Chapuline cookies

“One freezing night at the end of February, Dunkel, who is petite, with fluffy gray curls and rosebud lips, was puttering around her kitchen, a large pair of glasses suspended from a sparkly chain around her neck and an apron tied at her waist. She pulled out her old Betty Crocker recipe binder – she has had it since 1962 – and put on her glasses. She opened it to a page, yellow with use, for chocolate chip Toll house cookies. Like many cooks, Dunkel likes to make a recipe her own. Betty Crocker called for half a cup of chopped walnuts. In the margin, in a loopy hand – the penmanship of a girl who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin in the nineteen-fifties – Dunkel had suggested a substitution: ‘or fresh roasted crickets’.”

That’s from the August 15, 2011 issue of the New Yorker. I have been through a rather similar process myself, except in my case I opened a relatively un-aged copy of the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, and I chose to adapt the Momofuku peanut butter cookie recipe by removing the 1/2 cup of ground peanut brittle and replacing it with 25g of chapulines – fried, spiced and salted grasshoppers.

Back to Florence Dunkel, who was creating assorted insect-based culinary delights to provide some novel and insightful experiences for her students at Montana State University.

“Dunkel stayed up baking until three. The next day, at Insects and Human Society, she had her students do a honey tasting, reminding them that honey is, of course, the vomit of a bee. Then Ky-Phuong Luong, the T.A., stirred a wok full of vegetables and soy-marinated crickets, and Dunkel passed a plate of fritters with yellowish wax worms protruding from their centers. “We left out the bacon,” she said, smiling sweetly. The students talked about ethnocentrism (eighty per cent of the world eats insects with pleasure), sustainability, and the earth’s diminishing resources. After a while, they started, tentatively, to eat. A young man in a green wool ski cap said that he would be more enthusiastic if he had some beer to wash the insects down. Standing before a plate of brownies fortified with a mash of sautéed meal worms, he said despondently, ‘This is the future! You’ll eat worms and like it. You gotta eat something.’”

It’s a difficult thing to get your head around if you’ve grown up in a culture that associates insects with fear and filth, and certainly not with anything even resembling an edible meal. But that’s not really an adequate reason to go with the initial knee-jerk “ugh that’s gross” reaction and to think no more of it, because consuming insects could play a part in solving a lot of pressing problems regarding food production. The carbon footprint of meat production, the ethics of animal farming and slaughtering, the need to feed an ever-increasing global population – insects could play a part in the solution. To continue quoting with abandon from the New Yorker article, because in one single paragraph it eloquently sums up many of the arguments in favour of eating insects:

“From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small “footprint”; being cold-blooded, they are about four time as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef – fried grasshoppers have three times as much – and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions.”

The whole venture seems to make a decent amount of sense, but once the insects are cleaned and prepared for consumption, it would still require a bit of gentle easing into it all – not going straight for substituting the meat in a stew or casserole with scoops of whole mealworms or something like that, but getting the more hesitant people used to the idea by adding ground mealworms to chocolate or a scattering of fried crickets into a salad, as were offered to supermarket customers in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

Or by encasing some nice little grasshoppers in a delicious cookie.

Yuzu & kinako shortbread

I’ve started putting kinako (toasted soybean flour) in basically everything and I don’t even care if this behaviour is probably reaching pathological levels. I discovered kinako only recently, courtesy of the Hard Shake I had at Bone Daddies that was made from the softserve of the day – kinako softserve on this occasion – along with, I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect Japanese whiskey. Rather enamoured with the flavour, I rapidly acquired some sachets of kinako (pre-mixed with sugar) and then I found a large pack of toasted soybean flour at the local Middle Eastern store (they really have a lot of everything), so with an ample store of kinako safely stowed in the cupboard, I freely added it to whatever I thought could benefit from it.

Kinako is proving to be a great way of adding nuttiness and toastiness to things. I made sweet potato falafel with it. I added it to porridge. I made a rather viscous cocktail with it. And mixing it into milk and steaming the milk with your espresso machine makes a very excellent kinako latte. And, inevitably, I baked sweet things with it: kinako and yuzu shortbread for now, although probably basically everything from now on, at least until I get through the kilogram or so I’ve got of the stuff. There is surely nothing that cannot be kinakoed.

Yuzu & kinako shortbread

150g unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla paste
225g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
125g caster sugar
35g kinako (toasted soybean flour)
10g yuzu powder (optional)
70g candied yuzu peel, finely chopped

Beat the butter and vanilla together in the bowl of an electric mixer (or by hand) until light and fluffy and pale. Meanwhile, sift all the other ingredients except the yuzu peel together. Add the sifted ingredients and the yuzu peel to the butter mixture and mix on low for about 5 minutes. The ingredients will come together as a crumbly, loose mixture. Weigh out 30g of the mixture and squeeze in your hands to compact it, shape it into a sphere then flatten it slightly to make a disk about 1-1.5cm thick. Repeat this until all the mixture is used up. Wrap and refrigerate the biscuits for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 170°C. Place the biscuits on a paper-lined baking tray, about 2cm apart from each other (you might have to bake them in 2 batches). Bake for about 30 minutes, at which point the biscuits should be a soft golden colour. Remove them from the oven and leave them to cool on the tray until they’ve almost reached room temperature, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Chocolate eating styles, as defined by SCIENCE

I recently read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss (a New York Times journalist who previously worked in Pakistan, but when his colleague David Rohde was kidnapped, the NYT transferred Moss to the safer beat of reporting on the food industry). The book provides fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) insight into the research and testing that goes into manipulating the various sensory aspects of food, and into developing food products with just the right amounts of salt, sugar and/or fat to make them incredibly alluring. Every variable in the eating experience can be fine-tuned to make food that people feel compelled not only to eat, but to eat lots of. For example, food scientists have worked out the exact amount of pressure a corn chip should break at in order to produce chips of an ideal crispness and crunchiness to maximise the enjoyment the average consumer experiences while eating (and I assume that if you buy some Doritos and eat them, you’re experiencing the outcome of that research).

Honing foods to optimise their appeal to consumers obviously requires the characterisation of many aspects of both the food and the consumers. Which is presumably how this paper, ‘Characterisation of chocolate eating behaviour’, came about, and which asks the question:

So, like, how do people eat chocolate?

You know, apart from, like, putting it in their mouth and somehow getting it down their gullet.

Turns out people fall into three distinct groups when it comes to how they eat chocolate:

1. the fast chewers
2. the thorough chewers
3. the suckers

The researchers found this out by giving the 40 study participants each two samples of milk chocolate. The samples were the same in ingredient composition and were similar in how viscous they would be when melted, but differed slightly in some textural aspects. I love this bit of the paper where the researchers say “For confidentiality reasons no further detail concerning sample composition can be provided.” So manipulation of the texture of the chocolate was a key variable being investigated in the study, but you’re being coy about how the texture differed between the two chocolate samples being tested? Well, one researcher does work for Mars and the study was funded by Mars, so omg u guyz this is a Mars chocolate formulation secret!

Anyway, the researchers have deigned to go into detail about how people ate the chocolate samples. Eating behaviours were characterised using surface electromyography (electrodes placed on the skin surface that record muscle activity) and electroglottography, which uses electrodes to record the activity of the glottis, i.e. the vocal cords. Electroglottography was originally developed for use in speech therapy, but has been re-purposed here to learn more about how and when people swallow.

The results were, firstly, that Chocolate A (whatever that was) was significantly preferred to Chocolate B (whatever that was). Participants considered Chocolate A to coat the mouth more and be softer at first bite (so hey, maybe you’re eating Chocolate A these days whenever you eat a Mars chocolate product). In terms of how the chocolate was eaten, each participant apparently had a unique way of eating the chocolate – no two participants were identical in terms of chew rate, total chewing time, number of swallows, how long it took them to get to the point of their last swallow, etc.

Cluster analysis was then performed on this information (this grouped people so that their eating behaviour was more similar to other people in the same group than people in other groups) which gives us the three styles of chocolate eating: fast chewing, thorough chewing, sucking.

If you do the cluster analysis for the data obtained for the two chocolate types separately, the same people still fall into the same eating behaviour groups, suggesting that people’s chocolate eating style is consistent across different types of chocolate. We can’t know this for sure from this study, since we don’t know how similar or different the two chocolate samples were (just that they were both milk chocolate), but maybe chocolates that are more obviously different would be eaten differently (I think my eating behaviour for a piece of milk chocolate versus a piece of, say, 80% dark chocolate is different, but maybe I’m just some weird anomaly).

And to finish, an excerpt from the paper:

“From a wider perspective, it has been shown that variation in bite size and oral processing time impacts on food intake. ‘Slow’ eating has also been shown to decrease food intake and result in increased satiety. If variation in chocolate eating behaviour exists then this could also impact on chocolate intake levels which in turn may have health implications.”

If we make those assumptions, this presents rather a quandary to Mars: Chocolate A was much preferred by participants compared to Chocolate B, but participants also took longer to eat Chocolate A, which might mean that people would eat less of it. What do you do, Mars? What do you do? (Presumably some more testing and then whatever option seems most likely to give them the best profits.)

The influence of shape on taste, or, what the hell Cadbury this chocolate is, like, über-sweet, how dare you

Nancy Drew Charles Spence is on the case of The Chocolate That Suddenly Became Too Sweet. In short, Cadbury changed the shape of their Dairy Milk bars, and consumers are complaining that Cadbury must have also reformulated the chocolate because now it tastes much sweeter. Spence, however, postulates that the shape of the bar might be influencing people’s perceptions of sweetness. Other studies have found that people seem to implicitly associate shapes with particular gustatory sensations – previous research has found that “sweetness has been paired with roundness in a range of different foodstuffs ranging from fruit juices to yoghurts and from milk chocolate to fruit juices. By contrast, angularity has been matched with bitterness, carbonation, and sourness in beers, sparkling waters, fruits, fruit juices, dark chocolates, salt and vinegar crisps, and so on”. If sweetness is associated with roundness, maybe making something round rather than angled will make people, at some level, experience the thing as more sweet.

However, implicit associations are a very different thing from actually changing the sensory experience. Conceptually, sure, round/sweet and sharp/bitter or whatever make sense – humans are very good at generalising lots of concepts and ideas across the senses and across all other sorts of categories. That doesn’t demonstrate any cause-and-effect – just an association. As the ancient words of wisdom go, correlation does not equal causation. I need to look more into the research of how manipulating a thing’s shape actually affects people’s sensory experience of the thing. (I’m assuming it exists; in fact, I’m reasonably sure I’ve read some of it, ages ago).

In the meantime, though, the whole Dairy Milk ~fiasco~ kind of makes me want to hunt around some newsagents/convenience stores/vending machines to see if I can find some of the old rectangular bars and do a direct taste comparison between them and the new rounded bars. Figure 1 in Spence’s paper has the old and new bar side by side – I hope someone who was around at the time cut the bars up and did some taste-testing with people (I reckon you could’ve broken each bar into its 6 pieces and done a rather underpowered randomised, within-subjects experiment on 6 people, hey?).

Actually, testing this whole thing properly wouldn’t be too hard, and doesn’t require the stomache-achingly sweet experience of eating Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate. Get some chocolate, melt it, form it into different shapes as it cools and sets (e.g. pour some so it forms little round pools; just break off some straight-edged bits to get some angular pieces), then ask people to give you a hand. You can’t really test this yourself because you know what you’re testing and that could influence your perception – the mere knowledge that you could possibly expect the rounder shape to seem sweeter can bias your evaluation of the sweetness. So tell some friends that you just want to compare two brands of chocolate to find out which one is sweeter, and get each person to sample both chocolate shapes (making sure not to draw their attention to the shapes or to say anything about your hypothesis that shape might be important). There are a bunch of other things that would need to be considered in order for it to be a properly sound experiment – like counterbalancing the order in which the chocolate shapes are tasted (half the people should have the round one first, half should have the sharp one first, to make sure that the order in which people consume the shapes doesn’t have an effect on the evaluation), or maybe getting people to rate the sweetness of each piece on a scale rather than just saying which one is more or less sweet than the other, or making sure the two differently shaped pieces of chocolate are matched in terms of weight and temperature and other such factors – but even just as a quick and messy experiment you might be able to get an idea of whether shape might just be having an influence on the experience of sweetness.

And then you can spend hours thinking about how millions of different factors influence millions of other different factors in the context of the sensory experience of eating, because complex, multisensory experiences like that are ridiculously deep rabbit holes. Or you can just whinge that your precious Dairy Milk has been changed forever and vent your consumer outrage spleen in Cadbury’s general direction.


This was the highlight of the dishes Chris and I had at Dinner by Heston in London – the meat fruit. It’s chicken liver parfait coated in jelly to make it look like a mandarin, an artful little practice that was popular among the higher societal echelons of England circa 1500.

Unfortunately, as much as saying this makes me a total heathen, the rest of the dishes weren’t particularly spectacular or special, and one dish was bizarrely sub-standard. Now I know Dinner’s raison d’être is the historical British dishes that Heston and his team have revived, but I guess I feel like the price tag and hype warranted something a bit more impressive than what were essentially some rustic meals. The meat fruit had the whimsy and the flavour to justify its place on the menu, but everything else seemed a bit plain. I wasn’t even won over by the tipsy cake I had for dessert, which apparently has a legion of ardent devotees. To me it just tasted like a particularly sweet, dense brioche with a nice syrup (although the accompanying pineapple that was spit-roasted for 2.5 hours was pretty amazing). I’ve gotten to the point where I expect something gestalt from these types of meals – the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts. This just wasn’t the case here for us, alas.

I guess it’s possible that we just made some poor choices with the menu, and maybe we would have been overwhelmingly impressed if we had opted for different dishes. Whatever the case, we’re not in a hurry to return to Dinner, and it was completely overshadowed by some of the other meals we had in Paris (e.g. at M64 and Royal Madeleine), Dublin (e.g. at Rustic Stone) and London (e.g. at Pollen Street Social).

Sorry, Heston, but I’m starting to think you might actually just be human…