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Thanks to everyone who came out to my canning class in Fairfax this morning. It was great fun, y’all were a great crowd, and I’m thrilled you enjoyed my Apple, Pear and Lemon Thyme Jam.

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apple, pear and lemon thyme jam- macerating

Yesterday I spent many fun hours crafting the oven-roasted squash and white bean dish we loved at Ghibellina on Wednesday. Ghib’s fabulous chef was kind enough to send it to me so I tried my hand. It didn’t sing like his but it was darn good, and I’m going to keep soldering away.

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layer 1

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layer 2

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layer 3

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layer 4

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voila!

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People, do cats go ape-shit when the skies are just so? Does anyone manufacture a cat muzzle? And/or, can cats go hoarse from excessive, ceaseless meowing? Can cats melt down?

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he’s gone mad

Nutmeg is pacing in circles, pawing the door that leads to the deck, maniacally licking his bottom and dipping his paws in his water bowl before sniffing and then drinking from them. Does he think there’s arsenic in there? Why the compulsive butt-washing? Why the caterwauling? Does he feel he left some unfinished business outside earlier?

 

Lucky me, I was recently contacted by the Eric Reid, founder of SPAGnVOLA (pronounced Spangvola; a reference to Hispaniola, the island today known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti), a small chocolate company based in Gaithersburg, MD. Could he send me some chocolates to taste and perhaps review? I am not one to turn down chocolate, but wanted to be fair so first did a bit of research on SPAGnVOLA.

Founded in 2009, SPAGnVOLA is committed to producing the finest, single-source chocolate from start to finish. All cacao beans used in creating the chocolates are grown on Reid’s farm in the Dominican Republic -without the use of pesticides!- and are hand-harvested, fermented and dried there. Then, the best are sent on to the factory in Gaithersburg where head chocolatier, Crisoire Reid, crafts them into bars, truffles and boxed chocolate confections.

I was impressed to find that SPAGnVOLA was awarded 2013 Small Business of the Year by the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development as well as a Business Innovation Award by the Haiti Renewal Alliance for promoting business development and commerce in the Caribbean.

After learning all this, I wrote Reid back and enthusiastically said, “Yes, you can definitely send me chocolates.”

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SPAGnVOLA chocolates

This bounty arrived just a few days later, and we jumped right in to the boxed chocolates.

Before I proceed, let me issue two important disclaimers: 1) Other than receiving the generous package of chocolates for tasting purposes, I am not being compensated for this post; and 2) I’m actually not a fan of boxed and flavored concoctions. I can get down with a box of See’s Nuts and Chews because they are so simple and straight, but in general, chocolate bars are what get me excited because baking with good chocolate is both a joy and an harbinger of good desserts to come. My husband, children and several close friends, on the other hand, are ENORMOUS fans of boxed chocolates, so I figured we’d have quite the panel to thoroughly judge SPAGnVOLA’s offerings.

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SPAGnVOLA small box

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SPAGnVOLA large box

As you can see, the chocolates are beautifully crafted. I would suggest removing or better wrapping the powdered ones because, as you can see in above photo, it spreads to and coats other chocolates which detracts from the visual “wow” when opening the box.

The outer chocolate shell of each treat is wonderfully thin; it’s firm yet yields with an appealing crackle-feeling with the softest bite. Though the SPAGnVOLA web site shows that a cheat sheet is included in each box, neither of mine had one. And while the absence of such a guide made the trial a bit more objective, I found it hard to discern the flavors of the fillings. Some of the candies had clues on top -crystallized ginger, sea salt- or were colored to, presumably, reflect the flavor, but I believe the actual inside fillings should pack a greater punch so that you don’t really need any assistance.

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the boys were THRILLED to participate in this “test”

Everyone who participated in my taste tests found these chocolates wonderful. They are light years ahead of Godiva in terms of chocolate quality and nuance of taste. I didn’t become a boxed chocolate convert but did appreciate the attention to detail and the aesthetics. Judging by the pace at which these were devoured, I’d say I’m the minority.

This weekend I plan to subject one of the semi-sweet bars to the ultimate test: making Julia Child’s Reine de Saba which is nothing if not an homage to chocolate. I’ll follow back up with a review there, but in the meantime, investigate SPAGnVOLA. A box of their chocolates would make a hell of a gift for any bonbon lover you know!

Final thoughts:

~While I really like the history and meaning behind the company name, SPAGnVOLA is not a word that rolls easily off your tongue or pen. Food for thought though probably too late now.
~The gold trays are a bit flimsy, so just use caution as you sort through the treats.

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Yesterday was utterly pooey, y’all. Just sucky to the nth for a whole host of reasons. I felt blue and sad and tired and busy and found that I have early-stage frozen shoulder and need to go gangbusters at physical therapy for a while. Three times a week: who, pray tell, has time for that? And I have to abstain from raking which is not only one of my favorite activities but also exceedingly necessary as our Sugar Maple has just commenced its annual arboreal depilation. Observe.

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the sugar maple sheds

It also rained all day, and I felt as if the Earth and I were so soggy we might slither through a storm drain to some nether-abyss. As is perhaps obvious, this is not an optimal mood to be mired in when you have plans to head out on the town with girlfriends you’ve been trying to see for a long while. But often, a night out laughing is just what’s needed. So I gussied myself up, Ubered myself out and met my pals – as I did Shawn several weeks back – at Ghibellina where we quickly made ourselves at home at one of the bars.

I am coming to believe that no bad mood can persist when sitting at a great bar in a great pair of heels laughing and nursing a glass of great wine (last night, the Lucente, a merlot-heavy Super Tuscan-style that was at once smooth, spicy and warm).

Plus, can I just make your mouth water by telling you about what we ate? I arrived first and a cursory glance at the menu illumined the word burrata. I don’t believe I’ve ever not ordered a dish that included burrata, and if I have, I should sue myself for idiocy. Last night was no exception as I placed an executive decision order immediately for the burrata with marinated rapini, calabrian chilies and toasted bread. Not a mistake.

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burrata, marinated rapini, chiles, olive oil, bread

We then received two additional, wonderful dishes: stewed lentils with root veggies and Tuscan kale; and the spectacular, stuff-of-my-dreams fagioli e zucca al forno, or oven-roasted pumpkin with white beans. For this dish you should run, not walk, to Ghibellina as soon as possible so that you can indulge before it leaves the menu.

The pumpkin was perfectly cooked: easily cut with the slightest pressure applied to the side of a fork, but not mushy. The consistency of the beans was equally pleasing, expertly treading the line between too-firm and overdone. Dressed with balsamic, olive oil, toasted almonds and a bit of allspice, each bite caused me to shut my eyes, slow my chewing and savor the marriage of flavors for as long as possible. It’s a steal at $8. I did not get a photo. I have pretty-please asked for the recipe.

We ordered the chocolate-hazelnut tart but also got to taste the sublime Meyer lemon sorbet and the delicate panna cotta with saba, a balsamic like nectar. The sorbet shocked with its exact-replica taste. We were eating sugar-coated Meyers, yes?

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Meyer lemon sorbet at Ghibellina

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panna cotta with saba, chocolate-hazelnut tart with meringue in the background (Ghibellina)

As always, the service was wonderful: friendly, generous, unobtrusive. The bluster outside subsided, but no one seemed in any sort of hurry to leave Ghibellina’s warmth.

I realized, as we finally all hugged and parted ways, how truly restorative friendship and laughter are. That they are some of the last things that should be sacrificed on the altar of busyness. That sometimes Tired is really just a need for fun and light escape masked as fatigue.

My cab coasted up to my house, and as I opened the car door, I saw a beautiful doe standing peacefully on the sidewalk not ten feet away. She was really in the wrong neck of her woods, and I tried to woo her towards me, but she declined. At 3am, Oliver woke up and I got in bed with him and told him about the deer. “She was gawding [guarding] the house until you got home, Mom.” I think my heart melted a bit then.

Today the sun came out, and I went to PT for the first time and thought how absolutely lovely it was to be tended to, and to have to lay down for fifteen minutes with a warm pack wrapped around my shoulder, the electrical currents running under it easy enough to tune 0ut as I read my magazine and just was. Three times a week will be great!

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Yesterday, I received the newest issue of Bon Appétit and immediately began flipping through. The recipe for Crispy Jerusalem Artichokes with Aged Balsamic (page 100 if you’re a subscriber or bought this issue) screamed out to me: “MAKE me tonight! Don’t you remember you have some sunchokes in the fridge?”

I have waxed rhapsodic about Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, before. Frequently, in fact. I love them. Because forewarned is forearmed, I simply must remind you that they are also known as fartichokes for a reason. A real big reason. If I were you, I would not eat this delectable tuber before an important meeting or a date with someone to whom you aren’t married.

If you aren’t doing either of those things, go for the gold with this fabulous vegetable. I like to roast them simply, make a mash or incorporate them into my marvelous leeky sunchoke bisque. Last night, however, I went the Bon App route and am so glad I did. Theirs is an incredibly simple, seriously delicious recipe, and though I halved the recipe such that I made just four servings, I ate the entire bowl as my entree. Butter + rosemary + aged balsamic atop root veggies? Ohmahgah.

I was a bit short on sunchokes so tossed some cauliflower in to make up the difference. This is a win-win scenario. Observe the glowing, caramelized mess of yum below.

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crispy jerusalem artichokes with aged balsamic (recipe from the Nov ’14 Bon Appetit)

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cauliflower works equally well with the rest of the ingredients

I have not forgotten about the story I wanted to share. It began at last December’s Food52 holiday potluck here in DC. In addition to each bringing a dish to eat at the party, the fete was also a cookie exchange. Since I’m usually not big on cookies, I chose to make my aunt’s ridiculously good rum ball recipe for a sweet change of pace.

As if often the case with powdered sugar, it benefits from being sifted before use because it tends to clump and those damn sugar balls seem impervious to stirring, regardless of how vigorously you do so. I sifted powdered sugar ’til my arms ached, cup after cup of fine snow raining down into the mixing bowl into which I’d already put crumbled vanilla wafers, chocolate, rum, crushed walnuts and corn syrup, a sticky biz to be sure.

When I finally set my sifter down, the handle promptly fell off, and I started “praying” that the tiny ball-bearing-like nut that held the handle to the sifter was not in my rum ball dough.

“What are the chances? What are the odds?” I beseeched the culinary heavens. But just in case, I rolled those rum balls with extraordinary, unprecedented care, inspecting each tablespoon of batter as if I were Sherlock in a bakery.

Several days later, at the party (rum balls get better over time, y’all), I’d forgotten all about the “issue” and had a ball seeing old friends and meeting new ones: EmilyC, cookbookchick (author of the Batsaria), calendargirl… Finally, I packed my share of cookies and headed home.

A day or two later, I received a message from cookbookchick. It was the loveliest message ever, not least because in enjoying her portion of my rum balls, she found my sifter’s missing bit. I.was.horrified.

“OHMYGOD, are your teeth OK? I am SO sorry. I am MORTIFIED.”

“Don’t worry. I’m Greek. We have strong teeth. I knew you’d be mortified but don’t worry, I just wanted to send your piece back.”

A) Go Greeks and your teeth, and B) How nice is this?

She did return the could-have-cracked-your-molar metal, and I made Tom epoxy it to the sifter.

You connect with people a bit more deeply in the funniest of ways, eh? Thank you, S!

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SO…

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much…

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FUN!

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