Friday, December 29, 2006
Here’s another trend among cooks that’s filtered into the candy world: artisan salt. The most common place to find this in confections is in caramels. Sometimes it’s grains of sea salt sprinkled on top, sometimes it’s just a saltier caramel. It’s not like caramels didn’t always have salt in them. When I make my own caramels I usually use both salted butter and a pinch of salt because I think it brings out the caramelized flavors better.
But of course the gourmets weren’t satisfied with plain old table salt or the more upscale Kosher flake salt, now they insist on curiously-colored and super-expensive sea salt crystals from Hawaii, France or New Zealand. They like to remind us of the grand history of salt and how our word for salary comes from the same root and why that means we should pay oodles of money for dried sea water. Frankly, it all looks like the stuff that we used to throw on the sidewalk when it got icy.
All that said, I welcome the new attention to salt as a way to bring out natural flavors. And I welcome Trader Joe’s foray into the salted caramel market because it’s actually affordable. The Shaker-style box that they come in is cute. Inside the box are two plastic bags with 7 ounces of caramels each. Not really as pretty on the inside as I might have hoped for $6.99 a box (maybe a little wood shavings or excelsior?).
The caramels are beautiful. Luminous and even looking, they’re smell like butter and burnt sugar. They’re individually wrapped in neatly folded clear cellophane. They’re sizeable morsels as well, each is two bites in my estimation. They’re firm to the touch but easy to bite apart.
While some salted caramels have grains of salt sprinkled on top, these are completely incorporated (like the Charles Chocolates and unlike the Fran’s) The salt is very apparent on the tongue but the smooth chew and the buttery mouthfeel come through loud and clear.
I liked them. I’m not sure I really want to eat all 14 ounces of them (that’s what’s good about the two packets in there instead of a large single one), so I might come up with some interesting things to do with them, like making a hard sauce for bread pudding.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Nope, not a Limited Edition find, Hershey’s has just jumped in and added the KitKat Caramel to their repertoire. Instead of being the four finger bar, this one is modeled on the super KitKat single finger (thumb?).
I didn’t like this format bar when it was the “Extra Crispy” one, so I was dreading this one a bit.
It smelled buttery, which I found rather pleasant. My bar had a caramel leak (much like the Valomilk) which meant that the caramel reservoir at the top of the bar was a little scant when I bit into it. Later in the bar the caramel density picked up to their intended levels, which was a nice proportion. It’s a sweet bar, but the caramel has a buttery and salty snap that mellows out the sugary, grainy chocolate, bland wafers and grainier cream filling.
If anything, there was too much chocolate on the sides of the bar. Perhaps it’s structurally necessary, but I found it interfered with my caramel enjoyment. The other annoyance with this bar is that you can’t put it down. I mean, you can, but the caramel flows out and you’ve got yourself a sticky cara-mess.
I still prefer the original KitKat, but the salty bite of the flowing caramel is compelling so I’ll give this one another try at some point.
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
On my last San Francisco visit, after the night of the chocolate induced coma, I went to visit a chocolate factory. Unlike the Scharffen Berger factory that I saw last year around this time, I went to a place where they make more than just bars. Charles Chocolates in Emeryville makes heavenly concoctions under the direction of Chuck Seigel composed of fine chocolate, premium nuts (roasted on the premises), fresh fruits, teas and of course lots and lots of sugar & butter.
What sets Chuck apart from some other chocolatiers I’ve met is his lack of pretension (he admits not only to eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers, but he likes them!) but also his conviction to make candies to his standards and no one else’s. By example, we were talking about the new craze for salted caramels. He makes his own (chocolate and plain - review below) but doesn’t bother with the little salt crystals on top because he thinks that the texture gets in the way of the pure caramel and salt experience. He also makes his own marzipan from scratch and infuses it with citrus. I watched as they made a batch of lemon marzipan, and if I ever said here that I didn’t like marzipan, it was because I hadn’t tried Chuck’s. It’s sweet, mellow, nutty and zesty without that bitter medicinal taste of amaretto that so many others have.
Chuck is known for his nuts, which are roasted a little darker than others, he says to bring out more of their intrinsic flavors. I’m actually a big fan of raw nuts, so I was worried that these would be burnt and acrid tasting.
My problem with roasted nuts up until Charles Chocolates has obviously been quality control. His Triple Chocolate Almonds were divine. Instead of being just dark or milk chocolate, it’s both. There’s a rich milk chocolate layer and a dark chocolate layer (or maybe two, who knows, I couldn’t be bothered with dissecting them) and then they’re rolled in cocoa.
The little tin they come in is pretty fun too. They’re sealed in not only with a plastic wrap around the whole cylinder, but there’s also a little plastic cap inside the metal one. Air is the enemy of nuts, so Chuck has done his utmost to keep rancidity at bay. Not that I had them long enough. Of the haul that I left the factory with, this was gone within the first week ... and I only begrudgingly shared.
One of the other items sold in a tall clear tube are one of Charles Chocolates signature items, the Orange Twigs. It’s a milk chocolate ganache infused with orange and then dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in confectioner’s sugar. They look a bit like little twigs, I guess.
I wasn’t that keen on them. They were sweet and yes, the orange flavor came through, but I didn’t get a lot of chocolate to the whole thing.
If you’re curious about the box shown above, yes, that’s made entirely of chocolate. The bottom is made from fine dark chocolate and the lid of white chocolate. Inside were two layers of salted caramels. The caramels are small and soft, then covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate and decorated with a lightly embossed design.
The soft chew of the caramels was definitely buttery and creamy, but also had a slight grain to it. The salt hit was mild and pleasant and set off the chocolate well. But I didn’t care that much for it. Though the flavor was there, something a little off to the texture. It was like the whole thing wasn’t properly emulsified.
The chocolate caramel was interesting, but an intense buttery mouthfeel and a dark smoky taste to it. It also had less chew to it than the salted caramel and while I enjoyed the flavor, the texture just wasn’t for me.
The chocolate box itself was very good. I was afraid it was going to to suffer from being “functional first” but the chocolate was so good that over Thanksgiving the family busted up the box pretty quickly while there were still caramels inside. (Yes, I was sharing!) The white chocolate top wasn’t quite as notably tasty, I’m not sure why, but it tasted a little musty. White chocolate is tricky stuff, because the cocoa butter will absorb nearby scents and odors. I transported and stored the chocolate box in a cooler that also had some coffee infused bars, and I think there might have been some “contamination” there.
Other items that I tried and can heartily recommend are the Pate de Fruit (both fruit and wine flavors, so true to life), The Tea Collection (flavors that complement and rival the chocolate without overpowering it) and of course the boxed chocolates (many of which I sampled at CocoaBella - post #1 & post #2).
Charles Chocolates aren’t cheap at $54 per pound, but comparable with other high end chocolatiers. Some chocolatiers (like Recchiuti, another Bay Area chocolatier) are very focused on spices or fruits, Charles Chocolates seems to do a great job at raising mundane and common ingredients to gourmet levels, giving the ordinary like almonds luxury treatments.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
I reviewed the Payday covered in real milk chocolate earlier this year. That was a limited edition item and was quickly replaced with this permanent offering called the Chocolatey Avalanche bar. Cuz you know, given a choice, no one wants real chocolate. They want chocolate-like products!
The Payday Chocolatey Avalanche is pretty good. It does have real chocolate in there, it’s just mixed with some other tropical oils (and that wonderful, ubiquitous PGPR that’s all the rage right now) so it no longer qualifies as chocolate . Under the mockolate, the peanuts have a good salty hit to them that balances out the sweet and soft nougat and the slight chew from the caramel. The bar tasted slightly of cinnamon, but perhaps it was stored somewhere close to a case of Atomic Fireballs.
The best thing about this bar was that it was fresh. Every last nut on there was crunchy and tasty.
The limited edition offering at the moment, however, is called Peanut Butter flavor Avalanche which also has no chocolate. It’s a peanut butter core, covered in caramel and rolled in peanuts then dipped in a peanut butter coating.
I’ve eaten two of these so far. The first one I wolfed down the night before my CNBC appearance because I wanted to prep myself properly. The bar was dry and though filling, it stuck in my tummy like a rock. The second one I ate (pictured above) was a bit more pleasant. I’m glad I gave it another try. Still, the crumbliness of the nougat center was just too much when combined with the lack-luster peanut coating. If I were a milk drinker that would have been the perfect accompaniment. But candy shouldn’t need to be consumed with a beverage in order to work.
I’m reverting to the regular old Payday. It never lets me down.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
There once was a fantastic chocolate bar that surpassed KitKat in crispiness, that exuded such a creamy sweet experience that Hershey promptly mucked around with the formula and then discontinued the bar.
I’m talking about the Bar None.
It was a cocoa wafer, chocolate filling, peanuts and a milk chocolate coating and was introduced nationally in 1987. It was a wide bar, about the size of the current Whatchamacallit bar. The series of light chocolate wafers were filled with chocolate cream, covered with a light coating of crushed peanuts and then a coating of darker than normal milk chocolate.
I was irritated at the time that Hershey had just mucked up the Whatchamacallit bar by adding lame caramel to it. I’m faithful to bars that are faithful to me.
With Bar None I was immediately smitten. I would buy them at the convenience store just over the bridge from campus where I was going to college. I would buy them in vending machines, I would buy them in the six pack at the grocery store. I would buy them whenever I could. If there was a reason that they didn’t succeed, it couldn’t be attributed to my lack of evangelical devotion.
Later in 1993 Hershey’s reformulated the bar and added caramel but also divided them into two bars (kind of like the Reese’s Sticks). While they were tasty, they weren’t the same and I lost interest in them entirely.
I wasn’t alone and at some point they stopped making them in the United States. The retooled version is still made in Mexico.
I’ve heard that they’re okay, and I’m actually curious to try the Mexican version, because maybe I was wrong about the new Bar None. But I’m not curious enough to take that drive south of the border in search of it.
Instead, sometime in the late eighties I also discovered the Le Chocolatier cookies made by Pim’s.
These are flavorless wafers with a chocolate cream and covered in real chocolate. What’s even better is they’re sold in boxes so while they weren’t wide and ample bars, there was an ample supply of them. If you were a fan of Bar None and have pined for it all these years, try the Le Chocolatier. Or take a trip to Mexico and let me know how those are.
UPDATE 2/6/2009: Look what I found! This is exactly what I remember, it’s a magazine ad from 1988 or 1989. Also, check in here with this photos set I have of a fan newsletter I used to get called Chocolatetown USA! from 1990 that profiles that launch of the Bar None.
UPDATE 2/18/2009: I think I found a pretty good replacement for the Bar None. It’s called the Q.Bel Crispy Wafer Bars. They come in Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate & Milk Chocolate with Peanut Butter and have no artificial ingredients or hydrogenated oils. I love the dark chocolate version. They’re currently being sold at Whole Foods. Though they don’t have the crunchy peanuts in them, they do have some crisped rice in the chocolate enrobing!
UPDATE 6/12/2013: The Bar None has returned, made by Iconic Candy Company, it’s a pretty good replica of the original. You can read the full review here.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Yesterday I told you about the Night of a Thousand Chocolates. Today it’s all about the “World Geatest Box of Chocolates” and the Artisan Picks of 2006 from CocoBella.
The box is interesting. It has a heavy focus on nuts with half of the offerings featuring nuts in them (hazelnuts as the top favorite). Here’s the lowdown:
- Marquise de Sevigne Praline Noisette - France (Hazelnut paste enrobed in Chocolate) - mellow with a sweet and smooth paste center with a healthy dose of hazelnut but really not a sugary sweetness (or so it seemed). It balanced really well with the thin coat of rich chocolate. The nicely toasted nut on top gives this candy my pick as the candy I would most like to wear as a hat.
Marquise de Sivigne Orange Amer - Belgium (Orange ganache in Dark Chocolate) - This one was fascinating. It tasted like orange juice - more like a whole orange than a caramel or ganache. It was kind of like the custardy filling of a lemon meringue pie (only orange) because of the tart bite to it. The mellow dark chocolate with its bitter bite pulled it all together.
Knipschildt Chocolatier Hannah - US (Liquid Caramel with Pink Hawaiian Sea Salt) - this one doesn’t look like much. I’d never had a Knipschlidt chocolate before, so I thought this would be interesting. It truly was. Lately I’ve been eating a lot of salted caramels and this one was interesting. The center was a soft, custardy caramel with a good rounded sugar flavor, maybe with a hint of molasses. The salt was not too much and did actually have a little mineral hint to it.
Michel Cluizel Vesuve - France (Madagascar Dark Chocolate Ganache) - A simple single origin dark chocolate truffle. It was soft and had a good mix of bitterness, acidity, dry finish with smoke and woodsy notes. I realized that my less than stellar experience with the Cluizel nibby bar last year should not dissuade me from trying more of their truffles.
Corne Port Royal Rocher Noir - Belgium (Hazelnut Praline in Dark Chocolate) - another hazelnut chocolate, this one was more like a hazelnut halvah. It had an interesting crystallized texture. The nutty flavors combined really well with the shards of sugar, though I would have preferred a little more toasty caramel flavor to it. The chocolate was nice and mild and set off the sweetness really well. It was a good chocolate, but I don’t know if it’s among the best hazelnut chocolates I’ve ever had. (And I’m the girl who likes Perugina Baci.)
Charles Chocolates Almond Cluster - US (Lightly Salted Roasted Almonds in Milk Chocolate) - it’s not the most elegant looking piece of chocolate, in fact, there’s very little chocolate here at all. Everyone keeps going on about how nicely Chuck Siegel roasts his nuts, and though I agree, the milk chocolate just isn’t doing anything for me here. Too sweet. (Have no fear, I’ll say nice things about Chuck’s nuts in a few days when I get to that review!)
Cary’s Toffee - US (English Toffee topped with Almonds) - I was surprised to see toffee there. I was also pleased. This generous bar has a wonderful caramelized scent with an immediate hit of butter. The toffee itself had a wonderful gentle cleave, breaking into shards when bitten. The dark chocolate really helped to bring out the darker smoke notes of the sugars. The extra nuts on top could stay or go as far as I was concerned, in fact, they kept falling off.
Marcona ones I’ve had at tapas bars, and the different flavor of them and density of oils really set off the slightly salty zing of the cocoa outside.
Christopher Elbow Strawberry Balsamic - US (Strawberry Puree with Caramel and Balsamic Vinegar) - a lovely looking candy with an inventive design that really screams balsamic vinegar. But here goes ... I’m not fond of vinegar and chocolate. I’ve tried a few in the past year and maybe there’s one out there that will make me happy, but this one isn’t it. The center was a little too tart for me and the white chocolate a little too sweet. I think I would have preferred everyone compromising a bit in the middle. Perhaps a milk chocolate and a caramel with more butter to balance the acids.
Christopher Elbow Aztec Spice - US (5 Spice Blend with Ancho and Pasillo Chilis) - this one was lovely, one that I’ve actually had several of now. The spice is mellow and robust at the same time. I could make out the caramelized flavors of the roasted chilis and the cinnamon and allspice gave it a good woodsy boost.
Christopher Elbow Rosemary Caramel - US (Caramel infused with Rosemary) - The caramel in here is the slow flowing kind with a slight grain to it and a strong infusion of rosemary. However, the white chocolate added no vanilla balance but a pure sweetness that just drowned out the balsam qualities. This chocolate with its eighties style gemtone brushstrokes of color gets my pick as the one that I would least like to wear as a hat.
Valentino Framboize - Belgium (Whole Raspberry with Raspberry Buttercream) - I was really looking forward to this one. I have to say that it didn’t look very appealing to me, but the thought of a whole raspberry made me look past its bulging belly like a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Aside from that, it was nice and floral with a really good raspberry flavor, but again too sweet for my tastes. I wanted more chocolate and less of the buttercream, I guess.
Marquise de Sevigne Creme Brulee - France (Caramelized Butter Ganache) - More like a praline than the custard I was expecting (like the Kee’s one I tried in NYC). Caramelized, a little grainy but rather light. Tastes a bit like coconut but not in a bad way. It kind of grew on my after I got past my expectations. It was more like the sugar crust of a creme brulee than the custard itself.
Amadei Supremo - Italy (Milk Chocolate Espresso Ganache) - simple and divine. I’d leave it at that, but the way I’ve laid out this page I kind of have to go on about each one the same amount. It’s not the prettiest one of the bunch, being from a rather common stock mold, but the milk and mellow ganache go well.
Maglio Stuffed Fig - Italy (Almond and Lemon with Fig) - when Michael Freeman was presenting the box and he got to this one I was just itching to bolt across the room to wolf one down. Billed as a dried fig stuffed with candied lemon and almonds, I was pretty much sold. Upon trying it was I in love with the figs and chocolate (as I’d already been downing the Trader Joe’s ones in my motel room earlier in the day) but didn’t get the lemon and almond notes I was promised. Don’t worry, I didn’t demand my money back. The dark chocolate was absolutely wonderful. I am surprised that I actually shared this with the neighbors (it’s pretty big and easy to cut into pieces) but I felt bad because someone pointed out that Amy spits out a lot of stuff I give her.
Michel Cluizel Champignon Caramel - France (Caramel Mushroom with Almond Praline Cap) - Were you wondering if I was saving the best for last? There actually aren’t in any particular order (I think the order I took the photos in). I didn’t know what it was, I think my mind was still on the fig thing when it was mentioned in the presentation. It looks like a mushroom. The stem is a wonderful firm caramel covered in mellow white chocolate. The cap is a little half-sphere cup of almond praline (like the florentine cookies) filled with a truffle ganache and then coated in chocolate. Genius. Cute and absoutely an incredible combination.
There was another walnut item in the box which I didn’t try.
On the whole, the box isn’t my favorite. However, after sampling the wares at CocoaBella, I know that Michael Freeman has good taste. I find boxed chocolates frustrating on the whole, because there’s usually such an assortment, as in this one, once you hit on a favorite you’ve eaten it and have to move on. The good thing is that it’s a great cross section of a lot of different chocolatiers that I probably never would have recognized before that are now on my “seek out” list.
So, my tip is, if you have the money, dive in and take a chance. If you don’t and you still want to explore, try the CocoaBella “Build a Box” feature on their website (or go into the store). The pre-selected boxes don’t actually tell you what’s in there but do have some good indicators (Dark Chocolate, Exotics, Milk Chocolate, Truffles and Wine Pairings). I think if I had to pick a box out for myself, I’d try either the exotics or the truffles.
Monday, November 6, 2006
When I went to San Francisco earlier this summer I was eager to try out Recchiuti chocolates. They have a lovely little shop in the Ferry Building where all the most expensive and exclusive fresh foods are sold in the city but it was packed so I just looked and figured I’d buy another day (instead I bought some stuff at Miette Patisserie).
This time I went there at lunchtime on a weekday and found things a lot easier to handle. I had a lovely chat with both the women behind the counter (one was wearing devil horns, I’m thinking because I made my purchase on Halloween).
Recchiuti is the concoction of Michael Recchiuti with the tagline on their website of “Indulgence on the verge of Obsession”. That sounds just like me! He’s been making chocolates since 1997 with special emphasis on flavor combinations and herbal/fruit infusions.
The chocolates are positively lovely. In the store they’re laid out on little plates in beds of crushed cocoa beans. The staff was knowledgeable about all the chocolates and helped to guide me towards the ones I knew I’d like.
They sell in two different ways. You can get a gift box with a set number of chocolate pieces in it or you can buy by the pound ($55 a pound). As it was just for me, I didn’t need the spiffy box and seeing how the candies varied so much in size, I wanted to be free to choose without worrying about whether one flavor was a better value than another. I ended up with a quarter of a pound, which ended up as a large selection (I got quite a few doubles, so only about 2/3 of my booty is shown here - 22 pieces plus one free taste there on the spot with my purchase).
Cardamom Nougat - a rich chocolate ganache infused with cardamom and studded with honeycomb bits (a hard nougat) and cocoa nibs. One of the nibs was just terrible in the two pieces of this flavor that I ate (it was bitter and acrid) but the rest of it was phenomenal and left a fresh feeling in my mouth.
Star Anise & Pink Peppercorn - the anise zings to the front of the flavors here, then the chocolate comes in then that woodsy note of pink peppercorns without any of the burn. The flavors blend nicely and ended up feeling much lighter than I expected.
Rose Caramel - this is the little foil wrapped one there. The caramel was positively liquid and had a pleasant burnt flavor to it with a slight bitter note and a strong rose geranium scent. The rose and bitterness didn’t please me much.
Fleur de Sel Caramel - a great soft and chewy caramel with grains of salt in it. The caramel has a strong bitter and burnt quality to it the salt, of course, is quite strong. I really liked the texture of the soft caramel, but it was just too salty for me.
Honeycomb Malt - the filling is rather like butter with a bit of a grain to it like crystallized honey. The malt flavor is rather mild but the whole thing feels a little greasy and overly sweet.
Bergamot Tea - mellow and zesty with very strong notes of both tea and bergamot. A real favorite of all of them.
Candied Orange Peel - wonderful moist and chewy pieces of orange peel, candied without being sickly sweet.
Cinnamon Malt - very sweet and with a mild cinnamon flavor. Really too sweet for me, a little grainy and not much in the malt arena to compel me.
Mandarin - the smallest of the truffles. I wasn’t against buying it because I was paying by the pound instead of the piece. Sweet and dry with a nice zesty taste of fresh orange.
Force Noir - a simple dark truffle. They have another line that’s all single origins, but I wanted to try a simple dark truffle. The vanilla notes are very strong, the ganache is light and slightly acidic and super smooth.
Burnt Caramel - oddly, I didn’t get much of a difference between this one and the Force Noir.
Lavender Vanilla - mellow and round chocolate flavors with a strong balsam quality with a very noticeable lavender flavor and a honey finish.
Overall the ganache on most of the truffles is a little greasy for my tastes, it’s more on the butter side than the chocolate side. It keeps them super smooth and provides a good background for the flavor infusions, but the oiliness of them makes me feel fuller faster.
POSTED BY Cybele AT 5:55 am
Sunday, November 5, 2006
Recently my husband went to Chicago and called me from the Vosge homeworld asking what I’d like to have. I was really hoping for a Cardamom truffle (they call them Ellateria) but it turns out that flavor is part of a seasonal set and not made at the moment.
The new seasonal assortment is sold under the banner of Collection of Zion and features lots of freaky ingredients and flavors. I kind of enjoy such things, so I was curious to see what my mouth thought of these intellectually stimulating combinations of flavors.
Instead he brought home some other delightful chocolate spheres. Here are a few I tried:
Selassie (shown there in the center) - allspice + pumpkin = a mellow spice and soft chocolate ganache center gave it a custardy feel. The cloveness wasn’t really to my liking, but pleasant.
Ital - Blue Mountain coffee + fresh coconut = acidic, dark and bitter but wonderfully complex and nutty.
Zion - Red Stripe Beer + cocoa nibs = bitter and a little on the yeasty side with a dark complex and acidic crunch.
Budapest - Hungarian paprika + chocolate = mellow with a subtle spicy note that brings out some of the woodsy flavors of the chocolate.
Wink of the Rabbit - soft caramel + New Mexican pecan = milk chocolate is a nice change but a little sweet here, the pecan gives it a maple/woodsy flavor. The caramel is thick and a bit custardy.
It was a nice evening with my box of chocolates. They were all gone, lickety split. Never fear, I just got back from San Francisco and have lots of other exciting haut chocolates to talk about.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.