Wednesday, July 25, 2012

If you love serious chocolate but are not a chocolate snob...

Give me a recipe involving chocolate, and I'll automatically double the amount of cocoa powder, switch from milk or semisweet to dark chocolate, and throw in a broken-up extra-dark chocolate bar for good measure. When it comes to chocolate, I don't mess around.

Which is why I decided to go hunting for the best extra-dark chocolate bar that is readily available. I don't mean those wimpy 72% cacao creations--I wanted a bar that was at least 85% chocolate. Nor did I want a bar that cost more than 6 cents a gram or that had to be specially ordered online. I was looking for something I could buy whenever a chocolate craving hijacked my brain cells.

I do not claim to have found the paragon I sought. Why would I want to? The joy is in the journey, not the destination. But here are some observations about four extra-dark chocolate bars that may well be available at a grocery store in your neighborhood. And if they aren't, please check out the ones that are, and let me know what you find!

#4 Lindt-Sprüngli Excellence, 100g, 12.5% sugar, $3.85
I had high hopes for this bar. I had a profound relationship with Lindt-Sprüngli the year I was 16 years old and living in France, right across from the Swiss border. And I do love Lindor truffles, even if they aren't quite dark enough. Besides, the Excellence ingredient list is pure and simple: chocolate, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, demerara sugar, bourbon vanilla beans.

Hélas, the Excellence bar disappointed. My first impression was that I was chewing wax. After 10 or 15 seconds, the chocolate flavor finally appeared, and it wasn't bad: a bit spicy, a bit fruity. But as soon as I swallowed, it went back to wherever it hides when I'm eating my vegetables. I'm not going to give up on Lindt products just yet, however: they also make a 90% bar (same ingredients) and even a 99% bar (cocoa mass, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, brown sugar).

#3 Ghirardelli Midnight Reverie, 90g, 11.1% sugar, $4.55
Higher price, smaller size. More chocolate, less sugar. This one should be fantastic, right? Well, it wasn't bad. Unlike the Lindt-Sprüngli bar, Midnight Reverie was neither waxy nor brittle, though it also started out tasteless. The chocolate flavor, which hinted of berries, developed a few seconds later, but not as late as with the Excellence bar. Contrary to the label's claim, unfortunately, the flavor was not intense. In fact, this could be a good starter bar for people who prefer milk chocolate but are switching to dark for health reasons.

Dark-chocolate purists might find the ingredients list distressingly long, with unnecessary additions: Midnight Reverie contains chocolate, cocoa butter, sugar, milk fat, soy lecithin, vanilla, and natural flavor.

#2 Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Lover's Chocolate Bar, 100g, 12.5% sugar, $1.49
At 1.5 cents a gram, this is without a doubt the best value for serious chocolate lovers! But then, what serious chocolate lover ranks ecstasy by cost?

The Dark Chocolate Lover's bar had a consistency similar to that of Midnight Reverie, probably because both bars contain soy lecithin (DCL's ingredients: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, natural vanilla flavor). Its flavor--strong on berries--hit the mouth sooner and was a bit more intense than that of its Ghirardelli counterpart.

I'd cheerfully eat little bits of this bar every day except for one thing: like the Ghirardelli bar and the Lindt-Sprüngli bar, it is not certified fair trade. That means the farmers who produced the cocoa probably did not receive a fair price for their product. Worse, it means that children, some of them actually slaves, may have been involved in farming the cocoa.

#1 Theo Organic Fair Trade Ultimate Dark, 84g, 16.7% sugar, $4.00
Theo comes from the Greek word for god (θεός), and the genus to which the cocoa plant belongs is theobroma, "food of the gods." The gods should be happy with Theo's Ultimate Dark bar, since it is both organically grown and fair traded. All the humans I've offered it to are happy with it too.

Its flavor, which evokes ripe, dark cherries, shows up immediately, intensifies while you chew, and lingers even as you consider breaking off another bite. Its consistency is smooth but not waxy. Its ingredient list is short and perhaps a bit too sweet: cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, and ground vanilla beans. No soy lecithin, no cocoa powder, no milk fat, no "natural flavor," whatever that is.

I hope I liked this chocolate bar best because of its excellent ingredients. I wonder, though, if I'm mostly attracted to the extra sugar. With 7 grams of sugar in each 42-gram serving, Theo Ultimate Dark is 16.7% sugar, which seems to belie its claim to be 85% cocoa. I may have to try these all over again, and no doubt add some other brands, just to be sure ...

If you want to conduct your own chocolate research, check out One Golden Ticket, a blog I discovered while preparing this post. I wish they'd add one of those subscribe-by-email apps--I'd sign up immediately if they did.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

NO EASY CHOICE by Ellen Painter Dollar

I bought a car recently, and the dealer just sent me an online survey. It asks a lot of detailed questions and asks for yes-or-no answers. Unfortunately, it's been several weeks since I was in the dealer's showroom, and I have no idea if the salesman offered me a drink, for example, or if he showed me how to work the sound system. So I tried to leave some questions unanswered, but the survey won't allow that. Either I say yes or no, or I don't take the survey at all.

How contemporary, I thought. And how destructive of attempts to tell the truth.

Ellen Painter Dollar does not say yes or no in No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction, but she tells the truth. In a book that is part memoir, part journalism, she recounts her lifelong struggle with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI)--her own and her daughter's.

OI, she writes, is "a genetic disorder better known as 'brittle-bone disease.' Frequent broken bones, often as the result of little or no trauma, are the hallmark of OI." People with OI will spend a lot of time in emergency rooms. They will have a great deal of pain. They may also have "muscle weakness, hearing loss, fatigue, joint laxity, curved bones, scoliosis, blue sclerae, dentinogenesis imperfecta (brittle teeth), and short stature," says the OI Foundation's website. They may look funny, especially to mean kids in middle school. Because of their frequently broken bones, their parents may be accused of child abuse. And half the kids born to people with OI are likely to have OI too.

Except that nowadays, reproductive technology offers potential parents a choice. For nearly 35 years, it has been possible to fertilize an egg in a test tube ("in-vitro fertilization," or IVF) and then implant it in a woman's womb. For more than 20 years, it has been possible to examine those fertilized eggs for genetic mutations and implant only the healthy ones. This is called "preimplantation genetic diagnosis," or PGD. If Dollar and her husband could come up with the money, they could use PGD to assure that, if they had a second child, it would be born free of the disease she and her daughter shared.

So, should the Dollars have looked for dollars and gone for an OI-free child? Yes or no?

Before saying "No brainer!" or "No way!" you'd do well to read No Easy Choice. If you like things cut and dried, it will drive you nuts. Dollar sees the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the wise and the foolish in just about every argument. She tells stories that show how solidly she identifies with everyone who's struggling with reproductive issues. But after you've sat down with her and examined dozens of arguments pro and con, and after you've joined her in wrestling with scores of intellectual and emotional questions regarding her own highly charged decisions, you'll have a much better idea of the possible implications of any choice you, or anyone else, might make.

This is a personal story, not a textbook on medical ethics. Dollar is an evangelical Christian, and her conservative faith is the ever-present background of her drama. Don't expect her book to sound like a sermon, however. It is compulsively readable, with a touch of suspense. When you have finished it, you will feel that you and Ellen are friends. You may be surprised by her eventual choices. You may disagree with other readers about whether she made the right decisions. You may, in fact, not be entirely sure about where she stands.

This openness, I think, is one of the strengths of No Easy Choice. Dollar knows that not all questions have yes-or-no answers, and she refuses to check those boxes when a decision requires more nuanced thinking. Instead, she faces the hard questions and their real-life implications, looking at the yeses and the noes and the maybes and the maybe nots. In the end, she does what we all must do, given our human fallibility--she leans on God's grace for wisdom, forgiveness, and courage.

I don't think it will be a spoiler if I quote the last sentences of her book:
The Christian narrative does not provide an obvious answer to whether it's ethically sound for believers to use IVF, PGD, or other assisted reproduction techniques. But it does provide a grounded, hopeful context in which to ponder essential questions about whether and how we will bear children as technology offers us ever-more-sophisticated techniques to do so. Infertility and family legacies of genetic disease inevitably cause substantial pain, but the Christian story invites us, even while we are mired in that pain, to believe in and cling to the extremity of love.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

THE SHAPE OF WATER by Andrea Camilleri

Thanks, whoever you are who got me started reading British-born author Michael Dibdin's 11 books about Venetian-born detective Aurelio Zen. And thanks to all of you who advised me to plunge into American-born author Donna Leon's 21 (and counting) books about Venetian-born police commissioner Guido Brunetti. I love both series (you can read my comparison here).

But alas, Dibdin died in 2007. Leon, though apparently in good health, writes only a book or so a year, and I'm gaining on her. What series will I read next? I wondered aloud to my Italian friend Sharon. "How about one by a Sicilian-born author about a Sicilian detective?" she suggested. "Have you heard of Andrea Camilleri?"

I hadn't, and I'm suspicious of translations. But now that I've read Camilleri's first book featuring Inspector Montalbano, The Shape of Water, I believe I've found my next fixation. Booklist's summary is right on:
Salvo Montalbano, police inspector in the small Sicilian town of Vigata, has a potentially explosive case on his plate: a local politician has been found dead in his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. The position of the politician's pants (around his ankles) and the location of the car (parked in an abandoned field where prostitutes ply their trade) suggest that the victim may have died in flagrante delicto. Higher-ups want the embarrassing case closed quickly, but Montalbano smells a setup. Unlike many European cops dealing with the horrors of modernity, Montalbano is no melancholic brooder; rather, he puts a comic face on the noir world, sorting through multiple layers of corruption Sicilian style while still finding time to enjoy a good lunch. 
Montalbano's lunches aren't quite as good as the meals prepared by Commissario Brunetti's wife, Paola--the Sicilian detective, wifeless, has to heat up the food the housekeeper leaves for him. But a quick dish of boiled shrimp with pasta, garlic, and oil isn't half bad, and the "multiple layers of corruption Sicilian style" are downright delicious (if you don't happen to live in Sicily).

Will Montalbano be able to figure out what actually happened to the dead politician, and why certain schemers are likely to benefit from his flamboyant death scene? The politician's widow gives the inspector a challenge:
"That is up to you to discover, if you so desire. Or else you can stop at the shape they've given the water."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand."

"[When I was a child,] I had a little friend, a peasant boy, who was younger than me. I was about ten. One day I saw that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water, and was looking at them attentively.

"'What are you doing?' I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.

"'What shape is water?'

"'Water doesn't have any shape!' I said, laughing. 'It takes the shape you give it.'"
I needn't have worried about reading a translation. Stephen Sartarelli is a poet and translator of poets, and his diction in The Shape of Water is simple, idiomatic, and elegant.

And fortunately, I'm not going to run out of Montalbano books anytime soon. Camilleri, now in his late 80s, is still writing. The Age of Doubt, the English version of the 14th Montalbano novel, was published in May 2012, four years after the original Italian edition, L'Età del dubbio. Since 2008, Camilleri has published at least five more Montalbano novels in Italian, plus several collections of short stories. Those of us who like our detective stories served up with humor, cynicism, and la cucina italiana can expect this feast to continue.