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


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


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


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


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

- Lucy van Pelt

Sunday, 19 December 2010


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

Saturday, 18 December 2010


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


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!


'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


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


Nuff said.
Check it out on IMDB!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


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


"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


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


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


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

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


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!

(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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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!