July 31, 2013
A glass of champagne is often synonymous with toasting some of life’s biggest moments—a big promotion at work, weddings, the New Year. So too, is the tickle that revelers feel against their skin when they drink from long-stemmed flutes filled with bubbly.
There’s more to that fizz than just a pleasant sensation, though. Inside a freshly poured glass of champagne, or really any sparking wine, hundreds of bubbles are bursting every second. Tiny drops are ejected up to an inch above the surface with a powerful velocity of nearly 10 feet per second. They carry aromatic molecules up to our noses, foreshadowing the flavor to come.
In Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, recently revised and translated into English, physicist Gerard Liger-Belair explains the history, science and art of the wine. His book also features high-speed photography of champagne bubbles in action and stop-motion photography of the exact moment a cork pops (potentially at a speed of 31 miles per hour (!). Such technology allows Liger-Belair to pair the sommelier with the scientist. “Champagne making is indeed a three-century-old art, but it can obviously benefit from the latest advances in science,” he says.
Liger-Belair became interested in the science of bubbles while sipping a beer after his finals at Paris University about 20 years ago. The bubbles in champagne, he explains, are actually vehicles for the flavor and smell of champagne, elements that contribute to our overall sipping experience. They are also integral to the winemaking process, which produces carbon dioxide not once but twice. Stored away in a cool cellar, the champagne, which could be a blend of up to 40 different varietals, ferments slowly in the bottle. When the cork is popped, the carbon dioxide escapes in the form of Liger’s beloved bubbles. Once poured, bubbles form on several spots on the glass, detach and then rise toward the surface, where they burst, emitting a crackling sound and sending a stream of tiny droplets upward.
These bubble-forming hot spots launch about 30 bubbles per second. In beer, that rate is just 10 bubbles a second. But without this phenomenon, known as effervescence, champagne, beer and soda would all be flat.
Once the bubbles reach the top of the flute, the tension of the liquid below becomes too great as it pulls on them. The bubbles pop in a matter of microseconds. When they burst, they release enough energy to create tiny auditory shock waves; the fizzing sound is a chorus of individual bubbles bursting. By the time champagne goes flat, nearly 2 million bubbles have escaped from the glass.
The collapse of bubbles at the surface is Liger-Belair’s favorite thing about champagne. “Bubbles collapsing close to each other produce unexpected lovely flower-shaped structures unfortunately completely invisible by the naked eye,” he says. “This is a fantastic example of the beauty hidden right under our nose.”
Europeans, though, once considered the bubbling beverage a product of poor winemaking. In the late 1400s, temperatures plunged suddenly on the continent, freezing many of the continent’s lakes and rivers, including the Thames River and the canals of Venice. The monks of the Abbey of Hautvillers in Champagne, where high-altitude made it possible to grow top quality grapes, were already hard at work creating reds and whites. The cold temporarily halted fermentation, the process by which wine is made. When spring arrived with warmer temperatures, the budding spirits began to ferment again. This produced an excess of carbon dioxide inside wine bottles, giving the liquid inside a fizzy quality.
In 1668, the Catholic Church called upon a monk by the name of Dom Pierre Pérignon to finally control the situation. The rebellious wine was so fizzy that bottles kept exploding in the cellar, and Dom Pérignon was tasked with staving off a second round of fermentation.
In time, however, tastes changed, starting with the Royal Court at Versailles. By the end of the 17th century, Dom Pérignon was asked to reverse everything he was doing and focus on making champagne even bubblier. Although historical records show that a British doctor developed a recipe for champagne six years before Pérignon began his work, Pérignon would come to be known as the father of champagne thanks to his blending techniques. The process he developed, known as the French Method, incorporated the weather-induced “oops” moment that first created champagne—and it’s how champagne is made today.
So the next time you raise a glass of bubbly, take a second to appreciate its trademark tickle on another level—a molecular one.
May 22, 2013
Throughout history, food has been sketched in pencil, painted in watercolors and oils and cast in stone. In the 1960s, Wayne Thiebaud replicated cakes and pastries in great pastel detail. Centuries before that, the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted fruits and vegetables in the shape of human faces.
Designer Kate Jenkins immortalizes food in a different medium: lambswool.
Jenkins crochets meals that look almost realistic enough to eat, from birthday cakes and chocolates to roasted chicken and topping-heavy pizzas. “The possibilities are kind of endless with food, because it appeals to everybody,” says the Brighton-based designer. “We all have to eat.”
Jenkins began crocheting food in 2003 to boost publicity for her new accessories label, Cardigan. “Everybody loves food,” says Jenkins, who studied fashion and textile at Brighton University. Before that, she spent a decade as a knitting consultant, selling her designs to fashion labels such as Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Donna Karan and others.
Her first piece was a take on the full English breakfast. Jenkins fashioned the eggs, sausage, bacon and beans out of wool, which she says is “a comforting kind of textile to use.” The medium aligned perfectly with her first collection, “Comfort Food,” which chronicled the usual suspects of British cuisine: fish and chips, bangers and mash and fried eggs and beans on toast.
A few years later, Jenkins borrowed inspiration from across the pond. “Kate’s Diner,” a collection of classic New York foods, featured burgers and fries, hot dogs, pretzels and donuts. Her crocheted chow mein in a takeout box appears on Smithsonian magazine’s June cover.
One crocheted dish can take between one to three weeks to complete, depending on the level of detail involved. She usually lays out the ingredients, or photos of them, out in front of her as a reference. While traditional artists can sketch out an idea on paper and erase what they don’t like, Jenkins must
weave crochet part, if not all, of an ingredient before seeing if it will work.
“Often I’m making something for the first time, and there’s a lot of trial and error involved and stopping and starting,” she says. “It’s not as quick as a pencil sketch—it’s a lot longer because I’m making a 3D piece.”
Jenkins’ favorite foods to crochet are crustaceans, which are usually adorned with shiny sequins. She’s
woven crocheted enough of them in her career to fill an entire collection featuring canapes, caviar, “sewshi” and different types of fish. Crocheting bread is another story. “A slice of bread is quite boring to look at,” says Jenkins, who will spice plain-looking loaves and slices with a more textured look or deeper color in the crust.
While Jenkins says she’s a healthy eater who cooks for herself, she’s not an avid home chef. “I’d prefer to crochet the food than spend hours making it. Being a cook is an art form in itself, and I think it takes a lot of practice to become really good at cooking. My time is best spent sticking to something I’m good at.”
April 19, 2013
Artist Piet Mondrian used oil on canvas to create his famous geometric composition of neat red, yellow and blue squares and straight black lines.
Caitlin Freeman’s interpretation of this work of art is slightly different, and sweeter. Her medium? Flour, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract in a baking pan.
The pastry chef pulls inspiration from art and whips it into cakes, cookies, gelées and parfaits at her café on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Mondrian cake, a compilation of moist yellow cake cubes coated in chocolate ganache, is the best seller at the museum location of the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar, which she runs with her husband, James.
In the café’s four years of operation, Freeman and her team have created nearly 100 desserts inspired by artwork that has appeared, at one time or another, on the museum’s walls. Twenty-seven of them, gleaned from works by Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse, are featured in her new cookbook, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, published this week. Each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the original artwork, with detailed history written by Janet Bishop, the museum’s painting and sculpture curator.
Freeman includes a photo of her very first attempt at a Mondrian cake, which she says is quite embarrassing to look back on. “It wasn’t perfect, but we just had to make a few thousand of them to feel like we had a hang of what we were doing with that cake,” Freeman says. “You don’t know until you do that final cut whether or not it’s all come together, so that one’s a tricky one.”
Crafting art-inspired cakes wasn’t always the plan for Freeman. She studied photography at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but figured she’d eventually become a dentist—a career goal she explains was likely thwarted by her big sweet tooth. During a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Freeman fell in love with frequent pastry-painter Wayne Thiebaud’s Display Cakes, a 1963 oil painting of a trio of ready-to-eat cakes. Determined to become a pastry chef, she joined a new, small bakery called Miette, learning on the job and graduating from dishwasher to cake decorator (and business partner). She left Miette after seven years. Shortly after, the modern art museum called her and her husband about Blue Bottle Coffee setting up shop in its new rooftop garden.
“My reaction, since I was young, going into art galleries was seeing a piece of art that I really like, and liking it so much that I want to steal it or eat it,” Freeman jokes. “This is my way of doing something about it—just liking something so much that it inspires you to do something.”
How does Freeman move art from the canvas to the cake pan? Countless walk-throughs in the museum’s collections and multiple brainstorming sessions with her team. Some pieces lend themselves immediately to their dessert doppelgangers. For example, artist Ellsworth Kelly’s Stele I, a one-inch-thick, 18-foot-tall rust-colored oblong steel plate looks like an over-sized fudge popsicle.
But sometimes, Freeman says, the inspiration just doesn’t come. Landscape art, in the style of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe, was tough to delineate in dessert form, so Freeman told her baristas to do the best they could with leaf-like latte art.
The colors in a given work of art usually drive the flavors in the resulting dessert. “If it’s all filled with blues and greens, it’s really hard to come up with something that’s tasty that’s blue,” Freeman says. A Ronald Fischer photograph of a shirtless beekeeper covered in bees led to a white chocolate box with a honey-pistachio parfait filling. The deep reds in Roy Lichtenstein’s triptych painting of a French cathedral became a spongy red velvet cake. Andy Warhol’s famous brightly colored print of Elizabeth Taylor gave rise to a neatly stacked gelatin treat of red, pink and mint squares.
Many of the cookbook’s desserts take several hours or even a day to complete, which can seem daunting to the average at-home baker. Freeman lays out a step-by-step assembly guide, instructing readers on how to temper chocolate, master butter cream and use chocolate transfer sheets, which add elaborate, stencil-like designs to finished sweets. “I didn’t want there to be big barriers of entry,” she says.
Frankly, when it comes to dessert, I think most people would agree.
April 8, 2013
Chia seeds are gaining a reputation as a superfood, joining the ranks of açaí, pomegranate, goji berry and the most recent favorite, quinoa (the United Nations dubbed this year the International Year of Quinoa.) But unlike its health food brethren, which few knew of before they became ubiquitous, the ingredient once enjoyed some unusual success outside the kitchen: it gave life to Chia Pets, ceramic turtles, cows, pigs and other creatures that sprouted plant-hair and sat atop living room tables across America in the 1990s.
Chia, a flowering plant in the mint family known as Salvia hispanica, is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Domesticated in 2,600 B.C., the seed is said to have been a staple of the Aztec and Mayan diet. The Tarahumara of Mexico, famous for their incredible endurance running, consume a blend of maize and chia seeds while pounding the desert sand.
At just 65 calories per tablespoon, chia seeds are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds transform water into a gooey, gelatin-like mixture one can drink (slowly) straight out of the glass. Their unassuming mild, nutty flavor can disappear into countless different dishes, from pancakes and mashed potatoes to barbecue sauce and Jell-O. Here are five ways to cook with chia seeds that go beyond breading and salad garnishes.
Smoothies. Chia seeds can be ground down into a fine powder in a blender. Now a nearly invisible ingredient, chia powder can be swirled around with countless combinations of fruits, veggies and syrups. This recipe pulverizes the seeds with yogurt, blueberries, mangoes and vanilla extract for a tropical shake, while this one blends them with strawberries and apple juice for a quick breakfast beverage. For a brightly colored shake that tastes better than it looks, combine baby spinach leaves, chunks of kiwi, almond milk and a frozen banana and blend till smooth. Toss a few tablespoons of seeds with peanut butter, frozen bananas, chocolate-flavored coffee creamer, cocoa powder and milk to create a rich dessert smoothie. If the mix is too thick, add milk until it thins out.
Pudding. Some drink chia seeds straight with water, but if the gooeyness minus the flavor is too much for you, try pudding. Fold chia seeds into a mixture of cocoa powder, brown sugar, instant coffee and milk and stick them in the fridge for two hours to create decadent chocolate pudding. Combine the seeds with milk, sugar and vanilla extract and refrigerate overnight for a tapioca-like treat, sprinkling it with shredded coconut. For a breakfast pudding, toss water-soaked cashews with maple syrup, vanilla extract and chia seeds until smooth. Refrigerate eight hours or all night, and or top with dried or fresh fruit.
Breads. When chia seeds absorb water, they create a gelatinous mixture that can replace eggs, oil and butter in baking. In this recipe for pumpkin bread, chia gel takes on the role of butter and oil. Blend it with sugar, eggs and pumpkin puree. In another bowl, sift together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Stir the pumpkin mixture in gradually, then fold in chopped walnuts for crunchiness. Spread the batter out into a pan and bake for an hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it’s transformed into a spongy loaf and cooled, smear with a sweet glaze of cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Swap pumpkin puree for bananas for classic banana bread.
Burgers. For an extra protein kick at the picnic table, use chia seeds in homemade burger patties as a binding agent. Stir them in water to create a thick gel-like mixture. Saute chopped onion with olive oil in a pan until it begins to caramelize, then add minced garlic. In a bowl, combine them with ground meat, grated carrots, seasonings and the chia seed mixture. Using a large spoon or glove hands, mold the mix into 4-inch patties that are about half an inch thick and freeze them for an hour. Then, toss them on the grill, letting them sizzle for three minutes on each side.
Soups. Water-laden chia seeds can help thicken soup for a hearty comfort meal. For creamy cauliflower soup, boil chopped onion, cauliflower and vegetable stock. Ladle out half of the broth and stir in ground chia seeds. Return the mix to the pot and continue cooking. Garnish the soup with chopped parsley and black pepper, and serve with a crunchy slice of bread.
March 29, 2013
Nothing screams Easter like the arrival of brightly colored marshmallow Peeps snuggled inside crinkly packaging at the grocery store. For many people, the sweet is meant to be hidden: some stuff them into plastic eggs hidden in the backyard for their kids to find, while others tuck them away in desk drawers at the office to satisfy late afternoon hunger pangs. But for one distinct group, marshmallow chicks and bunnies are stuffed (and baked and blended and broiled) into otherwise Peep-less recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to the massive proliferation of food blogs in recent years, we can witness the surprising culinary places a few of the 2 billion Peeps produced each year end up. Here are five ways to cook with these sugar-laden holiday staples, which Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company Just Born has manufactured for 60 years.
Bake them. Because Peeps are essentially colorful marshmallows, they won’t seem out of place in dessert recipes. Exposed to high heat, Peeps melt back into their native state, a pool of sugary liquid fluff. They’re worthy substitutes for plain marshmallows in brownies, cookies, pies—even bread. For hearty Peep-stuffed brownies, start with a regular boxed mix of the bake-sale classic, following the package directions to create the gooey batter. Spread a portion of it out onto a pan, pressing Peeps of the color of your choosing into the mixture. Layering the remaining brownie mix on top to hide the chicks, and dust some Peep powder on top for decoration once you’re done baking.
Try squishing a Peep between two globs of cookie dough, sculpting the batter into round, slightly raised shapes, and bake according to your usual cookie recipe (this one recommends folding a pretzel into the dough along with the Peep for added crunch). Or use chick or bunny Peeps as pie filling. Melt the candies in hot milk and let them cool before folding in heavy whipping cream and chopped or bite-size chocolate candies (semisweet chocolate chips, Reese’s Pieces or tiny chunks of toffee). Pour the thoroughly mixed batter into a store-bought or homemade pie crust and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The Peep flavor can also be infused into breakfast desserts, like the sticky and gooey monkey bread. Dip buttermilk biscuits into a smoothly whisked mixture of microwave-melted Peeps, butter and vanilla extract. Roll the biscuits in sugar dyed with food coloring to match the color of the Peeps, and stack and mold them into a bundt cake shape after they’re baked and golden brown.
And bake them some more. Not all casserole recipes are a match for Peeps (think tuna or cheesy macaroni), but less savory kinds, like those made with sweet potatoes, welcome a hint of marshmallow. Bake chick-shaped Peeps atop a batter of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, letting some of the toasted marshmallow flavor seep into the casserole. Or swap standard marshmallow topping for slightly browned Peeps in this recipe for candied yam soufflé.
Toss them. We don’t recommend pairing Peeps with arugula, baby spinach and crumbled feta—tossing them with sweet and citrusy fruits produces better results. This recipe takes a spin on the Waldorf salad, a blend of apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise popularized in the early 1900s at a New York City hotel of the same name. Use pink or yellow Peeps for this one—flashes of electric blue in the middle of a salad might be alarming. Pair them with diced bananas, chopped oranges, halved maraschino cherries and work in shredded coconut and your choice of nuts. Drizzle fresh lemon juice and orange-flavor liqueur on top, mixing the entire batch well before serving.
Peeps can replace regular miniature marshmallows in ambrosia salad, another well-known fruit concoction. Chop pastel-colored chicks or bunnies into the size of the average miniature marshmallow. Add them to a bowl of pineapple chunks, diced mandarin oranges and shredded coconut, and then stir in a generous helping of Cool Whip.
Blend them. Peeps’ soft texture makes them prime candidates for electric mixers. Combine chocolate mousse-flavored Peeps with milk, sour cream and vanilla ice cream in a blender for a chocolatey shake. For a hint of toasted flavor, broil the chicks for one or two minutes until lightly charred before tossing them into the blender. Make Peep-flavored frosting by heating your choice of Peeps with egg whites, sugar and water in a saucepan. Beat the batter with a hand mixer until it gains some thickness, then spread it over cupcakes. Feeling fancy? Transform Peeps into unusually colorful mousse. Melt Peeps with heavy whipping cream in a saucepan, then zest off some sugar from still-intact chicks onto the sugary mix once it’s cooled.
Freeze them. Peeps don’t always have to be melted down beyond recognition in the kitchen. The marshmallow candies can also make for tasty frozen desserts, which this recipe dubs “peepsicles.” Press wooden craft sticks into bunny-shaped Peeps and submerge them into a bowl of melted chocolate. Coat the peepsicles with shredded coconut, slivered nuts or sprinkles and store them in the freezer. Move beyond the obvious with this recipe for ceviche, a marinated seafood dish usually served raw and cold. Soak frozen bits of Peep in lime juice, dried chili peppers, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate, and dig in before they thaw and all the juices break them down. Peeps get very crunchy in less than zero temperatures, and really frozen ones (well, those submerged in a bucket of liquid nitrogen) easily shatter.
When cooking with Peeps, remember that, just like fruits and vegetables, they’re seasonal, available only around Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. However, the marshmallows have an astonishing shelf life of two years, so finding a forgotten pack of five in the pantry can be a sweet (albeit slightly stale) surprise.