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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bread: From Alchemy To Science

I want to abruptly shift gears today, and write about bread. What? I can almost feel the bounce rate on this site increasing, because this post isn't about games or random thoughts that a man with too much time and a fully (well, half) stocked bar is prone to sharing.

I've been able to conquer any recipe or cooking concept that inspires me with the "let's try this, it'll be fun!" feeling that leads to every appliance and utensil being used in the kitchen and producing something that (more times than not) is edible. Sometimes those creations even slightly resemble food that one might enjoy.

The one thing that has managed to elude me is baking - and not the kind where you dump a mix into a bowl or stir together flour and eggs. Cakes, zucchini bread, cheesecakes, and the like - these are all in my monkey-sphere, and can be created at the drop of a hat, when I am so moved. What I'm talking about is baking that involves yeast, precise  measurements, and methods that require patience and a decent amount of labor.
This cheesecake contains almost a full liter of chocolate-espresso liqueur. I made an entire store staff tipsy.

When I was young and learning things in restaurants, the one commonality I picked up from professional chefs is that very few of them enjoyed baking, or would even acquiesce to doing so. Baking for the masses wasn't beneath them, per se, but (as I believe the charter of the Cordon Bleu puts it) a huge pain in the ass.

Every time I've attempted to make a thing that involved yeast (other than beer or soda - I managed to conquer those on the second or third try), it either never rose, partially rose, or ended up in the garbage shortly after things were mixed.

In December, my brother sent me a book, The Kitchen As Laboratory, which (apart from giving insight into molecular cuisine - which is the next fun project on my list) tells the reader exactly why ingredients work the way they do. How exactly does sugar work? How do you make a perfect grilled cheese and what makes it better than any bachelor food you've ever had?  What is the science of bacon?

Over the centuries, our species has stumbled upon some amazing scientific processes, and turned them into rituals, because the end results were great tasting, and sometimes intoxicating. Did we understand the chemical reactions the first time we, as a species, made wine? Probably not. Bread? Odds are against it, but we knew how to combine things ad what motions to make in order for these mysteries to reveal themselves.

Let's call it culinary alchemy.

Back to baking - it's a very precise science. Given my many previous attempts at bread, if this had been an earlier era, my colony of settlers or nomads would have died may times over. That, or I'd learn to "invent" flatbread at spear point.

Luckily, I do not live in such a time, and to help with my adventures in chemistry, I acquired a bread machine (it was also a gift). Cheating? Not in the least. I think of it as a lab station unto itself, in which the compounds are unaffected by outside influences such as ambient temperature, air pressure, experimental noise blasting from my computer, or even the occasional feline house guest. The bread machine I use can create anything up to a 2-pound loaf of bread. I do not know what this means, exactly, I just know that volume-wise (perhaps a more accurate measurement) the results can equal almost two loaves of bread that you'd normally find in the bakery section of your grocery store.

The first thing I learned about using a bread machine, was that while it is a fantastic piece of technology, there are times when one should not follow instructions. The recipes that came with the contraption do, in fact, make a dough - but depending on which recipe is followed to the letter, the results are either crumbly or soupy, neither of which make for bread, but it was almost comforting in a Stockholm sort of way to see that I couldn't make bread even by following the experts' directions.

Where does one turn when the correct information isn't staring you in the face? The Internet! It's full of (mis)information, and if you know how to not deviate form your goal, you can sometimes turn up useful nuggets of knowledge.

After skimming various sites pertaining to bread machines, I found some guidelines and ingredient proportions that actually seemed reasonable. In fact, there is a basic recipe for any bread machine that will allow you to be adventurous:

1.5 Cups of water
3.5 Cups of flour
1 Teaspoon of salt
0.25 Cups oil
3 Tablespoons of sugar
2 Teaspoons of active dry yeast

Note: Many bread recipes will require dry milk, but this is totally a lie.

In the bread machine, add your wet ingredients and salt. On top of that, add your flour, and mace a small indentation where your sugar and yeast will rest (and add them, of course). Close the lid on the machine, and let the magic happen.

The device will pre-heat and mix the ingredients, at which time you should peek in to see if the dough needs more flour or water, depending on its consistency (it should be elastic and pulling away from the edges of the baking pan). Now let it go through the rising, kneading, rising kneading, and (eventually) baking stages.

In about 3-4 hours from when you started this whole process, you should have a warm loaf of fresh bread.

The science!

It really isn't much more impressive than a basic organic chemistry class. When warm water and sugar meet yeast, a party starts. The yeast ferments the sugar and gas is released. If that reaction is happening in flour, the dough created from the entire combination rises. It's an S&M party, with very little of the psychology that's typically involved. The dough rises, gets beaten down, and enjoys it so much that it rises a few more times. Apply heat, let the final product set for a few minutes, slice, ad enjoy!

Now that you have bread, and a new feather in your cap, you might sit down and think to yourself, "Well, I know how to make a boring loaf of bread. What else can I do?"

Sun-dried tomatoes and garlic bread

ANYTHING! (within reason)

The neat thing about that bread recipe is that you can add just about anything, and and up with something that will impress. Just make sure they go in with the wet ingredients before you add the flour, sugar, and yeast. Sun dried tomatoes? Add as many as you'd like! Fresh rosemary or basil? Yes, but those are very strong herbs, so use them in moderation. Minced garlic? Oddly enough, whatever you think is enough garlic triple the amount. (I'm not saying this because of my lifelong love affair with garlic, but because the flavor mellows as it cooks, so it's easy to "lose" a flavor by not adding enough of it.) You can even create a culture so you have your own sourdough starter (another project I hope to accomplish in the near future).

A few words about cheese

It is perfectly fine to add cheeses to your bread mixture, but don't let them outsmart you. The average store-bought cheddar contains a lot of oil, which will result in a soupy dough. This can result in large air bubbles when the yeast starts to rise.

Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, Romano, or any thoroughly aged cheese will add a lot of flavor, while also not making the dough too oily - you just have to add quit a bit of it for the flavor to permeate the entire loaf.

Rosemary and Asiago 

Ingredients to avoid

While a basic dough recipe is a blank canvas, there are certain things that will just kill the yeast when mixed. Anything that's highly acidic and without much sugar content will leave you with a veritable yeast burial ground. Vinegar, low-sugar citrus fruits, and things of that nature would fall into this category. You should also avoid adding meat or things which have too much sugar (some juices, for example), which will just burn on the heating element of the machine.

You just put up a sign that says "Don't walk on the grass." I want to walk on the grass!

Fine. Then let me guide you in your petulance. After the dough it thoroughly mixed and kneaded, but just before the bread machine starts baking the concoction, remove the mixture. Now you have a bit more freedom. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Now you can roll out the dough and turn it into a pizza. Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on the dough, roll it back up, and cut it into small pastries. Use it as a crust on a pot pie. Whatever strikes your fancy! Ball up the dough. Braid it and make an herbed glaze to blush on it as it bakes. Try your hand as becoming the world culinary version of the Plaster Casters. There's a whole world of baking open to you, and limited by only your imagination and science!

When not playing games, writing or reading books, Jonathan can be found in the kitchen - wearing goggles, a lab coat, and laughing maniacally at his creations (and sighing in relief when things don't blow up).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Impire and Dishonored

Before I dive into my review of Paradox Studios' Impire, I need to made an addendum to my last post.

I was remiss in not mentioning Dishonored among the games listed. Dishonored occupied most of my time in December and early January - and with good reason. First, it was a game given to me by a good friend I know via Steam who has great taste in games and usually supports the more independent studios (which added to the surprise of receiving this title). Second, Dishonored is a very unique roleplaying game.

Let me explain.

Over the years, I've experienced RPGs that have open-ended conversations. If you screwed up in a conversation with branching responses, and didn't get the information you needed, you would just approach the character on the screen and go through the whole answer and response show until you got it right. Last year, when I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it was great to see a game that had conversation branches get shut down after you selected a certain response, or if you handled situation with the hammy-est of fists.

In Dishonored, there are still conversational options, but the game is more reactive to actions than platitudes. There's no one way to play Dishonored - which itself is like a cross between V for Vendetta and Batman set in an alternate universe along the Hudson River at the turn of the last century. You can accomplish tasks as a blade-happy cutthroat, or you can take the pacifist's route and leave no one harmed in any way. Of course, most players I've run into find a happy medium. However, if you prefer going all crazy and killing on sight, NPCs are going to react in a way you'd expect them to when someone dripping in blood just pauses to ask a stranger for the time of day. Use discretion, and people won't be any the wiser.

The game goes one step further by shutting down certain options and quests depending on your playing style, leaving plenty of replay value to the game. I cannot recommend Dishonored enough if you like a world that's rich in context, and has some very deep gameplay - if you don't rush. Like many games that come out of Bethesda's publishing house (the game was developed by Arkane), the world-building is well thought out, and very detailed. If you've been looking for a game that reacts to how you play, definitely check out Dishonored.

Conclusion: BUY IT!

***********************************************************

Impire comes from Paradox Studios (Crusader Kings, Magicka, Dungeonland, etc.) and places you in the role of a demon who's been yanked from Hell to the mortal plane to embody an imp - possibly as an error or oversight in your summoner's casting.

Regardless, your summoner seems to have a problem with the do-gooders of the world, and has put you in charge of bringing about suffering and ruination. This could be fun!

At first blush, you may be expecting this:
Empowering AND objectifying!

As you contemplate your wallet, however, you may be reminded of games like this...


...and decide to just sit this one out.

If you liked Dungeon Keeper, and remember it for the awesome facets of the game, then anything made in that vein is going to make you think it's a weak contender for the throne. If you play something that takes the concept of Dungeon Keeper in a new direction, then your thinking might fall along the lines of "This is too different. They should have just made Dungeon Keeper." If you're cynical enough to be prone to this, then just load up Dungeon Keeper and be happy.

You will never be this happy again.

Now that you've been introduced to my straw man (I built him myself, just a paragraph ago), let me tell you about Paradox Studios' new game, Impire.

It's fun. In addition to managing resources, minions, and exploring the depths of a dungeon, Impire also has a management mode, which is great for those who want to run the game a la Supreme Commander, without zooming the camera around to see what's going on everywhere.
HAHAHAHA It's funny because it made a reference!

There are also side quests and objectives that require you to take squads of minions (you can organize your troops and promote them) and raid overworld locations (such as other villages, ballet schools, stables, etc.). I'm only a few campaign missions into Impire, and there doesn't seem to be much depth to the overworld raids - however, I do like being able to influence the game world more than by simply killing Lord Dovetonsils when he invades my dungeon.

Below the earth, there is a great deal to be done. Minions and rooms can be researched; there is crafting; creature and spell evolution; and even the titular imp, Baal-Abaddon, and grow into the the fierce and imposing demon he was before getting yanked to the mortal plane.
I am not one of the cool kids, so watch a video not made by me.

As far as game mechanics go, Impire takes advantage of the Management Screen (mentioned above), as well as action menu wheels which come up when you right-click on a creature or room. This makes setting destinations, casting spells, teleporting, repairing, converting food to building resources, and anything else, so much easier than...ahem...older games.
Managing things from above to spread destruction from below.

The downside is that the game crashes occasionally when you tell minions to do things, like dig tunnels - which is quite integral to the game (the digging, not the crashing) - However, I'm sure Paradox will fix this very shortly, because if one person's getting the error (and not intentionally trying to break the game), odds are pretty good that more people are experiencing similar issues. One error aside, Impire is a great resource management game that lets you be as evil as you want. Be a hoarder. Be an explorer. Be bad. It's fun!
Never ask a question if you don't want a response.
Ultimately, I'm having a lot of fun with Impire, and probably will for may, MANY hours. For $20 (USD), Impire is worth the investment, so long as you're looking for a solid game that doesn't pretend to recapture nostalgia and cram it down your throat - but it also avoids a lot of the traps and pitfalls that Dungeon Keeper imitators fell into over the years.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Behind The Times Gaming


Here we are, in the second month of 2013, and I've not posted a single thing in...a long time. A lot has happened in that time, and I'm still deciding on which things are actually relevant to this blog. There was a big trip to Disney World (relevant, and I'm almost done organizing the noted to write about that experience); contract work (not particularly relevant to this blog nor terribly interesting); lots of baking (including one cake that that made me tipsy after one slice); holidays (too late to be relevant); DIY house projects (possibly relevant); book reading (definitely relevant); and lots of gaming (always relevant).

Looking back, I last left off shortly after Retro City Rampage was unleashed on the masses – much to the joy of nerds who like old gaming “in-jokes,” and much to the chagrin of anyone who wanted to play a game for an hour without getting bored. It's a good game, and rather fun, just for short periods.

Since then there have been a ton of game releases, the yearly Steam Holiday Sale, and even some great deals from Amazon. If you're looking for previews of upcoming games, look elsewhere. This is Behind The Times Gaming, where you will read brief reviews of games I've been playing for months (well since last November, at any rate), and couldn't be arsed to write about out of sheer I-don't-give-a-damnery.

Payday: The Heist

Get together with friends. Rob banks, take hostages, and avoid local and federal authorities. After refusing to play with others since the days of Quake II, this game made me realize how much fun it is to actually play with others to cooperative reach a common goal.


Blades of Time

For the love of everything you enjoy, do not get this game. I'm not just telling you avoid buying it, to not acquire it under any circumstances. It's like playing the movie Sucker Punch but without any of that story baggage to dag it down. Add to that terrible voice acting, horrible mechanics, and zero sense of world building, and...well, you pretty much are left with Sucker Punch: The Game.


Borderlands (the first one)

It's an FPS! It's got Diablo-esque looting! Tons of weapons! Heavy nods to the Mad Max movie franchise! Plus great art design and simple mechanics! There's nothing to hate about this game!


Mark of the Ninja

Do you remember Ninja Gaiden on the NES? Mark of the Ninja is that games modern, fun-loving relative who doesn't believe in unforgiving physics.


Ace of Spades

This seems like the voxel version of Team Fortress 2. I took a risk on this one, and wound up fairly disappointed. I'm just not seeing the charm.


Deadlight

It tells a story of a zombie-infested world. Visually, I enjoy this game, however “always be running” is not the most appealing format.


Droid Assault

I would call this a spiritual successor to the old Robotron 2084 arcade game. I like the visuals, the music, and the frenetically-paced levels. Kill everything!


Party of Sin

This game had a very promising concept: As the Seven Deadly Sins you must fight through Hell. The major drawback is in switching between characters, which cannot be done as simply as tapping a shoulder button on a controller. This tends to halt what would otherwise be a fun platformer.


King's Bounty: War of the North

Sort of a cross between Heroes of Might & Magic, Neverwinter Nights, and Warcraft 3. I've been having quite a bit of fun with this strategy game.


Endless Space

Do you like grand strategy? Do you miss games like Starflight? Do you like outer space? Do you want a game where the developers stay very involved and fix problems to deliver the most enjoyable experience to the players? You owe it to yourself to get this game and set aside (at least) one evening to lose yourself in its extremely deep gameplay.


Risen 2

Do you like pirates? Do you like role-playing? Do you like open-world games like GTA, but wish for something that wasn't in a modern city? Apart from being poorly optimized and the VERY janky mechanics (and stilted conversations), Risen 2 is...okay. (To be fair, I was spoiled on fighting mechanics by the time I started playing this, but I will get to that a little later.)


Sleeping Dogs

Over the past two years, I've come to enjoy non-Rockstar open world games, and Sleeping Dogs may rank at the top of my list. Set in Hong Kong this game is beautiful and full of action – from hand-to-hand combat, to high speed chases, to...karaoke. Taking cues from anything Chow Yun Fat starred in prior to 1998, Sleeping Dogs will gladly indulge your every violent whim (and desire for some sweet, sweet karaoke). You must own this.


DOTA 2

Defenders of the Ancients 2, or DOTA 2, is a multiplayer on-line battle arena game, akin to League of Legends. (I can hear the rebuttals from players of each title starting to rise, and having played both, I can safely say if you distill both, they are very much the same.) I can see the appeal, and with the proliferation of invitations, I think even the neighbor's cat plays this game. However, after a few hours, I can safely say this game is not for me...yet.


Half Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax Ultimate Boy

If you've enjoyed RPGs from the late 1980s and beyond, then you will probably enjoy how this game breaks down the experience into its elemental parts (exploring, fighting, talking, gaining experience, etc.) and then tosses a time limit on top of everything. The game is frantic, very enjoyable, and a great way to kill a few minutes if you don't have hours to invest into a larger game full of cutscenes and useless tutorials.


Rochard

It took a while for me to pick this one up, but the game felt like it could have been straight out of Heavy Metal. Platforming, puzzles, space pirates, and space truckers. Definitely worth $5.


Anno 2070

The last few iterations of Sim City left me cold. As such, I've shied away from any city building games for a few years now. When SA Goon and Steam buddy Kragger99 gave me this as a present for the holidays, I loaded it up, opened a nice cold beer, and sat down to play. Past the basic tutorial and very well-thought out skill trees, Anno 2070 has such deep gameplay that – 9 hours after I started – I realized the day had flown by, my beer (the one I'd opened right before I started playing) was still full and now warm, and I needed to shave. Since then, I've put many hours into Anno 2070. If you like city simulation and strategy games, get this – but only if you're willing to sacrifice any contact with the outside world.


Iron Brigade

Another fun co-op game from the folks at Double Fine (Stacking, Psychonauts, etc.). Playing this as a single-player game is not entirely disappointing, and playing with a friend is even more fun. Just when you think the game is starting to get too predictable (close to the end of the first chapter), the game throws you a twist and you look at the game with renewed interest. The only major drawback to playing this (single or multiplayer) is not being able to skip the cutscenes – even on missions you've already played.


Scribblenauts Unlimited

My first exposure to Scribblenauts was for the Nintendo DS. It was a quirky game in which I had to think of ways to solve puzzles or fight battles by using words. Scribblenauts Unlimited is really no different in concept, except it has a much larger world and equally larger vocabulary. It's a very fun casual game.


10,000,000

I never played this before its release on Steam (gaming, for me, is really tied to unlocking achievements, these days). It's a match-3 (or more) like Bejeweled, but there's a twist (because there has to be). You must kill monsters, upgrade weapons, research potions, and lots of other things on the top third of the screen. You do this by matching combinations of tiles on the bottom two-thirds. I'm sure you'll find a lot of mixed reviews, but for a game to play simply to pass time, 10 Million was a lot of fun.


Binary Domain

Another great gift from an SA Forums Goon. Binary Domain could easily accompany The Second Renaissance from The Animatrix. Humans take on robots in this duck and cover shooter. If anything, you need to play this game to hear the lines from one of your teammates, Big Bo.


LEGO Lord of the Rings

A fun game (as the LEGO games usually are) with a large open-world map and tons of things to discover. The initial play through is quite linear, but with all the humor that the LEGO team brings to the table and the convention of an epic story told through tiny bricks, LEGO LOTR is great for casual stints as well as long gaming sessions. The only drawback was that when I finished the game, I found myself wanting to play Lord of the Rings Online to continue my LOTR gaming fix.


Wizardry Online

If you've ever played any of the older Wizardry games and liked what made them unique, then Wizardry Online is not for you. It looks like a generic MMORPG, and is just tedious (provided the servers aren't bogged down). All of the lore is gone. All the colors (except shades of brown) are gone (presumably to take up residence in interesting games), and the sense of fun is (I'm guessing) a premium download for platinum subscribers...or something. Anyway, Wizardry Online is not worth the time or hard drive space.


Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition

Back in 2010, a good friend introduced me to Demons Souls. I played for a while, met the first monster, and died. I stared at the screen, caught somewhere between wanting to smash the television and curling up in the fetal position. Dark Souls is no different. Unlike many difficult games that simply don't enjoy being played, Dark Souls is very happy to have you enter its world, and relishes every single opportunity to leave your corpse on the ground. This is not a game you rush through. The game punishes stupidity and impatience. The game mechanics are fantastic and the visuals are beautiful. You are thrust into a world where you are constantly learning and discovering new things (or perhaps this is because I didn't bother to read the instructions), and it pays to tread lightly and go over old ground to see if anything new has revealed itself. Remember then I mentioned earlier that I can't really jump into games where the main character has to fight other people/monsters because I'd been spoiled by combat mechanics in another game? Dark Souls is the game that spoiled me.


Whew! A lot of games up there, and looking at the 2013 line-up, there are even more to come. As I get caught up on my own backlog, I'll probably review individual games at length, rather than hit the reader(s) with a bunch of quick reviews.

In the meantime, if you want to get the scoop on the latest releases, without hearing the same lines that other reviewers are spewing, check out Shot Gaming for concise and funny reviews - and subscribe to their YouTube Channel!


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