Lichens Rule

Not long ago, I spent a glorious sunny day wandering around Cass Field Station while my husband met with some students there. It was nice to take a solo walk and go at my own pace, stopping at whatever plants, bugs or rocks caught my fancy.

Once nice find was this beautiful lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum.

Lichens are strange organisms comprised of an alga living within a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection and nutrients for the alga.

R. geographicum is an alpine/subalpine lichen and, like many lichens, is sensitive to air pollution, thriving only where the air is clean. It is not, however, a fragile organism.

In 2005, R. geographicum was one of two lichens launched into space. The lichens were exposed to 14.6 days of open space—vacuum, wide temperature fluctuations, intense UV light and cosmic radiation. Upon return, R. geographicum showed little harm from the experience.

Not only is R. geographicum tough, some individuals in the Arctic are estimated to be 8,600 years old, making them the oldest living organisms on Earth. Their longevity and predictable growth rate make them useful tools for determining when glaciers retreated from an area.

But I didn’t know all this about R. geographicum when I found it on the rocks at Cass. I simply admired its beautiful mottled colours and soft texture. 

OOOOOh my! Chocolate cookies

I dipped into Ottolenghi’s book, Sweet, again the other day. This time I made Chocolate O Cookies. 

All I can say is  OOOOOOh my!

These could possibly be the best chocolate cookies ever. They’re a lot of work, and the recipe only makes 20 cookies, but those 20 cookies are truly divine.

The cookies themselves are a rich chocolate shortbread—alone, they’re worth making. But the piece de resistance is the water ganache filling.

I’d never made a ganache like this before, and I have to say I was dubious at first—mixing chocolate and water is a no-no, right? To make matters worse, the ganache starts with a sugar syrup, which has always been a bit of an Achilles heel for me.

But somehow it worked, and the infusion of cinnamon, chilli and orange gives the ganache a complex richness that lifts it above any other ganache I’ve made.

I’ll definitely be making these again … and again … and again.

Incidentally, I had extra ganache, which I popped into the fridge and slathered on lemon cupcakes later in the week—an excellent bonus!

Here’s the ganache recipe:

1/2 cinnamon stick
shaved peel of 1/2 orange
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
90 ml boiling water
125 g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 tsp salt
50 g caster sugar
50 g liquid glucose (I used honey)
50 g butter, cut into 2 cm cubes

Place cinnamon, orange peel and chilli flakes in a small bowl and cover with the boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes. After the water has been infusing for about 20 minutes, prepare the sugar syrup.

Place the chocolate, vanilla seeds and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the sugar and glucose in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted. Increase the heat and boil until the caramel turns a light amber colour (this doesn’t work if you use honey—it will already be amber. I boiled to about the soft ball stage), about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the infused water and aromatics. Return the liquid to a boil and then strain over the chocolate and vanilla. Discard the aromatics. Leave for 2-3 minutes until the chocolate has melted. Stir until smooth.

Add the butter, one piece at a time, stirring constantly until it is incorporated and smooth. Refrigerate 30 minutes to firm up.

Fatecarver–New YA Epic Fantasy

Fatecarver cover

With lockdown and everything, I completely forgot to announce that my new young adult epic fantasy, Fatecarver, is now available in both ebook and print formats!

Kalish had a plan. The gods had a different one.

Kalish expects to become her clan’s next fatecarver, channelling the wisdom of the gods into the storyscars of young women—tattooing their futures onto their skin.

But the gods have different plans for her.

Kalish’s own storyscar brands her a traitor.

Banished by her clan and rejected by those she loves, she sets out to find a new home, hoping to rewrite her own fate. But her storyscar is more complex than even the elders guessed, and her travels take her far beyond the understanding of her clan.

When she discovers a plot to destroy her people, she must decide: leave them to die, or save them by becoming the traitor they think she is.

Book 1 of this new young adult fantasy series takes you to a stunning landscape of harsh beauty and harsh consequences. Kalish’s journey of loss, love, and self-discovery is set against a backdrop of cultural conflict and religious taboos that challenge her sense of belonging. 

If you like action-packed fantasy, strong female characters and magic realism, you’ll love Fatecarver. Pick up your copy today and start your adventure!

Butterless Pumpkin Lockdown Cake

iced pumpkin cake

Lockdown grocery shopping is always a bit frustrating. Our local grocery store is calm and safe-feeling. There’s never a line out the door, and social distancing is relatively easy. The problem is the store is small (little choice in brands—you take what you can get), and the prices are high. Under normal circumstances I do my shopping at cheaper, larger stores in the city.

So during lockdown, I buy as few groceries as possible and limit expensive foods like cheese and butter.

Which is why last week’s baking challenge was an iced cake with no butter. 

I based the cake on a whole-grain pumpkin cake recipe from the King Arthur Flour Wholegrain Baking book. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup each of oil and butter, so I simply used a cup of oil instead. I’ve done this before with other cakes when I needed to make a cake for lactose intolerant friends, so I was confident it would work well. It did, and the cake turned out light and moist.

The icing was more of an issue. I wanted a nice thick icing, not a simple glaze. What I really wanted was a cream cheese frosting, but I had no cream cheese. To get the cream cheese frosting flavour, I used yogurt instead. I drained about a third of a cup of yogurt for a couple of hours to thicken it. Then I blended it a spoonful at a time, along with a teaspoon of vanilla, into 2 1/2 cups of icing sugar until I hit the consistency I wanted.

It wasn’t a butter icing—it still had the feel of a glaze more than a frosting—but it spread on thickly, oozing slightly over the edges of the cake and drying to a beautiful glossy sheen. Best of all, it had the lovely cultured tartness of a cream cheese frosting. All in all, a darned good icing on a fabulous cake.

And it didn’t cost me $7.95 for a block of butter. An excellent lockdown experiment!

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #21

masks
Masks ready to go for level 2 outings.

New Zealand outside of Auckland got the news we were hoping for yesterday. As of Wednesday, we will move to Covid alert level 2, which means we can all return to work and school. This level 2 is more restrictive than previous level 2s, because the Delta variant is so much more transmissible, but we’re all looking forward to the increase in freedoms.

A shout out to Auckland, which remains in level 4. You are all superstars! Hang in there, and thank you for your mahi. It can’t be easy, and my heart goes out to you all. Kia kaha!

Once again
We reach the end
Of lockdown’s
Boring grind.

We’re headed back
To work and school
For which we all
Have pined.

So vaccinate and
Wash your hands
And over all
Be kind.

Don’t forget
To don your mask
And wear a
Smile behind.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #20

daffodils in a vase

A few days of warm wind, and it seems like the plants have all woken up. The pines across the road certainly have—everything is covered in gritty yellow pollen. 

Springtime’s chorus
The magpies’ warble
A chittering of sparrows
The buzz of bees
Among the pansies
The distant drone
Of a lawnmower
The quiet chirp
Of frogs after dark.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #19

notebooks and folders
My notebooks and folders for planning a return to in-person schooling.

I’m lucky to have only one, relatively self-sufficient teen at home for lockdown, but I feel for parents of young children. Good weekend weather will have been a help, but homeschool fatigue will make the coming week difficult.

Desperation grows
As the
Days
Tick
By.

Worksheets that
The school sent out
Make
The kids
Sigh.

We long for
Normal routines:
Work,
School,
Kai.

Desperation grows
As the
Days
Tick
By.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #17

Grow little plants!

Hard to be upset about lockdown when the weather is beautiful. In fact, I was a bit disappointed I was asked to go into work today. I would have jumped at the opportunity on a rainy lockdown day, but today … well I would rather have been in the garden.

Spring has sprung
It’s time to plant
Your vegetables and flowers.

The birds are busy
In the trees with
Twiggy nests and bowers.

Hoe in hand
I soon forget
The viral threat we’re under.

With bright warm sun
And growing things
The season’s full of wonder.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #16

poetry fence
Ah, the days of plentiful building wrap…

After 65 poems, I’ve run out of the building wrap I’ve been writing them on. I’m amazed it’s lasted as long as it did—who would have thought the builders would throw away that much useful material?

In preparation for the exhaustion of my construction waste supply, I’ve been repurposing some magnet boards I made years ago for Bugmobile programmes. I now have a pair of chalkboards that I’ll attach to my makeshift fence out front. Now as long as my chalk holds out …

I’ve finished off the very last scrap
Of discarded building wrap.

You might hope that I am done—
More lousy verse won’t see the sun.

But you know what they always say—
Where there’s will there’s a way.

Tomorrow’s verse won’t look the same
But it’ll be just as lame.