Thursday, May 25, 2006
Instead of just the normal fundraising candy bars, Smiles by Joanie’s Smiles are are chocolate bars infused with tea and other natural flavors that stand on their own as tasty treats. The hook here with the fundraising aspect is that money from the sale of each bar goes to Operation Smile which sends volunteer medical teams all over the globe to repair facial deformities in kids and adults. I was approached to taste the bars a couple of months ago, so I’ve had a lot of time with them (I was waiting for their website to be up and for them to be more widely available).
The bars were very simply produced - two ounces each, wrapped in foil and then a paper overwrap. The bar is pre-scored into 12 little pieces with each embossed with the smiles script logo. No gimmicky packaging, just tried and true presentation. It’s the flavors that count here ... so let me count off the flavors to you:
Rosemary Hibiscus Tea - I was certain I wouldn’t like this one before I even tried it. I’m not a big fan of hibiscus, so how could combining it with rosemary (a rather savory and strong herb) and white chocolate be a good idea? Frankly, after the first bite I didn’t like it. The hibiscus gave the white chocolate a yogurt tang but without any satisfying fruit flavor to go with it. Then I took a few more bites and the rosemary flavor really grew on me and took center stage. It’s not terribly sweet and doesn’t give me a sore throat like bad white chocolate does ... it was smooth and creamy and had a little sass to it.
Cranberry-Ginger Tea - mellow milk chocolate with a smooth and creamy consistency with a spicy, lowgrade burn of ginger. Later the tannin and cranberry notes come out in a lingering berry bite. The bar has the woodsy, rooty smell of ginger. There are the occasionally grainy bits from the tea, but this is a pretty smooth and zesty bar.
Wild Raspberry Tea - it smells like raspberry and has the floral flavor to it. The milk chocolate, which can often have a tart bite also helps to bring out the fruitiness and berry notes here. There are also the occasional fruit bits in there, giving it a chewy tart burst. The chocolate has not dairy milkiness that I usually associate with milk chocolate, instead it’s smooth and a little fudgy.
Coconut-Green Tea - this bar smells like summer. Profuse wafts of coconut emanate from this bar, just sitting next to it reminds me of those girls who would come to the pool but never swim. They’d sit together with their sunkissed hair and lanky bodies slathered with tanning oil ... something I could never use. (If there were a freckle oil, well, then we might have something.) That toasted, glossy association translates well to this dark bar. Smooth and buttery, the tea takes a backstage to the coconut, which brings only flavor here, there are no chewy bits.
Herbal Chai Tea - this bar smells like I’ve stepped into a spice shop. It’s all warm and woodsy: cinnamon, fennel, orange and a little rooty waft of ginger. A little bit grainy because of the real spices in there, it’s still quite smooth and bursting with different flavors. The cinnamon dominates, but the fennel and black pepper are still discernible. The tea here is the Amber Roobios, which brings its own floral/fruity notes. It’s quite a riot of flavors in there.
My favorites in order (as determined by which I finished first) were the Pistachio-Green Tea White Chocolate, Herbal Chai Dark Chocolate, Coconut-Green Tea Dark Chocolate, Rosemary Hibiscus White Chocolate and last the Wild Raspberry Milk Chocolate.
I have to congratulate Joanie for coming up with such interesting flavor combinations but I think if there’s one thing that I find a drawback to them, it’s the price ... however, unlike many high-end bars, there is nowhere else to get a Hibiscus Rosemary White Chocolate or Coconut Green Tea Dark Chocolate bar, so they’ve cornered that end of the market.
The bars are now on sale at Whole Foods and soon at Bristol Farms and Gelson’s (SoCal) markets as well as through Amazon (click through on their website). Amazon doesn’t seem to offer an assortment pack or sales by the box, which is too bad because I really didn’t know which I was going to like by the description. They were just introduced last week, so they may be adding more purchase variations.
Friday, May 19, 2006
This version of the Cafe-Tasse bars are long and thick and frankly, I prefer this format to the flat ones. It’s more compact and I like a good thick piece of chocolate.
The design on these is quite lovely too. Soft, matte paper with some stylish engraved designs. Easy to read and color coded, too!
Extra Noir this super dark 77% cocoa bar is quite rich. Instead of sacrificing buttery smoothness for high cacao, I think they’ve lowered the sugar content, which is just fine with me. The bar has a strong smoky flavor with many hints of tobacco and vanilla. It has a rather dry finish that’s not exactly astringent, but leaves a rather chalky feeling in the mouth. Still, it has a fantastic melt on the tongue, just slipping around in all it’s cocoa-butter goodness. It’s not sweet, but at the same time, it’s not blisteringly bitter - just dense.
Noir Praline this bar smelled much sweeter than the others, and had a rather fruity aroma as well. The dark chocolate shell looked the same as the other bars, but inside it was as sweet. After having the creamy richness of the Baci bar, this one really can’t compare. It’s missing that buttery lightness and depth of flavor. I’m not saying it’s not tasty, it’s just had more sugar and sweetness than hazelnuttiness.
Noir Orange after sampling the super dark bar, this one seemed quite sweet at first. This bar is only 54% cocoa, so there’s plenty of room for that cocoa butter base as well as sugar and an ample supply of little candied orange bits. The candied orange peels threw me, they’re kind of crystallized, so a bit more sharp and hard than pliable and forgiving. The texture mix aside, the orange infusion is intense and profuse. This is nothing like the Terry’s Chocolate Orange. This is a full chocolate experience with a little fruit essence thrown in. After a while I was hoping for the chewy bits of orange peel. This was by far my favorite of the three.
These were a gift but I’ve seen them for sale at Cost Plus World Market, Economy Candy in NYC and online at Chocosphere (the chocolate covered lemon peel looks divine).
Monday, May 8, 2006
For a long time I was looking for the Dolfin chocolate in two flavors - Green Aniseed and Red Peppercorn. I finally gave up on finding them in stores (and believe me, I’ve been to a lot of stores) and ordered online from Chocosphere (I recommend them).
Both bars are dark chocolate (52% cacao) and feature more savory flavors than many other bars. I like the packaging because I know I’m not going to be able to finish a bar quickly and it enables me to save it and keep it fresh.
A L’Anis Vert - Dark Chocolate with Green Aniseed - I happen to love the combination of anise/licorice and chocolate. Anise is generally a milder flavor than licorice. In fact, it’s more of the licorice flavor without the sweetness. It’s mellow and woodsy with a little floral note to it. The anise also seems to bring out the vanilla notes in this chocolate. The bar is studded with aniseeds, which is sometimes a little clumsy as they can be quite fibery and crunchy. The anise flavor permeates the chocolate, so the flavor goes through and through with bursts of it around the seeds.
I know that the concept behind the Dolfin bars is that the spice or fruit is actually in there, but I might prefer just the flavor. I felt the same way about the mint bar I tried last year.
Au Poivre Rose - Dark Chocolate with Pink Peppercorn - this bar smells wonderfully peppery and slightly sweet. The chocolate is smooth, dark and has a slight bitter edge. There’s a slight burn to the whole thing and of course the mild hints of peppercorn throughout. The bar is also studded with peppercorns which give the bar a little crunch like a nibby bar with a spicy bite. It’s never unpleasantly hot though. It reminds me of carnations which always have that wonderful sweet spicy smell to them.
This one is definitely a winner in my book, but what’s fun is having them together. It’s a good flavor combination as they’re both woodsy, spicy flavors. I still prefer the chocolate from Dagoba but they don’t really have these flavor combinations, so it’ll never be an apples to apples comparison.
The best indication of tastiness when eating more than one bar is which one is finished first. The Red Peppercorn won by three sections.
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
I do love banana chips, but I gave up eating them quite a while back when I realized how much fat they had in them. I’m not saying fat is a bad thing, but somehow I figured a piece of chocolate was probably better for me than a banana chip.
Enter the Milk Chocolate Covered Banana Chip.
They’re not the most appealing looking treat, in fact, if you put these in a bowl and offered them to me, I’d probably decline. They look kind of like deformed chocolate ears. (I’m not sure, for the record, that I’d want to eat candy that looks like perfectly formed chocolate ears either.)
I don’t know what possessed me to buy these, but I am glad I did. It took a few bites to get used to them.
The chips themselves aren’t quite crisp, they have a little oily bite to them, but it goes oh, so well with the mild milk chocolate coating. The banana chip is thin and has that extra banana punch to it, the milk chocolate is super sweet but balanced by the cracker qualities of the chip. The chips also have this strange “cool” feeling on the tongue that just makes me want to keep eating them.
What’s even better was the price. At $1.69 for 10 ounces, it’s not bad at all for a chocolatey treat. Don’t kid yourself that chocolate covered dried fruit is in any way good for you - one serving of this has half your day’s ration of saturated fat ... and um, I’m not sure how many servings is in half the tub, but I think I’m on a restricted diet for the rest of the week to make up for this. After all, candy is a sometimes food.
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
I talk about Trader Joe’s a lot as a candy source; the store opening in Manhattan was big news. But on my trip to NYC, I found that they already have an extraordinary store, Fairway. We pretty much stumbled upon the market while walking back from the Upper West Side to our hotel in Times Square.
Like Trader Joe’s the store focuses on more gourmet, upscale or wholesome fare, with many items sold with their private label but at super-delicious prices. The best part, of course, was their candy section. They had a huge aisle of pre-packaged bulk nuts and panned chocolate goods, most of which made by Koppers.
The first thing that caught my eye were these little M&M sized dark chocolate goodies called Cayenne Pepper Savory. It was just what I was looking for all these years, a peppered chocolate in easy to eat morsels. But when they say Cayenne Pepper, they really mean it. It’s far too spicy for comfort. I might try putting them in cookies or something, but it’s too bad, the chocolate is really nice, but the afterburn is serious. ($5.99/lb)
Of course I have a hard time believing that they really were that hot, so after a couple of days I try another one. Same result ... whoo! I don’t know, it’s growing on me.
This was by far the best of the Koppers finds. It’s little cubes of dried apricot covered in dark chocolate. So simple. The chocolate has a nice smoky, dark bite. It’s sweet but doesn’t overpower the natural sweetness and tart chewy bite of the apricot.
It’s nice to find an affordable version of the glace apricots that I’ve seen at the upscale chocolatiers. Of course these don’t replace them, but they’re portable and high quality. ($5.99/lb)
Oh, I had such high hopes. Look at them, they’re gorgeous! Dark and glossy and sweet smelling. But there’s something so wrong about the taste and even though I’ve been sampling these for weeks, I can’t quite put my finger on it. They chocolate is sweet, but bitter. Smooth but a little waxy and it has this odd dairy taste to it, even though it’s dark chocolate. The malted center is not really malty or maybe the chocolate is overpowering it. I was just so disappointed. ($4.99/lb)
And here’s the big secret - Fairway sells Lake Champlain! Only it’s their house brand and it’s far cheaper. I picked up two 5 Star Bars and they were only $2.19 each! I picked up the Caramel one, just to make sure the Fairway house brand was truly the same as the Lake Champlain, and I also got this one, the Fruit & Nut Bar.
This stunning 2 ounce brick ‘o chocolate is dark chocolate on the outside, filled with a hazelnut praline (think Caffarel’s Guanduia) studded with pecans and dried cherries. Now I know I say that I don’t like cherry flavored things, but I have no problem at all with the real ones. This bar was really nice, the dark chocolate was bold and reigned in the thick flavor of the hazelnut praline quite nicely.
The nuts weren’t as numerous as I’d hoped, but the bite of the sour cherries and the chewy texture was a nice mix. I do like the inventiveness of mixing pecans and hazelnuts - two sadly neglected nuts in American candybars. Of the two that I’ve had now, I still prefer the Caramel bar, but this one is certainly interesting and I’m wondering how it compares to the 5-Star Hazelnut bar.
Fairway had a large selection of candies, both in their own packaged bulk items like the Koppers, upscale brands like Scharffen Berger and Valrhona. I also saw a huge variety of imported candies like European brands like Cadbury and Nestle (not the American versions).
Friday, April 28, 2006
It’s so weird how candy seems to appear sometimes. It might have been there all along, but it’s invisible to me unless I know what I’m looking for. For a long time I wasn’t even interested in GooGoo Clusters. Mostly because of the marshmallow element. It’s odd that I say that I don’t like marshmallows much, but then I look at the items I’ve reviewed and see the tally that I’ve posted about marshmallow candies 16 times before but only 9 posts about licorice or 10 about malt which are actually a favorites of mine. But in my defense I most recently tried the GooGoo Supreme because it included one of my favorite nuts, the Pecan.
As disappointing as that bar was, it did get me curious about the GooGoo Cluster. But where to find one? I thought about ordering them online, but it’s kind of a hassle and candy is all about easy, isn’t it? Then I was in the 99 Cent Only Store looking for some cheap storage bins for all my candy and I breezed through the candy aisle and saw them!
The GooGoo Cluster is a flat marshmallow center with a glaze of caramel which is then covered in a mix of milk chocolate studded with peanuts.
There are a lot of nuts, and they’re like those Spanish peanuts in that many still have their skins. It’s an interesting combination of textures and flavors. The goo is soft and though not quite flowing, it’s not foamy either. The caramel provides a good bit of chew to the whole thing and then there’s the chocolate and coconut. Yes, there’s coconut in here - which gives the peanuts much more of a nutty pop and makes everything taste creamier.
I was VERY suprised by this bar. First, I think it helps that it was obviously fresh. I’m often hesitant to review bargain store candy, but these are clearly not leftovers or closeouts. Second, it’s a great combination of flavors in the proper proportions. (As long as you like peanuts). It wasn’t too sweet and it wasn’t too gooey (if you can believe that a bar named GooGoo isn’t too gooey).
I just hope they keep selling them at the 99 Cent Only Store ... or maybe I hope they don’t!
Monday, April 24, 2006
About a month ago a friend went to Seattle. Being a good friend she asked me if I wanted anything (knowing it would be a candy request). I told her that several people recommended Fran’s Chocolates, specifically their salt caramels. I even emailed her the locations of their shops to help her find the place.
Well, as luck would have it, she was up there for a panel discussion and one of the hospitality gifts was this package of Gray Salt Caramels ... so they must be famous!
The side of the package heralds them as “Award Winning! Soft butter caramels sprinkled with flavorful gray sea salt harvested off the Brittany Coast.”
I had to do some digging, I saw on their website that the caramels won the 2003 NASFT Outstanding Confection award, but I had no clue what NASFT was. Turns out it’s the The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, so I guess it’s like the Oscars (tm) for fancy food. (The run the fancy food shows in San Francisco, Chicago and New York ... something for me to put on my list o’ things to do.)
The caramels are covered in dark chocolate which helps to highlight the flavors. The caramel is sweet and the chocolate is smooth and creamy and the salt make it all pop. If anything, the salt makes it all taste creamier and richer. The salt itself had a more musky, deep flavor to it than regular table salt (yes, I tried the salt grains alone).
Salted Caramels are all the rage now, I’ve seen quite a few varieties in the past year or so, but I guess Fran’s was one of the first to present them. The large salt grains give a good textural addition besides the obvious salty pop. They’re very satisfying and vibrant on the tongue, but they don’t beg to be eaten over and over again. I had the package for quite a while and didn’t eat them all in one sitting, nor did I want to.
They’re fantastic, but they feel very special. I wouldn’t want a whole box of them, but I’d like a box of Fran’s candy and have a few of these sprinkled in (like this mix).
I’m definitely keen on trying other chocolates in Fran’s line. You can read more about the history of this Seattle Chocolatier on their website.
Kate at Accidental Hedonist also posted about these last week! So at David Lebovitz’s suggestion, I ate the last one upside-down, so that that salt hit my tongue first ... quite intense!
Friday, April 21, 2006
One of the must-see chocolate places in NYC is Jacques Torres. Even if you’re not a fan of their chocolate or have little money, it’s still an event. There are two locations in New York, one in Brooklyn and one on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Billed as Chocolate Haven, it truly is a delight for the eyes. The factory is wide open to witness from the street as they craft their handmade chocolate bars and when I was there they were packaging all of their hand-cast Easter goodies. From inside the store you get more than a view, you also get the scents and sounds.
But the best way to appreciate the innards of chocolate making though is from the Chocolate Haven shop. The glass walls enclose this little slice of sweetness and there’s ample room to move around and stop for a cup of hot chocolate at the chocolate bar.
I had a cup of custom blended Wicked (spiced chocolate) and Orange. It was smooth and sweet but not at all sticky. However, it was so rich and the portion (the smallest) was far too much for me to finish. As much as I tried, I couldn’t manage more than half of it.
Again, a little cup of hot chocolate helps me to keep my wits about me in such a place, it satisfies the chocolate craving and keeps me from going nuts and buying everything or gobbling it up as soon as I get away from the cash register with my purchases.
These little bunnies are just cute as bunnies. They’re each a little bigger than my thumb (which is kinda small) and were a good sampling of the Jacques Torres chocolate. The package was very light and as I guessed, they’re hollow ... so the whole thing weighed about 1.4 ounces. It cost $5.
The Dark Chocolate bunny tasted much like the hot chocolate. Smooth and rich with a slight dry finish, it wasn’t terribly complex but had some good woodsy/smoky qualities. I’m guessing this was the house blend variety of their chocolate which is 60% cocoa. The Milk Chocolate was quite sweet and has the European flavor to it, it was also very smooth but with a more fudgy quality to it. It’s one of those milk chocolates that begs you to eat more of it. The White Chocolate was really quite nice too. It’s true white chocolate in the sense that it’s made with cocoa butter and not tropical oils. It smelled very sweet and in fact tasted that way too, but had a slight caramel/vanilla note to it that made it much better than a bowlful of sugar.
They were all very nice, but for the price, first, I’d want solid chocolate. At this rate a pound of little bunnies would be over $50. I understand that more intense products like truffles demand a higher price, but these hardly qualified for such a premium. Not when the single bars of 3.5 ounces sell for $4.
This was my favorite purchase. I almost missed these too, they were placed up at the register and if I hadn’t already picked out the bunnies, I wouldn’t have even bought anything.
These are candied slices of orange that are then dipped in dark chocolate. They are absolutely gorgeous confections. I just couldn’t resist buying them because I knew they would photograph well. Luckily I love candied citrus peel, so I was really looking forward to these. They were just as dense and rich as I’d hoped. The orange slices were soft and juicy and not too sweet. The rind carried strong orange essences without the slightest bit of bitterness. A well-candied citrus rind bears more fruit flavor than a marmalade, which often tastes of sugar syrup.
I’ve not tried the rest of the Jacques Torres line of chocolates, so I can’t comment on the truffles or other chocolate covered goodies. They’re pricey though, but the visit to their shop provides a bit more value to the brand. I give them higher marks than the sole merits of the chocolate in the bunnies, the orange was extraordinary and gives me the confidence to recommend the other chocolate covered goodies I saw. There were fun items like chocolate covered corn flakes, graham crackers and cranberries and traditional fare like apricots, ginger and pretzels. Where the Scharffen Berger line has always been rather traditional in its expression (and I love that) I don’t care so much for the chocolate, just for the filling. Here the chocolate worked as the perfect complement to the orange and I reckon it would make even pedestrian items like corn flakes tasty.
Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven
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