Cooking Lesson

From left, Krista Salvadore and Bailey Mericle, both of Cape May Court House, sample coconut sugar at Buddakan on The Pier in Atlantic City, where students from the Middle Township Middle School learned lessons in cooking and chemistry, Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

Vernon Ogrodnek

ATLANTIC CITY — Amber D’Abundo was not a fan of corn muffin No. 2. “Do we have to swallow it?” the eighth-grader from Cape May Court House asked as she chewed on a morsel that made her cringe.

She stood in the kitchen of Buddakan in The Pier Shops at Caesars with six other classmates who take the Chemistry of Cooking class at Middle Township Middle School. The new course discusses real-world applications of the science. The students came to Atlantic City for a taste-testing hosted by executive pastry chef Steven Barile.

“Sugar doesn’t only add sweetness, but it adds water,” he told the class. “Sugar is hygroscopic.”

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That’s why corn muffin No. 2 was not as tasty as the first or third samples the students tried. It was both tasteless and dry, because it had no added sugar.

“Something like this would be a great, winning science-fair project,” their teacher, Tracy Reynolds, of Mays Landing, said.

This was the second class Reynolds took to Buddakan this school year. Fellow Middle Township teacher Jennifer Parmalee, of Egg Harbor Township, works part-time as a server at the Asian restaurant and suggested it.

Reynolds said with budget cuts in the district, teachers have had to get creative with their courses and expose students to a variety of topics at once. Chemistry is a tough course for eighth-graders, but relating it to cooking makes it much easier to understand.

“Why not expose them to cooking with science behind it, so they would have real-life comparisons?” she asked.

During the course of the year, they made dishes from sorbet to rock candy, and learned how and why the ingredients react to each other.

Wednesday morning, as servers and chefs prepared the restaurant for lunch, Barile started his lesson with a discussion of the kinds of sugars he uses in the kitchen, including one the teens probably had not seen before.

“Most American cooking isn’t going to use coconut sugar,” he said as he stirred the thick mixture.

He doled out little clumps of it for the students to try.

“I have a question,” Krista Salvadore, of Cape May Court House, said after liking what she tasted. “Where do you get that?”

Next, Barile handed out worksheets. The students would try five different muffins and record their observations.

They started by poking and observing the color of each muffin. Then they tasted what, in an experiment, they would call the controlled variable: a basic corn muffin using the standard recipe of flour, corn meal, granulated sugar, baking powder, buttermilk, soy oil and eggs.

The first one was fine. The second one, not so much. The third, with three times the prescribed amount of sugar, was maybe the favorite.

The fourth and fifth were downright awful. For one, Barile swapped baking soda for baking powder, and it gave the muffin a salty taste, even though it had no salt.

“That’s just a chemical reaction in the baking process,” Barile said.

The fifth, however, did have salt added, swapped with the sugar.

“Don’t even lick it!” D’Abundo called out.

Barile told them he wasn’t just trying to torture them. He was trying to show them how simple manipulations of ingredients have major consequences to taste.

“All of this is dealing with food and science,” he said.

Fortunately for the students, muffins were not all they would have to eat. After their lesson, they sat down for a free lunch the restaurant offered.

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