Friday, 24 December 2010

The Grand Finale

Well, what can I say? This was too wonderful not to be posted.


Merry Christmas - may yours be... tastier.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Twenny-an-a-three

Escapism is the only way when things tumble down all around you. Whether, like many of my friends, you are held hostage by millions of tiny snow flakes which have taken over airports and streets like one big raspberry into the face of Christmas, or just indulging the winter blues, it's time to face the music and dance. That is, it's time to get out cheesy and grossly inappropriate ways of entertaining the self.

Alternative One
I suggest a trip to the past, where the sweaters were fluffy, the hairstyles even more so, the cars were fast, then men dashing, and ski resorts a somewhere only the privileged used as a, well, last resort when things got snowy. May I (re-)introduce you to the Harts?
Check it out on IMDB!
Make mine a large one, Max!

Alternative 2
Embrace the cold, get a sled! But which one? I was amused to read about the alternative of using a bin bag... in this otherwise rather informative and amusing Guardian article.

Alternative 3
Just dance. Seriously. It warms the feet and the soul. Soundtrack? Oh, I dunno... but for the sake of continuity in this post, how about Rod Stewart & Dolly Parton's version of Baby It's Cold Outside? It comes with a slide show whence I nicked that Christmassy Dolly shot above. How great is that? Shudders down your spine - added kinetic energy.

Now go and have a cookie...

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

XXII

What's this?
If I were an alchemist, this might be a riddle - something involving a regal substance and a baked one. Or something sweet and something blue. Or a recipe for making queen tea. Perchance even a china spout. Don't know what that is? If I were an alchemist, it'd be up to you to figure that out, young man/missy (delete as appropriate).

But seeing as I'm not an alchemist, it's a Christmas cookie. On a plate.

Sometimes it really is that simple.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Twenty-and-one

Und ist auch noch so duenn der Tee
und tut dir irgendwo was weh -
Rum, Rum, dann sind gleich alle Schmerzen stumm.


Theodor Fontane

Monday, 20 December 2010

20

"All you really need is love,
but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."


- Lucy van Pelt

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Neunzehn

Let it snow? Well, upon hearing this, many of my readers will hide in a corner with a stuffed toy by now. Rightly so: the weather messes up many people's Christmas plans, and I say 'Bah, humbug!' to showers and ice and everything crap.

Artificial snow is a different thing, though, when contemplated from the safety of one's own desk. Even reading about it makes my brain spin, hence warm up with kinetic energy. Here's a taster from an article on artificial snow:
Snowflex, for example, has a slippery polybutylene terephthalate fiber surface layer that sits atop a shock-absorbing pad that has a woven backing. Water piped through the layers exits recessed nozzles and mists the surface, which helps reduce friction even further. This new type of dryslope can be laid out like carpet and cut to fit features such as moguls.
Read more of the same (but no worries, the beginning of the short article is much more accessible and really rather interesting!) in a 2004 issue of Chemical and Engineering News!

Now back to the chemistry of hot chocolate...
Photo from huettenhilfe.de

Saturday, 18 December 2010

18

Call me sceptical - but Dan Leppard's recipe makes me... suspicious. "The alchemist's chocolate cake"? No gold involved? Pears?!! Low-fat low-sugar? Reverse alchemy, more like!
Photo from the Guardian

Nevertheless, here goes, and I quote the whole recipe:

The alchemist's chocolate cake
(created by Dan Leppard, full article in the Guardian)

One 415g tin pear halves in juice
75g cocoa powder
125g caster sugar
3 tsp vanilla extract
50ml walnut oil
1 large egg
225g plain flour
2½ tsp baking powder
Drain the pears, reserving the juice. Measure the cocoa, sugar and 125ml of pear juice into a saucepan, madly whisk it all together and bring to the first 'plop' of a boil. Spoon this mixture, along with the pear halves, into a mixing bowl and leave to cool for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile line the bottom and sides of a 20cm round cake tin with non-stick baking paper and preheat the oven to 170C (150C fan-assisted)/ 325F/gas mark 3. Spoon the chocolate mixture, vanilla and oil into a blender, and purée until smooth. Pour this back into the bowl, then beat in the egg. Stir together the flour and baking powder, sift into the bowl and beat until smooth.
Scrape the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 40 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.

And if it explodes around your head, don't say I didn't warn you! I, however, will be investigating full-joy recipes now. Toodles!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Seventeen

The goodness doesn't end: Upon some browsing, I found a Yahoo group with science jokes, and thence the following (here's just the incipit - read the full tale here). Huzzah!



CHEMISTRY CHRISTMAS

'Twas the night before Christmas,
The lab was quite still;
Not a Bunsen was burning
(Nor had they the will).
The test tubes were placed
In their racks with great care,
In hopes Father Chemistry
Soon would be there.

The students were sleeping
So sound in their dorms,
All dreaming of fluids
And Crystalline forms.
Lab-Aids in their aprons
And I in my smock.

When outside the lab
There arose such a roar
I leaped from my stool
And fell flat on the floor.
Out ot the fire escape
All of us flew.
What was the commotion?
Not one of knew.

The flood-lights shone out
O're the campus so bright
It looked like old Stockholm
On Nobel Prize Night.
My fume-blinded eyes
Then viewed (dare I say?)
Eight anions pulling
A water-trough sleigh.

And holding the bonds
Tied to each one of them
Was a figure I knew
As our own Papa Chem.
With speeds in excess
Of most X-rays they came.
As they Dopplered along
He called each one by name.

"Now Nitrite, now Phosphate,
Now Borate, now Chloride
On Citrate, on Bromate,
On Sulfite and Oxide.

Forget what you know
Of that randomness stuff,
Let's go straight to that roof,
If you've quanta enough."

As fluids Bernoullian
Behave in a pinch,
Those ions said "Alchemist
This is a cinch."
So up to the lab-roof
Those "chargers" they sped
With Pop Chemistry safe
In his water-trough sled.


...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sixteen

Rather late in the day this is, but I was distracted by a shiny and oh, so appropriate new thing I got for Christmas - how cool is this?!
Mug shot of the back:
Inspiration for more blog posts. Now, what shall I drink out of it? Suggestions welcome. Meanwhile, I'll keep looking at it. Boy oh boy, this is too good to be true!

By the way: the bottom of the mug tells me it was designed by McLaggan & Smith, but I couldn't find it (or a decent photo, hence the blurry ones above) anywhere on the net. I am one lucky Paracelsa!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Fifteen

Nuff said.
Check it out on IMDB!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Fourteen

Imitation, flattery and other people's advent calendars are the best thing in the world. Enter the online advent calendar of the German newspaper Die Zeit, on their Heiter bis glücklich blog. And what did we find behind yesterday's advent calendar door? Finest chocolate from Atelier Cacao. I say!
Photo from abovementioned blog. Yum.

Monday, 13 December 2010

13

"Knock knock."
-
"Come in?"

Well, that's how I responded when someone tried to pull the first knock-knock joke on me, ca. 10 years ago. You see, Germany does not have pantos. Or knock-knock jokes. But it does have its own Christmas traditions, among them the tree that the British so gracefully adopted a century-and-a-bit-ago and then transformed it into something... for want of a better word... wrong. Sorry, folks. But a tree needs real candles. And a dad who ties it to a nail in the wall so it won't fall over. And a mum who puts a pragmatic plastic blanket underneath it all to catch dripping wax. And kids who like matches.

But even German Christmas trees (and this is where I gingerly hop off that soap box) are not perfect any more. Why? One word: tinsel. Over here in the Great of Britain, you probably get something akin to a cat's excited tail in plasticky shininess when you ask for tinsel. In Germany, you get linguine-style threads. What's wrong with both of those is the material: tinsel used to be made of aluminium, but nowadays it's plastic. How alchemical: a tin foil turned into PVC. Whether that is really better for the environment remains to be proven (please do enlighten me). What is tragic about this is that it's near impossible to get proper tinsel, old-style.

Before I share the good news, here's your bit of knowledge for the day: the German word for tinsel is 'Lametta'; and the German word for tin foil, only in the context of tinsel (at least where I grew up), is 'Stanniol', and it's been around since the 17th century.
Now for the good news: someone's selling GDR remainders on ebay (just google 'DDR Lametta' on image search to have a peek). And the ever helpful Manufactum (ta for the pic above) sells the real thing. It doesn't come cheap, but it's reusable if you bother taking it down before chucking your tree. Deck the halls with strands of tinsel! Falla lala laaa, la la. La. La.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Elve

A short post for the weekend: Did you know that some people (well, one) write their PhDs about elves? Check out Alaric Hall's page!

For everyone else: if you haven't seen the new Harry Potter movie yet, brace yourselves:

  • no new potions to discover
  • take a hot beverage - the movie's wintry throughout and made me shiver
  • Hedwig dies
  • Dobby dies
  • hope I didn't spoil it
And while I am grinchy, why not check out Carol Ann Duffy's Christmas poem for last year?
(Sorry, more, and cheerier posts soon. It's just... Dobby...).

Friday, 10 December 2010

Ten

I recently saw the Wellcome's wonderful exhibition on drugs and drug culture, High Society. And lo - they do fabulous events to go with it! Today:

Kaffeine and Kuchen
Image from the Wellcome announcement of this oh-so-tempting event.

Quoth the blurb:
Be transported to the coffee houses of 18th-century Leipzig in this immersive evening of music and mind-altering substances (of the legal variety!). Sample delicious cakes served up by the award-winning Peyton and Byrne chefs, let our coffee expert demonstrate the effects of caffeine in a guided coffee tasting, and be entertained by the Early Opera Company performing J S Bach’s miniature comic opera 'The Coffee Cantata'.

Oh my, I'm feeling intoxicated already. Hopefully I'll catch one of the January repeats!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Nine

Look what I found! A Christmas Tarot!
From christmastarot.wordpress.com, by Corinne Kenner.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Eight

Germany 'Uni-Kino' - how I miss it! Picture the scene: an old lecture theatre with wooden seats and tables, steeply arranged, and a small screen (intended for projection of academic importancies onto it). Lots and lots of students, who pay an almost nominal fee to get in. A movie. And in December, they always show Die Feuerzangenbowle (1944), a movie of similar cult status as the Rocky Horror Picture Show elsewhere in the world.
Image from WDR archives

The story revolves around Hans Pfeiffer, a fairly famous writer, who goes back to school (at 40 going on 14) to experience life in a classroom and recapture some of that fun that escaped home-schooled young him. Hilarity ensues. Including mock-drunkenness in chemistry class. Marvellous!

The drink whose intoxicating qualities spark Pfeiffer's idea to go back to school is also the inspiration behind the title: Feuerzangenbowle. Red wine heated, spiced (so far, so mulled wine), and then topped with a sugar cone drenched in rum and ignited. Only try this at home if you have high ceilings!

Feuerzangenbowle
(recipe from Suedzucker)

2 bottles nice red wine
2 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
juice from oranges and lemons (2 each)

Heat all that up for a nice mulled wine-like potion. Now, you need equipment:

1 sugar cone
1 sugar cone tong suspended over a heatproof pot which holds the mulled wine (seriously, without this it's just plain dangerous)
1/2 bottle of rum, poured over the sugar cone
1 brave person to set the cone afire

Watch sugary rummy syrup drip into mulled wine. Keep watching. Nope, don't touch yet! When it's all done, stir, pour into mugs and sip, carefully but with much gusto. You're welcome.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Seven

That's "se-VEEEN!" to you, if you don't mind.
Catch up on your Strictly on the BBC iPlayer

Diverting from all nosh, poison and mystery today, this post is for everyone who, like me, against their own better judgement, finds this year's Strictly strangely fascinating.

Here's a tip for a stocking filler: Watch that wonderful Anton, who twirled Ann Widdecombe around with so much grace (seriously, hats off to him!) live next year (Glasgow in February)! Now, if that doesn't make you cheer up, I can't help you.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Six

Happy Saint Nicholas' Day! If I were anywhere near Heidelberg (or any other university with a sense of pride, tradition and traditional fun), and if I were a student, my day would probably shape up like this:

  • get up, have a hot cup of tea and a fresh roll
  • get act together
  • brave the streets and resist temptation of bakeries offering Christmassy goodness in the form of baked, spiced, sweet goods
  • make it to the Christmas Market, conveniently located en route to the university - in fact, one part directly in front of the Old University building, where 21st-century electronic, Micky-Mouse versions of Christmas songs (as dispensed from the ginormous speakers next to the carousel) make concentrating on lectures near-impossible
  • collect some mulled wine from a stall (those who are prepared bring a thermos and their own cup, to indulge during lectures as needed); alternatively, some hot chocolate with rum (known as 'Lumumba' for indefinable reasons)
  • go about university business
  • meet friends for some potato pancakes, waffles or dip-dyeing of candles, at the Christmas Market, on the way home
  • fall into bed
  • sleep and dream of doing it all over again the next day
Memory may have eliminated the biting cold, the scary icy pavements and the fact that life is not so sweet when you live on a very small income. But the remaining, air-brushed memory still puts a smile on my face.

Now, why are my boots empty? I think I'll bite the head off my self-bought chocolate Santa right now...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Five

It is with pride and some wistfulness that I share my grandma's recipe for oat biscuits here. They are quick, easy, tasty, and once made my Indian flatmate at the time exclaim "They taste like the cookies the street vendor in India made when I was a little child!" (The good news is, you are bound to like them).

Note: Using coarse brown sugar makes them crunchy; caster sugar has a softer finish; and you can add salt to taste.
Photo from BBC Good Food
Oma's Oat Biscuits
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup dessicated coconut (unsweetened!)
1 cup sugar (see note above)
1 cup flour
125g butter
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 egg
pinch of salt (see above)

Combine into a dough. Set small balls of dough onto a baking tray lined with parchment (use teaspoons, which create balls the size of a walnut), and bake at 180C for 10-15 minutes (they are done when they smell nice and have turned golden). Kept in a tin, they may just last for a couple of weeks. But like any food stuff, they may suffer from consumption first...

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Four

A Christmas-themed mystery novel and a nice cup of (well, don't mind if I do) mulled wine is the only thing on icy weekends like this one. I am lucky enough to have snatched up an audio book of this one at Galloway & Porter, the Cambridge institution that is no more. But maybe you have someone to read this to you (with a David Suchet-like French accent)?

Get your copy at your local bookshop to make sure it continues to exist (or at Amazon, if you must, but I don't approve - even if I nicked this cover shot from their website).

Friday, 3 December 2010

Three

Coming to you from Manufactum, place of good, solid, make-my-heart-sing products - old-fashioned goodies, in short: Cookie cutters that are welded together to provide foolproof, smooth, reliable Christmas cookie shapes. No edges. No tears. Just joy.
Oooh, how alchemical! Metalworking meets nom!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Two

Glass is magic. It's turning sand into, well, something transparent and hard. It's Pyrex (named after 'pie', I kid you not! See here) and laboratory equipment. And to alchemists and their contemporaries, it was one of the most mysterious and challenging materials man continued to improve.
You missed the fabulous exhibition materials on Glass of the Alchemists at the Corning Museum of Glass, but there is much to be discovered on their website. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

One

Crystals: little flakes of wonder
W.A. Bentley, Snow Crystals (New York, Dover: 1962)
Photo from Wikipedia

...perhaps not unique (no indeed, there is no chemical/scientific reason why two snow flakes should not be alike), but still marvellous. Thanks to Wilson Alwyn 'Snowflake' Bentley (1865-1931), who endured many a cold second in front of his microscope-cum-camera to capture these on film!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Ringing In The Future Of Alchemy

Cambridge and London. That's where I was while not posting last week. And what a wonderful trip it was! Two of my very favourite people took me change ringing in Cambridge: a joyful combination of all my favourite things! Gentle exercise and extending the spine (move over, Pilates); observing mechanical technicalities of bells ringing in the lofty heights of the belfry; an imminent understanding why that poor character in Dorothy L. Sayers' Nine Tailors did not survive those nights in the bell tower; amazement at the mathematical musicality of the changes; general intrigued-ness that has prompted me to find change ringers in Glasgow (first session next week - stay tuned!); chocolate; and pubs. Huzzah!
Readily available for instant Christmas cheer

The occasion that had taken me to London was a celebration, retrospective and pointing future-wards, of the history of alchemy and chemistry: SHAC (the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry) celebrated its 75th anniversary, complete with a lecture by the always informative-and-entertaining phenomenon, or rather personality, that is Prof. Simon Schaffer. (Seriously, if you want to know why I was jealous of the undergraduates who could attend this lectures while I was sweating blood over my thesis, check out his BBC series The Light Fantastic).

Other celebrities in history of alchemy/chemistry circles left me with a lasting ponder and slightly wistful feeling. In a panel entitled "The good old days", three living legends talked about their careers as historians of chemistry, and the twists and turns fate had subjected them to to make them the researchers, teachers and people they are. Professor Maurice Crosland, who has written the hitherto only comprehensive study of alchemical language, managed to write his excellent PhD part-time while teaching at UCL, then joined the University of Leeds as faculty member to teach many students in the history of science and allow them to discover their interest in a field they had never heard of before.

This enthusiasm that seems to come naturally with the history of chemistry (and, oh, it does hit hard, I can tell from experience!) was recalled by David Knight, emeritus professor at Durham: when he first started historical investigations, after reading chemistry at Oxford, he once got so excited about a book he picked up in the library that he (and I quote from memory) "had to take a walk around the park to calm down and continue my studies." Finally, Professor Colin Russell told about his early days at Open University, and the exciting experiments he was allowed to perform on camera, at a time when TV was a new medium for teaching. Many of the experiments would be prohibited by health and safety these days - but I could tell how much fun they were (for him as a chemist and a teacher) by the way they still light up his face, decades later.

Simon Schaffer, photo for The Light Fantastic/BBC

What all three historians emphasised was simple but effective: they could not have proceeded in their career without the support of and collaboration with their colleagues; that they had a lot of luck that opportunities arose at the right time; and that they are very thankful to both fate and colleagues, that magical mixture that makes for a good career.

These days, none of us has a crystal ball; but here's to the future of the history of alchemy and chemistry. May it receive the luck and support it deserves. I know that I am not the only one who would be incredibly thankful for that.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Antidotal

Poisons have been following me around this week - luckily just in the historical, literary and anecdotal sense. I therefore proudly present, in sequence of coming to my attention:

The Cabinet of Poison

1. Waiter, there's something in my coffee

With a big thank-you to Carin Berkowitz, I giggle to share a photo of Cafe Arsenik in Montreal. Cake, anyone?


2. Literature with a bitter twist
Roald Dahl's "The Landlady" may well be one of the nicest-yet-creepiest short stories I read as an impressionable young adult. It features a B&B, a guest of the same, the landlady, a dog (of sorts), and a cup of coffee with a hint of bitter almond about it... Intrigued? Your fireside reading has just been sorted. You're welcome.

3. History of Arsenic
Just a couple of years ago, I was happily munching my lunch while listening to a talk about the history of arsenic. It sure made for a good story: arsenic, if I remember correctly, was the first poison that could not be detected even in thorough investigation of a murder victim (with the methods of the time). We're talking early nineteenth century here, and the world was becoming more and more afraid of chemicals. Was I happy I had made that sandwich myself, though!

As David Caudill, lawyer at Villanova and an intriguing storyteller, outlined, new occupations popped up in the court room of the nineteenth century as a result of a few high profile cases of arsenic poisoning. Meet the physician as an expert in court - I might as well say a fish out of water. Indeed, physicians had not been involved in murder trials to that extent before, and they had to figure out what to say and how to say it very quickly to avoid confusions that could end up very nasty for the accused.

What surprised me the most at first, and then not at all in hindsight, is that an increasing number of wives were accused of trying to poison their husbands soon after the first cases were tried - an explanation that tells us more about the nature of Victorian husbands and their trust in their sweet wives than an actual poisonous sophistication on behalf of the latter. I wish I could remember more details - but luckily, David wrote an article about the prehistory of the Arsenic Wars in connection with abovementioned Brown Bag Lunch lecture. Enjoy the read!


4. Astrology, alchemy and a body
The most curious news of the day: Tycho Brahe, the 16th-century Danish astronomer of widespread fame, even wider spread infamy and metal nose, has been exhumed again. Yes, you read correctly: given a generous trace of mercury in his locks, the mystery of his death is picked up again.
Tycho Brahe
Image from the Galileo Project


Theories abound: "Brahe was also an alchemist and some have suggested that he would have handled mercury and may have administered it to himself as medicine. Others have suggested he was poisoned."
Read all about it on the BBC website (whence this quote originates). I, for one, can't wait to hear more! 

Monday, 8 November 2010

To All The Scones I've Loved Before

Drama. Scream-out-loud outrage. Desperate sobbing. No, I did not lose my choo-choo toy, but it certainly feels like that: Kember & Jones, who I praised so sincerely just a few posts ago, decided to raise the price of their scones from 95p to (whisper it) ((with Parseltongue-like disgust)) One Pound And Twenty-Five-Pence-You-Must-Be-Kidding-Me! I, for one, am boycotting this sconeflation. Bye-bye, buttery buns of bliss! That'll learn them!

Meanwhile, does anyone have a good scone recipe (I am not fond of Delia's --they are too baking-powdery-- and have not dared try any other)? Please help. Please post a comment.
With a scone like that, leftovers are rather likely in my house...

I Can't Believe It's Not Better
...is not only the title of a segment in the hilarious Graham Norton Show on BBC Radio 2, but also a reaction I had to scones and many other food items in the USA. Scones, indeed, are a different type of baked good over there, whose manufacture involves a good dollop of cream and more sugar - perfectly delectable as a cake item; rather surprising as a breakfast item.

Oh, the culinary differences between the United K and the Ditto S of A could fill screens and screens of be-blogposted monitors. To give but one example, I've heard many a story about Europeans' first lips-on experience of 'cider' in the US = fizzy apple juice sans alcoholic zing. Yet no one warns you up front! Be that as it may, even familiar food items can make for surprising tastage in a different country.

I was recently reminded of this while reading Colm Toibin's remarkable novel Brooklyn: a tale of a young Irish woman who emigrates to that part of New York City in the early 1950s. With a wonderfully clean style, Toibin describes that confusion that enters every cell of a traveller's body in food situations: the tongue and brain expect one thing but sense another. One pithy paragraph has Eilis, the Irish woman, mention that even the butter does not taste like the real thing in Brooklyn. In a way, she can't believe it is butter! And I still remember my first sip of organic milk after coming back to the British Isles, wondering how I could have forgotten how satisfyingly deep the taste milk can be.

I do miss Trader Joe's frozen cherries and proper bagels, though. Especially in this scone-deprived recent world of mine. Woe is me. Please send chocolate (but not Hershey's or Cadbury's, if you don't mind).

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Hallow & Boo-Bye

I don't do Halloween. Not in the trick-or-treating, dress-uppity, drunken kind of way, anyway. There are so many things wrong with it, and I won't bore you with a rehashed story of the Americanization of a Celtic tradition or my rather sensible theory (if I say so myself) that it should really be 'treat or trick' ('Gimme a treat or else I'll play a trick on you', no?). No, you won't find me scantily clad in haphazard fancy dress (read: an inappropriate Lady Gaga or Dead Nurse costume) on the October-beaten pavements of Glasgow - although I must admit that a friend's friend's idea to transform herself into the devil from the Master and Margarita sounds like my cuppa pumpkin punch. Nah, if you mention Halloween, I say boo-bye and thanks for calling.

Yet there are other festivals and traditions observed around this time of year which inspire evening entertainment these days. Most in-your-facely, there's All Saints and All Souls, an opportunity to think of those who have passed away before us. And even without religious inclinations, the music, art and poetry inspired by people whose spirits haunt our lives long after they have moved on can make rainy, windy evenings ever so snuggle-up spookier. Yeats has the right inclination and adds some refreshing spirit of the alcoholic kind to the scene, so be my guest and picture it:

'Tis All Souls Night and the great Christ Church Bell,
And many a lesser bell, sound through the room,
For it is now midnight;
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come,
For it is a ghost's right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.
[...]
W.B. Yeats, All Soul's Night (1928)

W. B. Yeats published this poem in his collection The Tower, a volume heavily influenced by his interest in the occult. As a young man, Yeats tried his turn-of-the-century soul at a variety of occult traditions: Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order and anything else that made sense to him who had grown up in an Ireland marked by folklore, myths and confusing political times, and who had moved to a London on the brink of Modernism amidst all sorts of uncertainties.

In 1890 he finally joined the Order of the Golden Dawn and found himself in the good company of many a brilliant artist and intellectual, among them Oscar Wilde's wife Constance, writer Algernon Blackwood and, eventually, the master of a troubled existence Aleister Crowley. Incidentally, here's someone who liked to play dress-up. A lot. But don't let's go there. At all.
Aleister Crowley/Frieda Harris, Thoth Tarot
Trump XV "The Devil"

What united Yeats and Crowley (though they could not stand each other's guts) was the Tarot. Yeats had been introduced to the Tarot, its symbolism and skrying techniques along his path from novice to master within the Order, like any other adept. Crowley went beyond the mere understanding and use of the deck and designed his own set of Tarot cards, which have a disturbing history: the poor artist recruited by Crowley, Frieda Harris, had to interpret Crowley's inspiration into pictures. He talked in trance (or under the influence or substances stronger than muscatel), and she drew with beautiful colours, undoubtedly diluted with some blood and tears. Much like a gruntled diner who describes a taste sensation to a chef and then finds the latter's creation not quite what he imagined, Crowley sent Harris back to the kitchen, er, drawing board. Again and ditto. It therefore took Lady Harris several years to finish, but the result is still stunning (see above).

Crowley was not the only one to create a new version of a Tarot set - far from it! Let me introduce you to Adam McLean's Tarot site, a branch of his Alchemy Website: Adam is collecting and blogging about Tarot decks from all walks of life, all corners of the world and with all levels of artistic sophistication. I might return sometime soon to tell you more about the history of Tarot cards. And like the history of alchemy, it is a fascinating, haunting and wonderful tale indeed.
Penelope Cline's Wild Green Chagallian Tarot,

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Smorgasbord

Nightmares, successes, rainbows, and delightful tidbits of information made up the weird wonderfulness of this past week. In an attempt to unload the overload created in yours truly's brain, here is a smorgasbord of factoids and thoughts, for you to graze and amaze at. Napkins ready - here goes.

Sweet success
Last week's caramels have been a success to the point of causing cat fights among my friends, both Facebook and real. I feel like Monica in Friends around Christmas time - call me candy lady...

The caramels were also a potential source of foot-in-mouth disease: I had been around the mixture for so long on the day of manufacture (the equivalent of spritzing yourself with 5 different perfumes to the point of total nasal confusion), that the experience of tasting one the next day was novel, surprising and surprisingly pleasant. Briefly forgetting I was in the company of others, I shoved a sticky piece of heaven into my mouth and exclaimed "Goodness - these ARE good!" - much to the amusement of the munching bystanders. What they did not know is that I was complimenting the recipe, much as I would slag the cookbook if something turned out spit-out-loud disgusting. Every girl her own food critic and whatnot. If you think I am complimenting myself in suchlike situations, then that's the way it is. No more caramels for you, though.

Nigella Lawson
Photo (appropriately) from dailymail.co.uk

Nigellan nightmares
Prior to this week, I had never seen Nigella Lawson in action. In fact, I had barely browsed her books, since they seem to involve too much meat and fat to apply to my idea of a good meal. Browsing on the BBC iPlayer, however, I recently came across her latest series and decided to tune in, to see what all the fuss is about.

Dear reader, I am traumatised. What is wrong with that woman? Apart from her appearance (please tell me it's an ironic take on herself) and the sloshing around of cream, butter and other questionable ingredients to excess, she bites the heads off prawns, declaring, with a creepy smile, that "there is something primitive about prawns, like they are creatures we used to be millions of years ago. We have evolved, so now we get to eat them". I paraphrase - I could not watch it a second time. Sometime along the line she must also have eaten a thesaurus. Her adjectives (many of them neologisms of the cheesy kind, yet not so bad that they're fun) are all over the place and distract from the cooking. Maybe that's their purpose.

If I ever declared I wanted to be the next Nigella, I take it back a thousand times. Heavens, I'd rather be the next Alfred Biolek, and cook with the stars. Applications will now be received.
Alfredissimo, a German cooking show
Alfred Biolek & comedian Anke Engelke
(photo from amazon.de)

Nom & nommer
This Saturday, a dear Italian friend turned a crisp, sunny morning into perfection by inviting a bunch of hungry girls to shop at Mansfield Park farmers market, followed by brunch at her place, made from the fresh produce snatched up at the market. So many revelations! A smoked mozzarella, fried and served on organic bread; heather honey; Greek delicatessens; the best tomatoes in town; carrots with dirt on them, the way nature intended them to be; duck eggs!

Farmers markets are really like think tanks for cooks, presenting better versions of familiar foods and enticing unfamiliar ones. They are also cures against food ruts. Accompanied by accordion music and friendly Glaswegian banter, this could not have been more pleasant. If you do not have an Italian friend with superior barista skills to cook up a brunch for you, do still go - if you're anything like me, you'll love it.
Tapa can be found on Mansfield Park farmers market,
on Facebook (whence this picture originates)
and in two fabulous locations in Glasgow

Colour me criminal
The final tidbit for today comes to you courtesy of aforementioned multicultural brunch. I learned that Italian mystery novels are known as gialli - named after the yellow covers of early paperback publications, mostly translations of Agatha Christie & Co. And that is my cue to return to noshing and reading. Farewell, dear reader, whatever colour or taste your day may assume today - may it be a good one.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Of Boiled Sweets and Humbug

After a rather long and busy week, which included some news that left a bad taste in my mouth, I decided that today was (and still is) the day to take some time and hand the same over to an activity which I have no control of. None whatsoever. Something that will dictate its own time frame and has a chance to go wrong, but will demand my full attention (thus leaving less time for gloomy ponderings) and, if anything, will be exciting. A substitute for dancing while my knee is still on the mend. In short: an ill-advised food experiment.

Dear reader, I made them. Salty caramels. Without a thermometer. Surely (I told myself), I cannot be the first person to work without one, in spite of many recipes' warnings that it'll all go wrong, friends vanishing from sight, children pointing and laughing, etc. I decided that my eyes, ears and tongue, although not too sure about what to look/listen/taste out for, could judge the caramel situation just as well as a dial with a stick calling itself thermometer - after all, alchemists had had produced fine metal concoctions in pre-Celsian or -Fahrenheitesque times without such equipment. So, I tapped into my inner daredevil-cum-alchemista, crossed my tummy and hoped to end up with something edible. Here's the whole story, sugary start to sweet end.

Salted Caramels
-adapted from three recipes beyond recognition-

300g sugar
250 ml honey
250 ml heavy cream
110g salted butter
more salt to taste

Warning: caramel is insanely hot. Never, ever, ever risk getting spatter, boiled-over caramel or other spillage onto yourself, and if you want to try it, coat a cold spoon very thinly with the finished product and wait before trying!

Sugar and honey go into a pot and are heated, swished around (not stirred - a useless act that makes everything messier than necessary) and heated more, until the sugar caramelises, one recipe said. It did not mention the bubbles, nor that this would take quite some time with these proportions of ingredients. I must say, a gas hob might have helped, but I got there in the end (ca. 20 minutes in).

Observation 1: bubbly sugar-honeyness
While that is doing its thing, heat the cream in a pot and keep it very warm. That made sense. I had experienced the surprisingly quick, rock-hard mess you get when adding cold-anything to caramel in a pot - something that will not be molten again (not even with alchemical methods, I imagine) and ruins both whisk and pot. Lesson learned while making caramel pudding (or not) aged 10. Right. Cream heated. Next step.

When the caramel is the right colour (and smells nice - hanging your nose over the sugar-bubbles is really nice and potentially good for your skin - ok, I made that up, but it cheers one up beyond measure), whisk in the butter in small knobs (buttery caramel smell, observing lumps sinking into oblivion, it's all good). 

Now stir in the hot cream, little by little. This is danger at its best: just a drop too many, and everything goes over the rim of your pot, big mess, game over. If you're anything like me, you'll play around with this a little bit. Then cook the mixture for a while to get the right consistency.


Observation 2: mixture and consistency

Yes, this is where every recipe tells you not to heat above 120 or 125 C. It does things to the crystals and makes your sugar brown even more. Well, I stuck to heating it on a very low heat so it was simmering away, watching the mixture turning slowly (really slowly) from runny into something more creamy - eventually, frantic whisking (something you're not supposed to do, but it's so much fun) will clear the bottom of the pot for a second, leaving whisk marks like motorboats in deep waters. Of course, watching the caramel drip from the whisk helps, too. Now is the time to add more salt if you like.

Observation 3: slow caramel drops
But how do you know when it's done? What is the right consistency? Well, here's something I learned from The Kitchn: drop a bit of caramel into a glass of cold water, and it will cool down and show you what texture the sweet will have. If it's still too liquidy for your taste, keep boiling it. In my case (since I was very cautious, being a caramel virgin and all), the process took 30 minutes after all ingredients had been combined. I ended up with a toffee-like consistency.

Pour the finished caramel onto a baking tray or similar, lined with parchment paper, and let it set for a while, until it's warm and pleasant to the touch.
While you're waiting for this to happen (it took much less time than I anticipated - somewhere between half an hour and an hour), cut more parchment paper into squares fit as wrapping paper.

You will know that it's ready for the next stage when you can cut through it quite easily, too - the mixture will not stick to the knife.
Now find someone to help you - without a helper, this final stage took me an hour (with the result of ca. 100 neatly wrapped caramels).
Take each cut square and roll it a little to make a neat caramel, then wrap. Mine are good - much more intense than anything you buy in a shop. Very little goes a very long way, and I am more than ready to share. If you live in Glasgow, leave a comment with your 'scary yet successful food experiment' story to get a sample! Comments from further afield are also very welcome, but I'm afraid I don't deliver beyond city bounds. Your comments will be edited and posted on Wednesday.

So, what have I learned today? A lot of things. For instance, making sweets is better than eating them (I only had one try-out caramel and am perfectly content). Thermometers are humbug. It's fun to figure out how to do something that seems too tricky to try. And so on.

Most strikingly, though, I learned more about how I learn: it's a messy process which consumes all my brains and senses while I'm at it. It's therefore something that slows down time and accelerates it at the same time  - it feels like I spent a whole day in caramel land, and I am late doing what I was supposed to do today. So, I'd better re-join reality and get on with my work. Luckily, the world is a little bit sweeter again.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Golden Spurtle

Alchemy and mystery need to take a back seat today, because this day (10/10/10) marks World Porridge Day! Never heard of it? Well, this extravaganza brings together oodles of spoon wielding, oat stirring cooks from around the world in the Scottish highland village of Carrbridge. They compete for the Golden Spurtle, an award marking excellent porridgemanship if ever there was such a thing; and they also raise some money for charity while they're at it.

Oh my, even a quick read of that first paragraph gets my scholarly heart racing, my historical brain brooding and my stomach, well, growling. I shall suspend the dash into the kitchen for my elevenses (guess what's on the menu?) to elaborate - I suffer for my art.
From undiscoveredscotland.co.uk

The world in a grain of oatmeal
Basics first: the origins of porridge go (and I use the technical term here) way back. It is a fact that the human bowel does not like raw grains. A couple of spoons of uncooked rice or barley would not only be very unpleasant to chew and swallow, but also difficult to digest, which defeats the whole point of food: no efficient nutrition, no pleasure, just rubbish. Soak the grains and cook them, and it's a different story. Ancient cooks picked up on that rather quickly. In fact, hot cereals predate the baking of bread and the brewing of beer as we know it. I call porridge the bread/beer for beginners.

Nutrition and food science have relaunched the porridge as a superfood. Cue buzz words like wholegrains, protein, fibre, vitamin E, several B vitamins, zinc, antioxidants and, golly, even phytochemicals! Slow release of energy, food of both gods and athletes. There is even more information on the Golden Spurtle website, but I think, like porridge, some of this is to be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps we can just agree on the fact that porridge connects simplicity, culinary cunning and comfort in a bowl, and connects people across the world and its ages with a heartfelt 'yum' and a pat of the belly.

International intermezzo
At this point, I cannot help but throw in this video, made by one American guy who travelled across 42 countries and got the people from all over the world world dancing for this wonderful, wonderful clip. Click on the link below the image and enjoy!


Un-Recipe
Right. Now you want to know how to make porridge, right? Or more likely, you've been using the same method for years and are waiting for me to propose a perfect method, only to feel superior (because, quite obviously, yours is so much betterer than mine!). Well, I shan't comply. Porridge production is as touchy a topic as religion or politics. Don't let's go there, shall we?

Viewed from a safe distance, porridge shows different characteristics in different countries. Scottish porridge is traditionally made without milk, just from water, oats and salt, and it is this mixture that will gain someone the Golden Spurtle today. My impression of English porridge comes with the authority of the University of Oxford behind it: for what it's worth, my brother returned from his first stint at that place of learning with a formula shared by one of his professors: O-W-M 2:3:2. That is to say, two parts oats, three parts water and two parts milk; pinch of salt; cook, stir, let sit, eat, Bob, uncle.

Whatever you do, do not be fooled by those sachets of 'quick oats'. Admittedly, the Dorset cereal variety (no added dodginess, just oats and dried fruit) are handy for the office. But 'quick'?? How much quicker could a dish be? If you use the slightly unorthodox yet perfectly acceptable method of pouring some boiled water on oats and shoving everything into the nukomizer for a minute or two, there you are!
Steel cut oats (image from Wikipedia)

Finally, a word on oats. Depending on where you live, you'll have a choice of 'traditional' or 'rolled', 'quick' or 'porridge' oats, and it's all rather confusing. The difference is in the violence exerted upon the oat as it is crushed into a flake. The more force, the smaller the particle, the quicker the cooking and the mushier the result. It comes down to taste, I suppose - but given how cheap oats are, go on, spend that extra 50p on a bag to discover whether the organic ones are really better than the traditional ones. You might be surprised, either way. It is thus that I discovered steel cut oats, which are readily available in the US but much harder to get over here. For steel cut oats, the oat is not squashed but rather cut into two or three pieces. They require soaking overnight, but they have a wonderfully nutty flavour, a hearty texture and yet an overall delicacy that makes you want to enjoy them just as they are, with a tiny drizzle of honey and a dash of milk (or, even yummier, soy milk) sloshing around it.


The golden spurtle
I know, I know, the golden spurtle has been on your mind since that first paragraph. You can follow the competition on the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Champion website. By the way, a spurtle is a wooden Scottish kitchen implement (dating from the Middle Ages, apparently), used for traditional porridge stirring. Now you know. What I don't quite understand is how it is superior to your regular wooden spoon - smaller base surface? Better hand/wrist feel? Some scientific connection between stirring behaviour and the smoothness of the resulting porridge? Oh darn, here's history repeating itself... now I want one...