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Science Crowns Mozzarella The King Of Pizza Cheese

by Maanvi Singh
Aug 27, 2014

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Any way you slice it, Americans are obsessed with pizza. One in eight of us are noshing it on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the average American consumes pizza about 39 times a year, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

The signature of a great American-style pizza is not the toppings du jour but the cheese: hot, gooey mozzarella, with big, dark splotches of caramelization.

Pizzerias didn't happen upon that winning recipe by coincidence. Food scientists have been studying and finessing the low-moisture part-skim mozzarella we now put on most of our pizzas for decades. Pizza companies fighting for consumers' loyalty are especially invested in such work.

But a few researchers are interested in studying the chemical and physical properties of pizza simply for the sake of science. Bryony James, a professor of materials engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, is one of them.

It's been known for a while that mozzarella melts and blisters better than most other cheeses. But James and some colleagues wanted to investigate further: Why do different cheeses look and taste different when they're baked? Their paper, titled "Quantification of Pizza Baking Properties of Different Cheeses, and Their Correlation with Cheese Functionality," appears in the August issue of the Journal of Food Science.

The researchers started by cooking up a bunch of pies using various cheeses, including mozzarella, cheddar, Edam and Gruyere, as James explains in a video. Then, they analyzed the pizzas using cameras and special software designed to precisely measure the amount of browning, blistering and oil content.

To further tease out the physical properties of the cheeses, the researchers measured water content and elasticity. They also developed detailed diagrams of what happens to each cheese as it bakes.

The unique browning patterns on mozzarella come from the way it bubbles, James says. Since it's made by repeatedly stretching and molding fresh curds, "mozzarella has a lot of elasticity," she explains. "If you look at it under a microscope, you see it has these channels of fat surrounded by protein."

In the oven, the water in the cheese evaporates to create of steam, which causes it to bubble. Since mozzarella is so stretchy, the bubbles can expand and become fairly big. As the bubbles grow, the oil sitting on top slides off and the exposed mozzarella starts to brown. "Finally, the bubbles pop and recede back down," James says.

Cheddar isn't very elastic, so it barely bubbles, the study found. Yet a cheddar pizza will bake to an even, golden brown.In contrast, Gruyere bubbles really well but barely browns. It's a lot more oily than mozzarella, and the fat keeps the moisture in the cheese from evaporating.

"As a home consumer, you might want play around with these things," James says. Want a pizza with the traditional blistering, but sharper flavor? Try mixing mozzarella with another cheese.

Eventually, James says, the sort of research she's doing could be used to manipulate the properties of foods, like a low-fat cheese that tastes and looks just as good as the fattier stuff. Or maybe food scientists will figure out how to make a pizza crust that stays crisp, even after a day in the fridge. "When we understand food right down to its micro-structural level," she says, "it gives us the levers we need to change the way it behaves."

We'll raise a slice to that.

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'Lock In': A Cop Story For Robot Lovers, A Robot Story For Cop Lovers

by Jason Sheehan
Aug 27, 2014

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When I'm reading for fun and not sitting up in my ivory tower reviewing books for NPR, I generally gravitate toward two kinds of stories: science fiction and procedurals. In both cases, I like my books grimy and lived-in. I have no love for utopias, shiny spaceships where nothing is ever broken, or Teflon detectives who don't come with baggage. If there isn't a bullet hole in someone or something before the story starts, there'd better be one put there within the first couple of pages.

But crossing those streams — creating a science fiction procedural — is almost always a bad idea. By nature, your garden-variety procedural has to start with a bang that drops you not into the world, but into the middle of a mystery. And in science fiction, all but the best (or trickiest) authors have to front-load their stories with exposition and world-building that roots you in a place, but not necessarily in the action. Thus, the conundrum: Right from page one, the author either has to short the action or short the world. So it's a good thing that John Scalzi seems to have missed that memo.

Lock In is a cop story first. It begins with a neat and effective free fall into the near-future world in which the story is set, laying out in dry, almost academic terms the history of Haden's Syndrome, a global, meningitis-like pandemic that, in addition to killing lots of people, also left a certain percentage of them completely paralyzed. This paralysis is called "lock in."

The world has been irrevocably altered by it — socially, politically, culturally and technologically. Those suffering from lock in get around using robots or by renting time in the bodies of nonparalyzed Haden's survivors called integrators. Right now (or in the "right now" of the story, anyway), the United States is on the brink of another massive upheaval, as generous government subsidies to Haden's sufferers are about to end. And Scalzi knocks all this out in a tidy, seven-paragraph frontispiece, complete with convenient bolded highlights, attributed to the (fictional) HighSchoolCheatSheet.com — a brilliant way to root his fiction in a believable reality.

Then the book actually starts. There is blood, a body, a couch pushed out a hotel room window from a high floor. There is Chris Shane, rich son of a real estate bajillionaire (and a locked in Haden's survivor) reporting for his second day as a rookie FBI agent and meeting for the first time with his partner, a veteran investigator named Leslie Vann who comes with enough baggage to satisfy Dashiell Hammett. She drinks, she smokes, she sleeps around. She's got tragedy baking off her like radiation, and with that, Scalzi hits all the required tropes like checking items off a form — a body, a mystery, a damaged investigator, even a robot partner (because Agent Shane spends almost all his page time tooling around in, and repeatedly destroying, a variety of robot bodies).

The balance established in the first pages of Lock In serves Scalzi well throughout most of the rest of the book. He moves the story along from clue to clue and suspect to suspect, dropping out of the flow only occasionally to build neat little additions to the world he's playing in. There's an expository dinner scene at the home of Agent Shane's rich parents that drags on a bit (until it's interrupted by something blowing up), and a distractingly heavy use of coincidence. (What? You mean the perfect person to move the plot along just happens to be Agent Shane's new roommate? What are the odds?) But seriously, by the time any of this matters, the bodies are stacking up, there are ninjas leaping out of the kitchen, and Scalzi has the pot boiling in exactly the way you're supposed to in a proper procedural.

And that's not to say it's formulaic, but just that he knows the book he's writing. Once he's gotten past the tricky part of building a near-future world and putting a dead body in it without getting bogged down in the details of either, the rest is all cake and hand grenades. It's about laying down the pieces for an end game — the murder solved, the bad guys brought to justice, all the things you expect.

Which is, of course, where Scalzi plays his second neat trick: Pulling off a half-twist ending that couldn't work anywhere but in this world and yet, at the same time, is so perfectly cop-story-esque that it could've been ripped right from a 1940s pulp novel. It is satisfying in that it's the resolution you expect, but it catches a spark from the postmodern sense that Scalzi and all his characters seem to know precisely what they're doing. They understand that the story is coming to a close, too, and can't help being proud of themselves for the clever job they've done.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

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Afghan election commission worker sorts ballots for an audit. (AP)

Both Afghan Candidates Pull Observers From U.N. Audit Of Votes

by Eyder Peralta
Aug 27, 2014

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The Afghan election process was thrown further into disarray on Wednesday, when both candidates pulled their observers from a U.N.-led audit of the country's ballots.

The AP reports Abdullah Abdullah was the first to pull out his observer saying the process was full of fraud. The AP adds:

"The U.S. brokered the audit of the eight million ballots from the country's June presidential runoff as a way to end what had been a debilitating impasse over who would take over from outgoing President Hamid Karzai. But the audit, which was announced in July, has proceeded in fits and starts as both sides have argued strenuously over every ballot.

"Former Foreign Minister Abdullah is facing former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in the election. Abdullah came in first during the first round of voting on April 5 but preliminary results from the June runoff showed Ahmadzai in the lead. That sparked accusations of rampant fraud from the Abdullah camp."

Reuters reports that after Abdullah pulled his observers, Ghani followed suit.

A senior member of Ghani's team told Reuters pulling out seemed "politically ... more prudent."

Remember, it was just earlier this month that Abdullah and Ghani trotted out a joint statement, vowing to stick to the process and inaugurate a new president on Sept. 2.

The impasse has strained an already fragile democracy. Just how serious is it? Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that "government ministers and officials" with ties to security forces were threatening to seize power if this issue was not resolved.

NPR's Sean Carberry tells us that at this point even the most optimistic political operatives believe hosting an inauguration by Sept. 2 is near impossible.

Reuters reports, however, that the Independent Election Commission will continue its work without the observers.

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Afghan election commission worker sorts ballots for an audit. (AP)

Moral To This Story: Don't Lie About Being Kidnapped

Aug 27, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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Afghan election commission worker sorts ballots for an audit. (AP)

Neighbor Tries To Shut Down Lemonade Stand

Aug 27, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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