Wednesday, December 16, 2009
One of the crazier purchases I made in San Francisco last month was this tube of Pralus Chocolatier Creme de Noisette. If you’re thinking that I’ve started reviewing beauty products, it’s okay, this is candy.
The only other tube candy I’ve reviewed before were some Wonka (Nestle) items that simply couldn’t be much more different. (And they probably don’t have a single ingredient in common.)
First, Pralus is known by experts as one of the best chocolate makers in the world, right up there with Amadei, Michel Cluizel, Domori and Guittard (see a rankings list here at SeventyPercent). The company is one of only three remaining French chocolate masters to make chocolate from bean to bar. Their line of single origin bars are highly prized (I’ve tried many of them, but for some reason I’ve never reviewed them) and their Patisseries in France are known for their wide variety of sweet delights including their Pralulines.
The tube is quite heavy, clocking in at 8.8 ounces (250 grams). I spent a pretty penny on it, $14.99 at Bi-Rite Market. But I rationalized that it’s over a half a pound, which is a lot of confection for 15 bucks, especially for something imported from France.
The ingredients are dead simple: Grilled Hazelnuts and Almonds, Sugar, Chocolate and Vanilla. It’s basically a decadent Nutella. Now I must admit that I had a long affair with Nutella once. I was introduced to the stuff in Toronto in 1986 and though I had little money, I took home two jars (well, I started with three only two made it to the border). Whenever I was able to find it, I certainly bought it. I didn’t spread it on toast or use it in recipes, I simply ate it by the spoonful.
As years went by Nutella became more accessible in the big city (Los Angeles), but I found I didn’t like it as much. It seemed sweeter and greasier than I remembered. I’m told the stuff in Italy is actually better, but I kind of gave up on it and switched to straight gianduia by then. (The ingredients in Nutella sold in the USA go like this: sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, skim milk, soy lecithin and vanillin.) I’ve actually seen commercials for Nutella on TV now, highlighting its nutritiousness but for something that’s mostly sugar and palm oil, I have trouble believing it’s anything other than nutty frosting.
I can say this, Pralus Creme de Noisette is nutty and it can be used as frosting but it’s oh so much better.
The texture at room temperature is like brownie batter, in fact, it looks rather like brownie batter. It’s much darker out of the tube than in it. It smells like toasted hazelnuts, quite dark and caramelized. The flavor is immediately hazelnut as well, quite deep and slightly bitter. The cocoa notes are rich and on the smoky and coffee side. I’m not getting anything out of the almonds but that’s fine with me if they’re just filler.
The texture is also a little like a batter, it’s mostly smooth but every once in a while there’s a little sugar grain or nutty grain to it. Sometimes the sugar is quite a toasted flavor, like the whole thing was roasted together. It’s decadent and great for just squeezing onto a spoon or finger as a treat.
I also tried it a few other ways:
I fully plan to repeat the last two (with some variations) until the tube is gone. So far it’s been lasting quite a long time. It’s easy to keep in my desk drawer as well and is rather easy to keep neat.
My only other issue, besides price and availability, is spreadability. I can’t really blame the product but in the winter I have a bit of trouble squeezing it out of the tube. My house isn’t completely heated, so at anything below about 70F the tube becomes rather stiff and hard to squeeze the stuff out. (Something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of taking it camping - but the solution is just stick it under your arm for a while.)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
So far I’ve enjoyed my latest bundle of Aldi confections that my mother sent to me from Ohio. Two of the heftier items in the package are the long boxes of Choceur After Dinner Mints. I quite liked the Choceur items I’ve picked up before, especially since they’re nicely packaged into individual servings. (Each mint is 45 calories.)
The “mints” come in two flavors: Orange and Peppermint with the boxes handily color-coded in orange and green respectively.
I liked the orange box because it captures the holiday vibe without resorting to red and green. It’s just an orange box with brown accents and a variety of white & brown snowflakes around the edges.
Inside the box it’s rather like every other box of after dinner mints I’ve had, such as After Eight and the Divine After Dinner Mints (which was fair trade and also had a nice design). The Orange After Dinner Mnits box weighs a hefty 10.5 ounces, kind of like a narrow brick. Each piece is tucked into an open brown glassine sleeve. Each sleeve reminds me that it is the Finest Quality, as if there could be some little folders that didn’t have that notation that contained sub-standard quality candies.
They’re two inches long and one and a quarter inches wide. They’re have a nicely rippled top and a decent chocolate scent with a touch of orange. However, once I bit into it the orange flavor is overwhelming. The dark chocolate has a thin layer of soft & smooth fondant inside. It’s a “whole orange” flavor with both juice and zest notes and reminds me more of the Jaffa orange candies I’ve had from the United Kingdom. The chocolate texture is creamy has a touch of cocoa bittersweetness, but mostly the flavor here is orange and a pure blast of sugar.
It’s a welcome change from the traditional mint and the orange does leave a clean and refreshed feeling. I liked them better in memory, not in practice though. I felt better about them after I was done while the zest was still kind of lingering, not while I was eating them.
Rating: 6 out of 10
The ingredients are pretty clean: Sugar, Chocolate Liquor, Glucose Syrup, Cocoa Butter, Invertase, Soy Lecithin and Peppermint Oil. (However, this is also exactly what the Orange ones say, right down to the peppermint oil.) They’re made in Germany and feature the Aldi “Double Quality Guarantee” which means that if you don’t like it, they’ll give you your money back and another of the item. (You know, just so you can make sure you didn’t like it.) Honestly I had no issues with the quality of any of their items ... it’s often that they’re just not to my tastes.
While I found the Orange ones far too orangey, the mint ones were just right. I felt like I could taste the chocolate, which was dark and roasty as well as the clear peppermint flavor. The texture of the fondant was light and crisp. It was like they were flattened Junior Mints. With more chocolate by proportion than a Junior Mint but packing all the minty power.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Though I liked the design of the box from a graphics standpoint, it wasn’t actually substantial enough for something that holds so much candy. When the package is full and the stabilizing force of the shrink-wrap is gone, it was clear that the paperboard wasn’t built well enough. The single flap of the top and the simple folded over edges meant that the box had to be picked up carefully, best with two hands when full, or else the top would fold open and the candies spill out. Serving from it is good but putting them out in a large quantity inside their little sleeves is kind of problematic as they’re slippery.
Both are great hostess gifts and a really inexpensive item to include in a coffee when having friends over or easy thing to bring to an office to-do. (Note, I say they’re inexpensive but I don’t have the price info, so I can only guess that these are less than $4.00 for a box.)
These are not Kosher but are vegetarian and should be considered vegan (invertase is listed on the ingredients, which is an enzyme produced by bees, but for industrial food purposes is almost always made via yeast for cost savings).
Monday, December 14, 2009
I see the Florida Tropic oranges from time to time in the stores, but I haven’t really payed much attention to them until this year. When I attended the convenience store show in Las Vegas (NACS) a while back the folks at SweetWorks, the company that makes the Florida Tropic chocolate product line gave me a set of almost every flavor (I got eight of the nine).
Since there are a lot of flavors of their version of the segmented flavored chocolate “orange”, I’m going to deal with just three of them today: Dark Chocolate Orange, Milk Chocolate Orange and the 70% Cacao.
The boxes are quite simple. A plastic holder for the sphere of chocolate segments, which is wrapped in foil. The boxes are simple and show off the product well, but are frustrating to open. They use so much glue on them that it’s nearly impossible to just flip open the top, instead pulling it apart shreds the usability of the box to store the product.
While Terry’s Chocolate Orange tells us to Whack & Unwrap, the Florida Tropic Orange says “Break then Open” with a little drawing of a hand cupping the orange firmly. As I’ve opened a lot of these in the past few weeks I can say this: don’t whack or smack or break. Just open it up and either break it in half then or use a knife to wedge in and loosen a slice. It’s far less messy, though probably not as satisfying.
The foil wrap is great. I’ve been frustrated with the plastic stuff that Terry’s has been using for a few years now, it’s slightly too small for re-wrapping, and of course it doesn’t actually stay the same way foil does. This foil is great, it’s heavy and of course pretty. It’s also, for the most part, color coded by flavor. (Except for the milk and dark orange flavored ones, which are similar shades of orange.)
The pieces are a nice two bite size. They have a textured “rind” and one side of each section is designed to look like an orange slice complete with peel and pulp. There’s a distinct ridge on the edge which makes the pieces a little lighter, which might account for the difference in weight between Terry’s Chocolate Oranges and Florida Tropic. (There are 18 slices, so that also accounts for it.)
The orange scent is a mix of orange oil and the smell or orange Tang drink. The dark chocolate is mostly orange flavored with both the citrus zest and a strange bit of juice note. The melt is quite decent, though not quite buttery and smooth, it’s still slick and only slightly gritty and chalky near the end. (I think the cacao content is about 50% on these.)
The orange is a bit too strong for my desires for this product, but when combined with non-oranged items like pretzels, plain almonds and the 70% Cacao version below, it’s quite a nice treat. I ended up using much of this orange for some chocolate pudding over the weekend. I combined 3 cups of milk, 3/4 cup of cocoa, 1/4 cup of corn starch and 7 finely chopped slices instead of sugar (see my earlier experiment with pudding). No, it wasn’t sweet at all, but it was very chocolately. (Next time I may try the milk ones, as they have more sugar.)
The chocolate is actually vegan however it’s processed in a facility that also handles milk products, so may contain traces of dairy.
The standard Christmas stocking treat, I would guess of all of them, is the Florida Tropic Milk Chocolate Orange.
What I thought was fun about this one when I opened up the wrapper, besides the lovely look of the puzzle of slices, was how it’s put together. I’ve had oranges before that are made of slices that are then melted onto a plastic stem & disk thing. (I think that was the Droste brand ... can anyone confirm?) What this photo shows pretty simply is that the slices are packed into a ball and then a small amount of molten chocolate is squeezed into the bottom to just hold everything together (you can see from the top dark orange photo that the chocolate anchor only extends about half of the way through the middle). Separating them from the sphere isn’t hard at all.
The dairy scent is easily teased from the orange and sugar. There’s a slight creamsicle vibe to the whole thing, maybe like dunking orange sherbet in hot chocolate. The texture is smooth for less expensive chocolate, but still a little fudgy and grainy for my liking. It’s quite sweet as you can imagine for a milk chocolate. Still, it has a good cocoa vibe to go with the strange orange flavors which are both natural and artificial.
Though I have another half a dozen flavors to profile at some point, I decided to include the 70% Cacao here because it’s such a basic and the only in the bunch that’s not flavored or has any inclusions.
The wrapper is a matte toasty brown. One of the things I really enjoyed about all the oranges I had is how stunningly beautiful they are when opened. They way the slices are all stacked neatly then slightly tilted, like some sort of puzzle. From distance it’s like a tightly tucked chocolate armadillo or pillbug.
As an unflavored product, it’s the only one in the Florida Tropic line that gives me a chance to really taste the chocolate. They use real vanilla and no butterfat or other dairy extenders - so it’s true dark chocolate. (So it also qualifies as all natural.)
The chocolate flavor is in the middle of all the profile notes: a hint of roasted coffee, a touch of tangy raisin, a little whiff of woodsy smoke and a comforting texture that’s both creamy, not too sweet and a slightly dry finish. There’s a small grit to it from time to time, something I noticed in the dark flavored orange so may just be the style for this brand.
Just a correction, I reported before that I believed that the Trader Joe’s version was by Ferrara. It’s now quite clear that they’re actually made by SweetWorks. There’s really not that much difference between them. The biggest is that the standard Florida Tropic is 18 slices and 5.3 ounces and the Trader Joe’s is 6.17 ounces and 20 slices. But besides the size, it’s the same product, right down to the sticker on the top and the color of the foil. Just the box is different (and I rather prefer the Trader Joe’s whimsy.)
I’m quite please so far with the Florida Tropic oranges. Overall the product design is great and their attention to detail is quite good. The flavor variety is large, besides those covered here: Key Lime (Milk), Almond (Milk), Peppermint Crunch (Milk), Pina Colada (Milk), Raspbery (Milk) and Toffee Crunch (Milk). The price is good and the fact that they’re made in the USA may be of comfort to some folks instead of the Terry’s Chocolate Oranges which are made in Poland by Kraft.
So while I’m not a fan of Sixlets, which are also made by SweetWorks, the orange line shows that they can do really cost effective, attractive and crowd pleasing candy. (Not that Sixlets aren’t cute as buttons.)
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Back in October the Chocolate Salon came to town, it’s a one day show devoted solely to chocolate and open to the public. It was quite small compared to some chocolate shows held around the world, but one of the best parts was visiting with Art Pollard, his team and Amano Chocolate. They make superb bars with specially selected beans. I’ve been fond of all of their bars, with the Ocumare still topping my list for plain dark chocolate.
I bought some of the other new bars that I haven’t been able to find in stores (Montanya & Jembrana Milk Chocolate) but I also got a preview at the time of the not-yet-released Amano Dos Rios 70%. The beans are from the Dominican Republic and you can read far more about the origin of this bar at Seventy Percent in this article by Martin Christy.
What I’ve found over the years with Amano chocolate and many other small batch brands is that the chocolate changes as it ages, just like cheese and wine. So I ate half of my bar pretty much right away, then wrapped it up tight and put it back in the wine fridge for a couple of months to see what would happen. It is quite startling to see what a difference that makes, but happily both tastings were very nice.
Initial Tasting: Woodsy scent, moss, green sticks and olives. Strong Earl Grey tea flavors, not just the bergamot but also the black tea leaves. Quite acidic and dry yet a smooth and creamy melt overall. Lingering notes of bergamot and a return of the olives and some peppery floral whiffs of carnations.
Later Tasting: The scent is of green olives and lilacs, a little soapy. Strange and compelling - very green, fresh and grassy with a strong astringent quality. As it melts the flavors continue to release including more olives and some black tea/mushroom/cherry notes and mid-tone burnt note like coffee left on the burner a little too long. The aftertaste though is quite unusual as the bergamot emerges and kind of morphs into a fresh orange blossom note towards the end.
The texture was just a little bit chalkier than I’d prefer (but on the scale of chalky things, this was much less so than most other bars that I’d use that word to describe), however I’m used to the super-smooth quality of their Ocumare. But this bar is just too fascinating to not keep eating. If you’ve ever thought that all chocolate was the same, this is a bar to try, because it’s the best demonstration I’ve ever tasted of how varied the flavors within cocoa beans can be. Remember, these aren’t flavors added to the beans, it’s just the inherent flavors within this particular variety, how they were fermented and the way that the Amano team roasted & conched them.
It might be an interesting gift idea for a food-fascinated person in your life - a variety of Amano bars (and maybe a nice bottle of wine or whiskey).
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
My mother sent me a crazy-big box of holiday candies from Aldi that arrived over the weekend. I’ll have lots more on those (photo here) soon.
The first item I wanted to mention was such an incredible deal. It’s rather generic looking box, designed smartly and spare though a rather vague package about what’s inside. It’s called Chocolate Swiss Assorted Chocolate Squares. (They’re not really squares, but the Swiss aren’t known for their precision, oh, wait, they are.)
The box holds 7.05 ounces and cost $2.29. Inside are about 45 tiny little gold-wrapped chocolate bars in four varieties. The bars are tiny, less than 5 grams each and 1.25 inches long and .75 inches wide.
After spreading out the contents, it looked like miniature stacks of gold bullion. I divided them up to get a sense of the distribution of the flavors. It’s obvious just at a glance that the red labeled ones (Gianduja) are the most prevalent. Then there were almost equal amounts of the Milch and Haselnuss. There were only seven Zartbitter.
The utilitarian color-coded labels say Schweizer Schokolade: Swiss Chocolate.
The cute little bars are perfectly formed. The scent is soft and milky with a light malty note.
The texture is silky smooth and sugary. The dairy flavors are most prominent with the malt and some caramelized notes. The cocoa takes a back seat, providing just a subtle woodsy note and of course the inimitable melt. The bite is quite small, so this was one case where I wanted slightly more from these slight pieces.
This bar was the same as the milch but with the addition of some crushed hazelnuts.
The scent is mostly from the hazenut. There’s a light toasted and cereal note in there. The texture of the chocolate is the same as the milch, soft and creamy but with a strong grassy flavor of the hazelnuts and the crispy crunch of the pieces. Wonderfully snackable.
Gianduja, or gianduia, is a paste made from sugar, chocolate and hazelnuts. Depending on proportions of the ingredients, sometimes it’s solid enough to make into bars. This gianduja is still a bit softer than the milch. There’s no snap at all, it just bends (and as you can see from the photo, gets dented easily).
That softness gives it a quick melt. In this case it has a strong roasted hazelnut flavor and a little bit of cocoa in there. It’s quite sweet, but doesn’t have much grain like some other versions like Milka can. It’s a bit sticky and completely filling.
This is quite a nice looking little bar. It has a very bright snap to it and a smoky scent.
The flavors and texture are very different from the milk varieties. It’s thick and chalky after it melts a bit on the tongue and is a lot like a rich chocolate pudding. It has some strong bitter components and some tea and astringency as well. Sometimes it tastes burnt, like the edge of an overdone brownie. It’s not complex, just kind of a comforting and fleeting bitterness and dryness. I can’t say that I loved it, but I found it a decent counterpoint to the very sweet milk chocolates from time to time.
It’s a great value, when you consider how much a mid-brand large chocolate bar would cost about the same. It’s more than Dove Chocolate Promises or Hershey’s Miniatures, but this is also a variety set that’s pretty hard to find. The ingredients are fair - there are no additional oils in there, but they do use PGPR (though it’s listed after soy lecithin so I have to wonder how much is in it and if it’s in all varieties).
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.