Dessert a piece of cake, so engineers 3D print 3-course menu

This article is part of a special Cosmos series where our newsroom journalists follow up science from the archive, to find out: What happened next?

What will the 3D food printing team be eating this festive season?

Earlier this year, a team of engineers at Columbia University used 3D printing and baking technology to create a futuristic slice of cherry ‘cheesecake’ – filled with peanut butter, strawberry jam, banana puree, and other tasty ingredients – but no cream cheese.

The team, led by mechanical engineer and self-described “foodie” Jonathan Blutinger published the results in a paper on ‘The future of software-controlled cooking’ in npj Perspective

At the time Blutinger told Cosmos he wanted to bring software and robotics to the largely analogue domain of cooking, to find out “what would happen if we took a human out of the loop, and just had a machine control the assembly and the cooking.” 

After mastering dessert, Blutinger and his team from the Creative Machines Laboratory, set their sights on taking the 3D food printing technology to the limit with an 18-ingredient, 3-course meal.

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The original 3D printed cheesecake / Credit: Jonathan Blutinger / Columbia Engineering

So, what happened next?

Cosmos caught up with Blutinger to see how things were progressing.

Blutinger says the team has since satisfied those aspirations, and have successfully printed a meal comprising appetizer, main and dessert.

Using 18-ingredients – the maximum the food printer can handle – the team successfully programmed a 3D printed menu comprising quiche, pizza slice and key lime pie. 

Appetizer, main and dessert are printed together in a circle, a bit like a pie chart. “Every slice of the circle is a different course,” says Blutinger. The whole process takes a couple of hours.

Apart from the novelty value of creating a complete menu, the challenge was really designed to take the technology to its limits, using “as many ingredients, pastes, powders and liquids [as possible],” he says. “The most ingredients to date in one singular print, which is exciting.” The results are yet to be published.

What’s for dinner?

Each of the 3 courses relies on a different structural component, and fillings, Blutinger explains.

The quiche starts with an egg and tofu mixture, filled with a paste of zucchini and tomato. 

For the pizza portion, there’s a dough base topped with marinara sauce garnished with herb flakes. “We used ricotta instead of mozzarella just because it flows more smoothly. As an Italian it hurts to say that because I know that’s not a real pizza,” Blutinger says.

The new dessert, a piece of key lime pie, riffs off the graham cracker crust used previously in cherry cheesecake. The recipe adds a mascarpone, cream cheese and lime filling. The icing on the cake is a decoration in the shape of a lime wedge – “just to remind you its key lime pie” he says.

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Printing the structural component / Credit: Jonathan Blutinger / Columbia Engineering

Food for thought

Blutinger says the hardest part of completing the 3D 3-course challenge was coming up with foods that would use enough ingredients. “It made me realise that a lot of the foods we cook are pretty simple,” he says.

It requires: “reimagining what we’re used to eating into something that’s printable. That can sometimes be difficult, because you want to keep the character of the original handmade food.” 

“It kind of creates this existential thought process of like: ‘What is food?’ ‘What makes pizza, pizza?’”

In coming up with recipes, the team tries to stay true to the original food, while giving it a 3D printed twist. The result also has to look appetising.

Through their work, the team has realised the significance of texture as a key part of the sensory experience. It’s an issue they are working on improving.

“I think flavour is always the first thing people think about when they’re eating foods […] often overlooked is texture,” Blutinger says.

“If you think back to the last meal you had – think about the things that you liked and you didn’t like about it. Typically, if they’re bad descriptors, it’s usually a reference to some kind of textual quality.”

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An earlier design based on 3 circles / Credit: Jonathan Blutinger / Columbia Engineering

Hungry for more?

Pushing food printing to its limits is about seeing how far they can take the technology. Blutinger says “as engineers, we’re constantly trying to make incremental improvements and kind of see how far we can push the envelope […] once we do, it becomes a new standard.”

So, what’s next for the team, after they’ve delivered their 3-course meal? 

“That’s a tough question,” Blutinger says. One possibility they are weighing up is going miniature by changing the size of the print. “Maybe we create the smallest ever three course meal?’

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