Saturday, January 10, 2015


As my relatively leisurely elective period comes to an end, I've been enjoying Benoit Mandelbrot's quirky autobiography. I'm generally annoyed by novels whose protagonists live a sort of charmed life during which they are prominently inserted into most of the major events of the era*. Mandelbrot interacts with virtually every major scientific and mathematical figure alive during his scientific upbringing, but only occasionally due to charm. His uncle was part of the Bourbaki, his father a practical genius, he himself a genius of all sorts. It's fascinating to read how his interactions with the great (largely) men of the era laid the foundation for one of the most ingenious mathematical advances ever to be made. Nowadays, one tends to be pigeonholed out of being a scientific polyglot; reading this autobiography, I wonder just how much of a drawback that is. And I wonder what happened to Benoit's brother Leon, and whether Leon ever felt jealous of living in Benoit's shadow. If this were a novel, Benoit might have some insights at the denoument of a great family disagreement...

Oh, and it's cold. Just the weather for dishes like shakshuka with spinach and Indian spices, or persimmon-turmeric oatmeal with plenty of grated fresh ginger and a hit of blood orange juice.

Good books, warm food... I'll just stay inside, thanks.

*For an exception, see Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littell. For not an exception, see The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Edible biology

Proteases are fun! A protease is an enzyme that breaks down protein by destroying the linkages between amino acids. Proteases destroy those linkages, which are called peptide bonds, via hydrolysis, in which the oxygen of one of our cells' oh-so-abundant water molecules stuffs its way into a chemical bond, booting off one of the components (in not-quite-accurate layman's terms, that is, but it'll do).  One of the more interesting things about many proteases is the catalytic triad, or a trio of amino acids that work together to catalyze, or speed up, this hydrolysis. Their chemical and biological mechanisms are pretty nifty (particularly the classic serine-histidine-aspartate triad), but what is even cooler is that species all over the genetic map possess proteases with catalytic triads in a beautiful example of convergent evolution. What this means is that the catalytic triad arose independently about two dozen times because of the sheer chemical elegance of those arrangement(s). Even better, some species of protease-packed plants are edible.

Kiwi, papaya, and pineapple are some of the most notable protease-containing foods; nota bene that none of them can be set in gelatin unless canned or otherwise preserved first, since the peptide bonds that give gelatin its structure will rapidly be destroyed. Industrially, the papaya protease--conveniently named papain--is used as a meat tenderizer. Ficin, a protease derived from the fig tree itself rather than the fruit, can also do this.

"Yes, Hannah," you're saying. "I know all about papain, and pineapple's ability to dissolve gelatin has been the bane of housewives since the 1950s." Fine. But did you know that everyone's favorite rhizome also contains a protease?

Ginger protease, or zingibain, can actually be used to make a milk pudding (or cheese, but that's another story). Here's how it works: normally, milk proteins called caseins aggregate into balls called micelles. Micelles of any sort have hydrophilic, or water-friendly, components on the outside, and hydrophobic components pointing inward. In this case, kappa-casein (heretofore written as K-casein) is on the outside of the micelles. Zingipain cleaves K-casein (specifically, at a proline residue), leaving a hydrophobic component called para-K-casein behind... and all of a sudden, those beautiful micelles stick together, and the milk sets.

Unfortunately, zingibain is a fairly tim'rous beastie. If heated above 150 Farenheit, it denatures--or loses its structure--almost completely, per this paper.  It also degrades fairly quickly; the half-life is only 20 minutes at about 85 degrees Farenheit, but according to this paper, the addition of simple ascorbic acid--also known as vitamin C--dramatically increases that half-life. The science of that phenomenon is adequately explained in both the citations above.

That first paper also mentions that zingibain has its peak activity in a very narrow temperature window of 60 to 65 Celsius... and yet I saw so many recipes for this that called for milk to be "nearly simmering" or something like that. Sheesh. Break out the candy thermometer!

Ginger milk pudding

325 mL milk
40 g sugar
37 g ginger juice

In a small saucepan, mix the milk and sugar. Heat gently; you want to add the ginger juice at a target temperature of 145F. Meanwhile, grate the ginger (I used my delightful microplane) and squeeze out the juice using your hands, cheesecloth, or a strainer. When the milk and sugar are at the appropriate temperature, pour the ginger juice in over the surface of the milk and do not stir. Allow to set for about seven minutes, and enjoy the sweet taste of science.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

This year

Oh, John Darnielle, you and your eerily perfect combination of morbid and catchy. How do you do it? (Actually, morbid and New Year's Eve seem to go together in the arts; two of the numerous books I've recently finished feature terrible things happening to morally ambiguous people on that momentous occasion. Of the two, I'd more strongly recommend Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson. Despite my recent glut of  books featuring tortured adolescent-to-young-adult male protagonists, its unique perspective on a more dangerous New York was striking, to say the least.)

Ringing in 2015 with this and other combinations... like elderflower, berry, and citrus. What's not to love about a berry pastry cream-filled Meyer lemon cupcake with fragrant St. Germain frosting and a sprinkle of toasted almonds to cut through all those florals?

Lemon cupcakes
2 sticks melted butter (room temperature) or oil
3/4 cup Meyer lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp lemon zest
2 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda

Whisk the sugar into the butter/oil, then add the lemon juice, vanilla, water, yogurt, eggs, and lemon zest. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into this mixture. Fill muffin tins 3/4 of the way to the top and bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes. DO NOT open the oven until at least 15 minutes have passed.

Berry pastry cream
10.5 oz milk
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
1 oz cornstarch
3 oz sugar
pinch salt
1/2 to 2/3 cup berry puree (I used frozen raspberries and blackberries)
1/8 tsp almond or vanilla extract

Heat the milk to simmering. Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. When the milk is simmering, whisk a small amount into the egg mixture to temper, then a little bit more to ensure the egg mixture is warm. Whisk egg mixture into the remaining milk, and add the berry puree. Heat, whisking, until mixture is very thick and begins to bubble. When it does, cook for at least 1 minute, or until it no longer has the taste of raw cornstarch. Remove from the heat and whisk in the extract. Sieve into a container and press plastic wrap over the surface. Cool completely before using.

St. Germain Swiss meringue buttercream
2 egg whites
110 g, or about 1/2 cup, white sugar
1 stick butter, room temperature and cut into cubes.
pinch salt
2 or 3 teaspoons St. Germain, or to taste

Over a double boiler, whisk the egg whites and sugar until the mixture reaches 160F. Remove from the heat. Using a stand mixer, whisk the egg white/sugar mixture on medium speed until the mixture is cool and holds soft-to-medium peaks. Whisk in the butter, chunk by chunk. Keep whisking even if it looks curdled! When it has become homogenous and fluffy, add the pinch of salt and St. Germain, and continue to mix until optimal texture is achieved.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holiday indulgences

...and more than a month after Thanksgiving, we're back. A bit of a vacation replete with food and reading (This essay by Bob Shacochis perfectly encapsulates emptiness and heart-wrenching loss; no need to have a particular yen for children to appreciate it.) turned into a big distraction! Christmas first:

Not everything from Intern Thanksgiving ended up in photos, but luckily, dessert--always the most important course--got captured.

Nusstorte, served with a spicy pecan popcorn praline.

Cranberry tarts, served with whipped orange goat cheese crema.
The nusstorte got a redux at Christmas. Here were all the courses, minus the lemon pepper leek soup and my uncle's brined turkey:

With cranberry-satsuma compote, a variant of Mark Bittman's
frozen honey mouse that incorporated a tart creme fraiche, and
candied satsuma rind.

Chocolate-peppermint cookies dipped in dark
chocolate (tempered by my mom!) and sprinkled
with crushed candy canes.

So. Many. Orecchiette.

Creamy roasted tomato sauce, mixed roasted vegetables, and
the orecchiette tossed with the best herb sauce ever. I wish
I'd gotten a picture of just the sauce; it was a gorgeous shade
of jade-green. No recipe, of course, but it involved fresh basil,
thyme, oregano, and briefly blanched spinach.

Mixed greens with olives, mixed orange supremes
(Cara Cara, blood, and satsuma), caramelized fennel,
and an orange-fennel vinaigrette with basil oil.
I'm a little over the cranberry/citrus/nut spectrum of desserts. The piloncillo, vanilla, and chilies I got from Mexico and the spices my best friend brought me from Zanzibar beckon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy post-call day!

I mean... Thanksgiving... yeah...

This is horrifying. Few of these things actually sound appealing in any way. Luckily, while I'm post-call on the actual day, stay tuned for some Friday Ersatz Thanksgiving goodies that don't include "casserole" in their names!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Breakaway, breakdown

omgomgomg Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk is coming to the Met! Except... how am I going to find time to go if I can't even find time to post? All my non-Bellevue hours have gone to the gym, or to journaling, or to reading*, or, to be fair, to cooking. I haven't worked at any other city hospital, but this one... this one can get under your skin. Could it be the constant need--not medical, but social--of so many people with whom it can feel impossible to relate? Or is it the more quotidian sleep deprivation that plagues all interns? There's just something that, at the end of the day, makes me crave a selfish withdrawal inward, even when it comes to posting a few silly, superficial thoughts on an amateur food bloog.

Somehow, though, there has been time for tiny pears (Seckel pears, to be exact), made into peppery ginger scones:

And mini chocolate babka:

Spreading rich cinnamon-chocolate filling over a yeasted dough...

And a spur-of-the-moment rosemary, grape, and feta focaccia:

And then, because I am me, I ate the remaining pound of grapes.

Now, what do I make for my last weekend on Bellevue floors, macarons or mini nusstorten?

*Here, read this creepy tale!

(Title of this post being an allusion to this story.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Where does the time go?

So... CCU. Yeah. Wow. Look, apples!

This circle contains such varieties as Enterprize, Liberty, TFO-1 (not as delicious as I'd hoped, given the exciting name), and Summergold. In one of my very few free days, I also found this massive Japanese radish that tasted great with apple and a miso-honey dressing.

Enough of produce, though. Andy recently earned a great academic distinction and, when asked how he wanted to celebrate, answered, "With nougat." Well, sir, then nougat you shall have.

I actually think the hazelnut mastiha nougat was the least delicious component of these homemade fancy Snickers. Out of impatience, I poured on the cayenne caramel layer before the nougat had fully dried, so it stayed kind of sticky even after the bars had set overnight.

There is a dollar store nearby that inexplicably sells Wilton candy molds for five to ten dollars. I seriously considered buying one in order to make these, but couldn't get over the stupidity of stuffing another implement into my overstuffed kitchen, so settled for ugly candy bars. Plus, I'm not sure if the dukkah and candied orange peel would have stuck had I used a mold. Next time, I may cut the bars before putting on the final layer of chocolate (super-dark 75%) so they look more like a real Snickers.

Of course, since candy for dinner is not healthful, I also made ravioli with a pumpkin, mascarpone, and harissa filling, and a spicy spinach fennel bechamel.

So good for you, I know.

Grown-up Snickers

Quality dark (very dark) chocolate
Dukkah (homemade, kicking around from when I made this amazing recipe)
Thinly sliced candied orange peel (I made my own in the microwave)

Line an 8x8 metal baking pan with parchment paper, molded tightly to the pan. Melt some chocolate (about 1/2 to 2/3 cup) and spread in an even layer on the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool completely, at least 1.5 hours, before you start the nougat.

Hazelnut nougat
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup water
1 large egg white
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch salt
I cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
Optional: 3-4 grains mastiha

Over medium-low heat, whisk the honey, sugar, and water in a small saucepan until the sugar is melted. Cook without stirring until the syrup reaches 248F. Meanwhile, beat the egg white until it forms stiff peaks. When the syrup is ready, slowly pour into the egg white with the beater running (for which I used a stand mixture with the whisk attachment). Continue to beat until the candy is stiff but spreadable and lukewarm to room temperature. Fold in the nuts, salt, and vanilla, and spread over your first chocolate layer. Alternatively, only fold in the salt and vanilla, then sprinkle the nuts on top after you've spread it in (if you prefer to have the nuts embedded in the caramel). Allow to set completely--and here was my mistake, so please let it set for at least 6 hours--before preparing the caramel.

Cayenne caramel
2 tablespoons honey
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
cayenne pepper to taste (I like spicy, so I used lots!)

In a large pot or saucepan (at least 2 quarts), whisk together the sugar, water, and honey. Cook without stirring until the syrup is at 290F.

Meanwhile, mix the heavy cream, butter, and salt in a microwaveable container. Microwave until the butter is melted and the mixture is very hot, but do not allow it to boil. It should still be steaming by the time you're ready to add it to the syrup.

When the syrup is at temperature, remove it from the heat and slowly pour in the cream mixture, whisking constantly. It will bubble and sputter. When it is fully whisked in, cook without stirring over medium-high heat to 250F. Whisk in the vanilla and remove from the heat. Allow to cool for a couple minutes in the pot before you pour it over the nougat layer; it should still be spreadable, but not so hot that it melts the nougat.

Let the caramel set for at least 2.5 hours before you pour on the final chocolate layer. If you want to cut the bars first and dip them in the tempered chocolate, definitely let it set for a good 6 hours.

David Lebovitz has a great guide to tempering chocolate here. Do that, then pour over the caramel layer (or dip the bars in). Allow to set for 30 minutes or so, then sprinkle on dukkah (and a bit of sea salt if your dukkah is not salted) and some candied orange rind. Don't let it set too long or the toppings won't stick, but do wait a little while or the spices will just melt into the chocolate.