Wednesday, November 21, 2007
For at least a year I’ve been reading about Hotel Chocolat on Chocablog. The products seemed inventive, if a little over the top. But the company story, the fact that they’re bean to bar and pride themselves on sourcing their chocolate ethically is pretty compelling. While I love many of the fair trade chocolates that I try, I really want some chocolate candy sometimes.
Hotel Chocolat contacted me a couple of months ago with the news that they were opening a webstore in the US. So I could get my own taste of their product line. At first they offered to send me a sample package with their Peepsters, which were little slabs of chocolate with items mixed in. For some reason that wasn’t possible and they up and sent me the Crostini Fruit & Nut Slab and a bag of Macadamia Turtles. (Neither of these items are available on their website.)
The American website focuses on images of folks with great skin using chocolate as seduction (probably successfully since by the time you get to the Christmas chocolate there’s one image that shows the “couple” with a small child). Their products seem designed to entice with sensuality and abundance. Instead of teensy pieces with cute little images molded into them or imprinted on the top, Hotel Chocolat goes whole hog with clear plastic packages that show off vast real estate of chocolate. Images on the website reinforce this with couples sharing bites of bars of chocolate larger than their head.
While the marketing of their products doesn’t quite mesh with my demographic, I am certainly interested in quality and flavor/texture combinations. I also enjoy innovative styling and packaging.
The Slab of Chocolate comes in a black paper package with a clear plastic front and a carrying handle (though be aware that the package opens on the bottom ... so reseal it completely before swinging it around). A little longer than a size of A4 paper, this is a substantial piece of chocolate. Clocking in at 500 grams (17.5 ounces) the abundance is a selling point.
This beefy slab had some uneven distribution of the mix-ins. It includes: cranberries, sultanas, crunchy crostini, almonds and hazelnuts. (You can see in the photo that the corners are sadly lacking in inclusions. While this gives it an artisan quality, it also meant that sometimes I had to break off more pieces in order to get to the ones with the “stuff.”
At first I was disappointed that they sent me milk chocolate products, but this is pretty dark milk. According to the package it’s 50% cocoa solids and 20% milk. It has an authentic milkiness to it (none of that powdered dairy tastes). It’s middle of the road as chocolate flavors go, not terribly complex, just good chocolatey-chocolate. My candy dream! A nice melt, not too sweet and a good complement to the tangy sultanas & cranberries. The hazelnuts were great, the almond slivers were few and far between but the crostini were fun when I encountered them.
The retail on this product is $25 plus shipping. Not too bad for an upscale chocolate bar.
But wait a second ... these aren’t American-style turtles. There’s no caramel in there. Just a macadamia nut at the center and some crisps in the milk chocolate. The whole thing does look rather like a turtle though.
After I got over my resistance to them because of the name, they were fun. The same high cacao milk chocolate, a good bit of crunch and then the fresh macadamias. (I would probably opt for another nut in the future though.)
I’m certainly curious to give some of the other Hotel Chocolat items a try, their gift packages look especially interesting. (They’ve timed their launch for the winter Holidays.) I don’t know if I’d buy the slab though, it’s an awful lot of one thing and I gravitate more towards variety when trying a new brand. It’s certainly an impressive looking gift though! The shipping box was great, nicely packaged for the warmish weather, I have to mention that because some companies just don’t “get” how to ship chocolate products to Los Angeles.
The package says that the product is suitable for vegetarians and is alcohol free.
More on the Hotel Chocolat expansion into the US market here.
Friday, November 2, 2007
In the Autumn a candy lover’s fancy turns to Licorice. (Well, if you like licorice.) The cooler air and shorter days seem to beg for the earthy flavors of a good molasses-based licorice. I get that not everyone likes licorice. It’s like mincemeat and cloves ... not everyone gets it.
There are lots of different versions of licorice, but one of my favorites are pastels, which are little nibbles covered in a candy shell. (Just like candy covered chocolate like M&Ms are a great way to eat chocolate!) I’ve had at least a dozen different varieties, from Good & Plenty to Koppers to Jelly Belly. They’re all good ... but after Good & Plenty, they get kind of expensive. (I’m not sure why.)
I was pretty happy to find Kenny’s Licorice Pastels at the All Candy Expo. They do great things with licorice, including using real licorice extract and making their products affordable (you’ve probably seen them repackage and sold under house brands or in bulk bins before).
They’re made from a very thin piece of licorice, think laces chopped into little segments. Nothing wrong with that. But the coatings are irregular. Some are chipped, which may have been me treating the package like a bean bag in my travels. Still, the coating wasn’t complete on some, with little bits of licorice sticking out or appearing just below the thin veneer of sugar shell.
The color choice is interesting. White, Green, Mustard Yellow, Black, Purple and Hot Pink.
They were soft and fresh. The sugar shell didn’t have a sharp and crisp crunch like the ones I get in the little bulk tubs at Cost Plus World Market. I like that kind of shell, but this was okay ... more like the Good & Plenty side of things. The licorice inside is nice and chewy and has a good note of roasted molasses and real licorice and anise extracts. (The anise is detectable in the shell.)
The thing that spoiled it for me (and this is just me) was that there was Red #40 in them. It was absolutely detectable in the pink and purple candies. (I even did several blind tests to see if I was just being dramatic.) It made them bitter. I had to separate them out from the rest of the bag ... and not eating a third of them doesn’t really make them cheaper. (4 out of 10)
I love root beer barrel hard candies and the root beer Bottle Caps, which are pretty much the only candies that incorporate root beer well into their pantheon of flavors.
Kenny’s also makes a huge line of flavored Juicy Twists (I’m loathe to use the term “red licorice” which is like saying “unsweetened sugar”.) They come in watermelon, green apple, chocolate and of course, Root Beer.
The twists aren’t really that twisted (only a half twist per length), but have pleasant ridges. They’re shiny and rather firm (but not stale). They don’t have the firmly pinched ends that other brands like Red Vines have. But they are hollow (if you’re a straw person).
The root beer flavor is sweet and has a nice balsam quality, not as intense as some other more spicy candies, but still a good match for the flour-based twist. I’d love it if they were more intense, but this is often my problem with root beer in general. I want lots of flavor. But, as I mentioned before, I take my root beer enjoyment where I can. These are a fun change from hard candies. (7 out of 10)
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Terra Nostra is a favorite chocolate brand of mine. I know, I’ve never written about their bars before. I’ve been buying the Organic Dark Chocolate with Pecans and Raisins since I first saw it at Trader Joe’s ... I’m guessing at least six years ago. I was never a fan of chocolate and raisins until I met Trader Joe and he changed my mind with his wonderful dark chocolate covered raisins in a tub. With that in mind, I gave that bar a try, drawn by the pecans and dark chocolate and pretty well sold on the addition of the tangy, chewy raisins.
It’s not the most complex bar in the world, but it’s a good all around contender when it comes to satisfaction. My biggest problem with it? It’s too big. Yes, I know that the 3.5 ounce size is pretty popular when it comes to premium bars, but it’s just too big for me to finish in one sitting and I want a lot of variety in my life.
Imagine my pleasure at seeing that Terra Nostra is bring out a new line of “Pocket Bars”. At only 1.5 ounces, which means a nice sized portion of chocolate, and they even come with a little zazz to make them more like candy bars.
Each bar is four sections, slightly domed, for most of them to accommodate a filling of some sort.
Creamy Caramel in Satin Milk Chocolate - this was an excellent bar, far superior to most other single-serve caramel bars I’ve had. The milk chocolate is rich, creamy and has a lot of the complex dairy flavors to it. The caramel, though rather syrupy is salty and smooth with a pretty good hit of butter to it. (7 out of 10)
Creamy Caramel in 60% Dark Robust Chocolate - this was a nice bar! The dark chocolate is robust, just like they say, with some coffee notes that set off the salty, sweet and gooey caramel center. I’d prefer a caramel that wasn’t quite so gooey (think Caramello) and it does have a little bit of a grain to it. The whole thing comes together nicely. (7 out of 10)
Goji Berries and Pink Himalayan Mineral Sea Salt in 73% Dark Chocolate - this one took away all the fun of being a candy bar and injected a bunch of trendy items. Goji berries are also known as wolfberries; they’re little red berries (related to tomatoes and deadly nightshade) about the size of a peanut, they’re always sold dried. Goji berries tangy, kind of dry and leathery; though they do have some distinctive flavors, but they’re also really fibery. I’m often left with some piece that feels like a wad of chewed paper - really, I shouldn’t have to spit bits of my chocolate bar out. The chocolate itself doesn’t taste salty, just less sweet (but it’s hard to do a one for one comparison with the others since this is the only 73% dark bar in the range). Honestly, this bar just clicked with a bunch of my pet peeves about trendy foods ... if you want to read something really fun, try this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald about the goji berry. (5 out of 10)
Pomegranate Truffle - a base of 60% cacao dark chocolate has a rich chocolate truffle filling flavored with pomegranate. The dark chocolate is creamy, but not too dark or dry. The truffle center is a light and creamy truffle, not greasy but smooth and of course with a tangy & berry bite of pomegranate. The pomegranate kind of overwhelms most of the chocolate flavors, but blends so well with the texture. (8 out of 10)
All the bars are certified organic ... not that it makes them healthy or anything. The Pomegranate Truffle and Goji Berry dark bars are suitable for vegans, however they are made on machinery that also processes dairy (and peanuts, soy and tree nuts). Terra Nostra also participates in Equi-Trade programs, though their bars are not specifically certified Fair Trade. They’re fun little bars and if presented with an array of commercial mass-produced bars and these, if price is not the deciding factor, you might want to give them a try.
(Top photo of Robust Dark with Raisins & Pecans courtesy of Terra Nostra)
Friday, October 12, 2007
A couple of months ago I got an invitation from Valerie Confections to preview their Mori Ex Cacao gift set. It’s a set of three skull-shaped chocolates. Rather than a little flat piece of candy, these are large and three dimensional with crisp and freaky details on the skulls, which are then filled with a premium truffle ganache or caramel.
The fissures in the skull can be made out easily, as can the individual teeth and with the three-dimensions of the skull, even the back of the head continues these details down to the base and roof of the mouth.
The Skulls were designed by Modern Alchemist Douglas Little and are about the size of a hefty plum. The design is based on DL&Co’s Memento Mori Collection, which features a similar looking skull candle and other small statuary pieces. A little bit more upscale than the traditional pumpkins and witches, this rather macabre take also features some incredible attention to detail.
First, the confections are hand “cast” with premium Felchlin Chocolate. Then each is filled with one of three centers. The chocolates are created in a three dimensional silicone mold, based on an original design by Douglas Little. After unmolding the chocolates are then airbrushed by hand with a cocoa-butter based “paint” which results in three different confections - one charcoal-black, one cocoa-brown and one bleached-bone white.
I didn’t get to eat the “real thing”, instead they created some tasting portions, which looked an awful lot like regular old chocolates (probably better for me that way). This means that my tasting notes are not based on the actual proportions of chocolate-to-filling you may get with the ultimate product, but all the other elements were the same.
I had my doubts, mostly because the caramel was so dark, I was afraid it’d be bitter and though it did have some burnt tones to it, it was complex and not too sweet. It went wonderfully with the chocolate.
Bitter Brandied Cherry
I say I don’t like cherry flavor, but these were real sour cherries, not some crazy artificial extract. The deep fruit flavors went really well in the ganache, a slight bitter note which I think tied into the macabre tone of the confections quite well.
Oh, this really lived up to its hype. The chocolate flavors were not overpowered by the spice. There was definitely a bit of throat burning going on, but again, it fit very well with the design and presentation as a whole.
Would I buy these? Certainly not for $100 a set ($40 for an individual skull of any flavor). I understand that the ingredients are premium and they’re really labor intensive. So it’s not that I don’t think they’re worth it, but the whole skull thing just isn’t really that big of a draw to me. I like my candy pretty and I never quite got how skulls and bones celebrate life. But if you are a fan of this type of design, and if you’re looking for something purely decadent to arouse all of the senses (this would be great to share as a couple) then this would be an excellent gift.
They can be purchased directly from Valerie Confections or from Dean & Deluca (they only carry the full set but also have some companion products that might complete the effect). They come in a lovely black silk box.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Dove has been adding to their line of Promises, the little chocolate nuggets they sell. It’s nice they have such a diversified line and I do enjoy a little foil wrapped treat. Lately they’ve been stuffing caramel see review) inside those little nuggets of milk or dark chocolate. Now they’ve added a few more versions of those to the line by flavoring the caramel:
Milk Chocolate Hazelnut Flavored Caramel - this was less caramel and more like a hazelnut creme. It had a nice nutty flavor to it, though I didn’t quite identify it as hazelnut. A little salty hit cut through the sticky sweetness of the milk chocolate.
Most of my little pieces were dented. I don’t know if that was a function of the travel or if they’re particularly delicate. (5 out of 10)
The Mint Caramel Dark Chocolate terrible, terrible pieces of confectionery nonsense. Gobbledygook, I tell ya! Gibberish! There’s nothing wrong with caramel, nothing wrong with dark chocolate, nothing wrong with mint. But put them all together and you get this humongo double take of “what the heck were they thinking?”
The caramel is just weird - it’s like it’s over emulsified, if there is such a thing. It’s gooey, but has no buttery element, no burnt sugary elements ... it’s become its own strange, pudding-like product. That’s it! It’s like peppermint-butterscotch pudding ... with dark chocolate. It’s just all kinds of wrong when I think too hard. (4 out of 10)
The strangeness continued with the Dark Chocolate Raspberry Caramel.
Luckily I didn’t have a whole bag of each of those, just a little handful ... and now they’re on their way to Kimberly, who won the drawing! (I should have had her sign some sort of a waiver.) Again, it’s like raspberry flavored butterscotch pudding. I just didn’t like all the flavors together and the salty hit of the caramel with the raspberry was just over the top. (4 out of 10)
The happy news is that the rest of this is all good. The more traditional new offerings to the Dove Promises line are just the regular milk and dark chocolate with some crushed almonds added in.
Almonds are a personal favorite of mine, I practically live on them (really, I eat them just about every day as a snack). What’s always bothered me about Dove chocolate is its foolish consistency ... it feels too perfect, too manufactured and lacking any personality. The crushed almonds in the Dove Dark Chocolate with Almonds fix that.
They add some texture, they add some extra flavor, a little crunch ... they just complete the Dove Dark Chocolate. Any trepidation I had about their chocolate has disappeared with the added element. (8 out of 10)
The Dove Milk Chocolate with Almonds benefits similiarly from the crushed almonds. It makes the milk chocolate, which was always a little sticky sweet to me, more malty and rich. The milky flavors now take on a toasted, darker tone.
They please me. (7 out of 10)
A single Milk Chocolate with Almonds has about 45 calories in it.
I don’t have the nutritional info on the Caramel line or the Dark Chocolate with Almonds, just the Milk Chocolate with Almonds, as that’s the only one I have the complete packaging for. I’m not sure when these are showing up in stores, they’re not on the Dove website yet. Anyone see them in stores yet?
Sunday, October 7, 2007
This is the bread pudding I’ve been pondering for the past month and I mentioned in this review. It’s based on the flavors of a Molasses Peanut Butter Kiss (also Mary Janes, as the name implies): sticky peanut butter, sticky molasses and creamy custard.
I made this recipe based on the bread pudding recipe I’ve been using for years in The New York Times Cookbook (I have a first edition, I don’t know if this is in subsequent editions): New England Bread Pudding. I’ve never actually followed the recipe as written, I’ve always mucked around with it.
This bread pudding has a base, mild flavor of peanut butter with a little woodsy hit of molasses that’s mixed into the milk & egg custard base. There’s actually no refined sugar in here (except for whatever was used in the bread). Bread pudding is pretty hard to mess up, so feel free to alter proportions, just be sure to cook it completely.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Cube or pull apart the bread. Bread can be stale or fresh, but let it dry out a bit if possible. Set aside.
In a large pot that will hold all of the above ingredients (approximately 2 quarts) put in the milk and butter. Heat over medium until milk starts to scald. Turn down to low and add peanut butter and molasses, whisk to combine (or if you like things rather freeform, just stir). Add whiskey. Scramble the eggs in a separate bowl, then add about a half a cup of the hot milk mixture slowly, combine then add to milk mixture in pot.
Combine and allow contents to warm up to just under a boil. It will thicken slightly with the addition of the eggs.
Turn off burner. Add bread, stir gently then allow to sit for five minutes.
Prepare your baking dish. For mine I used four ramekins that hold 12 ounces each. You can make it all in one dish (one that holds 48 ounces - pick something that won’t be more than 3” deep or else it won’t cook completely in the center). Whatever you choose, you’ll need a pan a bit larger to use as a water bath. Place the smaller pan into the large pan. You can grease it if you want, I don’t and it doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference.
Optional: drizzle some molasses in the bottom of the baking dish. This gives it a bit of a sauce on the bottom, but if you’re not fond of molasses (why are you making this?) then you can omit this step.
Scoop the pudding mixture with a measuring cup or ladle into the ramekins or baking dish. Make sure it’s spread evenly. I crumbled a little brown sugar on top to make a crust, but feel free to omit.
Put the pan into the preheated oven. Add water to the larger pan, about an inch or two. (Make sure this doesn’t dry out.) Yes, you can add the water before you put it in, but this makes it very heavy and more likely to spill.
Bake for 40-60 minutes. In order to check for done-ness, listen to hear if the butter is sizzling around the edges. Also, the pudding will pull away from the sides a bit. Insert a knife into the pudding about one inch from the side. If it comes out clean and hot, it’s probably done. Shake the pan gently and see if the center has a more liquid “jiggle” than the rest. If so, leave in another five minutes. Repeat the above. If you bake it a little longer, that’s okay too, just make sure that the water bath doesn’t evaporate.
Allow to cool and set up before serving. Can be refrigerated and served cold or warmed up in a microwave or oven.
Serving suggestion: A la mode or with some whipped cream. Drizzle a little extra molasses and or peanut butter on if desired.
Makes 8-12 servings
The bread pudding is rather hearty and filling, so I’d suggest it as a winter dessert. I also think it’s a mighty fine breakfast. (I know, some people think that’s crazy, but really, how different is bread pudding from French toast when you think about it?) I’m planning on making this again with an egg bread and possibly more peanut butter. I’ll report back with any findings.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
I’m keen on the combination of dark chocolate and mint. I’d say that there’s nothing better, but then avid readers will probably find instances where I’ve said the same about the combination of chocolate and peanut butter and probably orange and chocolate and probably pretzels and chocolate.
There have been a few new versions of Junior Mints, including the Inside Out, Junior Mints Pastels and Heart Shaped Junior Mints over the past few years. They didn’t mess with the peppermint flavor or the proportions of the elements. Instead they messed with the chocolate element.
The new Junior Mints Deluxe are jumbo sized. They’re the same size as Cella’s Chocolate Covered Cherries, which are also made by Tootsie. At the top of the chocolate shell are the initials JM.
They’re two bites big (about a half an ounce each) and the soft fondant center flows quickly if you don’t tip it up quickly after biting it open. The chocolate shell is thick and dark but is pretty sweet. It doesn’t have that waxy shellac that Junior Mints usually have.
I really liked the flavor of the huge reservoir of the fondant center. It was intensely minty, so much that it cut through what would ordinarily be very sweet. The large two bite version can be messy and I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it. I suspect popping the whole thing in the mouth at once is the way to go, but I can’t resist looking at the innards.
Again, there is the issue of proportions here, I think this is a little off for my tastes with the gooey center, but if you’re a fan of the gooey center, this may be your new favorite. They should be available in stores after Halloween. This box comes with 12 in it and weighs 6 ounces. There are no dairy or egg products in this (though may be processed on equipment that comes in contact with milk) so it may be suitable for liberal vegans.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
A couple of years ago I tried a Ferrara Pan product called Narbles. I didn’t care much for it, mostly because it didn’t capitalize on the unique properties of a Lemonhead (though it didn’t actually promise any Lemonhead properties).
I don’t know if Ferrara Pan has been reading my blog (they might have, because I was suddenly able to get mixed bags called the Fruit Headline) but they have a couple of new products: Chewy Lemonheads (and Friends) and Chewy Atomic Fireballs which were introduced at the All Candy Expo last week.
Lemonheads have been one of my favorite candies since I was a kid. They were staggeringly affordable (the larger boxes used to be 10 cents), came in a shareable portion, looked really cool, packed lots of flavor and of course the box turned into a noisemaker. (Sadly they don’t use that kind of box any longer).
The candy balls are beautiful. Slightly translucent (if you like to put your candy on your new LED flashlight on your keychain), they feel as dense as the original hard-candy-centered version, but will yield to pressure when squeezed (just like real lemons!).
It took me a while to get used to them. When I eat a Lemonhead I usually “peel” off the candy shell with my teeth to get to the layer or super sour. Since these are soft on the inside, it took me a while to develop a technique ... but it only took one box.
The outside flavor is just the same as the old Heads, the inside is a rather flavorless jelly ball ... pretty much like actual jelly bean. Come to think of it, these are simply round jelly beans with a sour layer in there. I took a few of them apart to examine the innards (sorry, no gory photos of that). Each was color coded very lightly. I was surprised to find that they were actually lightly flavored. Not super zippy, just mildly fragrant to continue the experience all the way to the core.
Of the five flavors the Orange and Lemon remained my favorites, but the Grape was actually more pleasing than I expected. Cherry and Green Apple just weren’t floating my candy boat, but with 3/5 of the mix as standout winners, I can eat a few cherries. I give them a 7 out of 10.
The Chewy Atomic Fireballs were the big surprise for me. First of all, there was no announcement from Ferrara Pan before the show that they were introducing them (press releases? we don’t need no stinkin’ press releases!). So when I went by their booth I though they were just showing off one of their most successful brands in huge bins at the corner. But looking closely ... chewy!
I took three boxes and opened one. They’re dark red and not easily confused with the Cherryheads.
This is quite a different experience because the traditional Atomic Fireball is a panned cinnamon jawbreaker with alternating sweet and spicy layers. The chewy Lemonhead was an easy shift for my brain, simply a chewy center instead of a hard one. This new Atomic Fireball is more Firehead than Atomic Fireball ... or perhaps Chewy Red Hot.
The outer shell is lightly cinnamon and sweet. If you keep sucking on it gets hotter (but not unbearably) until the candy shell dissipates to reveal the spicy mantle over the chewy jelly core. The core is soft and chewy (perhaps a little sticky) and has it’s own level of background cinnamon-ness. So while it’s not quite the same as the jawbreaker’s layered experience, it’s still layered with a sort of alternating strong and mild spice to it.
They’re far stronger than Hot Tamales (though may be similar to the Hot Tamales Fire). I give them an 8 out of 10.
As a smaller portion, I really like the 25 cent, one ounce box (hey, it’s 100 calories folks!). The Chewy Atomic Fireball is a real winner, but be prepared as it does have a real burn and you can’t take it out of your mouth like a Fireball. The Chewy Lemonheads don’t quite thrill me, but part of that is that it’s so hard to top the lemony singularity that is the Lemonhead. I’ll probably give them a few more tries. I think I want a box of just the lemon ones for a pure experience. I hope they’ll sell them that way.
No word on when they’ll make an appearance in stores. Please post if you’ve seen them.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.