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A Dozen Easter Delicacies From Around the Globe

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The 40 days of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter can feel like an endless penance when observers give up meat, sweets, swearing, and other cherished vices. But as the Lenten season winds down, nearly every Easter-celebrating culture fires up the oven to break the humble-foods fast in the most sugar-filled, carb-loaded ways possible. What more could you ask for?


Hot cross buns aren’t just the subject of a childhood rhyme—they’re spongy, fruity pastries that have been around for hundreds of years. The origin of the buns is unknown, with hypotheses ranging from the Ancient Romans and Saxons to 14th century monks. The earliest citation for the name hot cross bun in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Poor Robin's, a 1733 almanac that says "Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny, hot cross Bunns [sic]." The phrase "hot cross buns" must be older than 1733 because of the familiarity the wording seems to assume the reader will have, but it's not clear when exactly these spiced buns—filled with currants or other fruit and topped with cross-shaped cuts or icing—were first invented, and there's some confusion on when they should be eaten, too.

In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I's Clerk of the Market issued a decree saying that "no baker or other persons shall at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the queen's subjects, any spice cakes, buns, bisket [sic], or other spice bread … except it be at burials, or upon the Friday before Easter, or at Christmas." But that didn’t stop people from baking them at home—in which case, caught offenders had to hand over their baked goods to the poor. Plus, hot cross bun superstition makes these pastries extra desirable; it’s believed that hanging a bun baked on Good Friday from your kitchen ceiling will protect your home from bad spirits and prevent kitchen fires.


When a traditional dish has been around for centuries, there’s a lot about it that can change. Polish mazurek cakes are no exception and recipe variety means that no two cakes are the same, down to their base, which can be made with wafers or dense sponge cake. But, mazureks, also called mazurkas, are identifiable because of their size: they’re usually less than an inch in height and are heavily decorated with jam, nuts, chocolate, fruit, and iced lamb designs. While Easter is a common time of year to nibble these luxury cakes, mazurek also appear at Christmas and other religious holidays, where the cakes are served in square chunks. Food historians aren’t sure when mazureks first appeared, but the dessert was likely inspired by Turkish treats brought through Poland during the Renaissance.


In Germany, many traditional Easter meals feature edible lamb centerpieces called osterlamm. These cake or bread replica lambs are baked in lamb-shaped molds, then decorated with icing or powdered sugar. Osterlamm, which means "Easter lamb," are also popular in other European countries where they are made from butter, complete with peppercorn eyes and realistic fur sculpting.


Not all Easter delicacies are eaten on the day of—some are consumed during the 40 days of Lent prior. In Nicaragua, many Lent observers refraining from meat will make meals of iguana or armadillo instead. Because these animals aren’t considered meat in the way cows or chickens are, they satisfy the religious requirements associated with Lent. While iguanas are regularly eaten in Nicaragua, there’s controversy around harvesting them in the springtime. Iguana breeding season runs September to April, and consumption is banned during this time of year to protect populations.


Easter in Ethiopia is sometimes celebrated several weeks after western churches because of calendar differences. And with that celebration comes the breaking of the meat and dairy fast. In Ethiopia, many families slaughter their own oxen or goats at home and prepare dishes of kitfo—raw meat rubbed in herbed butter—paired with collard greens and fresh cheese called ayib. For those not craving the raw delicacy, a chicken stew called doro wat is also popular.


Like many other countries, Cyprus has its own bread-based Easter dish. Flaounes (also called pilavuna) are pastries filled with eggs, cheese and mint to celebrate the end of Lent. Flaounes often come in square or triangular shapes, and are served with sides of olives, cheese and tomatoes. Flaounes are also baked for Ramadan celebrations.


Babka are sweet breads popular throughout Ukraine, Poland, and other Eastern European countries. These dessert breads are so commonplace at Easter celebrations that they’re sometimes blessed at church events before being shared with friends and family. Traditionally, the requirement for a babka was its size—that it must be taller than wide, and, depending on the country either is more narrow at the top than the bottom or is a cylinder throughout—but modern babkas are often baked in loaf pans or cans after being filled with almond paste, nuts, fruit, or chocolate. As for the name, which means grandmother, it’s not clear if babka get their title from resembling a grandmother’s skirts or because it’s a dessert so good that only a grandma could make it.


Spain's traditional Easter dish has a slightly scandalous backstory. The large meat pies (sometimes shaped as breads) are native to the Salamanca and Avila regions in central Spain. Hornazo are usually stuffed with pork, boiled eggs, and chorizo—foods that cannot be eaten during the 40 days of Lent. Hornazos were traditionally eaten during the Lunes de Aguas festival around the same time as Easter. Prior to the start of Lent, prostitutes in Salamanca would leave the city to avoid distracting men from their religious obligations. As Easter arrived, hornazos would be baked and shared with returning prostitutes to celebrate Lunes de Aguas and the end of Lent.


The capirotadas of Mexico are bread puddings created from old bread, syrup, nuts, and fruit. Sometimes served with cheese or meat, capirotadas are served on Good Friday. The dish dates back to at least the 16th century, and was supposedly banned by a royal decree in 1540 (some people believe it was specifically created as a meat-free Lent meal while others suggest it was a dish non-Catholics could consume while secretly following their religious beliefs during times of persecution). Capirotadas can be traced back to Spain and ancient Rome, where the meals were much different. Instead of a sticky, sweet dessert, early capirotadas were more soup-like and included onions, tomatoes, and other savory ingredients.


Finland’s traditional mämmi dish supposedly tastes like Guinness or a deep stout beer, but that's likely because of all the rye it uses. Mämmi has a thick, porridge-like consistency, made from water, rye flour, and rye malt which sweeten during baking. It’s then served cold with cream and sugar. Mämmi has been eaten in Finland’s southwestern region since the 13th century, and is usually served on Good Friday when observers would hold off on cooking big meals in exchange for simple and cold foods.


Colomba Pasquale (or "Easter Dove") is Italy’s most popular Easter treat. The bird-shaped bread is filled with nuts and orange peels and covered in an icing glaze. Like many Easter delicacies, colomba pasquale has been around for centuries. Two competing legends lay claim to the bread’s origins, the first dating to 572 CE following a three-year siege of the Italian town of Pavia. When the city was captured, conqueror King Alboin demanded 12 maidens as tribute, but one of the women decided to create a bread in the shape of a dove as a peace symbol. Her baking skills impressed the king and he set her free and spared the town. The second story claims colomba pasquale came about following a 1176 victory over the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, where two doves appeared on the battlefield representing the Holy Ghost.


Scotch eggs aren’t necessarily an Easter dish despite the obvious egg imagery. These picnic treats feature a hardboiled egg wrapped in meat, which is then fried, and they have been around since the early 1800s. While originally served warm with gravy, Scotch eggs are now eaten cold and considered a quick snack for busy travelers. But for Easter, some egg fans have taken to making their own version with candy and cake. Cadbury Creme eggs are wrapped in cake and cereal before being fried—which warms the creme center for a sticky, gooey treat. Perfect for a sweet tooth's Easter basket anywhere in the world.

All images via iStock unless otherwise noted.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]