Archive for May 2018


The wonderful, if frustratingly named, French sandwich cookies

During the years I lived in France (2007–2012), I availed myself of the country’s plentiful and delicious baked goods at every opportunity. One of my favorite treats—which, at the time I moved to France, I’d never encountered in the United States—was a wonderful little cookie called a macaron. I sampled as many varieties as I could, and at one point even participated in a blind taste test of numerous macarons hosted by friends who now own two restaurants in Paris.

A macaron is a type of sandwich cookie. The top and bottom are made from a mixture of almond flour, meringue, and powdered sugar, usually with other flavors and/or colors. You bake these on a cookie sheet (being careful to make them perfectly round), so they’re flat on the inside surface, and curved (with a smooth, almost shiny finish) on the outer surface. Then you put a layer of ganache, jam, or some similarly viscous and sweet filling between two of these, and voilà! You have yourself a macaron.

Almost every French bakery that sells macarons offers them in several standard flavors, such as chocolate, coffee, pistachio, lemon, and vanilla. But I’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds of different flavors (including contrasting cookie-and-filling combinations), often in unnaturally bright colors. A number of French bakery chains, most notably Ladurée, specialize in macarons. And, of course, they’ve now invaded North America, including the small local coffee shop I happen to be sitting in as I type these words. Alas, the quality and authenticity of macarons sold outside France varies tremendously.

In case you’ve never had a macaron—I mean a proper, fresh, French macaron—the most salient characteristic is the triple-layer texture. As you bite into a macaron, your teeth first penetrate a delicately crispy crust of the outer cookie, and then move into the light, moist, and slightly chewy cookie interior. Then you reach the filling, which may be creamy or fruity, but in any case has yet a third texture. Of course the flavors are important too, but if the textures aren’t right, you miss the whole experience. Made well, macarons are simply heavenly.

Now then…having informed you of the virtues of the macaron, I must address the matter of that other cookie.

As countless websites, tweets, and blog posts are at pains to point out, there’s a huge difference between the macaron (with one o) and the macaroon (with two). Macaroons—which have been a staple of American cookbooks for many decades—are composed mainly of shredded coconut (along with flour, sugar, and egg whites). And they’re fine if that’s what you’re in the mood for, but the are nothing at all like macarons.

Unfortunately, loads of people confuse the two. I’ve seen websites describing macarons while showing pictures of macaroons, and vice versa. And I’ve also seen lots of descriptions of one or the other that treat them as varieties of the same thing. But they are not. Etymologically speaking, the two names can be traced back to the same historical roots (as can macaroni), but terms like “coconut macaron” or “French (or Parisian) macaroon” are both unhelpful and misleading. It’s best to think of these as two entirely different cookies that happen to have similar-looking names.

Of course, there’s the additional problem that native English speakers know how to pronounce “macaroon” (i.e., exactly as it’s spelled), but often have trouble with “macaron,” since in French the final n isn’t articulated; rather, it’s a nasalized o sound. So English speakers usually pronounce it as “mac-a-ROHN,” which isn’t quite right but is at least closer to being correct than “mac-a-ROON.” (This discrepancy doesn’t exist in French, by the way, where a macaroon is called a congolais or rocher à la noix de coco.)

In any case, let’s reiterate the essential fact that the following items are not a macaron:

  • Macaroon (enough said)
  • Macaroni
  • Macron (the last name of the guy who became president of France in 2017, and the diacritical character that tells you a vowel is long, as in mācron)
  • Marconi (the guy credited with inventing radio)
  • Mackerel (as pointed out by my eight-year-old son)

Image credit: By Nicolas Halftermeyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Coconut macaroons

Today is National Macaroon Day, which means it’s one day this year you’re most likely to be confused—or to confuse someone else—about a particular kind of cookie. To summarize my more detailed account, a macaroon (with two o’s) is a dense, chewy, unleavened cookie whose primary ingredient is shredded coconut. If you live in the United States, chances are you, your parents, and your grandparents, are all equally familiar with this treat. It is not, however, even slightly like the macaron, except insofar as both are cookies. If it looks like a colorful little hamburger—with smooth, rounded top and bottom and a ganache or jam filling—you are looking at a macaron, not a macaroon. You are permitted to eat either one today, but you are never permitted to refer to a macaron as a macaroon (or vice versa).

Image credit: By Jessica from Hove, United Kingdom (Coconut macaroons) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A semaphore telegraph

18th century wireless telecommunications

Let’s say you’re besieged by a bunch of Orcs and Nazgûl in some fictional city in the realm of Gondor. And let’s say your ancient allies from far away in the land of Rohan are your only faint hope for rescue. How might you call out for help over such a great distance, especially with a bunch of mountains between you and Rohan? You would ignite a large pile of firewood that has been waiting ready at the top of a tower for just such a purpose. And many miles away, on the top of the nearest mountain, a beacon-warden would notice this fire and light one of his own. And then the warden on the next mountain over would do the same thing, and so on, until seven mountains later, your friends saw the fire nearest them and got the message.

Tolkien mentioned this event only in passing on the opening page of his book The Return of the King, but Peter Jackson made it into a dramatic scene in his Oscar-winning 2003 film version of the story. It was a moving and visually stunning portrayal of a desperate plea for aid that, given the circumstances and technological resources available, could not have been conveyed in any other way. And if you understand this long-distance visual method of relaying information, you’ve grasped the basics of the optical telegraph, which predated the more commonly known electric telegraph by decades.

Better Than Shouting!

In the early 1790s, French inventor Claude Chappe and his brother Ignace were trying to develop a reliable means of high-speed, long-distance communication. Their first attempt was clever but misguided. Each station had a large mechanism based on a pendulum clock, but in place of a regular clock face was a dial with 10 sections, corresponding to the 10 numerals. The clocks were carefully synchronized, being set in motion at the same time by way of a prearranged signal. The sender waited until his clock was pointing at a specific numeral and then made a sound; the receiver, whose clock would at that moment be pointing at the same symbol, thus knew what number was being signaled. Sequences of numbers corresponded to letters and words—and so, after a fashion, any message could be transmitted. But it was slow, noisy, and limited by the range of hearing, wind direction, and so on—clearly in need of an upgrade or two.

Their next attempt, which continued to rely on the synchronized clock mechanism, replaced the sound with a movable panel painted white on one side and black on the other side. This gave them much greater range (with the help of a telescope) and, of course, quiet operation. But it then dawned on them that they could send much more information in a shorter period of time if they ditched the clock and instead constructed a mechanism capable of displaying a variety of visual signals directly. So they created a large apparatus with five panels; each combination of black and white panels stood for a different character. That worked better, but more innovations were soon to come.

Up In Arms

After another year or so of experimentation, the Chappe brothers determined that long wooden beams placed at various angles could be seen more clearly over long distances than black and white rectangles. So they created a simple mechanical device that could reposition two large arms (each with two segments—a main bar and a crossbar) into any of nearly 200 configurations; anyone with a code book could translate those signals into words and numbers. They dubbed their invention the “telegraph,” though nowadays all the early visual transmission systems are referred to as optical telegraphs, and this particular version is called a semaphore telegraph.

(An aside…At almost exactly the same time the Chappe brothers abandoned their panel-based system, a Swedish inventor named A.N. Edelcrantz, who was working on a remarkably similar project of his own—apparently without any knowledge of what was happening in France—decided against the semaphore arms he had been using and switched to a panel design. Edelcrantz’s system, which used a 3×3 grid of movable panels plus a tenth, larger one on top, could produce a wider range of characters with a single configuration, and thus send more information in less time. However, it never caught on outside Sweden, and as far as I know, was never given a head-to-head comparison with the Chappe telegraph.)

Gimme an A

The first major semaphore line, which stretched between Paris and Lille, 120 miles (about 190km) north, near the border of Belgium, began operation in 1794. It consisted of 15 stations, each of which could receive and relay a single character in well under a minute. I can just imagine a guy sitting there in a tower, patiently peering through a telescope, and then, suddenly: “Yo, François, it looks like an A!” And François would go orient the mechanism to display an A to the next station while his buddy watched for the next letter. A single character could be passed all the way down the line in this manner in as little as 9 minutes, and an entire (very brief) message in about a half hour.

Before long, optical telegraph lines were installed all over France. When Napoleon came to power in 1799, he immediately began using the semaphore telegraph to relay tactical information to and from his troops. This system remained the primary means of telecommunication in the country for several decades. In fact, around 1840, after Samuel Morse had successfully proven his electric telegraph design, the French government initially declined to replace their semaphore telegraphs with the new technology. Despite its reduced need for human labor and its availability in poor weather or after dark, the electric telegraph was thought to be easily sabotaged—someone could simply cut the wire. The naysayers finally came to their senses and agreed to electric telegraphs in 1846, though some optical telegraphs were still in operation as late as 1881.

The use of the word “semaphore” to refer to signals made with hand-held flags, typically for naval communications, came well after (and was inspired by) the semaphore telegraph. Thus, in a manner of speaking, the technology developed by Chappe and Edelcrantz is still in use—at least occasionally. Your wireless internet connection may be faster, but it doesn’t provide nearly as much exercise.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 22, 2005.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Loomis wireless telegraph illustration

When I saw that today was Loomis Day, my first thought was, what—the company with the armored cars? My second thought was that maybe it had to do with the town of the same name near Sacramento. But I was wrong on both counts. In fact, today we remember Mahlon Loomis, an American dentist who lived in the mid-nineteenth century. He patented a process for making porcelain dentures, but he’s best remembered for his misguided but noteworthy attempts to invent a wireless electric telegraph (not to be confused with optical telegraphs, which are of course also wireless).

To make a long story short(er), Loomis thought the atmosphere consisted of a series of concentric, conductive layers that could be used to transmit messages if only a pair of conductors could be placed in it at identical altitudes. He performed a number of experiments to prove his hypothesis. For example, in 1866 he sent up two kites, about 20 miles apart, tethered by copper wires. He sent an electrical signal through one kite’s wire and it was received through an instrument connected to the other kite’s wire. He thought this proved that the atmosphere was conducting the electrical signal, but in fact it was a primitive sort of radio transmission, with the kite wires serving as antennas. Unfortunately for Loomis, the lack of a solid theoretical understanding (as well as a lack of money) prevented him from developing his invention, and years later, Marconi was credited for inventing radio. So near and yet so far.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day


The twisted tale of paper’s best friend

I discovered the importance of paperclips in first grade. One day at lunchtime, my friend Brad gathered a few of us geeky types together on the playground and solemnly handed each of us a small, shiny object. “These,” he said, “are paperclip communicators. You must carry them with you at all times and guard them carefully: these are the only ones of their kind.” He went on to explain that using these special communicators, which merely looked like paperclips, we could talk to each other from a distance. The next morning, a few of us arrived at school early, before Brad got there. We decided to call him on our paperclip communicators. We didn’t hear a reply, but perhaps we just weren’t listening carefully enough. A few minutes later when Brad walked in, we asked if he’d heard us. “Oh yes,” he said, “I heard you on my paperclip communicator when I was riding the bus.” Well, that settled it: there could be no doubt that we were in possession of some powerful technology.

I proudly wore my paperclip communicator on my belt. A few weeks later, though, it disappeared. I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find it. In tears, I told my mother what had happened. She didn’t seem upset; she simply reached into a drawer and handed me another paperclip. “No!” I shouted. “It’s not the same thing! That’s just an ordinary paperclip. Brad couldn’t hear me if I talked into that!” For days I was inconsolable at my loss, and deeply frustrated that my mother couldn’t tell the obvious difference between a paperclip communicator and a bent piece of wire. Brad, of course, couldn’t help me: there were no more paperclip communicators to be had.

Little Things Mean a Lot

About twenty-five years later, I started working for a computer accessories company called Kensington, which is a business unit of ACCO Brands—a major office-products manufacturer. I knew that ACCO made products like paperclips and binders, but what I did not know until I’d worked there for several years was that ACCO was originally short for “American Clip Company.” The humble paperclip was largely responsible for the initial success of what is today a gigantic and extremely profitable business. (There is, I should mention, a school of thought according to which this fastener’s name should be rendered as two words: paper clip. My opinion is that, inasmuch as the purpose of the object is to join things, it’s only right to join the words, too.)

Where did this simple, cheap, and indispensable invention come from? Appropriately, the story is twisted.

As recently as the late 19th century, the most common way to hold papers together was by using a straight pin. This was an inexpensive and functional solution—and, unlike staples, easily removable. It did, however, leave holes in the paper (and occasionally in the finger). But as steel wire became more common, inventors began to notice that it had just the right amount of springiness to be formed into various sorts of effective cliplike devices. In the years just prior to 1900, quite a few paperclip designs emerged—both in the U.S. and in Europe. Some were patented, some not. There was at the time, and still is now, considerable disagreement about who devised which particular type of wire loop when.

The Norwegian Clipper

The name most frequently associated with the invention of the paperclip is Johan Vaaler, a Norwegian inventor who received patents on several designs—from Germany in 1899 and from the U.S. in 1901. However, Vaaler’s clips were by no means the first, nor are they the same as what we think of today as the paperclip—they did not have an interior loop. The familiar double-U design was devised by Gem Manufacturing Ltd. in England; this clip is therefore sometimes known as the Gem clip. (Incidentally, despite the fact that ACCO made a name for itself with paperclips, the so-called ACCO Fastener is not a paperclip; it’s a two-pronged brass fastener that was invented in 1912.)

Because the Gem clip itself was never patented, we don’t know exactly when it first appeared. Some sources speculate that it may have been as early as 1890; in any case, it was certainly well before Vaaler’s first patent in 1899. In that year, a Connecticut man named William Middlebrook patented a machine for bending Gem-style clips. Such a device would be crucial to the paperclip’s success, as it would enable the clips to be manufactured much more quickly and inexpensively.

Clip Will Keep Us Together

Despite the fact that Norway holds a rather dubious claim as the birthplace of the paperclip, it played an important historical role there. During World War II, when the German army occupied Norway, they forbade citizens to wear any likeness of the king, or even his initials. So instead, people began to wear paperclips on their lapels—symbolizing both national pride and “sticking together.” When the Nazis realized that paperclips were a sign of solidarity against the occupation, they outlawed the practice. Later, a giant paperclip statue was erected in Oslo to honor Vaaler—even though his design was never actually manufactured.

The Gem clip (by whatever name) is, of course, just one of many modern paperclip designs. Some competing clips have little or no tendency to become tangled with each other. But this seeming advantage hasn’t kept the Gem design from becoming synonymous with “paperclip” and holding the top position by far, to this day, in worldwide sales. As for the paperclip communicator…unfortunately, it hasn’t been manufactured since 1973.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day