Friday, July 29, 2016

Chocolate + Cashmere: Truffles

Before I left to Santa Fe, I spent a minute re-familiarizing myself with the streets on Google Maps: though I've been there a few times, it had been about six years since my last trip. I happened on a shop name by the Plaza that I almost couldn't believe: Chocolate + Cashmere. Could it be? Could it really be? Not just some catchy name, either, but a shop that really sells both chocolate and cashmere? It sounds like a dream--a sweet dream.

Really, what could be more elegant?


The shop is quite elegant in setup as well as concept. It's very Santa Fe with its chic combination of simplicity, quality, comfort, and timeless beauty. Even the woman working in the shop was chic and elegant.


As you walk in, the first thing you see is a glass case of truffles in the middle of the first small room. Quite the greeting. A wall to the right houses shelves of chocolate boxes, and the opposite wall has some of the shop's clothing. A small table displays their goat mascot and logo because, of course, the cashmere comes from goats. Not just any cashmere, either; they explain how they use only the finest wool. They source in Scotland but make the materials right in Santa Fe. Their clothing is designed to last through both the wear and the trends, which is a philosophy of perfection to me.



There are two more small rooms with more cashmere clothing, everything from sweaters and gloves and scarves to hats and socks. While most of what you see is for women, there are men's items, as well. If I lived in Santa Fe, this is where I would shop for my winter wardrobe.



But you want to know about the chocolates, right?

While there were a couple of chocolate bars for sale, I was more interested in the truffles. They're made locally. You can choose individual pieces or put them together in a box. We ended up sharing a box of twelve; four are mine.


The box is equipped with one of those trays to keep the truffles from bumping one another. Trays are never the most elegant, but I'm sure it makes things quicker for the shopkeeper (who has to manage both chocolate and clothing) and helps keep them safe for all of the people who are traveling (Santa Fe has, of course, lots of tourists).


The truffles look nice in a standard way. There is a little bit of bloom on some of them, though I'm not positive if it was there in the shop or if it just appeared on the car ride back home. (Let's face it, it's hard keeping chocolate safe while driving from New Mexico to Arizona. And I didn't want to either eat or review the truffles while I was out there.) Honestly, the four truffles I picked out aren't the best-looking bunch in the box. I also took a picture of four of the others for comparison.



I'll just go one by one now.


Basic Dark - A good opportunity to judge a chocolate, plain truffles allow you to taste the chocolate without distractions from other flavors. The shape of nice flat sure suggests caramel, though it simply has a standard ganache inside. The taste is like cocoa powder: fairly medium darkness and fairly sweet with twinges of a muddy sort of bitterness. It's a similar flavor to the mass-produced Belgian dark chocolates that get thrown at us. I mean, it's good: the ganache is nice and smooth and rich in texture. But I wanted it to be better; this is pretty standard and not terribly exciting.

Pecan Truffle - This one came in a little dome shape with multiple surfaces. A crumbly top center made it rather messy to cut into. The light crunch is, surprisingly, similar to that of a Crunch bar. I don't think it's due to crisped rice, however; it's just that the pecans are so finely chopped. There is some salt in there, as well, which is quite a nicely placed touch, fresh and clean. There is a hint of caramel flavor. But I don't really taste the pecans, which is a disappointment given that this chocolate is named for the pecans. The dark chocolate is the same as with the previous truffle. So really the most interesting aspect is the unique texture, not so much the flavor.

Goat Cheese - I had to at least try this one, for two reasons: it isn't a flavor you come across often and the goat is the store's mascot. When cutting this round truffle open, you'll see almost the same inside as with the Basic Dark, except perhaps that it is slightly redder. The taste is likewise redder and warmer--and then you get that full on goat taste. I can't describe it: you just have to know what I mean. Goat cheese has its own animal flavor and it's strong here. I'd say it goes well with the chocolate and the two blend well and that somehow makes the chocolate taste better--but I don't really like it. I would need another element to balance out the goat cheese flavor. That said, there is nothing weird about the texture, which had been a concern of mine. So by all means, try it out, and if you like goat cheese, you'll like this truffle. Maybe try smaller pieces to start, or pair it with wine and toasted almonds; treat it fancy.

Lavender Sea Salt Caramel - A pretty one painted in purple, I chose this one because Santa Fe does much with lavender and while I have had lavender in chocolate before, I don't think I've come across this exact combination. The caramel (inside dark chocolate once again) is free-flowing. Does it taste like the lavender I sought? Oh, yes, most definitely. Fresh and floral and tangy, the lavender is spot-on. It comes first, then you get the pure sweetness of the caramel and a hint of salt (not overdone), and then you have the chocolate left in your mouth. The perfection of this one almost makes me wish I had chosen more caramels. This is definitely my favorite of the four. It captured the lavender perfectly and really set a scene and atmosphere. Really well done.

The verdict? I guess it just depends on what you're seeking and what you choose. I'd highly recommend the Lavender Sea Salt Caramel, and I think most people will enjoy the Basic Dark. They also have more Southwest-inspired flavors, like Pecan Chile and Goat Cheese Raspberry Ancho Chile (which I didn't get because I've finally been able to admit to myself that I just don't like chili chocolates). Go and pick out a couple just for the excuse to go into the store: it's a great shop.

They also have a mural on the side of the building:


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Discoveries in Santa Fe: Georgia O'Keefe

In the time leading up to my trip to Santa Fe, I felt drawn to the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. This was, for a couple of reasons, strange. One: normally I associate Georgia O'Keefe with her close-up paintings of flowers and while they are nice, they were never among my absolute favorites. Two: I've been going to Santa Fe for a little while now and I've discovered that, while there are some good museums, I'm more interested in spending time in historical or sometimes outdoor places (which sometimes are museums, but distinct from buildings that simply hold exhibits). Three: no one else was interested in going.

But we did have a free day planned (it was a short trip, so we kind of had to keep to a schedule most of the time). So after wandering around the Plaza for a bit, we split up and I went to the Georgia O'Keefe Museum and Kakawa Chocolate House (I'll post on that one later). And I think I discovered why I knew I was meant to go there.

Going there was a reminder of the life that I can live.

I'm not calling myself Georgia O'Keefe; I'm just saying that she was an inspired person and I would like to be, as well. I didn't watch the museum's film on her life because I didn't actually have too much free time, but I did read the text in the exhibit rooms. The paintings were grouped by theme, it seemed. Some of the abstract work was in the first room, where I was enthralled by Pond in the Woods. It's basically a circle, with more circles around it--all in blue, brown, and green. But it's absolutely fascinating and beautiful and amazing to see in person. The shapes and the shades and the sense of scenery and atmosphere; she really did capture the feeling of a pond in the woods. I don't usually care for abstract art, so I was surprised how much I connected with hers and how much it made sense to me.

I was also quite fond of her Winter Tree. And her picture of Machu Picchu was quite nice, as well. It was just something entirely different to see her work in person--and also different because there weren't very many flowers. So I saw a lot of things that I, at least, had never seen before.

Back to the theming. From what I gather, Georgia O'Keefe was a woman who saw beauty in the natural world and in the everyday world and wanted to capture the essence of that beauty in her work. She wanted to find new ways to record and new ways to translate and new ways to capture. And she was redefining the ways in which you could represent certain places--specifically the Southwest. She was doing exactly what I want to do with my writing: capturing the visuals of the Southwest unhindered by genre constraints. She painted her Southwest. This concept is very much evident not only in her landscapes but also in her skull paintings.

And there were some photographs of her, as well. In her garden. Sorting through vegetables she'd grown. That sort of thing. Oh, that is a life lived. To appreciate the world around us and to take part in it and to care for it and to capture it in artistic representation. I walked away from the museum truly inspired.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Discoveries in Santa Fe: Opera

While I do enjoy culture, I don't know if I can say that I am particularly cultured. And yet perhaps that is the reason why I appreciate culture the way that I do. When certain things are new to me, I can either discover them on my own or have my own personal experience with them when I do finally get to experience them. My favorite example: I read Jane Eyre and started connecting with it well before I heard anyone talk about the book or its author or even knew that "Victorian novels" were their own group.

I went to a few plays as a child--probably mostly smaller productions designed for families. But the big one that made me love the idea of plays was Pygmalion by the Southwest Shakespeare Company when I was in high school. Ever since then, I've just really enjoyed the few opportunities I've had to see live productions. I always wish I could see more.

Now, I've been to Santa Fe a few times, but a recent trip I made there was the first time I was able to visit the Santa Fe Opera. We watched Don Giovanni, which I chose because the music is by Mozart and I tend to enjoy Mozart's music (and also because the language is Italian, which feels fairly familiar, which I thought would help make it easier to connect with the music and the story). And oh, my goodness, I had never experienced anything like this before.

I was a little worried going into the first act: though I've always been used to classical music, opera singing is something different. Another level, if you will. I was worried I wouldn't be able to connect with it or that my attention would just wander. Sure, it can take a second to get used to, but it felt surprisingly natural, considering I've never really listened to much opera ("O Mio Babbino Caro" and songs like that don't count the way most classical artists sing them).

The Santa Fe Opera is a half outdoor venue. That is, you enter from the outside, going up steps or through doorways to your section. The two levels of seats and the stage are covered by a ceiling and there are walls to the stage and to a little bit of the seating area but otherwise the sides are open--as is what would be the back wall or background to the stage. As the evening went on, there was some lighting off to the right in the distance, which rather added to the experience. Most people bring a wrap or a sweater because it usually cools off (the show starts at 8:30 and ends close to midnight), but we happened to go on a warm night so it never cooled off (I overheard people saying they had been going there for years and had never seem it so warm).

Attire is varied and there is no dress code but most people dress up. I wore a plain black dress (just below the knee, A-line skirt), a frilly cameo necklace, and tan leather wedges. That outfit fit in perfectly. Comfortable shoes and clothing somewhere between business casual and evening wear. Not a single stiletto in sight but plenty of class. Since I live in an area where people don't really dress up, it was a delight to see everyone so nicely put together.

And the opera itself. The lyrics are, of course, translated on tiny screens on the back of the chair in front of you. This helps immensely and I can't imagine watching without this. The lyrics being in Italian, I did catch a few words here and there--but not much. One thing I had wondered about an opera is how much of it looks like acting and how much just plays like singing. What kind of performance is it? Well, a little bit of both, I guess. There was no talking and yet it wasn't as if the actors were simply singing dialogue: they were performing one song after another (to live music, no less, which is a treat in itself). And they don't just stand there and sing; they move as the characters would move and they interact with one another and walk around the stage and all of that. So you are watching a plot unfold, but it's (in the case of this one, at least) a plot engrained in emotion.

It's like the performers are brewing emotion on the stage and it's pouring out into the audience, a tangible tone that envelops you and holds your senses captive. They were a wonderful set of performers and of course Mozart's music was wonderful, as well. I'll say it again: I had never experienced anything like that. Pure emotion, pure art, pure performance--the opera.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 9

Click here to read Part 8.

I have already shared elsewhere my quote upon holding my published book in my hands for the first time: "This is creepy." Not the cover. I knew what the cover would look like, so I was just concerned about it printing right--and since it did, I only felt relived when I saw it. No, it was flipping through the pages that felt so strange. I saw my words, the words that I had written, here on these pale pages.

Years ago, I used to sometimes look at the shelves in Barnes & Noble to look for the "S" section (since fiction is, of course, organized alphabetically according to the author's last name). I would find where "Skaggs" would go and try and picture what it would be like to see my name there, in between the rows of random books, so many kinds and varieties written by so many people. It was hard to imagine, so intangible.

Likewise, even though I've printed out portions of my book and even the whole thing from time to time, it was very unreal to hold it in actual published form, wholly tangible. Something I can take my usual terrible snapshots of:


At first, I was afraid. Heading to the post office and leaving with the slim cardboard box, I felt sick. I was convinced it hadn't printed right. I felt . . . shy, I suppose, to even have it printed. But oh, you'll never have that experience again--that experience of opening that first box for the first time. Anxiety turns into relief, which turns into excitement.

For a while, I was finished--finished with writing the book, that is. Now I am at the beginning again--the beginning of bringing this book out.

You can buy my book, Black Tree, at this link.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Title & Cover Reveal: Black Tree

Eight years ago I wrote the beginnings of this novel, without even realizing that those words would eventually turn into a novel. I was aiming for a short story but quickly realized that whatever I was writing was bigger than just a few pages--so I let it sit while I slowly added to it during my college years, awaiting the time in which I would be able to devote more focus to it. That time came and I finished my book and now it is at last in print. So now I bring to you my book, Black Tree:


           To stare at the ocean and yet to crave the desert. To leave home to wander endlessly across the land and yet to be glad. To watch heartache fade away with the new rising of the sun.
            To see the greatest depths of despair outlined in the very sky and earth—this is the fate of three women unalike in all ways except in their struggles. Abigail is the youngest, Julia is the oldest, and the third has neither age nor name. Their place is the past and the present and the future, and their landscape is the Southwest, which they hold in dearest regard.

            But to love the land, will that save them or will it be the thing that holds them back from life?

As this book grew and developed, I wanted it to be something Southwestern unhindered by genre constraints. Don't get me wrong, there are great Westerns out there and wonderful books about the West, border issues, questions of race and culture, and such. But I wanted to present my Southwest--the book that I wanted to write in the setting that I wanted to place it. And my book has nothing to do with these usual Western or Southwestern topics. It's like when you see a delicate and pretty painting of a cactus: it isn't in the usual Western style of art and yet it shares the visuals. It belongs to the same world but is its own genre.

You can buy my book now at lulu.com/spotlight/deannaskaggs. It will also be available on Amazon and other sites in a few weeks, but I will be honest with you here and explain why I ask that you purchase straight from Lulu instead: I receive a much lower cut if you buy the book from other sites. There will also be hardcover and digital versions coming, if you prefer either of those; I will let you know as soon as those are available.

And remember, my author site is deanna-skaggs.com.

Thank you so much for letting me share this debut with you, and I hope you're as excited as I am.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Hot Chocolate at Home

Don't worry, I will be continuing with chocolate reviews: I have a couple of suspects already in waiting. But it's something different for today: namely, a recipe.

I'm not usually one to make up and give out recipes. I follow recipes that other people make or I just put together dishes that don't need recipes (like salmon with salt and pepper and rosemary). I don't really experiment in the kitchen. But is that a good thing?

You see, I had been remembering how I had sometimes (just a couple of times) made hot chocolate just by mixing together cocoa powder and sugar. That's what the better mixes are made out of, anyway; everything else is just fillers (unless there are added flavors, like mint or rose, etc). So I decided to try it again--and I want to share my results.

Use about 3/4 cup of whatever type of milk you drink. Heat it up in a saucepan. Stirring, sweeten with one teaspoon of sugar or honey--I don't notice much difference in flavor with the honey, so give that a try because honey's better, anyway. Two teaspoons of cocoa powder will give you a pretty standard proportion of chocolate, but I've started only using one teaspoon because I'm trying to make the cocoa powder last longer. And also because I've started adding a good sprinkling of cinnamon in, too, because cinnamon is healthy and it tastes nice. Now I've ended up with a nice, spiced, lightly sweet mixture for a quiet evening.

You get the gist of it? Start with the milk, sugar, and cocoa powder and don't stop there. Do you like thicker chocolate? Add three teaspoons instead of just two. Do you love rose? Add some rose water. Try a bit of cream instead of marshmallows. Shave some chocolate into the warming milk. Whatever it is, don't feel like there is only one way to do it.

And don't feel like hot chocolate has to come from a packet or a box or a bag or a tin. Mixing it yourself is simple and gives you better control of ingredients. You can use whatever cocoa powder you like--and if you avoid Hershey's and Nestle, you'll end up with much better quality hot chocolate than what all the standard mixes offer. I've been using a tin from Guittard (from World Market) because I really wanted to buy it since Guittard usually makes good products--but some of the recipes I use don't want Dutch process cocoa powder (which this is); so I can still use it in hot chocolate.

Come to think of it, mixing up some batches and putting it in pretty jars with ribbons and such would make nice presents for birthdays and Christmas. Lots of possibilities.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The 100: It's All About the Characters

I literally could not remember adding this show to my Netflix queue and yet there it was. I couldn't even see what about it must have appealed to me and I was about to ignore it when I thought that I might as well try watching the first episode. Maybe it would be something mildly interesting to slowly watch whenever I wanted something meaningless to watch at the end of the day.

And that's how the first episode was: it was entertaining, in a very meaningless way. The premise of the show is that earth is covered in nuclear radiation so the surviving people have been living in a space station for a hundred years, waiting for the day that they can return to the earth. A group of teens are sent down to the surface without warning or proper supplies. So they're all very excited to be on land for the first time, to be free for the first time--and that was kind of fun to watch, I guess. But then something happens at the very end of the episode that makes you realize that this isn't just a YA show about teens having fun: we learn that the ground is inhabited and the inhabitants are not friendly.

From here, the show starts building up intensity. If I had known it would be this violent and bloody, I wouldn't have watched it--but it kept my attention so much that I couldn't stop. Lots of fights, lots of knives and some guns, lots of torture, and lots of emergency surgeries without the proper medical setting--and lots of blood. In the first season or two, it seems like everyone's face is always covered in blood. There are always high stakes of life and death.

Season 1 has an obvious blend of Lord of the Flies and Lost with a touch of shows like Battlestar Galactica and a helping of Terra Nova. But it also felt unique and well formed, very complete in detail and focus. (However popular Lost was, it was a show that ultimately implied a lot more cohesion that it offered in the end.) By the coming of Season 2, the terrors build even more until they become almost nightmarish--which, while uncomfortable, is also an interesting angle. Season 3 is very different, less earthy and more sci-fi. Still high stakes, but less brutal at times--and it sounds odd, but I think the brutality is what makes this show itself (which is why things like "the cross" were some of the better moments in Season 3, because they felt more like what came before).

There are also some politics and some philosophy, often to do with the concept of leadership. A lot of the attention goes to character motives. These characters are trying to do what they think will best protect those they care about--sometimes they choose well and sometimes they don't. Sometimes it seems that nothing they do goes well. So that's all interesting material to ponder.

It's strange how characters can move from being very unlikeable to being favorites. Somewhere along the way I started to like Bellamy's character, same with Indra and Kane. In fact, Kane is my favorite and I think I may have discovered how this show ended up in my queue. Henry Ian Cusick, who plays him, also played Desmond in Lost--sometimes I click on the names of actors from one thing I've watched to see what else they've been in and add anything vaguely interesting-looking to my queue. (Oh, and I do love Kane and Abby together, by the way. They remind me in some ways of Kanan and Hera from Star Wars: Rebels.)

I couldn't tell what network had made this show. I couldn't even tell the target audience. Then I saw that it was by the CW, which is a little odd to me given that CW shows seem to be about people with dressed-up hair, makeup, and clothing, and usually everyone in this show looks like they haven't had a good bath in months. But it also makes sense: the CW targets teen and twenty-something audiences and up, right? That's about what this show does, too. Half the characters are teens but it isn't YA. It has more of a community approach to be YA--which reminds me that communities ("your people") are another big topic in this show.

In the first episode, some of the acting seemed under par, but after that it was all fine--some good acting in there, in fact. Another random thing to note: this show had the cutest moment with a newborn baby that I've ever seen on film (with Octavia).

It's hard to say how much I do or don't like this show. At first I thought I was just enjoying watching it for the suspense and then I would be done with it once the episodes were through. But now I find myself rewatching everything, and I still think about the characters throughout the day. So I may do another post later on, after I've finished the rewatch, with some more thoughts. After all, this is a very easy show to talk about: there is so much material, cultural and thematic, to ponder and analyze. I've been collecting some of my favorite quotes (there are so many very good quotes in this show) so that I can share them at that point.