Vegetables in baking: Part Three – proof in the pudding!

I had great fun preparing for the third, and final part of this blog series.  It is all well and good discussing the merits, scientific and otherwise, of using vegetables in your baking, but as a truly dedicated scientist I realised a little R & D was also required.  Time to don the apron and turn on the oven, but which recipes to choose?  I am very keen to try Dee’s Beetroot Chocolate Cake from which these blogs were inspired but I wanted to introduce some other vegetables for this blog.  When I posed the questioned through social media I was delighted with the number and variety of recipes recommended.  I needed to choose my parameters and narrow down my study field.

I started to ask the question… “what vegetable would really convince you?”
photo credit: Tommy Hemmert Olesen via photopin cc
photo credit: Tommy Hemmert Olesen via photopin cc

Most people are familiar with the carrot cake and enjoy it as a bone fida cake, so carrots were already out there.  This, in my opinion, excluded the parsnip too and many other vegetables that are known to be high in sugar content.  Someone mentioned the potato and it seemed like a very good starting point to me… its high starch content makes it an obvious substitute for flour in baking, but in my head it still belonged on my dinner plate along with bacon and cabbage.  It was easy to find a recipe using potatoes in cakes and I chose to try some mini chocolate cupcakes.

photo credit: Timothy K Hamilton via photopin cc
photo credit: Timothy K Hamilton
via photopin cc

My husband said if I managed to bake a tasty cake containing green leafy vegetables it would definitely convince him.  I had to admit he made a good point.  Green leafy vegetables are not known for their sweetness and definitely not what I would be reaching for when creating a sweet treat.  Not one to shy away from the challenge I decided that a spinach cake was next on the list.


photo credit: Theophilos via photopin cc
photo credit: Theophilos via photopin cc


I liked these choices, but for me there was one vegetable missing.  My ultimately convincer would be a tasty cake containing mushrooms!  (I know, I know these are not technically speaking vegetables, but if you refer back to the first blog in this series, I did say I would be including it too!) .

I do love the taste of mushrooms but, try as I might, I could not imagine the taste of a sweet mushroom cake.  My brain just could not compute that one… or else I felt a bit queasy every time I tried too.  So mushroom cake just had to go on the list.

That was my three vegetables picked, so I got down to some baking… with a few little chefs eager to help!
Once the baking was finished I had plenty of taste testers to give their verdict, friends, neighbours… and especially family! Along with the recipes that I share below, I have also included the feedback and opinions I received.  At the end of this blog I share some tips and advice suggested by others along with some other vegetable cakes that I didn’t get around to trying yet.

My most enthusiastic Taste Testers….

The taste testers
The taste testers


Potato Chocolate Mini Cupcakes

Here is the original recipe for those who prefer these measurements.  Personally, I still like to work in kg/g (or lbs/oz) so I have converted the measurements and share them below…
For the Cupcake:
60g butter (at room temperature)
65g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg (room temperature)
60g mashed potato (cool and unseasoned)
3 tbsp milk
80g plain flour
3 tbsp cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
For the Ganache:
120 ml cream
1 tbsp butter (room temperature)
100g dark chocolate


  1. Preheat the oven to 190oC and place mini cupcake liners in cupcake tray.


  • Beat the butter and sugar together until light in colour.



  • While still mixing add the egg, vanilla and mashed potato and beat until smooth.



  • Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl and then add to the butter mixture.



  • Stir until evenly combined.



  • Spoon batter into miffin cups, filling each about half full.



  • Bake for 10 – 12 minutes.



  • Allow cupcakes to cool completely, in the tray, before adding the ganache.



  • To prepare the ganache, warm the cream and butter over a low heat until just below simmer.



  • break the chocolate into small pieces in a heat proof bowl.



  • Pour the heated cream/butter mixture over the chocolate and allow to leave for one minute to allow the chocolate to melt.



  • Whisk until smooth and pour over the cupcakes.



  • Add desired sprinkles or toppings of using.



  • Allow to cool completely before serving.


From this...
From this… these...
…to these…


... with a little help from these!
… with a little help from these!

The potato provides us with Vitamins A, B and C, Potassium, Calcium and Iron
The Results and feedback:

These mini cupcakes turned out well.  The potato gave them a nice texture but there was no taste of the vegetable at all.  No one was able to guess the mystery vegetable ingredient!

Although I liked these cupcakes and they kids did too, giving them a six out of ten, I felt that the ganache was a bit too strong for my liking and some others agreed.  If doing this one again I would maybe change the dark chocolate for milk or change the topping entirely.  The cupcakes taste good on their own, light and moist too.

Spinach cake

I thought I would find it difficult to source a Spinach cake recipe but it turns out it is a traditional Turkish cake. I based this cake on this original recipe.
250g Spinach
180 ml Olive Oil (preferably Extra Virgin)
2 tbsp Lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
250g sugar
220g flour
3 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 180oC.
  2. Wash the spinach and remove any large stalks.
  3. Add spinach, olive oil, vanilla and lemon juice to bowl or blender and blend until pureed.
  4. In a separate bowl beat the eggs and sugar together until light and creamy.
  5. Add the spinach puree to the beated egg and sugar and mix well.
  6. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into another bowl, make a well in the centre and add the egg/spinach mix.
  7. Fold together until uniform.
  8. Pour into a greased pyrex dish or into prepared cupcake liners – I made one loaf (5 X 9 inch) and six cupcakes from this mixture.
  9. Bake at 180oC for 30 minutes (20 minutes for cupcakes).
  10. Allow to cool before removing from baking tin.
  11. Tastes good served with whipped cream!


Spinach cake ... yep it was GREEN!
Spinach cake … yep it was GREEN!

The results and feedback:
This one was a BIG hit!!! I called it “Kermit Cake” when offering it to the kids and they could not guess that it was made of Spinach.  More importantly, it did not put them off when they found out! My seven year old wouldn’t usually eat spinach if his life depended on it but he could not get enough of this cake.  All three kids gave it ten out of ten and it was popular with adults too.  One person guessed the mystery vegetable ingredient, which surprised me as I could not detect it at all!

I would definitely bake this cake again!

Spinach is full of vitamins (A, B, C, E and K) as well as Iron

Mushroom Cake

Next up was the mushroom cake, I had my doubts about this one and originally considered adapting a recipe for rhubarb muffins but then Dee pointed me to this recipe she had found.
125g butter (at room temperature)
150g sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 large eggs
240g wholemeal flour
120 ml milk
400g button mushrooms, washed, dried and grated
75g chopped walnuts
2 tbsp honey
  1. Preheat the oven to 180oC and grease and line 20cm springform cake tin.
  2. Place butter and sugar in a bowl and beat until light and pale.
  3. Add one egg at a time and mix well between additions.
  4. Add the flour and milk, in small amounts, keeping the mixer on a low setting, and ensure each addition is well mixed in before adding the next (i.e. add flour, then mix, then milk, mix, flour again etc).
  5. Add the mushrooms and mix well.
  6. Add the chopped walnuts and honey and mix until all ingredients are thoroughly combined.
  7. Pour batter into prepared tin and tap base to remove any air bubbles.
  8. Pop in the oven and bake for one hour.
  9. Turn off the oven and allow cake to cool gradually with oven door ajar.
  10. Once cake is cool remove from baking tin.
Mushroom Cake... very moist, very heavy and tasted of....mushrooms!
Mushroom Cake… very moist, very heavy and tasted of….mushrooms!

Results and feedback:

This was a very dense, moist cake and despite me leaving it in the oven for extra time, there was no denying the taste of mushrooms! Not a cake I would be reaching for again and the feedback overall was similar.  The mushroom taste was too strong and put most people off.

Disappointing! I let this one mull around in my head for a few days but then decided to give it one more try.  This time I would go back to my original idea and try to incorporate mushrooms in place of rhubarb in my favourite breakfast muffin recipe.

The original recipe comes from Nigella Lawson’s wonderful book Feasts but I have modified it quite a bit at this stage.


Mushroom Breakfast Muffins


250g soft brown sugar
80 ml vegetable oil (I usually use sunflower oil)
1 large egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
250 ml buttermilk
150g mushrooms, washed, dried and grated
75g chopped walnuts
200g wholemeal flour
100g plain flour
50g milled seeds (such as linseed/sunflower)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bread soda (bicarbonate of soda)

Topping: mix 2 tbsp on Demerara sugar with 1 tsp on ground cinnamon.


Preheat the oven to 180oC and place liners in the muffin tray.
In one bowl mix the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla and buttermilk.
Stir in the grated mushroom and chopped walnuts.
Add the wholemeal and plain flour, milled seeds, baking powder and bread soda.
Fold these into the mixture with the minimum amount of mixing.
Spoon into prepared muffin liners and sprinkles with the cinnamon and sugar mixture.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes.


Mushroom Breakfast Muffins.... Yum!
Mushroom Breakfast Muffins…. Yum!

Result and feedback:

This time it was a winner.  These muffins were as delicious (or almost) as their rhubarb cousins but with no taste at all of mushroom!  The texture and moistness were just right.  They were a hit with anyone who tried them and no one guessed the mystery ingredient this time!

Mushrooms contains all five B Vitamins as well as essential minerals and Selenium

Suggestions and tips:

As I mentioned, there were a lot more vegetable cakes I could have tried.  I did actually also try a Chocolate and Aubergine Cake (gluten free) that Aedin from FreeFromGuru had previously shared with me and brought the cake to a gluten free barbecue where it proved very popular… again no taste of aubergine.  Unfortunately I deleted the photos of the cake but you can check out the recipe here.

Courgette seems to be another popular choice for baking, I like the sound of these recipes…
Courgette cake with Lime Curd and Pistachio and this Chocolate Courgette Cake. A good tip from Catriona at Wholseome Ireland is to squeeze out some of the moisture from the courgettes before adding to the cake batter!

Tomatoes were also suggested to me when I was looking for recipes…I plan to try this one with the children soon…Green tomato buns with Lemon Curd topping.

Sweet potatoes are a popular choice for baking also, I like the look of this recipe from Wholesome Ireland, and parsnips were also a popular suggestion…this recipe looks good… Parsnip Spice Cake with Ginger Cream Topping.

The last word…

I really enjoyed trying out the recipes for this blog …and tasting them.  The feedback from all my taste testers was very promising.  This experiment has really changed the way I think about vegetables and YES I am converted to the concept of using vegetables in my baking.  Now I am reviewing my favourite recipes, wondering how I can incorporate various veggies.

The things that pleased me most about all this are…

  • my children happily eating a spinach cake!
  • surprising myself with a cake that contained mushrooms… and tasted GOOD!
  • the enthusiasm and feedback that everyone gave in response to the idea of vegetables in baking!

I hope you have enjoyed this series on vegetables in baking and would consider giving it a go.  If you have any comments or suggestions, or if you have some recipes to share please drop me a line in the comments below… I would love to hear what you think!

A week in reflection – Asthma, Aches and (dead) Animals

Last week was one of those roller coaster type of weeks… plenty of ups and a few downs, in a seven day stretch that felt more like ten.  On Monday myself and the children headed to Wicklow for the annual Summer week with Nanny and Grandad.  For the children, the excitement of spending a week with beloved Grandparents with the bonus of exploring their lovely old garden, meeting cousins and the joys of a few regular, local walks and activities.  For their mum, a chance to catch up with family for a few days before taking a rare couple of days away from the children to rekindle an old pursuit.

All went well on Monday, we arrived in time for lunch and as the Sun shone for the rest of the day we took to the garden and I got to spend the afternoon watching my children do what children do best….. play! Climbing trees, riding bikes, rolling down hills and swinging on the old fashioned rope swing.  A day full of fun and fresh air.

Three tired children tucked into bed that night and I was sure they would sleep soundly until the next morning.  Unfortunately that was not the case.  At three in the morning I had to lift my seven year old from his bed as his asthma kicked in and his breathing rate soared.  I had brought him to the doctor before we left to be sure that the heavy cold he had was nothing more.  Two days before I was told his lungs were completely clear, now the wheezing and the rapid breathing spoke a different tale.  I spent an hour trying to calm him, with one hand on the inhalers and the other on the car keys, ready to bolt for the hospital if required.  Eventually I felt he had improved enough to go back to bed and I lay watching him until morning arrived and I could bring him to the doctor. Asthma confirmed and a course of steroids and antibiotics prescribed. 




Did you know… Ireland has the fourth highest prevalence of asthma in the world?

Tuesday was spent in a tired and worried state, watching my son wanting to run and play with his cousins one minute and then slumping on his mother’s lap the next.  My plans to finish my week’s blog quota went out the window and my proposed departure the next day did not look too likely either. The steroids made him hyper and agitated so another restless night for both of us.


Wednesday morning dawned a little brighter.  Cautiously I acknowledged that his breathing had improved.  He seemed a much more alert, happy kid.  My parents urged me to pack my bags and head off, they would look after him and his siblings for two nights and everyone would survive.  My son even told me he was well enough for me to go!  I was still unsure at lunchtime, until I saw his Nanny open a second tin of beans to stave off his renewed appetite.  Leaving my parents a two page list of medical advice and instructions I headed for Limerick to meet up with hubby and join the last day and a half of an Aikido Summer school.


It was with anticipation and fear that I undertook this course.  Although I have put in many hours of training in my day and I help my hubby run a kids Aikido club in our local village, it has officially been ten years since I last did any formal training!  Rather than choosing to dip my toe in to an evening class I somehow found myself signed up for eight hours of training!  Encouraged by a lovely group of people that welcomed me back on to the mat I muddled through and managed to complete most of the remaining course.  The sense of achievement was equally balanced with the sense of PAIN!


…”there are 642 muscles in the human body”…


…I think I ached in every one of them!  It was lovely to have crossed the line and be back training again and despite the pain there seemed to be a good level of muscle memory left after the ten year gap.  Now that I have done this I am determined to return to training on a more permanent basis.

Smiling through the pain with hubby (left) and Sensei John Rodgers -Shehan (centre), head of IAF


So Friday afternoon I managed to ease myself into the car and make the journey back to Wicklow and a heart warming welcome from our three lovely children.  Despite the reassurance from my parents and the regular phone calls it was lovely to see for my own eyes that my son was recovering very well.  The rest of the evening’s entertainment was unwittingly provided by my attempts to sit, stand and manage the stairs.  My very unsympathetic family were in stitches at my demise!


Saturday morning and our last day before returning West and I was determined (despite the aches) that we finally make a family trip to the National History Museum …. otherwise known as the Dead Zoo! The trip did not disappoint… Caer said it was the best Museum every and the children darted from one animal to the other with unwavering enthusiasm and delight.


Visiting "relatives" at the National History Museum!
Visiting “relatives” at the National History Museum!


This display shows the skeleton of a human, a chimpanzee (common), a baboon, an orangutan and a gorilla.  I asked the children which one they thought was most like the human’s and after a bit of consideration they all decided it was the chimpanzee.  They were spot on as the chimp is the most closely related species (genetically) to us!

Caer with her favourite animal
Caer with her favourite animal
Caer was delighted to find her favourite animal.. the tiger.  The tiger is the biggest of all the wild cats… very evident when you get to see them up close like this!
Speaking of tigers… the children were thrilled to see a lot of the insects they find around the garden in the insect section.  They were quick to spot the Tiger Moth, that we posted in a previous blog, and this time they got to see the beautiful orange back wings.
Culann with his hound
Culann with his hound

I couldn’t resist this one… with a name like Culann I had to take this photo when we came across the Irish Wolf Hound.  The Wolf Hound was bred to hunting wild boar, elk and wolves that would have been native to Ireland at the time.  They were also commonly used as guard dogs… as mentioned in the Cu Chulainn legend.

The Golden Eagle
The Golden Eagle

Finally, a photo that leaves us all a bit red faced!  This is the last Golden Eagle in Ireland, it was presented to the Museum by Captain Boxer but the story goes that it was my children’s Great, Great, Great Uncle who shot it on Clare Island, Co. Mayo and then gave it to him.  At least we can take solace and encouragement in knowing that the project to re introduce these beautiful creatures back into Ireland is doing well.

So that was our week… fun filled, action packed and presenting us with some great memories to add to the wealth already generated this Summer.  Now safely back home in the West, my aches are subsiding and I can get back to my blogging. We will no doubt find some local exploits to fill our last and final week of Summer holidays… for when you keep your eyes open to it, there is always an adventure waiting around the next corner!

Can you name this Creature?

Week 19th – 25th August, 2013

How did you do with last week’s Mystery Creature? This unusual looking animal is called a red lipped bat fish (Ogcocephalus darwini) from the Galapagos Islands.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons 

This striking looking fish has a number of unusual features…

  • this fish is not a very good swimmer and more often will “walk” along the sea floor using adapted fins
  • it tends to hunt like the angler fish… luring it’s prey using an organ, called an illicium, that it extends from its head
  • it has those amazing red lips… possibly to attract a mate although their exact purpose is unclear
Fun Friday – Transpiration

Fun Friday – Transpiration

What is transpiration?



Transpiration is the process whereby water is taken into a plant by the roots, transported up through the plant and released from the leaves as water vapour!


Lets learn more!


Transpiration is a bit like perspiration (sweating) in humans – it helps to keep the plant cool! As the water vapour transpires out of tiny holes (called stomata) fresh water is drawn up from below. This means there is always an unbroken tower of water running from the bottom to the top of the plant at all times. Water travels up the plant through tubes called Xylem.


The constant flow of water through the xylem tubes of the plant is called the transpiration stream; this stream keeps the stem firm so that it can support the weight of the plant.


Plants put roots down into the soil to draw water and nutrients up into the plant.


Daintree Rainforest: Image source Wikimedia Commons


‘Did you know… trees and plants in rain forests help to make rain; if a forest is cut down the area around it may suffer from drought!’


Transpiration accounts for up to 10% of water in the atmosphere! Some trees can loose hundreds of thousands of litres of water in a single day through transpiration! The water vapour trees transpire into the air cools the air!

How powerful is transpiration?

photo credit: Christopher Chan via photopin cc
Transpiration can lift water all the way to the top of the tallest trees!




Stomata are tiny holes or pores on leaves, stems and even petals of the plant that allow water out of the plant (transpiration) and gases (like carbon dioxide) into the plant.  Most of the stromata of a plant are found on the underside of the leaves.

Stomata can open and close to control the amount of water leaving the plant or the amount of gas coming in.


An experiment to try at home: Tracking the flow of water!


You will need…. white flowers, clear cups and food colouring of your choice
Step 1: Fill cups 2/3 full with water
Step 2: Add different food colouring to each one; I used blue, yellow, green, red
(Note: you need a fair amount of food colouring… at least half a bottle per cup)
Step 3: Cut the stem of four flowers to desired length then add one to each cup
Step 4: Leave for a few hours (or overnight) and see what has happened!

So what has happened?…The coloured water travels up the stem and eventually reaches the flower where it changes the flower’s colour.

What could you change or what other things could you try?… What would you change if you repeated this experiment? You could try it using a variety of different types of flowers to see if one type works better than another.  You could vary the amount of food colouring you use.

Vegetables in baking – Part two: rise and shine

Vegetables in baking – Part two: rise and shine

Last week’s blog post sparked a lot of discussion and debate on the topic of vegetables in (sweet) baking. It seems that everybody has an opinion, some are surprised with the idea, some are keen to try it and many already have and offered some great recipes.  I have really enjoyed baking with various vegetables myself… and seeing the response of my taste testers, but more of that next week…. this week I promised to discuss how vegetables contribute more than just sweetness to the baking.

What else is there?

 Last week I mentioned that vegetables contain starch.  Wheat flour typically used in baking contains up to 75% starch.  Many vegetables such as potatoes, peas, corn and squash have a high starch content also.   It is a grainy substance contained within the plant cells.
So what does starch contribute to baking ?
Potato starch granules in potato cells; Image credit: Dr. Philippa Uwins via Wiki Media Commons
Potato starch granules in potato cells; Image credit: Dr. Philippa Uwins via Wiki Media Commons


Starch is referred to as a complex carbohydrate.  The carbohydrate bit means it is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The complex part means that the structure of starch is a long chain of these carbohydrates  molecules all linked together in a chain.  The carbohydrate is starch is the sugar glucose and starch is composed of a chain of hundreds of glucose molecules.

Starch is typically tasteless and odourless, its contribution in baking is a structural rather than flavoursome one.  In the presence of heat and moisture starch granules will begin to swell and thicken.  These swollen starch complexes form a scaffolding like network within the mix.  When gluten is present it breaks down with heat and the starch absorbs the water it releases making the gluten dry and rigid, strengthening the structure even further.  This starch-gluten structure gives baking its texture and rigidity and allows it to keep its shape once out of the oven.

When vegetables are used in baking the amount of flour required is reduced.  This substitution of a natural starch in place of a refined one not only makes for a lighter, less stodgy cake, it also improves the nutritional content.  Vegetables are packed full of vitamins, minerals and fibre.  These all contribute to the positive health of our skin, hair, digestive system, mood, cholesterol levels and brain power.


What about a bit of water?

 Vegetables also have a high water content which can contribute to the moistness of the cake.  The baking process allows the water to be contained within the cake as well as helping to retain the vitamins and minerals.  Vegetables with a high water content include courgettes, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, peas and aubergines.  This added moisture also keeps the cake fresher for longer, meaning it can be enjoyed over several days without drying out …. that’s if it lasts that long of course.
Tomatoes are made up of 94% water
Tomatoes are made up of 94% water
Adding vegetables to baking changes the texture of the final product.  As I mentioned last week, vegetables contain fairly high levels of  cellulose, a fibre.  In fact cellulose makes up about one third of all vegetables. This cellulose serves a structural role in the plant cells, along with smaller polysaccharides called hemicellulose.  The presence of both of these greatly changes the texture of the cake.  The cellulose is broken down, in part, during the baking process and this also contributes to the structure (rising) of the cake. However, cellulose still maintains a crystalline structure at the high temperatures typical of baking, and these granules directly contribute to the texture of the cake. Studies have shown that smaller granules of cellulose can yield more favourable rising of bread and other baking allowing for a lighter consistency.
Beetroot Chocolate cake; Image Credit: Dee Sewell of Greenside Up
Beetroot Chocolate cake; Image Credit: Dee Sewell of Greenside Up

gives lovely texture to Dee’s Chocolate cake!


The final word

 So there you have it… not only do vegetables contribute a lovely sweetness to baking but they play a major part in the structure, moisture and texture of the cake.  Surely you must be convinced by now? If not make sure to check back next week for the final part of this blog series when I will be sharing some recipes I have tested and the response they have received.

Tune in next week for Part 3 of the series where I will be sharing lots of recipes and letting you know what people thought.

In the mean time… if you have any comments, tips or experience to share please leave a comment below; I always love to hear from you and will be sure to reply!


Further reading:

Starch in baking

Can you name this creature?

Week 12 – 18th August 2013

How did you get on with last week’s Mystery Creature?  A few people knew this one…. it is a Tardigrade !  Did you get it right?

photo credit: Goldstein lab – via photopin cc

The tardigrade… often commonly called a water bear or moss piglet) is a very small but very interesting creature.  My son spent the whole of last week telling anyone who would listen about “the toughest creatures on Earth”!

These little animals are usually about 0.5 to 1.2 milimetres in length, which means they are may be just visible to the naked eye but can easily be viewed under a low powered microscope.  They are water dwelling organisms found in both marine and freshwater habitats.   They are commonly found on lichens and mosses and must be surrounded by a film of water to prevent them from drying out. Tardigrades can be found in every continent of the world and in some very extreme enviornments.

These water bears are very cute little microscopic creatures, they have short, plump, segmented bodies with four pairs of lobopodial limbs (poorly articulated) with four to eight claws at the end of each.  These small invertebrates move in a slow lumbering fashion, hence the name water bear.

Tardigrades feed on the fluids of plant or animal cells.  Some species are even know to feed on other tardigrades.  They pierce the cell wall and then ingest the fluid via a sucking pharynx.

There are a number of amazing features about these micro animals that have made them the interest of many studies over the years….

Tardigrades are extremophiles:

  • They can (for a short period of time) survive extremes of temperatures from -200  up to 150 degrees Celcius;
  • They can withstand pressures up to 1,200 times atmospheric pressure or the very low pressures of a vacuum;
  • They can withstand extreme levels of radiation – up to 1000 times the levels that would be lethal to most animals;
  • When exposed to environmental extremes they reduce their metabolic rate down (just 0.01%) to an almost death-like state  called cryptobiosis. 
  • In 2008 a number of tardigrades were launched into outer space for ten days where they were exposed to extremes of temperature, UV radiation from the Sun, the vacuum of space and dehydration.  Amazingly, some of these creatures survived the ordeal and even went on to successfully reproduce.
  • They are the only creatures able to survive being photographed by a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) (which bombards them with a stream of electrons while placed within a vacuum).

It is easy to see now what my son was talking about;  I am as impressed with these little creatures as he is.  I imagine we will be going on a “Tardigrade Hunt” before the Summer holidays are out and we will see how they look under our family microscope.

If we have any luck I will be sure to share it all here!

Fun Friday – a look at Forensic Science

What is Forensic Science? 

Forensic Science is the investigation of a crime using different scientific techniques.

photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc

Let‛s learn more! 

When a crime is committed Forensic Scientists help collect the evidence. They may use Chemistry, Genetics, Biology, Pathology, Entomology and Toxicology to examine the clues. Some of the evidence gathered at a crime scene could include hair, skin cells, fibres from clothes or carpets, footprints, fingerprints and blood samples.

DNA can be extracted from hair or skin cells found at the crime scene and can be used to link a suspect to a crime.

photo credit: BWJones via photopin cc

Hair and fibre samples found at crime scenes can also give vital clues to solving the crime. These samples can be viewed under high powered microscopes. Hair samples can give an idea of a person’s age, general health and hair dyes or hair styling products can also be identified.

Forensic chemistry techniques can reveal a lot about fibres such as the type of dye used, the type of fabric, where the clothes were made.


Fingerprints are the ridges visible on the end of your finger.  They occur in particular patterns that are unique to each individual. These pattern of a fingerprint can therefore be used to identify a person.

Image source :Wikipedia 
Fingerprints are often defined by the patterns they make i.e. loop, whorl or arch.

There are two types of fingerprints usually left at a crime scene:

  1. VISIBLE PRINTS: you can see these prints with your own eyes 
  2. LATENT PRINTS: you may not be able to see them but they are left due to sweat or oils on the skin.

Some surfaces are difficult to lift fingerprints from.  In such cases a flourescent powder is used to bind to the organic matter in the fingerprint and the print is then visible under UV light.

“Did you know… the science of fingerprint identification is known as dactyloscopy?”

Forensic Ballistics

Forensic ballisitcs is the examination of bullets and firearms in order to identify the weapon used in a crime.

Forensic Entomology

Forensic entomology is the study of insects found on or near a dead body, in order to determine the time of death.
Certain insects will lay eggs in a dead body and the eggs hatch into maggots.
By working out how old the maggots are the scientist can determine how long the body is dead.

photo credit: Ewan Bellamy via photopin cc

Experiments you can try!

1. Make a fingerprint

You will need.. a glass, a soft brush (like a make up brush), cellotape, cocoa powder, white paper

What to do... rub your finger on your scalp then push the pad of your finger onto the side of the glass. Use the soft brush to gently cover the fingerprint with cocoa powder. Take a piece of cellotape and place it over the fingerprint.  Carefully peel back the cellotape and stick it on to the white paper.  You should be able to see your fingerprint.  Now try and describe your finger print by comparing it to the chart below;

So what is happening? When you rub your finger on your scalp it covers your finger in natural body oils.  When you push your finger to the glass the oils transfer the pattern of your fingerprint to the glass.  Adding the cocoa powder lets us see the print.
Vegetables in baking – Part one: keeping it sweet

Vegetables in baking – Part one: keeping it sweet

Now that I have entered the world of blogging I enjoy reading other blogs as much as I do writing and researching this one.  I have some favourites that I check in to regularly as a little treat; chief among them is the Greenside Up blog!  Written by the lovely Dee Sewell, this blog brings together garden, community and kitchen, always with a refreshing, informative and jovial note!  Last week was no exception as Dee shared a recipe for Beetroot Chocolate cake. The post not only extended my baking “to do list” but also posed the question…

“Why do vegetable work so well in baking?”


The concept is fairly new to most of us (although we are all familiar with the carrot cake) but is growing in popularity.  With good reason too, it seems.  Tempted, or completely put off by the idea?… I have prepared a short series of blogs to explain a little of the science behind the concept and hopefully to convince you to give it a go!

In this first blog I will look at the sugar content of vegetables and how it contributes to the flavours in the baking.

Firstly, what defines a vegetable?

photo credit: Marj Joly via photopin cc
photo credit: Marj Joly via photopin cc

We can be a little more specific when defining a fruit as its botanical definition is the ovary of the flowering part of the plant; to put this more simply it is any fleshy material covering the seed, or seeds, of a plant.  In general people tend to define a vegetable as a plant used in savory meals and a fruit as a sweet option.This is a tricky one as there is no real scientific definition of a vegetable.  Although there are some generally held guidelines these too vary depending on the classification, criteria used and even the Country you live in. The most common definition of a vegetable is a plant grown for culinary use.

So far, so good, right?  However you don’t have to look too long to find that the lines are very blurred …. for example, in the botanical sense courgettes, tomatoes, pumpkins, squashes and avocados are actually fruit.  Then there is the question of whether mushrooms are vegetables (technically speaking they are not plants but fungi); and what about potatoes? Due to their high starch (carbohydrate) content they are grouped with rice, bread and pasta and are not included as one of our “five a day”.

So the truth of the matter is I cannot actually define a vegetable for you.  All I can say is that, for the purpose of this blog, I am going to lump all these in together as vegetables…. potato, tomato, courgette, even the mushroom (although as a scientist that one grates on me a little)!


Why use vegetables in (sweet) baking?

We all enjoy a nice baked cake now and again and naturally associate the sweetness of fruit with the sweet treat.  No one needs to be persuaded of the virtues of a lovely homemade apple tart!  The key to adding fruit is, primarily, to exploit and enjoy the sugar contained within.  When we think of vegetables we tend to think of a more savory dish, however vegetables do contain sugars as well as fruit, and some in quite significant amounts.  Some of the sweetest vegetables include carrots, beets, peppers, potatoes, peas and corn.  Just to give you an idea….carrots contain approximately 4 grams (g) of sugar per 100 g, while beetroot contains up to 8 g  per 100 g.  Compare this to an apple that comes in about 10 g sugar per 100 g or a strawberry, about 4.5 g per 100 g.  We begin to understand why Dee’s Beetroot Chocolate Cake was so well received by her family!

eetroot Chocolate Cake; Image credit: Greenside Up
Beetroot Chocolate Cake; Image credit: Greenside Up

What sugars do we find in vegetables?

Now we begin to realise the extent of sugars present in many vegetables, but what kind of sugars are they?


photo credit: howzey via photopin cc
photo credit: howzey via photopin cc
  • Another sugar found naturally in vegetables is Sucrose, what we know as common table salt.  Sucrose is made up of the two sugars glucose and fructose.  Most plants make sugar through the process of photosynthesis.  Vegetables make a simple sugar called glucose in this manner.  Glucose is a single sugar molecule that is the ultimate energy fuel for our brain and body.
  • Long chains of glucose form the polysaccharide known as starch.  The longer a vegetable is left on the plant the more likely it is to convert its glucose into starch for storage purposes.  We are able to consume this starch and break it back down into its glucose molecules.
  • Finally, vegetables also contain sugar in the form of fibre, known as cellulose.  We do not metabolise cellulose very well and do not absorb the component sugars into our bodies.  Fibre is a necessary part of our diet though and helps us to maintain a healthy digestive system and a balance of good bacteria within our intestine.


The Maillard reaction

So why do we consider vegetables a more savory dish if they are so full of sugar?  The answer lies in the way we cook them.  Firstly we need to understand a little of the science behind the process.

I have talked about the Maillard reaction in a previous blog, but feel it needs another mention here as it is primary to the discussion of baking, vegetables and sugar!  The Maillard reaction was developed in 1912 and is named after the French Scientist who first proposed it!  Basically it says that when you mix sugar and amino acids (protein) at high temperatures they react to form a variety of different flavours and aromas.

When we add vegetables to our baking the high temperatures of the oven allow the aldehyde group of the simple sugars found in the vegetables to react with the amino (nitrogen) group of the proteins present in the mix to create a variety of pleasant tasting compounds.

When we boil or steam vegetables the heat and moisture do not lend themselves to the browning/sweetening reaction described by Maillard, therefore they have a much more savory taste.  If you need a little convincing just try a little experiment of your own…. prepare a vegetable such as carrot, beet, squash or pepper in two ways… boil one lot and roast the other.  A quick taste test should convince you what Maillard was talking about, even if the Science is a little baffling, even to the Scientists!

Tune in next week when I will discuss how vegetables contribute to the texture of baking, while Part 3 of the series will be the “proof in the pudding” blog with lots of tasty recipes to try.

In the mean time… if you have any comments, tips or experience to share please leave a comment below; I always love to hear from you and will be sure to reply!

Can you name this Creature?

4th – 11th August 2013

How did you get on with this week’s Mystery Creature?  A beautiful moth … but did you know which one?  It is the Garden Tiger Moth (Arctia caja).

This beautiful moth is common enough in Ireland and indeed throughout Europe.  It is often seen in gardens from June to August, although more commonly seen flying at night.

Underneath these beautiful front wings are equally impressive back wings of striking orange colour with black spots. If disturbed the moth will flash these back wings before flying off which both confuses predators and warns them that it is toxic.

The colourful back wings often hidden when at rest;
photo credit: 
Deanster1983 via photopin cc

Fond of damp habitats these moths tend to favour, damp grasslands, gardens, hedgerows and woodlands.  The caterpillar (larval stage) feeds on common weeds such as nettles and dock.

Tiger Moth Caterpillar – photo credit: Deanster1983 via photopin cc

Fun Friday – the Tornado

Fun Friday – the Tornado

(Apologies I am posting the Fun Friday blog a day late due to broadband difficulties yesterday )

We all thought we had been visited by a small tornado here in Galway yesterday, a photo of a waterspout just off Salthill was the talk of the town.  Turns out it was just a hoax, but for any junior scientists that may be disappointed I thought I would share a great experiment with you explaining how to make your very own tornado in a bottle!  There are plenty of fun and interesting tornado facts too.

What is a Tornado?

photo credit: Niccolò Ubalducci Photographer via photopin cc


A tornado is a rapid swirling column of air that stretches from a cloud (usually a thunder cloud) to the earth below.

A tornado that forms over water is often referred to as a waterspout.

If the column of air does not touch the earth it is referred to as a funnel cloud.

How do Tornadoes form?

The formation of a tornado requires a combination of a number of specific weather features but usually tornadoes form when an area of warm, wet air meets and area of cool, dry air and alter the atmospheric conditions.  When this causes the warm wet air to rise and cool rapidly thunder clouds are formed.  Under the correct conditions of wind strength and speed the rising air starts to tilt and rotate and the tornado begins to form.

How fast is a tornado?

Most tornadoes have a wind speed of less that 160 km and hour (100 miles an hour), however, some extreme tornadoes can reach much greater speeds, up to 300 km an hour!

Did you know… the fastest recorded tornado was the Tri-State Tornado (Illinois, Missouri and Indiana) of 1925 had a forward speed of 117 km per hour (73 miles and hour)?

How are Tornadoes measure?

Tornadoes are detected using weather spotting and doppler radar.  Tornado warnings may be issues for certain areas by observing the formation of developing weather patterns while radar can be used for more accurate forecasting once thunderclouds have developed.

Image credit: Wiki Commons; a category F5 tornado in Manitoba, Canada, 2007.

It is not easy to determine Tornado strength and wind speed for two main reasons..

  1. as the exact location of a tornado is hard to predict it is very hard to have the required equipment in the right place at the right time;
  2. the force and strength of a tornado can destroy the equipment used for such analysis.

One of the devises used to measure wind speed within a tornado is called an anemometer. Doppler radar can also be used for this purpose.  When these measurements are successful, wind speed will be expressed against the Beaufort wind scale, ranging from 0 -12 in wind speed.

In 1971 Dr. Tetsuya Fijita developed a scale to rank Tornadoes, this scale ranges from 0 to 5 and is expressed as F0, F1, F2, F3, F4 and F5.  This ranking is retrospective, estimating wind speed and strength by examining the damage resulting from the Tornado.  This scale has been further refined in the US leading to the Enhanced Fijita Scale.

Do we get tornadoes in Ireland?

There are certain places around the world that are “tornado hot spots” such as many central states in the US, South Africa, Canada and Bangladesh.  However tornadoes can form almost anywhere and there are genuine cases of tornadoes in Ireland.  If we do get visited by a tornado it is usually small and brief.

Did you know…the earliest recorded tornadoes in Europe occurred in Rosdalla, near Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, on April 30th 1054?  

The only continent where tornadoes have not been recorded is the Antartic.

Did you know that the UK has the largest number of tornadoes per land mass?  Usually these tornadoes are small.

An experiment to try at home

Make a tornado in a bottle

You will need… two empty 2 Litre plastic bottles, an O-ring, strong duct tape, food colouring, glitter (optional). Alternatively use a tornado tube to replace the O-ring and duct tape.

What to do… Fill one 2 Litre bottle 2/3 full with water, add a few drops of food colouring and about a teaspoon of glitter, if using.  Place the O-ring on top of the bottle and tape into place with the duct tape, ensuring that you do not cover the whole.

Place the second (empty) bottle upside-down on top of the first one and tape securely into place.

If using the Tonrado tube you just twist the tube onto the first bottle 2/3 full with water and then upturn the second bottle and twist it securely into place into the other end of the tornado tube!

Once you are confident that the bottle is taped well enough to prevent any leakage you can turn the bottles upside-down so the one containing the coloured water is on top.  Turn the upper bottle in a circular motion about five times and then hold the bottles steady and see what happens.  You should a mini tornado forming in the bottle as the water drains.  if this does not work for you first time don’t worry, it make take a few attempts to get the knack of turning the bottle correctly.

So what is happening?… When we turn the bottle we get the water moving in a vertical, circular motion, just like the air in a tornado.  Once we stop turning the bottle and hold it steady the momentum created causes the water to keep turning and form into a “twister” inside the bottle.  The food colouring and glitter or only present to make the tornado more visible.


You can change this around a little by adding different things to the water in the bottle and compare how the tornado looks;  Some suggestions include adding grains of pepper, small pieces of coloured paper or a squeeze of washing up liquid.  You can also try the experiment by adding some coloured oil to the water.

Challenge your friends and family:

You can change this into a fun challenge for your friends and family and help them learn about air pressure while too.  Give your friend the bottles all set up and ask them how long they think it will take them to get the water from the top bottle to the lower bottle, without squeezing the bottle.  Let them have a go and time it.  You can then ask if anyone else thinks they can beat that time and give them a go.  Everyone should get about the same time.

Now it is your turn, upturn the bottle and start the tornado and time how long the bottle takes to empty now!  They should be impressed to find out you have beaten their time!

So what is happening?
The hole in the O-ring allows air to pass into the bottle, producing a funnel of air within the column of twisting water.  The movement of air from one bottle to the other equalizes air pressure and allows the water escape into the lower bottle much more quickly.