Saturday, December 30, 2017

Favorite Things

The beginning of a new year is always cause for reflection.  Here at Boxes and Booze I’m thinking about this dual hobby of mine, which I have oddly enough managed to combine.  I’ve made many friends from both sides of this coin and for that I am truly amazed and thankful.  It’s become a reliable outlet for me to explore my creative side and I’m so glad there are a few folks out there who enjoy seeing what I’m up to.

Yosegi Oak Wood Slide Box (Stickman Puzzle Box No. 1)

“A puzzlebox is a complex container that challenges the mind, redirects perceptions, and whose solution eludes those seeking to discover its secret chamber.” – Robert Yarger

For this New Year’s post I’m offering another kind of beginning, from the puzzle box perspective at least.  Last year we traveled north to Canada where I explored the theme of time and a unique puzzle built inside the case of an antique clock.  The year before we celebrated in Japanese style with soba buckwheat noodles.  That was rather apropos as the origin as well as the rebirth of the puzzle box was in Japan.  This year we will celebrate in the US, tracing the origin story of one of our most celebrated artists and the start of something special.

When Robert Yarger and his brother were boys, they each received a traditional Japanese puzzle box one Christmas.  Over the years the boxes were lost, and eventually Robert decided to make a few such boxes of his own to replace them, giving the results to his brother, family and friends.  These would become the first Stickman puzzle boxes.  Luckily, a number of the boxes were also sold to collectors who recognized that there was something special going on inside these plain, rustic boxes, and who requested new designs.  One of my favorite stories about this time is how frightening it was for Robert to use the old radial arm saw he had at the time, which would launch projectiles across his shop, scream and smoke like a banshee, and make him practically pee in his pants as he turned it on.  It’s a testament to his skill that he could create such incredible objects (including all components of the first 3 Stickman boxes) with the most rudimentary of tools.

The original run of “Oak Wood Slide” boxes (what would become The Stickman No. 1 Puzzle Box) were fashioned from scrap wood Robert had about his shop and as such were rustic in appearance and varied in shape and size.  Details like beveled edges and decorative grooves were all created with the radial saw.  Even then, the boxes featured more than meets the eye and the spark of Stickman genius can be seen.  There are three separate compartments to be discovered, and an internal locking system which causes one drawer to open as another is being closed.  The effect is rather metaphorical, and unintentionally prophetic for this artist’s work.  Robert is eternally in pursuit of the horizon.  He always creates something new, something not seen or done before, and when he does pay homage to past designers or designs, he adds his own brand of new magic to it.  When he completes a project, he rarely revisits the same idea again, unless there was some element to it which he left unexplored.

Beautiful yosegi made from poplar and wenge

He also hates to revisit past puzzles, even if all of the original run were never finished, as has happened with some of his designs.  Fortunately, he loves to encourage and mentor new artists.  Rick Jenkins has been Robert’s most recent apprentice and has developed and acquired the skills found in all of the Stickman series.  With his help, many of the original puzzles which had never been finished are now complete, including the final run of Stickman No. 1 boxes.  As a fitting tribute to the origins of his puzzle company and passion, Robert and Rick finished the final box, number 100, in beautiful yosegi veneer.  Rick learned the technique for this on his own, essentially teaching it to Rob in the process, who offered advice and technique suggestions along the way.  This experience actually prompted Robert to develop the “Traditional” box (Stickman No. 32), a design he might not have attempted otherwise.  The “Yosegi” Oak Wood Slide Box is unique in the No. 1 series, wrapped in a stunning checkered and striped pattern which gives the box a distinctive appearance and prominently shows off Rick’s impressive skills.  The box heralds another beginning, and we look forward to seeing what Rick Jenkins will create on his own as this new drawer begins to open. 

Boxes and Booze

To ring in the New Year along with this portentous puzzle I’ve mixed up A Few of My Favorite Things, just like the box does.  The aptly named drink features the special Italian aperitif known as Barolo Chinato which comes from the Piedmont region in north western Italy.  Barolo is a prized wine made from the Nebbiolo grape, with a following and provenance which needs no alternate use.  Yet generations of distillers have used it as a base in which to steep cinchona bark, spices, sugar and herbs to produce unique and delicious vintages of something incredibly special.  It’s like applying the addition of complex puzzles to an incredibly skilled and beautiful piece of woodwork which could easily stand on its own to create something richer and more layered.  

My Favorite Things by Paul Manzelli

Mixologist Paul Manzelli, head bartender at Bergamot in Massachusetts, combined a few of his favorite things into this cocktail, which includes Barolo Chinato along with rye whiskey and the Italian Amari Aperol and Cynar.  The chinato brings wonderful balance to this combination of the lightly bitter grapefruit Aperol and the surprisingly sweet artichoke Cynar.  Manzelli clearly loves Italian aperitifs and digestifs.  And who can blame him.  This cocktail might become one of your favorite things too. 

Here’s a toast to woodwork and whiskey and warm winter laughter, puzzles and potions and praise to the crafter, boxes and booze and what family brings, yes, these are a few of my favorite things.  

Cheers and Happy New Year!

A few of my favorite things ...

My Favorite Things by Paul Manzelli

1 ½ oz rye whiskey
½ oz Aperol
½ oz Cynar
½ oz Barolo Chinato
1 dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with an orange twist or a Stickman logo.

For more about Robert Yarger see:

For more about Rick Jenkins see:

For prior New Year’s themed cocktails see:

Time Passages

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Let it Snow

Tis the season and it should come as no surprise that I’m continuing my holiday themed offerings again.  I’ve been saving up something special for this week which coincides with Christmas.  Although we don’t get much snow here in Houston we can still dream of a winter wonderland, a toasty fireplace and the fresh scent of evergreen.  I’m always fascinated by how traditions evolve over time and the origins of those traditions.  The Christmas tree, for example, and how it became a symbol of this season.  It’s not hard to understand why people throughout history have been drawn to the evergreen, which stands like a beacon of hope in the cold winter, promising that spring is coming one day.  Why not place ornaments and offerings on such a tree, to entice it to bring spring even sooner! I’ve got a nice little ornament around here somewhere…

The Snowflake Box by Robert Yarger

The Snowflake Box (Stickman No. 9) was designed with the idea of making a puzzle box tree ornament.  It’s a lovely little box attached to a loop and would look nice on anyone’s tree.  Robert Yarger designed these with fine interlocking corners which do indeed look like snowflakes, and the white Holly wood completes the look. As a decorative ornament, these are wonderful and you won’t likely find a finer piece of American ornamental folk art around.  

Ho Ho Holly

Of course, this is a Stickman box, so the beauty doesn’t end there.  It is also an incredibly satisfying and brilliant puzzle box.  The Snowflake is composed of six similar pieces which form each side of the cube.  Once solved, the panels can be disassembled, creating another puzzle.  It’s two puzzles in one, a gift that keeps on giving! The box has a wonderful solution.  It holds a few unexpected surprises, but everything is visible and there are no hidden tricks, which makes it such an elegant design.  It’s also quite marvelous how the finely milled corners interlace, overlap and interconnect.  The craftsmanship is outstanding.

Rudolph Collins by Bach Nielsen

To toast this special box I’m calling on the special reindeer who pays a visit this time of year – Rudolph of course! The Rudolph Collins is a local favorite at The Barking Dog, a cozy down to earth bar in Copenhagen where the staff create Christmas cocktails for a cocktail advent calendar each year.  This one is based off the classic Tom Collins, that refreshing summery sipper with gin, lemon and soda.  For the Christmas version there is added sloe gin, the wintery gin infused with sloe berries, and cinnamon syrup, which always turns up the winter wonderland vibes in a holiday drink.  It’s a delicious variation and a tasty treat for the holidays.  Try one of these at your own festive gathering and have a happy, happy holiday. Cheers!

Flavors of the season will make your nose shine bright

Rudolph Collins by Bach Nielsen (The Barking Dog, Copenhagen)

1 oz London dry gin
¾ oz sloe gin
¾ oz fresh lemon
½ oz cinnamon syrup
Chilled soda water

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a tall glass with ice.  Top with the soda water and garnish with a cinnamon stick - or a lemon wheel Rudolph.  Cheers!

Let it snow!  Happy Holidays.

For more about Robert Yarger:

For more about sloe gin see:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Feeling Cagey

To truly enjoy the holiday season this time of year it’s always nice to keep it simple.  Remember the little things in life and spend quality time with family and friends.  These simple pleasures become amplified and take on new meaning and depth.  Here’s a fairly “simple” puzzle box I received as a gift from a friend, a small gesture yet one that means so much.  Shiro Tajima, formerly of the Karakuri Creation Group, enjoys playing with simple shapes and structures in surprising, unusual and puzzling ways.  He created his “In a Cage” puzzle with the goal of designing a simple box with a complex secret.  He is masterful at the small details in his boxes and has created some of the most puzzling and award winning offerings in the past.

In a Cage by Shiro Tajima

In a Cage is a perfect little puzzle box.  It really is so simple, just a small redwood box inside a white dogwood cage.  The box is held in place somehow, but moves around and from side to side.  Puzzling out the solution is not so simple after all, and requires a number of insights into how the structure functions. It seems hard to believe that such a little device could keep you busy for long, but it does.  It’s so clever and satisfying.  It’s truly a brilliant design and won an honorable mention at the 2017 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.  It’s a great puzzle to slip in your pocket and hand to a friend, and if it can’t be solved it still acts as a lovely fidget spinner!

It seems so simple, and yet ...

To toast this little marvel I made a replica of In a Cage … in a cocktail!  Sticking with the theme of something simple which has hidden complexity, I’ve created a variation on the classic Brandy Alexander, one of the more deliciously simple holiday cocktails in existence.  I always seem to come back to this one during the holidays.  Traditionally, brandy is combined with crème de cacao (chocolate liqueur) and heavy cream in equal proportions for a decadent dessert drink which dates back to 1915 and a bartender named Troy Alexander.  He used gin in the original, but brandy became dandy soon after. 

This cocktail is in a cage!

For this version I’ve swapped the brandy for Pedro Ximenez Sherry, a seriously scrumptious dessert wine because why the hell not.  But you really begin to appreciate this Alexander more and more as you experience it (much like the puzzle box …) thanks to the special holiday ice keeping it cool.  The ice is made from cinnamon spiced cranberry syrup and Becherovka, the Czech Republic herbal liqueur which dates from 1807 and has been described as “Christmas in a glass”.  Its flavors of ginger and cinnamon blend deliciously with the cranberry syrup and swirls of the melting goodness ebb into the Sherry Alexander as you sip it until you start to feel guilty about experiencing all this pleasure.  There’s a puzzle in your hand, a toasty fire going, maybe a kitten in your lap and your family all lounging about looking at their phones. It really doesn’t get any better than this, does it?  Go on, you deserve it.  Cheers!

Don't be cagey - it's delicious!

St. Nicholas Cage

1 oz PX Sherry
1 oz Crème de Cacao (Tempis Fugit)
1 oz heavy cream

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Add a large prepared ice cube and grate some nutmeg on top.

Ice: Freeze mix of Becherovka : spiced cranberry syrup 1:1 with equal parts water.  Volume depends on your ice tray.

Spiced cranberry syrup: Add 1 cup fresh cranberries, 2 cinnamon sticks and a few allspice cloves with 1 cup water to a sauce pan.  Simmer until berries burst then mash.  Add 1 cup sugar to dissolve and simmer for a few minutes.  Strain the mix through a mesh strainer to remove the large solids.  Scale up as desired, this stuff is delicious.

Simple pleasures

Special thanks to Matthew Dawson for the perfect puzzle gift.  The bourbon gummy bears have nothing to do with the cocktail, but Matt loves gummy bears so those are for him.

For more about Shiro Tajima:

For last year’s Brandy Alexander:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Piece of Cake

It’s that time of year again when we all like to indulge ourselves with particularly special treats and gifts.  I’m not Italian, but my family and I have grown to love having the special Italian holiday bread known as panettone on hand this time of year.  Originally from Milan and dating back in origin all the way to the Roman Empire, panettone has now become a holy grail of sorts to bakers and achieved a certain cult status.  This is because, of course, it’s incredibly complicated.  Panettone dough is one of the most challenging to work with and can be impossibly tricky according to bakers.  To create the perfect, lightly delicate and delicious cake, full of tiny treats inside, which literally pulls apart and melts in your mouth, requires days of preparation and precise planning.  Only a true master baker can pull it off.

Blackjack Cake by Perry McDaniel

A feat which Perry McDaniel could handle with aplomb, no doubt.  After all, his Puzzled Guy Patisserie produces some of the finest, most precise and beguiling puzzles around, and folks line up around the corner whenever the bake shop happens to be open.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to experience how Perry designs his puzzles, you’ll also note the incredible process and detail he undergoes, with prototypes that look like geometric experiments gone awry.  Somehow he turns these into the most delicious looking creations which beg to be devoured, but keep you guessing and guessing as to just how that can be accomplished.

His Blackjack Cake is an innocent and tempting looking treat.  It appears to be a chocolate layer cake with a splash of chocolatey sauce drizzled over top and oozing down the sides.  The artistry of this piece is simply wonderful, and mimics reality so well it fooled many in an unexpected way. Perry sold these at IPP 37 in Paris, and offered additional real cake pastries alongside them as well.  Reportedly, some people wanted to purchase the “other” puzzle box from him too – the actual cake.  His creations are so lifelike that a real slice of cake might just be a puzzle box too.

Only the finest ingredients will do

Perry likes to push the envelope with his puzzle boxes.  He is able to build in tiny features and details which seem impossible for such small pieces.  He hides moves in plain sight incredibly well.  And he likes to add novel elements, as with the Blackjack Cake.  The name is actually a clue to the goal, for in addition to finding and opening the two secret compartments here, there is also a game of cards.  Win, and you’ll be holding Blackjack in your hands.  The mechanism employs Perry’s usual assortment of tricky, well-hidden moves, but also a few novel elements which will either infuriate or delight you.  I was personally delighted, and I’d love to play another hand.  Fortunately, as with his prior petite four and bon bon puzzles, the “pastries collection” will be another series. Hooray, and bon appetit!

Il Panetun by Michele Garofalo

I’m toasting Perry and his marvelous cake which is really a puzzle box with another cake – which is really a cocktail!  The “Jerry Thomas Project” is a speakeasy style bar in the heart of Rome, Italy and home to world renown mixologist Michele Garofalo.  The bar celebrates the “Professor” Jerry Thomas, one of the fathers of cocktails and the original mustachioed bartender from the nineteenth century.  He predated the prohibition era so naming a speakeasy in his honor is a bit anachronistic but we can forgive the artistic license – the drinks there sound fabulous.  Check out their home page, where the secret password hides in plain sight for you to discover.  As a tribute to his home town and their historical cake, Garofalo has created a liquid version.  His “Il Panetun” recreates the panettone as one of the more decadent and delicious holiday cocktails you are likely to consume this season. It features a homemade chocolate sauce and the decadent, quinine based wine Barolo Chinato, which was meant to be paired with chocolate, after all.  The result is simply stunning, rich and utterly delicious.  I’m trying to imagine enjoying one of these with some authentic artisanal panettone simultaneously but my brain keeps short circuiting when I do.  Here’s to special treats and the spirit of indulgence. Who says you can’t solve your puzzle and drink it too?  Cheers!

The combination of chocolate and chinato is heavenly

Il Panetun by Michele Garofalo

1 ½ oz gin
½ oz Grand Marnier
½ oz Barolo Chinato
1 oz homemade chocolate syrup
1 oz heavy cream
1 egg yolk
2 dashes orange bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together vigorously without ice and then again with ice to chill and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a Pocky stick or a slice of panettone.

Homemade chocolate syrup: Simmer ¾ cup sultana raisins and zest of 2 oranges with 2 cups water, gently muddling once simmering and cook 6-7 minutes. Strain solids and add ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder at low heat.  Whisk to dissolve then add twice the amount of sugar, combine until smooth.  Cool and bottle, keep refrigerated.  

This pair takes the cake

For more about Perry McDaniel:

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

Solar Box by Akio Kamei

Especially because the days are getting shorter as those of us in the northern hemisphere move closer to the winter solstice, it’s nice to see the sun.  Here’s a brief glimpse of that erstwhile ray of brightness in our lives, shortened thanks to the Earth’s axis.  Anyway that’s my excuse this week and I’m sticking to it.  Akio Kamei’s Solar Box is a fiendish little star masquerading as an octagonal puzzle box with curving rays of frustration encircling the main compartment.  At least master Kamei mentions in his description that it’s “not easy” to open.  I certainly felt a little burnt by the time I mastered its gravitational pull.  I almost went blind staring into it for so long.  The Solar Box is a beautiful creation and twinkles like the star it is thanks to the lovely zelkova wood.  One final word of caution though, you’ll need to have some Serious Puzzle Fortitude to solve this – I’d recommend SPF 50.

The Sun by Joe Schofield

This puzzle box star needs something equally bright to sip while solving.  The Sun, by Joe Schofield from The Tippling Club in Singapore, provides just the right amount of bright, warming holiday cheer.  Singapore isn't a cold, snowy wonderland this time of year – its nice and sunny.  So in Singapore, this cocktail is actually a winter holiday drink!  A seasonal mix of white rum, tart lemon, and rich honey syrup start this nuclear fusion going nicely.  Add a few photons of the gentian-based Peychauds bitters (which are out of this world) and ignite with a gamma ray of liquid heat – the original calls for Tabasco and I used Habanero Hellfire bitters, which can light quite a fire in your mouth.  Shake it all up while humming “Here comes the Sun” and sip responsibly, or you’ll be seeing stars.  Cheers!

A bright, sunny and winter cocktail with a hint of heat

The Sun

1 ¾ oz white rum
¾ oz fresh lemon
½ oz rich honey syrup (3:1 ratio)
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 dash Tabasco

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a sunny lemon wheel.

Let the sunshine in ...

For more about Akio Kamei: