General -

Just in case you want to read ’em all.

Thought I’d expired, eh? Well, you’d be wrong. I’ve just been running around, ice skating and carousing instead of updating the ol’ blog. I’ll try to be better next time!

This is a bit of an unusual dish, since I’m not even sure exactly how it’s supposed to taste! I suppose I’ll just wait till it’s done and see, but there’s nothing to over/under-cook, and what is there is pretty tasty by itself.

So we begin with our ingredients:

Whew that’s a lot of software! Nuts, dried fruits like figs and apricots, and four different kinds of seeds. Oh, as a side note, do you know how hard it is to find Anise Seeds in the middle of Oklahoma?? Not easy, let me tell you. It took three stores, including one where an employee on the phone blatantly lied to me and assured me they had them… Then when I arrived told me they had Fennel Seeds, which “were the same thing.” Under almost any other circumstance I’d probably have just gone with his assurance, except that my recipe called for BOTH Fennel Seeds AND Anise Seeds. So if there’s not distinction, why include both? Heck, why SELL both? Eh, third time/supermarket’s a charm, and I returned home triumphant.

So the nuts and fruits go into the food processor, and:

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have processed them until they became a big, fat ball, but I learned another important lesson along the way… If you’re using figs, be sure to remove the pits! They’re seed-shaped and hard as rocks, and more importantly not friendly to food processors! I didn’t destroy my precious Cuisinart, but the chopping blade definitely had several fig pits rather comically embedded into it. Poor guy, he tried his darnedest!!

Before mixing up the nuts with the seeds and sugar, be sure to toast the seeds on the stove briefly to wake up the essential oils. It doesn’t take long, and will fill your kitchen with aromatic goodness:

Mmmm, hard-found Anise Seeds!

Finally, put all the ingredients in a big bowl with some honey, mash it around for a bit, and use a little mechanical scoopy to put onto a cookie sheet:

One note I’d make at this point is, if your dried fruits are of especially high quality, as mine were (no, I’m not bragging, I was actually gifted a huge plate of Harry & David dried fruits by a client), they’re going to be juicy. Combined with some honey and you have a sticky sticky mixture in that bowl. Now, I’m not say you absolutely MUST have a spring-loaded mechanical scooper like I have above, but it can get gooey things onto the sheet far more effectively. I could only imagine trying to do this with a spoon or non-mechanical scoop and it would have been a HUGE pain.

Ultimately, here was the result:

Not 100% perfect, but absolutely serviceable little sugarplums. Now they shall dry for a bit (probably overnight), then rolled in some coarse sugar for a finishing touch.

Woo, am I beat. This has been one heck of a day, and TOMORROW is Christmas Eve! I’m going to need to start early and get that oven firing. Oh, you haven’t seen anything of the Eggnog, as I promised, but it’s not because I slacked. It got separated and beat a bit, but needed to cool, but I figure I’ll beat the egg whites into the mixture tomorrow (and give the requisite post then). I did swing by the ol’ megamart for replacement ingredients after my cocktail sauce mishap from before and got it into the processor, and here was the result:

So 3 1/2 of 8 dishes down. Not too bad for one day, all things considered. But now it’s almost 2 AM and I’ve got another long day tomorrow, so all’s well that ends well. Allez cuisine!

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Unlike the cocktail sauce, creme brulee is much more hardware heavy than software heavy (though with all that cream, the software’s pretty heavy too). Lots of ramekins, pans for the oven, pot for the stove, this is the kind of cooking I enjoy!

First thing to do is infuse the cream with vanilla flavor. Some people just use vanilla extract, but using the actual vanilla bean gives a much better flavor, in my opinion. These beans are the first I’ve ever gotten over the Internet ( if you’re interested, and they’re awesome), Mexican vanilla beans that are supposed to be awesome.

But you don’t just throw the beans. You have to strip them of their pulp to get all the flavor:

Just cut them down the center, split them, then run the knife along perpendicular, scraping out the insides. The pulp and the insides then go into a pot filled with all the cream:

Next, put the cream on the stove and bring it to a boil. Meanwhile, to the eggs. I’m only using egg yolks for the creme brulee, 12 of them to be exact, and separating eggs can be tricky. As you can see below, I’m using the “three bowl method” for separating them: you open one egg into an egg separator (or in my case, a slotted spoon) over a small bowl and separate the whites from the yolks. When it’s done, if you didn’t break the yolk, put the yolk in bowl #2 and the white in bowl #3. That way if the yolk breaks, it doesn’t contaminate your whole set of whites.

Once that’s done (I lost 2 eggs in the process, btw. Always have extras.)…. OH! And be careful! If you don’t pay a decent amount of attention to the cream, it can boil over:

Okay, so, I made a bit of a mess (and lost about 1 ramekin’s worth of cream in the process), but I stayed on track, tempered the cream into the eggs with some sugar, and got them into their final resting places before sending them into the oven.

Now into the oven for 40 minutes or so, then into the fridge to cool. When cooled, I’ll cover them up so they don’t absorb any other fridge flavors, and there they’ll sit till tomorrow night. Sadly, it won’t be until then when I melt the sugar on top of them with my cool blowtorch, so there may or may not be pictures. But okay.

See, why can’t people just let me cook all day? Life intervenes, and thus the liveblogging. I now have to run across town and back, then back again later tonight (by which time I had hoped to be done with cooking) to go ice skating and make merry. Sheesh, I hope I do hope I get everything done by then so I’m not up late tonight getting stuff done. And I do NOT want to put anything MORE off till tomorrow if today is any indication!

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Well, this has started out well………..


So I had my mise en place assembled:

He was just checking out the chili sauce. No worries, he didn’t touch it.

But so, everything looks good, right? Simplest thing I’m going to make, just stick it in a food processor and WHAMO! But you see that little golden liquid off the left? Yeah, that would be olive oil. Why am I putting olive oil in cocktail sauce? I don’t know either! But my carefully assembled recipe says to!

It all goes into the food processor, and like I said, WHAMO:

Eh, it LOOKS pretty good, but what you can’t see is the good oily film every bit of it has. I should have taken another pic of it running off my finger like…. well like oil! Upon further investigation, apparently in my desire to be uber-organized with all the recipes and ingredients (for shopping as well as assembly), 2 tablespoons of olive oil made it onto the cocktail sauce recipe even though it wasn’t supposed to.

Now what? Well, fortunately this recipe was the simplest to make, so I’ll just go out and buy the 2 ingredients that this batch ran me out of and make it again, probably later tonight or tomorrow. Now however, on to the creme brulee!

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So I’ve been increasing my cooking skill like a mad man over the past few months, and I have to say I’m getting pretty comfortable in the kitchen. I’m perfecting my steak au poivre, I brined and roasted my first turkey(s), and I even had the guts to assemble a baklava yesterday (eh… not a good demonstration of skill). So when my family began planning the big Christmas Eve celebration, I asked what I should bring. The grandmother is doing chicken, the uncle is doing ribs, various appetizers and side dishes are already in the works, as well as some frozen pies for dessert. So what’s there for me??

Dessert, they said. But that’s only the beginning, said I!!

So after much experimentation and testing the waters on the appeal of both simple and complex dishes, I’ve settled myself on EIGHT different things to make over the course of the next two days. Here’s where it will all take place:

And here’s what’s on the menu:

Appetizer :Chili Horseradish Cocktail Sauce
Snack :Sugarplums
Aperitif :Hot Wassail
Side Dish :Sweet Corn Bread Pudding
Indulgent Dessert :Vanilla Crème Brulee
Chocolate Lover’s Dessert :Chocolate Lava Muffins
Fat-Free Dessert :Angel Food Cake
After Dinner Drink :Bourbon Eggnog

Really, it’s not as insane as it sounds. But yeah… it’s a bit insane.

Anywho! Today is Day 1, which will consist of four dishes that will survive to tomorrow evening without problems. That means cocktail sauce, sugarplums, creme brulee, and eggnog. Day 2 will be the dishes best made the day of, wassail, bread pudding, muffins and angel food cake. Hmm, lots of baking on Day 2…

And to add a little more chaos to the mix, I’m going to in some fashion liveblog the whole thing, posting pics and any interesting things that happen as best I can. So from here, I’m headed to the kitchen to knock out that cocktail sauce!

Oh, and a picture of my cool magnetic knife bar, just because:

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A friend of mine once told me, “When you find a game you really love, you don’t even think twice about buying downloadable content for it.” Just the possibility of returning to the fantasy that once held you so tightly is enough. I myself have actually never purchased any DLC short of the occasional Rock Band track; no game in the current, network-friendly generation has made me care enough to invest any more for couple new bite sized nuggets. At least, that was until I played Valkyria Chronicles.

As did the vast majority of gamers out there, it seems, I passed over Valkyria Chronicles when it was released on the PS3 last November. It was another Japanese RPG whose name bore too close a resemblance to another, lackluster JRPG and was forgotten before it was even given a chance. What a huge mistake, because without a doubt, Valkyria Chronicles features some damn unique and nostalgic gameplay, and perhaps one of the most well-written, truly mature stories I have ever experienced in the guise of a “game.”

Nuts and bolts time. Did you ever play X-COM: UFO Defense released on the PC in the early ’90s? It was a squad focused, turn-based tactics game that inserted your customized band of soldiers into a variety of combat scenarios, while in between missions you’d collect alien technology, research upgrades, and further refine your troops. For me, my lasting memories of X-COM were the infinite and personal stories I inadvertently created along the way — three men are down and only Stark’s left alive in the building. Her rifle is empty and she has a pistol and a few grenades, yet she somehow flanks the enemy tank and saves the day all by herself! But here’s the best part: that was actually a Valkyria Chronicles anecdote, not X-COM. Although not randomly generated like Mythos’ alien war game, Sega’s 2008 version gives you the same adrenaline high of success, with a few new wrinkles thrown into the mix (an overhead tactical viewpoint, the ability to issue status-changing orders and to call for reinforcements, to name just a few). This Japanese take on a Western classic is not quite perfect, I won’t lie to you. The AI can be as dumb as a box of rocks and their snipers sometimes seem to find their marks waaay too frequently, but this similarity of gameplay just scratches the surface.

Each new hardware cycle, game developers have increasingly powerful hardware at their disposals, most of which is then used to create what appears on the screen. However, as Western developers seem use new hardware to pursue ever more graphic violence and realistic graphics, many Japanese developers (with some notable exceptions) for better or worse are using it to become more stylized, more like fantasy and storybook. Such is the visual design of Valkyria Chronicles, which looks like the gorgeous lovechild of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime and recent games like Eternal Sonata. It succeeds in being both subtle and expressive in its watercolor pastiche, though its style may have erroneously contributed to many an American gamer passing it by. Unlike many games these days, which leave me declaring that Wow, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen graphics this good before!, Valkyria Chronicles’ just work. It’s not that they are unimpressive, they are a purely integrated element of the whole piece, and not once did I find myself either disappointed or disconnecting the visual elements from the rest of the game to say aloud, “Now that’s awesome.” And in some ways, that is in itself pretty impressive in my mind.

Most significantly in Valkyria Chronicles, however, is the story it tells. Now, I’ll admit, I am a sucker for emotion, and enjoy letting my own feelings ride with the tale, so perhaps I am more susceptible than others to investing myself in a good saga. But it’s a negative as well, because of how jarringly I am pulled back to reality when the plotlines reveal their shortcomings. Villains exist with no purpose besides destroying the world; protagonists start out small, then begin charging headlong into danger and emerging without a scratch (because, you know, they’re the heroes). And as is often the case with Japanese anime RPGs detested by many, those heroes are fourteen years old with a couple other plucky teenage sidekicks, lots of giggles, and way more smiles than their situations should allow. These things absolutely kill a game for me; usually I lay them aside one day and never touch them again.

I didn’t do that with Valkyria Chronicles. It tells a serious story of war designed with more than a few striking parallels to World War II. There was a sense of brow-raising irony for me through much of the game that it would include concentration camps and extermination, analogues of good and evil to the Axis and Allied Powers and even nuclear weapons, given that just two generations ago such a story written in Japan would have likely had a very different perspective. The historical scope and thematic sobriety alone, while tinged with slight elements of fantasy, would make this an impressive narrative for a game, but it would not have left any real impact without the quality of its delivery. Every character is voiced realistically and with sincerity. When Lt. Welkin Gunther, the protagonist, cries out and leads a desperate charge, you feel his resolve, and you know there’s more behind the moment than “another battle for Squad 7,” because you’ve seen his uncertainty as a young commander and the people he cares for that his mistakes, your mistakes, stand to lose. See, like the old X-COM, characters in Valkyria Chronicles can die permanently if they fall on the battlefield, and those infinite and personal stories don’t always have happy endings. Good people die in war, X-COM got that part right, but without the emotions and personal struggles behind the characters — a contextual narrative of the kind found in Valkyria Chronicles — a fallen comrade becomes just another empty slot in your roster to be filled.

The mere fact that a videogame can have me saying those kinds of things should convince you somewhat of its maturity. I can’t promise the experience would be the same for you, nor is it the best in any one category that the medium has to offer. The “videogames as art” debate is a silly one, but at its heart is a question about a game’s ability to be more than a plaything. Can it make you stop and think about the horrors of war, or have fun and be entertained in ways beyond a psychologically conditioned dopamine rush to the brain?

I know one game that did for me, and it’s DLC comes out later today.

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I’ve been studying to take the Oklahoma Bar Exam recently (test next Tuesday, wish me luck!), reviewing the generally accepted standards of agency law, and I now have a newfound respect for the instructions that the organizers of the Game Developers Conference volunteer worker program (otherwise known as Conference Associates, or CAs) give every year about not doing anything untoward either while on or off duty with your organization-issued t-shirt on.

As one of the organizers, Ian, made clear recently in an e-mail discussion, “CAs are perceived to represent GDC but are not affiliated with UBM which as we can imagine, makes UBM nervous.” Damn, I’d be nervous too! Under general agency principles, anyone (even minors) held out as acting with the apparent authority of a principle (UBM in this case) can create both contract and tort liability for things that they do within the scope of the employment. If what you’re doing is in furtherance of a principle’s business (such as, say, denying someone with the wrong badge access to a session), the principle can even be liable for an agent’s INTENTIONAL TORTS. (For those that don’t know, intentional torts are the civil law version of things like assault, battery, and false imprisonment)

Not that anyone volunteering should need reminding of all this, but I was just amazed at the universe of legal consequences that UBM is embracing when they authorize Tim and Ian to hand you a brightly colored shirt. So when they tell us, “do NOT touch an attendee, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES,” keep in mind just how seriously they mean it. Even if something questionable we do is ultimately held by a court to be okay, people these days love to sue and even borderline cases could cause a world of hurt (and $$$) for the people that make the conference possible.

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Tonight is the night before the election, which seems like the longest and most deeply divided in modern history. To even call it an election “season” is a bit imprecise — people were discussing Hillary Clinton and other candidates nearly two years ago. But tomorrow it all comes to an end, and we’ll need to decide what to do afterwards.

Every presidential election is different — new candidates, new voters, new issues on which we all feel passionately. Yet some things always seem to stay the same. Baseless personal attacks. Hype for debates that turn out to be snoozers. Charges of voter fraud and intimidation fired in both directions. Here’s one positive custom we also usually see: at the end of the night, the runner-up for president makes a private concession to his rival, followed by a public congratulations and appeal to his supporters to accept their new leader. It’s an often ignored practice these days, but the message behind it is one we should all consider as we go into Tuesday, before we know which role our candidate will be playing.

This is not a partisan message because its point is equally valid no matter who wins. After tomorrow, the next President of the United States will be chosen (we pray). For half of the voters, it will be a moment for celebration and victory and hope for the future. That shouldn’t be taken away from them. For the other half, the evening will end in defeat, sadness, and even resentment at the other party’s jubilation. Years of work and struggle, bitterer and angrier than I’ve ever seen, will come to a sudden, thundering halt like a car speeding into the side of a concrete building.

We should leave the anger and bitterness there as well.

Americans will not wake up two days from now miraculously changed people. There will still be political and ideological divisions, we’ll still fight for our causes, and that’s okay. Our country was founded with the very notion of disagreement in mind; it’s written into our First Amendment. After tomorrow night, half of the country will be unhappy with the outcome, but it’s what they do the following day that really matters. Swallow the anger, look past the divisions, and accept the man who will be our next President. You can’t change it now. But you can help bring this country back together and face the global and economic challenges as one nation, united.

To the winners, be happy. Celebrate your historic achievement, you’ve earned it. Don’t gloat; you are as instrumental to mending our nation as the other side. Your candidate is now the President-elect, and your tone going forward will set the tone for the whole country. Bipartisanship, reaching across party lines, healing the divide — it all begins with you, and it starts the day after tomorrow.

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More than any other Democrat-leaning entity, Saturday Night Live deserves much of the credit for defanging McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin. In the weeks since her elevation to the public stage, SNL has drawn record audiences through its hilarious and deceptively accurate parodies of the Alaska governor, and if polling data on McCain’s VP is right, its underlying message is paying off in spades.

As partisan as any side’s campaign ad, the SNL skits have succeeded in lowering the nation’s overall perception of Palin, but the brilliance comes from how it’s done rather than the message itself. Every time Tina Fey has bunned her hair and adopted a Northern accent to play Palin, the comedic point hammered home to viewers is the dual themes of building up one aspect of the candidate (her looks and affect) to satirical heights and simultaneously savagely distorting another (her intelligence and ability to answer a question). Not coincidentally, the former has no bearing whatsoever on Palin’s fitness for office, while the latter cuts to the core of it. When the McCain campaign first broke the news of Palin’s selection following the Democratic National Convention, Americans had nearly as many questions about “who was Sarah Palin” as they did about Barack Obama. Into this informational vacuum stepped an eager and partisan Saturday Night Live, and by focusing on Palin’s beauty as much as her inexperience, audiences bought NBC’s message far more than if the show had come across as simply disparaging her. This is evident when you compare SNL’s mockery of Sarah Palin to the similarly brutal, but far less effective, hatchetry it uses to take down John McCain. No attempt is made to disguise the show’s intentions, painting the GOP candidate as old, out of touch, cronyistic, and in this latest sketch following the third presidential debate, actually insane. But rather than maintaining an insidious balance between Sarah Palin’s looks and brains, the only counterpoint to McCain that audiences see is a cool-headed Barack Obama look-alike, realistically impersonated more than parodied, especially in comparison to its circus clown rendition of McCain. This makes for an obvious partisan message — both portrayals have probably wormed their dubious messages into the national consciousness, but Tina Fey’s Palin has actually become a sensation!

All this should make for an interesting encounter this weekend, when the real Sarah Palin is set to make a guest appearance on the show. Her presence will make it more difficult for the show to pigeonhole her, but don’t expect them not to try. The reason SNL’s parody worked so well is that it attacked her in ways that count, without making it look like the show was on the warpath. Smart as the real Palin is, NBC could still make her look like a fool by simply pulling the rug out from under her when the show goes live, ask her some questions that weren’t in the script, rehearse things one way and change them up at showtime. This might work, but it also risks spoiling the illusion of Fey’s parody, and the last thing they want McCain’s running mate to garner is sympathy.

That being said, Sarah Palin will be entering a real den of wolves on Oct. 18, filled with professional’s whose entire livelihood is in wearing a mask other than their own. Even if NBC should wisely decide against publicly humiliating her, mark my words come this Saturday: SNL’s goal will be to make Sarah Palin’s appearance hugely successful and not overtly partisan in the slightest, but in a way that also dovetails ever so slightly with the Palin that Tina Fey has been introducing us to for past six weeks.

Update: DAMN, was I wrong. It wasn’t funny in the slightest! Interesting though that Josh Brolin, star of “W”, hosted the show that night and followed up Palin’s sketch with a non-stop “comedy” rant against Bush and McCain.

Prediction: The election’s already over.

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I’m glad Sony’s finally catching up to where Microsoft was years ago (no, I’m not an Xbox fanboy, though I own both systems), but between the need for every game maker to patch Trophies into their games and the decidedly mixed bag I’m reading about things like in-game music functionality, I can’t say I’m eager to run off and load up Sony’s servers.

As a general thing, I’m not one to prefer a corporate mandated system for my gaming (i.e., MS requires in-game music functionailty, Achievements, etc., for developers to make a game for them), and I don’t play any console game online enough to make an Xbox Live Gold account worth my money, but there is something to be said for the Xbox approach — it works. There’s no wondering if your new game will support Achievements, or whether I can choose to listen to my own music (God help me if Eye of Judgment doesn’t support it!). I love free multiplayer when the urge strikes, and overall I think the PS3 has more potential and power as a system, but I can’t say this massive (but still not quite there) catch-up attempt by Sony has me rushing to the Power button…

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While I’d love as many as possible to read my little rant, I cannot emphasize more strongly to anyone that has not yet completed Metal Gear Solid 4 in its entirety, or who do not otherwise wish to hear discussion of the game’s ending and plot details, that this editorial contains serious spoilers on all aspects of the game. Please refrain from reading any further if there is anything you would be upset about having revealed about MGS4. If you choose to keep reading anyway, consider yourself warned!

“I initially decided to write this rant (and it began as a rant) during the final hours of the game. My critical thoughts on the title reached a frustrated climax…

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