Orange Cupcakes

I’ve developed my own orange cake recipe, which I like a lot, and I’ve made a similar orange cake, based loosely on a recipe in King Arthur Flour’s Whole Grain Baking. Last week I finally made King Arthur Flour’s orange cake, as it’s written, except I baked it as cupcakes.

My orange cake uses barley flour, which gives it a delicate crumb. The recipe I made last week uses wholemeal (whole wheat) flour, leading to a more robust cake, with a lovely nutty flavour.

But the best part of the recipe was the orange glaze on top. The glaze did lovely things for the cupcakes, and made them taste a bit like the dense sticky orange cakes you find in cafes. (but a whole lot less involved to make).

Here’s the recipe for the glaze. Brush it on the warm cakes and let it soak in. Be generous with it!

1/2 cup orange juice
2 tsp orange zest
3/4 cup sugar

Combine all ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 1 minute. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.

A Decadent Brioche Breakfast

Sometimes you just have to go a little overboard. My over-the-top fun this weekend was making brioches for Sunday breakfast. Overly decadent and time-consuming to make, brioche is a rare treat for us. My usual Sunday breakfasts (scones, muffins, or whatever) can be made in the morning. Brioche had to be started the evening before.

My son, passing through the kitchen as I kneaded the gooey dough, peeked at the cookbook open on the table. His eyebrows rose.

“Make sure you wake me up for breakfast tomorrow.” This from the teen who usually doesn’t get up until long after breakfast is cleaned up.

The pressure was on. I had to make sure these brioches were worth losing three hours of sleep.

The dough rose overnight in the fridge, and I made up the buns in the morning. When they came out of the oven, I cut the top off each one, scooped out a little hollow inside, and filled each with a dollop of gooseberry jam and then a generous spoonful of whipped cream with lemon curd folded in.

Oh, my. These little butter bombs were delicious!

Happy National Poetry Day!

Octochaetus multiporus, a bioluminescent earthworm.

It’s National Poetry Day, and after my glowing garden find earlier in the week, I couldn’t resist a little poem inspired by sparkly worms.

Bioluminescence

Be
Like fireflies winking on summer nights,
Like fungi on rotting logs,
Like glowworms dangling from cave walls,
Like drifts of sparkling plankton washed up on the shore.

Bio      life
Luminescent      shining

A shining life.

Shine.

Shining in the Dark

Not much to look at in the light, but spectacular in the dark.

I’m a morning person. I’m rarely in bed past six o’clock, and am often up long before that. But I will admit that even I get tired of getting up in the cold and dark at this time of year.

Of course, sometimes the most amazing things happen before the sun is up.

Yesterday morning, I stepped into the chicken paddock feed ‘the girls’. It was still dark, with just enough starlight to see my way. I bent to tip a scoop of feed into their dish and froze.

Something glowed on the ground—the eerie glow of bioluminescence.

I’ve seen bioluminescence while feeding the chickens before—a tiny sea creature whipped up and blown in with a violent snowstorm—but this was different.

I flicked my light on and saw something pink glistening on the ground. When I tried to pick it up, I discovered it was the head of an earthworm.

A brightly glowing earthworm.

I couldn’t get it out of the ground in order to bring it in and identify it yesterday, but I took the spading fork with me this morning when I went to feed the chickens, and I collected a little glowing earthworm from where I’d seen one yesterday.

I already knew that at least one of our native earthworms is bioluminescent—Octochaetus multiporus, which I’ve blogged about before. But O. multiporus grows to enormous size, and I’ve never found any worms in the garden that match its description. Doing a little research, I found that bioluminescence is quite widely employed by earthworms, presumably as a deterrent to predators.

Most earthworms produce light in much the same way that fireflies do, with a chemical known as luciferin that reacts with oxygen-containing compounds in the presence of luciferase to create light.

So, what species is my little glowing worm? There are about thirty New Zealand species within the genera where bioluminescence has been recorded. I’ve found record of only two of those species being bioluminescent: O. mulitporus and Microscolex phosphoreus, a small worm considered native here, but widely distributed around the globe. My best guess is that it’s M. phosphoreus, but data on that worm’s distribution in New Zealand is almost nonexistent (it’s been recorded from only one location), and data about any earthworm in New Zealand is scanty. Perhaps my worm is M. phosphoreus, but it might also be a worm in which bioluminescence hasn’t been recorded. After all, most people aren’t out in the garden at night to notice glowing worms.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to have the worm identified by an expert. If not, well, I still think it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long while! And I won’t be grumbling about getting up in the dark and cold tomorrow.

Springtime in the Office

And so it begins…

It’s been nearly a week since my last blog post, but I have a good excuse—I’ve been working very hard, and have just finished the first draft of The Dragon Defence League, book 3 in my Dragon Slayer series.

Spring has crept into my office, though, in spite of my focus on writing. Over the weekend, I started my first seeds for the season: peppers, eggplants, herbs, brassicas, onions, lettuce and spinach. I’ve been writing in a greenhouse the past two days, with the smell of moist potting mix mixing with the smell of my morning coffee.

Next week I’ll add another batch of seeds to the office, and before long I’ll be hauling newly-sprouted seedlings out to the greenhouse. And not long after that, those seedlings will be ready to set out in the garden.

So much excitement in spring! And now a new book to nurture along with the plants!

Nifty Nematodes

Nematodes under the microscope. Image: CSIRO

A week or so ago, during a writing break, I spent some time peering through the microscope in my ongoing quest to find tardigrades in our yard. I had no luck on the tardigrades, but as usual I came across lots of fabulous little invertebrates.

Perhaps the most common creatures under the microscope were nematodes. No surprise, really. Nematodes are the most common multicellular organisms on earth; there are several million in every square metre of soil here in New Zealand. Most are tiny (less than 3 mm). But not all are so minuscule; the largest, a parasite of sperm whales, can grow to 8 to 9 metres in length.

Nematodes can be free-living or parasitic on animals and plants. In fact, most animals (vertebrate and invertebrate) and plants are host to at least one specialist nematode parasite. Free-living nematodes eat bacteria, fungi, or small invertebrates (including other nematodes).

As you can imagine, nematodes are of huge importance ecologically, economically, and from a human health perspective.

Humans are host to about 60 species of nematode. Diseases caused by nematode parasites in humans include: ascariasis (an intestinal infection that can cause growth retardation and a variety of intestinal and other problems), hookworm (causing anaemia and developmental problems),filariasis (a lymph infection, causing swelling in many body parts, including elephantiasis of the legs), trichinosis (an intestinal infection causing diarrhoea, fever, and other symptoms). Many nematode infections are asymptomatic, and it’s likely most of us play host to nematodes for most of our lives.

The control of nematodes is important in agricultural systems. Worldwide crop loss to nematodes is estimated to be 12.3 percent of production (US$157 billion). Livestock and domestic pets are also susceptible to nematode infection, and millions of dollars annually are spent to control nematode infections including lungworm, hookworm, trichinella, heartworm, and many others.

But nematodes aren’t just doom and gloom. They’re integral parts of natural ecosystems, and critical components in nutrient cycling (especially nitrogen) and food webs. They regulate the bacterial population in the soil, and provide food for many organisms (including some fungi, which catch nematodes with lassos, like tiny cowhands). They can be useful, too. Some insect parasitic species are bred to help control insect pests—a highly species-specific, organic control method.

And like the tardigrade, nematodes are tough. A culture of live nematodes aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia were the only organisms to survive the re-entry breakup of the shuttle, making them the only organism known to survive unprotected atmospheric descent.

Fabulous Flatworms

Australian flatworm

One of the common animals in my yard and garden is the flatworm. Strictly speaking, “the” flatworm here in New Zealand is actually multiple species—possibly up to a hundred—but they have been poorly studied, so it’s unclear just how many species there are.

Flatworms are some of the most impressive predators in the garden, able to consume prey up to 55 times their own size. That’s the equivalent of your house cat taking down a female elk. They eat snails, slugs, and earthworms, digesting them externally before sucking them up with one or more mouths located midway along their bodies.

I love to find flatworms around the yard. They come in striking colours, and some have lovely brown stripes—the orange Australian flatworm (Australoplana sanguinea) is most common in my garden, followed by the relatively nondescript brown New Zealand flatworm (Arthurdendyus triangulatus). Like the slugs they eat, they prefer damp places, and they protect themselves with a layer of mucous. Flatworm mucus is stickier than slug mucous, and they use it to attach themselves to their prey during feeding.

New Zealand is full of non-native invasive organisms, but New Zealand flatworms are one of the few organisms that have turned the tables and become pests overseas. They are easily transported in potted plants, and have successfully invaded Ireland and Scotland. Though there was widespread panic at first about their potential to threaten the local ecology, they appear to have caused little damage to earthworm populations in the UK. Like most cold-blooded animals, their appetites are small. Far from being a devouring hoard, each flatworm can manage, on average, just one earthworm per week. And if they don’t manage to find an earthworm every week, it’s not a problem—they can go a year without eating.