Baking Cookies in the Cardinal Crib

The Core Cardinals have landed in our new nest: the Cardinal Crib. Our walls are lined with neon Post-it notes next to a giant whiteboard. When we aren’t teaching, sometimes we sit on chairs. Sometimes we even sit at desks (gasps). But our preferred working state is crowding around the kitchen counter to brainstorm or sitting scattered on the living room floor to work on deliverables – laptops in our actual laps. We look exactly like what you imagine when you hear “college start-up founding team living together in California.”

As college kids and one recent grad (hey Ashwin!), we’re also always hungry. But since we have a food science enthusiast, human biology major, and climate-activist-farmer in the Crib, the conversation around study snacks naturally becomes more than simply, “Do you know if we finished the chocolate chips?” 

In our last newsletter, Montanna released her secret recipe for chocolate chip cookies to the Curious Community. I’m going to walk you all through what happened when we began discussing everyone’s favorite snack...

Montanna learned to count by baking these cookies with her mom, so sharing them with the team is more than satisfying a sweet-tooth. “For my mom, I think the kitchen symbolizes a place where family and friends gather together to share a meal,” Montanna said. She pointed out that food is essential for human life, so sharing homemade cooking is a deeper way to express how much we care for each other.

When I asked Montanna for her cookie recipe, she rattled it off the top of her head without consulting a cookbook. Why? Chemistry! Montanna used to watch as chefs on cooking shows eschewed recipes in favor of what appeared to be their instincts. When she learned that these instincts came from a strong foundation of food science, Montanna began applying what she learned about chemistry to one of her most treasured activities: cooking.

Now Montanna doesn’t rely on recipes. “I’ll be whipping a meringue for example,” she said, “and it can be helpful to add a tiny bit of vinegar because it helps stabilize it.” If the merengue falls, Montanna knows to adjust the acid levels to instigate a slightly different chemical reaction. But chemistry isn’t the only factor Montanna considers when cooking. “It’s also being cognizant of the flavor profile,” she said. Not all acids taste the same!

But why do we love to eat Montanna’s cookies so much? We turned to Ashwin to explain the human biology behind cookie cravings. He’s fascinated by the origins of personality differences and what makes languages across the world distinct from each other. Understanding why we crave chocolate chip cookies is just another way Ashwin explores what motivates human actions.


Ashwin explained that dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. “Your brain may increase dopamine when you smell them baking,” he said. “When you eat them, the flood of dopamine acts to reinforce this craving and focus on satisfying it in the future. It’s a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement.”

Ashwin then asked us to imagine another very plausible scenario in the Cardinal Crib: “Imagine that you’ve been longing for those cookies all day, but your co-workers scarfed them down when you were sidetracked by a conference call. Your disappointment might lower your dopamine level and dampen your mood,” he said. (Subtext: save me some cookies!)

Baking cookies is chemistry. Craving them goes back to neuroscience. And as Eliana, our resident farmer and climate activist pointed out, cookies also contribute to macro systems! “Organic ‘waste’ like egg shells, coffee grounds, ends of produce, or expired food that ends up in landfills produces pockets of methane, which contribute to the enhanced greenhouse effect and the warming of our planet,” she said.

To prevent needless emissions, Eliana suggests starting an at-home compost system.“The organic materials that you don’t use can be broken down into nutrient-rich soil that you can spread along your backyard or use to create your very own flower or veggie gardens!” 

A few days ago, Montanna turned to Ashwin and simply asked: “Teach me something.” The best part about living in the Cardinal Crib is sharing what we love to learn with each other. We do call ourselves the Curious Cardinals for a reason, after all.

Cece King is the Editor of The Lightbulb. Have a question we can investigate? Curious about a speaker, class, or teacher? Email The Lightbulb any story tips at

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