Monday, February 19, 2018

Prokofiev's Cinderella

Is there a running theme here? Ah, there are always running themes. And actually, there are a couple of running themes this time. They are the themes of falling in love and of the classic rags to riches story, Cinderella.

Last spring, Arizona Opera put on their production of Rossini's Cinderella, and now this February, Ballet Arizona performed Prokofiev's Cinderella. So an opera version of the story one year and a ballet version the next year. This time there was more of a touch of fantasy and less of that socio-political angle--of course this would make sense given that there could be no dialogue in the ballet, just visuals. When the scene opened on Cinderella in her "rags," I did have a feeling of deja vu, as if it hadn't been nearly a year since I'd last watched this character on the Symphony Hall stage, but that quickly dissipated as we launched into an entirely different type of production, complete with the usual high production standards.

While I still probably enjoyed Swan Lake last October more, I did find Cinderella more to my tastes than Romeo and Juliet last February. Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, I've just come off of Southwest Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet last month, where I commented about the strong feeling of falling in love that was in the play. I got that same type of feeling at times from this ballet, when Cinderella and the prince danced together. I don't know why I got that from Cinderella but not from Romeo and Juliet (the ballet). I just know that you could tangibly feel that tone.

Our story, then, was of nature drawing like to like. Cinderella, through her grace, drew the attention of the fairy godmother and then of the prince. Her stepsisters, on the other hand, scared everyone away and drew only disdain with their wiling and presumptuous attitudes.

And the stepsisters, my goodness, they were definitely an audience favorite. The stepsisters aren't supposed to have social graces, which would mean that they don't dance well--but here we had talented dancers portraying poor dancing. Quite an art there. They weren't just dancing; they were truly acting, with such great physical comedy. They were the element of levity in a story that, while a fantasy, is also quite serious.

Now "Someday My Prince Will Come" from Snow White and "So This Is Love" from Cinderella are going through my head simultaneously. Valentine's Day month really is hanging on forever, isn't it?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

XO Confections: Truffles Selection

I'll say this about XO Confections: they make a good show at all the local events. If there is an event to do with chocolate even in the slightest, they'll be there. I first saw them at the Glendale Chocolate Affaire a couple of years ago, they were at the Chiles and Chocolate Festival last fall, and earlier this month I caught them at the Art of Chocolate A'Fair in Gilbert (it was mainly a craft and candy/fudge fair, so there wasn't enough material for a separate post just on the event).

XO Confections makes chocolates, some plain, some flavored, and some with caramel. They always put together a sleek booth, with a glass case of chocolates and big displays listing the flavors so that everyone can see it all while waiting in line. Because there is usually a big line, despite the fact that there will inevitably be a stray comment from the crowd about them being pricey (these are just average truffle prices, perfectly reasonable for what you're getting). Pristine and colorful, the chocolates make great gifts or special treats for yourself. I picked out a box of four.

Piedmont Sunrise - "Espresso Dark Chocolate Ganache atop a Hazelnut Praline" - The design here mimics the shape of the sun on the horizon. Initially you taste the espresso and then the hazelnut comes in. I am less used to hazelnut and espresso being together in a chocolate, though maybe for people who are more used to multi-flavored coffee drinks the combination will flow naturally. The hazelnut is good and fresh, the espresso is espresso, and the chocolate adds the sweet element. It's nice.

Oceania - "Cream Caramel with Sea Salt" - A blue chocolate with what I've begun calling the powdered sugar effect on top. And the description here is perfect. A cream caramel? This is exactly that: a free-flowing, creamy caramel. It has a whiter, cloudier color than the usual orange of caramel. The taste also is more of cream, which gives the truffle more of an effect like a milk chocolate confection. I don't taste much salt--which is fine because salted caramel can really be overdone these days. A messy one with all of that caramel, but definitely a fun one.

St. Marron - "Chestnut and Honey Infused Milk Chocolate Ganache" - A slightly sparkly, deep bronze color with dark chocolate spots on this one. The honey taste here comes early on as a strong hit, like a honey stick specifically. I don't know if it tastes different from other honey chocolates I've had because it's a different type of honey, because there is more of it, or because it is added in differently. This tastes sweeter versus rich, stronger and less earthy. Since I never eat chestnut themselves, I can't say that I detect chestnut flavor specifically. Perhaps there is a nutty flavor to the chocolate; maybe this flavor is even what's making the honey taste stronger. Overall, it's a good chocolate. Honey and chocolate do go well together (one of the reasons why I make hot chocolate with honey instead of sugar); it's just all sweeter than I might have expected.

Veracruz - "Kahlua Infused White Chocolate Ganache atop a Crunchy Almond Praline" - Finishing off with the chocolate with the white top with that pattern on it. Once again, great description here. There is a layer of white chocolate to give that touch of sweet white chocolate flavor; underneath that is a layer of praline. The praline gives texture with that little bit of crunch. In addition to the white chocolate and almonds, you also get a bit of chocolate and that coffee Kahlua flavor. Almost this sounds like it would be too many flavors all in one, yet in this case too much feels reckless and fun. Maybe it's just because it's Kahlua. Kahlua is great for creating a feeling of childish adultness. So we have another smiling flavor mix here.

So the Veracruz and Oceania were my personal favorites. Overall a fun way of approaching flavored chocolate with some slightly different angles on familiar flavors.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

What It Feels Like to Start Writing Again

I've been telling everyone that yes, I have started work on a second book. The reality, though, is that, while I do have a decent start at that second book, and while I do think about it frequently (which is part of the work of working on a book), it had been months since I had added anything visibly significant to such book.

A few days ago, I started up again. And I can feel the change.

I can feel it physically in my wrist. Nothing irks my wrist more than writing with a pencil (a Sharpie, for instance, is okay--I do a lot of writing with Sharpies these days, but I guess they're fine because they're thicker--so maybe I need a thicker pencil). Yet I prefer to do most of the early stages of writing with a pencil. The later stages can be done on a keyboard. But there is something . . . less visible about working with a pencil on paper; it's an effect that frees me to write out words in a sort of free write style, to be unconcerned with what I am putting out. Later on you can remove or change whatever needs removing or changing, but at the moment you just need to write down whatever comes--because the process is what breathes whatever needs to be brought into existence.

I can feel it in my mood, too. Jubilation mingles with sitting on the edge. I felt free when the other night after being unable to sleep I got out of bed for a free write and then returned to bed feeling a sense of weightlessness. But I feel . . . caught up when I think of the issues this book will be bringing up: I have to feel emotions and themes in order to write them. So here I am, perfectly happy (well, you know, on average), trying to stir up feelings practically of a mid-life crisis. I can be sitting inside of my skin and then suddenly jump into my mind into this other skin, this skin I'm making up, and feel so caught up in that other skin that I in fact do start mingling that life with my own (which is dangerous territory to fall into, I realize).

What else do I feel? Pleased. I've been letting these "early stages" of this next book drag out rather long. It feels right to know that I'm finally starting up at it again and that when I tell people that more will be coming, it is true. Maybe it would have been better to get a second book out close on the heels of the first, but I think that the more time elapses between the two, the more I will realize how I can make improvements. I'm realizing certain things that I didn't do with the first book that I can do with this one, certain things that I held back on before that I don't need to hold back on this time.

I am free and I am taken because my veins have started to bleed words again.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Museum Rundown: Pueblo Grande Museum

Sometimes I want to talk about museums; other times I don't know if it would be weird to blog about museums (but when has weirdness ever stopped me from blogging about something?). So I've decided to try out a new series (which won't run on any type of schedule) in which I talk about various museums and places of that sort, just to give my impressions and any thoughts I might have.

Today's location is Pueblo Grande Museum, which is part of the City of Phoenix Parks and Rec. The crazy thing about Pueblo Grande Museum is that it's one of the sites of Hohokom ruins--sitting right up against Sky Harbor International Airport and Downtown Phoenix. After you go through admissions and step outside to the trail, you're in a curious mixture of emptiness/isolation and city-ness. At one point in the trail, you might feel like you're out in the middle of a wide open space. At another point, you're almost a stone's throw from the freeway--or maybe an airplane passes by just overhead.

If you read all of the information on display throughout, you'll come across some critiquing of kind of the very fact that there is a museum there. Not because of the location but because of culture. These are Hohokom structures but it's an American, not Hohokom, museum. Yet the fact that it is a museum means that these structures are preserved and protected, even though they're sitting in such a "valuable" part of town. (And I'm not replicating what the displays said; I'm probably adding plenty of my own commentary.) One of the problems seems to have been that the initial excavation wasn't exactly perfect and so later steps had to be made to undo what had been done. That, of course, brings up the question of whether such an excavation should even be done--though it's a roundabout question because without the excavation, this whole place probably would have been destroyed for development.

As a place to go as a visitor, though, what is it like?

The trail outside is 2/3 mile. So not long, but still probably best to visit at any other time of the year than May through September. The main feature is the platform mound, which is currently only excavated on one side. The ball court was probably my favorite; it's also kind of a rarer piece. Then there's the irritation canal, which is always fascinating as the link between the far past, the recent past, and the present. (Phoenix was named Phoenix because the city, through those same canals, rose up from the ashes, so to speak, of what was left of the previous civilization.) There are also some replicas of Hohokom homes from different periods in time; these would be nice to see, I suppose, for people who are visiting from other parts of the country or the world and are completely unfamiliar with dwellings like this. For children, too. For myself, though, I didn't feel like I really needed the replicas.

The museum exhibit indoors isn't big but does have some good information if, again, the Southwest is unfamiliar to you or if you just want to refresh. While their pottery collection was of course not on as large of a scale as what the Heard Museum has, they had some nice pieces. I felt like I hadn't really seen much of this style before because I found myself loving the colors and shapes. There was a lot of emphasis on the trade that went on among the different tribes, resulting in things like shells and chocolate ending up in regions that are now the American Southwest. I appreciated that because sometimes we think we're so modern and that everything we can do now is more than or better than what people in the past could do--when that isn't really the case.

The changing exhibit had some information about attitudes toward archaeology. There were some quotes from Native American people about the difference between archaeology by Native Americans and non-Native Americans and about the importance of the land to them. Very interesting quote there about mountains as being the constant between the past and the present because they are what remains unchanged--and also the subsequent problem with cutting into mountains for modern development (I am doing no justice to how he worded things, and if I had known I would be referencing his quote, I would have written down his name). (Also, I've just realized that it was after reading this quote that I dreamed that they had dynamited off the top of Mingus Mountain, which is the mountain over the Verde Valley up north. That was a devastating thing to dream.)

So if you do take the time to read all of the displays, there is some good information and commentary both gathered there. Granted, I know not everyone wants to do that. While I was standing there reading everything, a pair of people came through to just literally walk through (which doesn't do much good because you can't actually read anything in that way). One of the reasons why museums are in fact a good place to visit by yourself and when you're not in the least bit of a hurry. Even though this is a small museum and I was expecting to spend less time there (they recommend allowing an hour and a half), I think I spent about an hour and forty-five minutes (and I didn't read absolutely everything in the main gallery).

Definitely, then, Pueblo Grande Museum is worth a visit. If you live in the state, you'll want to stop by at some point. And if you're visiting and it happens to be one of the nearby places that focuses on Native American history, then it's also an important stop. I'm kind of focusing here on what the museum does offer rather than what it doesn't.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Zak's Chocolate: Valentine's Day Selection

As you may know if you've been reading here for a while, I have complicated feelings about Valentine's Day. Sometimes I find it an even stranger holiday than Halloween. And the "chocolate" and gifts that stores market? Most of it is nothing that I would want to give or receive, especially if we're talking in the context of a gift to a special someone. What would be better than cheap, mass-produced, compounded chocolate with a stuffed bear or other article destined for the landfill? Quality, ethically-sourced chocolate from your local chocolate shop, of course.

My local chocolate shop? Zak's Chocolate--and what a treasure it is to have this place nearby. I swung by this week to see what they had on offer for Valentine's Day and they are definitely prepared for one of the biggest chocolate-buying times of the year. If you're looking for just a small something, there are chocolate hearts for just $2 each. Something more grand? You can order an edible, heart-shaped chocolate box filled with six truffles for $50. Or you can go for a classic Valentine's Day box of chocolates; you can either get one that's pre-filled or choose your own truffles. For a more simple approach, there are also plain chocolate bars with hearts on them; these are available in white, milk, and dark chocolate.

Which of those three bars did I choose? White, of course. (I did also buy a non-Valentine's milk chocolate bar, which I'll review at a later time.) My current trend is to seek out more white chocolate and this bar was the most intriguing and maybe also the prettiest of the three (not that the others didn't look nice, as well, especially the one that had the "powdered sugar" effect that I observed on the Peppermint Mocha truffle back in December). Rather than being as light as the average white chocolate, this chocolate looks almost more like a super pale milk chocolate. The unique look simply begs to be tried. Now, this may sound odd, but I must observe that the aroma of this bar is chocolate, and the reason that I must observe this is because white chocolate generally smells not necessarily of chocolate but of specifically white chocolate or even simply vanilla and sugar.

Instantly this chocolate has more of a buttery texture on the tongue, nice and cool and easy to melt. It does seem to melt slower than white chocolates tend to; whether that is the result of a different proportion of ingredients or because this bar is slightly thicker than some, I'm not certain. Quickly in, you do start to get that distinctive white chocolate flavor, yet following right along are caramel flavor and vanilla ice cream notes. Another flavor comes in towards the finish; I can't quite identify it. Almost it reminds me of cloves or maybe licorice, though not so strong or (in my opinion, at least as far as licorice goes) unpleasant; it's just an additional flavor note.

I also tried out chewing this chocolate. The effect with that is pretty heavenly, like caramel with the texture of chocolate. In fact, I find myself completely in love with this chocolate. It has so much flavor, which is so unlike the average white chocolate, that it's unbelievable. (Reminder: the only ingredients here are cocoa butter, cane sugar, whole milk powder, and natural color for the hearts.) I don't even feel like I can call this chocolate sweet because that word simply doesn't come to mind when I eat it, even though obviously this chocolate is sweeter than dark chocolate. Which, once again, is what I love: sweet chocolate doesn't have to mean bad chocolate or chocolate without complex flavor. So while this bar does have a higher price tag to it ($12), it is most certainly worth it. Beauty, quality, and flavor.

Normally it would be best to do a separate post to talk about the truffles, but given that this is all Valentine's Day material and Valentine's Day is coming up before we know it, everything is going in one long post today. I picked out six seasonal truffle flavors, skipping the Raspberry Passion Fruit Mousse and the Raspberry Rose since I'm not a fan of raspberry. I also skipped the AZ Queen Bee Honey since I've reviewed that one before (this time, though, it comes with the "bee" mine picture image on top). More shapes and colors right now than usual, it seems; now is the time for extravagance.

Earl Grey Lavender - A heart with white and purple coloring. Instantly, this truffle gives that zingy zany flavor of bergamot and lavender in tea; incidentally, Lavender Earl Grey happens to be my usual morning tea right now. This truffle definitely captures the flavor of this tea in a stronger way than how tea usually comes across in chocolate bars; this route, then, perhaps works better to truly express flavor. The chocolate is a steady base for this trio of flavors, and the ganache is nice and smooth.

Rose - This one is, of course, shaped like a rose--which puts me in mind of all of the beloved Beauty and the Beast imagery. Flavor-wise, though, I don't get this one. I want to really like it because I am a fan of rose, as a scent and in chocolate. But this ganache seems to have more of a general floral flavor than specifically a rose flavor; I'm used to rose being sweeter, whereas this is tangier. Not at all bad, just not what I had expected.

Marshmallow - A dark heart. I bit into this one and found a surprise: there is actually a marshmallow inside the chocolate shell. Not a regular marshmallow, though, of course; this is a gourmet marshmallow. It's soft and almost liquid, so it feels like you just roasted it by the fire. And is it just my imagination, or did they add something to give it a hint of roasted flavor, as well? With the marshmallow plus the dark chocolate, in any case, you definitely get a s'mores feeling with this one. So this was a fun surprise, a cute addition to keep the levity in your box of Valentine's truffles. A happy element.

Hibiscus Caramel - A lovely flower shape. The caramel inside is stiff enough to not be a free-flowing liquid but not so stiff as candy caramel. Its flavor is fresh and sweet; the hibiscus becomes more recognizable as the chocolate melts away and as the flavor has a chance to settle into your mouth and mind more (because, of course, being caramel, it sticks around for a bit). The caramel is definitely sweet, which makes me think of those times when I've ordered jamaica at a restaurant (I always call hibiscus the flower and jamaica the beverage) only to find that it's sweetened much more than the way that I drink it at home. But of course a caramel would be sweet. The casualness of the caramel put together with quality chocolate and with the floral element works well for both Valentine's Day and for springtime.

Prickly Pear - The square with pink and white hearts on top. The ganache here is different; it's the denser kind. Biting in to this texture feels almost more like biting into a brownie. It's quite sweet, too. Do I taste the prickly pear, though? And what even is prickly pear as a flavor? Generally, prickly pear products (like syrups and jellies and lemonades and even margaritas) are prepared with so much sweetness that sometimes it's hard to think of what prickly pear itself tastes like. So I don't know if I'm the only one who would say this, but this truffle mainly just tastes like a light chocolate truffle to me. It tastes nice--and sometimes when I focus on the ganache I can detect prickly pear flavor. Just, once more, maybe not quite what I might have expected.

Strawberry - This one has the fruit/berry on top. And you'll notice that I somehow skipped this one when doing my tasting--but since I tasted it last, I have to give my comments last, as well, rather than presenting in the order that's in the picture. The flavor of the ganache here is of a tangy strawberry jelly, you know, the all-fruit kind versus the kind loaded with sugar. So I love that this is more of an actual strawberry angle versus that extra-sweet idea of strawberries and strawberries/chocolate that people tend to focus on most. That ganache is wonderful in its freshness and strength, and it works perfectly with the flavor of the chocolate. The only problem is that the bottom part of the shell is much too thick. Even if the idea might have been to thicken the shell in order to not have too much of the ganache (and have the effect become possibly too tangy), there still shouldn't be this much chocolate in one layer on a truffle. Proportions.

The main point, as per usual, is that whatever flavors sound the best to you will probably be the best to you. As far as flavor compilations, the Earl Grey Lavender and Hibiscus Caramel were on top. The Marshmallow and Strawberry were also pretty nice. So whatever assortment of truffles you put together for your Valentine, your friend, or yourself, there is plenty to choose from and it is all much, much better from the shelf-life-of-a-thousand-years "truffles" you'll find at the grocery store. And let's also not forget my beloved white chocolate bar with all the hearts; you would certainly win me over if you gave me that one.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company: Strawberry Champagne Truffle

Wow, I found a Valentine's Day chocolate bar to review. How unusual. Normally there isn't much available and what is available I may have already looked at in the past (like Theo's My Cherry Baby bar). This is from the wordily-named Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company, and as you can see, the bar is a Strawberry Champagne Truffle Dark Chocolate.

Not that I have ever had a glass of champagne with a strawberry inside and an edge rimmed in chocolate, but the image does look nice on the cover. Honestly, I've never eaten strawberries and champagne together, either, but these are classic pairings. The bar is in the usual clear wrapper; its eight squares are sleek and shiny. And I seem to have neglected reading the chocolate's description before tearing in, because I was surprised when I went to break off a piece to find a light pink center inside of the squares. You know, Ghirardelli style. That description calls this "a fresh cream truffle." I don't know that the effect is like a truffle, but okay.

The aroma is a little boozy, though the flavor really isn't. The first taste is some regular dark chocolate, then some sweetness, and then everything melds into a complete chocolate covered strawberry experience. The strawberry element comes from strawberry puree, so I have no complaints about the strawberry flavor. While normally this isn't the kind of chocolate I would praise on its own, it works here because this is confection territory. This "kind of chocolate" is the kind that is mainly just sweet and not in fact dark in any sense of the word other than its color. Honestly, too, this is better chocolate than the kind that most places use to dip strawberries in (aka. compounded chocolate, which is chocolate that is made with oil). Maybe because that's the most common reference for chocolate covered strawberries that this whole chocolate covered strawberry chocolate bar effect comes across as so pleasing.

And the champagne part? I don't usually taste it at all. It seems to lurk in that pink center, so when you get a bite that includes a good amount of that center versus more of the chocolate edges, then you do get a sort of richness and a certain flavor that, while not necessarily the same as drinking a glass of champagne, is different from the flavors of either the strawberry or the chocolate. While this doesn't sound like much, it's enough. Unless this really were a truffle, just getting the strawberry to go along with the chocolate and have a hint at champagne is already covering sufficient ground.

One random note: I have no idea why white chocolate is listed in the ingredients list.

My comments, then, are pretty similar to what I said about the first bar I looked at from this company. While their chocolate isn't the absolute best, they handle flavors well, which most of the time is going to be enough. Most people don't even mind sweet dark chocolate (and would never even think to describe this chocolate in that way)--and even I said that it works in this context. So I will recommend this chocolate bar either for yourself or as a gift. It's an indulgence.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sunset & Sunrise

People ask if you're a morning person or a night person, if you prefer sunrises or sunsets. Now, I never knew about the whole "morning person" thing (the most important thing has always seemed to get the right amount of sleep, no matter how early or late you wake), but I could always answer with sunset over sunrise, if simply for the fact that I was much more likely to see a sunset than a sunrise. Even at times when I was awake for the sunrise, I would be indoors getting ready at that time rather than outside watching the sky. And if I did see the sunrise, almost I would be sad that I was up early enough to see it.

The sunrise never seemed as good as sunset, anyway. The sunrise seemed cold, a quick moment in which the sun peeks over a pale horizon to turn the sky bright blue. Sunset, on the other hand, faded from blue to a thousand shades of pink, orange, yellow, and red; sunset was a brilliant masterpiece of warmth.

And then something happened and my perspective shifted.

I can't always sleep anymore. I do sometimes need to get up earlier these days, which at first meant going to bed much earlier. But then that was too much, so I had to shift the going to bed time to a little later again. Yet still, I often wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, feeling like it's the beginning of the day, only to glance at the clock and see that I really should try to sleep more (then usually I can, but I still have that initial early waking--which I never used to have). If I can get myself to sleep in until 7:00, that's really something. I just can't stay asleep anymore; I need to be awake.

So last week when I spent a bit of time up north, I woke up early. Really early. So I made my tea, got a blanket, and went to sit outside in the 30 degree weather and watch the sunrise. And do you know what? The sunrise is not what I thought it was. The sunrise begins much earlier than the moment that the sun appears, just as the sunset lasts much longer than simply that one moment when the sun disappears. Sunrise begins while the center of the sky is still deep blue and home to melting stars. Slowly, the deep blue begins to lighten and the stars to fade. Pink colors appear, the colors I had convinced myself only belonged to sunset. The change from a starry sky to a pink sunrise is much more drastic than the change from a daytime blue sky to a pink sunset.

Instead of being sad that I was here to witness this moment, I was excited. I was thrilled at the beauty, thrilled at the idea that only one of my hands (the hand holding my tea) was numbly frozen outside of the blanket, and thrilled that I had this quiet moment to gather.

Sunset is a reflection back, the enjoyment of what has pleased you throughout the day. Sunrise is excitement about going forward, the joy about getting ready to take your place in the day.

I want to reflect--but I also want to be a person of action. The sunset is beautiful for those cozy moments, but to rejoice in the sunrise is to rejoice in all aspects of life and to be glad that you are waking.

I can't sleep anymore because I need to be awake; does that mean, at least for now, that I'm turning into a sunrise person?