Sunday, 29 December 2013

Unusual Materials - Rochelle Salt, Thermoplastic Starch

Rochelle Salt (Piezo Crystal)

Sometime ago my classmate Naama tipped me off to how easy it was to grow piezo crystals (potassium sodium tartrate) so I decided to try to grow some. It can be made from two easily obtainable household ingredients - Cream of Tartar (Potassium bitartrate aka potassium hydrogen tartrate) and Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate aka Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate). You will need to bake the Sodium Bicarbonate for at least an hour at 100ºC at about to turn it into Sodium Carbonate (also known as Washing Soda), during the process of which it will lose its water/hydrogen). Avoid the cheap Baking Soda or Cream of Tartar which might have cornflour or other impurities added to it.

(And as for why Cream of Tartar is called Cream of Tartar, its apparently because it is a white "creamy looking" crystal precipitate that comes out of grape juice and wine that is stored at a low temperature. Its function in baking is to be the acid ingredient which activates the baking soda (base), producing bubbles and a quick fluffy rise in whatever you are baking - as opposed to slowly waiting for baking yeast to react and produce gas. Since the function of Cream of Tartar is to be an acid in the process, that's also why some baking recipes call for alternative acids such as buttermilk or milk soured with the acidic juice of a lemon to be used together with baking soda...)

Baking the Baking Soda

Cream of Tartar

Heating the Cream of Tartar in a pot of simmering water and adding the sodium carbonate. It does need to be heated up, and when you add it it will fizz or bubble up. When it stops reacting when you add sodium carbonate the reaction is complete. And yes it really, really needs to be heated up in order for the reaction to occur.

Filtering the resultant liquid mixture into a glass

Leaving the liquid to cool outside, as it was about 4ºC outside...

You would imagine that such a small amount of liquid would not have worked well. Well, after that I brought the glass into the room and forgot completely about it for 3 days and suddenly I looked into the glass and was shocked to see a big crystal sticking out of the glass.

A large crystal had formed and had risen above the level of the liquid. Piece of cake I tell ya.

Thermoplastic Starch

Packing Peanuts

Do your packing peanuts smell like popcorn? Have you accidentally eaten or inhaled a packing peanut? As silly as this may sound I recently realized that some packing peanuts are indeed made of thermoplastic starch of sorghum or corn starch origin. An easy way to test if they are of the bio-plastic variety is to put it in a glass of water. If it dissolves, it is starch-based. I realized this after I observed out loud that the peanuts smelled edible, and then my classmate Tom put the packing peanut into his mouth (and after that he did not roll over with indigestion or die).

Friday, 27 December 2013

Science Museums and Science Centres

London's Science Museum

Recently I had a few hours to kill so I went for a quick desultory spin around the Science Museum. I would have to say that my short experience at London's Science Museum was akin to the experience I had at the Musee du Louvre: it was actually that sort of thing that seems so impressive that one is convinced that had one encountered these ideas as a young child it might have changed the course of one's life greatly. Instead of a 5 metre tall tapestry or a 26m long dinosaur skeleton its…. A DOZEN PLANES AND HUNDRED GIANT JET ENGINES COLLECTED IN ONE BIG ROOM? How's that for impressing your socks off? (Or am I just easily amused?…)

What other large institutional Science "Museums" or "Centres" had I visited in my life up to this point? I think the only other "Science" exhibition I had been to was the Science Centre in Singapore. And this is sad, because for me, there was always something alarmingly irrelevant about certain sections of the Science Centre in Singapore.

In a way, I've always found that the Singapore Science Centre was a strange place because it seems full of scripted, simplified second-hand stories of Science and hollow plastic models and replicas. Perhaps I was a bit strange, but even when I was in primary or secondary school, I was always intensely aware that each school trip or excursion must serve some underlying educational goal. And most of the time, my grim assessment would be that our excursion was nothing more as a jaunty bus ride, staring at some printed words on some mount board of which the students would not remember the day after), and then a trip to a fast food outlet before we headed back. Whilst I wouldn't say I was particularly studious, still, privately I lamented that we usually did not learn as much from the experience as one would have expected and had mostly goofed off on the way there and back (I was excellent at doing that as well, I recall making a cup of soda pop explode all over the floor by squeezing it with my hands and then being in some sort of disgrace on the way back).

Later in life I was told that it is actually expected that most students will only retain a small amount of information taught in a class or lecture, so it is not to be expected that students will absorb all that much from an educational trip to a museum or science centre. So my worries were unfounded. Fair enough. So what is it then, that the Science Museum is for? Is it then for the physical experience of the science experiment or the scientific instrument, or object? Isn't that we go to museums for, because that physical experience is still important?

And I suppose that is why it isn't a "Singapore Science Museum"; because there is absolutely no attempt to trace a history of scientific discovery at at the Science Centre. What authenticity is there to speak of, when there is no context of the history of scientific findings, and when exhibits remain as a seemingingly random collection of scientific facts and amusements with all the prerequisite sideshow items - the plasma ball, the lightning generator, the whirlpools of water, the scattering of sand with sound waves. There are even exhibits that do not seem to have been updated by over fifteen years, such as their "internet chat room" exhibit (which also did not work).

Additionally, recent acquisitions at the Singapore Science Centre were not clearly contextualised or explained. I was in the "sound" gallery earlier in the year and was shocked to see a reactable in the exhibition space. It looked quite weatherbeaten and frazzled and I could only surmise that it had been there for some time and must have been acquired for a princely sum, only for it to languish in a dark corner of the Sound Gallery.

Poor reactable at the Singapore Science Centre

Having spent considerable time and resources in the past trying to build a reactable-type setup of my own, I was horrified to find a bunch of young children unwittingly beating on it like a drum! I immediately stopped the little children from abusing the reachable, rearranged the pieces, and in great exasperation spent the next fifteen minutes explaining to them and a few other nearby polytechnic students how the damn thing worked. Sadly, I could already see that the reactable was not properly calibrated from all the senseless kicking and shaking and banging it had endured in the exhibition room, so how would the exhibit ever make the point that this was actually a really really awesome thing?

Also, now this reminds me of this depressing exhibit:

The saddest gecko ever…

Looks like the gecko is so sad that he won't even sit on his artificial rock or tree or gravel anymore. I am not sure whether exhibiting confiscated animals sends the right message - why were they not returned to the wild or sent to a wildlife facility/zoo instead of the Science Centre?

Alright enough griping of a sad situation. I suppose I do feel fortunate to be studying in an institution so close to all these museums in central london now. I suppose many notable inventions originate from Britain since it was leading the Industrial Revolution at one point, so naturally it had better have a really good Science Museum...

Science Museum London

Watt Engine

There were many magnificent engines in the main room, and in the next room, a sort of historical rundown of various innovations, right down to the small domestic devices and influence it had on popular culture.


Following which I took a detour and ended up in the ROCKETS section.

And a few wrong turns later, in the JET PLANE section.

British Airlines Plane

Cross section of a BA plane, which given my unfortunate predilection for flying BA over the last few years, was quite interesting to observe…

Model of Stansted Airport

Have you ever spent hours queuing in immigration and waiting to reenter the UK, staring at the that huge plastic membrane roof? This is the overview of the different sections divided up by walls, with one huge continuous roof supported by structural trees.

Supersonic Airliners

Domestic planes only formed a small portion as the better part of the collection was about commercial or military planes.

And then I was abruptly kicked out of the museum at 6pm when it closed. So this post ends abruptly here too.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

A Walk around Stoke Newington on Boxing Day

Yesterday I decided to walk from Stamford Hill to Stoke Newington via the residential backroads. My plan had been to go to Abney Park Cemetery (which turned out to be very muddy and full of warnings of wasp nests in the vicinity) and Clissold Park (which turned out to be very full of screaming toddlers and toy dogs). For some reason the sun had already faded by the time I actually walked down to Stoke Newington, so it seemed all grey and almost all of the shops were still shut for Christmas. Our friends were out of town, and the only people still on the street seemed to be people packing up their bags and foldable chairs into their cars after visiting the family, or people alighting from the buses with their crazy boxing day shopping bags from town. The streets were conspicuously empty. However, it was not entirely devoid of life. When I walked past the Stoke Newington Town Hall, I discovered that over the christmas holiday its entire front lawn had been quietly taken over by hundreds of little brown mushrooms, crawling out of a mound of hard black soil, and clustering right in front of the Town Hall sign.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Macro moss and macro conifers with a USB Microscope

I recently acquired a USB microscope on ebay; say hello to hours of endless scrutinizing of small things around the house! Earlier in the term I had been playing around with a microscope I found in the Design Interactions studio - looking at fibres on pieces of scotch tape and identifying which chairs had brushed past certain parcels covered in scotch tape, within the studio. An actual microscope is quite bulky and has many constraints on what you can actually examine. The USB microscope is a lot more portable, allowing one to use it to examine things in small dark corners. The plastic shield keeps it stable when you press against any sort of surface, and it also works with irregularly shaped objects which can't be pressed or flattened under a microscope slide.

Wall Screw-Moss (Tortula muralis)

This and the following specimens are all smaller than my fingernail. This moss is from the balconey, and this particular type of moss appears to be the most common moss around our area.

Pleurocapous Moss

This is another moss from the balconey. I don't know its name and can't seem to identify it but all I can tell is that it is some sort of pleurocapous mosses (which means that it grows in a freely branching pattern).


This is a sliver of cedar branch. Or at least I think it is cedar. Or maybe it could be juniper. Its really confusing, all these evergreen trees look very similar to me. I need a crash course on how to identify trees in the UK...

USB Microscope Software - Microcapture, miXScope

My microscope was a generic that looks a lot like the other microscopes on the market but cost just about £20. It came with some software for windows and mac, but the mac version seem to be quite deficient in taking pictures because it won't save to disk. That was an easy thing for me to work around as I already had Snapz Pro but later I checked out that someone else had made a workaround for it, or alternatively you can actually download an updated version of MicroCapture (v2.5) on adafruit.

Finally saving to disk... (it will automatically save to the Pictures folder on a mac)

Another alternative is to use other more professional usb microscope software such as QXScope and miXScope. Those applications aren't free but I did check a trial of them out and they also worked fine with my generic no-brand usb microscope. miXScope will let you annotate over the video which might be useful for educational purposes, make measurements, etc...


Live Annotation / Drawing

Digital Zoom

Angle Measurement

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

How the Coulibiac disappeared, and discovering Egg Nests


Russian Coulibiac - still a mystery on the inside (Image Source: wikimedia commons)

Recently I was reading an article in the New Yorker - "Notes of a Gastronome: Cooking with Daniel" by Bill Buford, in which he describes his painstaking attempts to recreate various 'lost' recipes, such as the dish known as the "coulibiac". By all accounts, the coulibiac sounds like a very complicated thing to put together well - consisting of a fish pie that has been meticulously assembled with layers of rice, hardboiled eggs, mushroom, and a pastry shell "which prevents you from knowing what is going on underneath", but which still requires that all must be timed perfectly in order to "catch fish and pastry crossing a finishing line in different degrees of doneness at the same time". It was brought to France and rose to its fame in the culinary world when it was selected for inclusion in the masterpiece "The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery", penned by the famed French Chef Auguste Escoffier, where was popular in the 1870s.

The article describes various attempts to recreate the dish from a state in which its description is nothing other than vague and for the highly trained chefs trying to make it from its original description in Escoffier's book, even they begin to suspect that something must be wrong with the dish's architecture, because of the seeming difficulty of getting both pastry and fish to agree to work together at the same time. A hilarious passage in the article describes the master chefs becoming increasingly more frustrated with each successive failure, and how the hapless coulibiac is "touched, poked, turn this way, turned back, bumped, and in every possible manner fussed with..."

From the article: "I found, in all this, a resoundingly obvious lesson: if cooking knowledge is not carefully passed from one generation to the next, it doesn't last. For instance, if you look up coulibiac in the 1938 edition of Larousse Gastronomique, you will find plenty, including an intitial account of the dish's origins, a warm pastry with fish inside, an acknowledgment of its Russianness, and a grainy photograph of a loaf-like entity, twelve steam slits on top, sitting bluntly on a platter, emanating rustic veracity. From the entry, you may not be able to replicate the dish, but you'll understand what it is. In the recent Larousse Gastronomique, published sixty-nine years later and edited by Joel Robuchon, a high prince of nouvelle cuisine, the passage has been rewritten. It has no picture, makes no mention of the vesiga, doesn't specify the pastry, and describes the dish in terms that suggest a sack that can be filled with meat, vegetables, fish, yesterday's newspapers, whatever (...) I felt like a witness to a disappearing food history. When a dish falls out of the repertoire, the know-how goes with it. In less than seventy years, it was going, it was almost gone: pfiff..."

The rest of the account of the Coulibiac is about how they trace the origins of this lost recipe; its russian roots and the French coulibiac it inspired which might take some cues from the Russian original but yet would not be obliged to follow the recipe to a tee. It appears the Coulibiac's success was all down to an obscure ingredient, the vesiga or "vyaziga" - the dried spinal marrow of a sturgeon fish in particular which will practically melt in the mouth when cooked properly, and the use of kasha buckwheat of slavic origins rather than rice. And if you look up vesiga on the internet or coulibiac you will only find too much information on an ingredient you can't find anyway.

The shifting sands of food history! I suppose food history is something I've been thinking about a lot lately ever since I got more and more excited about cooking (or about food science). I like to think I am interested in wild culinary experimentations, but simultaneously also interested in understanding traditional origins of food and making it the basis from which I experiment or deviate from - or improve on, with the power of SCIENCE! and... a trusty kitchen timer and food thermometer...

Nids d'oeufs / Egg nests

Which brings me to the story of the egg nest. One of the ingredients I have been obsessed about cooking for the last few years would be eggs. Over time, I have developed my own methods for the perfect omelette (high heat, sufficient oil, press gently with spatula in centre so the browning is perfect and even), the perfect sunny side up (break into well-oiled pan at very high heat, place pot lid over immediately, allow steam to cook the top while the bottom is perfectly browned and crisped), the perfect hardboiled egg (place egg in pot of room temperature water, bring to a boil and count four minutes from that point, then remove immediately and run under ice water so that the yolk will remain soft and slightly runny but the white will be firm but very delicately cooked). Had I the money to invest in a waterbath and a sous vide setup I would, because I would be really interested in experimenting with the temperature at which the various components of the egg cooks. And beyond the sous vide, I am a fan of the maillard reaction and the flavour it imparts to foods - and the necessity to brown certain foods in order to bring out a specific flavour. You could say that I've obsessed over the methods in which one can cook a simple egg for many years.

So it comes to my surprise that eventually after all this time I have finally encountered a recipe for an "Egg Nest". The website describes that the recipe comes from a children's cookbook "La cuisine est un jeu d'enfants" by Michel Oliver, in which egg whites and egg yolks are seperated and the egg whites are beaten into soft peaks, after which grated gruyere cheese and a pinch of salt for each egg is introduced into the whites and folded in.


The fluffy nests of egg whites are arranged on a baking tray and baked for 3 minutes on their own at 230ªC, after which the yolks are introduced back into the centre of the nests and baked for another 3 minutes. After which you can invite it to the party in your mouth...

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The result is an airy, puffy egg with the mildness of the gruyere with gorgeously browned peaks as the proteins in egg whites and the gruyere cheese are wont to do. How can it be that there is no other common term for this method of cooking eggs? I can understand how Chinese-style steamed eggs may not be as popular in the western world, but the egg nest itself seems so fiendishly simple and logical to prepare in a western kitchen, so why hasn't it become more popular? Why don't we have a special name for it, like how we do have a name for devilled eggs?

In any case, I think the discovery of the recipe of the Egg Nest fills me with hope that since even the well-explored territory of egg cooking has clearly not reached its limits, surely there must be so many more methods and recipes to be discovered, either through experimentation or the rediscovery of lost recipes....

In the interest of people who may find my food shenanigans out of line with the general theme of this blog, here's a summarised description of my recent notable bakes/cooks (so you will only have to see it once and all in one post):

Japanese Cheesecake

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I made this for George's birthday the other day - the main weighing scale was broken so I guesstimated everything using a tablespoon. Surprisingly it did not fall apart. Usually how these things come about is that I read a few recipes from books or online and then make up something logical from the lot of them and what I understand from the purpose of each ingredient. The amounts I had been aiming for were:

5 egg whites - to be whisked into soft peaks
60 g unsalted butter - warmed until melted
5 egg yolks
250 g cream cheese (in the UK this is called SOFT CHEESE) - warm it until soft
60 g plain flour
20 g corn flour
130 g castor sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Combine all without flattening the mixture too much and pour into cake pan lined with many layers of tinfoil on the outside. Find an EVEN BIGGER baking tray and half-submerge your cake pan in a waterbath of boiling water and bake this entire precariously watery cake bath setup in the oven at 160ªC for 1 hour, then reduce to 150ªC and bake for another half hour, then finally take out of the water bath and let it rest for at least fifteen minutes before serving. It may be better served chilled depending on your preferences.

Potemkin Apple Pie


What is an apple pie? Surely the basics of it must be sugar, and apple, and pastry. And besides the pastry, sugar and apples are common things to be found in the average kitchen. So why couldn't we make an apple pie on the spur of the moment, if we had the pastry also sorted? I noticed recently that there were pre-made pastry rolls available at the Sainsbury's, since our flatmate Salsa has been making lots of tasty Boreks with filo pastry. I bought a roll of shortbread pastry the other day for food emergencies and sure enough there came a day when the George desired a sweet dessert, and I was sure that I could invent an apple pie out of whatever we had in the house.

You just need:
1 apple
A handful of raisins
Dark muscovado sugar
A dash of cinnamon
Pre-made Pastry

In a small pastry dish, assemble a pastry sculpture which resembles the stereotypical image of a lattice top apple pie. Inside this pie, liberally smear the sugar all over the apple slices and the raisins. With some luck it will look a bit like an apple pie and actually taste similar to a primitive apple pie. With some luck you'll have everyone fooled that you know what is an apple pie in no time.

Banana Cupcake

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This was the maddest banana cupcake ever. There were two very sad and very soft bananas languishing in the food cabinet. So i decided to bake them into a cupcake. It is unreal that two sad and old bananas make twelve very awesome banana cupcakes. Are cupcakes really so simple?

125 g caster sugar
125 g unsalted butter
125 g plain flour
2 eggs
2 tsp baking powder or sodium bicarbonate
2 or more ripe bananas, mashed with a fork
Some nuts if you fancy

Mix everything together, pour into cupcake trays and bake at 180ªC for about 20-25 min or until golden on top.

Chinese Braised Tau Pok (Tofu Puff)

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This was more of a hit than I expected. I wanted to illustrate to George how people often cook tau pok in Singapore - sliced into triangles and simmered until soft in a soy-based sauce, and this vegetarian adaptation turned out excellently well as I recall it.

Onions, carrots, potatoes, spring onions
1 veggie stock cube in 500ml water
1 tsp five spice powder
1/2 cup light soy sauce
2 tbsp dark soy sauce (I substituted it with some kicap manis)
1 tsp sesame oil
4 soft-boiled eggs
A bag of tofu puffs
Some vermicelli (I used shirataki noodles because they happened to be at hand)
+ 1 tbsp cornflour dissolved in about 50ml water to thicken

Cut tofu puffs into triangles. Fry all the vegetables until soft and then pour the sauces over and leave to simmer slowly for at least 20 minutes or however long you can humanly stand. Finally, when almost ready to serve, add the cornflour and water to thicken it into a sauce. Stir and cook for about 5-10 minutes more until sauce thickens.

Mie Goreng Jawa (Indonesian Fried Noodle)

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I used to be crazy about Mee Goreng. Sadly I'm not in a place where I can go around the cornershop to get one made for me, but the recent discovery of kecap manis has enabled me to recreate a pretty decent (vegetarian) version of Mie Goreng Jawa. I think this works. (I also find that Oyster mushrooms can be useful for adding some depth of flavour in asian dishes which typically call for meat/seafood, especially when making a vegetarian version...)

400 g yellow egg noodles
Oyster Mushrooms
1 large onion
Handful of spinach, bean sprouts, pak choy, etc
120 ml kecap manis
50 ml light soy sauce
Black or white pepper
2 beaten eggs

Cook the onion until almost caramelized, stirfry the mushrooms and vegetables separately first until they are already cooked to the point where you want them to be later, and scramble the egg in advance separately. Remove them from the fire temporarily and pan fry the egg noodles with the onions and then add all the other ingredients back into the pan. Finally, add the sauces, mix well and stir fry for a few more minutes and that's it.

Vegetable Lasagna


I don't even really have a recipe for this. Basically, I think of this as a kind of rich tomato stew that is placed inbetween layers of lasagna, mozzarella cheese, and bechamel sauce. Go and make any sort of inventive random vegetable stew that has a tomato in it. Use some premade italian tomato passata for the vegetable stew if you will, but for the rest, you must not stint on the bechamel sauce or the cheese! YOU MUST NOT STINT ON THE SAUCE.

Basic Bechamel Sauce:
60g butter
500ml milk
3 tbsp of plain flour
6 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
Pinch of salt
If you are very good, you will also add a pinch of nutmeg (muscade!)

The only problem with this recipe is that it will take about 2-3 hours for the average human being to prepare, even though the steps are fiendishly simple. The results however, are delicious and worth repeating...