The Ultimate Chocolate Cake @ 1000 Calories Per Slice

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The ultimate chocolate cake.

The ultimate chocolate cake.

Now, here’s the issue with any ‘ultimate’ chocolate cakes, as I see it. Sure, they have to be rich, as per the definition of the word chocolate. Yet they also have to be the sort of thing you can indulge in without too much backlash from your body.  This is why I bake without sugar, refined flour, or typical vegetable oils. But how can you do that without compromising taste — and, in fact, improving it at times? Well, xylitol is a great sugar substitute, and functions like a slow-burning, complex carb in your body (at least in terms of energy purposes), and white whole wheat flour (from King Arthur/Trader Joe’s) is usually indistinguishable from white. As for vegetable fats, rice bran oil is quite stable and difficult to oxidize — even if lightly refined — and pretty much has no taste. So, it’s a healthy alternative both to supermarket oils (which are quite refined) and things like coconut oil (healthy, but too strong a taste). This means that, in a chocolate cake, the worst that will happen to you is a caffeine buzz and a few shortened telomeres. As for all that saturated fat? Stop worrying. Cocoa butter, butter, and the like are life-affirming — to use a cult-like phrase — and anthropologically sound. You just need to make sure they’re well-sourced.

The recipe (adapted from here) calls for 3 sticks of butter. If you go with a single-layer cake (as per this recipe), you can get away with 2 sticks. And 2 sticks ARE probably better, since no one in my household could finish a full-fledged slice without the aforementioned backlash. That said, 3 sticks is canonical, and so, 3 sticks it is.

It also calls for cocoa powder. I guess there’s not THAT much difference from item to item, but Trader Joe’s cocoa powder seems richer and ‘meatier’ than most I’ve tried, besides being quite cheap. It also calls for 2 high-quality chocolate bars, and Trader Joe’s is good for this, too. Make sure it’s at least 70%, with a minimum of sugar. White baking chocolate can be anything, but, again, the less sweet the better. Your only sugar in this recipe will come from the chocolate bars. Choose them appropriately, and this will mean nothing.

Recipe: The Ultimate Chocolate Cake

  • 2 cups whole wheat white flour, preferably King Arthur/Trader Joe’s
  • 1 1/2 cups xylitol, powdered
  • 2 dark chocolate bars, crushed (7-8 oz total)
  • 4-6 oz white baking chocolate, crushed
  • 3/4 c unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 4 oz crushed pecans
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1-2 tsp espresso powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c. rice bran oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup half & half
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Recipe: Chocolate Frosting

  • 3 sticks of butter, left in dish overnight
  • 1 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 – 1 cup xylitol (taste and see)
  • 1/2 cup half & half
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp espresso powder
The ultimate chocolate cake, redux.

The ultimate chocolate

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Review: On The Now-Forgotten Poetry Of Robert Francis

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Robert Francis, an excellent poet once championed by Robert Frost. Image via UMass Amherst.

Robert Francis, an excellent poet once championed by Robert Frost. Image via UMass Amherst.

As with Hazel Hall before him, Robert Francis was a pretty good ‘classical’ poet who, although better known while still alive, is now mostly forgotten in favor of bad New Formalist writing that afflicts so much of the poetry world. Thus, he is usually known as the ‘other’ New England poet, having spent much of his life in Amherst, MA, and using Robert Frost as both a personal mentor and poetic model. It’s an interesting relationship because, while never quite hitting Robert Frost’s highs (think Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, the great dramatic poems), he didn’t share his lows, either, for even Robert Francis’s longer poems can’t be said to go on too long, with the best ones topping out at 20-30 lines, and many more under a dozen. This is because Robert Francis was a poet of moments as opposed to larger, over-arching ideas, and while this implies a ceiling that greater poets are unafflicted by, it also means that he is quite memorable, as individual lines tend to crop up in the mind long after a poem is read. No, he is not “better than John Berryman,” as the abysmal Donald Hall claims in the back matter to Francis’s Collected Poems, but this is irrelevant to the fact that he deserves a much wider readership, and the opportunity to influence younger writers.

Let us consider a few of his poems, and why they work so well on technical and intellectual grounds:

Cloud In Woodcut

Make a woodcut of a cloud.
Polish the wood. Point the knife.
But let your pointed knife be wise.
Let your wilful cloud retain
Evidence of woody grain.
Teach your knife to compromise.
Let your cloud be cloud — and wood.
Grained in the art let there be life.

This is the prototypical Robert Francis poem: short, cutting, and able to distill 1-2 ideas in a way that neither obfuscates, nor ever becomes prosaic. Just look at the first line: a well-musicked command that ‘hooks’ the reader right away, for it gives just enough to act as a spring-board for some deeper examination later. The next line refines the narrative but without really forcing the reader into a strong philosophical post just yet — an example of good pacing, which is usually seen as a way to give a reader ‘breathing space,’ but can be better defined as a way for the artist to build a little trust before doing whatever it is that he wants to do, merely by first lulling him into a sense of complacency. (Art is deceit, remember?) Line 3 finally brings the first deeper thrust: “But let your pointed knife be wise,” another hook, again, that implies this idea will be expanded upon, and subtly changing the meaning of the commands that came before. The next 2 lines mirror the poem’s first 2, yet deepens their meaning, while the next … Continue reading →

James Berardinelli Knows Film (And Woody Allen) Better Than Most

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. The full essay can be read on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #3: James Berardinelli

Coming off of Dan Schneider’s cerebral highs, it would be easy to dismiss James Berardinelli as a rather ‘plain’ writer not too different from many online critics. Yet if one is aware of the things that have gone on in film criticism over the last few decades, it is clear that Berardinelli is above and beyond most writers in his ability to get at the core of a film, and stay there. No, he is not a stylist like Roger Ebert, but while Ebert would sometimes get lost in his own reveries, or even fail to tackle a film at sufficient length (see Stardust Memories), Berardinelli has a tendency to — well, to be right, which is an underrated skill in a world where mere opinion, no matter how poorly argued or wrought, indubitably reigns. It is for this reason that Ebert once championed Berardinelli[34] in the same way that he’d later do for Schneider, even as these two critics were in some ways closer to each other than to Ebert. In an interesting aside, Berardinelli was also the subject of one of the longest (and deepest) interviews ever conducted with a film critic, via the “Dan Schneider Interviews” on Cosmoetica.[35] In it, Berardinelli comes off precisely in the way of his reviews: as a ‘populist’ critic who does not preen or bullshit, but merely writes of a given film, and that film’s art. This helps differentiate him quite a bit from other critics, and of his twenty or so reviews of Allen’s work, most of them are spot-on, and put him squarely in the camp of Allen’s ‘champions’ — silly and unfortunate as that phrase will sound to future generations parsing these men’s work.

woody allen james berardinelli

Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a film that James Berardinelli gets right. Image via Deadline Hollywood.

Perhaps the most indicative of the above qualities is James Berardinelli’s review of Manhattan.[36] Like Ebert before him, he does not fall prey to most of the cliches surrounding the film, and even when he gets quite close to calling it a ‘love poem’ or ‘letter’ to the city, he saves things somewhat by opting for the word “valentine” instead. No, this is not some great stylistic breakthrough, but it shows that, at the very least, Berardinelli gives a damn about the craft, even in the smaller moments of switching a familiar word for a slightly different one. The film’s cinematography is praised, and Allen’s love for the city duly noted, but such commonplaces merely serve as the critic’s de facto ‘hooks’, for they lull the reader into being more open to Berardinelli’s deeper (and therefore less familiar) comments on the … Continue reading →

Dan Schneider’s Film Criticism Is The Best In The Biz

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. The full essay can be read on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #2: Dan Schneider

Dan Schneider Cosmoetica

Dan Schneider’s Cosmoetica is one of the most popular arts websites in the world.

It makes sense to pair Roger Ebert alongside Dan Schneider, for while the former is a good writer and primarily emotional, Dan Schneider is a great writer and above all cerebral. In fact, the two critics’ reviews were compared at length on Roger Ebert’s own blog, in a feature that has garnered over 1400 comments to date.[18] This includes an involved look at Stardust Memories vis-a-vis Ebert’s original review, with many commentators ultimately dissenting from Ebert after having read Schneider’s own piece, as it’s been partly responsible for the film’s revitalization among ‘lay’ viewers. Yet one of the more interesting things to come out of the exchange is Ebert’s class compared to other ‘name’ critics before him (such as the inflammatory Pauline Kael), not only in Ebert’s willingness to champion a writer he believed in, but his ability to take criticism from a source he considered quite “fair”, even as his own views remained unchanged. Indeed, for while Ebert concluded that Dan Schneider is an “ideal” critic that “keeps an open mind, approaches each film afresh, and doesn’t always repeat the same judgments”, he merely reiterated the value of emotion — at least for himself — and the judgments he’s made over the years. Yes, it would have been good to see Ebert respond to specific comments he apparently respected, but implicit in the man’s words is that some things, such as one’s leanings and emotions, are immanent, and perhaps even immutable. Perhaps biases (such as Ebert’s self-admitted ones) are ever-present, and aim to nullify what might otherwise be objective in one’s views. But if that is true, Dan Schneider’s work is a corrective, and asks a far more relevant question. Sure, biases are real, and quite dangerous for the arts, to boot, but what if a critic learns to be aware of them, and exercises control over their effects? What if ART is the critic’s main focus? Or communication?

Prior to going any further, I must confess that I’ve known Dan Schneider for several years now, have contributed pieces for his website, Cosmoetica, and give and receive feedback on our respective works. I have also been more influenced by his criticism, poetry, and fiction than any other writer I can think of, and even when I’ve disagreed with him on politics, art, or other subjects (for example, on the strength of Manhattan’s ending; that Ben is one of Crimes’s “losers”; Hannah’s “happy” denouement), the important thing — as Ebert once declared — is that the man is fair, and that his claims are well-argued, diverse, and incredibly consistent. … Continue reading →

Where Ebert Went Wrong: Roger Ebert On Woody Allen

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Roger Ebert Woody Allen

Roger Ebert. Image via Wikipedia.

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. It covers the late Roger Ebert, spans several decades’ of material, and is part of a much longer essay, which can be read in full on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #1: Roger Ebert

At a time when the Cahiers du Cinema critical style was still in vogue, Roger Ebert approached films in a way that merely ‘stuck to the facts’. Narrative, character, visual poesy, and dialogue were once again paramount — respectable, too — and all else was left to become mere trivia. Thus, from 1967 on, an interesting thing began to happen. On the one hand, Roger Ebert slowly became America’s (if not the world’s) most well-known film critic, replete with a popular column at a major newspaper, television shows, books, interviews, and a distinct cultural presence. Yet his success was often resented, too, by the film-school ‘types’ as this was only further evidence, in their view, of how utterly vacuous popular notions of film really are. Yes, it is intriguing to read of this today, but Ebert, now cushioned by celebrity, acceptance, and death, is a much safer bet than he once was, even as other critics have come and gone by way of fads and cycles. Indeed, for the real problem was not Ebert’s alleged vacuity, but his utter lack of a political or aesthetic ax to grind — a good thing, in fact, for a writer’s longevity, despite what is often claimed. In short, Ebert did not prefer happy or sad movies, democratic or supposedly fascistic ones, films shot via hand-held camera, or ‘plain’ editing as opposed to jump-cuts, and the like. He merely wished that films communicate something of worth through character, narrative, and visuals, which is — oddly enough — the way that most people view film, when they’re not afflicted by the sorts of blinders the more theoretical critics so proudly don. He was, therefore, never part of ‘the club’ (extreme minority though they were), but merely relegated to second-tier status by the very people that had so little idea of art, and none of his writing ability.

So, is Roger Ebert’s struggle with acceptance a David and Goliath story, wherein good trumps evil, and all is finally seen aright? Perhaps, but such a simplistic view obscures not only the facts, as they are, but what makes Ebert’s own views — even some of the wrong-headed views — so unique. On the ‘plus’ side, Ebert could be a wonderful writer, as his great ending to Taxi Driver shows[1], for he was capable of a poesy, insight, and economy that few critics ever have. There are a number of ‘critical’ hits, as well, such as his reviews (and reassessments) of Annie Hall, Manhattan, … Continue reading →