Friday, December 21, 2007
There’s hardly anyone who can argue politically with the qualifications of Sjaak’s Organic Chocolate Assortment. It’s organic, it’s fair trade certified and even vegan! (For locovores, it’s also made in California.)
I first visited Sjaak’s chocolate shop when I lived in Eureka, CA back when I was in college. (I didn’t frequent the shop since I worked for a rival shop down the street.) My brother even lived in an apartment above the shop for some years and ended up becoming a friend of the family.
Flash forward eighteen years and now I see what I thought was just a little local chocolatier at the Fancy Food Show ... and then at Whole Foods!
The packaging isn’t the most exciting part about these chocolates, it’s an ordinary green box with gold lettering and a little window so you can peek at half of the chocolates. Inside is a gold plastic tray with each of the candies in its own fluted paper cup. Out of the box they’re quite attractive.
The key on the back reveals what each is. In my assortment I had: Coffee Truffle, Almond Creme, Raspberry Truffle, Pecan Caramel, English Toffee, Solid Dark Chocolate, Almond Truffle, Hazelnut Creme and Peanut Caramel. Instead of dairy fats Sjaak’s opts for soy milk, palm oil and sunflower oil.
I shared this box with Bronwen, my local vegan taster, so she may pipe up down in the comments with her thoughts.
Solid Dark Chocolate - I thought this was a good place to start. Most good dark chocolate is vegan, so this is a no brainer. There were two little medallions molded with a daisy on the front and wrapped in foil. The chocolate is rather sweet and not terribly rich and dark. If you’re a milk chocolate fan, this is probably a good place to start with dark.
Peanut Caramel - I was curious what a caramel would be without butter and milk and while this didn’t have that buttery smooth taste, it was very nice. It reminded me of a good quality Goldenberg’s Peanut Chew (which also has no butter in it). The peanuts and the dark chew of the caramelized sugar and the sweet chocolate went well together. It was kind of a charcoal note to the roasted peanuts, but that brought a richness to it, almost like coffee.
English Toffee - I thought this would be an actual hard toffee, instead it was a truffle creme with little caramelized sugar bits in it. It was an enjoyable texture combination, like many of the pralines that I’ve had lately. The creme of the center was a little thin feeling on the tongue, mostly because there’s nothing like butterfat for a rich taste (mmmm, cholesterol).
Pecan Caramel - pretty much a pecan version of the Peanut Caramel, this was pretty darn good. I could eat a whole box of these. The lack of butter was more than made up for with the woodsy pecan flavors and crunch.
Almond Truffle - this was the first truffle I tried. The powdered sugar coating kind of put me off, as I thought it started the whole thing off very sweet. The truffle center is very smooth, but again, it feels thin and watery when it melts, it’s just missing some deep complexity that the dairy brings to the combination.
Coffee Truffle - the stronger flavors and the cocoa dusting made this a darker and richer tasting truffle. The center was smooth and melted quickly, thus giving up the coffee notes very quickly but dissipating. I could have used a stronger coffee kick or a dark chocolate.
It’s really nice to see someone trying to get all the elements into their chocolate line. The box was fresh and each piece looked great. They were also very generous pieces, oddly enough, one of the better values at Whole Foods when it comes to their politically correct candies ($41.25 a pound). If you’re lactose intolerant but enjoy fine chocolates, this might be the best option out there (though beware, the box warns that they do share equipment that processes dairy so it’s not for those with severe allergies). I think I’d still opt for butterier cousins, so I’ll have to give their regular line another try here sometime.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
This is one of those times where I missed the boat when photographing a selection of chocolates. This eentsy-weentsy box holds 1.76 ounces of chocolate. The box itself is about 3 1/2 inches square. There are nine pieces of molded Belgian chocolates.
So for the same calorie count that you’re used to with a candy bar, you can indulge in these cute little bon bons. They’re a perfect little stocking stuffer, especially when you see that the price is $1.99.
There’s even a little guide to each of the pieces (I’ll go kinda clockwise starting at the top with the biggest piece):
Though you could just pop each piece into your mouth whole, I bit each in half while eating them, so there are 18 bites total ... a nice way to slow down and enjoy such a small portion.
The selection is a little sweet and hazelnut-focused for an assortment for me. I wanted a bit more dark chocolate (and the dark ones were good). As a change from the normal Toblerone or tube of Droste as a stocking stuffer, party favor or office gift, these are pretty spectacular. As something I’d grab to satisfy me, they don’t quite make it.
Friday, December 14, 2007
I’m not sure what the precise name of this item is, as there are lotsa different things on the package, different sizes, different fonts. I’m going to go with Trader Joe’s Peppermint Bark White Chocolate Bar. The description clears this up, “White chocolate covers a bar of dark chocolate & peppermint bits.”
Though the bar looks kind of like some sort of yogurt-covered meal replacement bar, it’s actually high-density candy. It’s pretty hefty at 2.25 ounces. It’s all-natural, with the pink coloring coming from beet juice. The white chocolate is real, with the first ingredients being sugar and cocoa butter. So be prepared, this is a fatty, fatty bar. The recommended dosage for some reason is 2/3 of the bar which clocks in with 36% of your daily RDA of saturated fats (though none of them trans).
But it’s the holidays!
The core of the bar is a solid plank of semi-sweet chocolate with a light peppermint essence in it. Then it’s coated in a generous layer of white chocolate studded with crushed peppermint candies.
If you’re a fan of peppermint bark, this is a good, portable option. High quality ingredients. Nice packaging (the bar is sealed in plastic/foil wrapper inside) and a decent price at $1.49 (this works out to about $10.50 a pound). I wanted more texture difference, more crunch, maybe not quite such a thick chunk.
It’s a good stocking stuffer or just a little treat for yourself when you don’t want to buy a huge tin of peppermint bark.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
As disappointed as I was that the Peppermint Peep Stars had artificial sweeteners, I was just as excited to see that Trader Joe’s has Peppermint Marshmallows that are not only all natural, but also Kosher! (Which basically means that they’re using Kosher gelatin, which is non-porcine.)
However, Nicole at Baking Bites already had a review of them, which didn’t say they were bad, just that she wasn’t thrilled with the flavor. I still really wanted to try them, especially because it was Hanukkah.
The large marshmallow cubes come in a little tub and weigh a hefty 7 ounces. The packaging was a bit, well, feminine with all its pink and green-ness. But it was refreshingly un-holiday, which might mean that they’d be an all-year product. When they say that they’re all natural, they’re not kidding. The pink swirls are created with red radish juice.
They’re only vaguely pink with some little streaks of darker pink inside some of them. They were very hard to get out of the tub. The first one I mangled (but put back together for the photo) so I just dumped the whole tub out and lightly teased them apart. (Perhaps some waxed paper between them in the future?)
They felt very strange and fleshy in the hand. A little bouncy, a little latexy and not terribly light for a marshmallow. The outer texture was a little grainy, I’m guessing where the moisture of the marshmallow mixed with the sugar and dusting of corn starch. They smell like peppermint, but on the medicinal side somehow. Like toothpaste. And maybe mentholated rubbing alcohol.
The first time I bit into one I was puzzled and repulsed. I made my husband and a neighbor try it. They were both, well, not thrilled (and I had to give them something nice to eat after that). I waited a couple of days and dug around into the bottom of the tub to see if that was just a bad couple of squares.
It’s like eating toothpaste. They’re kind of fluffy, but not light. The texture is grainy, like a sugar paste. I can only imagine this is a bad batch because Nicole’s looked more like marshmallows and less like wads of chewed bread dough.
I went back and looked at Nicole’s photo and realized that this must be a bad batch. My best indication for this is that the tub weighed over 10 ounces (the marked weight is 7). So I went back to the store on Hyperion in Silverlake. All of the others on the shelf looked the same and were the same lot number, so I passed (and obviously picked up a bunch of other goodies you’ve been reading about this week). I also told the manager on duty that there was something wrong with them. I figured another store would have a different batch. So today I went off on my lunch break to the location on Third and La Brea. Sadly I didn’t memorize the lot number and ended up buying the same lot (1101071730 exp 01/26/2008) and finding the same grainy consistency (and this package weighed 9.8 ounces according to my postage scale).
I shouldn’t have to work this hard. (I haven’t decided if I’m going to take these back. At $4, I want something that’s at least the intended quality, even if I don’t like it.)
As far as buying artisan marshmallows, I’d say stick with either one of the actual artisan companies (Plush Puffs, Little Flower Candy Company & Boule are some good Los Angeles-based ones) or go for the French ones from Arnaud Soubeyran or the Williams Sonoma house brand (I tried them last year but never got around to reviewing them, they’re very dense and latexy but really satisfying). Or just get some Jet Puffed. It’s sad, because these are the first Kosher marshmallows I’ve found.
Last year Trader Joe’s had a standout product called Fleur de Sel Caramels (they’re back for 2007 as well). Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels seem to be capitalizing on the trend of the salted caramel and throwing in dark chocolate for kicks.
It’s obviously a seasonal item as well, with little string/line drawings of pine trees and the green theme. The package says, “buttery smooth caramels drenched in Belgian chocolate then sprinkled with crunchy rock salt from the Dead Sea.” Wow, Belgium ... the Dead Sea ... and they’re made in Ireland. I feel so worldly.
This is one of those instances where the product looks pretty much like the photo on the package, so no disappointment there. Although out of the box they had a little dusting of microfine salt dust. (A little paintbrush took care of that for the photoshoot.) They smell nice, like chocolate and a little hint of butter.
The box has a plastic tray with a dozen little chocolate covered caramels. They fit snugly, so there were no problems with dented or broken pieces, though there were a few salt chunks rattling around.
Biting into them they have a light flowing caramel filling. It’s not glossy smooth like advertised though. There’s a very slight grain to it, but it’s completely consistent. (I wonder if this is because the boxes are displayed above the frozen food and the package specifically says “do not refrigerate”.)
There’s something a little off about the buttery-ness of them though. It’s too buttery. In fact, it’s butter flavored. Looking at the ingredients I found that way down at the end was something called “natural butter toffee flavoring”. It’s not that there isn’t butter in there. There’s lots of butter fat and milk and sweetened condensed milk. But for some reason they felt the need to give it that extra little push. It’s still all natural, but unnecessary. The crunchy bits of salt were a nice touch, not too much and a good texture complement.
Personally, I prefer the thicker, chewier texture of caramel that also has more complex burnt sugar flavors. (Remember the recent poll?) I think I’d like those other Fleur de Sel Caramels covered in chocolate. They were gorgeous.
Friday, December 07, 2007
You know what’s great about the Holiday season? Hostess gifts. People come to my house and for no reason I can tell other than crossing the threshold they feel like they have to give me something. And the gift most often in their hands is some sort of sweet goody.
I should just leave the door unlocked from November on!
My brother-and-sister-in-law brought some wonderful New Mexico goodies for my husband (posole & green chiles) but I got some Jo’s Candies Peppermint Crunch. The box makes it look like a pretty simple confection: dark chocolate over crunched up peppermint candies.
Oh, they’re so much more than just chocolate and crushed candy canes. I was worried that the center would just be a mint honeycomb (not that it would be bad that way). Instead The center is a mix of white chocolate/confection with crushed hard candy mints then covered in a dark chocolate.
This makes the center easy to bite but still satisfyingly crunchy, not overwhelmingly minty or tacky/sticky to chew.
They’re also all natural and Kosher. That means that even the little crunchy candies don’t have that dreadful Red #40, instead they use Red Beet Juice. Jo’s Candies are kind of pricey but quality ingredients, good packaging and freshness costs money. I’m deeply curious about their Dark Chocolate Turtles and the Mint Coco Jo’s that sound like a much better Girl Scout Cookie.
The little squares a dang pretty, glossy and dashed with little dark chocolate squiggles. The dark chocolate coating is pretty thick on the top, thicker usually than the photo above shows. So the proportions are pretty equal.
I think they were intended as a gift for me and my husband, but I don’t see myself eating his green chiles, so I’m pretty comfortable eating the whole box on my own to keep things equal in the relationship.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
I’m still in a licorice mood and have been feeling more like “eating licorice” as it’s called. This means it’s soft and chewy and not too harsh.
I got a wonderful full sized sample of the Soft Licorice from Finnska at the All Candy Expo in September from the Gerrit J. Verburg Co. It’s just what I needed. I found the package charming, though every time I looked at it I wondered what an ostrich would be doing on a Viking ship.
The little twist are soft, perhaps a little sticky. They’re pure black and a bit glossy. They don’t smell like much, a little earthy, a little smoky.
They’re not super sweet, not very licorice-y either. In fact, there’s no molasses in there, which is one of the flavors I’m accustomed to in my wheat-based licorice chew. It’s also really low in calories.
It took me about a half a dozen of them before I figured out what they taste like. Beets. (Maybe beets baked in Ouzo.)
I know, it sounds horrible. But it’s great. It’s sweet and woodsy and a little bit like dirt or roots. It doesn’t feel cloying or sticky. It’s good munching candy. I’ve eaten the whole box. It’s rather different from Panda, which has a doughy texture to it sometimes and stronger anise and molasses tones.
This particular Finnska is also organic!
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Ah, foggy fall days have returned to Los Angeles. The chill in the air leads me to tea. While I’m a huge fan of honey, I prefer to either eat it straight or with something like plain toast or dip saltines in it. I rarely put it in my tea, but here’s a product that’s both a sweetener for your drinks and a lollipop.
Melville specializes in making lollipops in the classic tradition of the molded barley sugar pops. But they also have a line of Honey Spoons, clever little lollies shaped like a spoonful of honey on a pretty wooden stick.
They make two different varieties of Honey Spoons: Clover and Tupelo. Clover is light and fresh tasting. The spoons themselves are smooth and look like a little piece of light amber glass. The texture is smooth and slick on the tongue, no voids here. The candy is ever so slightly soft and can be bent slowly when it’s warm and thin.
The flavor is light and sweet, a little dollop of honey in mostly a sweet sugar base.
The difference between the Tupelo (which is prized because it doesn’t crystallize like some other honeys) and Clover isn’t really that discernible. They’re both extremely pleasant.
Just as an experiment I put one in a fresh cup of Earl Grey Tea (hot), and after about thirty seconds the spoon had melted enough that it fused to the bottom of my cup. A little wiggling and then stirring with it and I probably reduced its mass by half. I tasted the tea, which at that point was plenty sweet for me (again, not a sweet tea fan) ... so one pop will do just fine for most people. The one drink I can see this being especially good in would be a spiced chai.
I was really looking forward to the Lavender Honey Spoon. Earlier this year I ordered some Spanish lavender honey from Artisan Sweets and I love the stuff. It’s murky and musky with a dark oily feel on the tongue that reminds me of Rosemary.
The Lavender Honey Spoons, on the other hand, aren’t quite as deep and complex. Yes, there’s a light floral note there, but no real lavender note. Still, they’re pretty.
They’re expensive for just lollipops ($1.50 each), but really good honey hard candies are hard to find. They don’t quite rival the Juntsuyu I love so much from Japan, but they’d make a lovely hostess gift over the holidays with some fine tea or stocking stuffers. Sometimes I just like pretty candy (okay, I always like pretty candy if it’s tasty). I might pick one up as an impulse item at a coffee house, but I doubt I’d buy a whole package.
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