Do you have a preference for particular types of coffee? Or wine? Subha R. Das, assistant professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, will explain what's behind those flavors in a Slow Food Pittsburgh presentation at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4, at Harvard & Highland above Union Pig & Chicken in East Liberty.
The energetic Mr. Das will lead a discussion about the basics of taste and taste perceptions, focusing on coffee, soda and wine.
In fact, it was over an afternoon cup of coffee that Mr. Das and Roberto Gil, director of Carnegie Mellon's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility, began to mull the idea of analyzing beverages to create flavor profiles using NMR, a technique that allows scientists to determine a substance's molecular chemistry, structure and dynamics.
Other scientists have already developed techniques for pinpointing various additives or substances in beverages, so that's not what these two are trying to do. Instead, they're trying to create "fingerprints" for different beverages, so that each type of beverage has its own unique NMR fingerprint that distinguishes it from every other type of beverage. Thus, you could identify a beverage based solely on its NMR line graph, which (for the non-scientists among us) looks a bit like an electrocardiogram printout. Peaks on the graph represent sugars, fats and other compounds in the beverage.
They're calling it Bev-O-Metrics.
So far, the professors have found that they seem to be able to detect one type of coffee over another. They also have students working on wines, and they've developed a database of flavor profiles for a number of different wines.
From a consumer's point of view, here are some of the questions the professors expect to be able to answer:
• If you like a certain type of wine, which other types might you also like, based on similarities in their flavor profiles?
• How does a particular coffee's flavor profile change if you change the method of roasting the beans? How does it change when you make the coffee a couple different ways in your home kitchen?
• Why does decaf coffee taste weak?
• How much caffeine is in different types of beverages?
• What's the best time to harvest grapes used in winemaking?
Mr. Das believes there's a certain appeal to creating an NMR profile of beverages because while the scientific profile never changes, people's tastes actually can change -- a beverage might not taste the same to a person from one day or year to the next.
He moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh seven years ago and gradually is making inroads into the food scene here. He combines chemistry and food in more than one way; he also teaches the popular "Kitchen Chemistry Sessions," a five-week CMU mini-course that was previously featured in Food & Flavor.
Cost for his Tuesday presentation is $20 for Slow Food Pittsburgh members and $25 for nonmembers; cost includes a snack of charcuterie and cup of punch. For an invitation, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
NFL PLAY 60 Training Camp: There's a food element to this football-themed day. Local Chef Nicky D. Cooks will showcase healthy recipes for a football-watching party, including mini Caprese Salad Bites, Grandma Rosie's Italian Bread Pizza and Game Day Pizzelles. Other activities include a mini-NFL Combine for kids to test their speed and throwing and jumping skills, appearances by former Steeler Craig Wolfley and current Pittsburgh Power players, a kids' touchdown dance contest, prizes, docent tours of the Sports Museum and more. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District. Activities are free with museum admission. heinzhistorycenter.org (click "events").
South Side Soup Contest: The popular event, which allows guests to sample soups for three hours at South Side restaurants and vote for their favorites, sells out every year. This year's event will be held on Feb. 22, and tickets ($25 each) will go on sale starting at noon Feb. 7. Proceeds benefit the Brashear Association's food pantry and the South Side Chamber of Commerce. southsidesoup.com.
Colonial Tea: Hot teas, scones, sandwiches, cakes and other 18th- and 19th-century goodies presented by gracious servants in period attire, plus a presentation on Civil War-era love letters. 3 p.m. Feb. 16 at Depreciation Lands Museum, Hampton. $20, or $16 for children under 12; reservations required. 412-486-0563 or depreciationlandsmuseum.org.
Downton Abbey Tea and Cheese Pairing: A visiting Brit presents a seminar on clotted and Devon cream and creme fraiche, and guests can sample scones, British cheese and teas. 7 p.m. March 5 at McGinnis Sisters in Monroeville and 7 p.m. March 6 at the Mars store. Free, but reservations required. 412-858-7000, ext. 7.
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 ounces Irish whiskey
4 cups freshly brewed, strong black coffee
Granulated sugar, to taste
Whipped cream for garnish
Using an electric mixer, beat cream, confectioners' sugar and vanilla on medium speed in a large chilled bowl until soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. (Alternatively, beat by hand using a large wire whisk.)
Pour 1½ ounces whiskey into each of 4 warmed cups. Add 1 cup coffee and sugar to taste and stir. Top with a dollop of whipped cream. Serve immediately.
-- "Winter Cocktails" by Maria del Mar Sacasa (Quirk, 2013)