3D printed cheesecake – food printing technology puts the cherry on top

Print cartridges filled with peanut butter, strawberry jam, Nutella, banana puree, frosting, cherry juice and a paste made from biscuits and butter, are all loaded into the 3D dessert printer. 

Following a pre-programmed recipe, the machine lays down a triangular cake base with the biscuit paste, and then switches cartridges to add an internal filling of peanut butter and strawberry jam, topped with Nutella and banana puree. A laser torches the top layer like a crème brulee, before adding final flourishes of cherry juice and frosting.

The process is mesmerising, and the resulting cake slice edible, even tasty. 

The seven-ingredient printed dessert / Credit: Jonathan Blutinger / Columbia Engineering

This futuristic ‘cheesecake’ was created using 3D printing and baking technology by lead author Jonathan Blutinger and a team of researchers from the Creative Machines Laboratory at Columbia University, US. Their paper on The future of software-controlled cooking is published in npj Perspective

Blutinger, a self-described ‘foodie’, has a background in mechanical engineering and robotics. 

He tells 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.”

The ‘cheesecake’ doesn’t actually contain cream cheese, despite it being an ingredient fit for printing. Blutinger says cream cheese is a common testing ingredient, which is why the final cake doesn’t have any. “We got sick of printing with it,” he says. 

The final cake slice emerged after a series of failures and design iterations to the structure and order of ingredients. While the final result was frozen, the team tasted several of the penultimate versions.

“Even for the failed ones. The good thing about printing with food, is even if it doesn’t hold the structure, it still tastes good. Because it’s still the same ingredients,” Blutinger says. 

“I think it was interesting because the ingredients are layered at such a close level, you can get a new flavour sensation. They’re combined so close to each other that you feel them in different waves. It allows you to really control the flavour on a local level, which is something I hadn’t thought about until trying it.” 

The unsuccessful attempts were still tasty / Credit: Jonathan Blutinger / Columbia Engineering

Read more: Kitchen engineering and the Great British Bake Off – can kids develop a taste for engineering?

For 3D food printing to work, ingredients have to be able to flow through a 1.5mm nozzle. In technical terms the materials have to be ‘shear thinning’, capable of moving like a liquid when a force is applied, and then behaving like a solid when the force is removed. 

The seven ingredients used in the 3D printed dessert / Credit: Jonathan Blutinger / Columbia Engineering

The desert slice takes about 30 minutes to bake, making the research lab smell like a kitchen.

“Once it’s actually flowing and getting into its rhythm and doing each layer. Time goes by quicker than you think. Its super entertaining to watch. And gratifying when it actually works well,” Blutinger says.

Since mastering the dessert slice, Blutinger and the team of researchers have been working with a newer machine that can print using up to 18 different ingredients and cook with two different lasers. They’re working on a developing a three course meal. The challenge here is finding a recipe with so many different components. 

Could the future must-have kitchen appliance be a 3D printer?

The 3D printing technology is already being used for some applications like manufacturing plant based meats, as a way to control the marbling of ‘steak’ and other products, Blutinger says. 

It could have potential for people with dietary restrictions, allowing the tracking of the micro and macro nutrients. “A bit like having a dietician and personal chef all in one”, Blutinger says.

But home cooks might have to wait a few years before 3D printing their own desserts. There would need to be a whole production system to support the technology’s use, including cartridges and recipes.

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