Monday, December 30, 2013

December Favorites

1) White & Pink Cameos - I have a traditional shell cameo in a gold setting and a black cameo in a silver locket setting (the two on top in the picture), so these two new colors make for a good addition to my collection. What I love about cameos is that they're an easy way to add vintage to an outfit: they go with so many different looks, especially now that I have four different colors to choose from. Although the white cameo has the usual pin back plus necklace loop, the pink one only has the pin back. I'd rather be able to wear it as a necklace, but a pin sometimes works, too.

2) Downton Abbey Teas - You know that I'm not one of the big fans of Downton Abbey. But I watched it, and The Republic of Tea is generally a good company, so I let myself get excited about these teas. (I resisted getting any of the jewelry: while the designs are pretty, I wish they were made out of silver.) The English Rose Tea tastes like raspberries; it's nice if you like berries. The Downton Estate Blend, however, is a favorite of mine. It's supposed to be Earl Grey with vanilla, but I think it tastes like coffee cake, so nice and sweet. I'll lament the end of it.

3) Pie Town Soap Co. - Sedona Song: Red Rock Soap - Being that it was coming on Christmas, I chose a soap with pine in it for my newest Pie Town selection. It also has juniper and lavender, along with flower and wood notes. The "swirl of Sedona red earth" gives just a touch of pink to the white soap; it's a much less feminine look than some of Pie Town's soaps, making this a suitable soap for men or women. Pine is the primary scent; the mix of other notes, though, balances it out to feel like a true trip to Sedona.

4) Free People Pants - The color of these pants attracted me because it looked like it would fit in with my closet's color palette; then, the texture gives them a vintage feel for added interest. When I tried them on, I discovered the next nice thing about them: they're designed to fit just above the ankle, so that means that they fit me just right as a regular pant (not too long, like most pants fit me, that is). The material is stiff at first, which I'm hoping means that they will take longer to wear out.

5) Blue Suede Notebook - I already have the smaller, green version of this notebook. This larger, blue one also makes me happy.

6) Tocca Florence Perfume - It was about time I got a Tocca perfume. After smelling their range, I decided that Florence was my favorite. It smells like honeysuckle to me, although it's a mix of many scents, including bergamot, violent, grapefruit, gardenia, and musk. It also happens to be accented with my favorite color, green; do you think that's coincidence? This is one of the mini bottles, but it's still the same cute shape as the full sized ones.

7) Alluring Arizona Book - On a shelf in California I spotted this book. It's very pretty and looks great with my Arizona books from the Images of America series, but I might also want to read some of the text in it. In some sections, the author describes visiting various places in the state, and you know I love people appreciating Arizona.

8) Dior Hypnotic Poison Perfume - Yes, I just liked this perfume because of the bottle. It looks like Snow White's apple; what's cooler? As perfumes go, I do like the scent; it's just that it smells more like perfume than most of my perfumes. I also have the tiny baby apple to go with it.

9) Crocodile Plush - You know what one of my favorite Disney characters is? The crocodile from Peter Pan. Before I liked him because he was cute; now I like him for his symbolism. But since it's still a cute crocodile, I caved and bought the plush while it's available. Won't he look great on a bookshelf next to a copy of the book?

10) Antonio Melani Cashmere Sweater - Let's transition from green crocodile to green sweater. I have one or two Antonio Melani sweaters that I love because of how comfortable they are and how classic they look, so I was instantly interested when they came out with these basic, 100% cashmere sweaters this year. My first completely cashmere sweater, then, is bright lizard green. The fit is perfect: the length isn't too short and it's neither too loose nor too fitted. As long as the moths stay away, I intend to have this one for years to come.

11) Guess Watch - Ever since I started wearing a watch again, I wondered if maybe I should get a semi-decent one instead of a cheap one from World Market. This Guess watch is perfect for me because it has a small face to go with my small wrist and a vintage touch to fit my style. The Roman Numerals are pretty and also make it easy to tell the time with a glance. It also came in Silver and Rose, but I thought that the Gold suited me best.

12) Pillow Sole Socks - Sometimes when I know I'll be walking a lot and my socks don't show under my shoes, I'll put on a pair of Nike or Puma socks: the extra cushion to them really helps feet stay comfortable. I also wore them while doing holiday baking this year. But, you know, sports socks aren't usually that pretty. I've started to like my socks to be pretty. Plus, sometimes sports socks are too thick to fit into certain shoes. Enter Pillow Sole socks. Some have pattern; some don't. The top portion is like a regular sock, but they have a little bit of cushioning on the bottom. So you can wear them like regular socks, but they're a tad more comfortable. I chose the flower pattern instead of plain.

13) Secret Garden Calendar - Now that I've started using a calendar again, it's always a challenge to find one that I can bear looking at all year. I want it to be something that, visually, I'm willing to put on my wall. That I want to put on my wall. So this year it fell to Anthropologie. This calendar has only one page per month instead of two: the days are right in the middle of the design instead of separated. Since I don't really write on my calendar (I just like to have it to be able to visualize time), this works for me. And the simple floral designs are much less tacky than plenty other calendars. They're even pretty.

And that's the end of 2013. Just one more day, then we will move into 2014; Happy Approaching New Year. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Twenty-Four Blackbirds: 75% Madagascar

In Ojai, California, you will find a little shop called Kingston Candy Company. I love a good candy store, so I walked in and took my time looking at the shelves of glass soda bottles, vintage candies, modern candies, and so on. But what I took with me to the cash register were three chocolates, all from Californian companies--plus two rolls of Smarties. Now that's good findings. 

The first of these companies is Twenty-Four Blackbirds Chocolate. I'm not sure for how long this company is around, but it seems to be fairly new. While their website is still in the works, it does have a good slideshow on how they make their chocolate; it's also a nice intro for newbies to the process. I noticed on the bar's wrapper that this company is bean to bar; they also claim, on their website, to be the only bean to bar company in Santa Barbara. Forget Santa Barbara, there are only so many bean to bar companies in the country. Yet while it is a significant fact that Twenty-Four Blackbirds works straight from the cacao beans to the final chocolate bars, that in itself does not say anything about quality. It's implied that if a company cares enough to work with the cocoa beans, they will also care enough to create quality, but unfortunately that is not always the case. 

You will be happy to learn, then, that this company has started on the right footing. The name is easy to remember, unique, and not obvious (like all the names that start with "Choco"). The packaging is beautiful. Recycled brown paper (hello, environmental friendliness) is printed with black silhouette designs; this one has rows of blackbirds (I counted 44 and a half) sitting on telephone lines. It's simple, rustic, and industrial all at once; it's modern. I can see a bar like this for sale not only in a candy store but also in a hipster coffee shop, a stationery store, or any place with food. The reason that I only got one of the skinny, 14 gram bars was that, naturally, the larger bars were $10--and I didn't feel inclined to spend that much on a whim on a company I had never heard of before. 

The bars are hand-wrapped in parchment paper inside the brown paper. When you remove these wrappings, you find an even greater surprise: the bar is molded with a feather imprint to go with the blackbird theme. I was not expecting that; I love that, once again, Twenty-Four Blackbirds went in a new and unique direction. Here is where I got the idea of a stationery store: long feathers always remind me of quill pens. 

Instead of cutting up the feather into a few pieces, the bar is divided just once in the middle. And can I express to you just how beautiful this chocolate is? It's tempered and molded perfectly. There are only three of the tiniest air bubbles, the back of the bar is just as smooth as the front, all the thin lines in the feather came out just right, and the bar shines with just the right quality. This is art. If you have ever worked at all with chocolate, you know that this is not easy to achieve. Not only does the chocolate snap nicely, but the broken chocolate also maintains the same solid brown color, as opposed to chocolates that look whitish where they are broken. Fourteen grams of chocolate like this is nothing to complain about. 

On first taste, it is bitter. It has a 75% cocoa content, but I would definitely say it tastes on the bitter side of 75%. But here's the thing: there are only cocoa beans and sugar in the ingredients list. So there is no vanilla and, I assume, no extra cocoa butter. It makes sense, then, that this bar would be a tad more on the bitter side. But bitterness in itself is not a bad thing; I am reminded of Patric Chocolate, which I tasted years ago when they were still a very new company. This company (I'm pretty sure it was this company) wrote something about how bitterness can complement chocolate like it does with a fine wine (unless it was a different kind of alcohol). And now when I look up that chocolate, I find that it was, like this one, from Madagascar. That is, the cocoa beans used in both bars were grown in Madagascar. Specifically, these are organic beans from the Ambanja area, just like one of Guittard's bars. 

So once you move past the bitterness, the recognizable fruity Madagascar notes come in. Chocolate with a Madagascar origin tends to be my, and many other people's, favorite. Even though there is initial bitterness, the notes that take over are light with all their fruity and citrusy aroma. There was also something softer underneath that increases as you approach the chocolate's finish; I wanted to call it an almost banana taste, but the Blackbird website calls it cream. That makes more sense. 

I wouldn't say that the flavors in this bar are quite as developed as those in one of the much-admired Amano bars. But I'm impressed, and I don't say that lightly about chocolate. The smoothness of the chocolate, along with the flavors that I came across, means that it was very carefully developed. This is very good chocolate--and I like that the packaging doesn't force itself on you. You're left to, on your own, discover the level of quality and the type of ingredients. I don't want to be told how many certifications a chocolate is; I want to taste quality and to know that with that quality come certain necessities (organic, attention to the environment, et cetera). This is how a chocolate experience is supposed to be. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mary Poppins: Whimsy or Healing?

Happy Christmas, everyone? Watching Les Mis on Christmas last year put us all in mind, I suppose, to go and see something this year also. And what better than a touch of Disney magic on Christmas? So we went to see Saving Mr. Banks, which, as you know, is about Walt Disney trying to convince the author of Mary Poppins to sell them the movie rights. It was sprightly, sad, inspiring, and layered--and there are minor spoilers below the penguin picture. 

Christmas Penguins at the Mission Inn in Riverside, CA

I've never really made a connection to Mary Poppins. When I was younger, I remember not getting the sense of fantasy and whimsy that I thought I was supposed to get; now I realize that whimsy isn't really the point of the movie. So watching Saving Mr. Banks has helped me understand what the much-loved movie is really about. Of course I never made a connection with it before: I was looking at it from the wrong angle. 

What's interesting about this new movie is its format. You have the 1961 timeline, with the grown and grumpy Mrs. Travers. Then there are the flashbacks to her as an imaginative, intelligent girl--and you wonder what happened in between to cause the change. Slowly, we come to understand the situation. Tragedy pairs alongside fantasy; the mix is not at all unlike what I have observed in the few Australian films I've watched. And from the prim Mrs. Travers's disdain of the Disney style, the question comes of whether or not fantasy does take away from reality or give a false image of the world. But as I've always felt, the movie goes on to reveal that that isn't the role of fantasy: fantasy can be hope and healing. That's what the world has loved about Disney from the start. And, you know, it's kind of refreshing to have that same message of hope relayed to us through a different form: you don't get that many Disney biopics. (This isn't exactly a biopic, I suppose, but it's similar.) So as a film and even as a Christmas Day film, Saving Mr. Banks is well worth the journey. Sometimes discovering how you got to a place is even more important than the place itself. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Hobbit Discovers Desolation

Click here to read my main thoughts on the initial installment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Where, you may be wondering, has all my chatter been about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug? The movie's been out for over a week, and don't I usually like to see long-awaited movies on opening day?

Well, yes, I do. But no longer being directly around the Phoenix area makes that a little more difficult, especially since I specifically wanted to see the movie in HFR 3D. But I figured that it would be okay to wait a few extra days; it isn't as if the theatres were going to stop playing it so soon, anyway. So I tried to contain my excitement until I walked into the theatre at 12:25 on Sunday. Delightfully, it was still empty for the 1:00 showing, so I waltzed over to the middle of the third row up on the top section of seats. Other people soon followed in, but it was a pretty light crowd, all huddled together in the middle of the theatre like one big family, everyone trying to sit as far from each other as possible while still staying as close to the middle as possible.

The lights faded, and Middle-earth began before our eyes.

Before the praise, I have one quick note to make. I can see The Hobbit as having come out in two installments, instead of three. With that said, if they had enough footage, why not make a third movie? It's easier than cutting extra-long extended editions. Then, with a trilogy come certain structural elements. The Desolation of Smaug is Act II of three. So it doesn't have the same kind of clarity to its beginning, or neat tying-up at its ending. And it lets itself be filled with action sequences and revelations of darkness: this is only the middle section of the story, so it does not need to have everything in it. The trilogy will be, in all its parts, complete.

What was so exciting about watching this movie was all the new things we saw. Beorn was well-rendered; Mirkwood was creepy; the elves were nicely different and odd in comparison to the Rivendell or Lothlorien elves; and Lake-town was incredible. For some reason, my mind always comes out muddy from anything related to Lake-town or Bard; I just can't picture any of it. So to see it all onscreen was priceless. The detail of the architecture, the particular feel of the music, the story that they give to Bard's family, it all helps to fill in the blanks that were in my mind and to give this location a real sense of place.

Oh, yes, and we must not forget to mention the beautiful nature shots. HFR 3D, your clarity makes you my friend as strongly as you were last year. Visually, fabulous.

There are plenty of discussions of what is or isn't different from the book Tolkien wrote. But what I'm interested in exploring right now is what this movie did offer to me as a viewer. As I said, it was only Act II. Act I introduced us to the quest and the characters, and Act III will draw in the final meaning of everything. So Act II does, essentially, have the luxury to take its time and simply entertain us. Sure, they dragged out action sequences longer than necessary and completely made up that final fight with the dragon. But it all looked cool and played out well and still had some connection to the characters, so I don't see any reason to complain. Because there are three movies, allowing these action sequences didn't have to take away from other scenes.

And yet you still have that horrible development that leads to Bilbo's final words, "What have we done?" and the end credits song, "I See Fire." What began as fun action becomes very tragic. And we see this progression through Bilbo's eyes. He was the one who vaguely called all of this "adventures," of which he was scared. But in this movie, Bilbo begins to see the wider implications and results of what he and his company are doing; he begins to understand the wideness of the world. By saying, "What have we done?" he is not only facing the horror of having helped push the dragon out of the mountain onto Lake-town, but he is also recognizing the tragedy of the world. The tragedy of the world, that is, becomes more tragic when you realize from where it comes. "I See Fire" perfectly complemented this final mood, especially considering that I was not expecting the movie to end so abruptly. There was no fabricated resolution to end the movie because there is no resolution at this point in the story: they have entered the Lonely Mountain as planned, but it has not played out as the good thing that Bilbo thought it would be. And that realization is enough to make a moving ending to this part of the story.

One last mention concerning Tauriel. We all know that she's in there just because there are no female characters in the story as Tolkien wrote it. But I was surprised that she didn't annoy me (Arwen sometimes annoys me). Maybe it's because she's more straightforward than Arwen was and because her role as a warrior is clear. Although there is some hinting about relationships (I knew the Legolas thing would be there, but I was not expecting Kili to be added to the mix. That was sort of hilarious, but also not entirely unlike the Legolas/Gimli relationship.), she isn't limited to that and it isn't her primary role in the story. She kind of makes sense in the story, so I don't mind her. Considering that the filmmakers completely made her up, I think she comes across okay.

I suppose that would be it, then. (Oh, wait, I said nothing of the dragon. Smaug was good; his CG and design were really good; his voice was good; his dialogue with Bilbo even echoed the Riddles in the Dark conversation slightly.) Now let me go and listen to "I See Fire" again; I love how well these songs fit in with the feeling of the movies.

Oh, yes, and I haven't forgotten that it's Christmas: I also watched Mickey's Christmas Carol a couple days ago and The Santa Clause last night. Merry Christmas Eve to everyone.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Chocolats du Cali Bressan

I may have gone a little overboard when I stumbled into Jean-Michel Carre's Santa Barbara location for Chocolats du Cali Bressan: I came out with a six piece box, two sample chocolates, a soap, and a candle. But it's exciting trying out a new chocolate company, and it's exciting stumbling unexpectedly on a chocolate shop (or candy shop, for that matter--I'll follow up eventually with my chocolate findings from a candy store in Ojai).

As you start to see simply from the outside of the store, the primary colors of this company are black and red, which I find refreshing. It creates a new, romantic, and sophisticated look, completely apart from the more common whites and golds. And the location, with all its architectural details, definitely helps. 

Besides the regular merits of good customer service, the staff here are well-versed in the art of wrapping. They wrap things in tissue and ribbon and Cali Bressan stickers, all kept up in black gift bags. Interestingly, the bags are hole-punched so that business cards can be tied on; this means that the bags are easily reusable if you remove the business card. Reusing a gift bag isn't always so easy when a company adds their sticker onto the bag.

Continuing the color scheme, my little box was black with a cheery red ribbon. The price was completely average for boxed chocolates. While you might think that I chose six flavors, I in fact only picked out two: the box was for sharing with two other people. 

So when confronted with an entire glass case of chocolates, how did I chose only two flavors? First, you know that I tend to like fish. I've even had a chocolate salmon before (I mean, chocolate molded into a salmon shape, not salmon cooked with chocolate). So, naturally, I found the Fish adorable; the peanut butter flavor, also, seemed common enough that it would appeal to different people. One flavor, then I needed one plain chocolate. Given the wonderfulness of chocolate with a Madagascar origin, I went for the Madagascar.

The third chocolate you see here is one of the samples, a salted caramel. The leaf is gorgeous, with the color painted on and the clear molding with the veins. It smells like fragrant chocolate. But when I bit in, I instantly found the shell a little too thick, especially on bottom. Probably the mold probably could be thinner. The caramel is just shy enough away from liquid that it doesn't spill out, but stays put inside the chocolate. It has a pretty standard sweet/salty taste, though the chocolate does add so much fragrance to the flavor; it certainly tastes like good quality. Is it floral or marshmallow? Maybe both. It's a nice chocolate, but a less thick shell would've really helped. 

The Madagascar is a plain oval with scroll pattern. The label says that the ganache, which is 67% cocoa, is from Madagascar, but not the shell. Hmm. But then comes the part where you taste and discover that, oh, wow, that is a good ganache. It's so creamy and so light, without a hint of graininess or heaviness to the texture. It's smooth and soft as butter; I'd imagine they used a lot of fresh cream. Yet it tastes as dense as a flourless chocolate cake--as mine, not a cheap restaurant one. Those Madagascar fruity notes come through on the waves of chocolate and cream (not really cream, but I picture it as such). Then you taste the plain dark chocolate, which brings all the clouds back down to earth. Heavenly and divine. I thought this one would have too thick of a shell, as well, but somehow it works because it seems like there's more filling and the filling does take a moment to melt, if only a short moment.

Last comes the Fish, which has a dark chocolate ganache with old fashioned peanut butter in a dark chocolate shell. Red paints the head, with orange on the scales and fins. It's such a cute little guy, plus a safe flavor choice. Unfortunately, though, the bottom of some of these chocolates looks a little sloppy--is that just me thinking that? I know they're handmade and that imperfections simply add character. But still I wonder. 

Also look at the side of one of the fish; the paint looks smeary and doesn't go all the way down like it does on the others. Is that really what I should expect from fine, handmade chocolates? It just looks so pretty sitting there, that it was a little disappointing to pick it up and find these imperfections. But let me move on to the flavor.

Somehow, I didn't believe them that the peanut butter was in a ganache. And let me tell you, that was a good idea. It means that you get the peanut butter flavor we all love, but without the greasiness and oiliness of actual peanut butter. The peanut butter taste is still a tad buttery for me (you know I'm used to eating Trader Joe's peanut butter), but it does taste like real peanuts. This is also one of those few instances where you have peanut butter with dark chocolate. It works, probably because the peanut butter is infused into the rich ganache to start with; it's really a grown up version of peanut butter chocolate, the most sophisticated I have tasted. A very good job at creating a new take on an average flavor combo.

I'd still like to see some adjusting on the shells, but overall I like these findings. The chocolates are beautiful. The Madagascar and the Fish were great. So I'm happy.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Illuminated

Within the many shops of Santa Barbara, I happened upon this artsy little book, The Story of Christmas. Being as pretty as it is, it isn't just for the shelf: it can be part of Christmas decorating each year. The text is from the King James Bible, and Pamela Dalton did the illustrations using a cut paper method. Everything, as you can see, uses a black backdrop, with colorful images of the people, angels, animals, and scenery placed on top. 

Simply as a piece of art, this book is gorgeous. It's simple and intricate at the same time; I think the black background helps with that. The images look almost illuminated, reminding me of Medieval illuminated manuscripts. That look, I think, speaks of tradition; this is, after all, a traditional folk method of imagery (the paper cutting, I mean). 

Paired with the text, this book is something to bring out every year. Read it over on Christmas Eve, or set it out on display with your Christmas cards. Three and a half days until Christmas.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Very Hillywood Christmas

For the first time this year, The Hillywood Show offered Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales at their online shop. It was all, apparently, a big success as they had to restock t-shirt sizes more than once. I received my order yesterday and just had to give one quick note of everything; let's pretend they're my early Christmas presents to myself. 

Since every t-shirt was getting signed by Hilly and Hannah that weekend, I ordered the shirt that goes with their Warm Bodies Parody. I like the design, but I don't really wear red--or t-shirts with graphics. So what better shirt to get signed (since, you know, you don't want to just wash away the signatures). But here's what's interesting: they signed on the heart. I wonder if the ink will take longer to wash away from there? If so, that's pretty nice. 

I had also been eyeing the Hillywood charm bracelet since it first showed up in the shop; now at last was the time. The extension on the bracelet is, naturally, way too wide for my little wrists; while I do like loose bracelets sometimes, the charms on this one make it so that it really can't be too loose. But you can always put the clasp into one of the regular links to make it as small as you need. It's a pretty bracelet, though not terribly practical with all the charms. At least I'm enjoying seeing it hanging with my other bracelets, out in the open (keep as much jewelry visible as you can, I think). 

Since it was also the Christmas sale, included with orders of two items was an autographed photo. Mine was from Harry Potter Friday Parody. Perhaps instead of framing all my autographs, I should start a photo album with them? Either way, it's always nice to see my Hillywood collection growing. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Casey's Cupcakes: Gingerbread & Dark Chocolate

A very long time ago (about three and a half years ago, that is), I visited Casey's Cupcakes at their original location at the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa for the first time. I put my review of the place and one of their Milk Chocolate cupcakes onto Chocablog; click here to read it. Since then, the Mission Inn has become a bit of a California destination. It's a beautiful feat of architecture and design, with endless bits and pieces to look at and admire. Sunday Brunch at the main hotel restaurant or pasta at the Italian restaurant are fantastic (I've never been to the steakhouse), but it's easiest to sneak into Casey's for a cupcake or two on your way through town. 

I usually try different flavors. The Milk Chocolate is good, as are the Cinnamon and Peanut Butter and Strawberry; I think I've also tried the Red Velvet. This time I finally picked up the Dark Chocolate, as well as the flavor of the month, Gingerbread. In the top row, you can see two Dark Chocolates on the ends and the Gingerbread in the middle. The bottom row has German Chocolate Cake, Red Velvet, and Lemon. (I don't believe I'm giving all the exact names, just the flavors). But only the two I mentioned were mine. 

The thing about Casey's, from the store to the product, is that looks matter. I don't get that with all cupcake companies (like Sprinkles . . . which always strike me as plain and frankly don't taste nearly as special). The pink and white stripes on the boxes and bags speak for an occasion, whether it's a birthday or simply a special spark on a regular day. The cupcakes are decked out with their thick frosting, chocolate shavings, sprinkles, circles of chocolate with the Casey's logo, and all that makes them stand out. The designs are always simple, but the individual pieces are all pretty. The chocolate shavings, I've noticed, change from time to time. This time, I was admiring their shape: they're pointed into a triangle on one end, but the other flat end curls upward. How do you even get a shape like that? 

If you looked at my other review, you'll hear of my admiration for the frosting. Because, you see, my confession is this: I don't like most frosting. I know I'm not the only one. But it just seems sad and wasteful when you find yourself scraping the frosting off a cake, or looking down on a cupcake layered high with cheap frosting. And if it's supposedly nicer frosting because it has cream cheese, I'm still not always won over: I only like cream cheese occasionally, in small amounts. Whereas some handmade (is that even the right word?) frostings will be butter-based, Casey's must, I think, add more sugar than that. Their frosting isn't quite like other frosting. It's light and airy, but its stiff enough to stand on its own (as evidenced by the three light-colored cupcakes in the picture). It tastes sweet like sugar, not like artificial whatnot. In other words, I never want to scrape off this frosting. 

But alas, all praise must be tempered with criticism. This pretty Gingerbread cupcake with its peppermint coloring didn't delight me entirely. The color of the cake was light brown, an instant foreshadowing of my displeasure. I was just talking about this when I reviewed the Theo Gingerbread bar. Gingerbread needs the flavor of molasses, otherwise it's just Spiced Ginger. If there is any molasses in this mix, it isn't enough to darken the color and therefore also not enough to affect the flavor. I taste ginger, perhaps accented by other gingerbread spices. But without molasses, the flavor just isn't right; I also thought the cake was drier than usual on this one. 

The Dark Chocolate, on the other hand, was better. A cupcake, by nature, shouldn't really be decadently rich. This one isn't, but it is still enough in that direction to provide contrast to the Milk Chocolate cupcake. The Milk Chocolate is lighter; the Dark Chocolate is more layered and chocolate-flavored. This particular one was also, I might add, moister than this particular Gingerbread cupcake. So, yes, I will be back at Casey's Cupcakes time and time again--and you should stop there, too, next time you find yourself nearby. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Women of Christmas

Like many, I haven't really read the nonfiction from Liz Curtis Higgs, just her historical novels and one of her modern novels. But then she came out, this year, with a book themed around Christmas. Just the thing to read during this season, right?

In the eight chapters of The Women of Christmas, she focuses mainly on Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna--and what they, through their faith, brought to the pre-Christmas scene. Although there are, of course, themes applicable to men and women, Liz does purposely aim her book towards women; and, sometimes, it's good to hear words from one woman to another. 

I read most of this book one chapter at a time, at night. It was a nice addition to the approach of Christmas, a reminder of what it is I set out to celebrate. Some of the ideas Liz moves through I had heard before; some I hadn't. But she puts everything together in a way that is easy to take in--and to absorb.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Adventures of Connor & Abby: Part 17

It has been quite a while since we last looked in on the Primeval team. They're gearing up for Christmas now; I have, since last time, brought Rex and an anomaly to join them. The trouble, though, with the anomaly is that it seems to have brought along another critter. A Spinosaurus leapt out to join Claudia Brown, Abby, Rex, and Connor for their Christmas picture. 

I do hope that flashbacks of their time in the Cretaceous, when they were chased by a Spinosaurus, don't take away from the holiday spirit too much for Connor and Abby. Merry Christmas from the ARC team. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hammond's: Candy Cane Crunch

The funny thing is, this holiday bar from Hammond's Candies wasn't much less expensive than the Theo bar I looked at a couple days ago; in fact, if you counter in size, they might be about the same--Hammond's is probably even more expensive (I'll let you do the math). But I've had some positive inclinations toward Hammond's before, and they do design their wrappers well. Instead of giving a huge Christmas spin to the Candy Cane Crunch's look, it's the same as with their other bars, just in a happy pink color. You see, it doesn't have to be hard to have seasonal offerings. 

It wasn't until I unwrapped this bar that I realized this is my first time trying dark chocolate from Hammond's. Given the company's candy focus, it won't be surprising that I'm not thrilled by their dark variety. I mean, the milk chocolate wasn't completely thrilling, either, but I feel like it's easier for milk chocolate to fall under par than it is for dark chocolate: milk chocolate is allows to rely on sweetness, but dark chocolate is supposed to be more about the flavor of the chocolate itself. That's why milk chocolate lends itself better to the world of confections than dark chocolate does--and Hammond's, as far as I have seen, dwells in the world of confections. That's why they call themselves Hammond's Candies.

Two of the six squares were already broken when I unwrapped the bar; whether this was my fault or the stores, I don't know, but it didn't exactly make the chocolate look highly appealing. And the primary first flavor I got was the confectionary dark chocolate I was dreading. You know the stuff: flat, sweet, and thick in flavor, like straight Nesquik. It offers none of the complexity or richness of good dark chocolate, but also none of the caramel/vanilla-accented gentleness of milk chocolate. It's stuck in an awkward in-between space. Admittedly, the Hammond's version of this confectionary dark chocolate is not the worst I've had (cough, See's, cough), and I don't mean to say that such chocolate is inedible. It's just not the type of thing I enjoy. So if you're reading this right now and thinking of what a snob I am, by all means, don't let my comments hold you back. If you enjoy chocolate with just a touch of darkness, maybe this variety is for you.

I wonder if it is my aversion toward the chocolate that is preventing me from tasting the candy cane very much. It's there, in tiny red, white, and clear crunches. But there is hardly any of the pepperminty taste; it's barely an accent flavor. For a a Candy Cane Crunch bar, especially since it is a holiday offering, I want much more peppermint flavor than this. It doesn't need to be overpoweringly minty, but there does have to be a minty presence. The mint pieces Hammond's uses remind of the ones Ghirardelli puts in their Peppermint Bark chocolate. You know, barely crunchy stuff without any flavor. The chocolate, plus the peppermint, puts this Hammond's bar at two strikes out. As such, I can't say that it was any better than okay. And there is already plenty of okay chocolate candy on the shelves. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Once TV Companion

This was one of those books where I felt a little odd buying it, as if I should maybe be ten or eight years younger. But if I always get movie companions when they're available for a movie I've enjoyed, why not do the same for TV? I've enjoyed Once Upon a Time, so here is the companion book for the series, Once Upon a Time: Behind the Magic.

Although the book reviews let me know that much of this book is taken from a magazine spread the show had, I never read that magazine. So the only effect this fact has on me is that you can tell it's magazine format and writing. But I don't read companions for the writing, anyway. You read them for facts and for quotes, and this book does have both. There are interview-articles with the actors, the writers, the producers, the effects people, and so on. In about 170 pages that have many pictures but also rather small text, there is a good amount of material. Some things I already knew, some things informed me on how certain things in the show were done, and some things taught me more about the TV-making field as a whole. Honestly, it was all better than I was expecting.

For Seasons 1 and 2, the book provides an episode guide with plot summaries, character lists, and facts to note. For a show with a twisted plot-line and so many characters, this is kind of nice to have. And, you know, even those pictures are nice: you have the chance to look closely at Red Riding Hood's hair or Mary Margaret's home or Cinderella's ball gown (which has very little screen time). For a Once fan, this companion is worth having.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Theo: Gingerbread Spice Milk Chocolate

While I do like to name Amano chocolate as one of the best, when I'm sending people to a good chocolate that they might actually be able to find in a store, Theo is a brand to choose. Whole Foods and similar stores usually carry Theo, and at around $3 for a fairly large bar, it isn't expensive for good quality and organic, fair trade chocolate. And I much prefer Theo's offerings to those of brands like Endangered Species. 

You know how delighted I become at finding holiday offerings of chocolate, not just candy. Theo has chosen a good route: this bar is still in their standard size, but is a holiday flavor with a well-decorated holiday wrapper. There is just a touch of color to the brown with the red, blue, and white, and just a touch of vintage accents the gingerbread man, houses, and trees. There was also a Coconut Mint bar, but I passed it by since it had coconut (online, you'll also find Nutcracker Brittle and Peppermint Stick). The Gingerbread Spice, however, felt right at home on my little Christmas tree with a dinosaur and a beaded elephant for friends.

I'm used to most of Theo's bars having a very plain mold with no markings and about four or five rectangular pieces. But this one has eight squares, each marked with the Theo logo; I'm not sure if this is a new design or simply the mold for the holiday bars. I do, though, love this reminder of how perfect the finish is on Theo's chocolate. It's highly glossy without having the plastic shine. It's gorgeous, really. 

Now, I don't know if you know this, but I've been making gingerbread cookies every Christmas for at least seven years now. Hardly anyone makes them anymore, and store ones just don't taste right. So I have some familiarity with how a good gingerbread cookie should taste. But I suppose Theo's bar isn't a Gingerbread Cookie bar; it's Gingerbread Spice. Aptly, then, chocolate and ginger are the primary flavors. But what, you ask, is wrong with Gingerbread tasting like ginger? Nothing, except that gingerbread cookies also taste strongly of molasses. There is no molasses element in this bar, unless of course you count the chocolate; I think that Theo did intend the chocolate to take the place of the molasses. Both chocolate and molasses are rich and sweet. So the translation from gingerbread cookie to gingerbread chocolate is not exact, but it works because one element (the chocolate) comes in to take the place of the other (the molasses). There are also cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and cardamom, but while they do add in the proper accents, they're background flavors in comparison to the ginger. 

A word more on the chocolate. You'll note that I called both chocolate and molasses rich and sweet. This is milk chocolate, but it's 45% cocoa, which is definitely on the upper percentage end of milk chocolate. Some companies (I won't name names) will even call percentages like that dark chocolate. Theo happens to make a delightful dark, milk chocolate. So whatever spices are added onto this bar, you know it has a good base. The chocolate is smooth and pure, creamy in its richness, and cool against the warmth of the spices. The ginger gives the bar a bite, so it's nice to be able to temper it with the sweet richness of the chocolate. 

Theo, you've done well once again. My holiday spirit is glad. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Favorites

1) New Copy of Wuthering Heights - Just have to expand my leatherbound Barnes & Noble classics collection every so often, this time with at least my third copy of this book. Aren't the branches such a pretty touch to this cover?

2) J.R. Watkins Lip Tint - This is very similar to the Burt's Bees lip shimmers. Like Burt's Bees, there are no iffy ingredients. This one might be a little grainier, though. But it has a nice minty flavor, adds a touch of color, and is low-priced. It isn't my absolute favorite, but it's alright.

3) Trader Joe's Candy Cane Green Tea - Especially for such inexpensive tea, this stuff is wonderful. I wondered how well the peppermint would blend with the green tea, but somehow it works. It tastes sweet along with the mintiness, just like a candy cane; the green tea works because it doesn't give off the strong flavor that black tea would. It's the perfect holiday tea; I love it. Also available right now is the Vanilla and Cinnamon Black Tea, which I don't like nearly as much; it almost tastes dull.

4) Tarte Lights, Camera Flashes Mascara - Sephora was selling a Tarte eyelash curler in a set with a sample-sized edition of their new mascara, which I really wanted to try. It's a good mascara, but not quite my favorite. The liquid is thick, so it really piles onto your lashes, which is good. But somehow the brush (which looks like a good shape) separates lashes a tad too much. So maybe with a slightly different brush it would be better.

5)  Trader Joe's Pumpkin Spice Rooibos Tea - Here is a November tea. It smells very much like pumpkin pie--perhaps too much. Fortunately, though, it has a more calming taste. There is just a touch of pumpkin and spices, along with the warmth of the rooibos. I don't usually like rooibos that much, so I was surprised that I did enjoy this tea. Instead of being thick, it's fairly delicate.

6) Fresh Sugar Favorites set - Oh, Christmas Time; Oh, Christmas Time; I bought myself a present. I just couldn't resist; I've been planing to buy this for months. If you've ever used Fresh's Sugar lip products, you know how amazing they feel on your lips. Soft, sweet, luxurious. And since they can get messy if you're not careful with them, I like the small size that's in the Christmas sets. I'm still not a fan of the purple in Berry (I'll probably use it to wear at night) and the red of Passion has to be reserved for occasional days. Cherry is a nice sprightly red alternative, and Petal is a gorgeous light shade of pink. Honey is still a nice casual, light, warm shade, and I had almost forgotten how beautiful Rose feels. Rose might be my favorite.

7) Mrs. Bridges Christmas Preserve - Oh, World Market, how I love thee. This jar of preserves tastes like Christmas: berries and spices, richness and fruitiness. It's a way of spreading fragrance onto toast.

8) Bite Beauty lip primer/liner - When winter comes and I do my occasional red lip, I really feel like I need a lip liner. But I didn't want to get one color that I wouldn't be able to use with multiple products, so I opted to try out Bite Beauty's colorless primer/liner. I'm still getting used to it and trying it out, but I think it does make my color last longer.

9) Banana Republic Skirt - Let's just pretend that I actually got this skirt at Banana Republic (actually, I don't really care; if I did, I wouldn't have said anything). Even though it's short, I feel like it has a cool weather look. I wore it with green tights, tall boots, a brown knit sweater, and a gold and dangly vintage necklace.

10) Christmas Decorating - I got a new, small Christmas tree this year; it looks colorful and happy with dinosaurs, a turkey, a lizard, beaded animals, a clay dog I made years ago, and a wise man on his camel.