Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cake Me!

I was in the mood for some cake over the weekend, so figured I'd try an oldie but goodie family tradition--the pineapple upside down cake! This is a dessert my grandma used to make for us kids all the time, and was my personal favorite growing up. Problem was I didn't have a big enough cake pan to do the job. I'd always heard that the traditional method of making this classic was in a cast-iron skillet. I don't own a cast-iron-skillet, but I do have a very heavy, 12-inch Cephalon skillet that I thought might do the trick. And so I set to work on what I hoped wouldn't prove a colossal disaster.

First I melted an entire stick of butter in the skillet over a low fire. Then, I mixed in one cup of packed light-brown sugar until the entire bottom of the skillet was covered in the butter/sugar mixture. Atop this I placed around 8 slices of pineapple.

Some people use cherries, halved, to place within each pineapple slice center. My grandma never did this, so I didn't either. Perhaps next time. And like grandma, I decided to use pineapple from out of the can rather than going through the labor of cutting and coring a whole pineapple myself. After all, I didn't even know if I was wasting my time or not. So I wanted to stick as close to what I remembered from childhood as I could.

Next I combined all my dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, granulated sugar, salt . . . box of instant vanilla pudding mix!) with eggs, more butter, oil and a about a cup of pineapple juice from the can the slices came out of. I dug out my trusty old mixer and set it on medium. After around 2 minutes of this, the batter felt like just the right consistency.

Or so I thought. After pouring the batter into the skillet and over the pineapple and brown sugar, the result seemed a little too stiff for my liking. But I hoped beyond hope that this was just my paranoia taking over, and decided to risk it all. I placed the entire skillet in a pre-heated oven set at 350 degrees . . . and crossed my fingers.

Good thing the skillet has a steel handle! I let it bake for an hour, checking every 10 minutes to make sure the cake was rising the way it should be. What I saw each time was promising. It just rose and rose until the top was almost cresting the skillet's rim. Whoa!

But I'm happy to report the cake came out just fine! Take a peek for yourself:

I noticed the pineapple slices migrated quite a bit from the center during the baking process. Hmmm, will have to pack them in closer together next time, methinks. But overall the coloring and consistency came out just as I had hoped. Better yet, the skillet worked out perfectly! I never would have guessed. It does make me wonder what difference a cast-iron one might have made. I dunno.

But anyway, here is the final result:

Mmmmm. Doesn't that look simply scrumptious? Is your mouth watering yet? Maybe you'll want to click on that image to get a closer look? I know I for one can't wait to eat this! :)

I think next week I will try to make a pie for the very first time. Blueberry is my favorite, but I was thinking of going traditional American and making an apple pie as my first try. I will be making everything from scratch, including the crust. *meep* Wish me luck!

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Gaming Milestone

Now this is interesting!

My favorite indie game of the year, Journey, just got nominated for a Grammy Award for "Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media." It goes up against a slew of excellent movies this voting season, including: Hugo, Tintin, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and The Dark Knight Rises. This marks the first time an entire album has ever been nominated based off an original video game soundtrack. And what makes it so cool for me is that I genuinely enjoy the heck out of this game! (And, yes, I've already downloaded it off iTunes, of course!)

Journey is a very simple, beautifully moving adventure released exclusively on the Playstation Network back on March 13th. It takes roughly 2 - 3 hours to complete and costs less that $15 to download from the Playstation Store. There is no dialogue. No guns. No fighting. No drawn-out cutscenes. You start out as a mysterious robed figure who's born out of a comet hitting the desert sands early one morning. From this point on you must guide this figure across the dunes on some unexplained quest that even he or she does not understand. Your only clue is a great big mountain peak rising up to the sky in the far distance. A bright beacon of light beckons to you from the summit of said peak, somehow drawing you forward. It's a journey, you see? One that will take you across great expanses and against sometimes impossible odds. And like all great journeys, it's not the destination that is important, but your experiences along the way that shape who you will become.

Journey also uses online play in a unique way which I totally enjoyed. If your PS3 is connected online, the game allows other players to intrude on your session. Now, "intrude" is perhaps too negative a connotation here. In Journey, random online players can appear in and out of your adventure at any time, offering to team up with you along the way if you so desire. You cannot speak to one another, or even see the other player's gamer tag (aka, user name). Your only form of communication is through a series of musical notes. Yeah, how rad is that? Somehow, some way--through carefully placed musical cues and the context of your actions--you and your companion can get the gist of things and work together toward a mutually beneficial goal. Which is, to reach your destination atop that mountain! On my first play through, I ended up buddying up with some guy from China randomly chosen by the game's servers. Because we could not speak to each other, and because there is no dialogue or text to read in the game itself, cultural and language barriers were never an issue. It's was all about the gameplay! Which, frankly, is how it should be.

Check out the trailer below for just a taste of the beauty and majesty this title brings:

Journey is a title that urges pure, unadulterated exploration and puzzle solving. What I loved so much about it is that most of the story is inferred by the gorgeous scenery and music. As such, the orchestral score is some of the most haunting, evocative pieces you'll ever hear. The type of score you'd expect from a deep, well-thought out foreign indie flick. Not a video game!

So it is no surprise to me that the score was nominated for such a top honor. The game's composer, Austin Wintory, did an outstanding job. Wow! And kudos to all the hard work from the members of the orchestra, especially the main cellist, Tina Guo. She's absolutely fantastic here!

I also love how much the scenery and colors draw you into this world. You start out with the golds and reds of the unending desert sands, move on to the muted greens of a sunken world, and eventually on to the drab blues and foamy whites of the snow-capped higher elevations . . . moving inexorably toward that bright light beckoning to you from afar. Along the way, as you successfully solve puzzle after puzzle with the aid of an online buddy, your robed protagonists gain wonderful abilities like incredible jumping height and even a form of flight. Given how much I love flying, you can only imagine how cool this was for me!

But perhaps the most thrilling aspect of the game comes early when you have to dune surf your way to the end of the stage. Yes, you read that correctly: dune surf. As in, surfing on sand instead of water! Or "sand skiing," if you want to get caught up in particulars.

I'll leave you all with this video of a German player's dune surfing session, which not only confers the sheer fun of this game, but the amazingly gorgeous visuals. Check out the lighting and spectrum shift when entering the terraced area of the ancient city. Jaw-dropping!

By the way, those energetic carpet bundles you see gliding through the air alongside your character, dipping below and above the sands like dolphins, are sentient helpers you had to rescue earlier. They assist you sometimes, lending magic to your depleting stores so that you can gain lift and maintain flight when you most need it.

Did I not mention this game is awesome? You should all play it sometime. It's a title anyone can pick up and enjoy.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Game of Thrones Looking Good For Next Season!

This will only matter to fans of Game of Thrones, I'm sure. But HBO aired this awesome Production Video last night which gives us our first real glimpse into what's in store for Season 3. Anyone who has read the books knows that the third novel--A Storm of Swords--is when things really get cracking. No joke! This book is the darkest, most violent, most shocking of them all thus far. And judging by this clip, it seems the show's producers are just as intent on capturing all this as we readers are in seeing it all come to our tv screens.

Check out the video for yourselves:

Emilia Clarke looks absolutely stunning in her brief interview (1:05 mark). Wow! And, who cannot be excited by our first on-set sightings of Jojen and Meera Reed (0:35 mark)? Last season I had speculated that we may never see the Reeds at all, since they should have shown up on the show by now. At the very least, I remember saying, only Meera would appear since Bran Stark seems to have taken on some of the role Jojen filled in the books. But, nope, both Reed siblings will arrive in season 3! I'm so excited.

Jojen is played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Love, Actually), while Meera is being portrayed by Ellie Kendrick (Upstairs Downstairs). Sharped-eyed viewers may also notice a pair of acting luminaries in this clip in the form of one CiarĂ¡n Hinds (Rome) playing "the King Beyond the Wall," Mance Rayder (1:46); and the incomparable Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) taking on the role of the formidable Lady Olenna Redwyne, aka "the Queen of Thorns" of House Tyrell (0:54).

I love all the awesome talent, new and old, being poured into this fabulous show!

We still have a ways to go before Season 3 airs, unfortunately. Mark it on your calendars: March 31st! If you love the show but have not read the books, you're going to be in for one hell of a season. Damn!

Panama Trip - Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime. A trip to Panama's steamy tropical province, Bocas del Toro. Now, before 2017 ...