Today is my birthday!
I was okay turning 25, but 26 feels like I should be a ‘fully functional adulting adult’, when in fact I’m still a broke student! But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to celebrate and have a day full of bubbly, cake, hopefully a few little gifts, more food and the ultimate science themed birthday party by spending a day in an actual science lab wearing a proper lab coat and doing real experiments!
To celebrate turning 26, I obviously wanted to write a science themed post, but my initial idea about birthdays I have already kinda done for my blog’s first birthday earlier in the year which you can check out here. So, I’ve had to rack my brains for another idea! I’ve been thinking up possibilities for weeks, and what did I think of?
Surely there’s some science about birthday cake that I could share, right? So, I did my research and thought doing the science of baking a cake was a bit obvious! And to be honest, most people would rather skip that part and get on to the end bit – eating the cake – right? So, that’s what I’ve done! For my birthday post this year I want to share with you some birthday cake, my brand new ‘How to’ guide and, of course, the science that goes with it!
How to scientifically have your birthday cake… and eat it!
Step 1: Sing Happy Birthday
No birthday cake reveal is complete without a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ sung in complete disharmony and completely out of time surrounded by your friends and family. But one study has shown that singing ‘Happy Birthday’ before having your slice of cake actually makes the cake taste better!
This study by researchers from Minnesota University might explain why we have so many unusual rituals and quirky habits when it comes to eating and drinking. One of the experiments as part of the study used carrots, and found that the anticipation of eating the vegetable following a ritual – such as saying grace, or singing happy birthday – improved the taste, with more people enjoying the carrot the longer they had to wait to eat it, compared to those who could eat it however they wanted. But interestingly, another experiment involved watching someone else mix lemonade, but that didn’t make it taste any better, suggesting that personal involvement is key!
One of the reasons why we may enjoy food and drink when we go through a ritual first appears to be that we like to feel more involved in what we are consuming. So, the ritual before eating the carrots made the participants feel more involved, whereas the lemonade experiment obviously didn’t spark their interest as much. When we perform these rituals, our ‘intrinsic interest’ increases and in turn leads to a more enjoyable consumption!
So, step 1 – when everyone is singing happy birthday to you, join in as it could make that cake taste so much better!
Step 2: Blow out the candles
Your ‘Happy Birthday’ singers are finished and now it’s time to make a wish and then blow out your candles – another ritual that might help enhance the flavour of that cake! There’s something a little bit magical about it, I think. But if you’re a bit of a germa-phobe, you probably want to stop doing this popular tradition right now!
Whilst doing my birthday cake science research, I came across a study that tells us that this small, simple and fun act of extinguishing those flickering flames multiplies the bacteria on the cake by … wait for it …. 1,400%!!!! Perhaps the song should really be change to ‘Happy bacteria to you!’
This study prepared two test ‘birthday cakes’ made of Styrofoam which were spread with real icing – vanilla in case you were wondering! – and decorated with 17 candles! A group of volunteers had to blow out the candles on one cake, and leave the others! Afterwards, the food scientists compared the amount of bacteria present on each cake’s surface, and then repeated that three times – because science! The cakes whose candles had been blown out had on average 1,400% more bacteria than the cake whose candles remained lit, and the range of different microbes was 100x greater too! The results did vary a little though as one test showed that the bacteria sky rocketed by more than 12,000% compared to the original icing! Also, the participants had to smell and eat a slice of pizza before the cake to get a real sense of ‘birthday party’ going and also to get those salivary glands working too! So, they probably need to all compare the findings with people who are just having the cake!
It’s important to share at this point though that not all bacteria are bad for you. Many of these will be harmless as we are surrounded by germs and microbes everyday, which is a good thing as it helps to protect our immune systems. And the chances of you getting sick from someone blowing out their birthday candles is minimal. But if your birthday boy or girl is sick, you might want to reconsider tucking into that cake!
So, step 2 – if you’re going to have candles and blow them out over your cake, you probably don’t want to share that cake around and spread all those germs really, for the health of your guests! You’re thinking of them really!
Oh well! More cake for me!
Step 3: Cut the cake
Rituals complete. It’s time to tuck in and share the cake around with your guests – as long as they don’t mind having more tiny microbes over their slice! But science has now answered one of life’s most important questions: What’s the best way to cut your birthday cake?
Now if you’re like me and a piece of heavenly, gooey, chocolatey cake almost brings a tear of happiness and joy to your eye, then you surely want to keep it as moist as possible, for as long as possible. And our go-to way of cutting cake into triangles just doesn’t cut it!
It turns out what you should really be doing is cutting a strip from the middle of the cake and push the resulting halves back together to keep it deliciously moist on the inside! Why? Because it reduces the surface area exposed to the air which dries out your cake! If you compare my smushed back together cake with one that has had a triangular slice taken out of it, then there’s going to be a far greater area for the air to attack the cake compared to my birthday cake!
This method might seem more hard work than just covering it over with cling film. but it’s supposed to ensure that your cake is as tasty on day 1 as it is on day 4! Of course, it also assumes that there are people out there that are either incapable of or unwilling to eat an entire cake in one sitting! Something I have no experience of!
So, step 3 – cut slices out of the cake and push the remaining halves back together to prolong freshness!
Step 4: Eat!
No science to sugar coat this one! Just go, tuck in and enjoy your cake!
Hopefully now you are suitably prepared for your next birthday or occasion and you now know how to scientifically have your cake and eat it! Right, I’m off to have more cake and pop open another bottle of bubbly amidst celebrations!
Cheers to turning 26!
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