Amigthalota (Flourless Almond Cookies)

I found it difficult not to pick them up by the stems as if they were real pears, resulting in several sad almond pears on the ground. But of course, I ate them anyway.

I have a bunch of almond flour in my cupboard leftover from my last flirtation with low-carb eating.* So this recipe published recently in the Miami Herald caught my attention. Just five ingredients—almond flour, powdered sugar, lemon zest, egg whites, and almond extract. Decorative clove “stems” optional.

like pears in the snow, which makes no sense, but is kind of pretty anyway They’re similar to marzipan, but not as sweet. Only 1/2 cup of the powdered sugar in the recipe goes into the cookies, and even a generous coating will only use another 1/2 cup, so most of the 2 1/2 cups called for is just for storing them. I’m not totally sure what the point of that is. I guess it might prevent them from absorbing moisture, although an air-tight container would probably suffice, especially if you eat them quickly.

The powdered sugar might detract a little bit from the pear resemblance, but it covers the cracks that appear during baking and I’m not sure they’d be quite sweet enough for me without it. If you generally like your sweets sweeter, you might want to double the amount of sugar in the dough. If that makes it too dry to work with, just add a little water. I suspect you could probably replace the egg whites with water if you wanted to make them vegan. There are other recipes that call for orange flower water and no eggs. I imagine you could use cinnamon and a dash of cayenne in place of the lemon zest for a spiced version.

But I’m also pretty pleased with what you get by following recipe as written—crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, not overly sweet, and kind of adorable.

before baking after baking

*In the short term, low-carb diets tend to perform better for both weight loss and health indicators like blood lipids than low-fat or calorie-restriction diets, but in most long-term controlled studies low-carb doesn’t do much (if any) better. As with most diet research, it’s hard to tell if the long-term failure is because most people stop following the diet or if weight regain happens even when people stick to the diet. If the former, it’s unclear if that’s primarily a psychological issue (will-power is a limited resource) or if there are physiological reasons (e.g. decreased leptin levels depress metabolism and increase appetite). Or both. Anyhow, I’m not interested in losing weight (or it might be more accurate to say I am interested in not being interested in losing weight), but many low carb adherents also claim to experience improved well-being, mental clarity, etc. so I was sufficiently intrigued to try it few times. Mostly it seems to make me slightly lethargic and depressed, so I never last longer than a couple of months.

Recipe: Amigthalota (Flourless Almond Cookies)
from the Miami Herald, who adapted it from The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos (Tuttle, original recipe called for 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, so I probably used more; can reduce or eliminate if desired1999)


  • 3 cups ground almonds
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (only about 1 cup really necessary)
  • 2 egg whites
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 drops almond extract
  • 25-30 whole cloves (optional)


1. Whisk together the ground almonds and 1/2 cup sugar. Beat the egg whites until slightly frothy and stir them into the almond-sugar mixture. Add the lemon zest and almond extract and stir until it forms a firm dough.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly coat your hands with oil or butter, pinch off walnut-sized pieces of dough and roll them between your palms to form smooth balls. Or, if desired, mold into a pear shape and stick a clove in the top.

3. Bake about 20 minutes, until set and lightly browned. If they look like they’re browning too quickly, cover them with another sheet of parchment paper.

4. While still warm, dip or roll the cookies in some of the remaining powered sugar and then let cool. Store in an airtight container, sprinkled with the rest of the powdered sugar (probably optional).

although pears seem to be traditional, I'm sure other shapes would also work; it's not quite as malleable as marzipan, but almost.

Sautéed White Fish with Red Curry Coconut Sauce

not my prettiest plating. if you care, i'm sure you can do better

Fighting Frozen Fish Apathy

I got into sort of rut with frozen fish filets. Melt some butter in a skillet, toss in a few cloves of minced garlic, season the fish with salt and pepper and maybe a dusting of flour and some dill or curry powder or Old Bay, cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, and voila: dinner. Practically instant, and usually at least moderately tasty. But so boring.

So boring that at least once in recent memory, I let a package of filets go to waste. For the first few days after I’d pulled them out of the freezer, I could tell myself they might still be partially frozen. And I think there was something else in the refrigerator in more eminent danger of spoiling. And then I might have ended up eating dinner out once or twice. And I might have had one of those days when I ordered take out because taking even five minutes to put a piece of fish in a pan and flip it once while nuking some peas seemed too onerous. So the fish entered this sad limbo state where it might have still been edible and I didn’t really want to throw it away, but I also wasn’t particularly excited about opening up the package in case it wasn’t. Which made it all too easy to just ignore it for a few more days until it had reached an even sadder state where I was pretty sure  it wasn’t edible and I didn’t really even need to open the package to find out. Wasteful, profligate, shameful, I know. Lots of people don’t have enough to eat and people like me use far more than our share of resources.

not actually a cheese sauce, even though it sort of looks like oneAnyhow, this recipe isn’t going to solve world hunger or save the environment, but it managed to keep me from wasting another package of fish that was probably a day away from limbo. The sauce only takes a few minutes to throw together and reduces while you cook the fish, and it’s decidedly un-boring: velvety coconut milk infused with the classic combination of garlic and ginger, a little funk from the fish sauce, acid from the lime, mild heat from the curry paste, and bright cilantro to finish. If you wanted it spicier, you could double or triple the curry paste or use green instead of red. Including the Brussels sprouts, which I halved and braised for about 10 minutes in a cup of water, the whole meal took about 30 minutes from start to finish.

Recipe: Sautéed White Fish with Red Curry Coconut Sauce (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated cookbook)

2-4 servings (each 6-8 oz fish)


  • 1-2 lbs boneless, skinless white fish filets—cod, tilapia, whitefish, catfish, etc.
  • 2 Tablespoons fat—butter, bacon drippings, oil, etc.
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (optional)


  • 1 Tablespoon fat ginger, garlic, brown sugar, curry paste
  • a small knob of fresh ginger (about 2 teaspoons minced)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 2-4 teaspoons red curry paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 3 Tablespoons water
  • juice of half a lime (about 1 1/2 Tablespoons)
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1-2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • salt and pepper


1. Heat 1 Tablespoon of fat in a small saucepan while you mince the ginger and garlic. Add them to the oil along with the curry paste and brown sugar and cook for about a minute

2. Add the coconut milk, water, lime juice, and fish sauce and simmer over medium heat for 5-6 minutes, until reduced to about a cup.

3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 Tablespoons of fat in a large skillet and season the fish filets with salt and pepper. Let the fish sit for a minute, until it starts to glisten and then dust with flour, if using.

4. Cook the fish in a single layer in the skillet, 2-3 minutes on each side for thin filets (1/4-1/2” thick),  3-5 minutes for thicker filets (1/2”+).

5. Add the cilantro to the sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve filets with sauce and lime wedges.

my flipping was maybe just a tad bit messy

Childhood Vices & Flaming Hot Spices: Why Nothing Compares to H O T Cheetos

Pardon the long absence! Book manuscript comes before blogging. But before this video slips out of cultural relevance entirely…

This August, the music video for “Hot Cheetos and Takis” by the Y.N.RichKids, a group formed under the auspices of a YMCA after-school program in Minneapolis, became a minor internet sensation. It was posted August 05, and already had 39K views by the next day when it got its first twitter referral. By the time it got its first referral later the same day, it had been viewed over 202K times. As of this morning, it’s been seen over 3.2 million times, and I can’t possibly be responsible for more than 1,000 of those. In case you missed it:


In an effusive review on Grantland, Rembert Browne broke the song down by performer to deliver individual props and applaud them for “how effectively they share the rock.” He also echoed Rolling Stone’s declaration of HC&T as the “summer’s final truly great jam.” Ken Wheaton of Ad Age called the video “epic” and subtitled his post about it “There Is Hope for Humanity Yet.” Andy Hutchins at the Village Voice rhapsodized about the 20 best things about the song, most of which seem to be the myriad ways these kids are cooler than him.

For Youth By Youth?

Many of its admirers suggested that at least part of HC&T’s appeal is how perfectly it captured something about childhood. Hutchins says "‘Hands red like Elmo’ is the sort of thing that only a kid would think to rap,” which is also the line David Greenwald of cites as an example of the song’s “age-appropriate lyrics” (although he acknowledges that I go H.A.M. in the grocery store bears a “trace of profanity.”) According to Browne, “it’s apparent that the words of this song were written For Youth, By Youth (FYBY).” He loves the line Bout to cop me some hot cheetos and a lemonade Brisk because:

I haven’t had that combination of food and drink in years, so it would never occur to me to write such a lyric. When I was 12, however, and the ice cream truck would roll up to my tennis camp, that was my exact purchase (along with a whole pickle). So yes, this is simply Dame telling a story of what he did earlier that day.

I agree that the song and the video are both impressive as hell, but I’m not sure its appeal is due to a faithful representation of exclusively childish experiences and pleasures. What struck me the first time I watched the video was how well the spicy snack foods stand in for another standard trope of popular music: alcohol and drugs. Instead of describing gettin’ slizzard on Moet & Crystal, or drinking 40s of Olde English 800 whilst driving around Compton, Dame Jones and his crew are celebrating the addictive pleasures of corn chips dusted with chili powder & MSG. It seems like either a kind of imitation or maybe a brilliant parody of adult paeans to whiskey and cocaine.

Why Carrots Cannot Be Cheetos

Unlike the many songs about drugs & alcohol—especially by country-western and blues artists—that focus on the dangers of overindulgence and addiction*, HC&T is all about the joy of snack foods. But I’m not sure the pleasures of anything people are inclined to consume in excess can ever really be divorced from the idea of vice, which made the last line of the Grantland piece seem rather strange to me:

I can’t wait until Michelle Obama convinces them to start rapping about fruits and vegetables.

Maybe Browne meant that to be tongue-in-cheek? However, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to argue that the main reason kids like junk food is because of the advertising and the best way to counter the childhood obesity boogeyman is to market apples and carrots to kids as aggressively as Froot Loops and Doritos.

Anyone else initially mistake the rabbit on the RAWK font package for some kind of lobster/alien hybrid? Or was that just me?

I have nothing against well-meaning attempts to make fruits & vegetables seem more enticing. And I’m pretty sure it would be possible to rap about “healthy” foods. The Y.N.RichKids might even do it very well, but I’m not sure it would have quite the same appeal. Just like I’m sure it would be possible to write a country-western song about meditating and going to group therapy instead of drinking your blues away. But I suspect that’s either going to come out sarcastic or kind of terrible.

All of which is to say that Hot Cheetos & Takis themselves are not incidental to the song’s success. Their junkiness and possibly also their spiciness is essential to their cultural significance and song’s meaning and appeal.

*In that vein, I’m especially enamored with Lydia Loveless.

Junk Food and Autonomy

“Junk” foods are often portrayed as childish. They appeal to the most basic human taste preferences: sweet, salty, and fatty. Of course adults like those things too, and many adults eat junk food. But I’m sure Rembert Browne isn’t the only one for whom the idea of Hot Cheetos & a lemonade Brisk induced a kind of nostalgia. Or perhaps reminded you of whatever occupied a comparable place in your childhood. For Jesse Taylor on The Raw Story, it was shortbread cookies:

My favorite childhood snacks were those little daisy-shaped shortbread cookies with holes in the middle, because I could only get them at my babysitter’s house. They fit on your fingers like rings, and the game was to always see how much you could eat before the cookie fell apart and off your fingers. Objectively, they were crappy, and when I found them years later and bought them for myself for the first time, I ate an entire package of them, slipped over my pinkie, because my other fingers were too big. They were sweet, and excessive, but they were mine.

oddly, I don't remember having any sort of color/flavor preference, or maybe that's not so odd given that I'm not sure you'd be able to distinguish in a blind taste testMy equivalent is probably Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts, which a friend and I discovered in the general store at the evangelical Baptist camp where we spent two weeks during the summer after sixth grade.** Like Taylor’s shortbread cookies, Giant Sweet Tarts were exciting primarily because they were novel. We’d never encountered them before. There was also a sort of art to eating them because they were too big to fit comfortably in your mouth, but were also too hard to bite into. The advertized “chewiness” really referred to a sort of vague pliability in the center that really only became chewy with the application of heat and moisture. The method I came to prefer involved softening them between my palms and then breaking them into quarters by folding them until they snapped, which required a sort of slow, consistent pressure. It didn’t always work perfectly, which was part of the appeal—there was a technique that had to be honed. The challenge of getting the pieces to break into clean, equal portions was as much of a reason to eat them as the intense sour-sweetness.

Sometime after returning from camp, the 7-Eleven in our neighborhood started carrying them and we were so stoked. It wasn’t really because they tasted better than any of the other dozens of varieties of vaguely fruity sour candies—which are basically all the same—but by that point, Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts had become our thing. They were part of our identity, and made us feel distinct from the kids whose preferences ran towards Starbursts or MnMs (yawn!) or that one person in every class who actually liked old person candies like Good ‘n Plenty and Jordan Almonds. And, of course, they also distinguished us from our parents, who seemed wholly indifferent to candy of any kind and snack foods in general. In retrospect, my dad did eat potato chips, trail mix with MnMs, and ice cream, all of which my mom purchased regularly along with all the other groceries. Those may have hit all the same salty, sweet, fatty tastes but because those were normalized as just food, they didn’t seem special or appealing. They could not be distinctly mine.

I think what HC&T evokes isn’t so much any particular tastes people might associate with childhood—peanut butter & jelly sandwiches or Kraft macaroni and cheese might be better suited for that. Instead, as Browne and Taylor both argue, the song is about a kind of autonomy. Both writers claim that’s best expressed by the lines about how they purchased the snacks at the corner store*** with their own money:

riding around with my allowance
o nobody can stop me

hot cheetos & takis, thats my favorite snack
bought ’em with my own money i don’t give ’em back

But I’m not sure that’s as crucial as the way the snacks serve as a symbol of distinction from your parents and affiliation with your peers. Browne says that what makes getting money as a kid so sweet is that “YOU HAD EARNED IT BY RAKING THE LEAVES,” but there’s no reference in the song to earning the money. Instead, just two lines after the lyrics about riding around with his allowance, Nasir says,

my mom hit the ATM, cuz she know i need them

Mom provides the cash and may even drive them to the store, but she also represents the familial center that eating Hot Cheetos is a kind of escape from, or an authority to be rebelled against (politely):

my mama said "have u had enough?"
i looked and i said "no ma’am"

mama said "slow down, boy u bout to blow"
but i’m fi’nna get more, u should drive me to the store

The fact that they can get the snacks with their own money does matter—but probably only because that means Mom couldn’t stop you from eating them. You’re going to find a way to get them. The most she can do is suggest you take it easy. Eating them anyway is a relatively small and innocent act of defiance, a way of identifying with your friends instead of your parents and performing a kind of independence and identity with salience for your social world.

**We were convinced by her church youth group leader that it would be an awesome experience and ignored crucial details in the promotional pamphlet that probably should have made us suspicious, like the fact that girls were not allowed to wear shorts that hit above the knee and there were daily church services (which turned out to be plural) listed along with the 18-hole disc golf course and ropes course and team-building activities (which turned out to include competitive scripture memorization) that promised to keep us occupied.

***For some reason, the Village Voice writer seems to think it might come as a surprise to some readers that Minnesota has corner stores: “18. The universality of all of this. Do you think of Minneapolis as a place where there are lots of corner stores? Do you think of Minnesota as a hotbed for Atlanta-reminiscent rap? These are kids showing you both things are, in one small way, true.” Which, what? Does anyone honestly think corner stores are a purely coastal phenomenon?

A Taste of Adulthood

irritasty!So why do the Y.N.RichKids express their culinary independence through flaming hot snack foods? I suspect it has something to do with the related facts that spiciness is an acquired taste and spicy foods can induce a potentially-addictive endorphin release. Unlike snack foods that are really all about sweetness, saltiness and/or fat, which are tastes that even babies like, Hot Cheetos & Takis are a slightly more mature snack.

Although some cultures (past and present) include spiciness in their set of basic tastes, it’s actually a tactile sensation—we don’t really taste culinary heat, we feel it. The same is true of the cooling sensation of mint. Both are detected by the trigeminal nerve, which also relays information about texture and temperature to the brain and causes migraine headaches, which may be why spicy foods can be a migraine trigger. Food developer Barbara Stuckey refers to spiciness as an irritaste because capsaicin, the active ingredient in chiles, is an irritant, which is to say it causes pain.

Babies universally reject the irritaste of capsaicin, even if they’re born to chili-loving parents in chili-loving cultures. Actually, in some of those cultures, applying chili paste to the nipple is a traditional  part of weaning practice because no babies like it and all of them learn pretty quickly that Mom’s breast has mysteriously become a source of intolerable pain rather than sweet nourishment. With repeated exposure and social pressure, some kids may begin to accept spicy foods as young as four. Others take much longer, and many never do.

This is basically the same process we go through with bitter, astringent, and pungent foods and drinks—including coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, stinky cheese, and many kinds of pickles. Most people don’t like those things as kids and even adults tend to find them unpleasant the first (or second or third) times they try them. But all of those things offer rewards—both chemical and cultural—and as people come to associate those rewards with the initially-offensive stimuli (both consciously and subconsciously), their experience of them changes. The flavors and sensations become tolerable or, in many cases, pleasurable.

For example, many people just starting to drink coffee add sweetener and milk to cut the bitterness. As they come to associate the aroma and taste of coffee with the desirable effects of caffeine and/or sugar, most come to like the aroma and some come to appreciate the bitter Robert Parker's palate has seemingly shifted over the years to favor more robust & alcoholic red wines, which favors particular wine-producing regions like Californiataste. A few will transition from sweet and milky to black.

Similarly, most people acclimate themselves to alcohol gradually, starting with lighter beers, white wine, and sweet cocktails. With enough exposure, many find that they like stronger beers, more alcoholic red wines, and maybe even hard liquor neat. In general, the most initially-offensive, hardest to acquire tastes get associated with maturity, sophistication, and power—and also addiction, danger, and vice. They’re also gendered. White wine and sweet cocktails are feminine while male homebrewers often seem to be in a perpetual pissing match about just how hoppy, bitter, and alcoholic they can make their beer.

Individual differences in the degree of initial aversion to these stimuli, willingness to endure repeated exposure to them, and the extent of eventual acclimation (or addiction) vary based on genetics, social and cultural influences, and personality factors. Some people have a much stronger reaction to bitter tastes in general (which may or may not be related to aversions to specific flavor molecules like whatever makes cilantro taste like soap to 15% of the population). Some people are more susceptible to the chemical rewards of caffeine, nicotine, and/or alcohol. Some people are more strongly motivated by the social rewards of liking “sophisticated” foods.

But Nothing Can Compare to them H O T Cheetos (except possibly Takis)

However, even among “adult” tastes, the ability to tolerate and enjoy spiciness is peculiar in that it seems to be unique to humans. You can get omnivores like rats addicted to alcohol and other drugs. And rats will tolerate spicy food, but even rats that have been acclimated to capsaicin still prefer the chow sans heat if given a choice. In trying to explain the human affection for capsaicin-induced pain, psychologist Paul Rozin discovered that undergrads who like spicy food are also more likely to enjoy roller coasters. He theorized that some people enjoy “benign masochism,” or biologically-aversive stimuli in a safe setting. So maybe what spicy food represents is the experience of pain and danger that humans can enjoy if we know it won’t really hurt us. But that’s not so exciting to a rat, who gets no social cred for being a daredevil and would probably experience a death-defying simulation like a roller coaster as actual mortal danger, not a super fun experience worth standing in line for many hours.

All of that—the associations with adulthood and danger, the appeal of being a kind of culinary daredevil, the mildly-addictive endorphin hit from capsaicin-induced pain—gets layered on top of the chemical reward pathways that any snacks containing carbohydrates and salt and fat and MSG would trigger. I imagine that’s why they’re Frito Lay’s best-seller, why the Y.N.RichKids like them better than skittles starburst fritos and doritos, and part of the reason the song went viral.

A Slightly Weird Post-Script

Apparently Hot Cheetos (not unlike all spicy foods), may sometimes cause gastrointestinal distress.  An El Paso-area TV news station reported earlier this year on a teenage girl who was hospitalized and treated for an ulcer supposedly related to her consumption of spicy snacks, and there are some anecdotal reports of ER nurses looking for the telltale signs of red-dusted fingers when kids between the ages of 5-15 are admitted with stomach pain (ht: Mike Rubin).

I’m actually surprised this hasn’t gotten more media attention, not because it seems likely to be a real cause for concern, but because any potential health risk associated with “junk food,” particularly one that affects children and is associated with urban, non-white, non-rich people is a prime candidate for moral panic. What little coverage it has gotten definitely makes Hot Cheetos seem even more like an illicit drug:

Dalilah was on medication for several months and now she’s doing fine. She even stopped the hot habit, for a while.

"I stayed away from them for a while but then I thought I could start eating them again but then I think about it, ‘No I have to stop,’" Dalilah said. "I guess I always think about what happened in the hospital so I can keep it at a limit."

. . .

"Children don’t know any better,” said Dr. Gomez. “They love the Hot Cheetos. They’re pretty addicting from what I hear. The more you eat, the more irritation you can cause and eventually it can lead to a problem that can lead to hospitalization."

It’s a message Dalilah now shares with other teens.

"I even told some of my friends what I went through but they don’t know unless it happens to them," Dalilah said. "I don’t think anybody would want to go through what I did."

I think that might make better fodder for a follow-up than fruits & vegetables. Personally, I’d love to hear the Y.N.RichKids’ take on Volcano Butt.

Mini Zucchini Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

and tri-color candied citrus zest

The Fine Line Between Bread and Cake


1) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated carrot, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B) Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

2) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated zucchini, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

If you answered C or D, I admire your attempt to make sense of a senseless world, but you get no points from me. If you chose E, I like where your priorities are, but I think you’re still wrong. For most Americans most of the time, #1 is carrot cake and #2 is zucchini bread, regardless of the ingredient proportions or method. It’s true that cake has generally come to refer to sweeter baked goods and bread to less-sweet ones, but that doesn’t seem to matter in the case of these grated-vegetable cake/breads. If it did, the inclusion of chocolate chips would make probably push you in the “cake” direction, but there are dozens of chocolate chip zucchini “bread” recipes and others that make the whole loaf chocolate, but are still named “bread.” Both probably fall into the categories of “quick bread” or “snack cake” but there’s no fixed culinary meaning for either of those categories either.

Anyhow, I blame whatever historical contingency landed chemically-leavened grated-carrot-containing baked objects in the “cake” bin and chemically-leavened grated-zucchini-containing baked objects in the “bread” bin for my failure to realize until now that the latter could also achieve its apotheosis under a mantle of sweetened cream cheese. And maybe I was too quick to dismiss answer E, because as soon as I realized I could frost what I would normally call zucchini bread, I was suddenly inclined to call it “cake.” In further naming hijinks, without the frosting, I’m pretty sure these become “muffins.” Right?

many tasty little muffins

Not The Answer to Zucchini Excess

My garden was the victim of serious neglect this year, so I’m not facing the Great Zucchini Glut of a typical July-August. If I were, I’d probably be knee-deep in fritters and garlicky almond sautés and wouldn’t waste my time with recipes like this, which use a pretty pathetic amount of zucchini. 2 cups? Please. A moderately-neglected garden can produce that much in the average Olympics break between NBC commercial broadcasts. This is also why recipes for zucchini bread so often describe the squash flavor as “delicate.” That means you really can’t taste the squash at all, but that’s a probably a good thing unless you’re into baked goods that taste like bitter, watery mush.

The grated squash adds some moisture, a hint of green (or yellow, depending on the color of your squash), and maybe a vague nutritional halo to the cake part. The brown sugar and vanilla in the frosting give it a kind of caramelly flavor, much like taffy apple dip. The citrus zest on top is mostly for color, but also adds a little sweet and sour crunch. If any or all of those things sound appealing and you have a solitary medium-sized summer squash you don’t know what to do with (or one or two little ones), this could be the recipe for you.

the citrus zest defintely makes it prettier, but it's really all about the cream cheese frosting

Recipe: Zucchini Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from Taste of Home, Ian Young via Martha Stewart, and ThatsSoYummy)



  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour I used these two which was probably a little more than 2 cups, beer bottle for scale
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 medium or 2 small zucchini, shredded (1 1/2 – 2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup oil or melted butter
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup currants or raisins (optional) candying zest--this was a triple batch with 2 oranges, 3 lemons, and 2 limes


  • 4 oz (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened  
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup light-brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Candied Citrus Zest

  • zest of 2-3 lemons, limes, and/or oranges
  • 1/3 cup water (plus much more for blanching zest)
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus a few tablespoons more for sparkle



1. Optional: if using currants or raisins, soak them in the orange juice (with a splash of booze, if you like) for a few hours or overnight.

currants submerged in the orange juice with a splash of cognac after 4-5 hours of soaking, all plumped up

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line muffin tins or coat with cooking spray or butter.

3. Whisk together the flour, sugars, spices, salt, and baking powder.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, vanilla, shredded zucchini, and currants or raisins with the soaking liquid (if using). Add this mixture to the flour and stir just until combined.

4. Fill prepared muffin tins approximately 2/3 full.

5. Bake for 12-15 minutes (18-22 minutes for standard muffin tins, 45-60 min in a standard loaf pan), until a tester comes out clean or the centers are at least 190F.

6. Let cool in pans 5-10 min, turn out of pans and continue cooling on racks for at least an hour before frosting.


1. Using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment or a spatula and lots of energy, beat the softened cream cheese until it’s soft and airy (3-5 minutes).

2. Add the softened butter and beat until evenly combined.

3. Add the brown sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth. It may be a little gritty at first, just keep beating and the sugar will dissolve.

4. Optional: add powdered sugar if desired to increase sweetness or to make it stiffer for piping.

5. Pipe or spread onto cooled cupcakes. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.

I just dipped the cupcakes in the frosting and swirled them around a little--much faster than piping. The extra makes a great dip for strawberries or apple slices.frosted but not yet zested

Candied Zest:

1. Peel fruits, minimizing white pith. Cut into shapes or strips as desired

this keeps well for a long time, so I made a big batch with 2 oranges, 3 small lemons, 2 limes; some people try to get all the white pith off, but I think blanching takes care of the bitterness cut into little strips, which is a little painstaking. could also use a zester that takes strips automatically to make it faster

2. Put peel in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 7-10 minutes and drain. Taste and repeat if desired. More blanching = less bitterness, but also less flavor.

3. Return the blanched peel to the pot and add sugar and water in saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until the peel is translucent, 10-15 minutes. Remove peel pieces and separate onto waxed paper to let cool.

4. Optional: after 20-30 minutes, sprinkle with additional sugar and toss to coat. Continue to let dry 8-12 hours.

you can leave the zest unsugared, and then it'll look sort of glossy I prefer it with a little sparkle

Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup

not especially summery, but when you're living in AC all the time anyway, who cares? 

This is a new favorite. I improvised something like it a few weeks ago while staying at a stranger’s house with some friends. We were wandering around an unfamiliar supermarket trying to figure out how to make dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen, and someone grabbed some sweet potatoes because yams are a man’s crop. I decided they should become soup, and found some red lentils, coconut milk, smoked pork neck bones, and a cheap bottle of “Jerk Seasoning” (with cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, and chilis).

Back at the house, I simmered the smoked pork neck bones in water to start breaking them down while I prepped the “duh, soup” ingredients like onion and garlic. I also found a knob of ginger, so I minced that and threw it in, too. I added the lentils and sweet potatoes and Jerk Seasoning once the onions had started to caramelize and then added the pork bones with their broth and simmered it all until everything had melted into a thick stew and the meat was ready to fall off the bones. Coconut milk for creaminess, lemon for brightness, and a little salt. It turned out pretty tasty—smoky, sweet, spicy, and rich with the pork and coconut fat. We ate it with a super fast loaf of crusty no-knead bread (made with a full package of of rapid-rise yeast, 2 hour first rise, 30 min second rise, still damn tasty). It would be just as good with long-grain rice or flatbread or crackers or just all by itself.

after about 45 min of simmering, by the time you're ready to add it to the rest of the ingredients, the water should be cloudy and fat should be pooling on the surface chilis, turmeric, cloves, and cumin in the coffee grinder

It occurred to me later that it could have used a little cilantro, so I added some when I made it again at home, and I think that did improve it. In my own kitchen, I like to toast and grind the spices myself rather than using a prepared blend. You might not be able to taste the difference, but the smell of spices toasting in a pan is one of my favorite parts of cooking.


In this vegetarian version, I left out the sweet potatoes and used 8 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, 2 cans of diced tomatoes, and mushroom bouillon in place of the pork bone broth. Still tasty. Like most soups, especially ones you make up on the fly, this recipe is very flexible. You could use another kind of lentil or dried peas, adjust the spices based on what you’ve got or use another kind of prepared blend, substitute cream or yogurt for the coconut milk (or skip that part entirely). If you want bigger, more distinct chunks of potato, leave them out until the last 30-40 minutes of cooking. If you keep kosher, you could substitute smoked turkey necks for the pork. Or leave the meat out entirely for a vegan version and use bouillon or vegetable broth instead, in which case you can reduce the cooking time to 1-2 hours or however long it takes for the lentils to be tender. To make up for the smokiness and umami you get from the bones, you can add some mushrooms, canned or fresh tomatoes, MSG, nutritional yeast, and/or liquid smoke.

Recipe: Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup

lentils, onions, garlic, ginger--the base of so many tasty mealsIngredients:

  • 2 onions 
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic
  • 2” piece of ginger
  • 2-3 Tablespoons butter, lard, or oil
  • 1-2 lbs smoked meat/bones (like ham hocks or turkey necks) OR 1-2 Tablespoons bouillon/MSG/nutritional yeast/liquid smoke
  • 8-12 cups of water or stock
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice, or 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 lb red lentils (about 2 cups) or split peas
  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • spice blend below, or about 2 Tablespoons of curry powder or jerk seasoning or any other spice blend you like, preferably cumin-centric with a little heat
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • juice of 1 lemon or lime
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, plus more to garnish (or parsley if you’re cilantro-averse)
  • yay for toasting spicessalt and black pepper to taste

Spice blend (adapted from Post Punk Kitchen)

  • 2 teaspoons whole coriander seed 
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon whole fenugreek
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 4-6 whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 dried red chili peppers (omit or remove the seeds if you don’t like heat)

1. If using smoked meat, put it in a large pot along with 8 cups of water and vinegar or wine and let simmer while you prep the other ingredients. The acid helps leach minerals from the bones.

2. Peel and dice the onions and mince the garlic and ginger. Heat your cooking fat of choice in another large pot for a couple of minutes and then add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook until the onions are translucent and beginning to turn gold.

3. Meanwhile, peel and dice the sweet potatoes into roughly 1” cubes. Add them to the onion mixture and toss to coat in the fat.

chunking up some sweet potatoes

4. If using the homemade spice blend, toast the coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, and cloves in a small pan for about 5 minutes or until fragrant and beginning to darken. Pulverize them along with the turmeric and chili peppers in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

5. Add the spice blend to the onions and potatoes and stir to coat well. Add the red lentils, and the smoked meat & the liquid they’re simmering in OR 8 cups of water or broth and the bouillon.

6. Simmer for at least two hours, stirring occasionally and adding more water if it gets too thick. About an hour before you want to eat, remove the bones/meat (if using) and let cool for 30 minutes. Pick the meat off the bones and add it back into the soup.

7. Add the coconut milk, lemon or lime juice, and cilantro. Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust other seasonings as desired. Serve, garnished with more cilantro.

porky and veg versions working side by side, pork bones just transferred from the metal to black pot and about to be followed by the broth; the veg version in the blue pot in back had yellow split peas instead of red lentils, tomato instead of sweet potato, and mushroom bouillon + water instead of pork bone broth

Sourdough Cinnamon-Sugar Monkey Bread

sorry for the lack of items ot show scale...this is roughly the size of a standard angel food cake

Giant Interactive Sticky-Bun Hurrah!

Earlier this year, I posted the recipe for a savory cheesy garlic monkey bread, with a note about the name (to recap: it’s either a reference to the monkey puzzle tree or the process of assembling the loaf or the process or eating it, no one really knows). This one is more like what most people call “monkey bread,” with the pieces of dough covered in cinnamon and brown sugar, which caramelize in the oven until the whole thing resembles a giant sticky bun.

Most recipes start with refrigerated biscuit dough, which is a bit easier and quicker. However, if you have a sourdough starter that needs regular feeding & culling, you can use it to make a soft, slightly-sweet yeast-risen dough that works just as well. Depending on how active your starter is and how long you let the dough rise, the final product can have as much or as little sourdough flavor as you like (longer rise = more sour). I think a little tanginess is a nice counterpart to all the butter and sugar. Someone at the potluck I took this to asked if there was any alcohol in it, I think because the sourdough starter gives it a mildly boozy flavor. Speaking of which, adding a shot of whiskey or rum to the butter probably wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

I went with

Like basically all kinds of monkey bread, you assemble it by dipping small pieces of the dough in melted butter. In this version, the buttery pieces get a second coating of brown sugar and cinnamon (although you could substitute cardamom or ginger or cloves or whatever else you like—Alton Brown recommends rosemary). For a little extra sticky-sweetness, you can sprinkle a few tablespoons of brown sugar in the pan before filling it with bread. For a lot of extra sticky-sweetness, you can combine more brown sugar and melted butter and pour half in the bottom of the pan before filling it with the bread and the other half on top just before baking. If you want it sweeter still, you can drizzle the finished loaf with a powdered sugar glaze or cream cheese frosting. mini-loaf advantages: every piece is a "top"piece with lots of caramel

This recipe makes slightly too much for my tube pan, so I put the overflow in a regular loaf pan. Tube pans are ideal for monkey bread because they provide lots of surface area—fluted tube pans are even better. However, any kind of pan will work. You could use a 9×13 baking dish, or a few cake pans, or a large soufflé dish, or make individual serving-sized portions in muffin tins or ramekins, just adjust the baking time accordingly (see recipe).

Other combinations that might be tasty: rosemary & raisins with a lemony cream-cheese frosting, ginger and clove in addition to the cinnamon with tart apple pieces, cardamom with dried pear pieces & sliced almonds, maximum caramel with vanilla bean in place of the cinnamon and an extra pinch of salt, or Chinese five-spice with currants & walnuts. Nothing wrong with classic cinnamon, raisins & pecans, though.

this is a little misleading. there were more leftovers, but they stayed at the potluck I took this to; it does tend to disappear quickly

Recipe: Sourdough Cinnamon-Sugar Monkey Bread (adapted from Linda Wan, browneyedbaker, Alton Brown, and Smitten Kitchen)



  • 2 cups refreshed sourdough starter (100% hydration)*
  • 1 egg
  • 3-4 cups all-purpose or bread flour (sub whole wheat, if desired)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup sugar, honey, or other sweetener

*To substitute packaged yeast, dissolve 1 package (2 1/2 teaspoons) of yeast in 1 1/2 cups warm water with the sugar and 1/4 cup flour. Let sit for 5-10 minutes or until frothy and then combine with the rest of the ingredients. Increase the flour to 4 1/2-5/12 cups


  • 8 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon (or other spices/herbs as desired)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Optional additions: 1/2-3/4 cup dried fruit and/or nuts, 2-3 Tablespoons extra brown sugar for lining pan

Sweeter options:

Maximum caramel topping:

  • 8 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar

Cream-cheese frosting:

  • 3 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 3 Tablespoons powdered sugar (plus more as needed)
  • 2 Tablespoons milk (plus more as needed)
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Powdered sugar glaze:

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons milk
  • 2 Tablespoons butter (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon flavor extract (optional)


1. Make Dough: Combine all the dough ingredients (only 3 cups of the flour at first) and mix until combined. Add more flour as necessary to form a dough that will clean the sides of the bowl and sticks to itself more than it sticks to you—I start mixing with a spoon, but finish with my hands. Continue mixing/kneading in the bowl for a few minutes, just until it’s evenly combined. You can turn it onto a floured surface and knead longer if you like, but it’s not necessary.

2. First Rise: Cover the bowl and let rise 2-24 hours (1-2 hours if using instant yeast), or until doubled. The rising time will depend on how active your starter is and how sour you want the dough to be. As soon as the dough is doubled in size, you can assemble the loaf; however, if you want a lot of sourdough flavor, you should let it rise at least 8-12 hours.

a nearly no-knead dough after ~12 hours

3. Prepare Pans: Generously butter your baking dish(es). Sprinkle with additional brown sugar or pour half of the “maximum caramel topping” into the bottom.

4. Assemble: Melt the butter for the coating in one bowl. Combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt or other spices in another bowl. Divide the dough into pieces roughly the size of ping pong balls, either by pinching pieces off one by one, pressing the dough into a rectangle and cutting it crosswise with a knife or bench scraper, or forming a long rope and snipping pieces off with scissors. Roll each piece into a ball between the palms of your hands, dip it in the butter, roll it in the sugar & spice mixture, and the place them in the prepared pan(s) just barely touching each other or with a little space between them. If using fruit and nuts, sprinkle them in between the layers of dough balls.

if you use the cutting method, there will be some smaller pieces in the corners, which is fine--I like to put smaller pieces towards the inside of the tube pan and larger ones on the outside

5. Second Rise: Cover the pans and let rise 2-8 hours, or until doubled in size again. Alternatively, refrigerate for up to 24 hours and remove from cold storage 1-2 hours before baking to return to room temperature.

assembled risen again

6. Bake: Preheat the oven to 350F for 15-20 minutes. Uncover the risen dough. If using “maximum caramel topping, pour the remaining half over the risen dough. Bake for 15-50 minutes, depending on the size of your pan. Smaller portions/more surface area = less baking time, larger vessel/less surface area = more baking time. Individual servings in muffin tins may only take about 15-18 minutes. The single layer in my regular loaf pan took 20 minutes. Two layers in a 9×13 pan will probably take around 30-35 minutes. My tube pan with three layers took 45 minutes. A very large soufflé dish may take 50 minutes or longer. It’s done when the top is very brown and the internal temperature is 190F or a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

7. Invert: Let cool in the pans, on a rack if desired, for 5-10 minutes. Gently cut around the edges of the pan(s) with a knife, and then invert onto a serving plate. If icing, combine the ingredients for your desired topping and drizzle with a spoon or from a plastic zip-top bag with one corner snipped off.  

this is why you do not fill the tube pan to the top just inverted, ready to serve, and I think it's pretty even without icing

Blue Sky Cake with Pop Rocks and Crème de Violette

apparently the blue meth is a fictional device; people do sometimes color meth, but that's a sign of impurities added to create signature brands, not the sign of a non-Sudafed precursor

In honor of the premiere of the final season of Breaking Bad, I made a mousse cake inspired by the signature color of Walt & Jesse’s meth. The base has Blue Razz Pop Rocks coated in a mixture of white chocolate & almonds. The center is a lemon mousse with a hint of Crème de Violette. The mirror is mostly white grape juice with a little more lemon juice, Luxardo Maraschino, and Crème de Violette set with gelatin. On top is a whipped white chocolate ganache studded with more Pop Rocks and blue hard candy. It’s the bluest, fizziest thing I’ve ever made, not that it has much competition.

the color's a little hard to see here, but it's the only screenshot I could find of Jesse breaking the sheets of glass

this is a better shot of the color

Blue Sky meth (aka Big Blue aka Blue Magic)

shattering a sheet of candy that looks like glass is really funanyone know what the "meth" in the show is actually made of

Blue Sky candy (no street name)

Pop Rocks!

I’m pretty sure meth doesn’t fizz, but I’ve been wanting to incorporate Pop Rocks into a dessert for years. They’re a little tricky to work with because they’re activated by moisture—any moisture, including the moisture in the air. Leave a package open for long enough, and they’ll get flat and gummy. The only way to get them into a dessert with their fizziness intact is to coat them in fat.

For the crust, I used Heston Blumenthal’s method, which involves incorporating them into a chocolate & nut base. It worked well. The pop rocks retained a substantial amount of fizz, even 30+ hours after the packages were first opened. You could use the same technique with any kind of chocolate, nut, and flavor of Pop Rocks to make fizzy truffles or molded chocolates. For the ganache, I coated them with cooking spray and powdered sugar and hoped the fat content of the chocolate and cream would protect them, at least a little bit. It wasn’t quite as fizzy as the crust, but the moisture in the cream didn’t kill the effect completely—there were still a few reactive candy pieces in every bite.

Crème de Violette!

I'm a little surprised this cocktail isn't more common. It's really delicious.

Crème de Violette is a liqueur made from violets that plays a small but crucial role in the classic cocktail The Aviation, which I had for the first time recently at The Last Word. The liqueur itself is a deep purple, but when combined with lemon juice, gin, and maraschino liqueur, it’s the color of a clear blue sky. I was hoping it would have the same effect in the cake, but instead I got shades ranging from pale lavender to a truly unappetizing gray, so I ended up using food coloring anyway.

In terms of flavor, Crème de Violette is (unsurprisingly) sweet and floral. Beyond that it’s hard to define. It’s not quite like lavender or rose or jasmine or orange blossom, but it’s more like all of those than any fruit or herbs I know. If you’re think floral scents belong only in toiletries, you might find it off-putting. Even though I like floral scents in food, I wouldn’t want to drink it straight. However, I think it can be an appealing and enigmatic accent. It obviously works well with gin and lemon and cherries—the Aviation is a great cocktail. I can also imagine pairing it with other citrus fruits and berries, melon, honey, chocolate, or nuts.

If I had known it wouldn’t supply the color I wanted, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to track it down. Any other clear or pale liqueur, juice, or flavor extract would have worked just as well, and flavor-wise, I think it might have been better to stick to white chocolate, lemon, & almond.
ugly pictures! dropped my bounce flash. sad face.the crust was a little hard to cut through; individually-molded cakes would make for a prettier presentation 

Things That Went Wrong

  • My first attempt at making candy included lemon juice and Crème de Violette, and it started to darken and caramelize at 250F, long before it was hot enough to set properly. I’m not sure if the problem was the lemon & liqueur or if I was cooking it over too-low heat. I pulled it off the heat at 270F because it was threatening to burn, at which point any discernable violet/blue color had been completely obscured by the amber of burning sugar. Amber + blue food coloring = bottle-glass green, not sky blue, so I started over without the extras & cooked it over higher heat.
  • half toasted, half untoastedFor the crust, I initially used the ratios provided by the Blumenthal recipe, but there wasn’t nearly enough chocolate to coat all of the pop rocks and it only covered about 1/2 the springform pan. I threw together another batch and didn’t bother toasting the almonds for the sake of speed. I liked the color & flavor of the half with untoasted almonds better and adjusted the recipe to reflect the total amount of chocolate & nuts used to cover the 9” pan base.
  • White grape juice was the first nearly-colorless substitute I came up with for the strawberry juice in the recipe for the mirror. It was only as I was pouring the simmering grape juice over the bloomed gelatin that I realized I could have used champagne instead. Champagne might have needed more gelatin to set, but I bet the ratio I used in the Jell-O shots for NYE 2012 would have worked. Sad missed opportunity to reference Jesse, Combo, and Skinny Pete’s night at the strip club in “Mas.”
  • I intended to pipe the ganache on top in some kind of decorative manner, leaving at least part of the mirror exposed, but I over-whipped the ganache so it was a little grainy and weepy and not in good shape for piping.

Despite all that, it turned out mostly the way I had imagined: strange, fruity, fizzy, and very blue. It was designed more for looks than taste, but the flavor combination was kind of weirdly compelling. All hail King Heisenberg!

candy, before breakingRecipe: Blue Sky Cake


Hard Candy (from Allrecipes)  

  • 3 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tablespoon flavoring oil (I used almond)
  • 2-3 drops food coloring

Fizzy Chocolate Nut Crust mixing pop rocks into chocolate(adapted from Heston Blumenthal via Chubby Hubby

  • 1 cup (6 oz) blanched almonds
  • 1 cup (6 oz) white chocolate chips
  • 11 packages of Pop Rocks (I used Blue Razz)

Blue Lemon Mousse (adapted from Gordon Ramsay via Almond Corner and Hidemi Sugino via Chubby Hubby)

  • 5 leaves of gelatin or 1 package powdered gelatin
  • 1 1/3 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons Crème de Violette (or other liqueur)
  • just after folding the meringue into the gelatin-cream mixture and adding some color3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 egg whites
  • a few drops of blue food coloring

Blue Mirror (adapted from Culinary Concoctions by Peabody

  • 2 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons Crème de Violette
  • 1 Tablespoon maraschino liqueur (like Luxardo, not Grenadine)
  • 1 Tablespoon water
  • mirror poured on top of mousse--many of the bubbles went away as the gelatin set1 1/2 packages unflavored gelatin (1 1/2 Tablespoons)
  • 1 1/4 cups white grape juice
  • a few drops of blue food coloring

Whipped White Chocolate Ganache with Pop Rocks

  • 8 oz white chocolate (about 1 cup chips)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 5 packages Pop Rocks (Blue Razz)
  • cooking spray
  • powdered sugar

Extras: 2 packages Pop Rocks for garnish


meth cake 023CANDY: 

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Combine everything but the flavoring oil and food coloring in a pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Insert a candy thermometer and continue cooking without stirring until it reaches 290 F (the hard crack stage). If sugar crystals form on sides of pan, wipe them off with a brush dipped in water.

3. Remove from the heat, add flavor and color and stir just until mixed. Pour into the prepared pan and let cool completely.

4. Crack into pieces (I used the back of a cleaver), wrap in waxed paper or toss in a small amount of powdered sugar, and store in an airtight container.


1. Generously butter a 9” springform pan and line it with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit the bottom.

2. Toast almonds, if desired. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the blanched almonds on a baking sheet and toast for 5-10 minutes, or until fragrant and just beginning to color. Toasted or not, blend them in a food processor until they form a smooth paste.

3. Melt the white chocolate in a pan held over simmering water. Gently stir in the Pop Rocks. Then, fold in the almond puree.

4. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

toasted almond puree; you could probably sub almond butter if you didn't want to bother with this step combining the chocolate, pop rocks, and almond puree


this was the color of the gelatin mixture--depressing grey instead of Aviation blue, but once mixed with the cream and meringue, it basically looked white1. If using gelatin leaves, soak them in cold water. If using powder, sprinkle it over 1/4 cup cold water.

2. Meanwhile, whip the cream until it will hold soft peaks and refrigerate until needed.

3. Warm the lemon juice and 1/4 cup sugar to a simmer. Remove from heat and add the gelatin, gently wringing out the leaves if using them. Stir until the gelatin is dissolved, and then add the liqueur.

4. Combine the sugar and water in a pot, bring to a boil, insert a candy thermometer and remove from the you can see the drip along the side where I poured the sugar syrup--you want to avoid the tines of the whisk or they'll spray the syrup all over the insides of the bowlheat when it reaches 235 F (soft ball stage).

5. Whisk the egg whites until foamy, and the continue whisking as you drizzle the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites. Keep whisking until stiff peaks form. 

6. Fold the whipped cream into the gelatin mixture. Then fold in the meringue. Add coloring if desired

7. Pour the mixture on top of the chocolate base and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.


1. Place lemon juice, liqueur, and water in a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over this mixture; set aside until spongy and soft.

2. Pour the juice into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Pour over the gelatin mixture and stir to dissolve. Tint with food coloring if desired. Place the bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice water and stir until the mixture is syrupy and just beginning to thicken.

3. Gently pour it over the mousse, tilting if necessary to create a thin, even layer. Refrigerate until set.most of the larger bubbles created by stirring the gelatin mixture will escape before the gelatin sets, I'm not sure how to get rid of the smaller bubbles


don't do what I did and overbeat it, as soon as it will hold soft peaks, stop whipping 1. Heat the cream until there are small bubbles around the edges of the pot. Add the chocolate and let it soften, and then whisk until smooth.

2. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap pressed against the surface to prevent a skin from forming and let it cool completely (~6 hrs or overnight).

3. Whip with a whisk or electric beaters/stand mixer until fluffy.

4. Spread the Pop Rocks on a baking sheet in a thin layer and coat with cooking spray. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and toss to coat. Then, gently fold them into the ganache.


Warm a knife by running it under hot water for a few minutes and use it to cut around the edge of the springform pan. Release the mold and remove it. Slide the cake onto a serving plate (or not, I just left it on the springform base). Fill a zip-top or piping bag with the ganache and decorate as desired. Top with the hard candy. Refrigerate until ready to serve. For the cleanest cuts, run the knife under hot water before & between slices. Sprinkle a few additional Pop Rocks on the plate before serving.

using a thin knife also helps this mirror turned out a bit thick--if I did it again, I might halve the recipe

Fatness Is Strongly Influenced By Genetics, But How?

An image from twin studies featured in the talk by Jeffrey Friedman posted after the jump, or click on the image for the YouTube link

A reader e-mailed me a good question about weight loss that’s outside my area of academic expertise but within the realm of stuff I’ve read enough about that I can offer some speculations and references. I am continually amazed at how complicated nutrition is and how much disagreement there is even among people who study it for a living. The only thing I can say with complete confidence is that anyone who tells you weight loss is simple and anyone can do it is (A) lying, (B) misinformed, (C) trying to sell you something, or (D) all of the above.

Here’s the e-mail I got:

If you have the time to answer a question…

I recently came across these articles claiming, more or less, that metabolism does not account for why some people are fatter or thinner than others. 

Article 1 [BBC Health]

Article 2 [Mayo Clinic]

I remember your posts on Sour Salty Bitter Sweet about dieting not being an effective solution to weight loss [here], and it sounded like you thought someone’s weight had more to do with genetic factors than lifestyle factors. Do I have that right? Would you disagree with the articles? Or point to non-metabolic genetic factors?

-Anna Macdonald

simple! right? that's why everyone is precisely the weight they want to be! Image Credit: CDC.govBoth articles essentially argue that it’s a myth that fatter people have “slow metabolisms” and burn fewer calories than thinner people. Basal metabolic rates vary based on age, gender, and body composition (or maybe just body composition, but that tends to vary based on age and gender), but as far as researchers can tell, fat people have at least roughly the same metabolic rate as thin people. They just eat more.

I think they neglect or dismiss a few complications too easily—in both diet studies and over-feeding studies, subjects lose/gain less weight than they should based on caloric arithmetic, usually by a significant margin. That’s usually attributed to shifts in thermogenesis, or how much heat you generate, and unconscious motions like fidgeting. If you eat more than you’re used to, your body may respond by getting slightly warmer and engaging in more restless activity. Eat less, and your body may respond by getting cooler and engaging in less activity. There’s some evidence that even for the very rare individuals who lose weight and keep it off long-term, basal metabolic rate remains depressed compared to people with the same relevant characteristics (weight, age, gender, and body composition) who were not previously fat (see NYTimes “The Fat Trap”). Incidentally, there’s research from as early as 1980 suggesting that people who maintain weight loss long-term are frequently monomaniacal about food and exercise, engaging in behaviors that might be seen as evidence of an eating disorder in thinner people.

But in general, the articles seem pretty accurate up to the point where they claim that people can lose weight if they eat fewer calories and exercise. The BBC article even claims that “people not only manage to lose weight but are able to keep control of it in the long term,” which is technically true—a small percentage of the people who lose weight by dieting do—but certainly isn’t the norm. Both articles make an unsubstantiated leap from the idea that basal metabolic rate is at least relatively stable and consistent to the idea that therefore, anyone can be thin if they only eat as many calories as a thin person burns. The key question they fail to address is why fat people eat more calories than thin people in the first place.

I suspect that’s because most people think they know the answer: they assume fat people have less willpower, knowledge, or motivation than thin people and therefore make bad choices about what and how much they eat. There’s a widespread assumption that if fat people knew better or tried harder, they could be thin. Many people, whatever their weight, believe that they themselves would be probably thinner if they ate better and exercised more and would be fatter if they ate whatever they wanted all the time and exercised less (which is actually probably true, but only within a small range). A lot of people even have personal experiences with weight loss or gain that they may be able to attribute to conscious choices or lifestyle changes. However, for most people, those changes prove to be temporary and I think they overestimate how much control they actually have.

Fat people are not fat because they’re weak or lazy or unmotivated or unaware of the supposedly-dire medical consequences and actually-dire social consequences of being fat. Body size is strongly genetically determined and biologically-regulated. It may be sensitive to some environmental conditions, but that doesn’t mean it’s within individuals’ conscious control. If the tendency towards weight homeostasis doesn’t work by regulating how many calories people tend to burn, which I agree that it probably doesn’t, it must work by influencing how much people eat.

How Heritable Is Fatness? 

Also from the Friedman lecture below.Very. Perhaps less than eye color, but more than other conditions widely seen as having a significant genetic component, like schizophrenia or alcoholism. Based on twin studies, one of the classic ways of evaluating the genetic component of all kinds of conditions, weight consistently appears to be approximately as heritable as height—most studies conclude that just under 80% of variation in weight and height is attributable to genetics. Furthermore, genetic influence consistently trumps environmental effects by a wide margin. In adoption studies, another way of evaluating genetic influence, children’s weights are strongly correlated with their biological parents’ and not at all with their adoptive parents. 

In Stunkard et al 1986, which compared approximately 4000 sets of male twins, the “concordance rates for different degrees of overweight were twice as high for monozygotic twins as for dizygotic twins.” In other words, the “identical” twins who share nearly 100% of their genetic material were twice as likely to have similar body types than “fraternal” twins who share only 50% of the same genes. At age 20, comparisons of height, weight, and BMI for both sets of twins yielded heritability estimates of .80, .78, and .77, respectively (1.0 would be perfectly heritable, .00 would be not heritable at all). At a 25-year follow-up, the heritability estimates for the same traits were .80, .81, and .84.

In another Stunkard et al 1986, which divided a sample of 540 adult Danish adoptees into four weight classes: thin, median, overweight and obese, there were strong correlations between the weight class of the adoptees and their biological parents (p<.0001 for mothers, p<.02 for fathers). There was no correlation between the weight class of the adoptees and their adoptive parents.

In Stunkard et al 1990, the researchers used a Swedish database of twins separated early in life versus those reared together collected between 1886 and 1958. They ended up with 93 pairs of identical twins reared apart, 154 pairs of identical twins reared together, 218 pairs of fraternal twins reared apart, and 208 pairs of fraternal twins reared together. The mean age of comparison was 58.6 years old. The heritability estimates (shown in the chart below) are similar to those in the 1986 study. Notably, twins reared together were no more similar than twins reared apart.

"The fourth estimate of heritability, the intrapair correlation for the monozygotic twins reared apart, was the most direct and perhaps the best estimate of the heritability of the body-mass index. It was 0.70 for men and 0.66 for women."

A review study done in 1997 by Maes et al looked at the data from 25,000 twin pairs and 50,000 biological and adoptive family members, finding BMI correlations of .74 for monozygotic twins, .32 for dizygotic twins, .25 for siblings, .19 for parent-offspring pairs, .06 for adoptive relatives, and .12 for spouses.

Researchers have also been curious to see if the “obesity epidemic” has changed anything. Have environmental changes in the last few decades trumped genetic factors? Not really. In Wardle et al 2008, they evaluated 5092 sets of twins between the ages of 8 and 11 whose body measurements were taken in 2005. The heritability estimate for BMI was .77. In comparison, the shared-environment effect in the same study was estimated at .10.

As a 2008 review study of research on the heritability of fatness by Stephen O’Rahilly and I. Sadaf Farooqi concluded:

Hereditary influences on adiposity [fatness] are profound and continuing…. There is little serious doubt that the single most powerful determinant of inter-individual differences in adiposity is heredity.

Okay, But How Does It Work? Part I: Epigenetics

Genetics isn’t the whole story. We have known for a long time that children without access to adequate nutrition may have their growth "stunted," meaning they may never achieve the same height or weight as adults as they would have if they had been able to eat more as children. Dietary composition also seems to have an effect: populations with access to more protein (or calcium?) may grow taller or fatter than genetically-similar populations who consume less protein. The availability of highly-palatable, calorie dense, high-sugar and high-fat food in countries like the U.S. may create the conditions for some people (though clearly not all) to become fatter than they would in another environment. However, how fat they get in that environment  is still determined largely by genetics, just like how tall people get in the presence of ample protein is still largely determined by genetics.

There’s a lot of research being done right now on what are sometimes called "epigenetic" effects, which are factors that influence whether or not (and how) genes get expressed, without any changes happening in the genome itself. This is the idea that genes can get turned “on” or “off.”  Some epigenetic effects are trans-generational, meaning something that affects a particular individual or population may only show up in their offspring. So, for example, population that experienced a famine may have offspring who are more inclined to store fat when it’s available than a genetically similar population that didn’t live through a famine.

See: This Nature article or Herrera et al 2011

Okay, But How Does It Work? Part II: Leptin

Leptin-deficient child before and after leptin therapyThe expression of genes that affect body size probably involves changes in the endocrine system, and particularly the release or suppression of the hormones leptin and gherlin, which control appetite and satiety. Leptin in particular seems to be crucial to the regulation of body fat. It was only discovered in the mid-1990s, so scientists are still trying to understand how it works and what the implications are.

Some extremely fat children, like the kid pictured on the right, have been found to be deficient in leptin. They have seemingly insatiable appetites—when presented with meals in excess of 2,000 calories, they’ll eat the whole thing and still be hungry. After receiving leptin injections, they eat age-appropriate portion sizes and lose weight rapidly without dieting or engaging in any formal exercise program.

One of the major differences between people who’ve lost weight through dieting and people who weigh the same without having dieted is in their leptin levels. Most of what I know about leptin (and most of images in this post) are taken by the following talk by the biologist who discovered the hormone, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman:

In the very beginning of the talk, he makes some causal claims about high BMI/adiposity and mortality that I disagree with, because I’m not sure the correlations are actually caused by fatness, rather than social stigma, racism, poverty, lack of health insurance, etc. (all of which are also correlated with BMI). If fatness caused mortality, why would “overweight” people live longer on average than “normal” weight and “underweight” people and “obese” people who are active live longer than “normal” people who are sedentary? He also says that even modest weight loss is associated with significant health improvements, and I wonder if that claim isn’t based on studies where participants begin eating more vegetables and exercising, lose something like 5 pounds, and get healthier overall and researchers conclude that weight loss improves health when really the weight loss is totally meaningless. But once you get past that bit, he makes a pretty strong case for the genetic basis of body size and the role of leptin in the regulation of body fat.

Okay, But How Does it Work? Part III: Endocrine Disruptors

Just to complicate things even further, it turns out that a lot of the chemicals we’re exposed to can affect the endocrine system. Bisphenol A, the now-vilified chemical used primarily in plastics and also in the lining of aluminum cans, turns out to be an endocrine disruptor. Fluoride is also an endocrine disruptor. So are brominated fire retardants and many pesticides (even organic-certified ones, like copper sulfate).

Some of these may only affect people if they’re exposed at a particular point in their development—in utero, pre-adolescence, etc.—or at a particular dosage. So if your mom ate a lot of highly-acidic canned foods while she was pregnant with you, that might affect your thyroid function from birth. Or if you spent a lot of time on a rug treated with flame retardant chemicals as an infant, that might affect you, but maybe if you’d been 5 or 6 years old, it wouldn’t. Those are just hypothetical scenarios, the actual effects and doses of endocrine disruptors are not yet well understood or documented. So I’m not saying you should stop getting fluoride treatments. I suspect (and hope) that in another decade or so, we’ll have a better sense of how chemical exposure affects weight gain.

For more on endocrine disruptors and obesity, see Julie Guthman, Weighing In especially Chapter 5.

When Metabolism Matters: The Evidence From Overfeeding

If body weight is genetic, it should probably be nearly as difficult to gain weight as it is to lose it. Although it does seem to be possible to gain weight deliberately—some athletes and actors do this—it takes a lot of work. The results of overfeeding studies suggest that people who deliberately eat more than they would normally have to suppress their desire to stop eating and lose any weight they gain very easily as soon as they stop “overeating.”

BBC made an hour-long documentary about one of these studies, called “Why Are Thin People Not Fat,” which I first saw posted on Tom Naughton’s blog FatHead:

If you don’t want to watch it (spoiler if you do): ten thin people were told to eat twice as much as they normally do (the target caloric intake for men was approximately 5000 kcal/day) and refrain from exercise for four weeks. There was a lot of variation in the results—some gained more weight than others, some gained more fat than others. One of the participants gained muscle. None of them gain as much weight as they “should” based on caloric arithmetic, meaning there must have been changes in their metabolism. Additionally, the subjects report feeling pretty miserable: the amount of food they have to eat makes them feel sick. At least one of them mentions throwing up some of what he ate. They all get tired of milkshakes and chocolate and pork pies. And month after the experiment was over, the participants had all lost most or all of the weight they gained during the experiment without engaging in any deliberate weight-loss strategies.

The documentary mentions another overfeeding study known as the Vermont Prison Experiment. Researchers at the University of Vermont led by Ethan Sims initially tried to use students as subjects. They were told to eat 2-3x their normal caloric intake, but even after 5 months, most had increased their weight by only 10-12%. Sims’ goal was 25%, so he turned to inmates at the Vermont State Prison, who he describes as “equally dedicated volunteers.” After 200 days of eating up to 9-10,000 kcal/day, some of the participants were still not able to gain 25% of their starting weight. For the few who were able to gain 25% or more, in order to maintain the goal weight for any length of time, they had to continue eating on average ten times the number of calories that should have been necessary based on simple caloric arithmetic. This is also explained by metabolic changes—whether through thermogenesis or unconscious activity, the men were burning vastly more calories than before despite being prevented from exercising. Again, after the study was over, the prisoners easily lost most or all of the weight they had gained.

In Conclusion

The genetic influence on weight seems to work primarily by affecting how much people eat, not how many calories they burn. Fat people burn more calories than thin people, but they also eat more than thin people. That doesn’t mean that fat people “overeat.” Most people, fat or thin, maintain a relatively stable weight over long periods of time. If fat people were eating more calories than they typically burn, presumably they would be constantly gaining weight. Appetite and satiety are governed by biology, not willpower. Most people seem to be capable of consciously and deliberately reducing or increasing their caloric intake temporarily, but that’s difficult and unpleasant and virtually impossible to maintain long-term.

Organic Lies About Bt Sweet Corn

Take this simple test to determine whether or not Bt corn is equivalent to a hand grenade for you: Are you a larval-stage European corn borer? No? Well, probably not, then.

A couple of my facebook friends are among the 755 people* who’ve shared this image, originally posted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). It’s part of a broader campaign against Monsanto’s Bt sweet corn that’s starting to heat up because the first commercial crop is poised to debut in supermarket produce bins this summer.

Important disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Monsanto. I think they represent some of the worst tendencies of monopolistic, profit-driven enterprise. They bully farmers to buy their seeds every year and sue the ones who don’t if patented seed gets into their fields anyway, whether or not the farmers wanted it there (see: Food, Inc., The World According to Monsanto, Knight-Ridder/Tribune, They risk their workers’ health and pollute the environment, often at great public cost (see: Wikipedia, Washington Post, Environmental Working Group). They have fired whistle-blowing scientists willing to talk to journalists about the potential health risks of their products (see: New York Times). Their PR is Orwellian in a way that strikes me as somewhere between darkly hilarious and seriously unnerving (see: their website**). They’d make an outstanding movie villain.***

In fact, Monsanto is so stereotypically evil that I totally understand why people are willing to believe that food grown from their seed is dangerous, that Monsanto could be aware of this but try to sell it to you anyway, and that the regulatory agencies who ought to stop them have probably been effectively bought off.^ However, that’s not what’s happening here. I’m reasonably certain that Bt sweet corn is totally safe for human consumption. If it’s not and Bt is a real threat, then no sweet corn you can buy is safe for human consumption because Bt insecticides have been used by organic farmers for over 50 years.

How Bt Works

What’s wonderful about Bt-toxin is that it’s only toxic to insect larvae. Rather than referring to Bt compounds as “toxins,” it would probably be more accurate to call them proteins.^^ Unless you happen to be a larval-stage weevil or gypsy moth, in which case the description of what happens in the ad is fairly accurate: it binds to your gut, ruptures your intestines and you die.

These larvae-killing proteins occur naturally in the spores of a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. The proteins are activated by the digestive juices of vulnerable caterpillars, and here’s James McWilliams’ account of what happens next: 

Precisely what happens with the Bt-toxin is, in its own way, a masterpiece of natural adaptation. Certain insects that ingest the bacterium cease processing potassium. As a result, they become paralyzed and die as their cells drown in a cascade of water. As so often happens with life down in the dirt, one organism’s demise is another’s meal ticket. Indeed, the besotted gut mucosa of the dead insect becomes a fertile breeding ground for millions of Bt spores, which proceed to grow exponentially, catch a gust of wind, and dust the topsoil with a layer of natural repellent. If anything can be called natural, this would seem to be it. (Just Food p. 87)

Top: unprotected peanut plant ravaged by cornstalk borer larvae; Bottom: Bt peanut plant--the larva has crawled off the plant and died just above the center leaf. Source: wikipedia  Bt insecticides are also highly specific. Each Bt strain is only effective against the larvae of a handful of species. They’re not even effective against the adults of those species, let alone other kinds of insects (including agriculturally-useful ones like bees). So it’s not true that Bt is designed to rupture the stomach of “any insect” that feeds on it. Nor does it matter if it breaks down before it gets to your dinner table, although it probably does because it breaks down pretty easily, especially when exposed to UV light (source: UCSD Aorian Laboratory).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Bt is so safe that the EPA has exempted Bt insecticides from its food residue tolerances, groundwater restrictions, endangered species labeling and special review requirements. Bt has no known effects on fish, birds, or mammals, with one exception: if you apply it directly to rabbits’ eyes, they get irritated. Researchers note that that may be caused by the formulation tested and not the Bt itself (source: UCSD Aorian Laboratory).^^^

So this isn’t some crazy, newfangled technology. We have no idea how old the bacterium is, although it probably evolved along with the larvae it attacks, which may have evolved along with the plants they target. It was first discovered in 1901 by a Japanese biologist. In 1911, it was independently discovered in Germany and identified as the cause of a disease affecting flour moth caterpillars. It’s been used to control insect pests since the 1920s and was first developed for commercial use in 1958. It’s not synthetic, doesn’t accumulate in the soil, and poses no threat to wildlife, water, or human health, so it has always been compatible with the current restrictions on pesticides approved for “organic” farming (sources: Wikipedia and UCSD).

Using GM seed as a delivery mechanism for the protein is newer, although that’s been happening for the better part of two decades with no apparent negative effects. In 1987, the gene that produces the insecticidal protein in the bacterium was successfully transferred to tobacco and cotton. Transgenic Bt food crops including commodity corn and potatoes have been grown in the U.S. since 1996. The only thing that’s new and different about Bt sweet corn is that it’s designed for immediate human consumption rather than cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup. Since there’s no reason to believe that Bt is bad for you, before or after it passes through a cow’s gut or refining plant, there’s no reason to believe that Bt sweet corn is some kind of strange, new, scary thing. Unless you happen to be an organic farmer who grows sweet corn, in which case you may be relying on the far-less-efficient process of applying Bt insecticides externally via spraying, which must be repeated at least half a dozen times throughout the growing season. Then, I imagine you might indeed feel threatened by farmers who can grow plants that produce the very same proteins themselves. 

So What’s With the Rats Whose Organs Failed?

The short answer is there are no such rats.

The claim that rats fed GM corn showed organ failure is probably a reference to this study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences. Discover Magazine already pointed out a number of problems with the paper: 1) The authors got Monsanto to give them some data from studies they ran on three varieties of GM corn, and the authors themselves admit that the data are insufficient to reach any meaningful conclusions about the health effects of GM corn, 2) They found between 20-30 significant effects out of about 500 measurements, which is actually statistically likely when you’re running that many tests looking anything with a 5% chance of occurring randomly because 5% is not 0%, 3) The statistically-significant correlations that they found were not linear; for example, rats fed GM corn as 11 percent of their diet showed a (barely) statistically-significant effect of having large unnucleated cell count, but the rats fed 3x as much GM showed no similar effect, 4) Measurements like that were interpreted as "signs of organ failure,” although no actual organ failure was involved, and 5) The authors offer no possible explanation for any of the correlations, and there’s no corroborating research to suggest that the effects were causal or meaningful.

This doesn’t even rise to the relatively low bar of “suggestive findings that should prompt further research.” It was a bad study that no one would have paid any attention to unless they were actively looking for a way to cast aspersion on GM crops. Also, it doesn’t even involve Bt sweet corn (or in some cases Bt corn, because the data also included Roundup-ready seed). So this is emphatically not a situation where a bunch of rats fed the product coming to market this summer died from liver failure but the research was swept under the rug. Instead, this seems to be a case where a few publication-hungry scientists ran SPSS on a found data set until they got a handful of results with a p value < .05 and slipped it into an obscure and poorly-vetted journal. Is it really any wonder Monsanto is reluctant to release their data for that kind of “independent analysis” more often?

What About the Pregnant Women?

Ignoring for just a moment the fact that literally hundreds of compounds that are actually toxic to humans can probably also be “detected in pregnant women,” that part of the ad is probably a reference to this study from Quebec published in Reproductive Toxicology last year. It was designed to see if there was any correlation between the consumption of genetically modified foods and fetal exposure to herbicides like glyphosate, aka Round-up. In other words, the presence of Bt proteins was being used as a marker of GM consumption. No one has any reason to believe that Bt is harmful to pregnant women, or their fetuses, or anyone else who isn’t a corn-boring caterpillar. Instead, the researchers appear to be concerned about the potential effects of fetal exposure to Roundup, or more accurately, how to safely measure those potential effects. The main conclusion of the study was that the technique they used seems to be a good way to measure pesticide exposure: “This is the first study to reveal the presence of circulating PAGMF in women with and without pregnancy, paving the way for a new field in reproductive toxicology including nutrition and utero-placental toxicities.”

It’s not clear from the ad what its designers thought would be so sinister about the mere presence of Bt proteins in pregnant (or non-pregnant) women. Wouldn’t that just show that Bt proteins are already in our diet, even before a single ear of Bt sweet corn has been consumed? Perhaps it’s included as “evidence” to counter the claim attributed to Monsanto that “the toxin will break down before the corn makes it to your dinner table.” Which, again, it probably will, not that it matters. Aside from the hysteria-inducing reference to pregnant women, I suspect that what they were really trying to do was activate fears related to pesticides like DDT, whose persistence in the ecosystem and presence in human bodies might legitimately be a cause for concern. Never mind that Bt insecticides and transgenic seed are exactly the kinds of agricultural innovations^^^^ that can prevent the use of pesticides like DDT.

If You Want to Be An Informed Consumer, Act Like It

Organic farmers have commercial interests and organizations aimed at protecting those interests, just like conventional agribusiness. If this campaign is any indication, they’re no more trustworthy than Monsanto, just far less powerful.

When not referring to carbon-based compounds, “organic” is a marketing term, not a scientific one. In the U.S., it refers to products grown or made without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or a few other disallowed things including transgenic seed, as certified by one of the roughly 100 USDA-accredited agencies (source: USDA). It doesn’t mean it’s produced without any fertilizers or pesticides, which would make farming all-but-impossible anyhow. Many organic-permissible fertilizers and pesticides are actually worse than conventional ones in terms of how much energy they take to produce, how they affect the environment, how effective they are, and how they affect the health of farmers and people living downstream. Obviously, if you want to buy organic-labeled things anyway, that’s up to you, but I wouldn’t go around feeling smug about it or anything.

What really makes the veins in my temples throb uncomfortably is when people post things like the ad above with a tagline like “This is why it’s so important to know where your food comes from!” I don’t expect people to be experts on Bt, or any other aspects of farming and food production. Most people have more pressing things to do with their time than actually find out whether the organic berries at the store were grown using sodium nitrate mined in South America that leached perchloride into surrounding waterways, which might interfere with the human thyroid gland if it seeps into drinking water. Or if this or that brand of organic wine was protected from fungus with copper sulfate, which is toxic to fish and accumulates in the soil and in the breastmilk of vineyard employees (see: the section of Just Food titled “Chemicals” pp. 62-72).

But if you insist on posturing as an informed consumer, the least you can do is pay attention to the sources of your information and attempt to verify suspicious claims. Especially if someone has a clear profit motive for getting you to believe something or is trying to sell you on an idea by making emotional appeals, like gesturing towards oblique threats to pregnant women, google that shit.

Extraneous Asterisked Babble

*As of 6:43 pm Sunday, May 20.

**From the innocence of their logo, designed to look like the border’s been hand-sketched, to their high-production quality commercials about how they’re working to fight hunger and help farmers around the world, featuring lots of wide-eyed non-white people, including schoolchildren obediently raising their hands in class (well-fed and ready to learn—Thanks, Monsanto!), to the boilerplate that shows up below the website in a google search: “If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers. It is our purpose to help them meet the needs of a growing population,” you would almost think they’re a non-profit anti-hunger organization instead of a company that specializes in the production of herbicides applied by the truckload and growth hormones administered to industrial livestock via syringe and whose gross annual profits last year were US$11.822 Billion. Profitability and noble social causes aren’t inherently incompatible, but Monsanto’s litigation history leaves little doubt about which one of those they prioritize.

***I’d be surprised if they weren’t the inspiration for U-North, the corporation in Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007). On the other hand, I’m sure many of the people who run and work for Monsanto are decent people who genuinely believe they’re doing more good than harm, and depending on how you quantify “good,” maybe that’s even true. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, in 2001 the most common biotech cultivars being planted—corn, cotton, soybeans, and virus-resistant papaya and squash—were solely responsible for a national pesticide reduction of 46 million pounds. GMO Bt corn alone reduces annual pesticide use to battle the corn borer by about 2.6 million pounds (source: Tomorrow’s Table p. 72).

The possibility of reducing pesticide dependence is especially promising for poor farmers around the world who still rely on chemical cocktails including DDT applied from leaky backpack sprayers. Not that Monsanto is actually concerned about those farmers, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect corporations to pursue social good over profits. If we want Monsanto, or any other corporations, to behave more ethically, we need to pass legislation and arm regulatory bodies with the power to enforce it. And I know that’s hard, especially when the corporations have so much more money (see below), but as far as I can tell, concerned rich people shopping at farmer’s markets and Whole Foods instead of Wal-mart is not a particularly effective alternative strategy.

^Annual lobbying expenditures vary by year. Monsanto spent $US 8.83 Million on lobbying in 2008 and $US 6.37 Million last year (source: Open Secrets). They also wield their influence in other ways—the current head of the FDA is Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto lobbyist.

^^Unfortunately, the bacterium used in GM seed is actually called “Bt-toxin,” because the person who named it probably wasn’t in advertising.

^^^I wonder if this disclaimer actually means anything more sophisticated than: “We can’t really tell, but we think maybe rabbits just don’t like getting stuff in their eyes.”

^^^^If you’re against the very idea of “agricultural innovation” and think we should only allow people to farm the way they did 100 years ago, but you’re reading the internet… I give up.

Mother Waddles’ Sweet Potato Pone

much wetter than I expected; the liquid wasn't milky, it was more like the juice that seeps out of baked sweet potatoes so I'm not sure if reducing the milk would actually make it firmer or not

The Mother Waddles Soul Food Cookbook

this image appears at least three times in the book too, a constant visual assurance that everything is going to be a-okayA couple of weeks ago at John King Books, I found a pamphlet called The Mother Waddles Soul Food  Cookbook published by Perpetual Soul Saving Mission For All Nations, Inc. © 1970. Perpetual Soul Mission was an aid society founded by the Rev. Charleszetta Waddles (aka Mother Waddles) in 1957 to provide 24-hour emergency services to Detroiters in need, including food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care, legal aid, transportation, job placement, training programs, and help for drug addicts.

Waddles also ran a kitchen on Cass Avenue which served 70,000 meals a year for 35 cents each, or “free if you have no money.” And she hosted a radio hour every weekday morning on WCHD-FM. She doesn’t sound like the kind of woman who sat still very often. According to a note on the inside front cover, she only found the time to write this cookbook while confined to a hospital bed after falling down a flight of stairs.

There are prayers and poems interspersed with recipes for oyster pot pie, chitterlings, beef gumbo, and hot dogs with spaghetti. The soup section is prefaced, “In the upper crust sections of each and every town, the serving of soup is quite reknown, but all you have to do in the ghetto sections of the same town is to mention soup and you might get knocked down.” There are nine recipes and one poem about neck bones, short meditations on what it means to be a “a true brother” or “grass roots people,” and a poem titled “The Devout Weight Watcher” describing a family party as a form of torture:

Look at uncle Bill eating all that meat
Boy, I wish I could have about 10 Bar-B-Que pigs feet
They said because of calories, I can’t eat what I please
Therefore, I just have myself some cottage cheese

I'm partial to any recipe books that call for bacon fat by the half-cup

And in the very back, there’s the full text of a resolution signed by Governor William H. Milliken proclaiming Mother Waddles week: 

WHEREAS The estimable and loquacious Mother Waddles has led this community in a fuller understanding of the mandate to, “Love Thy Neighbor as Thy Self,” and,

. . . .

WHEREAS Mother Waddles is in constant need of assistance, for money, for meat and potatoes, for clothing and shelter, and,

WHEREAS Mother Waddles’ dedication and commitment commands all of us to meet her half-way*

Be it therefore Resolved that October 19 through 26, 1970, be declared Mother Waddles’ week throughout the glorious State of Michigan, and, on this day let every citizen become cognizant of quest [sic] of this lovely lady who in a simple way labors for the gains of her neighbors and the glorification of her society.

topped with graham cracker streusel, a bit like an inverted sweet potato pie

*I love the idea of declaring an honorary week as a method of meeting someone “half-way.”

What the Heck is Pone?

Before the Mother Waddles cookbook, I’d only ever heard of corn pone, which usually refers to a southern-style corn bread made without any eggs or milk and traditionally cooked in a cast iron skillet. The word “pone” was apparently derived from the Powhatan word apan, meaning “something baked.” It was adopted by English-speaking settlers in Virginia to refer to what was also called “Indian bread,” or bread made from corn instead of wheat. But I can’t figure out how it also came to refer to what turns out to be a custardy sweet potato casserole, which, unlike corn pone, is full of eggs, milk, and sugar.

Mother Waddles’ recipe actually calls for so much sugar that’ I’m almost certain it’s a typo: 1 1/2 lbs (3 3/8 cups) in a recipe with only 2 lbs sweet potato? The rest of the recipes in the book give sugar amounts by the cup and some other recipes for sweet potato pone call for as little as 1/2 cup of sugar (or 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup molasses) for comparable quantities of sweet potato. I’m guessing the recipe was supposed to read 1 1/2 cups not pounds. The other recipes also claim that sweet potato pone originated as a 19th Century street food in New Orleans also called pain patate (potato bread), so perhaps this “pone” comes from pain not apan. 

Most recipes call for spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and most describe it as firm enough to slice and eat by hand. According to one cranky commenter on the recipe for Jazz Fest Sweet Potato Pone on, the “real deal” also involves coconut and raisins and a “darker topping that isn’t all sugar.” A Times-Picayune article says many home recipes call for a hefty dose of black pepper to give it a little kick. Some more recent versions add brandy and orange zest.

I used Mother Waddles’ recipe as a base, cut the sugar to 1 cup, added 1/4 cup molasses and a cup of raisins soaked in orange juice and topped it with a graham cracker & pecan streusel. It definitely wasn’t firm enough to eat by hand, although it might be if I’d used half as much milk & eggs, like some of the other recipes linked above. Instead, what it reminded me of most was bread pudding, but straddling the line between a sweet side dish and dessert. It also makes enough to feed a lot of hungry people, which I suspect was probably exactly what Mother Waddles had in mind.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Pone (adapted from Mother Waddles and assorted others)


  • 2 –2 1/2 lbs sweet potato (about 2 very large or 3 medium) I was initially going to bake this in a souffle dish, but there was too much of it
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses (not blackstrap)
  • 6 eggs*
  • 4 cups milk*
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon mace and/or allspice
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • juice and zest of a large lemon
  • 1 cup raisins (optional)
  • 1 cup orange juice (optional)

*For a less custardy, possibly hand-holdable version, reduce to 3 eggs and 2 cups milk

Streusel (optional) next time I might make more streusel

  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup melted butter


1. Soak the raisins, if using, in the orange juice for a few hours. A splash of bourbon or brandy would also be welcome.

2. Peel & grate the potatoes and cover with milk to prevent browning.

3. Generously butter a 9×13 or 2 quart baking dish and preheat the oven to 250 F.

4. Beat the eggs well and add the rest of the ingredients, including the sweet potatoes and milk, mixing well to combine. Pour into the prepared dish.

5. Combine the streusel ingredients in a bowl and mix until crumbly. Sprinkle on top of the sweet potato mixture.

6. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until browned on top and set in the center.

7. Let stand for at least 30 minutes before serving.

halving recipe recommended; this makes an unseemly amount of sweet potato pone

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