Molecular Biology is like baking because … Part II

Over the years I seem to have acquired a reputation as a competent baker. My second set of Bristol housemates decided that I was really quite awesome in the kitchen because of my ability to – 30 minutes after someone said I really want some chocolate… (We lived a 20 minute walk over a rainy, windy, barren field from the nearest supermarket) – produce a plate of hot-from-the-oven damned-good-if-I-say-so-myself brownies. This is slightly hilarious given the clear link between lab and kitchen and my ineptitude at the bench, but is really down to one simple secret.

I’m good at baking because I have a small selection of recipes that work and I never ever deviate from them. Last weekend I tried a different brownie recipe for the first time in about 4 years (two recipes in fact). Utter disaster.

Acquiring a baking reputation is very much like working in a molecular biology lab: figure out what works and then never do anything else. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to. Sometimes there is no option but to learn a new technique, and often it is reliant upon things that aren’t in the protocol. Nowhere in a Qiagen booklet have I ever seen the words ‘use a pipette to remove excess ethanol from the outer edge of the ring inside the column before the drying spin’ but I guarantee you that if you do it your yield and quality will be improved.

Going it alone

Now that’s all well and good if your Mum is teaching you to make crumble (she did. I make a frickin’ awesome apple  crumble) or your postdoc is teaching you to do RNA extractions (yeah… he was less good at that). But sometimes you’re a 3rd year PhD student and nobody has the time or inclination to teach you anything any more so you just have to dive in and guess yourself. Then it all becomes about intuition. I’d never used that brownie recipe before, but I knew it was too wet. Only I trusted the recipe instead of myself and – shockingly – even after I doubled the baking time they still came out night on raw in the middle.

This week I have been making lardy cake. Lardy cake for me screams Childhood Weekends as my Dad for a time used to bring one home every Saturday. (Until he and my Mum discovered healthy eating and the gym. Not that I resent this. At all). I do have a beautifully functional recipe already but having seen Ryan making individual ones on the Great British Bake Off this week, which didn’t require seven rounds of folding and kneading, I couldn’t resist having a go with a different recipe. (The BBC kindly put this one up… shame their timings are wildly inaccurate).

Lardy Cake ala Ryan… With a few notes

170ml milk
40g unsalted butter
340g strong flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
9g dried yeast (aka one 7g packet and a flat teaspoon)
1 egg

For the lard and sugar mix

200g caster sugar
250g lard
ground cinnamon
150g mixed dried fruit soaked in a little water (incidentally, this was way way more than I could find any way to use. And I wonder what it’d be like soaked in Grand Marnier?)


1. First up, melt the 40g of butter in the milk. (5 mins)

2. Then, the recipe says, wait until it has cooled to 45C. (20 mins) Now everyone in the world should own a candy thermometer, because it will change your life (and allow you to make the world’s greatest salted caramel hot fudge sauce) but given most people don’t own one, here are some pro-tips.

65C is just-too-hot-to-hold-but-I-can-because-I’m-a-scientist-and-I-have-asbestos-hands. It’s also about the temperature at which ethidium bromide will vaporise out of your agarose gel and give you lung cancer. So 65 is Oooh this agarose is too hot to pour. I’ll just leave it a minute or two. 

60C is as hot as a very-hot-cup-of-tea. It’s pourable agarose. It’s DNA extraction buffer. It’s LB-agar-is-still-liquid

55C is as hot as a normal-cup-of-tea. It’s when your agarose or agar starts to solidify on the bottom of the flask and you start frantically pouring it.

50C is as hot as a cup of tea that you left while you ran up to stores to pick up an unnecessarily large package weighing 10kg because it contained so much dry ice that actually only contained 2 vials of Brilliant III. I’m looking at you Agilent.

And 45 degrees C is a cup of tea that you feel duty bound to drink because it’s not actually cold yet. It’s also the temperature boiling milk will become if you leave it for Twenty Minutes. Well bugger that for a game of soldiers…

This buttery milky delight ended up sat in a bowl of cold water after I got bored. Then you break the egg into it.

3. Next up, flour, yeast (it’s a lot of yeast, but you need it because…) salt (it’s a lot of salt too!) and sugar go in a bowl. Apparently you’re supposed to mix them with a free-standing mixer. Or, because you’re a postgrad: a fork! 

4. Milky, buttery, eggy goodness goes into sugary, salty, yeasty flour and is mixed into a tacky dough. Only after I was thinking ‘this is a very wet dough’ did I read the bit where it says ‘you probably won’t need all of the liquid.’ Well why the hell did you tell me to make that much then?! Cue about another 50g of flour into the mix.

5. Apparently we knead this with a dough hook for 5 minutes. Yeah, definitely got me one of them. I chose to knead it with my hand for the length of Go the Distance by Vocal Spectrum, and Blue Skies by Westminster Fantasy Quartet. So about 5 minutes 40 apparently.

The dough was this big.

Since I don’t own a proving drawer, an airing cupboard or an ant hill (remind me to tell you how to make Vodka some day) I tend to turn the oven on fairly low, then throw the dough in and turn it off. It was meant to have an hour, but I was running late and needed to get out, so in the end it had to settle for 45 minutes.

Then the dough was this big:

6. Mean times I was squelching lard and sugar together. The recipe calls for cinnamon to taste. I’m sorry Ryan from the Great British Bake Off but Are you on CRACK?! You want me to put raw lard in my mouth?! 

I settled for a liberal heaped teaspoon… and then a sprinkle more. I also gave up on trying to chop together the lard and sugar and just got in there and squelched. This probably isn’t the greatest idea ever as the lard could melt but I have rubbish circulation and therefore my hands are perfect for making pastry and squelching lard. (Now there’s a claim to fame…)


Now it gets fun. We take the newly huge dough, split it in 10 (5 mins) (what kind of a number is 10? You crazy decimal lovers. 8 or 12 please!) Given it will take you a good 15 minutes plus to do the next bit, I would get the balls tidy before you put them down. Find all the raggedy bits and tuck them under so that you have what looks from above like a lovely round ball.

Incidentally, pro-tip: if you put baking paper on the work surface then nothing sticks half as much, and your housemate doesn’t maim you when she comes home to find you up to your elbows in flour.

Then roll each piece out until it is 6 inches wide. (20 mins) Or…. not. There is absolutely no way, even with a well dusted rolling pin (well done for mentioning that BBC… oh wait) that you can make one of these little balls of dough stretch to anything like 6 inches across. I found 4″ just about manageable.

You add “some” of the sugary lardy mixture to the centre. (I found that an amount about the same size as a chocolate like a Lindor worked out about right) There was no mention of spreading, but that just seemed like common sense to me. Now you take the edges and fold them in on top of one another to make something vaguely hexagonal. Most of mine ended up more like nonagonal, but then I’ve always been contrary. Flip it folded-bits-down, roll it out and repeat.

Once you have ten (or twelve, or eight) of these, stash them all together in a tin so that they meld to make a sort of big tear-and-share bread thing. Ryan used a ‘baker’s ring’ – aka a slightly taller than usual circular tin with no bottom that you put on a baking tray, but I’m all about the lined square tin.

These are gonna sit and rest for 10 minutes before you sprinkle them with the rest of the sugary-lard (I just microwaved it and poured it on) and the mixed fruit, and then prove for another 40 minutes in a warm place. (Or, if you have a choir practice to go to, about two hours in your fairly cold kitchen. Didn’t seem to do them any harm).

And then we bake. 200C for 20 minutes. Actually mine were still a little wet, so I split them apart and gave them another 8, which was maybe too much. Still taste goooood though.

All in all, this is about 3 hours… maybe 3 and a half from start to finish.

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