Eugenia Cheng, author of How to Bake Pi, on Colbert Tonight

The author of one of the best math (and cooking) books of the year is on Stephen Colbert's show tonight.

Earlier this year, I read Eugenia Cheng’s brilliant book How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics. Tonight she’s appearing (along with Daniel Craig apparently) on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I encourage everyone to watch it and read her book when they get the chance.

How-to-bake-pi

You can also read more about her appearance from Category Theorist John Carlos Baez here: Cakes, Custard, Categories and Colbert | The n-Category Café

My brief review of her book on GoodReads.com:

How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsHow to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While most of the book is material I’ve known for a long time, it’s very well structured and presented in a clean and clear manner. Though a small portion is about category theory and gives some of the “flavor” of the subject, the majority is about how abstract mathematics works in general.

I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to have a clear picture of what mathematics really is or how it should be properly thought about and practiced (hint: it’s not the pablum you memorized in high school or even in calculus or linear algebra). Many books talk about the beauty of math, while this one actually makes steps towards actually showing the reader how to appreciate that beauty.

Like many popular books about math, this one actually has very little that goes beyond the 5th grade level, but in examples that are very helpfully illuminating given their elementary nature. The extended food metaphors and recipes throughout the book fit in wonderfully with the abstract nature of math – perhaps this is why I love cooking so much myself.

I wish I’d read this book in high school to have a better picture of the forest of mathematics.

More thoughts to come…

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Identifying Food Fraud | University of East Anglia

Concerned with where your food is coming from? The University of East Anglia in association with the Institute of Food Research is offering a free course on Identifying Food Fraud.

Two of my favorite topics: Food and Science!

The University of East Anglia in the UK in association with the Institute of Food Research is offering a free four week course Identifying Food Fraud.  It’s an introduction to modern analytical science techniques and how they can be used to uncover food fraud.

Identifying Food Fraud

I know many people who could identify a fake Louis Vuitton (LVMH) purse, a knock off Christian Louboutin, or a sham Rolex, but who simultaneously are overly religious about their food brands and topics like organic food and couldn’t similarly identify the fakes they’re eating because of fraud in food labeling and misdirection and legerdemain within the food supply chain.  Finally there’s a course to help everyone become smarter consumers.

The food industry is one of the most important commercial sectors in the world. Everyone uses it, but how many people abuse it? As we witness the increasing globalisation of the supply chain, a growing challenge is verifying the questionable identity of raw materials in the food we eat.

In this course we will look at topical issues concerning ‘food fraud’ and explore ways in which analytical chemistry can help in its identification and prevention. We’ll share fascinating examples, such as the history of white bread and a surprising ingredient once found in bitter beer.

The University of East Anglia has joined forces with the world-renowned Institute of Food Research (IFR) to bring you this unique course. You’ll be led by Kate Kemsley, a specialist in the use of advanced instrumentation for measuring the chemical composition of food materials. Course content is linked with UEA’s MChem postgraduate programme, which supports final-year students’ practical research projects in this area of science.

Source: Identifying Food Fraud – UEA (University of East Anglia)

For those interested the course starts on October 26, 2015.

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Is Flaxseed Oil The Ultimate Way to Season Cast Iron?

Quick literature review for seasoning cast iron for some pending research.

There are thousands of websites out there with details and instructions on how to properly season your cast iron cooking implements. Sadly, very few, if any, actually discuss the science behind what is going on or why one method is better than another. All of them typically reference dozens of oils and fats that should or shouldn’t be used with little or no justification for their choices other than the culinary equivalent of old wives tales.

Flaxseed Oil for Seasoning Cast Iron

About two seasonings ago, I had come across an interesting concept surrounding flaxseed oil and have always meant to try it, but wanted to do some tests and comparisons of my own.  After some research, I’ve found Sheryl Canter’s original article which now seems to be referenced by most serious food blogs and sites. I’ll try some tests with in the coming weeks and hopefully get around to reporting some of the results. Time to get the trusty microscope out for some photomicrography!

In the meanwhile, here are some links to what appear to be the forefront of material out there on the subject.

Supporting Ideas and Criticism:

Harold McGee on Cast Iron

The inimitable McGee has relatively little to say on the subject, so I’ll quote it briefly below:

IRON AND STEEL

Iron was a relatively late discovery because it exists in the earth’s crust primarily in the form of oxides, and had to be encountered in it’s pure form by accident, perhaps when a fire was built on an outcropping of ore. Iron artifacts have been found that date from 3000 BCE, though the Iron Age, when the metal came into regular use without replacing copper and bronze (a copper-tin alloy) in preeminence, is said to begin around 1200 BCE. Cast iron is alloyed with about 3% carbon to harden the metal, and also contains some silicon; carbon steel contains less carbon, and is heat-treated to obtain a less brittle, tougher alloy that can be formed into thinner pans.  The chief attractions of cast iron and carbon steel in kitchen work are their cheapness and safety.  Excess iron is readily eliminated from the body, and most people can actually benefit from additional dietary iron.  Their greatest disadvantage is a tendency to corrode, though this can be avoided by regular seasoning (below) and gentle cleaning. Like aluminum, iron and carbon steel can discolor foods. And iron turns out to be a poorer conductor of heat than copper or aluminum. But exactly for this reason, and because it’s denser than aluminum, a cast iron pan will absorb more heat and hold it longer than a similar aluminum pan. Thick cast iron pans provide steady, even heat.

“Seasoning” Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Cooks who appreciate cast iron and carbon steel pans improve their easily corroded surface by building up an artificial protective layer.  They “season” them by coating them with cooking oil and heating them for several hours. The oil penetrates into the pores and fissures of the metal, sealing it from the attack of air and water. And the combination of heat, metal, and air oxidizes the fatty acid chains and enourages them to bond to each other (“polymerize”) to form a dense, hard, dry layer (just as linseed and other “drying oils” do on wood and on painintgs).  Highly unsaturated oils — soy oil, corn oil — are expecially prone to oxidation and polymerizing. To avoid removing the protective oil layer, cooks carefully clean seasoned cast iron pans with mild soaps and dissolving abrassive like salt, rather than with detergents and scouring pads.

Harold McGee (1951- ), food science writer
in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Scribner, revised edition 2004)

It’s almost immediately apparent that Canter was inspired to use flaxseed oil by the standard go-to reference which mentions “linseed and other ‘drying oils'”.  Since it’s somewhat illustrative of cast iron pans in general, though it doesn’t reference seasoning, I’ll also direct the reader to McGee’s article What’s Hot, What’s Not, in Pots and Pans (New York Times, October 7, 2008) as well as Dave Arnold’s article Heavy Metal: the Science of Cast Iron Cooking.

I’ll note that the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef (Wiley, 7th edition, 2001) only mentions cast iron in passing on page 91 and doesn’t even use the word seasoning. (There is a more recent 9th edition, which I don’t own, but I doubt it has additional information given the scant nature found in the 7th edition.) Similarly “Iron Chef” Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) has some generally fine directions for the beginning chef interested in science, but it doesn’t go past either McGee or the bulk of the online blogs with the common wisdom for cast iron.

cast iorn pan
A well-seasoned (manteca) cast iron pan cooking hashbrowns

In the coming research, I’ll delve into some of the journal literature to see what else I come up with, though I expect that it will be scant at best and not much more than the often cited July 1986 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association which discusses iron leaching out of pans into food substances.

Anyone with serious thoughts and ideas in this area is encouraged to share them in the comments.

 

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I’m a sucker for references to math and pastry

Math is about understanding processes and not just eating end results.

W

hat can I say? I’m a sucker for references to math and pastry.

 

“One of the wonderful features of math is that, like with pastry, it can use quite simple ingredients to make very complicated situations. This can also make it rather offputting, like making puff pastry. Actually, I don’t think puff pastry is that difficult if you follow the instructions carefully. But even if you don’t want to try doing it yourself, perhaps you can still enjoy the fact that such simple ingredients can turn into delicious puff pastry. Math is about understanding processes and not just eating end results.”

Eugenia Cheng, mathematician, amateur chef
in How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics (Basic Books, 2015)
 
How to Bake Pi
How to Bake Pi
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Cream Scones Recipe

5 parts flour : 1 part sugar : 1.5 parts butter : 1 parts egg : 2 parts cream : 1.5 parts fruit

Cream Scones

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Light, flaky classic scones with full flavor

Ingredients

  • flour (all purpose generally yields better results than cake)
  • sugar
  • baking powder
  • salt
  • unsalted butter (cold)
  • fruit: usually dried currants, raisins, chocolate chips, or other fruit
  • egg
  • heavy cream
  • fruit zest (orange, lemon, grapefruit, other)
  • cinnamon
  •   Mise on place for scone ingredients

Other fats could be substituted for the butter, but butter generally tastes best here.  For the small handful of health conscious non-professional home cooks, absolutely do not substitute milk for the cream, otherwise the fat ratio for the recipe will be thrown completely off and your results will be horrifying.

Ratio

5 parts flour : 1 part sugar : 1.5 parts butter  : 1 parts egg : 2 parts cream : 1.5 parts fruit

Other ingredients (approximately per part)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt per part
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 oz zest

Professional kitchens scaling the recipe beyond 75 oz of flour, may wish to use 1.25 parts of sugar for more even results.

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
  2. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until mixed thoroughly.
  3. Cut the cold butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender until the lumps of butter are just larger than the size of a pea. Any smaller and the scones will be tougher and less flaky.
  4. Mix together the cream, egg, (optional currants, raisins, fruit), and the zest, then mix into the flour/butter just until the dough comes together.
  5. Do not overwork the scone dough or the resultant scones will not be light and flaky. You should preferably be able to still see small chunks of butter in the dough.
  6. Roll the dough out into a disk about 1.5″ thick.
  7. Brush a light layer of cream (or milk) onto the top of the disk and sprinkle on a nice layer of cinnamon and sugar.
  8. Using a dough scraper cut the dough into eight equal wedges and place onto cooking sheet.
  9. Put the sheet of scone dough into the oven at 450 for 12-15 minutes until golden brown, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
  10. Cool for a few minutes and then enjoy fresh with clotted cream and fresh fruit.

Step-by-step photos

Follow the instructions in the captions below:

Ingredients for making scones
Ingredients for making scones

Mise on place for scone ingredients
Mise on place for scone ingredients
Close up of scone ingredients
Close up of scone ingredients
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt
Put the cold butter into the flour mixture.
Put the cold butter into the flour mixture.
Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until the lumps of butter are just larger than the size of a pea.
Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until the lumps of butter are just larger than the size of a pea. Any smaller and the scones will be tougher and less flaky.
Mix together the cream, egg, and the zest, then mix into the flour/butter JUST until the dough comes together.
Mix together the cream, egg, (optional currants, raisins, fruit), and the zest, then mix into the flour/butter JUST until the dough comes together.
Do not overwork the scone dough.
Do not overwork the scone dough or the resultant scones will not be light and flaky.
Roll the dough out into a disk about 1.5" thick.
Roll the dough out into a disk about 1.5″ thick.
Brush a light layer of cream (or milk) onto the top of the disk.
Brush a light layer of cream (or milk) onto the top of the disk.
Close up of the dough disk with cream. You should preferably be able to still see small chunks of butter in the dough.
Close up of the dough disk with cream. You should preferably be able to still see small chunks of butter in the dough.
Sprinkle on a nice layer of cinnamon and sugar.
Sprinkle on a nice layer of cinnamon and sugar.
Close up of the texture of the dough.
Close up of the texture of the dough.

Using a dough scraper cut the dough into eight equal wedges and place onto cooking sheet.
Using a dough scraper cut the dough into eight equal wedges and place onto cooking sheet.
Put the sheet of scone dough into the oven at 450 for 12-15 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Put the sheet of scone dough into the oven at 450 for 12-15 minutes until golden brown, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes and then enjoy fresh with clotted cream and fresh fruit.
Cool for a few minutes and then enjoy fresh with clotted cream and fresh fruit.
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Ordering In-N-Out by Chapter and Verse

Eating at In-N-Out has always been a religious experience for me, but did you know you can order almost anything they make by Bible chapter and verse?

Eating at In-N-Out has always been a religious experience for me, but today, to mix things up when ordering lunch, I tried making my order by number, but not In-N-Out’s traditional #1, #2, or #3 system.

I got myself

  • a Nahum 1:7
  • a Revelation 3:20 with cheese
  • two Proverbs 24:16s
  • two John 3:16s
  • and a Chocolate Proverbs 3:5.

What?!” you ask. “I’m all too aware of In-N-Out’s ‘Secret menu’ and have heard of a 4×4 and even a mythical 20×20, but what is a Nahum 1:7?!”

In-N-Out aficionados have probably noticed that the company prints references to Bible verses with just the book, chapter, and verse on their burger wrappers, fry containers, and on the bottom of their cups, so why not order this way as well?

For those not in-the-know, here’s the “translation” to help make your next meal more religious than it already was:

Products and Bible Verses

  • Burger and cheeseburger wrappers:

    Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

    Revelation 3:20
    In-N-Out Burger Wrapper with bible verse Revelation 3:20
    In-N-Out Burger Wrapper with bible verse Revelation 3:20
  • Beverage cups:

    For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    John 3:16
    In-N-Out soda cup with bible verse John 3:16
    In-N-Out soda cup with bible verse John 3:16
  • Milkshake cups:

    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

    Proverbs 3:5
    In-N-Out shake cup with bible verse Proverbs 3:5
    In-N-Out shake cup with bible verse Proverbs 3:5
  • Double-Double wrapper:

    The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.

    Nahum 1:7
    In-N-Out Double Double Burger Wrapper with bible verse Nahum 1:7
    In-N-Out Double Double Burger Wrapper with bible verse Nahum 1:7
  • Fry container:

    For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity.

    Proverbs 24:16
    In-N-Out French Fries with bible verse Proverbs 24:16
    In-N-Out French Fries with bible verse Proverbs 24:16

 

I’ll note a few interesting things:

  • The verse for the hamburger is about dining together with others – this is always important.
  • If you substitute the product the wrappers contain for the words “Lord,” “God,” and “Son,” there is certain sense of poetic verisimilitude in the new verses: their shakes apparently have a heavenly thickness, the double-double sounds like it will fill you up, and the sugary sodas will give you everlasting life. I wonder what would happen if we transubstantiated a hamburger bun?

Animal Style Anyone?

Now if only there were a special chapter and verse for getting my burger “animal style!”

Genesis 7:2 perhaps?

Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.

This might be far preferable to Exodus 22:19:

Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.

But let’s be honest, with all the fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol in a good-ol’ traditional #1, I’m going to die sooner than later whether it comes animal style or not.

I’m curious how many In-N-Out employees know their product so well that they can take orders this way?

 

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A Modest Proposal for Engineering Better and Faster Fast Food Consumption

"Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!" How a simple fast food staple can help save the American economy.

Fast Food in America

America is well known for its fast food culture. So well known, in fact, that it may only be second to its best-in-class health care, phenomenal education system, and overall can-do attitude. Rarely does a day go by without one seeing or hearing a few disparaging words from the mainstream media about what we choose to put into our mouths and whether those items become lodged permanently in some cases. A Google search begun with the first letters “ob…” immediately has Google guessing what we want and prompts a potential search not just for “obesity” but for the very specific phrase “obesity in America”§ and the resultant search displays just under 73 million results in about half a second.

Our obsession with fast food is legendary. Books are written about the subject, movies are made, and we support a multi-billion dollar fast food industry. But how much time do we individually spend really thinking about what we’re doing? The answer hinges on one of our favorite pastimes and is one in which the root of our obesity problem sprouts: “laziness.” (For those incapable of doing the work of thinking for themselves and who just want the quick answer to the previous question given to them, it’s: “none”.)

“Americanizing” your Fast Food Experience with Some Simple Engineering

Given that we love our fast food so much that we can’t even be bothered with thinking about it for a few minutes (otherwise how does a book entitled Wheat Belly become a best seller and major fad?), I’m always surprised that the simple engineering concept which follows isn’t more widely known. If it were, it would be right at home in our gourmand, “have-it-your-way, right-away” culture.

The simple idea follows:

In some fast food restaurants (think Burger King and In-n-Out), instead of (or in addition to) the ubiquitous ketchup packet, they allow you to fill your own container with the condiment of your choice.  But what container do they provide you with? Obviously, in keeping with the assembly line beauty and grace of our ultra-modern food manufacturing empire and our disposable home furnishings industry, it’s something simple, something very cheap, and something immediately disposable: the small paper cup! (Even legal departments could get behind this one – as long as the industry wasn’t putting any hot beverages into it, and, in part, because the patent protection had expired.)

Standard empty ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with same container full of ketchup on the right hand side.

But it’s no ordinary paper cup! It’s an honest-to-goodness feat of American ingenuity and engineering design! (At least from a time when America had those things – you remember… way back before we gave them up for the improved qualities like laziness and obesity. And everyone knows the American engineering motto: “Quality is Job #1!”)

Standard ketchup condiment container "spread out" on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
A feat of American ingenuity! (Who cares if these are called souffle cups?)

This high quality paper cup has pleats! And with a small bit of pulling around the edges of the cup, it opens right up – or “blooms” if you will.

In this process, the top edge of the cup comes down just a tad, but in exchange, the sides expand out toward the horizon in glorious near-infinite beauty. This simple effect allows one to put a significantly larger quantity of ketchup into it–particularly because the ketchup has such a high viscosity! (While I’m thinking about it has anyone considered liquefying ketchup so we could just drink it out of our big gulp cups? Maybe a French fry shake with ketchup blended in to make things easier all around?)

The Benefits of our Engineering Trick

“But it takes so much time and energy to expand out the sides of my cheap paper cup! Why should I bother?”

I know many of you are asking yourself this question because in a rapidly evolving and improving society it’s often the dichotomy of American life to maintain the status quo.  This simple expansion procedure allows you the following clear benefits:

  • You can put a lot more ketchup onto your plate and therefore ultimately into your gullet. Besides, everyone in America knows “Bigger is Better!” right? Why fill up two or three of these small cups, when one big expanded one will do? Or better yet, three big ones! (Let’s not forget our gourmand cultural heritage.)
  • It makes it easier to carry a  lot more ketchup in fewer trips from the condiment bar to your table. American pride in concepts like capitalism and increased efficiency at all costs dictates that we take fewer trips. The reduced amount of exercise is also a positive side-benefit here.
  • It makes ketchup easier to share. (I know this sharing concept is antithetical to the current American ethos, but maybe someone from one of those poor countries outside of America might be reading this? Maybe it’s a strong enough idea to quell the strife in Ukraine right now?)  No more approaching the cup at excessively steep angles to get your fries into it.  Now you can approach from a lower angle with your fat fist-full-of-fries and still hit your target.
  • Not only can you now dunk your fries, but you can actually dunk your majestic hamburger! Why waste time trying to open up that ketchup packet and squeeze some on while you’re making the effort to balance your heavy burger in your other hand? Just smash it into the ketchup and then smash it into your face! “Yipee-ki-yay Mother French Fry!”
  • Those suffering from diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and cataracts no longer have to worry about being able to get their French fry into such a tiny paper cup anymore, the size of the target is now bigger by almost an order of magnitude.
  • Use of these paper cups helps to support the American paper goods industry which churns out highly recyclable products which also have the benefit of being Green and therefore unquestioningly good for the environment. No one knows what those alternate ketchup packets are manufactured from or if they’re recyclable or not. Some fabricated laboratory studies indicate some of those packets may have heavy metals in them, which we all know are mined/sourced primarily in China.
  • And perhaps best of all, in the true spirit of America largess – there’s huge return for a very little effort! Everyone is looking for a get-rich-quick-scheme which doesn’t involve actual work, right? This is the closest you’re likely to come to it, and my friends who know a thing or two about the second law of thermodynamics agree. In fact, it might even qualify for the ethereal and long-fabled “free lunch” because, hey, most restaurants aren’t going to charge you for condiments are they?

Ketchup and the Economy

I have a deep, abiding suspicion that far too many Americans haven’t been taking advantage of these pleats in their condiment cups, and that, in fact, the marginal utility lost in manufacturing the extra unused paper when this isn’t done is very likely the root cause of the world economic crisis which began in 2008. The plummeting American efficiency numbers just weighed too heavily on our economy, but that’s a longer and more analytical story than I have space or phony facts to back up with here. (If you’re a talking head political pundit on a major cable news network, call my publicist and let’s talk.) Needless to say, if we can work this simple trick into the second grade core curriculum, I think our long term efficiency numbers will perk up and the savings realized could mean saving the beleaguered Social Security program until at least 2079.

Standard ketchup condiment container on left juxtaposed with modified container full of ketchup on the right hand side.
Super Size Me!

Footnotes:

§ Obamacare was a close second.

† I was too busy lounging on my couch watching Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on TV and eating a bag of Doritos and Twizzlers to come up with other examples like Supersize Me.

♦ Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admits almost as much in his book The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting (Penguin Press, 2013) where he indicates real estate as a leading cause of the downturn. Each of these condiment cups has a square inch of space hiding in its pleats and when multiplied over tens of thousands of cups per fast food location multiplied by thousands of fast food locations in any given year it becomes a lot of real estate rapidly, and the effect can become crippling.

‡ This also reminds me of a treatise I was reading last week called a Modest Proposal written by a political hack/wannabe writer named Swift. It wasn’t the sharpest thing I’ve heard recently, but with a few tweaks, I think his idea could make a huge dent in third world hunger and poverty and speed us along towards the goal of realizing Soylent Green in the marketplace.

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