Sunday, July 27, 2014

Overwhipped cream and overflowing cupcakes

Baking disasters are distressingly common, but there's usually a way of salvaging something presentable from the wreckage. Here's a couple of examples, starting from my attempt to whip cream for a chocolate and raspberry semifreddo yesterday.

1. Overwhipped cream.

Whipping cream in a food processor sounds like a time saver, but it's easy to over-whip and go past the 'stiff peaks' stage. You know when you've done it, because your cream turns to butter. Like this:



If you've only slightly over-whipped the cream, you can salvage it by simply adding more cream and whipping a little more until you get the right consistency. Pastry chef Helen Fletcher explains the process here. Even the pros do this, apparently.

If you've gone so far that it's yellow and separated into solid and liquid forms, this won't work. Don't throw it away though. It's butter. Pour off the buttermilk, and use it in cake recipes like you would any other butter. I had a couple of over-ripe bananas to use up, so I made banana cupcakes, using Mary Berry's banana loaf recipe spooned into little cake cases and baked for about 20 minutes. Which leads to the next baking disaster...


2. Overflowing cupcakes.

Banana cake batter is more liquid than your average cupcake mix. Add that to slightly over-filling the cake cases, and you've got cupcakes that overflow in the oven, leading to a messy irregular shape. Like these:



Fortunately there's a fix for this too. As described by Elaine from Edge Desserts here, take them out of the cases, turn them upside-down on a board, and trim them with a round cookie cutter. This also neatly gets rid of any hard, over-baked edges. You can just trim the edges with a sharp knife, but the cookie cutter gives a neater and prettier finish, leading to perfectly evenly-sized little cupcakes. Pop them into fresh cases, and no one will ever know they weren't supposed to be that way, especially once they're frosted.







I made frosting with 200ml whipped cream (taking care not to over-whip this time!) and 30g icing sugar plus two tablespoons cocoa powder. The icing sugar stabilises the whipped cream and gives it a firmer consistency for piping. So, banana cupcakes with chocolate frosting, and an (almost) effortless recovery from two baking mishaps.



Don't throw away the leftover trimmings either. They're perfect for using in a trifle base...or just eating.


Saturday, July 05, 2014

Homemade raspberry sorbet

Summer desserts are all about the fruit, and if you grow raspberries you probably have a real glut of them at the moment. I decided to make raspberry sorbet, using this recipe .



This works without an ice-cream maker to churn the mixture, you just do it manually by freezing, blending and re-freezing. It's a little bit laborious, but there's nothing difficult in the process. It turns out to have a slightly more crystalline granita-like texture compared to shop-bought sorbet, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

For those (like me) who struggle with US cups and ounces, here are the conversions to European measurements that I used:

680g raspberries
237ml water
225g caster sugar
45ml (3tbsp) lemon juice
5ml (1tsp) vodka



Betwixt: new fiction

My latest short story 'Princess Cosima and the Thousand Cats' is available to read free online in Betwixt Magazine now. This one is a historical science fantasy (I think) featuring Isabella of Spain, an f/f love story, zombies and space. And cats.



I was lucky enough to get to visit the Alhambra in Granada (the 'Red Palace', and the inspiration for this story) a few years ago, and its beautiful gardens are still home to a significant population of semi-wild cats (not sure if I counted a thousand, but there are quite a few!)




Betwixt is a relative newcomer in the short SFF world, aiming to shake things up with an eclectic mix of stories and a focus on genre mash-ups and diverse viewpoints, and so far they've published some quality stories from both established professional and upcoming authors.

Check out the all latest stories here, and consider supporting Betwixt if you enjoy them!


Thursday, May 01, 2014

New fiction

My latest science fiction story is up on the Daily Science Fiction website today (though email subscribers will have received it already last week!) DSF publishes a new story every weekday, mostly very short fiction (with longer stories on Fridays). You can read stories on the website, or sign up to get a story by email every weekday.

In other fiction news,  Black Apples is a collection of modern fairytales with a dark twist, published this month by Belladonna Publishing, a new independent SFF publisher. Stories range from retellings of the classic fairytales, to contemporary urban fantasy (like mine!). Available in paperback from Amazon now, with the e-book edition coming soon. Reviewers can request copies from contact@belladonnapublishing.com.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Watching fractals emerge at the edge of chaos

We may have an innate ability to recognise mathematical results as beautiful, but that can prove difficult if they're buried under an unhelpful press release. I was intrigued by the headline 'Probing the edge of chaos', in a recent release from the European Physical Journal B, but I wasn't surprised that it wasn't one of the ones picked up by the mainstream press. There didn't seem to be much that would grab the attention of a non-specialist journalist or editor, or be of obvious interest to the general reader. Someone clearly thought differently, though, otherwise why the press release? But as so often happens with mathematical papers, the point got a bit lost in translation.

Chaos is particularly hard to explain, of course. It's easier to describe than define; one of those you- know-it-when-you-see-it types of things. That's an odd thing to find in mathematics, the one place where we expect everything to be perfectly logical, clear and well-defined. But then, it's called chaos for a reason.

Chaos in this context is something that happens to dynamical systems, and these were the main focus of this paper. A dynamical system is any set of possible events that can happen; together with a 'rule' that dictates how the events develop over time. That covers a vast range of possible scenarios, from a simple pendulum swinging back and forth, to the behaviour of a complex weather system. A deterministic dynamical system is one where we should β€”in theory β€” be able to predict what happens next, based on what came before. But sometimes, what should be doable in theory becomes virtually impossible in practice β€” and that's probably as close as we can get to a definition of chaos. The butterfly effect is a well-known example, where a small change in a complex system can have dramatic and unpredictable results.

But even a chaotic system tends to reach some kind of equilibrium eventually. This 'attractor' is the state the system reaches eventually, when it's explored all the possibilities it's going to: when the more things change, the more they stay the same. There are also 'repellors', areas of possibility that the system tends to shy away from. These change at different points in the system's lifetime. What areas are attracting and repelling our process when it's operating in its normal, non-chaotic state? How does that change when it becomes fully chaotic? And, most interestingly, what's going on at that critical transition point when it's just about to tip over into chaos? This 'edge of chaos' is a curious place, mathematically. Strange things happen there.

There's more than one route to chaos. A common one, though, is the period-doubling cascade, when changes in the behaviour of the system start happening at twice the previous rate, and then twice that new rate itself, taking it accelerating rapidly into chaos and unpredictability. Write down the equation for this process, and use it to plot a graph of the results when it reaches its attractor, and you'll end up with a startling fractal pattern. This is the famous Feigenbaum attractor, and its existence is well-known. What wasn't so clearly understood, however, was exactly how it happens, and what the steps along the way look like.

The researchers here broke down the process, watching the gradual evolution of the attractor as it changed from the simple limit of the non-chaotic system to the perfectly formed fractal of chaos. The path was not a smooth one. Studying their results, the authors remarked on the complex structure, the many 'rough, jagged features'. And it got more interesting, the closer they looked. With each step, it was accumulating a hierarchical structure, a pattern that emerged on multiple scales; the fractal building up little by little, emerging before their eyes with each successive step. We now have the equations and histograms to describe exactly how that process happens.

The press release vaguely mentions that the results might lead to better understanding of chaotic natural phenomena. That's difficult to judge as they don't explain exactly what or how.

But if we really have that ability to see beauty in pure mathematics, maybe it doesn't matter so much. Maybe what this story really needs is not a vague practical 'application' tacked onto it to justify its existence, but a visualisation of the data, so we could see the system evolving from simplicity to chaos, along that wild and rugged road into multifractal complexity. The idea of it is beautiful, I think. But seeing is believing. And sometimes it takes more than a histogram.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Interdisciplinary research: my Guardian article

The Guardian's Higher Education Network recently published my article on interdisciplinary research from an early-career researcher's point of view, and what the trend means for our future careers. Based on discussions in real life and on social media, I suspected I wasn't the only one with concerns about this, but I was still surprised by how many positive responses I got from others in the same situation. Clearly this is something we need to talk about.

There were some interesting comments from researchers in other fields (apparently this is just as much an issue in arts and humanities as in science), and in other countries (some suggested the narrow focus of the UK university system might be part of the problem).

It was also curious to see that there was much more of a response and discussion on Twitter than in the 'below the line' comments on the article itself. Maybe that says something about the future of comments?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

New story: Over The Sea

I have a new story, Over The Sea out today in the May issue of Sorcerous Signals from Wolfsinger Publications. It's also in issue 18 of the print magazine, Mystic Signals, which is available from CreateSpace

So, what to say about this one? It's a high fantasy tale, referencing various tropes of the genre but trying to find the real human emotions and stories behind them. Thinking about it, this is also another one that tries to subvert the 'princess needs rescuing' trope. Sometimes there are no eagles. And sometimes the princess doesn't need or want (or deserve) rescue.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On the radio, nobody knows you're an introvert

Here's an interesting experiment: get a randomly selected group of people together to make a short radio program, record it as if live, and then listen to it played back. You might have some expectations about how it'll be. The confident, chatty, extroverted types who love to talk -- surely they'll be naturals at radio, they'll come across great. And the quiet introverted ones, who find this sort of group-work/public-speaking a form of torture -- well, you can imagine...

Recently I was on a science communication course where we did exactly this. An interesting experience in many ways, but for me the most surprising thing was just how badly that 'natural' talkative extroverted style can come across on radio (which ruthlessly shows up all those hesitations, filler words, odd interjections etc that you probably wouldn't notice in face-to-face speech). And how some of the people you'd expect to be awful at this actually sounded quite polished and professional (listening to the recording, you can't tell that they're reading a prepared speech...or that they're maybe literally shaking with fear!).

Maybe the skills and personality types that make for good radio presenters are not the ones you'd think.

Turns out I'm not the first to come to this conclusion. Several people have observed how the same thing happens with public speaking and presentations -- the usual reasoning being that if you're shy and lacking confidence about such things, you tend to prepare better.

But I think it goes a little deeper. Because as an introverted type, everything you say is a performance. Almost everything you ever say is scripted and rehearsed, even if it's only in your head in the milliseconds before you speak. That's pretty much the definition of an introvert: you think before you speak -- unlike extroverts, for whom speaking is essentially the same thing as thinking.

You probably also tend to be an observer of, always aware of how you look and sound from an outside perspective. That's probably why introverts are more likely to be shy or socially anxious. But it also means you're consciously thinking about the technical details of your speech, like pacing and intonation. This is likely why social interactions are so tiring for an introvert: but it can give you a head-start in public speaking. Those who are not naturals at social interaction also spend a lot of time observing others, analysing and mimicking (or avoiding in some cases!) the way they speak and behave.

Apparently many professional actors are self-described introverts.I don't think that's surprising at all.