Celebrating yummy, syrupy, sticky caramel.

It’s April 5th, which means it’s Caramel Day – the perfect opportunity to go all gooey about sweet, syrupy caramel.

Caramel in a chocolate shell - now that's what an easter egg should look like!(© All Rights Reserved)
Caramel in a chocolate shell – now that’s what an easter egg should look like!
(© All Rights Reserved)

There are basically two ‘categories’ (for lack of a better word) of caramel. First, there’s caramelised sugar – when sugar is heated to around 170 °C, the molecules in the sugar breaks down and re-arranges itself as a smooth, shiny tan/brown syrup. When caramelised sugar cools down, it sets and becomes hard and shiny – most kids know and love this type of candy as used in caramel toffee apples, for instance, where an apple on a stick is dipped in caramelised sugar syrup and allowed to cool and set.

Then there’s the runny, creamy caramel that we find in toffees, inside caramel chocolates etc. This is something very different, and is made by cooking a mixture of butter, sugar, milk/cream and vanilla. As the mixture heats up, the sugar reacts with the amino acids in the milk, resulting in the caramel’s brown colour. This reaction between sugar and amino acids in the presence of heat is known as the ‘Maillard reaction’ – a form of non enzymatic browning. The same reaction is responsible for the browning of roasted meat and fried onions, roasted coffee and the browned crust of baked bread, among others.

The level of ‘runny-ness’ of this second category of caramel depends on the relative amounts of the ingredients, ranging from fairly solid, sticky caramel toffees through to smooth, soft and creamy caramel sauce.

From rock-hard caramelised sugar to smooth, creamy caramel sauce – the world of sweets and desserts would surely be a much poorer place without caramel!

Celebrating carrots (even if they don’t give you night vision)

Today, 4 April 2013, is the 10th celebration of International Carrot Day, the day to dress in orange and celebrate the wholesome goodness of these versatile and delicious orange vegetables. I wonder whether Carrot Day being celebrated so close to Easter has anything to do with the Easter Bunny’s love of carrots?

Whether you like carrots in a meaty stew, as part of a vegetable curry, on its own in a salad, steamed and served sweet with a touch of sugar, or juiced for an invigorated drink, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy these delicious veges on Carrot Day. For a slightly more decadent celebration, you can even bake a deliciously moist carrot cake or a traditional English carrot pudding!

Nothing like a crop of fresh, healthy carrots straight from the vege patch.(© All Rights Reserved)
Nothing like a crop of fresh, healthy carrots straight from the vege patch.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Did you know that the carrot is a member of the parsley family? And apparently it was originally grown for medicinal purposes (mainly for its aromatic leaves and seeds) before its edible taproot became popular as a food source. Of course carrots are a great source of beta carotene (the reason for their orange colour), that gets absorbed by the liver and converted to Vitamin A. Interestingly, eaten raw, we only absorb between 3 and 4% of the beta carotene in carrots during digestion. When the carrots are steamed, cooked or juiced, however, the absorption rate can be increased up to 10-fold.

A shortage of Vitamin A in the body can cause poor vision (night vision in particular) – a situation that can be treated and restored through Vitamin A supplementation. For this reason, it has become a popular urban legend that eating large amounts of carrots will enable you to see in the dark. Sorry to burst that bubble, but over-consumption of carrots is more likely to lead to ‘carotenosis’, a benign condition where the skin (especially the insides of the hand and feet) and the whites of the eyes, turn a shade of orange.

Because of their beta-carotene content, carrots are sometimes included in poultry-feed to deepen the colour of egg-yolks.

Carrots are also a good source of fibre and are rich in antioxidants and trace minerals. And if that’s not enough reason to grow a crop of carrots in your vege garden, it has also been suggested that carrots are good companion crops – grown intercropped with tomatoes increases tomato-production, and if left to flower, carrots attract wasps that are beneficial in killing many garden pests.

All in all, a great vegetable, and definitely worth a day of celebration.

Calculating the perfect pancake on Pancake Day

Today, 12 February 2013, is Shrove Tuesday, the day immediately preceding Lent – an observance in many Christian denominations, running for approximately 6 weeks from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday (or Easter Eve). Lent is a period of religious preparation for Easter weekend.

In many parts of the Commonwealth, including the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, Shrove Tuesday is commonly known as Pancake Day, based on the tradition of eating pancakes on the day.

Pancakes became associated with this day because it was traditionally considered a good way to consume a range of rich foods – eggs, milk, sugar, butter, fat, cream – before Lent’s period of self-denial. Of course, as with gift-giving during Christmas, the original religious association has moved somewhat into the background, with Pancake Day now being about pancakes and little more.

Sadly I am not doing much to reverse this tradition, as the rest of my post is pretty much only about pancakes…

A stack of American style pancakes with bananas and strawberries, topped with a generous helping of ice-cream and drizzled with liquidised strawberries - so fresh and fruity, it almost feels healthy! (© All Rights Reserved)
A stack of American style pancakes with bananas and strawberries, topped with a generous helping of ice-cream and drizzled with liquidised strawberries – so fresh and fruity, it almost feels healthy!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Just a quick point of clarification – pancakes in Europe (thin, flat pancakes, usually rolled up and eaten with sweet or savoury filling – also called crêpes) aren’t exactly the same as pancakes in the US and Canada (smaller, thicker ‘cakes’ that are often stacked on top of each other, dusted with icing sugar and eaten with syrup – also known as Scotch pancakes, pikelets or flapjacks).

Now you may be curious about the link between pancakes and science. While I don’t know how much science there is in a pancake, I can report that it has apparently been the subject of some rather rigorous scientific scrutiny. A mathematics professor from Wolverhampton University, Dr Ruth Fairclough, has developed what has been reported as “a complicated formula for the perfect pancake”.

Dr Fairclough’s full pancake ‘recipe’ is:

100 – [10L – 7F + C(k – C) + T(m – T)]/(S – E)

L = number of lumps in the batter
F = flipping score
C = consistency of the batter
k = ideal consistency
T = pan temperature
m = ideal pan temperature
S = standing time of batter before cooking
E = time the pancake stands before eating

The closer a pancake gets to the perfect score of 100, the better.

I’ve played around with the formula, and while most of it makes sense, it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny. My main concern relates to the 1/(S-E) factor – if the standing time of the batter before cooking is equal to the time the pancake stands before being eaten, you end up dividing by zero. But perhaps I misunderstand the way these variables should be measured…

The bottom line, however, is that Dr Fairclough’s formula agrees that batter with perfect consistency and no lumps, stood to rest for a while, and then cooked at the perfect temperature and eaten piping hot off the pan, should give you a pretty perfect pancake.

But then you don’t need a PhD in maths to know that, do you? 😉

Evaporated milk, courtesy of Gail Borden

Cooking time again, as our subject for today is evaporated milk. It was on this day in 1851 that Gail Borden came up with the idea to condense milk through evaporation, after seeing fruit juice being condensed using vacuum pans. He worked tirelessly on the concept, and eventually received a patent for his milk condensing process in 1856.

Created by evaporating the bulk (about 60%) of the water from fresh milk, evaporated milk differs from condensed milk in that the latter has sugar added to help inhibit bacterial growth. Since evaporated milk does not contain added sugar, it has to be homogenised and sterilised to ensure a long shelf-life.

Evaporated milk - still a trusty old stalwart in many a pantry. (© All Rights Reserved)
Evaporated milk – still a trusty old stalwart in many a pantry.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Initially evaporated milk and condensed milk gained popularity at a time when storage and transport of fresh milk was problematic – it could be kept fresh without refrigeration much longer than fresh milk. When water was added back into the evaporated milk it was basically the same as fresh milk, with all the calcium and other nutrients intact, and without the sweetened taste of condensed milk. Interestingly, it was originally thought that it was the condensing of the milk that stabilised it, and only later did it become clear that it was in fact the heating process (to evaporate the water) that killed the bacteria that caused fresh milk to spoil.

Today, with pasteurisation allowing much longer shelf life for milk (even without refrigeration, in the case of long-life milk) the usefulness of evaporated milk as fresh milk replacement has all but disappeared. It is still used, but mainly in cooking, and sometimes as a less rich replacement for cream in deserts. Acknowledging this shift, brands such as Nestle are rebranding the product as “cooking milk” in some markets.

While it may not be a critical milk substitute anymore, evaporated milk remains so useful in the kitchen that you really should always have a can tucked away in the back of the pantry – just in case you need some to spruce up a creamy dessert, soup, sauce, or even a nice casserole or stew.

Related article:
Celebrating Gail Borden and Sweetened Condensed Milk

Lyle’s golden syrup – turning waste into gold

Today we celebrate the birthday of Abram Lyle (14 Dec 1820 – 30 Apr 1891), Scottish ship owner, sugar refiner, and the man who gave the world Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

Starting his career in the shipping industry, Lyle later started supplying casks to ship Caribbean sugar and molasses. This got him into the sugar business, starting the Glebe Sugar Refinery with some partners. One of the by-products of the sugar cane refining process was a treacle-like syrup that usually goes to waste, but with the help of chemist Charles Eastick, Lyle found a way to refine it further to make a preserve, called golden syrup.

Yummy pancakes, made that little bit extra special with the compliments of Abram Lyle and his wonderful golden syrup. (© All Rights Reserved)
Yummy pancakes, made that little bit extra special thanks to Abram Lyle and his wonderful golden syrup.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Lyle’s golden syrup was sold in tins featuring a drawing of a rotting lion carcass with a swarm of bees, referring to the bible story where Samson was traveling in the land of the Philistines to find a wife. During his journey he killed a lion, and when he later passed the same way he noticed a swarm of bees had started a hive in the carcass, producing honey inside the lion. From this, Samson created the riddle “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness”, and the last bit of this riddle, “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”, became the slogan for Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

Golden syrup, being made from those sugars that did not crystalise during refinement, consists mostly of glucose and fructose. It is more water soluble than sucrose, and as a result less likely to form crystals, remaining syrupy under normal room temperatures. It is also sweeter than sucrose, so when using golden syrup as a sugar replacement in cooking etc, about 25% less golden syrup is needed to match the sweetness of sugar.

I am always endlessly impressed by people like Abram Lyle: those individuals who look at something that others see as a problem, or as waste – in this case the treacle waste – and instead see it as an opportunity to create something new and original.

With Lyle’s end product being golden syrup, I guess this really is a case of turning waste into gold.

Invention of the microwave oven – time-saver or taste-killer?

Today we celebrate a device that, despite being a really innovative invention, has in the eyes of many become synonymous with anti-innovation in the kitchen.

On this day, way back in 1894, Dr Percy Spencer (9 Jul 1894 – 7 Sep 1970) was born – the self-taught engineer who, many years later, invented the microwave oven. Before the Second World War, Sir John Randall and Dr HA Boot invented the magnetron tube, with which they were able to produce radar microwaves. A few years later, after the war, Percy Spencer was doing research work on the magnetron tube. While working on an active radar set he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted – the radar melted the chocolate bar with microwaves. From this discovery, he started investigating the possibility of using microwaves to cook food. Spencer fed microwave power from a magnetron into a sealed metal box. When he placed food into the container and radiated it with microwave energy, the temperature of the food rose rapidly. This resulted in the development of the microwave oven – a device that cooks food with radiation used to heat polarised molecules in the food.

The microwave oven – only good for popping corn?
(© All Rights Reserved)

The first microwave ovens were large, heavy units, used in restaurants and commercial kitchens. The first countertop microwave was introduced in the mid sixties, soon becoming a ubiquitous device in kitchens around the world.

While the microwave oven is great for reheating food, cooking vegetables, and heating liquids like water or milk, it has not yet achieved any real culinary status. For the most part, it is used to heat ready-made, pre-packaged microwave meals. Microwave cooking can be quite healthy – it’s impact on nutrient content in food is said to be no worse than conventional heating, and thanks to the shorter preparation time, more micronutrients may be retained when microwaving vegetables, for example. But it is limited in application, and for the most part not capable of achieving the culinary effects and flavours created with conventional baking, frying, browning and slow-cooking. (Somehow I don’t expect to see Jamie Oliver’s “The Italian Microwave” or Nigella Lawson’s “The Microwave Goddess” hitting the cookery shelves anytime soon!)

So while the microwave oven definitely has it’s place in the modern kitchen, it may also probably stand trial as the primary culprit in thousands of dull, colourless and uninteresting meals prepared in the past 40 years.

Where do you stand – is the microwave oven an invention to celebrate, or to lament? Do you find it a must-have time-saver in the kitchen, or do you still have difficulty stomaching most microwave meals?