Sunday, November 19, 2006
There once was a fantastic chocolate bar that surpassed KitKat in crispiness, that exuded such a creamy sweet experience that Hershey promptly mucked around with the formula and then discontinued the bar.
I’m talking about the Bar None.
It was a cocoa wafer, chocolate filling, peanuts and a milk chocolate coating and was introduced nationally in 1987. It was a wide bar, about the size of the current Whatchamacallit bar. The series of light chocolate wafers were filled with chocolate cream, covered with a light coating of crushed peanuts and then a coating of darker than normal milk chocolate.
I was irritated at the time that Hershey had just mucked up the Whatchamacallit bar by adding lame caramel to it. I’m faithful to bars that are faithful to me.
With Bar None I was immediately smitten. I would buy them at the convenience store just over the bridge from campus where I was going to college. I would buy them in vending machines, I would buy them in the six pack at the grocery store. I would buy them whenever I could. If there was a reason that they didn’t succeed, it couldn’t be attributed to my lack of evangelical devotion.
Later in 1993 Hershey’s reformulated the bar and added caramel but also divided them into two bars (kind of like the Reese’s Sticks). While they were tasty, they weren’t the same and I lost interest in them entirely.
I wasn’t alone and at some point they stopped making them in the United States. The retooled version is still made in Mexico.
I’ve heard that they’re okay, and I’m actually curious to try the Mexican version, because maybe I was wrong about the new Bar None. But I’m not curious enough to take that drive south of the border in search of it.
Instead, sometime in the late eighties I also discovered the Le Chocolatier cookies made by Pim’s.
These are flavorless wafers with a chocolate cream and covered in real chocolate. What’s even better is they’re sold in boxes so while they weren’t wide and ample bars, there was an ample supply of them. If you were a fan of Bar None and have pined for it all these years, try the Le Chocolatier. Or take a trip to Mexico and let me know how those are.
UPDATE 2/6/2009: Look what I found! This is exactly what I remember, it’s a magazine ad from 1988 or 1989. Also, check in here with this photos set I have of a fan newsletter I used to get called Chocolatetown USA! from 1990 that profiles that launch of the Bar None.
UPDATE 2/18/2009: I think I found a pretty good replacement for the Bar None. It’s called the Q.Bel Crispy Wafer Bars. They come in Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate & Milk Chocolate with Peanut Butter and have no artificial ingredients or hydrogenated oils. I love the dark chocolate version. They’re currently being sold at Whole Foods. Though they don’t have the crunchy peanuts in them, they do have some crisped rice in the chocolate enrobing!
UPDATE 6/12/2013: The Bar None has returned, made by Iconic Candy Company, it’s a pretty good replica of the original. You can read the full review here.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Lest you think that my upscale chocolate heart is only in San Francisco, I was recently sent a box of ethel’s chocolate from Chicago by, you know, some of ethel’s peeps.
They sent along the new Holiday Collection, just in time for a Thanksgiving review. The sassy half pound + box includes four each of six flavors, all with a holiday sugar and spice theme.
Cinnamon & Sugar -A dark chocolate shell with a cinnamon and sugar spiced butter cream. Though all the chocolates look a little “manufactured” to me because they were so crisp and regular, the tastes were definitely authentic with all natural ingredients as far as I could tell. The dark shell was silky smooth and mellow. It had a slight bitter bite with offset the supersweet but superbuttery center well.
Cranberry - a milk chocolate shell with a cranberry buttercream center. I was surprised at how “cranberry” the center of this one looked when I bit into it. The buttercream has an immediate and sharp berry bite, but the heavily dairy milk chocolate balances is pretty well. Though the flavors feel realistic, milk chocolate doesn’t feel like a good match for cranberry, maybe it’s because the dairy flavors and the tartness of the cranberry make me think of spoiled milk.
Dreamy White - I don’t know what this one is, I couldn’t quite figure it out from the brochure that came with it. As far as I can tell it’s white chocolate with a milk chocolate center. The center wasn’t up to the sweetness of the shell and felt a little greasy and flavorless.
Egg Nog - dark chocolate with a egg nog flavored white chocolate ganache. I’ve always been a sucker for egg nog, it’s like drinkable spiced butterscotch pudding. It’s usually too sweet as a drink and I used to cut it with milk (or sometimes half and half) but I love the nutmeg on top. The dark chocolate shell here combines wonderfully with the rum and spice of the center.
Pecan Pie - a milk chocolate shell with a pecan and spice filling. This one worked surprisingly well. I was afraid with a milk chocolate outside it would be too sweet, but it’s not. The filling isn’t as sticky sweet as a real pecan pie is, this instead has a great pecan taste to it, with that nutty feel on the tongue and woodsy hit.
Pumpkin Pie - white chocolate with a spiced pumpkin buttercream. As with the other pie chocolate this was surprisingly good. The buttercream wasn’t just those pumpkin spices (nutmeg, clove, cinnamon) but it also had that real pumpkin taste to it (pumkin is on the ingredient label) that gave it more of a custardy feel than a ganache.
Of the whole set it was just the Dreamy White that bugged me, the rest I ate without complaint with the first to be devoured Egg Nog, Pumpkin Pie and Pecan Pie.
ethel’s chocolate is part of the Ethel M company, which in turn is the upscale boxed chocolates company founded by Mars. The new line of shops and chocolate lounges are less fussy and perhaps more fun than the Ethel M company. Their aesthetic is spare but with a great deal of attention to detail and attempt at brand unification. The selection in this box bodes well for my actual visit to one of their Lounges (right now just in the Greater Chicago area and Las Vegas). Their other selections include traditional spherical Truffles, a set called American Pop which appears to take comfort candy to a new level, Cocktail which feature mixed drinks and wine, Fruit which contains chocolate and fruit combinations and Nuts and Caramel which appears to eschew walnuts, much to my pleasure.
If I can make an observation, it seems that many of the new chocolatiers are chefs of one sort of another. Instead of coming out of a candy manufacturing tradition or perhaps baking, I feel like there are more chefs out there dipping their toes into the chocolate pools. I don’t know if this was always so, or if it’s just the publicity machines make more of the culinary curriculum vitae of the creators. ethel’s chocolate creative voice is Jin Caldwell.
The price of ethel’s chocolates is kind of up there, at $27.00 for the assorted box of 24 pieces (8.5
ounces). More than See’s, less than CocoaBella or Vosges. I was pleased enough with this box to want to give the Nuts and Chews a go next time the opportunity presents itself. I also desperately want a chocolate lounge in my neighborhood.
Friday, November 17, 2006
Oh, the Limited Editions ... I’ve been searching for the fabled Elvis Peanut Butter Cups (with banana creme). When I didn’t see those I picked up this new LTD offering called Reese’s Big Cup with Mixed Nuts.
My luck was that it contained lots of nuts and none of them were walnuts. The tall peanut butter cup contains peanuts, pecans, almonds and cashews.
It was just like the Big Cup with Nuts, which isn’t bad on its own. This one was actually improved by the variation in the nuts. I don’t think I ever got a cashew in there, but I did have a few almond and pecan bits. The pecans went especially well as they add their own sort of maple/woodsy essence to the toasted peanut butter taste.
The whole thing was a little greasy, the little fluted paper cup was oily as I removed it for consuming. I suppose I should be glad that the fats were in the cup and not my tummy. It could simply have been that the hot light I use for taking the photo made it a little melty (but I don’t really think that).
The big cup products are also a little smaller than buying the double cup pack and even three grams smaller than the regular Big Cup. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess. They’re throwing in more expensive ingredients (premium nuts) ... even Snickers Almond has resorted to padding their product with peanuts instead of just adjusting the portion.
(Yes, I’m aware that three out of five of the reviews were of Hershey products this week, I don’t know what came over me.)
Thursday, November 16, 2006
If you’re of a certain age you may remember Tang, Astronaut Ice Cream and Space Food Sticks. All of these became famous because of the space craze of the sixties and seventies. As normal mortals we couldn’t go to the moon, but we could eat like an astronaut!
I’m thinking the major attraction to these is nostalgia. I’m not sure anyone who didn’t live through the landings on the moon and Skylab is going to be terribly interested in an early version of an energy bar.
I never had these when they first came out. (I did however, plop down my shekles at the Air & Space Museum in junior high for Astronauts Ice Cream ... you know it said ice cream in the name, not food. It was dang expensive at $1.00 a package and really cut into my gummi bear budget.)
Anyway, one to what I have in hand, which are the present day versions of Peanut Butter and Chocolate Space Food Sticks because the persistent Eric Lefcowitz of RetroFuture.com has brought them back into production after they’d become a quaint memory to many of us.
The format has changed slightly, from a pair of long wand to 10 small pieces. The wand shape was because the snack needed to be inserted into a little hole in the astronaut’s helmet. I actually kind of like the new format, they reminded me of protein-packed Starbursts!
The Chocolate ones smell kind of like Nestle Quik. Not creamy but kind of flat like cardboard or a Tootsie Roll. They’re soft and have an easy bite that might border on crumbly. Kind of like cookie dough and less chewy than a Tootsie Roll. The chocolate flavor is just that, more like flavor, though it does boast real chocolate and cocoa in there. I can easily taste the soy in there, which is a pleasant enough. They’re a bit on the salty side (200mg), which I find a little refreshing and if you’re an athlete probably a good idea. As a candy they’re not really that satisfying. As a snack item, I kind of enjoyed eating some with some mid-day pretzels and almonds.
The Peanut Butter ones were more promising. The peanut smell was pleasant with a touch of honey (though none listed in the ingredients). This had the same crumbly chew which reminded me of eating a slightly raw peanut butter cookie or just the flavor of the old Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. The little pieces were great, because I could eat two or three and not have to worry about resealing the package to keep the rest. Just a little twist of the packet and they were safe for later.
As a candy I probably wouldn’t buy them again. As a snack item I appreciate the real ingredients in them. So often the label on a Power Bar or other meal replacement bar can be daunting - this is pretty simple with real ingredients. Of course with only “real” ingredients there’s no fortification with additional vitamins and minerals like you might find in an energy bar.
Cruftbox reviewed the original-style stick-version of them back in ‘04. The SpaceFoodSticks website also has some great old commercials from the Pillsbury product (and one from a competing PET product called Space Energy Sticks).
Old Time Candy sells them in singles (1.99 each) but if you decide you like them and want more, go straight to the source for the best price. It’s possible this will become the hot “stocking stuffer” item this Christmas, as I’m sure there are a lot of 40-50 somethings pining for the good old days.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
You may not have caught the news recently that Ben Meyerson Candy Company was purchased by Jelly Belly. They aren’t known for much in the chocolate realm except for Christopher’s Big Cherry and in the sugar world, the Sunkist Fruit Gems.
I came across the Fruit Gems at Rite Aid and thought I should give them a go again. I used to buy them from Trader Joe’s in little tubs, but then I discovered the chocolate covered nuts and never went back. I figure the Gems are a bit like the West Coast version of Chuckles. But really they’re not. Chuckles are all essence and no juicy tang. When you’re branding something with the Sunkist name, I’m expecting a tangy juice.
What’s really interesting about these is how they differ from other jellies covered with sugar. Instead of having a rough outer coating, these are practically smooth, with the sugar mushed against the jelly center. They don’t sparkle quite as much, but then again there’s no little bits of sugar left in the package or crumbling off when you bite into them like you might get with Spearmint Leaves or Orange Slices.
Orange - it is tangy, nice rounded orange flavor. Not terribly vivid, more like pleasant.
Cherry - very cherry, kind of medicinal tasting. There was a long-lasting aftertaste with severe bitter notes. (Oddly enough, the package makes no mention of Cherry on the package, just a list of the other flavors.)
Lemon - mmm, zesty and tart and smooth. I love lemon.
Grapefruit - not that strong and with a slight bitter note that makes it believable.
Lime - yeah, lime.
Raspberry - floral with only the slightest sour bite. Again, it had a little bitter aftertaste, like the color red.
Jelly Belly will start making these soon, I’m not sure if they’re going to leave them alone or not. Jelly Belly has its own line of fabulous Fruit Pectin Jellies that I was blown away by last year. The Jelly Belly jellies are vegan (they use beet sugar instead of cane sugar), so it’s possible that Sunkist Fruit Gems will also become vegan as well (it’s hard to know whether they are or not right now).
My biggest complaint with these is that like Lifesavers, there is no variation in what you get in the pack. Starbursts and SweeTarts are variable, so you might get a lemon-heavy pack. And with the little see-through package, I might be more likely to pick up a citrus-heavy package. As it is, there are only three flavors I really liked here (orange, lemon and grapefruit), so I’ll probably continue to pass on these. Unless I see them in the tub at Trader Joe’s and it’s all citrus!
UPDATE 9/2/2008: An alert reader let me know that the little “single serve” trays are back on store shelves with the Jelly Belly logo on them, but instead of holding six fruit jellies, they now only have four.
Worst part of this news? The grapefruit one was missing. (What is it about grapefruit disappearing lately? Is it because of the news that grapefruit juice interacts with some prescription drugs?) This is not to say that the Sunkist Fruit Gems don’t come in grapefruit any longer, just not in this particular package.
Seeing how Sunkist is known as a citrus company, the fact that they made an assortment the neglects one of the citrus fruits and includes a berry is beyond me. The package is also similar to the old one and actually includes images of grapefruit (though the text clearly says which flavors are in the package).
The change in manufacturing location and ownership, as far as I’ve been able to tell, has made no difference at all for the actual candy. It’s still a nice, soft and flavorful fruit jelly without too much of a granulated sugar coating.
The only real difference here is that you get only 2/3 as much as you used to. I was hoping when Jelly Belly took over that they’d sell the jellies in individual flavors like they do with their famous jelly beans. No such luck yet. (For now whenever I see the Jelly Belly booth at a trade show I pick a half a dozen grapefruit jellies out of their sample bin and move along.)
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.