Thursday, August 30, 2012

Parasite Cookies

We pick somewhat unorthodox literature to read each month in my book club. In July, our discussion of a book of short stories by Roald Dahl morphed into sci-fi movie banter. "Independence Day," "Prometheus," and "Alien" all came up. (I know, shame on us, talking about movies at a book club.)

Now, I've never actually seen "Alien," but I have read about it… in a book about parasites. And when it came time to choose August's book, I knew just what to suggest. Can you guess? I've mentioned it here before: Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer.

This is the book that almost pushed me to go into parasitology. That was before I realized that I liked the overall research findings a whole lot more than I liked the sound of the research itself. Of course, I eventually came to that conclusion about research in general, but that's another story.

Even though my dreams of becoming a parasitologist have withered, I still reread this book from time to time just because it reminds me how crazy cool biology is and how little we really know about our world. And because, well, parasites are amazing. That goes without saying.

My book club met on Tuesday, and to sweeten the occasion for anyone who found tapeworm and blood fluke-infested paragraphs to be somewhat unpalatable, I brought along a batch of cookies. Parasite cookies. Red blood cells and trypanosomes, to be precise.

Those lithe, sinuous creatures swimming amongst the red blood cells in the photo are trypanosomes. They look pretty—at least to those of us who coo over microbes—but they're vicious little brutes. Ever hear of Chagas disease? No? How about sleeping sickness? Both are diseases you'd better hope you never, ever contract. And trypanosomes are at fault in both cases.

Sounds delicious, right? Perhaps not. But the cookies were well received nonetheless.

Parasite Sugar Cookies
(adapted from Joy of Cooking's sugar drop cookies)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (use another 1/2 cup white flour instead if you don't have this stuff)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon or cardamom or 1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or another 1/2 stick of butter)
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp each almond and vanilla extract (use 1 tsp vanilla if you don't have almond… but you should pick some up soon. That stuff is magical.)
Food coloring

1.   Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spice of your choice (I went with nutmeg this time). Don't have a flour sifter? Me neither. Use a fine-mesh sieve.

2.   Mix the sugar, butter, and oil on medium speed until well blended.

3.   Oh, you should probably preheat the oven to 375˚F about now.

4.   Add the eggs to the buttery sugar (or sugary butter), beating well after each.

5.   You're doing great! Now add the almond and/or vanilla extract.

6.   Slowly add the dry ingredient mixture while beating on low. When it holds together but is still lumpy, separate the dough into two halves, or 1/3 and 2/3, or whatever fraction you're feeling partial to.

7.   Add a few drops of red food coloring to one half (or the larger of your asymmetric portions) of the dough. I ended up using a dozen drops, actually, and my cookies were still on the pink side. Mix in until the color is well distributed.

8.   Add a few drops of blue to the other wad of dough (I used about 6 here). Mix it in. You know the drill.

9.   Roll balls of the red dough—maybe about 3/4" in diameter?—and flatten them slightly between your palms. Place them on a greased cookie sheet (with room to spread out slightly) and use your thumb to flatten down the center. Give it a good squish, as it'll rise back up while baking.

10.   After you've cooked all your erythrocytes, it's time to move onto the trypanosomes. Make balls of the blue dough (slightly smaller than before). Roll them between your palms—think playdoh snakes—place them on the cookie sheet, and give 'em a nice serpentine shape.

11.   Bake the red blood cells for 10-12 min each and the trypanosomes for somewhat less… try 7 or 8 min.

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