Saturday, December 26, 2015

Tis the Season ...

Tis the season, as they say.  I’m taking a little holiday break but wanted to share a quick pairing with you using the magic of auto posting.  Many of us are either enjoying the gifts we received during Hannukah a few weeks ago or have just cleaned up the wrapping paper from Christmas.  The luckiest among us may have received a seasonal treat from Japan as well, known as the Karakuri Christmas presents.  This annual delivery arrives at the end of the year (customs issues aside) from the workshops of the amazing Karakuri Creation Group, whose artisans are often featured here.   Many members of the group have a clever sense of humor which they impart into their puzzle box designs.  

Wrapping Box by Kyoko Hoshino

A great example of one of these annual puzzle box treats with a sense of humor is the “Wrapping Box” by Kyoko Hoshino.  It was created to resemble an actual present, wrapping paper and all, complete with a ribbon and little bells.  Hoshino likes to incorporate cloth and other unusual materials into her designs.  In this case, the puzzle box is all wrapped up in festive cloth.  You can feel the box inside, but you can’t unwrap it.  How will you open it?  Using your sense of touch and a basic understanding of how many Japanese puzzle boxes work will help you open this present.  Hoshino thought it would be fun to design something in which all the elements were literally hidden, rather than hidden in plain sight.  It was a great idea, and this box is a lot of fun to solve, despite the fact that you can’t see what you are doing!

Simple flavors combine perfectly for a light winter sipper

Keeping with the festive spirit I present a light, refreshing and colorful holiday smash created by David Kwiatkowski from Detroit’s Sugar House.  This Cranberry Smash muddles together fresh cranberries with lemons, fresh rosemary sprigs and demerara sugar, then shakes it all up with cranberry infused gin.  The result is bright, merry and cheerful.  I added more sugar to mine, you can adjust for yourself as well.  Mash and mix, there’s nothing to it.  Now go enjoy the rest of the holidays – that shouldn't be too puzzling.  Cheers!

Cranberry Smash by David Kwiatkowski

For more about Kyoko Hoshino:

For the Cranberry Smash by David Kwiatkowski:

Some presents are meant to stay wrapped up

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Swayed by the Dark Side

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a seven year old boy went to the movies with his grandparents on his birthday.  He was just as thrilled as everyone else, watching what would become one of the icons of popular culture in our time.  I still remember my little R2D2 figurine, with its state of the art clicking noise generated by turning its head around.  It was also a thrill to watch the movies over again with my children, and carefully teach them about the merits of the original films over the “new ones”.  Now at last we have another trilogy coming, and the “new ones” will no doubt change in meaning.  While we all get in line for this momentous occasion, let’s contemplate a metaphorical puzzle box from the karakuri Jedi master himself, Akio Kamei. Kamei likes to revisit his concepts at times with series, and has made a number of follow ups to many of his boxes.  In this case, the “Rotary Box II” is quite different from the first version, in appearance, mechanism, and even size.

Rotary Box II by Akio Kamei

For comparison, let me explain about the first version.  Rotary Box I is a “spin” on the traditional Japanese puzzle box design, in which side panels slide in different longitudinal directions.  Kamei likes to turn things around, literally, with his designs, and designed Rotary Box I so the panels each twist instead.  But this is not the droid we are looking for.  The “RB2” is composed of two large halves, joined together to create a perfect, universal whole.  One half is entirely dark, while the other half is light.  Any motion created on one side can theoretically be seen as happening in the opposite direction on the other side.  It just depends on your perspective, relatively speaking.  There is a balance between the two halves.  They hold each other together, and are each required to reveal the potential space inside one another.  The question is, which side will you choose? Don’t get angry – or you might end up on the dark side.  Like most puzzle boxes, no “force” is required to open this one … or is it?

Almost as if they were perfectly cleaved with a light saber

The opening of another installment in the Jedi universe certainly calls for a good drink.  This one comes from Adam Bernbach, a Washington, D.C. area mixology Jedi, and relies heavily on a delicious fortified wine called Barolo Chinato.  Barolo is a sweet red wine from the Piedmont region of Italy.  Like many other vermouths, aperitifs and digestifs we have discussed, Barolo Chinato is created with a secret family recipe of herbs, plants and spices infused into the Barolo wine, including quinine, the same tree bark used to prevent malaria and make tonic water.  

The Darkside by Adam Bernbach. The gin is light and the Barolo is dark ... hmmm

In the “Darkside” cocktail, Bernbach combines the bittersweet wine with a subtle juniper gin and Peychaud bitters.  The gin complements the quinine flavors of the wine (as in a gin and tonic), while the Peychaud (a medicinal tonic developed in New Orleans in 1830 and used in the classic “Sazerac”) adds anise flavors to the mix.  The result is just right, with a blend of flavors reminiscent of the Negroni.  Perhaps you've already tried this cocktail, on a pit stop at the Mos Eisley Cantina, en route to Dagoba?  If not, go ahead and mix one up for yourself – this is one time it’s okay to be swayed by the Darkside.  And don’t forget to try a different pairing with the Barolo Chinato as well – many experts agree it is the perfect drink to enjoy with a piece of fine dark chocolate.  Cheers – and may the force be with you!

Don't be angry ... you can have one too

The Darkside by Adam Bernbach:
2 ½ oz Plymouth gin
1 oz Barolo Chinato
3 dashes Peychaud bitters
Twist of lime peel
1 whole star anise
Stir gin, Barolo Chinato and bitters together with ice. Strain into a glass.  Express the lime peel into the drink and garnish with it and the star anise. 

Balance has been restored to the galaxy

For more about Akio Kamei:

For Allard Walker’s review of the Rotary Box II:

For more about Adam Bernbach:

May the Force be with you!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

I'll Tell You a Secret

Would you like to hear a secret?  Who doesn’t like to be in on a good secret?  Mysteries, codes, hidden treasures, all excite because in part they hold a secret which we might be able to access, if we are clever enough.  The allure of the puzzle box relies on the secret, on knowing there is a hidden way in, and on finding it if we can.  Cocktails, on the other hand, are hardly mysterious.  Their allure lies in the stories inside the glass, the swirling history of one of humankind’s earliest inventions and all the people who have left fingerprints on it ever since.  There are so many great stories, it’s usually easy to find a cocktail to pair up with a puzzle box, or to modify one slightly.  In this case, the cocktail came first, practically begging for inclusion in this quirky endeavor of mine.  The holiday cocktail called “The Secret Catch” could easily be paired with almost any puzzle box, which, by definition, always holds a secret catch which must be discovered.  

Secret Base by Hiroshi Iwahara

But we have to pick one, so I have chosen the popular “Secret Base” by Hiroshi Iwahara of the Karakuri Creation Group.  Secret Base, originally created in 2007, is an incredibly fun puzzle box which has been so popular that Iwahara developed 13 official design versions over the years, using different wood inlays on the top and modifying the mechanisms and center piece for stability.  The box has a simple but surprising and elegant motion which reveals the first space inside.  The real challenge is to find your way into the second space, the secret base.  Iwahara mentions that he was inspired by Japanese animations which featured an underground, secret base, containing a robot hero.  To save the day, the base would swivel its shutters open and the hero would fly out.  This should give you some idea of how this box works, initially.

The Secret Catch by Ivy Mix
Just in time for the holiday season arrives “The Secret Catch”, a delicious cocktail to enjoy while sneaking your way into the Secret Base or just sitting by the fire.  This decadent egg nog evokes a dense and nutty fruit cake, as intended by its creator Ivy Mix of Brooklyn’s Leyenda by incorporating sweet sherry.  Mix was nominated this year for Best American Bartender of the Year.  

Aged rum works incredibly well, too. Don't forget the fresh nutmeg!

The original recipe calls for aged cachaça, a sugar cane based spirit popular in such cocktails as the Brazilian Caiphirinia. I substituted an aged rum, another sugar cane based spirit which keeps the recipe close to its intentions.  After all, you well know I am quite fond of aged rum.  The Secret Catch is rich, warm, spiced and luscious.  It may be the best egg nog I’ve ever had.  These could be quite dangerous on a cold night by the fire or at your next holiday gathering.  To be entirely safe, you should test them out ahead of time.  A few times.  Here’s to a cozy fire, a sumptuous cocktail (you deserve it), a lovely puzzle box and the start of the holiday season.  Cheers.

These are two secrets you should not keep to yourself

The Secret Catch by Ivy Mix:
11/2 oz aged cachaça
½ oz Pedro Ximenez sherry
¾ oz heavy cream
½ orgeat
¼ oz cinnamon syrup
1 fresh egg yolk (pasteurized if preferred)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Dry shake (no ice) all ingredients then shake with ice. Strain into a glass and garnish with grated nutmeg

For more about Hiroshi Iwahara:

For more about Ivy Mix:

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Monkey Business

It’s hard to imagine how a simple wooden box can surprise you.  Most of the time, it's just a box, with a lid that comes off, just like you would expect.  But you still want to open it.  The fact that it is a box implies its opening function, and something inside you is compelled by that function.  So you try to open it, lift the lid, turn the latch, swing the hinges.  If it won't open, you look around, you wonder why, still trying to find the way.  What happens if it starts to become clear that there is not an obvious way to open it?  Do you give up?  Or do you keep looking, still driven by the knowledge that it does open, after all.  A box should be opened ... and that is exactly what is so enjoyable about a great puzzle box.  Like a perfect game of hide and seek, you don’t actually want to discover the people you are looking for right away, and you don’t want to find them in the most obvious hiding places.  It’s much more satisfying if it takes a little while, if your opponents are clever, and well hidden.  The best opponents love it when you walk right past them, over and over again, without noticing or realizing.  The game gets harder each time you play, since you have already been all over the house and think you know all of its nooks and crannies.  This is where a really clever designer can surprise you with a puzzle box as well.  There shouldn't be too many places to hide in a little wooden box, should there?

The Monkey's Palanquin by Shiro Tajima

The origins of the Japanese puzzle box date back to around 1894, when two defining movements were created to trick the opener of what appeared to be a normal wooden keepsake box.  These “personal secret” boxes (himitsu-bako) had a side panel which either moved down or to the side, which then allowed the top panel to slide off.  For a century all subsequent Japanese puzzle boxes utilized these two types of movements in different ways and combinations to add difficulty to the secret opening, from two to over one hundred movements required.  As the number of moves needed increased, the challenge increased, but there were still only a few movement types needed to experiment with in order to open the box, eventually.  Like looking for someone in a bigger house, but one with the same layout.  Check the closet, look under the bed.  And don’t get me wrong – hide and seek in a mansion is incredibly fun.

It seems like such a traditional puzzle box ...

But setting expectations about how something should work is also a great way to fool someone, by changing the formula completely.  The Monkey’s Palanquin by Shiro Tajima of the Karakuri Creation Group, which is named after characters from a Japanese nursery rhyme, is a great example of this idea.  Tajima created this box in 2004 and applied his work in pure yosegi, the traditional marquetry inlay technique of the region.  There is a zig zag inlay design along the top of the box, which gives it the appearance of a traditional type of Japanese puzzle box.  I suspect this is all part of his plan to set your expectations, in order to fool you all the better.  He brings a fresh perspective to the puzzle box group and all of his designs have something unorthodox and unique.  The palanquin is an incredibly fun design, especially if you are familiar with traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, since that may confuse you.  I thought there must be something wrong with the box for a long time, as nothing seemed to happen no matter what I did or where I pushed and prodded.  Once the mechanism of opening is deduced, you can appreciate how clever the design is, how unique, and how Tajima plays with your expectations.  Don’t take my word for it – this box won First Prize in the Nob Yoshigahara Design Competition in 2004.

The Monkey Gland cocktail by Harry McElhone, c 1927

To prepare for this advanced level game of hide and seek, we need to invigorate ourselves with some adrenaline.  Perhaps with a “Monkey Gland” cocktail?  This prohibition era cocktail was created at the famous “Harry’s New York Bar” in the Ritz hotel in 1920’s Paris, and originally published in “Barflies and Cocktails” by Harry McElhone in 1927.  At the time, “male enhancements” were the rage (can you imagine? How ridiculous …) and the particularly odd practice of implanting tissue from monkey testicles into people, for longevity, had been created by a surgeon named Serge Voronoff.  The Monkey Gland was surely named as a marketing ploy based on this, and was probably akin to more modern cocktails you can think of with silly and racy names.  It consists of the simple combination of gin and orange juice, with some sweet raspberry syrup or grenadine and a splash or rinse of absinthe or other anise flavored liqueur.  It’s a variation of other gin cocktails such as the classic Clover Club, the Pink Lady, or my own creation, the “Pandora”.  The key here is fresh squeezed juices and natural or homemade syrups, for a subtle and tasty gin cocktail treat.  You can “monkey around” with the proportions and ingredients depending on your tastes, if you like it sweeter, or want the gin to shine through more, as examples.  Here’s to changing the formula, playing with expectations, hidden surprises and a little hide-and-seek.  Cheers.

Looks like a good time for some monkeying around

For more about Shiro Tajima:

For the Monkey Gland recipe: