Eggbeaters

If the transformation of eggs by heat seems remarkable, consider what beating can do!  Physical agitation normally breaks down and destroys structure. but beat eggs and you create structure.  Begin with a single dense, sticky egg white, work it with a whisk, and in a few minutes you have a cupful of snowy white foam, a cohesive structure that clings to the bowl when you turn it upside down, and holds its o wn when mixed and cooked.  Thanks to egg whites we’re able to harvest the air, and make it an integral part of meringues and mousses, gin fizzes and souffles and sabayons.

The full foaming power of egg white seems to have burst forth in the early 17th century.  Cooks had noticed the egg’s readiness to foam long before then, and by Renaissance times were exploiting it in two fanciful dishes: imitation snow and the confectioner’s miniature loaves and biscuits.  But in those days the fork was still a novelty, and twigs, shreds of dried fruits, and sponges could deliver only a coarse froth at best.  Sometime around 1650, cooks began to use more efficient whisks of bundled straw, and meringues and souffles start to appear in cookbooks.

That is from Harold McGee’s superb On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.  Imagine the writing and expository skills of a Richard Dawkins, but applied to applied chemistry in the kitchen, and maintained at a consistent and gripping level for 809 pages.  The only problem with this book is that the magnitude of the quantity and quality is simply overwhelming.

Dan Klein and I used to have a saying: "You so much learn the whole book."  In marked contrast is Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe.  Penrose remains a brilliant scientist and writer.  But never before have I seen a book that so clearly consists of material that I either a) already know, or b) will never know.

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