Pudsey Cake

17 Nov Ta-da!

I spent a part of this afternoon and evening making a cake for a Children in Need bake sale tomorrow at Ian’s work.  If you aren’t from the UK, Children in Need is the BBC’s charity that helps disadvantaged children and young people across the country.  Once a year in November there is an appeal show to raise money for the charity, with celebrities singing, dancing, and doing all sorts of things.  In the build up to the live appeal show there are loads of activities and events that happen all over the place… including things like this bake sale!  You can read more about Children in Need here, if you have a few minutes spare.  And now, the picturepalooza of my cake-making process and all of its beautiful disorganisation!

I used a new recipe this time around for the cake batter, but only because I couldn’t find my Mum’s recipe.  I know it is in my e-mail somewhere, because she sent it to me in January 2009.  Yeah, that’s right, I have a memory, too bad it doesn’t extend to where I put the recipe or the e-mail with the recipe attached to it.  I made a few alterations to this new recipe (less sugar, more cocoa) because I prefer my cakes richer and not so chocolate-y sweet.

A great big bowl of delicious cake batter!

The batter ends up quite liquidy at the end, because you add boiling water to the mixture to keep the cake nice and moist.  It literally pours into the cake pans!

This is my favourite baking item, thanks Andy and Adela!

It pours so quickly, because it is so liquidy, that I actually slightly over-filled the cake pans for the first round of baking, but it isn’t really a problem (as you will see later).  I figured it was better to deal with slightly bigger than desired cakes than to try and remove liquidy batter from cake pans back into the mixing bowl, which would have ended in disaster.

I may have slightly over-filled the cake pans for the first round of baking.

I baked the cake for about 30 minutes on 160°C.  Because I was baking two at a time, they ended up a tiny bit wonky as the temperature in our oven isn’t even throughout (but again, not a huge deal).

Pavlov's dog would have drooled.

Next, I made the frosting (or icing).  I made a chocolate butter cream, again, slightly changing the recipe to include more cocoa, because originally it just tasted like powdered sugar – more like a royal icing than a buttercream frosting.  It is delicious and cocoa-y now though!

Cocoa buttercream frosting!

After all of the cake layers (I baked six in total) were cool, it was time to assemble the cake.  The first and most important step is the cup of tea to keep the star baker going!


The second step was to remember to take the sheets of greaseproof paper off the bottom of the cake layers.  I don’t normally use greaseproof paper for something like this, but because I was having to use the same cake pans multiple times in order to get all the layers done (two pans, six layers, you do the math), it meant I could remove the cake from the pan without it being entirely cool, but not have to worry about the bottom sticking to the pan.

Step 1: Remember!
After that, I had to even up the wonky cake layers so that they would sit right for the final product (otherwise the entire cake would end up uneven and fall apart, which is not the best way forward).

Step 2: Even

But like I said earlier, it isn’t a huge deal, because one) it is really easy to do and two) it means you have extra bits of cake that you can eat right away (Ian especially liked this step)!

3: Extra Bits

I decided to use a Quality Street tin from last year for putting my cake in – it has the right size base (lid) and it isn’t a massive problem if I don’t get it back – because let’s be fair, we’ll have another fifty million in our house after next month, like every other person in the UK.

Step 4: Base

The first layer of filling to add was a layer of cream.  I used hand whipped double cream (mostly because I was too lazy to get the food processor out and there was only a little bit of cream to whip), unsweetened!  I never add sugar to my cream for dessert, because I find it makes the whole thing overly sweet, which isn’t nice.

Step 5: Cream Layer

Then, and this bit is important, add the next filling layer of fruit (raspberry conserve in this case – and conserve always, not jam or jelly, because again it is less sweet – the tartness is delicious again the cream and cake) to the bottom of the next cake layer!

Step 6: Fruit Layer

Then you simply stack the cake layer on top of the bottom one and begin the process again!

Step 7: Stack (Carefully!)

And voila, three cake layers, stacked, with cream and raspberry between both layers!

Step 8: Repeat

I then used my frosting, which was now a good texture (although it did need mixing once through before using) to make my cake look super professional, by filling in all the gaps and uneven bits with delicious cocoa-y goodness.  The key is to make sure you put lots of frosting on your knife and apply generously to the cake before trying to spread it – if you are too conservative you’ll just end up tearing the cake and ending up with all those little unattractive bits of cake floating in your frosting.  I mean, it’ll still taste awesome, but it’ll look messy.  Well…  more messy.

Step 9: Make it look professional, through the means of filling gaps with frosting.

Then, because it was for Children in Need I added some polka dot decorations!  I used Chocolate Buttons, Milky Buttons, and Smarties.  I am sure they will all have fallen off by tomorrow morning, but it’s the thought that counts.  Again, if you aren’t from the UK…  Pudsey (the bear mascot for Children in Need) loves polka dots!

Step 10: Decorate appropriately (Pudsey loves polka dots).

Look!  With a clean table behind it, it looks like of pretty.  Or maybe cute.  Yeah, it’s a cute cake.


How pro is that finish people?  Just look at it!  But not too close.  Let’s keep up the illusion that I am a master baker.

Polka dots!

Now, I did come across a tiny problem, which was since I made a massive three layer cake, the Quality Street tin lid (base) was now way too small to consider using it to contain the cake… on its own.  I improvised with some cardboard and made it foodgrade by covering it with aluminium foil and then fixing it to the Quality Street tin!

The Quality Street tin wasn't *quite* high enough to cover the cake!

It’s a perfect fit!  Just don’t be surprised if the edges of the cake are a little smooshed when it comes off at the bake sale table tomorrow.  And you know, don’t let anything hit the side, because it’ll collapse and crush the cake.  Also, when you carry the cake, be sure to hold it even from the bottom, otherwise the cake will tip over and because the lid isn’t fixed to the base, the whole thing will fall off.  But you know, other than that… it’s perfect!

It's like magic!

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you will have remember previously I said that I made six cake layers.  But I’ve only used three so far, for the Pudsey cake!  So what did I do with the other three?  Well, once people learn that you are making a cake, they want some.  But if it is for a charity bake sale I can’t really send it off to Ian’s work with a few pieces missing.  Therefore, I made another (smaller) version of the same cake (minus the decorations).  Voila!

Practice makes perfect... maybe I should have practiced with this one first!

This one also looks pretty good.  I think maybe I should have made this one first, in order to practice before making the Pudsey cake.  But this one was also easier because the cake layers were smaller.  However, it is less cute.

What a lovely little cake.

Despite it being low on the cute scale though, it was pretty high on the delicious scale.  I had a normal sized piece, to test it out.  Ian only had a little piece because he was already pretty full from all the extra bits of cake I gave him earlier!

Triple layer chocolate cakes *always* look good.

The first piece is always a little messy when it is served, but this one didn’t come out too bad, if I do say so myself.  By tomorrow, all of the layers will have settled a bit more, which will help too.  However, the cake itself came out so light and fluffy and moist.  I will definitely use that (modified) cake recipe again!

It's a little messy, but hey, who cares?

This last picture is my pro shot, like if I had a cafe, I would put this picture in the window to entice you all in through the doors to buy my cake at an extortionate price.  How much would you be willing to pay?

It looks like a 'rustic' pro cake.

As an aside, when I was planning this Pudsey cake, I decided I wanted to put some polka dot decorations on it.  However, for whatever reason I was having a really hard time coming up with what I could use for the coloured polka dots.  I knew that I could use Chocolate Buttons for some brown dots and Milky Buttons for white ones…  but what about all the other colours?  I actually wandered around the grocery store for ages, up and down the home baking aisle and then up and down the confectionary aisle before I finally thought, maybe I should stain some Milky Buttons with food colouring.  When I asked Ian later on if he thought that would work, he said, “Why don’t you just use Smarties?”  Then I felt like a bit of an idiot, because that should have been really obvious, but then this afternoon I was curious to see if you even could stain Milky Buttons with food colouring.  So obviously, I tried!  I used a paintbrush to colour them over with the food colouring, and because I only had red in the house, it looks like I tried to kill something in the next picture…


Then I blotted them off and it had kind of worked, but they were still white in places, so I repeated the process and it worked pretty well after that!

Dots, dots, dots...

Once they dried out, the colour came up pretty good.  But I tasted one and because of the amount of food colouring I had to use to get the colour to ‘stick’ they ended up tasting pretty bitter, so I decided not to use them.

But are they edible?

But, if you ever need some edible chocolate (if not entirely tasty) polka dot decorations in colours other than brown and white and for whatever reason you cannot get Smarties, then it totally works (with some patience).

All in a row, little e-number dots.


Delicious Request Pie

13 Nov

Tonight I made a pie.  I have made this pie before.  And before that.  And then only once before that.  This pie is popular in our house.  Especially with Ian.  After I made it the first time he said that I would make it again.  It didn’t really sounds like a request, more of an order actually.  But henceforth it shall be known as super delicious request pie.  And commence pictures for ya’ll to drool over!

The pie basically included chicken, mushrooms, green beans, all smothered in a deliciously creamy mustard sauce.  Dammit, I want to eat it all over again!  Which is good, because we’re having it for leftovers tomorrow.  Yeeeah!

Look at the beautiful golden crust!

The next picture is of the crust.  This is the first time that I have been able to get it properly puffy and golden.  The trick is to let your pie filling cool (not totally cold, but not piping hot) before you place the pasty over top, otherwise you’ll find that your pastry ends up getting soggy and the heat will make the various puffy layers stick together.  I also used an egg wash this time, instead of a milk wash.  It gave the crust a better golden brown and added lovely crispy bits (mmm…).  Alas, I do not own a pastry brush though, even though I thought I did, so I had to improvise with my finger brush.

Awe! It even has little leaves on it - how quaint!

We had boiled potatoes with herbs and smashed carrots with our pie.  The carrots were meant to be just plain, but I was using old wonky carrots and they didn’t look so pretty once I cut them up.  The solution to that problem is always to roughly mash them.  I also added some thyme and olive oil…  which is known to make anything taste great!

Oh jeez, it looks SO delicious!

And then it was gone.  I have a feeling I’ll be making this pie again.  And again.  And again…

Yeah, that's right. Leaves and all!

If you want the recipe let me know and I’ll attempt to type up my manic kitchen process that ends in this result.  It is loosely based on three other pie recipes, so I am sure I can figure something coherent out.

What are the odds?

10 Nov

Numbers are important.  But so is understanding them.  I am going to be using a lot of statistical testing in the later stages of my PhD research project, and as a result I have been reading a lot about numbers lately.  I was always pretty good at maths, but I usually found it boring.  In school it was a lot of equations, without a whole lot of practical application.  I never really saw the point, beyond the basic every day uses.  Over the years though, I have learned to love numbers and maths (maths can be thought of as the language of numbers, which may be cheesy, but it can help you to think about their relationship, if you’re not a big maths person).  Oh, and if you’re reading this outside of the UK, I apologise for repeatedly using the term ‘maths’ instead of ‘math’, I know it is going to drive you insane, but it is actually accurate when using it as a shortened form of the plural noun (and even though grammar is also one of my big loves in life I had to be convinced of this).

Maths is waaay more than just equations and results.  If you know how to interpret the results (which means understanding both the data you use in an equation and what the equation is actually ‘doing’ to the numbers) then you can learn some pretty phenomenal things about a lot of subjects – and subjects that people do not normally associate maths with… it is not just for the Sheldons and the Leonards of the world.

I know that a lot of people are of the opinion that they do not understand mathematics.  They think they cannot possibly understand the data and that they will never understand the equations that scientists use in their research, which means that maths is pretty much useless for them beyond what they already know and use.  Wrong!  Everyone has the capability to understand mathematics and, more importantly, what it can teach us about the world.  Buuut (and there is always a but) it all comes down to how it is presented to you.  Because while everyone is capable of understanding maths, not everyone has been educated to understand maths in the form in which is is often presented (mainly dull formats), which is important for researchers to remember – especially if they want to the public to care about their results!

In the build up to talking about my own research, I thought that I would share an example of what I am talking about.  There is a blog post that you should read (or skim through, whatever) called: What are the chances of your coming into being?  It discusses the probability of you existing (as you) today.  Now, I’m not going to get into a debate about the fact that the actual probability of you existing is 1, because when discussing all known-to-have-happened events, the probability is always 1:1.  I know that is the case when talking about probability, but that is not really the point of this post.  And yes, Ali Binazir uses a lot of assumptions in his equations, therefore affecting the accuracy of the result, but what I want to look at here is how the whole thing is presented.  The blog post is really interesting, but it is more than a little bit dry, especially if you are not interested in maths.  You would be forgiving for not really caring about the results, especially if you gave up halfway through the blog post.  However, designer Sofya Yampolsky of Visual.ly created an infographic based on the blog post, which presents the exact same data (and includes a lot of information from the equations) to present the exact same results… only it is way more interesting.

The same thing, presented in a more engaging form is more useful, because more people are going to pay attention.  The same is true in science and academia.  If no one can understand your work, you can pretty much guarantee that they are not going to care about your results.

The only big problem I have with the blog post and the infographic?  “Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.”  It is not miracle (mir·a·cle/ˈmirikəl/  Noun:  1. A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural and scientific laws and is considered to be divine.) it is maths.  Unless you are going to be incredibly pedantic, in which case feel free to respond in the comments with ‘it’s science’, ‘it’s evolution’, ‘it’s chance’, etc.  I know that no one I know is that pedantic though!  Ha!

Tiny Monster

24 Oct

I spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.  Some days it is my desk in the osteo-lab at the university and other days it is my desk at home (I live about 1 hour and 15 minutes from my university, don’t you know).  I travel in to the university two to three days a week and the other days I work in my ‘office’ in the back room of our house.

I am the kind of person that requires a comfortable working space, otherwise I find that I can never get settled enough to actually pay attention to what I am supposed to be doing, like reading a load of articles or researching the anatomy of an ewok.

For those of you who are curious, this is my workspace at home:

It's a surprisingly tidy desk!

And this is a close-up of the tiny (hand-knitted) monster who keeps me company:

I totally keep writing Tony instead of tiny, maybe that's what I should call him.

I was given tiny monster as a birthday present by my friend Gillian.  I always thought of tiny monster as a boy, but the flower is pretty fetching on him…  perhaps he is a bit of a cross-dresser?

I am not sure how good the detail is in the first picture I posted above, but I have a few photographs on my windowsill, including this one:

The highest waterfall in Wales... or rather, a bit of it.

Now, I am totally not  going to big myself and my mad photography skills up here, but I am pretty fond of this photograph.  I took this picture at Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall in Wales when I was on honeymoon (it’s the highest waterfall in Wales and while we both agreed it is no Niagra Falls, it is still  pretty fabulous).  And for you clever people, no, this picture isn’t specifically of Pistyll Rhaeadr, but rather one of the smaller pre-plunge cascades.

I clambered like a (poor excuse for a) mountain goat over some threateningly slippery rocks and perched the camera between my knees as I sat on my bum, in an attempt to stablise the camera, as I decided to not use the awesomely designed tripod ‘GorillaPod’ that was made specifically for these situations because I chose to leave it in our cottage that day.  I tried a few different shutter-speeds and finally decided on 0.25s, mostly because that is as long as I can hold a camera on my person without moving it and creating a fantastically blurry photo instead of an impressively artistic long-exposure shot.

I find photographs of water (rivers, waterfalls, oceans, etc) relaxing, and especially those taken on long-exposure.  It gives them a sort of an other-wordly quality, in my mind.  I am feeling pretty relaxed right now… now let’s see how well this photograph does in the third year of my PhD at calming my fraying nerves.

I am sure someone’s done a study on it.


9 Oct

Gobble, gobble, gobble…

As you (may) know, I am Canadian.  And/but as you may (not) know, I love Thanksgiving.  It is definitely one of my favourite weekends of the entire year, so even though I live in the UK, I still make a point of celebrating Thanksgiving… usually through the medium of turkey and always through the medium pumpkin pie.

[Side note: There is a really great open letter to pumpkin flavoured seasonal treats over on McSweeny’s.]

I make pumpkin pie using my mother’s recipe, which *gasp* doesn’t actually require pumpkin!  You can generally substitute squash for pumpkin, if there is none readily available and it tastes just as good (gosh mum, I hope your okay with me spilling your recipe secrets all over the interwebs).  However, earlier this year I discovered a UK company that imports foodstuff from North America so I splurged and bought some Libby’s pumpkin for my annual pie.  It’s not because I’m anti-squash… I did that last year and it worked great, but if you can get your hands on some Libby’s it come pre-cooked and pre-mashed (which, to be fair, isn’t that hard… but I’m waaay lazy).

I will now tempt your taste buds with pictures of my baking masterpiece.  I am still not the best pastry baker, but I plan to rectify this by baking lots more pastry based dessert – because practice makes perfect!  So you can excuse my uneven edges and undercooked base in this instance.  You can track my pastry progress as I post more baking adventures.  Unless it never progresses…

Pumpkin pie... it's all glossy and shiny and oozy and delicious looking!

Yeah, it's cracked on top, so what?  Want to fight about it?

It totally looks like Pacman.  Mmm...  Pacnom.

You look so good slice of pie.  I want to eat you all over again.  Or maybe your pie sibling...

Where did it go?  In my belly!

This year, in addition to pumpkin pie I also baked an apple torte.  [Edit: The apples for this fabulous torte were kindly given to us by Ian’s work colleague Peter, who has apples coming out of his ears – previous apples received have been used to make apple/stawberry crumble and apple/rhubarb crisp.]  It is a wonderfully Autumnal dessert (and yes, a dessert can be Autumnal).  If you have never had it before, it is basically a loose and crumbly pastry base, a sweet and creamy cheese filling, topped with cinnamon sugared sliced apples, and toasted almonds.  Droooool…

What a gorgeous looking apple torte!

I totally didn't burn the top of the torte... it's just enhanced golden brown.

It shall henceforth be known as Pactorte.

Delicious layars of pastry, cheese, apple, and almonds.

It would appear that we both thoroughly enjoyed that torte.

I think pumpkin pie and apple torte are great desserts for people who whole-heartedly love delicious desserts, but may not have the sweetest of the sweet tooths.  They have great complex flavours, wonderful rich textures, and best of all they go great with a cuppa!

I also went all out and cooked a proper Thanksgiving dinner including: turkey, mashed tateys, turnip, carrots, brussel sprouts, gravy, aaand cranberry jelly!  I realise this is what most proper English housewives makes each and every Sunday for dinner (minus the cranberry jelly), but I am so totally not there yet (and really have no desire to be, sorry husband).  But I digress, suffice it to say, following this exemplary example of my culinary skills, I had one very happy man in the house (and I don’t look too upset about the whole meal either), I just hope he doesn’t get too used to it!

They should have sent a poet.

I know the way to his heart.

I know the way to my own heart!

I would say that this year’s Nomsgiving was a great success.  To further prove my point, while I was adding the photos to this post, Ian got up to get himself seconds of pumpkin pie.  I have an official convert in the house.  And me?  I am already excited for the next turkey based holiday meal…


26 Sep

Oh hi, I didn’t see you there.

Why don’t I take a minute to introduce myself?  I am an avid reader, self-professed geek, baking enthusiast, and perhaps a tiny bit keen…

I will be officially starting my PhD this week at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Archaeology.  The working title of my thesis is: ‘Profiling the dead: demographic characterisation of mass fatality incidents in the past and the present’.  You may be thinking that perhaps it is a bit of a vague title, but I prefer to go with general… and I also like to emphasise that it is called a “working title” for a reason.

I reckon that at certain points in time over the next three years (and it will be three) I will feel like writing, but it may not always be exactly related to my research subject.  Thus, I have created this blog to capture my mid-morning, mid-day, mid-night ramblings.  It may come to include anything from the interesting and academic to the amusing and distracting.  Although to be fair, there may also be quite a lot of overlap in what I consider interesting, academic, amusing, and distracting.

I shall finish up this welcome post by welcoming you, formally, to my blog!  It is my hope that you will find it interesting, but if nothing else it will help me feel a little bit less like a zombie some days.