On 14 March 1969, Nicholas Kurti, the physicist who, with Franz Simon, was the first to cool an object to 1 microkelvin, presented a paper at the Royal Society of London entitled "The Physicist in the Kitchen." He didn't just talk before his august audience. Using a tuned microwave generator he created a reverse Baked Alaska, a dessert that was hot on the inside, cold on the outside.
Kurti was a keen amateur cook. With the chemist Hervé This, he founded the science of molecular and physical gastronomy or, as it's more widely known, molecular gastronomy. They outlined the foundations and aims of the science in an article they wrote in 1994 for Scientific American.
Now, molecular gastronomy is big business—at least for the famous and creative cooks who practice it. At Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant in Bray outside London, you can enjoy nitro-poached green-tea and lime mousse, powdered Anjou pigeon, whisky wine gums, and other exotic concoctions.
The Fat Duck takes reservations up to two months in advance. If you want to eat next year at the temple of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adrià's El Bulli in Catalonia, you need to apply on 21 December and hope that your application will be among the 8000 accepted, not the 2 million rejected.
For a cheaper, virtual taste of molecular gastronomy, I recommend Martin Lersch's blog Khymos. Browsing through the entries, you'll find recipes, equipment reviews, technique discussions, and other topics—including my favorite: TGRWT (they go really well together). Posts in this occasional category invite readers to create recipes based on an improbable combination of ingredients. The picture shows the response of a blogger called Ana to TGRWT#15: dark chocolate and smoked salmon.
What you'll also find when you browse Khymos, is a stronger emphasis on chemistry than on physics. That bias probably reflects Lersch's background—he's an organometallic chemist by profession—but it might also reflect the greater number of adjustments and interventions a cook can make through chemistry than through physics. In reality, you need both sciences to create nitro-poached green-tea and lime mousse.
As a keen cook myself, I haven't ventured into molecular gastronomy, but last week I faced a culinary challenge of the scientific kind when I created honey and cardamom ice cream. Making ice cream isn't hard, especially if you have an electric ice cream maker. You simply pour a cold creamy mixture into the machine and switch it on. But how, I wondered, would I create such a mixture containing honey, a liquid that becomes more viscous as the temperature drops and can even crystallize?
My answer: Heat the honey until it's quite runny, then stir in the milk and cardamom, whisk throughly to homogenize, then chill. The resulting mixture flowed like milk and made excellent ice cream.