Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Somewhere between the candy bar and the fine boxed chocolates is a strange no-man’s land known as the gourmet candy bar. Austria’s Zotter is one of those companies occupying that niche. They not only make innovative flavor combinations, but their products are also organic and Fair Trade certified.
I love the idea of Fair Trade. Everyone should get a living wage (or more!) for making candy. No one needs candy, so if we’re going to spend money on it, we certainly shouldn’t be contributing to sweat shops or slavery. That said, these are very expensive at $8 a bar, so it’s nice to know that the wealth I’m imparting to Zotter is being spread around.
The packaging is simple. The bars are wrapped in foil and have a nicely designed sleeve. Each bar has its own distinctive artwork. On top of that there are a lot of different bars. At any given moment there could be 60 listed on their website. I found these at Fog City News in San Francisco, but have also seen them in the Bay Area at The Candy Store, Miette Confisiere and Bittersweet Cafe in Oakland. (Each store had a slightly different selection.)
The bars are absolutely gorgeous. I was afraid mine would be dented or nicked from the trip, but right out of the package they were pristine and fresh.
They’re rather flat and the chocolate enrobing is very thin (but glossy). The proportions of the filling and the chocolate is ideal ... these bars are about the filling not the chocolate.
I was worried that the center would be stiff and grainy, instead it has a creamy snap to it with a slight semolina grain to it. The citrus is tangy and not very zesty. The chocolate coating is 70% and provides a good bittersweet counterpoint to the center.
The second bar I picked out was Banana Curry. The banana notes were strong and tasted like a fresh mash of super-ripe bananas. It was sweet and rich and almost like a pudding or creme brulee, but a little thicker with a slight chew. I never did get much of a curry note from the whole thing but I honestly didn’t miss it. Yes, I was promised curry, but what I got was pretty yummy in its own right.
If you’re looking for adventurous and inventive flavor combinations with your politically correct candy, well Zotter might be for you. At $8 for a 2.5 ounce bar (over $50 a pound), it’s like buying a couple of fine upscale chocolates from Recchiuti, Vosges, Charles Chocolates, CocoaVino, Chuao or Kee’s. They’re not easy to find in person but they do have a huge variety of flavors. I’m glad I gave them a try, but perhaps I’m more cheap than socially responsible, I just can’t spend that much on a candy bar without rationalizing it as being “for the blog.”
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
When I was a kid my grandmother made caramels every year for Christmas. We’d get a huge tin from her to take home, each piece wrapped in twisted plain wax paper. They were bigger than an adult’s thumb, at least two bites. Soft and chewy, stringy and long-lasting. Buttery, milky and not too sweet, they were usually made with some sort of nut. Sometimes hickory nuts but usually walnuts or pecans.
When I was 16 years old my grandmother gave me the recipe (I’d been begging for it since I was twelve) along with a candy thermometer (which I broke some years later after my third move).
They’re not easy to make. The ingredients and technique is simple, but it’s time consuming. It also helps for it to be a dry day. Humidity is the enemy of caramels.
The sugar and corn syrup are boiled over medium high heat until they become clear. Stir constantly but not vigorously, scraping down the sides to incorporate any sugar crystals.You shouldn’t be able to see any undissolved sugar crystals. Make sure your pot is heavy and sturdy.
Then add, bit by bit, small pieces of the butter and little tips of the milk. If the mixture boils up a lot when you’ve added it, you’ve added it too quickly. Keep stirring and adding. This process can take at least five minutes.
Once they’re added in, add the candy thermometer and stir constantly until the mixture reaches soft ball stage (235 F). Be sure to move the candy thermometer to mix behind it or else you’ll be little burned bits.
Once at soft ball, turn off the heat and add nuts. Pour out into either a greased large pan (9 x 14) or onto a piece of buttered marble. (Parchment works well, too.)
Allow to cool completely (overnight), then cut into small bites and wrap in waxed paper. Cellophane is okay, but tends to stick more (but is obviously prettier). You can put a little sprinkle of artisan salt on them if you like.
Now, this year was the first time I’ve made the caramels in about four years. The vexing part was that I didn’t want to use Karo because it contains high fructose corn sweetener. So I went on the hunt of some sort of real corn syrup. I finally found it at Whole Foods, but instead of coming in a 16 ounce bottle (the amount I needed) it came in an 11.5 ounce bottle. And it was the last one. So I bought the closest thing I could find to a corn syrup, which was a rice syrup. This happened to be brown rice syrup. Now, looking back at this, it may not have been a good idea. Corn syrup is made of glucose, primarily. Rice syrup is maltose and a little glucose. So it has a different flavor profile and likely a different chemical behavior when boiled. Glucose is a monosaccharide and maltose is a disaccharide.
In addition, my mother was helping me out and reflexively picked up skimmed evaporated milk instead of the whole variety. We decided to use it anyway, instead of going back into the store. (Nothin’ more fun than a grocery store on the weekend before Christmas, eh?)
So, here’s the new recipe and outcome:
As with above, I boiled the sugar and syrups. However, it never became clear. It was always a little cloudy, but eventually became transparent. The important thing is to be sure that the sugar crystals have completely dissolved.
The rest goes as above as well, just added the butter and milk. The color, however, was darker and smelled more malty than buttery during the whole process.
I was a little nervous that it wasn’t going to caramelize properly because of the different sugar balance and lack of milk fats from the evaporated milk, so I went slightly over the soft ball stage because the water drop test seemed a little soft. (You take a spoon of caramel and drop it into a glass of cold water and then pull it out and feel the texture.)
The color is much darker, but the flavor is absolutely wonderful. I don’t miss the slightly less fat in it (it probably has less water when it boils so long, so the concentration of fat is probably similar).
I’m not at all scared to use the brown rice syrup again, but I’ll probably still keep it at a half & half balance instead of completely replacing the corn syrup. But I’m leaning towards using the full fat evaporated milk (do not use sweetened condensed milk, that’s way too much sugar). Of course one of the big sticking points to this is that Karo is super-cheap at about $2.75 to $3 a bottle. However, that organic, non-gmo brown rice syrup cost a whopping $5.39 for 16 ounces and the diminutive organic corn syrup was $4.99 for 11.5 ounces.
There’s nothing quite like homemade caramels, and if you’ve never had them or have been paying silly high prices for them at candy shops, it might be time to make your own. You can also vary the recipe by adding flavors at the same time as the nuts. Perhaps some spicy hot? Maybe a little chai spice? How about a touch of matcha?
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 7, 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.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.