Ode to the humble chocolate chip

It’s chocolate time again, folks! I’ve blogged about chocolate before, specifically about the very depressing fact that world chocolate consumption is exceeding production, putting us at risk of having this most sublime of treats go extinct on us.

That thought, however, was simply too depressing, so I will rather dedicate today to a celebration of the chocolate chip (invented in the 1930’s by Ruth Graves Wakefield). In case you’re wondering, today, 15 May, is Chocolate Chip Day.

Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins.  Hmmm, can't wait for the final product! (© All Rights Reserved)
Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins. Hmmm, can’t wait for the final product!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now a chocolate chip is an interesting thing. Unlike a slab of chocolate, or a fancy box of chocolates, chocolate chips don’t share that level of sheer indulgent decadence. No, they’re much more subtle – usually hiding away inconspicuously in the fridge or grocery cabinet. When they do appear, however, they can stand their ground against all kinds of exotic ingredients to play a part in the most extravagant culinary creations. Forget about chocolate chip cookies (good as they can be!) – I’m talking about chocolate chip mousse pyramids, blondie-brownie pies, chocolate chip waffles, chocolate chip and mascarpone cupcakes or, wait for it… the chocolate chip martini!

But aside from these moments of mouth-bursting glory, the chocolate chip remains quiet and unassuming in its corner of the cupboard.

It is exactly this indistinct nature of the chocolate chip that makes it so great. Even when all the other chocolate in the house has been greedily consumed during late night chocolate cravings, there’s likely to still be some chocolate chips in the cupboard, ready to be whipped out and made into something special.

In a way, life is much like chocolate (where have I heard that before!?). You get your slab-of-chocolate people – striking, impressive and in your face, but often too conspicuous for their own good. Then there’s the pick-a-mix chocolate types – all dressed up and fancy, but often more sight than substance. And then there’s the chocolate chip people, the salt of the earth, the unassuming ones who come to save the day when all the other chocolates are gone.

So let’s use Chocolate Chip Day to celebrate the chocolate chip, its inventor Ruth Wakefield, and all the chocolate chip people out there!

Promoting healthy eating on International No Diet Day

Today, 6 May, is International No Diet Day (INDD). Originally created in 1992 by Mary Evans Young, director of the British group ‘Diet Breakers’, the idea of the day is to fight the trend that people, and women in particular, are constantly made to feel embarrassed about their bodies, and always feel they should diet to lose weight and become more ‘socially acceptable’.

In her book, ‘Diet Breaking: Having it all Without Having to Diet’, she speaks about how irritating it became to her that women were forever experiencing little crises about having a biscuit or snack at teatime – “I shouldn’t really”, “I’ll have just one”, etc. She goes on to ask the question “What do you think would happen if you spent as much time and energy on your careers as you do on diets?”

It's not a good idea to starve yourself with fad diets, but it is a very good idea to stick to healthy foods. (© All Rights Reserved)
It’s not a good idea to starve yourself with fad diets, but it is a very good idea to stick to healthy foods.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Since its inception in 1992, INDD has grown to a wider awareness creation movement, addressing the potential dangers of dieting and other extreme steps people take to lose weight such as vertical banded gastroplasty surgery, also known as ‘stomach stapling’.

Many restaurants and food shops have also jumped on the bandwagon, using the ‘no diet’ message to promote the sale of indulgent foods and snacks. This, however, misses the point – the idea is not to promote over-indulgence. The point, I believe, is not that it’s fine to be obese and that you shouldn’t try to stay in shape. Obesity is a major problem in both men and women, and a contributor to an alarming percentage of deaths worldwide. As such it definitely needs to be addressed. The way to address it, however, is not through fad diets an starving yourself, but rather through healthy eating and regular exercise.

In it’s book ‘Weighing the Options: Criteria For Evaluating Weight Management Programs’, the American Institute of Medicine‘s Committee To Develop Criteria for Evaluating the Outcomes of Approaches To Prevent and Treat Obesity states:
“We agree, of course, that there should be more appreciation and acceptance of diversity in the physical attributes of people, more discouragement of dieting in vain attempts to attain unrealistic physical ideals, and no obsession with weight loss by individuals who are at or near desirable or healthy weights. However, it is inappropriate to argue that obese individuals should simply accept their body weight and not attempt to reduce, particularly if the obesity is increasing their risk for developing other medical problems or diseases.”

So, use International No Diet Day as a reminder to stop spending your life embarrassed about how you look, and to stop chasing one fad diet after another. But equally importantly, use the day as a reminder to change your long term eating habits towards eating more healthy food, and to start exercising.

Extreme diets and obesity are not the only two options – there is a healthy, sustainable middle ground that everyone can, and should, work towards.

Celebrating garlic, super-food, medicinal wonder and fighter of evil spirits

It’s April 19, Garlic Day!

Then again, in my household, every day is garlic day – I just love the taste of these pungent cloves, and the fact that it’s good for me is just another reason for celebration.

Garlic, a close relative to onions, shallots, leeks and chives, has been around for a long, long time, dating back about 7000 years, and it has been used for culinary, medicinal and religious purposes in Asia, Africa and Europe. Over the years it has spread to become a truly global herb (or vegetable, depending on your classification).

Hanging garlic to dry after harvest allows it to keep for a long time. (© All Rights Reserved)
Hanging garlic to dry after harvest allows it to keep for a long time.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From a culinary perspective, garlic, both raw or cooked, adds a distinct, pungent flavour that lifts many a dish from the ordinary to the sublime. A staple in mediterranean cooking, it is also popular in many other cooking traditions. Mixing garlic with olive oil, lemon juice and egg yolks produce aioli, a delicious, mayonnaise-like sauce traditionally served with seafood, but also used as an accompaniment to many other dishes.

An interesting, fairly recent development in garlic cuisine is ‘black garlic’ – garlic that has been subjected to an extended fermentation period under high heat. During the fermentation, melanoidin is produced, which is responsible for the garlic cloves turning black. The resultant black garlic , which has a tender, almost jelly-like texture and a rich, tangy molasses-like taste is said to contain double the antioxidants of normal garlic, while not causing the dreaded ‘garlic breath’.

The medicinal benefits of garlic is well documented. It is used to lower cholesterol levels and reduce high blood pressure, and is said to strengthen the body’s immune system and fight fatigue. It has even been credited with preventing some cancers and increasing longevity, and it has been suggested to help regulate blood sugar levels. Garlic is rich in Vitamins A, B1 and C, and contains calcium, magnesium and iron, as well as a range of amino acids.

In addition to it’s medicinal benefits, garlic has also been believed to have spiritual powers. Europeans in the Middle Ages ate garlic to ward off the Black Death, and legend has it that garlic, worn around your neck, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes, keeps vampires, werewolves and other evil spirits at bay. I suppose this means all vampires and werewolves suffer from ‘Alliumphobia’, which is the fear of garlic.

Delicious in a range of dishes, good for your health and effective at warding off evil spirits – what more can one ask for?

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.

Celebrating deliciously decadent desserts on International Waffle Day

The 25th of March is International Waffle Day. The day originated in Sweden, where it is known as Vaffeldagen.

Delicious, sweet and chewy Dutch waffles, also known as 'stroopwafels' or 'stroopies'. ('Stroop' is Dutch for 'syrup'.)(© All Rights Reserved)
Delicious, sweet and chewy Dutch waffles, also known as ‘stroopwafels’ or ‘stroopies’. (‘Stroop’ is Dutch for ‘syrup’.)
(© All Rights Reserved)

The day is dedicated to the waffle, a delicious dough-based dessert delicacy with a long history – the waffle, as we know it, developed from the ‘oublie’, a grain-flour communion wafer prepared from the 10th century. The modern-day waffle exists in many versions, from thin, stiff, syrup-filled Dutch waffle-cakes (‘stroopwafels’) to large, light and fluffy Belgian waffles, with numerous other varieties (American waffles, Hong Kong style waffles, Scandinavian style waffles, etc) in between.

Waffles are often served with cream or ice-cream and syrup, and often sprinkled with icing sugar. In addition, fruit such as bananas and berries can add an extra dimension, while chocolate is another option to add to the waffle’s decadence.

International Waffle Day is the perfect time to ‘go international’ and explore some new waffle varieties, or to at the very least try your favourite style with a new topping.

Yum! My mouth is watering as I write!

Whipped cream and awesome inventions #idoa

Today in 1955, Aaron S Lapin received a US patent for his invention of a “Dispensing Valve for Gas Pressure Containers”. What makes this patent stand out from other patents awarded on this day, is the application of the valve – Lapin designed it in 1948 as the dispensing mechanism for his ‘Reddi-Wip’ whipped cream dessert topping, an instantly ready and foamy whipped cream in a spray can.

Chocolate pannacotta from my recipe book, cape gooseberries from my garden and whipped cream from Aaron Lapin's awesome tilt-opening dispensing valve.(© All Rights Reserved)
Chocolate pannacotta from my recipe book, cape gooseberries from my garden and whipped cream from Aaron Lapin’s awesome tilt-opening dispensing valve.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In essence, a soluble gas (typically carbon dioxide), is mixed into whipped cream in a can equipped with Lapin’s special valve. When the tilt-opening valve is tilted, the gas expands in reaction to the lesser atmospheric pressure outside the can, and pushes the cream through the valve. When the tilt-valve is let go, the elasticity of the valve seal causes it to return to the closed position, thus retaining the rest of the pressurised content inside the can.

So, a clever mechanical invention allowing us to enjoy fluffy, whipped cream without any effort – now there’s an awesome invention!

Oh, and speaking of awesome, today also happens to be ‘International Day of Awesomeness’ (hashtag #idoa). As the website states, “People are awesome every day, frequently don’t realize it, and their feats of awesomeness are rarely recognized. We aim to fix that, with a special day to both perform and celebrate feats of awesomeness!”

Here’s to awesomeness, here’s to whipped cream, and here’s great inventions. Have a great day, all!

Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen foods

Our subject for today is frozen foods. According to the Today in Science History website, it was on this day, 6 March 1930, that General Foods first started selling individually packaged frozen foods. Called ‘Birds Eye Frosted Foods’, the idea came from a guy called Clarence Birdseye, who started offering frozen food for sale to the public in 1929, after seeing people thawing and eating frozen fish during a visit to Canada.

Within the first 2 months, sales of the Birds Eye line of frozen foods increased significantly, prompting the start of a huge retail frozen foods industry.

Frozen foods - convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.(© All Rights Reserved)
Frozen foods – convenient and practical, and a big part of many daily diets worldwide.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Freezing is one of the easiest ways of preserving food for future use, by either killing or inhibiting pathogens that cause food spoilage. It is, however, not as effective as high-temperature treatments since less of the harmful pathogens are killed, and those that are only inhibited are likely to again become active once the frozen foods are thawed. Some spoilage processes are also only slowed down and not stopped, and so frozen foods can typically only be kept for a limited time, particularly in some domestic freezers which may not maintain food at low enough temperatures. Long term storage apparently requires temperatures of 0 °F (-18 °C) or lower. Of course boiling and then freezing food greatly increases the effectiveness of the preservation.

As far as nutritional value is concerned, some vitamin loss is said to occur during freezing, mainly Vitamin C, but also, to a much lesser extent, Vitamins B1, B2 and A.

Despite its limitations, freezing remains one of the most widely used preservation techniques, with frozen pre-cooked meals counting among the most popular products. Its convenience and practical value has made the frozen foods industry a massive multi-national, multi-million dollar industry.

So next time you grab a quick frozen meal from the freezer, think about good old Clarence Birdseye and the Canadians with their frozen fish, who started it all back in the early part of the 20th century.

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? 😉

Everything is coming up roses

Today, 7 February, is Rose Day, apparently conceived to mark the start of Valentine week*.

Valentine week!? As if Valentine’s Day isn’t already more than enough! It seems some clever marketer has decided there’s yet more money to be squeezed out of the poor consumer, who is scarcely back on his feet after the Christmas marketing onslaught.

'First Love' hybrid tea rose. (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘First Love’ hybrid tea rose from New Zealand – a rose of classic beauty.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While Rose Day may have seen the light as part of an extended Valentine’s sales pitch, that does not mean we shouldn’t use the occasion to celebrate roses for what they are – really interesting, and rather lovely, flowers.

Roses are nothing if not diverse. In total there’s more than 100 species of roses, including bush roses, climbers, erect schrubs and miniature roses. While most are used as ornamental plants or as a favourite among cut flowers, roses are also used in the making of perfume, as well as in cooking and medicine. Rose hip (the berry-like ‘fruit’ at the base of the flowers of certain rose species), which is a rich source of Vitamin C, can be made into jams and jellies, while rose syrup can be made from an extract of rose flowers. Rose water (obtained as a by-product from distilling rose petals) is used in cooking and natural medicines. The Rosa chinensis species is used in traditional Chinese medicine for stomach problems and, linking back to World Cancer Day, this species is also being investigated as a substance for the control of cancer growth.

Not bad for a flower often taken for little more than a rather cheesy ‘symbol of love’.

The 'Chinensis Mutabilis' Chinese heirloom rose (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘Chinensis Mutabilis’ Chinese heirloom rose – a picture of elegance and simplicity.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On a rather unrelated note, I’ve discovered that ROSE also happens to be an acronym for the Relevance of Science Education project. According to the site, “ROSE, The Relevance of Science Education, is an international comparative project meant to shed light on affective factors of importance to the learning of science and technology. Key international research institutions and individuals work jointly on the development of theoretical perspectives, research instruments, data collection and analysis.”

Now surely science education is something worthy of celebration, so there’s another angle to ROSE Day allowing you to celebrate the day while steering clear of the Valentine’s Day connection.

So, whether you’re a lover, a cook, a poet, an artist or a scientist, surely there’s more than enough reason to join me in celebrating Rose Day.

* If you really need to know, Valentine Week’ consists of the following days:

  • 7th Rose Day
  • 8th Propose Day
  • 9th Chocolate Day
  • 10th Teddy Day
  • 11th Promise Day
  • 12th Kiss Day
  • 13th Hug Day
  • 14th Valentine’s Day

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