Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valerie Confections: Grand Homme Assortment

Ever since I had the Rose Petal Petits Fours from Valerie Confections a few years ago, I'd been wanting to try some of their Valentine's offerings. So since today is the year for everything, this year we have their Grand Homme Assortment. While the Grand Elle Assortment is very pretty, I thought that more of these flavors sounded appealing. Visually, though they have more of a standard look of heart shapes, they're still attractive.

Almond Toffee Hearts - These are the biggest hearts, so there are only two of them. I could go for a whole box of these. They're milk chocolate with little toffee and almond pieces. Caramel toffee flavor, nice and strong. This toffee isn't the hard kind; instead it has the perfect crunch and delivers the taste of sugar and vanilla, along with salt from the almonds. The milk chocolate wraps it all up in a flawless example of a high quality confection.

Caramelia Hearts - These blend in well with the Caramel Truffles, so it can be hard to tell them apart visually. The Caramelia ones are essentially a twist on plain truffles. They come with a light caramel taste and a super rich, vanilla ganache flavor. Also milk chocolate, so another sweet one.

Caramel Truffles - If you have these in two bites, they can break kind of awkwardly. The bottom is thicker and the rest is fairly thin. In fact, I do also have to note that with one of them, the bottom stuck to the paper, so the whole thing broke apart when I tried to pick it up. The caramel is gently free-flowing and of the darker flavored sort. No touch of salt.  The chocolate here is dark. Naturally, I would prefer the milk chocolate because I tend to prefer milk chocolate when it comes to confections. This chocolate, though, isn't bad (some dark chocolate confections I can't even stand); it tastes much like Ghirardelli. The darker tone does go well, though, with darker tone of the caramel and also helps to keep it all from veering too much into the candy-confection side.

Scotch Truffles - There are seven of these round truffles, so definitely the most of these. You get that alcohol hint right away. It's strong and yet also toned down enough that it doesn't overwhelm or take over the chocolate. In fact, they go together quite well. The Scotch enhances the rich concept of the ganache, giving a similar effect as a Champagne truffle. So quite nice; probably most people won't mind having the greatest amount of these in here. Personally, though, I'd have preferred more Almond Toffee Hearts or maybe Caramelia Hearts.

Black Pepper Truffles - Just three of these squares. The only pepper is that dash that's visible on top. The ganache is super smooth. The black pepper taste comes in when the chocolate is almost melted, because of course it goes quickly since it's mainly ganache. You can taste it but it isn't so strong that you're hit by coughing and spiciness. It's just kind of a warmth and a flavor. So here we have an example of subtle use of a strong ingredient. Just a touch of pepper and that's all that it needs. If it were stronger, it would make it more of a novelty and also not as good. As it was, this truffle made a nice addition to the mix, something a little darker to balance out the sweet chocolates.

And what did the homme think of the chocolates I chose? Well, I only got his opinion on three of them. Reluctantly, too, I might add. The almonds in the Toffee Hearts were too much for him; he said if he wanted healthy, he'd go to Whole Foods. As for the Caramelia Truffles, he liked the outside until he got to the ganache on the inside. He said that truffles sound like something British (they're not British) and aren't they something that pigs help you find in the forest (chocolate truffles are named after such truffles, yes, but they're not the same thing)? And the Black Pepper Truffles, well, I tried to give him the half of the truffle that didn't have pepper on it. What is this, Fear Factor, he said. He said that it tasted exactly the same as the Caramelia Truffle, except darker, he could taste the blackness in this one. Well, you can't win them all.

So while I suppose that yes, you do have to know your audience, overall I'd say that Valerie Confections is a wonderful example of gifting chocolate. They make confections but on a high quality level that stunned me last time and stunned me again this time. They keep things simple and do it all well--and quite beautifully, too.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Taza: Cinnamon Dark Chocolate

In an experiment, this will be possibly the start of a new chocolate series, the two perspective chocolate review. I'd intended to start with a chocolate I had gone over before, but it would seem that I never in fact wrote up a review on Taza's Cinnamon, even back on Chocablog. But I have talked about Taza, Taza the brand of stone ground chocolate. So I'll just go with that background since this really isn't going to be a regular chocolate review.

While, to me, cinnamon and chocolate are a natural combination, and especially natural for Taza, to my fellow taster it was a new combination, hitherto only tried a couple of weeks ago in the seasonal Cinnamon Milano cookies. Stone ground chocolate was also new, as in fact was, well, most of the type of chocolate that I go over. So we went in with someone who was very familiar with the product and someone to whom it was completely new.

While the grainy texture of Taza greeted me with its crumbly, sugar graininess, he said it reminded him of grains of sand at the beach. Not quite how I had thought of stone ground chocolate before, though the difference is strong from the smoothness of the usual, more processed chocolate.

All of this talk of chocolate texture launched an explanation from me (involving the cocoa pod brought over from a shelf in my office) about how chocolate grows from a tree and it's a seed called a bean that comes inside of a white pulp in the pod and that's dried and ground up, etc. and has sugar added to it. This tangent created a new identity for the beautiful cocoa pod: he named it a piece from a sci-fi horror movie, saying that it looked like something an alien would jump out of. It is called a pod, after all, right?

Then I made some hot chocolate because, of course, Taza lends itself well to hot chocolate. That is, you can make hot chocolate out of pretty much any chocolate bar, but Taza's style is just like Mexican hot chocolate. I went for a quarter disc to a quarter cup milk, which ended up being a little weak. I just hadn't wanted it to be too strong. So the hot chocolate option was somewhat of a failure; there wasn't much chocolate to taste there.

Back, however, to the chocolate bar. What we did both agree on was that there wasn't much cinnamon flavor. Possibly this might be because the chocolate was getting a little old; maybe the cinnamon had faded. It's been long enough since I had Taza's Cinnamon that I don't remember if the cinnamon flavor is usually stronger. Flavor aside, though, Taza is unique enough for most of us that it's always worth a try if you've never had their chocolate before. It can definitely be a conversation piece.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

When Beardies Awaken

I like to say during the winter that I have a sleeping dragon at home. A bearded dragon, that is, and she is not so fierce or mythological as the name dragon would suggest. Still, the phrase remains fun.

Though it's still winter, she is easing awake now. Some fresh food that I gave her disappeared not on the first day but on the second. And what I gave her today she ate right away. Now she's back in her spot looking fairly still, but that's the bearded dragon way, after all. Stillness. She's waking; I can tell.

While the rest of the country is in the extreme cold temperatures, today has been one of those beautiful, almost warm winter days. No wonder the dragon has awakened.

Her eyes peer at me, like she knows who I am but is still sort of getting to know me again after the long sleep. Still reminding herself that she's comfortable around me.

Her eyes gleam in black and gold. Maybe she isn't so non-mythological after all: there seem to be deep secrets in her eyes. Maybe she learned them while sleeping, and now she has awakened to take on the world with her new knowledge.

Monday, January 28, 2019

La Traviata

What an interesting journey into the world of opera this has been. It began with Don Giovanni at Santa Fe Opera and then I started in on Arizona Opera two years ago with Madama Butterfly, which has remained one of my favorites. That piece broke my heart. So two years later, I found myself watching another story of love and tragedy, Verdi's La Traviata.

It's funny. The difference in story between the two was likely quite fitting a difference for me two years ago and today. So siting watching La Traviata this weekend was like swimming in a strange blur where everything in me was blending with everything in the opera. I thought it was just me until I read all of the material in the program that comments on Verdi's way of reaching the audience with relatable, real life themes. I felt it.

In my observations over the past two years, I have observed that I like Puccini much and Rossini not as much. So I've definitely started in on what style of music I prefer. Verdi was different from both, though I would say more like Puccini than like Rossini. I kept on noticing (again, with my unmusical perspective) how the singing would come to a climax that was then matched by the orchestra. It was very theatrical, the way that the two matched like that. Emotion plus, well, louder volume.

I always like to say that the sets and costumes were pretty--this time I couldn't even pay much attention to them. I was just reading the lyrics and listening to the music . . . and yet I can't even remember much of the music now. (Though I think I will maybe look up a recorded version to listen to again.) Yet still it caught me up in that strange blur of emotion. Sara Gartland as Violetta led it all; I feel like I was watching an ode to her life and her final discovery of love and her acceptance of that love at whatever cost, even the cost of pain and heartbreak. David Blalock as Alfredo did also bring in some sweet, sweet tones that helped to create that feeling of love.

I was expecting more tragedy to the story, I admit. Maybe because I was expecting more, this didn't feel "that bad," even though of course in real life it would be. I think this is because the main effect, for me, was Violetta's choice to take this love that she has with Alfredo at whatever cost. So everything else kind of fades away because their love was the point and even any tragedy that accompanied it somehow only made it sweeter. But I guess that perspective is the perspective of a literature student who finds beauty in the painful things, too.

So very lovely, definitely one of my favorites.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Astronaut Foods: Choc-o-saurus

Now for something even more different than just a little different from the norm. This is not only stretching my chocolate standards but also stretching what exactly we mean by chocolate. Which I suppose is fine given that I've also talked about chocolate candles and lip balm and notebooks. Today's unusual item is the Choc-o-saurus Freeze-Dried Chocolate Ice Cream with Chocolate Chips from Astronaut Foods. Dinosaurs and chocolate, I mean, I couldn't resist.

I've never had freeze-dried anything, except for things like strawberries that don't entirely count because freeze-drying them is just a specific way of drying them versus freeze-drying an entire processed food. So this was an entirely new thing to try. Inside the pouch is another pouch of paper. The packaging explains that there are slits in the paper "to facilitate processing" and that the product will naturally be slightly broken. Wasn't too broken, though. A bit but not much.

What took me by surprise (although I suppose it shouldn't have) was how much it smells like chocolate ice cream. Specifically partly melted chocolate ice cream. It looks like ice cream, too, which also shouldn't be surprising given that, well, it is ice cream, just dried. The drying process does give it kind of that honeycomb look with the slight air bubbles (by honeycomb I of course mean the toffee-like honeycomb, not the honeycomb made by bees). It feels light and weightless in the hand.

There are two ways to eat such a food. You can leave it in your mouth to melt. In this way, it will legitimately become like ice cream except that it isn't cold and it almost feels a little stickier somehow. It's strange. Or you can chew it a little. With this method, it will somewhat at first like a malt ball except that it's softer and melts more and then does also become much like ice cream. It's a very creamy, chocolatey type of ice cream. I at first forgot about the whole chocolate chips thing, maybe because I had small pieces on the outside that didn't have any chips or maybe because they're small enough chips that they kind of just blend into the whole effect. When I did notice them on their own, well, they were nice as chocolate chips but in truth they are terribly cheap chocolate. Which is entirely to be expected, so that's all I'll say on that.

So this is just one of those products that's very weird but also kind of cool and fun. It's a novelty product and a gift shop product. It isn't something you'd buy all the time. But I would recommend getting it once if you come across it. Because chocolate and dinosaurs--why not?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Little House Life

I was thinking about Little House on the Prairie. It's the story you can describe as being all heartwarming and fuzzy and family and faith and whatnot. But their life was hard. When you talk about everything that happened, it can seem like nothing went right for them. Life is tough--and it will never stop being tough.

Sure, there are phases where you can say that things are going well and there are times when you just have to say that it's going rough. But there will always be obstacles and they will never stop confronting you. So you kind of just have to go along with that and accept that. This world is filled with things trying to attack and bring us down. So if you know that going in, then it can be somewhat easier to still create in your life that heartwarming, Little House tone even through it all.

I guess I'm just so used to thinking of that duality. Sometimes a little too much, even. Sometimes I'll find the dark moments too appealing because of their literary-ness and symbolic-ness. Sometimes things appear too striking to me, too poetic. But even then, I love that image of the darkness and the light. The light stamps out the dark. The light vanquishes the dark.

In Little House, when Pa is so broken down that he just shouts at the air, you'd think that would be the end. They can never get out of that moment. And yet they do and they still stick together as a strong and loving family and they make it in the end. They spent a whole winter starving, sharing one ever-smaller loaf of bread per day among six people in a space that was so cold that they literally woke up at least once to snow covering them in bed. Darkness . . . and light. Spring came eventually. It came late but it came. With it came warmth and the train and finally, supplies.

This world is dark . . . and that's why you reach your head and your hands out of this world into the light of eternity. Hope. Hope keeps us alive. The hope and the knowledge that all that is bad here will end and all that is good here is but a taste of what is to come.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Entering the VR

I'm not a techie person. I'm not into all the new things that come out. I don't play video games. But you know, when virtual reality became reality, I was excited for that one. Sci-fi had genuinely come to life. I'd like to say the Holodeck had come to life, but in actuality VR is more like (that which even has the exact same name) VR in Earth 2 (I'm sure there are plenty of other examples, too, but that's the one that comes to mind for me). I remember when I watched that show a few years ago and I said that VR was cooler than the Holodeck--and then VR became real.

And yet I didn't even try VR until yesterday. I don't know. I guess it's one of those things where I wasn't going to buy it myself and I never got around to trying it anywhere else. So yesterday.

The first game felt a little more like Tetris in a way. When I used to play Tetris on my Razor (a slim cellphone from back in the day for any who are unfamiliar), that tiny screen became my whole vision because I was so focused on the game (I was pretty great at Tetris, a skill that comes in handy when you're packing groceries into your shopping bags or stuffing the trunk of your car or packing a suitcase). So that first game felt kind of like that. The game was all I saw but that's kind of how it is when you play a screen game, anyways. It was cool, though, because you're using your hands and arms more than just your fingers.

The second game was a set of them. I just tried a few here and there, the carnival games that I'm terrible at, anyway, so of course was pretty bad at in the game. I probably had more fun on the home pages of this one, looking around at all the scenes around me. You turn your head and there are more things over there. You look up or down and there are things to look at. If someone's standing next to you in reality, you know they're there but they're not really there because they're not what you see next to you. It's crazy.

The last game I tried within this set was a little more interactive in the way that only VR can be. It was climbing. You're climbing across ropes and against walls/cliffs. So you're changing scenery. And you look down and you see down and it's amazing, even though it was animated style imagery. When you fell, you would "die" and the world would fall around you. I kept saying, I like dying, that's fun. Just seeing everything fall was so cool. And then in the end when you finish the course, there's a crown that you grab and if you waved it, there were stars. So I was just waving my crown and watching the stars fall. It's weird because there's something tangible in your hand and yet there isn't.

I can see how people get addicted to things like VR. They're really cool, no mistake. But I'll stick to it as just a novelty, something for every so often and not for every day or every week. It's amazing to enter another world but I also want to keep living in this one.