Saturday, 3 November 2012

Stiff Peaks

Well, slightly runny peaks, actually. But this is my first attempt at beating the hell out of egg whites until they give in and miraculously turn themselves into meringue. I'm reckoned by some to be a fairly decent cook, and I wouldn't disagree with them. But where I fall down is in desserts. Okay, I can make an apple pie or crumble with my eyes shut, but when it comes to things like custard, meringues, sponge cakes etc, I'm a complete novice because I've never paid much attention to that kind of stuff. I do love to eat it, though, despite my previous claims about not having a sweet tooth (I think it emerged about ten years ago, like a late-developing wisdom tooth but without the pain).

 I spent the last couple of months watching The Great British Bake-Off, and it has kindled a bit of a spark in me. It seems that baking is an enormous area of culinary art that, dare I say it, requires a lot more skill and knowledge than that required to bung meat and two veg on a plate.

So this afternoon I decided to try something I've never done before - a meringue (which may or may not form the base of a pavlova). It seems ridiculously simple: take three egg whites (some recipes suggest adding a pinch of salt and cream of tartar), whizz 'em about a bit, and then whizz in 6oz of sugar - icing sugar is preferred because of its finer texture, but I used ordinary granulated. The beating process is supposed to take 5-10 minutes, but I was using a hand whisk, was probably too slow during the first ten minutes, and my arm was all set to drop off when I stopped after half an hour. I know I haven't quite achieved the desired consistency - stiff peaks, baby! - but I just couldn't continue. However, I've made it into a circle on a baking sheet, and tried to form ramparts around the edge to hold the fruit in with. It's now basking in a slow oven for an hour. I'm sure what comes out will be edible, even if somewhat short of perfection.

 The next challenge will be whipped cream - stiff peaks again.

 A side effect of making the meringue is going to be home-made dairy ice cream. I stumbled on this by chance, but if you are using three egg whites in your meringue, you won't be surprised to learn you'll have three orphaned egg yolks. And, apart from the cream, what ice cream needs is three egg yolks. Result!

After the attempt described above, a couple of people pointed out the reason for failure was that I used granulated sugar, so I tracked down some caster sugar (at least, that's what I think it is - it's a bit hard to tell with some stuff in Spain - it's a very fine white sugar), and had another go. The result was pretty much the same as the first attempt: I just wasn't getting enough air into the egg white, so it was doomed to failure. And you need your stiff peaks BEFORE you add the sugar.

By this time, I've been halfway round the Internet looking for solutions (and yes, Cynthia, I would LOVE a KitchenAid, but gosh aren't they expensive!), and learnt a great deal. The problem with recipes on the Internet and in actual books that you pay lots of money for, is that nothing ever goes wrong. Anyway, here is my stiff peaks advice from assorted sources:

1) Equipment. Do NOT use plastic stuff. You need a stainless steel bowl and whisk. Copper bowls are also recommended, although some sources say that copper ions will migrate into your egg mixture, and this may or may not be a good thing. Ceramic or glass bowls are fine too.

2) Equipment. Must be spotlessly clean. Any trace of oil or grease will cause the process to fail. Some people recommend placing your bowl and whisk in the freezer for fifteen minutes before use.

3) Equipment. Try to match the size of your whisk and bowl with the quantity of egg white you are using. The whisk (excluding its handle) should be about three times the height of the amount of egg white in your bowl.

4) Eggs. The eggs should be as fresh as possible, and at room temperature when you begin the process. When separating the whites from the yolks, it is VITALLY IMPORTANT that there is no trace of yolk in with your whites. So, whatever separation method you are using, you need one small bowl for the collection of yolks, one for the separated white of one egg, and the bigger bowl that you will be doing the mixing in. Once you have separated one egg white, pop it into the big bowl. This way, if you mess up separating one egg, you can simply throw it away without contaminating your other egg whites.

5) Method. Having been so careful in preparing everything as above, it can all go horribly wrong if you don't beat it properly. And very few online recipes bother to explain how to do that. They just say things like 'make sure you incorporate lots of air into the mixture'. Yes, but how? I found this brilliant little video on YouTube that tells it like it is:
The trick is in the flick, apparently. However long you go at it, you will NEVER achieve stiff peaks if you just use a stirring motion with your whisk. What you need to do is angle the bowl toward your belly, and for every revolution of the whisk, give it a little flick upwards. I tried this and it worked brilliantly - I'd get a little trail of egg white flying through the air each time. Do this continuously until the mixture forms a peak when you lift the whisk out of it, and the peak does not collapse.

So, finally, I managed it! I did take a photo, but it's not very good. And I did lose most of the stiff-peakiness when I was incorporating the sugar. However, I'm definitely making progress!

And while I've been writing this update, Michele has posted a link on Facebook to a website article:

The very first paragraph made me want to slash my wrists: 'The most important thing to remember when making meringues is that moisture is their greatest enemy. Therefore, don't make meringues on humid or rainy days. Also, avoid making them when doing other cooking.'

It's been grey/overcast/actually raining here the last couple of days. I've also got 6 litres of stock bubbling away in the background. Gahhh!

But I did get stiff peaks.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

New Toy

Ever since Apple released the first iPad, I've wanted one. But they were expensive, and I really had no idea what I would do with it if I did go crazy and splash out a ton of money. So I put the lust into a dark recess of my mind, and forgot about it.

However, a couple of things coincided a few months ago that convinced me I needed an iPad. The first was doing the design for a website whose two owners both used iPads to review the ongoing work. I saw flaws that were not apparent on any other browser/platform. So it was a bit embarrassing asking the client to test things out on an iPad and send me a screenshot. The second thing was the recent launch of the iPad no-number, which resulted in a dramatic price cut for the basic iPad 2. At €399, it wasn't an unreasonable price.

But still I wavered, until a few days ago when I read an article about how you could wirelessly connect an iPad to a MacBook (or PC) and use it as a secondary display. That was the clincher for me, and this afternoon I went out and bought this beautiful little slab of technology.

So I've spent the evening setting up this and that, and trying to download some of the other. The first stumbling block was connecting to the App Store. Programmers can be too clever for their own good sometimes, and when it spotted that my post code wasn't a UK one, it kicked me out of that registration process and flipped me into the Spanish one. En Español. That's not a problem, but I'm sure it means that, for example, the content I'm offered in the Kindle bookstore will be mostly Spanish, and not of much use to me. But I had no choice.

Part of the magic of all these new devices is that they can theoretically synchronize their content, so that your photos, videos, music, email and books can be shared on all related devices. So I knew that when I input my Kindle account details on the iPad, it would be able to access the books that I had bought from Amazon. I was sweetly surprised when the iPad knew what page I was on in my current book.

But syncing music with my MacBook didn't work - I need to upgrade the iTunes software on my MacBook. I've been resisting this upgrade since forever, but now I suppose I'll have to do it. Maybe I'll do that tomorrow. I pressed on with the iPad as secondary monitor project, and bought the app (Air Display) for $10. Then they give you a URL to download the MacBook client from. But guess what: my MacOS is too old to work with it, so I need to upgrade that too, tomorrow.

So the new toy is proving to be a bit of hard work, but I'm sure everything will be wonderful when it's done.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Tybalt & Theo: Kindle Edition

Most of my blog readers are probably aware that I occasionally write novels that no agent or publisher has yet had the foresight or cojones to take on. Which doesn't mean the book is no good, of course, it just means it's not right for that particular agent/publisher/whatever. Three or four years ago, I spent an awful lot of time on a website for aspiring writers called It's owned by publishers HarperCollins, and I made lots of great friends there, learnt lots about writing, and garnered a ton of feedback for the book I was promoting at the time: Tybalt & Theo.

Since then, I've been busy with other projects, and the writing has had to take a back seat - somebody suggested the other day it was on the back-burner, but I had to reply it wasn't even on the stove. I've also seen the traditional publishing industry decline more and more in the face of the rapid rise of eBooks. Most of my buddies from the Authonomy days have taken the self-pub eBook route, and several of them have done extremely well.

So, I decided to take the plunge. I know I have a well-written, funny and entertaining book, based on some of the great reviews it had on Authonomy, so it would be churlish not to share it with the rest of the planet. I might even make a few Euros from it. So, Tybalt & Theo: A Time-Travelling Lark is now available for Kindle in all Amazon markets. And if you don't have a Kindle (I don't), you can get the Kindle app for your smartphone or iPad.

Here's the book pitch:

Theo is a merchant banker in recession-hit 2008. Tybalt is a condemned criminal in 1608. In a freak accident, they exchange places.

Theo has just lost 97 million pounds that wasn't his. It belonged to his bank. The global finance industry is in meltdown. Unemployment looks imminent.

A chance accident sends him hurtling towards certain death at Newgate Underground station, but instead of the afterlife he finds himself in 1608.

At the same time, Tybalt finds himself propelled forward to 2008 into a world quite beyond his understanding. He discovers the dubious delights of fast food, appears on stage at the Globe and completely fails to find his good friend Will Shakspere.

Back in 1608, Theo finds himself almost hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, lined up to assassinate King James, and building himself a new life.

Can Tybalt and Theo find the way back to their own times? And, more to the point, will they want to?

It's jolly good fun, and you can buy it for less than the price of a pint from these places:

Tuesday, 5 June 2012


As someone who works with computer technology every single day, designing marvellous websites (like English Warehouse, for example) AND doing the invisible programming that makes them work, I sometimes feel like a bit of a Luddite because I rarely feel the urge to jump onto whatever the latest bandwagon is. Spotify? Heard of it, but never joined. Instagram? I can do that stuff with Photoshop if I want. Pinterest? Heard of it, but never joined.

I am on Facebook, every day, and Twitter as little as possible (there's just TOO MUCH stuff going on there, it's impossible to keep up: I do have a life, you know).

But some of these online thingies are useful, and last weekend we had cause to use one of them. We'd spent a heavy day shopping, and needed dinner pretty much immediately. We were in a barrio that was new to us, so I pulled out my VeryCleverPhone, and searched Google Maps for restaurants near us. It came up with about 10, and several had customer reviews attached. We decided on the one we wanted, and clicked on 'get walking directions' to see the route superimposed on the map. And, of course, as we walked the route, the GPS kept moving the little blue arrow so we knew we were headed in the right direction. Pretty cool eh? But of course you know this is all possible. Four or five years ago, it really wasn't possible.

An aside: we've lived in Tetuan for about 3.5 years. and I never knew we had a massive shopping mall (La Vaguada) very close by (10 mins on the 49 bus, or a brisk half-hour walk). MamaDuck said she knew it was there but never mentioned it because we spent half our life in Dubai in shopping malls, and she didn't think I'd ever want to see another one. I explained she was wrong, and we spent most of last weekend there.

Oh the times, they are a'changing.

Sunday, 13 May 2012


I've never actually lived in London, although I did have a couple of years in Surrey, which is only a short train ride away. As a student, I would whizz down to the Metropolis from Yorkshire for a day, and visit places like the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, the Hayward Gallery, the Design Centre and so on. But it was never a place where I felt I wanted to live. It was dirty, unfriendly, very expensive (that hasn't changed) and just generally not a place where you could honestly say 'wow, I love this'.

That was about 35 years ago. The place has come on a bit since then. There have been some amazing architectural developments like the Lloyds Building and the Gherkin (no 30, St Mary Axe) and some other projects around the City of London. There's Canary Wharf, the 02 and the DLR. There's the [insert name of sponsor] London Eye. There's the new City Hall and re-development of the surrounding area. There's St Pancras / King's Cross Stations redevelopment. The Shard near London Bridge will soon be completed. And there are loads of smaller-scale projects that just make the place look better and that seem to (eventually) make people take a bit of pride in it.

But, for me, the most important thing has been the opening up of the South Bank of the Thames as a pedestrian walkway: you can now walk for miles along the river. And hand-in-hand with this is the Millennium Walkway that opens up a stunning vista between St Paul's Cathedral and the Tate Modern.

All of this brings with it cafes, bars, restaurants, markets and an incredible array of street food vendors.

And now London has a few more new landmarks related to the upcoming Olympics. The one that really caught my attention and inspired me to write this post is the ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower. This report in The Guardian describes it as a 'drunken party animal of a building'. It's a sculpture, an observation tower with great views of London, possibly a folly, definitely a landmark, ultimately I think, London's answer to Paris's Eiffel Tower. Make sure you watch the video in that link, and gurgle with disbelief as Newham residents describe it as 'a noffink, it's noffink', and point out that the money would have been better spent on fixing some of the Council's housing stock (possibly yes, but why do you think that Lakshmi Mittal, the steel company billionaire who injected £19 million into the project, would prefer to fix up your council house?). The point being that Brits in general always take a default 'it's a white elephant, it's a waste of money, we can't afford it' stance on anything new, and eventually grudgingly admit they 'quite like it, it's not too bad really'.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Software Magic

I got me a new phone last week (huzzah!), a Samsung Galaxy S something +. It looks and works a bit like an iPhone, and there are several court cases going on around the world where Apple is claiming the same thing. Anyway, the new phone is handsome, works very well and I'm liking it a lot.

When I first switched it on, it ran through a bunch of setup things, and when I got to the keyboard bit, it said 'do you want the regular on-screen keyboard, or do you want Swype?' Well, I'd never heard of Swype, so I had a look at the mini-tutorial, and decided to give it a go.

If you've never heard of it either, you should check it out (if it's not pre-installed on your smartphone, you can get it as an app for iPhone, Android and Blackberry). Basically what it is is a new way of inputting text. Instead of hunting and pecking at individual letters, you just drag your finger across the keyboard, making sure you start with the right initial letter and end on the last one, and wiggle across the ones in between. It sounds deeply improbable, but it actually works incredibly well. It supports a reasonable range of languages, and I was delighted when I switched to Spanish and input 'empadronomiento' and it got it first time. Astounding stuff!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Treasure From England

I were brung up in Yorkshire, where we not only talk the most proper Inglish, we also invented t'world's best cuisine. Tha' knows, Yorkshire puddin, pease puddin, black puddin too, I shunt wonder, and o' course, t'world's best vegetable: mushy peas.

I've searched high and low for the makings of mushy peas (dried marrowfat peas, that's all) here in Madrid, but to no avail. You can get ready-made 'mushy peas' in tins, but these are bright green and not at all how they should be.

On my last two visits to England, trying to buy some marrowfat peas was a fairly high priority, but on both those trips I was in pansy London where you can easily get fancy foreign greenery like guacamole and pesto, but you really really can't get marrowfat peas.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine announced that he was shortly going to spend a week in Liverpool, and asked the usual question - is there anything you want? Normally this question is met with a polite 'no', but this time 'a kilo of marrowfat peas' was out of my mouth before I'd had time to think.

We met the other day so he could hand over the treasure. I offered him Britcoin in payment, but he was happy to accept a minced beef and onion pie instead. I was almost speechless when I saw what he'd got me though.

Four 250g boxes of Batchelor's Bigga peas. Wow. I didn't even think Batchelor's still existed. See, I worked for them one summer, about 1976? They had a factory in Sheffield, and for some reason they liked to hire people from our village and some of the surrounding ones, and bus us to the factory and back. My job was quite straightforward. Me and my buddies had to stand at the end of about four dehydration lines. These 'lines' were up a flight of stairs, and quite long. At the far end, trucks would deliver freshly-harvested things like peas or broad beans onto conveyor belts. Workers would pick out twigs, stones and other stuff that shouldn't be there, and the veg would slowly travel through long, open-ended ovens until they were all dried out.

The dehydrated vegetables would then sit patiently in a hopper until it was their turn to be bagged. This is where us bagging operatives came in. We had to fasten a big strong brown paper sack onto the end of a chute connected to the hoppers, pull a chain to release a bagfull of peas into the sack, unfasten the sack and lug it over to a kind of vertical sewing machine, stitch the top shut and then lug the sack onto a pallet.

And that was all cool and groovy, except when the sacks slipped off the end of the chute, or split when you lifted them, or you didn't stitch them shut properly. Whatever the cause, the result was dried peas all over the factory floor and remedial action involving a dustpan and shovel, and a fresh bag. Let's just say it wasn't terribly hygienic, and I'm sure any stray stuff was removed before the creation of a finished product to sell to the public..

But I digress. The day after I got these beauties, I made fish and chips and mushy peas. Very authentic, they were. You soak the peas for about 12 hours in water. Batchelor's supply a couple of tablets (probably bicarbonate of soda) to assist the soaking process. Strain the peas and cover them with fresh water in a pressure cooker. Bring to the boil, slap the lid on and give them 5-10 minutes. The peas should be soft, and some of them will have turned into an olive-green goo. And that's it, done, although you might want to add a bit of salt because they're somewhat bland if you don't.

Mushy peas. Ooh.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Searching For Umami

No, not 'your mammy', 'oomaaaahmy'.

Umami is alleged to be the fifth taste, after salt, sour, sweet and bitter, and it's a Japanese word that is variously translated as 'savoury' or 'deliciousness'. Before we go any further, I should explain that 'taste' is what we can detect with our tongues. This is augmented by many thousands of aromas that our noses can experience. It's all a bit complicated.

I've always adored 'savoury' food, and so I've been looking out for 'umami' ever since I first heard of it a bit over a year ago while reading something about molecular gastronomy.

I was given a Heston Blumenthal book and DVD for my birthday in October, and another of his cookbooks for Christmas. There's a good deal of stuff about umami in these books, and it set me off trying various things.

One of the more startling of these things is what I've been reading about MSG (MonoSodium Glutamate). I've always just assumed that MSG was right up there with heroin, crack and PopTarts as something that you really should not be putting into your body. But I realised I had no idea why I thought that. I just knew that it was commonly used as a 'flavour enhancer', especially in the Far East. A bit of Googling came up with 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome', which I've never really heard of before. It turns out that some people claim to get headaches after eating in Chinese restaurants, and without any formal research ever being done, MSG was singled out as the culprit and instantly demonised. To get the full background on this, read 'If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?'

Some of the natural sources of umami have certainly surprised me - I would have expected to see onions and their mates (leeks, celery, etc) in the list, but they don't really feature: tomatoes and mushrooms do though, but the winner by a long way is Kombu. Kombu is a seaweed from Japan (it's similar to kelp). I bought some a couple of weeks ago, and I've been using it to add umami to stocks and soups and sauces. It does this very well, and without making everything taste of seaweed. I won't be rushing out to buy MSG any time soon, but I'm certainly enjoying the umami-quest-fest.

UPDATE: umami burger, oh yeah! I forgot to mention mature Parmesan cheese is a great source of umami

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Burger

Here it is then. The bottom part is a BLT - bacon, lettuce and tomato sitting on a blob of mayonnaise and topped with melted cheese. The top part is Dijon mustard, the burger patty, sliced gherkins, tomato ketchup and more melted cheese.

Possibly a bit over the top.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Great Buns

There are few things on this earth that can beat a really good beefburger. Sadly, like pies, some of the things that get passed off as 'good' burgers are anything but. I remember to this day the very first 'hamburger' I ever had. It was at a Wimpy in Doncaster (MacDonald's and their ilk were still a few years away from hitting UK shores, and burgers did not exist in Brit 'cuisine'), and it was very nearly enough to put me off the damn things for life. Obviously, I didn't know what it was supposed to be like, and so I was disconcerted by the total lack of ham in it. I also suspected that the disc of dense brown meatlike stuff in the middle could have been a lot juicier, the inner faces of the bread should not have been dark brown, crispy and carbon-flavoured, and that maybe the addition of some lettuce, tomato and ketchup might have improved things.

I did get over it, and about once a year I'll have a Big Mac or whatever the Burger King equivalent is, just to remind myself of what they're like. They're not like really good burgers, that's for sure.

These days, when I want a burger, I make it myself. The patty element of burgers is actually pretty easy. It's just beef that has been popped through a mincer. There could be a bit of salt. But nothing else; no onion, no filler, nothing to make it hold together (pure meat really doesn't need it). How you cook the patty is up to you, although there's a ton of advice about it on the interwebz. And the crunchy things and sauces that you put into the burger are also a matter of taste.

But the one thing that is critically important to a decent burger is the bread you put it in. Sadly, in Spain at least, the folks who make 'burger buns' think that sweet soft fluff does the trick. They are utterly wrong. A good burger bun needs to be strong enough to hold the contents together. A little bit of crunch on the toasted edges doesn't go amiss. Taste and texture are useful to have. I make my own buns these days.

When I was researching burger bun recipes, I came across this article, and the recipe seems pretty good. I've made it a few times, and I made it again today. But I tried a variation. You see, I wanted the buns to be the same diameter as the burgers, and to achieve this I was going to place the dough for each burger inside a steel ring. It turned out I had a bit more dough than I needed, but I used it anyway, with the result that the buns looked more like loaves. Next time I'll try to take some photos before we consume the finished burgers.