February 20, 2013
Give a baby her first spoonful of mashed spinach or blended brussell sprouts and you can likely watch her face pucker up in shocked torment. Veggies tend to be a dreaded childhood bane for many youngsters, yet there are exceptions to the vegetable hate rule. Sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, tend to score highly. But why is that? As a general rule, much of our likes and dislikes spawn from sweetness – or at least our perception of it.
Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to like sweetness, since it’s indicative of calorie-rich sugar. Millennia ago, when we were just beginning our evolutionary journey as Homo sapiens, those individuals who preferred and thus consumed sugar had an edge. Sugar imparts a quick energy boost, so desiring, locating and consuming sugar-rich food could mean the difference between out-maneuvering a predator, keeping warm during a cold night or bearing healthy children. Our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, also share this propensity towards the sweet. Chimps regularly concoct creative ways to brave beehives to reach the sweet honey inside.
In today’s world of car commutes, office jobs and sugary snacks, however, our attraction to sugar turns against us, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity. The processed food industry realized this a long time ago when it dawned on them that cranking up the sugar content of even the most cardboard-like snack automatically makes it delicious to our primitive food brains.
But sugar, it turns out, is not the only sweetness driver. The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness. ”The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a researcher with the university’s Horticulture Sciences Department and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, said at the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, held last week in Boston. “The volatiles act to amplify the sugar signal so that we actually think there’s more sugar in the food than is actually present.”
A dozen or more volatiles can occupy a single food. Some trigger the sensation of sweetness, others of bitterness or sourness. If we could better understand just how these chemicals interact in foods and in our brains, we could genetically tweak foods to be more to our liking.
Scientists from the University of Florida think that “fixing the flavor” of foods such as tomatoes would make them more appealing to shoppers, which on the long run may facilitate a healthier society. “If we make healthy things taste better, we really believe that people will buy them more, eat them more and have a healthier diet,” Klee said. “Flavor is just a symptom of a larger problem,” he continued. “We have bred crops for a higher yield, while quality and nutritional value have dropped.”
What we think of as flavor actually has a great deal to do with the subtle smells of volatiles. Not convinced? The researchers predicted as much. In Boston, they whipped out samples of gummy bear-like candy (raspberry and blueberry Sunkist fruit gems to be specific) to prove the power of volatiles to the audience. As instructed by the Klee and his colleagues, I pinched my nose shut tight, then popped the candy into my mouth, chewed and swallowed half of it. As if I had a seriously stuffed up nose from a bad case of the flu, the candy felt squishy and lackluster on my tongue. This bland sensation, the researchers explained, is taste. Now, they instructed unplug your nose, and swallow the rest of the gummy candy. A wave of intense sweetness hit me like a sugary rainbow of fruity flavor. This is olfaction at work, explained Linda Bartoshuk, one of Klee’s colleagues at the university’s Center for Smell and Taste. “Who experienced a rush of flavor and sweetness that seemed about twice as powerful as before?” she asked. In a room of around 100 people, about half the hands shot up.
Several years ago, Klee made a mission of saving the modern tomato’s flavor in the hopes of ultimately improving consumer health. Those efforts have led him down a winding vine of chemistry, genetics and food science.
Rather than starting his investigation with tomato growers–who are paid to churn out attractive tomatoes, not make a flavorful food–Klee began with consumers, or the people who buy and eat tomatoes. He wanted to understand what makes good and bad flavor on a molecular level. Figuring out the formula for creating a delicious tomato that still maintains the high yields and disease resilience of the watery, bland supermarket offerings could give growers an easy-to-implement toolkit for improving their offerings.
Klee and his colleagues ground up dozens of tomato variety, then asked 100 different people to sample the fruits of the researchers’ labor and report back on their favorites and least favorites. Using that feedback, the researchers could identify which of the tomatoes’ more than 400 volatiles actually drove flavor. What they found indicated that consumers prefer tomatoes with a perceived sweetness – emphasis on “perceived.”
For example, yellow jelly beans, a breed of tomato, contain around 4,500 milligrams of sugar per 100 milliliters. A matina tomato, on the other hand, contains around 4,000 mg per 100 ml. Yet people perceive matinas as being about twice as sweet as yellow jelly beans. Volatiles drive the perception of what we think is sweetness in these two tomatoes.
Typically supermarket variety tomatoes vary in their sugar content, but they usually range from around 2,000 to 2,500 mg per 100 ml. The cherry tomato varieties typically sit in the 3,000 to 3,500 mg per ml range.
Just 15 to 20 volatiles control the majority of a tomato’s flavor, the researchers found. ”Some of the most abundant chemicals in a tomato have absolutely no influence on whether people like it or not,” Klee said.
This knowledge in hand, they went about creating a recipe for the perfect tomato, which resembles an heirloom. Their ideal fruit represents the average of what the research participants ranked as their preferred tomato. While absolute individual preferences may vary by demographics, cultures and whether or not someone is a supertaster, Klee believes that nearly everyone would agree that “this is a really good tomato.”
The next step, Klee says, is to move those desirable traits into the high yielding varieties of tomatoes. In the lab, he and his team successfully crossed modern tomatoes with their perfected heirloom, creating a hybrid. The new tomato maintains the deliciousness of the volatile-laden heirloom but produces twice as much fruit and keeps the modern strain’s resistance to disease. So far, yields aren’t quite at the level to convince commercial growers to change their ways, but Klee believes production improvements will get his tomato to the marketplace eventually.
“Can volatiles enhance sweetness while reducing our use of sugars and artificial sweeteners?” Bartoshuk posed. “We think: yes.”
January 28, 2013
Excited for Sunday’s Super Bowl? Learn more about this Baltimore delicacy from Bonny Wolf, writer for AmericanFoodRoots.com, where this story was originally published.
What the madeleine was to Proust, the Berger cookie is to Baltimoreans. When the French author’s narrator dips his shell-shaped cookie into a cup of tea, he is flooded with 3,000 pages of childhood memories.
So it is with the Berger cookie. (The company is called Bergers but to most Baltimoreans, when discussing the cookie, the ‘s’ is silent.”)
For nearly 200 years, this cake-bottomed cookie topped with a generous hand-dipped mound of dark fudge icing has sparked home-town memories for Charm City natives. For a very long time, the cookies were unknown outside the city.
“It was a great little business,” says Charlie DeBaufre, who has worked at the company for much of his life and became the owner in 1994. Customer demand and word of mouth led to incremental growth over the last 15 years. “We had two trucks,” DeBaufre says, “and then some of the major supermarkets said, ‘We wouldn’t mind selling your cookies.’ ”
People aged and retired or moved outside Baltimore, but they still wanted their Berger cookies. Those who moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore didn’t want to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to get their cookies, says DeBaufre. So he sent his trucks across the bridge with the goods. Then they got requests from northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania and Frederick, Maryland. Now DeBaufre has seven trucks. He tried using brokers but, “They don’t care like you care,” he says. “I like having my own trucks and drivers. I like having more control over what’s going into the store.”
What’s going into the stores is an “unusual product,” says DeBaufre. “New Yorkers talk about their black and whites and it’s not a bad cookie, but it’s nothing like mine.”
The cookie is made using nearly the same recipe Henry Berger developed when he opened a bakery in East Baltimore in 1835. There have been a few modifications, according to DeBaufre. For example, vegetable oil has replaced lard in the recipe, reducing the saturated fat content considerably. “Some people say the cookie is just there to hold the chocolate,” says DeBaufre. “They eat the chocolate and throw the cookie away.” Bergers has even been asked to put together a Berger cookie wedding cake, which DeBaufre describes as a stack of cookies with a bride and groom on top.
Berger, a German immigrant, was a baker by trade and his three sons followed him into the business. The cookies were sold from stalls in the city’s public markets. Today, there still are Bergers’ cookie stands in Baltimore’s Lexington and Cross Street markets.
As they have been since the beginning, Berger cookies are hand dipped. Four employees dip them all – 36,000 cookies a day. DeBaufre says he’s considered new equipment but has resisted. “I have to keep the integrity of the cookie,” he says. Yes, they have trouble keeping up with demand and often run out. But he doesn’t do it just to make money, he says. “I take pride in what I do. When you tell me they’re good cookies, I’m proud.”
After World War I, George Russell, a young man who worked for the Bergers, bought the bakery. The DeBaufres – who had worked for the Russells – bought the business in 1969. In addition to expanding distribution outside Baltimore, Bergers cookies are shipped all over the country. DeBaufre says a woman from Baltimore who lives in California sent holiday tins of cookies this year to her clients – 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Steven Spielberg. “She wanted them to have something they wouldn’t have had before,” says DeBaufre.
Read more stories from the 50 States’ best culinary traditions at American Food Roots.
January 3, 2013
For years I thought it was just because the Spanish like a good party that they dragged their Christmas celebrations out until the night of January 5, when they had another round of parades and gift giving for Los Reyes Magos, the coming of the Three Kings, also known as Tres Reyes, or simply Reyes. It’s only recently that it clicked that, actually, they got it right. While the rest of us are waiting for Santa to deliver his celebratory gifts for Christmas, Jesus didn’t actually get any until 12 days later, when Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar finally showed up with their gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in Spain and many Latin American countries, and it’s only a couple of decades since it really wasn’t much of a celebration at all. Navidad has become more important these days, and while most families gather together for a large meal on Christmas Eve, usually beginning with a fish soup followed by seafood, jamón serrano, cheeses and various cold cuts, there isn’t really any traditional food specific to the occasion. For the day of Tres Reyes, though, when the kids have opened the presents they found in a shoe placed under the Christmas tree the night before, no home would be complete without a Roscón de Reyes, or Rosca de Reyes if you live in Mexico or Puerto Rico, the two Western Hemisphere countries most likely to celebrate Tres Reyes. The Spaniards brought the tradition of celebrating the Epiphany and sharing the Rosca to the New World.
The Three Kings Bread is a sweet loaf baked in a ring – think fat, circular panettone decorated with dried figs, quince, cherries, candied fruits to symbolise the precious stones in a crown, and with thrombosis levels of white sugar scattered on top, and there you have it. Some recipes call for dates and honey to be used, but these are considered mere folderols added to the recipe by upstarts who can’t realise that some good things don’t need improving. Sound familiar? The New Orleans tradition of the King Cake comes from this same tradition.
Just as no resident of Valencia can ever agree on where to eat the best paella, everyone swears absolutely that they know the best Roscón baker in their city, never mind in their own barrio. A proper Roscón needs to be freshly baked, or at the very least out of the oven in the last twelve hours. On the evening of Tres Reyes lines form outside bakeries late in the evening as devotees collect their pre-ordered cake, and if you don’t have your Roscón booked by mid-November, forget it. You will be reduced to the ignominy of buying one from the supermarket shelves. If you are really lucky, your baker will open for a couple of hours on the morning of the big day so you can enjoy it fresh from the oven with a cup of chocolate so thick the spoon stands upright in it. (In Mexico the Rosca forms part of the evening celebration and is usually accompanied by corn tamales.)
The shape of the Roscón is round, to signify a king’s crown, although these days you can also find it baked as an oval. According to one wit at my local bakery, they are baked that way because baker’s ovens aren’t usually big enough to make huge family-size versions, particularly the size of the families the Spanish gather together for their celebratory fiestas.
Traditionally each person cuts his own slice, carefully inspecting it for one of two things, a small figure of Jesus or a faba bean. The idea of the figurine hidden in the cake is to symbolise being hidden away from the wrath of King Herod, after he had ordered all male infants recently born in Bethlehem to be put to the sword when he heard that the rightful King of the Jews was about to be born. As Jesus was born in a stable and not in an inn as would have been expected, he was saved, effectively hidden from view, as is the figure in the cake. Whoever finds him is King for the day, and has to host a party on the Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day) which takes place on February 2. Yet another excuse for extending the party. Unfortunately for the person who finds the faba bean, he has to pay for next year’s roscón.
Derek Workman is a guest blogger for Food and Think. He writes about Spain and Morocco at spainuncovered.net
December 18, 2012
This year, I made an extra effort to knock out my Christmas shopping as soon as I could. I enjoy gift exchanges—at least to the extent that it’s a way to show I appreciate the people nearest and dearest to me and that I’m keeping them in my thoughts. Frankly, I’d much rather spend the month of December baking (and sharing the resultant wealth of goodies) and being social. But some years, I’m completely strapped for ideas and find myself—days before Christmas—manically browsing shopping websites or, as a last-ditch effort when sanity has completely escaped me, venture out to the shopping malls in hopes that I’ll find the perfect gift. For those of you finding yourselves in said situation, here are a few last minute gift ideas for the foodie who made it onto your “nice” list this year.
Books: The Village Voice‘s Fork in the Road blog recently pointed out 18 books released in 2012. On that list, I’ll personally vouch for two titles. In Vintage Cakes, author Julie Richardson takes a trove of classic recipes—some dating back to the 1920s—and updates them for the modern American palate. Keeping in mind that the tools and techniques of previous generations are not the same as our own, the amount of sleuthing it took to reconstruct these cakes is amazing. Paired with tips and techniques, historical backgrounds on each of the cakes and fabulous photography, it’s a book that works well in your kitchen and on the coffee table. I need to try her version of Texas Sheet Cake to see how well it stacks up against my grandmother’s.
I’d also heartily recommend giving a gift subscription to Lucky Peach, a cross between a literary journal and food magazine that, wrapped together, makes for a magnificent piece of candy for the eye and the mind. Launched in July 2011, each themed issue pairs photography lush illustrations with fabulous writing in delectable ways. (Contributors have included the likes of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.) If you subscribe now, the person you’re giving this to won’t receive their first issue in the mail until February 2013; however, you can also buy the current issue on newsstands so you can have something under the tree.
There are also the old standbys that always make for good gifts. I’m a big fan of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which is a great cookbook for someone to learn on and contains recipes that are easy to pull together. One year for Christmas I received a copy of The New Basics, and this book has since become my go-to resource for those occasions when I’m having company over and need to lay my table with something a little more impressive than my everyday cooking.
Music: I’m a big fan of the husband and wife duo that writes Turntable Kitchen, a blog that, in addition to expanding your culinary horizons, cultivates your sonic palate. Kasey writes about food, Matthew tackles music—using the language of food and flavor to describe sounds—and together they find tunes and nibbles that complement each other. What’s more is that these internet-based explorations of new flavors and sounds can be taken into our humble, analog realm by way of the Pairings Box. Each month, you get a bundle of music, recipes, suggested pairings and a few ingredients to play with. Unfortunately, the Pairings Box ships out mid-month, so unless you’re OK giving someone a nice card letting them know what goodies will soon be arriving—or do holiday visiting in January— you’ll need a more immediate option. In this situation, try The Recipe Project, which takes recipes from today’s most famous chefs and turns them into songs. (E.g., Mario Batali’s recipe for spaghetti with sweet tomatoes.) This book/CD package can be found at your local bookseller.
Toys: If you know someone culinary aspirations, encourage them to build up the relationship they have with their kitchen. If they are just starting out, giving the gift of standard pieces of equipment are always great. I was thrilled to get a good set of pots and pans when I was in college. Another year I received a slow cooker and a food processor, and for the single working professional, those pieces of equipment made my life in the kitchen so much easier. In the event that you have the budget to splurge on knives, your budding chef will be eternally grateful. There’s nothing worse than bad cutlery. When I finally came into a set of really good knives, it made a world of difference in how I work in the kitchen.
For the established chef, you can add to their collection of kitchen gadgetry. Personally, I’m not a fan of uni-tasker appliances, but if you know someone who enjoys specific foods, find the toys to let them indulge their interests. I highly recommend browsing America’s Test Kitchen Feed’s gadget reviews for handy tools—and whether or not the latest kitchen toys are really the greatest. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, their review of this heavy-duty steel nutcracker has me contemplating a splurge purchase. When you consider how much less expensive nuts are when bought in the shell, it’s a great gift—especially if you give it with a bag of oh, say, chestnuts to roast over an open fire. For sheer whimsy, check out the Foodigity blog’s online shop where you can find dinosaur-shaped tea infusers, unicorn corn holders and ice cream sandwich body pillows. You need to place orders by Friday, December 21 to ensure delivery by the 24th.
Food: Giving the gift of food itself is always a good idea. I’ve yet to hear complaints from anyone who is well-fed. There are a few ways to work within this idea, perhaps the most obvious tack to take being a food basket, be it one you cobbled together yourself or one you purchased prefab. Or if there are seasonal goodies you like to make, attractively package them and give them as gifts. This year a friend gave me some of her homemade fudge, which she wrapped in cellophane and topped with a felt Christmas ornament she also made herself. The presentation—and the food—were equally delightful.
Another tack to take on this theme is to look to your local food bank. These charitable organizations do what they can to ease hunger in the community, and they rely on monetary and edible donations to continue their mission. Some food banks will also let you donate on behalf of another person—so for someone who would rather see money go to charity than to buying them a gift, this is a great way to go. Contact your local food bank to ask if you can give in this way.
December 4, 2012
I love decorating my apartment for the holidays. The day after Thanksgiving, the tree goes up and it—along with windows and tables and other flat surfaces I can do without for the next four to six weeks—are festooned with whatever seasonal odds and ends I’ve amassed over the years. Not sure what it is, but when I walk into my home at night and am greeted by scads of novelty lighting, I suddenly feel at peace with the world. In recent years, I’ve indulged my love for shabby chic (or maybe just campy) decor by making beer can reindeer, which I’m currently using to decorate the living room shelf used to house bottles of my preferred adult beverages. (It’s a theme. I’ll work it for all it’s worth.) But as I began to look at the decorations in my apartment, and ponder how the halls were decked in past Christmases, it occurred to me that there are lots of ways to use goods in the pantry to make your digs a little merrier. Here are a few ideas for the foodie who has yet to trim their home:
Popcorn and/or Cranberries: When I think of garland, my mind immediately gravitates to the metallic boas used to wrap around bannisters and trees—maybe even a younger sibling. But you can also make your own—and from products that will actually biodegrade. One option is to make a garland out of popcorn: buy yourself a bag of popcorn (not the kind you microwave), prepare and, using a needle threaded with waxed dental floss, string on as many fluffy white kernels as your heart desires. When you’re through with the garland, set it outside for the birds. You can also use fresh cranberries. The fruit should dry nicely on the tree and keep for a few weeks; however, be careful about placing fruited garlands on surfaces that might stain. Alternate cranberries and popcorn, or, as Better Homes and Gardens suggests, add slices of lime for a festive splash of green. Some people spray their garlands with shellac so they can be used a little longer; however, if you do, please do not leave these outside for the animals to eat.
Gingerbread: How could you complain about edible ornaments for your tree? Martha Stewart has recipes for gingerbread that will be strong enough to be used as decoration, but not so tough that you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labors. Roll out a tray of gingerbread people, remembering to make a hole so you can string through a length of ribbon. Bake, decorate and hang. The cookies need to set up overnight, but I also wouldn’t let them stay on the tree but for so long. Stored in airtight containers, they keep for a week—so when out in the open, you have a much more limited time frame to eat them. This might be something you want to do a day or two before Christmas. What could be nicer than waking up on the 25th, gathering around the tree and having cookies to dunk in your coffee? You can also make a gingerbread house, which some people eat at the end of the season, but others spray it with a coat of shellac and use it for several years.
Dough: Another classic option is to whip up a batch of ornament dough. Nothing but flour, salt and water, I suppose this is technically edible while raw (not that I’d recommend that), but because you can make it with items you can find in your kitchen, I’m including it on this list. Roll out the dough and make festive cutouts, bake off and decorate with paints, glitter and any other craft trimmings you like. If you’re a Michelangelo in training, sculpt figures—but remember that the back side is going to be resting on a baking sheet and will be completely flat. You can back those ornaments with colored felt to pretty up the undecorated side after they’re baked and cooled. And before baking, don’t forget to make a hole where you want your ornament hanger to go.
Cinnamon: If you have an abundance of cinnamon sticks in your pantry and you’ve no idea how to use them, I strongly suggest making yourself cinnamon stick Santas. Aside from the cinnamon, you just need some acrylic paint to render the facial features and a product called Sno-Tex (also sold under the name snow paint) to create a textured white beard. Attach a ribbon and hang on your tree.
Peppermint: I love wreaths. Between the splash of color and, if you’re using live botanicals, an invitingly aromatic way to greet your holiday visitors at the door. You can also greet your guests at the door with food by crafting a wreath using star mints. For this, you need a coat hanger or metal hoop, bags of mints or other hard candy with the cellophane tails, and embroidery thread. If using a coat hanger, shape the hanger into a circle and begin tying candies onto your wreath form until you have a full wreath. Top with a bow, and you’re good to go. If you’re using candies with cellophane tails on both ends, your guests will have a tail to tug on to get at a holiday treat. If you’re using hard candies with a tail on just one end, consider attaching a small pair of scissors to your wreath with a strand of ribbon or yarn so your guests can easily snip off their candy.
As our regular readers may know, we like our “five ways” posts so I’m cutting it off here. But I’m sure there are lots more ways to work food into holiday home decor. Let us know in the comments section below how you get crafty with food to make the season a little brighter in your home.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here