Thursday, 4 December 2008

Smoking Ban Defiance

From the 1st of July 2008, a smoking ban was imposed on all pubs and restaurants in the Netherlands. During the summer months, most smokers were happy to make use of the outside terraces, particularly on a balmy evening. But as winter approaches, many pubs are defying the ban and allowing their patrons to smoke inside. In some towns, publicans have collectively agreed to ignore the ban, with many smaller places struggling to make ends meet due to a decline in customers. Such resistance would appear to be gathering momentum, with other pubs around the country also turning a blind eye to those who smoke inside. The health minister, however, has indicated that he will take a tough stance on places that do not uphold the law. But with the threat of a 300 euro fine for an inital offence, it seems that many publicans were willing to take that risk. However, through unfair competition laws, pubs may face fines of up to several thousands of euros, with repeat offenders facing (temporary) closure of their establishment.

Last night, we decided to go for a pub meal at one of our locals (but not a regular haunt). Of the 25 or so people that were there, ALL but about 4 people were smoking. Although there were no ashtrays on the bars or tables, people were using the candle holders. And given that almost everyone that walked in was holding a cigarette packet, it would seem that the word had got around that this pub is ignoring the ban. After experiencing several months of smoke free bliss, it was just horrible to sit there in the smokey atmosphere, particularly as we were eating. Had we not ordered food, I think we would have left. And if they continue to allowing smoking, I will do my best to avoid going back. Fortunately, we were not there long as we had another event to go to, at a pub down the road where smoking is NOT allowed. And although the place was filled with students, there were also many other patrons enjoying the smoke free atmosphere. Thanks Cambrinus for upholding the ban - we will be back!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Chocolate Fondant

One of my favourite TV shows is 'Masterchef', a BBC program whereby amateur chefs have a chance to show off their talent in a series of cooking challenges. After completing these challenges, the person who has demonstrated the best technique, presentation, and of course the best tasting food, is the winner. Having watched several series of Masterchef, there seems to be one dish that can either make or break a contestant - chocolate fondant. The key to chocolate fondant is that the outside should be cakey in consistency, while the inside should be gooey, molten chocolate. The stumbling block for many of the contestants on Masterchef is that they either undercook it, such that it collapses into a runny mess, or overcook it so that it is cakey all the way through. After seeing so many people fail to prepare a proper chocolate fondant, I was curious to see how difficult it is to make. Funnily enough, this month's edition of the Dutch delicious. magazine has a recipe for Chocolate Fondant, so I thought I would give this recipe a try. Upon looking at the list of ingredients, I was skeptical as to whether it would work. However, to my surprise, the puddings were a success! Compared to the contestants on Masterchef, I had the advantage of time. I could leave the puddings in the fridge for several hours, which seems to help to maintain a liquid centre upon cooking. I was very pleased with the result and will definitely be preparing this chocolate fondant recipe again sometime...

Chocolate Fondant (serves 6)

200g high quality dark chocolate
240g unsalted butter, in blocks
4 eggs
90g caster sugar
30g flour, sifted
powder sugar

Break the chocolate into pieces. Put the chocolate and butter into a heat-resistant bowl and melt in the microwave on medium power for about 3 minutes, stirring after 2 minutes. Stir to make sure the mixture is smooth and let the mixture cool to room temperature.

In another bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar until the mixture is light and foamy. Fold in the chocolate mixture and sifted flour. Spoon the mixture in to 6 greased and floured souffle ramekins of 185ml or 3/4 of a cup in volume. Place the ramekins in to the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and bake the puddings for 10 to 12 minutes until they have a cakey surface. Take the ramekins out of the oven and leave for a minute to rest. With a knife, carefully run around the outside of the pudding and turn out on to a plate. Sprinkle with powder sugar and serve with berries, cream or icecream.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Red Apple

We have bought an apartment! - a three-room place in a new building in the centre of Rotterdam. The building, known as The Red Apple, is located on Wijnhaveneiland (translation: Wine harbour island) just minutes from shops, restaurants, public transport and other amenities. The building consists of two parts - a tower and a head block - and we were able to buy a place on the 10th floor of the head block. It is 93m2, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a large open kitchen/living room and a separate utility room. The apartment has wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling windows, with views to the north and north-west along Wijnhaven towards the city centre. As the building is still under construction, we wont be able to move in until the 2nd quarter of 2009. In the meantime, we are busy looking at kitchen layouts and floor coverings. Some pictures of the current status of the building can be seen here.

Our place is outlined in red!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

NMR study published in 'Fuel Cells'

Last week, I received an email with the table of contents for the most recent edition of the journal 'Fuel Cells' to find that in this edition, they had published an article I had submitted to the journal. The article presents the findings of an NMR study of the proton transport mechanisms in a phosphoric acid doped polymer that has potential as a fuel cell membrane. The polymer consists of two components - one crystalline, the other amorphous - and the results suggest that the proton transport takes place more readily in the amorphous phase. This work was completed during a six month project with the Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cell group at the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN). Being one of the major energy research institutes in the Netherlands, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them, and also to be able to publish the work we did together.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Page Turners

In 2000, some friends of mine started the reading group 'Page Turners'. We were mostly friends from uni, with a few joining by association, and eight years later the group is still going strong. From the 12 or so original members, many are still regular participants in a group that now consists of about 18 members. We have covered a number of genres in our book selections, including classical and contemporary literature, fantasy and sci-fi, biographies, non-fiction, comedies and graphic novels. In many cases, it has been a great way to read something that you would otherwise have never even picked up at a bookshop or library. Since I moved overseas in 2001, I have been a member 'by correspondence'. I have continued to read most of the books, after which I send my thoughts to the group via email. It has been a great way to maintain a presence in the group, although I am not physically able to attend most of the meetings. What I have missed, however, is being involved in the discussion, and to hear what other members thought of the book. Or at least that was the case, until now. Just recently, the Page Turners blog was established, where members of the group can post a comment on the book we have just read (and discussed). Already, there have been several posts on the books of the last 2 months, and it has been great to be able to read the impressions/interpretations of others. I'm certainly looking forward to more comments on the future book selections in the months to come.

Sunday, 6 April 2008


Over the years, I have acquired quite a few books - some of which I love and could happily read over and over again, but there are also others that I am less fond of. More recently, however, I find myself refraining from buying books, simply because I just don't have the space to store them. One alternative would be of course to buy a bigger book shelf, but I had also thought about parting ways with the books that I probably wont ever read again. Rather that just throwing them away or giving them to a second-hand bookstore, I am considering releasing them into the big wide world, sending them on a literary adventure. Some time ago, I heard about a worldwide book sharing service called BookCrossing which simply involves registering a book, and then leaving it somewhere for someone to pick it up and read. The books can be left in cafes, hotels, on buses or park benches, and whoever picks up the book registers its new location. Once this person reads the book, it can once again be left for another unsuspecting reader in a new location, and the travels of the book can be tracked on the BookCrossing website. I think this is a really novel idea (pardon the pun), and as the BookCrossing website states, by participating you "Help make the whole world a library and share the joy of literacy." It will be interesting to see where my books end up...

Monday, 24 March 2008

Hot Cross Buns

During Easter, I would always have Hot Cross Buns. As they are not readily available here in the Netherlands, I decided to make some myself this Easter. Once again, Donna Hays 'Modern Classics Book 2' provided the recipe and around 4pm on Easter Sunday, we were enjoying butter smothered buns straight from the oven. On other occasions, the same recipe can be used to prepare a simple fruit bun, without the cross.

For the buns:
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup caster (superfine) sugar
1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk
4 1/4 cups plain (all-purpose) flour, sifted
2 teaspoons mixed spice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
50g melted butter
1 egg
1 1/2 cups sultanas
1/3 cup mixed peel, optional

For the cross:
1/2 cup plain (all-purpose) flour
1/3 cup water

For the glaze:
2 teaspoons apricot jam, strained if desired
2 teaspoons water, approximate

Place the milk into a bowl and warm in the microwave (or on the stove) on a low setting for 1-2 minutes until slightly warm. Sprinkle over the yeast and 2 teaspoons of the caster sugar. Set aside for 5 minutes during which time the mixture will start to foam, indicating that the yeast is active.

Add the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon, butter, egg, sultanas, mixed peel and remaining sugar to the yeast mixture and mix using a butter knife until a sticky dough forms. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 8 minutes or until it feels elastic. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and allow to stand in a warm place for 1 hour or until the dough doubles in size. Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll into balls.

Grease a 23cm square cake tin and line with non-stick baking paper. Placed the dough balls in the tin, cover with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes or until the buns have risen.

Preheat the over to 200 degrees Celsius. Combine the flour and water for the cross, place in a piping bag or a plastic bag with one corner snipped off, and pipe crosses on to the buns. Bake for 35 minutes or until well browned and springy to the touch.

Combine the jam and water in a bowl and heat in the microwave for 1 minute. The glaze should be syrupy but thin enough to brush onto the buns. Add more water if necessary. Remove the buns from the oven and brush with the warm glaze. Serve with butter. Makes 12.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Authorship Order

When preparing a scientific article for publication, there is often the question of who are the authors, and in what order should they be listed. In some cases, it is easy - the person who conducted the research (and in many cases, this is also the person who wrote the article) is listed first, while the supervisor is listed last. When there are more than two authors, however, the additional authors are usually added in order of their contribution and/or seniority between the first and last authors. As this is generally the accepted order of authorship, it is immediately apparent to the reader who did the work and who oversaw the research. But is the order of the authors important? Within a scientific article, reference may be made to another publication, e.g. "In previous studies, Smith et al. found...", and in most cases, the citation refers to the first named author of that publication. Similarly, when discussing an article with a colleague, we often referred to it as "the so-and-so paper" according to the first named author. Furthermore, when searching for articles using a bibliographical database, the results are listed by both year and the first named author. However, it has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions that having your name last on an article is even more important. As the last author, you are assumed to be the innovator behind the research, which attests to your ability as a project leader. Consequently, it is also used as a quantifier of productivity and excellence, where not only the number of publications is important but also how many have your name last. Making the transition from first to last author can be difficult, particularly when seniority and politics come into play. But unless alphabetical ordering is adopted, this authorship hierarchy is unlikely to change.

'Piled Higher and Deeper' by Jorge Cham is the popular comic strip about life, or the lack thereof, in grad school. Check it out by going to

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Raspberry Tiramisu

One of my favourite desserts is Raspberry Tiramisu, the recipe of which comes from Donna Hay's 'The Instant Cook' book. It is so simple, yet so yummy, that it is difficult to refuse a second helping. A perfect dessert for almost any occasion!

1 3/4 cups of cream
500g mascarpone
1 cup of dessert wine (I use Port)
600g defrosted frozen raspberries
1 pkt sponge finger biscuits (10-20 biscuits, depending on the size)

Place the cream in a bowl and whisk until soft peaks form. Fold through the mascarpone and set aside. Place the dessert wine into a shallow dish. Quickly dip both sides of half of the biscuits into the dessert wine and place them in a single layer in the base of a 10 cup (2.5L) serving dish (such as a lasagna dish). Distribute half of the raspberries over the biscuits followed by half of the cream mixture. Dip the remaining biscuits into the wine and place on top of the cream layer. Distribute the remaining raspberries over the biscuits and spread over the remaining cream mixture. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving, although best made the day before. Serves 8-10.