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On a molecular level


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POSTED: Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Children of the “;Checkers & Pogo”; kids'-show era will recall Professor Weirdo and Count Kook working in the professor's mad-science laboratory, singing the opening song for the “;Milton the Monster”; cartoon. “;Six drops of Essence of Terror, five drops of Sinister Sauce,”; Weirdo sings. “;When the stirring's done, may I lick the spoon?”; asks Kook.

Most of us will admit to wondering what that spoon tasted like, with its mixed-in drops from all those beakers of colorful, bubbling, wicked liquids. The only spoons we got to lick had stirred up ordinary fare: chocolate chip cookie dough or tapioca pudding.

While today's child might be hard pressed to find a spoon to lick at all—most moms these days buy their desserts ready-made—some students are literally doing taste tests in a science lab. At Radford High School this recently completed school year, three classes of advanced-placement chemistry students learned and implemented the basic concepts of molecular gastronomy, a modern technique used in the culinary world.

While the name sounds a bit fiendish, a la mad science, the technique is simply about “;using science to create and enhance food,”; says chef Keith Endo of Vino restaurant, who taught the cooking segments that illustrate chemistry in practical terms. He partnered with chemistry teacher Ryan Saito.

“;Food is the icebreaker to science,”; Endo said.

The chef demonstrated in class, for instance, how using such solidifying ingredients as agar agar and gelatin, and foaming agents such as egg whites and lecithin powder, transform a traditional mocha drink into a mocha dessert.

He mixed the agar agar, made from seaweed, with chocolate and cream; another mixture combined espresso, cream and gelatin; and another comprised espresso, sugar and agar agar. Endo also made an airy whipped cream. Then he layered the solidified mixtures and topped it with the whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

“;The layers melt on the palate at different times—it's almost time-released—so you experience different flavors,”; he explained. “;It's a textured mocha. It's conceptually different but the flavor is the same.

“;Molecular gastronomy takes dishes outside the box.”;

Molecular gastronomy utilizes protein (such as agar agar and gelatin) to change textures; it also allows a chef to intensify the flavor of an ingredient. Endo says that at L20 restaurant in Chicago, for instance, they use a huge dehydrator to turn liquids such as soy sauce into a solid. This concentrates the flavor and allows for better control. “;It's a sprinkle rather than a soaking, which can overwhelm the flavor,”; Endo said.

Another restaurant has patented edible ink. Ingredients are dehydrated into a fine powder that binds onto edible paper. The flavored “;inks”; are housed in cartridges that are laser printed in the kitchen. A picture of a salmon, then, would taste like salmon; another of sushi tastes like sushi.

On a more familiar level, molecular gastronomy is behind foods as commonplace as salad dressings, which utilize xantham gum to keep the dressing emulsified. The ingredient is activated with a good shaking.

But back to Radford's kitchen chemists. By last week Endo had whittled several dozen student-created dishes to a top nine. They were presented in a competition that drew such judges as Vino owner and master sommelier Chuck Furuya; Conrad Nonaka, director of Kapiolani Community College's Culinary Institute of the Pacific; Radford curriculum coordinator Jan Ikeda; Saito; and Endo.

Dishes were rated according to creativity, presentation, taste and scientific explanation.

Junior Chase Smith wrapped blue mochi around coconut Jell-O. “;The science is in the Jell-O: Hot water breaks up the strands of collagen, and when it cools, the strands firm up. That traps the coconut juices,”; Smith explained.

Megan Commander, a junior, said that discussions about molecular gastronomy early in the year left her confused. “;Chemistry is hard, but cooking made it easier to understand,”; she said. Her minismoothies featured banana, pineapple and strawberry flavors, plus gelatinous forms of Sunny D juice and whipped cream.

But it was the Breakfast Surprise that won over judges. A white-bread sandwich comprising bacon, a layer of Sunny D Jell-O and maple syrup foam, the dish stood out for its creativity and surprisingly harmonious flavors. It didn't hurt that sophomores Luther Dumlao and Alan Maramag were proficient in explaining the science in the techniques they used.

“;Egg whites are made mostly of protein and water,”; said Maramag, discussing the maple foam. “;When you whisk it, it denatures it—it breaks up the structure, changes the way it forms ... because of the presence of protein. The air bubbles trap the flavor, so you have the flavor of maple syrup without the heaviness of maple syrup.”;

The first-place win means the duo's recipe will be featured at Vino.

Judges came away from the contest feeling uplifted not only by the innovative teaching method, but the investment on the part of students.

“;They say all chefs are like painters: They all share a part of themselves,”; said Furuya. “;I found (the students) very admirable for their passion and interest. The benefit of this class is that it applies to the real world. They can use what they learned tonight at home and for the rest of their lives.”;

Nonaka said he is impressed at the time and energy leaders of the food industry invest in the community. “;I'm appreciative of our industry partners. They contribute to education with care and compassion—they want students to learn.”;

Saito says the cooking projects did more than just teach chemistry; it had students excited about learning. “;It got students to think,”; he said.

Saito's classes are just the beginning, if Endo has his way.

“;I'd like to eventually involve all the schools in the district,”; he said. “;This was awesome. It's exciting for me to promote the restaurant biz, and for these kids, if they don't want to be a chemist, they can be a chef and use what they learned in the kitchen.

“;Hopefully, by generating buzz about molecular gastronomy, this will lead a new generation into new directions. They could change the perceptions of food and ways of approaching food.”;