The Polarized Postdoc

Posts Tagged ‘edible science

The quest for the perfect muffin, part II: Candidate approach

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Changes in life can shake you up and make you feel like you have to search for something, get out, travel, learn, see, try, experiment, strive for a better existence. But just as well, they can also make you realize that you are in the right place and, blessed with this conviction, simply and fully enjoy the fleeting present moment more. Sometimes what you are looking for can be right in front you, and most times it is actually right inside you.

And so for every endeavor, there is perfection, and then there is your personal take on it.

perfection, according to the experts

perfection, baked and photographed by max

At least, that was the muffin team´s conclusion, after lots of frantic trial-and-digestion. We decided to stop looking around and forgo the screening, and instead peek inside our hearts and stomach to bake our dreamed muffin creation to life, instead of trying to make a compromise choice amongst the existing muffin types.

And so, I came up with this banana-nutella recipe that comprises, to our best taste and knowledge, all the ingredients that make for a perfect muffin.

To be sure, we consulted an outside expert that kindly offered to independently try this recipe. I think his feedback was crumbly, moist, and hummingly positive. Now, not only is Max a much better baker than me, but he is also a renowned professional photographer, so for your enjoyment he donated pictures of the perfect muffin, our pride and joy.

banana/nutella muffins

Speaking of pride and joy, I believe today it´s time to feel both for you, Max, happy birthday. I wish that you continue being stronger than you think, happier than you realize, and secretly hopeful for all the great things I am sure life has in store for you.

Banana, Nutella, and Birthday muffins

Preheat your oven to 350F, place rack in the middle.
Butter your muffin pan.

Banana batter:

-3/4 to 1 cup all purpose flour
-1/4 cup granulated white C12H22O11
-1/8 cup light brown C12H22O11
-1/2 tsp baking powder
-1/4 tsp NaH2CO3
-1/8 tsp NaCl

-1 large egg beaten lightly
-4 tbs butter melted and cooled
-2 very ripe large bananas
-1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 extra banana, sliced for garnish

Sift all the dry ingredients in a big bowl.
Mix eggs, butter, mashed bananas and vanilla in a smaller container.
Fold this into dry ingredients until just combined, mixing slowly but swiftly with a spatula.

Nutella batter:

-1 cup flour
-3/4 tsp NaCl
-1/2 tbs baking powder

-1/2 cup milk
-1 large egg
-1/2 cup nutella
-1 tbs vegetable oil

Sift together flour, salt and baking powder in a deep bowl.
Add milk, egg, sugar, nutella and oil to the very same deep bowl.
With electric mixer at low speed, combine until just moistened.

To each muffin cup, add 1 spoon banana batter and 1 spoon nutella batter side by side, without mixing.
Place a slice of banana on top, slightly sideways so the muffins can raise into perfect peaks.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until hardened outside but still moist inside.

I hope that you get around to make these muffins, sometime. And I hope that when you do they can convey to you the love, excitement, fun and kindness we put into this most delicious quest.


Written by polarizedpostdoc

August 1, 2009 at 00:00

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The quest for the perfect muffin, part I: Screening

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Yes, lucky reader, you have heard well, there is not only another muffin post, but also a third one on the way. The truth is, of late my polarized life has been skewing dangerously towards the stay-at-home-and-bake side, neglecting the rave-around-the-city part I was so fond (and proud, given my years) of.

But I am convinced it´s not all the unstoppable decay of age, it´s also this intoxicating, dumbing suburbia I dwell in that is turning me into a domestic goddess. Nothing wrong with being one, as long as it is a personal choice and not the only choice.

Long Island can pass for a decent summer getaway, with nice beaches, the best of the city life in bloom close by, and interesting characters on display around its towns and villages. But it demands a good deal of imagination, or other chemical methods, to survive the dire boredom of the winter months. During the snow season, the hipster-clubber in me peacefully hibernates. Tried waiting for the train in the cold wee hours of January nights, scantily clad. It wasn´t my thing, my mediterranean genes concurred.

So I have developed a winter version of myself, that wears Uggs and cute aprons, and throws dinner parties. I am not yet into board games, but I feel them coming close. For entertainment, not happy with all the mixing and matching routinely performed at lab, winter me usually cooks and bake her way through the cold. Thankfully, there are plenty of other bored, cold, hungry scientists around on whom to bestow some baked goods (see sample in Figure 1). Otherwise, I would be rolling around like a barrel come March.

tried and true

Figure 1: The muffin musketeers

This last winter, we embarked in a very ambitious and potentially relevant culinary project, The Quest For The Perfect Muffin. Our initial approach was a high-throughput one, much in the vein of current biomedical research. We decided to adapt and test in the same experimental conditions selected muffin recipes previously reported in the literature (refs 1, 2, 3, and others). These are the muffin varieties we tested:

-B&W muffins (cream cheese and chocolate)

-Power Banana muffins (mocha-chocolate-nut streusel)

-Naughty Pumpkin muffins

-Blue on Blue (blue corn-blueberry)

-Peanut Butter and Jelly muffins

-White Chocolate Macadamia Muffins

-Triple Ch muffins (cherry, chile, chocolate)

-Ying/Yang muffins (banana-nutella surprise/nutella-banana surprise)

We tried to cover with these the most common muffin ingredients, and add on some offbeat ones, and survey most of the possible deliciousness sources.

Figure 2 illustrates a typical work-in progress experiment:

now, for the fun part of the experiment

now, for the fun part

The results? As expected, most muffin types studied caused grunting, smiling, and a hefty sugar rush response in the voluntary tasters. We observed that the banana-based muffins were consumed significantly faster (p<0.005) than the other types. Moreover, the presence of chocolate acted as a potent stimulant and gave muffin testers a second wind that was much appreciated. This response was observed to a certain extend also in people that consumed PB&J muffins, but nevertheless those were deemed “too intense”, suggesting that there is a feedback loop for muffin-driven activation. Thus, our preliminary data show that the perfect muffin must harmonize, but not mix banana, nuts and chocolate.

Taking this into account, we refined the next phase of our quest by undertaking a “candidate approach”. We sought to combine the components highlighted in our screen in the right amounts to deliver the best possible muffin experience. Were we able to create the perfect muffin? Is it reproducible? Do we have the right controls? Find out more in the next and final chapter of the perfect muffin quest.

Written by polarizedpostdoc

July 27, 2009 at 18:51

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Karma muffins

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Hypothetically speaking, if one were to accidentally back into someone´s car´s door, and drive away in a hurry without leaving a note, and then some weeks later someone else would in turn back into your car´s door and scram (leisurely or hurriedly) without leaving a note, it must mean that the universe, using the active forces of karma, has just spun around enough to recover its equilibrium.

But rationally speaking, that universal balance cannot, possibly, be ever preserved still. The logic of supernatural forces implies that when you backed into someone´s car the first time, the owner probably deserved it somehow, and you were just a toy being brandished by karma´s hands. So the bad energy merely got transfered, or derived from good one. And so on, and so forth, ad infinitum, it follows that an endless chain of unfairness fuels the dynamic balance of the universe.

Whenever I start thinking like that my heart gets dizzy. I have to admit that I am not much of a believer. It´s not personal, you gods and goddesses and earth energies, it´s just that I have trouble with the idea of believing itself. Of choosing to accept instead of to proof, or discover. In absolute terms, though, a life of faith sounds much more relaxing than endlessly trying to answer all the “whys” and “hows” and wtfs” around you.

battering heights

battering heights

This weekend, as a mental vacation from worry, and to make up for some recent bad energy transfers, I decided to give karma a try, scientifically speaking. I always picture karma like a molding water mill wheel, Ignatius Reilly-style. So my premise is that if karma is some sort energy cycle, not created or destroyed but just transformed by human actions and consequences, it must be amenable to measurement. It has to have a quantifiable unit, kJs perhaps (karma-joules, not kilo joules, thank you).

And if we have our units, we can devise a system to calculate how many KJs are there in a hug, a kind salute, a ride to the airport. But as we don´t know either the exact parameters of the energy conversion reaction (is it exotermic? explosive? catalyzed?), save for that sometimes it includes a kinetic intermediary in the form of car crashes, we need to create good energy, from scratch. More accurately, from our very own chemical potential. AKA, the wheel of life.

top o´ the muffin

top o´ the muffin

To do so, and establish a proper standard that we can apply to daily life, I figured I could make a well-known vehicle of good energy, that comes already aliquoted in individual doses. So instead of worrying, I adapted a warm looking muffin recipe to my non-dairy, berry-crazy standards. Then proceeded to bake them and spread them amongst my friends and folks, who received different doses of the sugary vibes. Now, I plan to just sit back, hang out and observe how the good karma expands and extends from my oven, into the hostile world, perhaps in waves of good luck or strikes of love. If we apply some simple exponential amplification rules, it is likely that this experiment might keep me busy for a while. So for now, worrying will have to wait for the next wheel´s turn.

(Good) Karma Muffins


-1/2 cup margarine

-1+1/4 cup granulated sugar

-1/2 tsp salt

-1+1/2 cup all-purpose flour

-1/2 cup cake flour (optional, you can use AP)

-2 large eggs

-2 heaping tsp baking powder

-1/2 cup soy milk

-1 tsp vanilla extract

-6 ounces each of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, fresh or unthawed, sprinkled with:

-1 tsp sugar

-1 tsp cinnamon

-1 oven at 385F

-1 hand mixer


-Sift flour and baking powder together and set aside.

-Cream margarine, sugar and salt with until soft (one day we must discuss the scientific value of baking terms such as this, or “until just combined”, “fluffy” or “just moist”)

-Add eggs and beat until fluffy, to your best judgement.

-Pat berries dry on a paper owel.

-Into the liquid mixture, fold alternatively one thir of flour, one third of milk, repeat until just combined. Add vanilla.

-Sprinkle berries with sugar and cinnamon, fold into batter.

-Pour 1+1/2 tbs of batter into greased muffin cups. I always have trouble calculating how much to aliquot, and can never seem to avoid putting too much. This measure seems to produce some handsome, pointy doses of good energy to share.

-Incubate in the oven for 20 minutes, or until golden and dry according to the international toothpick standard.

-Cool for 10 minutes on a rack, invite friends over, have them with hot chocolate, and rate your muffinity according to the width of the smiles and volume of grunts elicited. Good luck, and good karma.

Written by polarizedpostdoc

July 27, 2009 at 17:54

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Monkey Business

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While some of us are scooping summer bliss out of ice cream cones, the on-shift scientists continue their quest for the secrets of life. In this case, of eternal life. But of course, their proposed recipe for extended youth has major catch.

Life-prolonging phenomena are harder to come by that life-ending ones, but nevertheless some thirty years back it was discovered that caloric restriction diets effectively prolonged life span. For those of us who make our pies with lard, there was the consolation that those results came from studies in mice. Arguably of limited relevance for human biology, mice, with their intense three years average lives, were still he model organism of choice until know. They are a useful albeit imperfect system to study longevity, given the obvious drawbacks of setting up experiments likely to last longer than the researcher´s life span.

But eventually, curiosity and rigor prevailed and a group from Wisconsin stared thirty years ago to test whether caloric restriction had an effect on longevity. To this aim they used the closest non-human primate, the rhesus monkey. 30 males and 30 females were placed on either on a control or a low- calorie diet for 30 years. For those of you interested in those things, the low diet contained 15% protein and 10% fat.

During the course of the study, the investigators examined aging-related parameters, namely mortality and onset of related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, brain atrophy, cancer and diabetes. The results, contrary to non-conclusive previous studies, unequivocally show that a lower calorie intake expands life for an average of ten years. Moreover, leaner monkeys seem to display a healthier condition overall, with delayed onset of the diseases studies.

When compared to their take-out dinner mates (left) they look like this:

drop those cupcakes!

drop those cupcakes!

These pictures are striking, and gave raise to a very healthy, amusing debate amongst my fellow scientists. Of note, though, these data compare “normal” to “low” calories, and we can not extrapolate on the negative effects of a high calorie diet on the life span, a subject still under heavy debate.

Looking at this compelling evidence, we can reflect on quantity vs. quality. There are no standarized measurements for a good life, but I still spent a long time staring into the monkeys´ eyes. Trying to decipher if, beyond all those physiological readouts, there were other differences. Other than physical appearance, the paper does not comment on the quality of the macaques lives. Are the low-calorie diet monkeys more active, more creative, do they socialize more? Are they smarter, funnier, can they dance and sing better?

I don´t care, just give me a burger

I don´t care, just give me a burger

While those questions are irrelevant in the context of the presented research, they might be of interest for you as they are for me. In fact, the end point count of travels and stories, parties and midnight swims and hikes and dinners with friends and cakes in the oven may be more important to you than scoring those extra years.

To date, science can´t help you evaluate that, and the question is only yours to ask. Is a life of lyophilized broccoli worth getting 30% more years? Or living at all? If the answer is yes, now you have that option, just have to keep following science´s advice. If the answer is no, on the other hand, you might want to navigate in a different direction.

Whatever your choice may be, happiness is still not a monkey business. So however long and flavorful you decide to make your life, hope you make the most of it!

Written by polarizedpostdoc

July 17, 2009 at 11:02

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The fine lines

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And now, for something completely different.

Has it ever happened to you to find yourself too sick to do any work but not sick enough to stop doing everything else? I walked that fine line this weekend, often humming along in a haze.

I had tickets for one of my favorite musicians at one of my favorite venues in one of my favorite cities, John Vanderslice´s show at the Bowery ballroom in Manhattan. Bought by one of my favorite persons. So no persistent rain or incoming cold was about to stop me from going. And I am glad, cause it was an amazing evening. I wish I had more, better words to praise John Vanderslice´s music. He is such a talented songwriter and outstanding performer, incredibly professional and devoted, and also more kind and generous, down-to-earth than any renowned musician I have ever seen. He is both unassuming and overreaching, and his songs usually strike the right balance between universal and intimate feelings. A fine line to play by.

I think our favorite theme of the night was “Too much time”. Me and the ticker-buyer heard this song for the first time when he premiered it last year, also in NYC, in a heart warming show starring just him and his guitar. We still maintain that was the best version, but the rock-and-roll riff he did this weekend came very close. I have no recording of either, but you can decide about your favorite version also by checking these ones out, from sterogum and from this other live recording. There is also the official version, from his new album Romanian Names. All highly recommended!

The nightly city outing did not help my recovery, so I was not able to work on Sunday either and decided to work on our communal lab garden instead. And bake frantically. Surprisingly, I am still sick today!

Aside from my breast cancer research I have some ongoing baking and cooking projects that I work on sporadically (but not as sporadically as I should). My main quests are to find/produce the best-of-the-crop cornmeal, the morphing muffin and the perfect loaf. Because why go to a store when you can slave at home and come up with only slightly inferior results? These are collaborative projects that could not be possible without a team of very talented tasters and sous-chefs, often recruited from our seafood club.

I usually parse by several online recipes to use as starting points to devise my own take. Lately I have been staying away from fancy websites that used to lure me with glorious shinny pictures, as they made my deflated efforts look dull and scruffy. But I could not resist giving this outlandish cornbread a try, out of scientific curiosity I guess. An important member of the team is allergic to dairy, and I don´t want to kill him (well, most of the time I don´t), so I adapt all the recipes to non-dairy friendly. I also try to shy away from overly complicated and specialized ingredients that you can only use sparingly. My budget and pantry are not that big. Oh and I always put more fruit/chocolate/nuts than they ask for. Same reasons plus gluttony. Here is the resulting protocol:

Cowless lemon blueberry basil corncake


1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup coarse ground cornmeal

1/2 cup finely ground cornmeal

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tbs baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp salt

2 tbs margarine melted and cooled

2 tbs basil-flavored olive oil

1 cup home made non-dairy buttermilk (soy milk with 2 tbs lemon juice stirred in 5-10 minutes before)

2 eggs lightly beaten

2 tbs lemon juice

1/4 tsp lemon zest

almost 1 cup blueberries dusted with flour.

2 tbs basil herb mix (comes refrigerated in a tube, and handy when your garden herbs are just starting to take off)


1 Preheat oven to 375F (for cooking purposes temperature is NOT in Celsius. Everywhere else it should be).

2 Grease loaf pan, 9×5 inches (see above for measuring system cooking exceptions)

3 Sift in the solids in a big bowl and mix.

4 In a separate bowl whisk oil, butter, buttermilk, eggs, lemon juice and lemon zest.

5 Add liquids to solids and mix quickly. With a rubber spatula fold in blueberries and basil.

6 Pour and bake for 40 minutes. Cool on rack.

Although my pictures are not as good as the original blog´s, I hope you can tell that the result was similar. As a die-hard scientist, I am always very pleased when you follow the instructions and get exactly to where you are supposed to.

lemon blueberry basil cornbread


The on-site cornmeal experts consensus was that this had a surprisingly lightness to it, and that it merged warmth and freshness quite astonishingly. A deliciously fine line.

And yes, you have guessed right, I am a girl!

Written by polarizedpostdoc

June 15, 2009 at 13:03

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