Wednesday, September 11, 2013
In the pantheon of candy bars, the simple combination of chocolate and peanuts dominates the most popular candies in the United States. Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are usually jockeying for the top positions with M&Ms. I’m always eager to see what other candy companies are doing with this duo, especially with premium ingredients. Jer’s Chocolates, here in Southern California, makes a line of peanut butter bars from all natural ingredients.
Jer’s Peanut Butter Bars Original IncrediBar is all natural peanut butter mixed with crunch rice crisps covered in milk chocolate while Jer’s Peanut Butter Bars Pretzo Change-O is all natural, peanut butter with salty pretzel bits covered in milk chocolate.
The Original IncrediBar is rather irregular looking, but for the most part about 4.5 inches long and 1.25 inches wide.
The milk chocolate coating is sweet and milky but with a good cocoa note to it. The filling is soft and crumbly, though not quite fudgy. It’s peanutty, like a peanut butter dough, almost. There are bits of crisped rice in it, which gives it a mild crunch and hint of malt, while there are also bits of crushed peanuts that give a heartier crunch. The salt is a nice touch to keep the whole thing from getting too sweet.
The bar is hearty, at only 1.5 ounces, I found it very substantial, as the 5 grams of protein would indicate. It’s not shy on calories either, at 230. The bars are very soft, and in warm temperatures, they turn to goo, as many peanut butter chocolates tend to. I made sure to keep mine stored properly and was pleased with the fresh taste of the peanut center.
The Pretzo Change-O sounds right up my alley, instead of the crispy rice bits of the IncrediBar, this one has pretzel pieces. This was also a milk chocolate bar (Jer’s makes two varieties with dark chocolate, I’ll review those soon) with the same flavorful and smooth coating. I didn’t really notice much of a difference between the two bars, the crunchy bits were a little larger and perhaps the overall effect was less sweet. Both are fine bars. I preferred them over the the Cadbury Wunderbar or Snickers Peanut Butter Squared (which has caramel) which were the closest thing I could think of to these.
One of the thing that vexes me about these is the packaging. The boxes are great at protecting the bars within, but I have a devil of a time opening them. They’re securely glued at both ends, but snug enough that I worry about smashing or poking the bars if I use scissors to open it.
Jer’s Chocolates also makes a mini version called Jer’s Squares of their popular bars. I like these quite a bit, partly because there’s a greater ratio of chocolate and partly because I like smaller pieces of things so I can moderate better. The big issue I have with them is that their list price is twice that of the bars but you don’t get twice the product. The pair of bars is about $4 (3 ounces, so it’s $21.33 a pound) and the gable box of about 10 pieces retails for $8 (4 ounces, so it’s $32 a pound).
Though all the ingredients are natural, there is no statement on the Jer’s Chocolate website about the ethical or sustainability sourcing for the ingredients.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Ritter Sport is the brand of German chocolate bars that come in a square format and more than a dozen different varieties. The newest is Ritter Sport Coconut in milk chocolate. The package says it’s with tropical coconut flakes in a coconut and milk filling.
I like how inexpensive Ritter Sport is compared to other consumer brands from Europe, like Cadbury Dairy Milk or Lindt, and balances quality and munchability. No, it’s not exquisitely fine chocolate, but it’s fantastic chocolate candy.
I tried another version of a coconut bar from Ritter Sport a few years ago, a sample bar from their store in Waldenbuch, Germany called the Ritter Sport Kokosmakrone which also had some corn flakes in the coconut cream. The cream center is a common format for Ritter Sport, in fact, a lot of German candy bars like those from Milka also use this style.
The ingredients were a little disappointing. Ingredient #1 is Sugar and ingredient #2 is Palm Oil. This is similar to the Amarena Cherry I had earlier this year, which is also a filled bar. The saturated fat content is 45% of your daily RDA in 6 pieces. The other interesting ingredient, though far down the list, is hazelnut paste.
The milk chocolate is rich, sweet and smooth. The coconut center is interesting, because the coconut is actually crunchy and the filling with it is quite smooth and creamy, unlike the moist and chewy Mounds bar filling. I liked the filling quite a bit, and had no trouble finishing the bar. Coconut is not my favorite of all of their inclusions and I don’t usually like their white cream filled bars either. So I’ll probably stick to the Corn Flakes bar over this one.
Though Ritter Sport has a sustainability pact for their cocoa, there’s no mention of the source of their palm oil.
Friday, August 16, 2013
A solid layer of crunchy peanut butter topped with caramel and coated in creamy ‘milk’ chocolate. Vegan
It’s made with dairy-free rice “milk” chocolate which can’t actually be called chocolate according to the FDA, which has strict standards about such things. However, there are no other fillers in it, just cacao, cocoa butter and some evaporated cane juice. It’s an actual vegan candy bar that’s also fair trade and organic. That’s a rare thing. Of course, feeling good before you eat the candy is nice, but not really very productive if it doesn’t actually taste good. Now that I’ve tried all three of Eli’s Earth Bars multiple times, I’m ready to say that they’re actually good, but a little funky.
There’s really no comparison for this bar to a commercial bar on shelves today. The center is like a crushed Butterfinger bar (or if you prefer, the vegan version would be an Atkinson’s Chick-o-Stick) mixed in with some peanut butter and then a layer of caramel then covered in chocolate.
It smells peanutty and sweet and a little like Cap’n Crunch. The rice milk chocolate coating is a little greasy and thin tasting, it’s more like a chocolate milk taste than an actual chocolate taste. The soft center is sweet peanut butter with a bunch of crunchy, peanut crisp lumps. Then there’s a stripe of caramel on the top that gives the whole thing a chew.
It’s odd, not quite successful but still compelling enough that I always eat the whole bar. (I’ve tried this bar three times now.) If you don’t or can’t eat dairy, this is a very tasty approximation of a dairy bar (but it’s made on equipment that does use dairy, so not for those with true allergies). But I’d prefer to just eat Chick-o-Sticks if I need a vegan peanut candy fix.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
If I were to dream big and come up with attributes of an ideal candy bar, I’d probably start with real ingredients. Each ingredient should contribute flavor or texture. It should have real chocolate. It should be organic and fair trade, as ethical as possible. (And if this is a dream, it would be one dollar and sold everywhere.)
Sjaak’s Organic Chocolate has been doing just that, with their new line called Eli’s Earth Bars. They’re organic, fair trade and some are vegan as well as being made right here in California. The bar is a nice size, the portion is 1.5 ounces, which is what I prefer for a snack. I picked up all of their bars when they first came out, diligently took their photos, ate them and then tried to find more for the review. It took me 2 years to find them in a store again.
I finally found my Eli’s Earth Bars Dream Big Bar at Erewhon, walking distance from my office. The packaging design is good, it’s attractive but not too weird looking. It looks like there’s a candy bar in there, not some mush of seed hulls and dates.
Caramel and peanut butter topped with whole peanuts and coated in creamy ‘milk’ chocolate. Vegan
The bar looks great. The milk chocolate coating is actually made with rice milk, so it’s not technically milk chocolate since there’s no dairy in it. But the chocolate is still made with real cocoa butter (none of those palm oil fillers). I was thinking the bar was going to be kind of like a Snickers, but it’s actually a bit more like a Baby Ruth.
It’s about 3.5 inches long and 1.25 inches wide. The appearance of the outside looks like chocolate, but it tastes a little, well, odd.It’s smooth, but has a bit of a milky note without thinning out the flavor. Mostly I get a rice, or cereal flavor from it. The caramel center is stiff and a little tough to bite at first, which tears the bar apart. The peanut butter is the right balance of smooth and salty, the peanuts are fresh and crunchy. Aside from the tougher than normal chew of the caramel, the textures go well together. There’s the right amount of sweet, salt and fat going on.
The bar most certainly doesn’t taste like disappointment or shame. It tastes like a candy bar. It’s not healthier, it’s still a candy bar, but it doesn’t compromise on the core beliefs - it’s vegan and organic and ethically sourced.
Gluten free but made on shared equipment with dairy.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
I often think of chocolate making as a northern activity, though the advent of climate control means it can be done anywhere. Still, it’s rare to hear about chocolate factories, even bean to bar establishments, south of the line of the Missouri Compromise. This is why I was so delighted to hear about Videri Chocolate Factory, based in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s the kind of story that makes me think that small batch chocolate may become as common as small batch coffee roasting.*
Videri offered me some chocolate bar samples a few months back, and I’ve been munching on them ever since. They make bean to bar chocolate in their factory that also serves as a coffee bar and cafe. They make a small range of bars, about five at any given time, the varieties I got were Classic Dark, Dark Milk Chocolate, Sea Salt and Pink Peppercorn.
All the bars come in a small box that holds two stacked bars. Though the box packaging is color coded, the bars, wrapped only in foil, are not distinguished in any way from each other. (But once you get to know the product line, it’s easy to tell milk from dark from sea salt.)
I’m starting with the Videri Dark Milk Chocolate mostly because that’s the one that I have the best photos of from wrapper to bar. Each box holds two 1.5 ounce bars. This is genius. I don’t want 3 ounces at one time, even 1.5 ounces is a bit much when it comes to fine chocolate, but at least when you’ve eaten half, it wraps up better. The foil is thick, generous and durable.
Videri Dark Milk Chocolate is 50% cacao. They didn’t mention where the beans were sourced, they are organic and Videri does ethical sourcing and wherever possible. They plan to do more direct trade as they grow, but for now they buy through brokers within the Americas (no African beans were mentioned in their materials).
Videri Dark Milk Chocolate has an odd smell to it, more like a fine smoky cheese than chocolate. The flavor is immediately deep, with a pretty good melt, though it has some more fudgy moments that seem grainy but not chalky. The milk flavors are forward, toasted and toffee-like with the woodsy flavors of the actual chocolate rounding it out. It’s a little tangy, like a goat cheese; there’s a sharpness that lingers for quite a while.
Videri Dark Chocolate is a blend of American beans from Central and South America. It’s 70% and has a light red hint to the brown color. Their ingredients are simple, in the case of the dark chocolate, it’s: Roasted Organic Cocoa Nibs, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Cocoa Butter. There’s no lecithin in their ingredients and everything is organic.
The bar smells lightly fruity, like raisins with a little woodsy note. The taste is immediately sweet on the tongue, which was a little odd for a 70% bar. It’s smooth but has a lightly dry and acidic finish. The overall flavor profile is similar to the smell, some raisin and berry notes with a more rounded oak flavor and a hint of vanilla. The melt is a little thin on the tongue, not at all sticky. It definitely had the notes of Peruvian chocolate for me, which is not a bad thing and I know that these are blends of beans anyway. It was good, but not extraordinary
I threw the pieces of the Videri Dark Milk Chocolate & Dark Chocolate together to show how close in color they are. After all, the milk chocolate is 50% cacao, as dark as a commercial semi-sweet chocolate you might use for chocolate chip cookies.
Both have interesting traits to them and both are pleasing. Yet even after months of sitting with these bars (I ate the first set of the pairs of bars back in March and April and the second set in July and August), I still don’t find myself drawn to these to.
Videri Pink Peppercorn is made with 60% cacao. The back of the bar is sprinkled with the crushed actually pink peppercorns. The scent is immediately forward with the peppercorn brightness - a sort of mix of balsamic pines and pencil shavings.
The woodsy notes of the beans Videri uses are complemented by the pink peppercorns. The small particle size of the peppercorns was appropriate, I didn’t find myself gagging or crunching on one and wondering about my teeth. They’re lightly spicy and warming with an earthy note without lighting up my throat or covering up the cocoa notes.
Videri Sea Salt Dark Chocolate is 60% cacao, so just a little less cacao and more sugar than the Classic Dark. And then it has the addition of a little sea salt mixed into the bar (it’s not sprinkled on, like the Pink Peppercorn). The flavor profile is similar to the Dark. It’s woodsy, though less fruity. The salt actually moderates the sweetness well. The melt is quite good, I preferred this bar of the set and found it the most munchable.
* Regarding small batch chocolate coming as common as small batch coffee ... I see the issues of scale and customer base within that statement. People generally drink one or two or even three cups of coffee a day, but rarely eat more than one chocolate bar a day.
I like where Videri is going, though I could use a bit more distinctiveness and richness in the bar. I don’t know if that’s the beans themselves, they way they’re roasted or the level of cocoa butter. But that’s just a personal preference, what I enjoyed about the bars was the fact that they were blends and tasted very accessible and easy to eat. I would love to visit their shop and watch the chocolate being made, as that sounds like half the fun of the chocolate being made in small batches. (My bars were marked Batch 134.)
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.
Friday, June 7, 2013
I’ve visited the Eclat Chocolate shop in West Chester, PA a couple of times when I’ve been in the area. I’ve tried a wide variety of their truffles and a few of their hot chocolate sticks and other items. However, I’d never picked up their chocolate bars before.
When I placed an order with the PA Country Store back before Easter, I decided to rectify that omission by selecting the Eclat Chocolate Caramelized Hazelnuts 65% bar. The packaging is simple, a slim black paperboard box holding a mylar wrapped bar. Sadly it didn’t protect the bar from getting broken (but I was going to break it anyway).
Eclat Chocolate may be best known as the creator of one of the most expensive bars on the market filled with celebrity names, the Good & Evil Bar made from Peruvian Pure Nacional cocoa beans and retails for about $18 for 2.8 ounces. I’m not terribly interested in things that are notable for being expensive though I enjoy a good origin story. So I’ll stick with the Caramelized Hazelnuts for now. Here’s what the online description said:
The bar is attractive, a nice mold with well portioned segments. I prefer a thicker bar, especially when there are inclusions, but there’s something particularly stunning about such a large field of molded dark chocolate.
The scent is sweet, woodsy and a little buttery. The chocolate has a smooth and rather quick melt and an immediate sweetness. I don’t eat a lot of 65% chocolate, so I forgot how sweet it is. The inclusions are crispy and have a great deep toasted toffee and hazelnut flavor. I don’t know if I got the subtle difference of the Spanish hazelnut, but I liked what I was tasting.
I would have preferred slightly larger pieces, I found the ratios a little off, but then again, I think I would have preferred a bit darker chocolate, too. However, if you’re a milk person, this is a great munchable dark bar that doesn’t feel too dense or difficult. I had no trouble at all eating my way through it, especially because of the excellent melt of the chocolate and lack of overall bitterness.
I mentioned I’d been to the shop before. I’ve picked up bonbons there on two occasions, though they weren’t for review, just for eating. They’re well priced for an artisan confection. The boxes are well put together to highlight the chocolates and it traveled very well (first by car around Central Pennsylvania for several days and then flying back to Los Angeles).
I picked out varieties such as Beer, Star Anise and Single Malt as well as the classic 73% Dark Ganache and Dark Caramel. The flavor infusions were not overwhelming to the chocolate and the piece size, though on the small size, meant that I could eat quite a few pieces for maximum variety.
I believe my box was $25.00 in the store. I’ve also bought their hot chocolate sticks, which I find exceptional though expensive. I like making my own hot chocolate, because then I get to control the milk (lactose free, please) and these sorts of “melt it at home” products make for a far richer experience than the powders. At $4.50 each, it’s more than you’d spend at a Starbucks. But sometimes it’s nice for a splurge.
If I’m in the area, it’s a stop I’ll continue to make. It’s a great little pick me up before I get on the Turnpike and is a great place to pick up a few hostess gifts. I posted a few photos of the shop as well.
Monday, May 13, 2013
When I was in Germany a couple of years ago, I picked up a bag of a new Haribo variety of gummi bears called Saft Baeren. They were made with real fruit juice and had a much softer, juicier texture than the traditional Haribo Gold Bears.
Well, Haribo has decided to sell a version of those bears in the United States as Haribo Juicy Gold-Bears. They’re coming out now and feature more than 20% fruit juice and no artificial colors.
They’re a little different from the bears that I tried. First, the version I tried was made in Germany, and as I found out from my taste test, the German Haribo products are usually the ones I prefer because they’re more intense and have a better texture. This bag was made in Turkey. Second, the flavor variety is a little different. The original version had five flavors, this one has six. The flavors are black currant, pear, lime, apple, raspberry and peach. No orange, lemon, pineapple or strawberry.
Black Currant (Purple) is deep and jammy, slightly bitter, in an authentic way with a dry note to it.
Apple (dull green) is very, well, green tasting. It’s an authentic apple flavor, like juice, but it’s also very green, like someone threw a dash of wheatgrass in there or something.
Peach (orange) is fascinating. It’s more apricot if you ask me, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s quite tangy and has a lot of that balsam note that gives peach their fuzzy flavor. It’s a dense and nuanced flavor, done very well, far better than any other peach candy I’ve had.
Raspberry (red) is a great bear. It’s tart and juicy and has a light tannic quality that’s kind of jammy and lightly floral.
Pear (clear) is tangy and a little bland compared to the others. It’s like a baked pear.
Lime (yellow) is actually pretty boring. It’s not as vibrant as the citrus flavors in the original Gold bears.
Overall, the flavors are good, even great, but the actual flavor variety is a little weird. I’m all for not using mainstream flavors, but this mix is just a little too strange for me. There were only two that I liked, and I found myself picking them out of the mix, which is something I never do with the standard Gold Bears. I think the fact that they’re using natural colors and lots of real juice is great and I hope that trend continues ... now if they could just do an all citrus mix of bears that way. However, I know that these flavors, since they’re so specific and so rare in a mix sold in the US, are going to be someone’s favorite.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.