What’s Cooking: Custom Hot Chocolate Mix

cocoa heart Artistic hot chocolate

My morning writing ritual includes a cup of hot chocolate, something that you might consider decadent unless you know that caffeine, even in the tiny amounts contained in decaf coffee or tea makes me sick. To stay healthy, I avoid all of those caffeinated drinks  I used to love. Instead, I drink hot chocolate.

It turns out that my hot chocolate habit is healthier than you might think. As an article in Mother Nature Network reports, Cornell University researchers studying the anti-oxidant levels in chocolate found that hot cocoa is a great source of antioxidants.

Chocolate chip hearts Chocolate is heart-healthy; cocoa powder has even more benefits than the solid form

In fact, hot cocoa’s antioxidant concentration is twice as high as red wine, and two to three times stronger than green teas, as well as four to five times stronger than black tea. Since cocoa lacks the fat of a chocolate bar (even dark chocolate is high-fat), it’s a healthier way to eat the antioxidants.

And heating the cocoa releases more of those cancer-fighting, age-fighting, free-radical-neutralizing antioxidants, says Professor Chan Yong Lee, the lead author of the study.

Other health benefits: cocoa’s flavonoids help you process nitric oxide, thus improving blood flow (including blood flow to the brain, which helps prevent dementia), lowering your blood pressure, preventing clots, and improving heart health.

Don’t buy commercial hot chocolate mix though. It’s full of unhealthy corn syrup in various incarnations and saturated fats. And it’s expensive on a per-serving basis. Instead, make your own healthy (and cocoa-rich) mix in bulk. It’s ridiculously simple. (There are only two ingredients!)

Two ingredients: cocoa powder and sugar Two ingredients: cocoa powder and sugar

Health-Rich Hot Chocolate Mix

2 cups organic sugar
8-9 T organic cocoa powder (I use Savory Spice cocoa–it has a lovely flavor)

Mix the sugar with the cocoa powder until it is combined. (Add more cocoa if you like a richer mix, more sugar if you prefer sweeter hot chocolate.) Store in an air-tight jar or tin. Add two to three heaping teaspoons to a cup of hot milk. (Use skim or lowfat milk to keep the fat content from counteracting the health benefits.) Stir and enjoy!

As you sip your healthy hot chocolate, thank the Mayans, who invented chocolate drinks many millennia ago. (Cacao beans are native to South America. They’re one of the Americas’ great native crops, along with chiles, corn, beans and squash.)

GIFT IT: Put the mix in a pretty jar, add instructions for making hot chocolate on a hand-made card, and give it to someone you love for Valentine’s Day.

A little artistic expression of how I feel when I drink my heart-healthy hot chocolate.... Valentine’s Day and hot chocolate makes for happy hearts!

Living Generously: Pollinator Hotel for the “Little Guys”

One of my New Year resolutions is to “live generously.” Which to me means not just being generous with other humans, but doing my best to live in a way that is generous to “all my relations,” as my Indian friends say, the multitudes of other beings with whom we share this glorious blue planet.

My front yard prairie-in-development under new snow.... My front yard prairie-in-development under new snow….

One way to be generous is to provide welcoming habitat right around home. Hence my work to restoring the native bunchgrass prairie on the former industrial site where I live, instead of planting a lawn and rose bushes. (Lawns require too much water, chemicals, and grooming; rose bushes are simply deer candy.)

Pollinator "hotel" or nest box. Each of those holes accommodates a different size of native bee, beneficial wasp, or other pollinator. Pollinator “hotel” or nest box. Each of those holes accommodates a different size of native bee, beneficial wasp, or other pollinator.

So when my friends Maggie and Tony Niemann gave me a handmade pollinator hotel for Christmas, I was thrilled. I’ve always wanted to try one of these artistic ways to provide nest-burrows for the little critters that pollinate my flowers, eat pest insects, and generally make my yard a healthier place.

What is a pollinator hotel? This one is a box about the size and shape of a bluebird box, but instead of a front with a hole appropriately sized for a bluebird and a cavity inside, it has no front, and the cavity is filled with tubes of various sizes, made of various different materials.

A close-up of nest tubes of different diameters in different materials: drilled into dowels and pieces of scrap wood--nothing toxic, plus naturally hollow stems of sunflowers, reeds and bamboo; and that lovely galvanized star! A close-up of nest tubes of different diameters in different materials: drilled into dowels and pieces of scrap wood–nothing toxic, plus naturally hollow stems of sunflowers, reeds and bamboo; and that lovely galvanized star!

(Since Tony and Maggie are artistic, it also has cool tin star decorations, both on the front and on the sides. And even its own tin roof up top.)

So there you have it: one way to live generously and welcome some of the littlest of our relations here on earth is to build them a hotel. This one will get hung up on the east wall of the garage, near the restored willow thicket along the creek, where it’ll get morning sun, but not hot afternoon sun. (Thanks, Maggie and Tony.)

Happy New Year to the little guys, and to us all!

Native bee collecting pollen from a blanketflower Native bee collecting pollen from a blanketflower. (By pollinating the flower, it ensures seeds that will feed the goldfinches, juncos and other seed-eating songbirds. So housing pollinators also feeds songbirds, an example of natural generosity.)

Seven Gratitudes from 2014

Gratitude (noun) The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. From the Latin, gratis, meaning, “pleasing,” “thankful”

As one year transitions into the next, I like to stop and take time to appreciate the gifts of the year about to pass before I make my list of hopes, dreams and resolutions for the year to come. (If you can’t stop and appreciate where you’ve been, you won’t really be able to appreciate where you’re going either.)

So here’s my list of gratitudes from 2014:

Creek House and Treehouse (my two-story garage, workshop, studio) in August Creek House and Treehouse (my two-story garage, workshop, studio) in August

  • Not Moving My move in 2013 didn’t involve going far, but it meant downsizing from half a block of property and 2,400 square feet of living space, a two-car garage, and 1,600 square feet of Richard’s studio. Figuring out what stuff I needed, what I wanted, and what would fit into my 725 square feet of new house with its detached single-car garage, 192 square feet of workshop and 384 square feet of studio above the garage/workshop was complex and emotionally draining. (My home, studio and workshop space equals 31 percent of what I had before.) It meant sorting through almost 29 years of “us” (Richard and me) for “me” and this new solo life.
    A fall evening in my living room, with the mountains rising over town in the distance. A fall evening in my living room, with the mountains rising over town in the distance.

  • My House I love Creek House, and its companion garage/workshop/studio, Treehouse. When I moved in last year, neither building was finished. Both places are now–okay, I’m still doing some customizing of details, but that’s because I can and I enjoy the work. (Thanks, Natural Habitats and all of my sub-contractors!) My two little buildings just as cozy, efficient, light-filled and comfortable as I imagined. The sun provides the bulk of my heat in winter; down-valley breezes keep the buildings cool in summer. And I get a check from the electric company every month for the clean power produced by my photovoltaic panels. (Thanks, Peak Solar Designs!)
    My own restored prairie yard, just one summer after planting, attracted all four species of hummingbirds that migrate through my valley. That's the power of restoring habitat! My own restored prairie yard, just one summer after planting, attracted all four species of hummingbirds that migrate through my valley. That’s the power of restoring habitat!

  • Meaningful Work My more-than-halftime job this year involved starting up the Be a Habitat Hero project. The project’s mission is dear to my inner restoration ecologist: Grow a network of habitat for pollinators and songbirds in gardens, parks and public spaces across the Rocky Mountain region and restore our joy in nature every day. I got to teach with Lauren Springer Ogden, passionate plantswoman and designer of great gardens and wildscapes; and work with Connie Holsinger, visionary founder of the program, and Sienna Bryant, social media coordinator extraordinaire. The Habitat Hero project has great partners in Plant Select® and High Country Gardens, and starting next month, it will become part of Audubon Rockies. Which brings me to my fourthgraditude:
    That memoir-in-progress.... That memoir-in-progress….

  • #AmWriting I’ll be writing full-time in 2015 (okay, I’ll teach a few more Habitat Hero workshops, including two with Lauren). I’m already seeing the benefits: Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-revision, is going deeper and moving toward the universal, how we become the people we are and what that means about what we bring to this life. My columns for Zone 4 Magazine (soon to be renamed Rocky Mountain Gardening) and Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens are benefiting from my creative focus too.
    Molly, Richard and me in Boulder (we had an old Volvo station wagon then) The threesome who star in Bless the Birds years ago in Boulder, Colorado

  • Red My truck. Yeah, I know that sounds silly, but not when you see Red as a metaphor for finding myself in this solo life. I’ve been camping in Red (in weather so cold the topper windows frosted up on the inside); I’ve taken Red up a few Jeep roads, and Red and I have even braved the congestion of downtown Denver together. I smile just climbing into Red. My shiny red truck is my companion in exploring new routes, literal and figurative.
    Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos... Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos…

  • My Community All of you: my family, spread now from the West Coast to Germany; the fabulous small town where I live; my fellow writers, plant and garden geeks and nature-lovers; my friends far and near; all who read this blog and my books and articles, who befriend and inspire me on social media, via letters and emails, and in the community of the digital world; my antepasados (ancestors) in writing, science and spirit; all who love this world and see the possibilities in the human spirit. Thank you. In a year that has had more than its share of death, pain, tragedy and suffering, you give me hope. You keep the flame burning. I am grateful for each of you.
    Winter Solstice, 2014 Keeping those flames burning on Winter Solstice

  • This Planet It may be battered by wars, global warming, overpopulation, and all manner of other ills, but Earth is still the best planet we know, a glorious web of life and lives, blue and green and red and yellow and purple and black and brown and orange; spotted, striped, with legs or wings or fins or roots and leaves…. Every day, I wake up marveling that I get to live here and that I am alive to appreciate it.
    Just an ordinary dawn here on the only planet humans have ever known Just an ordinary dawn here on Earth….

Blessings to you all!

Jars of eggnog on the kitchen island, waiting to go to happy homes....

What’s Cooking? Sinful Solstice Eggnog Recipe

Jars of eggnog on the kitchen island, waiting to go to happy homes.... Jars of eggnog on the kitchen island, waiting to go to happy homes….

In Sunday’s post about Winter Solstice luminarias, I promised to share the recipe for my Sinful Solstice Eggnog. This homemade eggnog has been part of my holiday season traditions since before Richard, Molly and I moved to Salida seventeen years ago.

It started out (as so many traditions do) as just a small thing, a treat for visiting family at Christmas. Over the years though, as our Light the Darkness party moved to Solstice and expanded, so too did the batches of eggnog, until the year when I used four-and-a-half dozen eggs and over a gallon of heavy cream. That was insane.

Now I make this rich eggnog to give away, instead of as the centerpiece for one of the huge parties Richard took so much joy from hosting. I always toast him with a small glass, remembering how he loved the whole ritual of eggnog, luminarias, and gathering our community of friends to light the solstice darkness.

Susan’s Sinfully Delicious Holiday Eggnog Recipe
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking)

one dozen eggs (free-range eggs with their orange yolks make prettier eggnog)
1 pound powdered sugar
2 to 3 cups dark rum (substitute a fruity bourbon or whiskey if you prefer)
1 qt organic skim or lowfat milk
1 qt ditto half ‘n half
1.5 qts ditto heavy cream

Separate eggs, placing yolks in one bowl and whites in another. Cover whites and refrigerate. Beat yolks until creamy. Add powdered sugar gradually, beating slowly. Add two cups of liquor (reserving one, if using three), beating constantly.

Egg whites in one bowl, yolks in the mixer bowl, ready to become nog. Egg whites in one bowl, yolks in the mixer bowl, ready to become nog.

Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour to eliminate the “eggy” taste. Then add the remaining cup of rum (beating constantly), along with the milk, half ‘n half, and the cream. Cover the nog and put it back in the refrigerator overnight (or for at least three hours) to mellow the liquor.

When the nog is mellowed, beat the whites until they form almost stiff peaks (the peaks barely droop). Fold the whites gently into the egg mix and sprinkle the whole with freshly grated nutmeg.

A double recipe of finished eggnog in Richard's largest bread-dough bowl A double recipe of finished eggnog in Richard’s largest bread-dough bowl

Serve in a punch bowl with a ladle and small glasses or cups—it’s very rich. (Serves 20-30 people.)

Enjoy with those you love!

My special cobalt blue solstice candle-holder

Winter Solstice: Lighting the New Year

My special cobalt blue solstice candle-holder My special cobalt blue solstice candle-holder that has traveled with me for decades….

Today is Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere. For me, the day when Earth’s tilted rotation brings the sun to its farthest south arc across the sky marks the year’s turning point.

After today, the sun “turns around” on its southward journey, and moves north again. The days grow ever-so-gradually longer and our hemisphere wobbles back toward light and spring.

It is a time for celebration, time to light the darkness, to feel the emotional and psychological lift of knowing that we’ve passed through the darkest times.

Luminarias burning before dawn in freezing rain. Luminarias burning before dawn despite freezing rain.

I’ve marked Winter Solstice by lighting candles all my life. After Richard, Molly and I moved to southern New Mexico, we adopted the custom of lighting luminarias, small votive candles nestled in sand on paper bags that symbolize lighting the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve.

For me, those luminarias also represented the solstice, each tiny candle glowing through the darkness to herald the our hemisphere’s return to light and warmth.

The luminarias lining the block at Terraphilia with Christmas Mountain in the background. The luminarias lining the block at Terraphilia with Christmas Mountain in the background.

When we moved to Salida, we brought the luminaria tradition with us, and shifted it to Winter Solstice. When Richard was alive and we lived in Terraphilia, the house he built for us, we made a celebration of Winter Solstice every year, inviting friends and family to help us line our half-block with luminarias, followed by an open house highlighted by my Sinful Solstice Eggnog and other treats.

Richard loved a party, the bigger the better, and circulated through the crowd talking and laughing. I loved his joy and the idea of the celebration with its metaphor of lighting the darkness, both with the tiny candles in their paper bags, and the gathering of our community.

Matriculation with luminarias, lighting the way for Richard's spirit. Matriculation with luminarias, lighting the way for Richard’s spirit.

Molly and I held Richard’s memorial service on the weekend closest to Winter Solstice. With his favorite celebration in mind, we invited everyone to write on a luminaria bag, fill it with sand and a candle, and place it near “Matriculation,” his sculpture in the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Park. Those flickering candles lit the night for his journey.

I thought that after I got through the hectic years of doing the finish work on Terraphilia, selling the house and his historic studio, and then building my little place, I would revive the tradition of that Winter Solstice “Light the Darkness” party.

Last Winter Solstice, I was living in my new little place, Creek House, but only on a provisional occupancy permit; I had no front entry deck and thus couldn’t hold an open house. So I made and distributed jars of eggnog, and put out a few luminarias.

Luminarias line the deck foundation last year Luminarias line the deck foundation last year

This year, I knew I couldn’t throw the party. Maybe it’s being deep in this revision to Bless the Birds, the memoir I’m writing about how Richard and I came to be the sort of people who could walk his journey through brain cancer with love.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m realizing who I am without the love of my life to be my front man. I’m an introvert: I love people. In small groups. A few at a time, with quiet in between.

Sinful Solstice Eggnog Sinful Solstice Eggnog

So I’m beginning my own “Light the Darkness” tradition: I made 2.5 gallons of Sinful Solstice Eggnog (recipe in the next post) and spent a happy afternoon as “Eggnog Elf” giving decorated jars to friends.

Eggnog elf off to spread joy and homemade goodness Eggnog Elf ready to spread joy….

And in a few minutes, I will go outside in to the chill air that smells like snow, and light the luminarias I placed on the Creek house front deck and steps, and the second-story deck at Treehouse, my garage and studio.

As this shortest day of the year deepens into the longest night, and my solar-calendar cycles around, Richard’s spirit will be with me. Love lasts.

Blessed Winter Solstice to all! May you find the light you need to carry you through the darkness.

Winter Solstice, 2014 Winter Solstice, 2014

New year, new moon--and long nights....

Counting My Blessings

New year, new moon--and long nights.... New year, new moon–and long nights….

This time of year as the long nights of winter yield much-too-gradually to the turn of our hemisphere toward light and warmth, I spend time deliberately tallying my blessings.

Not in a superficial, oh-isn’t-life-wonderful way.

This particular ritual is part survival, part talisman and part intention. When times seem darkest, I can usually haul myself back to the light by conjuring what I have to be thankful for.

Counting my blessings helped me weather some hard blows these past few years, especially losing both my mother and the love of my life in 2011–Mom in February and Richard in November.

It’s taken me all this time to (mostly) work through the financial and emotional aftermath, and just as I was seeing my way clear this fall came another smack to the heart that’s too close yet to write about.

Whenever I begin to curl inward and feel sorry for myself or harden in righteous anger, what works best to pull myself out is remembering what I have, not dwelling on what I have not.

So in the spirit of my intention to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, here is a by-no-means-complete tally of blessings in no particular order:

  • Blanketflower and Rocky Mountain penstemon bloom over native bunchgrasses in a native meadow "lawn." Blanketflower and Rocky Mountain penstemon bloom over native bunchgrasses in a native meadow “lawn.”

    Life itself, every sweet, joyous, frantic or painful day that comes my way for as long as they do

  • Wildflowers scattered like fallen stars in my yard in the midst of town–and the myriad of bees, butterflies and other lives they summon to their company.
  • My sweet new nest, Creek House, and Treehouse, its companion garage and studio
  • Clouds drifting across the face of the rising moon
  • Blue skies, vivid sunrises and sunsets
  • My family, the extended Tweit clan, including you spouses and that wild and wonderful pack of kids, and Molly and her partner, Mark
  • The pungent smell of sagebrush after a warm rain
  • Molly in the hottest pool at Joyful Journey on her visit home for the holidays Molly in the hottest pool at Joyful Journey Hot Springs on her visit home for the holidays

    The hum of my Subaru tires on pavement; the fact that I have a car and can take to the road now and again.

  • Looking out my front door in the lung-freezing cold just now to see Orion, my favorite constellation, sparkling bright.
  • This town and my dear friends–you know who you are–who help out when I need it, who remind me of why this place holds my heart, who greet me warmly and care how I am, who teach me daily what love means.
  • Hummingbirds trilling past in summer’s heat.
  • Hearing the chuckle of the creek out my door, even under layers of ice.
  • You all, this far-flung digital community weaving a network of care and empathy, humor and wisdom as we reach for each other across the miles.
  • The delicate tracery of frost riming window panes; a feathery fall of snow.
  • Female broad-tailed hummingbird nectars at Zauschneria flowers. Female broad-tailed hummingbird nectars at Zauschneria flowers.

    The joy of restoring this formerly junky industrial parcel to a vibrant community of the land, thrumming with lives of all kinds.

  • The heft of shovel and rake, the chatter of drill and saw, the glow of work well and carefully done.
  • A brisk walk in the shelter of high peaks.
  • The cross-country skis and kayak in my garage waiting for me to play.
  • Writing: the gift and practice of creativity, and the time and sweat it takes to get words and narrative right
  • Books, stories, words; movies and music; art of all kinds
  • I look into the beauty of the earth each time I wash my hands, and I remember my love.... I look into the beauty of the earth each time I wash my hands, and I remember my love….

    Learning the feel of wood, steel and stone

  • The warm sweetness of a tomato fresh from the garden, the crisp crunch of just-harvested greens
  • That single coyote howl I heard at sunset
  • The beautiful stone basin that serves as my bathroom sink, the last I have of Richard’s work, an ambassador of the earth and of his love for it….


Happiness is a form of courage –George Holbrook Jackson

Indeed. It takes work to find the joy in life when life isn’t pretty. But as the list above demonstrates, it’s worth the effort.

Thank you for walking with me. I am truly blessed.


Lighting the Darkness

Luminarias line the walks, colored lights shine from the front porch, and Salida’s “Christmas Mountain,” a 700-foot-tall outline of a tree with ornaments on a hill across the river, glows in the left background.

Darkness as a metaphor stands for gloom, distress, unhappiness, ignorance or secrecy; something impenetrable, evil, or simply wicked. The word meaning “absence of light” takes on such metaphoric power because we humans are a visual species, depending primarily on sight to make sense of the world.

(Other animals depend on their other senses as much or more as sight. Dogs, for example, can navigate with their eyes closed and noses sniffing, aided by  something like 125 to 300 million smell-sensors; our noses, with a paltry 5 million smell-sensing cells, are blind by comparison.)

Thus, if we cannot see something clearly, we tend to fear it. That’s true figuratively as well as literally.

Hence the power of darkness as a metaphor. And our unease when the nights lengthen and daylight grows short. (As well as our overabundance of artificial nighttime lighting, so much that it now pollutes the night skies and, scientists are beginning to document, harms our health.)

No wonder then, that light stars in so many Northern-Hemisphere-based winter holidays: Hanukkah menorahs, Christmas trees, Yule logs, and even Kwanzaa candles, a celebration rooted in equatorial Africa where day length is not an issue. (In the Southern Hemisphere, these holidays fall incongruously in the longest days of the year)

These holiday lights are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates spiritual and intellectual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.

A votive candle burns steadily, nestled on its scoop of sand, the flame sheltered and amplified by a fragile paper bag.

My favorite of these light-the-dark-winter-days illuminations are the luminarias of the Hispanic New World (or farolitos, depending on the area of the Southwest). Richard and I learned this tradition of setting small votive candles in paper bags, each with a scoop of sand to anchor the bag and keep the candle from burning its shelter, when we lived in southern New Mexico.

On Christmas Eve, whole neighborhoods there (including the one where we lived) were lit with luminarias, the glowing paper bags lining streets, sidewalks, and even rooftops.

When we moved north to his childhood home a decade and a half ago, we brought the luminaria tradition with us. Except we moved it to Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, and began an annual “Light the Darkness” open house, inviting friends and family to help fill luminarias and line our sidewalk and walkways. After lighting them one by one, we shared homemade eggnog and other holiday treats.

Each year the celebration grew. And then came Richard’s brain cancer. The first Winter Solstice, we were away, living in the Denver area for his radiation treatments. Friends gathered at our house, filled and lit the luminarias, and sent us photographs of their light. (People all around the world lit candles that night and emailed us photos. That outpouring of love and light still warms me.)

Luminarias glow in Salida’s SteamPlant Sculpture Garden after the celebration of Richard Cabe’s life.

By second Winter Solstice of Richard’s journey with brain cancer, he had survived two brain surgeries and seemed to be doing well, but my mother had just begun hospice care and was slipping fast. I was coordinating her care, which meant going back and forth to Denver every few days. We lit the luminarias, but skipped the party.

By the time Winter Solstice arrived last year, the third year of our journey with Richard’s brain cancer, he was gone. Molly and I held the celebration of his remarkable life on the day after Solstice, and invited the hundreds who attended to write something for Richard on a luminaria bag, and place it in Salida’s Steamplant Sculpture Garden near “Matriculation,” his sculpture there.

Solstice this year marked not only the return of the sun’s light and warmth, but also a personal milestone: I threw the first-ever Light the Darkness party without Richard. Friends and family gathered, filled and distributed the bags (including some with sayings saved from last year’s celebration), and then lit the luminarias.

A message from last year’s celebration of Richard’s life.

One by one, the tiny flames took hold and the flimsy bags glowed in the gathering darkness. We gathered in the warm house, ate and drank and laughed and toasted those who could not be there with us.

Much later, when the house was quiet, I padded outside into the frigid darkness. The luminarias were glowing, Salida’s “Christmas Mountain” was bright on its hill across the river, and all was still.

I turned my face to the star-spangled, moon-shot heavens and made my solstice wish:

May we all find light in whatever darkness impedes us. May we all find peace, healing, and love to guide us on our way.

Blessings of this solstice season to you all!