Friday, 7 March 2008

A miscellany of girliness

This is going to be a post about cakes and dresses. I don't feel bad about that: they are two great interests of mine, and they make me happy. But they do make me want to pause to reflect on how far our society has developed, that it is ok for an educated girl to choose to spend her free time making and selecting dresses and cakes. I think that it's the word 'choose' which is critical here. If I thought that it was expected of me to make dresses and cakes and maintain some feminine ideal which at the same time shut me out of doing other things I might like, I would feel very differently. No, it is the fact that I could join the TA, go for a run, take a radio apart or bake a cake which makes me embrace this inner girliness. We are lucky to live in a time when feminism has almost become irrelevant. To me it really just stands for gender equality, although I know that there was very much more to it than that when that was absent. I have never knowingly been discriminated against because of my sex, and I would be pretty outraged to find that I had. Of course, I work in a fairly gender-neutral area, but still, there are more men than women in professorships in British universities (61% of faculty were men in 1994, although this was narrowing). This is particularly skewed in the sciences and technology. In my (arts) department, there are 12 men and 11 women on the permanent staff, and of the 7 professors, 4 are men, and 3 are women. In The Scientist's research centre there are only 4 women out of 13 faculty, and only 1 of the 7 profs are female. In other professions it's much worse. And in higher education women tend to put off having children until well into their 30s. Only one of my female colleagues has a young child, although others do have grown-up offspring. As the (unpopular but sadly realistic) saying goes 'it's a book or a baby'. But how long do you wait to secure the book contract or the permanent job, and do you sacrifice the chance of being taken seriously at the round of conferences, evening seminars and self-imposed long hours by having a sproglet in tow?

That went on for rather longer than I had planned, but I think it does serve to show how while some inequality for women remains structural (not to say biological) in the developed world we do live in an era when baking and sewing can be undertaken purely for enjoyment. I'm not going to get into how far other parts of the world still need to go on this, but will pause to link to these websites.

I'm almost wishing I hadn't got into this now, as all the degrees in the world won't stop me looking a trifle shallow when I return to my cupcake story (ooh, trifle). So I will just plunge straight in.

As may have become apparent, I have got into making and decorating cupcakes recently. I think it's a contagious blog meme type of thing. I have also been looking out for foodie blogs from New Zealand in an attempt to feel closer to the sort of food and culture Kiwi Family are immersed in (still without furniture, though it is now waiting to pass through customs in New Zealand at last). One I found was hosting an event called Cupcake Spectacular, which seemed like something to aim high for. Any sort of cupcakes were acceptable, as long as they looked spectacular (that is a very hard word to spell without thinking carefully, so I may avoid writing it again). I don't have a large repertoire of cupcakes to choose from yet, so I decided to pursue the Kiwi theme and make a cupcake which was in honour of Kiwi Family. After a little internet research, I came up with three options:

Anzac Cupcake (based on the biscuits made to commemorate Aussie and Kiwi servicemen for Anzac Day)
Afghan Cupcake (based on a biscuit which I hadn't heard of, but which sounded nice)
Kiwi Cupcakes (obvious, really)

The kiwi fruit in Sainsbury's were from Italy and so were acceptable on my Europe-only produce regime (though if I hadn't had this particular theme in mind it would have been locally-sourced English fruit all the way. I will do that next time). And so the idea of Kiwi Cupcake was born. For the actual recipe I turned to some of my favourite cupcakey blogs, since I wasn't confident about the effect adding fruit would have on a standard batter. Fortunately, Chockylit at Cupcake Bakeshop had made some melon cupcakes (melon in the batter AND a melon puree in the centre), so I eagerly copied that down to adapt for my little green hairy friends who were by this time sitting in the fruit bowl.

I halved the recipe, and exactly substituted kiwi fruit for melon. It worked a treat! The batter had a nice sharp-yet-sweet fruit taste (the batter is the best bit about cakes as far as I'm concerned, which is why I always need someone else around to eat the the finished products!). The cakes themselves rose nicely, though didn't look particularly attractive on their own - I was hoping for a nice green hue, but I think I left them in the oven for a couple of minutes too long, so the tops had darkened quite a bit. I cut little cones out of the centre as directed, filled the hole with kiwi puree, and popped the cones back in again, and then frosted the tops. Chockylit had made a very sophisticated white chocolate and cardomom buttercream for her melon cupcakes, but I used a simple vanilla buttercream with some flaked almonds scattered on the top.

So here we are: my Kiwi Cupcake Spectacular for HomeMadeS Spectacular event. I was quite pleased with how they looked, and I got very nice comments about them from my colleagues when I took them to an Away Day the next day (subject benchmarking? undergraduate curriculum development? Pah - I am going to make a staff development fund bid for hundreds and thousands, piping attachments and general cupcakery. It raises morale and departmental cohesion you know).

So, that's the cake part of this post (recipe is below). I'd like to note in passing that I also tried making French bread at the weekend. This was a shameless copy cat after reading about ten blog posts from Daring Bakers, who were all at it, following the same recipe. I was intrigued that some people said they found it easy, while others said they wouldn't try again. It was clear that it was a recipe which took a little time (7-9 hours!!), so with a nice lazy Sunday in prospect, I felt like jumping on the bandwagon. I won't describe it at length as blogworld is probably full enough of accounts of this bread from actual Daring Bakers, so suffice to say, it did take all day, but most of this was spent being anxious that the dough was sitting at the right temperature to rise. It did form nice long sausages, though propping them up was a bit of a faff, and then they were too long to go on the baking tray (can't blame the recipe for that though).

My French sticks propped in place as they went through their third rising. Note star placing of Kiwi Vegemite

They were worth the wait as they did taste really nice and light (we ate them with a French stew), and The Scientist was particularly enthusiastic about them. It's a shame they took too long to do for him regularly! I'm always interested in a good bread challenge, so it was definitely worth it.

My completed bread worm

Bread really shouldn't do this, but I love it that it did!

So finally, the dresses. I have to choose a posh dress to wear to go out for dinner with Dogophile Vegan Nurse tomorrow night. This was all brought on by her impulse buy of a very posh dress in the post-Christmas sales (she had worked so many extra shifts that she felt she deserved it!), and then a need for an event to wear it. I was going to go to Leeds to visit her at some stage anyway, so we decided to build the weekend around our dresses. I'm going up tomorrow, and am looking forward to meeting her dogs, doing some vegan baking, and of course, seeing The Dress, but in the meantime I have to select my own wardrobe. It's down to a blue silky prom dress with a ribbon sash (I do like a good sash), a black and white silky hmm, prom dress with a hmm, nice silky sash, and a floaty black dress with big white polka dots...and a sash. What is it with the sashes now I come to think of it? Was I deprived of sashes as a child? Am I trying to recreate some long-lost sash dream? Perhaps Munchkin Granny can help clarify. I'm veering towards the blue one as I've only worn it once and it makes me feel very posh and partyish. It's definitely one of my happy dresses (I was wearing another one today and felt all spring-like all day. That had a sash too. One of my happy skirts had the same effect last Friday until it wound itself into my bike wheel. Fortunately it had a pattern on it and you couldn't tell where that left off and the bike grease began). So, to return to my starting theme, cakes and dresses make me happy, and I would like to think that feeling happy and attractive make me nicer and more thoughtful to people around me. It's not all about being a downtrodden wife, you know. I like baking; I don't like dusting - ergo my house is full of nice smells, and you wouldn't want to run your finger along the mantelpiece. I think that's some victory for feminism.

Kiwi Cupcakes (adapted from Chockylit's honeydew and cantaloupe cupcakes)

20 cupcakes / 350 degree oven [I halved this, but am giving the full amount here]

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 ounces kiwi fruit, pureed
1 1/2 cup kiwi fruit, diced

1. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a large sized bowl. Add sugar and mix to combine.
2. In a separate small bowl, beat eggs to break up.
3. Add the oil and vanilla to the eggs and mix to combine.
4. Add the wet to the dry ingredients, mix to combine.
5. Add the kiwi fruit. Mix to combine.
7. Scoop into cupcake papers with an ice cream scooper about 3/4 full.
8. Bake at 350 degree oven for ~30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Note: These cupcakes are moist. Be sure that they are fully baked before removing them from the oven. The cake tester (or toothpick) must come out clean.


1 cup fresh cantaloupe, diced
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Add the cantaloupe and water to a pot. Cook for 5 minutes over medium-high heat.
2. Stir together sugar and cornstarch then stir into the cantaloupe.
3. Cook until thick, about 5-7 minutes.

Kiwi Filling

1 cup fresh kiwi fruit diced
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Add the kiwi fruit and water to a pot. Cook for 5 minutes over medium-high heat.
2. Stir together sugar and cornstarch then stir into the kiwi.
3. Cook until thick, about 5-7 minutes.


When cupcakes are cooled, cut out and remove a cone from the middle. Fill space with kiwi filling. Replace cone.


Arfi Binsted said...

Hi Lysy!! Glad you're in! Afghan cupcakes must be the ones derived from afghan cookies, the chocolate type of biscuits. The cupcake looks tempting! I am sure your fellow friends give you an A grade for this hehehe!!

Thanks so much for entering the Cupcakes Spectacular 2008 event!


LisaRene said...

Oh my, so much to comment on!

First, I to adore dresses and skirts and love being feminine (my husband is all for it). Very good point about it being our choice to dress "girly" and bake if we like it!

My husband commented that it would be odd for a man to bake cupcakes as a hobby but there is nothing odd about a man eating a cupcake?!?! Wilson loves cupcakes and does not get them enough :)

I think it's wonderful that you can relax and enjoy yourself after a days work and produce something tangible to share with co-workers and the Scientist. Win Win!

I'm also certain the Scientist loves seeing you in dresses, as I don't believe there is a man out there who doesn't appreciate a view of a women's legs.

The fact that you ride a bike in a dress does distress me a bit, is that wise? It is a romantic image, might be a great cover for your future book; Women on bike in dress with a basket full of cupcakes - hey, I like that!

Good for you for trying the Daring Bakers French Bread!

Lysy said...

Oh, I do like the idea of a picture of me with cupcakes on my book cover! I'll have to get posing. You're right about men not baking though - I hardly know any who do, though I know none at all who pass up the opportunity to eat the produce! The Scientist did say he felt he should send me off to Leeds with homemade cake as I do for him when he visits friends - but he backtracked pretty quickly when I asked him what he was going to make!