In a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner starred in a short ad for New Shimmer: a miraculous new product that was “both floor wax and a dessert topping!”
IMAGE: “New Shimmer” on Saturday Night Live, “for the greatest shine you ever tasted!”
While a close look at Cool Whip’s ingredient list reveals that the space-age dessert topping could plausibly function as haemmorhoid cream and condom lube, New Shimmer’s combined cleansing and culinary properties were, of course, a purely satirical invention.
Until last Tuesday in Gowanus, Brooklyn, that is, when NYU chemist Kent Kirschenbaum and dessert pioneer Will Goldfarb of the Experimental Cuisine Collective presented two new research-driven desserts at the Secret Science Club. Kirschenbaum began by explaining the molecular structure of soap, in order to isolate the particular chemical characteristics that cause it to trap grease and dirt when mixed with water.
IMAGE: How soap works, via.
In order to create the foamy, mousse-like mouthfeel and cleansing powers of a real-life New Shimmer, Kirschenbaum explained that he and Goldfarb simply needed to find an edible molecule with similar properties. They landed on saponins, a class of natural surfactants usually extracted from plants with such give-away names as soapwort and the soapbark tree. As well as their traditional use as pre-industrial detergents, saponins already have a variety of food uses: soapwort can be used in halva to create a marshmallow-like texture, and quillaja saponin from the soapbark tree creates the foamy head on root beer.
IMAGE: Botanical illustration of the soapbark tree, via.
Their formulation (100g water with 4g quillaja beaten in) resembled shaving foam. Kirschenbaum ran a dab through his hair for a firm-hold mousse effect, while Goldfarb applied a generous dollop to the floor using a mop, where it seemed to have some dirt-removal powers.
Sadly, despite its “pillowy” mouthfeel, the foam smelled tannic and medicinal— “bitters mixed with wet newspapers,” reported Kirschenbaum. Using a mini iSi whipper, Goldfarb added simple syrup, which miraculously turned the floor cleaning foam into a delicious dessert topping—lighter and bouncier than whipped cream and less sticky than Marshmallow Fluff.
IMAGE: Salep dondurma as photographed by Eric Hansen for the New York Times.
Their second dessert was a recreation of a traditional Turkish stretchy ice cream called salep dondurma. Also known as fox testicle ice cream, salep dondurma is made using the tuberous roots of wild orchids and, according to a report on Salon, it’s both “slightly sweet with a nutty flavor similar to dried milk powder” and “capable of being used as a jump rope.”
Unfortunately, demand for the ice cream is such that the Salep-producing orchids are now an endangered species and their commercial export has been forbidden since 2003. A BBC report from that year quotes salep dondurma fanatics vowing to “just eat illegal ice cream,” while a concerned botanist reports on the scale of the damage: “for one kilogram of dried Salep, around 1,000 orchids are needed,” which means that a single family ice cream business can use up to twelve million flowers every year.
Scientist and author Harold McGee described his attempt to make a legal (i.e. orchid-less) version in a 2007 article for the New York Times. Using guar gum instead of Salep, he produced an ice cream described variously as “flaky,” “chewy,” and “challenging.” Undaunted, Kirschenbaum and his students at NYU smuggled a small amount of dried Salep out of Turkey in order to analyse its chemical properties and find a successful replacement. Earlier this year, they declared success with a recipe that used konjac, which contains the same water-absorbent glucomannan molecules as Salep, and mastic gum (the original chewing gum).
IMAGE: NPR’s Science Friday reports on Kirschenbaum’s stretchy ice cream experiments (click for video).
Intriguingly, as if it wasn’t enough just to create a combination floor wax/whipped topping and a bootleg stretchy ice cream, Kirschenbaum and Goldfarb kept stressing the use value of these multifunctional desserts. In addition to providing a sustainable alternative to the endangered orchids, their Powerpoint slide claimed a range of benefits for Konjac Dondurma, from its appetite-suppressing dietary fibre (thanks to the konjac) to its oral health properties (the mastic gum).
Meanwhile, the saponins in Kirschenbaum and Goldfarb’s floor wax/whipped topping have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels. Saponin extracts from yucca are already widely used in pet foods for their ability to “bind to ammonia and other volatile compounds” and thus “reduce faecal odour,” announced a grinning Kirschenbaum. In other words, he added, “Our desserts can improve your life, unless your shit don’t stink.”
Of course, Kirschenbaum and Goldfarb’s tongues were firmly in cheek throughout, and products inspired by Saturday Night Live sketches should undoubtedly be accompanied with a pinch of salt. But the idea of of a multifunctional dessert was intriguing. After all, what is the point of dessert in the first place? Interestingly, the same question prefaced Bill Buford’s 2006 profile of Goldfarb for the New Yorker:
I didn’t know why dessert was invented or what function in the running of a human organism it was meant to perform. (I wasn’t even sure when it was invented. Raising livestock, vegetable farming, the harvesting of grains: these activities are ancient, older than history, and essential to the survival of the species. But when did humankind decide that it also needed crème brûlée?)
Out of curiosity, I looked up Wikipedia’s entry on dessert, which is short, entirely free of references, and “may require clean up to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards.” It provides alternate words for the meal (“sweet,” “pudding,” or “afters”) and a description of a dessert spoon (“intermediate in size between a teaspoon and a tablespoon”), but the crowd-sourced encyclopedia definition makes no mention of function:
In Western culture, Dessert is a course that typically comes at the end of a meal, usually consisting of sweet food but sometimes of a strongly-flavored one, such as some cheeses. The word comes from the French language as dessert and this from Old French desservir, “to clear the table” and “to serve.”
Buford’s etymological research in the New Yorker goes somewhat further, adding that: “The French word appeared in print in 1539, and entered the English language slowly; its first usage was in a seventeenth-century medical text, in a telling and prophetic expression of protest: ‘Such eating, which the French call desert, is unnaturall.’”
IMAGE: The ur-dessert, chosen to illustrate Wikipedia‘s dessert entry.
Buford’s conclusion, after watching diners at Goldfarb’s now defunct NYC restaurant, Room 4 Dessert, is that dessert must serve a social purpose, rather than a biological one—”giving people a reason not to say good night.” But perhaps dessert also serves as a small reminder, at the end of a meal, that food and the way we eat it are a human invention—and thus always open to improvement.
In the context of dessert’s existential void, then, perhaps Kirschenbaum and Goldfarb’s combination breath freshener, aphrodisiac, and orchid protector is simply an inspired redesign.