Monday, January 26, 2015

choccy, skills and ganache

As I've said before, I'm not big on desserts, but this was recommended to me by the wife of a good friend of mine who makes cakes for a living, and it looked both a) delicious and b) pretty simple, so I thought I'd give it a go. Now I could just direct you to the original recipe, but it does that American thing of giving all the quantities in incomprehensible American units (cups, for fuck's sake), so I thought a bit of translation might be helpful.

So what you'll need is as follows:
  • 30-40 Oreos - available in the UK in packets of 14 or so, so three packets will probably do you. Alternatively you could assert your Britishness and use Bourbons or something instead;
  • one standard 250g pack of butter;
  • 120g brown sugar;
  • one 300ml carton of double cream;
  • 350g dark chocolate.
What you do is basically in three stages with an hour or so in between, during which time you can dig the garden, do your tax return, read some improving literature, make sweet sweet love to your lady friend, or all of the above if you're quick.

Step one is to make a biscuit base., much the same as if you were making cheesecake, by blitzing the Oreos, filling and all, in a food processor and then stirring in half the butter, melted. Then press this into a flan tin and put it in the fridge for an hour or so.

Step two is to make some caramel. This sounds like the sort of scary baking chemistry that requires jam thermometers and the like, but actually it couldn't be easier. Throw equal 120g quantities of butter and brown sugar into a saucepan, stir till the sugar has dissolved and the whole thing is bubbling (no more than five minutes or so), then take the whole thing off the heat and stir in 60ml of the double cream. Set this aside for 10-15 minutes to cool, then pour it into the crust - you shouldn't have to do any spreading as it should still be liquid enough to find its own level. Stick it back in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Step three is to make some chocolate ganache. Again, this all sounds a bit like a job for Lindt's master chocolatiers, but it's actually pretty easy. Smash up some dark chocolate into small pieces, heat up the rest (240ml) of the cream in a small saucepan, and pour it over the chocolate in a bowl. Now in theory the heat of the cream should melt the chocolate, but you may find that you have to apply some extra heat to get it to mix smoothly, particularly if you've used (as I did) a very high-cocoa content chocolate. Then pour the whole shebang into the flan tin on top of the caramel and put it back in a the fridge for an hour or two. You may find that some of the fat in the chocolate separates into a buttery deposit on top of the tart as it solidifies; you can just scrape this off with a knife and discard it.

This makes a phenomenally rich chocolatey tart that the original recipe recommends garnishing with some sea salt. I think this is an excellent idea, but it perhaps won't be for everyone. If you find the whole thing a bit overpowering then you could increase the proportion of cream in the ganache or use a lower-cocoa-content chocolate. Also, cut smaller slices than you think you'll need, it's really rich.

In a way it's a sort of upside-down version of this earlier largely improvised creation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

some Bond film titles; yes these are some Bond film titles

Here's a little insight into what I'm shortly to present to the Nobel committee as supporting evidence for my bid for the Nobel Prize For Inconsequential Deranged Film-Related Ravings: a detailed analysis of Bond film titles by number of syllables.

The results are startling, I'm sure you'll agree. The runaway winner, with nine out of the twenty-four titles (including the yet-to-be-released Spectre) is five syllables. The films in question are:
  • From Russia With Love
  • You Only Live Twice
  • The Spy Who Loved Me
  • For Your Eyes Only
  • A View To A Kill
  • The Living Daylights
  • Die Another Day
  • Casino Royale
  • Quantum Of Solace
The beauty of this, as I mentioned around the time of the release of Quantum Of Solace, is that 5-syllable titles lend themselves perfectly to being sung to the tune of Guantanamera. You'll have to slot three extra syllables into the second line, but that's easy enough. Here's some suggestions to get you going:
From Russia With Love
Yes it came From Russia With Love

You Only Live Twice
It's true that You Only Live Twice

The Spy Who Loved Me
Yes she was The Spy Who Loved Me

For Your Eyes Only
It can be For Your Eyes Only

A View To A Kill

We're taking A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

I'll give you The Living Daylights

Die Another Day

No we can Die Another Day

Casino Royale

We're at the Casino Royale

Quantum Of Solace

I need a Quantum Of Solace

Saturday, January 17, 2015

I'm the lyrical gangsta

Here's a list in similar vein to a couple of previous ones: basically a list of some interesting stuff that popped up during a random shuffle sequence on my iPod. The rules change a bit every time I do this: the background here is that I had the big iPod (which has over 9000 songs on it) on shuffle while I was doing some pre-Christmas catering preparation and started tweeting a few interesting lyrical snippets under the hashtag #randomipodlyrics, just to amuse myself.

I re-found the series of tweets while trawling back looking for something else earlier, so I thought it'd be interesting to blog the playlist and also see how many of the songs I could identify from the lyrics after nearly four weeks. I've Storified the list and embedded it below so you can play along at home. Answers afterwards.

So here's the list, with YouTube links where I could find them, and a confessional note if I had to resort to Google to identify them:
  1. is from Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, from their bracingly bilious 1986 album Blood & Chocolate;
  2. is from Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead;
  3. is from You Cause As Much Sorrow by Sinéad O'Connor;
  4. is from U Got The Look by Prince;
  5. is from Lazarus by the Boo Radleys - that video features various Creation Records luminaries including label boss Alan McGee (the ginger one) and the divine Toni Halliday of Curve (at about 2:35 with the shaving foam);
  6. is from Sweet Little Mystery by the late great John Martyn;
  7. is from Hey Willy by The Hollies (had to Google this one);
  8. isn't really a lyric at all, just an acknowledgement that if you let the noise wash over you then, by some weird pareidolia effect, words start to suggest themselves. All I can tell you is that it's a song from their 2002 "brackets" album;
  9. is from Family Portrait by Pink;
  10. is from Pyjamarama by Roxy Music;
  11. is from Touch, Feel & Lose by Ryan Adams;
  12. is from A Song For The Deaf by Queens Of The Stone Age;
  13. is from Monty Got A Raw Deal by REM;
  14. is from Now Be Thankful by Fairport Convention;
  15. is from Heaven And Hell by Black Sabbath, from their Ronnie James Dio period (had to Google this one);
  16. is from Hobo Chang Ba by Captain Beefheart, from the legendarily "difficult" 1969 album Trout Mask Replica (I had to Google the song here).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

the last book I read

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge.

I say, you fellows, here's a ripping idea I've just had: let's go and conquer the South Pole! I hear those shifty Scandinavians are thinking of having a crack at it, so I say let's go and give them a good spanking and bag the bally thing for King and country, what? Yes, of course it'll be bally cold, but we're British, for goodness sake. No need to worry about the stiff upper lip: bally thing'll be frozen solid anyway! Drop more port? Splendid.

Just a little insight there into the exact transcript of the planning meeting for Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated polar expedition of 1910-1913. And it's that expedition that's the subject of this novel, although, Bainbridge being Bainbridge, it's not an exact linear narrative of the events. Instead what we get is five separate sections, each covering a different period of time (in chronological order), one written by each of the final party of five who made it to the Pole: Evans, Wilson, Scott, Bowers and Oates.

As with Every Man For Himself, describing the broad thrust of the plot is a bit pointless, as everyone knows what happens anyway. Instead the interest is provided by a bit of back-story for each character, and by the interaction between them. This is what Bainbridge was good at: if you want a rollicking wintry adventure story that teaches you how to whittle a knife out of a walrus tusk then you're probably better off with Jack London or someone like that.

One of the fascinating subjects that historians have argued over for the century or so since the events depicted here is: why did the Scott expedition fail so disastrously while the rival Amundsen expedition scooted in, knocked off the Pole and scooted back again with relatively little fuss or drama? Plenty of reasons have been offered, the usual ones being the Amundsen expedition's use of dogs rather than Scott's bizarre insistence on using ponies, Amundsen's ruthless focus on Pole-bagging at the expense of scientific research, and Scott's fatal indecisiveness at various key moments, not least in deciding to take an extra man on the final push to the Pole, further stretching their already thin resources, and finally Scott's running into a window of horrific weather which made progress all but impossible, even for men whose extremities weren't useless gangrenous frostbitten lumps.

The other reason for failure is hinted at in the novel, and it's tied up with the British class system - naturally it was taken as read that the leader of the expedition would be a high-ranking military officer from the upper classes, and that there would be little room for dissent or discussion from his men once the expedition had kicked off. This sort of rigid hierarchical command structure, where there's no channel for criticism or questioning of decisions taken by those in authority, has been shown to be problematic - indeed it was implicated in so many commercial airline disasters that the industry came up with a whole new set of procedures called crew resource management to deal with it.

I remember saying in the review of Every Man For Himself that it was fairly clear that the narrator survived the sinking of the Titanic, because the novel was written in the first person and the past tense. Well, all five sections of The Birthday Boys are written in the same way, and we know that none of the five who reached the Pole survived. The usual way round this is to present the reminiscences as diary entries, but these are not presented that way, indeed Oates' section couldn't possibly be a diary entry since it describes the well-documented circumstances of his exit from the tent and subsequent death. This is really only a problem for a tedious literalist like me, who wants to know: well, in the suspended-disbelief fictional world we're in, how and from where are these words being transmitted onto the page? Are the expedition members all sitting around, in whatever Valhalla dead explorers go to, reminiscing about old times? Remember when Evans' hand fell off? Remember when you LITERALLY DIED? Ah, great days.

A minor quibble, though, really - this is a typically sly and sideways look at a familiar subject. The interactions between the men are fascinating, and the sketched portraits of each man are very convincing (and they are only sketches, as this is a short book at only 181 pages). The Birthday Boys (published in 1991) marked the start of what you might call phase two of Bainbridge's career, which featured a series of novels based on real historical events. Phase one featured novels in more domestic (and purely fictional) settings, including the slightly baffling Winter Garden and also Injury Time, probably still the best book of hers that I've read. Bainbridge herself was universally described as "eccentric" and "chaotic" and "a likable and amusing woman famed for falling over at parties", which I take to be affectionate obituary-ese euphemisms for "constantly pissed".

Monday, January 12, 2015

intershitty 125

I caught a bit on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning about the possible health dangers posed by the quaint habit train companies have of flinging raw faecal solids onto the tracks. You'll recall I did a blog post about this a while back, expressing some surprise that this was still legal - well, it turns out that something in the region of 10% of train carriages (the ones built prior to 1990) still adhere to the just-chuck-it-on-the-tracks approach. This has been the cause of some concern, not least in Diss in Norfolk and Rochford in Essex where a luxuriant crop of tomato plants has apparently sprung up along the tracks, from seeds (we're presumably meant to infer) pooped out by passengers. Not sure whether any station staff have nipped down onto the tracks to harvest them for the buffet trolley - if so they might want to give them a rinse first.

And consider this - here we are, fifty-odd years after Dr. Beeching closed a third of the British railway network, at which time ALL trains would have just been fitted with the standard poop chute.

So if we assume, since Beeching cut the network mileage by roughly a third, that there'd have been roughly 1.5 times as many carriages about, that means that there'd have been 15 times the volume of raw sewage being flung about as there is today. And bear in mind that's probably an underestimate, because trains were a lot more popular then. So back in the 1940s and 1950s people would have been merrily trooping off on the train in their thousands:
  • to the seaside
  • to work
  • to war to be senselessly slaughtered in huge numbers
- all the while being relentlessly spattered with a fusillade of their own shit. And, remember, this is in times of post-war austerity, powdered egg, no bananas - you can imagine the likely consistency of the results. Not like those shifty French and Italian types with their oily Mediterranean diet and their loose untrustworthy stools - Johnny Britain would have been producing motions with the consistency of obsidian which probably shattered when they hit the tracks, sending foul-smelling shards of shrapnel hurtling towards bystanders. No wonder everyone wore hats back then, and smoked relentlessly to hide the smell.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

incidental music spot of the day

Jefferson Airplane's 1967 single White Rabbit, one of the most perfect little psychedelic pop/rock nuggets ever recorded, advertising the slightly peculiar new Citroen C4 Cactus, half chunky mini-SUV, half lavishly upholstered leather sofa.

I'm never sure quite how much my great love for Jefferson Airplane is influenced by my great love (of a slightly different kind) for the fabulously sexy Grace Slick, just as I'm never sure how much my great love for Grace Slick is influenced by her being thrown into sharp relief by her bandmates, a really exceptionally ugly bunch even by 1960s hippy standards. That didn't stop her from sleeping with just about all of them, though, bless her. Here's White Rabbit as performed at Woodstock in 1969.

Secondly, I'd have put a modest sum of money on the backing to the new HSBC "Pink Ladies" advert being by Sigur Rós. I certainly wouldn't have staked any money on being able to identify the song, as with a very few exceptions they all merge into one - no recognisable words to memorise being half the problem. Even being as cagey as that I still would have lost that money, though, since it turns out that the song is called Grow Till Tall by Jónsi, aka Jón Þór Birgisson, the singer with Sigur Rós, from his 2010 solo album Go. So I claim half a point.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

well I wish it could be a week and a half after Christmas every week and a half

This is a bit late, but, well, it's been Christmas and New Year and I've been a bit busy with various festive shenanigans, as I expect you have too. But I've had this clogging up my brain like a giant impacted cranial turd for the last couple of weeks, so I've got to get it out there. Wait 50 weeks and read it just before next Christmas, if you like.

Anyway: I trust we're at a point in human history where we don't need to have the tedious discussion prompted by questions like: well, you're an atheist, what are you doing celebrating Christmas? Because we all know about how 95% of the trappings of the festival: the date, the tree, the whole Santa Claus thing, et tediously cetera, are all a mish-mash of old traditions from a whole host of other places, most of them religions that your vanilla Christian would run a mile rather than admit to believing in. So let's all just chill out and have a mince pie. In any case, try making a principled stand and schlepping in to the office on Christmas Day to get some work done and see where that gets you.

[Apologies to whoever I nicked that little montage from, but I did it before Christmas and now I've forgotten where it was.]

No, my purpose here is to do with a particular aspect of Christmas: the music. I was inspired to think about it by this post on Greta Christina's blog, listing 10 Christmas carols acceptable to atheists. To be honest I tend to think that with Christmas carols you should in general get over yourself, accept that we've all mostly grown up in the same culture and that there will be some inevitable Goddery, and just like the ones you're naturally inclined to like, i.e. those that are most familiar from your childhood and have the best tunes. For me that means The Sussex Carol and O Come All Ye Faithful, cracking tunes that build in volume towards the end and incorporate a bit of scope for the organist to go all frenziedly In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida towards the end. If you've ever attended Christmas carol services, there's a reason they leave O Come All Ye Faithful to the end: it's because it's the best tune and really allows the congregation to get some air in the lungs and have a bit of a bellow.

O Come All Ye Faithful does illustrate a bit of a problem with certain carols, though: the jarring weirdness of the lyrics. The second verse contains probably the strangest Christmas lyric ever written: "Lo, he abhors not the virgin's womb". I mean, firstly, why bring wombs into it at all, but secondly, what's with the not abhorring bit? Why would he abhor it? I mean, it's probably a bit dark, but it's a womb. And don't even get me started on the Christian virginity fetish. It's not just O Come All Ye Faithful, though: Hark The Herald Angels Sing is at it as well with "Offspring of a virgin's womb", as is the slightly more obscure Cherry Tree Carol with "up spoke Lord Jesus from in his mother's womb".

And it's not just the relentless wombery: that second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful is a masterpiece of non-obvious scansion. Most people manage to muddle their way through "God of God; Light of Light" without there really being enough syllables to fit the tune, but come spectacularly unstuck two lines further on, possibly as a result of shell-shock after all the womb stuff, but more likely at having to smear "Very God; Begotten not created" across a tune that they were happily cramming "Come and adore him; Born the king of angels" into only a verse ago. The secret is to realise that despite the apparent lack of syllables what you actually have to do is put the "be" of "begotten" at the end of the first line, and then you find that the "gotten not created" flows OK afterwards.

This is actually only the second most impossible Christmas lyric in terms of fitting it into the tune, though, the hands-down winner being the last verse of We Three Kings, which requires you to fit "Heaven sings Alleluia; Alleluia the earth replies" into the space you'd previously fitted "Field and fountain, moor and mountain; Following yonder star" into. I think part of the problem here is a visual one - it just doesn't look as if there are enough syllables here, and so people tend to panic. Actually there are exactly the same number as in the earlier verse, thanks to "alleluia" having four, and if you just start, treat each syllable equally, fit them into the same pattern, and don't panic, you'll be fine, although you will find that, as for O Come All Ye Faithful, you will have to tack the first two syllables of the second "alleluia" on to the end of the first line.

We Three Kings has its share of lyrical weirdness as well - obviously there's that jolly verse about the myrrh, you know, the one that goes "Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying; Sealed in the stone-cold tomb". Yeah, and a Merry Christmas to you too. But go back to the very first line: "We three kings of orient are". What's with the shunting of the verb to the end? What are you, Yoda? Still, at least they lay off the wombs.

Secular and popular music has its share of lyrical oddities as well, not least Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Biological implausibility aside, it's a bizarre little story of whatever's the cervine equivalent of racism and/or ableism and just plain old bullying, and then one of those "hey, kid, you're all right" moments based on little more than a nod from the resident authority figure, Santa. To be fair the original book seems to make it clearer that the acceptance was based on Rudolph proving himself as a sleigh-pulling beacon, whereas in the song it sounds as if they perked up pretty much as soon as Santa nominated him. It's a bit weird either way, though.

Incidentally the "official" list of Santa's reindeer (the one that goes: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen) is from the 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas. This is still knocking about in print, and indeed we had a copy out of the library over Christmas. Rudolph usually gets tacked on to the list as well these days, but he's a latecomer, as the book came out in 1939 and the song in 1949.

Finally, as I usually do at this time of year, I must just register a vote for Jethro Tull's Ring Out Solstice Bells as the atheist's Christmas pop song of choice, partly because it isn't really about Christmas at all. On the other hand, it does feature a gurning beardy snaggle-toothed bloke in tights standing on one leg playing the flute, which I think we can all agree is the true meaning of Christmas.

fuck you and the winged horse you rode in on

Just a quick ugly ill-thought-out splurge to express my revulsion and outrage at the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier today. I really just have two thoughts:

Firstly: humour is the key marker of a properly civilised society. If your culture is relaxed and self-confident enough to tolerate people taking the piss relentlessly then you're probably on the right track. Conversely, any regime which is hyper-sensitive to criticism, and mockery in particular, just betrays its own lack of confidence in its own rightness. Islam is the canonical example of this: look at the grinding humourless, sexless, life-denying, ritualised childishness of it all. That's my first reaction on hearing of an atrocity like this: oh, you fucking BABIES. You stupid, brainwashed, pathetic, petulant, humourless BABIES.

Secondly: this is what you get when you are too lily-livered to publicly criticise religious lunacy, Islamic or otherwise. You cannot simultaneously hold up freedom of expression as an absolute and then dance around the subject of "blasphemy", as the current UK government has repeatedly done, by saying, yeah, freedom of expression and all, but we should respect others' beliefs and just generally avoid saying anything that might offend. No, fuck that: you either have freedom of expression or you don't, and that includes the right to say things like: fuck the fictional prophet Mohammed, fuck his flying horse and fuck all his followers.