Friday, December 23, 2022

Stone Grindz: Peanut Butter Cup 55% Cacao

Apparently Stone Grindz had some eggnog holiday truffles this year. I've probably missed the window of opportunity for those, but today on the eve of Christmas Eve I bring you to you their Halloween Limited Release, Peanut Butter Cup, which is made with a 55% cacao chocolate. I have not in fact been sitting on this chocolate since Halloween; I did get it much later. Still, I realize that I almost put up this review of Halloween after Christmas--so perhaps an apology on tardiness is still in order.

Usually when I review Stone Grindz chocolate bars, they're just in the clear sleeves that they sell them in at the farmer's market. This one is in the full card box garb, which I normally don't get to admire. Stone Grindz may be so micro batch that they don't even have a store front, but that doesn't mean that their quality is any lower or that they only have a handmade, brown bag look. Clean white makes a base for colorful artwork evocative of the cocoa-growing countries, while gold highlights add class and luxury. The card box folds out to black and white photography of cocoa production and the scenic Arizona desert. I like it for the local element, tourists to Arizona can enjoy it for the same reason, and anyone who has this chocolate delivered to another locale can revel in the exoticness.

Inside, the chocolate bar sits in its familiar clear wrapper. I do appreciate that these are resealable: the inability to reseal is normally one of the disadvantages to most non-foil wrappers. The chocolate's face has the familiar alpacas all lined up in rows and columns. On the back, though, I found some unexpected sea salt chips--that would be the Maldon sea salt mentioned in the ingredients. Salt is, after all, a key element in Americans' perceptions of how peanut butter chocolate should taste, thanks to Reese's Cups.

One bite of this chocolate and I saw (or tasted) why I jumped at the opportunity to get this chocolate bar, even though I knew I was going to get to it far after its Halloween label. It's the same type of style as their Almond Butter and Black Lava Salt that I looked at this spring. That is, the peanut butter element is just mixed right in with the chocolate. Yet it tastes distinctively like peanut butter and semisweet chocolate, along with a dash of salt. The infusion is incredible.

Texture-wise, we have a similar situation as with the Almond Butter bar. It's primarily chocolate texture, but softer somehow in a way that your mind can't quite put its finger on. So that subtle difference plus the distinctive peanut butter flavor is what tricks your mind into thinking that you're just eating those two separate elements--except that you can see that they're blended together, and so you are awestruck by how your chocolate tastes like peanut butter. And it's a good, fresh peanut butter flavor, as well, since there are no filler ingredients or oils or anything like that in here. Because it's mixed in with the chocolate, the advantage is also that the peanut butter won't be too different from anyone's go-to peanut butter. For instance, I like the Trader Joe's peanut butter that's just peanuts and salt and can't stand Skippy--so if a chocolate has a peanut butter filling that's suspiciously like Skippy, I probably won't care for it. But if someone else tries a peanut butter filling with no added sugar or oil, they might not like it. That problem is bypassed here by not actually having a peanut butter filling.

The chocolate is a little sweeter on this one, a little less dark. So it's a little more casual perhaps. But still wonderful in its own right and not sweet in the standard sense. It's still quite elegant. Combined with the peanut butter element and that lovely salt, it's magic. That's what this bar is: pure magic. I can picture it pleasing a wide variety of palates. And the limited ingredients mean wider appeal, as well. So if the flavor ever shows up again or next time Stone Grindz decides to play with nut butter chocolate, I highly recommend giving it a try. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Ariadne auf Naxos

Ariadne auf Naxos was originally intended to be part of Arizona Opera's spring 2020 mainstage productions. After the delay, they brought it back this year for the fall instead, which means that it was at the smaller Herberger Theater instead of at Symphony Hall. The smaller venue felt fitting for this romp of an opera that hits a lighter note than some of the more melodramatic mainstage productions.

For the past several years, I have been diving into the opera having previously known almost nothing about it. I just started watching one, enjoyed it, and kept going. Rather than trying to learn more (other than reading the program and such), I've kept myself as a casual audience-goer. And I like it that way: it proves that you don't have to know the history of the composer or all the cultural nuances of the story to just go to a production and enjoy it. Sometimes you don't even have to know all the details of the plot.

Ariadne auf Naxos can be a slightly complicated storyline to follow: it's an opera within an opera. That is, the characters, after bickering about whether the comedy should go first or the opera, learn that they will have to perform them both simultaneously. So the two groups continue bickering, the opera set about how they have the higher art form and the comedy troupe about how the opera will put everyone to sleep. It becomes a bit of a philosophical debate between the two art forms. High art or pop culture? The arthouse film or the newest superhero movie? The tragedy or the comedy? What makes people cry or what makes them laugh?

Over the course of the production, we as the audience get to see a bit of both. We see comedy to make us laugh and we see sappy drama to stir us. It's actually quite nice, especially for a modern audience who may not be as used to two and a half hours of just sappy drama. The comedy does in fact keep your attention, but not without the benefit of enjoying the sappiness, as well. When the composer is describing his character to Zerbinetta of the comedy troupe, Zerbinetta suggests a simpler, more lighthearted approach--but he insists that "and then she succumbs to death," reveling in the drama of it. I can relate to that. Just put on Bright Star for me and I'll go on and on about the beautiful tragedy of John Keats. Ah, there's nothing like melodrama. 

But there does come a point when we have to say that we ourselves are not John Keats tragically dying at a young age at the beginning of his poignant poetic career. So we do need a bit of Zerbinetta to pull us out of our melancholy, to make us smile and laugh and move forward instead of becoming stagnant. Tragedy happens and it's sad--but only by moving forward do we continue to live. The timing of Ariadne auf Naxos therefore is quite good. Its delay only emphasized the importance of that concept: let's keep on living. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Alter Eco: Peppermint Creme Truffles

Christmas is just sneaking up on us this year, isn't it? It was all about Thanksgiving coming up, then suddenly all my December plans were here--including some that want to squeeze in but may or may not be able to. So let's hurry and take a look at this year's new grocery store holiday chocolate find. Along with the usuals we've seen before, I saw this green box of Alter Eco Peppermint Creme Truffles. I do see them for sale on their website in regular packaging, which must mean that they are not a seasonal flavor. But it's new to me, so let's indulge in some holiday peppermint.

The holiday element to the little box is light. Besides the green color and a mild floral design, there are just a couple of star shapes. But the green is sufficient, especially on the truffle wrappers themselves. They don't need Christmas trees printed on them to be a welcome addition to a stocking, gift bag, or candy bowl. I like festivity, but I'd rather have a good product that's light on the holiday-specific decorating than a novelty product that is no good to actually eat.

The truffles are the usual round shape with lines cut across the surface. They cut open to reveal a solid white inside. I tasted a little chip of chocolate that broke off to find that there is peppermint oil in the chocolate itself, as well. It's a 58% dark chocolate, so it's definitely on the lighter side. But that's fitting for a candy type product like this, especially when the peppermint oil is going to overpower nuances--and when they're going for the specifically creamy peppermint angle.

Inside, that white creme has that texture that everyone is familiar with who has had Alter Eco truffles. They, of course, have their method of using coconut oil in lieu of cream to give their chocolates a long shelf life for the grocery stores but to also avoid the questionable oils and such that other companies use. Coconut oil yields that silky yet non-plasticy texture (and no coconut flavor). Here, it has more of the peppermint oil and yes, some cream flavor. There is milk listed in the ingredients--so the substitution of coconut oil for creme here isn't to be non-dairy, just for the aforementioned shelf life. 

Naturally, the American mind will taste these and think of Andes Mints. But they are noticeably better, in terms of both the chocolate and the filling. And I don't just mean because these are made with higher quality ingredients. Andes Mints are thin, while these chocolates are fat globes that therefore bring more chocolate and peppermint creme to each bite. That proportion difference on its own gives quite an elevation.

Alter Eco has kept it very classic with these chocolates, and that's what makes them a success, whether as a holiday flavor or later on just as as an addition to their standard line of flavors. I do see that they now make Truffle Thins, which bring the style of their truffles to a chocolate bar shape. That looks even more like Andes Mints--and also looks like a brilliant idea that I will try as soon as they show up at my store.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Stone Grindz: Prickly Pear Spicy Margarita Caramels

I'm a little late in getting this up, but this past November was the long last return of the Chiles and Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden. There usually isn't too much to the event, just some vendors and some food and some music. This year, though, the scale was down even more. But I was still able to enjoy a couple of things, including a box of these Prickly Pear Spicy Margarita Caramels from our local Scottsdale bean-to-bar company Stone Grindz.

They had on hand plenty of these brown boxes decorated with floral paper; both the look and the flavor were perfect for the garden and the theme of the day. Inside the box are four pieces, each one in a kind of snowman or gourd shape. The 70% dark chocolate is glossy. Either because of the unusual shape or because of the thickness/thinness of the chocolate, they do tend to be messy to bite into. The caramel is free-flowing and unleashes easily on the first bite. The chocolate from the sides also tends to separate easily from the bottom layer, adding to the messiness.

That aside, though, they're quite nice. Normally one of my struggles with going to the Chiles and Chocolate festival is that I don't usually like spicy chocolate very much. So while I want to go and try what product the different companies are choosing to showcase for the festival, I'm also not too excited about chiles in my chocolate. These truffles are an interesting and unique approach to the chile chocolate angle.

Sometimes I get primarily a smoky flavor from the caramel--it is, after all, "spiked with smoky mezcal and infused with fresh prickly pear puree, ancho pepper, and guajillo pepper." Sometimes I taste a light alcohol hit; sometimes I don't. Sometimes I get a kind of floral flavor from, presumably, the prickly pear. The ancho and guajillo peppers are definitely noticeable particularly once you're past the halfway point. Yet they're not spicy; you can just taste their flavor. Though I'm not an expert on chiles, I do remember that distinctive way guajillo peppers taste in Taza's Guajillo chocolate. It's a tangy, masculine type of pepper flavor that goes well with the smoky mezcal. And the hint of prickly pear mellows those elements and links them in with the caramel and chocolate.

Caramel is generally a sweet thing. Here, though, it's so full of flavor that sweetness is more of an afterthought. You get an idea of sweetness more towards the end, when the caramel is gone and you have just the last vestiges of the chocolate left melting in the corners of your mouth. These caramels are named for margaritas, but it's rare to come across a margarita that has such delicate handling of complex flavor--all played out with pure ingredients. So even though chile chocolates may not be my first choice, it was a pleasure trying out these caramels. Once more, Stone Grindz has shown an excellent use of ingredients and balance of flavor. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Petersen House

There essentially remain two Victorian homes left in the Phoenix area: the Rosson House in downtown and the Petersen House in Tempe. The former I have great familiarity with, but the latter I had never been to up until this past weekend. It was high time. The trouble with visiting the Petersen House is that it isn't open very often. You can catch it this December, all decked out for Christmas, on weekends between eleven and three.

The comparison and contrast between the two Victorian homes is fascinating. The Petersen House was built just a couple of years before the Rosson House. Its rooms are bigger, though it has perhaps slightly less of them; I wonder if the square footage of the two isn't about the same. The Petersen House seems bigger, but then again the staircase does take up quite a bit of space in the Rosson House. The Rosson House has quite a bit of elaborate wood details (and those beautiful ruby glass transoms), but the Petersen House has delightful details, as well. Stained glass in a couple of places and little reflective corners on the stairs to help to be able to see each step in limited light. 

Furnishings are nice, as well, in particular the master bedroom set. And the stove in the second bedroom. And the milk glass lamps. The upstairs floor seemed to have more trinkets than the downstairs, no? The parlor/living area downstairs was fairly plain for a Victorian home, perhaps to allow for the Christmas decorations. 

I'm less aware of what the restoration for this house was like. The Rosson House had an extensive restoration because it had been changed so much--but has been brought back mainly to its original state. Because the Petersen House didn't change hands so often, it seems not to have had quite the same experience. It did, interestingly, receive some changes to the outside at least after the 30's: poplar styles changed then just as they do now. So Victorian elements were changed to Craftsman Bungalow style. It gives the outside of the house a particular look today: Victorian bones combined with those distinctive Craftsman columns. Here we also have a chance to see what the Rosson House almost looked like; the brick is painted red, which they started doing for the Rosson's restoration before they figured out how to safely removed the white paint to expose the original brick. The extra paint adds to the dollhouse look, which furthers the contrast with the Craftsman porch. 

It's quite a fun house to explore and a definite must if you live in the area or happen to be visiting when it's open. I do love a cozy Victorian home, especially cozy on this rainy weekend we just had. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

Disney Music Comes to Life

Live music has a way of lifting one's mind and transporting it into a realm of emotion through sound. 

Last month's Disney in Concert: Around the World by the Phoenix Symphony was a welcome reminder of the richness of music. The eleven pieces in the selection may have been familiar sounds, yet there is a completely new layer in hearing even a familiar piece live. Add to this also the ability to watch the musicians and notice which specific instruments form those familiar sounds and it becomes quite special.

Though Disney music is part of the Pops series from the Symphony and so is a more casual, lighthearted symphony experience, this music is quite good in its own right. Disney dominated the world of animation for so long not by default but because of superior quality, including that of the music, in their films. That is, there were also two live action films represented, Mary Poppins and Pirates of the Caribbean. I remember being so excited to hear the latter's music from my high school band--suffice it to say that Phoenix Symphony presented that score more wonderfully.

Sure, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid may be the two biggest favorites from my era, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame is stellar music-wise. Getting to hear that music live was a highlight. Hearing the Fantasmic brought me straight into the parks, as did the "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" melody that started off the first overture. I did love starting off the day at a Disneyland rope drop to that tune, maybe heading straight towards Splash Mountain. Ah, nostalgia.

While the music here may conjure up specific images like running off to Splash Mountain or seeing the Notre Dame cathedral, I also had a chance to sit and notice all the little details. Like how delicate the notes are at the beginning of The Little Mermaid. Or how triumphant that Fantasmic theme is and how much energy the musicians bring to it. Though we love the music because of its associations, the music is, like I said, quite good in its own right and well worth experiencing live.