Tricky Treats Hot Chocolate

      Like most sane people who have not been cursed with allergies by Ixcacao, chocolate is my favorite sweet.  Oh, I get seriously happy about good caramel, & if you've read my older blog entries you know my obsession with pie.  But chocolate...is something else.  It's something special--I'd even say transcendental.  Not to mention historical, as archaeologists in Ecuador just discovered proof that chocolate was used over 1300 years earlier than previously thought. 

These guys look pissed.  Somebody didn't follow the recipe.
      Aside from being a confection fav, chocolate has another claim on Halloween: a bloody past.  The Aztecs believed one of their gods was cast out for sharing chocolate with humans.  Chocolate drinking cups were buried with the dead.  Removing the cocoa beans from the pod was a stand-in for removing a human heart as part of ritual sacrifice.  And if you think the ancient South American cultures were brutal about this stuff, remember what the Europeans did when they got their hands on it: war and slavery in the name of commerce rather than religion.
       These days chocolate is more innocuous.  More and more high quality chocolate is available free-trade, organic, & sustainable.*  So on this All Hallow's Eve, as I mark the path to my door with grimacing gourds & ready my stock of sugary handouts, I want a little something special for myself.  There's plenty of great ways to enjoy chocolate, but for something to relish over the course of an evening hot chocolate tops my list.  It's slightly under-sweet--if you want more sweetness &/or creaminess, finish with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk.  And if you REALLY want to take it to the next level, use a flamed orange peel on the rim & in the beverage for a little extra something-something.


Z.D.'s Spiced Hot Chocolate
makes 1 cup - multiply as desired

Ingredients:
8 oz 2% milk
5 teaspoons golden brown sugar
1/8th teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
Spice to taste (cinnamon, cardamom, smoked paprika, cayenne, etc.)
Sweetened condensed milk to taste

Directions:
 - In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the milk.  Add the sugar, vanilla, & salt & stir frequently until the sugar is dissolved.

 - Up the heat to medium & sift in the cocoa (you may roll your eyes when you see "sift," but trust me, cocoa clumps, so just get out a fine-mesh sieve & sift it in there).  Whisk until cocoa is completely incorporated.  Continue to heat, stirring occasionally to prevent skin from forming, until beverage it hot and tiny bubbles appear around the edges.

 - Select your spice(s) of choice & add by pinches, whisking thoroughly after each addition, until the flavor is balanced just the way you like.  Stir in sweetened condensed milk to taste.  Enjoy!



*But if the facts inspire you to write a horror story about a cursed chocolate trade ship, don't let me stop you!

Festive Suggestions for the Halloween Spirited

      Just in case you haven't heard, I am a Halloween *fanatic.*  It is my favorite holiday.  Which is bizarre, because I am a total wimp when it comes to scary movies & haunted theme parks.  I even get squeamish at the idea of the old children's game, "Bloody Mary."  Yeah--I am that kind of wimp.

I am not a wimp about spiders, though.  Unless they're huge.  And in my bathtub.
      But I have plenty of decorations put up, "Sweeny Todd" to sing along to, & creepy boardgames to play. And more than that, this year I put together the itinerary for the Perfect October Day for anyone who lives in western Washington.*  So if you're looking for something different to do this weekend--or if you have friends coming from out of town & you want to show them a great time--here's my recommendations.

Destination: Port Townsend
      This little berg is out on the Olympic peninsula. It's one of my favorite day trips in the state & getting there is half the fun.  Here's my itinerary:

9:35am - Catch the ferry from Edmonds to Kingston.  Depending on where you are, this might mean getting up early, or giving you time to sleep in a little bit.  Either way, if there's a Top Pot on your route, stop for a pumpkin old fashioned doughnut and a cup of coffee to enjoy while waiting at the ferry dock.

      It's about a 30 minute crossing, & then you head west & north.  As you drive, set the mood with a creepy podcast: I suggest any of the Spooked episodes, or my current obsession, Lore.  Your route will take you through Port Gamble, a charming town so tiny you could miss it if you didn't have SLOW WAY THE F*** DOWN to make that hairpin turn through the middle.  It's one of the most haunted places on the West Coast, so if you feel like stopping & poking around, by all means, do!  Just make sure you get to...

11am - Farms Reach Cafe, Chimicum.  Small, casual, & homey-delicious food awaits you here.  I took the recommendation of a regular & had the beef stew with a buttermilk biscuit for lunch.  My belly was soooo happy.  I wanted to stay & try some of their amazing looking cookies with a cup of tea, but I knew I had to leave room for the next stop, which was only three blocks away.

12pm - Finnriver Cidery, Chimicum.  Ohhh, ho hooo...& you thought you knew hard cider!  Boy, were you wrong!  Go straight into the tasting room & treat yourself to a guided tasting.  Then beg to taste whatever's on tap that you haven't tried yet.  Then order a glass of something & stroll around the farm, enjoying the gorgeous scenery.  Then buy a couple bottles to take home.  The brandy wines make excellent holiday gifts!
What I have from them in my fridge at this moment.  See that one second from the right?  That's Salal Berry & Cedar hard apple cider!  It doesn't get more Pacific Northwest than that!
No, Finnriver is not paying me to advertise.  But if they happen to see this & want to thank me with some free cider...I mean I wouldn't say "no."

Whenever you're sober enough to drive the last 30 minutes - Port Townsend.  There's so much to do here.  The Mt Townsend Creamery is off to your right before you descend the hill to downtown.  Or if you've a sweet tooth, Elevated Ice Cream is really, really good--& they sell it by the ounce instead of the scoop!  I've never gotten a bad coffee drink anywhere in town.  All the shops are cool, there's great local art, & some quality steampunk attire is available as well.  Check out every nook & cranny--including the antique mall--but be sure you're at the Haller Fountain on time for...

4:15pm - Twisted History Tour, Port Townsend.  Every boom town has it's history...most of which it would probably prefer to forget.  The Twisted History Tours of Port Townsend bring those stories back from the grave, & you will never look at the town the same again.  If you like macabre history, I recommend the Uptown Haunts.  If you like a little more ghost story in your history lessons, try the Downtown Dare.  Wear good walking shoes & a warm raincoat--& let the tales of dead liven up your evening!
The fanciest house in town was built by the undertaker.  Enough said.
      You'll wrap up around 6pm.  Depending on how you're feeling, you may decide to dine in town & take a late ferry back.  But if you want to keep the good times going, I suggest you grab a coffee to go & head back now.  If you live around Seattle or Bellevue, Mox Boarding House is your next destination.  If that's out of your way, plan ahead & order your favorite food for delivery, because it's game on.

Conclude your evening with a board game.  For a crowd, try One Night Ultimate Werewolf--an easy party game with short rounds & an app that practically walks you through it.  For smaller groups, try the goofy Betrayal at House on the Hill, the eldritch themed Mansions of Madness, the ghostly Mysterium (my favorite for Halloween), or any of the Zombicide games (we like Black Plague).  These will keep you up until the wee hours of the morning, steeped in eerie fun of the season.  And the next morning...another Top Pot doughnut, because those pumpkin old fashioned's are only around for a short time!




* If you don't live in western Washington, most of these activities are still available to you--you'll just have to research local substitutions for the rest.  Or come visit.  Either way.

Banned Book Week

      Ok, I know I said my next post was going to be all geeking-out over nerd stuff, but then...well...when you're not really plugged into social media, you find out about stuff in the most interesting ways.  For example: I found out that today is the last day of National Banned Book Week by going to a farmers market.

Check out these bad-ass rebels!  Library board VOLUNTEERS!  Spreading dangerous notions in a public space like a farmers market, in plain sight of children!*
      I also bought Pearwood scented olive oil soap & a bunch of the most beautiful kale I've ever seen, but that's not the point of this story.  The point of this story is banned books.  The very words have an interesting double effect on me.  On the one hand, it brings to mind scenes of movies where books are burned in village squares, which always make me cry.  No, really--scenes in movies where books are thrown on a bonfire make tears run down my cheeks.  My heart hurts to see it.  I have yet to watch a screen adaptation of Farenheit 451, but if I do, I'm sure I'll through an entire box of tissue.
      On the other hand, thinking of banned books raises this delightfully devilish feeling in me.  It makes me want to be all rebellious and go read!  Naughty books, shocking books, historically accurate books, I want to fling myself through the library doors & shout, "Come, you collections of the printed word, hit me with your best shot!  Corrupt my fragile mind!  Plant dangerous notions in my mind!  Make me question the status quo, and doubt the morals of my ancestors!"
      I realize that sounds pretty damn dramatic, but you have to consider how many books I've read that have been banned in one place or another:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Harry Potter & fill in the blank by J.K. Rowling
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

      Those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head without looking at a list online.  Oh, wait, I'm sure Animal Farm and Catcher In The Rye were banned.  And probably The Diary of Anne Frank.  And Lady Chatterley's Lover, right?  I can keep going but it would take me all day.
I feel like if I ever wrote a book that was thought-provoking enough to get banned, I would feel tremendous pride.  Next best thing to winning a Pulitzer, honestly.
      The point is...I'm still waiting to turn into a danger to society.  When are these books going to deliver on their promises & make me an extremist rebel of some kind?!  I mean, at some point, I'm supposed to put down the mug of tea, get up out of my reading chair, & go explode something, or start an underground group of some sort, right?  So far all I've done is go to peaceful protest marches & do my research before I vote.  Oh yeah, & then I vote.  That's not radical, is it?
      I keep wanting to read more.  I suppose that's pretty radical in & of itself.  What's your favorite banned book?  I need some recommendations for after I go read The Handmaid's Tale.
      I think I'm going to make a point of buying a banned book for everyone in my family for their birthday next year.  Ok, now I'm feeling rebellious.


*Also, when the heck did A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein become banned?  Isn't there a poem in there about making a hippopotamus sandwich?

Next Steps...Stepped.

      Just a quick update to say that I sent in my queries and requested pages to the agents from the PNWA conference.  This last week was all about scrupulously reading their requirements & composing my letters.  Oh yeah, and writing my synopsis.*  We all know how much I love writing a synopsis.  Even after checking & re-checking my work to be sure I was following each agent's guidelines, I got a little more light-headed each time I hit "send."  Once it's sent, it's...sent.  No going back.  No more opportunities to tweak or correct.
      So obviously that called for a cup of tea.  Today it's a spicy chai I let steep for 5 minutes, then stirred in an ounce of bourbon.  Some days just call for that sort of thing.  And after all, today is the first day of autumn--time to celebrate!

Today's beverage and this month's bedtime reading.
      Nerdy stuff coming next week--I'm loving the Captain Marvel trailer and the latest space discoveries!


*MAJOR shout-out to my man Michael Munz for reading over my synopsis, and my crit group for reading my cover letters.  You all get dibs on my kidneys.  Er...first come first served.

The Myriad Benefits of a Proper Cup of Tea

      Hello world!  I still live!  I hope you forgive my long hiatus--I decided that if I was ever going to have a shot at publishing one of my stories, I needed to eschew ALL my other keyboard-related distractions, and practice the BIC (Butt In Chair) approach to writing.  And it worked!  I finally have a polished final draft of my gas lamp novel, coming in at 90k words.

My cat was very supportive of my BIC approach, as you can see.
      Last week I went to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's big annual conference & pitched to multiple agents.  I am pleased to report that I got three requests for material, & one referral to another agent who was not at the conference.  The only part more awesome than that was all the seriously cool writers I met!
      Preparing for the conference was pretty draining.  Pitching was an exercise in adrenaline.  Both reminded me of the critical role that tea plays in my life.  Tea was my pick-me-up & inspiration while writing.  After pitching my adrenaline dipped, leaving me light-headed, and tea came to the rescue once again.*  So out of gratitude to the leaf & as a means of easing back into my blog, I thought I'd offer a brief review of the proper way to brew tea.
      Let's start with a definition of "tea."  A lot of people think this includes herbal teas, such as chamomile or mint.  Common vernacular aside, these are NOT teas.  They are tisanes.  They can be delicious, & all you have to do is add hot water & steep to taste.  I like to steep my mint in near boiling water for about 5 minutes, then toss in an ice cube for cooling & dilution.  That's all I'm going to say on the matter.
      There is actually a shrub called a tea tree, & it has a leaf all it's own.  When that leaf is harvested, dried, & then steeped, THAT is tea.  That's what I intend to address, starting with 5 general guidelines, followed by steeping times by variety.
A mature tea shrub.
1) Firstly, if you don't like the taste of your tap water, use distilled water.  It's cheap, & it's all my cat will drink, so I have a jug of it on hand at all times.

2) Proportion is always one generous teaspoon of tea to 8 ounces of water.  A tea bag also wants 8 ounces of hot water.  If you get a grande cup of hot water & toss in one tea bag, thinking you'll just let it steep longer, you've just signed yourself up for a weak, bitter brew.

3) If you're using loose leaf tea instead of bags (lovely when convenient), then have a good strainer.  There's a lot of these on the market.  I prefer metal strainers with a fine mesh & plenty of room for the tea leaves to expand.  Alternatively, brew loosely in a pot, then place the strainer over your cup when you pour.
A *few* of my tea things: pots, cups, strainers, etc. The big mug in the upper left reads "I Drink the Tears of my Enemies."  It's for when I'm feeling feisty!
4) Warm your cup or pot before pouring in the water.  If your vessel is cold, it will suck the heat away from your water, messing with your steeping & leaving you with lukewarm tea (bleah).  Also, in very extreme cases, boiling water added to cold porcelain creates cracks, or even explosions.  So while your water is coming to a boil, just fill your vessel of choice with hot water from the tap & let it sit until you're ready to steep.

5) Teas are graded by the size of the leaves.  A really good, high quality tea will be a full leaf, either rolled up into little balls or dried up into what looks like wrinkled pine needles.  Some teas have leaves broken in half, or into smaller pieces, or even in minuscule flakes like ground black pepper.  And yes, some teas are powdered.  Unless you're very serious about your tea, any of these grades will do--what you want to avoid at all costs is a MIXED grade.  A tea that's a tossed salad of full leaves, broken leaves, & tiny bits will have a bitter flavor.  When buying loose leaf tea, look for consistency among the size & shape of the leaves.
My tea shelf this morning.  I'm running low.  The tupperware in the upper right holds Korean roasted corn tea, a treat introduced to me by my significant other.
Steeping Guide
Over-brewed tea is bitter, so pay attention!

Black Teas
     There are a lot of black teas out there, but the general rule for steeping is the same.  My favorite teas are Lapsang Souchong, Earl Grey, & pure Assam.  Bring your water just to the edge of a boil (NOT a full boil), pour over, & steep for at least three minutes, but not more than five.  Then remove the leaves & either toss them or set them aside for a second steeping.
      Most black teas can be steeped a second time.  Again, bring the water just to the edge of a boil, then pour over the leaves & let steep for two minutes longer than your first steep.  The flavor will be different--more mild, usually--but still satisfying.** 

Oolong Teas
      An oolong is a tea that has been cured longer than a green, but less than a black.  When properly brewed it will have a smoother flavor than a green tea.  My favorite is hands down Iron Goddess, but I've never met a full leaf oolong I didn't like.  As with black tea, bring your water to the edge of a boil, but NOT to a full boil.  Steep for two minutes on the nose.
      Oolongs can be steeped a second, & sometimes even a third time with excellent flavor.  Let brew for three minutes on your second steep, four minutes for the third.

Green Teas
      Lauded as possibly the healthiest form of tea, the flavors can vary greatly depending on the blend.  A straight up gun powder green can be very bright--even grassy tasting.  My favorite is Gen Mai Cha, a Japanese blend that incorporates toasted rice (be wary when selecting, as this often has mixed grade leaves).  Bring your water to a strong simmer, but don't let it bridge over into boiling.  I like to steep for one minute & twenty seconds, to bring out the full flavor of the tea without risking bitterness.  My Significant Other, however, was taught to brew tea by his Korean grandmother, & insists on brewing his for five minutes for a strong, potent brew.  I suggest starting with a minute twenty, tasting, then adding more time if desired.
      Quality green teas can be re-steeped up to four times.  I would add an additional thirty seconds of brew time for the second steeping, & then a full minute or more for the third or fourth steeps.

White Teas
      Using some of the most delicate tea leaves & just drying them to perfection, white tea offers the most ethereal flavor of all.  My favorite here is Silver Cloud, light & sweet!.  For this, bring your water to a simmer, & steep for only 50 seconds.  Taste--if it's too light for you, put the leaves back in for 10 second increments until you have the flavor you like.  Remember, this is SUPPOSED to be a delicate tea.  Over-steeping will become very bitter, very fast.
      White teas can be re-steeped up to four times.  Add only 20 seconds of additional brew time for each steeping.

      There you have it!  Now go forth & brew!  Let me know if you have questions, or tell me about a recent tea you discovered, & whether you enjoyed it or no.


*My first instinct was to go to the hotel bar for a gin & tonic, but then my training as a therapist kicked in, & I remembered that in a few more minutes I was going to feel woozy & tired without the help of intoxicating beverages.  So I went for a cup of earl grey and boy was THAT the right call!

**Second steepings of any tea have almost no caffeine.

Ursula K. Le Guin

      It's an unpleasant thing that finally brings me back to my blog.  I started a few posts over the last few months - a short story about a "Twin Peaks" Grief Support Group, a geeky happy word-splosion about seeing "The Last Jedi," - but I always decided to use that time to work on my manuscripts.  My determination to pull no punches around my attempts to publish has spurred me to put aside several distractions over the last several months.*

      But alas, what finally pushed me to type a few words is the passing of an icon: Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this week, at the age of 88.  If you're reading this blog, odds are you've at least heard her name, if you weren't an all-out fan.  A highly talented, highly celebrated sci-fi writer, Ursula was a role model for writers of all genders.  More than that, she brilliantly demonstrated how to use fiction as a vehicle for expanding social awareness.  She practiced what she preached--& damn could that woman preach when the timing was right.


Receiving a National Book Award, presented by Neil Gaiman...right before delivering a seriously awesome speech blasting the publishing industry.

     The first work of hers I read was in high school, her famous short story: "Those Who Walk Away from Omelas."  It moved me.  More than that, it shook me.  The imagery she presented first delighted, then disturbed me.  I have remembered it & re-read it over the years, & I am not exaggerating when I say it has influenced several key decisions in my life.  Ursula K. Le Guin helped shape the woman I've become in a mere 2800 words.  And I'm crying as I type this.

     My deepest condolences to her family & friends.  May readers everywhere be blessed with more writers of her caliber & quality.  The world needs such inspiration more than ever before.  I hope her heaven looks like the Oregon coast, & that it's plush with purring cats.
Rest In Peace



*Your jaw would drop if you know how long it's been since I've watched "Naruto: Shippuden."

Sometimes I Do Screens

      I don't own a television.  That used to be more remarkable back before every film, TV show, & random home movie of a cat* was available online, but I also don't have Netflix, Xfinity, or an Amazon Prime membership.  In other words, I don't stream shows.  I live under a rock.


I would SO live under this rock if I could!
      Ok, obviously I don't live under a rock, my cat would never tolerate it.  Also obviously, I do watch movies & shows, because I am up to speed on "Game of Thrones," I'm addicted to "Last Week Tonight," & I never get tired of binge-watching old episodes of "Good Eats."  I also watch movies the old fashioned way, in theaters!  This is particularly great for awesome flicks like "Spiderman: Homecoming," when action just needs to be viewed on the big screen.  But most of my video consumption is thanks to the patience & support of friends & family.  And it seems like lately, I've been watching way more stuff than usual, so I figured it was time I voiced some opinions on my blog.  Starting with:

Currently Airing: Twin Peaks
      You can thank my friend & fellow author Michael Munz for providing a weekly opportunity to hang out & watch each new installment of this...interesting season.  I had to binge watch seasons 1 & 2 before this one got started.  I was charmed by the character of Dale Cooper, thrilled with all the food references, & intrigued by the suspenseful supernatural elements.  I was very ready for season 3; I wanted to learn Cooper's fate, & see more of the charming small town that supposedly exists within an hour drive my home.  Plus I'd heard that Trent Reznor was going to make an appearance!
      Well...if you've been reading the reviews, or watching the show yourself, you know that it's...um...very David Lynch-ish.  Let's just say that we celebrate every time an episode actually has significant plot content.
Gotta hand it to the mayor of Portland, he's a flexible actor!

       I won't pretend to have a background in film or any training in how to assess what makes it good or bad, but it seems to me that director David Lynch has changed in the last 25 years; you can say "matured," or "evolved," but essentially he's done what all human beings do, & he's just changed.  Which is fine.  But in this case, I think that means a significant shift from the mentality that led to his original vision.  The first season of "Twin Peaks" was dark, & weird, & confusing in ways that "Lost" only wishes it could have mimicked.  But it was also charming, funny, & oddly relatable.  And unfortunately, that's what this season seems to have lost for me.
      I'm still watching it.  The plot has finally progressed enough that I'm decently curious to see what happens.  But I swear, if Cooper doesn't come back to his full state of mind by the end of the series...well, for Munz's sake, I'm going to try really hard not to throw a cherry pie at his television, but it's going to be an effort!

Coming Soon: Ready Player One
      When I first read Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One," I was utterly enchanted.  It was one of those books that scratched a specific itch in the most perfect way possible.  It was a love song to my generation: the first generation of the modern nerd.  Because back then, video games were weird, fantasy & sci-fi movies had hand-made special effects, & playing RPG's got you beat up.**  To have the nostalgia of 80's nerdom revitalized & revered in a near-future sci-fi story was nothing short of genius.  I have my concerns that this might have been a one-shot wonder for Ernest Cline, but who cares?  It was a freaking awesome book!!!
      So when I heard it was going to be made into a movie, I got really, really excited!
      Until I saw the trailer.
      Ok, first & foremost, The Stacks look perfect.  Second impression: that is NOT what Wade Watts is supposed to look like!  Any true nerd who read the original book can testify how much it meant that the main character was a rather over-weight teen with less than perfect hygiene--because so many of us WERE.  So to see a ruggedly handsome young man instead?  *sigh*  Way to miss the point.
     Then: there's a car race?  Where the hell did that come from?  And did I see a warrior riding a giant scorpion killing Freddy Kruger?!  Does canon mean NOTHING to you, Steven Spielberg?!!?  And finally I heard a vicious rumor that they took the Zork reference out of the movie....oh wait.  I'm sorry, do you not know what Zork is?  Darn, if only we lived in an age where you could access an essentially limitless database of both accurate & opinionated information on just about freaking everything so you could look that up!!!
      What I'm getting at is that it seems pretty obvious they went to a lot of pains to make the video game aspects of this movie more relatable to a younger generation.  Typical Hollywood move.  And what sucks is that in this case, it almost defeats the entire point.  I get it if you need to take Peeves out of the "Harry Potter" films to streamline the story.  In fact, I'm totally Ok if you modernize some of the language in Shakespeare so that more people can understand it--Will would have done the same.  But a central core of this book was the nostalgia factor, which catered to a specific audience...most of whom probably make bank in the tech industry now, so frankly, catering to them is a pretty safe bet.  And I suspect that a lot of them are feeling let down.

      So screens haven't been living up to my expectations lately.  Well, except for "Game of Thrones."  The only thing wrong with that is that somehow they've managed to make an hour feel like only lasts 20 minutes!  That, & the last episode did a great job of turning me off to chicken pot pie, one of my favorite comfort foods.  Maybe they'll do that with every episode, & this can be the new diet fad.



*This one is still my favorite, partially because of the adorable noises the kitten makes while eating, & partially because of the facial expression of the adult cat in the background.

**Maybe that's still true in certain parts of the country, but here in Seattle if you don't play a table-top RPG, you are only two degrees of separation from someone who does.  Two degrees max.

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