Favourite Recipes, Baked Goods Edition: Cornbread and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Deliciously and moist cornbread

When I was vegetarian but not vegan, I was very skeptical about vegan sweets and baked goods. I would visit Fresh restaurant in Toronto and devour everything on the lunch or dinner menu, but never even try the (vegan) desserts. Obviously, I was way wrong and ignorant. I know now that vegan sweets and baked goods are every bit as wonderful as the traditional ones, and even better for being made with compassion.

Here are two of my favourite baking recipes, for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and cornbread. These aren’t my own recipes; I’m a baking beginner. Both of these recipes can be whipped up and in the oven in less than five minutes (seriously). Both are absolutely top-notch and ensure that you’ll never have to look for another oatmeal chocolate chip cookie or cornbread recipe.

Cornbread

This recipe for cornbread from Pickles and Honey is perfect. Ridiculously easy and virtually foolproof, the cornbread is delicious either as directed, or with endless variations like added jalapenos, vegan cheddar, roasted corn, or whatever else you’d like to throw in. I follow the recipe exactly and don’t make any changes (except add-ins).  Served warm and smeared with some vegan butter or margarine it is so, so good.

Cornbread

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Growing up, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies were my favourite sweet by a large margin. After going vegan I tried several recipes with variable results. This recipe from Vegan Occasions blew my socks off when I tried it. R. loves them, my mom loves them, everyone loves them.

Recipe tweaks: I find that the cookies are just as good with 1 cup loosely packed sugar, rather than the 1.25 cups called for. You can also trade off a little bit of the oil for extra juice (apple or orange juice work equally well) if you like.  If you’re using mini vegan chocolate chips rather than the stadard size, I suggest reducing the amount to 3/4 of a cup.

Important: Don’t overcook these cookies! I find that they take about 10 minutes. Watch them like a hawk for the last couple of minutes and remove as soon as they start to turn the slightest bit golden. If they do end up getting a bit too much time in the oven, they will cool crispy rather than chewy. They’re still great, but I suggest a few seconds in the microwave to soften them up before serving if they’ve cooled hard.

Best cookies EVER

Game Review – Alice: Madness Returns

R. and I downloaded this game through the Playstation store one recent evening, basing our purchase solely on distant memories of playing its predecessor, American McGee’s Alice, on a PC over ten years ago.  We enjoyed the first Alice game for its dark twist on the familiar (and already dark) tale of Alice in Wonderland, and for its beautifully psychedelic environments and characters; it even featured a blunderbuss well before the steampunk renaissance of recent years.  For $20, we figured we’d get some fun of out a new installment while waiting for some other titles to be released (cough cough… DARK SOULS 2).

This action-adventure title, developed by EA and Spicy Horse and released in 2011, was exactly what I expected: fun, full of easy puzzles and variably difficult battles with interesting and wacky enemies, rounded out by an engaging story.

The storyline, delivered largely in appealing 2-D cutscenes, revolves around Alice Liddell, a young woman who is haunted by the murky memory of her family perishing in a housefire for which Alice may or may not have been responsible.  She resides in a sort of minimum-security asylum, and I liked the way the story used themes of mental illness and psychosis (though admittedly in an entirely superficial way) to explore Alice’s forays into a warped and dangerous new version of Wonderland.  The familiar characters are present, albeit in forms altered and twisted from those depicted in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books: the Cheshire Cat; the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse; the Caterpillar; the White Knight and Queen of Hearts; along with a truly despicable new adversary.  As the story of Alice and her quest to unravel her memories deepens, it enters some extremely dark and quite disturbing territory, especially in the final chapters.

Image from electricblueskies.com

The environments are predictably beautiful, ranging from lush and luminous forests, to card castles in the air, to labyrinthine caverns of pulsating flesh.  The art design is similar to the first Alice title and provides a lot of ambience that makes up for sometimes repetitive jump, lever, and platform puzzles.  The game is highly linear, and one significant complaint I had about the game progression is that the path taken regularly closes behind, meaning that backtracking to double-check for hidden items or optional challenge rooms isn’t possible.

The gameplay is simple, using a small repertoire of moves and weapons.  Using double- and triple-jumps, paired with a gliding ability, Alice precariously navigates a world of ledges, moving platforms, and easily-solved puzzles, collecting teeth to use as currency in weapon upgrades.  There are lots of secret areas to find and explore, and though most are pretty easy to spot, many have extra layers of “secretness;” you may find a hidden room containing a cache of teeth, but return to the main path too quickly and you might miss a false floor leading to yet another secret area with more collectables (the somewhat pointless “memories” and “bottles,” disappointingly serving only as collection achievements.)

Alice also has a fun “shrink” ability that allows her to temporarily see chalk markings indicating hidden items or upcoming enemies, otherwise-invisible platforms, and hidden miniature paths only accessible to a mouse-sized Alice.

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By the second of five chapters, Alice’s arsenal is fully stocked, with two melee and two projectile weapons, as well as a small explosive device that is useful mainly to distract enemies.  These weapons are upgraded using collected teeth, but the upgrades are global and don’t provide much noticeable difference other than a new colour and generally increased power.  Battles are fun and fast-paced, if repetitive, generally relying on a combination of projectiles to weaken or stun and melee attacks to do heavy damage.  When her health is almost depleted, Alice can go into “hysteria” mode (I love the nod to Victorian mental health terminology here) and fight invincibly for a few seconds in a last-ditch effort to finish the battle.

DLC content comes bundled with the game as currently available in the Playstation store.  Included are a range of alternative costumes, each of which comes with an overpowered ability or buff (except for the Cheshire outfit, which eliminates health drops from enemies), and alternative weapons, which are also overpowered.  I suppose these items are meant to facilitate play on the Nightmare difficulty setting (or perhaps for a second playthrough), but I wasn’t able to equip any of them on my first playthrough (on the Difficult setting) without resulting in a total lack of challenge in the game.  Which was a pity, because from an esthetic perspective the alternative dresses are fantastic, and I would have liked to be able to equip them without added abilities.

If you decide to play Alice: Madness Returns, know what to expect.  It is not a difficult nor wide-ranging game, but the visual appeal, new and very dark take on a familiar story, and well-paced gameplay make for a worthwhile foray.  If you need a game for a bad-weather weekend or some casual pick-up-and-play fun, it’s a good download for the money.

Image from electricblueskies.com

Post edited to add commentary on the DLC.

The Simpsons: Tapped Out – A Nostalgic, Delightful Simulator

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Back in November, R. downloaded a game onto to our iPad mini.  I hadn’t heard of The Simpsons: Tapped Out, and when he showed it to me after playing for a couple of days, I didn’t immediately get it.  Developed by EA, Tapped Out is a simulator featuring the Simpsons.   The game opens with a nuclear meltdown leveling Springfield.  The player’s task is to rebuild the town, unlocking characters by constructing their associated domiciles and buildings.  Delightfully, most of the characters are voiced, with new and true-to-character soundbites.

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Starting with only Homer and Lisa (a nice pair, as their odd-couple dialogue recalls the back-and-forth on the tv show), the player assigns tasks to characters that take a set amount of real time to complete, ranging from a few seconds to a full day.  Completion of tasks earns money and experience, gradually unlocking more buildings, characters, and decorations (everything from trees and plants to dumpsters and stop signs).  Gameplay therefore tends to happen in short (2-5 minute) bursts, every few hours or once a day or whatever you like.  The game is a free download with real-money microtransactions available to speed up completion of tasks or to get bonus goodies.  As a rule, I don’t do microtransactions (though I’d have been happy to pay a reasonable price for the full game) so I have played strictly the free game.

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It took only a few days of play for me to get hooked.  I’m told that Tapped Out has a very similar format to the once-ubiquitous Farmville, a game I haven’t played.  It’s clear to anyone that uses Facebook that Farmville was a highly addictive game, so it makes sense that Tapped Out is as well.  Plus, as a child/teen of the 90s, I am naturally a longtime Simpsons fan, so the chance to play a simulator featuring the beloved and familiar characters, town, animation style, and classic jokes is a real draw.  (For Valentine’s Day this year, one holiday-specific reward was a Choo-Choo-Choose You train.  I can’t pretend to be immune to such a delightful bit of nostalgia).

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Lots of games are loot-driven, or based on the general promise of unlocking new “things” that tempt the player ever forward.  Tapped Out combines this time-tested reward system with nostalgic familiarity, and that intersection is exactly where massive addictive potential is born.  If I was playing a game with similar gameplay but not based on anything familiar, I might be kind of looking forward to obtaining new characters (or whatever), but that drive would be based only on the desire to achieve (applicable to virtually every game) and perhaps some vague curiosity.

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Curiosity cannot compete with the feeling I get when I am assigned the task of building Springfield’s Buddhist Temple, which will unlock Lenny and Carl.  Lenny and Carl!  I love those guys, and their banter!  I can’t wait to see what their assignments, dialogue, and animations will be!  I gotta build that temple!  Or, I can build Burns Manor, and unlock Smithers.  He’s finally out of the closet!  He has some of the best animations!  (Some of his assignments: “Whip It” with his licorice whip, pictured below; “Become a Hideous Drunken Wreck”; “Exercise for Mr. Burns” by independently powering a two-person bike; etc.)  How delightful to hear Smithers finally exclaim “I’m experiencing a whole rainbow of gay feelings!” and more suggestively, “Mr. Burns has an enchanting musk…”  This is GOOD STUFF.

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Additionally, Tapped Out is constantly churning out seasonal updates.  For Valentine’s Day, there are lots of new missions and mini-plotlines.  (Players were gifted with the classic one-off character Mindy, Homer’s alluring coworker and near-mistress.)  There is also a heart currency introduced for a two-week period, which can be accrued a few different ways and traded for love-themed prizes and decorations.  The multiplayer component of Tapped Out, while generally minimal (you can visit other players’ Springfields and produce small amounts of cash for yourself and them by doing so), is more prominent as the main way to obtain hearts is to send Valentine cards to other players’ characters.  Christmas offered a similar selection of holiday-themed content, and even minor occasions like the Superbowl or (American) Presidents’ Day warrant mention and small gifts within the game.

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You never know what’s coming next in Tapped Out, but you can sure it’s going to be something you loved from the Simpsons, and that is what keeps you hooked.  For now, I’ll keep saving up money to build Rainier Wolfcastle’s mansion.  Up and at them!

Dragon Fruit, Arugula, and Avocado Salad

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This salad is a delicious combination of tastes and textures: fresh and creamy, bright and peppery.  It’s super easy and quick to make, with just a few ingredients!  Plus, it looks impressive and is perfect for serving guests; dragonfruit has a mild taste (I find it similar to kiwi) and shouldn’t scare off those who haven’t tried it before.

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Yield: 2 large or 4 side servings

  • 1 large dragon fruit
  • 1 package baby arugula
  • 2 avocados, peeled and diced
  • Juice of 1 lemon (or more, if you prefer)
  • ¼ cup olive oil (or less, if you prefer)
  • 2 teaspoons agave nectar

To prepare the dragon fruit, first cut it in half lengthwise.  Using a large spoon, separate the flesh from the rind.  Cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes.

Combine the arugula, dragon fruit, and diced avocado.

Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil and agave nectar.  Taste and adjust with more lemon juice if desired.  Pour the dressing over the salad, gently toss to coat, and serve immediately.  *If you aren’t ready to serve the salad, hold off on adding the dressing until just before serving.*  Enjoy!

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Favourite Recipes: Vegan Mac and Cheese

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This recipe from Fine Tune Pilates is touted as the best ever, and I have to agree.  I tried four or five different vegan mac and cheese recipes before finding this one, and it is by far the best I’ve had.  Plus it’s easy to make, and uses sweet potato as the sauce base, allowing you to sneak an extra veggie into this yummy pasta dish.  I make this dish regularly; R and I both love it.

I do make a couple of modifications from the original recipe.  First, I do not add whole sunflower seeds (though I do use them in the sauce).  Also, I use more kale than the recipe calls for; about twice as much.

More significantly, after preparing the recipe as written, I pour the whole thing into a casserole dish, top it with panko or breadcrumbs, top the crumbs with lots of tiny dots of vegan margarine, and bake it for about 25 minutes.  The crumbs add nice texture to the finished dish.  I like to eat it with ketchup (much to R’s chagrin), but it’s also great with just some fresh ground pepper, or even hot sauce.  Delicious!

My Dog is Famous! (Sort Of)

Upfront disclosure: This post is about neither food nor games. However, I could not resist posting about the fact that a video I took of my dog, Bieber, is having a mini-viral moment.

While the video has not exactly reached a stratospheric number of views, it has been picked up by RightThisMinute.com, who recorded a segment on the video which has been aired on tv (mostly as late-night filler, I suspect). R and I are so proud of our wonderful doggie boy!

(Before you ask: Yes, we got the idea for the name from a certain pop star. That was 4 years ago before this person was a total idiot. No, we were never fans of his. We just like the name!)

Dr. Mario Wii: My Occasional Addiction

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I recently started playing Dr. Mario again.  Every couple of years, I have a little stint of Dr. Mario and gorge myself, playing in half-hour increments, sometimes a few times a day.  Not on my NES; my cartridge is sadly unreliable.  On the Wii.  It’s an updated, downloadable game, and it’s amazing.  The gameplay is the same as in the original: drop bicoloured pills onto “viruses” to eliminate them, in a sort of amalgam of Tetris and Connect Four.  Perform combos to drop extraneous pieces onto your opponent’s game board.  The difference in the Wii version is that you now have the option of playing online against randomly-selected opponents.  The online arena is where shit gets real.

Well, sort of.  You certainly don’t get much information about your opponent.  Everyone is represented by their Mii (a custom, Wii-specific avatar), and their username.  I find it kind of fun to guess if people’s Miis are meant to be real likenesses (mine is) and to judge their username (“Lucy”; yeah I’m boring like that).  I’ve always been amused by the high frequencies of the names “Mom” and “Dad.”  Mostly Mom; if Miis are any indication, Dr. Mario seems to be played more by women than men.

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The only available communication between players occurs before and between games, and is limited to ten canned statements: “Hah!” “Ouch…” “You got me!” and so on.  The most contentious, to me, is “Good game!”  There are some players who say “Good game!” after every single match.  I know that there is some kind of sportsmanship thing going on here, but seriously.  We did not just play a sweaty, grunting, hour-long game of soccer on opposing teams; we spent 45 seconds pushing buttons without even laying eyes on each other.  I always feel obligated to echo the sentiment, lest I be seen as a poor sport.  (Why I do even care, in such an anonymous environment?  Human nature is fascinating.)  I don’t mind a “Good game!” after a particularly close or drawn-out game, but generally, I prefer to be the strong silent type.  However, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit, I feel a tinge of genuine delight on the occasions when I decide to randomly throw in my favourite of the available statements: “Neener neener!”

You might think you’ve played games that are fast-paced, but have you played online Dr. Mario?  High-level players drop pills so fast that it’s almost impossible to imagine that a human being is on the other end of the connection.  I consider one of my special skills in life to be the ability to maintain a solid game of Call of Duty Zombies while simultaneously playing indoor fetch with my dog.  When I play Dr. Mario, dog toys pile up on my lap as I am forced to ignore Bieber’s hopeful prodding.

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The level of precision required to rotate, align, and drop a pill in fractions of a second, using muscle memory rather than conscious planning, is astronomical.  I used to think I had two perfectly functioning Wiimotes, but it only took one minute of Dr. Mario to realize that one of them is ever so slightly off, as it occasionally jumps my pills an extra space to the left.  I honestly believe that no other game would have revealed this minute misfunction.

I’m reasonably skilled (though this time around, after a few years away, pretty rusty), but some of these players are jaw-dropping.  I’m always intimidated when I see someone whose number of wins (one of two stats available, the other being a weirdly uninformative “rating”) has maxed out the four digits available at 9999.  (These players are often named Mom.)  I won’t reveal my win count, because I don’t even like to acknowledge to myself how many minute-long games of Dr. Mario I’ve played, but I will say it’s a four-digit number.

I’ve been playing for about a week, and I can already feel myself become sated.  It’s for the best.  Dr. Mario makes a good little snack between proper, full-length games, but the pace burns you out quickly.  I’m glad to say I won’t reach 9999 wins… at least not anytime soon.

What have been your experiences with Dr. Mario?