Thursday, 7 February 2008

Homage to the traffic light deity

I had a very busy Tuesday this week. I gave a lecture, and had my teaching observed for my Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education, and then I ran a debating competition for schools in the late afternoon. It was one of those days that sit lurking in the diary, heavy with logistical arrangements and potential for disaster.

The day, however, went well from the start. All of the traffic lights between home and the station (a not inconsiderable number) were green, or changed rapidly to green. I hate sitting at red lights, and maintain that it’s worse when you’re cycling because you’re more likely to see the lights change without being able to scoot through them. But on Tuesday all the lights went my way and I uttered up a brief thank you to the traffic light deity as I went through each one. This is a necessary precaution to ward off future bad traffic light karma. It worked: my lecture also went fine, and I only spotted one student who seemed to be asleep. And the debating competition was a great success, and so much fun!

The competition was a random idea of mine some time ago, and my colleagues were very encouraging. I debated at school myself, and thought it would be a fun event as well as a good advert for our department. We sent out letters with a mailing which was going out to all the local schools late last year, and put together a website with a registration form. It took a while and a fair amount of nervous anxiety and follow up emails on my part to get enough teams registered, but we ended up with enough for a decent evening. I had a fun afternoon brain-storming ideas for motions with The Scientist, Eco-Sis and Munchkin Granny, and several fairly tedious afternoons drafting rules and making plans. But finally, the great day arrived, and everything went off smoothly. The school teams were very impressive, and once they'd got into the swing of making 'points of information' where they could interrupt each other's speeches, really got into the swing of things. By the final, they were contemptuously rejecting each other's points, or accepting them with a dramatic sneer. The teams in the final were excellent at following their arguments and responding to the other side, and really did their teachers proud. We even had to make up another prize on the spot to reward an extra speaker. Just for interest, the motions were:

'This house believes that the internet has been the greatest advance in medicine in the last 200 years' [thank you Scientist!]

'This house believes we are due for another plague'

and the final: 'This house believes that war does more for medicine than peace' [thank you Eco Sis!]

Obviously I can't post any pictures of the event itself, but here are some cookies I made to say thank you to some of our undergraduates who came along to support the event and chat to the school students. I also had great support from several of my colleagues, the Dean of the School, and an external representative from the Wellcome Trust, who variously made up the judging panel, helped with the refreshments and publicity, and welcomed the school parties. Everyone came away on a real high, and one of the undergrads has even asked that we put on a module on debating and presentation skills!

The cookies (let's cut to the interesting bit) were a tried and tested little chocolate number which I found on allrecipes when looking for birthday cookies for Junior Bro one time. I like cookies which need rolling out and cutting - much more fun than just dolloping them on the baking tray though I'm prepared to do that too. These ones go all nice and crispy - much more like an English biscuit than an American cookie. I decided they'd look prettier sandwiched together, so I made Double Chocolate Sour Cream frosting for some, and Vanilla Cream Filling for the others, both from Debby Naugans Makos Small Batch Baking (recipes below). Both were delicious - I liked the vanilla one even though I'm mistrustful of shortening (I don't really get what it is, and am suspicious of transfats even though it says it's not hydrogenated), and The Scientist loved the dark one. We had some of the leftovers spread on Pancake Day pancakes the next night, and mighty fine they were too.

So, thank you Traffic Light Deity. I will continue to pay homage to you whenever you give me a green light. Here are some other beliefs from my personal creed:

That my bicycle is sentient and inclined to deviousness

That you should never be without a banana

That the piggle-cat prefers my lap when it is about to disappear

That you can never have too many trousers (that's one of Kiwi Sis's, and I have to admit that I'm considering the heresy of dropping it on the grounds that one's wardrobe can certainly be too full for more trousers)

Chocolate Cutout Cookies
Makes 36

1 1/2 cups plain flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups white sugar
1 egg

Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg. Gradually stir in the sifted ingredients to form a soft dough. Divide into two pieces, flatten and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F/190 degrees C. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to 1/8 inch in thickness. Cut into desired shapes [you'll need quite a lot of flour on the surface - the dough is very sticky]. Place cookies on lined baking trays. [they don't spread much so I put them quite close together].

Bake for 8 to 10 mins. Allow to cool on the baking sheets for 5 mins before removing to a wire rack to cool completely [I'd recommend doing this no matter how impatient you are - they have a lot more structural integrity after cooling a little!]

Double Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting (from Small Batch Baking)

makes 2/3 cup

3oz milk chocolate, finely chopped

2oz dark chocolate, finely chopped [I used only dark chocolate as I didn't have any milk]

3 tbsp sour cream, at room temperature [I used reduced fat - worked fine]

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

pinch of salt

Melt chocolate in the microwave on high for about 2 - 21/2 minutes, stirring after 1 1/2 mins. Allow to cool for 5 mins

Add the sour cream, vanilla and salt, and whisk to blend well. Let the frosting cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. When it is cool, it should be thick enough to spread (if not,
refrigerate for a few minutes to thicken). Use immediately.

Vanilla Cream Filling (from Small Batch Baking)

makes about 3 tbsps

1 tbp unsalted butter at room temperature

1 tbsp solid vegetable shortening

1/2 tsp milk

1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract

pinch of salt

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar (I assumed that this was icing sugar, and it worked!)

Place the butter, shortening, milk, vanilla and salt in a small bowl and mix with a fork until a soft, smooth paste forms. Add the sugar and mix until the filling is well blended and smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside at room temperature until you are ready to use it

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