Episode Two: Soufflé.

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I have way more cooking gadgets than your average 23-year-old. The last two birthday presents from my boyfriend were a digital scale and an immersion blender. While they were exactly what I wanted, next year I promise I’ll ask for something more romantic.

Quite possibly my favorite gift was a set of eight-ounce ramekins. I still can’t get over the thrill of individual servings. And there’s nothing better than using a ramekin for soufflés.

History:

The word soufflé is the past participle of the French verb souffler, “to puff up”. The first soufflé recipes appeared in France in the early 1800s and were savory, flavored with puréed meat or game. According to foodreference.com, the word soufflé first appeared in English in chef-to-royalty Louis-Eustache Ude’s cookbook The French Cook in 1813. Eustache worked for Napoleon’s mother, along with a few English Dukes and Earls. In 1841, founder of haute French cuisine Marie Antoine Careme published Patissier Royal Parisien, with recipes on soufflés with chocolate, vanilla, lemon, and cheese. New ovens heated by air drafts instead of coal made these recipes possible, as they provided an even cooking temperature necessary for soufflés to rise and stay up.

Science:

A soufflé consists of two essential parts: an egg custard base containing flavoring and whipped egg whites, which provides structure and height.

The base is just a white sauce, a milk-based sauce thickened by roux, or flour suspended in butter. Melt your butter until it stops foaming, so that the water has evaporated out of it. Then add flour and cook until the starchy flavor is gone. By coating each flour granule with fat, you prevent lumps that occur when flour and water mix later. In the meantime, mix the other ingredients – milk, flavoring agents, and egg yolks. Incorporate those slowly into the roux, such that egg yolks are not scrambled.

Next, get whipping! Egg whites consist of protein and water. When you whip them, the protein forms a kind of skin around bubbles of air. Your egg whites should be whipped just until you see soft peaks, because the air bubbles need to be able to expand further in the oven. Use eggs that have reached room temperature, because the whites will expand faster and easier. Adding an acid like cream of tartar will help the egg white proteins denature, which will help the foam form faster. Avoid any traces of egg yolk. If fat is present, it lubricates the junctions between proteins and prevents the formation of foam. Avoid using a plastic bowl if you can – plastics and fats share a similar molecular structure and tend to bond easily, thus plastics tend to hold onto residual fats. Fold the whipped egg whites gently and quickly into your base.

The physical law behind the soufflé was identified by a French scientist and balloonist, J.A.C. Charles (McGee, 2004). Charles’ Law states that if gas is held at a constant pressure, its volume is directly proportional to its temperature. As temperature increases, the gas molecules will move around faster and hit the walls of their container with more force, causing an increase in volume. Heat an inflated balloon and the air will take up more space, so the balloon expands. Similarly, when a soufflé enters an oven, the air bubbles swell and the mix expands out the top of the dish.

Charles’ law only causes one-quarter of the rise. The rest comes from the continuous evaporation of water. Liquid water becomes water vapor and adds to the quantity of gas molecules in the bubbles, which increases the pressure on bubble walls, causing the walls to stretch. Additionally, the heat causes the protein to stiffen, and along with the fat from the yolk, it forms a kind of scaffold that keeps the soufflé from collapsing. The higher the temperature of the oven, the higher the soufflé will rise, because the heat expansion will be greater and more of the moisture in the mix will be vaporized.Logically, as the soufflé cools, the air contracts in volume, and the vapor condenses back into liquid. That’s why you have to eat it fast!

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http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19004631
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/souffles-the-original-molecular-gastronomy-104704476/

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Episode One: Macaroni and Cheese.

History:

Macaroni and cheese is a hallmark of American comfort food. The recipe’s earliest known inscription dates back to 1769. Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s great expansionist, Enlightenment thought-leader and secret slave-owner, was a macaroni-phile. As the U.S. Minister to France in 1786, he procured both trade agreements and noodle recipes, as well as a pasta machine. Apparently, he even served mac & cheese at his Presidential Inaugural Dinner.

Macaroni’s popularity really surged in the early 20th century thanks to James Lewis Kraft. In 1937 Kraft introduced boxed macaroni and cheese contained special emulsifying salts to stabilize the cheese, thus leading to a longer shelf life. This was radically successful during the Great Depression and World War II, when rationing of dairy products and entrees without meat became the norm. Since then, macaroni and cheese has populated gourmet magazines and the American consciousness. No longer simply a food for the masses, it has become gourmand-worthy dish, often served with luxurious additions such as truffles, lobster, pork belly, and Gruyere. Me? I prefer a classic mac and cheese, but expertly done.

Science:

For the best macaroni and cheese, you want to have a cheese sauce that has just the right viscosity, thicker than cream, but not clumpy or dry, and extremely cheesy. But some of the best cheeses just don’t melt properly. Sharp cheddars and aged Parmesan are pretty hopeless – when they melt, the milk solids and oils separate, creating a broken oily mess. As cheese ages, lactose (milk sugar) converts into lactic acid, reducing the cheese’s pH level. Too much acidity breaks down the calcium bridges hold link casein (milk curds, or milk protein) together, causing the curds and the oil to separate. An ideal, not too low pH range for melting cheese is 5.3 – 5.5, which thankfully includes Gruyere, Manchego, and Gouda.

Traditionally in mac and cheese, a béchamel sauce (made with butter, flour and milk) acts as the emulsifier, as the starch particles and additional milk proteins hold the cheese together. However, too much béchamel and you sacrifice the cheese flavor. Alternatively, companies like Kraft use salts like sodium phosphate and sodium citrate to bind to the calcium bridges and prevent them from falling apart. The great Modernist Cuisine book, which I will probably cite frequently, recommends 1/8 teaspoon of sodium citrate for every 6 servings of mac, for a smooth and unbroken sauce. Here’s how it turned out!

http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/pastas/gourmet-mac.asp
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/marvelous-macaroni-and-cheese-30954740/?no-ist
http://modernistcuisine.com/2013/05/science-helps-craft-the-perfect-mac-and-cheese/

Manifesto

I made a couple of New Years resolutions for 2015. One of them is to be a little less hotheaded. Working on it! Others are a bit more hands-on. I resolved to work on projects that inspire me, to improve my writing skills, and to be more communicative of my thoughts with friends and family. In an effort to make these resolutions stick, I am tying them to practices I already do regularly – like reading and researching recipes and understanding why they work. This blog seeks to explain the science and the history behind our favorite dishes, to appreciate their cultural context and to achieve consistent results every time. Hope you like it!