Wednesday, October 1, 2008
October is Fair Trade Month, which makes sense since Halloween is the number one candy holiday. A few years ago I’m pretty sure few people, especially candy fans even know what that meant, happily much of that has changed, both through education efforts and the simple ubiquity of the products displaying the logos. Fair Trade guarantees the growers of raw materials & makers of products a fair and liveable wage for their products, you can read more about it here. Luckily all sorts of fair trade products are becoming more available to regular consumers, even at big box stores like Target, grocery & drug store chains.
I’ve tried quite a few fair trade candies over the years, including Divine Chocolate. Divine is expanding more in the United States and has a broader range of products now than ever before. One of their representatives sent me a nice sampling of their products, so I’ll be reviewing them over the next month or so. The motto is Heavenly chocolate with a heart.
First, their standard 3.5 ounce chocolate bars. While fair trade chocolate isn’t hard to find, fair trade candy bars are. Yes a nice dark bar is all well and good, but sometimes I want a little more in my decadent treat (without enslaving any children in Africa for it either). With a retail price of about $3 a bar, it’s certainly no hardship for the chocolate aficionado. But of course the larger question is, how do they taste?
I tried this chocolate back in 2005 and while I can’t say whether they’ve changed the formula or way that they’re making the bar, I like it much better than I did then.
The packaging is lovely. Before it was a simple black wrap with their logo. The new package is a matte paper with a foil inner wrap. The decorative icons are fun and attractive, I spotted hearts, turtles, geese and something that’s either a comb or a Menorah.
The bar inside is wonderfully tempered. Shiny, even and no hint of bubbles or bloom. I like the thickness of the pieces and that the bar snaps easily into the little portions.
The scent is a little grassy and fruity.
On the tongue the cocoa butter melts quickly into a silky puddle. Flavors are middle of the road, there’s nothing difficult or loud about this bar. I get a little bit of coffee, cherries, olives, woodsy eucalyptus and very little acid. The finish is smooth and with only a slight bitter note but no dryness.
The high fat content makes this very munchable. I like that in a chocolate bar, though I know that some fans prefer a more intense concentration cacao.
99% of the ingredients are fair trade certified for this bar (this includes the sugar, vanilla and cocoa products - only the non-GMO soy lecithin is not).
Rating: 8 out of 10
The Divine Hazelnut Milk Chocolate is completely new to me. I tried the 27% cocoa plain milk chocolate and was struck by how the milky flavors reflected the European-style.
I think this package is the prettiest of the three. I liked the brown wrapper with gold and cream colored icons, it feels elegant, playful and subtly conveys that this is a milk chocolate product.
The ingredients in this bar, like the dark one go for fair trade when possible, though this one only clocks in at 69% with the cream, soy lecithin and chopped hazelnuts as traditionally sourced.
The bar is softer than its dark counterpart. Snapping it in half it’s clear that part of the reason is the plethora of crushed hazelnuts.
The bar smells milky, a little nutty and a little cheesy.
On the tongue it melts quickly but is a little sweet and sticky at first. Then come the flavors, the dairy flavors lean towards powdered milk, have a great smoky cocoa flavor and of course the hazelnut.
It’s not quite giaunduia, but it’s close. The bar overall is a bit sweet for me but fills that gaping hole out there for fair price fair trade candy bars that are more than straight chocolate.
Rating: 7 out of 10.
The cocoa content on this bar is a staggering 25%, which means it’s one quarter cocoa butter. Milk solids make up another 26%. (And the fair trade percentage here is 71%.)
Strangely enough the calcium content on a single serving is 16% of your RDA and 4 grams of protein. I wouldn’t call it a full serving of dairy, but it’s certainly not completely junk food.
The bar smells like Frankenberry cereal.
The little berry crisps dot the bar and look to be evenly distributed.
The melt of the white chocolate isn’t quite as even as the other two bars, it has a slightly fudgier grain to it, but it is smooth. The strawberry crisps are more than just little dried bits. They’re crunchy and tangy, with the floral scent of berries along with the high pitched tartness. But the tangy part isn’t intergrated into the white chocolate like the Meiji bar I tried recently.
If you have a soft spot for white chocolate and strawberries, I’d suggest giving this bar a try. I enjoyed it a lot more than the Frey but the Green & Black’s White Chocolate (plain) is still the gold standard for me.
Rating: 7 out of 10.
All of the bars are Kosher. I don’t know the full distribution of the bars but you can find some of them places like Whole Foods and other stores that carry natural products. Look for wider distribution soon as well as new products from Divine for the holidays. I saw some little foil wrapped milk chocolates themed for Halloween (available web only) on their site.
Friday, September 26, 2008
When I was a kid chocolate was regarded as something completely lacking in any merit nutritionally. As an alternative there were carob products. Usually things like carob drops for oatmeal cookies and carob covered milk balls as treats.
Even though I don’t think I had much of a sophisticated palate as a child (I ate Jell-O powder straight from the box), I still knew the difference and preferred real chocolate products.
But now I’m an adult with an awareness of my ability to set aside childhood traumas of being given this supposed treat of carob raisins instead of actual chocolate. (And I certainly question why anyone without allergies would replace chocolate with carob in our modern and well-informed world.) So I picked up what I thought might be a representation of good carob.
Carob is an evergreen legume that puts out little pods which are harvested and turned into carob powder. (If you’ve seen Locust Bean tree, they’re closely related and look like that.) It’s been used by humans for at least 4,000 years throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Early sugar was made from these pods.
Carob contains both sugar-sweetness and a roasted flavor that is reminiscent of chocolate in some ways but because it contains no substantial oils or fats of its own, it’s usually consumed as a powder (often called St. John’s bread) in drinks or baked goods. When combined with some fats it can be made into a pasty block somewhat like chocolate.
The simple paper wrapper for Goldie’s Premium Carob Bar says, “no refined sugar, no preservatives, no chocolate, cocoa or caffeine.” Wow, there’s a lot that’s not in there. And I love every one of those things save one.
The ingredients don’t sound too bad to me: Barley malt, fractionated palm kernel oil, carob powder, soy lecithin and milk. (I don’t feel great about fractionated palm kernel oil - I don’t know what it is.) But I love barley malt and milk!
Opening it up, it looks like a milk chocolate bar, but the back of it looks more like freshly poured brownie batter. I recognize that comparing this to chocolate is unfair, so I won’t for the rest of this.
The snap is kind of soft, but the product is solid, not gooey or melted at all.
It smells like roasted grains. It reminds me a lot of Postum (a drink made from, well, roasted grains).
The texture is rather like eating unbaked pie crust or shortbread dough. It’s thick and rather hearty but with really no melt-in-your mouth-qualities.
I could dissolve it, but it was always a bit waxy. Chewing it resulted in a bit more of a creamy puddle in my mouth as long as I kept it circulating, though it still had a bit of a peanut butter stickiness to it.
I liked the roasted flavors and that it wasn’t very sweet. But the flavor never really popped for me. I’m a big fan of barley. My favorite tea lately is Mugi Cha, which is Japanese roasted barley steeped just like tea (which I was introduced to as a latte at a little place in Hollywood about four years ago). I love barley sugar candy, barley flour in baked goods, especially just barley in soups, pilafs and stews and of course malted milk balls.
I found Goldie’s Carob Bar rib-sticking and substantial but sadly lacking in satisfaction. I could see being happier with it as an ingredient in a combination bar of some sort, maybe with nuts, caramel or wafers/pretzels of some sort. A dash of salty cashews might be a nice complement.
I don’t think carob is a bad thing, I just think it got a bad reputation back in the 70s. This is good quality stuff with a really intriguing flavor (kind of reminds me of halvah in a way) but just not for me.
The nutritional profile of carob is actually not as good as chocolate - no minerals, no calcium or fiber but some protein and virtually the same fat and calories per ounce.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Several readers have emailed me telling me that I must try Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Pretzel Bites. I usually avoid the tubs of TJ’s chocolate goodies in the summer, but things have cooled off and I was hot on their trail.
The tub describes them as Crispy, crunchy, salty pretzels covered with rich dark chocolate and natural sprinkles. Okay, I’m curious what natural sprinkles are. A peek at the ingredients shows that they’re, well, sugar, corn starch and confectioners glaze. I’m guessing that unless sprinkles have some sort of artificial colors, they’re all natural.
The 7 ounce tub sounds generous, but let me just say right now, it’s not enough.
Many of my bites were fused together (enough in different linked chains that I wondered if I could create a Tetris layout). Instead of being panned (tumbled in a drum and coated with chocolate and then a sealing glaze) these are simply dipped so they have a flat spot on the bottom. This is helpful, as it keeps them from rolling around when I pull out a handful and put them on my desk. Each little bite is about the size of a plump garbanzo bean or hazelnut.
The chocolate looks especially dark and the ingredients shows that this is pretty good stuff; it even has real vanilla in it but does have some milk fat (sorry vegans, the confectioners glaze already spoiled this as a treat for you).
The tub smells smoky and sweet with a little hint of malt from the baked pretzels.
The chocolate melts easily and is smooth and creamy but has a dry and slightly bitter finish. The pretzels are crunchy and have a liberal dose of crunchy salt on them that’s echoed by the sweet crunch of the nonpariels.
At first I thought the sprinkles were silly, that they got in the way of the simplicity of the crunch and creamy components. But then I picked out some that had fewer crunchies on them and didn’t find them as satisfying ... maybe it’s just the little extra bit of sugar that puts it all together. Something about hitting a little crunch in your mouth and having this anticipation - will it be sweet or salty?
I love chocolate covered pretzels and this format is great. The issue I have with larger pretzels covered with chocolate is biting into it can make a mess, the pretzels make crumbs and the chocolate can crack and flake off. These go straight in the mouth whole, either one at a time or two or three even to make a mouthful. As a chocolate treat for someone who’s minding calories, the fact that there’s a large pretzel component there keeps the calories per ounce much lower than most chocolate candies.
My only major misgiving here is that it’s easy to eat the whole tub at once, so mind your portion control - maybe put a small handful in a little baggie or else you’ll find yourself mystified that there’s an empty tub sitting on your lap at the movies. (But is that really Trader Joe’s fault?)
UPDATE 2/9/2009: Trader Joe’s has stopped carrying these but I tracked down the manufacturer. They’re at Chocolate Potpourri and called Chocolate Pretzel Balls and are available in milk, dark and white.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Askinosie Chocolate makes Authentic Single Origin bars. They’re made with a very short list of ingredients: cocoa beans, sugar and cocoa butter (they make their own facility from the same origin beans).
There are no emulsifiers and not even any vanilla.
The package isn’t quite so simple. It’s a waxed paper envelope that folds over at the top with a little tie of recycled string from the bags that are used to transport cocoa beans. Inside is the bar itself, wrapped simply in a clear cellophane sleeve and an insert that details the origin of the cocoa beans.
The first bar that I tried is the San Jose del Tambo made from Arriba Nacional beans from Ecuador. At 70% this is a pretty dark bar.
The bar is absolutely gorgeous. The simple molding with the lettered squares format is inspired - each is the perfect sized portion for a bite and it’s fun to play with them to make new words if you’re Scrabble-y.
The snap is quite sharp and doesn’t quite melt readily, but when it does, it’s quite smooth.
The overall flavor was light and bright with notes of caramel, cardamom, coffee, black pepper, licorice & molasses. The finish is a little dry but also sweet.
The look of the bar was the same - beautifully shiny and with a bright snap.
This bar had a grassier scent of olives and black & green teas. The melt was smooth but had a very perceptible dryness right away. There were a few fruity notes of some berries, but overall it didn’t have the variation in elements that I like especially in the woodsy and balsam tones.
Askinosie makes a large variety of products including cocoa (which make sense if Shawn Asknosie is making his own cocoa butter, he’s gonna have a lot of cocoa solids left over) but there were two that I was especially interested in. His Nibble Bar which includes cacao nibs and the White Chocolate bars.
I found these Itty Bar Nibble Bars in Santa Barbara at Chocolate Maya a few weeks ago.
They’re not big, just two inches long and about an inch wide, but packaged in pairs. At only $1.00, I think they were a steal! (The big bars were $8 each.) They’re the same San Jose del Tambo but, obviously, with some same origin cocoa nibs scattered in.
They’re much more tangy than the large format bar but it still has the same caramelized sugar notes and coffee flavors with a light peppery finish.
It’s easy to say that $8 is too much for chocolate. But keep in mind that like many artisan chocolate makers, Shawn Askinosie is making his growers essentially his partners. It’s called a stake in the outcome and not only do they get fair prices, they also get a share in the final sales of the finished products.
Some fair trade products can make me feel like it’s charity, not an actual purchase for the sake of the quality. That’s far from the case here. The consumer of the chocolate gets both the full experience from the look and feel of the package down to the actual taste of the product there’s also so much more going on in the background.
I am a huge fan now and will probably seek out every product in the Askinosie line. (Except maybe this item.) Maybe someday Askinosie will do an Ocumare bar.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
This is the fourth Scharffen Berger Milk Nibby Bar I’ve gotten a hold of. The first one was a sample from a trade show last year. Unfortunately I stored it next to something minty and it was absorbed into the bar. I didn’t think it was fair to review it that way ... but I ate it and it was tasty enough for me to put it on my list. But I couldn’t find another one!
The second one I bought earlier this year when I was in San Francisco. I needed to get my parking validated at the Ferry Terminal so I figured the Scharffen Berger store there was the perfect place to make my $5 minimum and try this bar again.
And I did! I just, well, ate it, without making any notes.
So then I had to find it yet again. Luckily after my dismal experience with the Krackel bar, I went on the prowl at Cost Plus World Market’s high end chocolate shelves to console myself and grabbed one.
And then I ate it. Remember, I was depressed about the Krackel, grief makes you do strange things.
Now I’m feeling better (3 ounces of real chocolate is one of the lesser known 5 Stages of Grief) and thought I should give it another go.
The Milk Chocolate Nibby Bar is much darker than most milk bars. At 41% cacao, it’s almost as dark as the middling Hershey’s Special Dark (which is 45%). So the color is like coffee with only a dash of milk.
It doesn’t smell particularly sweet. More like wood chips and of course chocolate.
Snapping the bar, it’s pretty solid and crisp. Inside there are the little nibs, not as many as a crisped rice bar, but a great many of them dotting the chocolate base. The chocolate is smooth but still a little rustic. The notes are a strong caramelized flavor, the cocoa and lots more woodsy scents. The nibs are crunchy and buttery, almost like they’ve also been caramelized before adding to the chocolate. The texture is like a macadamia nut and perhaps a little of the soy bean’s malty flavors.
It’s a very dark bar for a milk chocolate product. The tangy bite that I didn’t care for in their straight bar is moderated well by the dark and bitter punch of the nibs.
I’m in love with this bar. I can’t say that it’s a replacement for the Krackel, because, well, it was $3.99. But it sure makes me smile when I eat it and it’s pretty rare for me to go out and keep buying the same bar over and over again when I have so many new ones at home.
The package has full nutritional labeling but also helpfully tells me that the whole 3 ounce bar has 410 calories. A quick calculation also tells me that this bar contains 100% of the my saturated fat for the day. Oops, I guess I’m eating pretty wholesome for the rest of the day. (But also 24% of my daily fiber in the whole bar plus 10 grams of protein!)
UPDATE 4/11/2009: I’ve had two more of these since the review, including comparing it to the new 68% Dark Milk and have bumped this up from the original rating of 9 out of 10 to a perfect 10 out of 10.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Last week I wrote about one of the oldest known confections, Jordan Almonds. This week I’ve got a huge array of Lokum, or Turkish Delight in front of me.
Sweet jellies have been know for at least 500 years in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent. Early versions used honey and other fruit juices as a sweet base. Modern Turkish Delight uses sugar for the most part. But the result is similar. Instead of a firm and gelatinous confection like a true jelly (which has pectin as a thickener) or gummi (which uses gelatin as a thickener), Turkish Delight is a fiendishly simple, relying on a touch of starch and careful cooking to create a semi-solid cube of delicate, sweet flavor.
This is from Loukoumi Artisan Confections based in New Zealand since 1970. They use the traditional recipe for the product and it was absolutely fresh when I got it, so this was a real treat.
The first flavor I ever tried of Turkish Delight (which I think I knew as Turkish Paste when I was a kid) was Rose. I find floral flavors to be fresh tasting for the most part, though I know many of us find them a bit soapy.
This rose was a medium pink (kind of alarming, but completely natural). The squares are heavily dusted with powdered sugar, which is the worst thing about Turkish Delight. It’s just not keyboard friendly.
The squares are surprisingly light, not dense and gelatinous, more soft and fleshy like Mochi can be. The texture is more like a soft and smooth paste than a jelly as well. Think of it like a firm honey.
The flavor is rather strong for rose - very straight ahead and traditional, like pushing your whole nose into a bouquet of heavily scented tea roses. But it melts easily on the tongue and doesn’t feel too clingy or cloying.
One of the flavors that had me most excited when Ross McKenzie of Loukoumi contacted me was the line of Manuka Honey flavors. Manuka is from blossoms of the Tea Tree bush and has a strong balsam & spicy flavor to it. I tried the Manuka Honey & Rainforest Lemon which has aromatic Australian Lemon Myrtle.
I absolutely loved the design of the box on this one. Inside each of the boxes is an inset tray lined with light paper. They were only 250 grams instead of a full pound (I’m often stymied when I find Turkish Delight in prepacked pound boxes - I can’t eat all that!).
Even though the pieces are a delicate golden yellow color, there are no colorings in there, it’s all from the ingredients.
It smells like freshly baked lemon cake.
And oh, the flavor.
It feels a bit softer and smoother in the mouth than the Rose (if that’s possible). It’s not a sweet and has an aromatic quality that mixes the mellow honey notes with the light lemon, like a lemon essence or lemon balm.
It’s barely sweet, like a bubble of honey with a touch of zest to it.
I can see how Edmund would sell out his family for something like this.
All of the Turkish Delight I’ve had to date has been aromatically flavored, that is, it’s all about the scent of the flavor. Lemon, orange or rose, it’s never been juicy or tangy in any way.
This box even looks different from the others, with an extreme close up of luminous beads of pomegranate. It says: The sharp distinctive flavors of the pomegranate complement our soft, rich delight to create a perfectly balanced sweet that will leave your taste buds spellbound.
The scent is dark and jammy, like a mix of piping-hot blueberry pie and those raspberry filled shortbread cookies.
The flavor is at first sweet but dark and mellow, then the rich berry flavors come more forward. There’s a little tangy bite to it that really reminds me of a berry jam. It’s a much more intense flavor than the other Turkish Delight varieties here.
Loukoumi makes a wide variety of other flavors, I sampled but a few. They include the traditional array: Almond, Hazelnut, Lemon with Peel, Orange with Peel, Berry, Mint, Vanilla and Lime. And a range of gourmet flavors (many incorporating New Zealand & Australian flavors): Honey & Fig, Honey & Ginger, Honey & Hazelnut, Honey & Quince, Liquorice and Manuka Honey & Blackcurrant.
There are some major and minor issues with these confections. Turkish Delight is notoriously hard to eat. One of the things I like about most candies is that they’re usually pretty easy to portion out and are ready to eat out of the package and require little or no cleanup. I got powdered sugar everywhere trying to eat these out of the box. It’s a little easier when put a few pieces into a small dish and just ate it with it under my chin to catch the poof of powder.
The second issue is humidity. Dampness is not their friend. Luckily Southern California is a great climate to eat these, even when it’s visciously hot. But if they do get a little damp they will get a bit of a crust on the outside, just a bit of graininess. It won’t be great for the texture, but doesn’t impede the flavor.
The third issue is getting a hold of it. Their website isn’t up now, but I’m hoping that soon I’ll be able to tell you about a place here in North America that you can order from (and save the international shipping).
Those issues aside, this is the best Turkish Delight I think I’ve ever had. I am really curious to try many more of the flavors, especially the honey based ones.
This is why we keep traditional methods alive, they work.
UPDATE 2/27/2009: Natural Candy Store is having an insanely good sale on Loukoumi right now. If you’ve been curious to try it, now’s the time to grab some. They even had a custom box of Citrus Mix designed, so you can really get an assortment.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Back in May I got a fabulous box of goodies from All Candy Expo that included this package of Darrell Lea Soft Eating Liquorice. I dutifully took photos of it.
And then ate it all. And promptly forgot what it was like so I couldn’t review it.
So today I went out and bought a new bag, just so I could finish up this review. (My office is dangerously close to a Cost Plus World Market now.)
When I opened it up I remember why I didn’t review it.
I cut the bag open and stuck my nose in there to get a good lung-full of the scent and there it was ... it smells like curry. Not in a bad way, by any means, but that’s why I didn’t review the first bag ... I wasn’t sure if that’s the way it was supposed to be.
So here I am with a second bag and I’m gonna have to say, “hey folks, this stuff really smells like and Indian spice shop!” It makes my mouth water, it’s a mix of curry, coriander, anise and black tea.
The pieces are kind of awkward - they’re long fingers. Thick and soft, they’re about three inches long and a matte black.
The flavor is dark and smoky. The molasses is pronounced but has a great mellow licorice mixed with a little hint of those spices I mentioned earlier. The chew is soft without being too sticky like Dots can be. Not too sweet and really munchable but satisfying.
Pretty good overall and certainly distinctive enough that I think I could tell this apart from most of the other Aussie style licorices I’ve had over the years. And I plan on finishing this package pretty soon as well.
Rating: 8 out of 10
There are a lot of different licorice twist flavors out there, but most of them are fruity. So I was pretty excited to find this Soft Eating Ginger Liquorice at Cost Plus World Market (I bought these a couple of days ago and then realized I should review the black stuff, too, and went back.) If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Australia through candy, it’s that Australians make good licorice and ginger products.
Like the rest of their line, it comes in a kraft paper looking package, mellow and muted and boldly stating that it’s flavored naturally. The ingredients bear that out: Raw sugar, wheat glucose syrup, wheat flour, cane sugar, ginger puree (4%), water, modified food starch, palm oil, natural flavor, mono & di-glycerides, salt, citric acid, malic acid, spinach extract (color), liquorice extract, sodium bicarbonate, beta carotene (color) and sulphur dioxide (preservative).
This one didn’t smell quite as appealing. Like the Buderim Ginger Gummi Bears, I found that this bag smelled a bit like Elmer’s Glue.
But I got over it.
The little fingers in this version are a little shorter at about 2 1/2 inches each but a little bigger around. The texture is different as well, though still soft they’re not as pliable and just a bit drier on the outside. But singly they smell less like wood glue and more like ginger tea.
The bite is a smidge less smooth, but boy howdy is it spicy. Right away there’s the woodsy peppery taste of ginger and then a throat warming burn. It’s not very sweet at all, much less than the other ginger chews that I like so much from Chimes and the Ginger People.
The wheat base of the chew makes it a little starchy in a way, but it also makes them rather filling and I think cuts through what might be a very spicy affair. It would be cool if they actually used molasses in these, they’d be like gingerbread (without the extra spices). But for ginger fans, this is a great new way to enjoy it. It’s a good munching food for movies, especially mixed with something salty like popcorn (I tried it with pretzels and it went well).
Rating: 7 out of 10
Darrell Lea has a pretty big range, I saw the Green Apple and Strawberry versions at Cost Plus as well. There is another version that are chocolate covered smaller nibs but their Australian website shows a much larger range of products (most of which sound fabulous). They’re Kosher and have no artificial colors or flavors.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Even though I adore high end chocolate, I have a hard time plunking down $5 to $12 without knowing what I’m going to get. So I’m often quite happy to fork over for tasting square versions even though they’re even more expensive when you figure out the cost per ounce. (And hey, it helps with portion control, too.)
I was happy to find some tasting squares from Amadei, one of the most highly reviewed chocolate makers in the world at Mel & Roses. Even though they were 85 cents each for the 4.5 gram squares, I at least got to sample a broad spectrum of their product line which will help to guide me when I decide to finally buy one of their bars.
As a little bonus I decided to try Amadei’s milk chocolate offering as well:
Overall, I was most pleased with the Madagascar and Porcelana but all were exceptional. I’m still not quite convinced enough to spend $11 for one of their bars, but I’m leaning in that direction. But for now the little selections in this format are enough for me and well worth the pocket change.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.