If They Were Me

Hand-made chocolate box!

This is what happens after you watch a film about a French chocolatier and off-handedly mention that you really like the look of a prop. This was made by friend Tammy as a birthday present, complete with drawers for transporting and showing off chocolates! It really does look as it has stepped out of the film, though I may need to fill one drawer with an ice pack as the summer heads our way.

To celebrate my birthday, I decided, in a fit of hubris, that I’d do a dinner. A five-course dinner where four of the courses were desserts, because that seemed to sum up how I approach things. Next time I come close to suggesting that, I need to be slapped. Two and a half days of prep work and cooking, experimenting with a gluten-free flour mix for the first time and having a stack of about ten different food chemicals on the counter. It was bound to having some major problems without practicing any of the recipes first. Oh, and buying the wrong type of potatoes and watching them turn to mush as I was attempting to roast them.

(we won’t even talk about what happened to the tofu I made. Well, made is the wrong word. Cremated is a better one)

Of all the dishes, only one came out as I planned - the first, a spin on Wylie Dufresne’s Fake Egg. Instead of making a fake fried egg, I used his locust bean & guar gum ‘egg white’ to fill up egg cups, and then made a mango fluid gel to act as the yolk. Perhaps not quite as “oh wow!” as popping the carrot yolks in the original, but it did work pretty well. Which is more than you can say for what eventually passed as the roast potatoes.

That Escalated Quickly

To return to a theme from a post or two ago; we’re looking at houses. Or were looking at houses, I guess. To sum up the timeframe: a house went on the market last Thursday. My mum spotted it online on Friday, we saw it on Wednesday, put an offer in on Thursday, and had it accepted early Friday morning. Something of a whirlwind.

note that I didn't get a good picture of the house in general

There’s a set of photos over at Flickr for those of you that haven’t seen it yet. It’s quite impressive for what we’re paying - roughly 2,000 sq. feet of house in a 20,000 sq. feet lot (yes, those zeros are accurate). And whilst it’s an old house, the electrics, water and heating have all been replaced in the last five years. I will again live in a house with water pressure.

(every time I had to go back to California, the sadness about being back in a hotel room room was tempered with the knowledge that I’d have a proper shower again, at least!)

Of course, it’s not all finished and finalised yet. The mortgage still has to be sorted out, and there’s a copious amount of inspections that may find something that calls for us to pull out of the deal. But…it looks like this may be where we end up for the rest of 2013. And beyond.

What, No Council Housing?

We’re looking at houses at the moment. Yes, slowing becoming one with the capitalist homogeny. But they’re so nice and pretty. Of course, we also live in an area that was set on the road to gentrification already, and all the fancy new construction coming to the centre of Durham is helping to increase house prices considerably. Also, I have quite a bit of stuff, enough, one might say, to almost fill a shipping container. Plus, the books, which grow at an unbounded rate (Durham County Library book sale this weekend people! Is it wrong I’m going to try and leave work an hour early on Friday in order to get to the early opening? I do not have a problem, honest). Despite being on rather decent wages (and I’m underselling that), we’re slightly restricted on what we can buy with money down, and we don’t want to extend ourselves too far.

So we’ve looked at houses. One was by a main road and too noisy to even have a conversation on the front steps, and another looked fabulous in the pictures, but in person it turned out that the photographer was amazing and the house less so.

And then there’s 648 W Club. I’m not too fussy about my houses - I can take old or new. I do absolutely love Mid-Century Modern homes, mind you, but I’m not enough of a programming rock star to stretch that far. Though there is one out by Rho that would be amazing…but no, cast it from your mind, Ian! Too far out, and just tantalizingly enough out your price range - back, back, I say! Back to W Club, a house from 1940 that has had its entire attic/loft space converted into a master bedroom suite, making it seem like a huge amount of house for a very good price.

But there’s always a ‘but’. There’s a few cracks in the walls, and the foundation has had to be reinforced with steel beams (though at least it has them). The downstairs bathroom would need to be ripped out, fencing would need to be completed, and most jaw-droppingly expensive of all, it needs a complete renovation of the ground floor’s heating and air conditioning. It is not exactly walk-in ready.

The potential, though. Already you can imagine how great the kitchen would be after a remodel, how the bare wooden floors would shine after being sanded down and polished. How we could turn the huge basement into either more rooms or even a chocolate warehouse underneath the main house. Bookcases lining the walls and secret blackcurrant bushes growing in the back garden…

…and then the cracks in the house pour open and the basement floods, or the ceiling collapses on the ground floor. Or the crack sucks Amy Pond through the Time Vortex. Dreaming is one thing, reality is a touch more expensive. We’re going to get more expert advice on the house and see where to go from there, as well as looking at other houses in the area. So, if you’re selling a house in the 27701 zip code, do let us know!

You Useless, Cretinous Morons

This is is what you have done.

Corned Beef?

I’m still a little bemused by American celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, which seem to be a bigger deal than in the country that is actually having the feast day. Maybe it’s because almost none of it seems to recollect any of my experience of Ireland. In my thirty years of living amongst a family with a huge Irish background, with visits across the sea, I have never, never heard of or had corned beef and cabbage. Not once. It seems to be a uniquely Irish-American thing.

And I don’t think they can understand the Irelands I lived with growing up. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand, considering how silly some of it was.

I lived in a country that decided that certain political parties were so dangerous that we weren’t allowed to hear their voices. Where songs were banned if they suggested that the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six were innocent (which turned out to be true). Where my mother left Harrods before it blew up in ‘83, and present at two bombings in Bangor. I walked past the crater from the biggest bomb exploded on the mainland almost every day for three years. I went to weddings that could feed the five thousand and make the Sermon On The Mount look like an amateur operation (did Jesus even provide butter? I don’t think so). I got in trouble at school for both students and teachers for reading a biography of Michael Collins. Jackie Charlton and Tony Cascarino, circa ‘94. And getting all the jokes in Father Ted.

A country divided, where even the name of a city is a point of argument and identification. But things are better now; the guns are buried and growing moss. The Maze, once part of the language of my childhood (why did I know about ‘H-blocks’ from such an early age? Did I really watch the news that much?) lies in ruins, Manchester took the Government money and ran, transforming its aging city centre into a 21st century arrangement of glass and metal. Stormont lives once more, and Ireland are determined never to win the Eurovision Song Contest ever again…


I wonder if it’s the second year that the feeling of losing home sets in. The only reason I knew it was Mother’s Day today was because last Sunday Firebox started emailing me in a frenzy that there was only four days left of post before the day (though Bonnie did send a reminder on Tuesday, so I wasn’t totally in the dark), and I’ve also been told that I’m starting to affect a slight twang. I deny this totally, of course, but I do fear that it’ll happen sooner than I expect and I won’t notice it until it’s far too late.

Still, despite that, I know it’s Red Nose Day next week, and I had to explain the significance of a Blue Peter badge to my friend Tammy after watching 56-Up with her this week, so that helps keep up my Britishness a little. And I did spend at least some of that munching British mini eggs. I haven’t started wearing a Stetson yet.

(56-Up was, as expected, both rather happy and soul-crushing. Just how long can it go on, I wonder? Last time, at the end of 49-Up, nobody seemed all that enthusiastic for another round, but while there were lots of negative comments towards the focus and format of the documentary this time, it gave an air of ‘well, we are annoyed at the intrusion every seven years, but we’re British so we’ll just grin and bear it’, so I think 63-Up may happen. Proving Apted holds out, I guess.)

And it’s sunny. The proper pre-summer weather has just rolled into Durham right in time for the latest Food Truck Rodeo (over 50 trucks and still everybody lines up for Chirba Chirba. Guys, they’re around a lot - try something new!). It’s still a bit cool in the shade, but the blossoms on the trees will be coming out shortly. My favourite part of the year in the South, in fact. Warm without being intolerable, and everything looking so pretty as Spring hits in full force.

(Though I say that as somebody who doesn’t have allergies, obviously)

Music Man

First week of new work is over. Thoughts? I’m living in a room that seems to be dubbed “the cupboard under the stairs”, it’s filled to the brim with hipster furnishings, full of smart and friendly people, and most of all, it has a large fridge filled with an endless supply of Diet Coke.

(admittedly, it might have been better for me to have discovered the latter fact before I went and obtained 180 cans of the stuff on Monday. But, it’s good to have a decent stock. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyhow)

It’s going to take me a little while to get settled in, but I’m liking it so far. Even if my old nemesis has returned. Yes, Trade Gothic, I saw your font files. I will not be cowed!

What else has been going on this week? Well, it looks like Monuts will be opening soon (in fact EVEN AS I TYPED THAT SENTENCE, I got word of the soft opening potentially happening next week. I will take the hard task of reporting on their new space, dear reader, suffering each and every doughnut to give you information. It’s a tough job, I know), and demolition work has started on the HOTEL OF HORROR. Hmm, I was certain I blogged about our experience at that auction, but I can’t find it in the archives. I can, though, link you to the OpenDurham entry for the site. It looked pretty spectacular in Durham’s Golden Age, but the years took their toll…and I don’t believe Stacie has forgiven me yet from the squalor we saw at the auction site. Though great if you really wanted to purchase unopened bottles of Coke from 1982. I feel that there’s a great untold story behind Ronnie Sturdivant and his holdings in Durham, but that’s going away now, to be replaced by apartments for students. Well, we wanted people to know that Durham was a great place. Now they know, and that means a lot of change, for better and worse.

(this obviously ties in with the gentrification theme I was talking about last week - Durham is actually doing better than a lot of cities when it comes to reusing old buildings - I’m now working in a building that was once part of the vast tobacco district. The danger is that we’re building a grand new city for the creative class flocking to Durham, but sidelining those who were here before us, pricing them out of the centre and pushing them towards the edges of town. And I’m not sure how we can deal with that)

Off now to make some more chocolate.

Something Going Down

I feel like I didn’t do enough this week; though I know that my list of things to do was more ambitious given the time I had available. I got my eyes tested and walked back home from the opticians in near-blindness, watched an awful lot of The Wire, and read up on some of the things I’m likely to be doing in the coming week at my new job. Eeep. I also made a lot of chocolates. Marshmallows, caramels, aero blocks - there’s been a lot of sugar work, to the point where I’m starting to run out of both chocolate and sugar again. Oops.

There might be a post on Durham gentrification coming up. I’m letting it build up in my head for a little while, and then I’ll probably discard it, so just think of what that post could be in the meantime…

Where Is My Heart?

Where Is My Heart - The Last Puzzle

One thing I’ve been quite interested in over the past year is the rise of video games like JS Joust, where the computer/console is a very small part of the game experience (in Joust, it’s only there to keep score - all of the game interaction takes place on the PS3 Move controllers and the people playing). Although I haven’t actually played any of them, they do seem quite enjoyable, and I’ve been trying to make a few myself. Where Is My Heart? is my third attempt, and the first one I’ve finished (the other two - Shout To The Top and The Bull Run aren’t quite done yet.).

Where Is My Heart? concerns the tragic tale of KLF-73, a droid returning from deep space only to be raided by Space Pirates. All it wanted was to return home to its companion droid, but the pirates stole its heart module. The task of the players is to receive the incoming messages from KLF-73 and work out the location of the heart, avoiding traps set by the Space Pirates.

At its heart, it’s little more than a simple scavenger hunt; KLF-73 gives out clues which lead to codes, and when all the clues have been found, the final location is revealed. But the method of delivery is slightly different; KLF-73 is actually a piece of code sitting on the Internet, a bot that can respond to questions and sends out SMS messages via Twilio to all the players in the game.

Then there’s the final piece - a trap sprung by the pirates in one last attempt to prevent KLF-73 from getting the heart. In the real world, this presents itself as a box containing an 8x8 LED matrix, an Arduino UNO, and four coloured buttons. The LED matrix responds to button pushes, either displaying an X when an incorrect combination of buttons is pressed, or a flashing heart animation when a player enters the right sequence and completes the game.

Behind the scenes, there’s a rudimentary admin interface that shows a log of all SMS messages sent and received, as well as some buttons to send ‘fluff’ to the players, and a textbox for detailed replies in case the a player asks a question that the bot can’t answer (if it can’t work out what to say, it just sends a message saying ‘Processing’ and leaves it up to the admin to work out a suitable response. This only happened a few times in the course of the game).

It also helps and hinders when it’s snowing heavily. Makes set up annoying, but does add an air of magic to the proceedings. It does make you worry for the fate of the increasingly-sodden electronics package. Initially, the codes decrypted to ‘THEGREENWALL’, but I sent messages for people to come to Blue Coffee Café instead to play the final part of the game.

If anybody is interested, I’ll throw the Ruby and the Arduino code up on GitHub, though I’ll add in advance that I threw it together in a few hours, so both are rough and the bare minimum to get the game going!

I’m hoping to get Shout To The Top and The Bull Run (for the latter, think of a cut-down Knightmare and you’ll have some idea about my plans) as well as a few whisper board games whisper in time for April. Maybe have something fun going on for my birthday…

Cremè Brûlée

cremè brûlée bars

I’m pretty proud of these bars (and the heart-shaped ones too, for that matter). For one thing, the tempering is just perfect, and combined with the speckled look that the vanilla seeds add, they look like something you’d buy from a shop. A rather expensive shop at that. Secondly, the idea sprang out of my head on a walk yesterday morning; by the end of the day, they were wrapped up in boxes ready to be taken to work tomorrow. Which is satisfying.

I have been toying with the idea of doing a cremè brûlée ganache for a few months now, egged on (hohoho. See me after — Ed.) by a few people around town. After getting a litre of vanilla paste on Friday, I thought it was time to do something with that idea, but I was stuck on how to incorporate the sugar shell — a rather important part of the brûlée. My mind kept on returning to the idea of an isomalt tuile broken up and dispersed around the ganache. Which would have provided a crunch, but isomalt doesn’t turn a caramel colour, so it wasn’t quite working in my head. Then I started thinking about Crunchies. Although the colour would be right, the problem with them is that once they set, they break messily and would be a pain to incorporate in the ganache. Plus, I wasn’t sure how well they’d keep their crunch as they’re rather hydroscopic.

Then I wondered. What would happen if I flattened the honeycomb after I poured it out? And instead of a ganache, I’d just use white chocolate, but adding dried vanilla seeds in to give it the creamy vanilla flavour. After an experiment, I discovered that this approach allowed me to create a set of flat shards that I could easily portion out between the bars and the bonbon mold, and the solid chocolate should preserve the crunchiness of the honeycomb. Although I have yet to really test that, as they’ve been disappearing pretty fast.