Sunday, January 31, 2010

Day 333, 310110

I'm a third of the way through the time allowed for my 101things, and I'm nowhere near a third of the way through my list. This is not good. Time for drastic action.

Sport Relief is the activity wing of Comic Relief. You do sports for charity, and so far, so good. It came to my attention yesterday morning eating Crunchy Nut Cornflakes in front of the telly in my dressing gown - about as slobby as I can get - and Gary Lineker's earnest appeals touched me. And, as I thought about it, I can knock off three goals from my list as one thing. I've resisted double-dipping in the past, and this is sort-of treble-dipping, but if it all goes to plan I'll be repeating the experience later in the year in the Tree-athlon (but more of that later).

The three goals are: volunteer for something (task 20), run 5k (#44) and train for the 5k (#45).

The way it works is that there are a series of events held in your local area on Sunday 21st March; some 1 mile races, a couple of 3-milers and one or two six-milers. After thinking about it for a bit I decided I could do the 1 miler without too much trouble, so I should really enter the three-mile version in order to push myself. 3 miles is a bit less than 5k, but that's fine by me and when I was signing up through the website they have a three-week training plan that might just cover me.

So, yes, I signed up. I have a sponsorship page now (so please, sponsor me!) and will be getting paperwork and sponsorship forms and stuff through the post in the next couple of days. If anybody else in Leeds wants to run that would be pretty nifty also - we could start a team :)

I'm not exactly at a standing start for my training but it's not going to be easy. I have six weeks to get up to scratch, and that will be seriously hard work. But I like a challenge, and will begin my training on day 334, 010210.

I have a target for sponsorship, too; it's only £100, and if I get that I'll think of something T&C-related to do on the run - like handing out cups of tea or gingerbread men or something fun like that. So please, think about sponsoring me and if you're local join in, or show your support by cheering me on during the race! And if anybody wants to put together a cheerleading squad I'm not going to complain :)

Day 300 wordle

Still a bit behind on the Wordles...

From Wordles

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Day 307, 050110 - The Ukulele

For Christmas my delightful lady wife bought me a blue ukulele. It's blue, and lovely, and smells of wax and woodworking classrooms. I was going to take the penny whistle as my "learn a new instrument" task (#51) but this is a lot more fun, and playing it doesn't annoy other people quite as much as the penny whistle might.

I've been tinkering with the uke for a week and a bit now - trying to have at least five minutes with it per day, just tuning and doing a few chord changes if nothing else - and have a few thoughts on the wee beastie that I want to get down.

First of all, tuning. Standard soprano uke tuning is AECG (looking from the top), and would you look at that, the A is one note lower than the G. It's not a low A, it's a high A. This threw me completely for the first day, as I had no audio samples to tune against and so I read the tuning was AECG, and as I can whistle a decent C without needing to pitch it I could tune against that. Except the A was tuned low, not high, so the string was very slack and the uke sounded very peculiar.

Strings; I've been used to playing a steel strung guitar since... lord knows. 1988, at the latest. Nylon strings were on my second, 3/4 guitar, but I've been playing steelies since I acquired our Tony's Les Paul knockoff (no humbuckers) and played it a capella. Going back to nylons has been really odd, and interestingly playing barre chords seems harder.

ukulele fretboard

Once the tuning thing - high A - was sorted I discovered the peg was slipping; it would stay in tune for a few seconds, then drop out very quickly due to the string tension being higher than the peg would allow. Ten minutes research told me that unscrupulous music shops would take the uke, say that it was broken and you'd need a new one, or replace the peg completely charging for the labour. Or, you could have a look at the screws on the back of the pegs and tweak them a bit, as these adjust the tension in the pegs. Don't overtighten, as you could gouge holes in the headstock, but 1/8th of a turn sorted out the tension on mine nicely and it'll stay in tune for a whole session (and longer).

ukulele tuning pegs

I saw a few chord diagrams (and eventually came across this one [pdf] which I promptly printed off and stuck on the wall above my desk), and started thinking in terms of aECg rather than EAdgbe. The standard chords all have a similar shape - more or less - but the tuning puts them in different keys. So, a D shape on a guitar is a G on the uke. A G on the guitar is a C on the uke. An A is a D, and so on. I love A-D-F progressions on the uke, as they're all in roughly the same zone on the fretboard and sound great. There are only two problems with chords, really. 1: my fingers aren't loose enough to do fast changes, and 2: I keep on making guitar-tuned shapes for named notes. That's a case of retraining my brain, and why I need to spend time practicing chord changes.

Tab is something I was never really bothered about on the guitar, but I'm having fun with it on the uke; practising two songs in particular (A-Ha's Take on me and REM's Losing my Religion), whilst simple as far as tab goes does help get my brain into gear for thinking about this sort of thing. I use them as exercises for warming up my fingers, and in this weather that's really necessary.

So, I'm enjoying it. More time is needed on practice, like all things, but it's just beginning to get there. I can certainly see why the uke renaissance took off the way it did in 2007. Must learn more punk songs, though. I reckon most things by the Clash would sound nifty as anything on the uke.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Day 306, 040110

First proper post of the new year; let's go with something positive.

Because of time constraints and needing to be in two places at once I didn't manage to make the dip at White Wells this year (although Alex did). My 101 tasks over the yule season were somewhat warmer affairs.

I made chocolates and humbugs as Christmas presents for many people, and took two days over making them. At the end of day 1 I had these:
End of Day 1

This is what 7kg of sweeties look like after sorting:
7Kg of sweets

And this is the representative sample of what I made
 the list

Let's get the humbugs out of the way, shall we?
Boiled sugar and peppermint oil, basically. You heat the syrup to 154° C, and then fold and stretch it into a rope which is then cut into smaller pieces while still soft. I didn't make a big enough batch for my sugar thermometer to work properly so I was doing the "drop some into a bowl of iced water" method of testing the stages, and boiled it for about 10 seconds too long. As a result a lot of it crystallised too quickly on the slab, and it set far, far too fast for me to cut completely. Argh. Still, I managed to get about 70 wrapped and although some are a bit larger than others they're bloody tasty. Dangerous for fillings, though - don't chew these.

These do count as task #92 - make a batch of boiled sweets - as these are exactly what I had in mind, but... I'm not happy with the results, so not counting this as completed. I'll have another try when the weather is a bit warmer, as I'm sure the coldness of this winter, and our kitchen especially didn't help matters.

Thinking about it, I'm not sure that overcooking the syrup made that much difference. It was supersaturated of course, but it was the coldness of the ambient that made the sugar crystallise so quickly and I may have been a bit violent with the spatula when folding it over on itself, again causing crystallisation. I understand that using cream of tartar (tartaric acid, formed on grape skins) makes the sugar easier to handle but makes the results more hygroscopic. As they're fairly susceptible to atmospheric water anyway I'm not sure I want to make these any more sticky on the surface. Still, practice makes perfect.

Humbug Humbug

As for the rest of the sweets...

Truffles, next. I made two batches of "big" truffles (ie, hand-rolled) and one of small (piped into shells); the big truffles were coffee (made by adding 2 tbsp good instant coffee to the cream, then finally rolling or dusting with some chocolate offcuts flavoured with coffee oil)

Coffee Coffee

and Amaretto, made by flavouring with 50ml amaretto and rolling in crushed amaretti.

Amaretto Amaretto

The small truffles were cocoa pops, folded into a basic mixture and piped into moulded shells.

Cocoa pops truffle Cocoa pops truffle

Salt caramels are lovely; basic caramel made with milk and cream (and again, had the same problem with the sugar thermometer so was doing the drop-into-ice-water method, but got it right this time), salt added, dipped (because caramels are hygroscopic) and decorated with sea salt crystals.

Salt caramel Salt caramel

The fondants are made by mixing warm water with (what is basically) icing sugar to form a stiff paste, and adding peppermint oil, then piping into moulds. I tried to be clever and colour the moulds with a little green cocoa butter, but this failed (the warm chocolate melted the cocoa butter), hence the gap at the back end.

Mint fondant Mint fondant

The pralines are only technically pralines; I used a neutral paste, which is made up of fat, sugar and nut paste, but doesn't have a flavour of its own so you have to add flavour to it. In the case of the lemon pralines I added some lemon puree and some sicilian lemon oil, and piped into some white chocolate moulds.

Lemon praline Lemon praline

The Orange pralines were made with the same neutral base with cointreau, orange puree, and then some candied peel dropped into the top of the shell before piping the flavourings in. It was only later, when I realised these looked exactly the same as the cocoa pop truffles that I added the blob on top of the dome...

Orange praline Orange praline

Finally, the B&Cs. These are made by making a layer of chili jam, allowing it to set, then covering with a layer of blackcurrant ganache, then cutting and dipping, finally decorating with some white chocolate coloured with purple cocoa butter. These are seriously labour intensive and impossible to make in batches smaller than 140. By the end of dipping these my back was killing me. But they're so, so worth it.


There's a set on Flickr containing all these photos and a few more of the construction process - feel free to have a look. They're all really tasty, but if I could redo any it'd be the humbugs, because I boiled them for too long, and the hand-rolled truffles, because they're just too big and need to be about half the size.

Well worth the two days, I think. In the end it made sufficient presents for 24 people (some of whom were getting "proper" presents as well, but it all counts), and there were plenty of leftovers - there's still about 40 B&Cs and a similar number of humbugs - to pick at and put together a "randoms" box to scoff on NYE.

Next: Ukulele!

Day 306 wordle

I'm way, way behind on everything to do with this.

So, let's get the Day 270 Wordle uploaded.

From Screen Captures

The day 300 one will come after a couple of updates. Those updates are:

1. Boiling sugar is harder than it looks.
2. Blue Ukulele!

There's also a "I'm never going to be able to do this, so I'm changing it to that" -type update to come, and something to do with clowns. Once I've done them, then I'll do the day 300 Wordle.

Sorry, guys. I'll be trying harder.