Tag Archive for velvet

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.

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.

References
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.

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.

Red velvet cake with raspberry cream cheese icing

Red velvet recipe #8402445, red velvet cake with raspberry cream cheese icing. Made as a large double-layered cake for my mum for her birthday (happy birthday!) but some leftover batter got made into cupcakes as seen in the photo.

I’ve been wanting to make a raspberry red velvet cake for ages, just because apparently that’s one of the more common red velvet permutations in the wider world. Well, I guess in the U.S. maybe, since red velvet is pretty uncommon in general here in Australia… although they’re never going to convince anyone of red velvet’s worth if they don’t try to sell it convincingly.

For example, at the lovely Poppy Cakes a while back, I overheard a rather loud woman shout at the baker “WHAT FLAVOUR IS RED VELVET?” while gesticulating at some red velvet cupcakes, and he replied with “Well… umm… it’s kind of a mix of vanilla and cocoa…” and of course, Rather Loud Woman immediately ordered a chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing.

The baker didn’t sell the mystique, the ineffable, transcendental flavour of red velvet that dares the English language (and probably all other languages ever) to even attempt to describe it. The look on people’s faces when they try red velvet for the first time is remarkable because it’s the look of realisation that language, in this moment, is useless to them.

So if the question is:
What flavour is red velvet?

Then the answer is:
You wish you knew what flavour red velvet is! It’s the flavour that will have you yelling “Where have you been all my life?” in a wounded, accusatory tone after you first try it! Your life is all the poorer for not having tried it, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, oh just try it already and stop wasting away in pathetic ignorance of its greatness of which you are quite possibly not worthy. Now is your chance to enlighten yourself.

Then either the person will try red velvet, or they will flee. What am I, a customer service representative?

You know the rigmarole with the standard red velvet recipe. And the icing?

Raspberry cream cheese icing
500g cream cheese, at room temperature
100g unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla paste
400g frozen raspberries

Put the frozen raspberries in a saucepan and cook them over medium-low heat until they reduce down to a thick liquid. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. (This works best with frozen raspberries, which I only used because I didn’t feel that the fresh raspberries were worth $9 a punnet, but you could use fresh raspberries in a similar way.)

Beat the cream cheese and butter together in the bowl of an electric mixer with a paddle attachment until well combined. Add the vanilla and beat again, then the icing sugar and beat again. Add the slightly cooled raspberries and beat until well combined, then ice your red velvet cake/s.