Experiments of a culinary chemist

Dorset naga chilli and giant courgette chutney

My dorset naga chilli, grown locally

Start with one dorset naga chilli, grown locally.

So, today I decided to use up the dorset naga chilli we picked at Edible Ornamentals in Chawston, Bedfordshire. I also had an oversized courgette-turned-marrow, and had a craving for something to replace tamarind chutney in the chaat that I was also craving (more of which later). Anyway, after reading numerous recipes online for how to make chutney (this is my first experiment in chutney), this is how my experiment went…

3 onions: dice and sautee
1 dorset naga chilli: chop finely with rubber gloves on, add to onion

Chopping the main ingredient

Chopping the main ingredient, with rubber gloves for protection.

The Dorset Naga is, according to Wikipedia, the Naga Morich chilli, and is a subspecies of the Red Naga aka Ghost chilli, which is apparently being developed into a weapon (like pepper spray) in India…! Wikipedia also tells me that both of these chillis can have a Maximum Scoville Rating of >1,000,000. This is a measure of the capsaicin (C18H27NO3) in the fruit, which is the molecule that makes chillis “hot”. Between 2007 and 2012, the Red Naga was hottest in the world, at 400 times hotter than Tabasco!

Knowing all this, I tried a little bit raw. It was indeed hot, but nibbling on a little piece did not, thankfully, incapacitate me. I was, therefore, able to continue with the cooking after a small glass of milk and a briefly runny nose! Sorry, probably shouldn’t mention that kind of thing when describing food. However, this is my experimental lab book, so I feel compelled to record what happens. It was actually quite tasty, with a kind of savoury flavour, aside from the hotness.

And as an aside about the effectiveness of milk for reducing the burning. It’s definitely better than water, as capsaicin is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn’t dissolve in water. Drinks that contain fat (eg milk) or alcohol will remove the capsaicin better, although there’s also the risk of the liquid simply spreading the heat around your mouth. Which definitely happens! So I recommend alcohol as it also dulls the senses.

Anyway, to continue with the recipe…

The hottest chilli I've ever tasted, chopped as finely as my patience allowed.

The hottest chilli I’ve ever tasted (and I did try some!), chopped as finely as my patience allowed.

2 mild + one quite hot chilli: ditto
A load of marrow-courgette: dice and add to pan. I cut off the hard skin and the seeds that were more like squash than courgette.
1 tomato: dice and add to pan.
1 small green apple: ditto, and added the core for the pectin to help set the chutney. (not sure if that did much really)

Then add:
Large pinch ground ginger
Few coriander seeds (these were good, might add as much as a half or even a whole teaspoon next time)
Few crunches of ground coriander
Salt, pepper
Big squeeze tomato puree/leftover tomato sauce plus a bit of water
Probably about 200-300ml vinegar (cider and white wine). Being a pretty rubbish experimentalist, I didn’t measure this, just chucked in what seemed “about right”.
A load of sugar, just poured in to taste. Possibly about 100g.

The ingredients simmering in the pan

The ingredients (including apple core) simmering in the pan.

I didn’t assemble the ingredients beforehand for a nice picture, like they do on TV, or on less shambolic blogs. That was because I was making it up as I went along, but for the record, here’s some of the ingredients once I’d finished putting it all in the pan:

Some, but not all, of the ingredients needed for this chutney.

Some, but not all, of the ingredients needed for this chutney. Plus an empty milk glass, which I drank after eating a small piece of the dorset naga raw.

I then simmered the ingredients for about 45-60 minutes until it seemed about done, tasted good, and had made the whole room smell like vinegar. I cooked a jar at 130C in the oven for about half an hour, and then once both the chutney and jar cooled put the former in the latter. I also immediately used it in a made up chaat recipe (which will be my next post), as it was very chilli-hot but only mildly spiced, tangy and a bit sour, but also savoury and delicious!

So all in all, a very successful experiment. It might not last as long as proper chutney (don’t think I added enough vinegar or sugar to preserve it for that long). I guess I’ll find out, if I don’t eat it all first!

My dorset naga chilli chutney. Deliciously hot!

My dorset naga chilli chutney. Deliciously hot!

Best savoury pancakes

From Evernote:

Best savoury pancakes

We had the best pancakes for pancake day today: fill with leftover tomato pizza/pasta sauce; sauteed mushrooms, garlic and baby spinach greens; smoked cheddar, fresh flat leaf parsley. Fold/wrap into burrito shape, place in oven while you make the rest. SO GOOD.

I shall now abstain from eating flesh for the whole of lent 😉

Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fat Choi!

From Evernote:

Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fat Choi!

Although I wanted to blog about some delicious and adventurous CNY concoction, I haven’t done any actual cooking for Chinese New Year! I spent Chinese New Year’s eve eating my mum’s food, pretty much all day, rather than making my own. The only things I made were 3 pink coloured rice dumplings (one of which may or may not be pictured), although to be precise, I merely shaped them. My mum and my sister did the rest! They are just made of glutinous rice flour, which you make a dough out of. The more you knead, the smoother and nicer the texture. They are boiled, and when cooked are put into a ‘soup’ of brown sugar water to serve. The texture is nice and chewy, but they don’t taste of much. We all helped in shaping them, as is traditional. So, although I didn’t quite get around to making some vegetarian pau or custard tarts, I did learn a little about making tangyuan (literally "dumplings in soup"). Happy year of the snake, everyone!

My water (aka Mickey Mouse head) bread rolls

From Evernote:

My water / Mickey Mouse bread rolls

These are my awesome bread rolls. They have grown into the shape of an H2O molecule, or a Mickey Mouse head. Remember kids, when you drink water, you’re drinking trillions (if not quadrillions) of Mickey Mouse heads.

Green curry noodles

From Evernote:

Green curry noodles

Green curry, but add Thai noodle sticks instead of serving with rice.
Lemongrass, kaffir lime, chilli, ginger/galangal, garlic, shallot / spring onion, pepper, pinch of cumin and coriander. Coconut cream, sprouts halved (really good!) , green beans (ok), lettuce. Could try peas, courgette etc. Added omelette (with dash soya sauce) on top, and Greek or sweet basil. Make sure it’s salty and spicy enough, as noodles really bland it out.

Evernote:Paella

From Evernote:

Paella

Veggie paella experiment:
Fry an onion (I used chilli oil, which made it a bit too chilli-hot for a paella).
Once translucent, I added a diced fennel bulb, a few chopped mushrooms, chopped garlic, green beans, and fried for a bit.
Then added 150g rice (75g pp) and fried through. Added leftover tomato sauce (tomato puree pizza/pasta sauce) at this point instead of more oil. Possibly could add dry white wine/sherry at this point, but the flavours are so strong, this might be a waste!
Added ~1tsp of (ancient i.e. stale) paprika flakes and several shakes of normal sweet paprika powder, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mixed it all through. The added a small pinch of saffron that was soaked in hot water, with the water. Then added about a pint of veggie stock (made with leek and fennel). Mixed through so evenly combined, and then put pan on lowest heat. Put the courgette on top as you can see. Cook for a while, maybe 20 mins to half an hour. I moved the pan around a bit to try and get heat to all parts of the big frying pan, as you don’t stir at all. The rice still seemed rather undercooked at the edges (middle was ok) so I added the chickpeas (tinned in salted water) and scooped the liquid over the edges which were still undercooked. Sprinkled more paprika, cooked until rice was done.
Left it off the heat with a plate covering it got 5 mins (I was impatient) to “rest” before serving.

Improvements:
Courgettes didn’t bring anything to the paella party. I only used because I had them in my fridge for the past week! Instead, it would be better to use greens or beans I think – kale, broccoli, broad beans, green beans, peas or something similar that would cook ok. Chris said sprouts, but I’m not so sure.
Use less chilli oil next time, as the heat was a bit out of place. Maybe a mix of chili oil and plain olive oil, as a little heat is nice.
Could possibly also add parsley at end. Should probably have added wedges of lemon too. As if a vegetarian paella wasn’t heresy enough!

Evernote:Risotto and artichoke stock

From Evernote:

Risotto and artichoke stock

Used water from cooking artichokes for stock. It was blue, but didn’t colour the risotto. Had sprouts, green beans, asparagus, leek, onion, celery, fennel. Excellent!

A new regime

I have an unsurprising confession: that I never blog about the majority of my culinary experiments. To inject some new life into this blog, I’m going to start posting my brief notes on cooking experiments here. They won’t be fully formed blog posts as such, but I’m hoping that by posting them I might feel more motivated to expand upon them.

I’ll start by posting a bunch of backlog notes. I think they will all be headed ‘Evernote’ because that’s what I use to note down things I know I’ll forget, but want to keep track of. Enjoy the ensuing shambles!

Chestnut cupcake experiment

Preparation

I’ve had a jar of chestnut puree in my cupboard for too long to admit to, so today I thought I’d use it. Now I realise why I hadn’t used it yet — it was pretty hard to find a recipe I wanted to try. I kept running into Buche de Noel, but it’s not quite Noel and I wanted something a lot less fancy than that.

I plumped for a recipe on someone’s blog, and only after I finished making the cakes did I realise that this recipe had originated on the BBC Good Food website and gone via several blogs. I had actually dismissed the BBC recipe because of the unfavourable comments, and because it calls for unsweetened chestnut puree and mine is 60% sugar!

The chain of blogs that links this post to the original recipe is as follows:

1. Here

2. http://kuhinjazaposlenezene.blogspot.co.uk

3. http://www.poiresauchocolat.net

4. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com

I used the recipe at link #2 (sans ganache) as I didn’t follow the chain on to any of the others. Here’s how I got on (italics denote what I’ve copied from link #2).

Method

Chocolate Chestnut Cupcakes
For the cake:
215g chestnut puree (I used about 230g)
3 eggs
90g golden caster sugar (I used about 110g)
100g ground almonds
1/2 tsp baking powder
(I also added about 2 tbsp plain flour)

Line a 12 muffin tin with cases. Preheat the oven to 170C. Whisk the eggs and sugar with electric mixer until doubled in size, pale and holds shape.

OK, so this brought back tortuous memories of trying to make mayonnaise a few years ago. That was a complete and unsalvageable disaster, so I felt that this did not bode well for me to start with. So I did as instructed with my electric whisk.

Whisking phase 1: not looking promising. Yet.

Whisking phase 1: not looking promising. Yet.

And at first I was worried this would be another unmitigated egg disaster. But I persisted with the whisking. It seemed really runny though, and I was of little faith, so I added 20g extra caster sugar. After 15 more minutes of whisking (in addition to maybe 5 minutes before) I got this:

After 15 minutes more at the whisk

Whisking phase 2: After 15 minutes more at the whisk

Because of my terrible photography (this ain’t your usual foodie blog!) you can’t really tell, but it had roughly doubled in size and went a lot paler in colour. It most definitely didn’t hold it’s shape, but I figured I’d used up enough electricity and patience whisking this baby and moved on with my fingers crossed.

While the cakes were cooking, I flipped through McGee On Food and Cooking* to see if I could find and help on this method, as I thought it was likely to fail as I didn’t persist with the whisking long enough. I didn’t find a comprehensive answer, but I did find out a few nuggets. I found out that the 3 enemies of an egg white foam are (1) egg yolks, (2) oils/fats and (3) detergents. Hmm, I thought. This explains why it was not really foaming up very well – I was using whole eggs. Also, adding sugar delays the formation of the foam — another reason. The proteins in the egg white unfold when they are whisked, and are able to form a fairly strong matrix of bubbles. The proteins in the yolk don’t do this as readily, so it was bound to be difficult to make the whisked egg hold it’s shape, especially mixed with sugar. It might be easier to add the sugar after the egg has foamed up.

Add the chestnut puree into the eggs and beat it with a fork until smooth.  Sift over the ground almonds and baking powder, adding any bigger pieces of almond at the end. Fold in carefully but throughly. Divide between the cases Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown and firm to touch. 

OK, this bit was pretty easy. I added a bit more puree (because as the puree was only 40% chestnut, I thought it could do with an extra scoop for luck). Then I added 2 sifted tablespoons of plain flour, to compensate for the excess sugar. I know these were minor tweaks, but I didn’t want to fiddle too much with a recipe I’d never tried before.

Uncooked chestnut cupcakes

Uncooked chestnut cupcakes

And then in the oven at 170C for 25 minutes. I left them in an extra few minutes (the time it took me to wash some grapes and eat them, to be precise) as the middle ones looked pasty. They still looked pasty when I took them out, but I thought I’d find out if they would be ok pasty. My oven is a gas oven (heated from the back at the bottom), and has very shiny metal sides. I think the radiation from these interior surfaces makes the oven hotter near the edges.

Cooked chestnut cupcakes

Cooked chestnut cupcakes

Conclusion

After letting them cool for about 5 minutes in the tray, I noticed they’d sunk a bit. This may be the weak foam letting me down. The foam should solidify as it cools, but when the cake sinks I guess this doesn’t happen quickly enough. I moved them to cool on a rack so they’d cool a bit more evenly, and they didn’t sink too much more. Apparently, soo much sugar in a recipe can cause cakes to sink, so this might have been my problem (especially as I added extra sugar to make my egg/sugar mix less watery). To taste, they were more sugary than I’d like, but the chestnut flavour was good, as was the vanilla that was in the puree too. The texture was not that dense considering the recipe, but very sticky, which I quite liked. They would go well with a dark chocolate ganache on top, as suggested in the recipe (although that would be a very rich dessert). Unfortunately, I didn’t have any cream or dark chocolate to make it this time.

Slightly cooled, slightly sunken cooked chestnut cupcakes

Slightly cooled, slightly sunken cooked chestnut cupcakes. You can see the difference in colour of the pasty ones from the middle oven.

Evaluation

Next time, what would I do differently? Well, for starters I’d follow the recipe correctly with chestnut puree that was 100% chestnut, and to persist with the egg whisking as instructed. That would probably be enough to make them really perfect. To be adventurous, I could try whisking the egg first until it foams, and then add the sugar (and continue to whisk until incorporated).

And next time, I should definitely take a photo of the crumb, as it’s easier than trying to describe it. Alas, I had eaten my whole cake before I thought of that, and I am giving the others away. Next time, next time…

*McGee on Food and Cooking is the Seinfeld and Pandis** of cooking.

**Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: From Air Pollution to Climate Change by Seinfeld and Pandis is the Bible*** for atmospheric chemists.

***The Bible is one of, if not the, best selling books of all time, and is an an invaluable reference text containing wisdom and advice for living your life.

Spiced zucchini cake: a symptom of vegetable anxiety

Since I have been getting a veg box delivery, I have had a permanent vegetable anxiety. The anxiety is binary, so at least I do have some variation. In the first few days after a delivery, I have the desperate feeling that I must eat all the vegetables as quickly as possible, so that they are at their best.

About half way through the week, I then feel like I have a dearth of vegetables to cook, mainly because anything that’s left is not at its best, and is probably a muddy carrot or a half eaten cabbage from the delivery before last. What I should do is adopt the age-old tradition of preserving my vegetables, not only by pickling and chutneyfying as is traditional, but also by simply making massive batches of freezable dinners. It’ll take me a while to get into such habits though, so in the meantime I thought I’d use up some courgettes in a cake.

The recipe that most took my fancy was one from the Apple and Spice blog. I initially assumed it was an American blog, as this was a “spiced zucchini cake”. However, I now realise Katie from Apple and Spice is also from Bedford. What are the chances? Anyone? That’s a serious question, for anyone who is good at probabilities.

Anyway, I gave Katie’s recipe a go, using plain flour (more of which later) instead of gluten free SR plus the extra baking powder as recommended, and a whole teaspoon of cinnamon, and it turned out very delicious indeed. It even went down well with Craig, who has an aversion to green vegetables!

Here are some pictures from the escapade… (As I’m following a recipe, this doesn’t count as one of my experiments.)

a single giant courgette, grated

The inspiration for the cake — one giant courgette, grated. I squeezed out as much liquid as I could from the grated courgette before using it, as that would be a LOT of excess water in the cake, which possibly wouldn’t have done it any good.

The cake mix uses oil instead of butter, and I found this quite an unusual cake in that respect. There was a lot less fat in the cake relative to other ingredients compared to a sponge cake. The egg and sugar was first mixed, and then the oil added gradually while mixing. This reminded my of my ill-executed attempt to make mayonnaise by hand once. Never again.

As I’d used my sieve to drain the grated courgette in (and it still contained soggy bits of courgette), I decided not to sift my “no need to sift” flour. INCORRECT! I should have sifted it. See the photographic evidence below of what happens to unsifted “no need to sift” flour.

"no need to sift" my arse!

sift your flour, or you might get flour spheres

Little  and not-so-little spheres of flour remained intact within the batter. I had to mix the batter while it was in the cake tin to try and disperse them! So, not only does sifting make your cakes more light and airy, it also makes them less-full-of-flour-spheres. I think I got them all pretty much, so all was well in the end. I mixed some lemon juice with about 60g of fondant icing sugar (slightly different to Kate’s suggestion), and drizzled it on the cake to make it look all pretty. I could eat it all over again!

[Unfortunately, I used my other giant courgette to make fritters: grated, squeezed courgette, with some flour, an egg, some dill, some mint, some feta, salt and pepper, shallow fried until golden. It was a borderline win; only borderline because they didn’t stick together very well, and I added too much mint and dill so they were a bit sweet. But they did use up my last big courgette, so I can’t make another courgette cake.]

the finished courgette cake