Tag Archive for cupcakes

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).

Sweet sounds

These yuzu chocolate mud cakes with fizzy yuzu icing may be my favourite thing I’ve baked in a long time. The texture of the cakes is ridiculous (it’s kind of like peanut butter, in that it sticks to the roof of your mouth in a delightfully and irritatingly luxurious way). And yuzu, well, I currently pay $40 for a 300ml bottle of yuzu juice (weep!) but I’ve just tracked down Australia’s only yuzu grower, who just happens to be about a 2-hour drive south from here, so if I had a car I would probably be there right now (and possibly passed out amongst the rinds of the dozens of yuzu fruit I had gorged on) but I’ll have to wait a little longer until I can beg/borrow/win a car. Then… everything I cook will have yuzu in it.

Ev-er-y-thing.

Alright, so. Enough yuzu, more science.

Eating food is a multisensory experience. (Hurr durr derp derp that’s pretty obvious.) It’s all pretty damn important when it comes to the perception of food and the enjoyment of eating: the look, the smell, the taste, the texture. But who’s the lonely sense who’s been left out of the party? It’s hearing! Poor, neglected hearing. He wants to come to the party too. He wants to consort with the other senses with reckless abandon. Why won’t you let him? Why won’t you letttt himmmm?

We might not think much about hearing’s contribution to food (beyond the pleasing crunch of crunchy things — more on that in a future post) but it turns out that the brain doesn’t exclude hearing from the party completely. In fact, our brains make implicit associations between tastes and sounds. We might not be aware of them on a conscious level (is a sweet taste high-pitched or low-pitched?) but with the right sort of task, as provided by experimental psychology, we can get a look at the furtive, illicit dalliance between hearing and taste. How thrilling.

So the task is like this. You sit at a computer with your hands on the keyboard. Words are going to flash up one after another on the screen, and they’ll either be sweet words (words like sugar, honey, maple syrup) or salty words (words like salt, crisps, pretzel). Sometimes you’ll also hear sounds played over some headphones (2 seconds of sound played on an instrument such as a violin, piano or bassoon). The sounds will either be high-pitched or low-pitched. You and some other participants start off the experiment on Condition 1, then change to Condition 2 (while other participants will start on 2 and change to 1).

Condition 1
Press the A key if: you see a sweet word or hear a high-pitched tone.
Press the L key if: you see a salty word or hear a low-pitched tone.

Condition 2
Press the A key if: you see a sweet word or hear a low-pitched tone.
Press the L key if: you see a salty word or hear a high-pitched tone.

You as a participant probably won’t notice anything amazing during the experiment. But when the researchers look at your reaction times (i.e. how fast you were at pressing the correct key after you saw a word or heard a sound) they’ll notice something very interesting. You responded significantly faster in Condition 1 than in Condition 2.

For some reason, you’re faster when a sweet word and a high-pitched tone are associated (Condition 1) than when a sweet word and a low-pitched tone are associated (Condition 2). Likewise, you’re faster when a salty word and a low-pitched tone are associated (Condition 1) than when a salty word and a high-pitched tone are associated (Condition 2). Somehow, the sweet-high and salty-low combinations just make more sense to your brain, enabling you to react and identify them more quickly — and more accurately, since participants made fewer errors in Condition 1 (although the error rates in Condition 1 and 2 weren’t significantly different statistically).

Another study using the same kind of experiment found a significant association between sour words and high-pitched sounds, and between bitter words and low-pitched sounds. However, these researchers have also tested sweet, sour, salty and bitter altogether using a different task, and the pitch associations for salty and bitter disappeared, although the associations between sour words and high-pitched sounds and between sweet words and high-pitched sounds were still there. Hmm.

And it seems like we don’t really have a good explanation for why the brain does this. There are plenty of ways of drawing parallels between properties in different senses — for example, when comparing hearing to vision, the loudness of a sound might be thought of as the equivalent of the brightness of a colour, since increased loudness and increased brightness are both experienced by us as being more “intense”. So maybe we just don’t have a good enough grasp of the properties of taste to be able to figure out something like why sweet is somehow a parallel for high-pitched. Is there a biological basis to the association? Or is it cultural somehow? Do people from different cultures experience the same associations? Would the results be any different if actual tastes were used (e.g. a bit of sugar on the tongue) instead of taste-related words?

And… and… can we influence the perception of taste by using sound? If the basis of the association is biological, maybe closely connected or overlapping brain regions are responsible for sweet tastes and high pitches. There certainly is overlap between the hearing and taste sensory pathways, not just at later stages of cortical processing but in the early stages too, as the primary taste cortex (which I discussed in my previous post) is located partly in the insula, which also plays a pretty big role in auditory processing (Bamiou et al. 2003).

So it’s a big and tenuous jump, but… can we influence the perception of taste by using sound? If the association is due to neuronal connectivity, would something taste sweeter if we played high-pitched music compared to low-pitched music? Or would something just taste wrong somehow if sound that wasn’t associated with it was played? Intriguing possibilities…

Recipe for yuzu chocolate mud cakes with fizzy yuzu icing under the cut. Recommended serving suggestion: high-pitched sounds, naturellement.

Sweet, sweet sugar: delicious pain-killer

Brace your teeth (figuratively, not orthodontically), for these are white chocolate mud cupcakes with honey-roasted soybeans, cocoa nibs, toffee mascarpone icing and crystallised violets.

Their technical name is Jess’s Hannah-Inspired Cupcakes of Amazing Wonderment Forever, as I made them as an adaptation of the customised chocolate bar dear Hannah of wayfaringchocolate.com wrote about here. “The sheer fantasticality of such an orchestra of flavours must surely be pursued and captured in cake format,” I thought to myself while stroking my imaginary goatee. So I sent out my ant army to collect sugar for me grain by grain, I milked some bees, and I laboured with many sugars over many hours to bring you these diabolically sugary little cakes.

And why not? I mean, other than the tooth decay?

Especially since sugar (sucrose, more specifically) is a genuine pain-killer. It acts as an analgesic and it has medical applications for pain management. Sweetness can numb the pain, so it seems.

It seems that sugar’s pain-killing effect results from the actual taste perception of sweetness. The pain reduction only occurs when a person consumes the sugar orally. If the sugar is administered directly into the stomach via a tube — no effect on pain1. So if actually tasting the sugar on your tongue is an essential part of its effect on pain, what does that tell us? We don’t know for sure yet, but at the moment it seems likely that the pleasant sensation of tasting something sweet releases opioids in the brain2, which is the usual way by which your brain decreases your perception of pain after taking a pain-killer. It’s as simple as tasting something that your brain is usually hard-wired to find pretty nice.

You can demonstrate this in the lab by getting people to submerge their arm in unpleasantly cold water for as long as they can — they can tolerate the painful coldness around 50% longer when they have sucrose dissolved in water in their mouth than when they just have plain water in their mouth (so around 75 seconds instead of around 50)3. Nifty! That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t tell us much about what sugar can do for people who don’t have the option of going “ok, yeah, that’s enough now” and walking away from the pain.

Well, sugar has been used for a long time to manage pain in infants. You don’t want to be giving infants and their young little nervous systems hard-hitting pain-killers and their associated side-effects if you can avoid it, and it turns out that giving them some sucrose dissolved in water does help decrease pain after things like minor invasive procedures4, 5. However, sugar’s pain-killing effects in adults are more modest6, possibly due to infants and children having a comparatively stronger liking for sugar (so their brains would get more of an opioid kick out of tasting something sweet), so dosing up on sugar is not of tremendous use for management of severe pain in adults.

So don’t you go and use this as an excuse to inhale a whole sugar-dusted sugar-cake studded with sugar lumps to ease the pain the next time you walk forcefully into the corner of a table. Unless you really, really want to. There are cons to accompany to pros of sugar consumption, so… everything in moderation! (Except high-fructose corn syrup — avoid that like the plague.)

Recipe for Jess’s Hannah-Inspired Cupcakes of Amazing Wonderment Forever, A.K.A. white chocolate mud cupcakes with toffee icing, after the cut.

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?)

Burnt butter and pecan cupcakes with pretzel icing

Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold ?
No, Gods, I am no idle votarist.
Roots, you clear heav’ns! thus much of this will make;
Black, white; fair, soul; wrong, right;
Base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant.
You Gods ! why this? what this? you Gods! why,
this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides :
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads.
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless th’ accurs’d ;
Make the hoar leprosy ador’d; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench [...]

-Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

Yeah I’m pretty sure equal prose and actions described therein could be inspired by these golden velvet cakes of mine. It’s true, it’s incredibly unsurprisingly true: these are indeed yet another of my permutations of red velvet cake. Will it never end?

They were going to be brown velvet cakes, but… they aren’t that brown. With the burnt butter, I was kind of thinking there might be a tinge of brown, but that just means that the brown velvet title is reserved for some future cake that very likely features the Valrhona cocoa powder that came into my possession recently. But for now, everything is golden.

I’ve never burned butter before, so I kind of winged it but it worked out brilliantly. The smell of it was enough to convince me to skip out any of the other flavourings I might have considered adding. Burnt butter in everything from now on.

And the pretzel icing… it’s rather wondrous. I surprised myself when I came up with that one. The idea seemed like it could work, I acted on the idea, and the result of the action was spectacular. So spectacular that I’m making the leftover icing into truffles because to let it go to waste would be an act of villainy.