Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday miscellany

A hot and sunny day in Cambridge, UK, a good one to go into town and do some wandering among the monuments and the tourists.  It’s a graduation day, flags flying above all the Colleges and robed scholars laughing in the courtyards.  Wisteria are in bloom, and punts are jostling for space along the Cam) or rafted under the willows while the girls sip Pimms and the boys try hard to impress).


The Kettle’s Yard galleries are featuring an “Artists for the Yard” exhibition with a  Hirst and a Gormley among the items donated.  Unfortunately, the latter sculpture is on limited viewing, while the former (a multi-hued skeleton) only reconfirms my opinion that Damien is overrated.  Still, there are lots of intriguing small works:  an impasto painting of the Ely Cathedral and Fens by Tory Lawrence, a wet-on-wet watercolor by David Austen, and a small golden sculpture of found objects by Claire Barclay.

I tried to take a few pictures, but the relentless use of reflective glass and wanderings of other patrons resulted in some strange juxtapositions.


Back outside, the nice day brings out both street performers and protesters.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Watching the Wedding

www.timesunion.comI watched the Royal Wedding today; I enjoyed it.  ‘sorry.

Most of the folks I know are Republicans, which means that they would rather have an elected head of state than royalty (somewhat the opposite from what Republicans in the US seem to prefer).  So, there was a good deal of eye-rolling and head-shaking about the expense, the pretense, and the disruptions of the Royal Wedding.

But, like Cambridge itself (of which the couple is the new Duke and Duchess, over protests from Oxford), I see it as tradition preserved and pageantry executed, and nobody does that better than the British.  The clockwork precision of the events and the ceremonial color of the civil and religious peers was fun to see, and I thought that the set design for Westminster, with trees in the chapel and blue lighting along the heights, was really well done.  I always enjoy a new Rutter composition. And the fly-by was dramatic, with the high-angle shots of the Landcaster coming in low over the city.

traf1I’d considered going down to the city (a number of people asked if  I was going and to pick up a souvenir or  picture), but the police were keeping the crowds well back along the routes and I’d almost have to camp out overnight to get a position to see anything.  The BBC1 coverage was excellent, and it was nicer to sit with neighbors and drink champagne and name the faces going by. 

Kate is still a cipher, blank and posed; the Queen could have smiled a bit or lingered on the balcony for a wave.  William had the expected grin and swagger, more fun; the elbow poking with his brother was familiar and relaxed.  The kiss was perfunctory, I didn’t catch them holding hands at any time – it’s a tough event to march through but I would have reached over for some familiar warmth through the sea of impersonal faces and flags.

Missing being part of the (other) Queen’s Day celebrations in the Netherlands tomorrow – I’ll sit out with a Pimms and wear a bit of bright orange for the occasion.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Into the valley of soufflés

I’ve mastered the Fondant, a soft-center chocolate dessert that I can whip up in about half an hour and nail every time.  The trick is completely in how long it’s cooked; once that’s in hand, I’m a complete wizard.

…and ready for it’s close cousin, the soufflé.

The dessert recipes are very similar: both rely on a base of chocolate and butter mixed with a lighter beaten-egg portion, the mixture is turned into ramekin cups and then baked at 200 deg C for about ten minutes.  The main differences are that the whip is egg and sugar for the fondant (only egg whites in the  soufflé), the egg is more thoroughly beaten for a fondant (soft peaks for a soufflé), and the fondant turns out as more of a cake (soufflé is more foamy).

But a soufflé is more versatile, and can be creatively adapted to more variations.

Any soufflé has two parts: a flavored cream base (butter, flour, and milk, which together make a basic custard, along with flavorings like cheese or chocolate) and egg whites beaten to a soft peak (when pulled up, they curl over and droop back down).

A chocolate soufflé, then, starts by melting chocolate and butter, a bit of milk, together, then blending in beaten egg yolks and a das of flour.  A cheese soufflé starts similarly, with flour, butter, and milk, blending in cheese and beaten egg yolks.  I’ve found that a double-boiler works best, placing a dish over simmering water to melt the ingredients together, then cooling to room temperature.

The recipes recommend as many egg whites as yolks; I find that I get a fluffier, more risen result if I add an extra egg white.  The other trick is to mix the base and the whites with a knife rather than a spoon or fork.  Add half the egg whites to the base, cutting it in with the knife until mixed, then add the lightly blended mix to the rest of the egg white.  It’s important not to over-blend: overworking watercolors turns the colors brown, while overworking egg whites makes them flat.  The best result is foamy and mottled.

I dip a measuring cup into the mix and pour the batter into chilled and buttered ramekins, filling about 3/4 to 7/8 full.  Then into the oven to let them rise and solidify.  As with a fondant, a couple of minutes either way seems to make the difference: 7 minutes gives a chocolate soufflé that is just molten marshmallow, while 12 minutes gives an equally bad dry-cake result.  Cheese is more tolerant: 20 mins seems to work best.  Sometimes I can tell it’s done by the color and texture of the top: it should split and show a little moisture in the crevices.

Serve immediately: I like to dress the tops with a sprinkle of powdered sugar for desserts or parmesan for cheese.

Like an omelet, any base that tastes good should produce a well-flavored soufflé.  I find that the  intensity of flavor diminishes from base to result, so don’t be afraid of getting a strong foundation.  And use lighter ingredients: ham or onion have to be finely chopped to stay suspended in the soufflé.

Honestly, though, this is dead easy, and once you get the timing right, you can whip up variations without needing any printed guidance at hand.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Winning as an expat

masterchef TimBar manager Tim Anderson has been crowned the youngest ever winner of MasterChef after weeks of intense competition in the BBC1 culinary challenge.

The 26-year-old American, known for his experimental dishes, now plans to build his own food empire.

The Independent

How do you play the game to your advantage in a foreign country?

I think that Tim nailed the art of making the most of your ‘American’ strengths while avoiding the usual cross-cultural gaffes.  Admittedly distorted by the heavy editing of Reality TV’s narrative lens, I thought his 11-week run to the top on BBC1’s MasterChef was still  a study, reminiscent of Richard Hatch’s first turn on Survivor.

I think that Americans are generally credited with creativity, energy, willingness to take risks, persistence, pluck, and a goofy lack of pretense.  Tim 3Expected weaknesses might include arrogance, disrespect for tradition, provincialism, lack of knowledge, brash rudeness, and perhaps piousness.  Tim played the clever ‘mad scientist’ towards these strengths, yet remained humble to a fault in crediting his competitors and his own prospects for winning.

I think that his cross-cultural cleverness can be traced to a combination of Midwestern roots, Japanese expatriate experience, and local time spent cooking in a London pub. A recent article listing expat success factors covers it well:

    1. You See Challenges as Opportunities
    2. You Believe it’s a Small World
    3. You Can Think Outside the Box
    4. You Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
    5. You Feel Free
    6. You Are Adaptable
    7. You Desire Change

Tim 2I don’t know whether these are born or developed traits, but Tim has demonstrated them forcefully throughout the competition.  Now he wants to build a (business) empire, and you almost have to wish him well rather than feel threatened by it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Getting around on public transport

I’ve been relying on busses and trains to get around Cambridgeshire for the better part of the spring now.  After a while there,’s a rhythm to it:  it’s relaxing to sit on a train and watch the fields roll past, reassuring to see the big double-decker bus rollup to the stop on the appointed dot of time.  A lot of the time, it makes me wish that we had better public transport in the US – once away from the car, I really don’t miss the independence a lot.

Public transport works best for long-haul trips, like Maastricht to Amsterdam, or Shepreth to London.  I check the published schedules (National Rail or NS), show up five minutes ahead to time to buy a ticket, the train glides in, there’s workspace and the occasional coffee vendor on board. Easy.

Short trips around town are something else.

Round trip return, Shepreth to Cambridge, £4; one-way £3.90.

Bus in from the Park and Ride – well, only a round trip is available, £2.65 from the machine (exact change only), £2.80 from the driver.

The normal 15 minute trip from town center to Barrington an take much longer…walk to the stop, wait 15 minutes for a bus, miss the train, wait a half hour for the next local run, then 10 minutes to the stop – easily four times the duration.

I used to argue that public transport in Seattle was great for radial trips into and out of the city, but that circumferential trips between the suburbs were impossible.  Here, it seems more long / short: the further you go, the more direct and reliable things get (more like air travel).

Monday, April 25, 2011

Around town at the holidays

It’s a long holiday weekend here in the UK, early predictions of rain giving way to flawless blue skies and summertime warmth.  London is turning towards the Royal Wedding next Friday, blue skies and colorful flags bringing in the tourists (and driving out the locals, all taking an 11-day Easter holiday this year).

A great combination for sightseeing and people-watching.

A common-touch in front of Parliament as a single car violates the no-parking zones; a common row over the Pope at Trafalgar to accent the Passion Play.


Uncommon colour at the Mall Galleries; barriers sand bunting going up along the wedding route.



Then out to Harwich and the seaside – home of the Mayflower and still one of England’s busiest seaports


Beach huts, like sailing cabins inside,  refuge from the sun and tourists, still connected to the breeze and the sea.


It’s starting to feel like summer, everywhere…