You may remember that I made the impulse decision to enroll in the Harvard online class Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. In addition to taking care of three children and the two posts a week I share with you, I now also spend many hours a week listening to online lectures, 1-2 hours of very difficult homework and a lab every week. Like most things that require hard work, the reward is worth the effort.
Without a doubt, I am learning a massive amount in this course. I have a better understanding of the science behind the food I cook and cooking process as well. I am constantly seeing the principles learned in the course in my everyday life.
The math involved is the biggest surprise for me. Surprise because I wasn’t expecting the free online class to be this difficult, and surprising because I’m doing it! The class is a physics class, and my success would not be possible without the several hours a week spent on the phone and on Skype with my physicist father who is now my private tutor. It’s important to note that math has always been my weakest subject, and I somehow managed to sneak out of high school without taking chemistry. So my ability to plug numbers into the “equation of the week” and get correct answers is astounding to me (and I think my dad as well!)
Each week the course is broken up into two lectures, a series of homework problems and a lab and lab report to fill out. In the first week’s lab we calibrated our ovens, the second week, we made ricotta cheese, and in the third week we made ice cream.
Week #1: Really – my oven is how off temp?
I have a pretty nice range that is only a few years old, and I’ve always thought it was at the correct temp. I’ve bought two separate oven thermometers to test it to make sure it is at temp, and both corroborated my belief that my oven held temp. However, the sugar test doesn’t lie. See, sugar melts at an exact temperature: 366 degrees. So, if you set your oven to 360 degrees a small amount of sugar should not melt. However, if you turn your oven to 370 it should. Unless your oven is off temp. This is how I discovered that my oven was about 15 degrees cool. Now, I can set my oven 10-20 degrees hotter in order to get the correct temp. Oh, and those cheap oven thermometers I bought are clearly worthless and now live in the dump.
Week #2: Holy cow, I just made cheese!
In the second week, we learned about how temperature affects foods. There were many very cool demonstrations including a series of eggs cooked sous vide to temperatures varying by only one to two degrees. Turns out that eggs are very sensitive to temperature and only a few degrees separate undercooked from overcooked eggs. In the lab, we made ricotta cheese. How come no one ever told me ricotta was this easy? It was a slap-your-head sort of moment when I was ashamed of all the sub-par ricotta I’ve ever bought in my life. I now vow to only use homemade ricotta (or Narraganset Creamery ricotta which is so good that it boarders on an addictive substance).
Week #3: Phase Transitions are fun for five year-olds…
The third lab was a family experience. The first few weeks were spent trying to figure out how to fit everything into the few free hours I have between when the kids go to bed and I collapse from exhaustion. I found it easy to listen to lectures from the comfort of my bed or with a set of headphones while Hubby watched football, but labs required getting up and actually moving – or messing up the kitchen that was clean for the first time that day. I got a week or two behind on the labs, even though I stayed almost caught up on the rest of the work (there is a small cushion built into the class so you have a few weeks to get assignments done).
I’ve used Little Guy to help me in the kitchen and with posts for this site since he was old enough to sit in a chair, but it wasn’t until the third lab that I realized that with careful instructions, he could do some things to help out with the labs. I probably won’t have him help on all the labs, because I don’t think he would enjoy many of them. But this lab was ICE CREAM! Little Guy will do a lot if it means there is ice cream in it for him. He helped me carefully weigh out the ingredients, add everything to the zip-top bags, and even helped churn the ice cream until his hands got cold. He was more than eager to help with the taste testing too.
While the course is well designed, and the technology that allows such a class in the first place is amazing, there are a few aspects of an in-person class that I miss. With thousands of participants, there is no way to personally interact with the teachers. Not only can I not have them answer a question easily (there are discussion forums), but its also difficult to interact with other students. The discussion forums are overloaded with so many comments, that it’s difficult to read down through them to get an answer you need. Still, for a free class, this is an amazing experience.
What do you think? Are you also taking the class? Share your experiences here.