Friday, October 12, 2012
Darrell Lea is an Australian confectionery company founded in 1927. They were known in Australia for their quaint and classic chocolate and licorice products sold at the company’s branded stores. (The company went into administration earlier this year and was bought out by the Quinn family, who also run VIP Petfoods. The shops are closed, but they’re still making candy.)
Here in the United States were get few of their products on our shelves, with their signature item being the Australian style licorice. I’ve even tried another version of their chocolate covered licorice before.
Cost Plus World Market recently had a big display of Australian and specifically a large array of Darrell Lea confections. I picked up a chocolate covered fudge bar and this package of Darrell Lea Dark Choc Liquorice Bullets.
The package holds 7 ounces, but is jam packed with the candies. It’s a heavy bag, like a bean bag filled with lead shot. The pieces are large. Think of a swollen Good & Plenty. Good & Plenty are about 2/3 of an inch long. These are over one inch. They’re consistent, dark and glossy. They smell like sweet chocolate and nothing like licorice.
The chocolate coating is nicely done, shiny and thick. The flavor is, well, thin. It’s like hot cocoa made with hot water instead of milk. The chocolate notes are like chocolate syrup. The licorice nib beneath is hefty and soft with a solid and satisfying chew. The earthy flavors of the licorice go pretty well with the chocolate. It’s almost bitter with lots of notes of dirt and minerals but not a whole lot of anise, more on the green fennel flavors.
The chew leaves behind lots of sticky bits of the licorice in my teeth and has a sort of rib sticking density as well. The ingredients show that this is real chocolate, though it does contain PGPR (an extra emulsifier) and butter (so it’s not vegan ... though it also lists shellac). The licorice base is wheat flour. It was made in a facility that also processes peanuts and tree nuts. There’s no corn syrup though, which I know some people avoid in a licorice.
I found them satisfying as a candy, but not great as a chocolate product or as a licorice product. I ate the whole bag, but it took me well over a month, as I kept losing interest. They also make a Milk Choc variety, which might have a better balance with the added dairy flavors. I don’t know what the financial restructuring will mean to availability of Darrell Lea products outside of Australia.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Taza Chocolate makes their chocolate from bean to bar in Somerville, Mass. What sets them apart from the many other small batch chocolate makers that have sprung up in the last 10 years is that they stone grind their chocolate in the rustic, classic Mexican tradition. Taza sources their cacao through direct trade sources to assure quality and ethical practices.
They make a wide variety of products but the ones of most interest to me are the Mexicano Discs. They make 10 different varieties, but I got samples of two that I thought would represent the style best: Cacao Puro Chocolate Mexicano 70% and Taza Salted Almond Chocolate Mexicano. I also noticed recently that Trader Joe’s has started carrying a strikingly similar set of chocolate discs, so I’ll throw in some notes about that.
The Taza website describes the Taza Discs as Rustic, round dark chocolate discs with a distinctively gritty texture, some sweet, some savory, some spicy. The packages have two discs in them, 2.7 ounces total (1.35 ounces each).
The discs are either for eating straight from the package or making into a drink by mixing with a whisk (or molinillo if you want to be authentic) and some hot milk (or water).
The Cacao Puro Chocolate Mexicano 70% is organic, gluten free, soy free and dairy free plus Kosher and made with only two ingredients: organic cacao beans and organic cane sugar.
The process for making the chocolate is very simple. The roasted cacao is placed in the stone mills and ground, then ground a second time with the sugar added. As noted on their website, it’s not a lot of processing, no conching and no emulsifiers are used. The chocolate is then tempered and molded into the discs.
(My photos for the Puro turned out poorly, so just imagine this Salted Almond is the Puro. It really looks the same, just a smidge darker.)
The look of the bars is a little dusty, less than glossy. The snap is solid, these are tough and dense bars. The melt is, well, not very smooth. It’s described as rustic and rustic is what it is.
The overwhelming flavor note I had was green wood, it’s a little like black tea, with other notes of lemon peel, raisins and a hint of figs and leather.
The texture is grainy, there are grains of sugar, which are interesting because they dissolve quickly. Then the is the grit of the large cacao particles. This gives the overall flavor of the chocolate a sort of variation, there are parts where the flavors might start as citrusy but then after chewing (yes, later because of the grit, there is more chewing than a really smooth dark chocolate might obligate me) some other flavors come out, like the tobacco and tea.
The chocolate here is only 40% cacao, with a larger proportion of sugar plus the almonds and salt taking up the other 60%. I really expected the cross section of this one to look more rustic, with more bits of almond in there, but it’s really well integrated.
It’s quite sweet, the graininess is taken up with the sugary grains with a hint of salt. I didn’t catch much from the almonds, except that they gave it a more creamy and mellow flavor that moderated the bitterness of the cacao better than the sugar. The chocolate flavors were also evened out, so I just got a sort of fudge brownie flavor from the whole thing.
I tried making a hot chocolate with this, since that’s part of the appeal of the Mexican-style of rustic chocolate. I didn’t put a lot of chocolate into it - about half of a disc for about 6 ounces of whole milk, I’ll probably add more next time. It’s best to use a whisk for this, all I had was a fork, so there was a lot of stirring (and a good thing that I didn’t fill up the cup all the way). The flavor is much more nutty and the sugar dissolves completely. The grittiness of the cocoa part goes away (until you get to the sludge at the bottom which is then a mix of almond bits and cacao nibs, which is also great).
I prefer this as a hot drink to a bar for eating, but that’s just me. It’s a bit expensive and requires a lot more work than just dumping a powder into some hot water, but I appreciate good ingredients and can take that extra minute for the stirring. (And now that the weather is getting cooler, I need a sort of whisk that’s ideal for one cup of chocolate.)
The final one I have notes on is the Trader Joe’s special version, Organic Salt & Pepper. It has 54% cacao, so it’s a bit darker than the Almond version. The only real difference between this disc set and the Taza branded ones is the fact that there are no little letters T A Z A on the molded sections.
It smells dark and peppery with some rum notes. The salt is much more forward than the Salted Almond. The gritty texture seemed to go well with the rustic flavors of salt and pepper and the grainy sugar. The cocoa flavors were a bit lost though did remind me of brownie batter. Of the three that I tried, this was my least favorite, but mostly because of the overall sandiness. The heat of the black pepper takes a while to warm up, but lends some nice tones.
The style of chocolate is interesting and definitely different from the standard fare and novelty chocolates these days. Really, I think this chocolate will shine as a drinking product, not for straight eating. But that’s a personal preference. If you’re looking for a chocolate that’s easy to portion, made with vegan ingredients, that has no GMO ingredients, emulsifiers or gluten or added vanilla bean then this is a fantastic option.
Update 10/29/2012: Per the suggestions of readers that I should drink this as hot chocolate, I did just that with one tablet of the Salted Almond. I found it a little bland, but very rich. So for the remaining discs, I made chocolate pudding. The recipe was 1/4 cup of corn starch, 3 cups of milk and three discs (about 3.5 ounces) of chopped chocolate. I warmed the mixture on the stove over low heat while I used a whisk to completely incorporate the corn starch, then as the chocolate melted to emulsify it. Then turned it up to medium heat, stirred constantly until it just started to thicken and boil. I added some vanilla extract (optional). It’s very rich, not at all sweet.
For my mix I had one disc of Salted Almond and two of the Cacao Puro. I wasn’t interested in the Salt & Pepper as pudding.
Monday, October 8, 2012
Last month I visited Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania, as I often do when I’m in the area. The themed space is open year around and adjacent to Hersheypark. It’s free to visit and is mostly a Hershey themed mall with a food court and a ride the includes the story of how Hershey’s makes their chocolate.
One of the new attractions at Chocolate World is Create Your Own Candy Bar. It’s a real, mini candy factory where you can customize a single, large candy bar from an array of options. It’s $14.95, so it’s not cheap, but it is an engaging way to spend 30 to 45 minutes, especially if you love to watch machines.
When buying the ticket, you’re asked for your first and last name plus your zip code. I didn’t realize that this was how the bar was customized as you go through the factory experience (though you’re only addressed by your first name and last initial, in case you’re visiting with your AA group). If I knew this, I could have given my name as CandyBlog as you’ll see later.
The tickets are for sale in the main lobby, patrons are given a ticket with a scheduled start time. Folks line up and are given hair nets and aprons, asked to remove all visible jewelry (rings and watches) and hopefully washed their hands. (You don’t actually come into contact with any of the equipment or ingredients.) I don’t know what the limit for a group is, but I would guess about 15-18 people.
The event starts with a quick video which shows you how each stage of the process will work. The basic steps are: choosing your formula, the production of the bar, the cooling of the bar, creating a custom wrapper and then the boxing of the bar.
The customizations are:
You simply scan your ticket’s bar code at the screen and make your selections.
Through a set of swinging doors, the set up is a real mini factory line with a continuous conveyer through a series of stainless steel machines. It extends along a long exterior wall, so it’s well lit and you can view it from the outside (though a real candy factory wouldn’t allow so much sunlight directly on the process). You can follow along and witness every step of the manufacture. Everything is well within view just behind a plexiglass divider and well marked with what’s going on at each step.
The process starts with a chocolate base. It’s like a little, short walled box of a bar. I chose dark chocolate and the suction arms picked one up and dropped it onto the conveyer to start. Along the conveyer are the six possible inclusions, when the bar arrived at an inclusion for your bar, the hopper or screw feeder opens up and drops in your items.
At each station, the items are marked and a little bit about the reasons for the type of dispensing is explained. Screw feeders work well for items that might be sticky, like toffee bits and gravity feeders are for dry items like nuts and pretzels.
Once my inclusions, pretzel bits, almonds and butter toffee bits, were inside the little chocolate box, the bar proceeded towards the enrober. All bars were coated in milk chocolate. No choice. My bar, though, was filled unevenly. The corners had nothing in them and the center had a too-high mound. I would have preferred that my bar go over some sort of vibrating bar that would level things before the enrober.
The enrober is a thick curtain of chocolate on an open mesh conveyer. The video above is short, but gives you an idea of the process. The chocolate that isn’t used gets filtered and recycled back into the system. (So do not eat these bars if you’re sensitive to gluten, tree nuts or peanuts, even if you didn’t pick those items.)
After enrobing, bars that get sprinkles will. I didn’t select those. Then the bars go into a cooling tunnel. The cooling process takes about 8 minutes, so it’s off to waste time in the design and marketing department.
Just off the “factory floor” is a room with more touch screens. Waving the little bar code on my ticket got a new series of options. First, I could design my wrapper. (Well, it’s actually a sleeve, it’s not well explained before you get in there that the chocolate bar comes in a box, which is then inside a tin which gets a customized sleeve.) The design options are not extraordinary. You can choose your background as either a solid or gradient of color or a pattern. Then there are the added items - Hershey Logos, Your Name and some icons (mostly Autumnal and Halloween). I made what struck me as a pretty ugly design and pressed print.
After that the screens give you marketing data about your candy bar. All sorts of different graphs that say how popular or common things are and what other people have done.
That process took me about three minutes, and I tried to rush through it since there were only five screens and plenty of people (including some kids which probably wanted more time on the design). Then it was back to watching the cooling tunnel ... which is a tunnel and only had a few little windows to check on the progress of the bars.
Once the bars came out of the cooling tunnel they were loaded into little slots and dumped into boxes. The boxes got a little laser printing on the end with everyone’s name, then went down to the wrapping stations. This was the only part of the process that was hands-on with any of the factory workers. They had already printed our labels and were waiting for the bars to come out. They popped the bars into a tin, closed the tin and put on the sleeve wrapper.
The factory experience gives people the ability to walk through with their own bar, but also enough time to go back and really look at the equipment if they desire. I don’t know how large the groups can get, but it appears that Hershey’s keeps the manageable so that you have enough room to move around and see everything. Photography is permitted. Children are welcome though everyone has to have a ticket (except toddlers under 2) and everyone makes their own bar. They are ADA compliant, and I saw no reason that folks in wheelchairs wouldn’t be able to get the full experience. (Chocolate World as a whole seemed to be very accessible and actually well attended by folks of all abilities.)
It’s extremely clean, as you’d hope. It’s very well run and each person you meet on the Hershey’s staff is eager and seem knowledgeable. (Especially once you get in the factory room.)
I was at the front of the line and ended up being the first bar (I already scoped what I wanted and was ready at the bar selection process). For me it was about 35 minutes, but if you’re slower or at the back of the line, this might be 45 minutes or more. So allow ample time, as well as the fact that once you get there and they issue the ticket, your start time may be more than a half an hour away.
So there’s my lackluster wrapper. Under the stiff printed sleeve, the chocolate bar is inside an embossed tin with the Hershey’s logo on it. It’s a nice tin, one that I can see myself keeping and using for storing small items.
The tin is 7.5” by 4.5” and 1.25” high with rounded corners. There’s a plastic tray inside that holds the boxed chocolate bar with the generic packaging.
The bar is pretty big. It’s 5 inches long and 2.75 inches wide and maybe 2/3 of an inch high. I don’t have an approximate weight on it, but it’s well over 6 ounces.
As I noted from the production line while watching it being made, the base is dark chocolate and though the chocolate tray had room, the inclusions didn’t make it into the corners. So it takes a while of biting to get to the interesting part of the bar.
I broke my bar open and just as I suspected, the contents spilled out. What’s more, I felt like I was missing the actual inclusiveness ... then enrobing didn’t actually cover my center. So I had my filling adjacent to chocolate, but not actually covered.
Aside from the physical mess, I didn’t like the taste. The fillings were dry and even though it was only a week later that I ate it, it was stale. The pretzel pieces weren’t crisp and were really small so had less crunch to them and were more of a grainy texture. The almonds were nice, small pieces but still fresh and crunchy. But what I was really disappointed about was the butter toffee bits. I was hoping for little Heath toffee chips. Instead I got some sort of artificial butter flavored thing that just stunk up the bar.
Though I chose a dark chocolate base, the majority of the chocolate in the bar is still the milk chocolate. It’s rich and sweet, but does have that Hershey’s tang to it. (Some don’t like it, but if you don’t ... why are you at Hershey’s Chocolate World?) The dark chocolate notes came in a bit, especially when I was eating the sides, but really didn’t nothing in the middle.
On the whole, I give myself 5 out of 10. I blame my inexperience and ingredients.
The problem with my fillings is that they’re dry. What I would suggest is either squirting a little chocolate in the base first and then putting the inclusions into it, or putting layers of chocolate into the center between the dispensing of the inclusions. Then do a little jiggling to get it all evened out and get the air out. This solves two problems.
The other thing I might suggest is that the “candy makers” get to try the inclusions first. There should be a little tasting table, maybe after you’ve bought your ticket before you get the “orientation” portion. That way we can really get a sense of what we’re putting in there instead of $15 experiments. The other thing I’d like to see is the ability to go through the process just accompanying someone who bought a ticket. I can see this being a huge expense for a family with many kids. It would be nice if the parents weren’t obligated to also get a ticket and bar.
Chocolate World is fun, and though it’s billed as free, there are some interesting attractions making this a good rainy-day destination for family, friends and couples who live nearby or are traveling through the area.
The stores there carry a huge array of branded merchandise and candy. The candy selection, though there’s a great quantity, isn’t really that diverse. For Hershey’s Dagoba and Scharffen Berger line they carry only three or four items. The prices are about what you’d pay at the drug store or grocery store when the items aren’t on sale, which is too bad. I heard more than one person lamenting that they could do better and not have to haul the stuff home if they just stop by Target or Costco. So I’d suggest focusing on the hats, tee shirts, playing cards, keychains and mugs.
What I would want from a “factory store” is a section where you can get special preview items, items out of season and of course super discounts on factory seconds. Something that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I’d also want better prices, after all, you’re buying direct so if there are no middle men, why are the prices so high? The only item I saw that rose to that level of specialness were green & red Hershey-ets.
Hershey’s Chocolate World
Free parking, free admission. Fees for most special activities. Wheelchair accessible. Their hours vary wildly, so call or check their website. Open every day (except Christmas).
More photos from PennLive of the Create Your Own Chocolate Bar.
Hershey’s Chocolate World gets a 7 out of 10 from me as an adult, I think kids would rank it higher.
My ticket for this experience was comped by Hershey’s. I have not done any of the other classes or movies at Chocolate World, only the free ride and shopped at the stores.
Friday, October 5, 2012
As I mentioned in some recent reviews, I’ve been chewing more gum lately. It’s hard to find gum that’s doesn’t use artificial sweeteners, but the market has expanded in the past few years as consumers have searched for alternatives to aspartame.
I picked up this package of Glee Gum Sugar Free Peppermint before a recent plane trip but then forgot to take it with me. So I’ve been munching on it at the office.
Unlike sugared gums and other sugar free gums, chewing gum made with xylitol has an amazing cool feeling on the tongue. The candy coating on the Glee chiclets only enhances that.Glee is also made with all non genetically modified ingredients (including sunflower lecithin) and a natural gum base made from real chicle.
The flavor is a mild peppermint, it’s clean and not too overpowering but also lasts quite a long time. The chew is smooth, and while I’ve had problems with the chicle sticking to my teeth before, I don’t have that issue with the sugarless version (it could also be that I’ve had some of my fillings replaced since I started Candy Blog).
Sometimes I find sugar free gums have a strange, metallic flavor, but in this case I got no strange notes. It was refreshing and simple. Xylitol is not a no-calorie sweetener, it’s a sugar alcohol that has a fraction of the calories of sugar. But mostly it has either no effect on the bacteria that cause cavities or, in some studies, can effectively combat it (but it takes more than just a couple of pieces of gum a few times a month). Xylitol, like most sugar alcohols, can cause stomach distress when consumed in large quantities by some people. Gum is usually not an issue, unless you’re chewing more than one package a day if you happen to be one of those sensitive people.
This is pretty much my go-to gum now. I still prefer real Chiclets because of the satisfaction of chewing the sugar out and then going for three more pieces. But this is probably better for my oral health, the flavor lasts longer and is made with all natural ingredients. Now I’m hoping they’ll come out with more flavors, like cinnamon.
Glee Gum does come in little single-serving boxes for Halloween treating, however, the sugar free varieties are not available yet. As far as I can tell, this would be the perfect item for folks who are nut-free, gluten-free and sugar-free to give out without seeming like stick-in-the-muds. (But it would help if it also came in the bubble gum flavor, too.)
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
What compelled me was the window on the package that showed the shape and style of these hard candies was charming - they’re little flowers, and without any artificial colors at all. In fact, the ingredients list had only three things listed: Sugar, Glucose, Peppermint Oil.
They reminded me of Brach’s Sparkles, which were a dense hard candy that was discontinued some years ago. I was hoping this was similar. Sparkles where fruity flavors (though may have had a minty version), and this Silver Mint also came in a mixed fruit version - but the garish colors turned me off in the same way that the elegant lack of color attracted me to these. (But now I regret not buying them.)
Each piece is 6 grams (.21 ounces) but felt heavy and dense compared to a Starlight Mint (which are usually about 5 grams each). They’re one inch in diameter and it seemed really large when I ate it.
The flavor is not overly sweet but very minty. There are no voids or bubbles at all, so the dissolve is exceptionally smooth. The texture is similar to a Jolly Rancher, a little tacky and not at all “crunchable.” The peppermint flavor is clean, and has little pops of intense flavor (reminding me of Reed’s hard candies). All I can say is that when I was done with the candy, I didn’t feel like I was sticky sweet, I just had a clean freshness in my mouth. I found one exceptionally satisfying, probably because I can’t chew them up, so I have to let them dissolve.
These are made in Canada, and probably exist in other store brand versions around North America. The package states that they were made in a facility that also processes peanuts, tree nuts, soy, eggs, wheat and milk. Yay, they’re shellfish free!
Note: The original posting said that these were purchased at Wegman’s. I’ve since been informed that this is a Giant house brand (I don’t remember shopping at Giant, but it’s far more likely that’s what I did than Wegman’s carrying a competitor’s generic brand).
Monday, October 1, 2012
A little over a week ago I was winding up a quick trip to Pennsylvania and killing time in the Philadelphia airport. Just about all the news stands and gift shops had a display of Pennsylvania Dutch Candies which sounds quaint, but really isn’t anything special. The candy brand is for the most part merely a repacker of things like Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls and generic Gummi Bears. But I did see this little gem that I considered unique, Root Beer Puffs. I was actually willing to pay airport price for the candy, since I’d never seen them before.
Even without opening the bag, they smelled quite delightful. The earthy and spicy smell of the root beer had my tongue tingling as I stuffed them into my carry on until I could get them home to photograph.
The puffs are like after dinner mints or those pillowy Butter Mints. They vary in size, but are what I’d call large king sized pillows - some as long as 1.25 inches and .75 inches in diameter. They have soft brown and tan stripes on them.
The ingredients are simple: sugar, natural and artificial flavors and artificial colors. When I first opened them they were a bit too strong and artificial, a bit plasticky, like fake banana can be. So I didn’t care for the first few I ate. But then I dumped them into a very large ziploc bag and let them sit for a few days to air out without getting stale.
The puff was airy and has a good melt or crunch, depending on your eating style. The root beer flavor is on the wintergreen side of things, in fact, if you colored these pink or green and handed them to me, I’d probably say that’s what they are. I simply loved that they weren’t peppermint.
I don’t know that I’d buy them again. I’m a die hard root beer fan, but these were lacking the complexity of the flavor, which usually includes a little bite of tartness or citrus. I do plan to finish the bag though.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.