Monday, August 22, 2016

Sherlock Parody by The Hillywood Show®

Well, well, Hilly the chameleon and Hannah the director extraordinaire are at it again. Sister duo The Hillywood Show's long-awaited Sherlock Parody premiered on Saturday and has quickly gained over half a million well-deserved views.

Perhaps it is strange of me but I first watched season one of Sherlock about three years ago--and kept on putting off watching the rest. Hillywood's announcement of their next parody gave me reason to finally finish watching this spring (I confess that, while I enjoy the show when it's on, I find that I don't overly care for it, which might be a good thing given that there are such long season breaks). 

It's been a properly long wait for the parody, too. But when you see the final video, you see why it was worth all the time and resources. Hilly and Hannah have traveled to such places as Washington and I believe Florida for their videos before, but Sherlock Parody took them all the way to England. There they filmed at action locations from the show, indoors and outdoors. This was in addition to carefully-crafted indoor sets. I think it's easy to say, then, that this parody had their best sets yet--and their sets are always good.

We're always amazed at how well Hilly can play such a variety of characters and also look like those characters--Sherlock was on a whole other level, too. I almost don't know how Hilly managed to get the makeup just right: she not only sculpted the cheekbones but also changed the shape of her eyes to match Benedict Cumberbatch's face. And she really knows how to move both her face and her body to mimic a character. Again, some of her best work here.

Duplicating sets and characters aside, what is so rewarding about Hillywood parodies is the way in which they match the tone of the original work, providing humor and lightness in a way that celebrates rather than belittles said work. So for this parody, they chose a song that somehow set a British tone and also showed Sherlock's way of talking quickly and bouncing from serious to insignificant comments. I'll also add that ever since they started not just changing the song's words but also having someone else do the singing (as opposed to just remixing the song and keeping the same singer), the lip synching has been more congruous and smooth and in character. And the whole thing feels more original.

Oh, yes, and then there are the cameos. Osric Chau from Supernatural has returned for his third Hillywood production. Chris Rankin, aka Percy Weasley from Harry Potter, played a perfect duplicate of Mycroft. And Steven Moffat, co-creator and writer of Sherlock and also writer of Doctor Who, makes his appearance there at the end--Steven Moffat. I know how they met Osric a couple of years ago, but how did these other appearances come about, I wonder?

(One more note that is so small that I have to put as an aside. This is the third time Hillywood has had to put a viewer discretion notice at the beginning of one of their videos. The others were for blood in Sweeney Todd and The Walking Dead. This one is for language. As the years go by, it seems that they're willing to keep including more and more in their videos, of different types of things. Not that I'm asking for it all to be G, but I just hope that they put a cap on at some point and don't just keep allowing more and then more.)

Also don't forget to watch both behind the scenes videos as these are also some of their best. I used to watch their behind the scenes and parodies equally because they were both equally entertaining. But lately the technical aspects have required so much and the shoots have been so tight and busy that their behind the scenes have been more informative and fascinating than strictly entertaining to watch. While I've enjoyed seeing those, the behind the scenes for Sherlock Parody made me realize how much I missed the old behind the scenes vibe. Lots of information about how things were put together but also lots of fun, an hour and a half total of it, too. So don't miss those and give Sherlock Parody another watch while you're at it.

Here's to a million views and more.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Joliesse Chocolates: Abundantia Lavender Caramel

Now that I've finished going through all the truffles I brought back from Santa Fe, I'm starting in on the chocolate bars. First up is a flavored one from the gift shop at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, which is a great spot on the outskirts of Santa Fe for a visit. This chocolate, however, is not made in Santa Fe; it is from the nearby Albuquerque. Given that I usually don't spend any time in Albuquerque and therefore have not bothered to look up chocolate shops there, I hadn't heard of Joliesse Chocolates before. But this chocolate passed the ingredients test (no to fillers or artificial junk, yes to real cream and vanilla), which usually bodes well.

The gift shop, presumably, chose to carry this particular chocolate because of the lavender. Not only is lavender very Santa Fe, but the ranch also has a lavender festival each year. So it is fitting. But after the wonderful lavender caramel truffle from Chocolate + Cashmere, would this one still satisfy?

It turns out, naturally, that this is a very different experience. It's more casual and straightforward and the lavender flavor is a bit different, as well.

Abuntantia, the back of the wrapper tells me, is the goddess of the harvest and plenty (cuisine, essentially), with lavender being an important part of cuisine since Roman times. It is a pretty wrapper, with Abundantia's image and a purple background. The chocolate bar is pretty, too, though it had some bloom to it. Again, I can't say if this formed after I purchased the chocolate or after; but as it's merely aesthetic, it isn't a big deal either way.

I'm not sure if you can tell from pictures, but this is quite a thick bar, probably double or so the thickness of a regular chocolate bar. It's also square in shape. The overall feel makes it seem quite solid and big, though it's a standard 60 grams. Once again, a possible product of time spent traveling: there as some caramel already leaking out of the chocolate when I unwrapped it.

As soon as you bite into the chocolate, the lavender strikes you. It's the fruity and citrusy type of lavender, rather like a Lavender Earl Grey tea. I perhaps prefer the more floral lavender flavor of the aforementioned truffles, but that could be a personal preference.

While the lavender is quite a strong flavor, you do get to taste the chocolate as well because you have two thick layers of it, top and bottom with the caramel in the middle. This must be the reason, after all, why the chocolate is so thick. This is a fairly standard decent dark chocolate (it's a 70% cocoa content). No flavor notes, really, nor either bitterness or sweetness. Just chocolate flavor. I'd compare it to Ghirardelli.

It's a good chocolate but not a "wow" chocolate. The right thing to pick up and eat right away, as fits in best at the gift shop where I found it. It would be nice for sharing, if the caramel didn't make it messy. So you'll just have to get one all to yourself. It is a little pricey at $6.50, especially if you're not sharing. But you know what, the chocolate is good quality and so is the caramel, and there's a price for all that--and this is a fairly big bar of chocolate.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Aftermath Picks Up the Pace

Click here to read my thoughts on the first installment in the Aftermath trilogy. 

Last fall we had many books released as part of the Journey to the Force Awakens campaign, including Chuck Wendig's Aftermath. While the campaign was exciting, that book was hard for many of us to get into, due in some part to the extensive Interludes showing lots of characters and lots of settings without necessarily uniting it all. And it didn't deliver as much of a prelude to Episode VII as I had hoped for.

With that said, I wasn't overly excited for the sequel, Aftermath: Life Debt. But it was hard to not enjoy seeing the Millennium Falcon on the cover. So. I got the book and even put another one I was reading on hold in order to read this one right away.

The thing is, there have been so many scattered things going on in my life right now that I just didn't have much time to read. So it's taken me over a month to get through this book. But do you know what? That may have been a good thing because this book was good and it helped to have time to absorb it all better.

I see now that Aftermath wasn't Chuck Wendig's fault: that book's fault was a matter of holding back for later. Life Debt delivered all that its predecessor didn't; if you're hesitating on whether or not to read it, definitely read it. By the time I got to this book, I was getting used to the team introduced in Aftermath and I was starting to like them and their dynamics; the way that they come together isn't entirely unlike the crew in Star Wars: Rebels. I started to care about them, so I was finally interested in what was happening to them. And while Mister Bones seemed so random and weird and I just didn't get him in the first book, I really like him now: he's hilarious and cool at the same time.

While there were still Interludes in Life Debt, there were not nearly as many as before and they also weren't as random. They were connected more to the main events, although not necessarily in obvious ways at first. The Interludes made more sense this time and felt like parts of the story instead of distractions from it.

Ah, yes, and then there are the familiar characters. Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca--and Mon Mothma and General Ackbar, in addition to Wedge Antilles from the first book. They're not just on the sidelines, either; they're a big part of the story, especially the second half. That's both welcome as far as enjoyment and insightful as far as hints of what's to come.

Now for some semi-spoilers below the break.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 10

Click here for Part 9.

This series is supposed to show what is going in my writing world, so here it is:

Cookies. Book cookies.

In a way, they mean nothing, this I know. However, I have always been intrigued and ecstatic about the idea of book cookies, and I've always wanted my own. In some way, to have your book cover on a cookie is like confirmation of publication. So here are my dears:

Aren't they wonderful? They're simply a symbol of celebration. They're not something you use for marketing or sell as merchandise. They're just something to help you celebrate with the people who helped bring your book about.

And look how happy my book is with all of its cookies, the miniature images of black trees.

To dine with these is something special.

Oh, yes, and an update on editions. Black Tree is available everywhere in paperback, in hardcover on Lulu and everywhere else soon, and as an eBook on Lulu, Amazon, iTunes, and everywhere else soon. Click here to buy it now.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Kakawa Chocolate House: Truffles

Click here to read my post on the Kakawa Chocolate House shop and drinking chocolate.

Last time I was at Kakawa Chocolate House, I remember that we bought some chili chocolates. This is when chili chocolates were still a new thing to me, so I found it all exciting. But this time I set out to try some of their truffles. After all, if their drinking chocolate is so impressive, their truffles must be, as well, right?

And oh, yes, they are.

Now, I by no means want to be directly comparing the three types of truffles I bought while in Santa Fe: they each have a different style and were good in their own way. But given that I tried the Kakawa truffles last, they were stunningly sophisticated coming after the more casual truffles from the other two places.

When I bought them, the woman helping me asked if I wanted them in a bag or a box. A bag is fine if you're eating them right away, but I got a box since I was planning to bring them home first. The brown box has a blue Kakawa sticker and also keeps the truffles safe in blue tissue. All very nice. Then I went a few days without seeing the truffles, so they took me by surprise when I saw them. After all, I didn't get that close of a look at them through the case in the shop. They're sleek and simple with the right touches of embellishment and they give off a rich chocolate aroma.

French Dark Truffle - "72% Dark Chocolate, Cream, Milk, Butter, 24K Gold" - With a square shape, this one is plain except for a pattern of the Kakawa Chocolate logo. The effect blends rustic and modern styles. The chocolate smells rich and heady, like a brownie made with lots of top notch chocolate. The bite is fairly soft, and the truffle is rich and smooth in both flavor and texture. There is a little hint of bitterness around the edges, so it's good for dark chocolate lovers, perhaps unlike some of the truffles I've been looking at lately. Somehow you get a taste of cocoa powder as you do with the traditional French truffles that are rolled in cocoa powder. There is still some of the sweetness from the ganache, so the chocolate isn't completely devoid of sweetness; however, you do tend to get more of the light bitterness. It's quite the chocolate hit.

Berry Champagne - "72% and 40% Chocolate, Strawberry & Raspberry Puree, Champagne, Butter, Vanilla" - One plain truffle and one flavored truffle for variety. This one is round with just a swipe of gold paint. Once again, this combines the look of old and new and works superbly. When you slice this one open, the ganache inside doesn't look as if it has berries: it looks even in texture and also in its brown color. There is, however, a light berry aroma, and the berry flavor hits instantly on tasting. The strawberry and raspberry are fairly equal in the amount of flavor that they give. I don't know that I necessarily taste the champagne; it could be that the flavor blends in with the raspberries. Of course, you taste the chocolate less in this truffle than in the French. It's still rich, though, coming across a little warmer in flavor and not at all bitter. The ganache is still smooth but thicker. The milk chocolate seems to make this one melt more quickly than the French did, making it vanish rather quickly. The chocolate in here is wonderful, even underneath the berry flavor. The milk chocolate adds in those touches of sweetness along with the berries, and yet it all stays enclosed within the concept of dark chocolate. This makes for a serious effect.

In fact, both of these truffles are for when you're serious about chocolate. If you like sweet chocolate or mediocre chocolate, these aren't for you. "Fun" means something different in this context. I don't mean to be strangely blunt or snobby here, but these are just the facts. These are truffles not candies. There are probably a few people who won't appreciate them. But for the rest of us, oh, they're divinity. The chocolate that they use, the textures that they come up with, and the flavors that they put together are simply perfect.

So don't stop at the drinking chocolate. Also get at least a couple of truffles to eat later or when you get home (of course, you do want to make sure you don't wait too long to eat them since fresh truffles have short shelf lives). They will help you relive the Kakawa Chocolate House experience of casual sophistication.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Kakawa Chocolate House: Tzul Drinking Chocolate

The first time I went to Kakawa Chocolate House, I was enchanted and amazed and excited. This was the time when I was reading chocolate reviews and starting to write my own. In fact, some of my first reviews on were of chocolate bars that I got at Kakawa Chocolate House. This was the time when the world of chocolate was new and fascinating to me. I remember sitting in there and chatting with the shopkeeper and trying a cacao bean for the first time. That was eight years ago.

The second time I went to Kakawa Chocolate House was just a couple of weeks ago. Everything was the same and everything was different. I went by myself this time, walking from the Plaza area (it's about a five to ten minute walk, depending on where you start and how fast you walk). I'd just been to the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, so I was feeling inspired. And the warm afternoon was just starting to cool off from the highest point. Like a traveler approaching a house of hospitality, I reached the small, brown, adobe-style building. From the outside, it seemed mostly unchanged, and it is rather inconspicuous, as most everything in Santa Fe is. Businesses work off of reputation rather than flashy signs. By the way, Kakawa's logo, if you weren't already aware, is the Mayan symbol for chocolate.

So let me start from the beginning. Kakawa Chocolate House is basically a coffee shop for chocolate. Their main product is their drinking elixirs, which are nothing like hot chocolate and well worth the time. They also have a case full of chocolates and truffles and another filled with chocolate bars from various fine names, such as Pralus and Michel Cluizel (some of my favorites, which I tried for the first time from here). There were a few new things this time. They now serve their own ice cream, which I probably should have tried, but it was a short trip, so I couldn't work in too many desserts. They also make horchata, chocolate soda, iced mocha, black tea, and lemonade. Enough options for everyone and yet they all sound good.

The shop is set up like a coffee shop, too. There are tables and chairs to sit at after you order at the counter. When you walk in, the staff greets you and explains the drinking chocolates to you. (Side note: instead of the one shopkeeper that was there eight years ago, there were three people this time and the shop had quite a few customers.) They'll let you try samples of as many of the elixir flavors as you want; I only tried the European ones, though, because all of the Meso-American ones have coconut and I don't care for coconut. Their flavors have changed quite a bit from what I remember. Instead of Chili, they had the Aztec Warrior. And many of the flavors used to come with dates; I chose the 1692 French, for instance. That gave a welcome sense of the history of chocolate.

Some of that still lingers, such as in the Jeffersonian and Marie Antoinette, which both evoke obvious time periods and places. And I believe I did see some of the old flavors available to purchase in bags that you can buy to make at home.

The Jeffersonian tasted quite nice, but I chose the Tzul to buy. A small cup is 3 oz. and $3.75 (up 25 cents in eight years), and a large cup is 6 oz. and $6.50. Get a small. While there may be a few people who would want a large, most people will be completely satisfied and probably more satisfied with the small. It's exactly the right amount.

The chocolate comes in these wonderful white and blue cups. These cups are also for sale if you just can't resist. I do think I might have to get some someday when I have a little more space. Elegant and rustic at the same time, just like Santa Fe--and just like chocolate, too, honestly.

Let me try and describe the texture to you. This chocolate is thick, yes, certainly thicker than grocery store hot chocolates. But not so thick as melted chocolate, nor so thick as to feel partly solid. Just thick enough to have some substance to it. And the thing is, I remembered it being good, but when I sipped some again after eight years, I thought to myself that it was so much better than I remembered. Depending on what flavor you get, it's rich and dark with flavors of sweetness; it is serious but not overpowering. A word of advice: don't be shy about asking to taste samples. They mean it when they say you can taste them all; you don't have to taste them all, but you should make sure that you're getting the right flavor for you. We all have such different tastes, so you want to be sure that you're making the best choice so that you'll enjoy it.

The Tzul was an interesting combination of earthiness and femininity. The board describes it as containing 72% chocolate, 36% chocolate, almond milk, and a spice blend. To me, it tasted somewhat of orange. Also of nuts, perhaps almonds (that would be the almond milk). Maybe something like nutmeg. It's an almost sweet drink and it is also mildly dark. It's something you sip quietly and something that makes you feel enriched as you drink it. I was getting pressed for time when I sat down with my cup, so I had just enough time to finish the small cup at my own pace before I needed to leave (this was the afternoon before the Flamenco show at El Farol).

And it was just a very pleasant way to finish off my afternoon. Kakawa Chocolate House is the perfect stop for visitors and locals alike, a place you can go to get a quick drink or chocolate or somewhere that you can sit for a while with conversation and drinking chocolate. While I was there, I also picked up two chocolate bars and two truffles. I'll review the truffles next.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Todos Santos: Truffles

Todos Santos: Chocolates & Confections is a funny little shop. Around the Plaza area in Santa Fe, it's tucked away in the back of one section: you have to walk past the shops in front and a small garden area to get to it. Now, it is a chocolate shop--but it almost doesn't look like one. It's a tiny space, about the size of a small bedroom. And it's stuffed not just with chocolate but also with all sorts of brightly colored trinkets: squares of cut-out paper hanging in a row, a tree limb with orange and white flowers, and everything else to go with the "All Saints" theme.

Take their chocolate case, for instance. While other chocolate shops have sleek cases designed to showcase the chocolate like jewelry, this case is unique in its abundance of colors, textures, and materials. Just look at the different stands and the colorful ribbons on the boxes. Which is not to say that the chocolates fade into the background or are unattractive: they are most certainly still good-looking. Simple designs stand alongside silly items like the little chocolate mice on the top right corner.

Before I get to the truffles, though, I'll give one note about the rest of the products for sale. I must have talked about this store years ago but it's time for an update. They have several different brands of chocolate bars (I picked up just one), as well as some other chocolate creations. A bag of chocolate sweets from Valerie Confections in Silverlake (that is, L.A.) greeted me (their rose petal petits fours are the best, by the way). Candies are there, too: pretty berry and fruit candies carefully made. It's mainly all the handmade or otherwise superior quality type of products. You won't find Skittles or Reese's Cups here--because what's the fun in finding those, anyway? For such a small shop, they do have a fairly wide selection. Chances are there will be something you've never seen before, so definitely stop by if you're in the area.

Now back to the truffles. I really don't know why I had never tried anything from their case before. Either I used to be more intimidated by cases or I was too focused on trying out new chocolate bars (because, after all, purchases in chocolate shops can really add up if you want to try everything). I made it a point to choose some this time.

The one thing that I found odd was the lack of labels in the case. The shopkeeper was happy to name them for me, starting at one end of the shelf and ending at the other. But still, I would think it would be easier for everyone if they simply had labels like they do everywhere else.

Enough of that, though, because these chocolates just look gorgeous and I wouldn't want to drown out that simple fact. They're absolutely stellar and sleek with just enough of a touch of fun to their designs. You remove them from all the sensor-overload visuals of the Todos Santos shop and you can really appreciate their look. Mine came in a simple white paper bag instead of a box since I only got two, but at least their little wrapper papers were colorful.

Let's start with the Hazelnut one, which is shaped like a rounded, multi-surfaced dome. You might be able to see on the close-up that the shell is milk chocolate with some darker stripes criss-crossing like on a peanut butter cookie. It also happens to form one of the best visuals for a sliced-open truffle: there's a whole hazelnut thrown exactly into the top middle, surrounded by a milk chocolate ganache. Just beautifully formed.

In addition to the whole hazelnut, there is also hazelnut flavor infused into the smooth ganache. Not overly sweet for being all milk chocolate, the truffle also has some depth to its flavor. Unless I'm mistaken, the cause for this appears to be in the bottom chocolate layer. It appears that the truffle is sealed off with dark chocolate instead of more milk chocolate. That's an interesting way to combine milk and dark chocolate and get the best of both together without simply melting them together. Now, that whole hazelnut is quite crisp and flavorful; both texture and flavor add to the experience. This truffle is how I want hazelnut and chocolate to work together. This is what I want them to be. Everything is well done here.

The other flavor I chose was Espresso. With a beautiful triangle shape stretched out into a sleek and dark truffle with just a sprinkle of gold, this one is quite large. It's easily the size of two other truffles. A gorgeous, silky ganache shows after slicing. Oh, and the aroma, the aroma is divine. Deep chocolate. Straightforward and good. Because of all that soft ganache and because the chocolate shell isn't hard and thick, the bite is very soft. First you taste the chocolate, deep, and then the coffee comes in, dark and fresh. And there's something awesome about biting into this truffle, with all of that soft, soft ganache--I've never come across one so soft, I think. And yet it still tastes rich and deep. I'd love to see an ingredients list for this one: is there some sneaky ingredient in there that shouldn't be in there, or is this achieved all through fresh and pure ingredients? The espresso, I should add, also comes across well. It's exactly the way you would want to taste it.

The sheer size of this chocolate once you begin eating it really transforms it into an elegant piece. I'm picturing it sitting on the top tier of an afternoon tea set, above the sandwiches and scones. The flavor and texture together remind me of something elusive, something that I can't quite put my finger on. A dessert, perhaps. After all, if you finish this truffle in one go (which, of course, most everyone will do), it does get a bit sweet. Sweeter than the Hazelnut, I think, unless this is simply because it is bigger. So I'd say the sweetness is balancing out the darkness of the espresso: if you want darkness with the espresso, well, you probably won't be getting that out of this particular truffle. I don't mind, though. When sweetness is carried out in this way, I like it; I just don't like the wrong types of sweetness.

Given how much I enjoyed this pair of truffles, I'm left wondering why I didn't get more. The tone really goes back to the tone of the shop: lots of fun stuff to look around at but also some quality to ground the experience.