Saturday, July 2, 2011

C12H22O11

Any baker can use sugar to make a cake, but it takes highly specialized knowledge to use cake to make sugar. We at Babbler labs are here to show you how.



We built this assemblage to celebrate the graduation of a friend who is a newly minted high school chemistry teacher. No one in the crowd was an organic chemist, though, so it took a little while for the creation to be identified as sucrose.



Carbon

I chose whoopie pies for the carbon atoms for three reasons. First, the filling would easily accept molecular bonds. Second, the woman of the hour likes to break her cupcakes into layers and rearrange them with the frosting in the middle. We figured we'd save her a little work. Third, it's entertaining that you can use the words cake, cookie and pie interchangeably when referring to these critters.

I used a recipe from Gourmet magazine and followed it without deviation except that I made 28 “pies”, each using 2 tablespoons of batter (a small spring-action ice cream scoop makes the portioning easy). That gave enough cookies to make 12 carbons, with a few left over for breakage.

The cakes spread out a lot during baking, ending up about 3 inches in diameter. Even using three baking sheets, some of the cakes started to run into each other. We also found that the cakes released much more easily when using a silicone liner, rather than just buttering the baking sheet.

The cakes have the taste and consistency of the cookie for a very high class ice cream sandwich. The recipe claims the cakes taste better the next day, so I baked them the day before assembly. The only drawback to this scheme is that the tops of the cakes stick a little to the waxed paper in which you store them.

Carbon Filling

Matt made an over-the-top-and-gone chocolate pudding, which won rave reviews, but may be too intense for some tastes. He started with a 1.5 times recipe of the chocolate pastry cream from the 1997 Joy of Cooking, and doctored it with an extra 1/3 cup of Dutch-processed cocoa. The filling ended up being quite sweet because we had to use extra sugar to balance all the chocolate.

The recipe made the perfect amount of filling for the whoopie pies and the consistency was lovely for eating and quite stable for filling. We used a fair amount of filling in each pie, and the filling didn’t droop out the sides at all. I don't know if it would have been as stable without the added cocoa.

Oxygen

I did not core the strawberries, so they wouldn’t leak strawberry juice onto the cake board.

Hydrogen

I didn’t think of this until afterwards, but store-bought miniature marshmallows are often artificially whitened and thus violate Article 5 of the Manifesto. Home-made marshmallows would be more philosophically rigorous and tastier, but were beyond the lab’s capabilities at the time.

Atomic Bonds

Inspired by Cheeky Kitchen, I melted chocolate chips to make the bonds. Chocolate chips are better for this purpose than regular chocolate because they contain ingredients to help them hold their shape. Put about ¾ cup of chocolate chips in a Pyrex measuring cup and melt on low in the microwave, stirring as needed. Spoon the melted chips into a plastic zipper bag and let cool for a few minutes so they won’t be quite so runny.

Cut the tiniest possible hole in the corner of the plastic bag and pipe dozens of several-inch lengths of chocolate onto a piece of waxed paper. It will take a dozen or so just to get your chops down, and you’ll need plenty of spares because you’re apt to mangle a bunch of them during assembly. If you can make the bonds thicker than I did, you’ll have one or two seconds more to handle them when joining the atoms before they soften and collapse.

In warm weather, the chocolate bonds may sag or break. Gum paste, although a clear violation of Article 4 (even the name "gum paste" suggests that it's not really food), might be a better option for hot days.

Cake Board

It always seems a shame that Matt puts so much work into making the cake board and cover, only to have to disassemble it later (storage space at Babbler labs being at a premium). Although, when you think about it, it’s a lot like putting a lot of time into making a cake that gets eaten up. The difference is that you get lots of praise for the cake, and it’s photographed for posterity. To even things up, I’ve included a picture of the cake board cover, so it can get its deserved share of bravos and eternal glory.



Assembly

Sketch in the atomic locations on your cake board. I referred to the model on Wikipedia. Tuna cans make good stand-ins for carbons and spice bottles for oxygens when plotting the layout. Cover the board with waxed paper. Spread pudding about 1/2" thick between each pair of cookies. Lay out the carbons first. If you will be transporting the cake, stick the strawberries down with some of the melted chocolate chips.

Chill the bonds in the freezer for a few minutes before trying to attach them. It’s easy enough to insert bonds between the carbons, but the other atoms require cool hands, quick work, and a high tolerance for breakage. Cut wide, deep slits in the strawberries to receive their bonds. For the hydrogens, use a pointy thing to make a hole in each marshmallow.

To add a touch of three-dimensionality, I created vertical bonds between the oxygen and hydrogen atoms. It would be technically possible to build the molecule in three dimensions, with liberal use of helium or cake stands, but we leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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