You can’t eat a scientific experiment

I discovered baking recently. It began with Journal Club. At UCL we didn’t have a group big enough to warrant organised lab meetings, let alone Journal Club, but I recently carried out some research at the University of Bristol, and with a few groups with common interests combined, there was enough people to each present a paper once a week for a whole term. Also new to me was the concept that the person doing the presenting brought cake. Journal Club was scheduled for 9.15 am, a time unknown to academics I had worked with at UCL, but there was cake! The split of presenters buying vs making cakes was approximately 50:50 and, never one to shy away from a creative challenge, I began planning my cake when my turn for Journal Club appeared on the horizon.

One morning in the cell culture room I was avidly talking about the cake I planned to make, and a woman confided in me that you can always tell the quality of a Journal Club by the quality of the cake: if the cake’s good, it’s to make up for a poor paper. Alternatively, as in my case, the cake was good because I’d put more effort into planning it than I had preparing my Powerpoint slides (a lemon drizzle cake recipe by Hugh F-W, modified to include blueberries and poppy seeds, courtesy of my brother-in-law) – don’t get me wrong, the paper was good, but the cake was really good. The cake, or perhaps a combination of the cake and the paper, secured me a sought-after job interview, but that’s another story.

Kitchen drawing (2008). Pencil on paper

I came to cooking itself (in life) relatively late. A neurotic mother who seemed to permanently occupy the kitchen, and scream and slam the door when anyone came near, will do that to a kid. On rare occasions I might be allowed to chop carrots, or peel potatoes, but invariably I was told I was too slow and would be sent away to lay the table. Consequently, my own experiences in cooking for other people frequently ended in tears, with my husband having to peel me off of the floor and salvage something edible from what I had started.

A few years ago, my husband began to spend one, and then two, evenings a week at the local indoor climbing wall, rock climbing. For the first few weeks I would starve myself, or perhaps try to survive on various things-on-toast (as I must have done for 3 yrs at Art School), waiting for him to come home. I even followed him climbing for a few months, until my PhD became so intense that I could barely make it out of the lab in time. Eventually I realised that the next best thing I could do would be to treat cooking like a scientific experiment: lots of planning in advance, stringently follow recipes until I was clear in my mind what each component did and its limits in terms of concentration, conditions for cooking (temperature, time, distance from heat source), and so on. I ensured that I’d had something small to eat before I begun so I wouldn’t get too flaky, and allowed myself as much time as possible to complete cooking the meal. When I carry out an experiment for the first time I like to deduce where the exit points are, as it were, at what point can I pause or freeze the whole experiment and go home, go to the toilet, have coffee, etc, and I found one mechanism for coping with cooking was to treat a recipe the same way. As with my scientific experiments, a lot came from experience, how much pasta is too much, how much chopping can you actually get done whilst sauteing an onion, and so on.

Having learnt cooking backwards, as it were, there are some parts of recipes I find utterly baffling. At the weekend I made a carrot cake and some shortbread, and was met by the following lines at the beginning of, and part-way down, the recipes: “Grease a 23 cm springform cake tin …” and “Line a 15 cm cake or tart tin with baking parchment.” For a while I pondered a single dimension of cake. Could they mean the longest tin measurement? The depth of the tin? The diameter of a round tin? The diagonal measurement across the top of a square or rectangle tin, like for a TV? Perhaps people miss off the ^2 or ^3 for cm-squared or cubed? In the end I looked up the meaning of ‘springform cake tin’, and after finding it to be a tin with a removable base, I used the only one of those I have. Incidentally the one I have has a diameter of 20 cm and a height of 9 cm, which seemed to work just fine – if this was a scientific experiment, that would be the kind of error that would cause my experiment to fail and have me tearing my hair out for weeks, with no clear logic. For the shortbread I used a flat baking tray, 23.5 x 33.5 cm. This was less successful because the shortbread burnt. Alternatively it may have burnt because I left it in the oven too long. I will need to collect some more n numbers before I can come to a firm conclusion on that one.

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