Friday, May 30, 2014
I was happy to visit the Artisan du Chocolat boutique within the Selfridge’s Food Hall. Not only did I get to choose from the full array of chocolate bars that they make, they also had one of their most famous chocolates that I’d been eager to try ... Pearls. They’re about the size of a hazelnut in the shell, spherical and come in light colors like silver, peach and creamy white that are dusted with pearlized color. It’s a stunning presentation. The chocolates themselves (I tried two) are decent. I had a caramel, which was covered in milk chocolate, so it was salty enough but still quite sweet and milky. The other was a hazelnut praline, which was also very sweet but also satisfyingly nutty. They’re quite expensive and nothing that I would buy on a regular basis.
So, back to what I did purchase, the Artisan du Chocolat Black Cardamom 70% Cacao
Though the bar is called Black Cardamom, a mix of green and black cardamom is infused into the 70% dark chocolate made from South American cocoa beans. The bar is made from a simple mold with well defined segments that snap easily into portions.
The smell of the bar is woodsy and deep, a bit like burnt brownies. The cardamom notes aren’t really evident until I put it in my mouth. The cardamom is infused smoothly into the chocolate, there are not fibery hulls or little seeds. The flavor of cardamom is interesting, it’s a bit of a cross between nutmeg, jasmine and lavender.
The melt of the chocolate is good, it’s smooth and has a dark flavor and dry finish and a very slight raisin or raspberry note to it. The cardamom flavors are fresh and linger much longer than the chocolate notes.
Overall, it’s one of the best cardamom chocolate bars I’ve had. The portion is good, I found this size bar to be two servings. The price is a bit steep for the size and of course it’s hard to find in the United States. The company is artisan, but not terribly transparent about the sourcing of the ingredients beyond the basics that I’ve listed here.
Made with soy lecithin. May also contain traces of sesame, nuts and milk but is otherwise consider vegan.
I’ve purchased a few Artisan du Chocolat bars in the past, but haven’t featured any reviews to date. Since these bars are still available, here are a few tasting notes I made a couple of years ago:
The package is similar to the Black Cardamom bar, it’s a simple, glossy paperboard box. The bar inside is just wrapped in a clear cellophane bag. It’s easy to open, and because it’s not exactly form-fitted, it’s easy to get any remnants back in the package to seal up for later.
All of the bars I’ve tried from Artisan du Chocolat also use the same mold. It’s rather generic, with no special lettering or embossed designs ... it’s just a series of well-proportioned pieces.
Orange blossom is forward and loud. The soft flavor does well with the strong chocolate. Tangy notes, a little soapy at times and perfumey. Was much more subtle when I first opened the bar, but got stronger as the month went on. Chocolate is less sweet, smooth though has a dry finish and woodsy quality overall. There’s the slightest bitter note towards the end, but it fades to a rather fresh note that lingers.
Rating: 7 out of 10
The Artisan du Chocolat Almond Milk is a bit of a change up. Instead of a fusion bar, as the previous two were, this is from the line called “break the mould” which includes their 100% cacao bar and sugar free bars in both milk and dark chocolate.
The bar is what it sounds like, instead of using dairy milk, Artisan du Chocolate substitutes almond milk ... well, specifically partially defatted almonds (26%), to boost the creamy texture of the bar and even out some of the chocolate’s intensity. The bar contains 40% cacao, but a lot of that is cocoa butter, not cocoa solids (probably because the almonds are defatted and the cocoa butter is necessary to maintain the chocolate texture).
There is no nutritional panel, so I don’t know what the fat, protein or sugar content is here. It would be interesting to find out, as chocolate itself has a fair amount of protein as do almonds.
Very light looking for a 40% bar. Light cinnamon note to the bar. The melt is not quick, but very smooth. Creamy with a cashew-like nut flavor. Cocoa notes are really watered down. Lightly spicy without any actual spice.
Interesting bar, far too sweet than I’d want but at least it doesn’t have that sticky thick melt that dairy milk has. I enjoyed it as a confection, but it in no way replicated the experience of milk chocolate and didn’t have enough of a chocolate boost to satisfy me either. I’d actually throw it closer into the white chocolate category (can someone attempt an almond-cocoa butter white bar or maybe a cashew-cocoa butter white bar?).
Rating: 7 out of 10 (only because it’s dairy free - it’d be 6 out of 10 if it were going head to head with other 40% cacao bars)
I enjoy Artisan du Chocolat’s flavor mixes, there are a lot of herbs and spices and florals that they utilize that I don’t see in other confections here in the United States. But they’re not for everyday consumption, because of the price and difficulty to find.
Friday, April 4, 2014
Equal Exchange is cooperative that sells products with fair trade ingredients and/or labor. Many of these are products where the farmers that grow them live in poverty, lack educational opportunities. Things like coffee, tea, bananas and of course, cocoa. These are all grown in tropical regions and depend on a high degree of manual labor. With the chocolate industry, there’s the added issue of slavery of hundreds of thousands of children on farms, mostly in Western Africa.
Equal Exchange also makes its own chocolate, which uses fair trade certified ingredients, not just ethically sourced cocoa. The result isn’t charity, these are real, sustainable products that you can buy at a fair price that are actually good quality as well.
They’ve been making chocolate for a while, but only more recently has it become more mainstream ... and now they have holiday packaged foil-wrapped eggs.
Equal Exchange Milk Chocolate Foil Eggs are 41% cacao, which is as dark as some semisweet chocolate sold these days. The ingredients sound delicious: cacao butter, whole milk powder, cane sugar, chocolate liquor, unrefined white cane sugar, ground hazelnuts and vanilla. The ingredients are also fair trade (except for the hazelnuts and milk) and all organic. There’s no soy, no lecithin, no other fillers.
The melt is smooth and creamy. It’s not at all grainy but very fatty and thick on the tongue. The flavor is interesting and not something I initially liked. It’s deep and not terribly sweet. The milk flavors are definitely more on the powdered milk, flirting with the cheesy side. But the roasted flavors of the hazelnuts balances that. The chocolate itself is woodsy with a sort of green banana note to it. It sounds weird.
I can’t stop eating these. I actually did stop, when I ran out. Then I realized they also sent this to me:
Yes, that’s over a pound and a half of mini milk chocolate bars. In a handy dispenser box. I have it on my desk, like it’s dispensing tissues during allergy season.
The Equal Exchange Dark Chocolate Foil Eggs are also quite rich. They feature the same high fat, though in this case there are no nuts and no dairy at all. The 55% cacao content is rounded out only with sugar and vanilla beans. Like the Milk Chocolate, it’s all organic, but in this case it’s also all fair trade certified. There’s no soy in there, no GMOs though there may be traces of milk, peanuts, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios and/or pecans. Though it doesn’t say on the ingredients, they should be gluten free. Finally, they’re vegan. While there’s not a lot in there, there are a lot of folks these could satisfy. ]
The 55% cacao content makes these quite mild. They smell woodsy, with a light cherry note. The chocolate has a good, silky melt with a light dry finish to it. The flavor profile is all over the map. I taste coffee, cherries, figs and bananas and sometimes even a hint of malt ... though that could have been its storage adjacent to my milk chocolate pieces. There’s a light bitterness in there, nothing too difficult to conquer, but might be enough to keep children away.
You could put these in front of anyone without any information about the origins or disposition and they’d never know that this is more transparently source, ethically accountable stuff. It’s just tasty. As you can tell, I preferred the milk chocolate version, but the dark is a wonderful middle of the road chocolate that’s not too dark for wide appeal.
The only hesitations for most folks will be where to find them and how much you pay. Equal Exchange has them on their website for $6.99 per package, which is pretty steep compared to their very competitively priced bars. (For some reason foil wrapping just amps up the price of any chocolate, good quality or bad.) Some Whole Foods Markets and other natural product stores may carry them as well. The fall back is always the little mini-bars, which are also extremely cute and a bit better deal per ounce, but come in this 23.8 ounce box (yes, a pound a half) for $35.00 plus shipping. It’s hard to compare that to R.M. Palmer (which isn’t even real chocolate, let alone sustainably sourced), but Godiva or Lindt may be a good comparison on both price and ingredients.
On Monday I’ll have a review of Kosher for Passover chocolates, also from Equal Exchange.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Lindt Gold Bunny Hazelnut is a new introduction that’s sadly not available in the United States. I saw an announcement about it a couple of months ago and put it on my London shopping list. Not only did I find it, they were on sale, two for £5 ... which is still pretty pricey at $4.25 with the exchange rate at the time.
Honestly, I never read past the name of the product and I was sold. So, I didn’t know quite what to expect, I simply assumed that this was going to be an giandiua product, a sort of milk chocolate with hazelnut paste blended in for an extra rich texture.
The bottom label on the foil covered rabbit explained that it was milk chocolate with hazelnut pieces. It’s actually 20% hazelnuts while the chocolate is 30% cocoa solids and then another 14% milk solids. In addition, there’s a touch of malt extract (I don’t know what that means when it comes to gluten status). There’s no actual allergen statement, just bolded items on the ingredients which include dairy, soy, hazelnuts, and barley plus traces of almonds.
The bunny looks a little odd, with the variations in the color, but oh, my goodness it smells great. It’s a roasted hazelnut scent that just makes my mouth water. The ears are nearly solid, so the first bite was quite a treat. The chocolate is a bit softer than the Lindt Dark, though their regular Milk Bunny is also on the soft side and also has a touch of malt.
The note of malt is not completely overshadowed by the hazelnut either. It just moderates the sticky sweetness of the Lindt milk chocolate, as do the generous hazelnuts. The hazelnuts are crisp and crunchy with a macadamia or coconut crispness. They’re quite small bits (as they’d need to be for a molded item like this).
This is amazingly good. Easy to eat, filling but not too sweet. It’s expensive ...but really cute and very well executed. I would love to see these introduced in the United States next year. I was poking around online and saw that they may be available in Canada and there’s always a few eBay sellers that do European confectionery imports.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
One of my favorite candy combinations is milk chocolate and cereal. You’d think it would be great to live in the United States, then, which has two nationally branded crisped rice bars: Nestle Crunch and Hershey’s Krackel. But they are both pale versions of what a crisped rice and chocolate bar could be.
So, I’ve been hunting for a great crisped rice bar and at the moment my go-to is oddly the Ritter Sport Cornflakes Bar because the chocolate is actually good and the cereal flakes provide that salty, malty crunch component that keeps it all from getting too sweet.
Trader Joe’s has finally come to the rescue with their Trader Joe’s Crispy Rice Milk Chocolate part of their line of stacks of small Belgian made bars sold near the check out counter (review of the dark chocolate here).
The bars are well priced, you get three 1.4 ounce bars for $1.79. The whole stack is wrapped in cellophane and each bar is also individually wrapped and sealed for freshness. The bars are made in Belgium with high quality chocolate (for candy bars) which means 31% cacao content and 18% milk content. (And oodles of sugar, too.) Unlike the US counterparts, this is real milk chocolate (Krackel contains vegetable oil fillers while both also use artificial vanilla and lactose, a sugar filler).
The size of the portion is ideal, at 1.4 ounces it’s 220 calories - more than enough for a snack but no risk of eating more (unless you really can’t control yourself and open one of the other bars). It smells milky and malty with a little toffee note. The melt of the chocolate is silky, it’s buttery slick and though sweet, the crunchy rice moderates it well. The crisped rice is the manufactured kind - you know, the perfect little spheres, not the rustic kernels from a breakfast bowl. This means that they’re very evenly distributed and very even overall, but I miss that variation in the crunch.
This really meets nearly all of my requirements for the perfect crisped rice bar ... there just aren’t enough Trader Joe’s.
The bar contains milk, wheat and soy and is made in a facility that also processed tree nuts and eggs. (No notation about peanuts.)
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Original Beans is a small chocolate company that starts with carefully selected, direct-purchased beans and makes them into single-origin bars. They take special care with all aspects of the sourcing, manufacturing and packaging, as their name might imply. The bars are not easy to find in the United States, but luckily a very good chocolate source has developed walking distance from my office, so you’ll be seeing more of these interesting finds in the coming months and years.
The selection of bars from Original Beans is very small, but quite specific. I chose to review their Original Beans Piura Porcelana 75% as my first. You can read up on the Peruvian Porcelana beans on the Original Beans website and on other chocolate aficionado sites. The history of chocolate is fascinating and many people have become interested in the generic diversity of the trees and their distribution. The Porcelana beans, as a variety of Criollo, are characterized by their white color and distinctive flavor. They’re quite rare and grown in a few small areas in South America, so single origin bars are not common and often limited editions.
The bar features all organic ingredients and is made only exclusively with white Criollo cacao from the Pirua River Valley in the Peruvian Andes. The cacao is 75% and the package says that it’s a 22 hour conch. The ingredients list is simple and short: Direct-trade cacao beans, cacao butter, cane sugar. There’s no soy and it’s vegan and gluten free.
The tasting notes for the bar online are: Vibrant, luscious with kumquat, lime, apricot, raspberry flavours and notes of toasted pecan; wonderfully balanced acidity and lingering finish.
Though the beans are white, the chocolate is brown. The fermenting and roasting of the beans makes them indistinguishable at first glance from any other bean.
The bar is simply and beautifully molded. The segments have a great snap and neutral medium-brown color. The scent is mild, it has some smoky vanilla notes
The flavor is an interesting balance of acid like citrus and tannins, for the most part the flavors I got were black tea and roasted nuts. The texture was smooth and has and excellent melt and lack of grit. It still has a bit of a dry finish that’s sharp from the tannins.
I loved this bar, this is the third one I’ve eaten, I bought the first two over the summer but found they weren’t doing well in the heat so I ate them and waited for it to cool off to do a proper review. The flavor is not too intense but still very satisfying after three or four squares. The cocoa butter balanced out the clean but sweet sugar to make it very munchable for a high cacao bar.
The next bar I picked for review is Original Beans Esmeraldas Milk, which is a 42% cacao bar with a touch of fleur de sel. Like the dark bar, it’s made with organic ingredients. From the photo above you can see that it’s a dark looking bar for milk chocolate, but compared to many commercial milk chocolate bars, I’m inclined to call it a dark milk.
Original Beans is in The Netherlands, and the packaging is largely in Dutch (though the website also in English) while the chocolate is made in Switzerland.
The ingredients list is a little longer than the dark bar, but still short: direct trade cacao, sugar, cocoa butter, milk and sea salt. The tasting notes suggest: Exceptionally velvety with salted caramel, hints of summer red fruits and spice.
The Original Beans website has a feature where you input the batch code from your bar into their website that says:
Unfortunately that feature just takes you to the same page you could browse to based on the name of the chocolate bar. For true transparency and education, I kind of wanted specifics about the harvest that made my bar. What was that year like? Were there special issues that would distinguish that vintage from the previous year or the coming year? Or even just things like how many pounds of beans were harvested, how many bars were made in that batch.
The bar has a roasted, caramelized scent that has a bit of a cheese note to it, something a little more savory. The melt is great, it’s soft and fudgy without feeling too sugary or sticky. The flavor has molasses notes, maybe even a little fennel but a lot of milk. The hint of salt does keep it from tasting too much like sugar, but it doesn’t jump out. There’s a sharpness to the bar, again, that powdered milk cheese-ness that doesn’t quite satisfy me. I’m not a big fan of the powdered milk flavors in some milk chocolates; it’s a personal preference, not an indication of quality.
I also tried the Bolivian Beni Wild Harvest bar, as I was a big fan of Lillie Belle’s Wild Thing, also from wild beans, but found the 66% far too sweet for me.
Monday, August 5, 2013
Boiled candies, or hard candies, are considered kind of ordinary in most situations. They’re not most people’s first choice, in fact, in most lists of candies, they’re often down at the bottom along with raisins and toothbrushes (basically, not even qualifying as candy). It’s sad, because there are good hard candies and boiled sugar candies can be some of the most beautiful of all candies out there.
Cut Rock is a tradition of candymaking that goes back at least 150 years. It’s a simple concept, different colors of hard candy are layered together and then pulled or rolled out to shrink the design and then cut into easy to eat pieces. (To make swirled lollipops, the centers are plain but the ropes of candy are wrapped into a disk and a stick is inserted.)
Raley’s Confectionary in Florida is one of the new artisan companies to bring this tradition back, and their twist is to use natural colors, flavors and organic/fair trade sugar. (I’m not sure about the glucose syrup that’s mentioned in the ingredients label, but not on the website.) Since all he makes is hard candies, it’s vegan and gluten free (though he does make some nut items, so check before you order if you have an allergy).
If you want to see more about how it’s made, Raley did an educational video that addresses how scaling is important when creating the designs to make cut rock. And of course here’s a more generalized video that shows the whole process from start to finish:
Wes Raley (seen in action above) offered me some samples and since it’s summer, which I high season for hard candies, I accepted them. It then took a long time to get through the whole set: Emoticon Mix, Root Beer, Cappuccino, Pomegranate,
The SA Emoticon Mix is a good place to start because it demonstrates the array of forms and designs that can be created and also includes a wide variety of flavors. Of course I don’t know what those flavors were supposed to be, since there was no key, so I can only guess. I know one was lime, and another was blueberry. The interesting thing about this version was how the diameter varied.
The center, as you may have seen in the video, is an aerated hard candy. This makes it white and the pulling of the hard candy also allows Raley to incorporate the flavors. It makes it crunchy without any of those annoying sharp voids that some hard candies get.
Each piece is a mere half in across, yet the wire thin brown “steam” coming from the little mugs is perfectly proportioned to the little cups of coffee.
The flavor on this particular candy is a little milder than the vivid and fruity Emoticons.
The coffee flavor is a bit mild and thin for my tastes. It was toasty and less sweet, but more like a brown sugar candy than a true coffee with a bit of foamed milk experience. That said, it was one of the first bags I finished.
Grapefruit is one of several citrus flavors from Raley’s. The pieces are well made, a yellow rind and a pink sectioned interior sell the look. The outside is sweet and mild, but the aerated fruity center is tangy and nicely flavored. It’s a little zesty, only a slight hint of bitterness and quite tart at times.
Here’s the real gem of all the varieties I tried: Lemon. This piece was yellow with a shiny yellow rind, white pith and yellow sections. Unlike the grapefruit, which was flavored on the inside, the outside was also flavored. So the rind was a gentle and sweet lemon, but the inside was extremely tart, zesty and juicy.
These were absolutely adorable. The design is unlike most of the others that cut rock makers create, it has no jacket. Instead the flag’s stripes go right to the edge. It’s a complicated design, enough of the elements, colors and ratios are there for it to say “American Flag” even though it’s round.
The flavor is fun, the blueberry is sweet and has a good berry flavor and the strawberry is light and floral.
Root Beer was one that I was truly looking forward to, mostly because Raley doesn’t use artificial colors and one of my complaints about Root Beer Barrels is the aftertaste from the dye known as Red #40. This definitely did not have any aftertaste, but it didn’t have much of a forward taste either. It was exceptionally mild, like the Cappuccino. There was a hint of wintergreen bite, but not bite of tartness, no earthy ginger rooty flavors either. It was toasty but not like Root Beer.
But the candy was adorable, with the frosty mugs on a crunchy background. So I may have been disappointed that it wasn’t like I wanted it to be, but I still managed to eat the whole bag.
I give the fruity flavors a 9 out of 10 and the drink flavors an 8 out of 10 (they designs on those were especially good). The packages were stand up, zippered gussets. Each came with a little silica gel package inside, so even though I opened them (and resealed) they all stayed pristine. Some hard candies can melt and deform in the humidity or high heat, but these looked as good today as they did about a month ago when I got them.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Small and plentiful is the trend these days. Most of the top candy makers are creating unwrapped bites of your favorite candies if they don’t already exist. This isn’t new, they’ve come and gone as brand extensions through the years, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not a good idea.
The Mars Milky Way Unwrapped Bites are similar to the Snickers Unwrapped Bites I already reviewed. They’re little cubes, super tiny versions of the popular Milky Way bar. The base is a fluffy nougat, topped with caramel and coated in milk chocolate.
The little nuggets are 2/3 of an inch cubed. A serving is eight pieces, which comes to about 1.34 ounces. They clock in a bit lighter on the calories than the Snickers, mostly because they don’t contain peanuts, which are a bit fattier (but also contain 50% more protein).
They’re easy to eat, sweet smelling and have a soft bite and easy, aerated chew. There was a bit of a cereal note to the smell, but overall they were just sweet and tasty.
This is another interesting example of how ratios of different element can change a candy. I know that some die hard Milky Way fans will probably detest this, but I happen to like it much more than the bar. The bar was always too big, too filling and too sweet but also lacking in any distinct flavor element. In this version the malt of the fluffed nougat is the most forward; it also combines well with the slightly salty caramel to create a great balance.
My only complaint with the bites is that the thinner chocolate shell makes them more delicate. There were several clumps in my bag where one spilled its caramel and they got stuck together. I don’t see myself buying these regularly, but I can see them being great for recipes, especially as an ice cream topper perhaps inside cookies.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The new trend is reducing packaging. Well, maybe that’s what the food companies want you to believe. The new line of Unwrapped Bites from Mars means you get lots of little miniature minis without all the wrappers that become evidence of how much you’ve eaten.
Hershey’s launched something similar a couple of years ago, so it’s no wonder that Mars is in on it as well.
The package, with a zipper closure, holds a half pound of teensy Snickers cubes. Easy to dump into a bowl, or just eat out of the bag. They’ll also be available in smaller single serving bags.
Mars is utilizing this new icon system on the front of the package for serving size and calorie counts. The serving here is 8 bites or 41 grams, which comes to 190 calories. (3 grams of protein from the peanuts.) Stacked up, the little cubes are cute and hold their shape pretty well. They do get scuffed up in the bag, so they’re not that glossy, swirled perfection found in the individual wrappers.
I can see these being very useful for recipes ... though kind of expensive at 2.99 for 8 ounces, but no worse than premium chocolate chips.
What they got right here is the ratios. Even though they’re not perfect large Snickers ratios, these strike an extremely pleasing balance of nougat, nuts and chocolate. By far the nuts take center stage. Instead of omitting the nuts or putting teensy crushed ones in there, they’re still big peanut pieces. (Though I did get on that had no nuts.) There’s a hint of salt in the nougat which balances the sweet chocolate and caramel. The caramel really doesn’t do much here, maybe it adds a little chew.
What I really enjoy though is the portioning. I like that I can eat only three or four at a time, then maybe three or four later. A full portion is eight pieces, which is less than a regular Snickers, but feels like a lot. Of course the bag is 8 ounces ... nothing keeping you from eating the whole thing in one sitting. These are pretty much the antithesis of the Snickers Slice n’ Share 1 Pound bar ... and actually a better value since a full pound of the Bites retails for $6 instead of $10.
Snickers are made with peanuts, dairy, soy and eggs. They’re also processed in a facility with almonds and I cannot find anything that says that they’re gluten free. Mars has not rolled over to sustainable, ethical sourcing for their ingredients, though they’re on track for 2020.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.