Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Getting Back Up

In April 2012, my daughter and I took a special Spring Break trip to visit some friends in Texas who own a large horse ranch.  They very graciously welcomed my daughter and I for a week of riding lessons.  Like most 10-year-olds, my daughter was a little obsessed with horses.  I remember well being the same way, and how my mother wisely arranged for me to get some first-hand experience working at a ranch. I thought I would be bobbing happily in the saddle on a daily basis, wind blowing in my hair, working on my sun tan. I imagined I would end each day with a little bushing of the horse's withers as she playfully tickled my cheek with her whiskerey muzzle before I latched her safely back in her stall. I never did get to ride, but I certainly learned just how much work horses are to take care of, and how feisty and uncooperative their personalities could be. It effectively quelled my longing to own a horse without crushing my love of them.  That was hardly my intention that week 2 years ago, as I have to admit, I was excited to get up in the saddle a little bit myself.

My daughter started off with a basic tutorial.  Our friend, the owner of the ranch, very patiently walked her through leading the horse, mounting, walking, steering and stopping.  The next day she tried trotting, and continued to learn how to communicate not only with her mouth, but also her legs and hands.  My daughter rode on three different horses during our stay, the last being a beautiful bay mare whom our friend's daughter had ridden when she claimed the Reining World Championship.  She was a very good, obedient mount, but still very spirited, and not always certain how to take instruction from the light-weight amateur on her back.  I knew it was possible that my daughter might experience a fall.  That just happens when you ride, and I prayed earnestly that if it happened, the incident would come without injury. It had been a little disconcerting to learn on our arrival that our champion friend had been thrown just hours before, leaving her miraculously alive, but with a hideous bruise that spread from her forehead to her eyes, darkening as the week progressed until she looked literally like she was wearing Batman's black mask. But my brave girl wasn't deterred. I watched with pride and a tiny helping of nerves as she went through her lessons, and was just starting to feel at ease when it happened. They were in the round pen, walking in circles as our friend stood in the middle with the long whip, guiding the horse with his gentle clucks and taps. Then something spooked the horse, or irritated her, and suddenly she took off at a run. My daughter held on the best she could, but the pace and the bouncing was too much for her, and she fell off into the soft bank of fine red dirt that had built up against the pen wall. To my huge relief, she was uninjured, just a little shaken. She dusted herself off, let us all check her over, but didn't even want for a moment to sit down for a while. She wanted right back up.

I was so proud of my girl. I was so grateful that she didn't walk or limp away from something scary, but that she was determined to try again. That spirit of bravery inspires me, and gives me the courage to get back up when I am down. Some falls are not without injury. Some carry with them permanent scars that don't go away over time, and finding the courage to get back in the saddle is a steeper hill to climb. But people do it every day, against incredible odds.

My daughter hasn't ridden since that trip to Texas, and she has definitely outgrown the darling boots and spurs our generous friends got her so she could ride in style. But I hope she will never forget the experience. And when life knocks her down now and then, I hope she will always get back up, dust herself off, laugh a little with those who love her and were there to make sure she is okay, then get right back in the saddle like the brave young lady she is. And I'm going to try to do the same.

In the round pen
After her fall, my daughter learned how to turn her mount,
which this particular horse was a champion at.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Food Review: Cheesecake!

The "Original"
This post first appeared on March 11, 2014. I continue to update with new reviews from time to time. The italicized part of this introduction is the same, so you can skip ahead if you've read before. New reviews are marked as such, and I've added a star rating and "richness meter" to help you out (see below). Enjoy!

In 2002, when Dallyn was new to the touring cast of Les Miserabl├ęs, we had a 4 week stop in San Francisco while they prepared to take the show across the Pacific Ocean for their big Chinese debut. This was my first exposure to the phenomenon that is The Cheesecake Factory, the distinctively decorated, almost always overcrowded restaurant and bakery with a menu so extensive they ought to bring it to your table using a forklift (it's spiral bound and has page numbers. Need I say more?). We spent the month in a little studio apartment just up the street from a CF, and I must admit, we ate there far too often. Dallyn was making bank. Every visiting family member or friend was another excuse to go, and even when it was just us, sometimes I didn't feel like cooking in my tiny, under-equipped kitchen and we would make an escape to the cheesecake haven in the sky (literally; it was on the top floor of the downtown Macy's). It certainly wasn't the extensive, convoluted menu that was the attraction. It was, of course, the cheesecake, dozens of them, more than we could sample. Well, more than we could sample in a month. Dallyn, bless his heart, humored me, since cheesecake is really not his thing, but he was still my perfect sounding board as we discussed the intricacies of flavor, texture, and presentation of each delectable slice. Our obsession followed us as we toured the country, and even in the subsequent years. We were thrilled when they brought the chain to Utah, even though we never lived closer than 40 minutes away from the nearest one.

Now that we live only 5 minutes from a Cheesecake Factory, and I've been needing lots of cheesecake (yes, there are times in life when it qualifies as a need) I thought I might as well put all that sampling to some use and provide reviews of all the varieties we've tried. When it comes to picking cheesecake, we often spend lots of time standing in front of the display case deliberating over just what we're in the mood for, so maybe we can spare you the trouble.  I'll start with my top 3 picks today and continue to add more as time allows. So if you want to have this list handy, bookmark it and check it out the next time you find yourself in the happy predicament of having so many cheesecakes to choose from and so little time.

Ratings: Out of 4 stars (*)
Richness Meter: 1-light & mousse like (there's always room for it);  2-about as rich as your average cheesecake; or 3-richer than a regular cheesecake (you'll want a glass of milk to wash it down. Do not attempt to finish by yourself after a full meal!)

Top 3 Picks:
These are our "go-to" flavors that we get when we just want an old favorite that we know we're going to love.

Chocolate Tuxedo Cream **** 1
This is a lighter more mousse-like cheesecake, perfect for when you don't have room for one of the knock-you-out rich plates, but hey, you're at the Cheesecake Factory, and how can you leave without dessert? Layers of cream and chocolate mousse topped with a super thin ganache.

Chocolate Raspberry Truffle **** 3
Ready for some rich chocolate paired with the perfect complement of tart raspberry? In my opinion, chocolate and raspberries were meant to go together, and this dessert is the perfect marriage. On the richer side, with just the right amount of fruity tartness. Make sure you scoop some of the whip cream to lighten it up.

Godiva Chocolate **** 3
Yes, you can get them mail order,
complete with fun dry ice to play with.
This was my birthday cake in 2008.
Dallyn and I are huge fans of Godiva chocolate. In our less lean years (I mean financially, but I guess I could mean the other thing...), no special occasion was complete without a small box of Godiva, and we would stretch the joy out as long as possible by sharing one piece only per day.  We would tease our children that Hersheys is for kids, Godiva is for grownups and is wasted on the young, and would point them to the stash of kisses in the pantry. (They did challenge us once to a taste test to prove their palates were sophisticated enough to tell the difference, and they sort of passed, so sometimes we are gracious and will share, but mostly we hide it.) Yes, we're obsessed. So it is no surprise that this cheesecake makes our top 3 list. It is rich. It is basic, but basically beautiful in its chocolate perfection. No fancy layers or trappings, it's just the most exquisite pure silky chocolate experience available. Definitely utilize the whip cream.

Everything Else:

(New Review!) Toasted Marshmallow S'mores Galore **** 3
Oh, wow. This was a surprise. We tried this one on a recommendation from a friend. Having seen it in the case, it looked like just another chocolatey one, and I wasn't really in the mood for that, but when I saw a picture the way it would be served with a perfectly toasted marshmallow melting all over the top, I knew I had to partake. Toasted marshmallows are my very favorite treat. Ever. We knew we had to have it on a plate at a table rather than the to-go boxes we typically grab (since presentation seemed pretty important), so it was a little while before we actually got to try it, but it was well worth the wait! The marshmallow turned out to be marshmallow creme rather than an actual marshmallow (the photo was a little deceptive), but it was still nicely toasted and tasty. The chocolate cheesecake was delicious and creamy, with little chunks of harder chocolate hidden near the base that added a scrumptious texture. Crunchy bits of graham were scattered over the lot, with a full square of graham cracker balanced attractively on top. The traditional graham crust was a perfect fit. This one is rather rich, so definitely grab a cheesecake buddy to share. I can't recommend saving the leftovers unless you first eat all the graham cracker parts, as those will get soggy in the fridge (as we sadly discovered).

(New Review!) Original ** 2
Several people said I had to try this one. I was skeptical. I'm picky about the consistency of my "plain" cheesecake. It has to be perfectly creamy and moist throughout, no dry cakeyness, and I especially love a sour cream topping. I usually like cherry pie filling on top, but in order to get the pure experience, I had it plain. It was good. Pretty basic. It was creamy enough, but not the to-die-for creamiest I've ever had. The best plain cheesecake I've had was at Junior's in NYC. There are so many other awesome options for cheesecake at The Factory that I'm not likely to have this one again, but if you really want one, go for it.

(New Review!) 30th Anniversary Chocolate Cake Cheesecake *** 2
This was my desert of choice for my recent birthday. It seemed a nice compromise between cake (for my husband) and cheesecake (for me), and truly it was delightful! The cake was moist and flavorful, the cheesecake creamy, and the moussey layers in between were luscious. The big ganache swirl on top was a bit much to get through, but a little bit with each bite was a nice addition.

Reviews to come:
Dulce de Leche
Key Lime
Wild Blueberry White Chocolate
White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut
Mango Key Lime
Pumpkin Pecan (seasonal)
Reese's Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake
Oreo Dream Extreme