Saturday, December 30, 2017

Untamed Confections: Mint Cocoa Nib Crunch

The idea today was to continue with some wintry flavors with the Mint Cocoa Nib Crunch from Untamed Confections. I find, however, that we are missing the mint element--but more on that in a minute.

This bar has the usual look for Untamed Confections. They package their small, 34 oz. bars directly inside white card boxes in order to waste less materials. The bar has mostly a plain design, just with the company's catch phrase in the center. The ingredients are the usual, as well: the chocolate is fair trade and the only added sweetener is honey.

I found it slightly odd that I wasn't picking up any mint scent from the chocolate (just a deep cocoa aroma). Sometimes, however, there are certain tastes that don't make their way into scents. The thing is, that isn't what was going on here: it turns out that there isn't any mint in the flavor, either. The chocolate tastes like honey on the tongue, then deep cocoa (not extra dark or bitter since this is only 72% cocoa content), and then like that particular taste that honey and chocolate get when they are combined. But no mint. That is, I start to feel like I can sense, if not taste, the mint after the chocolate has melted away, but that could just be my imagination.

The nibs are nice, though. They're small and added in at just the right amount so that you can crunch on them a bit without having them take over. They sort of flow as a natural extension of the chocolate, so I would in fact say that this is one of the nicer combinations of chocolate and cocoa nibs that I can remember having.

So the chocolate, for what it was, was nice. Honey chocolate with cocoa nibs. But what happened to the mint? Did I let the chocolate get too old before tasting it? Usually Untamed puts a best by date on their packaging, but I don't see on here--and in any case, I don't think I waited that long. Mint is usually one of those flavors that sticks around. Did the wrong bar accidentally get packaged in the mint box? Possibly. It's happened to me once or twice before with other companies (and there is no question of getting the wrong bar when you get chile chocolate instead of rose chocolate). If that's what happened, I hate to be drawing attention to the fact with this post--but I did enjoy the plain chocolate with nibs.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Star Wars: The Bomber Squad

Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein seemed like it would be the perfect short novel to give us more details and backstory on a set of characters that we only briefly saw in The Last Jedi. The look of the (physical) book matches the style of Before the Awakening, which was a great pre-story to The Force Awakens. Turns out, though, that Cobalt Squadron was kind of disappointing.

I'm not entirely sure about the target audience for these books. Obviously I think that, despite the target audience age, people of any age can read a book whose target audience is younger than they are, as long as the book is good. But this book read, well, too young. I felt like I was reading a Disney Channel movie. Everything felt false and contrived, including the sisterhood between Rose and Paige--and I liked both of their characters in the film. So to come here excited to hear more about them only to get a flat representation of their story just didn't go over well for me. Also, I found this story less interesting because it takes place mainly in space with space battles and that sort of thing that I just generally find . . . less interesting.

I followed up right away with Jason Fry's Bomber Command, which is in the same style as Rey's Survival Guide. So kind of a combination of scrapbook and journal styles, with lots of picture and "handwritten" text. Cobalt Squadron was already a quick read at about 250 short pages, and this book was even quicker. While I can't say it was as good as Rey's Survival Guide, I did much prefer this one to Cobalt Squadron. Maybe Jason Fry just has more experience writing Star Wars. Maybe the informal book style meant that the tone of the book fell into place better. Maybe I just liked it because we got much of the same information as with the first book, just in a shorter and quicker space.

You could in fact skip Cobalt Squadron and just read Bomber Command, even though you'd think it would be preferable to do the opposite. Overall, though, the backstory that we got for Rose and Paige and their team wasn't what I wanted. Sure, it was nice to hear certain details (like how Rose came to be on a separate ship from Paige in The Last Jedi--and we also got more of a look at Admiral Holdo). But more of it wasn't satisfying; that Disney Channel tone may have even detracted from my view of these characters.

I guess since I walked out of the film saying positive things, I had to come back now and say some negative things about these two companion books. Balance. It's all about the balance.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Christmas Truffles Selection

Last chance to get in some Christmas chocolate. I stopped by Zak's Chocolate here in Scottsdale this week to see what seasonal offerings they might have right now. Outside of the truffles case, there were things like hot chocolate sticks and dinosaur-shaped chocolate bars (dinosaurs are following me everywhere right now; they've become a daily part of my life). Inside the case, there were Pumpkin Spice truffles and the Cinnamon Plum truffles I've talked about before. The four that I chose this time were Eggnog, Candy Cane Crunch, Gingerbread, and Peppermint Mocha.

Eggnog - While this isn't my first experience with eggnog chocolate, eggnog is one of the more difficult flavors to get across both well and pleasingly in chocolate. This truffle has the plainer look of these four, built around an angled shape with a light spray of color on top. Instantly the flavor is warm with nutmeg and perhaps a dash of other spices, along with that a creamy, eggy flavor of Eggnog. The finish is light chocolate: the ganache here is lighter, therefore the overall feel of this truffle is almost more like milk chocolate than dark. It isn't exactly sweeter; it's just that it isn't so dark and again, it has that creamy feeling. So having both the heavy cream feel and the flavors of the spices, this truffle gets across that unique Eggnog experience.

Candy Cane Crunch - A circle-shaped truffle with a pattern of candy canes on top, this one quickly delivers candy cane flavor, even before you're done biting in. Not just a mint or peppermint flavor, but specifically a candy cane flavor. The taste is different than just a general mint feel; maybe it's mingled more with the taste of sugar. Either way, it's exactly the right flavor. A couple of little sugar candy pieces do reside inside the truffle, but they don't really give much crunch--which honestly doesn't detract from the experience at all. You get some creamy texture from the ganache that, even though it has a texture completely different from that of actual candy canes, somehow still feels exactly like candy canes. The candy cane flavor is strong like the candy but not strong like mint, and the dark chocolate adds a good flavor base that isn't too dark to please all palates.

Gingerbread - Another happy pattern here, this time on a thin square shape. Here you do need a second for the chocolate and the ganache to start to melt before you get all of the spices, which are primarily ginger but also a sense of cinnamon and cloves. I just mixed up a batch of gingerbread cookies that are waiting in the refrigerator to be rolled out, and the same scent that I got from that dough is what I find here in the flavors of this truffle. Instead of molasses, we have chocolate for the sweet and rich element.

Peppermint Mocha - A dusting of white over the square-with-a-coffee-bean-on-top shape creates a festive look reminiscent of Christmas cookies. The flavors come in with the following order: chocolate, coffee, then mint, and then cream. A peppermint mocha is primarily a sweet and creamy sort of beverage. I would say that this truffle is not quite so sweet as that; it also isn't so sweet as the Candy Cane Crunch. Possibly it isn't quite so creamy, either. But the coffee/peppermint flavor is balanced very much like in a peppermint mocha. The coffee seems strong but isn't really particularly strong; the peppermint stands slightly stronger. Again the chocolate here is the base, standing in for the other elements of a peppermint mocha. This truffle may in fact be the most chocolatey of the four I have today. It's bigger and taller than the others, so maybe there is just more chocolate in the shell.

Probably the Gingerbread was my personal favorite. I would, however, recommend all four of these truffles, whether for yourself or for a last minute gift. The candy cane crunch would be great for children, as well (or, you know, you could also get them one of those awesome dinosaurs). While all of these are classic Christmas/wintertime flavors, each one required a balance of individual flavor elements for everything to come across in a familiar and yet pleasing way. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Cowboy Christmas

If you live in Arizona--maybe in other places, too, but certainly in Arizona, then you have seen this book around. The author, Tom Van Dyke, is from Cave Creek (which is just north of the Phoenix area, for those of you unfamiliar), and the book is a Western and we're in the West, and it's also a Christmas book and there are only so many Christmas books to push every year. So you tend to see this book in many places.

All the same, I knew very little about A Cowboy Christmas: An American Tale. Yet how do you really learn about a book other than by reading it?

The book is slim at about a hundred pages; the chapters don't run more than a few pages long, either. The perfect length for a quiet Christmastime read. Not that most of the book is necessarily "Christmasy." The Christmas scene is at the end. Most of the book follows a young man named WB on his journey into the West, where he encounters mining, gold, and cowboying--and a beautiful girl that he loses and never gives up searching for.

The scenes, being short, are also simple, as is the language. The style is straightforward rather than dense and that's where the poeticism lies. In WB's experiences, there are homages to the work that people have done in the West and to the heart that let it all, through the mess, endure. As you slide into the final chapters and get to the Christmas part, somehow the tone suddenly is a Christmas tone, even if there is nothing of snow or stockings or wreaths. Instead, there is warmth and companionship and gratefulness and hope.

What I appreciate about this book? Sometimes books like this, that rely on some kind of straightforward and poetic tone, are all about showing the "gritty and real" details that I don't even want to be reading about. This book shows real details, but not all of that. This book is sweet and honest, and that's what makes it a nice little Christmas tale.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Last Jedi: The Second Time

Click here to read my initial thoughts on the film. And yes, both that post and this one have spoilers.

You know something? I think I just might be loving The Last Jedi. Way back when I was still giving early comments on The Force Awakens, I mentioned that I thought it probably wouldn't be my favorite in the new trilogy. And as "perfect" as everyone seemed to find The Force Awakens (and indeed it was generally quite well-crafted), I think I might possibly like The Last Jedi more (which, you understand, is not to mean that I liked every single aspect of it; that would be impossible). (And remember that all of this is separate from whether or not I think this film was "good," that is irrelevant and I won't be able to tell that yet for several months, anyway.)

The Last Jedi is beautiful and terrible--which is kind of the best of Star Wars, if you think about it. Star Wars, to me, has always been encapsulated by that moment when Luke is looking out at the twin suns on Tatooine and you hear that heartrendingly beautiful score playing. That's the type of thing that The Last Jedi gave us.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Stone Grindz: Coffee & Coconut Milk

Time to try something new--that is, newer than usual. Coffee & Coconut Milk Chocolate from Stone Grindz. The coconut here isn't an added flavor in the usual way: Stone Grindz has added the coconut during the chocolate production, as opposed to adding it in after the chocolate itself has been made. That's why this is "coconut milk chocolate" rather than "milk chocolate with coconut."

When I first heard of their coconut milk chocolate, I thought that it would be one for me to pass on: I'm not generally a big fan of coconut. But when I tried a sample of the Coffee & Coconut Milk bar, I was instantly amazed.

As you might be able to tell from the picture (it may have photographed slightly lighter than it appears in person), this chocolate does look lighter than the usual dark chocolate from Stone Grindz, though maybe not quite as light as most milk chocolates. It smells strongly of fresh coffee, blended with cream and cocoa. The instant this chocolate hits your tongue, the texture puts you in awe. It is utterly smooth, unlike any other chocolate that I can remember tasting. I don't mean that overly smooth, plastic texture that some cheap-pretending-to-be-fancy chocolates have; no, no, this is completely different. This is truly like silk. The melting rate is quite quick.

For others who might also worry about the coconut, you should be fine. I don't really taste the coconut at all, except possibly as a slight aftertaste. Likely this is also because there is the added coffee flavor to cover up any coconut--but for whatever reason, this isn't really a coconut-flavored bar.

And the chocolate? It's like milk chocolate--but not. It's sweeter, creamier, and lighter (yet still extremely rich) than dark chocolate, but in a different way from milk chocolate. The cocoa flavor here is much stronger than what milk chocolate tends to have, as well. The cool part? You don't get that greasiness that pretty much inevitably comes, at least to some degree, in milk chocolate.

The coffee flavor comes across nice and fresh. It goes well with this type of chocolate because the effect of all the coffee, cream, and cocoa notes put together is like drinking a cafe mocha. The coffee doesn't come out so strong that it overtakes everything; it's more of a companion to the chocolate.

Truly this is a fabulous bar of chocolate. So new and different to me and yet so inviting. Sweet yet rich. Deep yet soft.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Last Jedi: The First Time

At the time of writing this post, I had only seen the movie once and had not talked about it at all with anyone. I saw it Thursday night because I didn't want to know what anyone's thoughts on the movie were before I saw it; I didn't even want to know whether or not people liked it. I'm seeing the movie again today, so I will follow later with further thoughts. 

It is generally impossible and generally pointless to talk about a film without giving spoilers. All I can say, technically without spoilers, about Star Wars: The Last Jedi was that I liked it. So if you have not seen the film yet, don't keep reading.

Spoilers will be below the page break.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Theo: Cranberry Orange

Is Christmas really only a little over a week away? I haven't watched a single Christmas movie or listened to my Christmas playlist a single time. But then again, I have had my tree up since the day after Thanksgiving and I have had all of my Christmas shopping done for weeks. Now I just need to get in some last Christmas chocolate reviews.

In going through Theo's Christmas chocolate bars, naturally I came to the Cranberry Orange last. I don't necessarily love cranberries and I don't favor orange in chocolate, either. I'm with Jess in Primeval: "That's just weird" (and then Becker brings her back a Milka bar, definitely much preferable to orange chocolate). So bear all of this in mind during today's post.

We have the same trendy style of packaging as in the Peppermint Stick bar last week. Same usual chocolate bar style, except that this time the back of the bar is studded with cranberry pieces showing through the surface. The aroma is of orange oil--I'll let you decide whether or not that's a positive trait.

The orange flavor comes first, then you get the sweet dark chocolate (the cocoa content is only 55%). The cranberries come as the last element, mainly after the chocolate has melted and the cranberries are left around for you to finally chew and taste. The catch is that they're freeze-dried. I had been expecting the chewy flavor of regular, dried cranberries--but freeze-dried is a completely different texture and one that I'm not really welcoming. If there is a specific reason for using this type of berry, I don't know what it is.

Overall, this bar is much sweeter than I was expecting. The chocolate is sweet and the orange gives the effect of being sweet and yet the cranberries don't really come in at the timing that would add a tart element to the sweetness, given that they only come in last. I would likely prefer that the chocolate be at least a 65%, instead of the 55% cocoa. I know that they want to keep it light and not too dark or intimidating since this is a happy, seasonal, flavored chocolate--but a richer or at least less sweet chocolate likely would balance things out more.

I can't say that I did mind the orange as much as I might have expected; it still, however, isn't my favorite thing in the world. And since I didn't care for the type of cranberries in here, this bar wasn't really a winner for me. Try it if you like orange in chocolate; otherwise, this is one that you can take or leave.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Canto Bight: The Vegas of Star Wars

While I did manage to finish reading Star Wars: Canto Bight, the last book in the Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi group, before the movie came out, I didn't quite have time to put together a post before I watched the movie. The difference in writing this up now or then is small, though: either way, I don't have a huge amount to say about Canto Bight. Also, I'd mentioned I was doing three Star Wars posts this week. I had hoped to do one last post with pre-Last Jedi thoughts, but again, I just didn't have that ready in time. So it'll only be these two for this week.

This book is a collection of four short pieces by Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant, and John Jackson Miller. The first one is more of a short story, but they get progressively longer; by the end, you might almost call the last one a novella. Each one focus on a different story in Canto Bight, which is basically the Vegas of the Star Wars universe.

Instead of enjoying the time looking at this edgy scenery, I found most of these stories frustrating. Frustrating in the situations in which the characters find themselves. People who are poor or downtrodden or down on their luck or overwhelmed, trying to make their way or mingle through this world of many, many individuals with many, many motives and methods of carrying out those motives. Stories like this weren't really pleasant for me to read--and they certainly didn't make me excited about Canto Bight.

Which, honestly, was probably the intention. Everybody's supposed to love the Mos Eisley cantina because it's the place where the story of the heroes launches; it's the exciting new place that acts as a portal into a wider world. Canto Bight, on the other hand, is the small world: the world trying to hold on to lavishness while holding everyone captive.

I didn't really care for the first story; the other three were better. I guess it was a good book to read--and now that I've seen the movie (this isn't a spoiler) I can say that it was nice to be familiar with a place before seeing it onscreen. I just don't feel like this book built up excitement for the film in the way that the Journey books tend to. Before the Awakening built excitement for The Force Awakens. The Legends of Luke Skywalker was a great read before The Last Jedi. But this one felt a little small and insignificant--and a little depressing (depressing is probably too strong a word, but you get the idea). It was too specific a corner of the Star Wars universe, I guess: we saw the dark side without seeing the hopeful side that is central to the Star Wars tone.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Darth Plagueis & Darth Sidious

It's Star Wars week. Here is the part where, rather than being just excited, I get nervous at the prospect of the movie being out already. While we all wait, here is my first of three Star Wars posts coming this week.

I've had James Luceno's Darth Plagueis for a while now; I wanted to read this book about the Emperor's Sith master after hearing some people guess that Snoke might be Plagueis. Now that The Last Jedi is within tangible reach, I had to scramble to finish this book before the film's release. Maybe we will learn nothing new about Snoke--but maybe we will learn something that will put to rest most of these theories. I had to see what I thought of it all before we, possibly, reach that point.

This book is in fact as much about Palpatine/Sidious as it is about Plagueis. We see Plagueis's start and how he first met Palpatine and took him on as an apprentice. We see their scheming to alter the political turnings of the galaxy and make everything ready for Palpatine to take over. And we even see a bit of the events from The Phantom Menace, except that this time we're seeing it from the perspectives of Sidious and Plagueis.

Sadly, Darth Plagueis was published in 2011, just before the new canon took over. So technically it's part of the Legends/EU, but most of it reads like it could be part of the new canon since it is one of the newer publications (as opposed to something like the Thrawn trilogy, which read as something very much separate from the new stories). I kept on reading and thinking, oh, so that's how that happened--that sort of thing--except that these things did not technically happen anymore. Ah. So confusing. Most of this book seems like it could become officially part of canon again later--but possibly some things would be tweaked if in fact, for instance, Snoke does turn out to be Plagueis (or Sidious, though I lean less toward that theory).

Obviously Sidious's focus on keeping a body alive after it has died and thereby rendering a person immortal suggests that he could be Snoke. But do Snoke's methods and aims, so far as we are aware of them, line up with Sidious's? I don't know that they do. I will say this: this book talked so much about the nature of the Force and the Jedi's use of it versus the Sith's perspective that I think I finally begin to understand what the new films and shows are expressing about the Force. That is, the growing conclusion that there is no "dark side" of the Force; there is only a dark way of approaching the Force. This doesn't have to mean that a person can't make wrong or even evil choices; it just means that the Force itself isn't "dark."

I am glad even just for that line of thought to have read this book before the new film. Although it wasn't a title that jumped out at me from all the EU books (as I mentioned, I only read it because of that Snoke theory), having read it I would put it on my list of EU books to read. Sure, the political side can get a little boring (to me, at least) at times, but all of the talk about the Force and the way that Sidious and Plagueis are going about their dark plans makes it all well worth it. It's quite a fascinating story to hear.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Little Secrets: Peppermint Dark Chocolate Pieces

Yesterday we looked at Theo's Peppermint Stick dark chocolate bar; today we have another peppermint dark chocolate, except in candy form. And I must admit that when I first bought this bag of candy, I somehow mistook it for another Theo product; it must have been the handwriting font up on top. Even though this candy is in fact from a company called Little Secrets instead of from Theo, the two companies do share some similarities. This is still fair trade chocolate with a more natural, yet casual, vibe. No artificial colors/ flavors and no corn syrup (even Theo's bar had corn syrup, even if it was non-GMO corn syrup). This was my first time seeing Little Secrets before, so I'm guessing that they're a newer company. They're based out of Boulder, Colorado, by the way.

Notice that I freely use the word candy here. This is candy, wrapped up like candy and designed like candy and marketed like candy, except that it has all of the positive traits I just mentioned. That's perfect: truffles and artisan chocolate bars are great, but we all need plain candy sometimes, too.

The bag tears open and also has a resealable top since this is a bigger bag than the standard M&M bag size. The cost was under $4 for 5 oz., which isn't bad. With that being said, it would be nice if they also offered a smaller bag size just so that people also see a smaller price tag (and they may already have different sized bags, but these were the only ones that I have seen so far).

Let's continue with our M&M's comparison since everyone is familiar with M&M's. These candies are bigger than M&M's, probably more the size of peanut M&M's, except of course not with that shape. They don't have quite as much of a wax glaze as most candies have, and they come in red and white for the standard peppermint look. As soon as I opened the bag, I could smell the peppermint, and I do have to mention that the peppermint flavor here is stronger and to my view more balanced than it was in the Theo bar yesterday.

Because these candies are slightly big, they have plenty of texture from that candy shell, the texture and taste of which we're all essentially familiar. Mainly it is this crunch and the peppermint flavor that take most of your attention; the chocolate is almost more like the third element rather than the first or second. This is 55% cocoa content chocolate, so it's on the sweeter side, which is completely appropriate for this context. Given that you only get small pieces of chocolate at a time and that there is all of the candy coating and peppermint, I can't get a good grasp on what the chocolate would taste like on its own--but again, this chocolate is good for this context. Little Secrets sticks to candy coated chocolate pieces in the same way that Bite Beauty only makes lip colors instead of also adding in other makeup products or that In-N-Out only makes hamburgers and fries.

If you couldn't tell already, I prefer these candies to yesterday's peppermint chocolate. Their composition feels more balanced. And they're also more fun and flavorful--and there are more ways in which you can use them. Put them in a stocking, in a candy bowl, or on desserts, just like you'd do with M&M's. It feels different to be reviewing chocolate candy again, but I like it. If I'm buying chocolate candy these days, this is the type of product I want to buy.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Theo: Peppermint Stick

This end-of-week, I'll be tackling a double dose of seasonal, peppermint chocolates. I could do a side-by-side review of both products at once, but I'd rather give them each their own space. Tomorrow it will be the Peppermint Dark Chocolate Pieces from Little Secrets, and today it is the Peppermint Stick 70% Dark Chocolate bar from Theo.

Theo is the steady friend when it comes to quality, ethical chocolate. And they're also one of the few widely-available brands in that zone that provides seasonal offerings. I've reviewed their Nutcracker Brittle and Gingerbread Spice Milk Chocolate bars before; this year I'll finally be finishing up with this Peppermint Stick bar and the Cranberry Orange (that post should be up next week). As I've mentioned in the past, these bars are particularly nice for people who live in areas where you can't stop off at a nearby chocolate shop to get quality, seasonal truffles (or people who simply can't take the time to go to a small shop instead of a grocery store).

The style of these Christmas bars has changed over the years. This year they have a trendy look that reminds me of Target. Though it's a tad too trendy for me, it's still pretty. The chocolate bar inside has the same usual look for the eight squares. Only a very light peppermint aroma comes about when you unwrap the bar.

Now, although the overall idea is of peppermint sticks, if this chocolate were to include pieces of genuine peppermint sticks, well, that would not be great for our teeth. (Not that we don't all end up crunching on candy canes, anyway, but that's our choice, not the way the product was designed to be eaten.) So standing in for candy cane or peppermint stick pieces is a kind of brittle based on sugar and corn syrup. It's crispier than actual peppermint candy to make it acceptable to chew but not so different that it doesn't still feel somewhat like the familiar candy.

The problem is just that there either isn't enough of it or that the peppermint flavor isn't strong enough. Or possibly that the flavor of the chocolate doesn't match the peppermint and bark elements. As noted above, this is dark chocolate with 70% cocoa content, so it's pretty standard. It's neither sweet nor bitter. In this case I find myself wondering if it might not be beneficial for the chocolate to in fact be a tad sweeter.

I just feel like something is missing. I taste peppermint, but I think I want to taste more. This bar tastes more of dark chocolate than of peppermint, which would be fine if I hadn't been so excited about trying out a seasonal offering. Maybe some people will like the peppermint being light; I sometimes like certain flavors to be kept light. For myself, I wanted something more exciting.

You should not, however, take this statement to mean that this chocolate is bad; it's just not hitting that perfect mark for me.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Twelfth Night at Taliesin

Southwest Shakespeare Company was back this past weekend at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture up on the northeastern edge of Scottsdale. The show? The education touring show of Twelfth Night. That is, the show that students get to see performed at their schools (as opposed, of course, to when the schools go to the theatre to see a daytime performance of a regular production of the season).

As such, the show was shorter and kept the minimalist set approach. They also had more of what I want to call the modern approach: the actors moved in a way to create the storm at the beginning of the plot, things like that. And they all sat on chairs at the back of the stage when they weren't the ones up front performing. It all felt very actors' workshop to me, which I'm sure is the idea. Instead of just giving students a good play, they also want to give them a glimpse into what it's like to put a production together.

Sound familiar? My theme for yesterday's post (in which I focused on the behind the scenes look) continues into today. Particularly as I get into, once again, what came after the show ended. They also gave us a look at what it was like, in Shakespeare's day, for actors to receive only their own lines (along with cue lines). A few actors went up and performed unrehearsed scenes together based only on paper lines that they were given. That gave the audience an inside look not only on the history of Shakespeare but also on what it's like to perform: there is so much that an actor can bring apart from what a director might tell them to do.

My reaction to this evening's event is very similar to what I said about Aria Jukebox yesterday: I can't say I enjoyed it as much as usual, but I did enjoy getting that behind the scenes glimpse. And of course they were also giving us the opportunity to see what the education side of the company is up to, which is nice: touring shows can end up having to much influence on people.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Aria Jukebox: Holiday Edition

Back in October, I wrote about Arizona Opera's first Aria Jukebox event (click here to read that post), in which the audience voted with tokens for which songs they wanted the singers to perform. This past Friday they held the same type of event, except that this time the songs were all themed to the holiday season.

The singers were a different group, so we had a chance to see some different styles of singing from before--as well as, of course, different styles of songs. They had the Opera Center all decked out for Christmas with a tree and lights, making for a festive First Friday. The format was quicker this time without the longer pauses in between sets and with no Q&A mixed in. Given that I can't replicate the singing here for you, what I'd like to talk about is in fact what followed the songs.

This time they gave us the option to stay afterward for a tour of the building, and a good handful of us took the opportunity to see behind the scenes. We saw some areas where they keep costumes and sets and we walked past the library and the office areas; we also got to see the rehearsal space. Along the way, we heard a little bit about how the company goes about planning and putting together productions. Especially for just a quick "if you'd like to stay for a tour at the end" type of thing, I was excited about how much we got to see and how much we learned.

Perhaps other people know more about how opera productions are put together; I knew very little. And as I'm constantly repeating on here in different contexts, I love seeing behind the scenes. Whether it's watching or viewing or hearing, getting that extra glimpse has always made things even more alive for me. So while perhaps overall I enjoyed the singing more at the first Aria Jukebox, this event still was wonderful to attend.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Untamed Confections: Baby Desert Tortoises

It's been over a year since I first discovered Untamed Confections (click here for my review of their Midnight Gold Dark Chocolate). While they do sell online, I'm not much of an online shopper, especially when it comes to chocolate. They're at festivals and such often, but usually in the southern part of the state (they're based out of Tubac) and I almost never end up south of the greater Phoenix area. I finally, though, caught them this past weekend at the Tempe Festival of the Arts (which had a great selection of vendors, by the way). My main goal? The tortoises that I passed on last time and then regretted not getting. (I also got two flavored chocolate bars this time, which I will review eventually.)

Specifically, these are the Baby Desert Tortoises. They also have regular-sized tortoises and bigger boxes, but I stuck with the small, four-piece box of baby tortoises. At ten dollars, each one comes out to $2.50, which is an average price. The chocolates are made with honey glazed pecans, dark chocolate, and honey caramel with fleur de sel on top. Untamed Confections, you might recall, uses honey instead of sugar, so let me give you their full ingredients list: desert wild flower honey, organic cream, organic fair trade chocolate, organic pecans, organic butter, organic vanilla, Sea of Cortez salt, fleur de sel. How is that for a confection? Not only no sugar but also no corn syrup. It's a good-looking list.

The tortoises (and yes, they're tortoises, not turtles because we're in the Southwest, have to keep with that theme) come in the usual plain white box that Untamed uses, just with a window this time. They themselves are also visually simple, just little lumps of chocolate (about the size of two truffles put together) with some chunky sea salt on top. When I sliced open one of the tortoises, I found the pecan half hidden inside a nest of caramel.

Because that salt comes in big flakes, you get its flavor right away even though it's on the top. Then you get the texture of that chewy caramel and some of its vanilla flavor. Because the pecan is hiding in the middle, its taste and texture are a minor addition to the mix; mainly, you're getting caramel simply because there is more of it (and because it's the chewy kind). You also get some chocolate, mainly in the first half; it adds that kind marshmallow flavor to it all. It isn't exactly either "sweet" or "dark" chocolate, so it makes for more of a neutral flavor base for the caramel.

As I go about eating these, I remember that the company is called Untamed Confections. Before, I thought of the fact that they make chocolate and caramel--and I guess I was considering that the confection part referred more to the caramel. But this piece brings together both products and settles the chocolate into the confection zone. The chewy style of caramel reminds me more of candies than truffles. The flavors, while nice, are nice in a simple way. Which is all fine: sometimes that's what we want. Nothing unpretentious or unapproachable, just a pecan half surrounded by caramel and dipped in chocolate and topped with salt. And just because that's what's on offer doesn't mean it can't have that better ingredients list (especially the fair trade part).

This product is an example of good, honest labeling. Exactly what you see really is exactly what you get. As I contemplate my final words, I find myself reaching for another tortoise. These are easy to keep eating: all of that texture plus some chocolate plus a bit of salt all make for an addicting mix. So maybe get a bigger box than this one if you're planning on sharing.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Stone Grindz: Maple Pecan 68%

Sometimes I have to scramble to find chocolate to review. Right now, though, I have too many in waiting--and yet I keep buying more. So I'll be mixing things up (instead of going in order) so that I can get the seasonal flavors in on time (lots of minty chocolate coming up). Like this week, chocolate reviews might not be just on Fridays like they usually are: I'm trying to stick to posting two reviews a week even if I've fallen off schedule.

Today's chocolate is a Maple Pecan bar from Stone Grindz; it uses a 68% dark chocolate. In the style of chocolate bark, you can see a crumbly mixture of crushed pecans on the back. The aroma of the chocolate is the smooth scent of cocoa butter.

I made a mistake with the first square I ate: I kept on looking at the pecan side as the top. So I started chewing the chocolate (as I usually do when there is a crunchy element), waiting to taste the maple and pecan. I found that there wasn't much to chew, after all (the pecans are in small pieces), and neither was there much maple or pecan to taste. Some, but not enough. You see my mistake, right?

The pecan side of the bar is bottom, not the top. That is, it's the side that should hit your tongue first. When trying the chocolate this way, I right away tasted the pecans with their sweet, earthy flavor and also the sweetness of the maple; the chocolate came in as a base rather than the main element. The other way around, by the time I'd made my way through the chocolate, the pecans and maple were half gone. Right side up, the pecans get your attention first so that you keep them more in the center even once you get to the chocolate.

And the chocolate is a good base. I want to call it a sweeter type of dark chocolate, though it isn't really sweet, of course. Semisweet would be the word, I suppose (I guess I don't tend to use that word since it just reminds me of chocolate chips). What I mean is that it isn't specifically dark: it's inviting and gentle and gives the idea of sweetness (as opposed to the deeply rich or even bitter flavor of darker chocolates) to pair nicely with the more casual elements of the pecans and maple.

So this is a nice fall/winter bar. You can even put this one into the category of candy bar alternatives if you like because it does have that sweeter, reminiscent-of-dessert side to it. Perfect for gifting or stockings, eh?

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Disney Boys - Part 4: Robin Hood

Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

We've come to another gap between the timelines of the Disney Princess Analysis and the Disney Boys series. The fourth princess was 1989's Ariel, but the fourth gent is the title character of 1973's Robin Hood. Still, Ariel and Robin have some similarities. They're both adventurous, social, and generally likable people. 

I say people because even though I kept most of the "animal movies" out of this series, the characters of this film act like they're humans: the fact that they're drawn as animals is an artistic, stylistic, and thematic choice (as opposed to a film like Bambi where the characters are literally set up as animals). And even though Robin is a fox, we still know what type of a person he is. They drew him to look dapper and attractive, sort of suave and friendly. He has that smile that shows that he always likes to look on the positive side, even if he just had an arrow run through his hat.

That would be bravery, too, then. He doesn't even wink in fear at that brush with death. Maybe this nonchalance stems from his lack of concern over the future. This is where Robin is unlike the princesses. While they have hopes and fears about the future, Robin is just concerned with the present. All he's doing is trying to help out the people around him--while daydreaming about Marian (I'll come back to that last part presently). Even though he's so positive, in a way he doesn't have hope for the future: all he sees is the bad around him, the bad that he's trying to limit as much as he can.

Making others, particularly children, is Robin's biggest trait. He surprises Skippy on his birthday and doesn't hold back at all, even gifting the boy his own hat off of his head. Later, he risks arrows to go back and save Skippy's younger sister, sending her through the gate to Little John while telling him, "Keep going--don't worry about me." His nonchalance isn't from lack of knowing what danger or evil are. 

Robin is also inventive and sneaky. Even though he's the thief in the woods for humanitarian reasons, he quite enjoys his role. He likes being active and catching people off guard. He likes dressing up in disguises to trick everyone, whether it's dressing up as a gypsy woman to steal the rings from Prince John's fingers or as a beggar to distribute extra coins that he's stolen to the poor.

Primarily Robin a classic manly character: he's great at archery and sword fighting and protecting women and children. But he's also chivalric: he isn't afraid or hesitant to confess his love for Marian. For him, all of those "manly virtues," if you will, mean nothing if they're not grounded in the "matters of the heart," so to speak--that is, the love for his fellow mankind (not quite mankind in this film, but you get the idea), love for his king, and love for his lady. So what do we have there? Once you write it all down, Robin's characteristics have a great balance of the two sides that can make up a "good" person. He has heart and bravery, thief and outlaw through he is. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sleeping Beauty at School

I am very late with this post because of Thanksgiving. So we'll just pretend that I'm not a week late (the performances of this post's subject were the weekend/week before Thanksgiving).

Said subject is The School of Ballet Arizona's production of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty. I've been to a couple of Ballet Arizona's professional productions before, but never to one of the school's shows. I wouldn't have even been curious enough were if not for the fact that this season it was Sleeping Beauty. That music makes Disney's film version of the story unique and colorful and positively endearing to me, and I unfortunately couldn't make it to Ballet Arizona's (professional) production of this ballet a year or two ago--so I jumped at the chance to even see "just" the school's version.

I'm glad I did. For anyone who enjoys the full productions, seeing one by the school at least once is a must. It's a completely different experience. Instead of being at Symphony Hall, it's in a comparatively small space at the School of Ballet AZ itself. A much smaller audience (packed in more closely) and a much smaller stage. And you're right next to the stage, probably closer than if you were sitting in the front row at Symphony Hall. So you can see the dancers' faces and your attention tends to go more towards the technicality of the movements instead of just to the shapes formed by everyone onstage. It's a very different view.

The backdrop, though simpler, was still nice. And the costumes were still elaborate. The dancers were from various different levels, each performing according to their ability. That is, the very young dancers had smaller pieces or little group pieces (where they did all look cute in their costumes). The next levels up were pretty impressive: this is a good school. Even young dancers were so precise. And when some of the younger performers didn't quite hit their marks, I was enjoying watching them, anyway, because I got more of a glimpse into the work that it takes to reach precision. There were also dancers from the Pre-Professional and Professional Programs and the Studio Company; they took the weightier, more challenging roles. So you still get to see excellent dancers as Aurora, Carabosse, etc. What you're seeing is what it took for dancers like these to get to this place.

And Tchaikovsky? Didn't disappoint. Of course, the audio was played over a speaker system instead of being performed live by the Phoenix Symphony (one day I'll get the chance to hear that), but they do put the music nice and loud. In fact, more places should blast Tchaikovsky; that was wonderful. If I were a musician, I would explain why I like his music. I can only say that it's tangible and that it creates images, images connected with emotions.

So yes, this was a ballet worth seeing, and no, the School's productions aren't just for families of the dancers. They're an opportunity to sit up close to the action and get a different view on performance.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Puccini's Tosca

For more of a classic opera, this month Arizona Opera turned to Puccini's Tosca, directed by Tara Faircloth. Given how much I enjoyed Madama Butterfly last season, more Puccini sounded very welcome.

Indeed it was. His music has long and sweeping sounds, where emotions soar up into the notes that the performers sing. And the score, performed by the Phoenix Symphony, had such resonance that it reminded me of early film scores--for some reason, I kept on thinking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Maybe it's that dramatic quality. This was a very dramatic opera, and it felt like I was simply watching theatre, not specifically "opera." When the characters sang, everything felt a thousand times more natural than the singing in most musicals (most musicals, by nature of their form and genre, have a "false" feeling about them).

That is, the story and the lines are all, as I mentioned, extremely dramatic. Over the edge dramatic, but in a good way. In a way that made everything feel completely immersive. And the way that it is all put together pulls you, the audience, into this heightened level in which you experience art as a fluid and tangible substance.

Hmm. This is why I consider posts on shows and books and movies reactions rather than reviews. I don't feel led to comment on the sets or the costumes or the particular talents of each performer or any of that. To my eye/ear, all of that was wonderful, so I have little to say in terms of regular review content. Instead, I just wanted to share what I came away with. I have nothing to say except that this production was one of the unmissable ones.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wei of Chocolate: Wei Gratitude

Wei of Chocolate was one of the local companies at the Chiles & Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden last weekend. It's been so long since I had more to choose from in their products than just the little bowl of individual chocolates at Nectar Apothecary in Prescott that I didn't know how to go about choosing (the 30-piece assortment was too big for my purposes). I did get a sample of the lavender chocolate, which was lovely and felt very classic Wei. But I ended up buying the Chai Spice Dark Chocolate because I was curious how their approach would be to this flavor.

Everyone makes chai tea in different ways, depending on what combination of ingredients they use and which flavors they emphasize most. Wei of Chocolate has that hippie vibe and style that is generally most focused on awareness of the moment--which is why the lavender chocolate felt so classic for them. I wondered how they would handle the stronger, highly flavored characteristics of chai. I hadn't ever had something from them with such a strong flavor addition, yet the more natural values of the company probably would mean that the individual flavors in the chai would be fresh and of good quality.

As usual for Wei of Chocolate (unless you're just buying pieces individually), the eight chocolates come in a clear cylinder. These cylinders have always baffled me: probably they have a specific reason for using this type of packaging, but I would expect a company like this to use maybe a paper bag or a mini box instead. Again per usual, the chocolates come wrapped in foil, this time in golden yellow to match the cylinder's yellow label; each flavor has a color and golden yellow is the color of the Chai Spice, also known as Wei Gratitude. This is the flavor that's supposed to help you take a break to enjoy the moment.

As soon as I unwrapped the foil to reveal the little chocolate flowers (which are roughly the size of a quarter, though of course much thicker), I caught that warm spiced smell of chai, or cinnamon and cardamom. Now, the label says to let these melt in your mouth without chewing (they are, after all, the perfect bite size), but I don't find that that approach works well for the Chai. For other flavors, maybe (for the lavender, sure), but not for the chai--at least not for me. When I tried that, I just got the peppery, spicy side of all the flavors, like strong ginger (even though there isn't actually any ginger in here).

I find it much nicer, with this particular flavor, to bite off just half of one of the flowers and then slightly chew the chocolate before letting it finish melting. This way, you give the chocolate a head start and let it work in its flavors at the same time as the chai spices. When you drink chai, the milk element keeps everything aligned with creaminess and a sense of sweetness; in this case, the chocolate is in place of the milk, so it serves that same type of purpose in grounding all of the strong spices. The effect, still, is more on the spicer rather than sweeter side of chai (chai always does sit closer to one end or the other--I admit that I usually prefer the sweeter chai rather than the spicier chai). Particularly strong is the cardamom.

In addition to the usual ingredients like cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, Wei of Chocolate has also added in their own flower blend to help give that calming effect. I can't say that any of that comes across in the flavor that I noticed, but a warm chocolate like this does indeed bring up that cozy fall/winter feeling.

Probably just because I tend to like sweet chai, I would like to see a milk chocolate version of this, as well. I don't picture, however, that Wei of Chocolate would make a milk chocolate, even if they used a milk alternative (like more and more companies now are starting to do). And it isn't that such a product is necessary; this chocolate, though dark, is only at 68% cocoa content, so it's still light and sweet enough to keep the chai spices warm (as opposed to being so dark as to weigh everything down). Just the thing to have now that we're moving deeper into November and then on into December.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Black Mesa Ranch: Dark Chocolate Goat's Milk Fudge

Sometimes I don't even know if I have anymore interest in fudge these days. Fudge, being like candy and a brownie put together, is a rather nice sweet. The problem is just that, because of my chocolate reviewing, I've been coming into contact with so much chocolate over the last decade (much of it very good chocolate) that I have less interest in mediocre chocolate. This is why, when it comes to desserts at restaurants, I'm more likely to get excited over a wine cake than a flourless chocolate cake: I get enough chocolate already. And when sometimes I'm with other people and we pass by a shop with fudge, fudge sounds great but I sometimes end up not wanting to eat much of it after all.

But Black Mesa Ranch's table at the Chiles and Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden caught my interest for three reasons. One, it's a product made in Arizona (Snowflake isn't quite local for me, but still) and not just for a big chain. Two, it's made with goat's milk. Three, this fudge has much simpler ingredients than, um, many other fudge products. That means cane sugar, butter, goat's milk, Belgian cocoa, vanilla, and salt. I don't care about the fact that it's Belgian chocolate. Usually the Belgian chocolate that makes it to the U.S. (I've never been to Belgium myself) is just mass-produced chocolate of not particularly high quality. And quality aside, I would like to see local chocolate used in this fudge because that would really go well with the local goat's milk (now that we have chocolate made in AZ, which, depending on when they started, may not have been the case when Black Mesa started making fudge). That, however, is my one complaint. (Black Mesa Ranch, by the way, also sells award-winning goat cheese and other dessert products like cajeta, fudge sauce, and chocolate candies/confections.)

Otherwise, I'm very happy with this fudge and just wanted to give it a quick nod. As you can tell by now, I chose the Belgian Dark Chocolate fudge. They did have fudge with chiles (which I suppose I should have at least tried a sample of), but given what I said last week about my hesitancy with chile chocolates, I decided to just stick with the basic fudge. It comes in a simple gold box that has more of a design to it than is generally the case for fudge. So that's nice.

I did wonder if this fudge would have that "goaty" taste that goat milk and goat cheese (and that one goat cheese truffle that I got in Santa Fe) have. It does not, so if that's a concern for you, don't be concerned. What it does taste like is chocolate and cream. I feel like this is a lighter and creamier fudge than the standard fudge, which tends to be more dense and heavy. Though it's labeled as "dark," I wouldn't say that it's very dark. It seems more of a standard chocolate level to me.

This being fudge and fudge simply being fudge, there isn't much more to say--just that this fudge does taste better than other fudge. Whether that is due more to a limited ingredients list or better quality ingredients or even to the use of goat's milk, I can't say for certain. But I can recommend this fudge; simply the fact that I found it worth giving a review means that I am pleased. If I were to walk by this fudge, I don't think I would hesitate to agree that yes, we should get some to share. Fudge is all fudge? Yes--and no. They are not all alike.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Beren & Luthien: The Heart of Tolkien

I am rather late to the party here. While I was extraordinarily excited to learn that a Beren and Luthien book was coming out this (past) summer, here I am not even getting to the book until fall. That, however, is the wonderful thing about fiction: it exists outside of time and the story is always there, replaying itself, ready for whenever you're ready.

The story of Beren and Luthien most Tolkien fans know from The Silmarillion. If you have never braved reading The Silmarillion (it can be intimidating to read for the first time), then the story of Beren and Luthien is a wonderful incentive: it's one of Tolkien's best stories, despite the fact that it doesn't appear in "full" form. That is, we don't have a novel about Beren and Luthien. And no, this new publication is not, like The Children of Hurin from a few years back, the story told in novel form.

As Christopher Tolkien writes, there is no new material in this book and most of it is previously published in things like The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. What the book is is a look at how Tolkien's handling of this story developed over time and in the various forms. So you get to see how he first wrote it and then later changed it and how he wrote it in verse and so forth. For Tolkien enthusiasts and also people interested in writing, the way that Christopher Tolkien has arranged this book is fascinating. I don't know, however, that this book, being more of a study than just a story, would be a good first introduction to the story for someone who hasn't read The Silmarillion yet. So bear that in mind.

The early version of the story is intriguing: it reads more like a fairy tale than like very specific "Tolkien fantasy" that we would all come to know. Beren becomes almost a Cinderella character, working in the kitchens of Melko (later Melkor, Morgoth). And if you've never read of Tevildo Prince of Cats (who later is, of course, completely removed from the story), that character alone makes this version of the story fun to read. The verse version is also quite nice to have. If it has been previously published, I don't know where that might be; it was new to me. Some of it is quite beautiful, displaying Tolkien's ability to describe images laced with nature and faerie. You could in fact, if you already know the tale of Beren and Luthien from other publications and you're not interested in reading about all of the details of the changes in the story, get this book just to read the verse form of the story.

And of course let's not forget about the beautiful illustrations from Alan Lee, whose work by this point feels so Tolkien to most of us that it feels like he is painting real images, not simply "his take" on the visuals of the text. Sadly, Christopher Tolkien writes that because he is now 93, this will probably be the last of the books of his father's writing that he edits. I had grown so used to new publications like this that this is a strange thought. Beren and Luthien, though, as he mentions, is indeed a fitting way to come to a close: these are the names that mark the graves of Tolkien and his wife, bringing fiction and real life to a meeting place.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Luke as a Legend

You know that story, right? When Lucasfilm was getting ready to make Episode VII, they all sat in a room and asked the question, Who is Luke Skywalker? That of course ended up leading to a film where we didn't see Luke until the very end, where he had "vanished" and various character were trying to find him again, and where we weren't entirely sure who Luke was anymore because he had obviously been through many things (some of which we know and some of which we don't know) since last we saw him. Luke, in our minds, is the legend of who he was--we don't know exactly who he is anymore.

And naturally, of course, Luke is also the audience/viewer. He is the one who sets out on the adventure and goes on the hero's journey. He is the one who is characterized more by what he does than who he is because his character is intentionally kept simple so that we can all picture being in his place.

Ken Liu's The Legends of Luke Skywalker launches from these two concepts. The book has a loose frame story with six legends that characters in this frame story tell one another. They're all stories about Luke. Sometimes we know that they're about him and other times we're not positive if they really are or not (it all goes with the concept of "who is Luke?). The first story, "The Myth Buster," is an over-the-top example of telephone: you know, when a story changes each time someone tells it so that everything is completely different by the time you get to it. I didn't exactly enjoy this story and I worried that they would all be like it, but then I realized that the book starts with this "untrue" story to establish the concept of legends. Legends aren't facts and they're not supposed to be; they're the truths of how people see the world around them. Legends are vehicles for our viewpoints.

The other five stories are good reads. They establish aspects of Luke's character or set up classic Star Wars themes."Fishing in the Deluge" and "Big Inside" hint at Luke's (post-Episode VI and pre-Episode VII) quest to learn more about the Force and the Jedi (this book is, after all, another part of the "Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi" series). And of course the frame story heavily references Canto Bight, which we've all been hearing about as one of the new locations in the film.

This book was made for young readers (I think the store shelved it with 9-12), so it's a quick read. Because it's quick and cool, I really recommend this one. Maybe I'm just partial to all the stories about walking across landscapes, but I thought this book was a lot of fun. It's kind of a shame that it was hiding out there in the children's section (where only people who already know that it's there will go to look for it) instead of out with the rest of the Star Wars things. They also made quite a nice hardcover out of it. The style doesn't completely match the usual, established looks: there is no dust jacket and the spine is red cloth. That makes me wonder if they're planning a companion book to this one (another "legends" book about a different character) or if they just wanted this one to stand out from the others.

Who is Luke Skywalker? He was the hero of the story for the audience of the story to relate to--but now the story doesn't belong to him anymore, so who has he become? He apparently didn't make a smooth transition from hero to mentor--or did he? Was he at fault as a mentor or did his pupil just make his own choice regardless of his teacher's good advice? The question is, on what did Luke base his actions? First he wanted adventure, then to help his friends and then the galaxy and then simply his father. So he is a helper. Now. Can he help Kylo? Can he help Rey? Can he convince them, like he convinced Vader, to choose the best of themselves at whatever cost?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Chile Truffles

Time to jump right in with the first of my findings at the Chiles & Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden (which is still going all weekend long--click here to read my post on the festival itself). Going in, I wasn't sure if the chiles and the chocolate would appear as separate ingredients or as combined elements. Turns out that while there was some mole and some of the vendors did have chile chocolates, most of the chocolate companies were just selling their regular products. Not that I mind: I shouldn't say this too loud perhaps, but I'm not generally a big fan of chile chocolates. I decided a little while ago that I don't like spicy food (mild to medium spice is fine, but I don't like my food to burn me), despite living in the Southwest (anyway, though, Southwestern food isn't all spicy). So the same goes for chocolate, especially given that strong spice can drown out all other flavors.

I did, however, pick up the two chile truffles that Zak's Chocolate had on offer, to get into the spirit of the festival and to see how they handled this flavor combination.

Cayenne Lime - This truffle is a simple square design with some salt on top. I may not love spice, but I do love salt and lime. Right away I tasted a sense of heat along with a taste of lime and a taste of chocolate and also some salt. The effect is quite lovely, a word I wouldn't have expected to use for a truffle with such striking flavors inside. The thing is, though, the cayenne is just a sense of warmth; it isn't really spicy. Obviously, everyone's spice tolerances are different, so what I describe as not being spicy another person might in fact find spicy. Still, I would categorize this spice level as very mild. After what I just mentioned, I'm counting this trait as a good thing. The cayenne doesn't overtake the truffle; instead, all of the flavors work together in a careful balance. The cayenne is the warmth and the lime is the zing and the chocolate is the creamy, cool, gentle element. Cayenne lingers in the aftertaste. I can get behind chile chocolate like this.

Chile Stout - Another square, this truffle comes with a bright chile design on top, which is very festive for Chiles & Chocolate. The stout is Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company's American Presidential Stout and the chiles are from Rhiba Farms. The flavors here are quite different from those in the Cayenne Lime. Rich chocolate comes in first, then a strong hit of the stout, then a sense of warmth from the chile, and then a rich fudge flavor to finish; once again, the aftertaste has chile warmth, this time with a tad of the stout, as well. The chile is by far (except perhaps for that first hit of stout) stronger than the stout; in fact, if you eat this truffle quickly, the stout will come in almost at the very end before quickly fading in favor of the chile. Not being a stout drinker (I think the only stout I've had was a chocolate stout that I bought for obvious reasons and then poured out without reviewing because I thought it was disgusting--sorry, stout lovers), I can't quite comment on how well this stout comes across and blends with the other flavors. The chile I will describe as being somewhat spicier than the cayenne was, though I still wouldn't necessarily call it spicy. Because it is stronger, however, if you're looking for more of just a chile chocolate, you might perhaps prefer the Chile Stout to the Cayenne Lime.

Myself, though? I prefer the Cayenne Lime for the simple reason that I like lime more than I like stout. The two truffles are nice to try together, whichever one you end up preferring. One is lighter, tangier, and creamier; the other is warmer, deeper, and richer.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Chiles & Chocolate Festival @ DBG

Somehow I have managed over the years to never attend the Chiles & Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden. This year, however, it was so easy to stop by on the first day of the event, which is running today, tomorrow, and Sunday from ten to five (the garden itself is open for its usual, longer hours, of course).

Everything is set up around Boppart Courtyard. Fabulous Fine Food Catering (who provides the food for the garden's Patio Cafe) had some special foods available; given that they always do a great job with the Patio Cafe foods, I would expect that these are a perfect option if you want to stop for lunch. Outside you will also find a few of the less heat-sensitive booths. Salsa, tea, and mole. Organic cotton candy (that looked absolutely beautiful), which came in a few flavors including chocolate and some sort of a chile chocolate combination. The majority of the booths, however, are inside the hall. All that chocolate has to stay out of the sun, you know. (And you'll have to forgive my lack of good pictures. I'm not very good at taking pictures in busy, packed-full-of-people events like this.)

On the chile side, there were some more salsas and spices and things like that, including some tempting-looking tamales (why did I get chocolate? I should have just bought tamales--I'm kidding, I don't regret the chocolate). There were all also pickled foods, honey, peanut butter (from PB Americano, a company I've reviewed before), and gelato. What's nice is that because the even it small enough to allow for it, your little info flyer has all of the companies listed on the back. So if you didn't feel like buying tea or spices at the festival but you want to remember the name of a company for the future, it's all right there.

Nothing against chiles, but I went for the chocolate and I feel like I wasn't the only one. The local companies showed up with some great booths. Zak's Chocolate was there with both bars and truffles and some displays about how they make their chocolate. Stone Grindz had a beautiful table set up with their bars and lots of cocoa pods. Wei of Chocolate had quite a few flavor options out. XO Confections had a big case full of chocolates (I didn't end up buying from them, though, because I was trying to limit myself and what I need to do is make it over to their shop sometime). And The Chocolate Smith was there from New Mexico; I had hoped to get some of their wax-covered ganache chocolate (they called them chocolate pate), but they just had bark, truffles, nuts, etc. Still, there was plenty to choose from. Now, I may have tried products from all of these companies before, but not everyone has. So an event like this is a great opportunity to get everyone all at once and just get familiar with what chocolate is around, particularly with the local companies.

There were also some companies new to me. While I've heard of Nutwhats, I've never tried their products before (I also thought they only made candy/confections, so the bean to bar chocolates caught my eye). And Black Mesa Ranch had some great goat milk fudge (they also had nuts and dessert sauces) for sale. I say that it was good because I have tried it already. Another nice thing about this event. You only have to pay admission to the garden (so it's free if, like me, you already have garden membership). Usually it's only paid ticket events that have plenty of samples available (which is completely understandable). Here you do have a chance to try before you buy, whether that's to see if the style of a company is what you're looking for or just to choose which flavor you want.

The current weather is a bit warmer than it was a week or so ago, so while the chocolate is for sale indoors, do remember that you're still going to need to walk outside with it (unless you're only buying chocolate to eat right, right away). So if you want to walk around the garden, too, or sit outside having lunch, do so before you buy your chocolate. Still worried? Zak's Chocolate has you covered. They had some of the small, brown, insulated bags that they sell at their shop at their booth (the price is $5, by the way); that should help protect your chocolate from the sun.

I walked out with three bars, two truffles, some fudge, a cylinder from Wei of Chocolate, and some Oaxacan hot chocolate. I don't even know if that's a lot or not. It will dominate my reviews for a while: at my usual pace, all of that would take seven weeks to get through. Given that Christmas is coming up and I might also be reviewing some holiday findings (I wouldn't mind some Thanksgiving offerings, too, if I can find any), I will likely have to double up on the reviews in the coming weeks. So we have that to look forward to. For anyone who's local, I do recommend stopping by the Chiles & Chocolate Festival this weekend. It's a great chance to see all of these companies and stock up your chocolate stash. There are also some food presentations (including one by the chef of Elote Cafe in Sedona) and dance performances scheduled throughout the weekend, so there is plenty to do if you want to stick around.