Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Real Spirit of Christmas

There's a voracious vibe hanging in the air. Eyes flicker with the sentiment of more! more! more! It must be Christmas time. It's difficult to uncover the real, charitable focus of the season under all the materialism but you can find it if you decide not to be distracted by all the other nonsense. I don't enjoy shopping at all but I do get a kick out of choosing gifts from my favorite charities.  Instead of trolling through aisles filled with plastic doodads and electronic gadgets, I browsed through vaccines, mosquito nets and water kits for children all over the world. The Unicief  Inspired Gift program allows you to purchase these life-saving supplies on behalf of a friend or family member. They also get a card with a photo and description of the gift. I also perused chickens, rabbits, pigs and goats for the perfect present. Women in war torn countries learn to rebuild their lives through animal husbandry, farming and work initiatives provided by Women For Women International.. The Gifts That Give Back program supplies women with gifts of animals, farming tools, and education to help them become self-sufficient.  My mom's not a huge fan of animals but she'll like the rabbit that I gave in her honor. In light of the natural disasters that have been hitting all over the planet, I like to make donations to Doctors Without Borders to help out. Their Tribute Donations program allows you to commemorate the holiday or other special occasion with a tribute letter mailed to your person of honor. So if you're still stuck with a gift list at this point, please consider these ideas that capture the real spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sand Dollars, Skeletons and The Season

I've just finished decorating my Christmas tree, which always inspires me to think about the origins of many of my ornaments.  Glittery, beaded, balls from India are favorites, as well as embroidered bells from Italy. But the most unexpected decoration is a pure white sand dollar I got from St. Croix. Sand dollars make elegant Christmas ornaments and are commonly used in coastal areas and the Caribbean. The pretty sand dollar-covered tree above was captured in Eleuthera, with echos of the sea right outside. I never realized that sand dollars are fuzzy sea creatures similar to starfish. The sand dollars that wash ashore are actually skeletons.  Decorating a tree with skeletons gives a whole other perception that doesn't quite fit with the holiday season but I still think they're pretty. Will you be decorating with any souvenirs from your travels this season?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Genips and Sea Grapes and Figs, Oh My!

I love tropical fruit, the more exotic, the better.  Whenever I travel to the Caribbean, I make a point of visiting the local markets or vendors for local fruit. In St. Kitts, genips, shown above, are sold on almost every street corner of Basseterre. Genips are like lychees, you peel them and suck out the pulp, around the seed which is slimy and slightly sweet.

Figs are what Kittitians call the miniature bananas pictured above. I don't like bananas but I do enjoy figs, which are sweeter and creamier than the bananas grown in the U.S.

Sea grapes grow on towering trees that tend to grow near the sea. This sweet fruit is also sold by many street vendors in St. Kitts. There's nothing like nibbling on a juicy bunch, as the sun warms your shoulders. Do you have a favorite fruit that you discovered on your travels?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chocolate Chicago

I am recovering from a chocolate hangover. Like a love hangover, it has no cure.  It all started when I grabbed a Groupon for Chicago Chocolate Tours. Chicago boasts a long candy history and naturally, I'm very familiar with most of it but my husband isn't ( he just likes chocolate, not sugar in all forms). So we signed up for the Gold Coast Chocolate Tour and met are tour guide Jenny, above in the lobby of Bloomingdale's. Even though I possess a serious sweet tooth, I confess that I was not equipped to down pounds and pounds of chocolate over 21/2 hours.

We started at More cupcakes, a tiny gourmet cupcake boutique aimed toward cupcake snobs, which includes me.  As you can see from the display above, the shop carries a dazzling array of flavors, including savory versions like maple bacon, goat cheese basil and blue cheese walnut praline.

We sampled a tasting size of the chocolate fudge cupcake that was rich and moist. We planned to head back to stock up on red velvet, salted caramel and passion fruit cupcakes after the tour but little did we know, the thought of more desserts would not be at the top of our lists.

Next, we visited Chicago's only Belgian Bakery, Hendrickx Bread Crafter. We crowded into the kitchen where the owners demonstrated their old world techniques. We tasted fresh bread, chocolate croissants and a raisin and walnut roll that melted in my mouth. I admit, I questioned their sanity when the owners mentioned that they had moved their business from the Bahamas when they tired of the weather but insanity clearly creates amazing baked goods.

The chocolate for the croissants was whipped up from blocks of Belgian chocolate. It was heavenly but the real test of a good bakery? When the kitchen floor is slippery from all the butter used.

When we arrived at Sarah's Pastries, I was feeling a tiny bit of chocolate fatigue. We had also toured Harry & David, where they plied us with chocolate truffles,  chocolate and caramel moose mix popcorn, chocolate covered cherries, and a chocolate mouse so adorable, I couldn't bear to eat it. I crammed most of it into my purse because I just didn't have the strength for another bite. At Sarah's, we tasted chocolate peanut butter drops and something else that's a cocoa-covered blur.  The cookies above, were so cute but not cute enough to tempt me to eat one. My resolve to taste every sugary morsel offered had disappeared.

When I saw the sparkling Christmas display at Teuscher Swiss Chocolate, I perked up. The chocolates are flown in weekly from Switzerland and since my memories of eating fresh Swiss chocolate everyday in Lucerene remain fresh, I gathered my strength to nibble the champagne truffle, pictured above.

We were instructed to down the truffle in two quick bites, in order to savor the flavor of the Dom Perignon flowing through the chocolate.  It was good. I'm sorry I can't offer more details because by that point, my taste buds were starting to protest.   I wouldn't have agreed before but there really is such a thing as too much chocolate. My husband lounged on a bench as  I gazed glassy eyed, at the decadent chocolate arrangements. We had been defeated by chocolate.
The tour wasn't only about munching chocolate, however. We learned valuable chocolate facts such as, when chocolate was so valuable it was used as currency, pirates would make counterfeit cocoa pods by  removing the cocoa and stuffing them with a fake substance!  Chicago became a big chocolate center in the 1800s because the frigid climate is perfect for preserving chocolate. Did you know chocolate is a good remedy for coughs? I will be trying that this winter. I selected the Gold Coast tour because I love the landmark architecture. That's the John Hancock building, which used to be one of the world's tallest, rising into the sky above.

With all the chocolate, we did manage to pick out some favorites, mine was the cupcakes but my favorite memory was of these people above. They stood in the cold in front of the historic Water Tower offering free hugs. I watched several children take them up on the offer, while most adults were wary but I thought it was a lovely idea. You can have too much chocolate but you can never have too many hugs.