Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sentimental Geisha Secrets

This one's for you, Mom.  Like many of my fellow puzzle box collectors, I received my first Japanese box when I was a young boy.  My parents had traveled extensively throughout Asia and the Pacific islands, and our house was full of mementos from their journeys.  It was quite exotic and exciting for a budding adventurer.   I remember when I was around 9 or 10, while playing hide and seek, I fell into a box in storage and stabbed myself on a sharks toothed spear!  My mother had a particular love of Japanese culture.  She loved painted silk screens, jade statues, kimonos.  My puzzle box was one of the many Japanese items in our home.  She also loved to collect boxes adorned with beautiful details such as inlays of wood or mother of pearl.  I am thinking about her now on the 1 year anniversary of her death.  She would have loved many of the boxes in my collection, and in particular, one very special box, which reminds me of her, the “Geisha Secret”.

The Geisha Secret by Yoshio Okiyama

Japanese master Yoshio Okiyama, was a third generation secret-box maker who was taught by his father, Yoshitaro Okiyama, who in turn was taught by his father, Tatsunosuke Okiyama, one of the 3 original founders of this art form dating back to sometime after 1870. Yoshio Okiyama developed some of the most complex traditional Japanese puzzle boxes in existence, including the 66 and 78 moves boxes.  To challenge himself, he went on to create a box with 102 steps, followed by ones with 122 and 119 steps.  His 122 step box is credited with the most moves ever created in a traditional style box.
Masterful marquetry depicts this unusually beautiful geisha

It’s amazing to contemplate the fine craftsmanship that went into that design, while keeping the box relatively small.  It can be confusing for Westerners or Europeans to understand the sizing of Japanese puzzle boxes, which are still measured using Japan’s original system of measurement, the shakkanhō, despite the adoption of the metric system throughout modern Japan.  The ancient system has been retained in certain disciplines, including carpentry.  The shaku is the main unit of length, similar to the Western “foot”.  Much like the foot, which was originally based on the length of that body part, the shaku was the length from the thumb to the middle finger, and now equals approximately 12 inches (the same size as 1 foot, for my European friends).  Other units derived from there as fractions of 10’s, like the metric system.  Japanese puzzle boxes are traditionally measured in units of “sun”.  1 sun is 1/10th of a shaku, or approximately 3 cm (a little more than 1 inch).  The tiniest of boxes, known as “mame” (“bean”) are 1 sun in length.  Larger boxes hold more moves, such as the typical 7 sun box (21 cm, about 8 inches) with up to 54 steps.  Okiyama more than doubled the steps while keeping the box almost the same size, by shrinking the “steps” – literally step-like components hidden inside the box, which create the movement patterns.  The steps in the 122 move box are approximately 7 “rin” (1/100th sun) or about 1-2mm each.  He was truly a master of the art.

An unusual sequence of moves will open the box

He created his “Geisha Secret” box (“New Trick Inside”) near the end of his career, around the time he was helping to form and lead the new “Karakuri Creation Group” of modern Japanese puzzle box artisans with AkioKamei.  The Geisha box is not as complicated as some of his creations, with only 10 moves needed to open, but is notable for incorporating new and unexpected movements in the panels.  The box is also very beautiful, adorned with stunning inlays of an elegant geisha on the front and flower on the reverse.  He continued to innovate until the end, establishing his legacy with the new generation of puzzle box makers.  Yoshio Okiyama died in 2003 at the age of 79.

The Golden Geisha cocktail

In honor of this special puzzle box, and for my mother, I present the “Golden Geisha” cocktail.  She would have gotten a kick out of this blog as well, and I think she would have liked this drink.  Credit is due to Wesley Wolfe, a Chapel Hill, NC area mixologist whose “Red Geisha”, which was featured as Imbibe’s cocktail of the week a few years ago, helped inspire this version.  In the “Golden Geisha”, I use a golden rum as the base spirit, and add fresh lime juice muddled with ginger and pineapple.  To sweeten the drink I made a syrup using plum wine, which imparts a uniquely Japanese flavor element.  If anyone recognizes this as another variation on the classic daiquiri, all I can say is, I’ll drink to that.  Cheers to those who inspire us to marvel at the beauty in life, which is truly a puzzle with many steps, and so worth opening.  I miss you, Mom.

Plum wine syrup adds a uniquely delicious element

The Golden Geisha:
2 oz golden aged rum
 1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1-2 small cubes fresh ginger
1-2 large cubes fresh pineapple
½ oz plum wine syrup

Muddle the pineapple and ginger with the syrup in a shaker tin.  Add the lime juice and rum, shake over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with pineapple wedge and lime wheel.

Plum wine syrup:
Heat ½ cup plum wine with ½ cup sugar in a saucepan to dissolve the sugar.  Simmer for 5 minutes, then cool and store up to 1 week.

For more about Yoshio Okiyama:

Cheers from this pair of sentimental geishas

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Puzzled in Paradise

Aloha from paradise.  For this week’s installment, Boxes and Booze has gone on location.  It was time to discuss another one of master puzzle maker Perry McDaniel’s fine confectionery creations, the “Hawaiian Hijinks Cake”.  In order to fully appreciate the puzzling nature of this finely crafted delicacy I felt compelled to seek out its inspirational source.  Going to Hawaii was challenging work, but someone had to do it.  Perry’s Hawaiin Hijinks is part of the “petit four” series of puzzle boxes he created which includes the “Pineapple Downside Over Cake” featured here previously.  The petit fours all look like deliciously edible tiny cakes in different colors and with small tasty details.

The Hawaiian Hijinks Cake by Perry McDaniel

Because of Perry’s woodworking skill and precision, they hide incredibly advanced and complex sequences of moves which are surprisingly tricky for such small objects.  The Hawaiian Hijinks is likely named for its use of Curly Koa, a beautiful exotic hardwood from Hawaii.  It gives the tiny confection a shimmering, layered appearance which is lovely and appealing.  Crowning it all is a little Hawaiian flower made from maple and bloodwood, with a tiny silver dot on top.  Unlike the other petit four puzzle boxes in this series, the Hawaiian Hijinks opens much like a very traditional Japanese puzzle box. It was crafted purposefully to resemble a “mame” style box, which translates as “bean” and refers to the tiniest of Japanese boxes. The Hijinks is amazing for its tiny, detailed interplay among the sliding panels.  The intricate work is impressive to behold.  You’ll be very satisfied when you finally bite into the secret hidden center of this petit four.

The master maker's mark ...

I've paired the petite sweet with a Hawaiian cocktail which has a secret of it’s own.  The famous “Mai Tai” might invoke images of the tropical Hawaiian paradise … but it was actually invented in California.  There are two competing stories about this cocktail.  It starts with a man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt.  In 1933 he opened what would become the very first “tiki bar” in Los Angeles, and named it “Don’s Beachcomber Cafe” (later known as “Don the Beachcomber”).  It became an instant hit with the Hollywood scene.  Rum was cheap, and Gantt was clever.  One of his drinks was called the “Mai Tai Swizzle”, and he is therefore often credited with having invented the drink first.  

I got the bartender here to work with me.  We did pretty well with what he had: The original recipe "Mai Tai" from Vic Bergeron as described by Beachbum Berry

Meanwhile, up in Oakland California, Victor Bergeron had opened a little bar called “Hinky Dink’s” in 1934.  It evolved along with the trends into a tiki bar and was renamed “Trader Vic’s”.  The story, as told by Vic himself, is that in 1944 he mixed up a new recipe for friends from Tahiti.  Upon tasting the drink, one of them exclaimed, “Mai Tai - Roa Ae!” which translates as “Out of this world!” or “The best!” and the drink got its name.  Like most cocktail lore, the truth is likely a bit tinted by colorful liquor and competitive showmen, but most agree that Trader Vic’s original recipe was better anyway so he usually gets the credit.  A great Mai Tai is rum heavy and not too sweet.  It should include aged Jamaican rum, fresh lime juice, curacao (orange liqueur) and almond syrup (orgeat).  It’s really just a fancy daiquiri variation.  Of course, I try to see the daiquiri in everything, so that might be a stretch.  Now I’m going to take off my tie (I couldn't resist) and enjoy these wonderful “Hawaiian” treats.  Mahalo, and cheers!

Relaxing with a pair of Hawaiian originals - Aloha from Paradise 

For more about Perry McDaniel:

For a great Mai Tai recipe (from the new king of tiki, Beachbum Berry):

P.S. Perry McDaniel shared this photo with me from a local bakery of his, which brought some of his wooden confections to life.  Art imitates life and vice versa!

I see a few familiar puzzles here ... tastier than ever! Thanks, Perry!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Breaking the Rules

Let's take a little excursion off the beaten path this time.  In fact, it will be more like ducking under the roped off barrier and wandering in the off-limits area where we aren't necessarily supposed to go, only to find something very interesting.  The Matchbox is a little gem of a puzzle box, co-created by Peter Hajek, Frank Chambers, and Ken Stevens.  It was puzzle exchanged by Peter in 2007.

The Matchbox by Peter Hajek, Frank Chambers and Ken Stevens

It’s constructed from Corian (the artificial stone material used on countertops) and brass.  It has a nice polish to it, fits well in the hand, feels very solid, and rattles a bit from something inside.  The drawer attached to the little brass knob won’t open, of course.  A little exploration and close inspection reveals a few things fairly quickly, but that only gets you so far.  No matter what you try based on what you have discovered, it doesn't seem to work and the little box remains locked. What makes this puzzle so interesting is how it “breaks the rules” so to speak, from what you might expect for this sort of thing.  You might not even consider the solution for a while, and if you do, it will surely make you feel uncomfortable, a bit, and hesitant to try it.  It all sounds so mysterious, I know, but there it is.  Break the rules, stray off the path, and be glad you did in the end.

I've met my match ...

What kind of cocktail, I hear you asking, would “match” well with this concept?  Something equally as hard to fathom, as rule breaking, as off putting an idea which in the end, turns out spectacularly well.  To understand how this might relate to a cocktail, you have to understand a bit about bitters.  Bitters, those little bottles of colorful liquid you see in some bars, sometimes going into your drink a drop or two at a time, are like cocktail seasoning.  They are made with pure alcohol, usually grain alcohol or even vodka, which has been infused over time with a medley of macerated herbs, spices, plants, and usually some bitter tree bark for good measure.  Bitters can be made from almost anything, to evoke unusual or creative flavors, such as baked apple or tamarind.  They were originally created by pharmacists or doctors, as medicinal elixirs.  They were so bitter and unpalatable that they would usually be mixed with something else tasty, like cognac, whiskey, or gin.  Many of the classic cocktails developed from this and have a few “dashes” of bitters in them.  The bitters bring out flavor and tie the other ingredients together, like adding salt to a recipe.

The Trinidad Sour by Guiseppe Gonzalez

Now that you understand all of this, you must realize that a cocktail would never have bitters featured as one of the main ingredients.   That would completely break the rules, be off putting, and give one serious pause before tasting.  One of the world’s most popular bitters, Angostura, was invented in 1864 by Dr. Johann Siegert as a medicine for Simon Bolivar’s army in the Venezuelan town of that name.  The production moved to Trinidad in 1875 where it remains today.  The “Trinidad Sour” is a paradigm shifting cocktail created by Giuseppe Gonzalez while at Brooklyn’s Clover Club for a cocktail competition.  He pushed the envelope, ignored dogma, left the path – are you surprised that he lost?  The real surprise is that it worked so well, and is a rewarding, delicious cocktail which stays with you in a delicious way.  Cheers to the rule breakers, to stepping out of the comfort zone, and finding something really satisfying.

It's so satisfying to break the rules!

For the Trinidad Sour recipe:

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Resistance is Futile

There is a particular puzzle box on my shelf which has been sitting there for a while, beckoning me.  It’s particularly stunning to look at, composed of a tapestry of wooden shapes and types, so it’s marvelous simply as a piece of art.  But that’s not why it beckons.  Contained within its walls lies a unique challenge which sets it apart from most puzzle boxes.  Yes, there is a complex series of over 30 moves to discover, in order to open the box.  But a few additional moves will then allow the box to be separated into its 6 individual sides.  And finally, for the ultimate challenge, each side can be dismantled into many, many distinct interlocking pieces until the entire box has been deconstructed to 80 individual pieces.  Which may render the box into a bundle of sticks forever, if the foolish adventurer loses track of how to put it all back together again.  This fear is what keeps many from ever attempting the complete deconstruction of this box.  And of course, what compels many to do it.  I knew I would have to face the challenge eventually, and resistance was futile.

Stickman No. 5 aka The "Borg" Box by Robert Yarger

The Stickman No. 5 Puzzlebox was created by Robert Yarger, a modern virtuoso of the craft.  His designs are highly prized for their originality, complexity, artistry and beauty.  Like all of his puzzles, this box has a nickname.  The “Borg Box” is so named for its resemblance to the space ship used by the “Borg”, the collective of alien beings from the Star Trek series.  The Borg exists as a single cybernetic organism of many species who have been assimilated into the collective and function with a hive mind to create the whole.  The analogy seems appropriate to this puzzle box, which is composed of 80 unique pieces made from different species of exotic hardwood, including maple, walnut, cherry and bloodwood, which all interlock, with no glue, nails, joints or fasteners, to create the complex and unique whole.  As if that wasn't enough, the main function of box, as a secret-opening puzzle box, is wonderfully challenging and complicated, with well hidden and cleverly engineered moves and sequences.  Robert mentions in his description of the box that it is enough of a challenge to merely solve how to open it.  He cautions those who would attempt to take the whole thing completely apart to be forewarned and “May God Have Mercy On Your Soul”!  You can ship your disastrous failure back to him for reassembly, but he will charge you for the shame.  Like I said, who could resist picking up that gauntlet?

Quite a challenge just to open the box

The reason for existence and ultimate goal in life of the original Borg, the fictional alien race of assimilated cyber organisms, is to “achieve perfection”.  If they were drinking cyborgs, they might like a “Perfect Martini”.  As I’m sure you know, the classic martini is composed of gin and dry vermouth, with varying ratios of each depending on the fashion of the times.  I’ve discussed the history of the martini before.  Vermouth is an aromatized, fortified wine, unique to each producer, and often made from a proprietary and historical combination of plants and herb infusions.  Dry white vermouth is the classic addition to a martini, but sweeter red vermouth, made from red wine, also has a long history with the martini and is found in many variations.  Lengthy discussion regarding how to make the “perfect”, as in “ideal”, classic martini aside, a “perfect martini” also refers to the variation of using both dry and sweet vermouth together.  

This martini is "perfect"

I've also discussed the technique of using both red and white vermouth before, in the “Perfect Duet” cocktail.  For this Borg-worthy perfect martini, I have combined a classic style gin with two special vermouths, Cocchi Americano white and Carpano Antica Formula red, to create the “Resistance is Futile”.  This medley of different species melds together seamlessly in a way which will assimilate you instantly, and gladly.  Cheers!

The "Resistance is Futile" cocktail

The Resistance is Futile:
2 oz gin
½ oz Cocchi Americano vermouth
½ oz Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
Stir all over ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and assimilate.  RIF.

You will be assimilated ...

For more information about Robert Yarger:

For more photographs of the Borg deconstruction, click here:

Challenge accepted ...

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!  I hope everyone was able to enjoy the end-of-year season, bringing the events and memories of the past year to a close and celebrating the beginnings of this brand new year.  We literally set sail on a new adventure to close out the year at the Boxes and Booze household, with a journey filled with sunshine, happiness, beauty, a little nourishing rain and so many rainbows we lost count.  I’d like to ring in this new year’s box and booze post with a New Year’s nod to my love of the Japanese puzzle box.  In many parts of Japan the New Year’s Eve celebration includes a very traditional dish of soba noodles, called “toshikoshi”, which translates as “climbing” or “jumping” from the old year to the new.  There are many theories about how the tradition of enjoying these noodles may have begun, dating back to the 13th or 14th century.  Soba noodles are made from buckwheat grain, which has a triangular shape.  Mikado, the word for triangular, also refers to the Emperor (mikado), suggesting the noodles embody his ancient power and may have been consumed in his honor.  A warm bowl of tasty, nourishing noodles seems like a comforting way to welcome the new year, no explanation needed.

Soba (Buckwheat noodle) by Hideto Satou

The Japanese puzzle box artist Hideto Satou of the KarakuriCreation Group embraced this theme with his “Soba” puzzle box, which recreates the traditional New Year’s dish on a bamboo plate (zaru).  The curls of noodles look good enough to eat and the strong bamboo box will deter your attempts to unlock it.  You’ll have to be as supple as the noodles to bend this box to your will.  

Use your noodle to open this puzzle box

The noodles symbolize many wishes for the new year.  The buckwheat plant is resilient and strong.  The soba noodle is long and “thin” (untroubled, peaceful), like an ideal life.  Buckwheat flour was even once used by Japanese goldsmiths to gather up gold dust – eating them will surely fill you with good fortune.  And like all good puzzle boxes, to open this one you’ll need to use your noodle.

The Auld Lang by Bobby Huegel

For a New Year’s toast I turned to the talented Houstonian responsible for putting our town on the mixology map.  Bobby Huegel, 2013’s “bartender of the year” along with his partner Alba Huerta, is a cocktail “celebrity chef” here is Houston, responsible for opening Anvil Bar and Refuge in 2009 which has spawned numerous other award winning spots and garnered national acclaim.  His “Auld Lang” is a festive New Year’s drink which ups the ante on the concept of a champagne cocktail.  It combines the refreshing grapefruit aperitif Aperol with St.-Germain (an elderflower liqeuer), lime juice and rosemary infused simple syrup before topping it all off with champagne.  The result is rich, layered, earthy, sweet and celebratory.  Here’s hoping for a lovely year ahead filled with those same sentiments, along with strength, resiliency, longevity, health, peace and love.  Cheers!

Here's to a spirited New Year full of solvable puzzles

For the Auld Lang recipe:

For more about Hideto Satou:

For more about the Japanese tradition of New Year’s soba noodles:

For more about Bobby Huegel: