Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dancing Squid and Frog Legs: Or, SCIENCE!

Science, you allow non-winged animals to fly and me to type this post. And you apparently allow salt to reanimate dead animals, turning squid and frogs into dancing zombies (thankfully, they're of a variety that you can eat, rather than be eaten by).

Exhibit A: Dancing Squid

Yes, the squid is actually dead. And yes, it comes from Japan, home of some of the weirder food preparations known to man (I'm Chinese, and we eat everything - and even I think they have a crazy streak). Some Reddit commenters have been debating what specific process causes the "dancing" reaction:

Commenter who says he's a chemical-biological engineer and physicist:

This is due to the salt in the soy sauce. The same thing would happen if you poured salt grains on the squid. It doesn't "activate the neurons." Sodium potassium pumps create an action potential... To clarify, sodium potassium pumps maintain the ion gradient across the membrane in a living organism. In this case, however, the ion gradient does not need to be maintained. The gradient is created upon addition of the soy sauce which adds sodium ions on the outside of the membrane. Naturally, these want to diffuse across the membrane to try to reach a state of equilibrium between the inner and outer sections of the membrane. So, this has less to do with the pumps than it does with a concentration driven gradient of sodium ions from the outside to the inside.
Commenter who says he's an electrophysiologist:

The Na/K pump does not create an action potential, but it does create the electrochemical gradient that makes an action potential possible. The high sodium content of the soy sauce briefly increases the extracellular concentration of sodium which depolarizes the squid neurons, generating action potentials... It was freshly killed, the electrochemical gradient would be maintained for several hours after death. In fact, the Na/K pump will keep working after death for several hours until anoxia kicks in. Even so, the laws that govern the generation of action potentials is still maintained even in anoxic tissue. The fact that the squid is dead will not suddenly allow the hyperpolarization produced by the electrogenic Na/K pump to cause a depolarization.
Got that? Good.

Exhibit B: Dancing Frog Legs

This slightly less disturbing video illustrates the same mechanisms at work, this time in three frogs. Or more accurately, three half frogs.

I feel the need to close with an image from my favorite webcomic's store:

Science. It works, bitches.

That says it all.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The History of Malted Milk Powder

1920's era Horlicks bottle
Bottle circa 1920 from Flying Tiger Antiques.
In India, it's made with buffalo milk, and it was originally patented as infant formula. Explorers brought it to the North Pole at the turn of the last century as a lightweight food, but in the US it's most commonly mixed with ice cream and served as a treat. But what is malted milk powder and how did we get it?

As a term, "malt" refers to the result of a specific process: a grain is placed in a warm environment so that it sprouts, then quickly dried. The result is a naturally sweet mash that is used as a base for beer and whiskey. Malted milk powder is that sprouted, dried grain, ground up and added to powdered milk, wheat flour, and sometimes other ingredients, like sugar - or, in the case of its original incarnation, grain that is sprouted and cooked with the milk, dried, and then ground all together. (The result is similar, though the process is different.) Even without additional sugar, malted milk is sweet enough to replace sugar in some recipes - most restaurant and hotel pancake mixes do this. If you want to try this at home, one tablespoon of sugar can be replaced by 1/8 cup of malted milk powder.

The history of malted milk starts in England. In 1869, James Horlicks qualified as a pharmacist in London. He began working on a supplement for infants and invalids. However, he encountered a problem common to artists and scientists: he lacked funding. Unable to raise the capital he needed to market his new drink in Europe, he left the UK in 1873 and joined his younger brother, William, a mechanic who had London left four years earlier in order to work with a distant relative's quarry in Racine, Wisconsin. The two brothers founded J & W Horlicks in nearby Chicago and began manufacturing their new formula.

By 1883, the brothers were back in Racine with a US patent for "granulated food for infants" that they were marketing as "Diastoid." (In 1887, they gave up that rather unappetizing name for the more enticing "malted milk," which they trademarked.) Their patent combined "the nutritive parts of the cereals with milk... and render[ed] such food free from all souring tendency irrespective of the climate... [while being] readily soluble in water." In other words, James had created a nutritious powder from barley malt, ground wheat (or oats), and milk that would not easily spoil and could be mixed with water for an instant drink.

Malted milk powder
Malted milk powder.
Malted milk gained unexpected popularity with explorers who found it ideally portable, and the drink made its way to both the North and South Poles on expeditions. James returned to England to import his American-made product back home and was eventually created a baronet, which meant that people had to call him "Sir" as though he was a knight, and William stayed in Wisconsin, becoming a patron of Antarctic exploration - and like many wealthy patrons, he managed to get something named after him. In his case, he got a mountain range, not just a building. (I'd call that a win.)

Flash forward to 2011, and malted milk powder is most commonly found in brittle, malted milk balls, and the milkshakes that we simply call "malts." It's less popular as a standalone drink in the US, where the major manufacturers are Carnation and Ovaltine, but Horlicks remains popular in the UK, India, and Southeast Asia. Interestingly, India, the brand's largest market, continues to consider malted milk a health food drink aimed at children. Horlicks became popular there in the 1930's, and now 2 billion cups of the stuff are consumed every year. But the formula for Horlicks in India is slightly different than the rest of the world: there, given cultural concerns, the powder is made from buffalo, rather than cows milk. While I doubt the flavor difference is that odd after the manufacturing process is done, it still sounds a bit strange to my Americanized ears. Buffalo milkshakes, anyone?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Marketing Fail

In contrast to Marketing FTW! by the wine shop in my neighborhood, here's a marketing fail from the folks over at Disney:

Snow White Fruit Snacks

Remember Snow White? Remember the Evil Queen that wanted to kill her? Remember how that Evil Queen poisoned her with an apple?

Note that the box for the dried fruit snacks says, "No Sugar Added! No Preservatives, 100% Fruit!" That's great, but they don't mention anything about poison. Who wants a box?

Thanks to Michi for bringing this ridiculousness to my attention.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Steinway Rendered in Sandwich Form

I grew up playing classical piano. And after years of playing the full-length, weighted keyboards that travel well to gigs around the country, I was recently spoiled: I was at an arts conference for a week and got to play grand pianos every day. It was glorious. Some of my favorite memories from college involve holing up in a music classroom with floor-to-ceiling windows after midnight, turning off the lights, and watching the moon fill the room with light. I'd open up the piano all the way and play in the semi-dark, enveloping the entire space with sound for hours.

This piano may lack the aura of the Moonlight Sonata, but it's entirely edible, which counts for a lot. And it's adorable.

Piano Sandwich

Courtesy of Cutest Food.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Vegetarian-Fed Beef

Look carefully at this ad for Laura's Lean Beef, found in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle:

Does it disturb anyone else that "vegetarian fed" is now a useful marketing phrase for an animal that is naturally vegetarian? We've turned herbivores into cannibals.

In a related note, this article from the New York Times is the primary reason why I usually avoid eating ground beef from normal grocery sources and opt instead for butchers who source their beef from local farms.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yoshi Birthday Cake

This afternoon, I was introduced to Cloud Mario while traveling around on a gigantic, green Mario head-airship. My roommate introduced me to Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii, and I waved around my controller for a few minutes as a friendly little star, collecting coins and forcing bad guys to hold still (a flaw in this: you can't destroy bad guys as the star). And yes, it's sounds incredibly trippy when you write the premise of the game on paper.

In honor of Mario and his trusty steed and sidekick, I present to you one of the cutest combinations of nerd and dessert I've seen: Yoshi as a birthday cake!

Photo courtesy of Geek Art Gallery and Perfection Confection.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Easy Plating: Salads

Sometimes a handful of greens are all you need to dress up a plate. This adds color and interest to slices of quiche, sandwiches, frittatas, and other small items with minimal effort - it's incredible how much better a dish can look with just a few seconds of work.

Baguette Sandwich

When you're plating salad, don't just plop lettuce leaves haphazardly on a plate (or in a bowl) - this will produce flat, almost squashed-looking results. Instead, think of stacking the greens, layer by layer, so that they achieve maximum height. This will give your dish a more appetizing look.

Haphazardly plopped salad:

Stacked salad (utilizing the exactly the same leaves):

I've illustrated this point with mixed greens because that was what I had in the fridge - if you try both methods on salads with flatter leaves, you'll see an even more dramatic difference.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hot Dog Fairy

Hot Dog Fairy

"I’m not sure what exactly a Hot-Dog Fairy does, but my theory is when you drop a hot dog, you pick it up and put it under your pillow before you go to sleep. And if you’re lucky, you might see the Hot-Dog Fairy." This cute guy comes from Anna the Red, who photographed his construction step-by-step. Who says you can't play with your food?

Hot Dog Fairy

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy 235th Birthday, America!

Happy Independence Day! My friends have apparently decided that American independence is the perfect occasion for a French-Canadian food: poutine. (If you're wondering, yes, it makes about as much sense to me as it probably does to you. Chicago can be a funny place.) Since I won't be eating the most American of foods in honor of our nation's birthday, I've decided to share some of the best-looking Fourth of July treats the internet has to offer with you instead. Drool, and then bake a cake yourself - or at least enjoy some BBQ and fireworks. My plans definitely involve the latter.

First in our gallery, we have two incredible cakes from I Am Baker. They're both inventive, and the one below was created with an awe-inspiring 25 layers. The cake was so tall that it required cutting in half to serve.

Those may be the prettiest cakes, but since I'm rarely interested in actually consuming desserts that aren't covered in chocolate, this creation from Bay Area Bites wins for cake I most want to eat.

And finally, a dose of geekiness for your celebrations: Captain America in cookie form, from Hungry Rabbit. Ken has included the recipe on his site, so head over there for instructions and more gorgeous photos. Happy Fourth of July!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Embroidered Toast

Judith G. Klausner - Embroidered Toast: Egg

Artist Judith G. Klausner creates art from unlikely objects (notably insects) and pairings (embroidery recalls bygone times, while packaged bread is a phenomenon of our present age - and who thinks to embroider on something other than cloth to good results?). I love how the egg on toast also evokes Impressionist painting.

Judith G. Klausner - Embroidered Toast: Butter

Judith G. Klausner - Embroidered Toast: Mold

The mold on the last piece actually looks incredibly realistic, even in a closeup. I bet you'll look at bread mold just a bit differently in the future.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Recipe: Strawberry Banana Smoothies

Strawberry Banana Smoothies

Back in college, we used to joke that blenders were breeding in our basement. There were seven of us living in a house that had been continuously occupied by friends for years - a handful of people would move out, but one or two would stay and find a slew of other roommates, so that when I lived there I couldn't tell you who actually owned the couch in the living room (it belonged to someone in the previous set who left it, apparently with the intention of coming back at some point to claim it - which never happened) or when the basement had last been cleaned in its entirety. But we did clean the basement periodically, and just about every time we did, we found another cheap blender that had been left by a previous occupant of the house. I think we had five known blenders at one point.

In all the years following, I never again owned one. Reviews of them online were generally unhappy - or bipolar - for models costing less than $500, and I didn't feel the need to make anything that would require one anyway. But that changed in January. I finally decided that I wanted to make a foray into the world of smoothies and thought that my kitchen was lacking what might prove to be an essential appliance. So after extensive research, I made what was probably my best $80 kitchen purchase ever: I bought a KitchenAid 5-Speed Blender. For my purposes, it's as good as it gets without shelling out $500 for a Vitamix, the only blender that seems to get overwhelmingly positive reviews online. But it's $500. For a blender.

Little did I know how much use my KitchenAid would get. In the last six months, I've made a strawberry banana smoothie almost every day. They are delicious. And addictive. And - fortunately - good for you as well. I'd call that a win.

Strawberry Banana Smoothies

Servings: 2
Active Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 5 minutes


  • 2-4 strawberries
  • 1 banana
  • 3 tablespoons vanilla low-fat yogurt
  • 7-8 ice cubes
  • sugar to taste (if desired)

Trim the strawberries and remove the banana peel. Blend the strawberries, banana, ice cubes, yogurt, and sugar (you probably won't need to add this since the banana and vanilla yogurt add a lot of sweetness, but some of you may like the additional sugar) in a blender. Makes one 12 oz. glass.