Monday, March 30, 2015
While in London last year, I picked up quite a few chocolate bars. One brand that I noticed had good distribution and prices, was Willie’s Cacao. The company direct sources their cocoa beans and manufacturers their chocolate in England. For a small company they make a wide array of chocolate products, like the bars I picked up in single origin varieties like Madagascar, Peru, Indonesia and two different sourcings from Venezuela. In addition they also have a line of single origin cocoas, chocolate pearls and bars with flavors and inclusions.
I picked up the Venezuela Gold Las Trincheras 72% at Waitrose. The package is two little 40 gram bars that are wrapped separately for £2.99, or about $4.50. A lot of other single origin bars are priced at twice that, so it was a gamble that this was going to be passable stuff. The box is quite elegant, dark brown with orange, creamy yellow and gold foiled lettering. The package states that the single estate cacao comes from Hacienda Las Trincheras in northern Venezuela.
The flavor profile is described as smooth nutty notes, which is exactly why I like Venezuelan origin cacao.
The box helpfully gave me both the bar’s origin date and the best by date. It was produced in November 2013 and good until May 2015. I ate one of the bars after I returned from my trip last year, and saved the other in my climate controlled chocolate fridge until last month.
The bars are lovely, the mold, which says Willie’s Delectable Cacao gives the otherwise ordinary 2.75 inch square a bit more flair. The tempering is very nice, there’s a good snap to the bar and no bubbles or voids. The color is a little on the red side of dark brown.
The melt is easy but not too quick. The ingredients are very simple, no emulsifiers. Just cacao, raw cane sugar and cocoa butter. There’s a little dryness early on, and some bright fruit notes. The overwhelming flavor I get is not nutty but raisins. I usually associate strong raisin flavors with Peruvian chocolate. There are some other notes of rosemary, roses and plums, but I didn’t catch more than a fleeting cashew note. It’s a bit bitter at times as well, but not so much that it distracted from the other flavors, just enough to keep it from getting too sweet.
For the price, I think they’re very well done bars, and I appreciate the packaging style that allows me to actually eat some now and really save some for later, as I did here. However, I didn’t love this particular bar enough that I would import it. I am interested enough in the brand that I would pick it up again, especially some of the other origins.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
There are now dozens of small-batch chocolate makers scattered around North America. One that caught my eye a couple of years ago won the Good Food Award in 2013. Raaka Chocolate is based in Brooklyn, New York and was founded in 2010.
The team at Raaka says,”We make virgin chocolate from unroasted cacao beans. Our unique process preserves each region’s wild flavors, bringing you closer to the bean.”
The unique style of their bars means that they use organic beans that have been naturally fermented and dried but not roasted. The result is a bar that is like the chocolate that we all know, but with some differences ... not necessarily things that make it better or worse, just different. The cacao is direct sourced while the sugar is organic and fair trade certified. Most of their bars are just beans and evaporated cane juice (no vanilla, no emulsifiers) but the bar I picked out for review was the Raaka Virgin Chocolate Bourbon Cask Aged - Belize 82%. This bar also has some maple sugar in it.
As you can guess from the name, the notable thing about this cacao is that it is first aged in oak bourbon casks from Berkshire Mountain Distilling. I’ve had chocolate that’s been aged in barrels before, but never chocolate made from beans that have been aged in barrels. For roasted cacao that wouldn’t work, because the roasting would probably remove the flavors the casks introduce, but remember Raaka is working with unroasted beans, the way the beans are treated before grinding will definitely affect flavor.
The bar mold is dead simple, just a 1.8 ounce plank with no scoring, no design. There’s a great snap to it, and glossy sheen on the outside, but a little rough looking inside.
The bar smells, well, a little like bourbon. There’s a vanilla note and some light peat along with some other more yeasty bread notes. The melt of the chocolate is not quite as creamy as some bars I’ve had, but certainly not gritty. It’s smoother than Taza, which is also stone ground. The yeasty notes are very strong along with an acidic bite and a light coffee and maple note. It’s undeniably chocolate, but with a kick that is a little more unformed, a little less refined. The bar also changed, as I nibbled on it over several weeks. The bitterness dissipated (oxidation can do that) and I found a few more berry jam notes to it.
For an 82% bar, it’s not as dense as you might expect. I’ve certainly had 70% bars that are more intense. This may be because there’s some extra cocoa butter added in, which counts towards the cacao percentage, but does help mellow its severity.
I appreciate the bar, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I kept in my purse for several weeks, but never felt the need for more than a little half inch square at a time. The rustic melt was not as decadent as bars I usually prefer, so sometimes this felt like it demanded more attention to enjoy, like the different between classic sonnets and some free verse.
Their facility and bars are vegan, nut free, soy free, gluten free and made from all organic ingredients.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
YumEarth Organics Gummy Fruits were a surprising item to see at the Walgreen’s. It’s an appealing package, but the fact that Walgreen’s has some all natural and organic offerings in the sweets aisle was impressive.
The soft and chewy candy comes in four flavors: banana, cherry, peach and strawberry. The package says these organic candies use no artificial colors or flavors, are made with real fruit juice and are fat free, nut free, gluten free and contain 100% of the daily RDA of vitamin C.
Here’s the thing about these, they’re not gummis. Though many candy companies use gummi and jelly interchangeably, gummis are very specifically a gelatin-based confection. These are jelly candies and there’s nothing wrong with that, when you’re selling yourself as a vegan candy.
They’re not jelly beans, they’re more like gumdrops. It’s a jelly center with a little sugar sanding on the outside, slightly smaller than a gourmet jelly bean.
The colors are muted so it’s hard to tell the flavors apart on sight. The easiest one for me to pick out was the Peach. The sugar sanding helped to sell the fuzzy flavor, which has a nice acidic bite and slightly piney/apricot flavor.
Cherry looked a lot like the peach, a medium orange color. It’s nice and jammy, though not much else going on with it, it’s not as tangy as the peach.
The Strawberry was difficult to discern as was the Banana. There was a definitely a yellow candy but it didn’t taste like banana or strawberry, more like a generic jam that you’d put on your generic toast.
Oddly enough, even though I don’t care much for cherry or peach as candy flavors, those two in combination made a really interesting punch flavor when eaten together.
The texture is very firm, though not quite gummi, it’s a nice texture that releases a lot of flavor after you get past the sugar crust.
I think children may like them, but they’re not as versatile as something like a jelly bean because they’re just a bit messier. The colors are very hard to tell apart, especially in dim light situations. But, the assortment stands well in combination, so just tossing a few without looking into your mouth should work out fine.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
At the Fancy Food Show last month I ran across another small-batch caramel maker. This one is called Suss Sweets. They’re based in New Hampshire and have a line of caramels with an interesting package idea - the caramels are sold in long logs, not individual pieces. So a standard roll is 1/4 of a pound. You slice off however much you want.
I found them at an Italian deli at Americana at Brand mall in Glendale. I had to go through the entire basket of caramel logs to find the only Maple Pecan one, since it was the flavor that I sparked the most with at the show.
There’s a lot of packaging for what looks so simple. The outside is a piece of baking parchment, twisted at the ends with a little sleeve with the label on it. Inside is a box, embossed with the logo (kind of a waste, I didn’t notice this touch until I was throwing it out). Then inside the box, the caramel roll is wrapped in wax paper.
The long log was easy to slice into appropriate pieces. The nuts were not as numerous as I’d hoped, so some slices were nutless. However, the maple and pecan flavor was throughout the entire bar. The chew of the caramel was smooth with excellent toasted sugar and fresh butter notes. The salt touch was quite light, enough to balance the sweetness but not so much to make me grab a glass of water. The nuts were fresh and the pecan flavors went very well with the woodsy and vanilla maple notes.
The bar was expensive at $7.50, but of course it was a quarter of a pound. But the fact that they’re not ready to eat meant we couldn’t just try them with our coffee at the store, we had to wait until we got home and got out a knife.
I did get to try the full range of flavors, including Pumpkin Seed and the straight Vanilla with Sea Salt. It’s a good caramel, just like I make at home when I have the time and the weather cooperates. It’s a fun item if you’re putting together a gift basket, especially if it’s a themed with coffee, cheese or other sweets. The fact that you can control the size of the pieces will appeal to some consumers, but I think I just want mine individually wrapped.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Honey Acres in Wisconsin has been keeping bees since 1852. They sell a variety of honeys as well as some very specific honey-based products. I picked up these samples from the Fancy Food Show last month.
One of the lines Honey Acres makes are honey patties which feature an unsweetened chocolate coating around a creamed honey center. This may sound familiar, as I’ve reviewed the Trader Joe’s Mint Honey Patties before. Honey Acres actually makes three varieties of honey patties: the traditional mint, orange and chocolate.
The creamed honey is just honey, that’s been carefully recrystallized in a way that makes it milky looking, spreadable and thick, instead of clear and viscous. There are no additional ingredients, no dairy associated with the creaming process.
The most intriguing of their three patties is the Honey Kissed Dark Chocolate Cocoa. There are two ingredients: chocolate and honey. It’s a little more complicated than that. The chocolate shell is unsweetened chocolate and then the center is honey creamed with unsweetened chocolate.
The pattie comes in a matte gold foil. Snapped in half, the center is a golden brown, set off nicely by they very crisply tempered chocolate.
It’s a very strong chocolate product. The honey melts at a different rate from the chocolate on the outside, so it’s an uneven mix of the honey flavors, the sweetness, the creaminess and then the bitter pop of the chocolate. It’s quite rich and the recommended serving of 3 pieces is very filling. I enjoyed eating them in different ways, sometimes nibbling the chocolate edges so that I had more of a honey proportion for a big bite of the center. Mostly I bit in half and let it all melt together.
Ultimately, I think I prefer a little flavor with it, the chocolate in the honey center did little more than just make the honey less pronounced.
The Honey Kissed Dark Chocolate Orange patty uses Valencia orange extract in the center instead of the peppermint oil for flavoring. This is an interesting combination, because I think that the citrus flavors go far better with honey than peppermint. The oily beeswax feeling on the tongue is cut but the vibrant orange oil. The bitterness of the unsweetened chocolate really shines through all this, with lots more woodsy notes than I noticed when combined with mint.
The calorie count on the website for Honey Acres listed them as about 11 grams a piece and only 110 calories per 3 piece serving. I don’t think that’s quite right, because it works out to less than 100 calories per ounce, which is not possible for a candy that’s also half fat. So, I’d prefer to go with the accounting for the Trader Joe’s which says 140 calories for 3 patties.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The description is: crunchy pecans & toasted quinoa with soft & buttery caramel enrobed in chocolate and topped with Himalaya pink sea salt. They’re Kosher and made with mostly organic dairy ingredients as well. Though they use quinoa for the crunchy bits, they’re not a gluten-free candy as they may contain wheat. Also, they’re made in a facility with other tree nuts, eggs and peanuts. Too bad, because a gluten free and peanut free notation would really set these apart.
The patties are about 1.5 inches across, so either one big bite or two small bites. The nutritional listing is a little odd, as it says that 3 pieces are 36 grams and come to 140 calories. That’s just ridiculous for something with so much chocolate and full dairy caramel ingredients. So, my calculations say that it’s 102 calories per ounce, I’m going to say that they’re at least 125.
They smell like a sweet milk chocolate with a hint of earthy cereal notes. The patties are very flat and turning them over reveals that the inclusions are small. So the pecans are really not crunchy pecans but actually crunched pecans along with the quinoa.
The chew of the caramel is good, with some excellent buttery notes and toasted sugar flavors. The quinoa is crunchy, but not overly so. The pecans were barely evident, to the point that some pieces seemed to be lacking pecans entirely. But when I did get them, they had a wonderful woodsy, maple note. I would have preferred much more in the pecan front, even if they were just small pieces, or even just the quinoa and leave out the pecans entirely.
I don’t know if I would pick these up again, but I enjoyed the package I had. If I saw that they had a dark version or mucked around with the proportions, I’d give them another go. But there are other Trader Joe’s items that I much prefer over this, including the Butterscotch Sea Salt Caramels. The price point seemed a bit high, but is far better than DeMet’s Pecan Turtles which are usually about twice the price per pound and use inferior ingredients.
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
The most standout among their confections, for me, is their Money on Honey Wildflower Honey Caramels. They’re a square caramel patty covered in Guittard dark chocolate and sprinkled with fleur de sel. But the big thing to note is that the caramel part is made with California wildflower honey and no corn syrup. So the center is just sugar, honey, cream and butter.
They’re made in a gluten free facility with non-gmo ingredients and are Kosher.
I picked up this box of four half-ounce or so caramels at Lolli & Pops. It’s a bit pricey for 2.4 ounces at $8.25.
There’s a lot of packaging. There’s a tray where the caramels sit in fluted cups, which is then inside a box, which is then covered with a sleeve.
Each little piece, though, is quite perfect looking.
They smell of chocolate, with perhaps a floral note of the heavy beeswax scent.
The caramel itself has a good chew, a gentle pull but is stiff enough to hold itself together with the chocolate. The chocolate is bittersweet, not terribly dark or bitter, more on the fruity and woodsy side of things. The caramel has a long lasting chew with a sort of oily nature to it towards the end that honey can impart. The honey flavors are strong and deep, with notes of malt and beeswax.
The sea salt on the top is concentrated kind of at the center, it could be a little better distributed across the surface. It does provide a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the chocolate and caramel. But generally the chocolate caramel is not that sweet at all. Honey is sweet, for sure, but not as sweet as plain old sugar, it just has a longer ring to it, a longer finish that has a sort of malt and jasmine tea aftertaste to it.
I would definitely buy these again, but probably only for a special occasion because of the price. If there were a smaller single serving size of just one or two caramel, I think I’d be more inclined to indulge.
Monday, February 16, 2015
One of their new introductions is the Ritter Sport Fine Extra Dark Chocolate 73% Cocoa (also called Amargo Extrafino).
The bar is much darker than their regular bars at 73% and is made from West Africa and Ecuadorian-sourced cocoa beans. Though the format of this bar is new I’m not sure if the concept really is, I’ve had a very dark bar from Ritter Sport before, though my tasting notes reveal it’s a bit different.
Generally, I love Ritter Sport’s milk chocolate. They make a very creamy product, and actually work with several different recipes for use in different bars. Their dark bars, for the most part, are one of the better at the price point, but I don’t eat the plain dark bars, I go for the bars that have nuts or marzipan. So, the idea of picking up a Ritter Sport over the many other very dark bars out there means that it’s going to need something special to turn my head.
The format for this bar is different from their usual 16 squares. Instead, it’s 36 pieces (a 6 x 6 instead of a 4 x 4 array).
The deep scoring makes the pieces easy to snap off. They’re nearly pyramidic, so a little awkward in shape in the mouth. There’s a fair amount of cocoa butter, so it has an easy and quick melt. For the most part the particle size is small, so it’s smooth ... but there were the odd gritty bits from time to time.
The cocoa flavors are overwhelmingly earthy. There are not fruit notes, except for perhaps a little green banana. The rest was like coffee, brownies and toasted coconut. It’s woodsy and deep. It’s satisfying and not at all bitter, though there’s a dry bite to it, but the cocoa butter covers up at the very end.
When I ran the numbers for the calories per ounce, I was a little shocked that it came out so high, though cacao content also includes cocoa butter for that percentage. So this bar has a lot of cocoa butter, far more than most dark bars.
This feels very much like the texture that Dove lovers might gravitate towards. I might buy it again, but I really want some nuts in it, maybe even a little salt hint somewhere. But if Ritter Sport starts using this chocolate base for other bars, I’d be very interested in going down that road with them.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.