Where will you be for Christmas?


Back on the farm with Mum, Dad and everyone else who wants to come along. It’s the one time my family will tolerate me making us play games. We’ll be playing charades and lots of other games that we’ve invented over the years, like Twisted Knob, which is where we draw pictures of penises.

Ahem… Moving on. Do you have any family traditions?

I’m a materials engineer, so I’m fascinated by making things and engaging with the world physically. Mum and I both agree that the trifle is the king of Christmas puddings, but we can’t agree on how to make it. So every year, we make one each.

I like mine to have defined strata, like a geological formation, but my mum likes what can only be described as slop. We are opposite ends of the trifle spectrum.

Can materials science help to create the perfect Christmas dinner?

Yes it can. We’ve shown how different materials can affect taste. If you’re cooking tomatoes and you stir them with a metal spoon, they’ll be more bitter than if you use a wooden spoon. Copper makes things tastes bitter, while gold can help things taste sweeter. You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten mango ice cream off a gold spoon.

Any tips on how to set the table, then?

Don’t use silver cutlery – silver tastes horrible. You’re much better off with stainless steel, or gold if you have it. I’d advise laying wooden plates. Eating off wood is really nice. It has this soft acoustic effect.

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My Life Scientific: Dr Zoe Laughlin © Yasin Isik
© Yasin Isik

What’s on the menu?

One of the great pleasures is having turkey with crispy bacon, but be careful: moisture is the enemy of crispy bacon. I advise putting your bacon into a cold pan, then bringing it up to temperature on the hob slowly. This will evaporate out all the moisture and then, as it starts to cook, let all the fat render out. It will become an utter crisp delight and you can lay it across the top of the turkey.

Trifle for pudding?

For me, trifle, but Christmas pudding is also allowed, as long as you think about what you flambé it with. Vodka is good because it catches fire more easily than brandy. And gin is also delicious – it leaves you with a citrus note that cuts through the thickness of the brandy butter.

Do you have a favourite Christmassy material?

I have lots of favourites but let’s say ice. It has all sorts of mental properties. Most things shrink when they go from liquid to solid, but water expands. That’s why ice floats and as a result we have life in the oceans under the ice. It’s also part of our physical experience of the seasons. It’s a special type of pleasure when you step outside and there’s ice on the puddles and you have the pleasure of cracking it.

My Life Scientific: Dr Sue Black © Yasin Isik


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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.