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Cooking with Kids: Chef shows children the chemistry of dessert

Thursday, November 16, 2000

By Kathleen Ganster

Ask kids if they want to learn chemistry and they probably aren't going to be too excited. But ask them to cook with you and they will probably jump at the chance.

Bill Fuller, executive chef with the big Burrito Restaurant Group, demonstrates the science behind delightful desserts in a program for children at the Carnegie Science Center. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

That's what Bill Fuller, executive chef with the big Burrito Restaurant Group, was banking on Friday and Saturday when he cooked up creme brulee. Fuller was at the Carnegie Science Center, North Side, as part of the National Chemistry Week celebration, and he made the dessert for dozens of kids.

Creme brulee as chemistry experiment?

"The caramelization process is very much a chemical process," explained Fuller. Although Fuller has been with big Burrito since it began in 1995, he also has his master's degree in chemistry from the University of California-Berkeley. When the American Chemical Society went looking for someone to talk to kids about chemistry in the kitchen, Fuller was a real find.

"Has anyone ever eaten caramel candy?" asked Fuller.

He made caramel for the audience, explaining caramelization as he went. "The caramel is just sugar that is heated. The sugar undergoes several chemical processes as it is heated," he said in a rather simplified explanation. "The simple sugars break down and form other things."

Fuller, who married in September, was a natural with the kids, calling up several from the audience to cook. Rachael Landis and her cousin, Tiffany Miller, both of Knoxville, were quick to raise their hands to help. According to Jeannette Landis, 7-year-old Rachael wasn't there to learn chemistry -- she was there to eat.

"She wanted to see what they were making. She really doesn't cook much," said her mom.

Fuller showed several kids how to separate eggs -- hardly a science experiment but a good kitchen tip, nonetheless.

"Crack the egg into your hand -- make sure your hands are clean -- and just let the white drain through your fingers as you catch the yolks," he said.

Because creme brulee uses lots of eggs, he was able to involve a lot of children in the process. When Rachael's yolk fell in the bowl, Fuller simply fished it out.

"That's OK, because I know how to rescue egg yolks," he joked. Kids who didn't get a chance to help with the egg separation preparation were encouraged to try it at home.

"Tell your parents that you want to play a game with raw eggs. This is a fun game to play in the living room," he joked.

Perhaps even more amazing than explaining a few chemical properties, Fuller showed the kids how to make creme brulee, a dish that many grown-ups feel is to hard to make.

"Creme brulee is French for burnt custard. It is actually easy to make," he said.

As he cooked, he threw out cooking tips and advice. "If you put the eggs in the milk too fast, you will have scrambled eggs. Slowly whisk the eggs in and give them time to be blended," he said.

Once the creme brulee was in the oven, Fuller made hard caramel. "If you can boil water, you can make caramel. Just heat equal parts sugar and water," he said.

You have to heat it to 250 degrees. "Does anyone know at what temperature water begins to boil?" he asked. "That's right -- at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. So when you heat this mixture to 250, most of the water will evaporate."

As his own caramel mixture heated, he told the kids about his chemistry studies. "When you get to the labs, you get to mix all sorts of fun things. I liked the things that smelled a lot," he said.

For his grand finale, Fuller took out a creme brulee that he had prepared earlier and finished the caramel demonstration by caramelizing the top of the brulee.

"This is my best friend," he said, taking out a propane torch and drawing the applause of the kids in the audience. He proceeded to caramelize the top of his brulee with the torch. That impressed even the kids who weren't impressed by Fuller's chemistry knowledge.

"That's awesome," one yelled out.

Kathleen Ganster is a Hampton free-lance writer.

Related Recipes:

Crème Brulee

Caramel Popcorn

Thursday, November 16, 2000

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