Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tastes Sweet to Me

Alas, the beautiful strawberry.  There it is, neatly packaged in a plastic carton atop a cardboard display in the market.  The dimpled berries aren’t even refrigerated because they will be quickly swept into every cart, basket and recyclable bag that walks by.  A spring strawberry, red, juicy and luscious is a glowing red omen that summer just may come.

Strawberries are quite nutritious and they have high amounts of antioxidant activity.  A study of 21 women showed that after eating frozen strawberries for three weeks, anti-oxidant levels in blood were significantly elevated and showed some positive biochemical effects including increased lipid peroxidation lag time [1].   Strawberries also have shown to have positive effects on neurons.  Rats fed extracts from strawberries, spinach and blueberries had slowed effects of aging on neurons and even improved some neurologic function such as increased motor abilities [2].

More importantly than being nutritious, however, is that strawberries are delicious.  The tart, juicy, tongue tickling bites make you slurp when you eat them and afterwards quietly pluck the seeds from between the teeth.   The sensory delight that encompasses consumption of the strawberry has actually been studied quite extensively in scientific literature. 

In the fascinating journal, Chemical Senses, scientists explore the chemistry and physiology behind taste and smell.  In an experiment of 20 students, with the goal to detect diluted sugar water versus plain water, scents of both strawberry and ham (while ham smells plenty good, I can’t really imagine ham scented body lotion or lip gloss) were sniffed while the participants tasted dilute sugar water or water.  Participants were also asked to imagine the odor of strawberry or ham while tasting sweetened or unsweetened water.  Interestingly, smelling or even imagining the scent of strawberries increased the detection of sugar water significantly over tasting sugar water alone, and the smell or imagined smell of ham decreased significantly the taste of the sugar.

Our brains tell us that strawberries are sweet.  Not only has it been shown, like in the experiment above, that smelling or even imagining a strawberry makes sugar taste sweeter, but simply seeing the color red can make a strawberry smell stronger [4].   Our sensory experience is so much more complex, richer, and more unknown than we could ever imagine.  The best thing we can do for our senses is fill them up with enticing stimuli, such as in my take on strawberry shortcake. 

This cake contains all of the elements of what I love about strawberries.  My mom always used to serve fresh berries with sour cream and brown sugar.  Instead, I make a pound-Bundt hybrid cake with brown sugar, lemon zest, sour cream and buttermilk to serve in small slices heaped with fresh berries.  If you want to go all out, you could add ice cream, sour cream with sugar or fresh whipped cream.

Sour cream/brown sugar pound/Bundt cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook

¾ cup butter unsalted (softened)
1 cup dark brown sugar packed
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
½ cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
Zest of lemon
3 cups all purpose flour
½ tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
5 eggs
¾ cup buttermilk

1 pint strawberries, sliced
¼ cup sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325.  Butter (or Pam) a Bundt pan or 2 8 ½ by 4 ½ inch loaves.  In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add sour cream, vanilla and zest and mix for another 2 minutes.  Add each egg individually and stir until just mixed.  Add buttermilk and flour mixture and stir until combine.  Add mixture to pan and bake until toothpick comes out clean, about 1hour 15 minutes. 

Allow to cool, invert pan, slice, top with strawberries, and enjoy!

1. Henning, SM., et al. “Strawberry consumption is associated with increased antioxidant capacity in serum.” Journal of Medicinal Food*, v. 13 issue 1, 2010, p. 116-22.
2. Joseph, JA., et al. “Reversals of age-related declines in neuronal signal transduction, cognitive, and motor behavioral deficits with blueberry, spinach, or strawberry dietary supplementation.” Journal of Neuroscience, v. 19 issue 18, 1999, p. 8114-21.
3.  Djordjevic RJ, et al.  “Effects of Perceived and Imagined Odors on Tasted Detection.” Chemical Senses.  v 29 Issue 3. 2004 p199-208
4.  Dematte MS et al.  “Olfactory Discrimination: When Vision Matters?” Chemical Senses. V34 issue 2, 2009, p 103-109

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