6 Minute Read | by Gino De Blasio
Dear Giro Food fans, I’m really sorry but yesterday’s edition is today. Why? I was busy travelling from one country to another and hadn’t realised that the post didn’t… post.
Anyway yesterday’s stage/today’s read is all about chocolate, one of the invention’s of the century and… cake. Yes, cake. In honour of being a day late, there will be a double entry at some point to catch up. Don’t forget the culmination on Sunday will have a Facebook live moment from me, in Italy to discuss any food trends we’ve read throughout the Giro 2016 race. Enjoy.
Percy Spencer’s chocolate bar had melted. It didn’t contain a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, after all, it didn’t and still doesn’t, exist. Percy wasn’t precious about the chocolate disaster, instead he was curious.
Coming from a small town in Maine – Howland to be precise – your thirst for culinary curiosity must be hard to satisfy; lesser so, your quest to develop your knowledge in radar tube design. But this wasn’t going to perturb the American physicist.
What many may not know about Percy Spencer is that he has managed to overcome many an obstacle without any necessary prodding. Aged 16, his curiosity and no formal training led him to installing electrical lines in a town paper mill plant; different times, no health and safety checks required then! Getting a 16 year old today to wire a plug probably takes a town to get them even curious, well that and a threat of no Netflix unless they have power.
Subsequently aged 18, Percy joined the Navy after becoming interested in wireless communications. Whilst standing guard at night, Percy taught himself trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, and metallurgy, among other subjects. It makes a stark difference to eating kebabs, playing drinking games and all other acts of naval debauchery aged just 18.
But it would be Percy’s fascination in the development of radar power tubes that inspired one of the greatest kitchen inventions of the last century.
Testing magnetrons for radar sets, Percy was stood in front of an active radar when he noticed his bar of chocolate that he kept on him had melted. For most, this would lead to a logical yet inacurate observation about the human body melting the chocolate bar; luckily for us, Percy wouldn’t be swayed by such lesser thinking. Instead he decided to investigate. From popcorn kernels to eggs, experiment after experiment with his small sub-team, the second most important and largest after the Manhattan Project, Percy had discovered the power of micro radiation, and in turn, the creation of a microwave.
Like most things electrical, the patent was filed and commercial products were made. The first measured 6ft and weighed 750lbs; probably not the best solution if you’re a single man living in a one bedroom apartment, but precisely the kind of thing that a single man living in a one bedroom apartment would buy. Over the years they’ve gotten smaller, more economical and provided nightmares for cooks and chefs the world over. As Catherine Phipps described in her Guardian opinion piece about the microwave, “The tell-tale signs of a microwaved meal are unmistakable – a drab colour, wrinkly skin pockmarked around the edges and a sad, dry sagging vegetable.
To add injury to insult, inattentive operation often ensures that the result will be scalding hot, still frozen, or both.” It’s not uncommon to run the risk that the food you are eating in a highly recommended restaurant hasn’t been subjected to a simple re-heat or worse yet, outsourced food company to then be blasted with a handful of non-harmful radiation and served to you by a maitre’d all proud of his chef’s, non invention.
The microwave’s saving grace however is a food that more and more people are getting behind, even if, as a baking solution, it can never really substitute a pre-amble through the pan draws to find a 17cm loose base baking tin. If you bake, you’ll realise how hard that is; it’s probably more likely to win the lottery and be struck by lightning simultaneously. T
he cake in a mug has become the reason to have a microwave if you love cake (who doesn’t) and if you don’t want to spend the next three years of your life looking for that 17cm loose base baking tin. It combines the speed of sending a snapchat with the delight of, well, eating a cake! It is precisely what it sounds like, a cake, in a mug.
The growth of this particular market place is down to our love for a sweet treat, but neither the time or sometimes skill-set to be able to execute a perfectly formed floret. We want to indulge our senses into what seems like a baked delight, but instead, at most, took five minutes in the microwave. There is nothing wrong that.
If we feel that we can purchase fries quicker than peeling a potato and cooking in more oil that will eventually be dumped into the oceans killing dolphins, then, we’d take the easier, more “environmentally friendly” option. (We don’t count the driving or the fact that the store will need to dump more oil than you ever could use in a year’s worth of cooking.) Microwaves were designed for speed and eventually convenience; reheating your mamma’s pasta bake is fine within the unwritten rules of microwave cooking.
What’s more interesting to note is that the ‘cake in a mug’ phenomena has left the door open to loads of new, and interesting flavours that maybe wouldn’t haven’t been considered in a traditional cooking method. Exotic selections include the ‘Upside-Down Mango and Coconut Cake’, ‘Strawberry Pimm’s Cake’ and ‘Polenta Blackcurrant Cake’. Whilst possible in a large, party friendly selection, the fact that the average person who has some idea of how to operate a microwave oven is now capable of creating cakes within a few clicks, taps, turns and pings and zero baking skills must surely be applauded.
The appreciation for the more classic cake combinations however have not been missed by the cake in a mug fan club. From a simple victorian sponge to an indulgent chocolate cake it is easy for those to find a way to bake their childhood or adulthood favourites quicker than you can set your VCR. An extension of this traditional cake love can be even as simple as the ‘Nutella Lava Mug Cake.’
We can love nutella, we can love the word lava, but a soft, spongy cake in our favourite mug that then explodes with warm, to the point of molten nutella in the centre, is treat worth savouring and only possible in a cup sized portion. This, if any, would be the cake in a mug that the town of Pinerolo were to indulge in.
The town of the chocolate lover, maker and purveyor may raise an eyebrow at the cake in a cup but would more than likely embrace it at the same time; it is, if nothing a region that has had it’s fair share of changes.
Known for its challenges with France, an ever ensuing slay of conquests, clashes and invasions, if Tolkien was inspired by early Germanic literature and walks through Sarehole Mill in Birmingham, then George R.R. Martin from Game Of Thrones must have found some form of inspiration when dreaming up nudity, dragons and death!
Piedmont, a region for the humble, yet passionate foodie, wine lover and perhaps better known widely for its chocolate hazelnut product known as gianduja.
Gianduja, the original and traditional form of, Nutella. Take that in for a minute, there is a traditional form of Nutella.
Unlike Nutella however, Gianduja’s texture is nuttier and tastes bitter due to the dark chocolate and cocoa percentages unlike its modern contemporary which is made with dairy milk. As Jamie Feldmar noted in his analysis of this chocolate spread “Whether dark chocolate or milk, gianduja is grown-up stuff: sweet but balanced, with an elegant, rich flavor that belies the purity of its ingredients.” If Nutella is the Bluray of chocolate spreads, then gianduja is surely the betamax!
Whether it’s enjoyed on it’s own (please use a spoon!), spread on crusty sourdough (once again, use a spoon) or mixed as a cooking ingredient, it’s hard to not love the versatility that this hazelnut chocolate spread has, completely befitting the Piedmont region’s character and cooking traditions.
If you want to learn how to make gianduja at home, this recipe is for you. Once you’ve mastered the art, you may want to give some variety to your chocolate repertoire. This gianduia brownie from Epicurious is precisely the thing for you. If you wanted to create a gianduia mousse, who wouldn’t, then you may want to try this from Food & Wine. If however, you fancied taking a stroll down cake in a cup heaven, then the chocolate cake with nutella centre may just be for you!
So if it wasn’t thanks to Percy, a passion for radar tubes and a melting chocolate bar, we wouldn’t have microwaves or the possibility to make a cake in a cup within minutes. Thanks, Percy.