Archive for February, 2010

Bread Baking

One thing I have always had trouble finding is sandwich bread. A lot of the loaves I find in the supermarket just don’t quite satisfy my craving for light (but not spongy), crusty (but not crunchy) white bread. I did find some brands that I liked quite a bit, but they tended to be a bit expensive for the size of the loaf.

So I finally tried the recipe in The Joy of Cooking 75th Anniversary Edition. Back when I was learning how to bake, it seemed a bit daunting and I always gravitated toward the much simpler French bread recipe. But after learning to make brioche burger buns, I figured I could handle white bread. My first efforts were decent, at best, but I stopped buying bread and forced myself to bake my own. Now, having made two loaves a week for a few months, I think I’ve got a firm handle on it.

The Joy of Cooking is a frustrating book because there’s a lot of mediocre recipes and a lot of gems, all thrown together with nothing but trial-and-error on the part of the user to separate them. However, the white bread recipe (substantially revised from the earlier editions) is superb. Still, the missing ingredient that hampered my early efforts was technical know-how. That was supplied by Julia Child, who has an episode of The French Chef called “The Good Loaf” in which she goes through the entire process.

One other important note, if you have the anniversary edition of The Joy: the recipe contains a major omission! You’ll notice immediately that the dry ingredients overwhelm the liquid and the dough refused to come together. That’s because the recipe only calls for 1 cup milk when it should call for 1 cup milk AND 1 cup water.

Anyway, here are a couple of pointers. First, and most importantly, do not use yeast packets. Cook’s Illustrated tested them and found that the yeast packet is not standardized, as promised. While each one is supposed to contain 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast, they can vary wildly. A lot of people who have tried baking, and given up on it, will complain of their frustration that some doughs just fail to rise, while others mushroom out of control. While yeast will behave differently under different environmental conditions, the first thing you need to be sure of is the amount of yeast you’re using. So toss the yeast packets and get a jar of yeast. If you bake regularly, you’ll go through it long before it is past its expiration date.

Second, make sure you always have lard in the house. For one thing, good lard imparts a flavor that vegetable shortening cannot. For another, lard is also the absolute best way to grease a pan or a bowl that I have ever seen, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than olive oil. Nothing I bake ever gets stuck to a mixing bowl or a baking pan. You will never have to pry a cake from a cake pan or bread from a loaf pan. It will just fall right out, perfectly browned.

I get my lard here in Cambridge from Savenor’s Market, but it’s not hard to find. It helps, however, if there’s a Mexican population near where you live, because Mexican cooking calls for a lot of useful ingredients, like lard, that supermarkets might not carry. When I lived in Appleton, my butcher Pepe pointed us to a nearby carniceria where we found the tastiest lard ever. It wasn’t the perfect white cream that Savenor’s makes, but waxier and yellow. It was also tastier, which you don’t always want, but for some recipes it can add a lot.

Anyway, the important points with the recipe itself are as follows: watch the temperature on the milk mixture, turn the dough properly, and make sure it can rise in a warm place.

The milk mixture (above) is made of milk, butter, lard, sugar, and salt. You need to mix it together over heat until it is quite warm, but the chances are that it will hit the right temperature before the butter has completely dissolved into the mixture. Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to end up overheating this mixture and accidentally kill the yeast when you add it to the mixing bowl. I did that the first time I made this bread, and so did my father. Whatever you do, make sure the milk mixture is not actually hot when you add it. If that means letting the yeast and the milk spend an extra twenty minutes chilling out, so be it.

This unappetizing lump needs to be turned like it's the walking undead and you're the party's only cleric.

If you’ve got a stand mixer you’re pretty much good to go at this point. On my budget and without any counter space, I have to do do all this by hand.  Now I never used to get dough to that glorious smooth and slightly sticky texture it’s supposed to have after you’re done mixing, but the Julia Child DVDs I got last Christmas showed me the way forward.

For one thing, developing dough can be a violent process. You pick it up, and throw it down on the work surface with some real force. You really should have a board scraper (honestly, this makes a million things easier) so that you can keep the dough from sticking.

Most importantly, after you throw the dough onto the surface, you should turn it clockwise or counterclockwise from the edges. Work on the outer edges, stay way from the center, and don’t grip it. Just use the heel of your hand as you turn it. After you give it a couple half turns, pick it up, throw it back down, at repeat until you hit a good texture. Then put it all into greased bowl (use the lard!).

Now it has the right texture and consistency.

Finally, I’m a big fan of leaving my doughs to rise in the oven. My apartment has about five different climate zones and it’s a crap shoot as to what the weather is like in the kitchen. So rather than risking the dough doing a sullen rise in a cold room, I just turn on the oven, let it get warm, kill the heat, and put the dough inside. My results have been way, way more consistent doing this.

Frankly, this is over-risen dough, which is why the resultant loaves are slightly stouter than we might wish.

Don’t let them rise too long on the first rise; I find they won’t rise enough in the pans if they over-rise in the bowl. When they finish baking, rest them on their sides (I dunno, but I do what Julia Child tells me), and resist the urge to tear into them right away. Fresh baked bread is wonderful, but sandwich bread like this is better if it cool and rests overnight before you start eating it. You’ll get a better texture.

I’m at a point where this is really fast and easy. Bread-baking takes 4-6 hours, but the baker only needs to spend about 25 minutes of that time actually doing anything.  The yield is two beautiful loaves like this, costing about $.75 apiece. That is much better than you’ll do at the supermarket, and several times more delicious.

Either I Get a Dodge, or I Murder You

There were a lot of bad commercials during the Superbowl last night, but only one really brought me up short: the Dodge Charger ad, “Man’s Last Stand”.

I think the advertiser was looking to evoke an, “I hear you, brother,” reaction from the men in the audience, but frankly this ad was scary. There is a seething undercurrent of violence and hatred to this monologue, reinforced by the dead and crumpled faces of the self-appointed victims. Especially the last guy, who looks like his face is about to start twitching with suppressed rage.

Listening to this monologue, I get the feeling that “Man’s Last Stand” isn’t going to be a toy car. The narrator’s spiritual sickness is past the formidable healing powers of the Dodge Charger. He’s going to drive his car to the gun shop, fill a gym bag with weapons and ammo, and then he’s going to start settling the score with his wife, his employer, and anyone else who has made him feel like an emasculated nonentity.

Admittedly, this is a dark reading of the material, but in the last year or so I have reached the conclusion that angry, frustrated men scare the shit out of me. There are only so many senseless shooting sprees and mass murders one can hear about before you reach the conclusion that male disaffection might be a serious problem. It seems to be at the root of a lot of heinous behavior.

The saddest part of this ad might be the specific grievances themselves. The men in the audience are supposed to identify with the narrator as he bitterly reads these lines.

  • I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave.
  • I will say yes when you want me to say yes. I will be quiet when you don’t want to hear me say no.
  • I will take your call. I will listen to your opinion of my friends.
  • I will be civil to your mother.
  • I will put the seat down.
  • I will separate the recycling.
  • I will carry your lip balm.
  • I will put my underwear in the basket.

The horror, the horror! How does a man face the black day in which he is expected not only to shave, but to clean the sink after he is finished, and to make certain that his soiled underwear aren’t left lying around the house?

This is deeply entitled misery. In my world, these are minimal courtesies that you should expect to perform as a matter of course, and the notion of taking umbrage at them is laughable. Yet this ad confesses that the barest minimum of respect and cooperation is too much to ask, and it expects me to lean close to the screen and whisper, “Yeah, it drives me crazy, too.” Sorry, no, you’re being a wimp and, far more than a car, you need to man the fuck up.

Finally, there is the completely misplaced blame in this commercial. The ad is a litany of  extremely petty indignities and self-pity for the man’s lowly lot in life, the woman is at fault, and the solution is to buy a Dodge Charger. I get it, the ad exists to sell me something, but this is a really self-defeating approach to that goal. Because it’s the Dodge Charger that’s going to make you miserable, not the woman who asks you to sort the recycling.

To quote my old friend Tyler Durden, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

This commercial ends with the Charger roaring down an empty stretch of highway, but c’mon, we know the truth. The Charger becomes, in gridlock, just another car ferrying you from the hell of your morning to the hell of your workday. You can’t quit the job that makes you miserable because now you’ve got more payments to make. God forbid you every try and let that engine out to play, because some equally frustrated cop will pull you over and force you to go through the tedious, Good-morning-officer-what’s-your-hurry tango. Then he’ll take twenty minutes to write a $125 dollar ticket and tell you what a favor he’s doing you by knocking three miles an hour off your violation and he’ll pretend that any of this has to do with road safety. Then you’ll get to pay higher insurance rates on the car that’s already dead weight on your monthly budget, and your relationship will be further strained with the woman who reluctantly agreed to get you your car and who still can’t quite understand why you need it in the first place and why you’re so angry, because instead of talking to her about it, you bought a car.

The Elegant RTS

The decade series continues over at the Flash of Steel blog, though I suspect we will no sooner wrap up the 2000-2009 series than we have to start chiseling 2010-2019 into stone. Frankly, though, I’m a bit relieved we’re taking our time with this. Rather than just dashing off posts on games I half-remember, I have time to really plan my posts and even revisit the games I’m writing about.

My latest entry, for 2002, covers Ensemble’s superb Age of Mythology. Here I confronted (as I will so often in this series) the problem of writing nearly unequivocal praise for a game. While the words come very easily in a discussion about why aspects of a certain game do not work for me, I always feel clumsy when I try to explain why I really enjoy and admire a great game. So for this entry, I tried to present it through the eyes of three different kinds of gamers who enjoy it: my father, myself, and my girlfriend.

That approach, however, meant that I couldn’t really get into the nuts-and-bolts of why the game is successful across these audiences. The funny thing about Age of Mythology is that it possesses that chess-like quality of being fairly straightforward to learn, but shockingly deep once you begin learning each culture and deity, and how they interact with the others. This is basically a game with nine factions, and each faction has several “builds” you can play. After countless games, I don’t think I’m even close to knowing enough to utilize each faction to its full potential. And yet I’ve been able to play the game competently from the moment I installed it.

Hopefully I’ll be able to discuss this game in a bit more detail over the next few weeks. In particular, I am absolutely in love with the the ways it handles the economy, hero units, and the entire Norse culture. But in the meantime, go read the entry over on Flash of Steel.

Homecoming in Clear Sky

I had a few restless days earlier this month. I had just put Pirates! back on the shelf for awhile, and was having a great time with EU3, but really wanted to play something else. I just didn’t know what, and none the games near the top of my Pile of Shame really did it for me. Aside from a vague desire for some violence, I really had no ideas.

Then my eyes fell on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, still wrapped in its plastic and mixed reputation, and I realized that I wanted was not really a game, but a place. I wanted to go back to the Zone, and I didn’t care whether or not Clear Sky lived up to STALKER. I needed to be in that world again.

Perhaps it is because I’m suffering a bit from claustrophobia and urban fatigue, but I needed STALKER’s open fields, mist-shrouded marshland, and roiling sky. I actually felt relieved, like I had just come home, when I got control of my character in the opening scene and went over to the bedroom window. Just looking outside at the sunrise through the cold morning air, splintered into shafts of light by a bare tree, was enough to remind me of all the reasons that this is the best shooter series since Half-Life.

The opening sequence of Clear Sky may well be clunky and bordering on tedium, but I was at home the moment I was turned loose in the swamps outside the Clear Sky base.  I couldn’t have been happier picking my away through prairie grass and shallow pools, trying to avoid pissing off the local fauna.

At one point I was trying to cut across the map and went off the trails, and as I came a narrow clearing hemmed in by a marsh to the right and a field of tall grass to the left, I thought I heard something in the brush. I froze stock-still and listened. Just listened. To the breeze rustling through the weeds and the cackle of some crows. To very distant gunfire from the ongoing battle. But nothing immediate. So I started moving again, and as I reached the narrowest point of the clearing, I heard rustling and snuffling in the bushes to my left.

Instantly I was down in a crouch on the edge of the pool, long-barreled shotgun leveled and ready. I strained my ears and definitely heard an animal coming closer through the brush. I started tracking the sound from left to right and just as it passed in front of me, I heard a hound’s bark and it came charging out of the weeds. I’d misjudged his location by a few degrees, and swept the gun back to the left and triggered both barrels. Both blasts of buckshot peppered him, but not enough to bring him down. He came hurtling toward me while I broke open the stock, pulled out the empty shells, and slapped in fresh ones. I got the new rounds chambered and closed the gun just as he started to leap. Boo-boom! The second round dropped him at point blank range. He died at my feet.

My heart was pounding.

And that was a random, relatively weak monster encounter. A normal day at the stalker’s office. But I couldn’t afford to get cute and just slug it out with the damned thing, or try and run, because he absolutely could have killed me. Maybe not right away, but if he’d mauled me out there the marshes, I’d have bled out before I could make it back to safety.

Another unbelievable, quintessentially STALKER sequence came when I ran into a squad of Clear Sky attackers heading to take a pumping station away from the bandits. We managed to get close without being spotted, but the moment our point man placed a foot on the duckboards, the bandits opened fire from the platform. We started shooting it out from across the pond. One of my shots missed wide of the mark and a gas tank exploded, blasting the guy I’d been shooting at into oblivion. That was the opening: I charged across the boards, shotgunned the first bandit to get in my way, then picked off another over by the pumps. We were clear.

But not finished. My squad kept pushing north through the swamps, clearing a herd of boars and then coming to a desolate, ruined village. As we approached, we ran into a squad of bandits that had been heading toward the pump station. Again, gunfire erupted everywhere.

At this stage of the game, my weapons were a hodgepodge. I had an AK-74 with no ammo.  I had an MP-5 with half a clip, a sawed-off shotgun, the hunting shotgun, and a Fora 9mm pistol. All of which meant that in a huge firefight, with numbers definitely going against us, I was not really in good shape. I tried to pick off bandits with my pistol, but the engagement range was too long and every time I leaned out of cover, a torrent of pistol and shotgun fire came my way.  I spotted a pair of hostiles trying to flank us on the right side, using a house foundation for cover, so I pulled my MP-5 and cut them both down with two bursts, emptying the weapon. Then I started taking potshots with the shotgun, hoping that the buckshot would at least start whittling their strength down.

After about five minutes of combat, I suddenly realized I could heard the wind and the birds again. The riot of gunfire, shotgun blasts, ricochets, and yelling had slowed to a sullen dialogue.

With a sinking feeling, already certain of what I would find, I turned to my left and saw that two of my squadmates dead in their cover. I sprinted farther towards our flank, drawing a fusillade of shots from the bandits holding the main road, and reached the other end of our firing line. Everyone was dead. I was alone with the bandits.

Reason and adrenaline collided head-on. The smart play would be to fall back into the swamp toward the pumping station we’d liberated a half hour earlier. The odds were terrible and there was really no upshot to continuing the fight. But as the shots continued to sail past, and the bandits continued trying to work their way around the flanks, I was too keyed-up to call it a day. I grabbed some ammo from my dead squaddies, and moved back to the right.  Luckily, the bandits didn’t spot me until I was on their flank and I was able to take them one at a time.

Even with that minor advantage, it was still slow, bloody work. It took me several more minutes to clear the town. It also used up all my bandages, all but one of my first-aid kits, and 95% of my ammunition. By the time I drove the last gunman down in a hail of bullets over by an empty pig pen, I was down to three clips of pistol ammo and a salvo from each of my shotguns. I started stripping the dead to replenish my supplies, and realized how futile this battle had been. Nobody had much ammo, and I didn’t manage to find any medical supplies.

Not that I got a chance to collect more than a few handfuls of 9mm and buckshot rounds, because I spotted another squad of bandits coming in from the north. I took off on the road east before they spotted me, since they were already across my line of retreat to the pumping station.

I had completely screwed myself. The village was back in enemy hands. I was also trapped in the middle of nowhere between two bandit bases, with nothing but a long expanse of hostile countryside between me and a Clear Sky position. Overhead, the perfect autumn day had given way to a heavy sky that seemed to press down until it touched the tops of the prairie grass.

I checked my map, sketched a route, and reloaded my weapons. Then, turning away from the broken trail, I headed back into the marshes.