Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Life: Champagne Cake with Lemon Glaze

Ahh, the vagaries of dice in RPGs.  Some session, you might crit every other swing, easily taking down two enemies at a time and successfully rescuing a whole band of captured soldiers.  Other times you spend a whole night trying not to drown in a waterfall.  And sometimes, you forget to draw your sword, roll three critical misses in a row, and fall under the influence of an evil phylactery.

On such nights, my friend, you need cake, and you need it badly.  But not just any cake!  You need a cake with the light bubbliness of hope and a fresh, sharp zing of determination, something that will get you back on your feet and into the fray.  Moreover, you need to be able to make it between rolls.  That skeleton army isn't going to go away on its own, you know.

Champagne Cake with Lemon Glaze

for the cake
-boxed cake mix (white or yellow)
-3 eggs (or per cake mix recipe)
-1/3 c oil (or per cake mix recipe)
-1 c champagne (or per cake mix recipe; you're subbing this in for water)

for the glaze
-2-3 TB fresh or refrigerated lemon juice (fresh is best)
-1 c powdered sugar

Thoroughly grease a bundt pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Beat together the eggs and oil, then gently stir in the champagne.  It may froth up; that's fine.  Add the liquid to the boxed cake mix and beat well with an electric mixer about two minutes.  Pour the batter into the bundt pan and bake 40-45 min. 

When the cake is done (test with a toothpick to make sure it's not gooey inside) set it on a rack - still in the pan - for fifteen minutes to cool, then turn out onto the rack.  Let cool another thirty minutes.

While the cake is cooling, whip up the glaze!  Mix together in a bowl the lemon juice and the powdered sugar.  The amount of lemon juice will determine how tart a glaze you have, so be sure to taste it frequently.  Once the cake has cooled, drizzle the glaze over top of the cake.  Serve to party members to celebrate your victorious triumph or for consolation on your strategic withdrawal.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thursday: Spice and the Corporation

by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

The presence of cloves, nutmeg and mace on your spice rack today is the product of a strange tale of economics, ingenuity and genocide. It traces its origins to the ancient trade routes of Antiquity, the greatness of the Age of Discovery and the beginnings of the modern corporation. If you have five minutes to spare, dear reader, press on to discover a time when one ate her wealth at dinner, the Dutch innovation, and a time when companies were kings.

From the dawn of time to the 19th century nutmeg and mace grew only on Banda Islands in the Maluku archipelago in Indonesia. The entire world’s supply of food spices - worth their weight in gold in Europe - originated from these seventy square miles. The demand for them was constantly high, as stockpiles of the stuff were eaten at lavish dinners for royalty and merchants. For centuries, Indian and Arab merchants controlled the spice trade until the Portuguese and Spanish explorers discovered new ways to arrive at the exotic ports of Socotra, Goa, Calicut and Malacca.

While the Iberians were off galavanting around the world, the Dutch, at the time a province of Spain, revolted in favor of establishing a Protestant republic. To further their aims during the ensuing Eighty-Years’ War they conquered Portuguese and Spanish trading posts in Asia. As the nascent Dutch state was constantly being invaded or besieged, it needed to create a separate entity that could dedicate itself to challenging its suzerain’s possessions in Asia without worrying about defense. And so was born the Dutch East India Company. Created in line with both how trading ships and mercenary companies were organized, the VOC (as it was known in Dutch) had a major innovation: portability. Prior to the VOC, all merchant ventures had a set number of partners (or “shares”) decided at the beginning. With the VOC, owners of a share could sell it off even to people the other partners had never met. Instead of the depending on the Dutch state for money, the VOC could sell its shares to wealthy Englishmen and Germans, Russians and Italians. Publicly-traded companies, including the mega-corporations of today, like Comcast and BP, owe their success at financing due to this Dutch innovation.

By 1623 the Dutch had taken over much of the Portuguese trading posts in the Makulus, monopolizing the trade of cloves. But a juicy target remained: the Banda Islands, source of nutmeg and mace. The islanders had continually revolted against the harsh rule of the VOC and its taxation during previous conquest attempts. As a result, the Company engaged in genocide: 12-15,000 of the islands’ 13-16,000 inhabitants were killed, and the remainder forced into slavery. The Dutch finally relinquished control of the islands to the indigenous Indonesian government in 1946. The clove, nutmeg and mace trade today is now grown globally slave-free, so despite its troubled history, you can bake without feeling guilty.

Ed. But you always have the option of buying fair trade to support small farmers around the world!

If you are looking for quality podcasts to explain the complex economic workings of the world, consider checking out NPR’s Planet Money podcast. I cannot recommend it enough: though the latest episode (at publishing) was on spreadsheets, give it a try and be amazed at how a simple concept changed modern business.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wednesday: Parks & Rec Finale Breakdown

Last night was the Parks and Recreation season finale on NBC, and despite heartless schedulers putting it on the calendar way past my bedtime, I faithfully stayed up to watch it.  Spoilers to follow.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday Writing: Animated Shorts

Over the weekend I fulfilled an annual tradition by going to see the Academy Award nominated animated shorts.  The quality of the shorts varies over the years, as does the presentation format - last year someone decided to make announcers of the previous year's winners and the result was disastrous - but this year was a pretty good one (plus, no announcers!)  As I watched the shorts, it struck me that the shorts provide a valuable masterclass in the art of writing a compelling short story.  The time constraints force the production team to boil the film down to the most salient points without (hopefully) losing the spark of truth that allows the audience to connect.  The very best example I've seen of this is Urs, a beautiful, poignant Highly Commended film from 2009.  (Why it didn't get nominated and then promptly win is a mystery that will probably never be answered.)

This year we had a solid set of contenders, each with their own lessons on the art of the short story.

Me and My Moulton
At fourteen minutes, this film clocked in as one of the longer shorts.  This sweet story could so easily have been dull, but the writers really captured the blunt essence of being a child - wanting to fit in, the desire to be normal, and being torn between love for and embarrassment of parents.  That feeling made it easy to connect with the film, even though the characters were of a different culture and time, and that is what ultimately turned a story about a bike into a touching reminder of childhood.
Story lesson: Look for the universal truth.

Disney has more or less perfected the art of the "boy meets girl" and this film is no exception.  The story of a gluttonous pup is cute and funny and has a neatly wrapped up happy ending.  It's entertaining, but it doesn't have a lot of depth.  I'm not convinced it really deserved the Oscar.  Still, the bold, simple strokes of the film demonstrate a clean framework and a complete story in six minutes, which is no easy feat.
Story lesson: Build a basic framework.

A Single Life
This film manages a humorously dire warning about rushing through life and does it in under three minutes.  It's more of a vignette than a story, but it was entertaining and built tension in all the right places to release a laugh at the end.
Story lesson: Know your stakes and build tension accordingly.

The Bigger Picture
My least favorite of the collection, this film featured two brothers and an aging mother.  The main problem was the the story was difficult to follow, due in part to the undifferentiated mixing of mental fantasy and real life.  There were also too many unnecessary details and in the end, not much of an arc to the story.  Still, if the telling had been more streamlined, it could have been an interesting character study.
Story lesson: Keep it simple.

The Dam Keeper
Beautiful animation, but my second least favorite of the nominated shorts for all of the plot holes.  There was a lot of potential in this film, from the post-apocalyptic feel of the ash and smoke held back by the windmill to the child running the dam, but for some reason the story ignored the fascinating world to focus on a somewhat facile story about school children.
Story lesson: Have a reason for your world background.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Life: Zucchini Bread

Well, it seems to be spring, or some facsimile thereof, despite the fact that it's only February.  Skies are blue and sunny, days are warm, and cherry blossoms are starting to appear.  (Let's hope we don't get a freeze that destroys all our cherry blossoms!)  And with spring comes the advent of gardening days - planting and mulching and then eagerly awaiting the fruits of the harvest, one of which invariably seems to be zucchini.  Zucchini is everywhere in spring, filling bins at the supermarket or being handed out by friends desperate to get rid of the extra or showing up in seasonal menus.  Fortunately, there is a solution to this excess of vegetable, and that is to make it into a cake-like bread that one can pretend is healthy because it has zucchini in it.

Zucchini Bread
Yield: 2 loaves or approximately 24 muffins

3 eggs

1 cup olive or vegetable oil

1 3/4 cups sugar

2 cups grated zucchini

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

1 cup dried cranberries, raisins or chocolate chips or a combination thereof (optional)

Note: definitely go with the chocolate chips.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Grease and flour two 8×4 inch loaf pans, liberally. Alternately, line 24 muffin cups with paper liners.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Mix in oil and sugar, then zucchini and vanilla.

Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt, as well as nuts, chocolate chips and/or dried fruit, if using.

Stir this into the egg mixture. Divide the batter into prepared pans.

Bake loaves for 60 minutes, plus or minus ten, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Muffins will bake far more quickly, approximately 20 to 25 minutes.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Mighty Chili Pepper

by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

In the last few years of the 15th century, Spanish and Portuguese sailors to the New World shipped back a culinary breakthrough. The chilis they brought tasted spicy, a flavor that they had only tasted before in the black pepper from India. Accordingly they named it the chili pepper. In years to come, the Portuguese spread it along their newly established Asian trade routes, bringing the spice to African, Indian and Southeast Asian cuisines. Over time, chilis were incorporated into European and Middle-Eastern dishes, until now the entire world enjoys a healthy (or unhealthy) injection of heat in our food.

Chilis were native to the Americas when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. They remained popular in local cuisines throughout colonization, with the exception of the lands of what would be the United States and Canada (where it was mostly too cold to grow them). Cayenne pepper, a spice known the modern American cook, is a powder made from a chili variety named after the capital of French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. Cayenne, to my taste, is purely the taste of burning and should be used sparingly. A less dangerous option to add some zip into your food is paprika. Developed in the 16th century, paprika is the national spice of Hungary, famously flavoring their goulash.

In American cuisine cayenne is often combined with cumin, oregano, garlic and salt to make “chili powder.” While often referred to as a spice, it is actually a mixture, like curry. Originally “kari” in Tamil (a language of South India), it meant a sauce served on rice. In the nearby port of Chennai, one of the first British trading posts in India, visiting traders became enamored of the dish, and brought it back to become the national dish of the UK. The karis of yore were most probably the result of adding chili peppers to a existing mixture, garam masala, made of black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, bay leaf and caraway. Any decent curry mix you get today should have some variation of those spices on the the label. And if not, you can always grind your own curry powder fresh in a coffee mill.

Next week: Why the Dutch are responsible for the BP oil spill. And nutmeg.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wednesday Culture: The Power of Music

I'm biased, of course, but I sincerely believe that studying music is one of the most valuable ways anyone - kids and adults - can choose to spend their time.  There are all kinds of studies out there about how studying and listening to music can improve learning, performance, memory, and mood; it can provide a bump in test scores and language ability, assist in the development of emotional and behavioral skills, and provide long-term benefits to aging brains.

Anita Collins did a wonderful TED talk all about brain activity and music performance.  Here's a brief clip discussing some of the specifics of what happens in a musician's head.