Monday, December 31, 2007
I’ve seen these at the Walgreen’s since this summer but didn’t really feel like paying $3.50 for a bag of something that I can’t quite get my head around. I was hoping to try them at the All Candy Expo, but the Necco booth doesn’t really “do” samples of anything other than their most common products.
Instead I found them last week on sale along with the Christmas items for 50% off. So at $1.75 for 10 ounces, I felt like a fool not buying them.
I believe the product is called Cafe Select Chocolate Coffee Trios but there’s so much going on with the package. Things like “Made with Real Coffee!” and “Espresso - Cappuccino - Latte” and then the disclaimer, “Naturally & Artificially Flavored Crunchy Coffee Centers in Rich Chocolate.”
This is one of those occasions where I think my photos look better than the one on the package.
Basically, they’re malted milk balls, only with a coffee flavored center instead of malt. The center is amber colored with an even aerated crisp. There were perhaps two or three “duds” in the whole package (ones that had deflated or weren’t ideally sized, which is really good quality control in my opinion.
Espresso - a dark chocolate shell and a coffee crunch center. The chocolate shell isn’t very dark or rich, but beyond the “shellac” on the outside, it’s creamy and not grainy or chalky. The crunchy center is a little salty and less like a malted milk “cereal puff” and more like a sponge candy or center of a Cadbury Crunchie. The coffee flavor is mild, but since it’s not very sweet the coffee flavors come through.
Cappuccino - the milk chocolate makes this a little sweeter than the espresso one, but I can’t detect any difference with the crunchy center. I prefer the dark ones.
Latte - these are kind of freaky looking. The color is less “creamy” than I think they intend, it looks more like a rock than some foamed milk. However, they tasted richer than the cappuccino ones. These were my second favorite, but also the rarest in this mix.
Overall, I was really pleased with these. I know there are better upscale versions from Koppers & Marich, but for something I found at the drug store (and at half off), I found them really tasty and a great change of pace. I’ve been hungering for a coffee candy lately, and this just might be it.
Necco makes another variety called Cafe Select Chai Tea Trios, which also sound kind of interesting (but strangely named) but I haven’t run across them yet.
In other news, Necco was purchased by a consortium of investors and it sounds like the company will continue to make candy (I can see where folks might think their assets are more valuable than their products). Here’s a press release with more financials in it and an easier to understand article.
Friday, December 28, 2007
For a couple of years, over in the snack aisle of the Japanese market, I’ve noticed these larger bags of chocolate covered grains on the bottom shelf. Most are wheat, some are rice. They’re usually in rather generic looking bags and not as demanding of my attention as the other Japanese candies on the other side of the aisle. But last time I just had to pick this up. It was called by the very simple name of Wheat Chocolate (Mugi Chocolate).
It looks like it’s a puffed wheat covered in shiny milk chocolate. And that’s pretty much what it is.
The English nutrition label says that the ingredients are barley puffs, not wheat. These are a little small, about half the size of the wheat puffs you might be familiar with if you eat Sugar Smacks. Of course the idea of barley was pretty appealing to me (I’m a barley nut).
Whatever grain they are, they’re all perfectly crisped and coated with a thin layer of milk chocolate and then given a shiny confectioners glaze.
They’re all about the size of a green pea, though a few are doubles stuck together. The chocolate is sweet and thin with a pretty strong milky flavor to it. This goes perfectly with the strong malty puffed grain inside. Each is foamy and crisp.
The bag held 5.46 ounces and I ate it in two days. Seriously addictive stuff. I couldn’t stop popping them in my mouth and I have to wonder why I can’t get an American version of these. The package was really charming too, mostly clear cellophane to display the lovely chocolate and bordered with pink and some little drawings of people and houses. (It felt kind of Dutch to me, honestly.)
Oddly enough I also had another puffed grain candy from the other side of the world recently too. It’s called Kinder Country made by Ferrero. It’s a small bar (23 grams - a little more than 3/4 of an ounce), about half the size of a regular Hershey’s (though a bit thicker). I got this at Mel & Rose’s Wine & Spirits on Melrose in Los Angeles.
The outside is a milk chocolate shell, which is that really sticky sweet milk chocolate that Kinder is known for. Inside is a smooth and buttery cream filling. It’s not quite white chocolate, much more dairy flavored and not too sweet. The fun part is that it’s studded with puffed rice. (Not crisped rice.) The flavor combination is like cereal and milk. The puffs are so light and airy, it makes this tiny bar pretty satisfying. (Sera also reviewed it this week - her wrapper looked different than this import though.)
It’s a tasty bar. Not quite as addictive as the Wheat Chocolate, but certainly different from our usual American crisped rice goodies.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
This box of Trader Joe’s Irish Cream Chocolates was suspiciously inexpensive. I was on the prowl for an item they had last year, which were infused vodkas in chocolate. This was the only alcoholic chocolate I could find. When I say alcoholic, I mean that these do contain alcohol, 3.8% by weight. That’s enough for the register to ding when I bought them to make sure that I was of the legal age to purchase an alcohol product (I am).
The dark green box shows the little rectangles in nearly full size. Inside the box are three rows of five chocolates (15 total).
They’re a milk chocolate shell with an alcoholic “Irish Cream” syrup center. It’s quite thick and flowing, very sweet and rather odd. I didn’t care much for it at first, it tasted more like a slightly minty cough syrup, but the alcohol bite is certainly apparent. After a few of them, the creamy notes of the center came forward and I found myself reaching for one after another. (Not before driving.)
The milk chocolate isn’t the highest quality. It’s sweet and has a slight grain to it, but it contains the syrup center well. I only noticed two that had a leakage problem. There are a few ways to eat these. I prefer chomping off a short end and then slurping out some of the throat-blistering goo. But you can also just pop the whole thing in your mouth or probably nibble away at opposite corners to suck out more of the Irish Whiskey laced cream center.
Though they’re called Irish Cream Chocolates, they’re made in Germany.
Interestingly enough, this is the previous format of these chocolates, circa 2004.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
When I was a kid my grandmother made caramels every year for Christmas. We’d get a huge tin from her to take home, each piece wrapped in twisted plain wax paper. They were bigger than an adult’s thumb, at least two bites. Soft and chewy, stringy and long-lasting. Buttery, milky and not too sweet, they were usually made with some sort of nut. Sometimes hickory nuts but usually walnuts or pecans.
When I was 16 years old my grandmother gave me the recipe (I’d been begging for it since I was twelve) along with a candy thermometer (which I broke some years later after my third move).
They’re not easy to make. The ingredients and technique is simple, but it’s time consuming. It also helps for it to be a dry day. Humidity is the enemy of caramels.
The sugar and corn syrup are boiled over medium high heat until they become clear. Stir constantly but not vigorously, scraping down the sides to incorporate any sugar crystals.You shouldn’t be able to see any undissolved sugar crystals. Make sure your pot is heavy and sturdy.
Then add, bit by bit, small pieces of the butter and little tips of the milk. If the mixture boils up a lot when you’ve added it, you’ve added it too quickly. Keep stirring and adding. This process can take at least five minutes.
Once they’re added in, add the candy thermometer and stir constantly until the mixture reaches soft ball stage (235 F). Be sure to move the candy thermometer to mix behind it or else you’ll be little burned bits.
Once at soft ball, turn off the heat and add nuts. Pour out into either a greased large pan (9 x 14) or onto a piece of buttered marble. (Parchment works well, too.)
Allow to cool completely (overnight), then cut into small bites and wrap in waxed paper. Cellophane is okay, but tends to stick more (but is obviously prettier). You can put a little sprinkle of artisan salt on them if you like.
Now, this year was the first time I’ve made the caramels in about four years. The vexing part was that I didn’t want to use Karo because it contains high fructose corn sweetener. So I went on the hunt of some sort of real corn syrup. I finally found it at Whole Foods, but instead of coming in a 16 ounce bottle (the amount I needed) it came in an 11.5 ounce bottle. And it was the last one. So I bought the closest thing I could find to a corn syrup, which was a rice syrup. This happened to be brown rice syrup. Now, looking back at this, it may not have been a good idea. Corn syrup is made of glucose, primarily. Rice syrup is maltose and a little glucose. So it has a different flavor profile and likely a different chemical behavior when boiled. Glucose is a monosaccharide and maltose is a disaccharide.
In addition, my mother was helping me out and reflexively picked up skimmed evaporated milk instead of the whole variety. We decided to use it anyway, instead of going back into the store. (Nothin’ more fun than a grocery store on the weekend before Christmas, eh?)
So, here’s the new recipe and outcome:
As with above, I boiled the sugar and syrups. However, it never became clear. It was always a little cloudy, but eventually became transparent. The important thing is to be sure that the sugar crystals have completely dissolved.
The rest goes as above as well, just added the butter and milk. The color, however, was darker and smelled more malty than buttery during the whole process.
I was a little nervous that it wasn’t going to caramelize properly because of the different sugar balance and lack of milk fats from the evaporated milk, so I went slightly over the soft ball stage because the water drop test seemed a little soft. (You take a spoon of caramel and drop it into a glass of cold water and then pull it out and feel the texture.)
The color is much darker, but the flavor is absolutely wonderful. I don’t miss the slightly less fat in it (it probably has less water when it boils so long, so the concentration of fat is probably similar).
I’m not at all scared to use the brown rice syrup again, but I’ll probably still keep it at a half & half balance instead of completely replacing the corn syrup. But I’m leaning towards using the full fat evaporated milk (do not use sweetened condensed milk, that’s way too much sugar). Of course one of the big sticking points to this is that Karo is super-cheap at about $2.75 to $3 a bottle. However, that organic, non-gmo brown rice syrup cost a whopping $5.39 for 16 ounces and the diminutive organic corn syrup was $4.99 for 11.5 ounces.
There’s nothing quite like homemade caramels, and if you’ve never had them or have been paying silly high prices for them at candy shops, it might be time to make your own. You can also vary the recipe by adding flavors at the same time as the nuts. Perhaps some spicy hot? Maybe a little chai spice? How about a touch of matcha?
Friday, December 21, 2007
There’s hardly anyone who can argue politically with the qualifications of Sjaak’s Organic Chocolate Assortment. It’s organic, it’s fair trade certified and even vegan! (For locovores, it’s also made in California.)
I first visited Sjaak’s chocolate shop when I lived in Eureka, CA back when I was in college. (I didn’t frequent the shop since I worked for a rival shop down the street.) My brother even lived in an apartment above the shop for some years and ended up becoming a friend of the family.
Flash forward eighteen years and now I see what I thought was just a little local chocolatier at the Fancy Food Show ... and then at Whole Foods!
The packaging isn’t the most exciting part about these chocolates, it’s an ordinary green box with gold lettering and a little window so you can peek at half of the chocolates. Inside is a gold plastic tray with each of the candies in its own fluted paper cup. Out of the box they’re quite attractive.
The key on the back reveals what each is. In my assortment I had: Coffee Truffle, Almond Creme, Raspberry Truffle, Pecan Caramel, English Toffee, Solid Dark Chocolate, Almond Truffle, Hazelnut Creme and Peanut Caramel. Instead of dairy fats Sjaak’s opts for soy milk, palm oil and sunflower oil.
I shared this box with Bronwen, my local vegan taster, so she may pipe up down in the comments with her thoughts.
Solid Dark Chocolate - I thought this was a good place to start. Most good dark chocolate is vegan, so this is a no brainer. There were two little medallions molded with a daisy on the front and wrapped in foil. The chocolate is rather sweet and not terribly rich and dark. If you’re a milk chocolate fan, this is probably a good place to start with dark.
Peanut Caramel - I was curious what a caramel would be without butter and milk and while this didn’t have that buttery smooth taste, it was very nice. It reminded me of a good quality Goldenberg’s Peanut Chew (which also has no butter in it). The peanuts and the dark chew of the caramelized sugar and the sweet chocolate went well together. It was kind of a charcoal note to the roasted peanuts, but that brought a richness to it, almost like coffee.
English Toffee - I thought this would be an actual hard toffee, instead it was a truffle creme with little caramelized sugar bits in it. It was an enjoyable texture combination, like many of the pralines that I’ve had lately. The creme of the center was a little thin feeling on the tongue, mostly because there’s nothing like butterfat for a rich taste (mmmm, cholesterol).
Pecan Caramel - pretty much a pecan version of the Peanut Caramel, this was pretty darn good. I could eat a whole box of these. The lack of butter was more than made up for with the woodsy pecan flavors and crunch.
Almond Truffle - this was the first truffle I tried. The powdered sugar coating kind of put me off, as I thought it started the whole thing off very sweet. The truffle center is very smooth, but again, it feels thin and watery when it melts, it’s just missing some deep complexity that the dairy brings to the combination.
Coffee Truffle - the stronger flavors and the cocoa dusting made this a darker and richer tasting truffle. The center was smooth and melted quickly, thus giving up the coffee notes very quickly but dissipating. I could have used a stronger coffee kick or a dark chocolate.
It’s really nice to see someone trying to get all the elements into their chocolate line. The box was fresh and each piece looked great. They were also very generous pieces, oddly enough, one of the better values at Whole Foods when it comes to their politically correct candies ($41.25 a pound). If you’re lactose intolerant but enjoy fine chocolates, this might be the best option out there (though beware, the box warns that they do share equipment that processes dairy so it’s not for those with severe allergies). I think I’d still opt for butterier cousins, so I’ll have to give their regular line another try here sometime.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.