Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nerdnite Boston (October Edition): A Geeky Night of Cooking, Science, Art, and Math

Yesterday, a friend forwarded me an email about an event called nerdnite (motto: "be there and be square") - a monthly opportunity to totally nerd out while drinking awesome cocktails at Middlesex Lounge - and it was conveniently taking place last night.

Aside from the fact that I'm a total nerd, I was drawn to the event because the first speaker of the evening was going to be Jeff Potter of Cooking For Geeks fame. I've been following him on Twitter for a long time, and back in March, I tested out a chocolate cake recipe for him.

My attempt at following one of Jeff's recipes back in March 2010. Probably due to poor oven calibration, my cake imploded, but it was still delicious!
As science and food are both major parts of my life, Cooking For Geeks is a perfectly fun and informative resource for me, so I was excited to hear Jeff speak. He focused on a couple main topics: the Maillard reaction and sous vide ("under vacuum") cooking, and he also made us taste a piece of paper that told me that I am a "supertaster." (Oddly enough, I love most of the things listed on that site: raw broccoli, grapefruit juice, dark chocolate. I guess the flavors are intense but also enjoyable for me.)

Before delving further into the nerdalicious portion of this post, I should pause and tell you that Middlesex has an awesome cocktail list. I nursed a Chartreusian Mule throughout the night: green chartreuse (a LOT of it) with ginger beer and lime. Tasty and strong.

Ok, back to the science.

The Maillard Reaction
You like your cookies a nice golden brown around the edges, do you? Thank the Maillard reaction for that. In very basic terms, it's an amino acid reacting with a sugar, typically under the influence of heat. In less basic terms, it's the amino group of an animo acid reacting with the carbonyl group of a sugar, which results in an unstable glycosylamine which rearranges to form a ketosamine, which can then react in several different ways, ultimately resulting in a wide variety of molecules that produce a wide range of odors and colors associated with the browning of food.

Jeff showed a neat series of photos of a cookie baking, so we got a clear picture of what happens as the cookie reaches certain temperatures. One of the first noticeable changes, for example, is that the cookie flattens out when the butter in the dough begins to melt. Eventually, you start getting the browned edges. I didn't make note of the temperatures because I was in a bar, drinking, and I think it would cross the line even at nerdnite to whip out a notebook and pretend this was a lecture.

To learn more about the Maillard reaction, check out the website of the International Maillard Reaction Society. Yep, there's a such thing as the Internation Maillard Reaction Society, and it appears they have an International Symposium every 2-3 years. Awesome.

Sous Vide
Think of the best steak you've ever had. Was it perfectly rare or medium-rare on the inside but wonderfully seared on the outside? If so, it was probably cooked using the sous vide method, a technique that allows you to cook at a lower temperature than usual for a very long period of time to get a food to the proper interior temperature without messing with the texture or integrity of the ingredients. To achieve this, the food is placed - often in a vacuum-sealed bag, although this is not really necessary - into a water bath with a controlled temperature. Since the temperature is controlled, you could leave food in there for hours if you'd like, and it'll come out perfectly. This is useful for steak because it allows you to almost separate the cooking of the interior and the exterior. Using sous-vide, you get the interior to the appropriate done-ness, and then you can very quickly sear the outside in a hot skillet (for example) to get that beautifully crunchy crust while maintaining the rare inside. Sous-vide is also a particularly good method for cooking eggs.

The second speaker at this month's nerdnite was Ben Jordan, a biologist who talked to us about his visual representations of mathematical questions. Cool stuff.

I'd definitely go back to nerdnite. It made me realize that I'd love to find some bizarre way to combine my love of science, food, music, and photography. Hmmm...

For more nerdnite information, check out the website, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. Maybe I'll see you at the next one!


  1. This looks like it was a great event! I'm planning on attending Wiley Dufresne's lecture at Harvard for the same reason...to learn about the science behind his cooking!

  2. Oooh, I hadn't heard of that lecture series but I just looked it up and it looks AWESOME. I'd love to make it to one of those in the near future. Have fun!


Related Posts with Thumbnails