Not-So-Sweet Jesus

If you take a stroll down your supermarket’s greeting card aisle today, you’ll find Valentine’s Day cards long gone and Easter cards in full force. It’s only the start of Lent, yet the aisle is bursting bright with pink bunnies, yellow chicks, and painted eggs. I won’t be sending Easter cards this year (haven’t done so since my kids were little) but I will give up something for Lent. I’m thinking “foods with added sugar”.

I know what you’re thinking.  We live in an age where giving up tempting foods isn’t as difficult as it used to be.  Whole foods are so available we have an entire chain of stores called “Whole Foods”.  Sugar has so many alternatives I should revise my sacrifice to “foods with added sweeteners“.  Even processed foods have matured to where “healthy snacks” are pleasing to the palate.  I have options.

Doesn’t matter.  Dropping added sugar will still be a challenge.  My desk drawer (second one down on the left if you’d like to help yourself) is replete with black and red licorice, and some form of chocolate, be it a bar, a cookie, or those little baking morsels straight out of the bag.  Giving up licorice for forty-six days and nights won’t be a stretch, but NO chocolate for all of March and half of April sounds like an eternity.  What can I say?  Everyone has a weakness and mine is chocolate.  It speaks to me from my closed drawer with “come hither” seductiveness.

Straight out of the bag…YUM!

I’ll bet you’ll find thousands of blog posts about chocolate with a quick search.  I’ll bet you’ll find entire blogs about the sweet stuff.  I just checked my blog’s history and unearthed a dozen takes on chocolate (including this one from a year ago talking about the things people give up for Lent.  Chocolate tops the list).  So let’s make it a baker’s dozen because I invented a chocolate challenge.  I call it the “85 Percent Ascent”.

Let me explain.  There was a time when I liked my coffee sweeter than a Starbucks Sugar Cookie Frappuccino.  Together with artificial creamer I’d dump in sugar cubes or pour the white stuff straight from whatever you call those pourable glass containers.  That was a long, long time ago.  At some point (probably, er definitely my college year abroad in Italy) I realized coffee tasted pretty good all by itself.  I started to wonder why you’d “taint” coffee by adding the other stuff.  But let’s be real: it’s not like you go from Frappuccino to Americano cold turkey.  You’ve got to ease into the one extreme from the other.  Slowly I backed down the sugar (like years-slowly).  Slowly I backed down the creamer.  One day I eliminated the sugar altogether.  Today, I still go with a tablespoon of (almond-coconut non-dairy no-sugar) “creamer” but otherwise it’s straight dark-roasted coffee for me. I even fancy an espresso shot every now and then.

It’s a good analogy for my Percent Ascent challenge.  85% cocoa content is seriously dark chocolate (meaning not sweet at all).  If your go-to is a Hershey’s Bar or a Milky Way you’re down below 50%.  And moving from 50% to 85% is a serious ascent with chocolate.  It’s like standing on top of Kilimanjaro and seeing how much further you have to go to summit Everest.

A recent article on chocolate lists nine criteria for the healthiest and best-tasting bars in the world, including:

  1. The first ingredient must be cocoa, cocoa mass, or chocolate liquor (not sugar or milk chocolate).  In other words, put down the Nestle’s Crunch; it’s not even close.
  2. Ingredients must include real cocoa butter instead of (cheaper) vegetable oils.  95% of America’s chocolate manufacturers just dropped out of the race.
  3. The cocoa must come from an “Equator country” like Ivory Coast, Ghana, or Peru.
  4. The bar should be labeled “Organic” and/or “Non-GMO”.
  5. Bonus points: should be fairly traded and ethically harvested.

As if the search isn’t already difficult, NOW you have to go with >85% cocoa content.  Not so hard to find actually, especially if you go online.  I purchased a bar from five different manufacturers meeting every one of the above criteria, including Green & Black’s from the UK, and Theo from Seattle.   All five bars fall between 85% and 90% cocoa content (and yes, 100% is an option).  All five use scary words like “strong”, “super black”, and “extreme” to describe their product.  Not gonna lie; I’m a little nervous to take a bite.

As bitter as these chocolates are sure to be, I still have to give them up for Lent.  Every one of them has “added sugar” (albeit way down on the ingredients list).  So let’s just agree – I’m not going to break my Lenten covenant on a food that doesn’t even taste sweet.  Think I’ll opt for a piece of fruit instead.  I just hope it doesn’t come from the Garden of Eden.

Some content sourced from the “Experience Life” / Life Time article, “How to Find the Healthiest Dark Chocolate”.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #7

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

Last week

I worked outside of the box again this week. Bag #7 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled a second layer on top of the section I can’t yet attach to the bigger section behind it.  From “Last week” to “This week”, you can see I worked almost entirely in black, which suggests I’m creating more of the outside of the piano.

Despite the majestic wash of Debussy’s “La Mer”, Bag #7 was completed in less than thirty minutes, with only one heart-pounding moment where I thought I’d left out pieces in the Bag #6 build.  Thank goodness I was wrong. Still on track.

This week

Running Build Time: 6.0 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Debussy’s La Mer and Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune (try and say that ten times fast). Leftover pieces: One (clearly an extra, whew!)

Conductor’s Note: Today’s build wasn’t very exciting, so it helped to have Debussy booming in the background.  However, as I turned the page of Mr. Instruction Manual in anticipation of Bag #8, I saw pictures of… long, thin, reed-like pieces.  Holy buckets, Maestro, it’s time to make this piano a stringed instrument!

Two-Color Tangos

Last week I stopped at a traffic signal and it happened again: I had me a little Christmas moment.  Visions of Santa Claus, sugar plums, and all that. The traffic light is red, you see, but then it changed to green. Combine those colors and presto!  Dave goes all holly/jolly in the head. Can’t really explain it but at least, maybe, a brief bit of Christmas cheer keeps the road rage at bay.

When two colors tango, untold images fill my brain.  Pair up red & green and I’m ready to wrap presents.  Pair up light blue & cream and I’m lounging on a beach in Hawaii, frosty piña colada in hand.  But maybe you’re different.  Maybe you celebrate Hannukah (in which case you should lobby for blue & silver traffic lights).  Or maybe your world of red & green is simply something other than Christmas.  Strawberries.  Tennis courts.  Those colorful maracas you hear a-shake-shakin’ in a Latin band.  A dozen roses.

“Cha-cha-cha!”

If we were talking about single colors we’d be back in elementary school, wouldn’t we?  Green as the grass, red as the fire truck, orange as the pumpkin, and so on.  Not a lot of fun in that.  Not to mention, a single color dancing the tango by itself would be awkward.  But two colors?  Now… now we’re getting closer to a barrel of monkeys.

What do you see here?

Psychologists like their Rorschach inkblots well enough, but two-color tangos would be a more interesting reveal.  Tell the patient to close their eyes and concentrate.  Now hold up a card half-white & half-orange and say, “Okay, open your eyes.  What’s the first thing you think of?” Creamsicles.  Blue & yellow card?  Swedish Flag.  Purple & red? Sunset.  You get the idea.  But that’s just me.  My morally straight brain sprints to morally straight images.

A “black-and-white”

Let’s put a thug in the same psychologist’s chair.  He’s got “better things” to do but somehow we’ve convinced him to take the two-color tango test.  He doesn’t even have to concentrate.  Black & white?  The police car headed his direction.  Black & gray?  His favorite handheld weapon.  Black & red?  Brimstone and fire in the afterlife known as Hell.  Creepy, right?  At least you have him in a chair instead of out on the streets.  Might want to summon more psychologists for further evaluation.

My version of bliss

The irony of my thug friend (foe?) is black & red is my favorite tango; more vivid than my red & green Christmases.  I’m a nut for licorice, you see.  Always have been.  Love the whips, twists, shoestrings, Australian, salty, All-Sorts.  You name it as long as it’s black or red.  I prescribed myself thousands of Good & Plenty “pills” as a kid.  I’ve eaten enough black licorice in my life to risk the consequences of this poor fellow’s habit.

[Author’s note: Any licorice with a color other than black or red does not deserve to be called “licorice”. Green Apple?  Blue Raspberry?  Watermelon?  B-L-E-C-H.  Those colors are fully inferior to the candy.  They’re also trying to tango solo, which we’ve already established as awkward.]

“Go Bucs!”

Despite my overconsumption of black & red licorice, live and breathe I continue to do.  And my two-color tango images are unfailingly consistent.  Play me a game of checkers?  Pass the licorice.  Red bell pepper and black olive added to my salad?  Where’s the licorice?  Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football?  Fill the snack bowl with licorice.  Venomous eastern coral snake?  WHOA… hang on now.  No licorice image there, not at all.  More like get me the hell outta my brain.

Before I get the coral snake outta my brain, let me pass along a PSA.  The coral snake and the harmless scarlet king snake look remarkably similar with their bands of black, red, and yellow.  If you come across one of these bad boys, try to remember this little “nursery rhyme”:

  • Red Touch Yellow – Kills a Fellow
  • Red Touch Black – Venom Lack
  • Yellow Touch Red – Soon You’ll Be Dead
  • Red Touch Black – Friend of Jack

Fun, huh?  Better yet just look at the snake’s head.  If it’s black, run away.  FAST.

I planned to finish this post with three-color tangos and the images I came up with there.  After all, traffic lights just as often go from green to yellow to red.  Bell peppers.  Macaws.  Skittles candies (“Taste the Rainbow!”)  But let’s be honest; I don’t have those images at all.  Instead, I’m fully focused on speeding through the intersection before the signal wants me to stop.

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

Candy-Crunching the Numbers

If you sift through your kids’ trick-or-treat bags today, you may be in for a surprise. When it comes to Halloween candy, we Americans are a fickle bunch. “Best” and “Worst” lists kick into high gear this time of year – with fierce debate – and the results are likely reflected in what gets handed out at the front door. Would you agree – Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are hands-down America’s most popular Halloween candy?  By the same analytics, would you agree Circus Peanuts are the worst?  Do you even know what Circus Peanuts are?

CandyStore.com recently assembled the candy list of lists – the current bests and worsts. Check out the details in their blog post here (and buy some candy while you’re at it).  CandyStore combed the Web for best/worst candy lists from a dozen publications, then mixed in the opinions of 40,000 of their own shoppers. How they sifted all that data into a single list is a worthy advertisement for Excel.  Here are the results:

BEST Halloween Candy
10. Hershey Bars
9. Skittles
8. Sour Patch Kids
7. Butterfinger
6. Nerds
5. M&M’s
4. Kit-Kat
3. Twix
2. Snickers
1. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

WORST Halloween Candy
10. Mary Jane
9. Good & Plenty
8. Licorice
7. Smarties
6. Tootsie Rolls
5. Peanut Butter Kisses
4. NECCO Wafers
3. Wax Coke Bottles
2. Candy Corn
1. Circus Peanuts

Some comments (er, opinions) about the BEST list.  I can’t argue with Reese’s in the #1 spot, since I adore peanut-butter-and-chocolate, and a Reese’s cup is a convenient size somewhere between “full-size” and “fun-size” for the trick-or-treat bag.  Reese’s also happen to have an orange wrapper, so no adjustment needed for Halloween. The top five on the BEST list are solid choices, though I wonder where Snickers has the edge over Milky Way, Mars, or Almond Joy.  Three of the remaining five reflect candies joining the party well after I was a kid.  To this day, I’ve never had a “Sour Patch Kid”.

The WORST list is a little more interesting.  I’m surprised some of these earned a spot (even on a “worst” list), considering they were popular way back in the 1960’s.  But Smarties, Wax Coke Bottles, and Candy Corn bring a smile to my face, as each of them screams “Halloween” to me.  They seem to appear in October, then disappear for the next eleven months.  Wax Coke Bottles were the thought-we-were-cool 2-in-1 candy.  Bite off the bottle top for the drink, then put the wax in your mouth for a chewing-gum sensation.  In hindsight, ewwwww.

Candy corn, no surprise, is a polarizing confection.  You either love the little kernels or you simply can’t stand them.  They’re essentially corn syrup + sugar doused with a little food coloring.  Jelly Bean Candy Company has been making candy corn for over a century and sells hundreds of thousands of pounds of kernels each year, most in October.  Yet candy corn almost snagged the top spot on the WORST list.  Go figure.

On the other hand, Circus Peanuts deserve the WORST trophy.  I’m old enough to remember enjoying a real bag of peanuts at the circus, so why go and “candi-fy” my memory?  CP’s are peanut-shaped orange marshmallows (orange I suppose, because brown would not be an appetizing look for marshmallows).  Remarkably, CP’s have been around as long as candy corn, and you can still find them on your supermarket shelves.  Careful – some of those bags may have been manufactured in the late 1800’s.

Here’s another angle on the BEST list.  CandyStore took their analysis one step further and figured out, based on purchases August through October, which candy is most popular by state.  The methodology is not quite as scientific but the results are amusing.  You’ll find most of the BEST list represented, but you’ll also find a few head-scratchers.  Kentucky’s “favorite candy” is Swedish Fish.  Montana and Oklahoma prefer Double Bubble Gum.  West Virginians prefer Blow Pops.  As for my own state of Colorado?  Twix.  I can live with that.

CandyStore may take pride in its BEST/WORST lists, but let’s all just agree to disagree, shall we?  IMHO, licorice (of any kind) belongs nowhere near a WORST list – and that includes Good & Plenty, while 3 Musketeers is embarrassingly absent from the BEST list.  Not a fan of chocolate-covered, fluffy, whipped nougat?  Pick one up sometime and reconsider.  3 Musketeers almost feels lighter-than-air, a clever ruse to offset the guilt as I add one to my shopping cart.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article,”Americans are Divided – About Candy Corn”.

connoisseur

I love licorice.  It is hands down my favorite choice from any aisle, bag, box or bin in the candy store.  A lot of people love chocolate and so do I, but it’s not even a close second to licorice in my book.  Furthermore, I have a lifetime of experiences with licorice to where I am a practiced judge when it comes to flavors, textures, and brands.  Red or black, sweet or salty, soft or hard, domestic or imported.  I am a connoisseur of this unique confection.

photo - licorice

I was tastefully (ha) reminded of my licorice obsession this past Christmas.  My son and his wife gave me a Santa’s bag worth of the black and red (and yellow, green, and orange).  There were over twenty flavors, brands and colors in the bag.  For most people this would be a year’s worth of satisfaction.  For me, I’ve made a pretty good dent after just three months.  I’ll probably be looking to replenish my stash sometime this summer.

Licorice has come a long way since my childhood years.  My dad also had an affection (confection?) for licorice and he introduced me to a hard chewy black button known as the “Heide”, from the Henry Heide candy company.  To this day, the Heide is still my favorite licorice.  Years ago Heide was snapped up by a bigger candy manufacturer.  Before they were, I wrote them a letter and expressed my appreciation for their wonderful licorice products.  In return they sent me a generous box of samples and a small book that told the story of their product.  I wonder if companies still make that gesture today when they hear from their satisfied consumers.

Inevitably I get the question “red” or “black”?  Until recently I gave a rather smug answer, saying “black” is the only real licorice by definition.  Then I discovered the product of a small New Zealand company, through my local natural foods store.  Their soft, red raspberry licorice knocked me over; so much so that I sent my dad a bag.  It’s made from organic ingredients local to New Zealand, with a full-bodied fruity taste (no, I’m not talking about wine).  Isn’t it a wonder a product so unique and captivating can travel halfway around the world to the shelves of my local organic grocery?  Life is good.

I have several childhood memories of licorice.  Heide made other licorice-like products, including Jujubes, Jujyfruits, and Red Hot Dollars.  “Switzer’s” was a common brand years ago with a twist product similar to today’s “Twizzlers” or “Red Vines”.  Finally, I know I’ve eaten miles of “shoelaces” – the kind of licorice that some would call edible phone cable.

Here’s a fact that’s probably true of a lot of candies.  A generation or more ago licorice was made with “real” ingredients.  Even inside of the harsh plastic wrapper, you would find some derivative of licorice root in the ingredient list.  Then a really smart food chemist came along and figured out how to imitate for cheaper.  Any connection to real licorice disappeared, at least in this country.  But in the last few years I think we’re getting back to where we belong.  Whole organic foods are becoming the norm.  Even prepared foods, like my New Zealand brand licorice, are made from raw, natural, healthy ingredients.  For that reason, I will continue to be a connoisseur of the world’s brands of true licorice.  The next generation can have their Red Vines.