For the first Astronomy Tea after Spring Break at the University of California at Berkeley, astronomers went full Star Wars with a Jabba-the-Hutt bread sculpture, a honeydew melon Death Star, a plate of Han Solos frozen in chocolate, Yoda-cookies, and assorted scones.
Jabboule the Hutt and the Honey Death Star. Photography credit: Richard Ellis, California Institute of Technology
The creator of all this Star Wars deliciousness is Chelsea Harris. Harris is a Berkeley Astrophysics graduate student, a Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellow, and a massive Star Wars fan. Her primary area of research is to create computation models of supernovae. Her models look at supernova after they explode, trying to match radiation transport and spectra between theory and observation.
Astrophysicist and Star Wars fan Chelsea Harris explaining supernova at 1am. Photography Credit: Ori Fox, UC Berkeley
Late one night in January, Harris realized that the Death Star looked surprisingly like a honeydew melon. Knowing that it would be a hit with fellow fans, she immediately started brainstorming additional items for the weekly Astronomy Colloquium Tea. She already had the cookie cutters, and realized that Han Solo in Carbonite ice cube trays could be repurposed as chocolate molds. After making a proof-of-concept Death Star, she dreamed up creating an elaborate bread sculpture for the slug-like crime boss, Jabba the Hutt. Finally, the scones rounded out the spread with a tasty asteroid field.
The full spread of bread-based crime lord, edible asteroids, chocolate heroes, and a green doomsday device. Photograph by Lauren Weiss, UC Berkeley.
Harris kindly provided how-to instructions on carving a melon into a Death Star:
The Death Star is actually also easy to make, but requires patience. First I lightly skinned the (honeydew) melon with a knife. Then I cut off the top to make it more spherical — honeydews are kind of oblong — and used a paring knife to smooth out the finish a bit. Then I cut a little off the bottom so it could stand. I put a rubber band around the middle and cut around it to give me a guide for carving out the equatorial trench — the trench is a nice guide for the rest.
Frozen honeydew Death Star with the original doomsday space station. Photograph by Lauren Weiss, UC Berkeley (left); Wookieepedia (right).
Then I cut out the laser dish and the blocks of windows that are on that side of the battle station, using the schematic on Wookieepedia. Then all that was left was to painstakingly go around the rest of the thing, carving out blocks of windows. I tried to be careful to mimic the general patterns: not aligning blocks between levels, making sure the blocks were varying widths, etc. Finally, I froze it because I was making it pretty far in advance and didn't want it to decay; but I would have preferred to serve it fresh.
Freezing Han in chocolate is far simpler than it was for Darth Vader to freeze him in carbonate. Buy ice cube trays, fill with melted chocolate, cool, consume.
The sculpted bread Jabboule the Hutt was the more intricate part of the entire spread. The basic concept is a thin sheet of dough on a hollow base, shaped, wrinkled, and textured to match the notorious crime lord.
Jabboule the Hutt with the original sluggish Jabba the Hutt. Photography credit: Richard Ellis, California Institute of Technology (left); screenshot from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (right).
Harris started with a bread boule, cutting off the side and top, then capping the exposed ends with aluminum foil. She then built a base with paper and foil, blocking out the majority of the sculpture's volume. This provided a sturdy, light-weight foundation; meant that the bread would be a thin, consistent thickness for even baking; and allowed flexibility in determining an appropriate display stand.
Foil base-structure for the Jabba the Hutt sculpture. Photography credit: Chelsea Harris, UC Berkeley.
She then mixed up sculpting dough: 2 parts flour, 1 part salt, 1 part water. Not tasty, but very strong! She then rolled the dough into quarter-inch sheets, and draped them over the base with water to glue the seams.
The basic sheet was surprisingly direct. As Harris explains, "Jabba has two main fat layers (with his arms sticking out between them) and then a huge fat face. So...I basically just... did that." A strand of dough dangled a fat layer below his arms, and another above. After more sheets and patches, the basic structure was complete.
Adding wrinkles to Jabba's blobby tail. Photography credit: Chelsea Harris, UC Berkeley.
Harris confides, "After that, it was just a matter of warping and stabbing into what was there to try to get his facial features right. For most of the detail work I actually, awesomely, mostly used this manicure tool and a wooden skewer." Unfortunately, the she overestimated the structural integrity of the dough, so the thin line of a mouth expanded and separated far beyond imagining: "By the time he was ready for the oven, the dough had separated so much that Jabba had this huge, gaping, Pac-Man mouth! I sort of just stared at it in horrified shock for a few moments."
After adding a tongue and a few more detailed tweaks, he was ready for the oven. The whole sculpture was baked at 325F for half an hour, coated in an egg-wash, then baked another 10 to 15 minutes for that extra shine.
Doughy Jabba the Hut ready for baking. Photography credit: Chelsea Harris, UC Berkeley.
For the final display, Harris rolled a foil pillar to support for the Hutt. A hollowed-out boule served as a base for the pillar.
You can't tell from the photographs, but this epic tea even came with a soundtrack. It started off with the Star Wars "Main Title," then continued to the "Cantina Band." Finally, when it was time to usher everyone out of the tea and on to the colloquium, she closed the tea with, "The Throne Room & End Title."
The Tea proceeded the weekly colloquium, an academic event where a visiting professor comes to give a guest-lecture on their research. The speaker this particular week was Professor Richard Ellis, giving a talk on "Observations of Star-Forming Galaxies in the Heart of the Reionization Era." While not particularly Star-Wars-ish at first glance, the Caltech research group is observing galaxies from a long time ago and far, far away. Even better, it was the first Astronomy Tea after Spring Break, leaving Harris plenty of preparation time. Colour me envious, my departmental seminars never had a tea-time this elaborate!
All creations by Chelsea Harris. This isn't the only time Star Wars has inspired astronomers; these robotic SPHERES are straight from the movie.