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9 Pre-Lenten Treats from Around the World

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Today is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent in many Christian traditions. Eastern Orthodox Christians begin Great Lent on a slightly different calendar. The day is also called Mardi Gras, Carnival, Pancake Tuesday, and many other names in various languages. What these days have in common is a tradition of a final feast of foods that will be forbidden for the period of Lent which leads up to Easter. Many cultures have developed traditional recipes to use up the household supplies commonly given up for Lent, in order to reduce temptation and waste. That means sugar, eggs, oil, meat, and other calorie-laden staples.

1. Semla

In Sweden, semla is the traditional treat for fettisdag. Semla is a sweet bun laced with cardamon and filled with almond paste and cream, an unbelievably sweet treat eaten with plenty of coffee to wash it down. In Sweden, bakeries compete fiercely to offer the best semla of the season. The semla of the Middle Ages was a rather plain bun eaten up before Lent, but with the Protestant Reformation, Swedes began eating it during Lent as part of the protest. When the fillings were added, it became so rich that it gradually moved back to being a pre-Lenten treat. Similar sweets are offered in other Scandinavian countries by other names, with slight variations in the recipes. In Finland, buns are sometimes filled with raspberry jam. In Denmark, the buns have whipped cream and jam inside. Other versions include raisins or orange peel. Photograph by Flickr user Johan Dalenius.

2. Malasada

Malasadas

Malasada is traditional in both Portugal and Hawaii. The recipe was imported when laborers from Madeira and the Azores worked in sugar plantations in Hawaii. The Shrove Tuesday treat consists of deep-fried balls of yeast dough that are sprinkled with sugar and resemble fluffy doughnuts without the hole. Some recipes call for passionfruit filling. They are best eaten hot from the fryer, with a cup of cocoa. Photograph by Flickr user joyosity.

3. P?czki

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In Poland and in communities with Polish roots, Shrove Tuesday is known as Ostatki. The most common traditional treat is p?czki, a deep-fried jelly doughnut dusted with powdered sugar. They are different from your everyday doughnut in that they contain more eggs, and some recipes call for a little bit of alcohol in the dough, which keeps the oil from penetrating too deeply. P?czki is traditionally eaten on Fat Thursday in Poland, almost a week before Ash Wednesday, but in the U.S., p?czki is common through the Carnival season up through the day of Ostatki. Photograph by Flickr user Tomek Augustyn.

4. Salted Lamb

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Iceland celebrates Sprengidagur, which translates to Bursting Day. It's a day in which you eat to the point of bursting! The traditional feast is salted lamb and peas, or split-pea soup. You can try the recipe if you are comfortable with a mechanical translation. Note that it calls for salt salt. Photograph by Flickr user Ralf Smallkaa.

5. Papanasi

Papanasi - yummy Romanian desert

Romanian pre-Lenten feasts are held on Cheesefare Sunday in the Orthodox tradition. This is the last day dairy products are eaten before Lent. Treats include gogosi, which is another deep-fried doughnut, and papanasi, which is a cottage cheese dumpling. The cheese is mixed with sugar and other ingredients and fried, then served with sour cream and jam. Photograph by Flickr user Ana ADI.

6. Pancakes

Even communities that do not observe Lent will enjoy a traditional Pancake Day, for fundraisers or just for the fun of it. It's a good time to try out some new pancake recipes or techniques. Photograph by Flickr user Rachel.

7. Blini

Caviar & white chocolate on a curry blini

Russians celebrate the week before Great Lent as Pancake Week, or Masletnitsa, by eating blinis, or Russian crepes. But they're not just crepes! Blini before Lent means crepes topped with caviar, smoked salmon, sour cream, onions, or sugary toppings. Photograph by Flickr user LexnGer.

8. Nalysnyky

In the Ukraine, Cheesefare Sunday feasts feature nalysnyky (crepes) that are rolled up with the cottage cheese that must be finished before Great Lent. This type of nalysnyky is eaten as a main course, as observant Orthodox adherents have given up meat already by Cheesefare Sunday. Nalysnyky can also be filled with fruit or orange sauce as a dessert. See how nalysnyky is made at Claudia's Cookbook.

9. King Cake

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In Alabama, Louisiana, and other places that celebrate Mardi Gras, the King Cake is the traditional sweet. The King Cake started as a Christmas treat in Europe, and was named for the visit of the Magi. A dried bean was baked into the cake, and the person who was served the part containing the bean became the "king" of the celebration. As Christmas stretched to Twelfth Night, the cake continued to be served, and that tradition stretched into Carnival season. In the U.S., the bean began to be used on Twelfth Night to designate who would be the Queen of the Ball for Mardi Gras. Over time, the bean (or sometimes a coin) was replaced by a small ceramic or plastic baby. In the last 50 years, a tradition developed in which neighborhood parties were held every weekend from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, and whoever got the baby would bake the King Cake for the next party. Photograph by Flickr user Logan Brown.

This is just a short overview of some pre-Lenten treats from different places. The list of traditional foods goes on and on. Which are your favorite treats?

See also: 7 Carnivals Around the World, Parade Time in New Orleans, and Happy Pancake Day!

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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