All posts by merle_levy

I've written, sketched, and painted since I could hold a pencil, crayon, and brush. I added knitting, crocheting, and other forms of needlework from the age of 11 going forward. I review products we buy every day, movies we see years after release, and whatever traveling experiences I have.

Fifty Shades Again and Again

Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed 


51YUYsBp2CL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_51HhuPD7WhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

(5/5)


Pros: Holds your interest in more than the sex vignettes.

Cons: Small print is still my nemesis. Reading in the bathroom for two hours causes your legs to fall asleep.

Having already read (and reviewed) Fifty Shades of Grey, I couldn’t wait to read the next two installments. I planned to write a separate review of each, but as I read Fifty Shades Freed, it didn’t make sense to write about these two novels separately. To do so, I might end up giving away plot points instead of writing a review.


What I would like to explore is the “I couldn’t put it down” phenomenon that began with Fifty Shades of Grey. I fell victim to that sensation, too. But I didn’t observe it in my husband when he read it. I’m not using my husband as an example of all men, nor am I an example of all women. Yet, there is definitely a difference as to how we responded to E. L. James’ writing style.

I read all three books while in the bathroom. The overwhelming majority of us read on the toilet but are hesitant to admit it. That’s okay, I’ll be the poster child for readers on the go. I would plan to read until my main purpose had been accomplished. James’ style wouldn’t let me put the book down. Chapters end and begin at pivotal moments – creating and resolving cliffhangers. Even when the chapter break wasn’t during a dramatic or sexually driven section, it was always in the middle of something interesting. There are natural scene breaks within each chapter that I used to help me switch gears and get off the pot. Most of the time I was able to do that, but only because I had to get dressed for an appointment.

Another habit of mine is to read one book from beginning to end. When I’ve tried read more than one book at a time, I would confuse characters and plots. This is just how my brain works, period.


My husband’s reading style is completely different from mine. He reads two books at a time – one serious, the other light. He typically reads non-fiction. His favorite place to read is in bed, but he’ll also read in the living room or spare bedroom. He never reads in the bathroom – not even the newspaper. I think his reading style makes him immune to the “I couldn’t put it down” phenomenon.

Another interesting factor in the Fifty Shades series is that it’s set in the United States. With the exception of a few chapters in Fifty Shades Freed, nearly all of the story takes place in Seattle and Portland. Along with this, there is a lot of product placement. Christian give Ana an Apple Notebook, iPad, and iPod; a Blackberry, and cars from Audi. Perhaps this is a trend in newer novels, but it serves its purpose. Reading the actual product brand name makes the extravagance of Christian’s gifts believable for me. I can understand that he’s so wealthy that big ticket purchases don’t make a dent in his wallet. We all know what it costs to buy technology, and most of us would have to max out our credit line to purchase more than one of these items in a year while Christian buys them all within a week or two. Moreover, he can’t understand why Ana has difficulty getting used to having all this and more showered upon her.

Their sexual vignettes are described in excruciating detail. I was often breathless after reading these sections. Every possible sex toy, whether for domination or just kinky enjoyment, is described from Ana’s perspective. She’s never seen any of these items, so we learn what they look like and feel like through her before we learn what their names are. Sometimes, they’re not named at all.


Despite all the sexual acrobatics, this is a love story between a woman who had to work for everything she had and a man who had everything money could buy except for emotional stability – a flawed Prince Charming. Christian’s possessive tirades are almost his undoing. Ana has learned to be submissive in the Red Room but fights Christian toe-to-toe when her independence is at stake. Ana’s rebellious nature is nearly her undoing.

Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that we learn more about Christian’s family, Ana’s friends and family, and all the events that made Christian the person he is today.

Now for the husband/wife seal of approval:
We both enjoyed all three books in the Fifty Shades series. As for the sex toys, I discovered that there was a lot out there that wasn’t covered in 37 years of a sexually active marriage. My curiosity was piqued. My husband was not as curious about them as I was. I teased him a little about being stodgy, but for all my curiosity, I wouldn’t actually buy any of those things. It’s nice to think about the possibilities.


Actually, I started imagining how Ana and Christian would do it in their 60s. In one escapade, Christian tells Ana not to go to the bathroom beforehand. If Ana and Christian were 60 and 67, she wouldn’t have made it through the cuffing before bursting. He might have had his own prostate-driven emissions.

All joking aside, I wanted to see Ana and Christian grow old together. Fifty Shades Freed gives a small glimpse of their near future together through a series of epilogues. I don’t want to give anything away, but James does a great job of tying everything up with a ribbon. Instead of calling it a happy ending, I prefer to think of it as a happy beginning. The very last entry in the epilogue series is a pleasant surprise that I refuse to expose. Trust me, it’s fulfilling!

I realize that I’ve been bouncing around more than I would in a standard book review. Fifty Shades has that effect on me. There is so much more than a standard book formula. Ana and Christian are stuck in my head, along with everyone they know. If James decides to write about middle-aged-to-senior Ana and Christian, I’d be first in line for more.

Much More than Explicit Sex!

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James (pen name for Erica Mitchell)

Cover design of Fifty Shades of Grey

(5/5)

Pros: Despite what everyone’s heard, there is much more to Fifty Shades of Grey than explicit sex.

Cons: For me, it was small print.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the first of a trilogy. The second and third titles are Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shade Freed.

Most people read this book and salivated in expectation of the film. That’s the way things usually happen with a popular book. Most critics felt that the film didn’t live up to the novel. That’s something that usually happens when the hype from a wildly popular book exceeds any possible outcome for the upcoming film. I compare it to the disappointment we experience when a meticulously planned event doesn’t quite go the way we planned it. Instead of celebrating what we have, we curse at the dream that wasn’t realized.

I’m not like most people. I actually prefer reading the book after seeing the film. True, I’m not riding the tidal wave of “trending,” but I can enjoy the film without comparing it to the book. When I do read the book, some aspects of the characters that were left in the air on film become clear and help me get to an “aha moment” that I didn’t even know I missed.

Seeing Fifty Shades of Grey prior to reading also helped me absorb the story instead of just the erotica. Don’t get me wrong, I found myself inexplicably out of breath while reading the parade of sexual encounters between Ana and Christian – and I’m not even talking about the “S&M” events. I wondered if my husband and I could have ever managed multiple encounters within minutes of each other when we were in our 20s. My conclusion is that one of us would have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion during the second or third time.

Reading Ana’s first encounter with Christian reminded me of the first book I read that detailed the first sex act, Peyton Place. I was at least 20 at the time and still a virgin (this is important to note). The book, film, and TV show had faded from the spotlight years before I happened upon my mother’s copy. I remembered seeing the film a few years earlier, but that was a time when anything controversial was filtered in film. You had to know the keywords used during pivotal scenes to understand what they were talking about. The courtroom scenes relied on Legalese to keep the censors at bay. The book was an eye-opener, especially for someone whose mother sheltered her from anything too explicit. I understood the general mechanics of sex but didn’t know how it would feel, especially the first time. Lucky for me, Peyton Place took the reins and told me that it would hurt and there would be blood. I remember thinking about that on my wedding night. I wondered if the hotel would sue us if they couldn’t get the stains out (yes, guilty conscience trumps carnal anticipation).

After reading Ana’s inauguration into sexuality, it made Peyton Place look like a sixth-grade health class textbook! I decided immediately that my husband should read this book. Why? I remembered comments from men who read excerpts from the book state that it didn’t turn them on. When I told my husband I wanted to see the film, he said that he read an article stating that women get turned on by thoughts instead of images while men are the opposite. If he reads it without – ahem – losing his objectivity, he might be able to learn more about women (particularly the one he’s been married to for 37 years). He might read it, he told me the other day.

When you get past all the sex and the Dominant/Submissive chapters, you have a love story told in first person. Anastasia Steele meets Christian Grey when she interviews him as a favor to her sick roommate. The chemistry is overwhelming, and Ana spends most of the interview trying to ignore it while reading her roommate’s questions. When Christian shows up at her job, she tells herself it’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t take much more for her to realize that Christian is pursuing her – and she reluctantly likes it. I say reluctantly because she’s not fond of receiving extravagant gifts. When Christian shows Ana his playroom and hands her a contract describing the limits of their arrangement, she’s completely unprepared for the world she’s asked to enter.

Ana soon discovers that being in love with a man who cannot return it is as painful as being a Submissive. Christian treats the “arrangement” like a professional contract. Terms like “genital clamps” glare at the reader in the contract Ana must decide whether or not to sign.

To relate anything more of the plot would be a spoiler.

However, I can tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey is a good read — especially if you want more than a Harlequin romance. Ana is an intelligent, independent woman preparing for a career in publishing. She is no pushover. Christian is young but every bit the CEO – control is what he feeds on.

E. L. James even inserts a bit of comedy when Ana and Christian meet each other’s parents. On the surface, they’re boyfriend and girlfriend; but there is so much more going on between glances and stares. She writes not just Ana’s feelings and sensations, she paints a picture of Christian’s stares. His gray eyes seem to change tone with his emotions. Hence, Fifty Shades of Grey can also refer to his eyes – but that’s my take as an artist.

For anyone who feels intimidated by the shock of seeing expletives in print, try to put that feeling aside. Those words have purpose. They’re not merely there to shock. For example, the difference between “f—ing” and “making love” has to be illustrated. If the language is G-rated, everything else falls flat.

My recommendation is to buy Fifty Shades of Grey. I borrowed it from our local library and now regret that I’ll have to return it. I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, and it would have been nice to consult the first book to jog my memory – or just reread it on the spur of the moment.

Windows 10 – Trading a Set of Annoyances for a Set of Troubles

Windows 10

Windows Sign In Screen

 

(0/5)

Pros: It was free.

Cons: It exists, and soon everyone will be forced to use it. Run! Run, while you can!!

I bought my computer less than two years ago to replace my circa 2004 dinosaur that ran Windows XP. I liked XP, but when Microsoft stopped supporting it and my old computer began having blackouts, I had to face facts – I needed a new computer. The Dell Inspiron I bought ran Windows 8, which had its annoying idiosyncrasies but worked just fine. I got used to the funky photo home screen and almost got a kick out of seeing my forgotten photos appear in random slide shows. Other than that, I had no trouble with it. Even my husband, who has a difficult time getting used to new technology, was able to survive the learning curve without a scratch. My biggest complaint was that I lost the use of my Adobe Creative Suite (I just couldn’t afford the latest version). So why did I pay attention to a “Free Upgrade to Windows 10” come on?

I knew better. My graphic communications teacher taught me not to grasp onto free upgrades because they tend to be buggy. Yet, all I could think of was being stuck with another outdated operating system. I didn’t want to watch technology pass me by, so when Windows 10 was ready for installation in mid-July, I clicked the install button.

At first, I didn’t see that much of a difference. The Start menu was back, not that I recognized it. The desktop was back, but I could keep it up all the time in Windows 8. Those were the two pluses. Then there was Cortana, an interactive utility that worked well enough when I was too lazy to go online. I could easily live without it.

The other change was the browser. Instead of Internet Explorer (IE), the comfy devil I knew, I had to get acquainted with Edge, whose icon is a blue lower case “e” with a black swirl replacing IE’s golden halo. When launched, it looks like a beta version of the Windows 8 screen.

This reminds me of Odette and Odille in Swan Lake. (For those who don’t know the Tchaikovsky ballet: Odette is a white swan who is really a princess under her stepmother’s spell. At night, she returns in her true form, wearing white. Prince Siegfried see her and falls in love. They want to marry, but he must choose her from a group of princesses at a ball planned by the king. To prevent this, a cohort of Odette’s stepmother has his daughter, Odille, pretend to be Odette at the ball. She wears black but fools Siegfried by using Odette’s signal, and the rest is a tragic end for all.) Like Prince Siegfried, I was disappointed.

Admittedly, I wasn’t in a love-at-first-sight romance with IE. There were hiccups and all sorts of breaks in connectivity. I had all but abandoned it for Chrome. I only used it to play online games that didn’t run on Chrome, but my husband liked it. It was like a pair of comfortable, old slippers for him. I had to go through the hurdles of getting all his favorites back, but it went all right. Then it was time to play my online games. Only the ones I could play on Chrome would load. I contacted tech support and found out that I’d have to install Firefox if I want to continue playing old favorites. This means that Edge is now my husband’s browser. I have absolutely no use for it.

For the first couple of weeks, things worked well enough. I managed to get over having to install a third browser and learned to ignore Cortana unless I was stumped – or bored – during a search. Then the first bug bit me: Microsoft Word refused to open! This would have been bad enough any day, but on this day, I had looming deadlines for my volunteer work. I searched forum after forum until finally, I found profuse thanks for a cure. I just needed to backtrack through the thread to find the cure that everyone cheered. Whatever it was that I had to do felt like a final project in my 1990s computer programming class. It was not a quick fix, and somehow I ended up having to assign a PIN to access the computer because I’m not enough of an expert to decide which instructions have nothing to do with the fix. After three hours and a few reboots, I was finally able to begin working on my volunteer project.

I became complacent after surviving that bug. I thought that was the worst of it – until the end of August. We had been out for most of that weekend, and my husband was anxious to get to his email on Monday. It wasn’t long before he ran into an issue for which there was no “easy fix.” Emblazoned across the screen was an error window without options. The message was terrifying: “Critical Error: Cortana not working. We’ll try to fix on next sign in.” There was only one button to click. It was marked “sign out.” My husband called ATT for help, and they sent someone over. The tech was an expert, but he couldn’t figure it out. The fix he read about required starting in “safe mode.” This is done by tapping the F8 key while rebooting. Windows 10 ignored the F8 key several times. The tech apologized for not being able to start the computer in safe mode and suggested we get Microsoft to make a miracle. At that moment, the computer booted up without the angry Critical Error window. He shook his head, I said a little prayer of thanks, and he wished us well.

I thought the Critical Error window was gone for good, but it came back a week later! There was no way out. I ended up doing the same thing the tech did. After the fifth reboot, the thing disappeared.

Over the last few weeks, I talked to friends who also upgraded to Windows 10. Every one of them had complaints similar to ours. My advice: Caveat Emptor – especially when it’s a free upgrade. It’s my hope that Bill Gates happens upon this review and puts my computer back the way it was!

Curls that Last for Days

CONAIR hot Sticks

Conair Hot Sticks in th Box

(4/5)

Pros: Easy to set hair with great results

Cons: The thinner hot sticks can get undone and pop off (read my review for a painless fix)

Having had a love-hate relationship with my hair for as long as I can remember, it isn’t easy for me to deal with styling products. My expectations are too high, and the results have often been disappointing. The only thing more tied up in my emotional baggage than food is my hair. Multiple Sclerosis makes it hard to keep my hands over my head when I braid my hair. I came up with a system of French braiding my hair in my adjustable bed. I raise the head to a half-sitting level, a height that isn’t so painful for my shoulders. Time marches on. I’m 60 now, and my coping inventions don’t work as well for me as they used to.

Adding to my hair complex is thinning hair, which I noticed 25 or 30 years ago. By now, everyone can see my scalp shimmering between the strands on the top of my head. This was the same thing that happened to my mother, whose solution was a hair-piece that she wove into her long hair in an upsweep that looked like a French knot with a muffin top. It was a great look in the early ‘60s, but I don’t want to go down that road. I used to buy shampoos and conditioners that promised thicker hair, but they didn’t enough to warrant their price tags.

Because I still care about styling, I’m always on the lookout for anything that will bring a bounce of curls or waves – especially if it’s easy to use. Last November, I found something that works while looking for something else. I was looking for one of the latest, greatest ceramic “clam shell” curler sets advertised to be easy on damaged hair (nothing could be more damaged than hair doing a disappearing act). The set I was looking for wasn’t there, so I decided to investigate the sets that were there. Conair Hot Sticks caught my eye. For $20, you have 14 rubbery stick curlers in two sizes and a simple heating device for them. No switches or buttons. Plug it in to heat up, and when the red dot turns white, they’re ready to use.

Conair hot sticks shown in pink and blue
Hot Sticks out of the box

The curlers are long, flexible, skinny cylinders with little nubs to keep the hair from slipping (see photo to the right). There is a ring on one end that you poke the other end through to make a locked circle. The nubs also keep the circle intact until you’re ready to take the curlers out. They get pretty hot in the middle, but it’s still easy to roll up – even for someone like me who can’t keep my hands up too long.

My gray/brown, long-but-thinning hair will not easily cooperate with curlers, rollers, or curling irons, so I decided to test it after washing my hair. I let it air dry because it’s too much effort to blow dry it when it gets dry enough on its own in about 20 minutes – the same amount of time it takes to dry the rest of me and coat it with baby powder and body lotion (like dipping chicken in beaten eggs and breadcrumbs before frying it).

The test worked pretty well. It was easy to roll my hair up, let it sit for as long as possible, and then pull the curlers out and gently style the curls. I didn’t have any mousse when I tested, so the curls only held for a day or so. The next time, I put mousse in my hair while it was still wet and had much better results. I also decided to keep them in overnight – my choice because I have to sleep semi-sitting and I didn’t want to add hair-curling to my dressing routine. I don’t need any help to be late for doctor’s appointments. The curls lasted till my next shampoo a week later.

Over the last few months, I’ve discovered a glitch with the curlers but have managed a solution for it. The smaller curlers lost their ability to stay locked until I chose to take them out. At first, I woke up to find one of them undone. The curl was already set, so it wasn’t the end of the world. The next time, it popped off like a well-flung rubber band and nearly hit me in the eye! The honeymoon was over! However, I came up with a prevention tactic. I wrapped a pony-tail band around the curler end as close to the ring as possible. It stayed until I was ready to undo it. True, this isn’t the best situation, but the fix is easy enough – for now. There will be a time when I throw a fit and start shopping around again.

The bottom line for me is that I can get enough curl to camouflage my scalp without going for the Donald Trump comb-over. I can now put off wig shopping for at least a year or two. Best of all, I get compliments! A few thought I cut my hair and had a perm (curled hair looks shorter). Everyone who complimented me thought it was amazing to get a crop of dependable curls from this simple $20 set. Even with the drawback of loosening grips on the thinner hot sticks, this is still a good deal.

Sweet Retreat from Sugary Temptations

Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Coffee Candies

Werthers Caramel Coffee small bag

Werthers Caramel Coffee

(5/5)

Pros: Satisfying coffee flavor laced with caramel

Cons: The “laxative effect” of sugar substitutes

It isn’t easy for a diabetic sugar junky, especially as Halloween draws near. In my pre-diabetic days, I would only have to wonder about how to make costumes for the kids without sewing or spending more than a few dollars (a little makeup and a prop or two). As for buying candy for trick-or-treaters, it was a two-bag neighborhood in those days. There were about a dozen or so little ones who’d come while we were putting in our finishing touches, and about the same number of taller deep-voiced trick-or-treaters would show up just as we were getting back with our children. If I needed a sugar fix, there were a few fun-size-whatevers left in the bottom of Bag #2. Because I didn’t have diabetes, candy wasn’t taboo – and my craving for it wasn’t overwhelming. The old saying is true: You want most what you can’t have.

Sometimes, you can have what you want. Werther’s Original Sugar Free Candies taste like their regular candy line. Our son was visiting us and kept dipping into my Caramel Coffee flavored Werther’s without a clue that they’re sugar free. The coffee flavor is light and lets the caramel flavor blend in at will. The texture is smooth and buttery right down to the end. This is a far cry from the old days of sugar free candy that used to taste like chocolate covered mothballs.

The active sweetener is acesulfame-K, a form of sugar alcohol that might have a laxative effect if you overdo the candy. If you haven’t had anything with this type of sweetener before, it’s a good idea to have only one or two pieces at first. If you’re sensitive, it won’t take much to cause trouble. However, over time, the effect isn’t quite that strong.

The other ingredients are: isomalt, cream, butter, artificial flavoring, salt, caramel color, coffee extract, emulsifier, and soy lecithin. For those with food allergies, Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Coffee Candies contain milk and soybeans.

The nutritional information states that a serving size is five pieces, but it’s rare that someone would eat these hard candies like they were cookies or potato chips. I tend to have one or two over an evening at the computer. Since that’s how I eat them, I thought I would at least try to give you the rest of the nutritional information for each candy instead of five at a time. Each candy has 8 calories, 1/5 gram saturated fat, less than 1 milligram cholesterol, 11 milligrams sodium, and 3 grams carbohydrates.

Each candy is individually wrapped, and a bag contains about a dozen candies. Werther’s Original Sugar Free candies can cost anywhere from $3 to $5 dollars, depending on where you shop.

This Halloween, let the trick-or-treaters have their candy corn, and buy yourself Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Coffee hard candies for those sweet-tooth cravings. If you enjoy variety, add a bag of Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Apple hard candies to the mix. Enjoy!

Waffles, Anyone??

Black & Decker Belgian Waffle Maker Model #WMB500 & WMB505

Waffle Maker with metal top and bottom

Model #WMB 500

Waffle Maker

Model #WMB 505

(4/5)

Pros: Inexpensive beginner’s model; makes tasty, moist waffles

Cons: It doesn’t beep when the waffle is done; others have had trouble with the hinge-pin breaking

Once again, Rachael Ray beckoned to me. I used to think that waffle-making was the realm of professional cooks. Rachael Ray taught me that anyone who can mix batter can make a waffle – and waffles are just the beginning. I watched her make hash browns, churros, and even waffled sandwiches in her army of waffle makers. That’s why I bought a Black & Decker Belgian Waffle Maker with the gift card my daughter gave me for my birthday. My personal experience with waffle makers is limited to a heavy duty, self-serve model at a hotel’s continental breakfast. I managed to make edible waffles under the most ridiculous conditions, including following someone who thought waffles need a charcoal crust.

The Black & Decker Belgian Waffle Maker is easy to carry – especially important to me because I have to get it from the pantry and lift it to the counter. It makes a circular deep-pocketed waffle. The handles stay cool to the touch while it’s baking. There is a light that goes on when the waffle maker is ready for batter, and it goes out when the waffle is done. Its lines divide the waffle into four small wedges.

My first batch was for a potluck brunch. Most people would get some experience with a new kitchen tool before using it in the real world. Not me! I’m like a kid with a new toy. I have to show it off to everybody! On that day, everybody was my Yiddish Club. We meet once a month to keep the language alive through reading, watching videos, and whatever else I can think of on the fly. I thought it would be fun to serve Belgian waffles covered with scoops of vanilla ice cream and strawberry topping. There was some leftover ice cream and topping, but the waffles disappeared. I’d call that a success.

The Good:
The first thing I discovered it that the waffle maker is fast. Before making the first batch of waffles, the waffle-maker needs to be conditioned. This sounds like a bigger deal than it is. All I had to do was brush cooking oil over the cooking surfaces and wipe it off with a paper towel. The first waffle absorbs any extra oil and should be tossed. Once I conditioned it and made the toss-out waffle, I was on my way. It only take about four or five minutes to cook each waffle. The batter I made yielded four circular waffles, not counting the one I tossed.

Each waffle takes about 2/3 cup of batter. It’s important to not overfill the waffle maker. I use a 1/3 cup measure to fill it. The manual suggests using a rubber spatula to spread the batter evenly. That was too messy for me. I used the outside of my 1/3 cup measure. Using the same tool twice kept the mess to a minimum – fewer batter-covered utensils make for a cleaner kitchen counter.

The Bad:
As I mentioned earlier, there is a light on top side of the black hinge that goes on and off while the waffle maker is in use. It first lights up after you plug the waffle maker in to let you know that it’s heating. After about five minutes, the light will go out to tell you that the waffle maker is ready to make waffles. Pour the batter in and close the lid, and the light will turn on again until the waffle is cooked.

The problem for me is that there is no beeping noise to go with the lights. This means I have to either time the waffles or sit there staring at the thing while it’s cooking waffles. For my brunch project, this isn’t that much of a problem. However, if you’re making waffles along with a full breakfast, keeping one eye on the waffle maker while cooking other dishes is more multitasking than my brain can handle before noon.

Second Hand Bad:
While searching for the photo and link for the waffle maker, I discovered that several people who bought my model and Model #WMB505 (the difference notes the color) complained about the hinge pin breaking and having difficulty getting a replacement pin. The complaints I saw were all at least a year or two old, so it’s possible that the problem with the hinge-pin was fixed since then. Even though the complaints may be outdated and I haven’t experienced this problem for myself, I would feel guilty if I left out this information. It’s also possible that these complaints came from customers who make large batches or make waffles more often than we do. My waffle maker is still quite new, and I typically make a batch of four to six full circular waffles – enough for four hearty appetites.

My Advice:
If you’re like me, make the waffles ahead of the other dishes, cover, and store them in the microwave as they cook. If you have an eagle-eyed kid, put him to work watching for the light to go out on the waffle maker. If you have someone in the family willing to devote his or her time to making the rest of breakfast while you’re waffling, even better!

The Black & Decker waffle maker is specified for household use only. It doesn’t claim to be a professional model. This is a good starter waffle maker, despite the complaints I read about. It’s easily affordable. I found it on sale for $17.99, and the highest price I saw was about $40. I wouldn’t want to spend more than that on my first waffle maker. If you’re an experienced at making waffles and cook for five or more mouths at a time, get a higher priced model – one that beeps when your waffle is done.

Restaurant Quality in my Pantry!

Mildessa Mild German Sauerkraut, 28.6 oz. Can

Mildessa mild Sauerkraut

(5/5)

Pros: The mild flavor let’s you taste all of your sandwich, not soggy or drippy like supermarket brands.

Cons: Because it comes in a can, you need to have a container ready for leftovers.

I adore Manhattan Deli in Reno. Housed in Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, its menu boasts Reuben sandwiches that cannot be finished in one sitting, egg creams (seltzer, chocolate syrup, and ice cold milk), thick-sliced New York cheesecake, and matzah ball soup that rivals any Jewish mother’s recipe! It’s not just a matter of portion size or nostalgia for my childhood in Brooklyn, it’s the flavor of all the ingredients. One such delectable flavor comes from the sauerkraut with which they garnish Reuben sandwiches, deli platters, and Hebrew National hot dogs. It took me nearly a year to get up the courage to ask one of the servers what brand they used. It’s as though I expected to be banned for life because I desired professional secrets.

I was delighted to hear our server say “Let me check” and then quickly return with the name of the Saeurkraut written on scratch paper: Mildessa. As soon as we got home, I Googled Mildessa and discovered that no local grocery store carried it. However, I could buy it by the case through Amazon.

Mildessa has a mild flavor because of its ingredients: white cabbage, wine and salt. The only two brands available in our local Safeway (Steinfeld’s and Safeway Brand) have way too much bite in them for me. I like to taste the meat in my sandwich, too. From what I can tell, the difference in flavor comes from the wine. The other two brands use water, and Steinfeld’s adds preservatives.

As for nutritional content, I needed to consult my calculator. Mildessa is made in Germany where sauerkraut is a side dish instead of a garnish. A serving of Mildessa sauerkraut is 5 ounces. It also says 130 grams and 1 cup. My best guess is that the cup refers to volume because a standard cup is 8 ounces. A serving of Steinfeld’s sauerkraut is 30 grams, with no equivalent measure. Safeway uses 2 tablespoons as a serving, which is equal to 1 ounce. According to a conversion chart on my refrigerator, 1 ounce is 28 grams. Since Mildessa specifies 5 ounces, I divided its numbers by 5 to fairly compare it with Steineld’s and Safeway brands. This is the best comparison I can come up with:

Mildessa Nutrition Facts
Servings size: 5 oz. (130 g/1 cup)
Servings per container: about 6 (the can has a net weight of 28.6 ounces, which would be the number of 1-ounce servings)
Calories: 45 per serving, 9 per ounce
Total Fat per serving: 0 grams
Sodium: 560 milligrams per serving, 112 per ounce
Total Carbohydrates per serving: 9 g (dietary fiber, 3 g; sugars, 2 g), 1.8 (dietary fiber, .6; sugars, .4) per ounce
Protein per serving: 2 g, .4 per ounce

Steinfeld’s Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 30 grams (1.07 ounces, to be exact)
Servings per container: 10 (the jar has a net weight of 16 ounces)
Calories: 5
Total Fat: 0 grams
Sodium 250 milligrams
Total Carbohydrate: 1 gram
Protein: 0 grams

Safeway Brand Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 2 tbsp (1 ounce)
Servings per container: 14 (the jar has a net weight of 14.5 ounces)
Calories: 5
Sodium: 200 mg
Total Carbohydrate: 1 g (dietary fiber, 1 g; Sugars, 1 g)

Comparing the three on a nutritional level, Mildessa has 4 more calories per ounce, less than half the sodium, and .8 more carbohydrate of both brands. The few extra calories and slightly higher carbohydrate level is likely due to the wine, which is probably the reason for the lower sodium level and smooth flavor. When you consider that sauerkraut is most often coupled with high sodium deli, it’s a pleasure to have a garnish with less than half the sodium and twice the flavor of its American supermarket competitors.

The greatest moment I had was when a box of six cans of Mildessa Mild German Sauerkraut arrived at my door. The flavor is the same as it is in Manhattan Deli, and I finally can make Hebrew National hot dogs taste as good at home as they do in the restaurant.

As for storage after opening the can, I still had about half a jar of Steinfeld’s sitting in the fridge, so I tossed out the bitter mess and ran the jar through the dishwasher. In the future, I might buy a Mason jar or see if Tupperware makes something that would work just as well; but in the meantime, this works very well.

Keurig Elite Brewer – One Person’s Luxury is another’s Assistive Technology

Keurig Elite Brewer Model #K45

Keurig Elite Model #K45 with coffee mug
Keurig Elite Model #K45
Keurig My K-Cup Reusable Coffee Filter in box
Keurig My K-Cup Reusable Coffee Filter
40-count K-Cup assortment showing tops of K-Cups
40-count K-Cup assortment

 

(4/5)

Pros: Coffee, Tea, Hot Chocolate, and more! No more lugging a heavy carafe or reheating day-old coffee!

Cons: K-Cups can get pricey. My K-Cup reusable filter is cheaper but labor intensive.

Once upon a time, I would never have considered buying a Keurig Brewer for my home. I was impressed with the mini style some hotels put in their rooms for courtesy coffee and the top-of-the-line model in our apartment complex office, but why would I need something like that in my kitchen?

My smug attitude changed when I realized that pouring coffee from my 12-cup pot felt like lifting an anvil – even when there was only a small amount left. A smaller pot makes no sense because it would be sitting in the sink waiting for a thorough cleaning three or four times a day, and was still too heavy for me to control. I speak from experience. We had a small one for a while, and it was a nuisance. Finally, I got tired of teetering by the stove to reheat coffee in the overhead microwave. The amount of time I can be on my feet has been dwindling for years. Now, I can feel my ankles turn to jelly within a minute or two. Making lunch and reheating coffee is much more challenging than it was even a year ago. Let’s face it, the Keurig is assistive technology. I can have as many cups of coffee (or just about anything else) as I want without having to get out of my wheelchair. It’s safer, especially on bad days.

I decided to do my homework before taking the plunge into push-button coffee. I compared all the models we could afford and looked at other brands, too. The clincher for staying with Keurig is that the company also makes My K-cup, a reusable filter that allows me to continue using my regular coffee daily and get K-Cups for special treats. More about My K-Cup later.

The genius of Keurig’s system is that so many families live together on different schedules. This is true for us, especially since I retired. I’m not a morning person, so my husband’s sweet gesture of a daily breakfast in bed would be cold coffee and lukewarm oatmeal by the time I was awake enough to eat it. This is no longer a problem because I can now make my own coffee and have breakfast on my schedule.

Another issue Keurig addresses is that we have different tastes and moods. One person only drinks tea, but his wife is a coffee drinker. There are people who can only drink decaf sharing a kitchen with someone who prefers regular. The kids want hot cocoa. A Keurig brewer can be all things to all people. There’s no need to juggle the tea kettle, coffee maker, and microwave to handle hot drinks. Because the mug or cup is the final destination and K-Cups stay sealed (except for holes poked on its top and bottom), cleanup is barely noticeable.

How it works:
The K-Cup holds one serving of ground coffee, tea, or cocoa. It sits in a receptacle (Keurig calls it the K-Cup holder assembly). When you close the lid, two needles poke holes in the top and bottom of the K-Cup. A pre-measured cup of water is heated and dripped through the K-Cup and into the coffee mug you place on the removable pedestal. Removing the pedestal allows extra tall commuter mugs to fit under the drip holes.

The Keurig Elite comes in black, white, and blue. I chose black to match my stove and dishwasher. I noticed similar models in red.

My favorite features:
Water container – This sleek, nearly crescent shaped container detaches from the unit and can be filled in the sink. It only takes a few minutes for the entire process.

Three cup sizes – The three buttons represent a small cup (5.25 ounces), a small mug (7.25 ounces), and a large mug (9.25 ounces).

Auto-off – This feature turns the brewer off after two hours, saving energy, and helping the absentminded among us.

Reminder lights – Lights tell you when the water is hot enough to brew, ask how much to brew, signal that the water container needs to be refilled, and even when the brewer needs to be descaled (see below for an explanation of descaling).

There are a few things to keep in mind, though:
Maintenance – The main extra task is called “descaling.” Keurig sells a descaling formula that combats the damage hard water does to coffee makers. I have to admit that I was never one of the people who brewed vinegar washes in standard coffee makers, and mineral deposits plagued our old coffee makers. The Keurig brewer has a light to remind us when it’s time to descale.

The owner’s manual encourages the use of bottled or filtered water. The Elite model has a charcoal filter assembly that fits inside the water container and needs to be replaced every two months.

The container, while weighing much less than a coffee maker carafe, still needs to be refilled. It holds 48 ounces, which in our house lasts about three days. I sometimes get a little ticked off when I’m craving my coffee-fix, and that little blue light comes on. It’s only a slight annoyance because refilling the container is a quick chore.

One more thing:
K-Cups vs. My K-Cup – The K-Cups are clean, no fuss, no muss. Each K-Cup is intended for one serving, but it’s possible to stretch it for a second slightly weaker serving for tight budgets. While I don’t recognize all the brand names, there are many brands I do know: Bigelow, Celestial Seasonings, Cinnabon, Dunkin’ Donuts, Emeril’s, Folgers Gourmet Selections, Ghirardelli, Kahlúa, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Lipton, Newman’s Own Organics, Snapple, Starbucks, Swiss Miss, Tetley Tea, Tully’s, Twinings of London, and Wolfgang Puck. The Keurig Elite came with a dozen K-Cups. They were mostly coffees with a hot chocolate and a couple of teas.

My favorite was Tully’s Italian Roast Extra Bold Coffee. The aroma filled the kitchen and made a promise that the flavor kept. I love a strong coffee that holds up even when it cools off. At breakfast, I take a combination of16 pills, capsules, and soft gels with my coffee. After downing them, I read the paper while sipping the rest of my cup. It often gets cold during my morning ritual. I need a coffee that doesn’t lose its flavor when it stands for a bit.

Pricing information is current as of August 26, 2014. Keurig plans to increase prices by about 10% in November 2014. This is strictly a general guide. The K-Cups are priced at around $15-20 for a box of 24. Sign up for membership and get a 10-15% discount. There is no shipping charge for orders over $45. If you think you might want to get a supply of K-Cups, take advantage of the product registration offer. When you register your brewer online, you’ll receive a coupon code for two free boxes when you buy two boxes. The discount has a long life, which gives you time to decide on the varieties you might want. The code I received has an expiration date of December 31, 2099.

Another way to go, especially if you have a favorite coffee that doesn’t come in K-Cup form, is My K-Cup. This is a reusable coffee filter (made by Keurig)that fits in your Keurig brewer’s assembly housing (the section that holds the K-Cup during brewing). Until you get used to the extra work involved, you’ll miss the K-Cup simplicity. First, you need to remove the K-Cup holder assembly from the assembly housing (it just pops out when you follow the instructions). Then you fill the filter basket with two tablespoons of your coffee, put it inside the filter holder, gently screw the lid on, and place the filter in the assembly housing. The coffee brews as usual. The taste? It’s at least as good as it was when I made it by the pot in my old coffee maker. However, my coffee seems to get a nearly black residue that collects at the bottom of the cup. This is something I haven’t seen since the old percolator days. It isn’t pleasant to accidentally drink some of it. The texture is gritty and tastes like Postum (another old memory I could have done without). When you use a K-Cup, there is no residue. The coffee is uniform in appearance and flavor right down to the bottom of the cup.

The extra work comes in afterward when you have to empty the filter basket and wash the three parts. Although My K-Cup is dishwasher safe, it needs to be secured to keep it from falling through the racks. As much as I depend on our dishwasher, it’s easier for me to use a toothbrush to lightly scrub coffee stains and grounds. I use my old coffee filters as a receptacle for the grounds. It keeps the mess to a minimum.

My verdict? I’m ambivalent. The extra work necessary to use My K-Cup isn’t the end of the world for my three cups a day. However, the extra labor will add up if you have several cups to make or need to switch between My K-Cup and the holder assembly to make a beverage in a standard K-Cup. That’s what happened yesterday morning when my husband decided he wanted hot tea.

Yet, I don’t know how long we can afford to keep using K-Cups exclusively after the big coupon order runs out. At the rate of three cups of coffee a day, eight dozen K-Cups will last me about a month – if I’m the only one drinking it. After that, it’ll be about $60 a month to feed my habit vs. about $10 a month with My K-Cup. In the long run, my sense is that I’ll probably look for bargains in K-Cups after the initial big coupon runs out. Amazon has a cornucopia of K-Cup deals, and a close friend told me about a sale at Costco. Like anything else, once you learn the ropes, you can find bargains just about anywhere.

Hooked on Cats?

Frederick the Literate — a Dimensions Counted Cross-stitch Kit

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Amazon also carries Frederick in a  ($52.99)and a  ($20.23).

(4/5)

Pros: Engaging and humorous design; challenging without frustrating.

Cons: Won’t fit standard frames; similar symbols in same color can cause mistakes.

Frederick the Literate is my third counted cross-stitch project; the second one from Dimensions; and the second of three with cats as the subject, worked over black cloth. I reviewed my first “cat on black” project, Fuzzy Kitten, late last year in the now defunct Epinions.com. One of the main themes of that review was the ease of following the chart. The greatest challenge for me in counted cross-stitch is remembering where I am when I pick up my work. In that first project, I had a great idea and then complicated it. I decided that I needed to color in the chart to remind me which stitches I’ve already worked. The first thing I thought of was to get my felt-tipped pens out and color each group of stitches to match the colors I needed to use. It didn’t take long before I realized that this would be confusing when I have to go back over the cross-stitch with straight stitches. I could only see the black lines through darker colors. The cyan and magenta lines were totally lost (cyan is the aqua-like ink used in four-color printing). I ended up dependent on the packaging photo. This time, I decided to only use a yellow highlighter from the very beginning. The highlighter is transparent enough for me to see any symbols for detailing (French knots, straight stitches, etc.).

Although I ironed out the trouble with the chart by using yellow highlighter, I ran into a frustrating problem my second day of working on Frederick. The chart uses two similar symbols in the same color for different thread colors. One is an X and the other is a tiny square with loops at the corners (like the Command Key symbol on Macs) – and both are in cyan. The symbols on the chart are so small that I didn’t notice that the difference until I worked a few spots with the wrong color. The two thread colors were also similar – one was made by combining a length of dark brown and dark gray thread, and the other was just two lengths of dark brown – making it tougher to discover my mistake. When I did, I spent a day pulling out the wrong color. I was unable to salvage any of that thread, so I have to be careful with the rest of that thread. I keep a strong magnifier in my supply kit and use it when I’m working with either of those two symbols. My first suggestion to the chart printer is to make one of those two symbols black or magenta.

With the exception of this flaw, Frederick is a fun project. Frederick is a tabby sprawled on a bookcase shelf, napping among the volumes. He managed to intertwine himself with the books on the upper shelf. His head peeks out on the left, and his tush is nestled on the right with his tale and a back leg dangling over the lower shelf. Behind his head floats a model of a fish, a bird decoy flanks his rear, and an owl figurine stands guard on the lower shelf. The color scheme is warm – rich burgundies and maroons coupled with dark blues and greens. Gold metallic accents, bookmarks, and worn spines complete the aged look of the books. The titles are adorable feline puns like “The Caterbury Tales” and “Tale of Two Kitties.” One book called “Holy Cats” sports a gold cross on its spine. I plan to change it to a Star of David to better fit a Jewish home.

The supply of thread, which comes in its own organizer, looks sufficient to finish the project. Once I pull thread out of its slot in the organizer, I set up a Ziploc bag for that color by writing the color number on the bag with a Sharpie. After the project is done, I put any leftover thread into its bag and save it in case I run short of that color in a future project. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but this is my insurance policy. You can write the color name along with the number, but color names are subject to change while the numbers are always the same. I’ve found that #15000 can be called Antique Gold in one kit and Light Brown in another.

Remember that the same color may also come in different weights and textures depending on whether it’s a cross-stitch, crewel embroidery, or needlepoint project. If your tastes for needlework is eclectic, set up a large Ziploc for each brand and type of needlework project it came from (Examples: Dimensions Counted-Cross Stitch Kits or Bucilla Needlepoint Kits). If you find an abundance of leftovers, get creative and create you own designs.

My one major gripe with many of these needlework kits is the size of the finished product. Frederick the Literate has a 12”x11” finished size. The Fuzzy Kitten project I completed last year has a 12”x12” finished size. These sizes don’t work with standard frame sizes. The main reason that Fuzzy Kitten is in a drawer instead of hanging on my bedroom wall is that I can’t find a perfectly square frame. I actually visited Dimensions’ website in case they sold frames separately, but there were no frames in their inventory. I’m not one to give up easily, so I found their customer service link and requested guidance in finding frames to fit their projects. The reply was swift and polite but frustrating.

In England, where Dimensions’ parent company is located, frames to fit their projects are sold at craft shows. Unless there is a regional variation, craft shows in the United States are galleries for artisans – not an outlet for odd-sized picture frames. I learned that some customers make their own simple frames. My high school oil painting class had a section on frame building and mat cutting. Trust me. My talents don’t lean toward even the simplest carpentry. I’ll have to bite the bullet and buy a custom frame. Because I will also have to get a custom frame for Frederick, I decided to wait until it’s done and order matching frames.

My advice to anyone thinking about starting embroidery or needlepoint as a hobby is to make sure you have at least two embroidery hoops in different sizes, a magnifier, a few needle threaders (some nice ones have blades inserted in a notch to cut your thread), a sturdy tote bag, and an organizer for your supplies (I use a glove compartment organizer with a Velcro closure). Start with a small project that will allow for trial and error while you explore your working style. My first project was a 5”x7” design that pictured a nest of robin’s eggs with the caption “Home is Where You Build Your Nest.”

Nest
Robin’s Eggs in Nest — My first project

 

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Fuzzy Kitten

 

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Alcohol — No more than that!

Werther’s Original Caramel Apple Sugar Free Hard Candies

Werther's Original Caramel Apple Sugar Free Hard Candies

(4/5)

Pros: Buttery feel, natural sweet/tart flavor

Cons: “Laxative Effect” — need I say more?

When I first received a Diabetes Type 2 diagnosis, my primary care physician wasn’t prepared for my initial reaction: I cried. He thought I’d be a trooper because I was dealing with multiple sclerosis (MS) in a clear-headed, upbeat manner. Little did he know that there was so much more going on than comparing a reaction to two chronic diseases.

MS and diabetes are two completely different diseases that can occasionally share symptoms but not the core definitions.

Diabetes Type 2 occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce any (or enough) insulin because it either doesn’t recognize that there is a rise in blood glucose or it can’t produce insulin anymore. In some cases, changing one’s eating habits is enough to stop diabetes in its tracks – at least for a few more years. Most doctors will remind their patients with diabetes that it only takes a 10 percent weight loss to make a big difference in the amount of medication or insulin needed to maintain healthy blood glucose numbers (the readout from a blood sugar finger test that reads one’s current levels or the lab result from an A1C test that reads the average blood sugar level for a three-month period). The bottom line: Diabetes is about food. No matter how you dice, splice, measure, or dress it up, you really are what you eat.

MS has very little to do with food – at least initially. It’s an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. Autoimmune diseases like MS mistake a system within one’s body for a foreign invader. In MS, the T-cells attack myelin, the protective covering of nerve cells. When the myelin is eaten away, the nerve cells don’t send signals correctly. I compare it to a toaster with a frayed power cord. Sometimes you get toast, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you get charcoal briquettes instead of toast.

Some people believe that there are diets that will improve the prognosis in MS (Montel Williams, for example. They will look for a chemically balanced diet to stay “out of a wheelchair.” Because MS progresses differently in every person, who knows if the low-fat, high-protein, gluten-free, carb killer diet created magic? The person might have gone into remission spontaneously just before starting the new diet. The point is that losing weight will not cure or even mitigate myelin damage due to MS.

Now you know why I was stoic for MS and crumpled for diabetes.

I’m always hunting for a sugar-free anything that will satisfy the cravings that come between lunch and dinner. There’s no hunger involved – simply the need for a certain texture, flavor, or temperature in my mouth. I saw Werther’s Original Caramel Apple Sugar Free hard candies during my monthly diabetic-friendly nosh hunt. I’ve had Werther’s Original candies years ago but not the Caramel Apple flavor. I bought the 2.75-ounce bag for about $3. There are about two dozen candies in each bag.

The candies are individually wrapped in Granny Apple green-trimmed sealed plastic. Each oval candy is about the size of a coat button. It’s a perfect size for an adult or older child, but it could present a choking hazard for a small child. The color is a swirl of Granny Apple green and golden tan. There are no sharp corners, so it easily molds to the shape of your mouth while it melts. I’ve never actually thought to time it, but I think it lasts about 10 minutes or so before completely dissolving. The flavor lasts to the end and satisfies my sweet craving for at least an hour or two. For that reason, it generally will take me an entire afternoon of picking at the bag before I hit the five-candy serving size.

The flavor is better than most sugar free hard candies. There is a buttery feel to the candy that hits the mark. However, if you’re used to eating caramel flavored hard candies, the tart apple infusion will take a moment or so to get used to. The sweetener used is a sugar alcohol formula. There is a caveat with this sweetener – a “laxative effect.” If you’re not used to sugar alcohol sweeteners, you may want to stick by the bathroom just in case you discover your sensitivity to the laxative effect the hard way. The first time I had sugar free candy using sugar alcohol, I was unfamiliar with the possible side effect. I bought some chocolate truffles at a mall kiosk and fell in love with them. I ate many more than I should have while waiting for my ride home. It was very lucky that I didn’t get the full effect until after getting home.

Nutrition Facts and Ingredients

Nutrition Facts: serving size, 5 pieces; calories, 40 (calories from Fat 10); total fat, 1.5 gram (saturated fat 1 gram, trans fat, 0 grams); total carbohydrates, 14 grams; dietary fiber, 0 grams; sugars, 0 grams; sugar alcohols, 14 grams; and protein, 0 grams.

Ingredients: Isomalt, butter, cream, natural and artificial flavor, emulsifier soy lecithin, acidifier lactic acid, acidity regulator sodium lactate, sweetener acesulfame-K, FD&C yellow 5, and blue 1.

Allergy information: contains milk and soybeans.

All things considered, Werther’s Original Caramel Apple Sugar Free Hard Candies are tasty morsels when you can’t have the real thing.