Real Life Superhero: Zen Pencils



Hello out there my fellow nerds. Though I know this is just a standard Thursday in November for some of you, all the good vibes associated with today are still coming your way! It's been a rollercoaster of a year thus far, but 2013 has been incredible nonetheless. It's unabashedly sappy, but I'm so grateful for the opportunities and experiences that have stemmed from the Care and Feeding of Nerds. Through this little digital conduit I've encountered a myriad of new geeky ideas and seen innovative,  clever, all-around fun projects go from dreamy musings to reality (every single game we featured from the SPIEL round up made their Kickstarter goal!). The blog has also provided the medium through which I've met so many brilliant, affable, and wonderful people, which has been amazing. Most of all, I'm so grateful to you, the readers. You guys are the best and I'm beyond thankful for every single one of you.

Sending you all the best possible wishes for a phenomenal Thanksgiving and a very happy Hanukkah!


 For those of you who'd like to extend your good fortune or just some good vibes today or during this upcoming holiday season, Zen Pencils has a easy and excellent way to do so. If you haven't encountered this bit of internet cartoon brilliance do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes touring the site. The brainchild of Australian freelance artist Gavin Aung Than, Zen Pencils weds inspirational quotes to beautifully rendered hand-drawn images. The results are often profound, can stick with you for days afterwards, and will likely have you making the site part of your regular internet rounds.

Gavin has crafted this piece, ostensibly founded in last week's release of the two major next generation consoles. Though he fears his console gaming days are over, Gavin felt the subject matter would appropriately underscore how just a slight shifting of our gifting priorities can make an enormous difference to those in need. 

100% of the profits generated from the sale of prints of the comic will go to the Philippine Red Cross and will benefit the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan. The print also comes with free shipping anywhere in the world! For more information on how you can help those affected by the Typhoon, click here.

Big digital hugs for all! 



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Game Review: XCOM: Enemy Within

Best wishes for a happy con to those of you lucky enough to be in Texas for BGGCon at this very moment. The convention seems to flow nicely out of the energy from SPIEL, so here's hoping that the developers attending can make the most out of this last event before the onslaught of the holiday season. At this point, I'm in complete convention withdrawal and a few peeks at BGGCon are simultaneously delicious vicarious experience and an agonizing reminder that it'll be more than five months before I get to frolic through a dealer hall. On the other hand, at least one costume needs to be finished by the end of those five months so…yeah. Not gonna complain.

One thing that's providing some unequivocally good times as of late is XCOM: Enemy Within. We've already seen one impressive expansion for a beloved Firaxis Games franchise this year, did they deliver similar quality for the base title that was touted as, "the best game of 2012"?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: By and large, Enemy Within presents a deeply satisfying set of enhancements and improvements on the base game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It's not a wholly perfect title, but its foibles are assuredly outweighed by everything that it gets right.

As is typical for a Firaxis expansion, a portion of the title is just raw additions to the game's fundamentals. Enemy Within presents players with over 40 new maps and several Enemy Unknown terrain sets that have been extensively reworked. A special  Base defense mode, a feature from the original XCOM conspicuously absent from Enemy Unknown, is introduced to the new incarnation of the franchise. The expansion also adds a handful of language options so your soldiers can chatter in a tongue that corresponds with the flags on their backs. Between this and the variety of new accessories you can outfit your troops with you can form all new emotional attachments to those digital warriors.   
It's getting all Pacific Rim up in here!


Though the majority of the storyline in Enemy Within remains lamentably identical to Enemy Unknown (players will sit through the same cinematics and sciencey quibbling from the support staff at XCOM HQ), the actual gameplay is markedly more robust and challenging than in its predecessor. The foundation for said enrichments lies primarily in the new units and the processes required to build/train them. Several missions will feature a new collectable resource, meld. As the name implies, the substance, once gathered, allows for novel integrations of disparate materials, in this case the materials being robots and human bodies. The research that can be "purchased" with meld or genetic matter harvested during autopsies broadens the early-game tech tree considerably, allowing the player to choose between the classic weapons/armor endeavors and projects that directly enhance the physiology of the soldiers. The latter, though extremely effective on the battlefield, are costly both in terms of credits and what is demanded of the individuals utilizing the new technology. This expense only increases the anxiety associated with the omnipresent threat of PC perma-death.

And threat is a particularly apt descriptor for the actual gameplay. Just about every facet of Enemy Within feels legitimately perilous. While you've been outfitting your troops with mech suits and the ability to regenerate the opposition has been taking similar measures. The aliens have an approximate counterpart to the human mech units, a hulked out version of the humble sectoid, as well as a tuberous, stealth-enabled flying unit whose sole purpose is to seek out soldiers that stray from the group (i.e. your precious snipers) and strangle them. In addition to the formidable extraterrestrials, XCOM must also address EXALT, a paramilitary group of Earthlings who want to embrace the aliens as the rightful overlords of the planet. While there is a measure of direct confrontation with the group, EXALT makes its presence known by more covert means, stealing XCOM funds, stirring up panic with their propaganda, and sabotaging research projects. Where they attempt to overwhelm with sheer numbers, you can counter with superior technology. Neutralizing EXALT for good though takes more than a bit of finesse and a solid dose of luck as you'll have to put relations with the member-states of the XCOM project on the line in order to conduct clandestine operations in their territory.

Able to strangle for -2 HP/turn, you want to kill these guys fast
The overall pacing of the game is beautifully unsettled. The drive-forward-by-inches tactic that served well in Enemy Unknown often isn't feasible in Enemy Within. Just the act of gathering resources, like the meld mentioned above, is fraught with urgency as the meld containers are rigged with self-destruct devices operating on separate timers, forcing you to take tactical risks and play with a certain degree of recklessness. The formations of old also tend to be of limited use as the Seeker units keep snipers on the move while the Mechtoids can lay waste to your cover. Yes, even if your cover was a solid wall. The decisions you have to make are numerous and only get more difficult as you progress through the game, heightening the level of emotional engagement that has made the franchise so adored.

A handful of the bugs that plagued Enemy Unknown persist in Enemy Within, namely the line-of-sight glitches and the occasional animation snafu that may elicit unintended laughs. The late game phase is also a bit weak, as the rewards for many of the operations are especially weighty, allowing you to steamroll the EXALT forces if you so choose. However, none of these issues derails the playing experience and it's a much smoother game than its successor.  

In all, a Enemy Within is a solid expansion well worth your time and consideration if you're a fan of the series or turn-based tactics in general. The title is stand alone, so a purchase of Enemy Unknown isn't necessary to play Enemy Within. As is the case for all the titles in the franchise, the fundamental appeal lies in the stories you create from your ordered ranks and Enemy Unknown allows you to craft those tales with aplomb.

Overall Grade: A-
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This Week in Geekdom



Today's post is a smidge special. as it is the 100th post to grace the digital pages of the Care and Feeding of Nerds. Woot! Looking back over all the posts that have gone up in the past 19 months, it's fun and kind of surreal to see just how the blog has developed. And there's more where this came from! Construction for the 2014 Convention Season officially began yesterday so there will be progress posts in the very near future. For now, though, let's get down to This Week in Geekdom.

Do a little dance. Have a drink with your bending unit. Get down tonight.
Games

The vast majority of recent gaming talk has been fussily orbiting the next generation of consoles that are just beginning to hit the market, but fear not PC gamers, as this week gave us  a bit to indulge in. The fine folks behind the indie-game propagating Humble Bundle launched the Humble Store. While the terms governing the Store, like how long titles will be sold for, remains a bit unclear, the offerings and corresponding discounts are very much worth checking out. <site bookmarked>

If you live in a warzone, it makes sense that you'd want to limit your time spent outside. In the case of 18-year-old Iraqi Yousif Mohammed, all those indoor hours went directly to gaming. This is Yousif's incredible story of how the real-life battlefield prompted him to become one of the top Battlefield 3 players in the world. 

Science/Technology

Does the new generation of consoles have you longing for the video hardware of your youth, but said hardware has...ahm borne the brunt of your past frustrations and may be in less-than-working order? Fear not. Australian entrepreneurs Cartesian Co. have launched this (funded in less than 1 day) Kickstarter to allow them to produce 3D printed circuits. 


The rest of this month is going to be a visual smorgasbord for star-gazers. The next two-ish weeks will feature not one, not two, but four comets in our skies. The science editors at Time magazine have put together this interactive comet-tracker for those keen on glimpsing 'Comet of the Century' title-holder ISON. Bonus: late tonight/early tomorrow will give us the peak of this year's Leonid meteor showers!

Speaking of celestial bodies, scientists feel that they may have solved one of the long-standing mysteries pertaining to the good ol' planet Jupiter. Current theories of fluid dynamics indicate that Jupiter's infamous Great Red Spot should have petered out centuries ago, yet it seems to still be going strong. On November 25, two researchers will present their potential solution to this quandary.

We've had the ability to video chat with another person for several years now but the experience has been largely...let's call it two dimensional. Engineers from MIT mean to correct that with this, an interactive 'pinboard' that allows for motion to be transmitted and re-created over distances. 

Using data from the Hubble telescope's scan of the relatively young M33 galaxy, two scientists have created these images designed to approximate what our galaxy may have looked like some 11 billion years ago.

For those of you out there unimpressed with Apple's Siri, IBM announced this week that they will be releasing their fascinating/terrifying supercomputer Watson into computational cloud form. Read here for details on our future Robot Overlord.

Fourier transformations are a phenomenon so common, yet so world-changing, that they tend to go largely unnoticed by the beings employing them. If you've ever wondered how an MP3 or voice-activated software works, this brilliant primer has a beautifully succinct run-down of the math and physics at play.

General Awesomeness

 On Thursday, we got this first picture of pre-production for Star Wars: Episode VII.

Last Tuesday the United States Library of Congress, with a little help from Seth MacFarlane, opened Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive. Well done Seth!

If you missed out on last weekend's Blizzcon, here is a gallery of the incredible cosplays that debuted in the convention halls.

Finally, if you're a fan of Hyperbole & a Half creator Allie Brosh, NPR conducted this poignant interview with her earlier this week.

Best wishes for an awesome week ahead!
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NomNoms! Stuffed Soft Pretzels



Seriously, where has this year gone? Just further proof that time-passing-as-a-series-of-Lorenz-transformations phenomenon is real. Well, it's either that or sorcery. Clearly. In any case, we are long overdue for some new nomnoms and I've been saving up this recipe until the weather cooled to the point that it wouldn't be torturous to have the oven on. As it's been a few months, let's make the post a double nomnom feature! Below you'll find not one, but two different styles of stuffed soft pretzels!

Modified from the original recipe on Half Baked Harvest
Until recently, yeasted dough was my culinary kryptonite. It seemed that no matter how thoroughly I prepared or how diligently I monitored times and temperatures I'd be left with either something pungently fermented or depressingly lacking in anything resembling volume. My crimes against eukaryote-kind would mark me as a committer of mass fungicide for the rest of my days...or so I believed.   

Like anything else, the key was practice. While you don't necessarily need a great deal of experience to make these pretzels, this is the single most difficult recipe that's been featured on the blog to date. There's no doubt you guys can totally handle this, but two things that will make your cooking experience easier even before you get down with some flour and fungus are as follows:

- Read all of the procedural and the Q&A first. This isn't a recipe you can follow along with as you go, as too many of the steps need to happen either concurrently or immediately after one another.
- If at all possible, conscript a sous chef. Assembling the pretzels will be exponentially less chaotic with another set of hands.

Difficulty: XCOM Classic (very advanced)
Availability of Ingredients: Somewhat common
Gadgetry: A stand mixer with a dough hook (optional)
Feeds: 12-24 nerds
Time Till Noms: 2-3 hours, depending on the size of the pretzels you're making

Required Equipment: 2 large serving bowls, a whisk, a large wooden spoon or stiff spatula, 1-2 small heatproof containers (ceramic mugs work nicely), a large pot or deep pan, several baking sheets, a frying pan, a rolling pin, plastic wrap, a slotted spoon or spatula, a grater, a pastry brush or a soft, clean paintbrush
Optional Equipment: A cooking thermometer, a citrus zester

Ingredients

For the pretzel dough (beer version)
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt
 1/2 cups water
1 cup beer (or apple cider if you're making the sweet version of this)
Canola oil, ideally in spray form
3 quarts water, for boiling the pretzels
2/3 cups baking soda, for boiling the pretzels
1 egg, beaten, for brushing before baking
Coarse sea salt/kosher salt

For the filling (savory)

2 slices thick-cut bacon (optional)
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced, grated or smashed
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup milk
1 ounce cream cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup greek yogurt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup (about 5 ounces) chopped spinach (can be fresh, but thaw if using frozen)
1 (6.7 ounce) jar grilled artichoke hearts or you can sub marinated artichokes, chopped

For the filling (sweet)
6-7 medium-sized apples
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
the juice and zest of 1/2 of one lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

Making the dough

Step 1: Warm up the water to about 110-115 degrees (43.33-46.11 Celsius). This is well below the point at which it should boil, but should feel readily warm to the touch. I put the water in the microwave for 2 minutes on high, then let it stand at room temperature for another two minutes.

Step 2: Whisk the brown sugar, yeast, and water together in a bowl until the solids are dissolved (use the bowl of your stand mixer if you're using one). Let this sit for 5 minutes. This sweet bath is what activates the yeast.

Step 3: While your friendly symbiotes are waking up, warm up the beer (or cider) using the same method as you did to warm the water, then check the results of Step 2. When the yeast is ready, a bubbly froth will appear on the surface of the water.

Frothy, bubbly, happy yeast...for now
Step 4: Add the beer (cider), melted butter, salt, and both types of flour to the yeast bath mixture and stir with your spoon/spatula until everything is combined (low speed if you're using a stand mixer). It's easiest to add the flour to the wet ingredients in small increments of a 1/2 cup or less. If you're mixing by hand, it may take a little while before the dough begins to comport itself. You could even try mixing with your bare hands if you're so inclined! Increase to a medium speed if you're using a stand mixer. The dough will look smooth and begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl when it's ready  (about 3 to 4 minutes with a mixer, 10-20 minutes if mixing by hand). If the dough appears too wet (it will be very sticky if this is the case), you can add a Tablespoon or two of flour.

It's the Final Countdown!
Step 5: Coat a large serving bowl with canola oil (a quick spray on all interior surfaces if using a spray). Remove the dough from your bowl, place on a flat surface, then knead it into a ball with your hands before placing the dough-ball into the bowl you just coated with oil. Cover the dough and bowl with a clean towel or a length of plastic wrap and leave it in a warm spot until the dough-ball doubles in size (apx. 1 hour). Begin the Yeast Countdown Clock!

Making the filling (savory)

Begin this with about 15-20 minutes remaining on your Yeast Countdown Clock.

Step Alpha: Warm your frying pan over a medium heat. While the pan is warming up, chop your bacon into small (1/4 inch, 0.635cm) pieces. By the time you finish chopping, the pan should be nice and warm. Cook the bacon until it's crispy, rendering out all the fat, then scoop out the crunchy goodness and set it aside on paper towel. Use the same frying pan, and the delectable bacon fat, for the remaining steps.

Step Beta: (begin here if you're not using bacon) Using a medium heat, melt the butter, then add the garlic. After 3-5 minutes the garlic bits will begin to turn golden brown. When you see this, add in the flour and stir to make a paste. Continue cooking and stirring for another minute or two, then add the milk.

Step Gamma:  Add cream cheese, mozzarella, parmesan and pepper and stir until cheeses are completely melted. Once this is done, stir in the greek yogurt and blend until the whole mixture is smooth and uniform. After all these are mixed in, remove the pan from the heat.

Step Delta:  Chop up the artichokes and spinach, then add these to the sauce. Return the pan to the heat source, then (if you're using it) add the bacon and stir to combine.



Making the filling (sweet)

Begin this with about 45 minutes remaining on your Yeast Countdown Clock.

Step Ά: Core and chop up the apples into small (1/4 inch, 0.635cm or smaller) pieces. When you've almost finished chopping, warm your frying pan over a medium heat and toss the butter into the pan.

Step β: When the butter has melted and your apples are chopped, transfer the apple pieces to the frying pan and stir them in the melted butter for a few minutes until the fruit starts expressing some of its juice.

Step Γ: Add the salt, sugar, and spices, then continue stirring for 5 minutes (the apples will start to soften and the peels will have paled in color if you kept them on).

Step Δ: Add the lemon zest and juice, then turn off the heat and let the mixture rest. It should start to thicken and get sticky as it cools.

Pretzels, assemble!

It's so fluffy!
Step 6: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees (218.33 Celsius). Spray or otherwise coat your baking sheets with canola oil.

Step 7: Remove your pretzel dough from its bowl, then divide it into as many equal sections as you prefer (I got 24-30 fist-sized pretzels from this dough).  Using your rolling pin, roll each section of dough into a rectangle, stretching as needed with your fingers.

Step 8: Spread about a Tablespoon of your filling in a line along the center of your newly formed dough rectangles. Gently fold the dough over the filling, then pinch the seams together. If possible, give the dough a little roll along your prep surface to form an even cylinder and fully enclose the filling.

 

Step 9: Here's the tricky part. Take the two ends of each filled cylinder and cross them over one another to form into a circle, then twist the overlapping ends and lay them onto the circle edge closest to you in order to form a pretzel shape. Press the ends of the pretzel gently to form a seal. Repeat on all your dough cylinders.

Or not bother and make little twists like I did
Step 10: Bring your water to a boil in your large pot/deep pan and slowly add the baking soda to the water as it comes to temperature  (it will fizz like the carbonation in soda). Working carefully, boil the pretzels in the water/soda solution 3-6 at a time for 30 seconds a batch, splashing the tops with the warmed water using a spoon. Remove with a large flat slotted spatula or spoon.



Step 11: Place the boiled pretzels on your greased baking sheets, then brush the tops with the egg wash and season liberally with sea salt (or cinnamon and sugar if you're doing the sweet version). Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until pretzels are golden brown and WOOT, you've finally got some stuffed soft pretzels!



FAQ

What's with the boiling? Can't I just toss the pretzels in the oven once I've folded them?

You could, but then they really wouldn't be pretzels. The boiling process is where we get the Maillard reaction which, in turn, is what gives pretzels their distinct flavor and color. It's kind of unwieldy to do, but the boiling is completely worth it in the end.

You didn't specify what kind of Greek yogurt/milk/apple! What do I choose?

Pretty much any variety of those will work just fine; the selection ultimately comes down to your preference. Feel free to experiment with different fat contents in your milk/yogurt/cheese or any variety of apple.

I don't have a cooking thermometer. How do I ensure that I don't kill the yeast when I warm up the water/beer/cider or add the melted butter?

If you're in doubt, give the liquid a touch test. It should feel pleasantly warm (would make a warm, but suitable bath or shower). As mentioned above, another trick is letting the liquid sit at room temperature for the same amount of time that it was in your microwave.

Is it possible to let the dough rise too much?

Yes, but you'd have to let it rise for a long time before it got to that point. If the dough starts to smell more like beer than bread, pull it out of the bowl.

Making the dough stresses me out! Can I just use pre-made or frozen dough?

Definitely. Just follow the maker's instructions on thawing/rising, then make your filling. The only drawback to using pre-made dough is that it won't have the deep hoppy flavor or extra apple punch from the beer/cider.

As always, best of luck in your culinary adventures!
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