Dark Chocolate and Basil Truffles

A geek-a-liscious literary experience

It’s World War II and the allies have cracked the encryption of a major Axis communication codes. How can they act without revealing their access to this precious intelligence? Detachment 2702, overweight a rag-tag group of soldiers and intelligence agents, viagra sale is dispatched to create believable (and hilarious) alibis to justify why German and Japanese convoys keep getting sunk.

It’s the late ’90s and the grand-children of two Detachment 2702 members are part of an IT start-up venture in the Philippines. The discovery of a sunken WWII German submarine filled with gold leads to a set of encrypted punched cards that may contain the location of an even bigger Japanese war treasure hoard.

This genre defying novel is in fact a mashup of many stories: a WWII spy action, medicine a harrowing death camp escape, a modern-day treasure hunt yarn, a philosophical mathematics treatise and a high-finance techno thriller. All of these narratives are tied together with a profound insight into geek culture and an unrestricted glee for hyperbole of hysterical proportions.

One of its many themes is the invention of the digital computer, with particular attention to its use in cryptology (encryption), communication and currency. The word “Cryptonomicon” itself refers to a fictional book summarizing mankind’s knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

Stephenson has a knack for explaining complex concepts in the most entertaining way. For instance, he’ll use graphs and formulas to describe absolutely ludicrous situations as a means to illustrate some of his more abstract themes. He will also often segue into seemingly unrelated side-stories, such as a letter to Penthouse about furniture and stockings or the tale of a wisdom tooth removal from hell. Far from being annoying, these are some of the most entertaining aspects of the book.

Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite novels of all time. Reading this 1,100 pages behemoth has become an almost-yearly ritual for me. The reason I come back to this book over and over again is because of the sheer density and enjoyability of its material. Every reading brings a smile to my face and sheds new light into its many concepts and plot points.

Beyond History

Neil Stephenson, previously known for high-tech, high-concept science-fiction novels such as Snow Crash (virtual worlds) and The Diamond Age (nanotechnology), chose the historical fiction genre for this crazy chimera of a novel. Notable historical figures featured in Cryptonomicon are: Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan. We also encounter names that have the ring of familiarity such as Electrical Till Company (ETC), a reference to IBM (Idea Business Machines), a WIRED-like TURING magazine and a scrappy Finnish open-source operating system called “Finux”.

A cornucopia of themes

I will now simply list some of the themes covered in Cryptonomicon. Hopefully, this should give you an idea of the relentless fountain of craziness and though-provoking substance of this most unusual book:

  • What is encryption and why it’s so important;
  • Cracking an encryption code
  • The autistic-like nature of nerds and geeks;
  • Start-ups, NDA’s and business plans;
  • Pen-and-paper vs computer and card-based role-playing games;
  • The impact of horniness on concentration and the relative merits of self-administered relief;
  • Information theory and all the ways that information can leak our of a communication channel;
  • Mastering UNIX and TCP/IP;
  • Customizing a Linux-like fictional operating system to its core;
  • Building a digital computer using pipes and sound;
  • Encrypting messages using a deck of playing cards
  • Setting up a data haven;
  • Creating an electronic currency;
  • The social etiquette of the military;
  • The difference between Athena and Ares, the two gods of War from Greek mythology, and how this relates to WWII;
  • The optimal way to eat a bowl of Capt’n Crunch breakfast cereals;
  • The effectiveness of publishing encryption schemes vs keeping them secret;
  • Using anonymizer proxy services to protect your anonymity;
  • Using Zeta functions to generate pseudo-random numbers;
  • Eavesdropping on the contents of a computer display by detecting its electromagnetic emissions (Van Eck phreaking);
  • Using character classes from the Lord of The Ring as a way to categorize people;
  • Genocides and mass murders;
  • The logistics of digging a hidden treasure hoard in a mountain using slave labor;
  • Libertarian paranoia and gun culture;
  • And more, more, more!!!

Relevancy

When Stephenson published Cryptonomicon in 1999, the Web had reached mainstream status and was just starting to impact the life of everyone. Windows NT and 95 were still widely used and cell-phones with worldwide coverage were an oddity. How well has this novel aged and is it still relevant today?

Most of the forward-looking tech stuff has since become old news. However, the adventure is still thrilling, the jokes still gut-splitting and its insight are still significant.

Overall, I would still recommend it to anyone passionate about WWII, computers and Big Ideas as well as to anyone interested in learning more about the puzzling psychology of geeks and nerds.

Prequels

Following Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote a prequel of a sort to this story. Published in three back-breaking 1,500+ pages volumes, this “Baroque Trilogy” (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) is set in the 17th century and deals with the same dominant themes of Cryptonomicon (currency, computers, treasure hunts, etc.). Its main protagonists include famous Historical figures, such as Isaac Newton and Louis XIV, as well as ancestors of many Cryptonomicon characters and a mysterious, long-lived Alchemist.

While its tone doesn’t attempts to be as consistently comic as Cryptonomicon, the Baroque trilogy is a hugely entertaining follow-up. If you enjoy diving deep into witty, meandering, though-provoking stories, these ones are for you!

Links

Photo sources: Flickr and uboatarchive.net

“Jipi and the Paranoid Chip” is a science fiction short story by Neal Stephenson that appeared in Forbes Magazine’s July 7, 1997 issue. It is part of the Baroque Cycle/ Cryptonomicon universe.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

The holidays bring many opportunities to host and attend various potlucks, pill
dinners and parties. One of the eternal questions during the season becomes “What should I bring?” As it turns out, homemade chocolate truffles are a surprisingly easy, impressive and downright tasty option to have in your arsenal.

This particular truffle combines the complex, smokey and nutty flavors of a good dark chocolate with the bright herb profiles of basil. I know what you are thinking, but the combination of chocolate and basil is remarkably compelling.

Step by Step Recipe

Begin by finely chopping 12 ounces of 40 to 60 percent chocolate and 12 ounces of 70 percent or higher chocolate. You need the lower percentage chocolate to add some sweetness to the final truffle, and the darker richer chocolate for that deep smoky flavor. Put the chopped chocolate in a large bowl.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Roughly chop a large handful of basil. You do not want the basil chopped too fine, just enough to release the essential oils from the leaves. You could also use mint, tarragon or shiso depending on your mood and preferences, but chocolate and basil is an outstanding pairing, I promise!

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Add 1 1/3 cup of heavy cream to a heavy-bottomed small pan. Add the basil and salt. Bring the cream up to a boil 2 times, cooling it between the first and second boiling.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

When the cream comes to a boil the second time, strain the hot cream over the chopped chocolate, mashing any big pieces with a spoon.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Stir the mixture together in a circular pattern from the center and working your way to the edge with a wooden spoon. When you first start the stirring, the chocolate will look lumpy and almost curdled; do not freak out. The ganache will soon be smooth, glossy, and beautiful.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

When the ganache is smooth and glossy, pour the mixture into a shallow 9×12 aluminum baking dish that you have lined with saran wrap. Cover the mixture with more saran wrap, making sure that the saran wrap touches the ganache as this will prevent a “skin” from developing as the ganache cools. Place in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours until the mixture has completely chilled.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

After the ganache has chilled, remove it from the fridge and pull it out of the baking dish. Unwrap the block of ganache and place on a cutting board.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

Using a very sharp knife, cut the ganache into small, bite sized pieces. Place the pieces onto a plate with sugar and roll the pieces in the sugar until they are thinly and evenly coated. Shake off any excess sugar and place the truffle pieces on a serving plate. Depending on how big you cut your pieces, you can expect between 60 to 100 pieces when you are finished.

Photo Credit: Brian Rountree

You can store the truffles in the refrigerator and they will keep for a week or two.

Makes about 60 to 100 truffles

Variations

This recipe can be tweaked with any number of other flavors to keep things interesting. Consider replacing the basil with any of the following:

  • Curry powder
  • Chipotle chiles
  • Tarragon
  • Espresso powder

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces milk or mild chocolate (40% – 60% cacao)
  • 12 ounces dark chocolate (70% or higher cacao)
  • 1 bunch of basil, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Sugar for dusting

Espresso Machine Buyer’s Guide

Photo Credit: Jimmy G

When looking into buying an espresso machine it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed with choice, price and it can be hard to know where to start. In this guide I’ll point out some of things you need to know when choosing the right machine for brewing espresso at home or in an office environment.

Budget

The first thing you need to do is decide how much you want to spend. This will then inform which bracket of machines you should be looking at. Also, viagra it’s important to note that spending a lot of money on an espresso machine will not get you very far if you don’t have a reasonable grinder to tweak the grind of your coffee for your shiny new machine. One solution to this is to accept that you’ll get ground coffee for the first few months of owning your machine and then get a better grinder when you can afford it.

This is the route I’ve taken and it worked out well because I ended up with a better grinder having been able to save up for it and research it properly. It’s not uncommon to spend at least £300 GBP to get a really good quality burr grinder.

Note all prices quoted are based on prices of products available in the UK at the time of writing.

The Anatomy of an Espresso Machine

Before we dive into different machine technologies, women’s health let’s take a look at the anatomy of a typical espresso machine.

First, you have the portafilter (or group handle) for brewing espresso, which fits into the grouphead. Usually you’ll have one grouphead on a home machine while in cafes it’s common to see 2, 3 and 4 groupheads.

The portafilter is the part with the handle on one end and the basket on the other containing the coffee. This plugs into the grouphead. When brewing, hot water from the grouphead pushes through the coffee in the portafilter and then pours out of its spouts into your cup.

Next you have the steam wand. This provides steam controlled via a tap for heating milk. It’s used to make micro-foam for milk drinks. It’s also ace for hot chocolate!

Lastly you have a hot water tap. On some machines this function is shared with the steam wand. On more expensive machines it’s a dedicated tap. This simply provides hot water in order to make Americanos and can be used for tea too if you want!

Manual, Semi-automatic or Automatic?

Machines come in four types; manual, semi-auto, auto and super-auto. Let’s take a look at the differences of each one.

Manual

A manual machine is typically a lever operated machine where you manually control the pumping of the water through the coffee. Some are spring assisted but you get the idea. Whilst these machines look cool it takes a lot of patience to get good results especially with machines that don’t have a spring that does the work for you.

Semi-automatic

This kind of machine is probably the most common and a good choice all-around. Semi-autos allow you to control the pump so you can switch it off when you decide it’s time to stop. This is handy as it allows fine control over the whole process and is especially good for when you are experimenting with different coffees and grinder settings. Unless you are setting up a cafe or providing a machine for a large office where a machine with auto modes would probably be useful, this is the type of machine to go for.

Automatic

An auto machine is one which provides preset volumes for single and double espressos etc. This feature is a necessity in commercial machines where you are likely to be cranking coffees out with everything dialled in. In high end machines you’ll find they often have semi-auto style controls in addition to the presets.

Super-automatic

There’s a fourth type of machine called “super-automatic” which does the whole coffee-making process including grinding, tamping, brewing and milk-frothing. As this requires no user interaction (which removes all the fun imho) I haven’t included that type of machine as part of the guide.

Espresso Machine Price Brackets

So once you’ve got the money you’ll be looking at machines in one of the following 3 brackets, which are really divided by the type of technology used.

Single Boiler (£100 to £400)

Single Boiler machines use the same boiler for brewing and the provision of steam. This compromise means that you have to wait to get steam after brewing and also if you’ve just used the steamer you can’t jump straight back to brewing because you’ll need to clear the steam first. These machine are a good starting point if you’re not sure you’ll really get into coffee. The downside of such machines is that it’s fairly easy to outgrow them if you start to really geek out over coffee. The main issue is that single boiler machines generally lack precise temperature controls. This means the temperature of the water at the grouphead will vary slightly every time you brew your coffee. This will mean you won’t have enough control to get the best out of “fussy” coffees where a few degrees of temperature difference will radically change the flavours extracted from the coffee. That said, you’ll find that there are plenty of coffee’s available where you’ll get perfectly reasonable results.

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Can provide really good results
  • Great for modding to add digital temperature controls

Cons:

  • No precise temperature controls
  • Can’t brew espresso and use the steamer simultaneously
  • Fine for home but wouldn’t be suitable for use in the workplace unless it would see limited use

A good example of the higher end of this bracket would be something like the Rancilio Silvia, which is a semi-auto machine. It’s a good choice because it’s tough, and the portafilter is the same as one you’ll find on a pro Rancilio machine. They’re also popular candidates for modding; there’s a number of places you can get kits to add digital temperature controls to these models or even hack together your own using an arduino board.

Single Boiler Heat Exchanger Models (~£600 to £1300)

This next level retains the single boiler approach but adds a heat exchanger. The way this works is that water for the brewing process is heated via pipework within the boiler. This way you can brew and then immediately use the steamer and vice versa, adding a lot more flexibility. The majority of the machines you will see at this price bracket will be semi-automatic machines.

Flexibility brings an increase in price. As you start to look at machines in this range it is more likely that you’ll also start to find machines that have digital thermostat switching. This means you can control the temperatures of brewing much more closely. All of this control means it becomes more possible to control more of the variables that will affect the extraction process.

Some examples of machines in this bracket would be the Expobar Office Pulser at the bottom end of this bracket (£609) and the Quick Mill Andreja Premium at the higher end (£1,149).

Pros:

  • Much better control over the extraction process.
  • Flexibility of being able to switch between brewing and steaming
  • Would be suited for use in an office

Cons:

  • More expensive (obviously!)

Dual Boiler Models (~£1000 to £3000 and beyond!)

Dual boilers do away with the heat exchanger and replace it with two dedicated boilers. These kinds of machines are almost certainly out of reach for most home baristas. Though there are some machines available at the lower end of the range, such as the Expobar Leva Dual Boiler which at time of writing is available for (~£969) from Bella Barista.

The idea behind dual boiler machines is that having a dedicated boiler for brewing and a dedicated boiler for steaming provides an even greater level of control. In addition to dual boilers, you also start to see automatics with features such as programmable volumes when you get into this price bracket. Programmable volumes allow you to dial in the exact volume of water to be dispensed for single and double espressos etc.

Pros:

  • Can’t get more control over brewing variables than this
  • Time to open a coffee shop!

Cons:

  • More expensive (ya rly!)
  • More difficult to maintain
  • Physically larger so you’ll need more space

In this bracket at one end you have cheaper models like the Expobar Leva Dual (~£969) and the Izzo Alex Duetto (~£1600) and at the other end you have awesomeness such as the La Marzocco GS/3 (£4143.74). For me this machine is coffee machine equivalent of the Wayne’s World guitar – One day you will be mine!

Before Diving In

Before you dive in and make a purchase, be sure to spend some time researching the models you are interested in. There are plenty of coffee forums around which will be chock full of user’s opinions of the machines they’ve bought and are using on a daily basis. This kind of practical information can be really useful in making an informed decision, rather than just going on specs alone.

Happy brewing!

Becoming a Coffee Nerd

I got into the habit of buying a coffee every day when I started working in London. Every day I’d make my pilgrimage to the local coffee shop, ed get my coffee and often it wouldn’t last the rest of the walk to the office. I found a nice cup of coffee set-up my morning perfectly, bronchitis helping me feel wide awake and getting me into the stride of the day’s work.

Someone suggested I visit Flat White, a local independent coffee shop. Once I’d been there my eyes were opened, their flat whites were smaller than the large lattes I’d been drinking, but the flavour was the thing that stood out. At that time they were brewing the local Monmouth Coffee’s Expresso blend, heavily dosed and brewed at ~93º (I once overheard one of the baristas describing the brew recipe in detail). The flavour was rounded, chocolaty and nutty, yet at the same time there was this wonderful flavour that hinted at black treacle. For anyone wondering what a flat white is, it’s similar to a latte except that it’s usually served in a smaller cup and it often contains double espresso to make it a fairly strong short coffee.

Experiencing Flat White made me realise that the coffee available in the good independent coffee shops was amazing. I started to seek out the best cafes near to where I worked, Fernandez and Wells, Sacred and the newly opened sister of Flat White, The Milk Bar. Experiencing such good coffee every day made the worst coffee stand out. I began to notice when machines weren’t being cleaned properly and I could swear it got to the point where I could tell if a coffee was going to be bad by the sound of the steam – too much noise meant the milk was likely to be scalding hot or burnt.

The Guerilla Baristas

At the time I started to get into coffee in a big way I was working with a great web team who all enjoyed coffee, so we decided to club together and buy a machine for us to use at work. This had hilarious consequences as we worked long hours inadvertently over-caffeinating ourselves as we learnt how to use the machine.

During this time we kept the machine to ourselves to prevent people using it and damaging the machine by not knowing how to operate it. This nearly went wrong when some sales droids from the floor above commandeered the machine and started to burn the coffee badly by brewing it with steam. We discovered them when the smell of burnt coffee wafted around the corner.

Ultimately our team coffee experience came to an end when we came up against some over-zealous facilities staff who had decided staff couldn’t be trusted to operate a toaster let alone an espresso machine. We managed to get off the hook for a couple of months but after our machine was confiscated we had to call it a day.

The Home Barista

It wasn’t long before I bought a machine to use at home, followed shortly by the purchase of a grinder so I could dial in the perfect grind. I then spent lots of time experimenting and learning as much as possible how to balance all of the variables in making espresso. I worked within the limits of the machine I got to a point where I was pretty happy with the results.

An important part of the process was that of which coffee to brew. I’d tried coffee from Drury, Monmouth, Square Mile Coffee Roasters and Hasbean but in the last couple of years or so I’ve been buying the majority of my coffees from Square Mile and Hasbean who are probably the finest roasters in the country at the moment (imho).

The main thing here is finding coffee that works well with your machine. My machine (a Rancilio Silvia) doesn’t have the ability to control the temperature exactly so without that control I have to find coffees that are forgiving of not being brewed at a very specific temperature. Experimentation has found that some coffees seem to really lend themselves to being brewed by a home machine with great results every time. Other coffees can be hard work and difficult to get right and you’d only find perfection with them if you could set a very specific brew temp. That said, it is possible to pimp up a machine like mine with a digital temperature control but I’ve not yet explored that route.

Since  buying my own machine I’ve also spent lots of time attempting to perfect my latte art skills. For milk drinks this is all important as the milk must not  be over-heated. Also the aim is to create a textured microfoam, where the individual bubbles are barely visible. Spooning great lumps of foam into a cup is a definite no-no, your coffee should not resemble a bubble-bath in a cup. When the milk is just right I can manage a resaonable attempt at a rosette. The rosette is achieved by pouring the milk, zig-zagging from side to side using less width as you get to the edge of the cup  and then pouring a straight-line back through the pattern.

All this prancing around isn’t just for showing off, rosettes and other latte art are only possible if the texture of milk is perfect so it’s one indicator of a good coffee.

Finding Good Coffee Shops

The most noticeable thing is that lots of the great independent coffee shops brew great coffee because they are really passionate about coffee, they understand it and they know how to get the best results from their machines and the beans they are using. By contrast, the worst coffee comes from places which don’t care, they don’t clean their machines regularly and they steam their milk within an inch of it’s life.

The best tip is find a good independent. Most chains sell average coffee at best, and shockingly bad coffee at their worst. Interestingly several chains have started offering flat whites following the success of the independent coffee shops. I’ve tested some of these wares and I have to say, the one I had wasn’t a flat white, it tasted awful and was so hot I could have boiled an egg in it. So I’d personally avoid this sorry attempt at trying to emulate the success of independents at all costs.

Simple Brewing at Home or Work

If there aren’t any good coffee shops near you then consider buying an espresso machine for your work-place if you think you won’t run into trouble running it. If an espresso machine is too extravagant then consider using a French Press or Aeropress. Espressos and espresso-based drinks are great but French Presses and Aeropresses are great ways to brew coffee. The results are different but can be equally satisfying. If you do go that route be sure to look for brew recipes to help tweak the best results from whatever coffee equipment you are using. For example Square Mile has some excellent video brew recipes for brewing with a French Press. Another benefit to starting simple is that if you start with a French Press you can always step up to an espresso machine later on.

Happy brewing!

Make Beer

We—the makers of the Web—like to do just that: make.

We build sites, store applications, frameworks and tools. We write articles, organize conferences, populate social networks, record podcasts, create blogs, aggregate data, design typefaces, and shoot video. We get a kick out of making things—any type of things. If we’re not making things, we’re changing things.

For me, the non-web thing comes in liquid form. I’ve been making beer for around 8 years, now (and making good beer for over 3).

The hobby is extremely rewarding (you get to drink the results), and I’ve met many different kinds of people through my brewing obsession—a much more diverse group than we web geeks.

Getting started isn’t terribly expensive (you can buy the necessary equipment and ingredients for your first batch for not much more than the equivalent amount of beer), and it’s truly easy to make something drinkable.

You can extend your skills, upgrade your equipment, and hone your knowledge as much or as little as you like, and if you catch the brewing bug, you might just find yourself with a kegerator full of tasty beer—on tap!

So, find your local homebrew shop, or your local brewing club, ask some questions, read howtobrew.com, join the community, and get started. Beer wants to be made (and let’s face it: you want to drink it).

Temperature Matters

Temperature matters. Whether you’re grilling a steak or cooking rice, ask
the chemical reactions in food occur in well-defined temperature ranges. One protein in steak, stomatology
myosin, begins to denature around 122°F, while another, actin, doesn’t do so until around 150°F. The starches in rice begin to gelatinize—absorb water and swell up—around 160-175°F.

Why is this important? Because it’s these reactions that we care about when cooking. The reason medium-rare steak is so, well, yummy, is because a large percentage of the myosin proteins are denatured (which changes its texture) while most of the actin proteins remain native. (There’s no general rule about denature protein having better texture; it just happens that we find the texture of meats with myosin denatured and actin native to be more pleasing.) With rice, the temperature has to get even hotter. This is why we don’t generally simmer lean meats in pots of rice: the meat would overcook before the rice has a chance to gelatinize.

Next time you step into the kitchen, take a minute to think about what effects you want to achieve. And keep in mind whether you’re roasting meat or grilling it, the proteins in the meat are going to undergo changes at the same temperature points, albeit a bit faster (and with a steeper doneness gradient) in the hotter environment of a grill. Instead of thinking about the temperature of the environment, think about the temperature of the food itself, and go from there.

© 2010 Jeff Potter; released under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

http://www.cookingforgeeks.com

If you’re the innovative type who asks why just as often as what, my book, “Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food” will show you a new way to approach the kitchen. See http://www.cookingforgeeks.com/ to learn more.

Beer: Also Magical and Revolutionary

One side-benefit of traveling for work is that I’ve been able to broaden my horizons in many areas, psychiatrist but a hobby that I’ve chosen to focus on is beer sampling. Visiting foreign cities has helped me escape the beer desert of my home in Montreal, and has allowed me to taste many delicious brews that I would otherwise never have had the pleasure of imbibing.

As web professionals, we’re often called upon to attend—or speak at—conferences. The events that surround the main schedule are as important as the conferences, themselves. This is where communities are formed, and where ideas are refined. These after-hours social sessions are often coincidentally held at establishments that serve beer.

If you have functioning taste buds, this coincidence is a huge opportunity for your mouth.

In the past couple years, I’ve been able to attend some of North America’s best beer bars, and sample some of the world’s best brews, all without incurring huge personal travel costs.

Uniting friends through deliciousness is an art, and one that I take seriously. We’ve shared bottles at the Map Room in Chicago, tasted the incredible menu at Russian River near San Francisco, put a dent in Taco Mac‘s bottle list in Atlanta, drank on Microsoft’s dime at the Taphouse Grill near Seattle, exhausted the Lost Abbey supply at The Brickskeller in Washington D.C., and completely took over Beer Table in Brooklyn for an evening (just to name a few).

Next time you’re gathering a group, post-conference, to hack on a project or hone your newest web ideas, leave the overpriced hotel bar behind, find an interesting tap list, and venture into the wonderful world of tasty malt and hops (or sour beers if you’re feeling particular adventurous).