Oct 212017

Today is the birthday (1833) of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, a Swedish chemist best known for inventing dynamite and for establishing the Nobel prizes. The two are inextricably entwined, so, at the risk of repeating what you already know, I’ll dribble on for a while about Nobel, explosives, bombs, guns, and prizes before giving you a recipe.

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, the third son of Immanuel Nobel (1801–1872), an inventor and engineer, and Carolina Andriette (Ahlsell) Nobel (1805–1889). The couple married in 1827 and had 8 children, only 4 of whom survived past childhood. As a boy Alfred Nobel was interested in engineering, particularly explosives, learning the basic principles from his father at a young age. Because of various business failures, Nobel’s father moved to Saint Petersburg in 1837 and was successful there as a manufacturer of machine tools and explosives. He invented modern plywood and started work on the torpedo. In 1842, the family joined him in the city. Now prosperous, his parents were able to send Nobel to private tutors and the boy excelled in his studies, particularly in chemistry and languages, becoming fluent in English, French, German and Russian. For 18 months, from 1841 to 1842, Nobel went to the only school he ever attended as a child, the Jacobs Apologistic School in Stockholm.

As a young man, Nobel studied with chemist Nikolai Zinin; then, in 1850, went to Paris for further studies. There he met Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented nitroglycerin three years earlier. Sobrero strongly opposed the use of nitroglycerin, as it was unpredictable, exploding when subjected to heat or pressure. But Nobel became interested in finding a way to control and use nitroglycerin as a commercially viable explosive, since it had much more power than gunpowder. At age 18, he went to the United States for 1 year to study chemistry, working for a short period under John Ericsson, who designed the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.

The Nobel family factory produced armaments for the Crimean War (1853–1856), but had difficulty switching back to regular domestic production when the fighting ended and they filed for bankruptcy. In 1859, Nobel’s father left his factory in the care of the second son, Ludvig Nobel (1831–1888), who greatly improved the business. Nobel and his parents returned to Sweden from Russia and Nobel devoted himself to the study of explosives, and especially to the safe manufacture and use of nitroglycerin. Nobel invented a detonator in 1863, and in 1865 designed the blasting cap. On 3 September 1864, a shed used for preparation of nitroglycerin exploded at the factory in Heleneborg, Stockholm, killing five people, including Nobel’s younger brother Emil. Dogged and unfazed by more minor accidents, Nobel went on to build further factories, focusing on improving the stability of the explosives he was developing.

Nobel found that when nitroglycerin was incorporated in an absorbent inert substance like kieselguhr (diatomaceous earth) it became safer and more convenient to handle, and this mixture he patented in 1867 as “dynamite.” Nobel demonstrated his explosive for the first time that year, at a quarry in Redhill, Surrey in England. In order to help reestablish his name and improve the image of his business from the earlier controversies associated with the dangerous explosives, Nobel had also considered naming the highly powerful substance “Nobel’s Safety Powder” but settled with Dynamite instead, referring to the Greek word for “power” (δύναμις — dynamis).

Nobel later combined nitroglycerin with various nitrocellulose compounds, similar to collodion, but settled on a more efficient recipe combining another nitrate explosive, and obtained a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was a more powerful explosive than dynamite. ‘Gelignite’, or blasting gelatin, as it was named, was patented in 1876; and was followed by a host of similar combinations, modified by the addition of potassium nitrate and various other substances. Gelignite was more stable, transportable and conveniently formed to fit into bored holes, like those used in drilling and mining, than the previously used compounds and was adopted as the standard technology for mining in the late 19th century bringing Nobel significant wealth, though at a cost to his health. An offshoot of this research resulted in Nobel’s invention of ballistite, the precursor of many modern smokeless powder explosives and still used as a rocket propellant.

In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel, who never had a wife or children, was disappointed with what he read and was subsequently concerned with how he would be remembered.

Nobel’s brothers, Ludvig and Robert, had exploited oilfields along the Caspian Sea and became hugely rich in their own right. Nobel invested in these and amassed great wealth through the development of these new oil regions. During his life Nobel was issued 355 patents internationally and by the time of his death his business had established more than 90 armaments factories, despite his stated belief in pacifism.

On 27 November 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish a set of prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. After taxes and bequests to individuals, Nobel’s will allocated 94% of his total assets, 31,225,000 Swedish kronor (SEK), to establish the five Nobel Prizes. This converted to £1,687,837 (GBP) at the time. In 2012, the capital was worth around SEK 3.1 billion (USD 472 million, EUR 337 million).

The first three of these prizes are awarded for eminence in physical science, in chemistry, and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for literary work “in an ideal direction” and the fifth prize is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international unity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.

On December 10, 1896, Alfred Nobel succumbed to a lingering heart ailment, suffered a stroke, and died.  His family, friends and colleagues were unaware that had left most of his wealth in trust to fund what are now known as the Nobel Prizes. He is buried in Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm.

Today, as it happens, is Apple Day. The celebration started in England and has since spread to other countries where apples are grown. If I am still at it next year I’ll write a blog post on Apple Day on this day. For now, let’s have a recipe for Swedish apple pie in honor of Nobel. Swedish apple pie is actually a cross between a pie and a pudding, but it is one of my favorites for a quick dessert. Granny Smith apples are probably the best for this recipe, but use whatever good baking apple suits your fancy. Don’t use eating apples. See if you can find true cinnamon as well; it beats the generic cassia you get in cheap spice racks in supermarkets. You’ll need to go online, but it’s worth it – trust me.

Swedish Apple Pie


1 ½ lb apples – peeled, cored, and sliced
1 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
¾ cup melted butter
1 egg, beaten


Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.

Toss the apple slices with 1 tablespoon of sugar, and pour them into a pie plate.

Thoroughly mix together 1 cup of sugar with the flour, cinnamon, butter, and egg in a bowl. Spread this mixture evenly over the top of the pie.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until the apples have cooked and the topping is golden brown.

Jun 042017

On this date in 1783 Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (26 August 1740 – 26 June 1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (6 January 1745 – 2 August 1799) gave their first public demonstration of their Montgolfière (hot air balloon), also known as a globe aérostatique in their home town of Annonay before assembled dignitaries. Their first flight was not piloted and did not contain a payload of any sort.

Joseph was the first of the two brothers to contemplate building a flying machine as early as 1782 when he observed laundry drying over a fire incidentally form pockets that billowed upwards. He made his first definitive experiments in November 1782 while living in the city of Avignon. He reported some years later that he was watching a fire one evening while contemplating one of the great military issues of the day—an assault on the fortress of Gibraltar, which had proved impregnable from both sea and land. He wondered about the possibility of an air assault using troops lifted by the same force that was lifting the embers from the fire. He believed that within the smoke was a special gas, which he called Montgolfier Gas, with a property he called levity.

As a result of these musings, Joseph set about building a box-like chamber 1×1×1.3 m (3 ft by 3 ft (0.91 m) by 4 ft) out of very thin wood, and covering the sides and top with lightweight taffeta cloth. He crumpled and lit some paper under the bottom of the box. The box quickly lifted off its stand and hit the ceiling. Joseph then recruited his brother writing, “Get in a supply of taffeta and of cordage, quickly, and you will see one of the most astonishing sights in the world.” The two brothers then set about building a similar device, scaled up in length, width, and height by 3 (that is, 33 or 27 times greater in volume). The lifting force was so great that they lost control of the craft on its very first test flight on 14 December 1782. The device floated nearly two kilometers (about 1.2 mi). It was destroyed after landing by the “indiscretion” of passersby.

The brothers decided to make a public demonstration of a balloon to establish their claim to its invention. They constructed a globe-shaped balloon of sackcloth with three thin layers of paper inside. The envelope could contain nearly 790 m³ (28,000 cubic feet) of air and weighed 225 kg (500 lb). It was constructed of four pieces (the dome and three lateral bands) and held together by 1,800 buttons. A reinforcing fish net of cord covered the outside of the envelope. On 4 June 1783, they flew this craft as their first public demonstration at Annonay in front of a group of dignitaries from the États particuliers. Its flight covered 2 km (1.2 mi), lasted 10 minutes, and had an estimated average altitude in flight of 1,600-2,000 m (5,200-6,600 ft). Word of their success quickly reached Paris. Étienne went to the capital to make further demonstrations and to solidify the brothers’ claim to the invention of flight. Joseph, given who tended towards an unkempt appearance and shyness, remained with the family. Étienne by comparison was generally presentable.

In collaboration with the successful wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, Étienne constructed a 37,500-cubic-foot (1,060 m3) envelope of taffeta coated with a varnish of alum (which has fireproofing properties). The balloon was sky blue and decorated with golden flourishes, signs of the zodiac, and suns. The design was contributed to by Réveillon. The next test was on 11 September from the grounds of la Folie Titon, close to Réveillon’s house. There was some concern about the effects of flight into the upper atmosphere on living creatures. The king proposed to launch two convicted criminals, but the brothers decided to send a sheep, a duck, and a rooster aloft first.

On 19 September 1783, the Aérostat Réveillon was flown with the first living beings in a basket attached to the balloon: a sheep called Montauciel (“Climb-to-the-sky”), a duck and a rooster. The sheep was believed to have a reasonable approximation of human physiology. The duck was expected to be unharmed by being lifted aloft. It was included as a control for effects created by the balloon rather than the altitude. The rooster was included as a further control as it was a bird that did not fly at high altitudes. This demonstration was performed before a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, before King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. The flight lasted approximately eight minutes, covered 2 miles (3 km), and obtained an altitude of about 1,500 feet (460 m). The craft landed safely after flying.

With the successful demonstration at Versailles, and again in collaboration with Réveillon, Étienne started building a 60,000-cubic-foot (1,700 m3) balloon for the purpose of making flights with humans. The balloon was about 75 feet (23 m) tall and about 50 feet (15 m) in diameter. It had rich decorative touches supplied by Réveillon. The color scheme was gold figures on a deep blue background. Fleur-de-lis, signs of the zodiac, and suns with Louis XVI’s face in the center interlaced with the royal monogram in the central section. Red and blue drapery and golden eagles were at the base of the balloon. Étienne Montgolfier was the first human to lift off the Earth, making a tethered test flight from the yard of the Réveillon workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, most likely on October 15, 1783. A little while later on that same day, Pilâtre de Rozier became the second to ascend into the air, to an altitude of 80 feet (24 m), which was the length of the tether. On 21 November 1783, the first free flight by humans was made by Pilâtre, together with an army officer, the marquis d’Arlandes. The flight began from the grounds of the Château de la Muette (close to the Bois de Boulogne (park)) in the western outskirts of Paris. They flew aloft about 3,000 feet (910 m) above Paris for a distance of 9 kilometers. After 25 minutes, the machine landed between the windmills, outside the city ramparts, on the Butte-aux-Cailles. Enough fuel remained on board at the end of the flight to have allowed the balloon to fly four to five times as far. However, burning embers from the fire were scorching the balloon fabric and had to be daubed out with sponges, and also Pilâtre took off his coat to stop the fire.

Annonay is famous for bugnes, a raised-dough fried pastry that also goes by the name angel wings in some parts of Europe. That name plus the fact that yeast makes the dough rise makes them seem suitable for today’s recipe. Bugnes can be flat and crispy or soft and doughy.  These are the latter.

Bugnes Gormandes


250 g flour
10 g baker’s yeast
¼ tsp salt
2 eggs
2 tbsp warm milk
25 g caster sugar
100 g butter, softened
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp dark rum (optional)
1 tbsp orange flower water
powdered sugar
vegetable oil (for frying)


Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and let it sit until frothy.

Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Dig a well and add the beaten eggs, warm milk plus yeast, salt, and caster sugar. First with a spoon, then with your hands, combine to form a dough. Knead for 5 minutes. Add the rum, orange flower water and lemon rind. Knead for 5 minutes. Add the butter. Knead for another 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and homogenous and peels off the edges of the bowl.  Cover with a cloth and leave for 1 hour at room temperature. After than cover with film and chill in the refrigerator.  It can be kept overnight.

When ready to cook, take the dough from the bowl and give it a quick knead. Roll out the dough on a floured work surface to a thickness of 4 mm.  Cut the dough in to 5 x 5 cm squares. Cut a slit in the middle of each square, then pass a corner through the slit to form a knot.

Heat the oil to 160°C/320°F in a deep fryer.  Temperature is critical. Too hot and the dough will fry too quickly and brown too deeply. Place bugnes 3 at a time into the hot oil. Let the bugnes swell, then turn them over as soon as they rise to the surface and are golden. Leave them to cook about one minute on the other side.

Remove the bugnes from the oil with a slotted spoon before they turn brown. Drain on wire racks.  Let cool then sprinkle with powdered sugar

Yield: 30 bugnes

Dec 162015


Today is the birthday (1775) of Jane Austen, an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary as well as her acclaimed plots have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics.


Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. From her teenage years into her thirties she experimented with various literary forms, including an epistolary novel which she then abandoned, wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.

Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th century realism. Her plots, though lightly comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her works, relatively popular in her lifetime, were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews. But the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer.


Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”, according to one biographer. Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favor of “good quiet Aunt Jane”. Scholars have unearthed little information since. One suspects a rather more torrid life than is known about in available material.


Austen’s parents, George Austen (1731–1805) and his wife Cassandra (1739–1827), were members of substantial gentry families. George was descended from a family of woollen manufacturers, which had risen through the professions to the lower ranks of the landed gentry. Cassandra was a member of the prominent Leigh family. They married on 26 April 1764 at Walcot Church in Bath. From 1765 until 1801, that is, for much of Jane’s life, George Austen served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire, and a nearby village. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by farming and by teaching three or four boys at a time who boarded at his home.

Austen’s immediate family was large: six brothers — James (1765–1819), George (1766–1838), Edward (1768–1852), Henry Thomas (1771–1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774–1865), Charles John (1779–1852) — and one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth (Steventon, Hampshire, 9 January 1773 – 1845), who, like Jane, died unmarried. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. Of her brothers, Austen felt closest to Henry, who became a banker and, after his bank failed, an Anglican clergyman. Henry was also his sister’s literary agent. His large circle of friends and acquaintances in London included bankers, merchants, publishers, painters, and actors: he provided Austen with a view of social worlds not normally visible from a small parish in rural Hampshire.

George was sent to live with a local family at a young age because, as Austen biographer Le Faye describes it, he was “mentally abnormal and subject to fits”. He may also have been deaf and mute. Charles and Frank served in the navy, both rising to the rank of admiral. Edward was adopted by his fourth cousin, Thomas Knight, inheriting Knight’s estate and taking his name in 1812.


As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents’ home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practiced the fortepiano, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. She sent short pieces of writing to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna Elizabeth. Austen was particularly proud of her accomplishments as a seamstress. She also attended church regularly, socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, and read novels—often of her own composition—aloud with her family in the evenings. Socializing with the neighbors often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.

When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a nephew of neighbors, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighborhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen’s letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical, as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again.


In December 1800, Austen’s father unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the ministry, leave Steventon, and move the family to Bath. While retirement and travel were good for the elder Austens, Jane was shocked to be told she was moving from the only home she had ever known (ultimately a main theme in Persuasion). An indication of Austen’s state of mind is her lack of productivity as a writer during the time she lived at Bath. She was able to make some revisions to Susan, and she began and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons, but there was nothing like the productivity of the years 1795–1799.


In December 1802, Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane’s niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive—he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal, but in 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that “having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection”.


This terse biographical resume is my way of introducing the backdrop of Austen’s novels, which focus largely on the problems that women in Regency England on the lower rungs of the landed gentry faced in maintaining their status in society. Upward marriage was their primary recourse. So here comes my usual disclaimer. The travails of people who don’t work for a living do not interest me. This “poor me” attitude cuts no ice with me. If you feel hard done by because you rely on the work or wealth of others, go live in a Yorkshire coal mining slum picking coal from slag heaps for starvation wages and long hours and then tell me how put upon you are.


Austen’s novels do indeed document the lives of “poor” women in Regency England – “poor” meaning that they can’t host (but can attend) charming balls, and have very few servants. Marriage to well-to-do men is their ticket out. So we are all supposed to cheer for Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice because she finally sees how wrong she was about Mr Darcy, who is fabulously rich, and marries him, whilst her elder sister Jane, marries the equally rich Mr Bingley despite problems at the outset. Yawn. This is the stuff of expensive modern movies that devotees fawn over because of their rich sets, lavish costumes, and (generally poor) attempts at recreating elite society in England at the turn of the 19th century, with obligatory dance and dining scenes and other such nonsense as the context for dialogues concerning intrigue and ambition.


Persuasion was the first book I taught as a shiny new professor of 29 teaching a Freshman Studies course, newly designed as a cross between “great books” and college writing. Half the books were set by existing faculty, and half I could choose for myself. Other set books included Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, The Communist Manifesto, and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. The course was an unmitigated disaster, as is any course designed by committee. I had no idea what to do with Persuasion. It did not resonate with me nor with any of my students. I could talk quite knowledgeably about the lives of retired sea captains and admirals featured in the novel because, as a teen, I had avidly studied the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. But the daily lives of the English elite of the period was foreign to me (I grew up in Australia), and of zero interest, except inasmuch as they spoke of the ills and abuses of the class system that doggedly lingers to this day. You would have to pay me an awful lot of money to teach Austen again, and even then I would simply rail against the world that they portray.


We don’t have any recipes directly from Austen’s pen, but there are a number of them extant from close relatives that are typically brief, but easy enough to follow if you are a cook. Here’s her sister-in-law’s trifle recipe (Martha Lloyd’s Household Book):

A Trifle

Take three Naple biscuits. Cut them in slices. Dip them in sack. Lay them on the bottom of your dish. Then make a custard of a pint of cream and five eggs and put over them. Them make a whipt syllabub as light as possible to cover the whole. The higher it is piled, the handsomer it looks.

Here, too, is a contemporary recipe for syllabub, which is a froth of eggs and cream folded with citrus flavoring and sweetened wine. I’d add fruit such as raspberries or strawberries for a little more variety.

A Whipt Syllabub

Take a pt of cream with a spoonfull of orange flower water 2 or 3 ounces of fine sugar ye juice of a lemon ye white of 3 eggs wisk these up together & having in your glasses rhennish wine & sugar & clarret & sugar lay on ye broth with a spoon heapt up as leight as you can.