Monday, November 21, 2022

Amaro Secondo

Following up on my last post, I processed my second batch of amaro last Friday. So far, I am using the clever name "Amaro Secondo" for it because I cannot think of anything else. Rather than following a formal recipe, I simply grabbed a bunch of things that I thought would be good together. I had some my help from my wife in finding and considering ingredients, and this is what I ended up using.

  • 2 tsp gentian root
  • 1 cardamom pod
  • 1 tsp dried orange peel
  • 8 dried juniper berries
  • 1 tsp lemongrass
  • 1 pinch dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 3 crushed roasted hazelnuts
I kept roughly the same volume of ingredients as in the first batch. I used a lot more gentian root after reading an article that suggested a much higher ratio of bittering agent to alcohol compared to the recipe I followed the first time. I did not include any fresh ingredients, in part because my friend who inspired me to try this had himself made two batches, one with fresh herbs and one with only dried. I also did not use the blender this time but instead beat up the ingredients by hand using a wooden muddler; this was not as effective as a mortar and pestle, but it did break up things like the cardamom pod and coriander seeds.

Whereas my first amaro was beautifully green during maceration, this one was a pale brown. However, after processing, I would have told you that they were about the same chartreuse color. Putting them next to each other, we can see that the first one is noticeably more colored than the second.

Two Amari (first batch on the left)

Tonight was the first time I tried them side by side. There's probably a right way to taste test amari, and my approach of just swishing some water between was almost certainly not it. The first batch has a more pleasant aroma than the second: hold it under your nose, and you pick up something between camphor and anise. The second one has almost no aroma at all. Sipping the first, it's again that camphor/anise that hits you first and strongest, with bitter undertones. The second one has a more bitter foundation that seems to change more in the aftertaste. I also pick up subtle notes of what I think is the coriander but may be the citrus peel, a sort of lemony flavor that is unlike the first.

I have a lot of amaro in my cupboard that I need to share before making more, but I do find myself thinking about what I would try next. If I were to go in this citrusy direction, I would include some fresh ingredients along with the dried ones, perhaps citrus peel. I also wonder about adding just plain more ingredients. Some recipes I find online use ratios about like what I have, while others encourage adding much more stuff.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Amaro Primo

Last night, I finished processing my first batch of homemade amaro. I used Marcia Simmons' recipe at Serious Eats to get started. Knowing how the Internet has consumed some of my favorite recipes over the years, I will share what I actually used, which was a slight difference from Simmons' recipe just due to what I had on hand.

  • a broken, incomplete piece of star anise (original recipe: 1 teaspoon anise seeds)
  • a few dried sage leaves (original recipe: 6 fresh leaves)
  • a few ragged but technically fresh mint leaves (original recipe: 6 fresh leaves)
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 allspice berry
  • a few whole cloves (two or three, I don't remember)
  • 1/2 tsp gentian root
  • 3 cups 190 proof Everclear / grain alcohol
I was able to get the Everclear at Muncie Liquors on Jackson. I ordered the gentian root from Mountain Rose Herbs when the boys and I were also ordering some other esoteric spices for my wife's birthday a few weeks ago. We do not have a mortar and pestle, but we do have a spice grinder. Unfortunately, it is almost exclusively used for processing Szechuan peppercorns; I chose against using it since I did not want to make a numbing amaro. We ended up blitzing the spices in the blender to try to break them up. It did bust them up a bit, but there was so little volume that it had a hard time pulsing them.

I macerated the herbs and spices in the alcohol for three weeks as per the original recipe. Note, however, that the recipe called for 150-proof spirit, and my more recent reading leads me to suspect that I could have stopped the maceration earlier. I kept the mixture in a Ball jar on the counter near my tea and coffee area, which meant I would remember to give it a swirl each morning when making my morning drinks. The most significant change was over the first two days, when it changed from basically clear to beautifully green. About two weeks into the process, I did some more reading where it was recommended to keep the mixture in a dark place. Oops. The last week or so, then, the jar was kept in the liquor cabinet.

Emiko's post at Food52 explains that for 95% alcohol like mine, one typically wants a 2:1 ratio of simple syrup to infused alcohol in order to get to an appropriate ABV and sweetness. That post also mentions that you can get four cups of syrup by combining 3 cups of water with three cups of sugar. This is a helpful ratio to know since it's not otherwise obvious to me how the respective volumes of sugar and water combine to determine the volume of the syrup. A little simple algebra reveals that I needed 4.5 cups of sugar dissolved in 4.5 cups of water, giving me the six cups of syrup I would need to mix with my three cups of alcohol.

On my wife's recommendation, I used a fine metal tea strainer to filter the solids from the alcohol, and this worked great. There may be a few very fine flecks in the resulting liquid, but it was much easier than dealing with multiple passes through a cheesecloth or spice bag. Once the syrup had cooled off (although it was not yet room temperature, because it was late and I was feeling impatient), I mixed the two together and poured the result into a half-gallon Ball jar, with the overflow going back into the smaller jar in which I had done the maceration.

Earlier, during maceration, I occasionally took the lid off to smell the concoction. It basically smelled like alcohol: the fumes from the booze overpowered any sort of pleasant, herbal aroma that I had hoped for. This made me a little nervous. I was surprised then when, as I was straining the alcohol, I could almost pick up two different aromas: one was the intense alcohol but the other was a more mellow, pleasant scent.

Here's the result:

The recipes say to let the combined alcohol and syrup sit for two weeks or so for the flavors to continue to develop, but of course, I couldn't help myself from pouring a little glass for myself. I like it, but I find myself lacking some of the words to describe what it is like. It reminds me a little of absinthe⁠—although maybe that is in part the color⁠—mixed with something grassier. It might be the bitter gentian or the herbal sage that I am picking up on. My wife hasn't tried it yet, as she was early to bed last night. I am eager for her opinion since she has a better ability to name flavors than I do.

I actually have a second batch macerating in the liquor cabinet already. Originally, I was going to wait until this one was done, but then I decided to just go for it, to mix up a bunch of things that sound like they would go well together and see what happens. Watch this blog for a follow up in a few weeks.

My biggest question right now is what to call this. The title of this post is just a bit of fun with Italian, but I thought about perhaps naming them as a sequence. Popes? Letters of the alphabet a la Ubuntu releases? Let me know if you have an idea in the comments.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Trying Jeff Patton's Opportunity Canvas

Welcome to National Game Design Month! In this first related blog post, I'll share a few observations about my experience using Jeff Patton's Opportunity Canvas to frame a game design idea. I heard about this technique recently when watching Jamie Winsor's 2019 GDC talk on user story mapping. He includes the technique as something he has found valuable for game developers.

I have not fully committed to a NaGaDeMon project yet, but my inspiration to make a short-form RPG to teach about Mob Programming was recently reignited. Regular readers may recall that I wrote a two-part blog post (1, 2) about how I used Larson's Mob Programming RPG in my CS222 class last Spring. I recorded some ideas at the time about how I think Larson's approach falls short of my particular needs. I am at the point in the semester now where I have just introduced this game to my students, and the results were roughly similar. The differences comprise a story for another time. For now, I am considering whether making my own, similar RPG would be a good NaGaDeMon project, especially considering that this can clearly "count" as scholarly productivity as well.

I thought that Patton's Opportunity Canvas might be a good way to determine whether this direction would be fruitful or not. The short answer is that I don't think the Opportunity Canvas exercise gave me any insights I didn't have previously. It is very business-oriented. I was able to interpret things like "business impact" as something more like "departmental learning outcomes," but it still feels like a bit of a stretch. I completed this as a solo exercise, but it is clearly designed to be collaborative, so it's possible I am missing something there as well.

The part that most interested me, and the part that was rather useful, was the identification of both the problems being solved and the metrics for success. In my case, I know I can make my own Mob Programming RPG, but exactly what problems am I trying to solve? I came up with three: streamlining Larson's game into something more appropriate for my audience, students not having good models of collaboration, and faculty not having something they can easily incorporate into a course. For the metrics, local adoption is an easy measurement, but it also made me think through how I might design a study around this project and try to get it published. I also considered that I could use my YouTube channel to talk a little about it and track views, likes, and comments there. Of course, there's always Google Analytics, which can be tracked before or after, say, a conference presentation.

It strikes me that, for my purposes, all this tool is really pointing me toward is good design. In particular, it matches what I often tell my students: have goals, do something to meet those goals, and then see if those goals have been met. It seems obvious, but I see people at the university regularly missing the first and last steps. That is, it is much more common for people to propose solutions than to articulate what problems they are trying to solve, and despite the "culture of assessment" that we're supposed to be growing, it's rare to see useful metrics that haven't been fudged in some way. That also is a story for another day.

I have a little time this morning to think about my research, and this project idea fills the bill. If I don't end up going in this direction, I still have two other project ideas up my sleeve, both being tabletop games. I have a proverbial mountain of assets that I've acquired from Humble Bundle and Epic's giveaways that I would love to tinker with in UE5, but I don't think this November will be the time for that.