Posted by: mollyscafeistanbul | November 21, 2010

Science at molly’s café

science in action

I have been thinking about this topic for a while. I studied physics and chemistry in high school and when I graduated I thought that was that; I was a language person, not a science person. However, over the years as I have baked and generally done things in the kitchen, I have realized more and more that these two sciences underlie my work. Actually, years ago as I was driving and listening to NPR, I remember an interview with a woman who was a chemical engineer but who worked with food, and her comments really made sense to me.


hippie chick


When I was a young hippie mom and organic as could be, I used to make 12 loaves of bread at a time. I put everything in them but the kitchen sink– organic wholewheat flour, wheat germ, brewers yeast, sunflower seeds, you name it. Here, it is difficult to find wholewheat flour and it comes only in expensive 1 kilo packages. For the other ingredients– ha! If I can take the time to find a ‘health food’ store, as they used to be called, I might find some of these, but unlikely. We tried putting bulgur in the bread, but it pulled it down. This is physics. The other thing about bread is more biological. Yeast is very sensitive. It is a living organism, so if the water is too hot, it dies. If the water is not warm enough, it does not activate. If the bread is not kneaded enough, the gluten does not work well. If it does not rise enough, it flops; if it rises too much, it falls in the overn. I always felt that if I did not really want to be making bread, the yeast sort of knew it and that is when the loaves would turn out like bricks.


Cakes are something that are sensitive to chemistry. Most cakes use baking powder, which is a mixture of baking soda and other chemicals. I copied this from wikipedia:


Baking powder is a dry chemical raising agent used to increase the volume and lighten the texture of baked goods such as muffins, cakes, scones and North American biscuits. Baking powder works by releasing carbon dioxide gas into a batter or dough through an acid-base reaction, causing bubbles in the wet mixture to expand and thus leavening the mixture. It is used instead of yeast for end-products where fermentation flavours would be undesirable[1] or where the batter lacks the elastic structure to hold gas bubbles for more than a few minutes.[2] Because carbon dioxide is released at a faster rate through the acid-base reaction than through fermentation, breads made by chemical leavening are called quick breads.

Most commercially-available baking powders are made up of an alkaline component (typically baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate), one or more acid salts, and an inert starch (cornstarch in most cases, though potato starch may also be used). Baking soda is the source of the carbon dioxide,[3] and the acid-base reaction is more accurately described as an acid-activated decomposition of baking soda, which can be generically represented as[4]

NaHCO3 + H+ → Na+ + CO2 + H2O

The inert starch serves several functions in baking powder. Primarily it is used to absorb moisture, and thus prolong shelf life by keeping the powder’s alkaline and acidic components from reacting prematurely. A dry powder also flows and mixes more easily. Finally, the added bulk allows for more accurate measurements.[5]

I was happy to see the chemical equation! See, see? I was right– chemistry!


When my cook first started, she was making cookies and cakes that tasted kind of salty. When I asked her about it, it turned out that she had not made the difference between baking soda and baking powder and was using baking soda for everything, with not very nice results.





Salt is a health issue. When I was in north america, I rarely used salt in cooking, but I used it in bread because it sort of helps to put the brakes on the yeast. For the food, it meant that things turned out a little bland. Now I use some salt, but Turks often find that my soups, for example, are rather blah and add salt. Some people add salt without even tasting the food. I think Turks use way too much salt. I once watched a man shake salt on his food for at least five minutes as he chatted away with his companion. Yuk. However, for my food, it is much easier to add salt at the table than to take it out.

one of the specialties of molly’s cafe is our chocolate mayonnaise cake.  i usually don’t tell people it has mayonnaise in it until after they have eaten it.  usually they are shocked.  but then they see the logic–  mayonnaise has oil and eggs in it, so that replaces the butter and eggs in the normal cake. and no, it does not taste like mayonnaise.  i think this is an original canadian recipe from the second world war, but that may be an urban legend.


Physics in the café involves several things. Last year I was horrified to see my young helper use a wet cloth to pick up a hot pan. Water transmits heat, a lesson she was about to learn very fast!




As we produce soups, salads, and other dishes, they are made in big pots or bowls and then transferred to smaller containers, as the soups, for example, are frozen in recycled ice cream containers. My helper is learning how much soup she can put in a container without it overflowing in the freezer. Also, you have to have an eye for how much in in a bowl in order to transfer it to a smaller one. She doesn’t quite have the hang of that, but I generally do.


Geometry in another ‘science’ we use here. The unbaked bread and the baked cakes and pies have to be cut into more or less same-sized pieces, though it is not an exact science. Sometimes one person gets a bigger piece of the pie. I know there are special pie and cake cutters, but somehow it spoils the randomness.


So, there is a bit of a look at science in the café I am sure there is more, but I will have to discover it later.




  1. I hope to visit Molly’s Place in Jan/Feb when passing through the Imperial Capital !

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