Monthly Archives: December 2017

Chocolate Monday: Theo’s Gingerbread Spice chocolate bar

Theo's gingerbread close upOn Friday I was out running errands with my kids. We had to stop by Fresh Thyme Market in order to pick up some Albanese gummi bears to send to my best friend in Georgia. One of the most miraculous things about Fresh Thyme is the fact that they sell a wide array of Albanese products. Not only do they have five or six of varieties of their gummy products in bulk, but they also have several of their chocolate covered yummies, including my dearest loves: their double dipped chocolate peanuts and raisins. They are simply delicious. Since I can’t get up North to either of the Albanese stores that often, when I found out Fresh Thyme carries their goodies in bulk, and at great prices, I started stopping by more regularly.

As we made our way into the store, intent only on purchasing some gummies to send to my BFF, I noticed a display with lots of fun holiday goodies. Part of that display contained Theo’s Gingerbread Spice chocolate bar. I’d never tried any of Theo’s chocolate, even though I see it every week in my local Kroger, so I figured this had to be a sign.

I love gingerbread! One of my fondest childhood memories is of my mom making gingerbread at Christmas time. Now, I’m not talking about gingerbread cookies, although I do love those as well. I’m talking about spicy, delicious, moist gingerbread. If you’ve never had it, find yourself a recipe and make it now. It is one of the best cakes out there, especially with a beautiful dollop of Cool Whip on top. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

One year as a tribute to my favorite Christmas classics, I made cake bite versions. While I thought my candy cane was pretty good, my egg nog even tastier and my chocolate fudge version darn near perfect, it was my gingerbread cake bite, dipped in sinful milk chocolate with a tiny white swirl on the top that made me smile the most.

So Theo’s combination of fair trade organic milk chocolate and the spices of gingerbread were a must have.

This is definitely a spicy bar! From the second the chocolate hit my tongue, my mouth was filled with the warmth of nutmeg and cinnamon. As the chocolate continued to melt, I got the tiniest hint of cloves. Thankfully they were not overpowering at all, just a subtle nod to the scent that often pervades the holidays. After my first bite was done, I felt like I still had cinnamon in the back of my throat and my tongue and cheeks tingled a little from the spices. It reminded me a bit of how I feel after I take a large gulp of a spiced chai tea latte.

The chocolate itself is not overly creamy. I think the spices temper it so that instead of getting a milky cocoa, it’s much more about the cinnamon and nutmeg. At one point I got a really clear after taste of nutmeg that was a bit overpowering, but thankfully it dissipated quickly. I like nutmeg, but it can very easily be too much.

This is a good bar, but not one that I can eat too much of at a time, which is definitely good for my waistline! The spice of it really does bring the holidays home for me. It tastes like Christmas.

Overall:

Taste: 7/10
Appearance: 9/10 for the wrapper and 6/10 for the actual chocolate
Value: 7/10

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Free Reading Friday: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Immortal LifeThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks floored me. Everything I thought I’d known about the medical industry was upended in these pages. I still find it hard to believe that the concept of informed consent it not just something new in my lifetime, but specifically in my adult lifetime. I cannot fathom how this is possible.

I’m not sure what is more upsetting, the fact that Henrietta’s cells were taken and used without her knowledge or consent, or the blatant disregard for Henrietta and her family the medical community has had since had since they harvested her cells.

Skloot’s research into Henrietta’s background, family and the medical research that has been done using HeLa cells is extensive. Thankfully her writing never gets too technical. It’s clear that she had the Lacks family, none of whom had any understanding of the research done on her cells, in mind when she wrote the book. Skloot makes it clear that while she was determined to tell Henrietta’s story, she wanted to make sure that unlike the multitude of doctors who used Henrietta with little to know care for her as a person, she had the family’s consent and blessing. She wanted to tell Henrietta’s story in a way that would make her children proud and still ensure the world learned about the woman who unknowingly changed the face of modern medicine.

I appreciate the focus Skloot gives to the ethical issues concerning not only Henrietta’s unknowing contribution to science, but also the modern debate about how tissue samples should be handled. While courts have yet to rule on a great many issues relating to these murky waters, they are issues that as a society we should be thinking about. One of the most important aspects of this book is the way Skloot explains just how little control people have over their tissue. While patients may have to sign consent forms in hospitals or doctor’s offices which tell them their tissue may be used for future medical endeavors, I had no idea that any tissue sent off for biopsies or sent in for paternity/DNA/geneology testing could also be saved and utilized in anyway the collectors deem appropriate. Considering how easy it is for modern science to identify people based on DNA samples, it’s kind of scary how easily patient confidentiality can be completely breached with these stored samples.

Skloot brings up some really important questions in this book. Should patients be informed about what will happen to any tissue they have removed from their bodies any time it is removed? Should companies have to compensate donors for their samples? Should companies be able to make millions off of people’s biological donations? Should companies be able to patent gene research information for things like breast cancer, thereby limiting the amount of testing and research that can be done? Should tissue be donated to medical causes the patient would be against from either a moral or religious standpoint? These are all important questions that members of society should be pushing to have answered.

One very positive outcome of this book is the closure the Lacks family was able to get because of it. While they have every right to be bitter and angry, I’m so glad the process of helping Skloot with her research not only helped them understand what happened to their mother/wife/aunt/cousin, but also helped them get over some of their resentment and bitterness toward Hopkins and the doctors who harvested Henrietta’s cells. I’m glad the journey to tell Henrietta’s story helped them find someone from their family who had been lost to them.

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Throwback Thursday: NIPSCO

Tonight my house is ablaze in light. It’s not because it is full of people, but rather because it is very dark outside and the light is comforting.

I’m not afraid of the dark or anything. I left that behind a long time ago. However, when my kids and I got home tonight, there was strange happening that set me a little on edge. We live in a fairly small neighborhood and while I don’t know all of my neighbors, I recognize most of them in the surrounding 8 houses or so. In addition, very few people in our neighborhood park on the street.

When we got home tonight, there was a car I didn’t recognize parked across the street and one house down. Now, that isn’t entirely strange…someone could have been visiting. However, as we pulled into our driveway, the car pulled into my next door neighbor’s driveway and sat there for a minute. I dropped my stuff off in the den and was heading to the bathroom when I passed by the front door and saw the car sitting directly in front of my house. It sat there for a very long time, partially blocking my driveway. I watched it and found it slightly unnerving. I opened my front door and when I did, the car slowly started driving away.

I started to shut my door, but decided to walk out to get the mail to make sure the car was leaving our neighborhood. It wasn’t. It went down toward the exit of the neighborhood (there is only one exit as the neighborhood is a circle), turned around and headed back toward my house. It was going slow and I hurried back into my house. I watched as it once again parked across the street and down two houses, then let someone out of the car. That person proceeded to walk back toward the exit of the neighborhood. I’m not sure exactly where the car went because I was busy watching the pedestrian.

I watched as he disappeared from my eyesight. It should have set me at ease, but it didn’t. I’m sure it didn’t help that my husband has band practice tonight, followed by cards with his buddies, so it’s just me and the kids.

So, as soon as the guy left my eyesight, I went around and turned just about every light in and outside of my house on. Our backyard is particularly dark, so I put the floodlights we attached to our enclosed patio on. I never turn those lights on.

While I am sure nothing will happen and it was just some strange fluke, it got me thinking of my teen years.

My parents worked shift work at one of the steel mills. My dad was a paramedic and my step-mom worked security, checking in the incoming trucks. While they were very mindful of their schedules when I was in my early teens, by my senior year, there were many nights when they were both on 4-12’s. They would be gone before I got home and home after I went to bed.

Of course it was those nights when I was all alone that the house would start to creak and moan. It was those nights that brooms would fall over in the laundry room with terrible crashes, scaring me out of my mind. It was those nights that the phone would ring and the callers would hang up. It was those nights when the power would surge or go out for a few minutes. It was those nights that strange cars would drive slowly by.

Or at least that’s the way it felt. To keep away potential intruders and to make it impossible for them to hide on the off chance they were quiet enough to sneak into our small house, I would turn every light on in the house. This meant flipping on exactly 6 light switches–like I said, it was a small house. I think on some level I knew there was no way anyone could sneak in that house without me hearing, but I put those lights on to keep myself safer. After all, anyone thinking of sneaking in would just assume someone was in those rooms, right?

Even though I knew I should turn those lights off, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, even when I was getting ready for bed. I would leave all of those lights on to protect myself.

When my parents came home, the house was often completely lit up.

In the morning I would hear the cry of every parent of every kid who grew up in Northwest Indiana: “What, do you think we own stock in NIPSCO?!” NIPSCO, Northern Indiana Public Service Company, supplied all power to people in my neck of the woods and my parents were constantly yelling at me to turn off the lights in order to save money. Any time I left them on, I heard the same refrain. All my friends heard the same refrain.

It wasn’t until I went off to college three hours away from home, that I realized every kid did not grow up hearing this. However, it was a touchstone for finding people who grew up in “the Region.” We all said it, often to confused friends, but the second a fellow Region-rat heard it, we’d laugh and ask if which of the two counties they were from. Usually we’d discover other regional loves that we had in common. While the phrase was the bane of my existence in high school, in college it was oddly comforting.

Just like all the lights surrounding me are comforting me now. Luckily I’m now in charge of paying the bills, so no one can yell at me for my little indulgence.

 

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Wildcard Wednesday: Brussel Bytes

Brussiel BytesAfter my workout I stopped in Fresh Thyme to get my daughter some of the vegetarian jerky she likes. It’s been over three weeks now and her desire to be a vegetarian does not seem to be wavering in the least. Her pediatrician is fine with this experiment as long as she gets enough protein and fruits and vegetables and doesn’t become a “carbotarian,” so I’m trying to get as many alternate meat choices as possible.

While I was looking at potential snack foods for her, I spotted one that peaked my interest: Brussel Bytes.

Unlike kale chips, which seem to be the new health food craze, I love Brussels sprouts. They are one of my favorite vegetables, whereas kale is something I only eat if forced to and even then not unless it is flavored into submission. I tried kale chips and could not stomach them. But Brussels sprout chips? That had me intrigued. And even though the ingredient list included kale (along with cashews, carrots, red pepper, coconut nectar and spices), I figured I’d risk it.

I grabbed the cheezy herb flavor, figuring even if I hated them it would be a fun experiment. But I didn’t hate them. Not at all. I actually really like them.

They are made from sprout “leaves” and coated with a a cheesy Italiany herb mix of basil, garlic, rosemary and salt. They have a great crunch to them and somehow remind me of spinach, my absolute favorite vegetable. They don’t have any of the bitterness that is often both Brussels sprouts and kale have, which is delightful.

Despite what the package claims, no chips will be moving over. They aren’t replacing potato chips in my heart and my brain has no illusions that I am actually eating chips. However, the entire package only has 160 calories, 4 grams of fat, 9 carbs, 3 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein, so I don’t feel bad eating the entire bag in one sitting. They may not have tasted as good as a single serving of salt and vinegar chips, but I felt a heck of a lot better about myself after eating them.

I haven’t tried to entice my kids to eat them yet, but they both actually like sprouts, so there is a chance they’ll at least try them. They may even like them.

I definitely want to try chili pumpkin seed flavored ones I saw as well, so I guess another trip to Fresh Thyme will be in order soon.

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Teaching Tuesday: ISTEP is the bane of my existance

I know, I know, I have complained and complained and complained about standardized testing lately. It probably seems like I’m exaggerating or making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill, but I swear I am not. Standardized testing is a horrible blight on our educational system. Once again, it is actually keeping me from effectively educating my students.

I’m not even going to go into the many ways in which the ISTEP graduation exam is a shambles of a test. I realize that it is our current reality (until lawmakers who have never been educators tire of it in a year or two and throw something else at us) and therefore am doing my utmost to just cope with the nightmare of it. However, currently the ISTEP is a test sophomore take in March and then again in April. Why they take two different sections of it, I have no idea. I don’t teach any sophomores, so my life shouldn’t be impacted by this test, right?

WRONG!

I teach a small number of juniors and since we had a crazy number number of juniors fail the test (about 50%), there are a lot of kids who have to retake the test. Now, I know, that 50% sounds horrible, right? Actually, about 65% of our students passed the English portion of the test and about 50% passed the math. Still sounds bad, right? Well, considering that only 31% of students in the entire state passed both sections of the test, we’re doing pretty well at my little school.

But I digress.

Of the 40 juniors I teach, only 4 of them failed the math section of the ISTEP (none failed the English portion). However, because they did not pass the math section, they had to do remediation for the test, which meant they missed two days of my class back in October. In addition, since retesting started this week, they also missed my class yesterday morning. And they would have missed my class today as well, if we hadn’t changed our entire schedule to accommodate the juniors who have to retake the test.

That’s right, we changed our entire schedule for half the junior class. Because the test scores are so important to our school letter grade and our “success” as a school, we changed the schedule for almost 1400 kids to help fewer than 200.

Our schedule is completely topsy-turvy. Today instead of coming to 1st block, my kids started the day in 2nd block. And, instead of it being an 84 minute block, it was 120 minutes. However, 1st block, which was the second class of the day was only be 60 minutes. Tomorrow, we are starting the day in 3rd block and finishing it in block 2. My second block class happens to be filled with kids who are in our work study program, so they only go to school until 11:30 and then they leave to go to work. So half of my class will be missing on Wednesday, but I still have to go on with my lessons. On Thursday those kids will only be in my class for 45 minutes instead of the scheduled 75, because on Thursday we go to block 4 first…for two hours.

Not only do I think kids will not be able to keep it straight, but they are going to be missing vital instructional time two weeks before finals begin. And none of those students have to take the ISTEP. They are all seniors who had a completely different graduation qualifying exam when they were sophomores.

I wish politicians and lawmakers could see the actual daily struggles teachers go through in order to make room for all of these tests in our curriculum. Most days it feels like the test matters far more than actual learning.

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Chocolate Monday: Hershey’s Gold Peanuts & Pretzels

Hershey's gold barWhile dropping off my daughter’s prescription at our local Kroger, I noticed a new candy display. It looked like a Hershey wrapper, but was a strange cream color I am not used to associating with Hershey’s. Low and behold, it was a brand new type: Hershey’s Gold. It claims to be a caramelized creme, which I’ve never really heard of, so I had to try it. Plus, it has peanuts in it, which is a big plus. Peanuts have always been one of my absolute favorite snack foods.

This bar also boasts pretzels and while I am not usually a huge fan of chocolate covered pretzels, when I was in college I worked at a knock off Hallmark store and we sold these amazing white chocolate pretzel candies that were very pointy and “cluster” looking, but that tasted like creamy dreamy heaven. Even though this bar claimed to be caramel and not white chocolate, I thought it might be similar, so I gave in.

Hershey's Gold pieceIf you’re looking for a strong caramel flavor, this isn’t the bar for you. It has caramel hints at best. And really, it just sort of has a milky, creamy, buttery flavor. It’s not really distinctly anything–except salty.

The salty, which comes mostly from the pretzels is not so overwhelming as to make it inedible, but it is strongly there. It kept catching me in the back of my mouth as I finished up each bite. The peanut bits combined with the pretzels add a nice crunch the bar, but not tons of peanuty flavor.

Aside from the pretzel (and again, the salt), none of the flavors really stand out. It’s just sort of a sweet and salty hodge podge. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised at the back touts that “sweet meets salty, creamy meets crunchy.” And really, that is the best way to describe the bar. A sort of nondescript sweet and salty flavor. It’s not bad, but I find it a bit unsettling that I can’t describe it any better.

Overall:

Taste: 4/10
Appearance: 5/10 (I find the color a bit unsettling too)
Value: 4/10 (it was more expensive than its regular Hershey brethren, which I also find unsettling).

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Free Reading Friday: Caraval

CaravalIf I could pick one book I want made into a movie this very second, it would be this book. I simply LOVED it!

Stephanie Garber does a spectacular job of bringing the darkly magical world of Caraval┬áto life. Part mystery, part magic, part love story, this book has something for everyone. Despite the fact that the book is set in a different world during what appears to be the equivalent of our 1800’s, Scarlet is a heroine any modern girl can relate to. The otherwordly setting is just real enough to be believable to anyone who like historical fiction, but just magical enough to appeal to those who love fantasy. I think this is the perfect book to introduce reluctant readers to the fantasy genre because of all the other elements from the genres of mystery, romance and historical fiction that it also incorporates.

Scarlet and her sister Donatella need to escape their abusive father who has spent the last 10 years making their lives hellish. They are both obsessed with Caraval, the magical game that takes place once a year, by magical invite only. Although Scarlet writes to the mysterious Legend, the master of Caraval for years, it is not until the eve of her engagement to a man she’s never met that she finally gets a response. And not just any response…three tickets to Caraval.

As much as Scarlet wants to go, she cannot let childish curiosity for the game outweigh her desire to save herself, and more importantly her daring, but younger sister from their father’s grasp. She believes her impending nuptials are the only escape. However, when Scarlet is kidnapped and taken to Legend’s private island where Caraval is being held, she toys with the idea of staying. It is not until her beloved sister is also kidnapped and held as the game’s prize that she consents to truly play.

From there the book is a glorious mix of mystery, magic and romance that readers are sure to fall in love with. Garber does a wonderful job of setting up the sequel in a way that has left me clamoring for more. This is my pick for Goodreads YA fantasy book of 2017.

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