Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Tale of Three Cakes

It was the best of cakes; it was the worst of cakes. I was unsure about what I could make to celebrate my sister Laura's successful dissertation defense. I looked around the internet for ideas for graduation cakes, but I couldn't really find anything that was exactly right for a Ph.D. dissertation defense. But it did help me come up with the idea of creating a gigantic tome out of cake and icing. Read on to find out how I managed to bake this beautiful cake:

I was nervous because I'd never done anything decorative with icing, but this idea required me to write her dissertation title in frosting. I decided to reduce my nervousness by rehearsing what I wanted to do. So a few weeks beforehand, I made a practice cake, using the same recipe and techniques I planned to use for the final cake. I learned a lot from my "concept cake" -- first and foremost, that the overall concept was good, but also that pastry bags and my orthopedic problems don't get along. It was good to learn this ahead of time, so that I could buy a mechanical pastry bag before I did the real thing.

But like I said, the concept was there, and it worked out pretty well:

I had one of those frosting comb things that I used to shape the white parts into what looked kind of like leaves of paper between the covers of the gigantic tome.
I had quickly run out of steam when I was using the pastry bag to make a texture on the cover of the book, but the below picture shows the part I did get done and what I had envisioned to simulate the grainy leather for the tome:

None of these pictures show it but one of the other sides of the comb thingy had a pattern to it that looked like the leather binding of a book, so on the fourth side, I used that to smooth the chocolate frosting.

The night before we left for Virginia, I began baking the real thing. The underlying cake is the same cocoa devil's food cake recipe from the Joy of Cooking that I used for the turkey-shaped cake in November. Here is a picture of some of the more interesting ingredients.

For this recipe, you mix the cake flour, baking soda, and salt in one bowl, and then the buttermilk, sugar, cocoa powder, and vanilla in another.
You cream the butter, add the sugar, and beat in two eggs in your main mixing bowl, and then add the flour and liquid mixtures, alternating, in parts.
I had to make two batches because the cake pan is 11" x 15". I didn't try it, but I suspect that my mixer bowl is too small to hold both batches, so instead I did one, emptied it into the cake pan, then hurried and mixed up another. Here's the cake just before I put it in the oven:
And here's how it looked after I took it out:
As you can see, it has a huge crater in the center, and also a crack that goes about 2/3 of the way through it. I was pretty upset, really, because it was after midnight and I was going to have to start all over again. I was also completely out of eggs. What to do?

I just went to bed and resolved to get up early and bake another one before we left.

I tried to assess what had gone wrong with that cake. I had a couple of suspicions so I tried to fix all of them. First, I had baked it at a lower temperature (325 rather than 350 F) because my practice cake was baked at the higher temperature and had been kind of dry. I decided to go back up to 350 because a dry cake is better than a crumbly cake. Second, I thought my baking soda could have been a little bit old so when I went to get the eggs I also picked up some more baking soda. And third, I realized that the center was where the crater was, and it's also where pretty much the entire first batch of batter had ended up, with the second batch filling out the pan to the corners. Its leavening may have all bubbled away while I was making the second batch of batter. So I spread that first batch across the entire bottom of the pan, and spread the second batch on top of it.

Whatever the problem was, I did manage to fix it, as the second cake turned out quite well:
Next, I packed up the non-perishable ingredients
and the recipe (which I copied from a website that has all kinds of icing recipes)
for the icing, packed the crumbly cake pieces to take along for a snack, and we headed for Virginia.

In Laura's kitchen, I made the icing.
I'd never actually used a handheld mixer before so it was a new experience for me.

In her dining room, I began decorating the cake:

I was going to write more than that on the cake (we had figured out a good play-on-words for the subtitle of her dissertation) but I actually ran out of vanilla frosting. This didn't seem to matter, though; the cake was a big hit:
And that, friends, is how I made the dissertation-shaped cake for Laura's party!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Adventures in Histrionics

The manner in which the toddler utters the word "no" conveys the nuances of his intricate thought processes. To wit:
  • "No no" [while smiling]: yes.
  • "No no no" [while shaking head and reaching for something off-limits]: I know you don't want me to touch this, but I have no impulse control.
  • "No!" [shaking head violently while pushing the spoon away]: I'll eat it only if I get to feed myself.
  • "Nooooo!" [in agony]: I'm so tired.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A New Doctor in the House

My sister Laura successfully defended her dissertation on Friday! Congratulations, Laura!!!

She invited her sisters and their families to converge upon Charlottesville for the occasion. Jeff, Vinny, and I came for the weekend, as did Rachel. It was an exciting time for all.

Although we were not able to attend the defense itself, in the afternoon she held a special, informal colloquium about her research. So we got a taste of what she has devoted the majority of her working hours to over the past couple of years.

On Friday night we had a sisters' night out, with just the three of us sisters. We went out to dinner and had a great time together.

On Saturday she held an afternoon soirée celebrating her successful defense, for which I made a delicious, dissertation-shaped cake. (Photos of the cake-baking and decorating process will be posted sometime later, after I get them downloaded from the camera.)

In the evening we left Vinny with Anne's mom and attended a wonderful play called The Elvis Project. A blurb from the venue's website:
The Elvis Project is a collage-like meditation on the multiple meanings of Elvis Presley. A look at how one man, incidentally the King of rock’n'roll, has affected the lives of many. Two short plays: Graceland and ‘Asleep on the Wind’ by Ellen Byron. Featuring works by Charlottesville playwrights Robert Wray and Doug Grissom. Performances are March 13-15 and 20-22 at 8:00pm. Tickets are pay-what-you-can.
During the intermission they served fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The guy who played Elvis was a familiar face to Laura and Anne: he works at a restaurant they frequent. Rachel got an autographed copy of a picture of Elvis (the actor's picture, signed as Elvis).

Rachel left early Sunday morning, but the rest of us enjoyed a delicious Easter dinner at Anne's mother's house. We left in the early afternoon and made it back home by about 11 p.m. I took a day of vacation today before I get up extra early tomorrow morning to head to Austin, Texas for a meeting.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Speaking of Children and Phones...

One time when I was a child, probably six or seven years old, I answered the phone. The person on the other end said something unintelligible, and I said I didn't understand and asked him to repeat himself. He said it again, this time interspersing his words with laughter, which made it even harder for me to understand what he was saying!

So I gave up and handed the phone to my older sister (who was nine or ten), who understood that the boy was reciting a long list of obscenities, and hung up on him.

Children Are a Source of Amusement

Or at least, mine is.

This is an old story but I think it is funny enough to merit a post.

Vinny is fascinated by technology. He loves computers, cellphones, iPods, remote controls, anything electronic he can get his hands on.

Well, one time he managed to get hold of my cellphone. He opened it up and somehow managed to call his godmother. Her number is in my phone's memory but it wasn't a speed dial number so quite frankly I have no idea how he managed to do that. Anyhow, by the time we noticed that he had done this, her phone was already ringing. She didn't answer for whatever reason, and it went to voicemail.

Vinny's sitting there with the phone in the proper location for talking, but he really doesn't understand how it all works. So he doesn't say anything; he just breathes into the phone.

You can see where this is going, I'm sure. When I called her later in the week, I mentioned that he had called and may have left her a strange message. She laughed and said that at first, she thought somebody had left a dirty message, but she was glad to learn it was just Vinny.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ten Couples

My sister and her better half recently sent me a link to the stories of ten couples. These couples are typical in many ways: they cook, clean, raise children, pay taxes, enjoy each other's company, and basically look and act like anybody else.

But these committed couples, some of whom have been together for more than fifty years, are not afforded the rights that my husband and I take for granted, simply because they are composed of two people with identical private parts. When you hear their stories, it really humanizes the over-politicized debate on marriage equality. They don't want special rights. They just want the same rights that other couples enjoy by virtue of possessing complementary private parts.

The money quote: "It doesn't matter who you love, what matters is that you can love and that you do love someone. And that's it."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Back from the Conference

Did you miss me, O Vast Readership?

We left for Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon. The trip down was uneventful, until we got off the interstate and tried to find the hotel. Construction made things more complicated, but we were able to navigate to the hotel without too much of a challenge.

The conference went well -- I presented on Wednesday afternoon, and got some good questions. I went to a number of interesting talks, a number of boring talks, met some new people, and caught up with longtime friends. I talked to a lot of people about a lot of different things, including load balancing, high-performance computing education, and the latest gossip from my old department. I made some new contacts -- staff members at other labs, professors at various universities, and students who will soon become colleagues.

We were planning to spend today at the Atlanta Zoo or the Aquarium, but the inclement weather made us change our plans. Last night it was extremely stormy -- a tornado damaged a large piece of downtown, 10-15 blocks south of where we were staying -- and more storms were supposed to arrive by 11 a.m. So we headed home this morning, driving through some heavy rains, but making it home safely in the early afternoon.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Opting Out, Staying Home, and More

There have been some very interesting discussions throughout my corner of the blogosphere -- I wish I had more time to contribute to these discussions and express my own point-of-view, but unfortunately there are not enough hours in the day for me to do everything I would like to do. But here are some highlights:

Much discussion has gone on about choices relating to being parents. Some professional women leave their well-paid jobs to raise children; others continue to work and rely on daycare during the day. Most professional men's days remain the same, while a few particularly brave men opt out of the rat race and stay home with their children. While I think it can be a good idea for one parent to stay home with the children, particularly if finances will allow it, fathers who opt-out are conspicuously rare. My family is exceptional -- I make enough money that we can easily afford for Jeff to stay home, and he chooses to do so.

I call stay-at-home dads brave because they face more discrimination in their chosen vocation than I do in mine. I've written about it before: when he leaves the house with our son, Jeff steps into a world where he is considered incapable of doing the job he loves and excels at. Strangers approach him and ask where the baby's mother is. Others give him unsolicited advice when Vinny misbehaves in the least. Still others praise him for "babysitting" his own child. In none of these cases do the other people believe that he might actually be or is capable of being a primary caregiver.

The patriarchical structure of our society hurts men, too. It's particularly hard for men to do anything that might be (stereotypically) considered women's work. Men are discouraged from showing their softer sides, which makes me admire the brave ones who do it anyhow.

Adventures in Being Really Busy

This month is jam-packed with stuff to do. I'm going on three major trips: the first is to a conference in Atlanta, the second is to Laura's dissertation defense celebratory extravaganza, and the third is to a conference planning meeting in Austin, Texas. Add to that the usual responsibilities at work, plus some new ones -- installing new software in a new way on our supercomputers, helping the folks on my new project parallelize their code with OpenMP (which I've used once, but really need to learn more about if I'm going to be of any help) -- and my plate is full. Hopefully I will find some time in there to enjoy my family and to write some interesting blog posts!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Exploring My Hispanic Heritage

My virtuoso violin-playing in last month's Black History Month Celebration garnered the notice of the Hispanic Heritage Month committee, so I was invited to play for the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in October. Our company is sponsoring the October concert of the local symphony orchestra, which will have a Spanish theme, plus we get ten or fifteen minutes to showcase the musical skills of the employees of the company. I corresponded with the conductor of the symphony orchestra, and given the ensemble I have to work with (myself, another violinist, and a guitarist), I suggested to her that we perform some sort of folk music. She thought it sounded like a good idea, so I searched the internet for ideas and ended up finding a book of mariachi pieces for two violins, guitar, and bass. I ordered this wonderful tome, Mariachi Violin Transcriptions, and it just came in last night. I pored over it and selected two pieces that we can play.

The only part I'm missing is the bass, but I may know of somebody whom I can talk into doing that part. Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Things I've (Re)Learned Recently

  • New Insights:
    • Don't try to use a pastry bag if your hands really can't grip or squeeze very well anymore. By the time I made myself quit, my hands were shaking, and my hands and arms are still sore. I'm hoping that my new mechanical pastry bag will work better for me.
    • Look out for slippery wet babies who hate baths, trying to make an escape from the bathtub -- he threw his leg over the side and nearly hit his head on the toilet, but luckily I caught him in time.
  • Things I Should Have Known:
    • Drinking more fluids throughout the day results in my head feeling better.
    • I need sleep, even if my racing mind makes it hard to get enough sleep.
    • Sleeping in a position with my left arm in a twist makes my arm hurt -- a lot!
    • If I want something, I need to just take the initiative and do it, and ask people for help, if I need it. I feel so much better if I don't just let life happen to me.
  • Things That Are Still Mysteries:
    • Anybody have any idea what "Faaa" means? Vinny says it, usually when he's happy, but we don't know what it's supposed to be.
    • Any tips on rinsing the hair of a little boy who is terrified of water being poured on his head are welcome. We got a special hair-rinsing pitcher that makes a seal over the forehead but he won't let us near him with the pitcher. I've tried dunking him backwards into the bathwater but you should see the terrified look on his face when I do that!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

One Year of Scientiae!

The one-year anniversary edition of the scientiae carnival is here! The theme is "renewal." Read it and enjoy, and thank our gracious hostess, Skookumchick, for starting the carnival!