Chocolate Heaven

Amazing Chocolate Creations

Tower of Chocolate

These photographs were posted by a Facebook Friend named Lilita Daukste. She lives in Riga, Latvia. When I asked her who created these wonders, she didn’t reply. I asked permission to use the photos and she said, “Of course.” I don’t know if she took these photos, but I suspect she didn’t. Her only biographical information is where she lives and where she went to school. I don’t even know if these marvels were created by a Latvian pastry chef. Maybe posting this will reveal the mystery. Anway–enjoy. BTW–you probably shouldn’t lick the screen.

Chocolate Valentine

I went to the website listed above. Saw all sorts of foods, including desserts, but saw nothing like this. Yemeklik Tarif has a Facebook page. I scrolled through three years of post. Saw photos and recipes, but again, nothing like this. Checked Word Press, found nothing. I’m guessing the name might be Turkish. Could also be Czech.

Another Chocolate Valentine

I don’t even know if all these photos come from the same site. Perhaps not. What they have in common is patience and creativity.

Dark and White Chocolate

If someone gave this cake to me, I’d eat the left half and the strawberries. I’m not a fan of white chocolate.

Crown of Strawberries

My mouth waters just looking at this photo. I can’t imagine the patience and work involved in making this amazing cake. It’s just dazzling. Too good to eat. Too good to allow to go to waste.

Chocolate Cake with Wreath of Strawberries

This one is simpler, but my favorite–the chocolate looks darker, though it could just be the lighting. I’m not a big fan of frosting. It’s usually much too sweet for me. However, I want to lick this frosting. It does not look too sweet.

I could not make any of these amazing desserts. I don’t have the manual dexterity. I don’t have the patience, either. I’d want to forget the fuss and bother and devour and chocolate.

Happy chocolate dreams!

Half-Baked Alaska

My Misadventures in Cooking

I Never Expected it to Look Like This

            A place of my own! It seemed as if I’d lived at home forever. Now I finally had my own little domicile. My own kitchen! A kitchen with an automatic dishwasher! It didn’t matter that my furniture was from my old bedroom and cast-offs from my parents’ basement. This place was all mine. I could come and go as I pleased. Clean or not, as I pleased. Barring the constraints of a job, I could go to bed and get up when I pleased. I was an independent woman. This was an occasion to celebrate.

            How could I best mark such a special event? Not celebrating was not an option. A girl moves into her first apartment only once in her life.

           An apartment warming party, of course. I’ve never been the sort to throw big bashes. Small and intimate is more my style. I wasn’t confident enough in my cooking skills to host a dinner party. My mother was the one who entertained. I was the go-fer and the non-automatic dishwasher.

            What kind of party should I throw? Cocktail parties are not part of the culture I come from. People expect a meal with their drinks. A tea party didn’t seem grown up enough. The guest list was already firm in my mind: my parents, my uncle, my godmother and her husband. They had all known me since birth and loved me enough to be tolerant of mistakes.

            I don’t know where the idea came from, but I decided that I could handle a dessert party. I’d always enjoyed making desserts. It would be festive, but not too challenging for someone with no experience entertaining on her own.

            Next question–what dessert would be special enough? If I knew my people, and I did, they would all bring some special treat.  My contribution had to be something extra special. Something impressive, but easy.

            When I was a teen, my father took me to a fancy restaurant on a father-daughter outing. Until that evening, I’d never even heard of Baked Alaska, let alone eaten it. The name intrigued me. The dessert enticed me. Distinctive. Elegant, but simple—nothing but a cake with ice cream on top and a thick layer of meringue to insulate the ice cream from the heat of the oven. I was sure I could handle it. I would impress everyone with my culinary skills.

            Pride goeth before a fall.

            I should have had a rehearsal. But it seemed easy as pie. Not to mention that I didn’t want to consume all those calories by myself. So, I plunged right in on the day.

            In those pre-internet days, it took considerable searching to find a recipe. Magazines and books to go through. Lots of them. With the help of a friendly librarian, I found what I wanted.

            Okay, I wasn’t a total martyr to ego. I allowed Ms. Betty Crocker to help. No one would know that I hadn’t baked the cake from scratch. With the fancy topping, they wouldn’t care.

            I chose pretty strawberry ice cream to contrast with the white cake and meringue. The ice cream came in rectangular blocks. Frozen solid, it would be easy to slice and arrange on top of the cake.

           Next, the meringue. I’d never made it. But what could be so difficult about whipping up a bunch of egg whites with sugar, vanilla, and a touch of cream of tartar? My mother baked meringue kisses, so I knew that “cream” of tartar was a powder, not a liquid. There was much else that I didn’t know. Only I didn’t know how little I knew.

            I didn’t realize it was important to have the eggs at room temperature before beating them. Nor did I know that eggs that are three or four days old work better than very fresh ones. And I didn’t know enough not to add sugar before beating the whites.

            But since I was ignorant of my ignorance, I happily set about making perfect meringue topping.

           I knew to be very careful when separating the eggs. I wasn’t as careful as I thought while performing this delicate task. Some of the yolk-y whites would eventually end up scrambled for breakfast. I didn’t worry. I had a dozen eggs.

           As the beater turned the whites into glistening foam, I realized that I had no idea what “stiff peaks” were supposed to look like? I didn’t think they were intended to stand up straight, but how droopy was too droopy? I also knew it was important not to over-beat the eggs so that the meringue wouldn’t break.

            When the white mass seemed stiff enough I quickly cut slices of ice cream, arranged them on top of the cake and put the whole thing into the oven just before my guests were due to arrive. As I let them in, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

            I didn’t expect everyone to follow me into the kitchen when the oven timer went off. They gather around eagerly to see my Baked Alaska.

            Shock and disappointment overwhelmed me when I opened the over. Ice cream and white fluff, which had turned a toasty golden color, looked like a Hawaiian lava flow. No one was tactless enough to say so.

            My face was as pink as the strawberry ice cream. At my exclamation of dismay, my godmother said, “Never mind. Scoop it into bowls. I’m sure it will taste wonderful.”

            I obeyed. My guests ate my half-baked Alaska and proclaimed it fine. Even I had a good laugh at my failed cooking experiment.

Chocolate & Depression

A Sad Sight. Not my attempt at being arts-fartsy. Cocoa: gone

I haven’t had my daily dose of chocolate and I feel like I’m going to die. Or maybe I feel that I want to die. I need those endorphins. I’m out of milk, No quick fix available. Thank goodness brownies are in the oven. When they come out I am going to wait for them to cool. No matter how tempted I may be, I will not shove my face into the hot mass and snarf it down.

Two things help me deal with depression–chocolate and working on my novel. It’s not just me. regarding the chocolate. One of my friends has a friend who eats 88% chocolate to help deal with his depression.

Some may wonder why I’m not on antidepressants. I was once. Didn’t help all that much. Probably if I hadn’t been to stressed and depressed by my circumstances then and gone back to my PCP, she could have adjusted my dose and I’d be fine and dandy now. Or not. Antidepressants don’t work for everyone. A friend once said it made her feel as if she had an electric buzzing in her head. Chocolate doesn’t do that. I’ve heard that a side-effect of antidepressants can mean having thoughts of suicide. Suicidal thoughts are not a side-effect of chocolate. I don’t need more thought of suicide. I think about it often enough as is. I can’t off myself. I have a novel to finish. And then a couple of sequels. Then the novel-in-progress I put aside to work on my current manuscript.

All I need is chocolate. It makes me feel better so I can work on my novel. For me chocolate seems to work better than Prozac ever did. If things get bad enough, I might just go back to my PCP and get an Rx for an anti-depressant and take it in addition to my daily dose of chocolate.

Gotta go. The brownies should be cool enough by now.

A Delightful Book

Buffalo Gal by Lisa Wanttaja

Pretty cover photo

What would you do if three people showed up on your doorstep bearing flowers, balloons and wielding a video cam to make the announcement that you’ve won a buffalo ranch? If it were me, I’d probably scream and run in the other direction. However, veterinarian Dr. Andrea Moore has just realized that she is about to make the biggest mistake of her life by marrying the wrong man. She leaves her groom at the altar, dons bilious green cowgirl boots and runs off to North Dakota to claim her prize and her freedom.

In North Dakota Andrea finds herself in the middle of what could be an even bigger mistake. The ranch she’s won is not only home to a herd of bison, but also run by a man who can’t hide his hostility. Foreman Mike Winterhawk worked long and hard to buy the ranch himself, only to have it handed over to some contest winner. His focus needs to be on why the bison can’t bear calves instead of teaching this city slicker in ugly green cowboy boots how to run a ranch. He can only hope she’ll quickly realize she’s out of her league and hightail it back to Seattle. So, why is he so attracted to this intruder, and why does he feel she might be the one who can help him turn White Thunder Ranch around?

Ms Wanttaja’s book starts off at a gallop and the fun never stops. A funky band and an eccentric (to say the least) UFO-oligst add to the merriment. If you love romantic suspense, a touch of the paranormal, and comedy, you will love this book. If not, give this book a try anyway. It may just convert you. I stayed up half the night reading. Buffalo Gal is a book I will keep on myself to re-read when I need a bright, cheerful, suspenseful escape. Ms Wanttaja is a good writer with great wit and intelligence.

Buffalo Gal is available on Amazon:

My Book: A Latvian Can of Worms

Latvian Cinderella Meets American Prince

Not my heroine or her daughter. My passport photo for coming to America

My novel, Bittersweet Christmas, a.k.a. A Daddy for Christmas, was supposed to be a simple little romance, written in four months, re-written in two. It was inspired by Christmas books written by a best selling novelist. I’d never thought about writing a Christmas book before. They seemed too sweet for me, a person who eats jalapeños out of the jar and has the personality to match. When I finished reading the famous author’s four-book series, which featured adultery, drug addiction, insider trading, prison, and cancer, I realized that not all Christmas novels need be as sweet as divinity fudge. I decided to give it a go.

Too many novels these days feature these same elements. They’ve become clichés. But if I didn’t want to use them, what would I do for conflict? Who would my conflicted characters be? I turned to my own background for inspiration. I am the daughter of Latvian refugees, born in Augsburg, Germany, where I spent the first few years of my life.

Hospital in Augsburg where I was born.

Considering the things going on in our country today, and around the world, writing about refugees seemed timely. Setting my story in 1952 made it less politically fraught and provided me with plenty of material, which I could crib from the lives of family and friends. I belong to pretty much every Latvian group on Facebook.

My Latvian Cinderella is Līvija Galiņa, the widow of a Latvian soldier who died before their daughter Dzintra was born. In Latvia Līvija was a lawyer, in America she cleans other women’s house. Līvija lives communally with her daughter, mother, and six other Latvians in a big house on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

The American Prince is Cameron Quinn, a decorated former fighter pilot, who lives a few blocks from Līvija’s home. They meet when she is walking home from work one snowy evening and he saves her from being run over by a car which has jumped the curb after skidding on the icy street.

The main conflict is fear of cultural betrayal on Līvija’s part. Latvians are supposed to marry other Latvians. We are a small community. We struggle to keep our community and culture from dying out. It’s what Līvija’s mother expects of her. She faces pressure from the entire Latvian community, which includes a number of single young men. However Līvija’s unruly heart cares nothing about cultural betrayal. It wants what it wants: Cameron.

My mother and I in Hochfeld DP, where
Līvija and her family lived.

Simple enough. Except that while I had given considerable attention to the political situation in Latvia, it turned out I had thought very little about the political situation in the US. I am writing about the era of the Red Scare. Cameron is an aeronautical engineer and test pilot at Boeing. Association with someone from a Soviet bloc country could jeopardize a job he loves, rouse suspicion among co-workers and friends. His heart, too, wants what it wants, He’s a man who doesn’t easily surrender. He would fight for his job. Fortunately, Cameron’s not prominent enough to be dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but would J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI be after him? My dilemma, how much of this to include in a novel which is supposed to be a simple romance? It gives me gives me great points of conflict for my plot, but if I include too much of this material, my story stops being a romance.

A manuscript I thought was almost finished would need to get longer and more involved than I intended it to be. I want this thing to be finished. How much of this new material can I skim over? Head pounding on keyboard.

I love my characters and my story. Somehow I will wade through this mire.

My uncle (on the right), a friend and I at Hochfeld Displaced Persons Camp in Augsburg, Germany

Daily Chocolate Fix x 2

The Good Stuff

Reviews of Three Brands of Cocoa Powder

There are days which call for an extra does of food of the gods–theobromine. One reason I needed a double dose of cocoa today is because I was in need of its natural anti-depressant substances. Science has yet definitely proved that chocolate is acts as an anti-depressant. Articles on such effects use the word “may.” For me it’t proof enough that before my second mug of cocoa I didn’t feel like doing much of anything, including writing this blog. Mug two– voilà, here we are.

The second reason I needed a double dose is because the first one was inadequate. A couple of weeks ago fate took me to a grocery store where the only option for “natural” unsweetened cocoa powder was a brand called, Chef’s Select. I don’t know what chef would select it. If I had a choice, I would not have selected it then and certainly won’t again. On site says, “all cocoa powders can vary in color from a light reddish brown to a rich dark brown.” This stuff was grayish brown. It tasted like chalk. I don’t know what they did to it to get it to look and taste they way it did. The label says it’s 100% pure. If you look at the ingredients list it says “cocoa powder, but that it may contain: tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soy, and eggs. “May” in this case, I strongly suspect is a weasel word to cover the manufacturer’s a**. I suspect this stuff contains a considerable amount of wheat. Of maybe it’s just old cocoa that was scraped from the bottom of the bin, which other companies refused to buy. Adding vanilla to the chocolate drink didn’t improve the flavor. Stirring it into coffee to make mocha only spoiled the coffee’s flavor.

Good old reliable Hershey’s. Printed boldly on the front it says, 100% cacao. It used to be my cocoa of choice, before I discovered Dutched cocoa. It makes good hot chocolate, brownies, and other yummies. On the carton it says it contains no artificial flavors or colors or preservatives. It’s gluten free–so, no wheat. The only ingredient listed it cocoa.

My favorite cocoa powder comes from Saco Pantry. I first bought it because it costs less than Hershey’s and gives you ten, instead of eight ounces. Its label says it has no GMOs and is free of nuts, tree nuts, eggs, wheat or gluten. The winning combination for me is that it’s a blend of natural and Dutch cocoa. Natural cocoa is acidic and can taste harsh. Dutched cocoa is treated with alkali, which moderates the acidity. It also gives the cocoa a rich, dark color–like my mug–and gives it a richer flavor.

After drinking my second dose of cocoa, made with Saco Pantry, I went, “Oh, YEAH! Oh, WOW! This is chocolate.” Compared to the chalky stuff, this drink was almost syrupy. Of course, part of the reason for that is the way I mix it. A food magazine’s website suggests using unsweetened cocoa, rather than sweetened cocoa or a cocoa mix because you can control the amount of sugar. I use it because I can control the amount of cocoa. I like my chocolate rich and strong. I use heaps and heaps of cocoa powder. No marshmallows–they take up too much room and are sweeter than I like.

My only advice–when you buy cocoa powder (or anything else) is: read the label. It pays. The label may not spell out exactly what’s in the proudct but it can give you hints, such as “may contain…” If it says that, buyer beware.

Friends of the Library

Treasures from a “Friends” Sale

National Library Week, April 7 – 13

There was a time when I scorned used books. The only books I wanted should be untouched by human hands,–except the ones which put them on shelves. Ideally, they should wear cotton gloves while doing so. No fingerprints. I’d go to book stores and check to make sure the books I wanted to buy have clean pages and that the book jackets have no creases or even the tiniest tear. I still do that. When I lay out money for something, I want it to be in the best possible condition.

I never scorned libraries, even when I brought home a book which reeked of someone else’s cigarette smoke. Libraries have always been my friends.

Wanting more books than I have money to spend helped end my snobbery. Who doesn’t love a bargain? By buying used books I can replace books which have been lost during moves or have come apart from poor biding and too much reading. Discovering treasures I never knew existed or out-of-print books that I couldn’t find elsewhere also put paid to my scorn of used books. That’s why I love Friends of the Library.

It seems as if every town in my state has a library with a permanent “Friends” corner, as well as regular used book sales. I’ve come to love the “corners” and the sales. I go at least once a year and take friends. One library in my area has patrons who take excellent care of their books and hand them on to other by donating to Friends of the Library. I have done so myself. I like that the money I spend helps support the library.

For the five books in the above photo, I probably spent no more than three bucks, if that. Jane Eyre–more than five hundred pages–cost thirty-five cents. Taming of the Shrew was fifty cents. The other three books have lost their tags. Sometimes at the sale you can buy as many books as you can fit into a bag–their bags or ones you bring–for a set price, maybe five dollars, maybe three dollars. Prices that are a steal to begin with go down during the last hours of the sale.

Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving is a good example of the kind of treasure I’ve found at Friends of the Library sales. It looks like it’s never been read or read very carefully. The spine is uncreased. The pages are clean and they’re not bent at the corners. It’s beautifully illustrated. It was published in Granada, Spain. I love the texture of the cover and the creamy color or the paper.

Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

Court of Lions

Court of Lions

I hope whatever town or state you live in has a Friends of the Library corner and regular used book sales. If they don’t, perhaps you could start one. Book lovers will adore you.

Manna from Heaven

A Traditional Latvian Dessert

Cranberry Mousse

        Many Latvians remember manna from heaven as a favorite childhood dessert. If my mother ever made it, I have forgotten. Cooking was never one of her interests. She only did it because she had to in order to feed her family. If she made manna once and I hated it, she’d have seen no reason to prepare it again.

           Inspiration from posts on a Latvian foods group on Facebook, and a sense that I’d missed something, prompted me to make it for the first time last year. In the Facebook photos it looked pretty, pink and fluffy. People raved about this special treat from their childhood. I think I’ve mentioned before that I can be pretty impressionable. The instructions are simple enough. Only three ingredients. I love fruit of all kinds. I decided to give manna from heaven a try.

           First I had to find out what manna was, other than something tha,t according to the Bible, fell from heaven. Turned out it’s farina. Who’d have thought? I no longer run from store to store, looking for just the right ingredient. If I can’t easily find what the recipe calls for, I make do. Farina is not available in the bulk foods section of my local supermarket. The only option is Malt-o-Meal, even though it has a bunch of other ingredients besides farina.

           To make manna from heaven, you can use the recipe from the Malt-o-Meal package. Just leave out the salt, substitute juice for water, add sugar. Latvians traditionally make this glorified breakfast food/dessert using cranberry juice, a half cup sugar, and three tablespoons farina to three cups juice. The resulting dish is tart enough to leave your mouth puckered for a week. Serving the mousse with milk cuts the tartness. Not nearly enough for me. Not even twice the sugar is enough. Add sugar to taste.

Beat until light and fluffy

           The instructions also say to beat the mass an unconscionably long time. It’s okay to beat a long time if you have a stand mixer. I do not. I used my electric hand mixer until my arm was ready to fall off. Not necessary to whip the stuff forever–five minutes, or so, will do. A mixer of any kind is not necessary. A whisk is not necessary, either. A spoon does just fine.

            Cranberry juice is not a requirement, either. You can use any juice or fruit purée that you like. The second time I made manna from heaven, I used strawberries and rhubarb. It turned out very good, though still tart.

Strawberry Rhubarb Manna

           The other day I wanted to make manna, but didn’t have juice of any kind at at home. There are days when I will do just about anything to avoid going to the supermarket. This was one of them. I remember. I remembered that I had frozen cranberries in the freezer. No juicer. I was not about to try to figure out how to make juice with or without a juicer. I figured, if you can use fruit purée, why couldn’t you use cranberry sauce? Since I didn’t have that, either, I had to make my own.

           One time I read somewhere that when you make cranberry sauce the berries will pop. They may or they may not. If they don’t pop when you cook them, they will pop nicely in your mouth. You don’t have to cook the berries half to death while waiting for the mixture to gel. It’ll do that on its own, once you cover it and let it cool. The result is beautiful, ruby red, with gem-like berries. Delicious, too. I figure the only reason more people don’t make their own cranberry sauce is because no one has told them how easy it is.

            Oh, wow! SO easy. Boil a cup of juice in a cup of water, when they’re bubbling, add a twelve ounce package of cranberries. Sort and rinse first. Cook at a gentle boil for five minutes, remove from heat, cover, and set aside. So says Ocean Spray.

           For one serving of manna from heaven, I used a half cup of cranberry sauce, a half cup of water, about a half cup of sugar. I stood over it, stirring as it cooked. Started on high heat, when it began bubbling, reduced heat to medium. You don’t have to cook the stuff until it gets thick, only until it starts to thicken. It will keep thickening once you take if off the stove. Made this lazy way, it’s more porridge-lie than mousse-like, but it still tastes wonderful. Serve with milk and enjoy a tangy, refreshing dish inspired by Latvian mom and grannies.

Manna from Heaven Made from Cranberry Sauce

Petals Kissed by Rain

Overnight Rain

Star Magnolia

I love the look of raindrops on flower petals. It’s a popular photo subject. I plan to write a longer blog essay later, but I couldn’t resist posting these now. There’s really not much else to say about such delicate beauty. Look and enjoy. Check back later.

Meanwhile, I have cooking to do and a chapter of my novel to work on. I probably have some Sunday loafing to do as well.

Okay. I love odd numbers. I love this next photo, even though there are no raindrops on these petals. The tulip grows in a container on my balcony. It ‘s the sister of the tulip in my other post, “Portrait of a Tulip.” The two magnolias grow on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. I never knew yellow magnolias existed until I saw this one. The lovely campus is a fine place to walk no matter what the season. One of my favorite memories of college is walking past the Music Building on a fine day, when the windows were open, flowers bloomed all around, and a student was rehearse on the piano or flute. M

You can expect to see more photos from the Puget Sound campus, too.

Yellow Magnolia

Portrait of a Tulip

Grace and Elegance

This beauty comes from the tiny container garden on my balcony. I’m in love with this blossom. Other than liking them no more or no less than other flowers, I never much thought about tulips. Then a friend told me that tulips were her favorite flowers. Her comment caused me to take a closer look to figure out why. Compared to other, flashier, showier flowers, like peonies and dahlias, tulips, unless they’re parrot tulips, seem almost plain. They’re not. They’re graceful and elegant in their simplicity. Even when they bow their heads, they’re lovely.

Same Flower

The closer you get, the more intense the color. That’s how it is with people, too, isn’t it?

These blossoms are almost too beautiful for words. They’re ethereal and will slip away all too soon. That makes them all the more precious. That’s why I had to photograph this beauty and share it on my blog. Soon these pictures will be all that I have left of this flower.

Heart of a Tulip

Once you get close to someone you can see into their heart. This is the same flower. The only difference is the lighting and the location. The inside of the petal really is more intense in color than the outside. Many of us hide our intensity from the outside world.

Am I a Georgia O’Keeffe wanna be, except with a camera, instead of a paintbrush? I’ve loved her work for many years now. I love her sensuous, intimate portraits of flowers. I even love her barren landscapes and steer skulls. She shows them to us in a way we’ve never though to look at them before. I wish I could paint like she did. I want to live to a dynamic old age, with a beautiful, lined face like hers. I’d rather not slip away like flowers, but I suppose I will.

Come closer, look into the heart.

Here’s a link to the O’Keeffe Museum