Vegetable.

Red velvet is arguably quite a good candidate for including sweet potato in, since vanilla and sweet potato apparently go quite well together (I also read somewhere that regular potato goes well with vanilla, so don’t hold back from adding a tiny bit to your next batch of mashed potatoes… I will if I ever remember).

As for the sweet potato + white chocolate + ginger combination for the truffles, that’s one of my first experiments using flavour pairing (or… trioing, as the case may be) based on odorant compounds, courtesy of the database at the fantastic FoodPairing site. Sweet potato, white chocolate and ginger share a lot of common odor compounds, which suggests they should complement each other rather well. Only problem is, at the moment the relationships in the database are based on the number of shared odor compounds between two ingredients, not the relative contribution of each odor compound. Maybe they share a heap of odor compounds that play only minor roles in the perceived tastes? (Although the database does only take into account odors that are above the threshold of perception, so presumably there aren’t entirely negligible odors being factored into the flavour relationships).

Strangely enough I’m reasonably sure I don’t have the facilities to conduct gas chromatography to find out the details myself about relative contributions. But until we have a database that shows the relative contributions of individual odorants to overall taste, and can match flavours based on such contributions, I’m going to have to work with numbers for now as a general guide. It’s working pretty well so far!

Ultra-important lesson I learned from devising this recipe: the majority of the flavour of the baked sweet potato is in its skin. Precious, precious, burny-baked skin. I was adding dangerous levels of mashed sweet potato to the cake mix and getting barely any sweet potato taste. But include that skin and you’ve got all the sweet potato flavour you ever dared to hope to wish for.

These cakes were for Dr Tash PhD’s party, which was a cornucopia of fantastic southern-US dishes. The side-dish of sweet potato bake was at least a million percent sweeter than these cupcakes, since these cupcakes don’t involve tooth-achingly and deliciously large amounts of condensed milk and brown sugar. And more’s the pity, really. (Condensed milk icing in the future, yes?)