Sunday, August 24, 2014

Five Reasons We Love the Great British Bake Off

We all love the Great British Bake Off. Well, most of us do. In last week's Sunday Times, AA Gill was baffled by the popularity of a bland television show about people making cakes and biscuits in a tent. What he didn't realise was that the weekly triumphs and failures of the bakers are a microcosm of the ups and downs of life that we can all relate to. Maybe these are the reasons why the Bake Off hits such a sweet spot for so many of us:

  • The happy childhood you had or didn't have Many of the contestants use family recipes handed down from parents and grandparents, and baking can be a sure way to bring back happy memories of childhood. Stirring the Christmas cake every year, licking the golden syrup spoon after making flapjacks, that apple pie or Sunday teatime cake your mum always made. The smells and flavours of baking can take you right back to that time when life was simple and you were safe and loved. 

  •  Or if you never had that, if your childhood was chaotic or loveless or painful, baking can be a healing act. You can make the birthday cakes for your own children that you never had yourself, start your own traditions to pass down to future generations. You can make all the sweet and pretty and lovely things your neglected inner child could ever want, and your kitchen can be the magical place where that happens.

  • It's never all bad. No matter how wrong your bake has gone, Mary Berry can usually find something nice to say about it. Maybe it looks a mess, but the flavours are lovely. An ambitious idea didn't quite turn out as you envisaged, but no one can fault your creative vision and originality. The bake is a bit over or underdone, but it's a design triumph. Sometimes there's a tendency to be too hard on ourselves and focus only on the negative, on the things that haven't worked out as we wanted, that aren't quite perfect. But when you think about it, you can probably find a positive side. Most of us could be a bit more Mary Berry to ourselves.

  • Life is uncertainty... ... and baking is too. So many times, a contestant tries to bake something they've made dozens of times before, and it goes horribly wrong. The genoise sponge inexplicably fails to rise, the tart filling just won't set, the pastry turns out soggy. Maybe it's the different oven, maybe it's the stress and time pressure, maybe it's just one of those days. And we all have those days, when nothing goes quite right and you wish you'd never gotten out of bed. Being able to face the baffling randomness of life and carry on anyway is one of those life lessons that baking teaches so well. Keep calm and carry on baking.

  • Everyone makes mistakes There's a certain schadenfreude when you see a contestant doing something you just know is going to be a disaster. They decide to put their chocolate in the microwave to heat more quickly or put some water in to 'help it melt', they walk away from their simmering caramel for 'just a moment', they decide for some reason it would be a good idea to trim the lovely lacey edges off their florentines with a cookie cutter (why, Ewenzor, why?) They don't listen to you yelling 'NOOOO!' at the screen. They get what they deserved. 

  •  But we've all been there, with our moments of inattention or stupidity, or impulsive decisions that end in entirely predictable disaster. We're all human. That's comforting to know.

  • Floorcake moments. You know how it goes. A contestant starts to take their flawlessly baked cake out of the oven, or triumphantly slide their painstakingly constructed choux swans onto a serving plate. Then, in a sudden moment of clumsiness, perfection turns to a mass of crumbs on the floor. You feel their pain. 
  • Because that's what life is like sometimes. Things are going well, you're full of hope and optimism, the future is bright. Then - illness, accident, redundancy, bereavement, heartbreak - it all comes crashing down. The disappointment can be crushing. You cry, you storm out of the metaphorical kitchen in frustration, you sink to the floor, defeated, you demand the gods or the universe tell you why, why this is happening to you. Then you get up, scrape up the wreckage of your cake and stick it together with buttercream as best you can. You serve it up to the judges with a generous dredging of icing sugar to cover the cracks.
     That, right there, is life.

    Saturday, August 16, 2014

    The Lifestyle Possibilities of the Pill

    It's called the curse for a reason. For many women, the menstrual cycle is a monthly ordeal of physical and emotional suffering.  First there's the pre-menstrual headaches, mood swings and difficulty concentrating. Then there's the stabbing ovulation pain or mid-cycle breast soreness. And that's before you even get to the debilitating cramps and heavy bleeding.

    The oral contraceptive pill is often touted as a good solution to these problems. But as Dr Alice Roberts described in a recent Guardian article, it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes the hormonal ups and downs of suddenly stopping the pills every month can cause worse pre-menstrual symptoms than ever. But there's another choice. Most birth control pills are suitable to be taken continuously for several months at a time, or for as long as you want, meaning few or no periods at all. No blood, no pain, no mood swings.

    Using contraception this way is common in the US, where extended-cycle pills are available as a lifestyle choice and marketed as brands such as Seasonale and Seasonique. But it's an option rarely offered on the NHS here - possibly in part for cost reasons, and also simply because of lack of knowledge on the part of GPs here. Many women in the UK just aren't aware that it's a possibility, and in many cases neither are their doctors.

    When I first started taking birth control in my early 20s, freshly graduated from my biochemistry degree, I checked out the formulations of some commonly prescribed pills, and found that the popular combined pill Microgynon 30 contains exactly the same active ingredients as Seasonale, the 'four-periods-a-year' pill sold in the US. But when I asked my GP about it, he looked genuinely baffled. "That's impossible. That's not how you take these pills."

    I did it anyway. My body, my choice. My money too - I pay for my birth control privately these days, preferring the choice and convenience of it - so I'm not expecting the NHS to subsidise my lifestyle choice.

    There are risks associated with hormonal contraception, and these shouldn't be underplayed. There's evidence that some pills increase the risk of certain cancers, including breast and cervical cancers (though they do reduce your risk of others, such as ovarian cancer) and cardiovascular problems. Some women find it causes depression or weight gain. It's not safe or suitable for everyone, no matter how you take it.

    There's a certain branch of feminism that would go further and say it's bad for all of us. Free yourself from the patriarchal medical establishment and its control over your fertility. Inga Muscio's third-wave feminist manifesto 'Cunt: A Declaration of Independence' - which I read in my 20s, didn't we all? - was an eloquent argument for reclaiming your feminine power like this. Ditch the pills and painkillers and embrace cycle tracking and raspberry-leaf tea. Make your own reusable pads with brightly patterned cloth. Taste the blood, make art with it. Learn to love your period.

    Which is wonderful if it works for you. It doesn't for me - no matter how badly I wanted it to. Being period-free has been a real liberation for me, I can't even find the words to describe how much it's improved my quality of life to not be living in pain and dread from month to month. This is what works for me.  This is my choice. And surely that's what feminism should be about: ownership of our bodies and our choices, and recognising that there's not a single correct way to be a woman.

    Back in the second-wave days of the feminist movement, there was a real emphasis on sharing medical knowledge and skills, and taking a self-help approach, from 'menstrual extraction', a technique for removing menstrual flow in one go, to herbal abortions and natural birthing.

    I don't agree that trying to do these procedures without proper medical expertise and facilities is a good idea, and I don't share the mistrust of conventional medicine. But I liked the independent, self-determining spirit of it.

    So maybe we don't even need branded and packaged solutions like Seasonale. Maybe we just need to educate ourselves about how the existing pills can be used, and take control of how we use them, instead of being told what we can and can't do. Yes there are risks, but we're big girls now. How about women decide for ourselves what risks are acceptable to us - after we've been given all the relevant information and medical advice, of course - and how many (if any) periods we want to have and when we want to have them. Periods aren't really a curse. But they are a choice.

    (First published at The Huffington Post UK, 10th August 2014)

    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

    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?