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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Family Trip to Puerto Rico!

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Hey guys,

Ian and Lil Dude and I just got back from a 12-day spring break in Puerto Rico, and loved it.  We spent a few days in Old San Juan (for culture and history), a few days in the El Yunque rain forest (hiking and waterfalls), and a few days on the island of Culebra (beaches, snorkeling.)


There are a couple huge, cool forts in Old San Juan, complete with turrets and tunnels and dungeons and pirate history and other features perfect for a 9-year-old boy. He had a blast in the big spaces by fort and sea where he could run around like a little maniac...


The buildings in Old San Juan were deliciously candy-colored.  I'm a firm believer in painting homes cheery colors (ours is yellow)-- I wish people did this more in the U.S.! It would make wintertime less depressing, I think... and it would make houses and apartments and condos easier to find. ;-)


Can't get enough of these wrought iron, plant-filled balconies...



Pink!

 

Puerto Rico is such an easy place for overseas travel with a kid... you don't have to go through customs and immigration at the airports, you can use dollars, and you don't need any special cell phone plan (at least with Verizon we didn't.) And yet, you're in a completely different culture, immersed in a different language (well, not completely, because almost everyone seemed able to speak English here.)

 

 We took a little puddle-hopper to Culebra island-- a gorgeous ride. On the way there, I got to sit next to the pilot, and on the way back, Lil Dude did... he was over the moon!


This island was incredible-- really laid-back-- most travelers drove golf carts around rather than cars. The beaches were breath-taking, and not crowded.  There were a few we had to hike to that were particularly secluded and beautiful. We saw lots of fish and even got to swim alongside huge, graceful green sea turtles.




The hike to two of the beaches (Tamarindo 2 and Carlos Rosario) was technically off-limits because of the "unexploded ordinance", which means that there are undetonated bombs in the forest in that territory.  But everyone assured us that as long as you stay on the path, you're fine. (eek!)

 

The bombs came from the U.S. military, which did target practice on this island until about 1976.  I talked to some old-timers who remembered the constant explosions, and were relieved when they finally came to an end. Here's one of the old tanks, now a rusted work of art on Playa Flamenco.

 

We boogie boarded...


Lil Dude dug holes and built sand castles... here he made a new, local friend. He got to use some Spanish to make plans to fortify the walls. :-)

 

 We happy-danced at twilight...


We were entertained by the wild chickens who hung out with us on the beach...

 

Lil Dude really enjoys getting "battered" by waves, and enjoys it even more when I get battered. (Below, he's been knocked over and I'm about to join him...)


 We stayed at a sweet little guesthouse called Mango Fish. Our idyllic routine involved snorkeling in the mornings, having lunch in town, having relaxing siesta time (I read and wrote, Ian slept, Lil Dude read and wrote and played video games), then going for a late afternoon swim, then heading to dinner in our golf cart (aka "this bad boy.")  Lil Dude loved the golf cart-- one evening, as we were getting buckled in, he took a blissful breath and said, "A starry night, going out to dinner in this bad boy.... does life get any better?"

 

  It was so pleasant to sit on the porch and feel the breeze and hear the birds and insects (and wild chickens).  The temp was perfect-- 80 degrees and not too humid. I love these clanky old metal screen doors...

 

I truly didn't want to leave!  I'm such a beach girl at heart. In college, I lived with friends in a beach shack on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland. Every morning and evening I'd walk on the beach with my dog, Nut, and we'd all track sand around the house and no one cared.

 

We also stayed a few days in El Yunque rain forest less than an hour's drive from Old San Juan. We hiked to waterfalls and old towers, saw brilliant flowers, cool animals...




Trying to fly...

 

View from the tower...


Romantic moment in the rain in dorky army surplus hats (photo credit: Lil Dude)...


Lil Dude and I giving ourselves a limpia (spirit-cleaning) in the waterfall...


 Thank you for swinging by! Hope you've been having fun adventures of your own!

Heaps o' love,
Laura













Friday, February 5, 2016

The Lauras Go to Mexico

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Hola, queridos amigos,

Just got back from a soul-filling writing retreat in Tulum with one of my closest friends, Laura Pritchett... and it was abracadabrant! In addition to sharing my name, Laura also lives in Fort Collin, also is in Old Town Writers' Group, and also gets the winter doldrums in February (and this winter's been tough-- snow on the ground since November, plenty of days in the single digits and teens) .... and we also both had airline vouchers just waiting to be used.... So we spontaneously decided to soak in some sea and sunshine and tropical greenery and warmth together last week to lift our spirits.

 SUCH a good idea!


Laura writes books for *grown-ups* although there's some crossover with older teen audiences.... her most recent novels are Red Lightning and Stars Go Blue, and they're fantastic and you should read them (along with her other 6 books)!  More that we have in common: celestial things like Lightning and Stars in our titles, and colors like Red and Blue/Indigo in our titles... and we both have 8 books out at the moment.... and we like old stuff and Mexico (and I could go on and on).  Suffice to say, she was the perfect retreat companion!



Here's where we spent most afternoons-- reading and writing ("working") on the beach and taking occasional ocean dips and beach walks.





Passion fruit ice cream!  I love this flavor so much-- perfect mix of tart and sweet-- and the crunch of the seeds is deeply satisfying.  Here, we're on the beach chairs of the Alma hotel, but our favorite evening place for food (and magical ambiance and live salsa music) was La Zebra.

 

Before this trip, I'd just finished yet another revision of my futuristic speculative fiction YA novel, which is set on a tropical island (specifically, on a a beach, in a jungle, and in a mysterious lab facility.)  So of course I was noticing all the subtle multi-sensory details of the water so I can describe it better when I do the inevitable *next* revision.




 Seaweed has some significance in the book...


I also jumped back into my new manuscript-on-progress, which is middle-grade (ages 8-12) and involves chocolate and the Amazon rain forest.  I love working on something in a new place-- I always get interesting ideas and think more outside-the-box.  I read that working in expansive places makes your mind think in a more expansive way.... and that was definitely the case sitting with my manuscript in the expanse of sea and sand and sky.

 

So, let's see... we *did* do some things beside write and read and walk and swim.  Laura visited the cool Coba Mayan ruins, where I've already been a few times, and wrote about in another post. I went to a yoga class in this studio on the beach... behold my view from the mat!


One morning, we visited a nearby cenote (a freshwater lake connected to an underground cave system, sacred to the Maya). This one was called Cenote Encantado, and was just down the road by a campground. It was surrounded by mangroves, and supposedly there were some baby crocodiles floating around nearby. We rented out a little boat and did some snorkeling and felt minorly freaked out by the baby crocodiles (which stayed hidden).


We stayed in a simple, sweet ecolodge called Las Palmas Mayas on the side of the road opposite the beach, which was just a one minute walk away.  Woulda been nice to stay right on the beach, but this place was much, much cheaper. And it had a kitchen where we could fix ourselves breakfast and tea and snacks, which made it very budget-friendly.


View from my window:


In the courtyard area:

 

Palmas!


Always fun to check out the folk art.... I got some smaller skeletons for Lil Dude-- a snorkeling skeleton, a dog skeleton, and a guitar-playing skeleton, since that's what he's into these days. :-)


It felt so good to soak in flowers and leaves and COLOR after being in the brown and white landscape of Fort Collins for the past three months.



So grateful to Ian for taking such good care of Lil Dude all week and taking time off work for sled-riding on the snow day.  (Did I mention there was a *blizzard* while we were gone?)  


Thanks for reading!

xo,
Laura



Friday, December 18, 2015

Nuance Chocolate Factory Tour!

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Hello, dear chocolate-lovers!

Last week, I got a fascinating, personal chocolate factory tour, led by Toby Gadd, chocolate-maker extraordinaire and owner of Nuance Chocolate in Fort Collins.  His chocolate factory is located in Old Town, just a few blocks away from his storefront/cafe.  This latest adventure was part of my on-going research for my next middle-grade novel, which has a LOT of chocolate in it. 

 

You might have read about my interview with him a few months ago here (and if you haven't, you should, because it complements this post!)  He kindly offered to give me a follow-up tour of the factory itself.  Technicolor visions of chocolate paradise swam in my head.... 


Alas, there was no chocolate river to fall into, but there was chocolate-tasting....


... and there was no slightly-creepy Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp in a velvet top hat, but there was super-friendly and knowledgeable Toby in his dapper hairnet...


And now, chocolate-loving friends, I'll take you on the tour...

Welcome inside, to the cool 62 degree interior of the factory, which is a collection of small-ish rooms a bit larger than the ground floor of my house (maybe about 1000 sq ft?) We began by de-linting ourselves and putting on hairnets. 

First, Toby brought us ("us" refers to me and a journalism major and cameraman from CSU) to the room of large, orange metal barrels where he stores the beans once they arrive. As you can see, they're labeled with date and country of origin.  Nuance sources their beans from ethical and sustainable growers and cooperatives, most of which are small, and they only use one kind of bean in each chocolate bar.  They can specially tailor the process to bring out the best of each bean, which makes the flavor rich and complex and fascinating, like fine wine.   

At this stage, the beans smell sour and acidic from the fermentation process.  Each cultivar of beans-- trinitario, forestero, and criollo-- has a different smell.  The fermentation process helps to develop over 600 flavor compounds, which is essential to the final taste of the chocolate, although the palette is further modified at every stage... as you shall see!


Can I just take a moment to say how lucky I feel to live just a ten-minute walk from his shop and factory?! Nuance has ***the widest range of single-origin chocolate IN THE WORLD!***

Okay, back to the tour... The cacao beans are harvested and fermented onsite in Latin America and Africa, then shipped here in giant sacs.  Toby and his wife Alix and their few employees then put the beans in the barrels, keeping them carefully separated.  In order to avoid any icky chemicals, they use natural dry ice to prevent any insect infestations during this stage.


They are also continually getting in new shipments of sample beans from potential growers to work with.... they come in wee batches (see above).  Toby and Alix make a small, test batch (1-5 lbs) of chocolate with the beans to see if they're good enough to order in bigger quantities to use in the chocolate they sell.  Only 15-20% of the beans they try out pass this test... the bar is high!

So, next, the cacao beans are roasted at 250 to 350 degrees for 20-40 minutes, which further develops the hundreds of flavor compounds. Toby and Alix spend lots of time experimenting with the best temp and length of roasting for each kind of bean they use.  If they over-roast, the chocolate becomes bitter, for example.

I can't show you pictures of the roasting process, because it involves some *top secret stuff* and I am sworn to secrecy.  (I couldn't help thinking of those spies in Willie Wonka's factory when Toby was swearing us to secrecy. ;-)


Okay, so next, the cooled, now-brittle beans are cracked into nibs and separated from the husks.  Toby is also a self-taught inventor and creative collaborator of sorts-- important skills for small-batch chocolate makers.  With the help of resources online, he came up with a cool, hand-made machine to do the cracking and winnowing.... involving a Champion juicer, a specialty vacuum, and a blade device custom made on his 3-D printer (all approved by the FDA and the CO health dep't!) The core component of this winnower was designed and made by John Nanci (the godfather of small batch chocolate).  Toby's modifications included the additional 3-D printed parts and other parts.

Much of his equipment are cool inventions using re-purposed equipment. And this is necessary because small-batch single-origin chocolate production is such a new and creative endeavor-- a blend of art and science lovingly done by just a handful of small, often family-owned, businesses. I felt so inspired learning how these folks re-envision uses for machines and equipment, to make them fit their own purposes.

Moving right along... so, the husk by-products are then stored in plastic white buckets (see above), which can be used for tea, body scrubs, brewing beer, etc.... Toby and Alix often pass these husks along to breweries or other local small businesses they work with. It's so heartening to see how these small, artisenal and hand-crafting companies work together creatively and promote each other's products. (At Nuance's recent birthday party at a local brewery, I had the most amazing, deep, rich chocolate beer.)


(Time lapse-- I just have to tell you that I took a little break from writing this blog post to make myself a cup of hot chocolate, which I am now enjoying.  *Sigh.* I knew something was missing...)

Okay, moving right along.... So, the cute little nibs go into the grinder next, and come out with the texture and consistency of peanut butter-- this is called chocolate liquor (and has nothing to do with alcohol, incidentally.) The machine Toby uses is the red cube above, whose original purpose was supposed to be a nut grinder, but which Toby uses exclusively for nib-grinding.

Next phase of the journey-- the melanger! This is a French verb meaning "to mix." This machine has a granite stone bottom disc and vertical granite wheels.  Interestingly, it was originally supposed to be an Indian spice grinder. Again, creative re-purposing to the rescue! 

The chocolate liquor and sugar are poured into the melanger (see below) for between 60 and 90 hours, depending on the particular kind of bean.  For days, the particles of cacao and sugar are ground down to between 20-30 microns (itty-bitty), so that the chocolate feels silky-smooth on your tongue. This process also helps release the volatile compounds and aromatics, while aerating and oxygenating the chocolate.  Note the chocolate's temperature here-- just pleasantly warm, a touch above room temp, but not hot.



Toby let us do a taste test here (!!!)-- we tasted chocolate from one melanger that was only done half of its final 90 hour timeline.  We noticed that it tasted kind of fruity and bright-- it still tasted of some compounds that interfered with the intended final, smooth, rich taste. It also still had a slightly gritty texture.

We tasted chocolate from another melanger (there were several in the room), which had completed about 75 hours already.  That was much smoother-- all silk-- and tasted heavenly. Toby said he was going to stop that one soon.... if you mix it for too long-- over 100 hours, for example, then it could taste flat, losing its fruity brightness altogether.  It's a lot of trial and error, art and science. Toby and Alix work hard to figure out the perfect process for each bean to maximize its delicious potential. 

If Toby's making milk chocolate, this melanger stage is where he adds the powdered whole milk, specially ordered from Europe. You can see it's lighter in color than the pure dark chocolate above.


So next, they pour the smooth, sweet, warm chocolate out of the melanger machine, and let it dry and cool into hard chunks.  Since the chocolate is still untempered, it looks mottled white and deep brown and striated. The chunks are stored in carefully labeled plastic bags until the next step.

This is the final step-- tempering, which means the controlled melting and cooling of the chocolate.  Here are the tempering units, with extremely precise temperature controls. The chocolate can stay in here for about an hour, or, can be set on overnight mode.


Check out this one-- the EZ Temper.  It was invented by a research doctor turned chocolate maker who re-purposed incubator equipment for tempering.... very creative, no?


So now that the chocolate has the right gloss, snap, melting point.... and feels like paradise on your tongue... it's ready to be poured into the molds! They make the molds using 3-D printer-- Toby also has a design background-- he created the Nuance logo and other design elements himself. These sweet little stars are used for the tasting flights Nuance offers in their shop. They also make chocolate bars, hot chocolate mix, and truffles (using extra ingredients like spices and fine liquor from other local food-crafters.) They also make some killer hot chocolate that you can sip and savor in their cafe-- perfect on a winter's day.  


Alix and Toby aren't doing wholesale at this time, which means you need to go to their shop to procure and enjoy their chocolate.  This means that they can be as experimental and creative as they want, and continually try out new processes and recipes, like true scientist-artists.

Nuance shop/cafe is located at 214 Pine St, in Old Town Fort Collins, CO. Toby, Alix, and their awesome employees are always happy to talk with you about their chocolate- making process.  It's SO much fun to do the taster flight of chocolate-- it's like wine-tasting, but yummier, and more kid-friendly.  You learn to distinguish among the complex notes and flavors that vary from bean to bean.  This is a super-fun activity to do on a date, with friends, with kids, when family is in town, or by yourself for a treat.

If you haven't read my first chocolate research post, please check it out here so that you can get the FULL chocolate-making experience....


In case you're curious, I've got my chocolate book outline done in delicious detail, and I've written and revised about half of it.  The novel is partly set in a small, family-owned chocolate shop in a small mountain town in Colorado, and partly set in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. I can't wait to finish it and share it with you! Thank you for swinging by....

xo,
Laura