Monday, 30 May 2011

Cherry & Almond Cookie Recipe

Inspired by my recent foray into baking Bakewell tart, I was overcome by the urge to take the Bakewell flavours (almonds and fruit) and make a cookie version.

Including ground almonds in the cookie dough seems to change the consistency somewhat: they spread more in the oven, compared to my normal cookies, and consequently came out a little more crispy. Still delicious, though.

Cherry & Almond Cookies
Makes around 30 cookies

2½ cups (410g) plain white flour
½ cup (55g) ground almonds
2/3 cup (180g) white granulated sugar
1 cup (170g) soft brown sugar
1tsp baking powder
250g (2¼ American sticks) butter
2 eggs
½tsp almond essence
2/3 cup (150g) glace cherries
2/3 cup (100g) whole blanched almonds

  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C and cut the cherries into halves.

  2. Mix the flour, ground almonds, sugars, and baking powder in a large bowl.

  3. Melt the butter, allow to cool to almost room temperature, and mix together with the almond essence and eggs. Add this liquid to the flour mixture, stirring and kneading until all combined into a thick dough.

  4. Add the almonds and cherries, and knead into the dough until evenly distributed.

  5. Form into small balls, arrange on a greased baking sheet, and press gently to flatten. Make sure to leave enough space around each cookie, as they will spread to 2-3 times the size as they cook.

  6. Bake for 15 minutes, or until they begin to brown. Cool for a few seconds on the tray (just enough to firm up) before transferring to a wire rack to cool. You can start eating them within about five minutes.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Free Music & Fireworks

We were in Bath yesterday to give a talk at the NHS Retirement Fellowship (a monthly gathering of retired NHS staff). We stayed with Andy's mum, and she drew our attention to the free music events happening all around the city as part of Bath Music Festival.

We went to half a dozen different performances, some in the Abbey and others in smaller venues. The quality was variable - from professional groups to enthusiastic amateurs - but all the performers seemed happy to be there, and the audiences certainly had a good time. We also got to visit some parts of the city we hadn't really been to before, looking for the more obscure venues.

The evening was rounded off by a fantastic free firework display. I love fireworks but it's been too long since I went to a professional display, so I really enjoyed this one. They also managed to stage it nicely so we didn't have to crane our necks to see the display.

If this is an annual event, we'll certainly aim to go again.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Dark Chocolate Ginger Cookies

I made these on Saturday to take along to a friend's birthday party. The basic recipe is very similar to my peanut butter & chocolate cookies, with peanut butter swapped for ginger pieces, and added ginger extract for a little extra bite. For some reason ginger just wasn't an ingredient we used in my cafe bakery days, so the good citizens of Oxford never got to try this particular variation.

I don't seem to be capable of making small quantities of cookies - I know how to scale the recipe back, but I just never do it. To bake this quantity I find that I need to do two batches of two trays each time, with nine small(ish!) cookies on each tray.

By the way, if you don't have stackable cooling trays I'd strongly recommend them as a worthwhile investment. They're not expensive and they're a great space-saver. Mine are three-tier and I fill all three levels with this recipe.

Dark Chocolate Ginger Cookies
Makes 30-40 cookies

3 cups (500g) plain white flour
⅔ cup (180g) white granulated sugar
1 cup (170g) soft brown sugar
1tsp baking powder
1tsp ginger extract
2 eggs
250g (2¼ American sticks) butter, melted
1¼ cup (250g) dark chocolate chips
⅔ cup (150g) crystallized ginger

  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C.
  2. Crystallized ginger often comes in large-ish cubes - if so, cut them into smaller pieces, about the same size as your chocolate chips.
  3. Mix the flour, sugars, and baking powder in a large bowl.
  4. Add the melted butter, ginger extract, and eggs. Stir and knead until all combined into a thick dough.
  5. Add the chocolate chips and ginger pieces, and knead into the dough until evenly distributed.
  6. Form into small balls, arrange on a greased baking sheet, and press gently to flatten. Make sure to leave enough space around each cookie, as they will spread to approximately double the size as they cook.
  7. Bake for 10-15 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool. You can start eating them within about five minutes.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Writing and Weaving

I should be writing. By which I mean that I'm trying desperately to finish a coherent draft of Revolution - ideally by the end of May - and doing anything else right now feels like procrastination of the highest order.

Nevertheless, procrastination in the interests of getting a blog post posted is the justifiable kind...

A few people have asked me lately about my writing process, and it seems to be a little unconventional, so I thought I'd try to write coherently about what I do.

In the beginning, I write very erratically. I scribble notes to myself on post-its or the backs of bus tickets, often just two or three lines of dialogue which capture the main turning point of a scene. Later - back at my computer - I type up a little more detail. This usually involves the rest of the dialogue first, and only after that's written do I think about the surrounding action (at which point I close my eyes and watch the scene play out in my head, until I can confidently write a description).

I keep collecting these scenes until I feel like I've got enough to work with, often 1/2 to 3/4 of the final word count of the book. By this point you could read the scenes I've written and understand the overarching plot, but it wouldn't flow, and so it's time for the next phase. I call this part weaving because I've got my threads and need to pull them together into some kind of coherent fabric. New material has to be written to join the existing scenes together, and I usually end up having to interleave separate sub-plots which I've written independently. This part is much harder for me, and it's the stage I'm at now with Revolution. Because I have to hold the picture of everything in my head at once, I can't do it in odd minutes here and there: it has to be hours at a time or I completely lose my way. I often end up re-writing scenes because my first version doesn't quite fit with its necessary position in the plot. This is also the point where I start drawing timelines: it shouldn't snow in summer unless something really strange is happening!

By the time I have a finished "first draft" - something that you could read from beginning to end - most of the individual scenes are on their third (or more likely tenth) redrafting.

I'll then give this draft to a few trusted friends for comments, which is the best way to find out which parts don't quite work as well as I'd hoped. I can then go through a full edit, beginning to end, and write a better draft. This is relatively easy again, by which I mean that I can do it in small chunks. From here on it's an iterative process, making continuous small improvements until I decide it's "good enough" (since I'd never stop if I aimed for perfection).

It's only the middle "weaving" phase which feels like a full time job. And I'd better get back to it...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Cygnets at Slimbridge

On Monday we went to our local wetlands centre at Slimbridge. We have a membership, and we always go at around this time of year to see the ducklings. Actually, we were a bit too early for most of the ducklings (so we'll just have to go again!) but we did see some adorable cygnets. They could barely stand up with any degree of stability but they were so like little swans in other respects, e.g. that very typical movement of tipping their heads backwards to scratch themselves.

When we passed by a little later on, this pair had settled down to snooze on the grass:

Monday, 16 May 2011

Bakewell Tart Recipe

I can't quite believe that I've never made bakewell tart before - after all, it ranks as one of my all-time favourite cakes. A sweet pastry base, a thin layer of jam, and an almond cake filling... what's not to love? So it happened that I was chatting to a friend about our mutual love of bakewell, and we hit on the idea of a bakewell bake-off. We've both agreed to make one this weekend, and on Tuesday we'll get together over coffee to swap slices of cake and compare notes. Meanwhile, here's my version.

Bakewell Tart Recipe
Makes 8-10 slices

For the pastry
125g plain flour
25g icing sugar
75g chilled butter
1 egg

For the filling
100g softened (room-temperature) butter
125g icing sugar
150g ground almonds
3 eggs
1tsp almond essence
4tbsp raspberry jam
30g flaked almonds
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C, and grease a 20cm deep flan tray (at least 4cm deep).
  2. Combine the flour and sugar, then rub in the chilled butter to make 'breadcrumbs'.
  3. Separate the egg yolk from the white (set the white aside for now) and combine the yolk with the flour, along with a little water to bring it together.
  4. Knead the pastry for a couple of minutes, and refrigerate for half an hour.
  5. Roll out the pastry, line the dish, and prick the pastry. Bake blind for 15 minutes. If you don't have special baking beads, you can use any dried pulses (like chick-peas, lentils, or even rice) to weigh down the pastry; just be sure to line the pastry case with greaseproof paper first.
  6. Meanwhile, make the filling. Begin by creaming the butter and sugar together.
  7. Beat the eggs (including the white reserved from the pastry-making phase) together with the almond essence.
  8. Add the beaten eggs gradually to the butter/sugar mixture.
  9. Fold in the ground almonds.
  10. Remove the baking beans and brush the pastry with a little egg (there will undoubtedly be enough left over in whatever bowl you used for beating the eggs) or milk.
  11. Bake the pastry case for another 5 minutes.
  12. Reduce the oven temperature to 180°C.
  13. Spread jam in the base of the pastry case, leaving a small gap around the edge (as the jam will spread out).
  14. Pour the almond mixture on top of the jam.
  15. Bake for 15 minutes.
  16. Remove the tart from the oven, sprinkle with the flaked almonds, and return to bake for a further 15 minutes.
  17. Allow to cool before serving.
Footnote: you can use other flavours of jam for variety - black cherry is gorgeous, and this time I used strawberry - but raspberry is the most traditional.

Blackberry jamAre you interested in learning to make your own jam? Or just looking for more yummy recipes with jam as an ingredient? Click here for jam-making tips and a collection of related recipes.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Smallest Van...

Tiny cars are surprisingly common in Amsterdam - but this dinky catering van is the smallest such vehicle I've ever seen! It's hard to believe it had space for two seats in the front. I wish we could have seen inside the back - I've always had dreams of what I'd do with a catering van if I could drive.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

What Kind Of Question Is This?

A few people have asked me for more detail about my PhD, and since I've been thinking about it a lot at the moment, I thought I'd have a go at writing something here.

In language processing, there's a sub-field known as Question Answering (QA). Typically, work in this area is focused on the kinds of short, factual questions you might type into a search engine: "What's the capital of France?" or "Who is the Queen of England?"

In my work I tend to look at written dialogue (I'm most interested in language as it expresses human interaction) and as part of my PhD studies I'm looking at the topic of questions in a dialogue context, specifically the Enron corpus of email. So I thought it might be nice to apply some QA techniques to the questions people actually ask one another.

The first practical stage of QA is question classification: given this question, what type of answer is expected? For the examples above, "What's the capital of France?" demands a place (a city, to be precise) while "Who is the Queen of England?" requires a person's name.

But this is where I hit my first problem. Most of the time, people aren't asking one another these short, factual questions. They're asking things like "Do you want to go for coffee?" or "Please can you read my report?" or "What the ****?!"

These questions don't need facts to answer them. They need a quick yes/no, or a physical action, or (for rhetorical questions) no response at all. My first published paper in January showed that about a quarter of questions in the Enron corpus are of the "factual" kind, so clearly there's a lot of work for me to do with the other question types.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in the most headline-grabbing application of QA, Google for "Watson plays Jeopardy"...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Geek Tourism

I've already shared loads of photos and stories from last summer's trip to Greenland, but somehow I think I forgot to mention our most obscure and geeky tourist landmark.

In the hills above Narsaq, is the mine from which Danish physicist Niels Bohr got uranium for his experiments.

Unfortunately it's all closed up so there was no chance to explore inside the tunnels - but it was still a nice walk up the mountain, and there were loads of interesting rocks to collect. It was only as we came to the airport security sensors on the way home that we suddenly wondered whether we'd accidentally pocketed anything radioactive...

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Great Falls, Virginia

On Sunday - while recovering from jetlag and waiting for my conference to start in earnest - we went for a walk by Great Falls in Virginia. We followed a trail which led us on a really fun route along the edge of the river, scrambling over rocks for a lot of the way. It was a rather grey day (we got rained on a little, at the beginning) and the river was a murky brown, meaning the overall impression was impressive rather than picturesque. Signs everywhere advised on the dangers of falling in - though with such raging waters, I'm amazed the signs were necessary! (Though, I must confess, the idea of learning white water kayaking suddenly shot up in appeal... I may be crazy...)

Monday, 2 May 2011

Airport Confusion

I'm attending a short conference at the University of Maryland, so on Saturday I flew into Baltimore. Everyone walked from the plane, along the bridge towards the airport and.... stopped. We'd hit a dead end with lots of doors marked "No Entry" and "Staff Only". There was much confusion as people at the back couldn't quite believe that there was nowhere to go, and people at the front couldn't quite believe that we hadn't missed a turning somewhere. A young staff member emerged from behind one of the doors and ticked us off - at which we explained that there was a whole plane-load of people here, it wasn't just one or two lost souls. In the end, it turned out that we should have turned right from the plane instead of left, but since that door was bolted and the door to the left was wide open, it wasn't really our fault!

Apologies for the short post, I'm slightly preoccupied by the fact that I'm giving two talks on Wednesday morning...

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