Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Hobbit Chronicles: Book 3

Click for my thoughts on the first book and on the second.

Continuing on in my journey through this series of books, I now come to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Chronicles: Art & Design. That is, the Desolation of Smaug version of book one, which was for An Unexpected Journey. So once again, we have a bit less text than was in the second book and quite a lot of concept art, in pencil, paint, and digital.

Might I also just admire this cover. The first book was lovely, with its leather-like texture and faint map imagery. But this one, I think, inspires more awe. The texture is of dragon scales to represent the great Smaug and the shapes are reminiscent of the dwarves. Quite impressive. 

Since the format is the same as before, there is nothing new to report there, except my admiration for the continued tidiness and clarity of form. Some of my favorite sections were probably those on Beorn's home and Lake-town, given that those were also some of my favorite sets. It's designed to be so dilapidated, but I'm half in love with Lake-town; granted, I don't want to live there, but as a set and a setting, it's gorgeous. So much thought went into its conception that I could listen to everyone talk about it all day--and this book kind of let me do that, for a few pages, at least. And the concept art paintings for Lake-town--gorgeous. Indeed, they were for many other sets or characters, as well. The $40 list price on this book may be high, but given the amount of imagery within every page, that's rather reasonable. I'm wondering if this was my favorite out of the three books so far.

Well, Weta has shipped out my signed copy of Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon, so I should be writing up a reaction to that within the next month, I think. Then the next Chronicles book comes out around July. It feels good to be finally caught up with these books. 

April Favorites

1) Antique Photo Album - A gift of sorts, this album came from someone I was just having a conversation with about how sad it is that people always take the pictures out of old albums to sell them separately. This album, however, has the original pictures in it. I put them mostly around the 1880's and 1890's plus maybe a couple that are older, judging by the clothes. And besides the wonderful fact that the pictures are in, this album is simply a beautiful little book.

2) Queen Helene Royal Curl - I used to use the Hair Milk from Carol's Daughter, but I can't find it in store anymore and didn't really want to have to order online--I tried out the Hair Pudding, but it didn't curl my hair as much. Then I found this container at Whole Foods; it's less than half the price of Carol's Daughter's products. And even though the jelly-like texture takes a little getting used to, it works fairly well for my half-wavy hair. It helps enhance curls a tad and keep things tame.

3) River Song's Journal(s) - We all have bad shipping experiences at some point, I suppose. Quite some time ago, I decided that the deluxe edition of River Song's journal was the one Doctor Who merch item I'd like to get. But I had such trouble with shipping. Such trouble. So, as a consolation to myself, I have also ended up with the regular edition. The deluxe journal is very thick and feels wonderful to hold--although I'm still not quite sure what to make of the coded page.

4) Jason Smoothing Sea Kelp Shampoo & Conditioner - Let's see, so I was using Avalon Organics for a few years, then Aveda for a couple of years. Now I've switched again, for now, at least. Originally I just picked out this particular shampoo from Jason because I was avoiding formulas designed for volume and other such things I need no help in, but it turns out that it does keep the frizz down somewhat. An added bonus.

5) Charms Candies - I suppose they're basically just regular, fruit-flavored hard candies, but I'm really enjoying this random find from World Market. They're clear colors, like rectangles of glass, all individually wrapped. Get me more, please?

6) World Market Cuff Bracelet - I try not to get too much from their jewelry section anymore, but I had liked this bracelet before and it was on sale, so here it is. The pattern reminds me of leaves and vines.

7) Brass Makeup Holder - For $3.50 at an antique store, I thought this brass holder would be perfect for makeup brushes and eyeliner and such. I've also placed another couple of smaller items in the bowl space on top. We were joking that if it were at Anthropologie, it would have been $48 and not even at least brass.

8) Copper Bracelet - Having been thinking a while on getting a copper bracelet (you do seem to find them in many shops around here), I finally settled on this one. The floral texture reminds me of something you might find carved into a piece of leather. And at $9, it's price is less than the World Market bracelet--even though this one is copper instead of some random metal.

9) Eucalyptus Oil - Don't buy air freshener. Buy essential oils, whatever scent you like, and mix them into water. I've been putting eucalyptus oil into this old bottle from Aveda (in the middle) and spraying it as a refreshing scent for night or day.

10) Pearl Bead Necklaces - Four strands of these beads for, I think, around $3, at an antique store. They're nice little trinkets for layering, whether to wear them all together or just one or two. I latest wore just one strand with my (small) dinosaur necklace and large white cameo that I'd clipped onto a colorful beaded necklace.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tazo: Cocoa Mint Maté

Some years ago, I reviewed a different yerba maté tea that included chocolate; what was most disappointing there was the inclusion of sweetener--stevia or something like that. Sugar usually tastes weird in tea to me because I don't normally put sugar in tea, but any other kind of sweetener just tastes bad. And in a tea that you brew at home, I just don't get the point in it having sweetener: if people want sweetener, they can add it themselves. So the first thing I checked when I saw this box of Tazo tea was whether or not it had any such ingredient added in. 

There is no stevia or sugar or anything like that. So I bought it. But I knew that I would probably have a problem with the licorice root, which has about the same weird impact on the flavor for me as stevia does. The full ingredients are: cocoa peels, yerba maté, peppermint, honeybush, natural flavors, spearmint, licorice root, vanilla extract. Essentially it's a strong green tea blent with cocoa, mint, and a hint of sweetness. I don't know how to describe maté if you've never had it: it's more robust than a basic cup of green tea, but has the same basic flavor profile, I suppose. I buy it loose. 

Because I've described this tea as robust, you can see why it would be suited toward blending with chocolate. And because of the chocolate, the tea isn't green in color, but a light brown--depending on for how long you brew. Brewing on the long side is better. Hot or cold works. The first flavor I get, just because I find it so near detestable, is the licorice, paired a tad with the mint. As this is, I probably wouldn't buy this tea again. The licorice isn't so bad as stevia, but it's annoying enough: I would enjoy this tea so much better without it. For the tea really is rather nice for an awakening spring day. The cocoa and vanilla make it feel sweet, the mint adds texture, and the maté provides a non-imposing yet still grounded base for it all. Given the nature of these ingredients, it's also an enlivening tea. (Yerba maté is more of a waking up than a sleepy time tea.) Although I'm not planning on buying more, I will definitely enjoy the rest of the box.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why So Many Battles . . .

You will perhaps have heard the announcement that the third Hobbit film will no longer be called There And Back Again, becoming instead The Battle of the Five Armies. The idea, of course, is that the previous title was not suited to the trilogy (versus the original plan for only two movies) because the group is already "there" when the third movie begins. But regardless of the giant mouthful that this new title seems to be, I find something else about it bothering me.

I'm bothered that the movie is named after a battle. Sometimes with The Lord of the Rings I wonder if my favorite of the three stories is The Fellowship of the Ring--because the fellowship is such a beautiful thing. And the book and movie are named after the fellowship. The third book (although Tolkien wasn't fond of this title since it gives away the ending) is named after Aragorn reclaiming the throne and renewing Gondor. That's also a positive thing. An Unexpected Journey is a neutral title. The Desolation of Smaug is a sad image, but then the point of that movie was to show corruption in many places and in many forms and to acknowledge it. So why must the last movie be named solely for the final battle instead of for something more hopeful?

You see, apart from the many things that I do or don't like in the Middle-earth movies, I do find them battle heavy. But I mostly ignore that fact because, well, they are movies. Movies tend to try to pack in action. If I don't want that, I can go read the books. But the fact that the title The Battle of the Five Armies promises nothing more than warfare bothers me. Sure, you could argue that the name itself of the battle is something hopeful--because different peoples come together to unite against a common foe in this one battle, hence the five different armies. But that's a subtlety.

I suppose, though, it must be strange coming up with a title for this movie. It has to be some sort of phrase that not only describes the plot but also sounds Tolkien. An Unexpected Journey comes out of the book. The Battle of the Five Armies is what Tolkien calls the final battle (although he doesn't put in the "the," so I wonder why the movie does). But I'm not a screenwriter, so I'm left wondering, couldn't they have come up with something better? Probably it doesn't ultimately matter much. But why, why so much focus on battles when Tolkien is so much more than that? The battle barely takes up five and a half pages for him.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Hobbit Chronicles: Book 2

So far, it has only been the second book in the Chronicles series for The Hobbit that I have actually pre-ordered from Weta in order to get a signed copy. It was a year ago that this book, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Chronicles: Creatures & Characters, came out. At last I've been able to read it. (Click here for my thoughts on the first book.)

The signatures on my copy, left to right and top to bottom, are: Kevin Smith, Daniel Falconer, Jason Docherty, and Mark Gee. Four signatures, not just one or two. Thank you very much, everyone. 

While the first book was more about concept art, this tends more toward makeup and digital work, along with dialects and stunts. So the imagery is more about production photos, maquettes, a little pre-viz, and digital characters. Although Daniel Falconer's intros for each section were generally shorter, the quotes tended to be longer, making this book feel even more in-depth than the first. Maybe it's just that there are a lot of technical aspects described in here, and those tend to need more words. If you're not seriously interested in learning about what the talented team did on these movies, you'll easily get bogged down. 

For me, though, it was mostly fascinating to read through all of this, even if I had to go slowly at times. There are, for instance, so many dwarves that the dwarf section can seem to go on forever (and I think they all delighted in grossing me out with so many goblin pictures). It also probably helps that I've been trying to wait until all three movies are out to buy them together, so I haven't really watched much in terms of behind the scenes. It's kind of nice to read it all versus watching it. And as with the first book, of course, we're getting all our information firsthand through quotes from the various team members who worked on these films. That firsthand aspect is really, really wonderful to have. So I'll say no more about this gift of a book. I'll take another break before beginning on the third in the series.

The Doctor in Disguise

As many people say and as I believe is true, one of the reasons for the successful longevity of Doctor Who is the way that the Doctor, and the show with him, is able to regenerate again and again. I could write so many spin-off topics based around this concept; for now I will start with the most ridiculous, and boring, of them.

I did a character comparison of the Doctor and Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie. Now we will go for something more direct. I'd like to explain why Willy Wonka could be a missing version (or future version?) of the Doctor. Incredibly boring and obvious, right? But I can't help it.

I was explaining to someone the other day why I do like Willy Wonka in the movie (Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp). He has a cane and wears a hat and a long coat and acts crazy. The Doctor's also crazy, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not but always in a good way. And he tends to have a significant fashion accessory. David Tennant, right away, asked for a long coat. Matt Smith has the bow tie--and sometimes the fez. I haven't even watched him yet, but I already know that Tom Baker was the one with the scarf. Crazy, signature fashion items. I love it. That's how I like to be sometimes. Hello, here I am with my green shoes or my dinosaur necklace or, yes, a hat. Or worse, green tights.

It all sounds so simple to describe. But either character isn't just about throwing in odd clothes and behavior: it all has to come together in a certain way. Willy Wonka spins his cane around and uses it in important moments, like when he introduces himself to the crowd and pretends to have lost his grip on it or when he forms a barrier out of it when letting the group into the chocolate waterfall room. The tenth doctor's coat is designed to have the perfect shape for all the running scenes, so it's never just a bulky, oversized garment; as something that could easily obscure a person, it never does. You see what I mean? The specific brand of craziness must go with the specific clothing or accessory selections. If I wore a wide-brimmed hat, it would swallow me and I would look awkward. But if I throw on my green heels, purple tights, a gray dress, and my T-Rex necklace, I just look like crazy me.

Never to obscure but to enhance must always be the outfit.

(And, yes, I did go on a bit of a tangent inside a tangent. I had intended to go over things like how the Oompa Loompas are probably just aliens that the Doctor has helped out and how he has the best chocolate recipes because he gets them from the future and he also traveled in time in order to make sure that Charlie Bucket would get one of the Golden Tickets and such.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easter Chocolate Selection

Now that Easter is over with, I am left with some remains of Easter candy. My favorites were the Tootsie Fruit Rolls, which I would really like to buy more of if I ever manage to find them again. The little bag on the left with candy corn, jelly beans, and other pastel-colored candies was also rather nice, as well as very pretty. 

Wandering into Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory one day, I thought to buy a chocolate bunny, but walked out instead with the holiday version of their Peanut Butter Bucket in milk chocolate. It has a green butterfly and ribbon--there were also yellow and pink varieties. If you've never had their Peanut Butter Buckets, do consider them next time you're in the store. A Reese's Cup turned from candy to confection. 

Then there are these milk chocolate umbrellas from Simón Coll Chocolatier, who also made the elegant drinking chocolate I tried last year. As usual I'm happy to see a quality chocolate make its way into the holiday selection. Although a simple, 32% cocoa milk chocolate, this chocolate is textured with nutty flavor and richness. You can break it into pieces, or just enjoy sucking on it like a lollipop, which is rather fun to do. I acted like a sophisticated child while eating mine on Sunday night during Once Upon a Time. A definite success.

Returning to the realm of candy, we have this Peeps Hollow Milk Chocolate Egg. I'm not a major fan of either Peeps or marshmallows, but look how cute this is: it's a Peep inside of a chocolate egg. Adorable, right? 

The simple egg is fairly thick, so you get plenty of chocolate. I was somewhat surprised by the quality; it's possibly better than Hershey's (of which you know I have a generally low opinion). Maybe I only say that because I had a very small piece. Point is, it isn't worse than average--and much Easter chocolate is worse than average. 

I wasn't quite sure how to break into the egg, so I used my thumb and the shell essentially broke along the mold divides. Out pops one yellow Peep, which is just the right amount to have for the holiday spirit of it all without getting sick of hard, sugary marshmallow. 

Now why does the next holiday (aka. excuse for candy) have to be so far away?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Passage Into Spring

On Friday it was cold. On Saturday, in nearly full sunlight, it rained hard for about a minute. And today it was sunny and warm, with some soft clouds for garnish. Spring begins to show its face, more and more with each passing day. 

Today on this Sunday, life begins again. I stepped outside and breathed in and at last the summer air was beginning. The warmth in the air ignites with any plants that are growing and so you smell a wonderful aroma, similar to the warm scent of bread wafting out of an oven. In this way, the air takes on personality, and the warm weather gains texture. 

Spring is here.

Although The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is so remembered for winter, it is also a story about the coming of spring. And I think it may perhaps be one of the stories that most embraces and rejoices over the entrance into the season. I am also reminded of The Fellowship of the Ring, when Legolas laments that they are not entering Lothlorien during spring--to which Aragorn replies that he is glad to go into the wood no matter the season. But if spring is the beginning again of life, the fellowship's time in Lorien does give them the rest they need in order to begin again their quest.

The desert marigolds are out, and it is spring. Welcome, renewal of life. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Adventures of Connor & Abby: Part 19

You know, sometimes worlds collide. Although it technically involves time travel, I wouldn't call Primeval a time travel show. But I was just thinking that perhaps, since the ARC team deal with anomalies through time, they might perhaps cross paths with the Doctor at some point. Maybe their observations lead them to find the TARDIS traveling through time? Let's send Connor and Abby to investigate. 

An example of one of the reasons why, years ago, I had to at least look up Doctor Who to find out what was the deal with different actors as the Doctor and subsequently find out what regeneration was, was because I saw people in YouTube comments nominating Andrew Lee Potts (Connor) for the next doctor. Now that I've met the Doctor, I heartily agree. So let's imagine what that would be like . . . 

Ah, travels through space and time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reflection on the Blood Moon

It seems there are so few times for us now to really take in Nature and to experience its awe, beauty, and sublimity. "The world is too much with us," eh? So when I heard about the lunar eclipse, I thought, well, I can stay up that night, so I will, even though I don't know if it'll be a great sight or not, but at least it'll be an excuse to just go and sit outside and enjoy the night. Sometimes I forget to do that.

I set up my bench, wrapped myself in a blanket, and dug from a bag of tortilla chips. And I listened to the silence of the night, remarking on the absolute contrast of the calm quiet with the rapid, hurried chirp of the crickets. I watched as the night grew steadily colder and darker, as I could no longer see the outline of the bushes and as more and more stars appeared in the sky. And it was beautiful. 

 And I watched as a shadow steadily grew across the bright moon's surface and as the edge of the shadow grew faintly tinted in red. I watched the moon fade before my eyes, with a ragged and blended line unlike the line that appears on a normal night's partially eclipsed moon. It was like watching a full cycle of the moon right occur right before my eyes.

And then the moon was entirely covered and it was a glowing, matte shade of golden orange. It was less red than it appears in my poor pictures. It was orange like a a golden berry, or like the sun if it lost all its power. It looked neither like the moon, nor like the sun. It looked not of the sky. 

It reminded me of science fiction stories where another world comes with its own set of colors, except that the sky remained the same despite the altered shade of the moon. I thought to myself of C.S., of The Space Trilogy, particularly of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, and also of The Chronicles of Narnia--not so much The Last Battle but more of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the island near the edge of the world where Ramandu lives and swallows a bright berry from the sun every morning. 

The sublime is beautiful and stirring, as is the world. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

World Market: Dried Strawberry Bits with Pink Himalayan Sea Salt

Salty chocolate is one of the trends I'm starting to get tired of. But I do love salt and I do love chocolate, so I decided I might as well try one of the bars from World Market's "Exotic Collection of Sea Salted Chocolate." Goodness, "exotic." I should get out my Jules Verne volume for a background then, eh?

This bar is possibly slightly overpriced for its 85 gram size that is in the shape of 100 gram bars. But it's in a pretty card box instead of the simple wrapping of World Market's standard range, so it's pretending it's fancy. And, yes, the ingredients list isn't full of fillers--the worst item might be the strawberry flavor that accompanies the freeze-dried strawberries, and even that could be natural and not artificial flavor. So this isn't going to work out to be a downright terrible quality bar of chocolate. The question is just whether or not it's going to be very nice. 

The box folds out to an envelope, from which I wanted to slide out the bar. Instead, however, I had to pull on the glue marks once more to lift away the other cardboard flap and free the chocolate. World Market has used their standard mark and eight piece shape. The look is rather reminiscent of Ghirardelli, come to think of it. But Ghirardelli keeps to a simple standard that tends to work--while World Market tries to provide copies of quality chocolate with different flavor pairings that don't always come over flawlessly. 

The Dark Chocolate Dried Strawberrry Bits with Pink Himalayan Sea Salt bar does, in fact, appear very dark in color. It's a dark brown, almost black. But this being World Market, I wouldn't expect it to be any higher of a cocoa percentage than 75%. And, indeed, for all its dark color, it's a fairly sweet dark chocolate. I almost wonder if it's below 70%. Perhaps not. After eating a full square (which is around three pieces for me), I lose interest in the chocolate part of this bar. It's too lukewarm, sweet of a dark chocolate, with no texture of layered flavor. 

The chocolate aside, what's interesting about the added flavors is that the salt is pink Himalayan. Himalayan salt has been in fashion lately; I've been using it (but I started using the Himalayan salt lamps some time ago; they're so pretty). And I'm thinking that it's particularly well-suited to chocolate. When you first taste straight Himalayan salt, it doesn't taste very salty; then you get used to it and don't notice anymore. And since I've been getting tired of chocolates shoved full of salt, maybe this lighter flavor is a better idea. This isn't to say that World Market is the first company to use pink salt; I don't think it's the first time I've even had it in chocolate. But it's certainly a less common route. This also isn't the first time I've had salt and strawberry together in chocolate, but the other time was so long ago that it might as well be. 

Somehow I can't taste the strawberry much. I can see the little strawberry pieces, but I can't taste them all the time. The salt isn't horribly salty, so I'm not sure I can say that it's just a matter of the salt overshadowing the strawberry. I think it's more a case of the sweetness of the strawberry siding with the sweetness of the chocolate. If you look for the strawberry flavor, you can find it. But if you're not thinking of it, the salt comes to mind first. In fact, it's a rather interesting exploration of sweet and salty--or sweet and sour, if you will. It's pleasant. I only wish that the chocolate backdrop were a tad more developed; it would make the experience as a whole rather richer. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In Memoriam

There will be some spoilers up to the current episode of Once Upon a Time.

You know, it's really sad. Anything is always possible in Once Upon a Time, so a character who dies might come back or turn out to have not really died or simply show up again in flashbacks. You just never really know. But after watching the latest death take place, I learned that, earlier in the year, they had announced that someone in the main cast would be dying. True, this character may not in fact be Bae; he might still come back and someone else might die instead. Or maybe he will only be dead for the rest of the season, and they'll bring him back later. It's all possible. But the fact is, his character is dead now--and I find that very sad.

There have been deaths before. Graham and Cora, and essentially Pinocchio (well, Pinocchio's still alive, but August is gone). Deaths do tend to make a show feel more real (although Once doesn't really need to pretend it's "real, real," anyway). Ever since I found out that Neal was Baelfire, I started to like him. So on one level, it's sad to see his character go. But my sadness is also something completely different. I'm sad for him.

If Bae is truly and forever dead, he had a terrible life. His mother abandoned him when he was young, then his father betrayed and abandoned him, then when he had just found family again with the Darlings he was taken away to Neverland, back in our world he found happiness with Emma only to have that taken away when August showed up, Tamara played him, his evil grandfather Peter Pan tried to kill his son, his father died, and then any chance of future happiness with Emma and Henry was taken away when he himself died.

Two hundred years of living and anything he ever loved was corrupted or taken away from him. Life sucks, and then you die? Poor Bae. If this is how his story ends, he never got to live a fairy tale. If he dies this way and when the show ends, it has a happy ending, I will be sad.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Departing Wonderland

As I suspected, the spin-off of Once Upon a Time, by name Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, has finished off after only one thirteen episode season. There will be no more episodes, and I don't think there need to be any more episodes. While Wonderland went off to a good start, it always had a much shorter scope than Once, and I did find its power over me waning as the season went on. Once has good and mediocre episodes, but it's those good episodes or scenes that keep me going.

I just started to get a little bored by Wonderland. Part of the beauty of Once is the game: trying to make connections, guess what's happening next, figure out character motives, and such. Because Wonderland had many fewer characters and many fewer plot points, there was less to ponder. And while I love to analyze the way in which Once interacts with fairy tale themes, Wonderland hardly ever seemed to interact in this way. In the final episode, the White Rabbit says that Wonderland is about finding yourself--which is completely true, if you've studied the book at all. Wonderland is all about the internal coming to have an external and physical representation. But just because the show threw in that idea at the end doesn't mean they fully explored it. (Sorry, I'm still quite partial to Nick Willing's Alice and can never seem to find anyone's interpretation of Wonderland quite as compelling.)

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was essentially just a love story. Alice and Cyrus, and Will and Anastasia, stand in as the happy lovers who get to be together in the end. Jafar and Amara are the pair who just used each other. And then there are also other types of love. There is paternal love. While Alice is able to repair her relationship with her father, Jafar isn't, and so there is some interesting contrast there. There is friendship, most notably between Alice and Will. There is a brief bit in there with Cyrus and his brothers--although I think they introduced them rather too randomly and suddenly.

And love stories are good and all--that's one of the reasons why Once has been so successful. But why use Wonderland, with a hint of Agrabah, as the setting for this story? There has to be a specific reason why this story takes place in this world, and I'm not sure the show gave us one. Did we really see Alice learning about herself and becoming more herself as a result of her time in Wonderland? We only very briefly saw Alice without hope in the pilot. Otherwise, she has been optimistic, strong, quick-thinking, and kind. We're essentially told she has a character arc, but we don't actually see that development. And that's the only thing that pulls us specifically to Wonderland.

I ramble. I don't mean to say that the show was terrible. It was a nice thirteen episodes to watch for some Thursday night entertainment. Jafar and the Jabberwocky were great. Anastasia was also pretty good. Cora made a great couple of re-entrances. But this show just didn't have that spark of special something that the main show has; I didn't feel as invested in it all. Wonderland has been a nice little diversion, but now I'm looking forward to focusing on Once again (the second half of Once's season has been generally great so far, by the way).

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Adventuring into a Chocolate Discovery

I never knew such adventure could be so easy.

I never knew that even we common folk do not need to get brownies and cake from a boxed mix. I never knew it could all be so simple.

When I was around ten, I saw the recipe for chocolate cake on the back of our Hershey's cocoa powder. I decided to try it out. I have a vague memory of a flattish, burnt thing that came out of the venture. Even though I was young at this time, I have always taken this experience to mean that I am incapable of baking a cake that did not come from a box.

And then it happened, a few weeks ago, that I found myself making a brownie recipe from a smaller brand of cocoa powder. It was very simple, mixing in flour and cocoa powder and sugar and the like and putting it all in a dish in the oven. And the brownies tasted good. Everyone told me so. I grew encouraged.

For a birthday, I decided to venture into cake and frosting. (From Martha Stewart: click the links for the cake and the frosting.) I looked for simple, basic recipes that didn't look too intimidating. Nothing too fancy, either. After all, I already know that I can make great flourless chocolate cake very easily (the secret is that you have to use very good chocolate). These recipes, paired with some good quality, hippie-looking, organic cocoa powder from Holy Kakow (which was the same kind I used for the brownies) meant wonderfulness.

Sure, I took a little more time with these recipes than if I'd been using a box. I made a little more of a mess. I think probably I will go more quickly next time. But it was all fairly simple. Mix in this and that, bake it all. And the thing about this is that you can choose the ingredients. We all know that a boxed cake just has junk in it. If you mix in the ingredients yourself, you can choose the organic cocoa powder, the pure cane sugar, the good flour, the fragrant vanilla, the fresh eggs, the unsalted butter. I don't ever, by the way, want to buy Hershey's or Nestle cocoa powder again.

Chocolate is intimidating to work with because it's such a fussy substance. But I needed only to work with cocoa powder for the brownies, cake, and frosting. (And, hey, I guess I get along just fine with the chocolate when I make the flourless chocolate cake.) Cocoa powder is much more forgiving and so there is no reason for intimidating. I am amazed and in awe.

Tell me why, why do we think that brownies and cakes and frosting must all come from boxes?