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).
Peking duck consommé
300g cooked Peking duck (including a good amount of skin)
2 cups water
Cut the duck into small cubes (1cm3 or smaller). Place in a blender along with the water and then blend until smooth (if it looks completely gross, you’re doing it right). Pour the duck mixture into a bowl and weigh it — you will be adding 0.5% gelatin by weight. Measure out the correct amount of gelatin in a separate bowl (e.g. if your duck mixture weighs 500g, weigh out 2.5g of gelatin). Take about a cup of the duck mixture and put it in a small saucepan. Heat it over a medium heat until it starts to steam. Stir in the gelatin until dissolved. Mix this warm duck mixture back into the rest of it then blend again. Pour into a bowl, cover in cling-wrap, and freeze overnight.
Remove the block of frozen duck mixture from the bowl (you might need to run some hot water over the outside of the bowl to get the block to detach). Place the block in a sieve and suspend the sieve over a large bowl. Put all of this somewhere cool — in the fridge or in a insulated bag along with some ice blocks. Leave overnight. The block will defrost slowly and the large particles will be caught by the net the gelatin has formed, leaving the water-soluble flavour particles to drip down into the bowl in the form of a clear, pale brown consommé. You should get about a cup of this mixture. If the defrosting is happening in the fridge, it might take a couple of days if your fridge is quite cold (e.g. the thermostat on mine is weird and it freezes things from time to time). If you want to get the consommé done more quickly, the insulated bag is a better option, but make sure you replace the ice blocks regularly so the contents of the bag stay sufficiently cold.
Collect the consommé and keep refrigerated until use.
50g Peking duck skin
80g butter, at room temperature
The purpose of this step is to get the Peking duck flavour into the butter that will be used to make the cakes later on, as fats hold odour molecules really well. You can skip this step and just use normal butter in the cake recipe if you want to.
Cut the skin into small pieces (about 0.5cm x 0.5cm). Place the soft butter in a bowl and stir in the skin, then cover with cling-wrap and place in the fridge overnight. Remove from the fridge, dislodge the butter from the bowl, and melt it in a small saucepan over low heat. Put a sieve over a bowl and then pour the liquid butter through the sieve into the bowl, so that the duck skin is removed. Place the liquid butter back in the fridge, covered in cling-wrap, until it has firmed up a bit but is still soft, like butter would normally be at room temperature.
Peking duck & bourbon cupcakes
80g duck-flavoured butter (see recipe above, or just use plain butter)
1 cup caster sugar
60ml (4 tbs) duck consommé (see recipe above), boiled and cooled*
30ml (2 tbs) bourbon whiskey (I used Woodford Reserve)
1 1/4 cups plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tbs vinegar
*This is because the consommé will have gone through a range of temperatures during its preparation, from original duck pieces to the final liquid, which leaves it vulnerable to bacteria, so boiling it will get rid of that. I mean, it should be fine, but this is a precautionary measure, just in case.
Makes about 16 cupcakes.
Prehat oven to 180°C/350°F. Line a muffin pan with paper cupcake liners.
Beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy and light. Add the egg and beat until well combined. Add the consommé and bourbon and beat until smooth. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder. Add half of this to the batter and beat, then add half the buttermilk and beat, then the remaining half of the flour and baking powder, then the remaining half of the buttermilk, beating after each addition. In a small bowl, combine the bicarb and vinegar and whisk with a fork so that there are no lumps. Add this to the batter and beat quickly for about 10 seconds.
Spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake for 12 minutes, or until a cake tester or skewer or knife inserted into one of the cakes comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave the cakes in the muffin pan to cool for 10 minutes (they’ve very delicate when still hot), then move them onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Peking duck & whiskey icing
200g crème fraiche (you could use mascarpone instead, or a mixture of 3/4 sour cream and 1/4 thickened cream)
60ml (4 tbs) Peking duck consommé, boiled then cooled
15ml (1 tbs) bourbon whiskey
1/4 tsp vanilla paste or extract
1/2 cup icing sugar, sifted
Beat the crème fraiche until smooth. Add the consommé, whiskey and vanilla and beat until well combined and smooth — it will still be quite runny at this stage. Add the icing sugar a bit at a time, while beating, to thicken the mixture up a bit. Refrigerate for an hour.
Assembly of cakes
Additional ingredients: half a pack of Jules Destrooper almond thins. These are optional, but they share odour compounds with both Peking duck and bourbon whiskey, so they complement the cupcakes really well. If you’re in Australia, I’ve seen them stocked in Woolworths, in the “International foods that don’t seem to fit thematically into other shelves” area, like along with jars of sauerkraut and Danish butter cookies.
Break the almond thins into shards and press these into the tops of the cupcakes. The cupcakes are quite moist and sticky on top, so the almond thins should attach easily. They will prevent the icing from soaking into the cakes too much, as the icing is quite thin and liquid. Carefully spoon the icing over the tops of the cupcakes. Break some almond thins up into crumbs and pile these on top of the icing. Add some gold cachous for decoration if you want. Done! Finally!
Schmidt, L. et al. (2010). Splitting motivation: unilateral effects of subliminal incentives. Psychological Science, 21(7), 977-983.