Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I hail from Toronto, ON and I am male. I am excited to be a member of this illustrious food blogging team!

Like my blogmates Joanne and Vivian, I, too, have a science background. I am a physician trained in the art of putting people to sleep, ie. anaesthesia (or anesthesia, as the Americans would have it). I also have a business degree, which makes me weird.

My contributions to Nature Culinary will have a humerus (*giggle*) bend to them. I hope you enjoy my contributions, as well as those by my colleagues!


Monday, August 31, 2009

Chili Secrets

Lee A, Lee E and Hsieh J.

9021 Leslie St, Unit 9, Richmond Hill
(Toronto area)

Weekend dim sum uptown - a treat! Chinatown is good for mid-week penny-pinching eating out, but when it comes to dim sum, it's go sublime or go home. Uptown is the best I can get when I'm not in Vancouver. This Sichuan-ish (I add the "ish" because they're serving Cantonese dim sum) restaurant anchors a newer complex right beside Times Square, but that didn't stop a long lineup from greeting us at the door. After finally getting a table for 7, everyone agreed all around that shark fin soup dumpling was a must and a bowl arrived for each person. I was excited! Shark fin soup dumpling is rather uncommon downtown.

Figure 1.
Shark fin dumpling from Chili secrets (left) containing artificial crab. For comparison, shark fin dumpling from Sea Harbour in Vancouver (right) with a giant chunk of shark fin.

First thing I noticed about the dumpling, a lot of cabbage (Figure 1)! That's not necessarily a bad thing as I love my greens (gotta protect that colon!), but as I continued eating, I found myself looking for the shark fin. I never found it. I did however, find a big chunk of artificial crab. Perhaps I'm unfairly making assumptions. Nowhere in the dish's name did it mention "shark fin," but every one I've ever tried in Vancouver came with some. I commented on this to Mr. Lee, who made his usual "Vancouver snob" retort.

The next dish that arrived was the chicken with fish maw and chinese mushroom dish (don't know how to translate it from Cantonese).

Figure 2. Chicken with fish maw and chinese mushroom, sans the SINGLE piece of fish maw and mushroom that arrived with the dish. Note the red chili dotting the chicken.

My beef with this chicken is regarding the chili (Figure 2). I know it's a Sichuan restaurant, and I'm aware it explicitly says "Fusion" above the main entrance, but in my humble opinion, the chili added nothing and actually detracted from the supple nature of this dish.

Figure 3. Half of the plain rice rolls. Not shown: sesame sauce for dipping.

The rice rolls (Figure 3), however, were a different story. The pastry was incredibly silky, which could explain why my dining companions polished off this dish so quickly.

Figure 4. BBQ pork bun split open.

The filling of the BBQ pork bun (Figure 4) was unexceptional, but the bread was fluffy and not overly thick (note the good pork to bread ratio). Everybody was still weary of char siu bao because of an earlier scare involving supposedly cardboard derivatives of BBQ pork from China, so more for me!

Figure 5. Chicken rice wrapped in lotus leaf. I didn't actually taste this dish, but rather, I posted the picture so somebody may enlighten me on why it's so yellow!?!?!

Last but not least, dessert. The ginger-scented double boiled egg was mediocre, but again, a dish not commonly found in downtown's Chinatown. The custard bun was interesting in that right smack in the middle was a single salty egg yolk (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Steamed custard bun. The dark orange spot in the middle is a salted egg yolk.

The salty-sweet contrast is almost always a winner, and the thin layer of bun met everyone's approval except for Mr. Lee's grandma. It turns out diapers isn't the only thing in common with early childhood and the senile elderly, plain carbohydrates falls under this category as well.

Conclusion: Overall an unspectacular dim sum experience, but this restaurant certain excels at the pastry of the dishes. This isn't just my Vancouver snobbery talking.


Currently located in Cambridge MA, I am a Chemical Engineering PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My primary purpose here is to develop contrast agents for MRI that will allow real-time detection and visualization of dopamine level changes in the brain. Hopefully the method can be generalized in the future for detecting other neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, so we can visualize the pleasurability of eating food (among other purposes too, of course).

I developed gluttonous tendencies in Vancouver BC where I was born and raised, and where I earned my BASc in Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia. I believe that coffee and cake is the breakfast of champions and I hope that Pierre Herme will open a macaron shop either in Boston or NYC soon. Very soon.


Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

8 tbsp (125 mL) butter, cubed and frozen + 2 tbsp butter melted for brushing
1.5 cups (375 mL) fresh blueberries, washed and frozen
0.5 cup (125 mL) whole milk (don't skimp on the fat!), cold
0.5 cup (125 mL) sour cream, cold
2 cups (500 mL) all-purpose flour (very very important that it is all-purpose flour!), plus more for dusting work surface
0.5 cups (125 mL) granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
2 tsp (10 mL) baking powder
0.25 tsp (1.25 mL) baking soda
0.5 tsp (2.5 mL) table salt
1 tsp (5 mL) grated lemon zest

1. Adjust rack to middle position of the oven. Preheat to 425F. Pulse 8 tbsp cubed frozen butter with flour, 0.5 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and lemon zest in a 7-cup food processor (Kitchenaid) until butter averages 3 mm in diameter. Transfer to a mixing bowl.
2. Whisk together milk and sour cream in a small bowl. Fold milk mixture into the flour mixture with a spatula until just combined. With the spatula, transfer the dough to a liberally floured surface.
3. Dust the dough with some flour and knead 6 to 8 times just until it holds together into a ball, working quickly to avoid warming up the batter.
4. With a floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 30 cm square. Fold into thirds like a letter, and then into thirds again to make a 10 cm square (see Figure 1). Chill in freezer for 5 minutes.
5. Transfer the chilled dough to a floured surface and roll the dough again into a 30 cm square. Spread frozen blueberries evenly over the dough surface and lightly press them into to embed it into the dough, but careful not to pop the berries.
6. Tightly roll the dough into a log. Lay seam-face down and press down to form a 30 cm by 10 cm rectangle. With a sharp chef's knife, cut the rectangle into 8 trianges, as diagrammed in Figure 2.
7. Line air bake sheet with Silpat. Arrange scones about 3 cm apart. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.
8. Bake for 18 to 23 minutes until tops are golden brown and crisp. Cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes before consuming - these things are hot! Top with jelly and clotted cream.

This recipe may be frozen after completing step 6 and baked at your convenience. For frozen scones, just add about 5 minutes to the baking time at 375F. Recipe has been tested for crystallized ginger (1 cup coarsely chopped), lavender (0.25 cup), dried cranberries (1.5 cups hydrated), pink peppercorn (4 tbsp crushed), and cherries (fresh, pitted and halved).

Figure 1. How to fold the dough in step 4.

Figure 2. How to cut the dough in step 6.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chinese Traditional Buns

Lee E and Hsieh J

536 Dundas St West, Toronto
I have heard a few mentions of this place, but given that Mr. Lee already has a go-to spot for noodles in Chinatown (Ahn Dao for the Bun bo Hue), I never gave it much consideration. However, on my way to a "Minxicure" at Heartbreaker, a series of tasty pictures caught my eye. Alas, it was Chinese Traditional Buns! Sold, that will be dinner tonight after a gorgeous manicure that withstands even wet transferring SDS-PAGE gels in 20% methanol buffer.

The menu is filled with more traditional items eaten in northern and western (would Xi'an be considered west?) China, ie. no Cantonese chow mein and a lot of things I did not recognize. Given the name is "Chinese Traditional Buns," I focused my ordering on the first page of the menu - "Buns." First item that arrived was Gao-Bu-Li buns (Figure 1).



Figure 1. Gao-Bu-Li pork buns. (A) It looks like a bun but (B) can almost pass for a dumpling.

I was actually hoping to order the shredded pork sandwiched between two flat buns pictured outside. I actually could read the Chinese name of the Gao-bu-Li buns, but this is yet another example of Chinese names that sound really cool but achieve nothing in description. The next dish that arrived was the Spicy Beef noodle (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The remaining half of the spicy beef noodles (the other half was already in our belly by the time I remembered to take a picture). We paid an extra $1.50 for handmade ramen. Note the cilantro.

The highlight of the spicy beef noodles were in fact the handmade noodles. One just knows when it is handmade - there is that distinctive chew. The beef was sufficiently good - not chewy. The broth lacked some meaty heartiness and could use some more depth from the anise seed, but what was nice was the freshness from the cilantro that would occasionally cut through. Next up: an oily cabbage and fungus in garlic sauce (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Cabbage and fungus in garlic sauce. This dish was absolutely massive so we couldn't finish it.

The last dish to arrive to the table was crab and pork soup-filled dumplings (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Crab and pork soup-filled "buns" with a bite taken out of it.

The pastry of the crab and pork soup-filled dumplings was certainly handmade. We had to question the structural integrity of these dumplings because as shown in Figure 4, there was no appreciable amount of soup. However, there's a possibility this was intentional, as the name explicitly was not "xiao-long-bao."

Halfway through our meal, a giant cockroach was leisurely crawling around on the floor. Normally we'd be pretty disgusted and stop eating, but hey, this is Chinatown. At least our waitress came over and stomped on it for us.

Upon leaving, it turns out the pictures outside had captions! The dish I wanted was Xian-cured pork in bread. So much for those astute scientist observational skills of mine.

The final bill for 2 people: about $26.


I was born and raised on Vancouver Asian cuisine and learned to drink on Okanagan wine. I completed my undergraduate education in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of British Columbia, and am currently a Ph.D. Candidate in University of Toronto's Biochemistry Department. My research area includes the neuroendocrine regulation of intestinal fat absorption with a special interest in its dysregulation in insulin resistant (ie. diabetic) states. Before you start asking, no, there is not yet a fool-proof pharmacological intervention that will allow you to eat without restraint and without consequences for the waistline. Believe me, if I had one, I would be out buying Louboutins instead of eviscerating...things... My favourite things include coffee, saturated fat, and floral notes in my desserts and wine.

My Pubmed entries

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Systematic Approach for Optimizing Macaron Taste, Texture, and Appearance

Hsieh V, Shiue E, Lee J, and Lin K.


Anyone who has experienced a well-made macaron, like the delights purveyed by Laduree and Pierre Herme, can attest to how truly heavenly a macaron is in both taste and texture: a smooth, flavourful center enveloped by a light, airy meringue, encased in smooth, crsip shell. Unfortunately, such divine macarons are elusive and not easily found, not even in most urban areas (unless you live in Paris or Tokyo, in which case I envy you). Often times, macarons found in stores/bakeries/patisseries suffer from at least one of the following faults: dryness, lack of flavour, absence of crisp shell, air pockets, and chewiness.

The causes of these shortcomings have been previously identified by other macaron enthusiasts1. Syrup and Tang provides a comprehensive summary of macaron shortcomings and their causes. In this study, we used these findings to develop a systematic method for baking successively better macaron shells in order to achieve a macaron with ideal taste, texture, and appearance.

Results and Discussion

Since our group has no previous experience with making macarons, we first followed a French meringue shell recipe2 to the best of our abilities and knowledge to make lemon macarons with a buttercream/lemon curd filling. The recipe we used gives the amount of ingredients in weight. Since we did not have a kitchen scale to use, we had to convert our ingredients units from mass to volume based on densities found online. While this worked out fine in retrospect, we recommend using a scale when possible for better accuracy.

Most recipes warn not to over-fold the meringue, as it will become too runny. The best (but unfortunately not the most convenient) way to find out whether the meringue is mixed enough is to pipe it onto the Silpat. The meringue mixture should form a smooth dome that spreads slightly and forms a light peak when you stop piping (citation). By visual inspection, the batter of our first batch appears to spread more as the meringue gets handled more in the piping bag, suggesting that one should also mix to account for meringue handling in the bag (Figure 1). For the next batch, we mix slightly less so there is less spreading.

Figure 1. First batch of macarons piped onto Silpat. Macarons were piped row-wise from top left to bottom right.

After setting the oven to 350°F and baking for 15 min, rotating the sheet half-way in between, the first batch was taken out of the oven and the shells are inspected visually. On the sheet, we can see that the shells have the coveted “feet,” which is the thin puffy layer at the bottom of the shell that results from the meringue rising. The shells are also fairly smooth. After removing the shells from the Silpat, we see that the bottoms are fairly smooth, which is desirable. However, the bottoms were browned. The consequences and causes of this will be discussed later. To complete the visual inspection, the shell is bisected cross-wise to reveal a crisp shell with a giant air pocket underneath it (Figure 2). Air pockets are undesirable because they compromise the body and texture of the macaron, resulting in an unfulfilling macaron experience.

Figure 2. Cross section of a macaron shell from the first batch showing the crisp shell but vacuous insides.

Following the visual inspection is the taste test. The macaron shells were sandwiched together using a layer of lemon curd/buttercream and subsequently ingested. Overall, the macaron tasted mediocre: chewy, grainy texture with a noticeable almond flavour. By comparing shells with and without browning, we determine that the chewiness resulted from the browned bottoms. The grainy texture we experienced was caused by using almond meal that was too coarse. The graininess was also noticed when we were piping the meringue mixture onto the Silpats. The almond flavour was also likely caused by using coarse almond meal.

We compared our observations with findings in literature to determine the errors in our technique. Syrup and Tang attributes air pockets to incorrect baking temperature, with optimal macaron baking temperature range being 160°C-170°C. Though the oven display reads 350°F (equivalent to 176.7 °C), instruments cannot always be trusted and thus we perform an oven calibration to determine what the oven reading should be for an actual baking temperature of 170°C. We decide to make our almond meal finer by grinding it down in a coffee grinder (food processor should also work) and sifting it to remove lumps. Browning may have been caused by too high baking temperature and/or too long baking time. We hope that having the right temperature setting and reducing the baking time by 1-2 min eliminates the browning.

After implementing the aforementioned changes, the second batch of macaron shells looks much better! The shells were smoother and there were very nice feet that unfortunately deflated a bit, suggesting that we reduced the baking time by too much. However, the second batch did have significantly less browning than the first. The cross-sectional analysis also showed that the macaron had no air pockets and more body (Figure 3). The taste and texture were also greatly improved as neither chewiness, graininess nor almond flavour were noticeable. Overall, the second batch of macarons was much more pleasing!

Figure 3. Cross sectional of a macaron shell from batch 2 showing a much more substantial--and much more delicious--macaron.

With most of the problems of the first batch resolved, we try to determine whether the feet obtained in batch 2 could be maintained by baking for slightly longer (1 more min). While we were able to achieve more prominent feet in batch 3, there was also more browning and thus chewiness. However, the browning was not consistent amongst shells, which suggests that the browning migh

t be due to using a non-insulated bake sheet. We believe that a combination of using an airbake sheet and optimizing the ovn temperature and baking time can rectify the browning problem. Aside from the browning, batch 3 is consistent with batch 2 (Figure 4), demonstrating that the results of our approach are reproducible.

Figure 4. Assembled macaron from batch 3. The quality of the macaron is consistent with that of batch 2, except for the noticeable browning.


With only two rounds, we were able to produce macaron shells of much better taste, texture and appearance. By assessing the various taste, texture, and appearance aspects of each batch, and cross-referencing our observations with literature findings, we were able to troubleshoot errors in our macaron-making technique and produce better quality macarons. Our findings show that a systematic approach of identifying faults in each successive batch of macarons and making the appropriate baking adjustments can evolve a more ideal macaron.


  1. http://www.syrupandtang.com/200712/la-macaronicite-1-an-introduction-to-the-macaron/
  2. http://cannelle-vanille.blogspot.com/

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mission Statement

Nature Culinary
is comprised of accounts of culinary observations made by scientifically-oriented individuals with a strong interest in eating well. Though all posts may not be completely impartial, efforts have been made to review restaurant offerings and recipes systematically and comprehensively, and to support any "discoveries" with biochemical explanations from the scientific literature. Although we are not "molecular gastronomists," we do have abundant quantities of liquid nitrogen and lecithin (phosphatidylcholine) to our disposal. (However, Joanne is very fond of the use to foam to effervesce salivary gland-stimulating aromas.) We aim to achieve what most scientists strive to do - that is control aspects of the natural physical world, but without forgetting that it is deemed culinary arts for a reason. Thus through this blog, we hope to marry the utility of food science with the glorious sensuous pleasures of eating.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gluten Formation is Essential for Puffy Scones

Sun K, Tsai J, and Hsieh J.


Bad scones afflicts cafes, hotels and restaurants serving breakfasts across North America (I would venture to declare "the world" but I have never ventured outside North America...but will in October!). Characteristics of bad scones include dryness, flatness, dryness, tastelessness, dryness, and the density of a 75% polyacrylamide gel. Courtesy of Dr. Sun (St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, ON), we have procured jars of real clotted cream (well, almost real, these are pasteurized). It would be blasphemy to apply such examples of gourmet divinity to sub-optimal-tasting scones. In this study we aimed to rectify, or at least alleviate, chronic bad scone-ness to accompany our clotted cream. We used Cook's Illustrated's Blueberry Scone recipe to see if it really was indeed, the best scone recipe ever.

First task was to confirm identity of clotted cream. Clotted cream consists of 55% milk fat. Double Devon cream (sold at many grocery stores throughout the GTA) is 48%. Whipping cream is 35%, but requires dedicated whipping to achieve spreadable consistency. If one thinks the fat content of Double Devon cream is excessive enough, and that anyone would be crazy to go to great lengths to procure clotted cream, consider this: skim milk is 0% fat and homogenized milk is 3.25% fat. There is only a 3.25% difference in fat content yet the taste and perceived texture is markedly different. Imagine with a fat content difference that is 7%! Believe me, the gustatory CD36 receptors can tell.

Removing said jar of clotted cream from 4 degrees revealed that clotted cream is completely solid - telling of the high saturated fat content. Sufficiently convinced with the high fat content of this jar, we proceeded to make the scones.

Unfortunately, as a testament to the importance of good pantry organization, I was unable to locate my bag of all-purpose flour. However, cake flour was readily on hand, right beside my bag of rice and underneath the bag of coffee. Recipe called for grated butter, but to minimize handling of frozen butter with 37 degree-ish hands, butter was pulsed in a food processor (Kitchenaid) with flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest until the size of peas. Homogenized milk and full-fat sour cream was mixed, and then folded into the butter and flour mixture. The batter was handled as described in Protocols, frozen blueberries were pushed in, and 8 triangular scones were baked in a preheated 425 degree oven on a silpat-covered airbake (very important to avoid excessive browning on the underside).

Figure 1. Blueberry scoes juxtaposed to clotted cream and strawberry Bon Maman.

Blueberry scones emerged from the oven looking acceptably puffy (Figure 1). Taste revealed a very moist, almost cake-like texture. The appreciable rising is attributable to the acid-base reaction between the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and sour cream (lactic acid) to release carbon dioxide. Satisfying, but Dr. Sun insisted that all-purpose flour be used in the next experimental batch.

Recipe was followed as described above, except with the substitution of all-purpose flour for cake flour. Chopped crystallized ginger (Dan-D-Pak) was used in lieu of blueberries, but these were not expected to have affected results. Note: there is no such thing as too much crystallized ginger. All-purpose crystallized ginger scones emerged from the oven and to our amazement, the scones were even puffier (Figure 2) and almost double in height compared to cake flour blueberry scones.

Figure 2. Crystallized ginger scones juxtaposed with clotted cream and Lyle's Golden Syrup.

Application of clotted cream and bon mamman jam indicated that all-purpose flour also leads to a more fluffy and scrumptious scone (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Blueberry (cake flour) scones with jam on the bottom, and then clotted cream on top.


The main difference between cake flour and all-purpose flour is that cake flour contains no gluten, the protein that provides bread and other baked goods with its structural integrity. Such gluten (some of which would have formed during kneading) was necessary to maintain the air pockets of carbon dioxide released from the sodium bicarbonate/lactic acid reaction during baking. In the cake flour scones, without interchain disulphide bonds and tyrosine-tyrosine crosslinks, and some hydrogen bonds, the batter immediately collapses after the bubble of carbon dioxide is formed.
In conclusion, cake flour is good for making cake, but all-purpose flour and thus gluten formation is essential for a fluffy scone.

Other tasting notes: Lavender Vidal jelly works surprisingly well with brie.

Figure 4. (Clockwise from top) Lavender, Cranberry, and pink peppercorn scones.