Monday, December 22, 2014

Chocolate Made in Texas

Most of my family and friends love chocolate. Suzanne adores it! A couple of our favorite stories are about chocolatiers. So when Suzanne and I found out that a local Texas business in our area made craft chocolate from cocoa beans, we had to check them out. Setting up a visit at the Tejas Chocolate Craftory was quite the treat!

On the morning of our visit, we were as giddy as children waiting to open gifts on Christmas morning. By the afternoon, we were standing out in front of the Tejas Chocolate Craftory just outside of Tomball. As we entered, we were welcomed with a big smile and pleasantries from co-owner Michelle. Soon the other co-owner, Scott came out of the back and welcomed us, too!

We had many questions to ask. Having done some internet research on how chocolate is made from cocoa beans, I was curious to discover why these Texans would take on the challenge of such a complicated and delicate process. With Michelle busy working on orders, Scott took over the reins and answered our questions. His answer as to why he and Michelle decided to enter the chocolate business was simple. No one in Texas was making chocolate from beans and he wanted to be the first commercial business to do so! When asked about how chocolate is made, he said it would be easier to show us the process. So, on to our tour we went.

First, Scott scours the world for the best cacao beans he can purchase. These raw beans are sorted by hand to eliminate any damaged or poor looking beans. Once sorted, they are fire roasted in Scott’s custom-made roasting grill. When the beans reach their perfection of roasting, Scott says you can smell the aroma of chocolate brownies. That means it’s time to pull them out of the grill.  Scott uses his expertise to determine the perfect roasting time for each batch of cacao beans he roasts.

The next step is separating the shells from the fruit or nibs, as they are called.  Scott built his own system for the winnowing process. The beans are run through a grinder, which cracks the outer shells, and then the nibs are separated from the shells by using a stream of air blowing across the nibs and shells. The lighter shell pieces are sucked away by a vacuum stream of air, while the heavier nibs fall down into a container.

Now the roasted nibs are ready to be finely ground, refined and conched into a liquid chocolate. This process takes up to 60 hours, depending on the origin of the cocoa beans. The chocolate is then cooled and made into large cake pan sized pieces. This raw chocolate is then left to age for weeks to allow flavors to develop. Scott told us that chocolate taste better the more it is allowed to age. Try telling Suzanne to not eat the chocolate for six more weeks!

After aging, the chocolate is melted, tempered and molded. Scott’s brother, Greg, worked the tempering machine and showed us the process of making the final product. I think he has the best job of the bunch. The chocolate smelled wonderful! After cooling, the chocolate is removed from the molds and packaged.

My chocolate expert, Suzanne, has eaten chocolate from the best of Belgium, France and Switzerland. She ranks our new-found Texas chocolate right up there with the best. We are excited to have another new industry in Texas.  As we have found with Texas wineries, olive ranches and distilleries, Texans may not be the first to make something, but before long we become one of the best! So if you like great chocolate, look up our new friend, Tejas Chocolate. You can find them online, at the Tomball Farmers Market, or soon you will be able to visit their new restaurant and chocolate shop in Tomball.

With visions of chocolate swirling in our heads and Christmas around the corner, Suzanne and I wish all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year as we head into 2015 and see Texas Thru My Back Door!

Join in our fight against breast cancer.  Visit Suzanne's new blog "My Equations for Life" as she reflects on life B.C. (before cancer) and A.D. (after diagnosis) and help support new early cancer detection research at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center with our Go Fund Me project below.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Haak Vineyard & Winery

Some people go to France or Italy to see grapes sparkling in the warm morning dew, waiting for the sun to kiss them with sweetness and goodness. Some folks travel to the valleys of California to mingle with the people who grow the nectar of the gods. Some people make the trek to the Texas Hill Country to view the beauty of grapes on rolling hills nurtured by sparkling spring fed waters and sip the sweet juice of Texas heaven. But you can find all that goodness and sweet nectar of home grown grapes right in our backyard in the small town of Santa Fe, Texas just south of Houston.

Here, Raymond Haak, a former chemical engineer, has been crafting great wines at his Italian inspired winery for the past 14 years. Check out the hospitality room and store. Suzanne and I really enjoy browsing the store area and exploring all they have to offer. Taste the many and varied wines they produce to find your favorite. You can also find lots of wine accessories and wines you can purchase for Christmas or holiday gifts. If nothing else, give a gift to yourself to celebrate the holidays!

The star of the Haak vineyard are the delightfully delicious Blanc du Bois grapes. One can see the grapes growing during the late spring to early summer months. If you are interested in getting cuttings to grow your own grapes, they usually have a “trimming day” in late January or early February where you can learn about taking care of grapes and help trim the vines. They will explain how to take the cuttings and plant in your backyard to start your own mini-vineyard!

After a laborious wine tasting, Suzanne and I finally agreed on which wine we wanted to purchase. With our Christmas gifts in hand, we thanked them for an informative and delightful experience and headed out to see more of Texas Thru My Back Door!

Join in our fight against breast cancer.  Visit Suzanne's new blog "My Equations for Life" as she reflects on life B.C. (before cancer) and A.D. (after diagnosis) and help support new early cancer detection research at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center with our Go Fund Me project below.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Nolan Ryan Museum – Alvin, Texas

With the start of Professional Baseball’s World Series, I thought we would write a baseball story. Lucky for us, we have a true legend of the game living here in Texas! Nolan Ryan has had a great impact in the game of baseball and is an ambassador of the Texas way of life. Easy-going, countrified, and hard-working are attributes of Nolan that I admire.

I had the privilege to be sitting at a table next to Nolan Ryan at Joe’s Bar-B-Q in Alvin one day a long time ago. While I had the urge to ask for his autograph, I told my daughter we should not bother him in front of his friends. “If we were famous,” I told her, “I would like us to have our privacy while eating out, too.”  While we ate our food, I kept an eye on him. He was gracious to everyone and no one at the restaurant bothered him by begging for an autograph.  How satisfying that must have been for him in his hometown of Alvin.

Today, Suzanne and I finally got around to visiting his museum on the campus of Alvin Community College. I was expecting very little as museums go, but when we entered this museum we were truly impressed. From his humble life as a child in Alvin, to his high school exploits on the baseball diamond, there was plenty to learn about Nolan in the early years. Nolan married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Holdorff. His professional baseball career is chronicled by many displays and videos. From mementos of his New York Mets days, to the California Angels, to the Houston Astros, and finally the Texas Rangers, we found a large number of memorable items to see. We saw old gloves, bats and balls, team uniforms, trophies, and champion rings.  Just about anyone should be able to find something of interest to view and little known facts to discover about Nolan.

The Ryan Express, as he is often called, threw a record seven no-hitters in his 27 year career. His career strikeouts are also tops at 5,714! Suzanne and I enjoyed learning about Nolan’s illustrious baseball career as well as his successful life as a cattleman and businessman. So if you have a hankering for a little baseball nostalgia, stop by this museum for a delightful afternoon, while you see Texas Thru My Back Door!

Join in our fight against breast cancer.  Visit Suzanne's new blog "My Equations for Life" as she reflects on life B.C. (before cancer) and A.D. (after diagnosis) and help support new early cancer detection research at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center with our Go Fund Me project below.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Leona General Store Steakhouse

This past Friday, Suzanne and I headed north to Leona, Texas. Suzanne had a craving for a good steak and we had heard about the Leona General Store Steakhouse and their great steaks. Leona is just south of Centerville on Highway 75, not far from Interstate 45, between Houston and Dallas. If you blink your eyes, you might miss it.  But if you are traveling through the area around 5:30 pm, when they open on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, you could find yourself in a traffic jam, as people come out of the woodwork for their tasty meals.

The restaurant was originally a General Store built back in 1921. The décor is Country Rustic with a friendly staff to serve you. The nice thing about the restaurant is the simple menu. Four choices of meat: 10oz. Ribeye Steak, Smoked Pork Loin, Grilled Catfish and Boneless Chicken Breast. Sides are the same for all: salad, mash potatoes and dinner rolls. Most people come for the Ribeye Steak served on Friday and Saturday nights only. Thursday is All-You-Can-Eat Fried Catfish.

Suzanne got her wish and enjoyed a nicely cooked Ribeye Steak. Just to be different, I chose the grilled catfish. Both dishes were excellent. I was surprised by the two large slabs of catfish fillets. It was quite filling, but it didn’t stop me from trying one of their signature desserts: the hot chocolate brownie with cold vanilla ice cream. Yum! Yum! I reluctantly agreed with Suzanne to split it, even though both of us were full.

If you are traveling through the middle of Texas, you might want to stop by the Leona General Store Steakhouse for a sample of these great Texas dishes. Who knows, you might even rub elbows with dignitaries like George W. Bush, who has come by a few times, or someone like Suzanne and I who just enjoy good food, good friends, and good times as we travel Texas Thru My Back Door!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Alvin, Texas

Suzanne and I travel all over Texas and sometimes forget about visiting our local neighbors. So we decided to visit a town next door to where I grew up in Pearland. Alvin is an unassuming little town that goes about its business quietly. It is best known for her favorite son, Nolan Ryan. With baseball playoffs beginning, we had planned on visiting the Nolan Ryan Museum, but as fate would have it, we struck out. It was closed on the Friday afternoon we chose to visit. What a bummer.

Like in baseball, one strike out didn’t deter us. We rounded second and slid over to the Alvin Historical Museum to check out the history of Alvin. Located in the old Post Office off W. Sealy Street, the museum attendant met us at the door, eager to please our passion for history. She directed us to Tom Stansel, who gave us a wonderful tour and explanation of the exhibits. At the entrance to the museum stands a beautifully carved statue of Alvin Morgan, the founder and namesake. Items ranging from prehistoric fossils to Karawanka Indians and from Republic of Texas memorabilia to the various American wars filled the halls of the museum. At the end of our tour, Suzanne got to view a temporary exhibit of beautiful quilts by Jewell Richardson.

Re-energized, we headed over to the Marguerite Rogers House Museum on East Dumble Street. The John G. Slover built Victorian house is unique in its Oriental influenced architecture and extensive gingerbread trim. Most of the lumber used was scavenged from other homes following a hurricane. Mr. Slover was a carpenter by trade and the workmanship shows his attention to detail. Decorated in period pieces from the 1930’s, this house represents a slice of life in early Alvin.

Though we didn’t get to visit the Nolan Ryan Museum, the other museums provided much insight into the early days of Alvin. From ranching, dairy farms, orchards and farming to commerce and railways, Alvin keeps chugging on as we see Texas Thru My Back Door!