Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Tick-tock Clarice

I admit it, I'm procrastinating.

I'm buried under biochemistry questions, chemistry questions, trying to sort out bits of broken equipment that have forced my work to a halt and my quarterly industry report is due on the desk of a guy in the US first thing tomorrow morning.

I have a long running experiment on the go that needs five hours of prodding every day until the virus capitulates and stops being infectious. It's been a week now of 6 am starts and it's still sulking and refusing to give in. I have 23.6 g of impure yellow slime on my desk waiting to be purified and turned into something that has to be pure enough to soak into a protien crystal. I'm racing the crytallographer on this one; and he has protein clean and trays put down so it's looking like a close run thing. I need to chase a chemical company as I'm running out of silica gel and triflic anhydride. I need to pull some data of the HPLC and analyse it before my boss gets back. I'm on autoclave duty. I have been running about like a gazelle on steriods all day; powered by a cocktail of caffiene and sugar. No pressure.

So what am I doing now?

Stalking some craft stuff on Ebay and making cake. I have the concentration span of a slightly mad goldfish at the moment and I can't settle so I need to relax a bit. This is my default "No way am I making your middle tier sponge, I'll make a seperate one and we can hide it in the kitchen" wedding cake - the sponge that noone sees that appears in bits at the end of the night when everyone has had too much to drink.

I have some lemons. I bought them to make cake with last week and forgot about them. I need to use them pretty sharpish as they aren't coping in the heat - normally I just buy fruit, put it in the fruitbowl and watch it decay but today I'm going to be good and make an effort. There are four here, so I'm removing the zest and juicing them. I tend to keep the zest and juice separate as I don't like bits of zest on the top of the cake all that much, but it's a personal thing.

Butter - 140 g butter, warmed gently so it's soft - or just accidently left out on the side all afternoon in this heat!

Sugar - 250 g of sugar. Normally plain white sugar for this cake, but I'm using half-half white and light brown today as that's what I have at the moment. It honestly doesn't matter; the darker the sugar you use, the darker the final cake will be.

Eggs - two plus and two extra yolks, lightly beaten as usual. This receipe came about as a way of using up excess egg yolks after a pavlova fest, so that's why it's an odd number. Add the lemon zest and beat hard until smooth.

280 g of self raising flour with 1 tablespoon of baking powder thrown in.

Add about 3/4 of the lemon juice into the mix and beat really quickly. Once again, the cake mix is a bit sloppy at this point, but don't worry, it's meant to look like this!

Cake form - this mixture seems to work best as a thin layer in a shallow tin - normally I cook it in a swiss roll tin and make up layers. It doesn't rise very much so thicker layers in loaf tins just end up dense; fine for sculptural work and (hiss spit) people who *insist* that middle tier has to be sponge, but not good for light fluffy cupcakes. Today I'm using a square muffin tin, but cupcakes work fine. This mix will make about 24 cupcakes.

This is one cake I don't tend to grease the pan for or use cake release. As much as the stuff is supposed to be tasteless, I can taste it and I'm not going to frost these so there will be no way of hiding fried edges. You might think that life is too short to individually line each well. I would argue that life is too short to wash this tin.

Mixture goes in...

...the oven at 160 degrees, until a skewer comes out clean - about an twenty minutes, but it will vary depending on your oven and your cake tin. Watch it closly as it will catch.

I tend to leave them to cool in the tin a bit, with a cloth over them to keep the moisture in.

These are little sugar crystals. I end up with boxes of these as every time the out-laws descend on us as they always bring them with them. I'm not sure why. I'm assuming they are some Germanic bartering tool I do not understand the value of. We do have sugar in this country last time I checked but these make an okay (totally optional) topping for this particular cake seeing as I haven't got the faintest idea what else to do with them.

Crush lightly, throw a tablespoon of limonochello on them and sprinkle over the cake then drizzle a mix of 20 g of sugar and the juice of the last remaining lemon over them and flick over icing sugar. About a teaspoon per cake works okay, they are quite light, so if you add too much, you will be eating them with a spoon. I prefer this topping to frosting for lemon cake, but this cake works nicely with a light glace if you want it iced instead or with lemon curd.

Woo hoo, work avoidance cake!

Better throw my report together; at least he's six hours behind in the US so I've still got some time left before I get the reminder email. I am an ocean of calm...

And breathe...

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Have passport, will travel

I have my passport back! I can travel again!

I'm not sure I mentioned before, but I've been without my passport for a few weeks. I feel sort of lost without my passport. It needed to be renewed before the summer and I figured that I may as well do it now whilst I don't have to go anywhere. Cue form filling and new photographs, simple so far.

A little while after I posted everything off, I got a letter from the passport office saying they had tried to phone me and hadn't got a reply. This is hardly suprising given the hours I work, so I called them back. I thought they were going to query the photograph, as I bore more than a passing resemblance to Wednesday Addams ten years ago and they don't allow dark and brooding semi-profile shots with long hair draped over your face anymore. It was actually wierder than that - they wanted a copy of my degree certificate as they wanted to put it on the observations page. I was a bit surprised at this and slightly concerned it would be the fastest way to ensure I got cavity searched everytime I travel. I declined politely and managed to convince them it wasn't necessary as I wouldn't be much help if someone collapsed on the plane anyway as the extent of my medical training is a first aid at work certificate. Anyway, I have it back now - thankfully without any indication of what I do plastered all over the back page. It never even crossed my mind they'd collect that sort of data and makes me wonder what else they have on me. I hate being quizzed at airports - "Oh, I work with viruses now, but before then I worked in a lab designing drugs" is probably not an advisable way to present yourself. It's not as exciting as it sounds. I work with a virus that gives cows the squirts and before then I was making sugars that would get stuck to that bug you find in cat poo.

Still, as it's new and shiny I figured it would be nice to make a cover for it to stop it getting covered in backpack sticky, fluff, sand and diet coke like my last one.

Since the sewing machine and I are getting on alright at the moment, fabric is the way forward. I have this fabric. I've had it ages. It came out the remnant bin in a charity store in Oxford city centre originally. I thought it was one length, but when I got it home I realised that it was actually several small bits stapled together and because of that it's been in my fabric bag ever since. I think someone had been trying to make cushion covers, then got disturbed.

If I cut out a strip roughly twice the length of my passport I can sew it into a book shape with two open ends.

If I then turn it inside out, it will hide the seams.

...checking to see if it will fit...

...and finish off with a few very old buttons. I love these buttons :)

I just hope it stops it getting as messy as my last one!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Because it's my party and I'll cry if I want to

I'm not a birthday person. I'm not opposed to birthdays generally, but it's my own birthdays I dread. This is mainly because I get "Oh, congratulations you're another year older - you really ought and to be thinking about producing grandchildren for me as you're really not getting any younger" looks from the outlaws. I can see it in their eyes when they coo over photos of my nephew.

What they don't understand I've spent the last ten years working with horrible chemicals. They also don't seem to understand that I actually enjoy working with horrible chemicals. There are probably multiple spelling mistakes in my DNA thanks to a decade of mutagens - and just because you can sort of read text speak doesn't mean you should use it to communicate. I hit snooze on my biological clock a long time ago.

Anyway. Birthdays mean cake. And making cake to bring to work. I've sort of shot myself in the foot over the past year or so with bringing cakes to work as they have become gradually more and more intricate. It's getting to the stage that I just feel like going to the deli, peeling the stickers off and pretending it took me hours; which I admit is slightly more than tempting at the moment. Simple is the way forward today though - it's too hot for chocolate cake and I don't have time to make something elaborate as it's exam time up here and I'm buried under the marking pile. Plus I'm a simple soul, this is my favourite cake in the whole world and it's my birthday so I'm choosing. So there.

Eggs. Four. Lightly beaten apparently - according to my notes; in practice hit with the hand whisk for a bit. 250 g of sugar added and beaten again until it's pretty homogenous.

This is a butter free cake; not intentionally, but one time I went to make it and realised there was no butter and you have to get some lipids from somewhere, so I added an equivalent mass of oil instead and it tasted far far better. I've stuck with that ever since. Add 185 ml of oil. This gets whipped in too. I've tried adding it gradually in a slow and gentle stream, but to be honest, it doesn't make any difference what so ever.

Beat like mad for a bit until it's bubbly.

I use self raising flour here, with a 1/2 a teaspoon of baking powder thrown in. 300 g, stirred in gently.

Carrots. Life is too short to grate carrots, so I tend to throw them in the food processor. You need 400 g of grated carrots. I use a fine grating disc as I don't want it to look like any vegetables came anywhere near this.

Dried fruit. I actually never measure this, it's optional anyway - but normally what I do is plop a handful in a bowl and throw about 15 ml (3 tablespoons) of cointreau on it and let it sit for a bit. You can use orange juice instead if you want. I also throw the zest of one orange, a teaspoon of cinnammon, a pinch of ground cloves and teaspoon of vanilla extract too.

Walnuts too. Carrot cakes contain walnuts. I like walnuts, so there are a lot in here. About 100 grams, corsely chopped.

Stir to combine. It looks like orange snot at this point and it's really runny, but that's okay.

Cake form - this is a silicone ring form 35 cm in diameter. I've coated the inside with cake release as this mixture makes a soft cake that will stick unless the tin is greased. If you are using a normal form lining it will make it easier to remove the final product.

Bake for about an hour at 180 C until a skewer comes out clean. Leave it to cool in the tin with a cloth over it. It will fragment if you try to turn it out when it's warm, so leave it alone until it's cold.

Frosting next. I tend to use a cream cheese frosting for this cake. It's quite sweet, but it seems to work okay. 100 g of softened butter, 100 g soft cheese beaten together.

Add enough icing sugar (it will be a lot of sugar - about 1/3 of a kilo, but it will depend on how wet your cheese is) to make a fluffy paste. I do this with an electric whisk as it's quite soft. I don't add any other liquid to it as I think orange flavoured frosting is very very wrong. Apply to cold cake with the back of a spoon or a palette knife.

I tend to make it sort of fluffy.

Top with more walnuts, a pinch of cinnamon and a pinch of orange zest.

The only bad thing about this cake is that I have to share it :)

Monday, 14 June 2010

It's that bag again...

The sewing machine and I don't talk about the last tote bag incident. We sort of skirt round the issue, laugh nervously then change the subject. There was much thread snapping, much cursing and I still have a half-finished (read: totally destroyed) unevenly stiched mess of inverted seams in my fabric bag. I am going to leave it there as a warning - a bit like the shrunken heads displayed outside scary tribal villages in old movies.

A couple of weeks ago I was out in the styx renewing my first aid certificate at the local St John's ambulance centre, a process which happens every three years. In my lunch hour, I came across a wonderful haberdashery store and pulled a good few metres of really thick cotton out of the remnant bins. Like most haberdashery stores, remnants can't be cut - but unlike most haberdashery stores these remnants were between three and seven metres long, really pretty good quality fabric and amazingly good value.

Like most crafters, I horde fabric. I can't sew for toffee, but I have bags of the stuff. I just get it out every now and again and play with it.

This was one of the larger bits I acquired. It's 6.5 metres in length, bright and stripy. They guy in the store said only a special sort of person buys fabric like that. I'm going to take it as a compliment.

As usual I'm just winging it. It's not too bad with this fabric though, because it's stripy, so easy to cut straight. I'm going to start by cutting a strip of fabric about 80 cm wide and 90 cm long - then folding it in half length ways so the pattern is on the inside. Then I'm going to run the sewing machine down both sides so I get a 35 cm ish by 90 cm tube with two seams.

If I then turn my tube inside out and fold it in on itself, I end up with something that looks like a lined tube but with the side seams hidden. I can pull the bottom of the tube through the top and sew through one layer closing one end of the tube.

Then I can sew the base in place on the inside. This leave me with three hidden seams and the one you can see is at the bottom of the bag on the inside. If I was going to line it - you wouldn't even see that one, but as it's already two layers thick and it's really heavy cotton, I'm going to leave it. It is - suprisingly - a fairly tidy seam, so I'm not even going to tack a ribbon over it. It's hard to show all this, it's a bit like fabric origami.

It's a little taller than I want it - so I'm going to tuck the top over and sew it in place once I've done the handles. If I was going to line it - I'd stitch the lining underneath this strip. It also allows me the opportunity to stitch an inner pocket in place if I want to at a later date.

Handles next - one strip folded at the edges then folded again. I've stitched down both sides to make it even.

I can attach these by running the sewing machine over the ends.

A few buttons to finish off and that's it.

I must admit I really enjoyed making this, the machine behaved perfectly, with no snapping or breaking. So this might be the truce I was looking for :)

Sunday, 6 June 2010

One fish, two fish

Anyone that has taken even a short wander into the slightly surreal world of kawaii crafts will be fairly familar with these things.

They are plastic canes - and they are used a lot for nail art too. They come in all manner of different designs - and the idea is you slice a thin layer off the end with a sharp blade and apply the slice to whatever you're doing.

I have found since I've been using them though, that it works out quite expensive to buy single canes with specific designs. In order to get round that, I buy bunches of random ones and just hope there will be something useable in the bunch. Because of this I now have hundreds of them, which up until about ten minutes ago were scatttered on the floor of my flat as the box decided to take a dive from where it lives on the bookcase. This was really annoying, but did give me a reason to sort them out.

Most of them are fruit slices; thankfully - as these are really useful. The others are patterns and flowers, which I'm starting to incorporate into different designs. I also have a pile of animals - which I find really hard to use and a pile of stuff I have no idea what to do with. This pile mainly consists of bows, Chinese opera face masks and little smiley faces. Despite the randomness, it's the animals I have most difficulty finding a use for.

Whilst I was sorting out the rest of the stuff that decided it wanted to be on the floor - I found these. I've had them for ages. They are tiny glass vials, in various sizes with little caps.

I also have these - nail glitter; which is the crafting equivalent of a highly infectious disease and something called "crystal beads" - little glass beads - that I dragged out of bargain bin in a craft store in Antwerp.

Removing a slices from the end of a couple of the fish canes gives me this...

If I throw all of the stuff into one of the vials, I get this...

I don't want to use water in the vial because it will evaporate, so my search for something more viscous lead me to the pharmacy in town. Actually it lead me to two pharmacies as the lady in Boots tried to sell me senna tablets as a subsitute.

Gently adding oil to the vial with a dropper, then sealing both the plastic and metal stoppers in with superglue gives the final product.

It's a start I guess. Still not sure what I'm going to do with the rest of them though!