Thursday, September 25, 2014
Salted Caramels were also a trend, but apparently every trend either dies out or simply becomes an everyday item. So, it has happened with Salted Caramel and so now they must be trendalized with the newest flavors of the season. These are Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Spice Salted Caramels.
Trader Joe’s makes a version of these for Christmas with white flake sea salt. They’re sold in the same box with a different design. They’re wildly popular, as they’re returned to shelves for more than six years in a row. Since Trader Joe’s will pretty much make a pumpkin spice version of every product they sell at some point, it was just the salted caramels’ turn. (I could list all of the items, but suffice to say that they’ve done tea, coffee, macaron, granola, ice cream, and actual pumpkin pie spice. Here’s a taste test from Serious Eats from a few years ago.)
They’re described on the box:
The ingredients are all natural, but insanely long. The chocolates are made in Ireland (I suspect by Lily O’Brien). The filling isn’t just caramel, according to their list, but actually Sticky Toffee Caramel. There’s no list of what the spices are for their pumpkin spice.
They’re lovely looking caramels, they do well in their package and emerge very shiny and with most of the salt still attached to the squiggle of milk chocolate on top of the 55% dark chocolate.
Though I often find sea salt to be a bit over-hyped, as it’s used in such small quantities that it’s hard to tell different salts apart. In this instance I could tell it was Hawaiian Sea Salt ...and I did not like it. I can’t quite put my finger on it, a friend called it Spaghetti-Os flavored, I thought it was more like carrot, but there’s definitely an additional note to this salt. It was notable enough that for some of the pieces that I ate, I actually scraped the salt off completely.
The spice smell is quite clove-heavy, even before I bit into it. The chocolate is earthy and sweet with a very good bitter note towards the end. It’s smooth and wonderfully tempered. There were no cracks or oozing spots on any of the caramels. The caramel has a light grain to it, which is probably the spice. There’s also a cereal sort of wheaty flavor to it as well. The other spice notes are earthy, with some ginger and black pepper notes and some cinnamon. Not really the best combination for me, if it were a pie, but it goes well with the chocolate.
In the end, this was not a great combination for me, I didn’t like the plain version of these that much and the addition of the spice doesn’t do much for me either. I’ll stick to the individually wrapped Trader Joe’s Fleur de Sel Caramels or the panned Butterscotch Caramels.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Ghirardelli is one of America’s oldest chocolate companies, founded in 1852, and is known mostly for their chocolate bars and baking products. I was surprised to see they’re now making panned chocolates, but I definitely snapped up this bag of Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Sea Salt Cashews at Target. It was on sale for $4.00 for the 5.5 ounce bag, which is a bit steep, but quality isn’t cheap and the costs for raw materials like cocoa, sugar and nuts are going up lately.
The package describes them as whole roasted cashews covered in rich Ghirardelli milk chocolate. Simple. The nuts are, as promised, whole, or at least halves (which are the same shape but a little flatter). The ingredients are all natural and include a touch of tapioca syrup (for the glaze, I believe) instead of something that might be corn or wheat derived (and more likely to cause allergic reactions). There’s more than a touch of sea salt, a whole 125mg per 40 gram serving.
They look stunning, they smell great. It’s a sweet, nutty smell with a note of dried milk. The nuts are crunchy and fresh, the salt is mixed into the milk chocolate and immediately pops. (It’s a little much for me, but I’m a known salt-sensitive in my circles.) The milk chocolate is creamy and thick and not too sweet. Overall, it’s a great iteration of an iconic confection.
Chocolate covered nuts are a decent enough treat, nutrition-wise. Yes, there’s a lot of fat in there, but most of it is good fat from cocoa butter and the nuts, plus a dash of cholesterol from the milk in the chocolate. But it does have 4 grams of protein to balance out the 14 grams of sugars along with 6% of your RDA of calcium and 8% of your iron.
If you’re craving a dark chocolate version, Marich already makes those and they’re fantastic as well. (In fact, since this is Ghirardelli’s first outing with panned chocolates, I have to wonder if they subcontracted the production out ... and Marich is nearby.)
Thursday, September 18, 2014
One of the fun things about candy is that it makes a great gift. But it’s not terribly special to grab some pick-a-mix at the local candy shop and drop the twist-tie plastic bag on someone’s lap and consider it a present. Churchill’s Confectionery recognizes that half and sticks their candy in decorative tins.
The company offered to send me a sample of their line. I’ve actually had Churchill’s before, I have a little red London bus tin that doubles as a bank on my desk at work. So when they offered, I thought it would be good to have some fresh candy to try.
They sent two tins, one was this classic looking embossed Carousel tin that holds English Toffees and Vanilla Fudge and another tin that held three trays of biscuits (cookies). I don’t review cookies ... but I did eat them. The tin holds 14 ounces, which is separated into two 7 ounce bags of candy. So it’s not quite the lush look of a tin full of candy until you dump the cellophane bags into it, but they do stay fresh.
I’ve never quite understood fudge, and this version does little to help me out. Fudge is basically a mixture of sugar and butter ... though modern versions use more advanced ingredients. Many candies have the same ingredients; it’s the texture of fudge that differentiates it from caramel or toffee. Fudge has a slight grain to it, on purpose, which is reintroduced by carefully heating it to a precise temperature and then allowing it to cool partially before stirring. Stirring too soon will make the sugar crystals too large and not stirring enough just makes the texture incomplete. (More in this excellent and slightly technical explanation.)
The great thing about fudge is that it’s a wonderful blank slate for so many other flavors, including chocolate or pecan penuche. As this is Vanilla, it’s actually a blank slate. You can see that the ingredients are decent enough. The pieces are well formed and the color is of a camel-colored coat. Churchill’s has mastered the smooth texture style of fudge (I actually like mine a little grainy). It smells sweet and buttery but has no browned sugar notes (And has no brown sugar ingredients, either.)
The pieces are nice little rectangles, wrapped in silver mylar. This vanilla fudge is extremely sweet with only a slight note of actual vanilla bean. A little note of the woodsy bourbon would be nice, or some deeper toasted sugar notes would have pleased me. Overall, this is too sweet. And coming from a person who actually eats sugar lumps from time to time, that’s saying a lot.
I could really only eat these with a very strong cup of coffee or some salted nuts. They’re just too sweet straight.
Rating: 6 out of 10
One of the oddities in the confection world is how the same candy is called different things in different places. What’s even more vexing is when the new word means something else completely. Take toffee. In the United States we know toffee as a hard, crunchy, caramel brittle. But in the United Kingdom, for the most part, toffee is actually what we call caramel. However, I didn’t need anyone to tell me what this was ... I know a caramel when I see one.
They’re nice rounded pieces wrapped in gold mylar, with a soft milky scent. They’re about the size of Coffee Nips, and if Coffee Nips were chewable, that’s what they’d be like. They’re extremely smooth. The chew is stiff but not sticky or tough. The flavor is a bit salty with burnt sugar notes. It dissolves away to nothing with very little left stuck to my teeth.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Both recipes include milk and soy ingredients and may contain traces of nuts. The glucose syrup is also from wheat, so I don’t think it’s gluten free.
There are a wide variety of tin designs available from Churchill’s. They’re very traditional but do feature a few classic tourist items (like the double decker red bus). I don’t think it’s something I’d buy for myself, but with the right contents and design, I could see them as a good quality hostess gift or thank you item.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
They source their chocolate from an organic, family run farm in the Dominican Republic and appear to take equal care after the selection of their beans. Cacao Prieto also uses centuries old technology to roast, and then has innovated some new machinery to winnow the cacao before processing it with reproduction melangeurs. (You can see the process with photos here.)
I’ve seen these bars around for the past few years but was scared off by the price. The time was right, perhaps because of the name of this bar: Cacao Prieto Pecan & Sour Cherry in 72% Dominican Dark Chocolate. The thought of dried sour cherries and pecans had my mouth watering right away.
The bars from Cacao Prieto even have interesting packaging. The whole package is in a cellophane sleeve, and the window on the back of the box shows the bar with its inclusions. Even with the little peek, the packaging protects it well as for the most part they’re displayed with the window facing down. The front of the package also features a little postcard with similarly charming artwork designed by Brooklyn artist Sophie Blackall.
The bar is a slab, rather like a bark. The inclusions are really just scattered on top of the bar, not mixed into the chocolate. Personally, I prefer mine mixed in. I think a full coating protects nuts and fruits from oxidation (so they don’t get stale) very well, and usually means that you get a consistent taste of chocolate and nut/fruit in each bite. But Cacao Prieto says that each bar is hand-created, so I trust that this means that each of those inclusions was placed their by an artiste ... so who am I to argue. I’ll just leave myself in their expert hands.
The bar is nicely thick and quite robust. It’s 5.5” inches by 3.5” inches and weighs in at 4.2 ounces. Of course, the larger size is welcome considering the price of the bar at $13.
The chocolate itself has a crisp snap but yields well to the tooth even though it’s rather thick. The melt is buttery smooth. The flavors are rich, with a lot of toasty brownie notes, woodsy coffee and a note of toffee and cherry (but that could be the cherries themselves). The pecans are expertly chosen and placed. Crisp, mapley and crunchy, they went very well with the chocolate. The cherries were very soft, chewy and tangy.
I loved the bar. Usually I get bored after about 2 ounces of intense chocolate, but this was so well done. The chocolate itself is dreamy, the nuts and cherries are absolute perfection. I noticed that Cacao Prieto actually sells couveture drops of the 72% Dominican ... which I’m pretty tempted by at the moment.
There are a few other interesting features for the bar, first is that it’s Kosher. That’s pretty rare for bean-to-bar chocolate. The bar is made from organic beans and contains no soy lecithin as an emulsifier. There are also no milk products and is considered vegan.
I picked up this bar at Lolli & Pops, a newer and still small chain of candy stores. I got a private tour of the shop before they opened one Sunday morning last month from one of their salesfolk, Jaz. It’s an interesting selection, very wide. They have the standard sugar candy offerings of gummi bears, Skittles and Jelly Belly by the pound. Those are pretty expensive at $15.00 a pound, which is standard mall pricing these days. But what sets Lolli & Pops apart would be their selection of lesser known candies. They have imported mass-produced bars, a good cross-section of Japanese gummis and chews and then they have chocolate bars. Their chocolate room has a lot of candy by the pound (that’s where I got the Chocolate Covered Banana Gummi Bears reviewed last week) but also bars.
They have chocolate from most of the fine bean-to-bar chocolate makers: Amano, Theo, Lillie Belle, Marou, Blanxart, Poco Dolce, Chuao, Scharffen Berger, Taza, Dick Taylor and Dandelion… just to name the ones that I can remember. Though the other candy was priced a bit high, the bars here were at about the same price as if I’d ordered them right from the chocolate makers themselves ... without the shipping. Now, all the chocolate is expensive, most bars are between $5 and $10 a bar, but that’s just the going rate for many of the small batch companies. I don’t know of any other shop in Glendale that carries such a wide variety, so it’s a nice addition to the area.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Back in 1995 Cadbury introduced a hollow, molded chocolate novelty called Yowie that included an animal toy in the center in Australia. They were wildly successful not only in Australia but in Oceania, as well, even outselling the more globally known Kinder Surprise Egg in those territories. Then about 10 years ago some disputes between Cadbury and the product line’s creators, they were discontinued (more about that here).
There are plenty of hollow chocolates out there filled with little candies, but it’s not easy to find them with a toy surprise. In the United States they are banned because in most cases the toy inside qualifies as a choking hazard. Even though the toy is enclosed within a plastic egg that is far too big to be swallowed, it’s the tiny toys (often requiring assembly) that have American regulators on watch for them. (I’ve brought back the toys from Kinder Eggs from Germany, but never the intact candy.)
The Yowie Group has found a way around all of this regulation by simply making the toy inside too big to be a choking hazard and are reintroducing the Yowie line of toys enclosed in chocolate ... starting this time with the United States.
Yowies also have a few other features that Kinder Surprise Eggs do not. The chocolate is considered real chocolate (all natural) and is Rainforest Alliance certified. They’re shaped and molded not like a simple egg, but in the form of different characters. Inside the molded chocolate is a plastic capsule (also kind of a toy itself) that holds the toy. The toy is actual decent quality and are themed as little animal figurines with information inside the capsule about them.
The chocolate is formed in halves, fully designed on both sides (though the back is less interesting). It comes apart rather easily to reveal the capsule inside. They’re rather large, about 2.75 inches tall.
I bought two of them at Lolli & Pops in Glendale (I can’t even find anywhere online to buy them as I write this). They were expensive, $3.75 each. Sadly, one of them was badly bloomed and inedible. They had the same expiration on them, and none of my other chocolate I purchased had any texture/blooming issues, so I’m going to have to say that it happened somewhere between manufacturing and the checkout counter. (So, I staged the photo below to make sure you’d see both of the toys.)
The chocolate itself is pleasant. It’s very thin, so once I put a piece in my mouth, it melted very quickly. It has a fresh “dairy milk” flavor, a rounded cocoa note and a smooth texture. It’s not the best milk chocolate I’ve ever had, but it’s certainly very good for a chocolate novelty item.
You’re not buying it for the chocolate anyway, and as far as candy indulgences go for kids, it’s only one ounce (most chocolate/candy bars are 1.5 to 2.5 ounces) so it’s pretty low in calories overall (153). The little toys are solid and good quality for something considered a novelty ... though certainly not a product I’d be willing to pay more than 50 or 60 cents for, let alone $3.75, even if it does include an ounce of chocolate. But this is for kids.
It’s difficult to read the foil for the ingredients and other information. The press release from the company says that the chocolate is ethically sourced and their website shows the Rainforest Alliance logo. The chocolate is gluten and nut free and Kosher certified. The novelties are made here in the United States at Whetstone Chocolate of St. Augustine, Florida.
Monday, August 18, 2014
It seems odd that I picked up Jelly Belly jelly beans while I was in London, but this particular box isn’t available here. I bought this cute little pocket-sized flip-top box of Jelly Belly Beanaturals: 14 Flavors at Selfridges.
These beans are made in Thailand. In fact, if you see Jelly Belly candy in a store outside of North America, it’s probably going to be the Thai-made version. Many European countries have strict rules about genetically modified ingredients, the factory there uses non-GMO sugar and non-GMO glucose syrup (from tapioca instead of corn. (You can read more about that here.)
So, in addition to being free of any GMO ingredients, the beans are also made with all natural flavorings and colorings. They’re kosher, made in a nut free facility and gluten free. This is actually not that different from many of the jelly beans and other candies that Jelly Belly offers ... except for that GMO thing. Jelly Belly has plenty of beans mixes that are all natural ... so what I’m really trying out here is the European version.
The box is not large and only holds 1.59 ounces, so there were not even that many beans in there considering there were going to be 14 different flavors. In my assortment I had six Lime. Only one Barbecue Banana, but six Lime beans. These are the hazards of random distribution.
The first thing I noticed was how quickly the beans lose their freshness. The box was shrinkwrapped, and when I photographed them over the weekend, the beans I ate were soft and normal. But later in the week, oh, about Wednesday, when I worked on this post in earnest, they were suddenly hard. They were kept in the flip top box, closed, out of the sun and within a reasonable temperature span. Yet they were stiff and, well, stale.
Lime (light green) is nicely rounded, a little bitter towards the end and missing more of the juicy tartness.
Plum (dark maroon) is sweet and sort of like actual plum ...maybe just the plum skin but not much of the fruity, juicy notes.
Barbecue Banana (speckled yellow) is quite nice. Very sweet but the banana does have more of a baked sweetness to it, instead of the artificial vanilla note. I actually thought I only had one of these until I realized later that I had a bunch of opaque yellow ones that weren’t lemon leftover that were banana. Yum.
Orange (orange) is sweet but with a zesty note towards the end. It reminded me more of an orange jelly slice than a jelly bean as it lacked that tart bite.
Tangerine (orange) was really similar to the orange, so much so, I wasn’t sure they were different except that there were several of those and they were definitely a lighter orange. I wanted something intensely orange with that hint of lemon that real tangerines have. They were fine, but I really had my hopes up.
Lemon (yellow) was in the citrus zone that I hoped Tangerine would be. It was both sweet and tart and had a strong lemon peel bitterness at the top.
Cherry (red) was good. It was fruity without any hint of the bitterness that artificial colors can bring. The flavor also lasted a while, with a sort of jasmine floral finish.
Strawberry Jam (light pink) was actually more like jam than fresh strawberries. This left it more on the sweet side, without that delightful cotton candy floral note, but still good and nice in combination with my many Lime beans.
Juicy Pear (medium green) was weird and grassy and maybe even a little garlicky ... to the point where I was wondering if I got a Bernie Bott’s bean by mistake. But I only had one of these beans, so there was no way for me to get someone else’s opinion.
Pineapple (uncolored) was bland overall, like canned pineapple instead of the fresh stuff. Too much syrup and not enough acid.
Passion Fruit (speckled orange) is okay, it actually didn’t taste like much except for that generic “tropical candle” flavor.
Coconut (white with small speckles) tastes undeniably like coconut. It just does. Sometimes I thought there were actually coconut bits in it. You’d think it would go well with Pineapple ... and you’d be right.
Yup, there’s one missing here ... I didn’t get any Fruit Punch in my box. I’m okay with that.
I don’t think I’ve had this issue with the beans getting really hard so quickly before. Jelly Beans are one of those candies that is intended to be put in an open container for serving ... a bowl of jelly beans. If they can’t take being in a closed but not sealed box for several days without losing their freshness, I’m not sure I can commit to eating the full box (I know, it’s less than 2 ounces) within a day.
Monday, August 4, 2014
While in London earlier this year, I made sure to visit some of the finer chocolate shops. One I wanted to go to in particular was one of the Hotel Chocolat locations known as Roast+Conch, where they actually make some bean to bar chocolate. The location in the Borough Market in the Bankside district of London and includes a full restaurant that features cacao as an ingredient in every dish.
After eating a wonderful lunch, my mother and I browsed the store on the ground level. The cacao of the day was Trinidad, with the beans being served before lunch and some pieces of freshly made chocolate served at the end of the meal. So I was sure to pick up a bar of that. Then I also wanted to try another bar from their Rabot 1745 line. Though Hotel Chocolate uses Callebaut chocolate in their other confections, their Rabot line is made in conjunction with Coppeneur in Germany (one of my favorite chocolate makers). I didn’t know that at the time, but now it doesn’t surprise me at all.
I picked out a Venezuela Chuao 70% bar. Chuao cacao has a strong reputation as some of the best beans in the world (here’s a sampling of some bars I tasted a few years ago).
Hotel Chocolat gives extensive information about the handling of the beans and making of the cacao. The bar itself is 70% cacao with just three ingredients: cacao mass, cane sugar and soy lecithin.
The description of this bar from Hotel Chocolat goes something like this: Prima Donna with talent. She’s good and she knows it – an interplay of cream and caramel with malt and raisins, roast nuts and plenty of elegant poise.
Roasting time: 35min @135 C.
Refining & Conching: 72hrs
The bar is wonderfully dark with an interesting texture from the mold. Though it’s rather thick, it’s quite easy to snap.
The scent is woodsy with some green notes like jasmine and olives. The melt is smooth, though it has a bitter note right away, a sort of dryness that gives it an acidic bite. But the buttery texture makes that all quite palatable. I caught a burnt note to it, a sort of smoke but nothing that’s unpleasant. It doesn’t have some of the other nutty notes I enjoy in other Venezuelan chocolate, mostly those from Ocumare. But I’d definitely eat this again, mostly because the texture is so nice, especially since it’s such a high cacao content.
The bar itself just came in the cellophane sleeve with a label, there was no box. The label also didn’t say anything about the conch time or the harvest, just the date the bar was best by. The Hotel Chocolat website says that they use Trinitario beans (which makes sense, since they’re from Trinidad where the varietal originated).
It’s a 75% bar, so it’s only a little bit darker than the Chuao. The texture is far and away different, it’s grittier and sort of rustic in its overall flavors. It’s woodsy with some coffee and black pepper notes, a little toffee and brown sugar as well. It’s kind of bitter, but not overly dry at the finish. The meal we had in the restaurant started with these beans and then later finished with little medallions of chocolate also from Trinidad beans. I like the idea of buying chocolate that’s made right before my eyes, but the reality is that I prefer to eat the chocolate that’s been carefully crafted ... and I don’t have to witness it to enjoy it.
I’ve found that I like a long conch on my chocolate, part of what I like about a good chocolate bar is the texture. In most cases a long conch gives the cacao not only the time it needs to become smooth, but also for the flavors to develop. I did a taste test a few years back with some Coppeneur Chuao that had been conched 70 hours and 100 hours. Much of the mass-market chocolate we consume is conched for less than a day, some for two days ... I found that a 3 day conch is fine for me, anything over that gets kind of muddy in the flavor department but does create an amazingly smooth texture.
The Rabot 1745 line from Hotel Chocolat is a worthwhile way to experience single origin chocolate along with a lot of information about the making of the bar itself, as few chocolate makers include the origin, harvest date, roasting and conch time.
Monday, June 30, 2014
Though most of the confectioners I was searching for in London were chocolate related, I knew I needed to pick up a package of Percy Pig Soft Gums from Marks & Spencer. It wasn’t hard to find them, as it was hard to walk more than three blocks in central London and not run across one of their food stops.
They’re described as Soft gums made with fruit juice. Made without artificial colors or flavorings. Though they call them gums, they’re actually gummis, as in, they’re made with gelatin. The texture is a hybrid between marshmallow and gummi.
Marks and Spencer came up with the idea for Percy Pig in conjunction with one of their contract manufacturers, Katjes, in Germany. Marks & Spencer wanted something fruity and foamy. The look of the candy was based off of the existing Tappsy panda-faced licorice line from Katjes.
The color is definitely close to what I’d call pig skin pink. It’s a light color that’s more like putty than actual artificial pink common in most candies here in the United States. The scent is rather berry-like, a little floral with a tangy sort of yogurt note.
The texture is soft and easy to bite, they’re not too tacky or stiff. The flavor is much more intense than the similar Haribo foamy gummis I’ve had over the years. They’re wonderfully well done, good tartness, good jammy berry flavors (strawberry and raspberry). The ears are a little more tart and less creamy (marshmallowy) than the face.
It’s a great product and I can see why Brits are so fond of them. There are plenty of similar products on the market now, but for a long time they really occupied a niche that was not well served by the existing candies available. I would love more flavor variations, but since I know that Katjes makes them, they have lots of other yogurt gums and other foamy gummi candies in their repertoire ... some also in amazingly cute shapes.
For some more history on Percy Pig, you can read up at this feature article on The Independent.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.