Tuesday, September 1, 2009
A week ago I went to one of those warehouse gourmet sales. Maybe you’ve seen them mentioned on sites like Chow - a wholesaler opens their doors for just one day so that normal folks can buy hard to find foods at near wholesale prices. I went to Gourmet Imports in Alhambra with the full intention of stocking up on nougat, honey and Valrhona.
This is what I came away with: just this little 8.8 ounce jar of Mas des Abeilles Boules de Miel which are candy drops made from French lavender honey. (It was a madhouse with far too many people and much of the chocolate/candy they had was hopelessly past its expiration.)
I didn’t even know how much it was until after we’d checked out. This little not-even-glass jar was nine dollars.
They’d better be good.
They’re rather large artisan styled spheres about 3/4 of an inch around. They felt a little light for their size.
It turns out that they’re pretty good - good enough that I’ve eaten them all.
They’re a firm honey center with a rough hard candy shell. I could easily crunch through the shell to get to the center - which was thick & chewy but completely smooth like honey. The flavor was a deep honey, buttery and malty. I didn’t catch any lavender essence to it, but it was still a good floral honey.
It has a throat coating & soothing feeling to it. There’s no weird aftertaste ... no real flavor. Just some honey in a less sticky format.
They’re the perfect thing to eat when your throat is aching from the burning of 125,000 acres of brush within 15 miles of your house.
(For the record, the other things I purchased there included French lentils, tomato paste in tubes, a gallon of really good olive oil and my prize was a big frozen tub of pureed Yuzu.)
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
One of the items I previewed at the Fancy Food Show back in January was something that might not even be candy. It’s called Hot Chocolate Mochi Krunch and it’s made by Impressions Fine Foods.
The product is a dark chocolate covered spicy tamari brown rice cracker. The crackers are made in Thailand, but they’re covered in chocolate right here in the US.
I finally found them at Marukai Forum in Gardena this weekend (while on an epic attempt to find Japanese KitKats for sale in Los Angeles). There are two varieties, the other is a non-spiced cracker covered in chocolate.
I’ve had other chocolate covered rice cracker candies before - usually the little banana shaped ones. This version is different in that the cracker is, well, cracker sized.
They look rather like giant snowflakes or stars. Each piece is about one inch across - kind of like a chocolate covered Honeycomb cereal piece.
They smell really intense. The scent is a cross between dark Dutched cocoa and soy sauce which is a woodsy caramelized grain smell.
The chocolate outside is a bit sweet immediately, but crunching into the cracker immediately releases the hot. The spice is a blend of chili and perhaps a little toasted sesame with a dash of salt. The sweetness of the chocolate dissipates quickly though the smoky flavors linger. The cereal flavors of the rice cracker kind of pull it all together at the end and quench the fire of the chili.
The whole effect is more savory than sweet, more snack than decadence.
I found myself munching on them and eating half the package in one day. They’re rather sizable & airy pieces so it feels like I ate a lot.
Yeah, I expect I’ll get them again. I might even try the plain version.
For those of you in the Los Angeles area, if you’re a fan of Japanese cooking, definitely stop by the Marukai Forum, it’s a membership store but it’s only a dollar for the day pass. I picked up HiCHEW on sale for 3 packages for 98 cents and Meiji Lucky (like Pocky) for only 49 cents a box. Great prices - especially for items on special, huge selection and not too far from the freeways. If you’re making an afternoon out of it, the Mitsuwa Marketplace is also just a couple of miles away down Western Ave in Torrance. They have a similarly large selection and good food court.
But if you’re also on the prowl for Japanese cuisine, I love spending time in Little Tokyo downtown which also has a Marukai Market plus another small grocery called Nijiya. (The Mitsuwa at 3rd and Alameda closed earlier this year.)
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
When on vacation I often pick up candy that fits in the intersection between my candy tastes (pretty broad) and The Man’s (not quite as broad but also includes many red flavors). Often we share things like Swedish Fish, Goetze’s Caramel Creams, dark chocolate with nuts or gianduia.
On our travels we selected some Marich 72% Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Cashews at the Sweet Offerings shop. Yes, they were expensive at $6.95 for a 4.5 ounce package but they weren’t for Candy Blog, they were just for eating. But I enjoyed them so much and was positive that I’d be referring to them again that I needed to review them.
Well, I couldn’t find them. Instead I ended up with the pictured Marich Organic Chocolate Sea Salt Cashews which were similarly priced at Whole Foods.
The box seems like a little bit of overpackaging, but they do the job of protecting the candy inside (which is just in a cellophane bag). The box is 9 inches tall and 3 and a half inches at the base ... far larger than a four and a half ounce packet of candy really needs to be. It could easily be two inches shorter and not press on the candy at all. (But maybe they use the same format for a large variety of weights and this is simply efficient.)
Even though they’re called a Sea Salt Cashews, the sodium levels are quite responsible. The package says that there are 60 mg in a 40 gram serving (about 1/3 of the package).
First, these cashews are huge ... and then the thick dark chocolate coating is, well, thick. So they’re amazingly large. (I would compare them to my thumb, but I don’t really want to repeat the photos of my digits & candy.)
The chocolate is dark and slightly bitter, the grassy and clean flavors of the cashews come through with the deep woodsy and coffee notes of the chocolate. Just three or four of them were quite satisfying. They hardly seemed like a sweet treat though. I honestly did a double take with the first few 72% ones I ate - they hardly seemed like candy because they’re not sweet. It wasn’t the little bit of salt in there that made them seem like they weren’t sugary ... it was the fact that they weren’t sugary. The salt just brought out the flavors.
Some of the cashews seemed over-toasted, to the point that they were actually a creamy brown color, so they were far crunchier and of course had a darker, breadier flavor. I liked the lighter cashews, personally.
I kept the package from the 72% and a couple of the cashews and found that the non-organic ones were made with a darker chocolate, if that’s possible for it to be more savory. (Okay, full confession, that photo includes the packet of cashews from the organic in there, instead of photographing it empty, but believe me, you really can’t tell them apart by looking at them.)
These are incredibly tasty, easy to eat and even though the packages are small and expensive, it’s easy to be satisfied with only a handful. The ingredients and panning is superb - both packages were fresh & shiny.
Inside the flap on the organic version it says Brown is the new Green. Inside the 72% it says Rich, Dark and Gorgeous Has Never Looked Better.
Unfortunately the last ingredient on the list is resinous glaze, so even though the chocolate contains no dairy products, these aren’t vegan. (But they are Kosher.) Another curious note, the 72% dark version contains 20% of your daily RDA of iron! Finally, though I paid the same amount for both versions, Whole Foods is actually cheaper overall - they have the non-organic items for $4.85, which felt kind of like a deal at this point.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Sometimes I buy things that I think are insanely expensive. This little box of Recchiuti dragee are just such a purchase. I saw them mentioned on CHOW and filed it away in my head that I should pick it up when I saw it.
The assortment is called Asphalt Jungle Mix. It features a riot of burnt caramel hazelnuts & almonds, cherries two ways and peanut butter pearls.
So when I found them at a little gourmet shop in Los Olivos on the last day of my vacation, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Partly because what I really wanted to try was the Peanut Butter Pearls. But this mix, besides having an awesome name, also featured hazelnuts & almonds ... but then there were cherries. I actually like real cherries and dried cherries are a pretty good approximation of the real thing ... so instead of getting the singular Peanut Butter Pearls I got the Asphalt Jungle.
The price online is $12.00 for 6 ounces. The price at this shop was $14.00. Yes ... insane. But I was also on vacation, and I’m also the Candy Blogger. Into the basket they went.
The assortment is pretty and luckily it was easy to figure out what everything was at a glance.
A beautiful little sphere, about the size of a pea. They’re a dark milk chocolate and rich peanut butter and a teensy cereal crisp center.
The effect is quite addictive. They’re barely sweet and even have little pops of salt sometimes. This is excellent movie food. I will buy these in the separate box.
These were inconsistent, but it really didn’t matter because they were also great. Some tasted like dark chocolate covered roasted hazelnuts, but every once in a while I got one that has a bit of a toasted sugar crunch to it.
I preferred the sugared ones. In the end, though it was very high quality I think I prefer the really chocolatey ones from Charles Chocolates (also made in the Bay Area and also similarly expensive).
Like the hazelnuts, these didn’t always seem to have their burnt sugar coating.
They chocolate was salty and dark and the cocoa on top of that wasn’t too powdery. The crunchy combination of all the flavors was nice and more on the savory side than sweet.
This was one time when I was a bit disappointed in the package. While it was pretty snazzy, I liked the spare design and minimalism, I actually wanted more information. The entire back of the box is blank except for a little footer at the bottom that has the Recchiuti logo & location. This would have been the perfect spot to include this little tidbit of info that’s on the website: dried Michigan tart cherries and candied wild Italian cherries drenched in dark chocolate with a light dusting of cocoa powder.
Both versions were tart, chewy and intensely cherry. They were like the best most cherry-ish Raisinets ever. (You know, if Raisinets were made with good chocolate.) Not quite for me, but excellent.
I liked this opportunity to try four different products in one package ... it saved me a lot of money because now I know that I want to eat the Peanut Butter Pearls for the rest of my life - they straddle that perfect line between decadent sweet and tantalizing savory. Perfect for sharing and though completely munchable and addictive, the 6 ounce package and the size of your bank account will keep your waistline in check.
Finally, I don’t know why I have an issue with paying this much for panned chocolates. I’ve been the to Recchiuti shop quite a few times and bought chocolates there that are $55 a pound ... why should I take issue with a variety mix for only $32 a pound? Is it because each one isn’t handcrafted like a truffle is? I don’t know ... but I hope I can get over it because it is good stuff. It might be because I’ve had excellent stuff at half the price (or even smaller fractions of the price) ... but good is good.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
I was in Starbucks over the weekend, which is pretty rare for me. In this instance I was waiting for a coffee drink I was picking up for The Man, so I looked around at the gift offerings, snacks and candy. It’s rare for me to double back, wait in line and purchase something after I’ve already ordered but here I was, doing just that.
In the case of these Assorted Gum Drops it was a no-brainer. First, they were only one dollar. I had a buck (and no sales tax). Second, they were all natural and came in four flavors: Tangerine, Pineapple, Raspberry and Watermelon.
How often do you see pineapple or watermelon gum drops? I don’t see them often enough, that’s for sure.
Of course I hopped back in the car and put them in the center console and promptly forgot about them until Monday at lunch. I feared they would be a melted blob ... happily even though the car interior was well over a hundred, they looked exactly like the moment I purchased them. Firm and distinctly separated.
They’re little gum drops. They range from the size of a green pea all the way up to a garbanzo bean. Since they’re a bit artisan (which is code for inconsistent) they varied quite a bit. For some reason all of the pineapple ones were about half the size of the watermelon.
The texture is firm, but not as hard and clingy as something like Dots. They’re also not quite as sticky as jelly candies like Spearmint Leaves.
I chose my bag poorly and most of them were watermelon instead of pineapple and tangerine which I fully expected to love.
Pineapple - were nearly clear. They had a firm bite, they weren’t quite a jelly or pate de fruit. Sweet and fragrant, they’re not tangy and not quite jammy either. It tasted more like a really subtle coating on a candied apple. I was sad to see that I only got four in my package.
Watermelon - these light pink pieces didn’t smell like much, but biting into them they were definitely watermelon. And not that fake watermelon flavor that Jolly Ranchers come in. They had a tangy bite as well, and maybe even a little hint of bitterness towards the end (something that seeds can do sometimes). They were refreshing.
Raspberry - was a dark red. They were quite deep and sweet with a little woody essence of the seeds. It tasted like boiled berries, not quite as fresh and clear as some fruit pate I’ve had.
Tangerine - these were nicely done. Not quite as tangy as I’d hoped but a good blend of juicy sweet and zesty.
Since Starbucks has a reputation for being absurdly expensive, I was pleased overall that these broke that stereotype. It’s a nice portion for one person or to share. The flavors probably go best with an iced tea instead of coffee. Unfortunately the label says that they’re made in a facility with wheat, eggs, soy, nuts and dairy ... so it’s not the perfect substitute for those who can’t touch the rest of the stuff in the pastry case.
I’d love to see a spice version which would go great with coffee or most teas.
Friday, August 14, 2009
The Man went to LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, CA yesterday, and I asked him to check in the gift shop while he was there to see if they had anything LEGO-ish to complete my week.
He called me from the store and said, “Guess what chocolate LEGOLAND has?”
He just about dropped the phone when I excitedly said, “Chuao!” (It’s not like I actually knew that, but I know his love of Chuao and their proximity to LEGOLAND.)
So he picked up a nice package of the “not quite LEGO branded” blocks. (There’s no actual name on the package of the product, it never uses the name LEGO and it’s not on Chuao’s website, so I’m guessing it’s something that’s only available at the theme park.)
There were three varieties to chose from: all milk, all white or a half & half mix. Each sleeve holds 16 blocks.
Each little block is sized to approximate real LEGO.
A true LEGO 8 block (two rows of four pegs) is 9.6 mm by 32 mm by 16 mm and are basically hollow.
The Chuao version takes some liberties and is 15 mm by 35 mm by 19 mm - which as far as I’m concerned means more chocolate!
I noticed that the sides are not straight verticals, the block is slightly trapezoidal. This is likely an engineering issue - chocolate is rarely injection molded as plastic LEGO blocks are. In order to get most chocolates out of a stiff mold, a little angle can make all the difference.
Also, injection molding means that the item is molded in three dimensions, in the case of chocolate blocks, the bottom is not molded, just leveled flat by gravity when the chocolate is molten.
Each block weighed 10 grams (.35 ounces) ... see, being solid has its advantages.
As I mentioned before, the packaging was so spare and minimalist it didn’t even say what kind of chocolate this is so I’m going to guess. (Hopefully I’ll get a response from Chuao soon and can revise this.)
The Milk Chocolate blocks were practically flawless. The molding was excellent with no voids. The color is a deep, milky brown ... so dark that I wasn’t sure if this was milk chocolate at first.
I suspect that this is El Rey’s beautiful dark milk called Caoba which Chuao is known to favor (though they may have a custom blend done for them).
The chocolate has a beautiful snap. Mine smelled rather milky, but that might be because it was intermingled with the white.
The flavors are dark but the melt is clean and only slightly sweet. There’s a wonderful smokiness to it with a slight background bitterness. It’s quite smooth and has a thinner melt that keeps it from feeling sticky or milky-cloying. It’s good munched up for an immediate bolt of flavor or a lingering melt on the tongue.
The color is a crisp ivory. The molding is precise and the snap is good.
It smells like milky cocoa and pound cake.
The texture is pure, solid silk. It’s sweet but has a consistent melt that is neither greasy nor watery. The sugar is ultrafine so the vanilla flavor as well as some of the cocoa-ness comes through. It’s cool on the tongue so it feels like a great, refreshing summer version of chocolate.
I suspect that this is El Rey ICOA, which is a premium un-deodorized white chocolate.
The final thing to tell you about these adorable, well made and great-tasting chocolates is the price. It was $14.95 for the sleeve. Yes, that’s nearly $1 for each block. At this point I’m just going to buy El Rey or Chuao bars (which are more widely available at grocery and gourmet stores anyway). As it is, these are not kid treats ... they’re a grown-up way to revisit a childhood favorite. Since the only place to get them is LEGOLAND, if you’ve paid $65 just to get in the gate, may as well go for broke (and satisfied).
LEGOLAND - California
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Last year I made a trip up interstate 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Yes, it’s actually longer than taking I5, but I thought it would be interesting to stop at a few candy shops along the way. One that I was interested in was Sweet Earth Chocolate at about the halfway point of San Luis Obispo.
At that time they were operating out of a space in Splash Cafe in SLO. A few months ago they moved into their own candy kitchen and cafe space just down the street. (More about that here.) I was eager to see the expanded offerings from this unique confectioner that uses organic and fair trade chocolate.
Their new storefront is charming and inviting ... and large! You can get coffee drinks, sit and enjoy your purchases but I was there for the chocolate to take on my vacation.
Their candy cases had a nice mix of both comfort candies (chocolate dipped pretzels, house-made jellies, chocolate covered cookies, turtles and marshmallows) and truffles. What sets them apart from many chocolatiers is their line of vegan items. (Here’s the in store menu.)
The store is more than just chocolate though, there’s also information about how fair trade directly affects the communities that participate and some other fun and unique gifts.
Bakers will also enjoy access to fair trade baking chips & cocoa. For those in a hurry who don’t want to select their own box, there are also packages of pre-packed candy cups, chocolate covered goodies and of course their line of chocolate bars.
I picked up quite a bit of stuff. First, I selected a few items from the “comfort candies” section for me to munch on while on vacation. This included their chocolate dipped pretzels, toffee & chocolate dipped pretzels and some turtles. Since those weren’t for review I also got a box of nine truffles.
The truffles are well priced at 1.50 each though I found them a tad on the small size but mercifully free of the “too hot for the box” styles that chocolatiers have been using lately with artificial colors & cocoa butter ink transfers.
The Espresso truffle was one of those rare modern truffles that actually looks like a truffle. The small sphere smelled woodsy and sweet. The bittersweet chocolate shell gave way to a smooth center with a good pop of espresso flavor. A little acidic but a crisp finish with a little fruity twang. There were a few fibery bits of the coffee beans though at the end.
This dark chocolate triangular piece holds a sweet if slightly grainy cream with a light touch of ginger.
I liked the texture and the woodsy flavor of the ginger. It didn’t have a warming burn, but a pleasant note of the root mixed with a not-too-sweet fondant-like cream. The dark chocolate shell was thick enough that there was no leakage and also provided a bittersweet background to the earthy flavors.
It was a good sized piece as well.
This was definitely one I was looking forward to. I love the combination of cardamom and chocolate.
The center of this truffle also had a bit of a graininess to it, I think, because of the crystallized ginger.
The cardamom was quite overwhelmed by the chocolate & ginger flavors at first, but emerged later and gave me a fresh & lingering aftertaste.
I admit that I was confused by this one. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was when I got home. I don’t think it did well on the trip either, something about the central coast being very humid this time of year made the outside tacky.
So when I took it out to photograph it, I was puzzled. So I bit into it and yes, the flavor did remind me a bit of a Milky Way, but I still didn’t put it together until days later when I was trying to write this up and looked at the Sweet Earth Chocolates website.
Anyway, it was sweet and milky and yes, it did have a little malty hit to it. But the outside was like the sticky, stale inside of a seafoam candy so the whole thing was a bit chewy. Not unpleasant, but not “truffle-like.” I’ll give it another go though, as I’m always game for some malt.
Sweet & slightly grassy tasting center with little bits of hazelnuts. Milky and entirely addictive.
This would make an excellent chocolate cup too, I would love a bigger bite ... or more of them. And maybe some in dark chocolate. Yes, a true winner. (I’m wondering if you can make a dark chocolate gianduia that’s vegan.)
Finally, I got two of the classic dark chocolate truffles. They come in a full cream version and a vegan version.
The Vegan Dark Chocolate truffle is cute, a small hand rolled sphere with a flurry of zigzags of chocolate for decoration. The aroma is dark and woodsy chocolate. The bite is soft and the center is smooth. It’s barely sweet and has a strong woodsy & tangy flavor that comes through ... then a note of coconut and a rather bitter & dry finish.
The dairy Dark Chocolate truffle has a similar look, with its decoration mostly parallel stripes. The center seemed just a bit softer but also a bit smoother. The tangy bite wasn’t there at all. The chocolate flavors seemed more pronounced, though the chocolate shell still participated with quite a bitter chocolate bite & dry finish.
On the whole, I find the Sweet Earth Chocolates 65% dark chocolate a bit on the astringent side. The dairy cream centers worked well with this and some of the flavors combined well to tip it more towards woodsy or berry/raisin.
What’s so refreshing about the shop & the chocolates is that they’re so approachable and fresh-tasting. I didn’t feel assaulted by political messages about fair trade and organics - for the most part the shop is about the wholesome enjoyment of freshly made chocolates ... that happen to be organic and fair trade.
If you’re in San Luis Obispo or passing through during business hours, give it a try:
Thursday, July 30, 2009
It was launched barely more than a year ago with little promotion to support it, no website (just a page on the Starbucks site) and a baffling retail plan where it was sold everywhere except Starbucks.
The line included coffee & tea infused chocolate bars, tasting squares and truffles. The packaging echoed Starbucks strong image, was all natural and made no direct mention of Hershey’s as the manufacturer. For Christmas special flavors were created that echoed the seasonal coffee drinks. However, the new brand was a tad on the expensive side and entered the mass-manufactured upscale chocolate market just terms like staycation entered the vernacular.
So last week as Hershey’s announced huge second quarter profits, it also formally announced that they were discontinuing the Starbucks Chocolate line.
CNN Money summed it up pretty well:
Added to that happy news about their profits (which were the result of cutting manufacturing costs by closing factories in the US, moving to a Mexican facility, raising prices and using cheaper ingredients), Hershey’s also formalized the discontinuation of Cacao Reserve, Hershey’s own branded high end chocolate line. (Hershey’s also closed Joseph Schmidt, a chocolatier line based out of San Francisco earlier this year and moved all production for Scharffen Berger to Illinois.)
The Caramel Macchiato Truffles come in a nicely packaged pair at the ghastly price of $1.39 at the drug store. Honestly, if this sort of truffle pair was available at an actual Starbucks to accompany my plain coffee, I might have gone for it more regularly. With the “startling news” that coffee drinks contain huge amounts of calories which cause cancer, a simple cup of coffee with cream and two truffles would actually be a smaller indulgence than an actual Caramel Macchiato.
I’ve never had a Macchiato (I’ve never actually had anything fancier than a latte or mocha in all my years), so I can’t comment on how well it mimics the frothy creation described thusly by Starbucks:
The milk chocolate shell is nicely molded. It holds a fudgy, smooth cream that tastes a bit like a mocha cheesecake. Sweet, a little tangy with a light coffee taste and maybe, just maybe a hint of toffee (caramel).
It was pretty sweet but with coffee it works ... though the actual coffee overpowers the not-much-coffee-taste.
In the end, I don’t think it was bad timing that sunk this line. I think it was bad merchandising - it should have been available at actual Starbucks. And a year is far too little to decide the success of a new line of chocolate. My view is that Hershey’s is uninterested in building brand loyalty through quality.
The only thing that makes sense about this is the statement on the side of the box:
Watching Cadbury & Mars move more and more towards ethically traded and sustainably grown & harvested cacao, I’m not seeing much for Hershey’s except from their Daboga arm. I can see where this Starbucks line is just a liability for profits. Hershey’s has shown itself to be more concerned with profits (and high profits, not just tidy ones) than the quality of its products and place within the economies it locates itself.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.