Post Christmas Dissection

Clearing away the Christmas debris, I’m back at my desk for another festive post. Also there will be pictures of turkey preparation in this post, so if you’re bothered by that sort of thing then this may be one to miss.

Christmas Day has come and gone, and I’m still getting over the post-dinner coma. Food, drink, presents. What else could you want? Oh yes, plenty of gaming.

Fun with Food

Christmas, for as long as I remember, has always been a time to experiment with food. New recipes, new desserts. Trying weird and wonderful fruits. This year I got hold of some Caspian caviar and a black truffle, which is much more exotic than our usual Christmas fare. The truffle made it onto a Christmas eve carbonara, and the caviar accompanied burrata cheese and smoked salmon on blinis.

Turkey Time

As I mentioned in the Christmas Eve post, my turkey game plan was slightly different this year. As with last year, the turkey was a bronze free range bird from Rosamondford Farm up near Exeter but instead of a dry brining, I opted for spatchcocking and an overnight brine. The brining took place in the traditional wine fermentation bucket with a combination of salt, sugar, bay leaves, peppercorns, lemon and garlic. The difference in cooking time after spatchcocking was crazy, taking 80 minutes rather than over three hours. To be honest, it probably would’ve been done a little earlier if I was being more vigilant with the internal temperature.

The spatchcocking process wasn’t as onerous as I was expecting, and after sterilising some secateurs it was turkey time. First, the turkey is placed breast-side down, then using turkey shears or an equivalent tool you cut down either side of the backbone, reserving it for the gravy. Removing the wishbone can make it easier to carve later, although I omitted this step. Then the turkey is turned over again and flattened out. The idea is to create a more even surface for cooking, allowing even browning all over and ensuring the breast isn’t over done. There’s no cavity for stuffing, although you can lay the turkey on top of a bed of stuffing instead. I opted to place chopped carrots, celery and onion in the bottom of the tray instead along with a little water.

With the turkey we had the mandatory trimmings. Roast potatoes, mashed potato and sweet potato with black truffle, braised red cabbage, bacon-wrapped chipolatas, roasted carrots and parsnips, Yorkshire puddings, stuffing, and Brussels sprouts cooked with pancetta and kale. It was a mammoth plate of food but delicious all the same.

Pannettone Panic

The plan for Christmas dessert included a Bailey’s trifle, chocolate babka and pannettone. Anyone with a basic understanding of baking might think that seems a tad ambitious considering I was also baking the madeira cake that would serve as a base for the trifle. Two of those aforementioned baked goods also require rising and proofing (with an overnight rise in the fridge for the pannettone). Ambition clouded my judgement, although I had to check that and instead (for once) opted not to cook myself into oblivion. I pushed the pannettone and babka to another day, and I’m glad I did that. We could barely make room for dessert on Christmas evening let alone two additional desserts. Part of the reason I held off on making any bread-related items was my weakling mixer which has now been upgraded to 1200W motor, perfect for kneading dough.

Pannettone is a kind of sweet bread originating in Milan, most often containing fruit soaked in alcohol. I couldn’t get hold of the right size of paper/card pannettone moulds, so instead I bought a springform version that would hold around a kilo of dough. The recipe I went for was from Simply Recipes on the basis that it was well rated, and explained the logic behind some deviations from the traditional recipe. For example, the Simply Recipes version opted to use a sponge raising method which takes around 45 minutes before it’s ready to use compared with the traditional approach which uses a biga starter which is similar to sourdough but adds a day to the baking process. My attempt was complicated by an overlong proving period as we had to travel to Somerset, then baking in a different (inferior) gas oven with a dodgy thermostat. It wasn’t perfect (the centre didn’t bake completely and the outside was overdone) but the bits that did cook properly were delicious, and tasted like a more festive version of brioche.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War

As part of a long held Christmas tradition, the evening is spent lounging around recovering from excessive amounts of food, watching some TV and playing games. I rejoined PS Plus over the Black Friday sales period and was browsing my extensive catalogue of unplayed games and stumbled upon Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Sequel to the 2014 Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War puts you in the shoes of Talion, a ranger of Gondor who, through the course of events in the first game, is bonded to the wraith of Celebrimbor, an Elvish prince from the Second Age. I had limited experience of Lord of the Rings adjacent games but the premise was interesting enough for me to boot it up.

How did I miss this game? It’s fantastic. It takes the best aspects of stealth from Assassin’s Creed and combines them with a satisfying combat system and meaningful character progression, not to mention some interesting squad combat mechanics. To sum the gameplay up, you run around killing orcs (Uruk) and face off against Captains who have special abilities and weaknesses which can be discovered by interrogating certain other orcs (Worms). Eventually you fight Warchiefs and Overlords as you work your way up the orc hierarchy. Later in the game you gain the ability to recruit orcs to fight for you and capture fortresses for your own. Suddenly the aim shifts from just beating the orcs into submission to utilising them in your fight against Sauron (of course, by first beating them into submission).

Although I enjoyed this game from the beginning, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t confused by the sheer number of mechanics at play. It quickly becomes overwhelming as more and more layers are added and you find yourself progressing from “Press button to hit” to “Press these buttons for this, those buttons for that, at this specific time use these buttons” but it does get better. Before long, Talion is sprinting into enemy bases, climbing a tower to stealthily assassinate an archer, jumping off said tower and falling while using slow motion archery to take out a few more orcs and laying into a Captain as soon as he hits the ground.

A huge thing for me is that I want to unlock abilities. Each one feels worthwhile, so much so that I want to pick them all at once, but they do feel powerful. I had the opposite experience in Cyberpunk 2077 where most of the abilites felt very incremental and made little difference to the way I played the game. And there were far, far too many in that game. Shadow of War manages to fit it all on one page, which is ideal. No janky complicated interface, either. All of the user interface stuff is superb. When you’re learning about the orc hierarchy in a region, you’re presented with a model-like map showing the different Captains on the ground, Warchiefs up on the battlements of the fortress, and overlord in the keep.

The army screen in Shadow of War, showing the current orc hierarchy in this fortress

This was definitely one of the best if not the best games I’ve played this year. It seems like the basic gameplay could get repetitive, but the Captains are so varied in appearance and traits right down to unique and often hilarious dialogue that I haven’t got bored of it so far. Wandering around looking for some objective or other only to be ambushed by a Captain you thought was dead is thoroughly enjoyable. I am yet to try Shadow of Mordor, but I can thoroughly recommend Shadow of War.

A boxing day walk on the Hoe

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