Thursday, March 19, 2015
There are now dozens of small-batch chocolate makers scattered around North America. One that caught my eye a couple of years ago won the Good Food Award in 2013. Raaka Chocolate is based in Brooklyn, New York and was founded in 2010.
The team at Raaka says,”We make virgin chocolate from unroasted cacao beans. Our unique process preserves each region’s wild flavors, bringing you closer to the bean.”
The unique style of their bars means that they use organic beans that have been naturally fermented and dried but not roasted. The result is a bar that is like the chocolate that we all know, but with some differences ... not necessarily things that make it better or worse, just different. The cacao is direct sourced while the sugar is organic and fair trade certified. Most of their bars are just beans and evaporated cane juice (no vanilla, no emulsifiers) but the bar I picked out for review was the Raaka Virgin Chocolate Bourbon Cask Aged - Belize 82%. This bar also has some maple sugar in it.
As you can guess from the name, the notable thing about this cacao is that it is first aged in oak bourbon casks from Berkshire Mountain Distilling. I’ve had chocolate that’s been aged in barrels before, but never chocolate made from beans that have been aged in barrels. For roasted cacao that wouldn’t work, because the roasting would probably remove the flavors the casks introduce, but remember Raaka is working with unroasted beans, the way the beans are treated before grinding will definitely affect flavor.
The bar mold is dead simple, just a 1.8 ounce plank with no scoring, no design. There’s a great snap to it, and glossy sheen on the outside, but a little rough looking inside.
The bar smells, well, a little like bourbon. There’s a vanilla note and some light peat along with some other more yeasty bread notes. The melt of the chocolate is not quite as creamy as some bars I’ve had, but certainly not gritty. It’s smoother than Taza, which is also stone ground. The yeasty notes are very strong along with an acidic bite and a light coffee and maple note. It’s undeniably chocolate, but with a kick that is a little more unformed, a little less refined. The bar also changed, as I nibbled on it over several weeks. The bitterness dissipated (oxidation can do that) and I found a few more berry jam notes to it.
For an 82% bar, it’s not as dense as you might expect. I’ve certainly had 70% bars that are more intense. This may be because there’s some extra cocoa butter added in, which counts towards the cacao percentage, but does help mellow its severity.
I appreciate the bar, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I kept in my purse for several weeks, but never felt the need for more than a little half inch square at a time. The rustic melt was not as decadent as bars I usually prefer, so sometimes this felt like it demanded more attention to enjoy, like the different between classic sonnets and some free verse.
Their facility and bars are vegan, nut free, soy free, gluten free and made from all organic ingredients.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Like the other Russell Stover eggs, this one is one ounce. I found mine on sale for 39 cents, though they’re usually two for a dollar and sometimes as much as 59 or 69 cents each.
The Lemon Cake Egg wrapper is just a touch confusing. The picture on the front shows a nice yellow cake with white frosting. But this egg is lemon cake filling with a dark chocolate coating. Not a big deal, but it seems like it would be easy to make it a lemon cake with chocolate frosting in the picture ... or perhaps a white chocolate coating on this egg.
It’s very lemony. Even just opening the package, the zesty lemon scent is strong. Biting into the egg, the yellow center is quite bright, like a cream made from highlighters.
The chocolate shell is bittersweet, which is a nice complement to the lemon cake. Like the other dessert-themed eggs, this is a paste type filling made from actual cake mix. The consistency is thicker than batter and thinner than cookie dough. Though there’s wheat flour in there, it doesn’t taste raw like some cookie dough items do.
The lemon flavor is very well balanced, there are a lot of citrus peel notes, so much that there’s a light bitterness to it, which might also come from the chocolate. The whole thing is far less sweet than some of the other cake-themed eggs, like the Birthday Cake and Red Velvet. It’s rather refreshing, less cloying. I wish there was just a little more of a vanilla note, like a rich pound cake. But I do give them credit for trying something a bit out of the ordinary.
The eggs contain wheat (gluten), milk, soy and actual eggs as well. They may also contain traces of tree nuts and peanuts.
Friday, March 13, 2015
Just Born is best known for their Peeps line of marshmallow candies. Easter is high season for Peeps, which now come in all known colors visible to the human eye. So all that’s left is the extension of the brand into other areas. Target had a nice display of the Peeps brand line, including some Peeps lollipops in various colors and two different shapes. (They came in a Peep shape, which was a little less attractive than the bunny one.) The candies were on sale, your choice of two for $3. I thought $1.50 was a bit steep for a lollipop, but the Just Born website lists them for $2.50 each.
They also had matching tubes of the Just Born Teenee Beanee Jelly Beans to go with the pops. The packaging was spare but appealing and the flavor for this set: Indian River Orange sounded very appealing.
The Lollipop was interesting in that it was not only shaped like a Peeps Bunny, but it also had a sugar crust on one side. The texture of the candy was fantastic, it’s more of a barley sugar candy, which usually has few voids and a milder sweetness. Think of it like a less intense Jolly Rancher, the texture is a very light dissolve that becomes pliable when the piece is small.
The orange flavor was delicate, no tart bite, just the orange zest note. I loved the dissolve, but I admit I didn’t care for the grainy textured side of the pop, which meant that the pieces were rough when I bit them off. The size was good at 1.2 ounces, quite a bit of candy, but not so much that I could finish it in an afternoon at my desk. There was a fresh, citrus aftertaste that lasted quite a while.
Though it’s tempting to think that these were just cheaper Jelly Belly, but they’re not. Teenee Beanee are pectin beans, which means that they use both starch and fruit pectin to get the jelly center just right. They’re just a little bigger than Jelly Belly but not nearly as large as traditional jelly beans. The color is a little inconsistent, as some were more translucent than others, but I found this variation very attractive.
The orange flavor is vibrant and mostly zest-based. There was only a light hint of juicy tartness around the margin of the shell, but not at all like a Jelly Belly.
The tube holds 5 ounces and for $1.50 I thought that was a pretty good deal for a more premium bean. I liked them quite a bit, but part of it was that I just like orange jelly beans and the fact that I didn’t have to pick them out of a mix was good. The tube is easy to open and stays closed, and is pretty minimal overall. It also featured a real cloth ribbon bow, which is a nice touch if you’re going to put these into an Easter basket or make it part of a hostess gift.
The jelly beans were made in a facility that also processes peanuts, tree nuts, milk, wheat and soy. They use a confectioners glaze so are not considered vegan. Teenee Beanee tubes also come in La Jolla Lemon, Napa Grape, Chesapeake Cherry, Savannah Strawberry and Laredo Lime tubes with matching lollipops.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Russell Stover is best known at Easter for their little one ounce eggs that come in over a dozen varieties from the classic strawberry creme to the trendy wedding cake and cookie dough. One of the other items that’s a little harder to find are Russell Stover’s version of Cadbury Creme Eggs that come in chocolate creme and caramel (review).
One of the newer varieties, or at least to me, is the Russell Stover Peanut Butter Egg. Russell Stover first introduced their little foil wrapped eggs in 2008, they came in some interesting varieties like Marshmallow & Caramel and Dark Chocolate with Chocolate Creme. I picked mine up on sale at 2 for 99 cents. The plain blue foil wrapping doesn’t say much other than the fact that it’s peanut butter in milk chocolate.
The egg is 1.2 ounces and is molded to be completely ovoid, not one of those flat-bottomed enrobed eggs. The design on the shell is very simple, with just a few embellishments.
Oddly enough, Russell Stover uses this same mold throughout the year. They have some sports themed hollow chocolates they sell, including a football, which makes lots of sense when covered in a brown texture-look foil. The odder part of that set of chocolates though is that the same shape is used for baseballs, soccer balls and basketballs.
The filling is not a peanut butter, as I mentioned, instead, it’s more like a peanut butter caramel frosting. The texture is smooth, but not quite chewy like a caramel. If you gave me a cupcake with this as the icing, I’d be pretty happy. The milk chocolate is very sweet, but goes well with the filling. The peanut butter flavor is muted by the sugary sauce its within, but it still works.
It’s not quite my thing, but it stands as unique take on this candy genre. I actually might buy these again and would probably include them in an Easter basket for kids if I put something together this year.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
At the Fancy Food Show last month I ran across another small-batch caramel maker. This one is called Suss Sweets. They’re based in New Hampshire and have a line of caramels with an interesting package idea - the caramels are sold in long logs, not individual pieces. So a standard roll is 1/4 of a pound. You slice off however much you want.
I found them at an Italian deli at Americana at Brand mall in Glendale. I had to go through the entire basket of caramel logs to find the only Maple Pecan one, since it was the flavor that I sparked the most with at the show.
There’s a lot of packaging for what looks so simple. The outside is a piece of baking parchment, twisted at the ends with a little sleeve with the label on it. Inside is a box, embossed with the logo (kind of a waste, I didn’t notice this touch until I was throwing it out). Then inside the box, the caramel roll is wrapped in wax paper.
The long log was easy to slice into appropriate pieces. The nuts were not as numerous as I’d hoped, so some slices were nutless. However, the maple and pecan flavor was throughout the entire bar. The chew of the caramel was smooth with excellent toasted sugar and fresh butter notes. The salt touch was quite light, enough to balance the sweetness but not so much to make me grab a glass of water. The nuts were fresh and the pecan flavors went very well with the woodsy and vanilla maple notes.
The bar was expensive at $7.50, but of course it was a quarter of a pound. But the fact that they’re not ready to eat meant we couldn’t just try them with our coffee at the store, we had to wait until we got home and got out a knife.
I did get to try the full range of flavors, including Pumpkin Seed and the straight Vanilla with Sea Salt. It’s a good caramel, just like I make at home when I have the time and the weather cooperates. It’s a fun item if you’re putting together a gift basket, especially if it’s a themed with coffee, cheese or other sweets. The fact that you can control the size of the pieces will appeal to some consumers, but I think I just want mine individually wrapped.
Monday, February 23, 2015
The package says: smooth dark chocolate enrobes a robust coffee-flavored center.
This is the first I’ve seen a coffee flavored item from Russell Stover in their single serve line, though I think they do some coffee items in their boxed chocolates.
The dark chocolate coating is pretty thick and sticks to the filling well. The filling is what I’d call a cross between a ganache and a fudge. It’s thick and has a good melt. The base is made from sugar and cream, so it’s like a ganache, but doesn’t have that much chocolate in it. Instead it’s just loaded with coffee. The coffee flavor is woodsy, with a little bitter acidic note to it. It’s definitely strong, and not terribly sweet, considering the amount of sugar in there.
It’s nice. However, it’s big. I don’t want this much chocolate and ganache. I want about half as much, and maybe in more of a stick or plank format than a big patty. Or maybe a smaller patty, like a Peppermint Patty format, but with a coffee ganache center.
The package says: Rich coffee-flavored filling surrounded by creamy white chocolate & dusted with cocoa.
My photo didn’t turn out very well, partly because it’s actually a low contrast wrapper. It’s a light gold foil with other darker gold accents and a mix of brown and white text. Not easy to read on the front and even worse on the back.
It smells similarly coffee-ish to the House Blend Coffee, only there’s a more sweet note from the white coating. The combination wasn’t appealing to me on paper, as I was expecting it to be cloyingly sweet. However, the bitterness of the center can actually accept quite a bit of sweetness from the white chocolate coating, which is especially thick at the middle. It never quite mixes to create a good approximation of a cappuccino or latte, but does give me more of a coffee ice cream note to the whole thing.
On the whole, Russell Stover has done an excellent job with their coffee flavoring for the center. It has a lot of the right flavor elements without tasting too much like instant coffee or including actual coffee grounds in the center. I wouldn’t mind seeing these in the seasonal varieties, mostly because those are a bit smaller than the Big Bite line, but I think this is a good addition to their line. Since there aren’t many coffee flavored chocolates out on the market, it’s a nice option.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The description is: crunchy pecans & toasted quinoa with soft & buttery caramel enrobed in chocolate and topped with Himalaya pink sea salt. They’re Kosher and made with mostly organic dairy ingredients as well. Though they use quinoa for the crunchy bits, they’re not a gluten-free candy as they may contain wheat. Also, they’re made in a facility with other tree nuts, eggs and peanuts. Too bad, because a gluten free and peanut free notation would really set these apart.
The patties are about 1.5 inches across, so either one big bite or two small bites. The nutritional listing is a little odd, as it says that 3 pieces are 36 grams and come to 140 calories. That’s just ridiculous for something with so much chocolate and full dairy caramel ingredients. So, my calculations say that it’s 102 calories per ounce, I’m going to say that they’re at least 125.
They smell like a sweet milk chocolate with a hint of earthy cereal notes. The patties are very flat and turning them over reveals that the inclusions are small. So the pecans are really not crunchy pecans but actually crunched pecans along with the quinoa.
The chew of the caramel is good, with some excellent buttery notes and toasted sugar flavors. The quinoa is crunchy, but not overly so. The pecans were barely evident, to the point that some pieces seemed to be lacking pecans entirely. But when I did get them, they had a wonderful woodsy, maple note. I would have preferred much more in the pecan front, even if they were just small pieces, or even just the quinoa and leave out the pecans entirely.
I don’t know if I would pick these up again, but I enjoyed the package I had. If I saw that they had a dark version or mucked around with the proportions, I’d give them another go. But there are other Trader Joe’s items that I much prefer over this, including the Butterscotch Sea Salt Caramels. The price point seemed a bit high, but is far better than DeMet’s Pecan Turtles which are usually about twice the price per pound and use inferior ingredients.
Monday, February 16, 2015
One of their new introductions is the Ritter Sport Fine Extra Dark Chocolate 73% Cocoa (also called Amargo Extrafino).
The bar is much darker than their regular bars at 73% and is made from West Africa and Ecuadorian-sourced cocoa beans. Though the format of this bar is new I’m not sure if the concept really is, I’ve had a very dark bar from Ritter Sport before, though my tasting notes reveal it’s a bit different.
Generally, I love Ritter Sport’s milk chocolate. They make a very creamy product, and actually work with several different recipes for use in different bars. Their dark bars, for the most part, are one of the better at the price point, but I don’t eat the plain dark bars, I go for the bars that have nuts or marzipan. So, the idea of picking up a Ritter Sport over the many other very dark bars out there means that it’s going to need something special to turn my head.
The format for this bar is different from their usual 16 squares. Instead, it’s 36 pieces (a 6 x 6 instead of a 4 x 4 array).
The deep scoring makes the pieces easy to snap off. They’re nearly pyramidic, so a little awkward in shape in the mouth. There’s a fair amount of cocoa butter, so it has an easy and quick melt. For the most part the particle size is small, so it’s smooth ... but there were the odd gritty bits from time to time.
The cocoa flavors are overwhelmingly earthy. There are not fruit notes, except for perhaps a little green banana. The rest was like coffee, brownies and toasted coconut. It’s woodsy and deep. It’s satisfying and not at all bitter, though there’s a dry bite to it, but the cocoa butter covers up at the very end.
When I ran the numbers for the calories per ounce, I was a little shocked that it came out so high, though cacao content also includes cocoa butter for that percentage. So this bar has a lot of cocoa butter, far more than most dark bars.
This feels very much like the texture that Dove lovers might gravitate towards. I might buy it again, but I really want some nuts in it, maybe even a little salt hint somewhere. But if Ritter Sport starts using this chocolate base for other bars, I’d be very interested in going down that road with them.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.