Part-time Passions: March 2011

The members featured this month spend their free time baking artisan breads and turning scraps into art

7 March 2011

Kevin Fu
Bringing In the Dough

IEEE Member Kevin Fu's hobby began with an offhand remark that led to a delicious obsession.

In his MIT graduate school days in the late 1990s, Fu was not known for his cooking skills. In fact, he once bragged to a friend when he made a simple lunch. "Hey, I made my own sandwich!" he said. "Oh yeah?" his friend retorted, "Did you make the bread, too?"

sinan Profession:
COMPUTER SCIENCE PROFESSOR
Hometown:
AMHERST, MASS.

"I took that as a dare," Fu says, "and decided to learn how to bake bread." Shortly after, he bought some bread-making basics: a bowl, a mixer, a wicker banneton (a basket that helps rising bread maintain its shape), and a cookbook. Fu's kitchen soon doubled as a culinary lab, and fellow students became his tasters. "After a while, my apartment began to smell like a distillery from the continuous fermentation of dough," he says. "I'd wake up at 3 a.m. to turn the dough, and soon I developed a sleep pattern that fit with the fermentation schedule. It probably delayed the completion of my thesis."

Fast-forward a decade or so, and Fu, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has become quite the artisan baker. Artisan bread making involves creating homemade loaves with just a few old-fashioned ingredients (a store-bought loaf might have nearly 20, including preservatives), like flour, water, yeast, and salt. It also involves experimenting with different baking methods. For example, allowing the dough to rise overnight (from the fermenting yeast) at cool temperatures produces a feisty crust with tiny bubbles. "Bread varies according to how and when you combine the ingredients," Fu says. "It all comes down to time, temperature, and technique."

To get just the right ingredients, he has even milled his own flour and planted a small wheat field in his backyard. "My neighbor asked me what was wrong with my lawn," he says. "I was tilling a manicured lawn and planting wheat provided by a local bakery. It would have worked, too, if it weren't for the rabbits. They ate the wheat before we could harvest it."

To perfect his skills, Fu took courses at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., and the French Culinary Institute, in New York City.

He has even had to suffer for his hobby. "My dentist once raised concerns about unusual gum damage," he says, "until I explained that my latest bread experiment had a razor-sharp crust as a result of my forgetting to slice the loaf at a softer, 45-degree angle."

loui Profession:
BIOMEDICAL ENGIREERING PROFESSOR, RETIRED
Hometown:
MIAMI

One man's garbage can be someone else's art. During the last decade, IEEE Life Fellow Peter Tarjan has been gathering bottle caps, golf balls, and plastic hubcaps he finds along the road and transforming them into colorful flowers. In the past year alone, he has made 130 flowers out of the unusual materials. He uses them to decorate flowerpots, his yard, and the rooms of his house.

Tarjan also gives his art to friends, local charities that use it to raise funds, and a nearby high school, which now has 23 hubcap flowers sprouting in its yard.

"Making flowers serves as an antidepressant. When I feel down, I make a few flowers and feel better," says Tarjan, who retired as a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Miami in 2009. "I refer to them as i fiori della strada—Italian for 'the flowers of the road.'"

He finds the pieces for his flowers during weekly speedwalks and jogs and then applies a saw, paint, and screws to fashion his artwork. He has never sold his creations, but one did fetch US $65 at a charity fund-raiser.

Tarjan began by making toys and children's furniture from cast-off wood when his first child was born in 1968. Then it was funny animal sculptures made from coral rocks and debris. The flowers came after he found his first hubcap, figuring it would be good for something.

"At first I didn't quite know what to do with the hubcaps. They sat in the garage for many months before the muse of junk art got hold of me," he says. "Over the years I found ways to trim them with a band saw, sand them, paint them, and decorate them with bottle caps, golf balls, and whatever else made its way into my collection. The flower stems are usually of PVC pipes from discarded sprinkler systems."

His children are grown now, and the toys he made for them have been passed down to his grandchildren. But the flowers keep blooming, filling up the garage and several storage areas in his home. "I guess I'm a bit of a pack rat, but luckily my wife tolerates it," he says, chuckling. "I still have the first flower I ever made."


If you have an interesting hobby you would like to share, e-mail the editors: institute@ieee.org.

Photos: Top: Kevin Fu; Bottom: Peter Vertes

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