Monday, December 9, 2019

Old Town Cottonwood Chocolate Walk 2019

I first attended the Old Town Cottonwood Chocolate Walk in probably either 1999 or 2000. When you're a child, an event like this is fun--it's like trick-or-treating except that you get all chocolate and it's filled with Christmas cheer instead of Halloween fright. But being in December, it was also cold. As the night got darker and colder, we would just skip the last places on the map rather than run over to them in the cold. And after you've done it a couple years, you just kind of stop.

Revisiting good memories from the past in a new way, though, can be great fun. So this year I decided to go for it again--about twenty years later for me, it was the 26th Chocolate Walk for Cottonwood. And it's changed a bit.

I remember getting a hand-decorated bag. It had a glittery Christmas tree on it. Not to say that there was anything wrong with the sticker-bedecked bags this year; it's just a difference. And this year the hours were 3-7. I doubt it started so early twenty years ago; I don't think we waited until dark just because. Maybe we did . . . but I'm thinking they've just brought the start time earlier. If that's the case, I'm all for it. Cottonwood, for those of you outside of Arizona, is in the very center of the state. Phoenix is in the southern half. So Cottonwood (which is two hours from Phoenix) and the rest of the Verde Valley experience cooler temperatures and greater temperature drops than the Phoenix area. In winter, especially after the sun sets, it's cold to be spending much time outside.

Plus, there was some rain on the forecast for evening. So three o'clock sounded like a great time to start to me. Everyone else seemed to be there right at the beginning, too. There are some tickets available at the door, but mainly you'll want to purchase them ahead of time, then you pick them up at the Club House. It was built in 1939 by the WPA with local river rocks. 

Old Town Cottonwood itself has changed so much in twenty years. It's been remodeled so much, mainly for the better. It was a little beat up in the nineties; now it has that cute small town look again. And it's filled with restaurants, shops, businesses, and lots of wineries. 

The Chocolate Walk gets you your little bag with a map to take to 30 different spots. You have each participating business mark off your map and they give you a piece of chocolate. So it's a great way to refresh yourself on what businesses are there, maybe visit a couple you'd never stepped in before. I did have to do a quick walk through of Papillon Antiques; they have some great pieces there.

There are window displays to check out as you go along, as well as some indoor decorations. 

A couple spots had hot chocolate, too, which is great when you are starting to get a little cool. 

I took a picture of the bacon chocolate not because I like bacon chocolate (I confess, I picked off the bacon) but because it was the only chocolate that wasn't in a bag. So I figured it was deserving of a picture with Old Town in the background. That white building on the left side is the Tavern, which was once a movie theatre that caught on fire. I remember seeing it like that, as a former theatre.

Technically you can go quickly and finish in an hour. I finished in probably an hour and forty-five or fifty minutes, something like that. Then I bought a tamale to eat on a bench with some of my chocolate while I waited for the lights at 5:30.

They call it a light show. And it may have covered a small space, but hey, it was still pretty great. If this were Disneyland, it would be packed shoulder to shoulder. The lights set up over the buildings can light up to show different shapes and characters. It's all synced to music so that you'll see certain images to go along with certain songs. The images turn on and off and switch up. They're Christmas lights; it's fun. 

It was all pretty awesome timing, too. The raindrops started as little speckles once the lights turned on. So I got to enjoy it all without turning into a wet duck. 

I took my bag of chocolate and departed through the growing rain. 

Here is what 30 chocolates minus a couple that I had on the night look like. Sure, tickets can be a little pricey at $25, but you're paying for a community event and you are in fact getting a pretty decent amount of chocolate. If you're going with a group, you don't necessarily need a separate ticket per person. Depending on how much you want to share, one ticket can be good for two to five people. Of course, I realize I'm saying that as someone who got to keep all the chocolate for myself. 

As you can see, they're mainly handmade. Most are pretty simple. Fudge or toffee or pretzels, or this adorable Oreo/Hershey's-kiss/cherry-cordial mouse. But remember, there are also many restaurants (some with quite good food) and wineries in Old Town. So they're not necessarily going to hand out basic fudge and call it quits. A couple of these are going to be quite good, the type that you would spend $2.50 on in a chocolate shop. 

So you get the fancy piece of chocolate bark or a great cake pop without the stick and you get the chocolate rice crispy treat and the chocolate cookie. You get a mix and most of it is in what I'd call the "holiday cookie" variety. Homemade sweets, essentially. I mean, if it were going to be about gourmet truffles, well, tickets would be more than $25 and all the businesses would be taking chocolate making classes from Black Butterfly in Prescott beforehand. It's glorified trick-or-treating, remember.

That being said, I'm quite glad I went again. The novelty was great. I had fun. It was a pleasant way to spend a December evening. And I'm enjoying eating my chocolates. Community events are fantastic. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

Spun Light: Aztec Chocolate Cotton Candy

I make another departure this week from the "normal" chocolate review with a look at some cotton candy. This is, of course, the cotton candy I mentioned finding at the Chiles & Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden. Spun Light makes appearances at other festivals and events around the Phoenix area, but I've only seen the chocolate flavors at Chiles & Chocolate.

What makes Spun Light unique is not just their flavor choice; it's the type of sugar they use. They make their cotton with organic cane sugar--and they add the flavor with organic and natural flavors, many of which they make themselves. So you get the same attention to quality that is often reserved for "healthier" options and not something like a simple candy/dessert. And it makes sense. If you're going for a sweet, cotton candy isn't bad. It's literally straight sugar stretched out, so as long as you're not eating a truckload of it, it probably has less sugar total than plenty of other sweets.

They were making fresh cotton candy and giving out samples generously at the festival. So I first started with the Chocolate Mint. Amazingly fresh not just in the mint but also in the sugar flavor. I was hooked--this truly was a different type of cotton candy. I tried the plain Chocolate next and then the Aztec Chocolate. The Chocolate was nice, but I chose to take away the Aztec Chocolate to review because the way that it builds flavor is absolutely amazing and unexpected for something so simple as cotton candy.

Since Spun Light sticks to the natural side, only the flavors that naturally bring in color are colored. Most are just a light, cream color. That suits me just fine. And honestly, if it's the novelty of cotton candy that you love, even then, a freshly made batch on its paper cone is still going to have just as much novelty even if it isn't bright pink or blue. You can also buy them in little plastic tubs, which is of course the option I went for since I was bringing it home to dissect.

We all already know the texture of cotton candy. A fluffy substance that you can tear easily that dissolves in your mouth. This fluffy substance smells of cinnamon and sugar. In your mouth, it gives an initial feeling of warm chocolate, then the cinnamon comes in to give it all more of a hug, and the habanero becomes most present as the cotton melts. So you have that quick melting experience happen simultaneously with the flavor explosion; the sensation in your mouth is quite unique. After you taste the chile, you go back to that warmth of the cinnamon and then reflect again on the chocolate and sugar.

There is definite spice to this one. So if you can't handle any spice, it probably won't be for you. I wouldn't call it strong, though. No more than medium and probably not even that strong if you stick to small pieces. In fact, I recommend smaller pieces. You might get more flavor with bigger pieces, but the flavor development is superior with the small pieces, the little fluffs. So while the habanero is a definite spice in here, I would ultimately call the strongest flavor cinnamon. It might not actually be, but the cinnamon is mentally the flavor that connects chocolate and sweetness with spice. So cinnamon is the strongest flavor concept.

The strongest subject concept, though, is obviously still chocolate. They're crafted this cotton candy around the Aztec approach to drinking chocolate, full of spices. Probably it's more modern Mexican chocolate than specifically Aztec chocolate, but this is a great way to bring that idea into cotton candy. Again, usually you won't see this approach in cotton candy. I've had great Aztec-inspired drinking chocolate. But cotton candy? Now that's a novelty, an adult novelty. (Yes, children will enjoy Spun Light's cotton candy, too, but I'm making a different point here.) This is just a sweet treat that you can get when you're out at a festival--but it also has great ingredients and style and a pure approach to flavor. Whether you go for one of the chocolate flavors or another, absolutely don't pass their booth by if you ever come across them (they'll be at the Tempe Festival of the Arts this three-day weekend, by the way). Spun Light will give you a reinterpretation of cotton candy.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Winter Has Come

Winter and Christmastime have come to Arizona. The snows have fallen. The lights and decorations are out. 

Everything came together with Thanksgiving. There were some rains before Thanksgiving, but the big storms (the ones that brought snow to the higher elevation areas) came on Thanksgiving day. And after Thanksgiving, of course, is when everyone traditionally goes full on with the Christmas festivities. 

I welcome it all. I always welcome it all, but this year I especially do. This year has been filled with intense highs and lows. I reached up toward a spirit of thanksgiving in November and now that it is December, I am feeling remembrance, gratefulness, and rejoicing. That is the way to cap off my year.

This year, my Victorian-esque Christmas tree (it just has pinecones and glass "candle" ornaments) and my simple, white nativity set seemed the perfect dressing for the season. The theme to these decorations is light and purity. On a cold, winter night to sit with glowing lights and to remember that which is good. Hallelujah. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

Wandering through Old Tucson

Wander through the desert, past hills of saguaros and cliffs of exposed rock. Go up through curved, little roads and back down through simple angles. Turn left and left again.

And here you are, an Old West town that was never a town. Old Tucson is essentially the Old West town of Tucson that once was but no longer is--built specifically as a film studio.

Wander through the buildings, some styled rustic, some less so. Various businesses and the like. Most you can walk into, but they don't necessarily have inside what they say on the outside. There are shops and restaurants and a couple of complete insides, but mainly the outside look is simply for the outside. 

Take the train to see the desert and some more filming--and the backsides of the town buildings. 

Sit in the back of the train for best enjoying the view you leave behind. 

A little church sits up on the top edge of the town. You can walk in this one; it is in fact kept up rather nicer than some of the other Old West/Historic type churches you might find elsewhere. 

The Stagecoach will cost you a bit extra, but the pretty Carousel and the Autopia-style, vintage cars are included. 

And, you know, if you're in need of some dollars for that Stagecoach, you can try and break into a safe or something. This is the Wild West, after all. 

And then a quiet moment to take it all in. 

Old Tucson has film history, if that's your area of interest. It also has nineteenth century, western/southwestern atmosphere, if that's your focus. Then there is the beautiful, desert setting on the edge of Tucson, right by Saguaro National Park. And also you'll find plenty of entertainment, from the little train and cars to the shows. Something for everyone and plenty of photo opportunities. 

You're the one holding the camera--what story will you make? 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Theo: Cinnamon Marshmallows

Last month, I declared Theo's Vanilla Bean Marshmallows a success. Now it's time to take a look at one of the flavored options; the other is Peppermint, but the one I chose is Cinnamon. While both are wintry flavors, cinnamon and chocolate is dearer to my heart than peppermint and chocolate--especially when it comes to marshmallows that might end up in a cup of hot chocolate.

Most everything is the same here. The box has the same cut and design, just with a different color scheme. The red has a jollier, more Christmasy feel, so I'd probably be quicker to reach for this one if I were choosing a gift.

Once more, we have a clear bag inside with the chocolate-dipped marshmallows. They don't smell too much of cinnamon until you bite into one because the cinnamon is in the marshmallows, not the chocolate. I talked last time about the excellent quality of the marshmallows and their relationship with the chocolate. All of that still applies here.

What's different is the cinnamon. It immediately adds a warm and nuanced spice. And quite rightly so: besides the cinnamon, there is also cayenne in here. Not enough that they needed to call it "Mexican chocolate" or "spiced cinnamon" or anything. But enough that the cinnamon gives that extra kick. It isn't spicy. It's just, like I mentioned, warm and nuanced.

It's everything that you would want in a wintry treat: warm and cozy and sweet. Hot chocolate and wool blankets and fireplaces and all that. But it's also elegant. It isn't just cinnamon chocolate; it's a cinnamon chocolate sweet that hits a particular flavor angle. And so it also becomes holiday gatherings and marble dessert boards and shiny dresses. Essentially, these marshmallows can be whatever you want them to be and they can fit into whatever context you want. The Vanilla Bean Marshmallows I enjoyed; these I'm loving.

They remind me of something Trader Joe's might market. Something that can be casual and comforting or the type of thing you'd take out of the box and serve elegantly without telling anyone that you just bought it from the grocery store. And that's what Theo does with their chocolate bars, as well. That's why they've long been a favorite of mine for introducing people to, for instance, their first high quality milk chocolate. They create good and approachable products.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Thanksgiving Light

Thanksgiving is a community holiday and also a private holiday. Thanksgiving is all about giving and sharing and appreciating others. And yet it is also about reflecting inward, about being graceful and thankful.

Thanksgiving is the shallowest holiday and the deepest holiday. Put a turkey on a table and there you go, it's Thanksgiving. But no, that isn't it. The tradition calls for food, but the theme of the holiday asks for giving thanks. Is that not the most amazing thing? That we would all across the country gather together at a thousand different types of tables around a thousand different types of table spreads (plenty of them don't even have turkey anymore) with a thousand different types of groups (some small, some large, some more family, some more friends, some close acquaintances, some new) and say, we are thankful.

It is the perfect predecessor to the Christmas season. To put an especial emphasis on remembrance of blessings is quite fitting for late November. 

Happy Thanksgiving

Monday, November 25, 2019

I Am Aurora

While I am aware that not everyone loves the Disney princesses, I'm a literature person, so I view everything from that perspective. The earlier princesses were mainly symbolic--and so were their princes. That is, their stories weren't really love stories, only on the surface level. Let that settle in and change your perspective on Disney princesses.

Anyway. I do like Disney. And the princesses are a part of Disney. I used to think that Belle was my Disney princess. She had my brown hair and brown eyes and she liked to read books--and that craving for something more was also something that I had when I was around twelve years old. And then Tiana came out when I was in college and I thought, oh, I want to be Tiana, that's who I should strive for. She was so hardworking. And then Elena of Avalor came out and I thought, she has my brown hair and brown eyes, not Belle--it's a different look.

And now I'm going back again. Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite Disney animated films not because I think that it's necessarily the best (though some elements of it are stellar) but because I love the music and the art and the good versus evil theme. And suddenly I find that I am Aurora dancing in the woods.

Aurora, just living her life. She's out there in the woods. She's just a peasant girl picking berries that she knows her aunts don't need. She's just enjoying being out there, dancing and singing and dreaming and making friends with who is around her, even if they're the animals. You could say that oh, she's just thinking about finding a man, putting her life on hold until she meets him, thinking everything will be fine when she does. But that isn't really what she's doing. She looks very happy out there dancing in the woods by herself. She's living her life.

And yet she also is being patient, though she doesn't realize to what extent. Even in her dream about finding someone, she isn't moping or pouting or even searching for him, wondering when she's going to find him. She's perfectly happy to just literally bump into him while she's busy with her animal friends. So she was patiently waiting for him. And she was also, unknown to her, waiting for the day when she would return to her true home, to the castle, and to her father the king. The time is long in coming but when the time comes, Aurora goes in just one night from being the peasant girl in the woods to the princess in the castle. Change is slow to come for her but when it comes, it comes powerfully.

That's how I identify. I'm dancing in the woods, enjoying my life, just being where I am right now. There are good things ahead and I'll enjoy them when they come. But right now I'm going to just enjoy dancing in the woods.

And in a sense, that basic moment is something that many of the Disney princesses share--and something we all share in our lives, as well. That's the inspiration we want to receive. No, it isn't about the princes or the dresses or the castles. It's about living with grace and contentment right where you are. That's what makes the Disney princesses beautiful--that's what makes them princesses.

Which Disney princess do you identify with?

Friday, November 22, 2019

Kat Saka's Kettle: Chocolate Popcorn with Crait Red Salt

From Black Spire Outpost on the planet of Batuu, we bring Chocolate Popcorn with Crait Red Salt. That is, popcorn from Kat Saka's Kettle in Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland. It used to be called popped corn or popped kernels, but after the vocal minority spoke, Disney changed the names of Star Wars food. No more in universe Fried Tip-Yip (described as chicken in the full description) or the like. Now it's Chicken Tip-Yip and part of the fun is gone, even if the average guest won't even notice the difference. Such is life.

Anyway, the Chocolate Popcorn is part of the new food items they introduced a few weeks ago. Initially, they'd started out with just one kind of popcorn, which is now their Outpost Popcorn Mix. It's the colorful one with different flavors, some of which I liked more than others. It was fun to try, I guess, but I didn't care for it too much. Chocolate Popcorn, though? That needed a review from me for sure.

I don't usually (or ever, in fact) get popcorn from Disneyland. I'm not really into all the popcorn butter, popcorn just seems like such an inexpensive and easy thing to make at home instead (I just pop it in a pot and then add salt), and usually if I'm buying I like to spend money at Disneyland on fuel foods and really tempting desserts if I get a dessert or snack. Popcorn just doesn't seem worth it to me. The popcorn at Black Spire is $6.49, which you can compare to $5 for regular popcorn in the rest of the park.

With all of that being said, I would totally buy the Chocolate Popcorn again.

It comes in the usual brown paper bag that Kat Saka uses. Maybe this is part of the reason why I like Black Spire: I just like the earthier aesthetic. Some pieces are coated about medium level, but most are fairly light. So if you're into heavily flavored kettle corn and caramel corn, maybe this won't be for you. But I declare it perfect.

Popcorn is already slightly, almost sweet. So paired with a light layer of chocolate, the popcorn almost becomes a Lucky Charms marshmallow. And suddenly you're eating a light dessert. Just as you're settled in with this light and pleasant snack, you remember that touch of salt on the edges of the flavor, that hint of red you can see on the surface in places. Nothing too strong, just a gentle flavor accent. Salt is easy to overdo and they kept it at the right level. They also found yet another way to bring something in universe into our world. It's from Crait, how cool--but it's also just salt. Perfect.

So I'm totally happy. Get a bag of this to munch while you're wandering around Black Spire Outpost (it's a wandering type of place, it really is, almost not entirely unlike Tom Sawyer Island as an adult) or just before the fireworks start. Now there's a nice image. Standing in front of the Millennium Falcon with the fireworks going off behind the spires and a bag of Chocolate Popcorn from Kat Saka's Kettle in hand. Ah, playing is lovely.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Songs for Healing

I used to hate driving. So after I finally got my license, I found that it helped to turn on music. The music helped give me focus. I just turned on the first Christian radio station I came across and left it there (unless I'm in for a long drive, then I'll tend to switch to bluetooth after a bit and just let my music play on shuffle). Recently I've switched stations because I found out that the other Christian radio station plays many of the same songs but also tends to have more worship songs and less pop songs.

I mean, there's a time for pop songs. And some people like pop songs. But often that time in the car is my time starting my day or ending my day or beginning something new--and it's nice to use that time to center myself in the right direction. So as I started hearing more of the worship songs instead of the pop songs, I also noticed something else.

So many of the top Christian pop songs right now are songs about brokenness. And that's fine. We're all broken and we need to be able to express that and know that other people are going through the same thing. We need to acknowledge the struggle.

But there also comes a moment when after the brokenness, it's time to realign your focus. What now? Now it's time to take your attention off of yourself and onto the One who made you--because he wants us to be whole. The way to overcome whatever struggles, small or large, are getting to you is to look upward. Sometimes too many songs in a row that are all about me don't end up helping me; they just help me to still feel bad about myself. But when the songs are about Him, then I find my spirit lifting.

So here are, not necessarily my favorite Christian songs (well, maybe partly), but my top songs for healing.

Let's start with the brokenness--because there is a place for being broken.

"Tell Your Heart to Beat Again" by Danny Gokey - I had one of those moments a couple months or so ago where it felt like I was hearing this song for the first time because it was speaking directly to me in that moment. Danny Gokey has a way with his music of acknowledging true pain while simultaneously pointing out that God has better things for us.

"Defender" by Francesca Battistelli - If you want to both acknowledge your brokenness and God's goodness and steadfastness, here is the song for you. 

"Burn the Ships" by For King & Country - Start a new day with this song.

"Symphony" by Switch - This is possibly my favorite song of all right now. It's calming and powerful at the same time.

Feeling better now? Okay, let's take it up a notch.

"Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)" by Hillsong United - What is the most important thing in your life? If it's God, this song will remind you to keep him most important.

"Raise a Hallelujah" by Bethel Music - Whatever is troubling you doesn't just disappear like magic; something else replaces it. Or rather, Someone. Just reach out.

"Warrior" by Hannah Kerr - This one's kind of a power anthem, basically the expression of "through God all things are possible." 

"You Gave Me a Promise" by Fireflight - Fireflight was one of my favorite bands and I've been rediscovering their music again after letting it sit for a while. They have an immensely powerful way of transforming struggle into strength.

"Live With Abandon" by the Newsboys - Here is another reminder of what matters most--a reminder that makes you feel excited, not obligated or guilty.

Now for the worship.

"How Great Is Our God" and "Resurrection Power" by Chris Tomlin - Okay, I snuck two songs in on one. Together, they're a reminder of God's greatness and the greatness of the fact that God chooses us and empowers us. Isn't that amazing? 

"My Lighthouse" and "Every Giant Will Fall" by Rend Collective - Well, while I'm on track with double songs. Rend Collective brings the aspect of celebration to worship. We're not tired or stiff; we're excited and passionate.

"God of Wonders" by Third Day - What does "God" mean? All powerful and all mighty and all loving.

"What a Beautiful Name" by Hillsong Worship - Give your adoration. 

Lastly, here's the declaration.

"No Longer Slaves" by Bethel Music - When you are healed by the blood of the Lamb, nothing can take that freedom away.

Here's the link to the Spotify playlist, with a few extras in there, too.

I've also been enjoying a bit of reading. Called Magazine has some good articles, and I'd also recommend the Proverbs 24:26 blog--Lily talks in a straightforward way about real issues that Christian women face.

This year I want to move into Thanksgiving with a truly grateful, freed, and loving heart. And I've found that allowing God to heal the hurt deep inside of me that I've tried to keep away from even him is the only way to do that.

What songs have helped you find healing? 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Diffusing Essential Oils

Essential oils are all the rage these days and so also are essential oil diffusers. You can find them everywhere these days. Not just at the natural grocery stores but also at the mainstream stores, even at the random little hip boutique clothing/home store on the corner. But want to know a secret? You don't need a plug-in diffuser.

Diffusers can be great, but they're also unnecessary. They're a plug in an outlet that you don't need. And you have to clean them. And if you want to use diluted oils (if you like scents like rose or frankincense, which I do, you're pretty much only going to be able to buy diluted oils), forget it--they'll hopelessly clog your diffuser in the blink of an eye. There are other options, like the little bowls with candles underneath. But then you have to replace the candles--and make sure to blow out the candles when the water empties, otherwise you might crack the bowl with the heat.

So while you might still want to use a diffuser to get instant and strong, well, diffusing in certain instances, like when you're sick, for the most part I'd recommend just pouring your essential oils straight onto an object. You can sometimes find them in stores if you're looking out (the gift shop at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix had them recently), but if you want to buy them easily online, Mountain Rose Herbs sells these great terra cotta diffuser pendants. They're inexpensive and pretty. I suppose you could also make your own.

Or there are two more super easy, inexpensive, purchasable options. Just use a brown sugar bear (or other shape, but the bear is the one I see most often). Most kitchen stores sell them; so does Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Or use a terra cotta pot saucer. Super easy and you don't have to worry about hiding a bear around (because, frankly, a bear probably doesn't go with most people's decor).

Put them anywhere and put out as many as you like. Since they cost less, you can put one in each room, a different one in your closet, another in your car, whatever you want. I keep the pendant in my car, usually with frankincense oil. The bear is by my bed, with rose and lavender oil. And the saucer is in the living room with whatever scents I'm into at the moment.

For fall, I like using cinnamon, clove, and orange. About two drops of each. After Thanksgiving, I'll switch out the orange and clove for peppermint. I find either peppermint or cinnamon too strong on their own, but they work well together. In January, I'll take away the peppermint again and bring back the orange.

Since essential oils can be expensive (making blending even more expensive because you have to buy each element separately), don't shy away from pre-blended oils if you find one that has what you want. NOW makes some nice blends (NOW is one of the most common brands you'll find because they're the lesser-priced, decent quality brand--don't buy the cheap oils they sell at stores like Wal-Mart). Or if you're okay with spending a little more, Snow Lotus is great, too. Their Sinus Clear blend does wonders for stopping a runny nose.

And I know I'm talking about diffusers here, but don't be shy to buy an empty rollerball for a dollar or two, either. Just put a carrier oil in there with whatever essential oils you need or want and you're set. If you want to make a perfume or a blend for stress or what have you, it's so easy.

What are your favorite oils right now?

Friday, November 15, 2019

Chiles & Chocolate Festival + Zak's Chocolate

The plan was just to make a quick appearance at the Desert Botanical Garden's Chiles and Chocolate Festival. I'd stick my head in and see what was there, maybe buy one or two things, and then go. Plans change.

When I first when to Chiles and Chocolate two years ago (I wasn't able to go last year), I remember it being quite packed. This year, I got there early on Friday, so the way was pretty clear. It was easier to get to each booth--too easy sometimes. I wasn't there to shop, even though the booths of honey and loose tea and wooden spoons (I love wood) and pasta sauce were just my types of things. They have plenty of salsa and spices and mole and tamales, too, if you want to keep more in theme. Xocolatl was back with their drinking chocolate and Wei of Chocolate with their flower-shaped chocolates. My favorites, of course, are Scottsdale companies Stone Grindz and Zak's Chocolate. I decided not to kid myself and just bought a plain bar from Stone Grindz instead of one of their chile chocolate bars (it may have been for the festival, but that really isn't my favorite zone). 

From Zak's Chocolate, I chose two truffles. Then I wandered outside, where I had my eye set on something I'd regretted skipping last time. That's right, the chocolate cotton candy. Spunlight Cotton Candy makes organic cotton candy and while I've since seen them at other festivals, I haven't seen the chocolate flavor again. I'll give another post to the cotton candy.

Now, remember, at this point, I was outside. According to my original plan, it was now time to go. But I'd been so quick and the day was so beautiful and there really weren't too many people in the small spaces, so I regretted leaving so soon. And I thought, well, am I just here for shopping, even though I was trying to restrain my shopping? The cooking demonstrations are weekends only, but there was going to be some dancing in the late morning. So I decided I might as well stick around for that.

Only problem was those two truffles. The chocolate bar would be fine in my purse as long as I kept it in the shade, but the truffles would barely make it home as it was. No way they'd stay around longer. (Zak's does, by the way, sell their little insulated bags at the festival, if you need some extra security.) So I thought, well, let me go to my quiet bench (the one on the path where hardly anyone walks) and take some pictures and take some notes and just review these chocolates right now. 

They were the Peanut Butter Cup and a Mango Chile truffle. I know, I said I'd been staying away from the chile chocolates, but I dared for this one. The Peanut Butter Cup was already melting against the top of the little bag. Perhaps Chiles and Chocolate should be held in December or January instead of November?

These were both dark chocolate. The filling of the peanut butter cup had almost more of a ganache texture than the usual peanut butter filling. The taste, too, reminded me more of mazapan (the crumbly cakes of Mexican peanut candy). The specific peanut taste and the creamy factor to the flavor gave it that effect. The dark chocolate base was sturdy. This chocolate just hit right. A gourmet approach to a peanut butter cup, certainly.

The Mango Chile truffle came looking quite beautiful with green swirls and red spots. This one was essentially one solid piece rather than having a separate inside. All extremely smooth. Though mango is one of the less common flavors to see paired with chocolate, a fresh mango flavor went perfectly with the coolness of the chocolate. The chile was just a slight teasing on the edges; I hardly even noticed it, honestly. Given my general lack of interest in chile chocolate, though, the lack of spice was a plus for me. This was simply a delicious, fruity truffle.

By this point, I still had some time to sit on my quiet bench. I often read at the garden, but I hadn't brought my book, so I just sat. Time for contemplation is good, too.

Then I made my way back over to the festival area to see the dancing. Maybe I'm a little spoiled because I see live performances fairly often these days, but I wonder if maybe the Friday group was not quite as good of a performance as the weekend groups. I almost went back on Sunday just to see. They did have a small space to work with, though, and it was still an enjoyable way to spend the time. The garden on a sunny day, a bit of shopping, and some dancing. I couldn't have Chiles and Chocolate be just a quick stop; I had make a whole morning out of it. That was the nicest way to do it. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Macbeth Doth Come

When it comes to the Shakespeare plays that are more easily digestible to the audience and those that are less easy to follow, Macbeth falls into the former category. Not because it is shallow but because it has approachable concepts: ambition, greed, glory, murder, fear, and horror. You can easily explain the plot in a sentence or two, so you always know at least the gist of what's going on, even if it's your first time seeing the play.

This was not my first time seeing Macbeth performed live, but it's easy to say that Southwest Shakespeare Company (with Drew Shirley directing) found a way to make this a unique performance and yet also one that did not take a less traditional approach. "Less traditional" usually means a modern setting or the addition of music or silly props--that sort of thing. It was traditional in the sense that they kept the time period and kept most of the classic elements, but it was unique because they mixed things up.

Most notably, the wytches. The three wytches are one, performed by Elizabeth Broeder. She plays a strange, demon-possessed-like creature that feels truly evil and wrong. Instead of three witches dancing around a cauldron (an image with which we are all overly familiar with from fiction by now), they gave us something to disturb us fresh. And she sticks around. She doesn't disappear after the start of the play; she stays, leaking her poison further and deeper, all the way to that final scene, that hint of the offer of evil that the future will always bring to each person.

In their earlier scenes, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth felt more like people, just people. And in their later, haunted scenes, they are us in our darkest moments. They are haunted by horrific deeds that will soon be made public. We may not be doing the same (hopefully not), but we are still, in our darkest moments, hidden and alone, in deep corners wondering how we can ever recover from what we have done or what has been done to us. They are us when we crave escape and don't know how to find it. Kyle Sorrell gave that style of line delivery that pulls you immediately into the feeling of an existential crisis.

On the practical side, the lighting of this show was beautiful, so I must give a nod to Lighting Designer Dallas Nichols. There were shadows of the actors on both walls that extend out from the sides of the stage; this helped to create that eerie atmosphere but also to set up that concept of being watched. The lights on the stage, as well, set up strange color and obscurity and focus, whatever suited each moment. In fact, the lighting was a character of its own.

Now, despite what I'd said, there was a big way in which SSC departed from the traditional. They switched male for female. They made Banquo female. I thought at first they had just cast a woman for the role until another character referred to Banquo as "she." And they switched Macduff and Lady Macduff. So it is in fact Lady Macduff who kills Macbeth. It all went along with the gender concepts in Lady Macbeth's speech; she asks for all of the tender, female parts of her character to vanish so that she can help Macbeth in the dark and evil tasks ahead. So to have her give this speech and then to see both male and female characters taking part in different types of events shows that evil is not male or female, tenderness is not male or female, and both male and female face temptation and the option to choose one way or another, to choose right or to choose wrong. If, however, you are not interested in exploring such gender questions, they did these switches in such a simple way that you can simply ignore them if you wish. That is, they weren't distracting to the main events of the story.

This was one of the best plays Southwest Shakespeare has put on in a while. Partly because it's Macbeth but also because they approached it so well. They made it freshly creepy, and I can say nothing better than that.

Exploring Downtown

"I should go to ____ sometime." "Someday I'll ____." Yeah, most of us find ourselves saying these words for years before we finally do the things we talk about--if we even ever do. A couple of weeks ago I got to two more of my "I should" activities.

I'm in Downtown Phoenix often, but only one side of it. So I tend to just leave the things on the other side for later. These included the tour of the Orpheum Theatre and the Wells Fargo Museum. You'll also want to note that both of these are free, so all you have to pay for is parking. If it's worth it to you, you can also do Park & Ride and take the light rail in to save a little. Your $4 day pass will also let you get closer to any other museums you might want to see that day--if you want to make a full day out of it. The Rosson House, the Science Center, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Heard Museum are just a few.

Orpheum Theatre tours are generally every other Tuesday at 12 and 1:30. Be sure and check the website to make sure you have the right day. The next tours will be on November 19th. You meet at the marquee to begin. Note that, like when you go to a show at the Orpheum, the entrance is not on the corner of the building; keep walking west. While some people (especially perhaps if you're visiting Phoenix) might want to go on the tour just to see the theatre, it's worth going even if you've been in before. I've been to a show there, but I still wanted to learn more.

The tour focused on the history and architecture. Our group was around ten to fifteen people. The tour moves from the lobby to the main seating area to the balcony. You have the chance, then, to sit in seats on both levels and compare where you might want to sit. Balconies always win for me--I get a better view. Then again, a taller person might find the Orpheum's balcony a little cramped and yet that person also would have a clear view sitting on the bottom because no one's head will block their view. One of my favorite parts of the tour? Behind the scenes. We saw the area where performers would get ready to go on stage, the green rooms, and the stage. You can read up on history, but only by going on a tour like this can you stand on the stage (unless, of course, you're a performer, but most of us aren't).

Two practical notes. I'd thought that the tour was an hour (and I heard others say the same), but it was almost two. So plan for that. It was also very cold, so if you're a thin-blooded Arizonan like me, maybe bring a sweater.

The Wells Fargo Museum is just a step away, so it makes for the perfect before or after tour activity. If you just walk through, sure, you can be done in five minutes. But if you read everything, you can be there from half an hour to an hour. They have a few pieces of art and artifacts to look at and some interactive activities. If you go with kids (or you're an adult who likes to play, too), they'll love the phones and telegraphs. It's a nice little opportunity to get a glimpse back into the prairie days.

So there you have it. There is always more to do, more to see, even right where you are. Even the little things, the things that might not take up much time and that we therefore don't set aside time for, are worth seeing and worth doing. Let's keep exploring.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Theo: Vanilla Bean Marshmallows

November has come and since I've already reviewed what will most likely be my only fall chocolate, it's time to start in on the winter chocolates. I might as well begin early to make sure I get through them all. I've talked about all of Theo's Christmas chocolate bars before, but this year they also have some chocolate-covered marshmallows. I'm thrilled for a couple of reasons. One, they're something new for me to talk about. Two, they're a seasonal and sweet and casual yet also fair trade chocolate product. Three, they're the type of product that you usually have to get from a boutique store--available in a grocery store.

While I'm not big about marshmallows, they're nice sometimes, or as a garnish (I'm not the type of person to get tempted to eat the whole bag). It's also true, though, that there are two types of marshmallows. There are grocery store marshmallows and there are gourmet marshmallows. These are the latter, at least as far as they can be with a shelf life of many months. So that's why I was eager to try Theo's approach to marshmallows even if I'm not necessarily a marshmallow person.

The box is plain and pretty; Theo usually knows to keep things simple. Yet it is still enough that you could give it as a gift if you wanted; it would be a nice addition to a gift basket. I'm all decked out for Thanksgiving right now, so the box had to settle for being photographed with a turkey instead of a Christmas tree. Inside is a bag more plain than the box; it isn't for looks, just for keeping the marshmallows sealed and airtight. So if you do bring these out for a Christmas party, set them out on a pretty plate or in a little bowl first.

They are smaller than I'd expected, which I appreciate. If, like me, you prefer them as a garnish, this works better. And if not, then you can just eat more of them. (There are about fourteen, by the way.) Maybe because they are fairly small, they are quite pretty for plain chocolate-covered somethings. They are pretty to hold, as well. They feel so soft in the hand, soft and nostalgic, like all of those terrible packaged desserts we're fed as children that tasted so good when we were children but not so much now that we're adults.

Cutting one in half for the picture was a delicate procedure given the softness, as well. And leaning in to smell them brought a rich milk chocolate scent that would be unexpected except that I already knew that this was Theo's 45% cocoa milk chocolate.

Biting in is soft. The chocolate flavor of rich and deep milk chocolate gives way to marshmallow with great flavor and texture. It's the type of marshmallow that you can very much enjoy it even if you're not a marshmallow person. The milk chocolate is darker but the marshmallow is sweet; then you finish off with more milk chocolate, so the flavor experience is well-rounded. It's a sweet confection but it has richness (even vanilla is technically rich, as well). This is what you might call a "grown-up" sweet.

You can eat them on their own, make a dessert with them, attempt to s'mores them, or use them for hot chocolate. (Technically, yes, this is hot cocoa not hot chocolate, but I didn't really grow up hearing hot cocoa, so that just sounds weird to me.) My hot chocolate recipe: heat 3/4 cup milk or non-milk in a saucepan with a teaspoon of cocoa powder and a teaspoon of sugar or honey, add cinnamon or other flavoring if you like, and stir or whisk. I thought that the marshmallows would melt quickly, but the chocolate shell prevents them from doing so. One of the halves that I'd cut did melt in, so I'd recommend cutting these in half or even quarters if you'd like some marshmallow melt. Otherwise they just kind of sit on top looking cute and then sit in the bottom of your cup afterwards looking sad waiting for you to scoop them up with a spoon.

These also come in Cinnamon and in Peppermint; hopefully I will get to reviewing those at some point this season, as well. They're definitely great for winter parties or self-spoiling.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Beginning Emerges from the End

Perhaps YA simply isn't my genre. That's why I lost interest in Gayle Forman and went from greatly enjoying her books to not even reading her new works. And that's why I thought Divergent was great and Carve the Mark also but its sequel not so much--and why I have such mixed feelings about Veronica Roth's latest collection of short stories, The End and Other Beginnings.

Maybe it's because I had put too much pressure on Veronica Roth. I loved that her characters pondered morality and often, in connection to that, chose a different path to the crowd. As someone who also chooses a little differently, I connected with that. So to come and find all the usual YA references to teens smoking and exploring sex and not caring about anything other than their own happiness, well, that made me feel like I'd lost my connection to her writing. I felt like there was a new shallowness.

But I kept reading. There are six stories in this book and they perhaps do tend to get better as you go along. They are sci-fi stories set in different times and places. So every forty pages, you're jumping into a new environment and atmosphere. Veronica Roth definitely has a talent for creating places and groups of characters. Some plots are about love, some about friendship, and some about family.

All of the stories, though, are about discovery and about emotional struggles. Some characters face depression, some suicidal thoughts, some grief, some confusion, and some regret. Along the way, they discover how to make peace with their feelings and how to let others help them on their journeys. More and more, YA is focusing on such themes--which is good, though it does also mean that they're starting to feel simply like tropes. But that's a cynical perspective, I know. What I ought to say is that some of these themes are quite powerful. I definitely prefer the theme of friendship that prevailed in something like "Vim and Vigor" to the basic love story of "Inertia."

"Armored Ones" brought us back into the world of Carve the Mark, which was great to get to dive into again. Funnily enough, "The Transformationist" had what I found to be an inspiring quote--that ended up being part of the past that the main character, Otho, had to make his peace with. "'This is what we fear to admit . . . Transformation will destroy you. It will unmake you. . . And here is the true horror . . . You must let it.'" That sums up life, doesn't it? Change happens and pain happens, so it is up to us to let the changes that happen help us grow. So I wish that this story had been longer and able to cover more ground. I wish that Otho, like Tris finding a way to incorporate the values she had been raised with in Abnegation even after she joined Dauntless, had found a way to take the good pieces from the sect he'd been raised in and let all of the bad parts fall away. I don't know, maybe that's an ignorant perspective from me, from someone who wasn't raised in a traumatic way. But all I saw was who Otho wasn't; I also wanted to see who he was. But I guess even just letting go of the past is an important part of the personal journey.

And personal journeys were what these stories were all about. I still have super mixed feelings about this book as a whole (one blog post isn't really enough to talk about much), but even that is I suppose a positive effect from the reading experience. These stories were thought-provoking as a whole.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Harriet: Strength of Will and Faith

I must thank Downton Abbey for showing me the trailer for Harriet, otherwise the movie might have slipped right under my radar. I try to look at the list of upcoming movies to catch ones like this, but sometimes they appear and disappear so quickly. It's a shame, really. Harriet Tubman is a figure both of historical significance and timeless (that is, also modern) thematic importance. She was a woman who became famous by the strength of her actions, actions achieved by her perseverance and unbending will. We remember her simply because she did what was right--is there any better legacy? So a movie based on her should be viewed widely, not on the limited scope that it undoubtedly will be viewed.

One of the great things about this film was that it took the historical approach while also maintaining Harriet's faith. There is in fact enough faith in this story for it to be a faith film--so I wish that all the faith media outlets would promote it as hardcore as they might promote a faith film. It's on a similar level as Amazing Grace, which was the story of William Wilburforce's political efforts to abolish the British slave trade. I was pretty obsessed with that movie for a while; I love when faith and history, two interests of mine, intersect (maybe also because I don't tend to like "Christian movies" that much. They can be a little too Hallmark for my tastes; I often better like how the historical films include faith).

Perhaps unsurprising given the focus on faith, but what was also refreshing about this movie was that it did not include vengeance or even judgement. Harriet doesn't want to start violence and burn down white homes and torture her former "master." She just wants to free people, to bring them out of a living hell. She wants to do good, not ill. Even her final confrontation with Gideon is not about rubbing it in his face that she has won; it's about sorrow that he has chosen loss for himself. That's what stood out about their interactions to me: the film wasn't trying to put judgment on him but to show the tragedy of how he was convincing himself that he didn't care about Harriet as a person. The style of the movie just lets the audience sit back and think about the individual choices that each character makes.

Harriet. Gideon. Marie, who is a refined and accomplished woman who chooses to help others, even when it leads to her violent death. Walter, who cannot help but see the good that Harriet is doing and decides to join her in it despite (or because of) the actions in his past. The choices we make, they compose who we are. We make the choice now, right now. The past has already happened. The future we cannot know. But the choice that we make right now, that is ours.

If we could all be as bold and unbending and as good as Harriet Tubman, then so many things in this world would be so very different. All good to this movie for simply portraying her as a woman who made the good choice--again and again. Her strength of will, strength of character, and strength of faith were remarkable.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Truncated Look at Wildlife and the Fear Concept

I say that this is a truncated look at Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium because I didn't end up walking through the whole park and I took very little pictures to share on here and I'm also ending this post on a roundabout topic. The only other time I had been to Wildlife was probably about 17 years ago--so they've expanded and added quite a bit since then. Yet mainly I think we stayed on the original part of the park.

What's quite nice about Wildlife is that it has somewhat more of an Out of Africa feel than the Phoenix Zoo does--yet it has been at its location for long enough that it has much of the wonderful tree growth that the Phoenix Zoo has. I always say at Out of Africa that I'd rather the animals have it well than us; I'd rather any money go to make them happy. But trees are nice, all the same. Wildlife has a good amount of shade for a hot day or just to create outdoor atmosphere.

Certain animals I'm used to visiting at Out of Africa, so what was nice from Wildlife specifically? Birds, definitely birds. They have a varied assortment of birds, large and small, familiar and exotic. A precious turkey, a condor, a king vulture, and ostriches were among my favorites. Their Dragon World exhibit was naturally another favorite of mine. While he wasn't in Dragon World, their white alligator was gorgeous; he's like a sculpture of soft marble.

We saw their young giraffe. Goodness, they have so many giraffes. And I can't remember ever seeing a young one before. He was especially cute to see because he's already so tall that he doesn't look small--so he just makes you double back and realize how tall the adults are.

And then there was the aquarium side. I'm sure I've mentioned from time to time that I have something of a fear of aquariums. For the last close to twenty years, I've just been avoiding them entirely. Last time I went to Wildlife I waited outside while my family went in--even though I was only about eleven years old at the time.

Today, though, I'm trying to overcome that fear. Actually, I'm trying to dissect it and discover where it comes from so that I can mend that, but that's another story. Point is, I specifically wanted to go in some of the aquarium buildings on this trip. And goodness, what shocker that first one was. It was the River Monsters building. I walked in and it was dark and the tanks were kind of hazy in the back (that's what bothers me most, I've realized) and there were faux trees (that almost bothers me most than the water, I've learned). I wanted to back out. Or cry. Or run out crying.

And then a field trip group walked in. Ten kids running around and talking in excitement about the fish did wonders for me. They grounded me and focused me. I looked at the fish. I looked at the walls that made up the back of the tanks, reminding myself that I could see the whole tank and everything in it. I focused on the clear space where we were all walking. I focused on aquariums as something that we all go to see out of interest. Throughout the other buildings, I still had to remind myself sometimes (audibly, of course, because it helps to say out loud that you're in a bit of a struggle) that it was okay. And you know what? It was. I mean, I'll still not make aquariums a destination, but I'll try and not avoid them anymore. I'll try and not avoid fear anymore. I'll try and explain why I'm afraid and then explain why I don't need to be.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Stars are Faint

The stars are faint;
they drench the night, anyway.

The whispers are heard
but only by a few.

The leaves blow with the wind,
even when nothing else moves.

Listen and you'll see.

Remember and you'll forget.

Touch this moment and it will end.

The past is blossoming into the present
and the future is interceding on behalf of this moment.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Little Secrets: Dark Chocolate Pieces

Well, Halloween is almost here, so I might as well go for some more chocolate candy. This will be the fourth Little Secrets product I've reviewed and the third of their Pieces, but the first plain-flavored one (the Dark Chocolate Pieces). I've gone about it a bit opposite, I admit: it's often nicest to try and plain option first and then work your way into the flavored products.

I do apologize if you can tell that I took these from the clearance shelf. They're a little more powdery-looking, but are otherwise just as great (they're still nearly a year away from their best by date). Initially I tasted the candy shell. While it may not seem so exciting to be able to taste straight sugar, this is candy, after all, and I like to be able to taste sugar as sugar and not simply get strange, unidentifiable flavors. I also tasted the chocolate on its own for, essentially, the first time, given that I have only had flavored chocolate from Little Secrets before.

It's mild dark chocolate, more of the semisweet type than the candy dark chocolate type. Probably roughly around 55% cocoa content or so. It does have some of that fudge, brownie flavor to it, though not quite in that weird, thick-flavored zone that some confection-style dark chocolate can have. It is, of course, pretty sweet, but again, this is candy.

I probably wouldn't overly care for it as a chocolate bar, but in these I like it. Even for being so different than what most of us are used to with M&M's, the proportions work great. As I've mentioned, the Pieces are bigger than the regular brand of candy-coated chocolates. Yet the thicker and bigger style here still feels completely balanced, maybe partly also because I really haven't had M&M's in a while. The thing is, though, you have more of a chance to taste chocolate here with the greater thickness. And that's in fact quite nice: they're actually a chocolate candy.

So I'll continue the remarks I've made before: Little Secrets is doing a good job in the little chocolate candies department, giving a good-tasting, more natural, and fair trade option.