I have a confession to make. I’m a bagel snob.

I didn’t used to be! I never used to understand people’s bagel snobbishness. Isn’t it just bread?

I can now definitively say: No. No, it isn’t. After a year and a half of living in NYC, just around the corner from Bagel Express (they’re better than H&H, I swear), I’m having a hard time re-adjusting to my new, bagel shop-less life. Those things from the chain store? They’re just rolls with a hole in the middle.

To deserve the vaunted title, bagels need a golden-brown crust and properly chewy texture. A friend once told me that to test a bagel for maximum bagel-ness, you can turn it over and press your thumbs down into it. (I don’t advise trying this with someone else’s bagel.) The crust should crack apart, and the the bagel’s innards should re-inflate after you’ve removed your thumbs, showing that they’re perfectly chewy. If your bagel doesn’t do this, what you’re holding might look like a bagel, but it definitely doesn’t deserve to be the vehicle for your homemade lox. See, I told you I was a bagel snob.

I’ve been hoarding a stash of genuine New York bagels in my freezer since I moved. But it’s running perilously low. (Plus they’re starting to taste stale–turns out buying 24 bagels at once maybe wasn’t such a good idea.)

So I started kicking around the idea of giving bagels a shot at home. Having heard from several talented home bakers that their attempts just didn’t turn out, I didn’t have a whole lot of hope. But then I started to see bread god Peter Reinhart’s recipe crop up all over the internet, with foodbloggers reporting great results.

And oh man, were they right. These, my friend, are the real deal.

There are quite a few steps, but they’re not difficult. And more importantly, they’re worth it.

First, you’ll throw into a bowl: the flour (the original Reinhart recipe  calls for bread flour, but I was too lazy to go to the store, and my regular all purpose flour worked fine), yeast, water, salt, baking soda, and malt syrup or honey.

Reinhart calls for instant yeast, which I didn’t have on hand. Instant yeast is simply a more potent version of regular (active dry) yeast. Its granules are smaller and contain more live bacteria cells. Some bakers like it because you can generally add it directly to your ingredients, without having to rehydrate in water. Others think that regular active dry yeast, which takes a longer time to rise, produces a more flavorful dough. Since I didn’t have instant yeast, I decided that the latter group was definitely correct.

I warmed the water the recipe calls for in a separate bowl and sprinkled the yeast on top, allowing it a few minutes to rehydrate before I added it. Some bakers suggest adding 20 percent more active dry yeast, if you’re substituting, but I didn’t do that either (Instead, I just let it rise a little longer). Everything turned out fine.

You mix all this stuff together. And no, you don’t need a stand mixer, just a little arm strength and a desire to eat bagels!

When it’s too thick and sticky to mix any more, turn the dough out on to a floured surface, and knead it for 2 to 3 minutes. You’re looking for a sort of satiny smooth texture in your dough.

A couple of magical things are happening during this process. The gluten proteins in the flour unfold and tangle around each other, forming a stretchy matrix that gives dough its elastic texture. In the final product, this matrix acts as a support system, holding gup the final bread product so that your bagels don’t deflate. Water gets trapped in the matrix, helping your bagels stay moist. Starch enzymes that are naturally present in the wheat, and also added by you in the malt or honey, break down starches and turn them into sugars. This sugar provides food for the yeast in the dough.

When you knead the dough, you encourage the gluten network to develop, and you also aerate the dough. This is why proper kneading technique calls for you to fold over the dough as you go. You’re making big air pockets that get broken down into little air pockets. The carbon dioxide released by the yeast enters these pockets and puffs them up, giving your bread a light texture. (The process is too weak to create pockets by itself, so you have to use a little muscle power to get them started.)

Time for a break! Stick the dough in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. They’ll need to “proof” overnight, so make sure you get to the next step before you go to bed, so that you can have bagels for breakfast.

Pull the dough out of the fridge, and divide it into 6-8 pieces, depending on how large you like your bagels. For me, the easiest way to divide dough is with a knife: I cut it in half, then cut those halves into 3 pieces each. Roll out each piece on the countertop until you’ve got a bagel rope 10 inches long or so. Then roll the rope into a circle, overlapping more than you think you need to–about 2-3 inches worked best for me. I always have a hard time getting dough to stick together, and I didn’t want these to come apart when I boiled them, so I really pinched the overlapping edges together all the way around to seal them. Place the bagels on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and brush their tops with oil. Then they go into the refrigerator overnight.


Don’t laugh. My bagels were a little lumpy. I bet you can do better!

Resting the bagels overnight allows some of the gluten bonds to relax a little after you’ve worked the dough to roll the bagels. This helps keep your end product from being tough. Making breads takes a lot of time for this reason–you have to let the dough rest after each time you work with it. Don’t skip the resting steps; you’ll regret it.

The next morning, take the bagels out of the refrigerator about an hour and a half before you want to eat them. I panicked a bit when I removed my bagels from the fridge, because they hadn’t risen much at all overnight. But they did puff up in the hour or so before I cooked them.

About 45 minutes or an hour after you’ve taken the bagels out, bring a pot of water to a boil, adding baking soda and salt. You’re going to boil the bagels before you cook them, which is one of the steps necessary to creating real, New York-style bagels. The boiling step forms a crust on your bagels: it gels the starches on the outside, and they form a barrier. When you put the bagels in the oven, this barrier will keep them from expanding, making the insides chewy instead of fluffy. This is good.

To make sure your bagels don’t sink to the bottom when boiling them, do a float test: Put a bagel in a bowl of water. If it floats, your bagels are ready for the pot. If it doesn’t, put it back on the baking sheet and let it hang out for another 15 minutes, then try again.

Quickly poach the bagels, then lay them on a baking sheet. If you want to add toppings such as sesame or poppy seeds, now is a good time. Stick the bagels in a pre-heated 500 degree oven, then immediately lower the heat to 450 degrees. Bake the bagels for about 20 minutes, rotating them halfway through. Let them rest for 15 minutes or so (I found Reinhart’s 30-minute rest unnecessary. Also I was hungry.), grab your cream cheese, and go to town.


Get the recipe here: Peter Reinhart’s Bagels



I’ve never thought of cheese as the kind of thing you can make at home. I’m not entirely sure why. But when I think of cheese making, I picture a guy dressed in laboratory whites and a hairnet, stirring a giant vat of some mysterious pre-cheese substance with a utensil approximately the size and shape of a canoe paddle.

Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you’re of the reasonable, logical persuasion that people have been making cheese for thousands of years (since at least 2300 B.C.!) and so it can’t be all that hard. Well, you’d be right. And you’re probably a cheese-making expert already. The rest of you, with me!

The cheese I describe here is by no means a traditional ricotta. Real ricotta is made from the leftover whey from another cheese making session. But since I’ve never made cheese before, I didn’t have buckets of whey sitting around. In addition, because leftover whey has most of its proteins and fats removed by the previous cheese making session, you need a lot of whey to make a small amount of ricotta–at least a few gallons.

However, you can make a version of ricotta using whole milk. It’s not technically ricotta, but recipes for it are everywhere. And once you taste it, you won’t care about semantics.

Honestly, the taste is unbelievable. It tastes absolutely nothing like any ricotta I’ve ever bought in the store. And no wonder: producers of mass-market ricotta can’t be bothered to properly drain their cheese. Instead, they just pack it full of stabilizers, such as xanthan gum and other chemical “gums,” which turns the product gritty and, well…gummy. Also, when you heat it up (to make lasagna, for example), it can break, leaving you with mysteriously dry lasagna sitting in a pool of water. (That solves that mystery!)

So come along with me, and let’s make cheese! I promise it’s a lot easier than you thought it would be.

Here’s what you need:

You’ll need milk, salt, and lemon juice. The cream is optional, but I strongly recommend it. Adding a little cream to the milk (I used about 1/2 a cup of cream to 3 cups of milk) adds an incredible richness to the finished product. (If you used all cream, you’d have mascarpone.)

Some at-home ricotta makers complain that their cheese ends up too dry. The addition of cream should add enough fat to keep that from happening. For what it’s worth, though, when faced with the decision of cream or no cream, I always choose cream. So don’t do it if you don’t want to. But you really should. But no pressure!

A deep-fry or candy thermometer is also useful. In a pinch, you could use an instant-read thermometer. You could also eyeball it. (But I’d recommend one of these. They’re only a couple of dollars. And then you’ll have an excuse to make fried chicken or fudge!)

Pour the milk and cream into a pot, and add a little salt. Then slowly heat it up to 190° F, stirring the pot pretty often so the milk doesn’t scorch.

My deep-fry thermometer was too long for this pot, rendering the clip useless. I had to awkwardly prop it up against the spoon and the pot handle to keep it from touching the bottom of the pot and giving me a potentially inaccurate reading. I am imperfect. Fortunately, this cheese is not!

When you hit 190° (of if you’re eyeballing, just below a simmer), remove the pot from the heat. Pour in the lemon juice, then gently stir the mixture until you see curds start to form. (This should happen almost immediately.) Usually, I’m trying to avoid curdling in my cooking (I’ll get you right someday, Hollandaise!), so it’s nice to be encouraging it for a change.

Heating up the milk starts the curdling process. Adding citric acid in the form of lemon juice (though you can also buy citric acid by the bottle, if you’d rather) also causes curdling. Heat causes some of the proteins in the milk (the whey proteins, such as albumin and globulin (doesn’t “globulin” sound like a good Halloween costume? (parentheses))) to denature. Citric acid causes other proteins (caseins) to denature.

In their natural state, proteins, which are long strands of molecules called amino acids, are all coiled up semi-neatly. The heat causes them to freak out and uncoil, then in an act of desperation (“Nooo! Don’t make me into cheese!”) then grab on to their neighbors, forming a solid mass, kind of like a group of little kids playing Red Rover. These masses are curds.

Within the curds, the matrix of proteins traps fats and water, which help keep your cheese creamy and moist. Because creamy and moist are adjectives that are very good when applied to cheese, you don’t want to mess with your liquid too much as the curds are forming. As soon as you see the reaction begin, put down your spoon and let the milk and acid hang out and do their thing for 5 minutes.

Then come back, and pour the liquid into a cheesecloth-lined strainer suspended over a bowl (to catch the whey).

Sorry about the lighting. All of a sudden, some clouds rolled in and I had to turn on the kitchen light. It looked like this outside:

Brr. What happened? I used to look out my window and see semi-clothed surfers rinsing off in my front-yard hose! Do you think any might wander by today? No? You pessimist.

Anyway, after you pour the curds and whey into the strainer, it will look like this:

Now here comes the hard part. You have to wait for an hour. When you come back, most of the whey will have drained off, and you’ll be left with a soft, spreadable mass that should plop right out of the cheesecloth (appetizing description, right?). Either eat it right away or put it in a covered container in the refrigerator. But you definitely shouldn’t let it sit around for more than a few days. Not that you’ll be able to contain yourself anyway.

Slice up a baguette. Toast it. Smear with an unholy amount of fresh, homemade ricotta, then drizzle on a touch of honey and a pinch of sea salt. This just might be the perfect food.

Although this runs a close second: a Caprese-stype sandwich, with ricotta instead of mozzarella, tomatoes (don’t laugh–it’s winter and these tiny cherry tomatoes are the only good ones I can find), and basil, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Go forth and try it for yourself! I guarantee it’s worth it.


Slowly heat to 190°, stirring often:

3 cups whole milk

     1/2 cup – 1 cup cream

     generous pinch of salt (about 1/2 a tsp.)

Remove from heat, and stir in:

   3 Tbs. lemon juice

Keep stirring until you see curds start to form. Then let the pot sit, undisturbed, for 5 minutes.

Pour into a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl. Let sit one hour.

Use ricotta to top a baguette slice, drizzled with honey and sea salt, or black pepper and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Or use as a sandwich spread, or in your favorite lasagna recipe, or topped with berries and honey for dessert (or breakfast!)

How to make lox

I feel strongly that there is no better breakfast (ok, brunch…ok, late brunch) than a fully-loaded bagel and lox. My ideal is a toasted (sorry, purists!) bagel, slathered with melty cream cheese, topped with tomato, paper-thin red onion slices or snipped chives, and of course, the gloriously flavorful salmon. That and a latte makes the perfect start to a weekend morning.

Last month, I moved from New York City to Vermont. Vermont has much in the way of tranquility, skiing, and hippies, but unfortunately, lacks the shops specializing in all manner of smoked and cured fish that NYC spoiled me with. I’ve had to rely on the grocery-store lox ever since.

The store-bought lox tastes fine on the large supply of New York bagels I’ve been hoarding (I mean storing!) in my freezer.

But, I mean, just look at it. It leaves something to be desired.

So in the interest of making hay where the sun shines (and it is shining outside here, albeit deceptively so, as it’s been hovering near zero degrees for way too long), I decided to attempt my own lox: gravlax, that is. Gravlax is a traditional Nordic preparation for salmon.

Most lox-type products (such as Nova salmon, Scotch or Scottish salmon, and Nordic-style salmon), are all cured in one way or another and then cold-smoked. Exposing the salmon to cooled-down smoke gives it a smoky flavor without cooking it. Gravlax just missing the cold-smoking step. But that was ok by me, as cold-smoking is a little bit of a pain. And I like breakfast to be on the painless side.

So I went to the fish market and bought a piece of salmon.

And, I have to say, it was a looker. Isn’t that a nice piece of fish? Yum.

So before I could convince myself that I should just throw it in a pan and have it for lunch, I quickly assembled my ingredients.

You’ll need a mix of salt and sugar (I used brown sugar), a big bunch of dill…and booze! Fortunately I happened to have some on hand. What a coincidence! Not.

I used brandy, but you can use vodka or even aquavit if you want to be super-Nordic.

I stuck the salmon in a 9X13-in pan, then slowly drizzled a couple of tablespoons of brandy over the salmon, trying to hit all the exposed fish. (I’ll tell you why in a second.) Then I poured myself some. Just kidding! I resisted. Then I patted on the salt/sugar mixture, trying to coat the whole fillet.

The idea here is to cure the salmon by exposing it to the salt (and sugar). Stay with me here for the science! (Or skip it if you just want to make gravlax already; I won’t tell.)

Salt draws the moisture out of the salmon. Here’s how:

Salt is unable to enter the walls of the cells that make up the salmon. Since there’s a much higher concentration of water in the fish cells than in the molecules of salt, water leaves the salmon cells and enters the salt in order to equalize the concentration. At the same time, water is also leaving any bacteria and parasites that might be present.

Once enough water leaves these cells, they collapse and die. The salmon filet will then be an inhospitable place for bacteria to live: it’s preserved. (For a week or so.) But wait! We’re not there yet.

Sugar has the same preserving action as salt. I use a combination of the two here because using all salt would result in an overly salty end product. You can play with the combination of salt and sugar to get the saltiness level that suits your taste. White sugar is fine to use; I just used brown because of its interesting flavor.

So anyway, you want to add the booze because it dissolves the salt and sugar; it’s a solvent.

(Warning! More science coming.) The molecules of water and ethanol that mostly make up the brandy are polarized: they have a negative side and a positive side, like batteries. Salt and sugar molecules also have both positive and negative charges, so the polarized molecules that make up the brandy are really good at pulling them apart: negative charge to positive charge, positive to negative.

I suppose you could use plain old water (it’s actually more polarized), but…why? The brandy contributes its delicious flavor.

Ok, back to the fun part.


So I drizzled the salmon with brandy, then covered it with the salt/sugar mixture. Then I chopped the dill up and used it to cover the salmon.


Kinda weird-looking, huh? It looks like it’s in a forest trying to hide under dill camouflage. Only it’s in a kitchen, so it’s kind of pathetically exposed. Good try, salmon, but I still see you.

The dill blanket contributes flavor to the salmon. The salmon ends up tasting very strongly of dill; salmon and dill is a really delicious flavor combination. You can experiment with adding other kinds of flavors, too. Try mixing fennel or coriander seeds in with the salt and sugar, or lemon zest, or whatever else makes you happy.

Now just cover loosely with plastic wrap and stack a smaller (8×8) dish on top of the covered fillet. Place something heavy inside to weigh down the salmon, pressing the tasty dry brine into the fish to help the process along. I used a couple of boxes of chicken broth, because my rock collection was in the other room. Use whatever you have on hand. Those big cans of tomato are good. Balance the weight on the highest part of the fillet.

Then stick it in the fridge and walk away. Sorry man, this takes 3 days. If you’re impatient and hungry, take a log of oatmeal cookie dough out of the fridge. Cut off a piece. Eat it. Feel strong enough to go on.

Not that I did that.

The next day, come back and unwrap your fish. (Don’t get too excited. We have a couple days to go.)

It looks like this now. (The fact that all the liquid has gathered on the left side of the pan shows you how tilted my 160-year old house is. Holy moly!) That brown liquid is a delicious boozy, salty, sugary syrup. It’s not doing any good in the pan. We want it on the fish working its magic.

Baste the fish with the syrup in the pan. You probably won’t get it to soak up all of the liquid, but don’t stress. If some of your dill has slipped off, just repack it. Alternatively, you can just wrap the whole thing in plastic and flip it every 12 hours or so. (Just make sure to put it in a pan still so the salmon juice doesn’t leak all over your fridge. Ick.)

24 hours later, come back and do the same syrup-drizzle thing. (I’d show you a picture, but it looks exactly the same.) Ok, fine.  I’ll just show you the same picture again.

Happy? Ok, let’s move on. Sorry, I’m kind of grumpy. Must be the hunger. When is this thing going to be done already?

Using every ounce of willpower you possess, stick it back in the fridge for 24 more hours. (It can go another day if you need it to.) Then take it out, and sweep off the dill covering. And then…oh man, then:

Oh yes.

Oh boy.

Oh gosh.

The end result is totally worth it. The flavor isn’t too salty or sweet, just punched-up salmon, redolent of dill and with a hint of the complex flavors from the brandy. Perfection on a bagel.

And hey, it was easy, right? Except for that whole waiting part. But that’s what the brandy is for! If you like lox, gravlax is a great way to fulfill your craving. And it’s way better than the stuff that comes in the vacuum package. Don’t worry, I won’t show you that picture again. I don’t know if I can ever go back.


Place in a 9×13-inch pan:

     1/2 lb salmon

Drizzle over:

     2 tablespoons brandy

Combine in a small bowl:

     3 tablespoons dark brown sugar

     2 tablespoons salt

Pat over the salmon fillet, followed by:

     1 large bunch dill, roughly chopped

Cover loosely with plastic wrap, then place a weighted 8×8 pan on highest point of fillet.

Wait 24 hours or so, then uncover and baste with liquid in the pan. Repeat the next day.

On the third day, remove from pan, scrape off dill, and slice thinly on the bias. Serve with mustard sauce, on rye toasts with cream cheese and thin slices of red onion, or on a bagel with all the trimmings.

It’s an old cooking adage that what grows together, goes together. In other words, ingredients that are cultivated in the same area are likely to taste good together. It’s an idea that’s commonly tossed around on foodie websites as advice to aspiring cooks. Wine aficionados also love to use it to help them chose which wine to pair with a particular dish.

As many times as I’ve seen this advice doled out, I’ve never seen a good explanation of why it was true. So I wondered, is it? Or is it just one of those things generations of grandmothers have been saying as they stirred their spaghetti sauce?

To find out if this was true, I reasoned that you’d need to be able to figure out which foods really do pair well together, then plot them on a map according to where they’re grown, and presto: you’d see if there was a correlation between location and pair-ability. Our grandmothers didn’t have the data necessary to check. But we do!

The site foodpairing.be is a tool for chefs based on the idea that ingredients that share flavor compounds tend to match well together. You type in an ingredient, and the site uses a database of the chemical composition of hundreds of different foods to show you what other ingredients will go well with it. Here’s the one for fresh tomato (credit: food pairing.be):

Cool, eh? The idea is that the closer an ingredient is located to the center one, the more flavor compounds they share, and the better they’ll go together. Some of them aren’t surprising because we see them matched all the time (olive oil), but some are–who would have guessed that raspberry and tomato would be such a close match?

Obviously this is just one more method for pairing flavors, but chefs seem to think it works. Foodpairing has an impressive list of chefs who use the service, among them Heston Blumenthal.

But back to the original question: are these flavors that go together, actually grown together? I took four very different ingredients: cumin, tomato, cinnamon, and chili, and used the best information I could dig up on where they’re grown to plot them, on a map. Then I plotted the foods they go well with in the major places those foods are grown. Here’s the one for tomato. (Click here to see it and the rest of the the maps at a less frustrating size!)

As you can see, the answer isn’t all that straightforward. If you’re like me, when you think “tomato,” you probably thought of Italy. But as the map shows, tomatoes originated from South America. Of course, they aren’t grown there today. You can see the major migration path of tomatoes through the ages on the map above. But this is obviously a major simplification–tomatoes are grown all over the world today (albeit in greenhouses, in some places).

To me, there does seem to be a bit of a correlation, at least, enough that the old “what grows together, goes together” adage probably will help you out in your flavor pairing endeavors, most of the time. But perhaps the correlation is just due to the fact that tomatoes are grown in a lot of places, and those places happen to grow a lot of other foods, as well.

What do you think? Is there some truth to the old adage, or are we better of ditching this idea of location-based pairing for a more scientific one that uses shared flavor compounds as a basis for food pairing (or for another concept entirely)?

Whether this spread looks appetizing or disgusting to you make have a lot to do with your genes. Image Credit: dboy, Flickr

Why do some people love broccoli, kale and black coffee, while others hold their noses when faced with these bitter-tasting foods? New research published in the journal Chemical Senses this month may help get at the answer.

Our evolutionary history plays a huge role in which flavors we like and which we avoid. Find it impossible to resist that office birthday cake, even though you know you shouldn’t indulge? The excellent cookbook/food science guide Cooking for Geeksinforms me that we probably love fats, sweets and sugars because back when we were hunting and gathering, the foods they were found in (I’m thinking things like ripe wild strawberries and woolly mammoth meat), were tough to get and also high in energy.

Because of these nutritional advantages, fewer of those who had no affinity survived to pass on their genes. However, in the modern landscape of Big Gulps and Applebee’s restaurants, our evolved love of fats, sweets and sugars now works agasint us, and the result is the obesity epidemic.

Almost everybody likes cake and candy bars. But this isn’t true for bitter foods (although many people do seem to acquire a taste for them as they grow up). According to the new paper, we have 25 “bitter” taste receptors, each with its own gene. But all of them aren’t expressed in all of us: which of them are turned on varies wildly from person to person, much more so than for other taste receptors like those for sweet or salty flavors. The paper suggests that this may be due to “local adaptation to the avoidance of plant toxins;” in other words, if your hunting-and-gathering territory included a lot of bitter plants which were also poisonous, the genes of your ancestors would reflect a distaste for the flavor.

The study tested how which versions of the “bitterness genes” a group of 96 subjects had related to their sensitivity to bitter flavors. The participants were given a genetic analysis, and also a taste trial, in which they sampled espresso, scotch whiskey, and unsweetened grapefruit juice and were asked to rank how strongly they liked or disliked the flavor. They found a strong relationship between genes and affinity for bitter flavors: participants who had one version of a certain gene, for example, ranked grapefruit juice as tasting twice as bitter as participants with a different version.

Each of the 25 “bitterness genes” seem to control our liking for different foods. “This study moves us beyond the one-size-fits-all approach,” said lead researcher John Hayes in a press release. “It turns out that different bitter foods act through different receptors, and people can be high or low responders for one but not another. Thus, you may despise grapefruit but have no problem with black coffee.”

Hayes explains that bitter and sweet tastes work in opposition in the brain — so if you perceive a food as tasting more bitter, then it also tastes less sweet to you. “This means not all foods taste the same to all people,” said Hayes. Perhaps this provides insight into why some people are picky eaters and others aren’t.

These genetically-determined taste preferences appear to have real affects in our diets. According to Hayes, people who are more sensitive to bitter tastes eat 25% fewer vegetables, which could put them at greater risk for certain diseases like colon cancer. The study also found that having the “less sensitive” version (called K172) of one of these genes appears to be a risk factor for drinking too much alcohol (alcohol, if you think about it, has a distinctly bitter taste).

If subsequent research backs up these findings, it seems that our tastes may be more influenced by our genes than we thought. If you have a lifelong loathing of spinach and dark chocolate, your picky tastes might be due to a super-sensitivity to bitter flavors. Go ahead and blame your genes if you want, but this research doesn’t give you a pass: veggies are still good for you.



Case 4.  This was a normal term infant born to a Jewish mother of Iraqi origin. Before delivery, the amniotic fluid was reported to be “yellow and foul smelling”. The baby had a yellowish skin discolouration similar to mecomium staining, and a peculiar odor. Blood cultures from the infant and amniotic fluid cultures were obtained, and antibiotics were administered. On re-examination, the peculiar odour was judged to be identical to that of curry.

This is an excerpt from a report that appeared in The European Journal of Pediatrics in 1985 called “Peculiar odors in newborns and maternal prenatal ingestion of spicy food.” It details four case studies.  In each one, an infant was born, and after doctors and parents had joyfully ascertained that it had two eyes and all the necessary appendages, something else became apparent… the baby smelled a little funky.

Two of the odiferous infants smelled of cumin, one of curry, and one of something called fenugreek (a flowering plant that is a common ingredient in many curries and an herbal remedy for a variety of health conditions). The doctors were concerned because a smelly baby can be a bad sign: strange odors can indicate dangerous conditions such as Maple Syrup Disease, a genetic disorder that causes a buildup of certain amino acids (and the eponymous odor) which can be fatal if untreated.

As it turns out, the stinky newborns weren’t sick: the source of their mysterious odors was pungent, spicy foods their mothers had enjoyed just prior to delivery.  According to the report, “The spices were absorbed from the maternal gastrointestinal tract and transferred to the amniotic fluid, where they were swallowed by the fetus.” It seems that babies can experience mom’s dinner choices directly, and if they don’t like curry, well, that’s just too bad.

Subsequent studies have shown the significance of the mother’s diet on the baby’s environment. In a 1995 study, a group of pregnant women downed garlic pills, then had some smell-testers compare the odor of those women’s amniotic fluid to that of a control group. The testers had no trouble detecting which mothers were garlic-eaters.

And it seems that what the mother eats during pregnancy can actually shape the baby’s future taste preferences. A 2000 paper from the journal Chemical Senses shows that infants whose mothers who ate anise during pregnancy exhibited a preference for the flavor (which has a strong licorice flavor and is not universally liked) after birth. It seems that our tastes start being shaped in the womb (perhaps explaining why we tend to be partial to the foods of our homelands).

However, the strong influence of our mothers’ tastes isn’t always a good thing.

A 2007 study from the British Journal of Medicine showed that pregnant rats fed a “junk food” diet (lots of fats, sugars, and salts) gave birth to babies who showed a preference for a junk food diet throughout life, and as a result, often grew obese. This is especially frightening considering that pregnancy cravings often demand things like ice cream and greasy Chinese takeout.

All in all, mom’s diet seems to affect baby in some intriguing (and amusing) ways. One thing seems certain: if you’re a pregnant woman nearing your due date, you might want to resist those pickle cravings, lest your offspring emerge smelling like a kosher dill.

For many, behind a tasty glass of wine lurks a blazing headache. Credit: gfpeck, Flickr

Red wine is a fickle friend. It beckons with glistening ruby fingers, luring us into its swirling depths with a siren song of black cherry, currant, and the mysterious soil and mineral tastes of terroir, the taste of the land the grapes grew in. We’re entranced: we sniff, we swirl, we sip, but — unfortunately for our heads — most of us don’t spit.

The resulting red wine headache is a widespread affliction that can strike after as little as one glass. It’s often accompanied by nausea and flushed skin. But this doesn’t happen with white wine, and the majority of us suffer no ill effects from a glass of pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon (unless we knock back too many glasses).

So what’s the deal with the red wine headache? To find out, I turned to Chris Gerling, an oenologist (wine scientist) at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Sulfites are often blamed, says Gerling. Sulfites (or SO2) are a natural component of wine, but they’re also a common preservative, usually added to wine at several stages during its production to prevent bacteria and oxidation. Without sulfites, we couldn’t have wine: grape juice would turn into vinegar. Some people are allergic to sulfites, and it can cause problems for asthmatics too. However, red wine isn’t alone in its sulfite content: in fact, sweet white wines often contain more. And, Gerling points out, “there is no documented danger to the rest of the population, including headaches, at the parts per million levels at which SO2 is found in wine.”

Gerling says that the other main suspect behind the red wine headache is biogenic amines, compounds which are produced by living things and contain nitrogen. They include compounds like histamine and tyrosine, which can have adverse effects if they’re consumed (histamine has been linked to allergies, for example). But once again, Gerling explains, “the concentrations usually thought to cause trouble are much higher than those found in wine.”

Another big hole in the case against sulfites and amines is that both occur in many other foods. Dried fruits like apricots are loaded with sulfites, Gerling says, and amines are present in foods like fish and cheese. Tannins, which are sometimes blamed for red wine headaches, are also found in chocolate and tea. Wine headache sufferers don’t seem to have any more trouble with these food than the general population.

The cause of the phenomenon remains mysterious. “One comparison I often draw is to MSG,” says Gerling. “People are convinced that MSG is the cause of ‘Chinese Food Syndrome,’ but there have been all sorts of studies done where they try to make people react to it and no one ever does. They sprinkle MSG in Italian food and Mexican food and have groups try the food with and without, and people either react to everything (with or without MSG) or they react to nothing. No one ever eats spaghetti with and without MSG and reports feeling ill after only the MSG-laced pasta. Reports of the phenomenon are so widespread, however, that something must be going on.”

One possibility, Gerling says, is that something in the wine is reacting with these compounds, and the headache is the result of this interaction. Alcohol, for example, could perhaps increase the effects of a low dose of sulfites.  Or we could have the wrong suspects: some other chemical compound, or maybe a strain of yeast or bacteria present in red wine, could be to blame.

Unfortunately, without a known cause of the red wine headache, there’s also no proven cure. If you’re one of the unlucky group who suffers from this dreaded curse, your only trustworthy options are sticking to white wine, or (shudder) giving up the libation entirely. I recommend the former.

For more science, check out Scienceline.org, a product of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.