Friday, December 13, 2019

Theo: Peppermint Cocoa Cups

In addition to the three flavors of chocolate-dipped marshmallows, this year Theo has also put out these Peppermint Cocoa Cups. While the cute and Christmasy box is still something you could give as a gift, the fact that these are individually wrapped makes them ideal for sneaking into gifts separately or stuffing stockings. I'm considering stocking stuffing their main purpose.

And I love that. You see, it isn't just a festive box; the wrappers are also fun. Sometimes the fair trade chocolates, well, they look like the "ethical" option. Which is sometimes okay--but other times you just want to blend in with what we're come to expect from holiday candy. The red label mentions the whole organic and fair trade thing, but the peppermint stripes add in the merriment. So your friends and family can see that this was an ethical choice, but they won't feel like you're trying to shove it in their faces that you bought the fair trade chocolate and wrapped their gifts (shampoo bars and loose tea) in old socks to save on wrapping paper waste. Do I digress? (And I'm not making fun of anyone who chooses ethical/environmental options. I do, too--but I also know that not everyone gets it.)

Theo's slightly-heart-shaped chocolate cup sits inside the striped wrapper. Right on opening, I wished that I could share the scent with you. A burst of peppermint, nice and strong and fresh. Especially after the, um, rather non-pepperminty marshmallows from yesterday, this minty burst was quite welcome.

Officially the labeling describes these cups as having a "creamy milk chocolate shell" with a "peppermint dark chocolate meltway filling." That sounds a lot like Lindor truffles--which is fine as those are always popular.

The chocolate has just the texture you'd expect. It's creamy and melty, in a different way from the usual chocolate way. How did they achieve that texture (which is also distinct from ganache and also must be able to have a long shelf life)? Coconut oil, like what Alter Eco uses in their truffles. No coconut flavor, just a soft and melty texture that is also not oily. If you're going to take this approach, coconut oil is a good way to go.

Taste-wise, the peppermint oil gives this chocolate a flavor like Andes mints, except that you can taste the chocolate more. I taste more milk chocolate than dark, so I'd put them on the sweeter side of the scale. They have just enough dark chocolate in there to keep the mint grounded. And yes, if you're looking for a peppermint chocolate product this winter, I'd definitely recommend these over the marshmallows.

They're good and they're a familiar flavor, so they're going to have mass appeal. This is something that can be great for kids and adults alike, for those who usually choose fair trade (aka. the person who buys them) and for those who just get regular candies (aka. the relative of the person who buys them who receives them as a gift).

So it's great to see something like this on the shelves. It's a good product made with good ingredients. Theo used something that they already make (the chocolate cups) and they gave it a holiday spin and they made it like something we as consumers already like (Andes mints) and so by putting all this together they made a product that is specific to Theo but also approachable. New and different but also not so different. The perfect stocking stuffers.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Theo: Peppermint Marshmallows

Click here for my review of the Vanilla Bean Marshmallows and here for the Cinnamon Marshmallows.

I tried to get a head start on seasonal chocolate, but it turns out that I have still a few more to go. Since I don't want to cut it too close to Christmas, I'm going to just put out four holiday chocolates in a row this week. It might be a little much, but I'd rather give each product its own space than stick them all into one or two posts. Perhaps I could have put all of the marshmallows from Theo into one post, but I started off unsure of whether or not I would even review all of them--and honestly, I prefer to keep products individual if I can, unless there is truly nothing unique to say about each one.

The packaging has gone from a white box to red and now to blue. I thought right away that the chocolate-dipped marshmallows looked a little different in the bag this time. Maybe they were stacked more neatly but the surface seemed different, as well. The reason? The Peppermint Marshmallows are made with Theo's 70% dark chocolate instead of the 45% milk chocolate. So they're naturally a shade or so darker in color. I neglected to notice the difference on the label because I was more focused on the flavors.

Like with the Cinnamon Marshmallows, you get a chocolate scent (a little darker here) when you open up the bag but no peppermint. While the Cinnamon Marshmallows had a great cinnamon flavor to them, the mint here is still light even when you bite in. On my first one, I don't think I tasted mint at all. Then I tried to press my tongue against the marshmallow specifically searching for the peppermint (since Theo adds the flavoring to the marshmallows, not to the chocolate). That helped, but it's still a very light mint. While some people might like a lighter rather than stronger mint taste, I do have to mark these down for being so light. Unnoticeably light really doesn't cut it when they're called Peppermint Marshmallows--not even "Marshmallows with a Hint of Peppermint." Maybe I got a bad batch?

The marshmallows are still excellent, like before. And since I don't really have a peppermint flavor to compare to the other two, the biggest difference between this set of marshmallows and the previous two is the dark chocolate. Now, I very much favor Theo's 45% milk chocolate, but they do make quality dark chocolate, as well. And that's great: sometimes the companies that will tend to make the confection/candy type products like chocolate-covered marshmallows don't make/use very good chocolate. They usually have that weirdly sweet confection dark chocolate that I can't stand (so if you're planning on buying me a confection, err on the safe side and choose milk chocolate, not dark). So I can't overemphasize how good it is to have a decent dark chocolate on these marshmallows. It's a basic dark chocolate, nothing too fancy, but it has good and solid flavor. It's quality. Why shouldn't marshmallows get quality chocolate to enrobe them?

Honestly, milk chocolate sounded more appealing with marshmallows to me, maybe because of my averse associations with confectionery dark chocolate. But the dark chocolate is good with the marshmallows, as well. It's less sweet, and yet that semisweet flavor can evoke cookies, too. So it has more of a wintry feel. Less thoughts of cuddling up by a fireplace and more thoughts of flurrying snowflakes and going out to build snowmen and putting on a glittery dress for a party.

As far as which of the three marshmallows is the best, it's going to go off of preference. Do you like milk chocolate or dark? Do you like plain and classic? Do you like some spiced cinnamon? If you're looking for hot chocolate marshmallows, I'd probably go for one of the milk chocolate options. These would go well with ice cream, though, if you wanted to do a kinda crazy sundae. The Cinnamon Marshmallows were my favorites for eating on their own. The Peppermint Marshmallows would be excellent as part of a dessert board. Whatever you choose, just have fun.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Brontës Who Walked and Lived

I approach movies based on the novels of the Brontës with hesitation: some are good, while others are so far from the content or theme of the original that it hardly seems fair to slap the same title on them. I've literally stopped watching at least one no more than ten minutes in. It would follow, then, that I might wonder how filmmmakers would approach a movie about the Brontës themselves.

2016's To Walk Invisible (written and directed by Sally Wainwright), however, does not aim at romanticizing or embellishing. As such, it is quite a stark film. It just shows life--how three women in the nineteenth century came to be published writers. Emily, the fiery and bold one who is somehow also the most private one. Anne, the solidly good woman, the peaceful spirit in spite of all she has seen in life. Charlotte, somewhere in between the two. Then also their brother Branwell, who has given in to the worst of life and so has, essentially, chosen alcoholism over the childhood hopes of writing. Their father, who is getting up in years.

The very title suggests the anonymity and quietness of these sisters (in certain contexts) and the film does indeed show it. They talk amongst themselves and they talk to others, but they are also largely silent even during moments when a modern script might inaccurately choose to have them speak. For instance, their father will come in and speak to the sisters are length, then leave. They listen but don't speak. Not because they had nothing to say but because that was the place of a nineteenth century woman. We're used to period films in which the women are always talking, but that's because the scenes are either inaccurate or because they mainly take place in social situations. Day to day life for a Victorian woman included much silence. This film expressed that--and not in a way that criticizes it, either. Charlotte still goes to talk to her father about important matters and to give her opinion and they have a good relationship; things were just different.

What captivates me (and so many of us) about the Brontës is their blending of fantasy and reality. Charlotte uses the greatest touch of fantasy in her writing. But even Emily, who would seem not to, who would seem to be writing about very harsh and real things, is writing with this sense of the fantastical. What is so captivating is that these women loved imagination and they also had very much seen the real world and all that it is (both the good and the bad) and so they saw the importance of real life. They, in a sense, saw that fantastical quality in real life--and then wrote about real life in a way that gave it that elevated sense of meaning.

That's what this film reminded me. Real life can be brutal. Real life can be gorgeous. Real life can be dull. Real life can be exciting. Life, with all of its intensities, whether family, friends, sickness, wealth or lack of, weather, fear, faith--life.

Sometimes it is when we walk quietly that we are able to see all that life is. Maybe no one even sees us as we're doing so--but it doesn't matter because we are living. The Brontës didn't create their great work later on when all the world knew their names (well, okay, Charlotte did some of it once she became publicly respected, but even then her fame wasn't to the degree that it is today). They did it in the quiet--and they would have done so even if time forgot them. Do you see what I mean? It's great when time remembers people (like John Keats) who didn't receive much recognition during their lives. But the truly wondrous thing is that, even if time forgets your name, if you lived, then that is your incredible achievement and it is not negated.

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?