your own blt

I know, I know, you know how to make a BLT.

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You know to toast up some good white bread and to slather with mayo. You know to pop on some crisp lettuce, and to layer with thick cut tomatoes. You know to go heavy on the bacon. You know it’s best eaten immediately. You don’t need me.

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Before I slink out of sight to wallow in my obsolete existence, let me pass on two things to you – the tip of a century and also variations. I like to think that in our lives where recipes tell you exactly how much of everything to put in, and exactly how long to bake it and exactly what it should look like… that we’re actually forgetting how to cook. We don’t learn to look in the fridge and make a meal – and not to be worried if it doesn’t look like it could get lots of likes on Instagram. All food isn’t beautiful. And all recipes could use a twist – and I’ll give you a few of my ideas but I know you’re also full of them.

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As far as a tip goes – bake your bacon! I’ve made many a mess with bacon on the stovetop, and ruined many a shirt. If you’re only making bacon for one, I’d still use the method that’s slowly whittling my wardrobe, but if you’re making BLTs for a crowd (which you should), this is the way to go. Simply heat the oven to 400°F, line a pan with foil and plop your bacon on, and bake for 15-20-more or less minutes until the bacon is the level of crispy you desire. Easy cleanup – thank god, and easy BLT eating. Also – butter lettuce was almost the star of the show here, and that’s really saying something.

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As far as twists, here’s what I got for you:

BELT it: Add an egg! Perhaps fried with a runny yolk… perhaps hard-boiled and sliced.
Chz it: I also don’t need to tell you to do this. Sharp cheddar is usually my go-to, but I’m not saying no to some gouda. Or Gruyere. Or Parm. Actually I’m not saying no to any cheese, ever.
Heat it up: Double meaning: if you chz it, maybe also panini it? BLT grilled cheese… yes. I’m saying yes. Second possibility, stir some sriracha into your mayo before you slather it on.

Here’s how to bake your bacon, in step form, for those of us that aren’t that great at following paragraph instructions (me):

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F
  2. Line a baking sheet with foil, and place bacon in a single layer.
  3. Bake for 15-20 minutes, depending on how crispy you’d like your bacon to be!

Now – go forth and prosper. I know you will.

smart science: wine edition

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Wine has always been something that varies from person to person. My mom and I like red, my roommate likes white, and my sister adores a solid (or not so solid) prosecco or champagne. After spending a semester in Italy, I was drawn to the idea that there are guidelines and rules for producing certain kinds of wine. A lot of these rules stem around where specific varieties of grapes can be grown, and whether you can call a wine a specific name. For example – you can’t make real Chianti outside of the Chianti region, in Tuscany. Complicated stuff. It got me to thinking… I wonder how these regions, these climates, and these grape varieties all interact with each other? There has to be a reason – and onto the science we go!

  1. There are a couple types of climate that matter here: macroclimate, mesoclimate and microclimate. Macroclimate is the easiest – essentially just the average temperature of a place – and unsurprisingly, some grapevines are more attuned to growing in one temperature than another. Think how cacti are happier in Arizona, and how maple trees are happier up north! Same idea. Mesoclimate is a bit zoomed in – differences within a specific region – like a hill, or a riverbed. This contributes to subtle taste differences between wines grown in the same region. Finally, microclimate is studying the individual vine. This can include how much sun it gets compared to its neighbor, proximity to water, levels of wind and airflow. These can all change how good a grape is from a specific plant.
  2. Soil matters too! Just like any plant, the type of soil you grow it in will affect your final outcome. Most good wines are grown in either clay or sandy soil. Clay soil is known for producing very rich wines (think – wines from Tuscany), while sandy soil is known for producing highly aromatic wines (think – Riesling).
  3. You may have heard the word “terroir” used to describe wine. Essentially, terroir is the entire natural environment of the wine – and then how that natural environment influences the taste. Winemakers from regions where great wine has been produced for many years take this really seriously – and rightfully so.
  4. In light of all these things it takes to make a great wine, it’s no wonder that really good wine can be quite expensive. Wine forgery has actually been around almost as long as wine (classic human innovation, eh), and still constitutes a pretty big issue today. There’s a couple different ways that people forge wine – some blend wine together to try and form a final product, some simply fake the bottle, and some create a bottle to look like a fancy wine. Interestingly enough though, people tend to enjoy wine regardless of the quality if you tell them it’s more expensive. Seriously – neuroscience and brain mapping has shown heightened activity in pleasure centers. Wild, right?

To beat the wine snobs at their own game, check out the links below to learn some timely fun facts you can insert into conversation! Drink some wine while you’re at it, and I’ll be back eventually with more smart science posts on wine.

  • A general overview on everything we’ve been talking about, with a bit more detail.
  • Want to know more about wine forgery? Read this article, and then watch the documentary Sour Grapes.
  • A whirlwind five things to know about the science of wine from the World Science Festival, some of which we’ll chat about later. It’s like homework! For wine!

smart science: sweetener edition

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If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop, you’ve seen the brightly colored packets of artificial sweeteners kicking around on the table. You’ve probably also seen drinks proclaiming the health benefits of stevia, or a smoothie sweetened only with agave. Today, we’re gonna chat about these guys. Not only what they’re made out of, but whether or not the health/diet/superpower claims are true. Let’s start with Splenda.

  • Splenda is made out of sucralose, which is about 600 times sweeter than normal table sugar. It also contains very few calories – hence its popularity on the diet circuit. Since it’s approval by the FDA in the 90’s, sucrolose, in the form of Splenda, has become extremely popular. Additionally, it was thought to be biologically inert – meaning that it had no actual, chemical effect on the human body. Recently, an article published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health has shown that sucralose does have an effect on the mechanisms involving glucose and insulin – both hot button topics due to their involvement in diabetes. This study did not definitively prove that sucralose contributes to Type II diabetes, but it merits further study. To add insult to injury, another recent study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental heath suggests that, in mice, sucralose might contribute to some malignant cancers. Strike two.
  • In this vein, many of the artificial sweeteners like Splenda (aspartame, for one) have been embroiled in far more dangerous controversy. Some sides say it’s completely safe, some don’t. All sides merit further study. Aspartame, (name brand: Nutrasweet, Equal), was discovered in the 60’s by a man attempting to make an anti-ulcer drug. Displaying poor scientific practice, he licked his finger reaching for a piece of paper, and discovered that whatever he was making was extremely sweet – and aspartame was born. Before aspartame, other low-calorie sweeteners all had significant health concerns. So, when aspartame hit the market, it seemed like the best option for a low calorie sweetener. Its scientific significance was broad, in that it momentarily filled a hole in the low-calorie sweetener market, and also provided a new structure for sweet compounds. But – there is serious conflicting evidence that aspartame contributes to serious health issues, including insomnia, headaches, neurobehavioral difficulties, and seizures. Additionally, mice and rat studies have shown an increase in malignant tumors after long-term exposure to small amounts of aspartame. Animal studies are significantly different than human studies, so this does not by any means indicate that aspartame causes cancer in humans. As always in science, more research is needed.
  • Moving onto agave. Agave syrup is made from the agave plant, which is the same plant used to make tequila! It’s long been marketed as the healthy alternative to any other sweeteners, whether that be honey, sugar, or artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame. In theory, agave syrup should contain a lot of inulin – a fiber-rich, sweet compound. But – agave you buy in stores is highly processed, and most of that inulin is broken down into fructose. Fructose is found in all sugars, in varying amounts – and the higher the amount, the more unhealthy for you it is. Think…. high-fructose corn syrup! We all know that’s bad. Now, when agave gets processed, it is equally as dense in fructose as HCFS, if not more! Essentially, it’s genius marketing, since ingesting high levels of fructose actually interfere with digestion, among other processes. Agave isn’t healthy – despite what people on Instagram might think.

Essentially, when looking at any version of sugar, whether that be normal white sugar, artificial sweeteners, or agave, limiting the amount you eat and drink is definitely a good move. Eating diets high in sugar contribute to a bunch of health problems, not just limited to things like diabetes or heart disease. Additionally, if you eat a diet high in artificial sweeteners, your body and brain might forget what a normal sweetness level in foods is, leading you to consume even higher levels of these sweeteners. Bummer – since we should all be able to remember the natural sweetness of a ripe strawberry!

For tons more information, check out the links below!

  • For more information on the affect of Splenda on insulin levels, check out the Huff Post article here.
  • Cancer experts tend to think that aspartame is safe to use, but they also like to provide all the information. Check out this detailed factsheet here.
  • Lots of general information here and here from Harvard about artificial sweeteners, their brand name counterparts, and some crazy facts about how much sweeter than normal sugar they are!
  • A doctor has some harsh words about agave in the HuffPost…. all rooted in science!

earl grey and gin cocktail

I love a good cup of tea. I cart around a 20 ounce thermos of tea all year round, and fill it up multiple times a day. It might be too much. I’m not terribly picky about what kind of tea… give me gas-station english breakfast or fancy-schmancy herbal blends. One of my go-to morning choices is any type of earl grey – plain jane, lavender, or whatever weird concoction Tazo thinks of next. Andrew thinks that it tastes like fruit loops, but that fits right on into the morning theme, so I think it’s okay.

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But! We can’t relegate poor earl grey to live only in mornings! What if it wants to get out about town, meet up with some friends, and grab a drink? Without smashing this joke over and over again…this is what happens when earl grey grabs a drink.

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It gets all mixed up with some sugar, and cooked down to form a simple syrup. It jams along with some freshly squeezed lemon juice, some gin, and some club soda. It has a ball.

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This is too easy not to make, and it’s something that you can impress your friends with. Feel free to infuse all sorts of stuff in simple syrup to make cocktails with….I want to try with plain black tea, but I’m also tempted by grapefruits.

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earl grey and gin cocktail

1 1/2 ounce gin
1 1/2 ounce earl grey simple syrup (recipe follows)
3/4 ounce lemon juice
Club soda, to top

Fill glass with ice and top with gin, simple syrup and lemon juice. Stir around with a spoon or something to combine. Top with club soda, swirl, and enjoy! Feel free to mess around with proportions – you’re making your own drink, after all.

earl grey simple syrup

4 earl grey tea bags
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Once the sugar is melted and the mixture is bubbling, add the tea bags and step for 10 minutes (taste to tell if you want to go more!). Strain and let cool completely. Store the rest in a jar in the fridge.

eclipse fudge brownies

Is an eclipse even an eclipse without eclipse-themed desserts? Probably not. I spent yesterday teaching my little sister how to make a pinhole camera (science major, check), and staring at lights sources to ensure it worked. Although we only got a sliver of the eclipse up here in Portland, you could still see it through the pinhole camera. Too cool.

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For these guys, I first decided to not use any recipe, to test my merit in the kitchen with brownies…using only what I remembered about the best brownie methods – melt the butter, use cocoa powder, pray to the pastry gods, etc.

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I then decided to play with only light and dark.. because you can only take an eclipse dessert so far before it’s just a sugar cookie dressed up like a moon. Mint and white chocolate ganache is swirled into the fudgiest brownies of all time. Almost too fudgy to even call them brownies. For a second, when they came out, I was ready to call it a relative failure, since they were undoubtedly too dense and too fudgy. And then, my family descended upon them, stealing slices and half moons and crumbs. And a full moon is all that remains, and so the fudge brownies are movin’ onto the blog.

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All jokes aside, these brownies are melt-in-your-mouth fun. They’re not very sturdy, but they are really pretty. Plus, they lend themselves nicely to being cut into shapes – but beware, they will leave a bit of an oily stain behind. They’re an excellent snack to stress-eat out of the pans as you worry about Game of Thrones (I’m worried about everyone in the whole show, quite frankly), and an excellent snack to insta and pretend you’re cool.

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For my next iteration of these, I’m planning on including a little less oil/butter, and seeing if that leads to a more traditional brownie…. but these were an excellent pit stop along the way. Let me know if you try any tweaks.

eclipse brownies

6 oz white chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons torn mint leaves
Drops of mint extract, to taste

1 cup sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3-1/2 cup oil (fudgy vs. super fudgy)
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Drop of mint extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

how-to:

Place the chopped white chocolate in a heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the cream up until steaming, add the mint leaves, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. After ten minutes, heat the cream up until bubbling around the edges, and strain over the white chocolate. Nudge all the chocolate pieces down into the cream, and let sit for 4 minutes. After 4 minutes, using a spatula or whisk, start stirring in small circles in the center, and you’ll see it all come together into a glossy ganache. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease an 8×8 pan, and fit one piece of parchment into the pan, having it drape over two sides. To make the brownies, place the butter and the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, until the butter is melted. Turn off the heat.
In a separate, medium bowl, mix together the sugar, salt and cocoa powder. Add sugar mixture to the butter mixture and stir well to combine. It will look a bit grainy. Add the vanilla and mint extracts and stir well. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring well to combine after each addition. Add the flour and stir until combined. Then, stir quickly and vigorously for about 40-50 strokes. Brownie batter should look delicious. Pour into the prepared pan. Drizzle the ganache (I didn’t use all of it) on top in stripes, and stir around with a butter knife to make pretty swirls.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and it’s pulling away from the edges a bit. Let cool for a while, then enjoy still slightly warm.

 

oeufs mayo

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As much as French culture usually nails the appetizing part of life, these little guys I was wildly skeptical about. Compared to buttery croissants, oozy crepes and macaron, hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise seems possibly like the very last thing you would want to eat.

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But, my friends, per usual, the French have it right. The combination of the egg, a homemade herby mayo, fresh heirloom tomatoes and butter lettuce is killer. It almost feels as though you are eating all the best bits of egg salad, without the sad, cafeteria undertones.

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Also, if you haven’t made mayonnaise, nows the time to start. There is a time and a place for the good ole jar of mayo (a.k.a the perfect BLT, coming soon), but homemade mayo I could eat with a spoon.

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In fact, I was indeed eating it with a spoon. For testing.

Using a food processor allows this mayo to be hassle free, and the same technique could be applied to make garlic aioli, my other favorite French condiment that I also eat with a spoon. For testing. No other reason.

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This would make a good appetizer for a Frenchy meal, or a good snack eaten straight out of your fridge. I was finding myself rolling the egg, tomato and mayo all up with the lettuce to create an all-in-one snack parcel perfect for one-bite eating. I recommend it, if only for testing.

oeufs mayo
adapted from david lebovitz

1 large egg, at room temp
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
3/4 cup neutral oil (I used sunflower, canola would also work)
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1-ish teaspoon chopped dill
1-ish teaspoon chopped basil
1-ish teaspoon chopped chives
Pinch of granulated sugar

9 hard-boiled eggs
Heirloom tomatoes, for garnish
Butter lettuce

how-to: 

Crack the egg into a food processor and add salt, lemon juice and half of the mustard. With the motor running, drizzle the oil in, very slowly to start. Once you’ve gotten about halfway you can add a bit more quickly, but still slow. Add the shallots, herbs, and sugar and pulse to combine.

Place butter lettuce on plates, top with halves of the hard boiled eggs and tomatoes, and spoon mayonnaise on top. Garnish with fresh herbs. Bon appetit!

smart science: butter edition

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Okay. If I’ve ever said a science post is my favorite.. take it back, take it all back now. Butter is my favorite, this post is my favorite, and let’s all go to France and eat some butter.

Now, onto the science.

  1. Butter is a pretty cool substance, and has been around for a long time! A recipe for butter dating more than 4,000 years ago involves an animal skin, a small hole, and a contraption to swing the bag around a wooden pole until butter is formed! But – in order to get the cream to make butter, you’d have to let the milk sit out and still to let it separate, since the first mechanical butter separator wasn’t invented until around 1900. Why does milk have the potential to do this? It’s a liquid called a ‘colloid’, which means that there are tiny particles suspended in another liquid. For milk, this is a bunch of tiny fat globules. Once you let fresh milk sit undisturbed, you’re allowing all these molecules to float to the top, creating cream. Additionally, these fat globules are responsible for the creamy taste and mouthfeel of cream – they’re too tiny for us to detect as particles, but they bring the texture nonetheless.
  2.  Now, almost all butter is definitely made in factories, but you can still shake some cream up in a jar to see how it works for yourself. The agitation of the cream globules causes them to bundle up together, and eventually they clump up enough to make butter! This takes a lot of agitation though, and can be done in a variety of ways! Easy as pie, delicious as pie, essential ingredient in pie… we’ve got this.
  3. But – while butter may have had a place in human diets for a while, it’s recently gotten a lot of flack. If you walk by a dairy cooler, any frozen food aisle, or really any aisle at all in any grocery store, you’ll be flooded with low-fat and non-fat options. But, in 2014, an article was released saying that saturated fat (the ‘problem’ with butter) doesn’t actually correlate with heart disease the way that everyone was up in a tizzy about. And to put some buttercream icing on this cake, the study even suggested that in our craze to substitute fat in our diets, with sugars and and empty carbs – which are even worse for us.

Let’s make butter with heavy cream, and eat it all in one fell swoop. Stir some dill in and pile it embarassingly high on country bread if you want to be like me, but, no pressure. Check out this links to get butter-blissed out: