Sunday, February 27, 2011

What I Did on Saturday

Every now and then Karel tells me that the nurses are demanding cookies asks me to bake something for the nurses in his ICU. Most of the time--that is, if I remember to pick up ingredients while grocery shopping--I'm happy to oblige him, especially if I'm planning to bake something for my lab as well.

This is what I call the "Death by Chocolate" cake. It's the kind of cake which is served in disappointingly thin slices, until you take a bite and are overwhelmed by TEH CHOCOLATE. And Armagnac. And prunes. And chocolate.

It's also a tad bit more tricky to make than most of the cookies and cakes that I typically do: the base isn't flour, but ground pecans, which you have to do yourself. You also have to flame the prunes in Armagnac (I used Southern Comfort this time--a bit less flavorful, but we didn't have Armagnac and I felt guilty opening a new bottle of cognac) before you start. And the puff of the cake comes entirely from beaten egg whites, and not any sort of baking powder. The original recipe is by Simone Beck, but the recipe I follow is from Dorie Greenspan.

The first thing you want to do is separate 3 eggs. Cold eggs are easier to separate than warm eggs, but warm egg white are easier to beat into stiff peaks. If you separate them now, the whites will have time to come to room temperature by the time you need them.

The second thing you'll want to do is preheat your oven. 375° F is a little hotter than 175° C, but because I use a larger cake pan (27 cm) than specified in the recipe, the baking time is about the same (28 minutes). If you have an 8" cake pan, then the temperature to use is 190° C.

I didn't get any pictures of the pecans before I ground them (send through a food processor and/or coffee griner), but anyway, you mix together 2/3 cup of ground nuts with 1/4 cup flour, and 1/4 tsp of salt. One package of nuts from the Albert Heijn exactly makes a 2/3 cup of ground nuts.

Then you slice-and-dice 12 prunes to the size of large raisins, and put them in a pot with 1/4 cup of water. Cook over a medium heat, stirring almost constantly, until most of the liquid is evaporated (more evaporated than in the picture).

Remove it from the heat. Take 1/4 cup of the liquor of your choice (I really do recommend Armagnac if you can get it) and pour it onto the prunes. Then set the alcohol on fire. You can do this with a long match, a special lighter, or just hold a normal match in a pair of tongs. It took a bit more coordination than I thought it would just to do that, so I didn't get a picture (plus the flames are blue, and wouldn't have shown up).

Prunes aflamed, you then melt your 200 g of chocolate and 250 g of butter and 3 Tbsp of water all together. Breaking up the chocolate and cutting up the butter wil help it melt evenly. It's always recommended that you do this in an au bain Marie, but if you know your microwave, you can just nuke it (2-3 minutes on not-full-power). You don't want it to get too hot, or else the chocolate and butter separate, but you also want it hot enough to stay warm and melty while you take care of the next step.

The next step is to add 2/3 cup of sugar to the 3 egg yolks and whisk it together. At first this seems unlikely, but with a little perseverence and elbow grease (you might also consider using a fork) it becomes a thick, pale, creamy concoction.

Then you mix the chocolate, the nuts, and the prunes into the egg yolks, and mix it all together into a nice velvety chocolate mix.

Now, beat the egg whites into stiff peaks, and then fold them into the chocolate mix. You'll hear a lot of "snap-crackle-pop" as the bubbles of air in the whites explode upon immersion into the chocolate. Just be as gentle as possible while being thorough about mixing them (oxymoron, I know). Pour everything into the cake pan, and bake for 28-32 minutes. The cake will puff and pull away from the sides of the cake pan. A knife blade should come out slightly streaky.

Take the cake out of the oven and let the cake rest for 10 minutes before unmolding it from the pan. Our cooling rack has unfortunately wide spaces between the wires, which makes my cake look funny:

Once it's cooled completely, you can make up the glaze and glaze the cake. Melt 3 oz of chocolate (~90 g) with 3 Tbsp of butter (a little less than 1/4 of a package), and mix it together with 3 Tbsp of powdered sugar. Pour this over the cake, and spread it so that it makes an even glaze. Personally, I always screw this step up. But The nice thing about this is that after about 30-40 minutes, the glaze cools to a frosting-ish consistency, so you can "frost" the cake with cool designs and nobody will be the wiser.

Then you go back and clean the kitchen so that your boyfriend doesn't kill you :-) And also so that you have room to make dinner for three hungry cats and yourself.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Flip sides

I'm leaving Maastricht for good next Tuesday. My things have been moved, arrangements have been made for the furniture, and good wishes for my future have been passed around. I tidied up my desk on Friday, filing the gazillion-and-a-half papers that I'd accumulated; tossed another gazillion-and-a-half papers into the recycling box, gave away my Gogo army, and passed on the last protocol.

I also had a meeting with the "career mobility" center (loopbaancentrum), which is a department that helps people who are leaving Maastricht find a new job. It was just an intake interview--like medical school, I'll probably never see the lady I interviewed with again--but nevertheless I was, once again, confronted with that legendary "Dutch directness" in a way that I'm not so sure I can get around.

During our conversation it came up that I am "a bit shy". I won't deny that, but then the HR guy went on to say that I need to be able to "talk about myself" and "emphasize the positives", by which he meant "bragging about myself like I'm God's gift to mankind". To me, that sounds like "being an unspeakably arrogant brat". The HR guy assured me, though, that this is just another aspect of the Dutch, and masquerading as one, that I'd have to get used to.

It also came up that most vacancies in the Netherlands are not filled as a result of job applicants applying to various job openings on job sites (monsterboard and the like), but because of someone hearing about a job opening that might suit a friend of a friend. Networking is a really big part of the work culture here, but it's not "networking" in the sense of going to a career fair and passing out your business card. It's "networking" in the sense of telling everybody and their grandmother, "Hey, I'm looking for a job, you got anything?" What seems a tad on the nepotistic side is just business as usual.

It just goes to show how much of our outlook depends on the culture that we grew up in--and how hard it is to change. I've been living and working in the Netherlands for a little less than four and three years, respectively, and I'm still having problems wrapping my head around the fact that I need to talk about myself to get a job...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hanging on to Qaddafi

The world, it seems, is going to hell in a handbasket. But oh, what a glorious way to go, stewing in populist revolutions against oppressive regimes! Even in the US, which is not officially oppressive (individual experiences may vary), unions are marching on the government in several states as their right to collective bargaining hangs in the balance.

It's awe-inspiring, really, to watch it all happen. At the same time, it's not a little frightening. The status quo being ripped to shreds as we stare at our screens, wondering which dictator is going to go next (Jordan? Syria? United Arab Emirates?) as the Facebook Revolutions take hold of the entire Middle East--well, I'm hoping they do, anyway. Stable dictatorships may have been preferable over communist governments twenty years ago, but the increasing willingness of the US to recognize other forms of government (not to mention the disintegration of the Soviet Union) means that when Tunisia and Egypt and (Force willing) Libya get new governments, socializing certain aspects of their society won't be an issue. Or at least, it shouldn't be an issue...

Yet the skeptic in me suspects that, when push comes to shove, all of the best intentions in the world cannot compete with the wads of money that multi-billion dollar global oil companies will spend to ensure that their interests are protected. Most of the reason why these despicable creatures are in power, after all, is because they happen to be sitting on a whole lotta oil. There's probably going to be a lot of people wishing, in some way or another, that Qaddafi will stay in power.

Friday, February 18, 2011



If you were actively looking for me on the Veolia line today, you were probably disappointed. I can explain, though:

As the Mini-Boss at my workplace, I deal with a lot of sales people. They're a pretty friendly lot, and always happy to help out with some problem or other. Of course, the catch is they want you to buy your stuff from them, so it's all an interesting charade--you want to get the best price, and they want to sell you stuff, so everybody's excruciatingly nice to each other. A few months ago I met a guy who worked for Another Biotech Place, who'd helped me get in contact with the people who could help me troubleshoot one of our experiments (in science, it really is all about who you know).

So I was on my way out when I ran into the ABP guy--we had a small chat as I was waiting for the elevator, me and my HEMA bag full of shoes, and I revealed that I was on my way to Nijmegen. He offered me a ride, as Nijmegen was on his way, and I arrived at my apartment a full hour earlier. This is in part because he was speeding like a maniac down every stretch of open road he got, but largely because there's no 10-minute pause in places like middle-of-nowhere Boxmeer. We had an interesting conversation: he offered to help me buy a €100-car (no joke, no missing 0). I thought he was kidding, but he was so serious that he only desisted when I told him I didn't have a license.

At the end of the drive, I started to feel as if I'd made another friend. Part of this may have been that he's a very good sales person and being friendly is just who he is. But it's hard to have a conversation for ninety minutes if there isn't some kind of connection. It's strange, if you think about it, how little it takes to actually know someone. I'd been a virtual friend with a another guy in Boston for a few years before we finally got to meet up--and when we did, it felt more or less exactly like reading his posts. I keep up with most of my friends digitally, but even if I don't hear from them for a long time it's easy to pick up where we left off.

What is it that makes total strangers of long-wedded couples, and perfect soulmates of the just-introduced? What makes some relations shrivel when a week goes by without contact, while others can stand years of neglect? Humans may have just lost to computers when it comes to connecting the facts, but I very much doubt that computers can make the sorts of connections that just don't make sense.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to move when you don't have a car

These past 5 or six weeks, if you take the Veolia line between Roermond and Nijmegen, you might have seen a short Asian woman carrying a purple Case Logic netbook case and one huge brown sack, filled to the brim. Or suitcase. Or (this week) an enormous HEMA bag, filled with shoes.

That's me, moving.

Carrying my life back to Nijmegen one piece at a time really hammers home how much of our lives get invested in stuff, even if we try not to. I've been really careful last year, too, with respect to buying things in Maastricht--always, at the back of my mind, is, "How are you going to get that to Nijmegen?" But somehow, I've still ended up with more things than I could ever hope to cart back, even if space weren't an issue.

One of the things I've learned is that kringloopwinkels, or secondhand shops, appear to be required to take away your furniture. They won't pay you (and I suspect that they'll charge you), but at least it gets removed. I've made arrangements with a nearby shop to do this, and the experience, while pleasant enough, just drove home the point that learning Dutch is a really good idea, even if you live in Limburg. My new word of the day is "ophalen", which means "to collect", but the shopkeeper was using it to denote the appointment at which the collection would be done. Up until that point, I was feeling pretty fly, too :-/

It takes a lot of thinking and planning to do a move like this--one package per week. You have to consider what you can live without for the next few weeks, what you will leave behind, what you will just get rid of. Surprisingly, while I have absolutely no attachment to my reading chair, I find myself extremely reluctant to contemplate leaving my tea mug behind. The sentiments of the human heart are strange, indeed.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gurl power


I've been following a series of articles about the dearth of women in publishing, which at the outset seems grossly unfair: one female editor on a staff of 7? Male-female publishing ratios are appallingly lopsided in favor of men, but is this a reflection of gender discrimination, or something no more sinister than the fact that more men write?

I'm hesitant to attribute this terrible ratio to outright sexism, mostly because it's difficult to say why some pieces get selected and others get rejected. I've had one short story that was less than literary win first prize ($150 in Lippincott Wilkins & Wilkins medical textbooks, oh joy!), and one short story that I can't find anybody to take. Said short is, I think, one of the better things I've ever written, though apparently public opinion thinks otherwise (if you'd like the opportunity to read and critique, shoot me an email).

My question is, "What does a female perspective on the world contribute to literature?" And I'd venture to guess that most modern writers who address this (Kay Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter comes to mind, and no, I do not recommend it) do so in a way that would only appeal to women. Frankly, many of the female writers that I've tried to read are painful to read--their voice is unmistakably feminine, even if they are trying to be masculine, and it just gets dull after a while. Offhand, I'd say that they use too many -ly words (adverbs) and try too hard to make things sound pretty, rather than get the story across.

This isn't to say that women suck at writing--most of the blogs that I follow are patent refutations of this, and furthermore there are good female writers out there (Anne Beatty, Hilary Mantel). Nor is it to say that language shouldn't be beautiful--it should be, but not at the cost of the story. Says my inner editor, anyway. But the first sentence of this paragraph points to what I think is the main source of the gender discrepancy in the print world: more women are writing online, in blogs, in media where they don't have to deal with...misogynistic editors.

It's an interesting paradox we've driven ourselves into: we want to get rid of sexism and racism and religion-ism and all those other ugly -isms, and be able to judge people solely on the merits of their work. But does that mean divorcing ourselves from the idea that women writers/artists lend a special perspective to the world of the fine arts just because of their gender?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Getting rid of it all

Bunny in Box

For the most part, I don't miss having access to a car. I was car-less in the US, a state which is apparently highly unusual, but which for me was second-nature. I mean, honestly, who wants to be stuck in rush-hour traffic in Center City, especially when you can just bob and weave your way to the front of the pack? In the Netherlands, of course, getting around by bike is the norm, and I think it's the main reason why I feel so much at home, here.

Me and my omafiets (yes, I know that's bad grammar) have been all over Maastricht. When I moved from the temporary apartment to another temporary apartment (6-month lease) in Belgium, I shoved everything on the back of the bike, and took it in 4 or 5 trips. When I moved from the Belgian apartment to St. Pieter's, I did it again, on my bike--a total of 10 trips. It's amazing, really, what some kitchen equipment and some sheets will add to the final volume of things. When I cat-sat for some friends, attended Dutch lessons, explored the city, got groceries, it was my bike that bounced over the cobblestones.

But alas, for my next move, back to Nijmegen, it will not be enough. And no, it's not that I have that much more stuff. It's that I now have furniture to contend with. My earlier apartments were furnished--one, straight out of the IKEA catalog, the other, straight out of Hell's version of the '70s--so I never had to worry about what to do with my bed, for instance. Or my desk. Or the reading chair. Lamp. Closet.

I can't take it all back to Nijmegen, either. Where would it fit? My boyfriend's storage unit has been completely consumed by broken coffee machines and a giant ladder, and while our apartmment technically has the space, it wouldn't look right. Not to mention that the final value of everything combined would be less than the cost of hiring a moving company (€200).

Fortunately one of my friends needs a closet, so I've gotten that one taken care of. But if you or someone you know needs a pseudo-antique desk...

ETA: My piece for Crossroads is up!

Monday, February 7, 2011

My Big Splash

Hidden Waterfall

About two weeks ago I made up my mind to quit dithering around already and start doing what I want to be doing for a living (hence the intermittent angst). This has led me to two interesting observations about myself: 1) I either hyperfocus or have ADHD the likes of which make an eight-year-old seem calm and sedate, and 2) working around the clock really sucks, but only because the clock is too small. If I could make the day longer by another four hours...oh, who am I kidding? I'd want another four.

I haven't been able to say in ages.

Strangely enough, it's the entrepreneurial side of hack-work (as I like to think of all the writing that I do in the interest of generating money) that I find fascinating, chasing leads, writing proposals, tweaking the formula to figure out just exactly what works. And yes, I also think of this blog as work--keeping in good form--constantly generating content--and it kicks my ass on a regular basis.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Art of Persuasion

Other dumb cat

There's a hilarious little post on the Expat Blogs forum about how insane the Dutch are about cleanliness. And I, for one, will attest to the fact that this assessment of the Dutch is absolutely-100%-perfectly true. They may not have a sense of interior design or fashion, but they know damn well how to keep everything neat.

Left to my own devices, I will gravitate towards a happy medium of cleanliness and laziness, depending on how many other things need to get done and how often Karel is home (his shiftwork is highly irregular). But Karel likes our apartment Clean, by which I mean eat-off-the-floor clean, which can be just a tiny bit of a hassle if you have three fuzzbutts and two litter boxes. Over the past three years we've sort of reached an equilibrium between our two standards of cleanliness: alone, we'll both do the minimum that's required to keep our apartment Clean, but only when we're together does the place get a thorough cleansing.

For the longest time I resented this need for clean, mostly because it took time away from things I'd rather be doing, like going to see movies and birdwatching and what-not. Lately, though, I've become resigned to the daily rigamarole of keeping house, and all of the cleaning that entails. All thanks to our little FatBoy.

We adopted him in 2009, but it wasn't until the winter came and our apartment had to be sealed shut before we realized that I am pretty allergic to him (and just him, to--I can snuggle both Shadow and the Tweeb without problems). I started taking antihistamines, but it turned out that my degree of suffering wasn't consistent. There would be days when I had nary a sniffle, and days when I was literally too exhausted from sneezing to get out of bed. Eventually, we correlated my allergies to how clean the apartment is.

So really, the amount of housework that I do has absolutely no bearing on my personality. It's just a side effect of wanting to keep our cat.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Airing out the Dirty Laundry

I'm sitting at home, just-changed into brand-spanking-newly-washed pajamas--and trying desperately not to claw off acres of skin. My boyfriend did the laundry earlier this week, and for some God-forsaken reason he insists on adding fabric softener to the wash, which aggravates my eczema. God-forsaken, because we line-dry our clothes, which completely cancels out the fabric softener.

Actually, I'm pretty sure I'm not allergic to fabric softener per se, but just to whatever the hell Robyn puts in their detergents. I'm perfectly fine using the generic supermarket-brand detergent, but I itch like I have fire ants down my pants when we use the fancy brand-name stuff. It's irritating, because for the most part, I've outgrown my eczema. I no longer need to use color-and-perfume-free soaps, and I can tolerate conventional moisturizers, which is a fortuitous development in my dermatological history because you're basically screwed if you have sensitive skin.

When I first came here, I was surprised to find that there were so few products for people with sensitive skin. My Dutch improved, but my assessment of products for the dermatologically challenged hadn't: there really isn't all that much stuff for people prone to the itchies, here. And this is doubly true if you're on the Generics Budget, because what there is--body washes, laundry detergents--can cost double the price of the ordinary stuff.

It's generally true that, in the Netherlands, you have fewer choices with respect to just about everything. The produce section of the local Whole Foods by my parents' house probably contains more vegetable matter than an entire Albert Heijn. Most of the time, the short list makes it easy to choose from--Trader Joe's makes a killing from understanding the principle that more choice isn't always better.

But every now and then, I do miss the fact that there are so few hypoallergenic options available. I suppose I could just tell my boyfriend not to use fabric softener, but that would be too difficult.