Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Recipe: Vanilla Custard

Hot, sweet cups.
Today's recipe comes from Martha Stewart's website:

Vanilla Bean Custard Recipe

The first time I tried it, my custard's top level was all rough and bubbly like the picture with the source recipe. The second time I attempted a smoother top by melting the sugar along with the hot milk mix, minimizing stirring to minimize air bubbles in the final mix. The result was indeed smooth on top, but there were noticeable bits of egg within the custard. Ew! The third time I made this custard (pictured to the right), I whisked together the sugar and eggs as originally instructed, then added a step of skimming the froth off the top. Best of both worlds! Take that, Martha.

Special Equipment

Four 6-7 oz ramekins.
A roasting pan.
Canning tongs (helpful to avoid scalding hands).

Prepare a Hot Bath

Place an oven rack about one-third up from the bottom, then preheat oven to 300° F.

On the counter, place ramekins in the roasting pan, then pour water into the roasting pan until the water level is about 3/4 up the sides of the ramekins. Remove the ramekins, cover the roasting pan, and put the pan in the oven to let the water heat up with the oven.

The White and the Yellow

In a medium saucepan, pour:

1 1/4 cups milk
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Begin heating this dairy mix with a goal of simmering. In the meanwhile, put the following into a mixing bowl:

6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar

Whisk yolks and sugar together until smooth and frothy. The sugar granules will grind the egg yolks up, preventing any noticeable "bits of egg" in the custard. (Use the egg whites for something nice, like a breakfast burrito!)

Check on your dairy mix. When the temperature gets close to simmering, stir frequently to keep any milk from burning on the bottom of the pan. The original recipe said to "boil" the milk, but I know from yogurt making that simmering milk for a few minutes leads to better texture later and avoids any burned-milk taste. So do that!

Stir the simmering milk mixture into the egg mixture. For smoother custard tops, skim off as much of the froth as you can.

Not so frothy.

Happy Little Custard Cups

Ladle the goodness into your ramekins:

Burst the little bubbles if you can.

Then open the oven, slide out the roasting pan, take off its lid, and use canning tongs to place the cups in their hot bath. Take care not to get any water drops in the custard, as this has a much more noticeable effect than you might expect!

The reason for a water bath is to keep the custard cooking at a low 212° F (boiling temp.) and to keep the tops moist from the steam. This also means it's not important to rush to close the oven door again. It's the water, not the air in the oven that's important.

Start checking your cups after about 20 minutes. Tap the middle of one of the cups with a finger. When it responds like something other than a full-on liquid, they're done! At least...they will be done as they continue to cook from their own heat for several minutes. Don't wait for your custard look done in the oven, or it will overcook!

Poke. Poke. Poke.

Use your tongs to put the ramekins on a wire rack as soon as you can. Dust with cinnamon or nutmeg. Tastes great warm, or refrigerate for later!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Quote of the Day: Neil Gaiman on the Power of Fiction

"I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It's simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different."

— Neil Gaiman, as quoted by The Guardian on October 15, 2013.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Home Science: Does Yeast Treat Glycerin Like Sugar?

I didn't think I would be covering women's health on this blog, but a question came up among friends recently that wasn't easy to answer with a simple web search:

Do personal lubricants containing glycerin increase the chance of a yeast infection?

The all-knowing oracle Google returns mixed easy answers:

Yes, it does...


No, it doesn't...


At this point, the smart thing to do is look for higher quality sources of information. Information literacy, etc. But why do that when I have such a good excuse to run an experiment in my kitchen?

The Setup

I set out two empty measuring cups and put "Sugar" and "Glycerin" paper labels next to them. In a separate glass, I prepared 112° Fahrenheit water. (From my yogurt making, I know this is a prime yeast-growing temperature.) I then poured half a cup of warm water into each measuring cup. 

In the "Sugar" cup, I stirred in one tablespoon of sugar. In the "Glycerin" cup, I stirred in one tablespoon of glycerin:

Ingredients: Glycerin 99.5% Anhydrous

Then, I stirred one teaspoon of active dry yeast into each cup. Utensils were kept separate throughout this process, of course. I soon saw clear results.

Sugar Cup

Horrifying if you think about the context of this post.

Glycerin Cup

The yeast is confused about why someone put it in warm water with nothing to eat.


Not all that tastes sweet is a yeast-infection inducing sugar. People are easily swayed by superstition. Kitchen science isn't as robust as journal science, so treat this like you would MythBusters.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Transgender Identity is Brain-Deep

A series of recent MRI studies have shown that trans women and trans men have key neurological characteristics closer to their own gender identity than their assigned sex, before starting hormone therapy.

Sexual Dimorphism in the Brain

Duck cross-dressing involves a lot of dye.
Sexual dimorphism (or two-form-ism) is about the non-DNA differences between males and females of a species. For many birds, as seen in the picture, coloring is the most visible difference. Viewing humans in similar clothes from afar, height and shape are decent, if unreliable clues. Aliens will probably have an easier time sorting out the ducks!

Not all sexual dimorphism is so obvious; some critical differences are internal. While early scientists were able to prove that boys are not actually made of frogs and snails, and girls aren't made of sugar and spice, some discoveries had to wait on more sophisticated equipment and analytical techniques. In this case: a type of MRI scanning called Diffusion Tensor Imaging, or DTI.

DTI allows neuroscientists to examine fine white matter structures of living brains. This is as opposed to the "gray matter" where the neurons live. (Gray matter is shown as orange in the illustration here.) The effects of white matter on cognition and memory is a relatively new area of research.

In 2004, a study came out that showed differences in the white matter structure of left handed vs. right handed people (Büchel et al., 2004). For this reason, studies looking for other patterns tend to exclude left-handed people (typical, right?).

In 2011, the journal NeuroImage published a paper called "Men and women are different: Diffusion tensor imaging reveals sexual dimorphism in the microstructure of the thalamus, corpus callosum and cingulum" (Menzler, 2011).

The green pixels in the image on the right show a "white matter skeleton" (not literal bones) that men and women share in common. The yellow pixels show places where men in the study had "significantly increased fractional anisotropy" compared to the women. In similar areas, the men showed "significantly decreased radial diffusivity" compared to the women. These are mathematical terms that you can read about elsewhere if you really want! The important thing to know is that these terms reflect differences in what the water molecules in our brains are doing. The same process is used to detect lesions and trauma-induced injuries, as well as to monitor degeneration over time from Multiple Sclerosis.

Click below for the full illustration from the paper:

Yellow highlights show increased fractional anisotropy in men, while the blue highlights show decreased radial diffusivity in men.

Transgender Men (Female-to-Male)

In the same month, the Journal of Psychiatric Research published a study (Rametti, February 2011) comparing:
  • 18 transgender men
  • 24 cisgender men
  • 19 cisgender women
All 18 transgender men were in counseling for transition, had displayed gender non-conformity even before puberty, and had not yet started hormone therapy (although all 18 did start hormone therapy after MRI scanning).

The results are complicated, but here is a revealing graph that compares fractional anisotropy in four key locations where cisgender men and women differ:

The line-with-a-dot between some pairs of bars indicates a high statistical confidence of a distinction. Trans men are measurably distinct from cisgender women in all four areas! Furthermore, trans men are only measurably distinct from cisgender men in one of these areas. According to expectations developed from a separate study of men and women (outlined above), transgender men are neurologically closer to cisgender men than cisgender women.

Transgender Women (Male-To-Female)

The same research group shortly carried out another study with:
  • 18 transgender women
  • 19 cisgender women
  • 19 cisgender men
Similar selection criteria as with the transgender men above. Result chart:

Again, the line-and-star comparisons indicate a statistically significant difference. In five of these six areas, transgender women who haven't started hormone therapy are distinct from both cisgender women and cisgender men. In one, a distinction from cisgender men was not demonstrated. According to the study authors, "The direction of the differences suggests that some fasciculi do not complete the masculinization process during brain development before the individual seeks treatments" (Rametti, July 2011).


These studies have shown that transgender men and women don't fit their assigned genders at the neurological level, and the natural direction of difference is toward their own gender identity.


Büchel, C., Raedler, T., Sommer, M., et al. (Sept. 2004). White matter asymmetry in the human brain: A diffusion tensor MRI study. Cerebral Cortex, 14(9). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhh055

Menzler, K., Belke, M., Wehrmann, E., et al. (February 14, 2011). Men and women are different: Diffusion tensor imaging reveals sexual dimorphism in the microstructure of the thalamus, corpus callosum and cingulum. NeuroImage, 54(4). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.029

Rametti, G., Carillo, B., Gómez-Gil, E., et al. (February, 2011). White matter microstructure in female to male transsexuals before cross-sex hormonal treatment: A diffusion tensor imaging study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45(2). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.05.006

Rametti, G., Carillo, B., Gómez-Gil, E., et al. (July, 2011). The microstructure of white matter in male to female transsexuals before cross-sex hormonal treatment: A DTI study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45(7). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.11.007

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Quote of the Day: Jane Austen on Intellectual Parity in Marriage

Original 1813 cover.
"Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given."

— From the opening of Chapter 42 of Pride and Prejudice

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Monthly Picks

Just one:

Recovering the Classics. Paperbacks, ebooks, and posters featuring alternate covers for classic works. Multiple designs per title, in most cases.