Wednesday, July 5, 2006
I first heard about Chuao Chocolatier a couple of months ago but haven’t been able to visit them until this weekend. The main location is in Encinitas and they have other shops in San Diego. But they also have one at the Irvine Spectrum, so on a blazingly hot Sunday afternoon my husband and I stopped by to see what it was all about. Let me just say this, if this is the direction that upscale chocolate is going, I can fully support it.
The shop is spare and simple with lots of dark wood touches and reflects more of a wine connoisseur aesthetic than candy. I greeted the women behind the counter (I’ve never done this before) ... I introduced myself and gave full disclosure that I’m a candy writer and boy did I get the full treatment! But seeing how well Melissa, the manager, did her tour of the company through samples of most of their product lines, I get the sense she does it for anyone who’s interested. She was knowlegable, enthusiastic and completely engaging.
First, a little about Chuao. It’s one of those stories about people who follow their passions. Michael Antonoris (once a biomedical engineer and MBA before he “stopped chasing his ego and started chasing his culinary passion,” and went to Paris for two years to study Pastry and Chocolaterie at the ?cole Lenotre). Born in Venezuela, he brought not only his culinary aesthetic to candymaking, but also the native cacao from the region. His chocolate source is El Rey Chocolate. You can read lots more on their website about the history of the company and other press clippings.
The first sample we tried was their flavor of the month for July, which is a beer (San Diego produced Stout) infused chocolate - with a strong wheat/yeasty flavor to the chocolate ganache, it was intriguing and brought out the best of the beer and the chocolate.
She also let us try last month’s (after all, it was only July 2nd) intriguing little egg which was filled with chocolate, olive oil and sun-dried tomato filling. I really liked the olive essence in there, but I’m not a huge fan of sun-dried tomatoes, but they seem to work in there. I could see those going really well with a wine and cheese assortment.
Other wonderful morsels she gave us to try included:
Chocolate Covered Orange Peel - lovely dark chocolate surrounding soft and intense orange zest. Not too syrupy sweet and not the least bit bitter.
Chocolate Covered Ginger - this is no ordinary candied ginger, the pieces are plump and juicy and have no fibery bits. Sweet and with a gentle burn that lasts long after the chocolate is gone.
Coco Nib Snack - fine little nibs a little smaller than peppercorns and caramelized/tossed with a little salt and chili. Fascinating little morsels, not too sweet but also doesn’t have any of that bitter/acrid flavor that some plain nibs have. No fibery bits either. I’m not sure if I’d eat them straight, but I’d love them tossed on a salad or maybe some ice cream.
Even though it was insanely hot, we still tried a little bit of their hot chocolate. They have two varieties, the traditional Abuela and Spicy Maya. They weren’t as thick and milky as many that I had on my last NY trip, but the flavors were really great. I enjoyed the Maya best, as the spice wasn’t too overwhelming, but supported the floral and wine notes of the chocolate.
But the time eventually came to pick out some things to take home.
I picked out a box of 9 pieces:
Melao - salt butter caramel - this one was quite reminiscent of the Sahgun salt caramel I had earlier this year. Quite soft, almost juicy, with a slight grain to the caramezlied sugar and a round sweet flavor dosed with salt to bring out the flavors.
Candela - spicy macadamia praline - very strange - it’s grainy, but not in an unpleasant way. Salty, crispy and with a soft spicy finish, the center is more like eating a cookie dough than a chocolate. For the record, I love cookie dough.
Cardamom - cardamom infused ganache - fresh and lightly infused with that cardamom note that I love about Indian food. Buttery smooth and rich. I would have liked more cardamom, like the Vosges one I tried in NYC.
Modena - strawberry caramel with balsamic vinegar from Modena - this was just plain strawberry as far as I could tell. Nicely fruity and aromatic, smooth and refreshing with a good balance of notes for the dark chocolate, but I wasn’t really getting the balsamic notes.
Chevre - goat cheese, pear Williams and crushed black buttercream - fascinating and probably addictive. At first the dark chocolate ganache is tangy, like a goat cheese. Then the black pepper infusion coming to the surface. The pear played a minor note, but the black pepper pieces were incredible, as they were softened by the chocolate and more like small, spicy raisins.
Zen - green tea infused ginger ganache - wonderful plump pieces of crystalized ginger in a dark chocolate ganache with only a hint of tea. Not too sweet - a good subtle balance.
Gran Cacao - bittersweet ganache with 73% cocoa - a lovely and rich ganache with a good buttery start and some good floral and berry notes.
Cambur - soft banana and brown sugar caramel - imagine a fried banana, drenched in caramelized sugar and then drizzled with chocolate. Mmmm. Intensely banana, but thoroughly authentic tasting. Rich and sweet. By far my favorite of them all.
Picante - California raisin fondue and Napa Valley cabernet caramel, spiced with pasilla chili and cayenne pepper - tart and with fruity/jammy qualities but with an immediate burn in my throat from some fresh tasting chilis. There are some wine notes, but mostly a grape and chili flavor mixed with the dark chocolate but the caramelized sugar is completely lost. I wouldn’t have minded a little hit of molasses or brown sugar in there.
On the whole, I’d say that the line of uncommon flavor combinations is much like Vosges and of similar quality. Where Vosges seems to angle itself towards women, Chuao seems incredibly masculine. The flavors are bold and uncommon and assertive. Flavors are borrowed from outside the candy realm with excellent results. But when they’re inside the sweets oveure, they’re really at their best. The spiced flavors are wonderful but I really enjoyed the caramelized items like the Cambur.
I’m definitely planning on stopping there again, it’s exceptionally convenient when I’m down in Orange County visiting with my husband’s family and it looks like they will continue to develop new flavor combinations that will keep my tongue occupied. They also offer classes, which I would love to take (but only at the Carlsbad location), so maybe someday I’ll become a master chocolatier, too. If you’re a wine or beer lover, they also have tips and product lines for serving them together.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Mars hasn’t been nearly as invested in the limited edition game as Hershey’s but I think that when they do come out with an item, though it’s usually just a simple twist on an existing one, they’re pretty good.
Witness the Snickers Xtreme. It’s a Snickers bar without that pesky nougat. What’s odd about this bar is that Snickers has already released this product in miniature.
I smashed my bar in my bag, so the picture isn’t that pretty. (I cut off the smashed part to give the bar the best chance at looking dead sexy. I tried biting the bar to show off the innards, but all you saw was caramel, not the plethora of nuts.)
The label heralds it as having 5 grams of protein, which is pretty good for a candy bar. Nearly all of that protein is from the peanuts with a trace amount, I supposed, from the milk in the chocolate and caramel.
First, let me tell you about my hopes for this bar. I’ve always been a big fan of the Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews because of the density of the nuts but also because the infusion of molasses gave the chew a real pop of flavor. I was hoping that the Snickers Xtreme bar would fill that niche, only with real chocolate.
What this bar does is reveal how uninspiring the caramel of the Snickers (and I’ll wager the Milky Way) actually is. I could taste the peanuts loud and clear and the milk chocolate made a nice appearance (albeit a sweet one), but the caramel only provided a backdrop of sweet chew, no caramelized sugar notes. (And an odd hint of cinnamon but that could be cross contamination with all the other candy I’ve picked up and stored this with ... Atomic Fire Balls were EVERYWHERE!)
My last quarrel I’m going to mention is the name of the bar. If Milky Way put out a caramel-less bar, you wouldn’t call it a Milky Way Xtreme ... you’d call it a 3 Musketeers. If you took out the nuts in a Snickers, well, you’d have a Milky Way ... see where I’m going here? Changing an item to a different version of the same basic foodstuff, such as dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate does qualify. But taking out a whole item does not allow you to keep them name. Period.
Actually, I liked the bar. Probably more than the regular Snickers bar, because it isn’t quite as sweet (because of the nuts) and if it’s possible, it’s more satisfying that way. It’s a calorie laden bar - 290 to be exact and at over 2 ounces, it’s no wonder it satisfies (that’s only 10 more calories than the regular Snickers bar and one more gram of protein). Now if they decided to make the Snickers Almond bar into an Xtreme, I am so there!
Here’s something I learned last week: The Snickers bar was named after one of the Mars family horses. You can read more about the Snickers history (which is pretty interesting) at the Snickers site.
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
It was a dark and stormy bar ... the 100 Grand (or $100,000 Bar as it was originally known) was always a favorite of mine. The smooth and chewy caramel with the crisped rice and sweet milk chocolate was such a good combo. I’m also a big fan of two small size bars packaged together. It makes it easy to share, easy to keep some for later; or you can eat them both at the same time. It’s flexible.
The 100 Grand Dark is just semi sweet chocolate instead of milk. It actually looks a little different than the regular bar, besides the color of the coat, the crunchies seem smaller. Take a look at this shot of a regular 100 Grand. Joanna at SugarSavvy had the first review I saw.
The less sweet bite of the dark chocolate really helps to highlight the salty/chewy caramel. The crispies are a nice texturizing element here.
I didn’t really want to like this bar and didn’t think that I did, but I ate it ... I mean gobbled it up. I took the picture and then instantly finished off that piece with the bite out of it. But usually I save the second half for when I am writing up the post ... not so here. I had lunch yesterday and then I ate it. I tried to linger over it like I do with the upscale chocolates, but instead I just enjoyed it on the purest level: without words. I have nothing but good feelings about my consumption of this bar and I’m a little disappointed it’s not a new addition to the line. And I want another one. It’s the kick that the 100 Grand has needed all along.
Now watch them let it fade into obscurity.
A last note, I’m a little irritated that they use High Fructose Corn Sweetener in there instead of sugar, but it’s pretty far down on the list of ingredients, so it might not be much more than a dash of it.
See other review on the Limited Edition 100 Grand with Peanuts.
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
I posted recently about Chocolate Covered Sugar Babies and lamented the loss of the Sugar Mama, which was a chocolate covered Sugar Daddy. Well, a couple of people have since told me that Sugar Mamas do actually exist. But only in name.
I think the story goes something like this: Sugar Daddy and the first Sugar Mama got married and had a mess of Sugar Babies. But Sugar Daddy wasn’t happy. Sugar Mama wasn’t happy, maybe resentful that the Sugar Babies got all the attention, maybe she started to drink, or maybe it had something to do with the big company, Nabisco, selling the Sugar Family to Tootsie, but Sugar Mama disappeared. I don’t want to say that someone put a hit out on her, but it seems that someone quietly got rid of her and was hoping that we’d forget that Sugar Daddy was a single parent. Maybe it was a Mexican divorce and Sugar Mama is out there somewhere, living under a different name, but she’s hiding really well.
So later on the new Sugar Mama comes along and Sugar Daddy gets a quickie marriage, I reckon they didn’t even go to Vegas, probably just to the courthouse in one of the states where you don’t have to wait. Sugar Daddy told Sugar Babies to call his new wife Sugar Mama, and I guess the Sugar Babies have complied ... but she’s not their Mama. She’s nothing like their Mama.
I wouldn’t really mind if Sugar Mama is Sugar Daddy’s trophy wife, but she’d have to be a trophy of some kind. She’s not really that good looking, just little flat squares of quasi caramel. Instead of being smooth and slow like Sugar Daddy, Sugar Mama is a little grainy, very soft and lacking in a strong caramelized sugar taste and that stunning orange/brown color that Sugar Daddy and the Sugar Babies share. However, Sugar Mama is not a hazard to dental work in the same way that Sugar Daddy can be.
I certainly like them better than the Kraft caramels, and they’re nice and soft and chewy, but they’re lacking in a certain elasticity and smoothness. They don’t have that grainy chew towards the end that Sugar Babies have, but they also don’t that ultra dense chew that lasts to the very end with Sugar Daddy. Now, if you’re thinking you can’t make a smaller version of the Sugar Daddy, you have to remember that they used to sell something called Sugar Daddy Nuggets, which were pretty much the same format as Sugar Mamas, but you know, really good.
Why did they do this? What’s with these big candy companies discontinuing a candy and then coopting the old name for use in a different candy (remember Marathon? Mars now uses the name for an energy type bar)? Can’t they at least wait a generation or two to prevent muddling? Aren’t there enough words out there that they can just take new names? I guess it’d look funny calling these Sugar Step-Mamas.
Friday, April 28, 2006
It’s so weird how candy seems to appear sometimes. It might have been there all along, but it’s invisible to me unless I know what I’m looking for. For a long time I wasn’t even interested in GooGoo Clusters. Mostly because of the marshmallow element. It’s odd that I say that I don’t like marshmallows much, but then I look at the items I’ve reviewed and see the tally that I’ve posted about marshmallow candies 16 times before but only 9 posts about licorice or 10 about malt which are actually a favorites of mine. But in my defense I most recently tried the GooGoo Supreme because it included one of my favorite nuts, the Pecan.
As disappointing as that bar was, it did get me curious about the GooGoo Cluster. But where to find one? I thought about ordering them online, but it’s kind of a hassle and candy is all about easy, isn’t it? Then I was in the 99 Cent Only Store looking for some cheap storage bins for all my candy and I breezed through the candy aisle and saw them!
The GooGoo Cluster is a flat marshmallow center with a glaze of caramel which is then covered in a mix of milk chocolate studded with peanuts.
There are a lot of nuts, and they’re like those Spanish peanuts in that many still have their skins. It’s an interesting combination of textures and flavors. The goo is soft and though not quite flowing, it’s not foamy either. The caramel provides a good bit of chew to the whole thing and then there’s the chocolate and coconut. Yes, there’s coconut in here - which gives the peanuts much more of a nutty pop and makes everything taste creamier.
I was VERY suprised by this bar. First, I think it helps that it was obviously fresh. I’m often hesitant to review bargain store candy, but these are clearly not leftovers or closeouts. Second, it’s a great combination of flavors in the proper proportions. (As long as you like peanuts). It wasn’t too sweet and it wasn’t too gooey (if you can believe that a bar named GooGoo isn’t too gooey).
I just hope they keep selling them at the 99 Cent Only Store ... or maybe I hope they don’t!
Monday, April 24, 2006
About a month ago a friend went to Seattle. Being a good friend she asked me if I wanted anything (knowing it would be a candy request). I told her that several people recommended Fran’s Chocolates, specifically their salt caramels. I even emailed her the locations of their shops to help her find the place.
Well, as luck would have it, she was up there for a panel discussion and one of the hospitality gifts was this package of Gray Salt Caramels ... so they must be famous!
The side of the package heralds them as “Award Winning! Soft butter caramels sprinkled with flavorful gray sea salt harvested off the Brittany Coast.”
I had to do some digging, I saw on their website that the caramels won the 2003 NASFT Outstanding Confection award, but I had no clue what NASFT was. Turns out it’s the The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, so I guess it’s like the Oscars (tm) for fancy food. (The run the fancy food shows in San Francisco, Chicago and New York ... something for me to put on my list o’ things to do.)
The caramels are covered in dark chocolate which helps to highlight the flavors. The caramel is sweet and the chocolate is smooth and creamy and the salt make it all pop. If anything, the salt makes it all taste creamier and richer. The salt itself had a more musky, deep flavor to it than regular table salt (yes, I tried the salt grains alone).
Salted Caramels are all the rage now, I’ve seen quite a few varieties in the past year or so, but I guess Fran’s was one of the first to present them. The large salt grains give a good textural addition besides the obvious salty pop. They’re very satisfying and vibrant on the tongue, but they don’t beg to be eaten over and over again. I had the package for quite a while and didn’t eat them all in one sitting, nor did I want to.
They’re fantastic, but they feel very special. I wouldn’t want a whole box of them, but I’d like a box of Fran’s candy and have a few of these sprinkled in (like this mix).
I’m definitely keen on trying other chocolates in Fran’s line. You can read more about the history of this Seattle Chocolatier on their website.
Kate at Accidental Hedonist also posted about these last week! So at David Lebovitz’s suggestion, I ate the last one upside-down, so that that salt hit my tongue first ... quite intense!
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
I’ve never had a GooGoo Cluster, but I figured if I’m going to start, I’d better start at the top. I found these GooGoo Supreme at Economy Candy in NYC, which had just about everything ... except the regular GooGoo Cluster of course.
The GooGoo Supreme is made of marshmallow, caramel and pecans, all covered in milk chocolate. It’s a bit smaller bar than its bigger brother, the GooGoo Cluster, I’m guessing because of the inclusion of a premium ingredient like pecans. I prefer when companies just downsize the entire bar so that the proportions can be maintained, instead of just skimping on an element like the nuts.
I was rather excited about this combination as pecans are one of my favorite nuts and caramel and milk chocolate sound like great elements ... I wasn’t keen on the marshmallow idea, but something has to be the goo.
It’s not really gooey at all. It’s more like a turtle with a soft nougaty center. The milk chocolate is very sweet and has a slight waxy quality to it, but I’m wondering if my bars weren’t the freshest. The first one I opened (pictured) was a little chalky. The second one (the one reviewed) was quite a bit better in texture. The pecans are nice and super-abundant and the caramel gives it a soft chew. However, the whole thing descends into a sugary graininess towards the end that is just too sweet for me.
I don’t know if the bar was not fresh enough, so if I see another, I might give it another go around. I’m also still curious about the GooGoo Cluster, as I’m a fan of peanuts and caramel together.
Some history: the GooGoo Cluster boasts being the first combination candy bar (there were plenty of chocolate bars before that, but no one had thought of making combinations of ingredients and individually wrapping them like chocolate bars).
Monday, April 17, 2006
Whoo hoo! I had quite a morning down in SoHo on my last day in NYC. My first stop was at Vosges. I’d already been in NYC for a week, and I’d resisted the temptation to go upscale. But I’d done all the other scales and the trip had been pretty cheap, so here I was, throwing caution to the wind.
I’ve already tried several of the Vosges chocolate bars and though they’re fantastically expensive for chocolate bars ($6.75 each), they had flavor combinations you just don’t get from anyone else in that price range.
But I really needed to try the truffles, again, because of the flavor combinations.
Stepping into the shop, it was larger than many other little places I’d visited in NYC and it didn’t hurt that it was a Thursday morning and the only other person in the shop besides the woman behind the counter was a messenger who seemed a little lost and grateful for a little sample of chocolate before he got his bearings.
As I got my bearings by taking a few of the same samples (one was the Red Fire chocolate and the other was their version of guanduia) and became accustomed to the vibrant purple tones, I ordered a hot chocolate. They had three to chose from, a standard European style dark hot chocolate, a Red Fire, which I’d already had several of since I came to NY and then the last option on the board was a Hot White Chocolate. Now I’m not normally one to go for these sorts of things, but I hadn’t had anything to eat so far that morning (it was a little after 11AM) but it was described as an infusion of white chocolate and lavender with lemon. Sounds good enough for me. I wasn’t disappointed. It was served in a tall, narrow cylinder of a glass and it was spectacular. It was like drinking a creme brulee, but not quite so syrupy rich. Not nearly as sweet as I expected, it was creamy and rich and the citrus/floral infusion kept it feeling light and refreshing. I don’t mind spending that much at all, because I know it’s something I’m never going to make at home.
While drinking I had plenty of time to look over the truffles to make my selection:
Absinthe - an infusion of anise, fennel and pastis - lighter and more woodsy than licorice, the smooth ganache blended well. The top was sprinkled with ground Chinese star anise, which was the only part that I didn’t like, as it added a little too much grain to the experience.
Ellateria - Holy Moly! It’s the Holy Grail of cardamom chocolates. Why don’t they make a chocolate bar like this? The ganache is an infusion of dark chocolate with cardamom and white poppy seeds with more sprinkled on top. The whole box was fragranced by the cardamom, these were smooth and flavorful and just made me want more. It’s rare when a truffle makes me want to pop another in my mouth.
Poivre - yes peppercorn truffles and boy howdy is the burn nice. Telicherry black and Muntok white peppercorns in a smooth ganache and some extra crushed peppercorns on the top for a lingering tingle.
Tlan Nacu - I couldn’t even remember which one this was when I bit into it and I had to look it up. It was a nice, dark chocolate truffle with seemingly no essences to it. It turns out it was Vanilla. Hey, it was! Mellow and sweet, vanilla is a wonderful complement to chocolate.
Naga - of all of the truffles I picked out, this is the only one I had tried in bar form. Naga is coconut and curry in milk chocolate. It’s quite a stunning combination, with a strange milky quality and of course the tickly tingle of curry.
Sal del Mare - a salted caramel. This one still qualified as a truffle though. the lighter chocolate shell had two chambers, the bottom was flowing salted caramel and the top was chocolate ganache. The caramel was smooth and sweet and with a salted bite and the chocolate set it off nicely. Not nearly as shocking as some other salted caramels and this one had the added bonus of a pine nut on top to mellow all the flavors together.
(Yes, there are more truffles in the box than listed here, I did some doubles and one just for my husband that I didn’t taste.)
Overall, I think that the Vosges shop is a great destination, a little treat for yourself if you’re in one of the cities where they have a store (Chicago, NYC and Las Vegas). The quality is superb, the freshness and combination of flavors set them apart from many other trufflers. Whereas many of the other truffles and chocolates I experienced (Pierre Marcolini & Marie Belle) on this trip were the flattened kind, Vosges makes them as generous spheres that give you ample ganache for really appreciating the flavors. I don’t see myself ordering them online, but I know I’ll make an effort to see their flagship store in Chicago when I’m there in June.
The store also features some clothing and candles and other lifestyle paraphernalia, but I’m not about to start reviewing the branded merchandise that goes with chocolate. There’s a long bar with stools for sitting and enjoying a drink or truffle on site with a friend or as a solo treat, and if you play your cards right, you can get out of there for less than $10.00. But if you’re looking for a real splurge, they have a “Club Haut-Chocolat” where they’ll send you a box of nine for 13 months for a mere $490. That’s love, baby.
POSTED BY Cybele AT 6:33 pm
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.