Matilda’s Chocolate Cake

This past Monday, June 10, was my daughter Matilda’s 7th birthday. She’s been looking forward to this for a month or two, and working hard to ensure her birthday is everything she would love it to be. You know: detailed gift wish list, special dinner requests, treats for her classmates. And most notably, she emailed me the link to the chocolate cake recipe she wanted me to bake.

Source: The cake I baked was not nearly so photogenic…

Now, not to reveal too much here, but I’m not really a baker. At least not an adventurous always-trying-new-recipes type of baker. I find the things I like to bake and a recipe I love and I stick to that. So far, chocolate cake isn’t one of those things. But you don’t say no to your daughter on her birthday, at least not where cake is involved. So, I gathered the ingredients and set about baking the cake. If you click through to the recipe, you’ll see that at the very last step before you pour the batter into the pans, you stir in a cup of boiling water. What? I’ve made cakes before, but I had never encountered this step. Why does the water need to be boiling? Let’s see if we can find out.

The first thing to note is that this recipe is made with cocoa powder, not baking chocolate. That turns out to be important. Cocoa powder is the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the dark, bitter, cocoa solids.


When cocoa powder is mixed with cold liquids, it remains in solid form, and you end up with a gritty mixture. When mixed with boiling liquids (some recipes for chocolate cake call for hot coffee), the cocoa powder dissolves and you have a smooth liquid. That seems pretty simple, right? Just a matter of reaching the melting point of the cocoa powder, allowing for the physical change from solid to liquid?

Yes, but it’s probably not that simple. It is reported that adding the boiling water to the batter also changes the flavor, releasing more of the deeper, richer chocolate flavor. This flavor enhancement seems to suggest that a chemical change is also occurring.

Cocoa powder contains both volatile and non-volatile components that contribute to the complex cocoa flavor. The non-volatile components include alkaloids, polyphenols, proteins and carbohydrates (shown below). Also, there are about 600 volatile components in cocoa that have been identified, including compounds of several chemical classes such as aldehydes, ketones, esters, alcohols, pyrazines, quinoxalines, furans, pyrones, lactones, pyrroles, and diketopiperazines.

Source: Aprotosoaie, A. C., Luca, S. V., & Miron, A. (2016). Flavor chemistry of cocoa and cocoa products-an overview. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 15(1), 73-91. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12180

These are the components that are responsible for the deep, complex flavor of cocoa. Does adding the boiling water to the batter allow for some chemical change in these components, thus deepening the flavor? The short answer is: I don’t know. But, after spending some time researching it this week, I’m not sure anyone else does, either. This would be a fascinating and delicious area to investigate further. And one thing is for sure, Matilda would volunteer to be the taste tester!

We made swarms of new friends at Allegheny National Forest

A couple of weeks ago, over Memorial Day weekend, my husband Ross and I took our kids on a two night backpacking trip. We love backpacking, it was a long weekend, and the weather looked…..okay, so we decided to seize the moment. We knew from prior (very itchy) experience, that May and June is black fly season in the Adirondacks, so instead we headed south to Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.

It was our first time there, and it is very beautiful in an old-growth-forest, ferns-carpeting-the-ground sort of way. The trail was well marked and maintained, and not crowded at all. Did I mention it was raining when we started?

It was about noon on the second day (when the weather cleared, and the sun was finally hitting us as we hiked) that we first started to notice the tiny flies. Or were they gnats? Or no see ums? Whatever you call them, they bite and it stings! We endured through covering up and using bug spray, and made it through the rest of our trip just fine. Not without bites, though, and I have to tell you, the itchiness sets in around day 2 after the bites, and it’s pretty intense!

Not knowing what they were bugged me (ha! see what I did…), so I did a little bit of research. It turns out that they are of the Family Ceratopogonidae or the Biting Midges. The Family Ceratopogonidae includes over 4, 000 species in 78 genera worldwide. Over 600 species in 36 genera have been described in North America, only a small number of which feed upon vertebrates. But we were lucky enough to meet some of them…


In Pennsylvania, they are commonly called punkies, or no see ums. Punkies undergo a type of development called complete metamorphosis. Their eggs are laid in aquatic habitats like streams, marshes, ponds, and swamps. The eggs hatch and larvae develop in the moist habitat for varying lengths of time (depending on temperature and food supply). Next is the pupa stage, and then a few days later the adult emerges, and will live for two to seven weeks.

Illustration by: Scott Charlesworth, Purdue University.

Both males and females feed primarily on plant sap and nectar. But the female requires protein for egg production, and so she feeds on mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibian blood, leaving those wonderful, red, itchy spots.

While these bites are annoying, punkies are not known to spread disease among humans in North America. They do have an impact on livestock, however, through the spread of the Blue Tongue virus. This virus is a major cause of disease in livestock in the western United States.

Now that we know about the punkies, it definitely won’t stop us from backpacking there again. We’ll just go in with eyes wide open, and all skin covered.

Blogging goals

We tell stories to make sense of our world and our experiences in it. And to share that understanding with others.


As I share the experiences I have as part of the Get Real Science program with you on this blog, I hope it will solidify and clarify those experiences and lessons in my mind. And perhaps entertain you along the way.