Friday, January 18, 2013
It’s easy to dismiss this bar as one of the flash-in-the pan intersections of hipsterism. Mast Brothers are bearded bean-to-bar chocolate makers based in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and part of the trend of micro-producers of formerly mass-marketed products. This bar mixes their carefully sourced (but unnamed) beans with coffee beans from the famed Portland, OR coffee roasters, Stumptown (they also have a Manhattan location).
I admit that I do love very good coffee, though I also drink the mediocre stuff rather happily. (Lately I’ve been indulging in a weekly cappuccino made with Verve beans served up by the excellent baristas at Short Cake at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles.)
I want a chocolate bar that evokes all the pleasures of a well made espresso shot in a portable solid - mix the coffee with chocolate instead of hot frothed milk. Both contain strong akaloids and bitter tannins but the cocoa butter might give a slower release to those flavors than hot water.
One of the distinguishing features of Mast Brothers bars is the packaging. They’re wrapped in distinctive papers, this one with an appropriately evocative deep red with black line art of a vintage motorcycle. Inside the thick paper wrapper, which is sealed on the back with a large label, it’s also wrapped in a good quality gold foil.
The bar was nicely tempered. I know that working with other inclusions that also have oils in them can be problematic (sometimes I note a hint of bloom around nuts in dark bars). The look of the bar is interesting, it’s not completely smooth and this is accurate to the actual texture of the chocolate itself. It looks a little lumpy (though that could just be the artisan style of the bar molds), but I found it gritty.
The bar is exceptionally dark looking, and the flavor matches. The coffee notes are bold: smoky with aspects of toffee, molasses and oak. I can’t really tell where the coffee stops and the chocolate starts, but the flavors I thought were from the cacao were a little more green. Some olive and dried cherries (with the accompanying tartness) with another little note of lemon zest. The melt is not quite smooth, I’ve mentioned the grittiness already, I found this in other Mast Brothers bars (I’ve never reviewed them before). The finish is a bit dry, but not chalky.
Overall, it’s not my ideal cup of coffee. I will say that the coffee is bold and stands out from the chocolate without being too sweet nor too bitter. I’ll probably finish the bar (though I can’t eat it late in the day because it is actually caffeinated), but I don’t think I’m going to buy another. I’d say as far as bean to batch bars married with single origin roasters go, I’m still the most fond of the Askinosie and Intelligentsia marriage.
The ingredient list is simple and short: cacao, cane sugar and coffee beans. No emulsifiers and no vanilla. There’s no statement about nuts, gluten or dairy on the wrapper.
Note: Eagranie of The Well Tempered Chocolatier also reviewed this bar last year, but hers was a different iteration, which contained more whole beans. For more about Mast Brothers, check out this 2009 NY Times article about Brooklyn food producers.
Monday, January 14, 2013
Ritter Sport, the German chocolate company, has really stepped up its game in North America. Not only do we get a large array of their inventive and good quality bars, they’re also delivering some of the fun limited editions that were once just for their European consumers.
For winter this year they presented the Limited Edition Ritter Sport Amarena Cherry. The bar features Milk chocolate filled with cherry flavored cream and wafer pieces. The wrapper shows a vanilla and cherry ripple ice cream cone and a couple of ripe cherries next to it.
I’ve recently become more familiar with preserved cherries, as I’ve been introduced to Luxardo Maraschino Cherries. They’re quite good and don’t resemble those strange, translucent pink things that come on top of cheap ice cream Sundaes in the United States. These are tiny little nearly black balls of syrup saturated cherries. They taste like fruit, they taste like sugar and there’s a little alcoholic bite to them (well, that could be because I usually find them at the bottom of a Mahnattan). They’ve changed my mind about preserved cherries and even the origin of the fake cherry flavor.
While that’s all delightful fun, the reality was a bit less than enticing. The first ingredient is sugar (not chocolate) which is okay when there’s a lot of filling. But the second ingredient is palm oil. Somewhere down near the bottom of the list is real morello cherry puree and morello cherry juice concentrate, which is comforting.
The actual construction of the bar is rather like the ice cream on the wrapper - it’s a firm cream center that has a light cherry flavor to it and then some little freeze dried cherry bits (that are a bit tangy) and the wafer bits which are like a crumbled up wafer cone.
The bar smells an awful lot like cherry flavor. Good cherry flavor, but still ... not very chocolatey. The milk chocolate shell is smooth and creamy but very sweet. The cream center is less sweet, less smooth but much more cherry. The high point are the little crunchies, which might be the freeze dried fruit or the wafer. Either one is good.
The entire thing is just not for me. Too sweet, too much fat without feeling like it was creamy. Instead it was too cherry. If you’re looking for a very cherry bar, well, this might be yours. I’ll go back to my Espresso bar, which I also bought on the same trip.
Ritter Sport sources their cacao almost exclusively from Central and South America and has several initiatives regarding sustainability for their ingredients and energy usage in manufacturing. The bar itself may contain traces of peanuts and tree nuts and contains soy, wheat and dairy.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy is a New Jersey favorite, known best for their classic wrapped taffy rods, also makes some excellent peanut chews, fudge and molasses paddle pops. But what I know them for is their Creamy Mint Sticks, which I only seem able to find at trade shows as samples. So, I was pretty pleased to see them, if only seasonally, at Cost Plus World Market this Christmas.
I’m a sucker for butter mints (those soft colored little pillows), and specifically don’t buy them because I will devour them. But in the interest of the blog, I picked up this box of Fralinger’s Creamy Mint Sticks on clearance at Cost Plus World Market after Christmas for review. The mint sticks are similar to the puffy butter mint brethren, except that they’re individually wrapped and less airy.
The ingredients include no artificial colors or flavors. It’s a mix of sugar, invert sugar with a touch of palm oil, emulsifiers, glycerine and cream of tartar along with real peppermint oil.
The sticks are generous for a mint, the same size as Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy logs. They’re in a clear cellophane wrapper with twisted ends, inside that is the waxed paper with the Fralinger’s logo on it. These also bear a bar code, I don’t know if that’s for internal tracking or if they actually sell these individually. They’re a little over two inches long, are white inside and come out of the wrapping easily.
They’re soft, though I wouldn’t say that they’re damp, they’re not oily either. This is the big difference between these and butter mints, they’re creamier. The texture is like a wad of very smooth, compressed powdered sugar. They dissolve readily and have a powerful amount of mint in them. Though they’re nearly all sugar, they don’t have a throat searing sweetness to them.
The candy is extremely simple and I appreciate that. They’re a little harder to eat than some wrapped candy, it takes two hands to unwrap the ends and then carefully unroll from the waxed paper. But every one of them was in good condition, so it does the job.
I’ve had quite a few other versions of these before: James’ Butter Mint Rolls (photo) which are part of the Fralinger’s family now and Angel Mints. What I’ve noticed is that they’re best when sold in a sealed package. In the case of this box, it was shrink wrapped, and then inside the box the mints were also sealed inside a poly plastic bag. When I’ve bought them as “changemakers” or in a bulk mix they’ve been a bit more chalky and with a bit less of a mint kick. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But in this case I was actually blown away with how fresh these tasted. I can’t imagine paying the full price for these even though I know I would eat them all.
They’re exquisitely simple, and for me they’re quite addictive. Basically, I kept going into Cost Plus World Market all week long, checking to see if they were still on the shelves. I bought one box at 75% off (they were regularly 6.99 a box, but at that discount they came to $1.75) ... but then yesterday they went to 90% off so I bought another two boxes because, well, 70 cents for 12 ounces. They are best before March 2013, but I doubt they’ll last that long.
Friday, January 4, 2013
When I was shopping at The Meadow, a quirky store in New York City that sells carefully curated selection of three things (salt, bitters and chocolate), I asked what was the best bar for munching. The gal at the counter suggested Gardini Extra Fondente Gianduia Salata. The bar was pricey at $12 for 3.5 ounces, but I’d come all that way and we’d already talked quite a bit about the glory of Venezuelan beans, so I was ready to trust her. It certainly sounded good: Bitter Chocolate and Gianduia with Sweet Sea Salt.
I’ve become spoiled over the years, though I love hazelnut paste (gianduia), I don’t care for the sticky sweetness of some of the cheaper varieties. This bar boasted a robust 54% cacao chocolate shell with hazelnuts as a the next ingredient after the chocolate (not sugar or oil). There is no listing of the nutritional value on the package, but I’m going to guess that there’s lots of fat in there to make up for the lack of sugar.
The bar is made by Gardini Chocolato in Italy and has won a few awards. If I might tease the end of this review, they’re well earned.
The bar is impressive and feels large and substantial. The segments are domed and shiny and even though the packaging is pretty much just a cellophane wrapper, it’s largely unmarred.
Each domed section is filled with a salted hazelnut paste. The paste, according to the ingredients, is made from ground hazelnuts, whole milk powder and sea salt.
The dark chocolate is in the semi-sweet range, it’s not terrifically dark but still has a lot of oomph to it. The melt is smooth and creamy with its own woodsy profile and a light hint of figs or cherries. The hazelnut center is fascinating. It’s also buttery and very smooth without that sticky feeling that some gianduias can have. The salt provides little sparks of flavor as well. The roasted profile is perfect.
This is an incredible bar, very well made and presented with nothing fussy about it except for the price. I could see eating these regularly as it’s a great combination in the perfect ratios. I would like to try other bars in the Gardini range, but part of me wonders what else could be better than this?
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
I’ve been looking forward to trying SOMA Chocolatemaker‘s microbatch, single origin chocolate for quite a few years. They’re based in Toronto, Canada and are sold at some fine chocolate shops across North America but they don’t ship to the US.
So I’ve scoured every chocolate bar shop that I’ve come across and was happy to see that a few of their varieties were on sale at The Meadow in New York City.
The tiny bars, which are less than an ounce, are very expensive. I paid $7.00 for my .88 ounce bar. I was hoping to find their highly regarded Chuao, but since that was not available, I consoled myself with another Venezuelan single origin. Their Black Science Carenero Superior is a 70% bar. Other than that, I know nothing. There are no ingredients listed on the package, and if the information is on the Soma Chocolate site, I could not find it easily. From The Meadow website, it appears that the ingredients are just cacao, cocoa butter and organic sugar (no emulsifiers and no vanilla).
Smoke, molasses and toffee are the first notes from the scent. The melt is slow but consistent, owing to the fine conch of the beans. The toasted notes are even stronger as it melts, with a lot of cereal and bread flavors coming through. The finish is dry with a slight acidic twang and some dried cherry flavors. It’s a little chalky at the end as well.
I’m a huge fan of Venezuelan beans and appreciate the flavor profile on this bar. But it’s missing a delightful melt, the dry texture and acidity at the end seem to erase the entire experience from my mouth. I’m still interested in trying the Soma Chuao, but for now, I’ll stick to Ocumare from Coppeneur and Amano.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Liddabit Sweets is based in Brooklyn, New York and makes candy bars with a gourmet twist. They’re made by hand with premium ingredients and a bit more flair for decadence than the normal factory churned fare.
They’ve made a name for themselves using locally sourced ingredients and a lot of creativity to the whole genre of candy bars. From the boxes to the innovative combinations, Liddabit feels like more than a handmade version of factory favorites, they’re original from the ground up. I picked up a selection of three from their stall at the New Amsterdam Market at the tip of Manhattan. They’re also sold in stores in New York and if you check their website, at some other gourmet shops around the country. Also, they have a webstore where you can order them to be delivered right to your door.
Liddabit Sweets The Snack’r Candy Bar is their bar that most closely resembles an existing favorite, the Snickers bar made by Mars since 1930. According to the package, This chewy delight features crunchy, roasted peanuts in a golden caramel atop our creamy chocolate nougat, all covered in dark chocolate.
The bar is formidable. It’s sold in a lovely box decorated with white flowers and a diagonal label that shows the premium ingredients (though they do also have gelatin, eggs, dairy, soy and peanuts in them, they’re made in a shared facility with wheat and tree nuts as well). It’s four ounces, almost twice the mass of a Snickers. I already find the Snickers to be too much for one serving, so this was at least three for me.
The bar is lovely, though a little bland to look at, lacking the swirls of milk chocolate on the top, it’s a simple enrobing. The bars are over four inches long, 1.25 wide and one inch high.
The star of this bar is the nougat. It’s really unlike any nougat you’ll find in a commercial bar. Unlike the Mars version of nougat, which is fluffed and grainy, the Liddabit is smooth, creamy and light. There’s a chewy pull to it, not quite marshmallow but a little more whipped than an Italian torrone. There’s a note of cocoa in it, which keeps it from being too sweet. The base of caramel is chewy and salty with few peanuts, but those that I did encounter were large and crunchy. The dark chocolate pulls it all together with a smoky note.
The bar had a real boxed chocolate vibe to it, the peanuts were really the only element that brought this back into the snack territory. I started this review with the bar because it’s by far the best example of an upscale bar I’ve had.
The Pecan Pie Candy Bar is actually a chocolate pecan pie. It starts with a flaky pie crust base, a homemade pecan dulce de leche with a bourbon ganache covered in dark chocolate.
The bar is interesting in that it’s actually more like a Pecan Bar Cookie than a candy bar in some ways. The construction is this: a flaky cookie base with a layer of chocolate ganache and pecans covered in dark chocolate. The result is a decadent treat.
The ganache center is quite soft, so it’s an easy bite even though it’s a pretty tall bar. The pecans are well distributed and form a generous ratio of the center. The ganache is interesting, first because it’s not overly chocolatey ... it’s more cheesecakey. There’s a noticeable tang to it, a little tartness that gives it that baked good note of sour cream instead of whipping cream.
As a candy bar, it’s too much. It’s too decadent to eat in several sittings, mostly because the cookie crust can’t take sitting around after it’s been opened. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see myself buying another one. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t well done, but it’s not what I want from a candy bar.
The Humbug is definitely on the unique end of the candy bar spectrum. It features a cocoa sable cookie, a mint chocolate ganache, a white chocolate coating and crushed organic peppermint candies.
The sable cookie base is salty and sandy and crunchy and not at all sweet. It is a bit of a mess though, often creating a lot of crumbs if I didn’t bite it perfectly. The minted chocolate ganache is just the right texture - soft enough to bite through with a quick melt but not greasy or oily. The cocoa flavors are light with the mint shining through for the most part and the white chocolate coating giving it another little hint of sweetness and milky flavors.
Liddabit makes about a dozen different bars, and some are likely seasonal (like the Humbug). I’m interested in anything that utilizes their excellent nougat and plant to try their other bars, such as The King which features peanut butter and banana. The bars are expensive, $8 each, but they’re also huge. That cuts down on the number of different flavors I can do at a time, but now that I found a local shop that carries them in Los Angeles, I can take my time.
As a side note, I can’t help but think of the song Give a Little Bit by Supertramp whenever I hear or read the name Liddabit. That could be just me ... or maybe this video will also get that stuck in your head.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
While I was shopping at Whole Foods outside of Philadelphia back in September, I spotted these Nectar Nuggets Peanut Butter Cups. I’d never seen the before, but there was a little tag next to them that said “They’re Back!” so I figured they must be a local favorite.
There were three varieties on the shelf, and I picked up one of each: Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup and Almond Butter Cup.
The name Nectar Nugget didn’t ring any bells for me, but with the little picture of a bee in the corner of the wrapper and the word nectar in the name, I thought perhaps these were honey sweetened. That would definitely be interesting!
The cups are of the same proportions that we’re all accustomed to, two inches wide at the top and only one half an inch high.
The chocolate used for Nectar Nugget is Rainforest Alliance certified, so it’s sustainably grown and audited to assure that no child labor or slaves are used.
It smells a bit grassy, like real peanuts but not dark roasted ones. The chocolate has a nice sheen. There’s a little bit of a cloudy spot on top of the center, but I forgive that with real peanut butter, as the natural oils tend to migrate.
The peanut butter in the Nectar Nuggets is extremely smooth but also quite thick. It has a nice melt, like chocolate or fudge. The salt is light and gives the peanut butter a sort of warm feel as it melts. The milk chocolate is quite sweet but has a much quicker melt than the peanut butter and creates a good backdrop. It’s not particularly milky, but also not very chocolately, just a nice sweet texture.
The package says that it’s Giant Size, which is 1.2 ounces ... a bit bigger than a standard Reese’s, but not what I’d call a King Size. The thick texture of the peanut butter makes it quite filling for me, so much so that I had to space out my review of this set of cups over several days (and I’ve been known to eat a lot of candy in one day).
The ingredients include milk, so it’s not a true dark chocolate (nor vegan) item. Like the other cups, the package says that there are 5 grams of protein in each cup. This makes them rather filling without that too-much-sugar crash later.
The dark chocolate cup is tough, but in a way it’s worth it. The dark chocolate is smooth and buttery, though it starts a little waxy and stiff if it’s cold. The peanut butter feels drier than the milk chocolate version. The melt of the dark chocolate is quick and really fatty, it rolls around on the tongue quite a bit. The cocoa flavors are very deep, nutty and on the bitter side. It brings a whole smoky flavor to the cup.
I was wondering if this actually was a nut butter or a marzipan, but it’s definitely nut butter.
The Almond Butter cup is interesting. Most notably, the nut butter interior is quite salty, especially compared to the sweet and smooth chocolate. It’s 80 mg of sodium (same as the peanut butter ones) which is actually less than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Like the peanut butter varieties here, the nut butter is a little on the dry side, but not crumbly, quite smooth and fresh. Instead of the roasted and grassy flavors of peanuts, the almond butter is a bit less vivid. Instead, the textures were the focus and the milk chocolate was more noticeable.
It still lacked a pizazz for me, but that’s probably because I was indoctrinated as a child into the peanut butter culture of North America. Even so, since they’re made in a facility with peanut butter, they’re not suitable for those with allergies to peanuts.
They were good and I appreciate the attention to details with the ingredients and the portioning. The ratios are good. They’re not my ideal cup but the fact that they’re ethically sourced and have no artificial preservatives tip my opinion in their favor. So I think I might pick them up again even though they were pricey (I think they were $2.00 each or something close to that) but probably wouldn’t seek them out at a special store. (They contain soy, milk and peanuts or almonds but there’s no statement about gluten.)
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
One of the new items at Trader Joe’s candy section is a twist on an old fashioned favorite, a chocolate covered caramel. I’ve always wanted a better Milk Dud and Trader Joe’s as been doing a good job of providing some tantalizing options over the years.
The newest is Trader Joe’s Chocolate Covered Sea Salt Butterscotch Caramels which comes in a 7 ounce gusseted bag with a resealable top. They describe them as Soft and creamy, deeply flavored butterscotch caramels are tinged with sea salt and enrobed in dark, slightly bitter chocolate to offset the sweetness.
I was wondering if these were the same as the Dark Chocolate Tahitian Vanilla Caramels sold in the small, single serving lavender bags. The ingredients are remarkably similar, with one difference: the Butterscotch Caramels use tapioca syrup instead of corn syrup. So these are free of corn (or at least don’t have any stated corn ingredients).
The flavor is very, well, butterscotchy. They taste like a butter flavor, but not an overtly artificial one like some fake popcorn topping can but more like a maple, woodsy flavor with stronger dairy notes. Instead it’s just rich and a little less sweet than the Tahitian Vanilla variety.
The dark chocolate coating is mild, on the semi-sweet side but has a creamy melt with a little smoky and pipe tobacco profile to it, instead of a dried fruit flavor that some darks can have.
I had wondered when the Tahitian Vanilla Caramels came out whether they’d be available in a bulk bag for serving in a bowl (or creating your own snack mix). This is a pretty good value at $3.49 (which is about $8 per pound) and the ingredients are all natural. I hope these stick around after the holidays, they might make a great travel mix with raw almonds, pretzels and milk chocolate drops. For right now they might just be my go-to candy for sneaking into a movie theater.
There is no statement or any info I can find about the sourcing of the ingredients, specifically the ethical sourcing of the chocolate. They also contain palm kernel oil (though very low on the list). They’re made with milk and soy and may contain traces of wheat, peanuts and tree nuts.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.