Boston Cream Pie Cupcakes – by Isolde

cupcakes

For me, the most important part of a cupcake is the frosting.  The fudge topping on this one requires a candy thermometer.  If you aren’t as obsessed as I am about frosting, try this much simpler one from Joy Of Baking:
http://www.joyofbaking.com/BostonCreamPie.html

Sponge Cake Cupcakes:
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
1 tbs butter
1/2 cup hot milk
1 cup all-purpose flour (not bread flour!)
1 tsp baking powder

Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. Preheat oven to 400F.
Beat eggs until very light in color. Beat in sugar, salt and extract. Melt the butter in the hot milk, then beat into the batter. Mix flour and baking powder together, then mix into the batter, stirring just until it’s well-blended in.  Immediately pour into muffin cups, filling about 2/3 full.  Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 15-20 minutes.
(Recipe from Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook)

I actually got 16 cupcakes out of this, perhaps because it’s an old recipe and pan sizes are different. If you have extra batter, don’t overfill beyond 2/3 full – just make extras.

Filling:

I didn’t want the extra work of making pastry cream for the filling, but you can certainly go for it!  The lazy way is to doctor a box of instant vanilla pudding.  Just follow the directions for making pudding, but use 1 3/4 cups milk (or you replace part of it with heavy cream to make it richer).  Then add 2 tsp vanilla extract.

Filling the Cupcakes:
Baking Bites has a great tutorial for how to fill cupcakes.
http://bakingbites.com/2007/09/how-to-make-filled-cupcakes-step-by-step

Fill the cupcakes before making the glaze, and keep them in the fridge until you’re ready to frost them.

Fudge Glaze:

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
3 tbs light corn syrup
2 tbs butter, cut up
1/8 tsp salt
4 1/2 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla
hot water, as needed

Combine the cream, sugar, corn syrup, butter and salt in a saucepan.  It’s going to boil up, so be sure to use a larger one.  Bring to a full boil over medium-high, stirring constantly.  Cover the pot and let the steam wash down the sides for two minutes.  Get a fresh spoon to keep from adding sugar crystals to the mixture.

Remove the lid and reduce heat to medium.  Continue to boil until the candy thermometer reads about 227F.  Remove from heat and stir in chocolate and vanilla until smooth.  If it looks separated, it’s probably been overcooked, so vigorously stir in hot water, 1 tsp at a time, until it smooths out.  Set it aside for 5 minutes until it thickens and cools slightly.  If it’s too thick, you can thin it with a bit of hot water.  If it’s too thin, you can let it cool a bit more, covered, for about an hour.
(From All American Dessert Book)

Assembly:
Put the filled cupcakes on a wire rack.  I put a sheet of waxed paper under the rack to make clean-up easier.  Spoon the glaze over the cupcakes.  I waited until the glaze was moderately thick, so not a lot of it dribbled down the sides.

You’ll have more glaze than you need to cover the cupcakes.  If you don’t just eat it out of the pan, you can use the extra to fill Ritz crackers, graham crackers, or Nilla wafers (regular or mini).

cookie

Red Cross’d Bones – by Kyt Dotson

Kyt was kind enough to let Nexus have some flash fiction from an ongoing piece of work… you can see some more of Kyt’s Burning Sails stories on his Helljammer website. Other serial stories from Kyt can be seen at Mill Avenue Vexations. When not worldbuilding Kyt can be found at the Better Than Faith atheist website and forum.

It were nine-bells when the winds shifted, bringing with them the scent of roast mackerel from the galley. Most of the sailors on deck had been roused and stomachs rumbled in anticipation of the meal, but a different fate clutched our bellies that morning.

A shout came up from the crow’s nest, “Un bateau! Un bateau! Away starboard!”

As many hands as feet clattered across the deck to the starboard and leaned hard against the rail. I’ll ne’re forget that image so long as I live of that black prow’d boat cutting a feather against the deep azure sea. Not a man aboard needed the smell of sulfur and burning canvas to know what fate had us in its jaws–as the flames licked from those masts, whipping hungrily in the wind.

A chill went through the crew as the boatswain’s whistle shrilled. “Man the guns! Man the rigging! Powder shots and charges full, we may have only one shot! Get a move on! Do you want to be dead or worse!”

For it were the Burning Sails and there, high on her highest mast, the Red Jack flew, a’blazoned skull and crossbones over the flapping joli rouge. We couldn’t yet see the silhouettes of the men on that demon vessel, but surely if we could see their whites there’d be murder in their eyes. Some said the captain had insulted Connie Bluelark in another life and now she came asking her revenge.

My rifle slung easily from my shoulder as I took station behind Johnny Edgar, a bright boy of sixteen. Too bad that the lad will never see his seventeenth. I tried not to think as I bit the bullet and poured the powder down the barrel, belowdecks the toms were being set, but I knew it was for naught–not a boat has ever suffered the Burning Sails and lived to tell the tale. I stamped the bullet deep into the throat of my gun and affixed the ramrod to the stock.

With death in my sights and cold stones in my gut, I held my peace and prayed to the Good Lord to keep my aim true.

“All cannon! Give ’em a broadside!”

The roar of the guns split the day and the ship rocked as if a great hand had smacked us. Billows of ghost-white smoke belched across the blue. “Reload the guns!” shouted the quartermaster. I could hear his voice rough and booming in my ears even though the man were a deck below me and the thunder of the cannons still rang in my ears. Blood trickled down my neck. I had gone deaf in one ear.

When the clouds of white cleared, the helljammer were still there–unscathed and untouched, she swung and her cannon ports opened, bearing free the silver maws of ten and twenty iron barrels.

The Burning Sails returned the gesture–her flaming cannon tore through our hull, and smashed our mainmast to smithereens. Splinters flew, screams abounded, and the weeping of men caught my ears as I watched Johnny Edgar die at his post. He would be one of the lucky ones, I told myself as I held steady.

Only a knife in my hands, I stood no chance against these hellsmen; I’d blown my wad into the chest of the first boarder and it hadn’t slowed him a bit. The fight abovedecks was a quick one, our crew had been gutted like our boat, and there was little fight left in us. Beaten and bloodied, I bowed my head under the rapier of a rough jowled man with eyes that burned like irons from a fire. He stayed his blade after I dropped my knife.

Waiting.

And there she was, larger than life and full of it. The demon, Captain Connie Bluelark, wearing a dress of black sackcloth, with the crush of gold and jewels glittering from her throat. She made pause for every survivor and made the same offer:

“Death or eternal servitude,” ‘ole Connie said, her pistol leveled at my skull, and her eyes pierced through me like an awl.

“I pray the Good Lord my soul to take,” I said trying to recall my vespers, “…forfend me from evil.”

I closed my eyes and wondered if I’d hear the gunshot when Connie pulled the trigger.

“Amen.”

Asian Slaw with Curry Peanut Furikake – by Isolde

cole-slaw

Asian Slaw
Adapted  from “What Can I Bring Cookbook”

1 bag coleslaw mix
3 tbs mirin
3 tbs rice vinegar
1/3 cup peanut butter
3 tbs sesame oil
3 tbs soy sauce
3 tbs brown sugar
1 tsp ginger paste (or finely grated, peeled fresh ginger)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup crushed peanuts

Whisk together mirin, vinegar, peanut butter, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, ginger and garlic. Put slaw mix into a large bowl, pour the sauce over it and mix well.  Let sit in fridge 4 hrs.  Top with chopped peanuts or Curry Peanut Furikake.

Curry Peanut Furikake
adapted from “Just Bento” food blog

1 cup  peanuts, roasted (unsalted is best)
2 tsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbs. brown sugar
1 Tbs. curry powder
1/4 tsp. chili powder (or to taste)
2 tsp. turmeric powder
2 tsp. soy sauce
salt if needed

Have everything measured out in small cups and ready to go, as this can burn in the time it takes to step away and get something.

Coarsely chop the peanuts by hand or in the food processor (just pulse a few times or you’ll end up with a powder). Heat a frying pan over medium-low heat, and add the oil and peanuts.  Toast for a few minutes, then add the sugar, curry and chili powders and turmeric.  Stir for a short time to release the oils in the spices, but not too long as you don’t want it to burn.  Add the soy sauce – it’s gonna sizzle – and stir until the liquid evaporates.  Remove from heat and immediately pour peanuts into a bowl – don’t leave them in the hot pan or they’ll continue to cook.  Taste, and add salt as needed.

Interview: Steve Wells, from the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible

This month Nexus is pleased to interview Steve Wells, the bloke behind the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, where a lot of us first got our start in critically reading the big book. Thanks, Steve! If you haven’t checked out the ASB before, take the opportunity to give it a read: you won’t be disappointed. And if you’re looking to get a reference copy for yourself, check out the CD-Rom version, which can be sent right to your door!

How did you come to be non-religious? Were you raised that way, or did you have a deconversion experience?

I was raised in a non-religious environment, with an agnostic father and a vaguely Protestant mother. By the time I was twelve, I considered myself an atheist and I argued with anyone with any form of religious belief. It always seemed obvious to me that God was imaginary and religion was only superstition.

But then, after graduating from high school, I read the New Testament. I didn’t immediately believe it, of course, but I was taken by the personality and sayings of Jesus. I was primed and ready to believe, and when it comes to religion, that’s all it takes.

While I was in college, my older sister became a Catholic, and she and I had many long conversations about religion. I began to attend mass occasionally with her, and while I didn’t actually believe any of it, I started to admire the teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church. Before I knew it, I had convinced myself that I actually believed it, and decided that I wanted to become a Catholic priest.

This was in the seventies, and the Church was still trying to figure itself out after the Second Vatican Council. I wasn’t interested in being a new Catholic; I wanted the old Church, with the old mass in Latin and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. So I entered a traditionalist seminary, which is where I started to lose my faith.

I began to argue with the seminary professors about the doctrines of the Church. How could there be no salvation outside the Church? Does that mean my family is going to hell, along with all other non-traditionalist Catholics (which is pretty much everyone)? I had problems with nearly every teaching, but it was the idea of hell that did me in.

So I left the seminary, but I remained in the Church. A few years later I was married with four kids, all of which were baptized Catholics. But by the time our last child was born, my faith was pretty much gone. One day while returning from a camping trip (I still remember the exact moment), I told my wife, Carole, that I no longer believed any of it and I wasn’t going to pretend any longer.

Poor Carole (who was raised a traditionalist Catholic) was pretty upset over that. She got out all our catechisms and theology books, saying she was going to convince me that I wrong. That lasted about a week or so, and then she decided she didn’t believe any of it either. We’ve both lived a lot happier ever after.

What made you start up the SAB? Why do you think it’s a necessary
resource?

I started the SAB while trying to talk my sister (the one who had previously converted to Catholicism) out of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.

You see, I’d never actually read the Bible before, not all the way through, anyway. Oh, I tried back when I supposedly believed in the darned thing, but I just couldn’t make it through Leviticus. But I decided it had to be done to keep my sister from becoming a JW.

It didn’t work, of course. She became a JW anyway, and she still is to this day. But I managed to finish reading the Bible, and I was shocked with what I read.

I started to highlight the interesting stuff: yellow for absurdity, red for cruelty, green for contradictions, blue for sex, etc. And then it occurred to me. Why hasn’t anyone done this before? Why hasn’t a skeptic created an annotated version of the Bible with all the interesting stuff highlighted? And with that idea, the SAB was born.

I originally hoped (and still do) to create a print version, but then the internet came along and I knew it would work there. So I created the SAB website in November of 1999 and have been working on it ever since.

What do you tell religious people – Christians, for instance – when they ask you why they should read your version of their texts?

Well, it’s not really my version. It’s just the Bible, with my unimportant remarks attached. The important thing is for people, believers and skeptics, to read the Bible and to think about what they’ve read.

I try to highlight the things that would be of most interest to someone who is trying to decide what to make of the Bible. Is it a good book? Could it have been inspired by a kind and loving God? Does it contain any contradictions? Does it conflict with science and history? What does it say about women, homosexuality, and family values?

If after reading the Bible a person decides to believe it is the Word of God, well and good. But a sane, kind, intelligent person is unlikely to do so.

How long did it take you to do? Did it surprise you that you were able to pick out so many errors and questionable statements? Which of your “categories” [e.g. Absurdity, Injustice…] gets the most use?

I started 18 years ago highlighting verses in the Bible with boxes of index cards for the annotations. It began with my own color-coded highlights; then I consulted other books and eventually the internet for additional material.

I’m not sure which of the categories get the most use, although believers like to focus on the contradictions. That’s because they are so easy to explain away. (“That’s what it says, but that’s not what it means”, etc.) Explaining how a kind and loving God would send two bears to rip up 42 little boys for making fun of a prophet’s bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24) is tougher.

What’s been your favourite chapter to do, and why?

The book of Judges is probably my favorite. It’s just a series of bizarrely cruel stories thrown together for no apparent reason. I cannot imagine a book less likely to have been inspired by anyone or anything remotely resembling a kind and loving God.

People can buy copies of the SAB on CD. How’s it looking on getting a print version out soon?

Not so good, I’m afraid. I contacted publishers before the SAB site was created, but they were reluctant because the book would be expensive to produce and its author was completely unknown. After the site became fairly successful, I expected to get a few offers from publishers, but so far that hasn’t happened. But maybe it will someday.

I see you’ve got a pretty good association going with the Brick Testament – we interviewed Brendan Powell-Smith recently as well. How did that get started?

Yeah, I love the Brick Testament. The BT stories capture the essence of the Bible in a way that simple words cannot. They are also very funny, of course. The Bible stories are silly to start with, but with legos, they are hilarious.

You’ve also done the Koran and the Book of Mormon. Do you see any commonalities in argument across the texts?

Yes, there are many similarities. Joseph Smith tried hard to make the Book of Mormon sound like the Bible – way too hard, in fact. Mark Twain said that if you took the and-it-came-to-passes out of the Book of Mormon, it would be nothing more than a pamphlet.

The Quran is the only book I know of that might even be crueler than the Bible. It is a short, very repetitive book that can be summed up with these words: “And for the disbelievers, Allah has prepared a painful doom.” Of course that is the same message as the Bible and the Book of Mormon (Believe or be damned), but the Quran is much more explicit about it.

Do the three religious communities whose books you’ve done react the same to your versions? Is there anything you focus on that they find particularly annoying?

I have been surprised with the reaction to the Quran (SAQ ) and Book of Mormon (SABoM) from Muslims and Mormons – or from the lack of reaction, that is. There are many Christian responses to the SAB, but none to the SAQ or SABoM. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe they figure it’s better just to ignore them.

Christians try to ignore everything but the contradictions. When God behaves badly in the Bible or commands people to commit atrocities, the believers pretend not to notice. I think that’s because most believers don’t know what’s in the Bible and those who do don’t talk about it. What happens in the Bible stays in the Bible.

Do you have any plans to do any more religious texts?

No, I won’t live long enough to do a decent job with what I’ve already started. The Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Quran are way more than one person can adequately handle. (Which is why I’m glad Sam Harris’ Scripture Project <http://samharris.org/&gt; is going to take over for me!)

What has been the most rewarding part of the whole experience for you?

Helping others to honestly think about the Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Quran. I believe people will make the right decision about these books if they take the time to find out what is in them. If the SAB helps them to do that, then my work has been worthwhile.

Book Review: Richard Fortey’s “Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution” – by Octavia

trilobiteI picked this book up of a shelf knowing what a trilobite was – like everyone else I’ve seen the fossils – but knowing absolutely nothing else about them. Fortunately for me, Richard Fortey fills up the gap by knowing absolutely everything about them that is known at present. Seriously, the man has an obsession.

But that’s alright. There are worse things to be obsessed about, and at least he’s not boring about it. I’d braced myself for a relatively dry book that nitpicked details that no-one but Fortey – who works for the Natural History Museum in London, studying trilobites – could possibly care about. Thankfully this is not the case. Fortey is well aware of the need to keep his prose informal and chatty, in order to better capture the attention of the ignorant and short spanned of attention. He has obviously come to the valuable conclusion that he is an obsessive, and that the rest of us need a bit of help to be as interested as he is. Witness this description of the Cambrian explosion:

In popular accounts it became an ancient moment of madness, a magnificent evolutionary Mardi Gras, when a parade as bizarre as could have been devised by a surrealist on speed would be permitted for a geological day. ‘See the crystal-eyed monster!’ ‘Roll up, roll up, for the shiny, tubiferous wiggly orphan thing with no relatives!’ The freak show was open for trade.

This is the first palaeontology book I’ve read that’s made me laugh out loud while reading it, because damned if I don’t look at some of the pictures and think “What the hell is that thing?”. Amusing as these frequent bursts are, it has to be said that they do cater a little too much to that short attention span. Personally, I found the humorous asides, the personal stories of trilobite hunting, and the anecdotes of other trilobitists (pity poor unknown Rudolf Kaufmann!) more interesting as they were easier to visualise than the purely scientific rocky stuff. Part of that is Fortey’s natural charm of description, but that charm is relied upon so often that when it isn’t present for a few short pages of nothing-but-science, I began to feel a little bogged down. This is completely unreasonable considering that drier books on evolutionary biology don’t have this effect, but then, when immersed in them, there’s little variation in the prose and I have nothing to compare the more boring bits to.

It helps that Fortey includes a lot of illustrations. And as the different types of trilobite (and who knew there were so many?) do begin to blur into each other after a while, being able to flick back and forth to the photographic plates whenever he resumes writing about species #17 is useful. I have to admit I spent more time staring at the plates than reading the descriptions of them – some of the photos included are truly stunning (that of the trident-bearing trilobite from the Devonian period in Morocco, for instance) and it can be hard to believe these things actually existed. My very favourite, though, was the dimwitted-looking Bumastus. Pick up the book and take a look, go on. I know it’s the back of the creature, but don’t tell me it doesn’t look like something propping up a seedy bar in Star Wars. As a picture book, Trilobite! gets an unqualified thumbs-up from me.

The only other possible stumbling block – and this will depend on your perspective, as it can also be interpreted as a strength – is the highly focused content. This is a book about trilobites, trilobites, and more trilobites. There’s not a huge amount of contextual material, and the focus on evolution isn’t as strong as it is in other texts, catchy title aside. If you’re comfortable with evolutionary theory, this will make no difference to you. However, those who aren’t may find the book’s tight focus less convincing. The best example here is the chapter “Crystal Eyes”. It’s undeniable that this is an interesting read – and the facts behind it are fascinating. Eyes made out of crystal – how could it not be! But it’s very different from the chapter on eyes in Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable. The latter is very broad and explanatory, and puts the development of eyes in a wider evolutionary context. “Crystal Eyes”, while reinforcing the “look at the trilobite, see it looking at you!” theme running through the book, is more specifically mechanistic, and for the beginner who is still under the “How can something as complicated as an eye evolve?” meme, this may be a problem.

Fortey is not, of course, writing an introductory text on evolutionary biology, and Trilobite! pretty much does what it says on the tin – and it’s enough to make you want to head off to your local museum to have a closer look.