Harvard SEAS lecture, 11/5/12, Joanne Chang

Joanne Chang is a food celebrity around these parts.  She’s the owner of Flour Bakery, which originally started in the South End of Boston, and then opened up branches at Fort Point Channel (Boston) and Central Square (Cambridge).  She’s been on the food show “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” (Chang’s sticky buns won against Flay’s).  She’s married to Christopher Myers, and together they own the restaurant Myers+Chang.  She’s written a cookbook, aptly named “Flour:  Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery+Cafe” and I believe she’s finishing up Flour cookbook #2.

I’m not a 100% sure, but I think she’s spoken at Harvard before. She’s just never spoken at the SEAS public lectures until now.

But, let’s back up and bit and talk about the amusing, hilarious brilliance that is Professor Mike Brenner’s “Bakery Phase Diagrams.”

This is what happens when a mathematician decides to plot a recipe by way of ingredient ratios.

But why stop there?

Prof. Brenner and some students downloaded a bunch of recipes from allrecipes.com, complied the ingredients, categorized it, turned it into an excel spreadsheet…

and then plotted them all into one graph (note – he was limited to just two main ingredients at a time).  This in turn created the question, “What is [cooking] creativity?”

This might be one answer, as derived from math.  As for what it means…

The recipes outside of the bold outline are creative.  The recipes inside the outlined area are just variants of the same recipe.  What do you think?

Joanne’s presentation focused on making cake.  She started by talking about leaveners.  You have air, steam, yeast, or chemical.  Creaming butter and sugar is an example of airing.  Eggs are an emulsifier which helps hold in more air.  Steam (heating the water content in a mixture to its gas phase) creates 1100 times more volume than the original.  In yeast, the living organisms in there eat sugars and then burp/fart out carbon dioxide which helps make a fluffier texture (the audience laughed when Joanne said “burp and fart” but it’s totally true and it’s how I describe the workings of yeast as well).  As for chemical, baking soda and baking powder are relatively recent inventions, created within the last 200 years.  Baking soda reacts with acid to make things bubbly.  The acid component used in the bakery could be buttermilk, lemon juice, cocoa/chocolate, sour cream, brown sugar or yogurt.  As for baking powder, it’s made from baking soda and cream of tartar.  What is cream of tartar?  I had always wondered but never bothered to look it up.   Well, surprise!  It’s the white powdery byproduct of the wine making process found inside of barrels.

Joanne proceeded to talk about eggs, egg yolks, egg whites, flour and gluten.  She and her kitchen ran experiments on cakes made with: 1) no leavener at all, 2) no baking soda, 3) no baking powder, 4) melted butter (apparently tastes like boxed cake mix), 5) halved sugar amounts (sandy and dry but tastes like pancakes which correlates back to one of Professor Brenner’s graphs), and 6) no leavener but used whipped egg whites.

The generously-sized samples we received were of the normal yellow cake with both baking soda and baking powder as leavening agents.

However, Joanne was happy to cut up the “bad cakes” for taste testing, and there were a good number people who raised their hands to try it.  I thought about it, but I decided I had used up my junk food allotment for the day.

The lecture was closed out with the recipe for yellow cake.  For the curious, the egg yolks were built into the recipe to add moisture.  Sugar and butter can also add moisture, but the cake already had enough of both.  She didn’t want it to be any sweeter or get greasy.  We were also suppose to get a demo of how to make the cake batter, but there was technical difficulty with the mixer.  (It kept stopping when it was put into the bowl.)  I know it starts with creaming room temperature butter with sugar, and adding room temperature eggs, one by one.  Other than that, I guess you’ll have to google it.

Ok, I lie – you can go here for exact directions:


Reference Links:




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