Tag Archives: baking

Are Microwaves Frying our Brains?

Have you ever stood next to your microwave while you wait for your noodles to cook and wondered if the micro-waves were burning your brain? I know I have.

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Microwaves are magical machines that manage to cook anything from soup to brownie just by spinning them round on a plate a few times. Seems pretty mystical to me. And naturally, like anything we don’t understand, we humans have a tendency to fear these mystical qualities.

Is our fear justified though? I mean Madame Curie, the lady behind x-ray machines in the war died because of the radiation from those very machines, could that happen to us too?

First of all, what is microwave radiation?

Well, radiation is just the release of energy from something. So lots of things release radiation, and many of them aren’t harmful at all. Our bodies are constantly radiating heat, and so is the sun. X-ray machines also release radiation, that’s how they do what they do.

But there are two forms of radiation, one more harmful than the other. They are ionising and non-ionising radiation.

Ionising radiation is the strong stuff. This kind of radiation is made of high energy waves which can get into cells and chemically change how they work. Lots of tests have been done on this type of radiation and we know that it is okay in small doses, but too much can cause burns, radiation sickness and cancer. Not good.

This kind of radiation is given off by things like X-Ray machines and is used in radiotherapy to treat cancer cells and in Nuclear power plants. Happily though, this isn’t the kind of radiation produced by microwaves.

Microwaves produce non-ionising radiation. This radiation has less energy than it’s ionising counterpart. This means that it can move things around in your cells, but not chemically change them and therefore cause cancer.

Non-ionising radiation is what is given off by things like the sun, cell phones, computers, heaters and radio waves. Of all of these types of non-ionising radiation only one has ever been found to be harmful and cause cancer, and that is UV rays from the sun.

So microwaves don’t produce the scary, harmful, I’m going to wake us as Spiderman kind of radiation. Phew!

But is there any chance microwave radiation could be harmful anyway?

There have been lots of studies looking at whether people who use or are around microwaves are more likely to get cancer or be otherwise harmed, and there have been mixed results. Some studies have found a link between microwaves and cancer, but other studies have found absolutely no link at all.

Microwaves do create a magnetic field around them when they are being used. However most experts agree that microwaves just don’t give off enough energy to alter the DNA in your cells and therefore won’t cause cancer.

Some people also think that food cooked in the microwave might be harmful. But this isn’t true. Microwaves cook food by heating up the water molecules inside the food, making them vibrate. The jiggling water method is how lots of food cooks, and doesn’t change the makeup of the food at all, which means that food cooked in the microwave is no more harmful than food cooked on the stove or in the oven.

Moral of the story?

Microwaves are safe. Standing next to the microwave while it’s humming away spinning your food round in circles is no more harmful than standing in the sunshine spinning your head round in circles. It might even be safer.

 

So now we know they’re safe, lets get our microwaves to do what microwaves do best and make some brownie!

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Magical Microwave Mug Brownie

  • 4 Tbsp white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp of flour
  • 2 Tbsp Cocoa powder
  • 2 Tbsp boiling water
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp oil
  • 1 Egg
  • A pinch of salt

Mix everything in a nice big mug until just combined. Microwave for 30 seconds. Take it out, give it a quick mix and put it back in for another 30 seconds. Then you’re done!

I highly recommend topping with a scoop of ice cream. Mmmmm…

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Craving Change? Your Sciencey Guide to Food Cravings

 

We all get food cravings every now and then right? That undeniable need for some overly salty, sugary or fatty food that you know isn’t good for you, but you just have to have. Even if you do manage to resist the initial urge, it’ll come back to you a few days later and you know that there’s just no hope. You have to have that triple chocolate chip cookie, warm, with ice cream and hot fudge sauce on top.  Mmm. Cravings.

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The problem is that you never crave something that is good for you. In fact cravings are usually for foods that you probably shouldn’t eat at all right? So why would our brain tell us that we need something that our body clearly doesn’t, it makes no sense!

Luckily scientists have been looking into the mysteries of cravings for a while now and can shed some light on the situation.

Cravings -- Do you want science with that

Why do we have cravings?

It’s a tricky question, and there isn’t a simple answer.

Sometimes if you’re craving something unusual it might be your body telling you that you need more of a particular nutrient found in that food. This is thought to be particularly true during pregnancy when women are craving all kinds of weird and wonderful things. But usually this isn’t the case and cravings are actually all in your head.

When you eat a delicious food like say, french fries or Russian fudge, your brain releases some wonderful chemicals called dopamine and seratonin. These chemicals make you feel good and are your body’s way of rewarding you for eating a high energy food like sugar or fat. This response dates back to cave man days when these foods were hard to come by and essential for survival. However these days it is much easier to load up on these energy dense foods, so much so that they are a health risk. But your body hasn’t caught up with the times yet and is still busy rewarding you every time you indulge.

Cravings are a product of this reward system. Your body feels sooo good when it gets a dose of dopamine or seratonin that it remembers that good feeling and gives you cravings to convince you to eat the foods that will make it happen again. Scumbag brain.

Can we resist them?

Probably, but it won’t be easy.

A French study in 2007 found that super sweet things like sugar and artificial sweeteners, are more appealing to lab rats than cocaine, even if the rats are already addicted! Then a study at the University of Florida found that commonly craved foods had the same effect on the brain as alcohol and other addictive substances. Eek.

So the happy juice that our brain feeds us when we eat delicious fatty and sugary foods is pretty strong and while the cravings might be all in our heads, there’s no doubt that they are there.

Is there any way to avoid cravings?

Not really, no, but there are ways to manage them.

The first tactic is simple; plan to give in every now and then. If you try to resist every craving you have you could end up pretty miserable and the more miserable you are the more cravings you will have.

The next tactic is sensible; make it healthier. If you’re craving french fries, don’t head straight to Burger King, bake your own hand cut oven fries for dinner instead.

The last tactic is super important; limit yourself. By all means give in every now and then, but don’t go overboard. Take three cookies out of the pack and put it back in the pantry, don’t sit on the couch with the entire packet while you watch Gossip Girl or you’ll have finished it before the first ad break.

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So science hasn’t succeeded yet in finding a way to trick your brain into craving carrots not caramel, but it has taught us one thing; it’s okay to give in. In fact, it’s pretty hard not to, but if you have some tactics up your sleeve you should be able to curb your food enthusiasm, but still have a fair amount of fun.

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Fudgey, Cakey or Chewy? The Science of Brownie Baking

You’re getting all dribbly just from reading the title aren’t you?

 

The Ultimate Brownie - Do You Want Science With That

The humble brownie. There’s just something about it.

A wee while back I wrote a post about baking chocolate chip cookies and how to use science to make them crunchier or chewier. It was pretty popular, so I thought, why not make another baking “how to” post! So here it is, how to make your brownie fudgier, cakier or chewier.

It’s all about proportions

Just like crafting cookie, brownie baking takes some careful measurements, and changing the amount of each ingredient that you use will change the final brownie outcome.

There are three main ingredients that you can alter to make your brownie fudgier, cakier or chewier and they are chocolate, butter & sugar and flour. So lets get started!

Fudgier

For an intensely dense chocolate hit

Chocolate: The more the merrier! The fudgey texture of your brownie is amplified by the fats in your chocolate so more chocolate will result in a fudgier brownie.

Butter and sugar: Melt and mix. Like I said in my cookies post, melting the butter before adding the sugar stops air bubbles from forming and making your brownie fluffy. So don’t cream your butter and sugar, gently melt your butter on the stove with your sugar instead.

Flour: Less is more. When flour is mixed with wet ingredients it forms gluten. Gluten is what makes baking tall and crunchy, which is the exact opposite of what you want in a fudgey brownie, so keep the flour to a minimum.

Cakier

For those who like them light and fluffy

Chocolate: Don’t overdo it. Chocolate is full of fats which will weigh your batter down. If you want a lovely cakey brownie limit your chocolate so that your batter will be able to rise.

Butter and sugar: Beat them into cream-mission! To create a truly cakey brownie you need to get some air bubbles into the batter. You can do this by softening your butter instead of melting it and then whipping the sugar in. The sugar will forge little holes in the butter which trap air and leave your brownie feeling light as a feather.

Flour: Less is again more. While you want your brownie to be nice and cakey, you don’t want it to be crunchy like a cookie. Since you’ve creamed the butter and sugar you have already got some air bubbles into the mixture so your brownie will be fluffy. The gluten formed by flour can turn this cakeness into crunchiness and that just isn’t what you want.

Chewier

For those who crave the chew

Chocolate: Take it out alltogether. It sounds like a bad idea, but trust me, it isn’t. Cocoa actually contains more pure chocolate liquor than chocolate anyway because it isn’t diluted with milk and sugar, so your brownie won’t be any less deliciously rich. By taking out the chocolate though, you’re removing fats and allowing for a chewier, more delicious brownie.

Butter and sugar: Melt and mix. You want chewy, not fluffy, so the melt on the stove option is the way to go for those after a chewy treat.

Flour: Go for gold! Flour is the key to a good chewy brownie. Adding more four will transform your brownie from a flat fudge to a cheerful chewy by creating some glutenous support during baking.

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Two more tips before you hit the mixing bowl

For maximum chocolate flavour: The secret to a super chocolatey brownie is in how you treat the cocoa. You want to really release the delicious flavour, and you can do this with heat. If you pour boiling water over your cocoa, or add it to your butter as you’re cooking it on the stove, the lovely flavour molecules will be broken free from their protein confines and your brownie will be all the chocolatier.

For a crunchy top: There’s nothing like a little texture contrast in food, and brownie is no exception. I love a good fudgey brownie with a crunchy top, it’s just so satisfying. And easy to achieve! The crunch is all in the sugar. You want o use white sugar, not brown. The granulated white sugar will rise to the surface as your batter bakes and dry out, creating a delightfully crunchy crust. Yum!

 

Okay so it’s finally time. I am going to share with you my absolute favourite brownie recipe. I am a huge fan of the chewy brownie, and this is hands down the best chewy brownie I have ever made. It is just so delicious!

 

Amazing Brownie - Do You Want Science With That

 

The Unbeatable Brownie Recipe

  • 140g butter
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 2 large, cold eggs
  • 1/2 cup flour

Preheat your oven to 160°C and line a 20cm square pan with baking paper.

Fill a fairly large pot with water and bring to a gentle simmer. Put the butter, sugar, cocoa powder and salt into a heatproof bowl and put it into/sit it on top of the pot. Stir while the butter melts. Once the mixture is hot and the butter is melted, take it off the pot and let it cool.

Once cool, stir in the vanilla, then the eggs, one a time. Stir vigorously until the batter looks shiny and well-blended. Stir in the flour until no streaks remain and then beat the batter for about a minute more.

Pour the batter into your lined pan and bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpic comes out of the middle with just a little bit of batter on it.

Ultimate Brownie - Do You Want Science With That

 

Mmm Brooownie…

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Super Easy Peanut Butter Easter Eggs

Peanut butter Easter eggs

 

Chocolate, bunnies and hot cross buns. Easter is totally my favourite holiday. 

For weeks in advance shops start filling up with foil wrapped goodies and smiling cardboard bunnies. Seasonal delicacies like marshmallow eggs and how cross buns lure you in every time you go to the supermarket because, well, it’s only Easter once a year right, you have to take advantage!

Crunchy Peabut butter Easter eggs

You can get easter eggs in all sorts of shapes and sizes which are filled with all kinds of fun and wrapped in all the colours of the rainbow. Aaand the internet starts getting filled up with photos of melted chocolate and outrageously delicious home made Easter treat recipes. 

Like I said, Easter is my favourite holiday.

Which is why I would like to share with you a wee recipe I recently dreamed up which uses only four simple ingredients and makes outrageously delicious eggs! As an added bonus the eggs are gluten free and are just as delicious without the chocolate coating which makes them a great option for those who are dairy free as well. 

Plus one of the main ingredients is peanut butter which has some lovely sciencey health benefits!

How is peanut butter healthy? You ask. Well, here are a few ways…

It’s full of good stuff: Peanut butter is full of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals which are all essential for good health and successful bodily functions. Which is really what we all want. 

It’s good for your heart: In 2003 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) backed the claim that eating 2 and a half tablespoons of peanut butter a day may reduce your risk of getting heart disease. Wohoo!

It might help keep the cancer away: Peanuts contain a chemical called resveratrol which is also found in grape skins and red wine. A German study on this chemical found that it might be reducing your chances of getting cancer. 

It might help with Alzheimer’s detection: In very exciting science news recently, researchers have figured out that the part of the brain that can smell peanut butter is very close to the part which is affected in those with Alzheimer’s disease. Basically if a person with Alzheimer’s disease sniffed a tub of peanut butter with their left nostril they wouldn’t be able to smell it as well as someone without the disease. This means that peanut butter could be a cheap, easy, non-invasive Alzheimer’s detection method. So cool!

 

So what are you waiting for? Scroll down and start making these magic balls of magnificence already!

Chocolate dipping

Ali’s Excellent Easter Eggs

Gluten free and dairy free if you skip the chocolate coating

  • 2 cups Peanut butter
  • 1 cup Icing sugar
  • 4 cupsCornflakes
  • Chocolate melts

Makes 28

Soften the peanut butter in the microwave and add the icing sugar and cornflakes. Mix until combined.

Roll the mixture into easter egg sized balls. Eat a couple of these eggs with a nice cup of tea and refrigerate the rest for half an hour.

Melt your chocolate melts and dip each ball into the molten chocolate and then place it on a sheet of baking paper.

Refrigerate until hard.

 

Gluten free Easter eggs

Try not to eat them all at once!

 

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The Secret to Fabulously Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes

 

berry pancakes

Whenever I’m home and mum says she’s making pancakes for breakfast, I dedicate the hour or two afterwards to a food coma.

There’s just something about pancakes. Their soft fluffieness and alluring sweet taste. Not to mention the topping choices. Lemon and sugar, bacon, bananna and maple syrup, yoghurt and berries. So much delicious!

Nothing beats a big fat fluffy pancake. But it isn’t always easy to get them so fluffy. It takes a fair amount of skill, and a little science.

Pancakes aren’t too high maintenance, the only ingredient you might not have at home already is buttermilk. This ingredient is essential though and one of the most important when it comes to making a delightfully light pancake.

Ingredients

So how do we get the fluffy?

The lovely lightness of your pancake is all thanks to three ingredients; buttermilk, baking soda and baking powder.

Why buttermilk and not standard cow milk you ask? It’s all down to the acid. You know how buttermilk is sour and tart tasting? That’s because it’s acidic, whereas normal milk is neutral. This is a super important difference when it comes to the baking soda.

Baking soda is super basic (that means it is the opposite of acidic buttermilk). When a base reacts with an acid, it results in a chemical reaction which produces salt, water and carbon dioxide. As you mix your buttermilk and baking soda this reaction causes little carbon dioxide bubbles to form in your batter.

You want to make the most of these bubbles too, because they won’t last forever. So make sure your pan is hot and buttered before you mix your wet ingredients with your dry ones.

Mixing

So how do pancakes with regular milk rise you ask?

They use baking powder! Baking powder is just baking soda with a powdered acid added. The acid reacts with the basic baking soda when water is added, which releases the same carbon dioxide bubbles. These days baking powders are pretty fancy, and actually release a second round of bubbles when the mixture is heated, but if you want to take advantage of both rounds of bubbles (for maximum fluffy) you need to cook the batter as soon as you’ve combined the wet and dry ingredients too.

So if baking powder does the same thing as baking soda, but with less effort, why bother with the soda?

It’s all about the browning.

Have you ever wondered how pancake chefs achieve that glorious golden brown colour, when your pancakes are always a pasty off white? Their recipes are taking advantage of the Maillard Reaction. This is when your pancake batter starts to cook and the amino acids from the protiens bond with the carbon and oxygen in your sugar. The result is a delicious combination of lots of delightful smelling flavour molecules. The Maillard reaction is the genius behind the deliciously bold and aromatic flavours in coffee, malt whiskey, maple syrup and baked bread.

Sounds fantastic right? And it’s super easy to get it to happen in your pancake too.

This is where the baking soda comes in. The Maillard Reaction happens in basic conditions, and baking soda is a base remember? So once you’ve added enough baking soda to neutralize your buttermilk’s acidity, the rest will make your pancakes lovely and brown. Like a friendly bear.

Cooking

And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for, the recipe!

This is (in my humble opinion) the most intelligently engineered fluffy pancake recipe. It is delightfully fluffy and oh so brown. Mmm.

 

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So Fluffy I’m Going to Die Pancakes

Wet stuff

  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 50g melted butter

Dry stuff

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt

Combine all the wet ingredients in one bowl, and all the dry ingredients in another.

Heat up your pan until it makes water sizzle when it touches it.

Pour your wet ingredients into the dry ones and mix until just combined. The mixture should be thick and lumpy, don’t overmix it!

Melt a small lump of batter in your pan and start cooking your pancakes. They’re ready to be flipped when you can see lots of bubbles have risen to the surface.

Top with whatever you like and enjoy!

 

Yoghurt and berries

Yoghurt and berries is one of my favourite pancake toppings.

Bacon

Although some prefer a manlier option!

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How Do You Like Your Cookies – Crunchy or Chewy?

Cookies

I have a serious weakness when it comes to cookies. Cookies are my Kryptonite. I choose cookies over human contact at least twice a week.

Because of this I have baked far more than my fair share of the crumbly morsels of magic and have lots of cookie recipes under my belt.

The way I see it, in the wonderful world of cookies there are two families – the soft, chewy cookies and their crunchy rounder cousins. In my eyes, both kinds of cookie have their merits and I don’t want to go around picking favourites. With that said, it is true that sometimes you want a chewy cookie and sometimes you crave the crunch. Luckily, this is where science comes in to play.

Any cookie recipe, whether it be for  afghans, peanut butter cookies or good old choc chippies, can be used to make both a chewy or a crunchy cookie. All it takes to switch between the two is a little science.

There are three ingredients which can be altered to change the type of cookie you create: butter, egg and sugar.

Butter

Butter

How many times have you popped your lump of butter into the microwave, punched in a random combination of numbers and pressed start, then opened your microwave door later to find that the fluffy soft butter you expected had transformed into bubbling butter juice? Figured it won’t make any difference? It does!

Melted butter = Chewy cookies

Softened butter = Crunchy cookies

Butter - Soft vs Melted

Why? I hear you ask.

When you beat sugar into softened butter it creates air bubbles in the batter. This is because the sugar crystals create little holes and the fat molecules trap air in them. When you bake the cookies these bubbles fill with carbon dioxide from the baking soda resulting in an airy, crunchier cookie.

Melted butter, on the other hand, doesn’t add to the structure of your cookie. This is because both the crystalline and the soft fats are liquid and so won’t trap any air. Butter in this form will just add delicious rich flavour and moistness to your cookie.

Egg

Lets talk about eggs ba-by, lets talk about you and me.

Eggs

Eggs play a vital role in holding together your scrumptious cookie, and can be easily divided into two parts; the crunch maker and the orange balls of chew.

White = Crunchy cookies

Yolk = Chewy cookies

Eggs - Yolk vs White

As any good gym buff knows, eggs are full of protein. When it comes to you cookies though, it is the water and fat in the eggs that are most important.

Egg whites contain a lot of water, which is great for the crunchy cookie lover. When water is combined with flour it makes gluten. This is a strong, stretchy bunch of connected proteins which hold up your cookie, making it taller and crunchier.

On the other hand, egg yolks are full of a bundle of fat. Gluten can’t form in fat, which means less will be formed, resulting in a softer, chewier cookie.

Sugar

Mmmm, sugar.

This is the ingredient that has us giggling like a tickled penguin when we bite into our freshly baked cookie. White, brown, caster, coarse, raw or powdered, as long as it isn’t an artificial sweetener it’s good right? Right. But the type of sugar you use also affects the chewiness of your cookie.

sugars

Brown sugar = Chewy cookies

White sugar = Crunchy cookies

I love brown sugar. I could eat it by the tablespoon. I do eat it by the tablespoon.

Brown sugar is mostly sucrose, along with some glucose and fructose. Glucose and fructose are hygroscopic, meaning they hold onto water. This means that when you use brown sugar it doesn’t release much water, resulting in less gluten formation. And what does less gluten mean? More chewy!

White sugar on the other hand is pure sucrose. Sucrose isn’t very hygroscopic at all, which means it gives up lots of water as it bakes. This means (you guessed it) more gluten formation and a crunchier cookie.

So there you have it, everything you need to make batches of cookies Nigella would be proud of.

So get baking!

Cookie stack

Here is one of my personal favourite cookie recipes

Chocolate Chip Cookies

  • 200g softened butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars, then add eggs and vanilla essence.

In a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder and salt.

Pour dry ingredients into butter mixture and fold a few times. Add chocolate chips and fold again until just combined. Don’t over mix!

Refrigerate for 12-36 hours. I understand that this isn’t always easy (or possible) to do. When you need cookie, you need cookie. But it really does make a huge difference to how delicious your cookie is. It will be worth it i swear!

Form into evenly sized balls and bake at 180°C for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.

cookies with milk

Now pour yourself a tall glass of milk and enjoy, after all, cookies are best served warm!

 

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