Thursday, May 28, 2009

Royal Paulownia: The Perfume of Spring Along the Hudson

When May roses begin to perfume the air violet blooms burst forth on Royal Paulownias that grow along the edge of the Hudson River. There is no time to mourn fading purple lilacs when the trumpet-like clusters of Paulownia tomentosa release their fragrance. Their scent reveals a riverside terroir that smells ozonic, vanillic, powdery and almond-like. The fragrance is most prominent when dusk arrives. That is also the time when people who never look up at the towering trees recognize the source of their olfactive pleasure. Few people, however, know the folklore behind these trees and how they became naturalized in the United States.

Paulownia tomentosa is also known as the Empress or Princess Tree. The genus Paulownia is named in honor of Anna Pavlovna (Paulowna by Dutch transliteration), the daughter of Czar Paul I. In China it is customary to plant an Empress Tree when a baby girl is born. The maturity of the tree and the girl coincide. When she is eligible for marriage the tree is cut down to make a wedding chest. The presence of an Empress Tree near a home is considered good luck as it is said to be favored by the mythical Phoenix who is drawn to its branches. In Japan, if a Paulownia drops its leaves early in the season, it is considered bad luck. During World War II the United States dropped paper Paulownia (Kiri) leaves on Japan that included ominous propaganda meant to play on the "bad luck" folklore attached to the leaves of the tree.

In the mid 1800s Chinese porcelain was transported by train in the United States. The materials used to pack these delicate objects were Paulownia seed pods. Each pod contains up to 2000 small-winged seeds and resembles a giant pistachio nut. Some seeds escaped during transit while others were released at their destination and carried by the wind. It is likely that Chinese porcelain making its way down the New York Central Railroad is responsible for the Paulownia trees along the Metro North Hudson Line.

Though Paulownia tomentosa is considered an invasive species that escaped cultivation it possesses a delicate nature and is particularly sensitive to weed killers and pesticides. It can also tolerate high salinity and drought. This makes portions of the Hudson River shoreline ideal for a tree that can reach up to 15 feet in one season and 30 feet in three years. When Paulownias are in bloom their scent is carried by the wind along the Hudson River, perfuming the shoreline and mesmerizing anyone fortunate enough to participate in a landscape that includes them.

Givaudan's Roman Kaiser analyzed the scent of Paulownia tomentosa flowers in 1995. When Glass Petal Smoke asked him if there was a little heliotropin in the mix Kaiser responded with scientific precision, “This heliotropin related note is mainly generated by the interaction of the main constituent hydroquinone dimethyl ether with beta-ionone including derivatives and methyl cinnamate. Methyl benzoate, methyl salicylate and methyl 2-methoxybenzoate round this accord off.” Heliotropin is a molecule found in vanilla and smells floral, vanillic, and slightly almond-like (there is a lot of heliotropin in Tahitian vanilla beans). Kaiser’s complete analysis of Paulownia tomentosa is as follows:

Methyl 2-Methybutyrate 0.10
Methyl Caproate 0.10
(E)-Ocimene 0.60
6-Methyl-5-Hepten-2-One 0.30
Nonanal 0.05
Benzaldehyde 0.05
Linalool 0.05
Cyclic-Beta-Ionone 0.10
Methyl Benzoate 5.50
(E)-Beta-Farnesene 0.20
Hydroquinone Dimethyl Ether 79.00
Methyl Salicylate 1.90
Dihyro-Beta-Ionone 1.20
Benzyl Alcohol 0.80
Beta-Ionone 6.00
Methyl- (E)-Cinnamate 0.90
Methyl2-Methoxybenzoate 2.70
Benzyl Benzoate 0.10

Total: 99.65

Hudson River painting of Royal Paulownia by Jamie Williams Grossman. All rights revert back to the artist.

Photos of Paulownia seed pods from the Oregon State Department of Horticulture .

Some of the fragrance ingredients in Roman Kaiser's analysis of Paulownia tomentosa can be found on Givaudan's website by clicking here. You can cut and paste the name of the molecule to research it. The Good Scents Company has an extensive database of raw materials. Perhaps we will see this kind of organoleptic information democratized in Wolfram/Alpha as the new search engine develops its très cool chemistry section.

Analysis of fragrance molecules is conducted by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (also known as "GC mass spec" in the fragrance business). The machine analyzes scent, but requires the technical and olfactive skills of a trained professional for optimal results.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Event: Craig Claiborne & The Invention of Food Journalism

Date/Time: Thursday, June 11th at 6 p.m.

Location: The New School, Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, Arnhold Hall, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor, NYC.

Why You Should Go: It's $5 and the panelists are stellar.

Called the nation’s preeminent food journalist, Mississippi-born Craig Claiborne trained in Switzerland as a chef on the GI bill after World War II. On his return to the United States, he began writing articles for Gourmet and became an editor at the magazine. His career skyrocketed when The New York Times hired him as its first food columnist in 1957. Claiborne's columns, reviews and cookbooks introduced Americans to a wide range of international and ethnic food. Other newspapers followed The New York Times’s lead, and soon a cadre of authoritative newspaper food writers helped attune millions of Americans to the finer points of good food and cooking.

Panelists include: Molly O’Neill, former New York Times columnist, and author of the New York Cookbook; Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn and Raising Steaks; Anne Mendelson, author of Stand Facing the Stove, and Milk: the Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, and a contributing editor to Gourmet; David Leite, publisher/editor-in-chief, Leite's Culinaria, and author of The New Portuguese Table; John T. Edge, Director, Southern Foodways Alliance, University of Mississippi, contributing editor, Gourmet, author of Southern Belly.

The panel will be moderated by Andrew F. Smith, editor of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, and Food Studies professor.

Box Office Information:
In-person purchases can be made at The New School Box Office at 66 West 12th Street, main floor, Monday-Friday 1:00-7:00 p.m. The box office opens the first day of classes and closes after the last paid event of each semester. Reservations and inquiries can be made by emailing or calling 212.229.5488

Monday, May 4, 2009

Romancing the Bran: Orange Spice Quick Bread

Whenever I hear the word “bran” I think of Euell Gibbons. Gibbons was a wild foods enthusiast and television spokesman for Post Grape Nuts Cereal in the 70’s. As part of his ad pitch he’d earnestly ask, “Ever eat a pine tree?”. If you have tasted Grape Nuts then you know that pine tree doesn’t quite describe what the hard cereal nuggets taste like. Grape Nuts taste like they are supposed to improve regularity which isn't saying much for the flavor of bran.

Fast forward a few decades into the current green phase of our global economy. Consumers have diverse and tasty options when it comes to healthful eating and this extends beyond the universe of prepared foods. Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to re-introduce you to wheat bran and show you how it can be magically transformed into a quick bread that will leave you scratching your head and asking; “Can something good for me taste great and smell good too?”

The answer is yes, but unprocessed bran requires intense flavor management when you are baking. The reason is its natural scent. Once you add water to unprocessed wheat bran, off- notes evolve that aren’t happy and bread-like (unlike what perfumer Olivia Giacobetti envisioned when she created En Passant for Editions de Parfumes Frédéric Malle or Jour de Fête for L’Artisan Parfumeur, each of which has a wheat note). Unprocessed wheat bran smells grainy and slightly horsy when dry. With the addition of water it smells like school paste mixed with fertile male secretions (not quite as erotic as Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques which traverses terrain that would make bran blush).

The trick in managing taste is balancing texture and flavor. In this case, off-notes of unprocessed bran are smoothed by Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg, Mace, and Cloves. The addition of orange zest, vanilla, and orange blossom water provides a fragrant lilt that transforms the overall impression of what one thinks of a fiber-rich quick bread. What are you waiting for? Get into the kitchen and fill your house with the delicious aroma of Orange Spice Quick Bread. P.S: Many of the spices in this recipe, as well as the figs, are considered aphrodisiac.

Orange Spice Quick Bread
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 2 loaves

· 2 cups unprocessed bran (aka “Miller’s Bran”)
· 1 cup boiling water
· 2 cups organic pastry flour
· 1 cup oat bran
· ¾ cup granulated organic sugar
· 2 tablespoons non-aluminum baking powder
· 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons Penzeys Apple Pie Spice
· ½ teaspoon ground allspice
· ¼ teaspoon salt
· 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
· zest of one medium-sized orange
· 1⅓ cups skim milk at room temperature
· ½ cup dark unsulfured molasses
· 4 egg whites at room temperature
· 4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
· 2 tablespoons Penzys Double Strength Vanilla Extract
· 6 large dried golden California figs, chopped (6 ounces)

· Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
· Grease two 8½ x 4½ x 2 ¾-inch loaf pans with cooking spray. Set aside.
· In a medium-sized bowl mix boiling water with unprocessed bran and allow to stand for at least two minutes.
· In a large-sized bowl mix flour, oat bran, sugar, baking powder, spices and salt.
· In a medium-sized bowl mix milk, molasses, egg whites, grapeseed oil, orange blossom water, vanilla, and orange zest. Add chopped dried figs and incorporate.
· Add the unprocessed bran to the wet mixture and stir well.
· Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Combine wet ingredients with dry ones, gently folding until everything is mixed.
· Fill two loaf 8½ x 4½ x 2 ¾-inch pans and bake in the center oven rack for approximately 45-55 minutes (or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean).
· Allow to cool for ten minutes. Remove from pans and cool on a wire rack for an hour.
· Wrap in foil and refrigerate.

Baking Notes:
To amp up the nutrition, use Smart Balance Lactose-Free Fat-Free Milk. The milk contains omega-3 and vitamin E.

Refrigerating dried figs before prepping them for baking ensures easy maneuvers with a knife.

Scent Notes:
Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle's En Passant by perfumer Olivia Giacobetti uses Wheat Absolute in the fragrance formula. White Lilac, Watery Notes, Orange Tree Leaves, Cucumber, and Wheat are the key notes.

L’Artisan Parfumeur's Jour de Fête, also by perfumer Olivia Giacobetti, uses a Green Wheat note in the fragrance formula. Key notes are: Almond, Pink Laurel, Wheat, Orris, Bourbon Vanilla, and Cedarwood. L'Artisan Parfumeur fragrances are sold at select retail shops.

Painting of "Wheat Field with Sheaves" by Vincent Van Gogh.