Confection Perfection

While grocery shopping the other day, my wife asked me if I’d eat something containing “77% dark chocolate”. I replied casually, “No, my limit’s more like 72%”. To those in the know, the percentages refer to the cacao content; not the broader term “chocolate”. And that level of technical shows you how far I’ve come from the 3 Musketeers bar of my youth.

Each of us taps into our particular coping mechanisms as we deal with impacts of the pandemic. My wife spends countless hours playing brain games on her iPad. More of my neighbors take daily walks than I’ve ever seen before. Me? I’m getting lost in a few rainy-day projects, but more to the subject at hand, I’m tapping into my dark chocolate stash. There’s something therapeutic about a small square of the good stuff slowly dissolving on the tongue.  Dark chocolate is medication for troubled times.  It sates my soul.

I can’t recall when I graduated from “candy bar” to “chocolate bar”, let alone dark chocolate.  Like most kids of the 1970’s, I was drawn to Milky Way, Snickers, Nestle Crunch and the like, due to an annual dose of “fun-size” every Halloween.  But somewhere I had an epiphany and realized chocolate was pretty good all by itself. The clincher: studying abroad in Italy during college.  Overnight it seemed, I graduated from the products of Hershey’s and Mars to the more refined of Perugina and Ferrero. 

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Thierry Muret, the executive chef chocolatier at Godiva, and after reading the article I thought, “Now there’s a dream job”.  Not so fast, Mr. Goodbar.  Turns out Monsieur Muret is an industrial chemistry grad who leans heavily on his knowledge of science to create Godiva-worthy delicacies.  Muret’s all about “molecular gastronomy”, or decomposing/recomposing the very elements of chocolate to develop new textures and tastes.  Think about that the next time you bite into a Godiva truffle.

This much I know.  Chocolate’s most common varieties are “milk”, “dark”, and “white”, and while each contains cocoa butter, they’re better defined by their other ingredients (i.e. the dairy in “milk”).  My taste for dark chocolate evolved over a lot of years, the way my coffee matured from “instant” to “espresso”, and my wine from “Chardonnay” to “Cabernet”.  The basic versions simply don’t cut it anymore.

Thanks to Monsieur Muret, this much I don’t know about chocolate.  There’s a tight temperature range (65°-75° F) where fine chocolate can be “tempered” (shaped into truffles, etc.) without altering its delicate flavor.  There’s also a tight time frame to temper, because you don’t want the temperature to fluctuate more than a degree or two.  But Muret colors outside of the lines.  He throws temperature and time frame to the wind to concoct new textures and tastes.  He once spent an entire year perfecting a single ganache.  Whoa; that’s taking it to a whole new level.

The path to chocolatier typically goes through culinary school, not the chemistry lab.  You start with a pastry degree (pastry degree?) and then specialize in chocolate/confections.  Nope, not what I studied in college – not even close.  But I do deserve a “tasting degree” for my years of experience.

If the pandemic goes on long enough, I may find the shelves of our grocery store devoid of dark chocolate.  No problem: I’ll settle for a good ol’ 3 Musketeers bar instead.  Milk chocolate (not to mention the dose of childhood nostalgia) is a passable backup coping mechanism.

The so-called experts say there’s “no high-quality evidence that dark chocolate provides health benefits”.  With coping in mind, I couldn’t disagree more.

Some content sourced from the 2/7/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Nothing Could Be Sweeter Than Being Godiva’s Top Chocolate Chef”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Creamer Schemers

A couple weeks ago, my Nespresso coffee maker sprung a leak. As it brewed a cup, it also “espressed” a small river of coffee from the base of the unit. An online chat with the good people at Nespresso determined, a) the maker really was broken, b) the one-year warranty covered the repair (whoo-hoo!), and c) the fix would take up to ten business days. Well beans; ten business days meant regressing a full two weeks on drip coffee instead.  Hold the phone; did I just label myself a coffee snob?

Nespresso

Nespresso – for those of you not familiar – is one of the many capsule coffee systems on the market today. Unlike the Keurig K-Cup, “Nestle-Espresso” capsules spin as the water passes through the grounds (7,000 RPMs – vroom vroom!), adding a light-colored frothy cap of “crema” on top. The crema enhances the aroma, but more importantly delivers the mouth-feel of a latte, as if you stirred something in from the dairy family. But call me fooled; Nespresso’s nothing more than coffee in the cup.

Bunn’s coffee-monster

Coffee snob? Parvenu, perhaps. It wasn’t that long ago I contentedly drank “joe” from one of those big metal Bunn machines, flavor-boosting my Styrofoam cup contents with a sugar cube and powdered Coffee-mate. Then, I spent a year in Rome and my world was forever coffee-rocked. I returned to the States armed with words like cappuccino and espresso and caffe latte. But America didn’t even know the word Starbucks yet. A “coffee shop” was still a greasy spoon diner; forgettable joe in a forgettable cup.

Mind you, not having Starbucks didn’t mean I was gonna crawl back to the Bunn, especially after a year of Italy’s la dolce vita (look it up). Eventually I dropped hard-earned cash on one of those early model home coffee/espresso/steamed milk contraptions – a machine requiring twenty minutes, twenty steps, and a phone-book-sized operations manual to produce a small cappuccino. The birth of the American barista did not start at Starbucks, my friends. It started in the frustration of orchestrating an overly complicated home-brew system in search of pseudo-Italian-style coffee.

Sometime after Starbucks opened its first doors (but before Nespresso), Keurig developed the K-Cup. The Keurig coffeemaker felt like a huge step up from standard drip (and ushered in the concept of single-serve coffee at home). Keurig opened a seemingly new world of coffee to me – exotic names like Green Mountain or Paul Newman’s or Donut Shop – but let’s be honest. Keurig was basically glorified drip, and I still wasn’t taking my coffee straight, like I did in Italy. And that’s where Nespresso shines. If the K-Cup is a step up from drip, Nespresso is the entire staircase.

Ironically, the same company producing Nespresso markets a line of oil-based creamers sugary enough to make your coffee taste like Easter in a cup. Nestle already offered creamer flavors like Peppermint Mocha or Italian Sweet Creme or Toasted Marshmallow, before recently adding Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Funfetti. Not to be outdone, International Delight augmented its own coffee creamer line – REESE’S Peanut Butter Cup, Cinnabon, and OREO Cookie Flavored, with – no joke – a PEEPS flavor. Better check for bunnies before you take a sip.

For the record (if the Pulptastic website is to be believed), I’m not even close to being a coffee snob. I can choose from any of their twelve defining characteristics and come up short. I don’t read about coffee. I don’t speak the lingo (“Robusta?” “Arabica?”). I don’t know what “cupping” is. I do enjoy a Starbucks coffee every now and then. Finally, I’m half-tempted to check out the PEEPS creamer (maybe I won’t even need the coffee in my cup). See the Pulptastic list for yourself. Maybe you’re the coffee snob instead of me.

I’m still waiting (im)patiently for my repaired Nespresso coffeemaker to come back. I’m barely surviving on my backup K-Cups. But I’m no coffee snob. And I was just kidding about wanting to try PEEPS in a bottle. On the contrary, those creamer schemers can keep their product far, far away from my Nespresso.

Some content sourced from the 2/3/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Rich Sales Boost Coffee Creamers”.

A Baker’s Half-Dozen

If you’ve ever been to an IKEA home furnishings store, you know the shopping experience is more about navigating a vast warehouse than a cozy “store”.  IKEA retail covers several football fields worth of showrooms and merchandise, with clever navigation arrows projected onto the floor so you don’t lose yourself in the maze.  Before or after your purchases, IKEA offers a spacious sit-down cafeteria, so you can fuel or restore your energy levels as needed.  And it is here – in the IKEA cafeteria – where I can’t help but picture the Swedish Chef from the The Muppet Show.

You remember Swedish Chef, don’t you?  Even if you only occasionally glanced over the shoulders of your children as they watched The Muppet Show, Swedish Chef left an indelible impression.  Chef had those big, bushy brows completely covering his eyes.  He always had a handful of utensils, inevitably launched into the air of his kitchen as his gibberish songs ended with “… BORK, BORK, BORK!”  Chef sported a colorful bow tie, a white apron, and the distinctive toque blanche (white hat) on his head.  Swedish Chef was always my favorite Muppet.

Chef could be working behind the counter of the IKEA cafeteria, because naturally; IKEA serves Swedish food.  My favorite entree (as if I dine at IKEA regularly) is the Swedish meatballs in brown sauce (köttbullar), served with a side of the crepe-like potato pancakes (raggmunkar) and a dollop of lingonberry jam (Sweden’s famous “food freshener”).

There’s another fellow in the States who reminds me of Swedish Chef, and he doesn’t work in the IKEA cafeteria.  Ever heard of Mimal, “the Man in the Middle of the USA”?  Mimal lives in the Midwestern states, and he’s a big boy.  In fact, Mimal’s so big he barely fits between Canada’s border to the north and Mexico’s to the south.

Have a look at the map.  Mimal (sometimes called “the Elf”) is a silhouette of a chef, represented by the outlines of seven American states.  MIMAL is quite literally (M)innesota, (I)owa, (M)issouri, (A)rkansas, and (L)ouisiana.  He holds a pan (Tennessee) of fried chicken (perfectly represented by Kentucky).  Mimal can thank the west bank of the Mississippi River for the shape of his five-state body.  He also looks like he’s about to march his chicken right off the map, over the Atlantic Ocean, and on into Europe.  Maybe he’s headed to Sweden?

Whoever discovered Mimal hiding in America came up with a clever way for children to memorize a handful of states.  Appropriately, Mimal the chef is made up of a baker’s half-dozen of them.  A baker’s dozen (13) began in the 11th century, when an extra loaf was added to the bread basket to guarantee the minimum sales weight.  A baker’s half-dozen then – rounded-up – is seven loaves.  Or seven American states.

Leave it to Americans to deny Mimal his innocence.  Based on one or more unsolved mysteries in the MIMAL states, the elf-chef was once connected with a real-life kidnapper/murderer.  The legend claimed if you drove straight from Minnesota to Louisiana – through each of Mimal’s five “body” states, you’d be abducted (never to be seen again) once you crossed Louisiana’s northern border.  My logical brain asks how said abductor knows you made it through all five states?  But this is legend we’re talking about, much like the monster in Scotland’s Loch Ness.  Tabloid fodder at best.

Educators expanded on Mimal’s seven-state profile, including all fifty American states in a story designed to help students memorize names and locations (would’ve been helpful back in my school days, when I’d confuse Wyoming with Colorado).  Still, I prefer to limit the game to Mimal’s baker’s half-dozen.  I can’t help but see a big chef every time I look at a map of the United States.  I also can’t help hearing him sing, “…BORK, BORK, BORK!”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Laughing Squid blog.

Check-Out Champ

We had a good drop of snow the other night; the best we’ve had since the new year began. The flakes fell quickly, adding inches to the front porch and everything in the yard beyond. As I surveyed the vast, white blanket before me, my mind wandered to snow angels and snowmen, to pulling the sled out of the garage. I pictured wandering lines of deep footprints, far as the eye could see, or snowballs piled up and ready, waiting for a battle with the neighborhood kids. Without knowing it, I was effectively ticking the list of images from Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 children’s classic, “The Snowy Day”.

Confession time. I didn’t remember the story of “The Snowy Day” until I stopped by my local bookstore the other day for a copy (destined to my granddaughter’s bookshelf). It’s a simple book: the snow-filled adventures of a little boy on a winter’s day, captured in less than two hundred words. The images tell the story as well as the words, including the boy’s disappointment when he realizes a snowball carefully packed into his coat pocket melted moments after entering the warmth of his house.

Why all the fuss over a short children’s story, authored almost sixty years ago? Consider this: “The Snowy Day” is the most checked-out book in the 125-year history of the New York Public Library (NYPL). That’s 485,583 individual borrows, putting the book comfortably ahead of hundreds of thousands of others. (Safe to say the “Jeopardy” writers jotted down that bit of trivia for future use.)

You’d think I’d have checked out “The Snowy Day” when I was little. After all, the library was a weekly – if not bi-weekly destination as a kid. My older brothers took music lessons right across the street, leaving the library as a convenient “babysitter” while Mom went to the grocery store. I’ll always be grateful to her for that strategy, which generated countless check-outs and a lifetime love of reading.

I find it remarkable the NYPL maintains complete records – most of them on paper – backing up its check-out claim for “The Snowy Day”. The book topped several other bestsellers I would’ve chosen instead. Take “Fahrenheit 451” (#7 all-time checked-out), or “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (#9). How about other children’s titles like “The Cat in the Hat” (#2) and “Where the Wild Things Are” (#4)? “The Snowy Day” sits atop the list with fewer words and fewer pages (except perhaps #10, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) Good on you, Ezra Jack Keats.

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” seems out of place in the NYPL top-ten (#8) – the only non-fiction read on the list. I’ve never checked out a Carnegie self-help book, let alone bought one (not that I couldn’t use the help). For that matter, I’ve never checked out any of the NYPL top-ten. Maybe #6 Charlotte’s Web, but that was a long time ago.

“The Snowy Day” brought to mind storybooks from my own childhood, I took a few minutes to recall the following favorites (sans Google search):

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon
  • Clifford the Big Red Dog
  • The Red Balloon
  • Make Way for Ducklings
  • Blueberries for Sal
  • Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel
  • Are You My Mother?
  • Sparky’s Magic Piano
  • Caps for Sale

The brain is remarkable. I can give you a complete synopsis of each of the above stories, fifty years after I first read them. Furthermore, “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and “The Red Balloon” manage to tell their stories without a single word. Nothing but photos and illustrations. They make “The Snowy Day” look like a novel.

I can’t tell you the last time I set foot in a library, but I know it’s been years. I’d say I’m “overdue” and should “check out” one of the nearby branches. After all, the stories of my childhood have endured the test of time, waiting patiently on the shelves; perfect reads for the next “snowy day”.

Some content sourced from the 1/13/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “These Are the Most Frequently Checked-Out Books in the History of the New York Public Library“.

Ever Eat a Pine Tree?

If I ask you to recall a catchphrase – a word or statement you heard repeatedly and probably won’t forget – you could come up with several examples. Movie quotes, for instance. (“I’m the king of the world!”)  Song lyrics. (“I get by with a little help from my friends.”)  And television commercials; where the product or “jingle” yields a branded catchphrase. Just this week I learned a new one: bindle stiff, which describes a homeless person through the bag of personal items (bindle) on the end of his/her stick. I’m no hobo, but Euell Gibbons once was. And Gibbons once uttered one of the most famous catchphrases ever.

Who the heck is Euell Gibbons?  Any American kid growing up in the 1970’s would know.  Gibbons was the spokesperson for Post Grape-Nuts cereal, made instantly famous by a single television commercial where he uttered, “Ever eat a pine tree?  Many parts are edible.”  That statement was so bizarre – and laugh-out-loud to us kids – it spread like wildfire (and sold a ton of Grape-Nuts cereal). But it was only recently I learned Gibbons wasn’t just a hired bindle stiff, but a man ahead of his time.  He had a lifelong interest in foods foraged from “nutritious-but-oft-neglected plants” (surely learned from an impoverished and transient childhood).  He wrote several successful whole-foods cookbooks, including “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” (1964) and “A Wild Way to Eat” (1967).  In his later years, Gibbons and his wife joined a community of Quakers in Philadelphia, where he cooked the daily shared breakfast (of course he did).

“Many parts are edible.”

I love Grape-Nuts cereal, back to when I was a kid.  I’m not sure if Gibbons gets the credit, or because Grape-Nuts just tastes good (“…reminds me of wild hickory nuts…”, as Gibbons also said).  Admittedly, Grape-Nuts was a little off the beaten path of children’s cereals.  Very low in fat and sugar, Grape-Nuts looked and crunched like a bowl of light brown gravel.  Add in milk as a softener and sugar as a sweetener however, and something about the cereal just clicked with me.  After college I forced myself to give up Grape-Nuts, because I developed jaw pain from too many hard foods.  Maybe that’s why Post developed Grape-Nuts “Flakes” cereal, or Grape-Nuts “Trail Mix Crunch Cranberry Vanilla”.

GORP

Speaking of trail mix (convenient segue), Euell Gibbons comes back to the conversation.  Trail mix was introduced about the time Gibbons was born (1910), as a combination of dried fruit and nuts.  Trail mix was lightweight and therefore easy to carry on long hikes.  The carbs and fat created a quick energy source and an ideal snack food, and the mix became immensely popular to outdoors-people, especially sugared up with a few M&M’s or yogurt coverings (which Gibbons never would’ve approved of).  Yet it wasn’t always called “trail mix”.  In another word familiar to 1970’s kids, Gibbons coined the acronym GORP, which either meant “good ol’-fashioned raisins and peanuts”, or “granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts”.  Yep, I ate a lot of GORP in my childhood.  Might’ve even had my first taste at Hadley Fruit Orchards, a place in the California desert my parents like to frequent.  Hadley – alongside others – claims to be the “inventor” of trail mix.

Euell T. Gibbons

As if “Euell Gibbons” is not unique enough for an American, his middle name was “Theophilus”.  The only Theophilus I’m aware of lived in biblical times, when Luke wrote his Gospel (and the book of Acts) as letters to an individual by the same name.  Perhaps Gibbons should’ve lived in biblical times.  As God’s people sought the Holy Land he could’ve helped them with his foraging skills.  Or at least introduced them to Grape-Nuts.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Identity Crisis

Whenever I go for a workout, I face a choice as I walk through the front doors of my gym. The welcome desk gatekeepers scan the barcode on the back of my membership card to a) make sure I’m really me, and b) keep track of my visits (a motivational data point reported back to me at month-end). Recently, my club gave me the choice to scan my mobile phone instead, using a barcode produced by their app. And there you have it: the emergence of the virtual ID badge.

Please don’t steal this

Given the myriad uses of phones these days, you’d ask why I wouldn’t shred my physical gym card and embrace virtual identity.  Alas, what works at the welcome desk does not work beyond it.  My gym’s lockers still use the physical card as part of their securing mechanism.  Insert card, close door, release key.  Yet I still need my phone to collect heart monitor stats or listen to music.  My identity therefore remains physical and virtual for the foreseeable future.

Workout facilities are a basic example of what’s going on here.  The more sophisticated virtual ID installations reside at the offices of large companies, where hundreds of employees pass through secure doors morning, noon, and night.  Forget “keycards” – how would you prefer to be ID’d in the year 2020? Facial recognition? Iris scan? Fingerprints?  Even those technologies seem dated with what’s being tested in the lab.  How about gait recognition (the way you walk)?  Or microchips – a grain of rice if you will – implanted gently between the thumb and forefinger?  Everyday security is about to advance to a whole new level.

My first couple of office jobs were environments too small to worry about real security.  The front desk attendant could greet every employee who stepped off the elevator by name.  But then I joined Hewlett-Packard (HP) – 50,000 humans worldwide – and even HP’s smallest offices demanded more than a casual glance at those passing through.  In the early years I had a simple name badge, to be clipped on the shirt and worn at all times.  Then I graduated to a photo ID card (w/ lanyard, as dress codes relaxed).  Finally, HP added magnetic stripes to the back of the cards, so we could self check-in the way you now self check-out at grocery stores.

The new identity technologies are rooted in biometrics: your sui generis body measurements and calculations.  With that in mind – and body – your ID is just the tip of the data iceberg.  As long as your heart rate, steps, and movement are measured, wouldn’t your employer want those data points as well?  It’s like having a giant Apple Watch lording over an entire workforce.  In theory your manager could use this information as a gauge of your “wellness” (i.e. stress), but more likely they’ll be interested in how it relates to your productivity.  They’ll also know where you are, when, and for how long, all the day long.

If microchip implants become the norm (something I wouldn’t have fathomed even a decade ago), the benefits are endless.  Swipe your hand at a conference room door for access/reservation.   Swipe your hand in front of the vending machine for a snack.  Check your resting heart rate.  On the other hand (ha), consider; the microchip is always watching, including your taps at the keyboard.  No message – even the one you deleted before sending – is safe from scrutiny.

When my wife and I joined our church last year, we were issued name badges. Wearing them is not so much an expression of membership as it is a convenience to greet fellow parishioners by name. But what if we start using biometrics someday?  Will my pastor know when I’m at church and when I’m not? More importantly, will He know? Ah, let’s be real; the Almighty doesn’t need an ID system.  He already knows when I’m in church and when I’m not.

Some content sourced from the 1/6/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “The Humble Office ID Badge Is About to Be Unrecognizable”.

Ribbons and Bows

My wife and I went to the movies the day after Christmas. The theater lobby looked a little forlorn after the holiday rush. There weren’t many patrons besides the two of us. The employees wandered here and there without seemingly much to do. The concessions were woefully under-stocked. In fact, as we stood at the counter, we realized there were no nachos, no hot dogs, and not a single bottle of water to be found. Did all those “Star Wars” groupies buy up everything before us?  Did a link go missing in the supply chain? Can we blame the aliens?  Ah, but popcorn.  At least they had popcorn.

I can’t see a movie without cradling a big ol’ tub of theater popcorn.  Don’t ask me what chains the two together, but popcorn and movies are a heaven-on-earth marriage.  It’s like that Kacey Musgraves Christmas song about a ribbon without a bow.  The movie might be Oscar-worthy but there’s a big something missing without popcorn.  The next time you watch “Field of Dreams”, consider the ball field is surrounded by acres and acres of corn.  As if you need a metaphor.

Popcorn wasn’t always an option at the movies.  In the early 1900’s, the theater-going experience was different.  The auditoriums were much smaller.  The carpets and seats were lush and expensive.  The patrons tended towards upper-crust.  And the movies themselves… had no sound.  Any one of those reasons made popcorn a poor concession choice.  Theaters didn’t want kernels ground into their pricey floor coverings.  Patrons didn’t want a snack associated with the lower-class circuses and sporting events of the time.  Most importantly, no one wanted to hear crunching and munching while trying to read the subtitles of a silent movie.

The Great Depression – and “talkies” – ushered in the union of popcorn and movies.  A broader cross-section of patrons sought the theater for an inexpensive distraction to the hard times.  Popcorn was easy to mass-produce, and the smell and pop created an effective lure for the concession stand.  Crunching and munching was no longer a concern up against soundtracks.  And popcorn was affordable, even to those who could barely scrape together enough for the movie itself.

Do you prefer “mushroom” or “butterfly”?

There’s a little science behind popcorn to get it from husk to Hollywood.  Growers developed the appealing “butterfly bud”, with several “ears” to trap the butter and salt.  Growers also worked to shape popcorn to take up as much room in the bag as possible (less air), giving a more satisfying feel to the overall weight.  They coined terms like “expansion rate” and “mouth feel” and “finger control” – anything to make you buy more of the fluffy stuff.

All this talk of popcorn reminds me of a children’s book about a farmer who grew acres and acres of corn.  He’d store his corn in giant metal silos next to his field.  One summer day, the silos got so hot the corn inside started to pop.  The farmer heard the sound and climbed on the roof of one of the silos to see what was going on.  Suddenly the silo burst open, and the roof started rising above all that popcorn.  Up, up, up went the farmer.  When the popping finally stopped, the farmer was high up in the sky with no way to get down.  His neighbors came from miles around to try to help him.  The fire department’s ladders weren’t long enough.  The town had no helicopter.  Finally, the people talked it over and realized all they had to do was start eating the popcorn straight from the silo.  Down, down, down came the farmer until he was safe.

As much as I love popcorn, I only seem to eat it at the movies.  When my son was in college, he admitted to going to the theater, buying popcorn at the concession stand, and… leaving the building.  Who does that?  Then again, there’s nothing wrong with the idea (high price aside).  It’s like having turkey when it’s not Thanksgiving.  Or dessert before dinner.  Seems a little off, but really, why not?

As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy my popcorn with my movie.  I’ll pay the ridiculous price for the shrinking bag, and still eat too much.  The only problem with this scenario?  Finding decent movies anymore.  They seem to be fewer and further, at least on the big screen.  Thank goodness for Netflix and my air popper.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “How AMC Gets Its Popcorn From Stalk to ‘Star Wars'”, and from the Smithsonian Magazine article, “Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?”