Wednesday, February 1, 2006
Toffee is a strange thing. It’s like caramel gone too long on the burner, but it becomes its own special delight. In the United States, toffee is generally hard caramel: a mixture of sugar and butter. It’s boiled slowly to “hard ball” stage and then cooled, usually as flat pieces. What’s so wonderful about it is the way it cracks. It’s completely irregular. It flakes, it crumbles and it fractures. It’s buttery and sweet and often has a nice salty twang to it that cuts through the stickiness. (In the UK they also have soft toffees, which confuses the heck out of me, until I start eating them and then I get distracted. Mmm, toffee.)
I got these full-sized samples directly from Brian at Silver Bear Toffee in Colorado. The first indication of their decadence is that the label says “refrigerate,” now that’s fresh toffee!
The ingredients are pretty compelling too: chocolate, almonds, butter, sugar and corn syrup. Each package was a little white box with planks of broken up toffee. The toffee was then covered in chocolate on top and sprinkled with more almonds. The dark chocolate one was my favorite as the smoky and smooth chocolate matched the sweet and salty toffee perfectly. The toffee was so buttery though that sometimes my chocolate fell off the slab. No matter. Toffee is casual; toffee is jeans and a tee.
While I may have said I preferred the dark chocolate one, the milk chocolate one disappeared first (it could have been that toffee snitching elves were visiting my kitchen). The toffee crumbles wonderfully on the teeth and becomes a smooth and buttery experience on the tongue. There are lots of nuts in both versions but not in huge pieces, which I prefer (otherwise it’d be nut brittle).
When I eat commercial toffee bar, like a Heath bar, my usual custom is to eat the chocolate off first and then eat the toffee slab by itself. I have no desire to do that with this stuff, I want to eat the whole thing: the chocolate, toffee and nuts all at once.
The webstore isn’t open yet (I was hoping it would be in time for Valentine’s) but you can still order by phone:
Silver Bear Toffee
Toffee is $15 a pound and
$8.00 by the half pound. Mine came boxed well with a cold-pack to keep it from melting (not really an issue in the winter).
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
In my continuing effort to bring you timely reviews of new products (that’s a joke), I finally found some Darth M&Ms at the 99 Cent Only Store. I picked up collector’s pack 18 of 72. In fact, they were all 18 of 72 at the 99 Cent Only Store. I’m not certain if these are still available, the website is still up.
I was a little confused at how these are considered dark chocolate, as they have milk in them, but that’s probably part of the evil Sith plan. The colors are actually pretty nice. Navy Blue, Maroon, Gray, Black and Lavender. All great colors for a snazzy sweater or scarf.
As long as I’ve brought up the subject of color, this is probably a good time to talk about consumption techniques. There are those people who like to eat M&Ms by color. Eating your candies by color of course makes sense with Skittles where they’re different flavors. But M&Ms are not. Still, when I dump a bunch out on my desk for snacking, I divide them up by color. Plain M&Ms are consumed in lots of three, all the same color and when I get to the end, there are particular pairings of colors that are acceptable. I have no idea why I do this, but I’m guessing it’s a way of taking full advantage of the colors as a feature.
Anyway, these are darker-than-milk chocolate M&Ms. Their colors are bright and shells crunchy but the centers are strangely grainy. Not grainy in the sense of the sugar is not completely dissolved, they’re grainy like someone left some ground up oyster shells in them. They’re slightly less sweet than the regular plain M&Ms and do have a bit more complex, chocolatey flavor. But they somehow lack the punch of a regular M&M. I wouldn’t mind them trying this chocolate on the Almond M&Ms, but I don’t really think they work in this format. Maybe the Peanut ones are better (Writers & Artists Snacking at Work liked them). There’s little benefit here either for Vegans or those with nut allergies as it’s not a suitable candy for either. I also resent dark chocolate being represented as evil. I mean, as candy goes, it’s more pure.
For the record, the colors are: Dooku Blue, Grievous Silver, Emperor Red, Vader Black & Maul Purple.
Friday, January 27, 2006
I got this fantastic single origin tasting kit from E. Guittard. The photos are deceptive, these are tiny little bars, each is 10 grams (a little over a third of an ounce) and measured a mere 2.5” x 1.25”. There were four different varieties that came in a box of 16 wee bars. What was most stunning about these bars is the packaging. The little labels are lively and elegant with their gold leaf and description of the flavor of the particular varietal. Inside, the foil wrappers were beautiful too, with a delicate pattern featuring an impressive bas relief style scene of heaven knows what with three figures probably worshipping the cocoa bean or something. (The comprehensive press kit and tasting kit brochure made no mention of the scene.)
Each of the bars looks slightly different as well (except for the Sur del Lago and Quevedo) from different molds. All bars were 65% cacao, which is a good midrange for dark chocolate, allowing for lots of room for cocoa butter to give a nice fatty background to support the complex flavors.
Ambanja - notes from package: You’re in for a rich chocolate experience! Made primarily from rare Criollo beans from the fertile Sambriano Valley in Madagascar, Ambanja mingles sour essences with deep rich, chocolate flavor.
Dark with a slight amber/red tint, this bar was buttery and smooth. There were overwhelming raisin and cherry notes in this bar. It definitely has an acidic tone to it, but not in an unpleasant, bitter or acrid way. It’s really very nice.
Sur del Lago - notes from package: Complex chocolate flavors underlie subtle hints of red berry fruit. Cacao beans used to make this chocolate were harvested from trees of Criollo and Trinitario heritage in Venezuela’s Sur del Lago region.
This one started out rather woodsy and sour. It reminded me of the zesty smell of piles of fresh sawdust from a fruit tree. Then the other notes started coming out, including the light berries and maybe some grape. It’s pretty mellow and pleasant, but the high sour note is a little odd.
Chucuri - notes from package: Long, deep, slow chocolate flavors are accented by pleasant hints of spice. The Trinitario cacao beans used to make this chocolate were grown in the San Vicente de Chucuri Valley of Santader in Colombia.
Deep flavors dominate this little bar. It starts out woodsy with some balsam notes of juniper or rosemary. Then it’s got some very strong cherry notes that linger for the rest of the melt on the tongue. It’s got a high little topnote of lavender or maybe it’s bergamot. It gives this bar the best balance of the four.
Quevedo notes from package: Quevedo’s extremely dark color forshadows its powerful but flowery chocolate taste. The intensity of this rarefied Forestero varietal produces rich green forest, tea and slight nut flavors with a lingering banana and pound cake finish.
Smooth but with a notable bitter dryness at first. Rich and woodsy with an exceptionally buttery texture that makes it feel almost fluffy and buoyant on the tongue. I’m getting the tea notes, but I’m totally missing the pound cake the wrapper promises.
If you’re looking for single origin chocolate that doesn’t skimp on the cocoa butter and is so dry that it leaves you gasping for water, this might be the stuff. At only 65% cocoa solids, there’s an excellent mix of flavor and texture that’s not too sweet. All of the bars are exceptionally smooth without a hint of grain. Here’s a tip: this would make an excellent Valentine’s Day gift for someone. It’s sensual, educational and you can share it.
You might think you’ve never had Guittard chocolate, when you probably have. Guittard is one of the top chocolate makers in the country, but most of the business is making chocolate for other companies. Guittard makes the excellent chocolate that you find on See’s candies. It’s hard to know who they supply chocolate to, but they’re a huge operation and that chocolate is going somewhere tasty. I don’t see Guittard in the stores very often, except for their baking chips. They’re definitely worth going out of your way for. Most of the varietals from other brands that I’m seeing lately are higher cocoa percentages, so you’re missing out on the cocoa butter, which I think is an equal part of the chocolate experience.
They’re a little pricey directly from E. Guittard’s store, you can also find them at Chocosphere (throw some Dolfin and Dagoba in your cart while you’re there).
Thursday, January 26, 2006
I got the Cookie Joys from Crate and Barrel through their excellent post-Christmas sale. The Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Mint were acquired at Sav-On at a lackluster post-Holiday sale (basically the nuggets were on the sale table heralding they were 50% off, but they didn’t ring up that way and were put there “by mistake”).
Harry London makes the Cookie Joys, but sells them under a few different names, including Botticelli Bites. They also make it in a few different formats, including the Harry London Mint Cookie Bar. A Cookie Joy is minted milk chocolate with chocolate cookie bits. The shape is a little dollop of candy, not really the most attractive or appealing candy shapes, but it gets the job done. I find they’re usually two bites. The bonus in the Crate & Barrel tin is that they were individually wrapped. When I get them in a little tub at Trader Joe’s (it looks like a pint of ice cream) they’re loose and can go stale if not eaten quickly.
A Hershey’s Mint ‘n’ Cookies is also minted milk chocolate with chocolate cookie bits. The chocolate is rather milkier, as you can see in the color difference bewteen these two. The cookie bits are also slightly more regular, like little dots of cookies instead of rather irregular crushed cookie bits.
Now that I have them side by side, I’m able to really compare the two. The Cookie Joy is smooth and not terribly milky, which I like. There are already quite a few flavors going on here, I don’t need some sort of dairy taste intruding. As long as the milk is providing a creamy backdrop I’m happy. The cookie bits give it some crunch and they’re a good dark, toasty flavor (they’re pretty much the cookie part of an Oreo).
The Hershey’s has that familiar Hershey’s milk chocolate tang to it. Think yogurt. It’s not unpleasant, but doesn’t go as well with the mint and cookies. There’s a noticeable grain to the chocolate, but again, it works with the crunchy cookies. The cookie bits seem to be distributed rather unevenly, just on the top of the nugget, but since you’re going to bite it the other way, it probably doesn’t matter much. A Nugget could be eaten whole as well.
In this Head to Head, I’m going to have to go with the Cookie Joys. The chocolate is just better and the even though they look like glossy cow pies, the name Cookie Joys is dead on perfect. They’re joyful little mixes of cookies and minted chocolate. If you like the Girl Scout’s Thin Mints, you may like this chocolatier version, too. There’s no benefit to either in availability either. The Hershey’s are Limited Edition (though they seem to return rather faithfully) and the Harry London’s are only sometimes available at Trader Joe’s and a seasonal item for Crate & Barrel. (Sadly, it seems they are sold out on the C&B website.) The Hershey’s are usually cheaper, but the Crate and Barrel sale puts this one over the edge for me. At 28 cents per ounce for the Cookie Joys versus the 24 cents per ounce on the Nuggets, I’m willing to pay the premium (and I have a tin, too!).
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Chocolate oranges are a holiday favorite. We used to get them in our Christmas stocking when I was a kid, though not this brand. The chocolate orange is simply chocolate pieces shaped like orange segments assembled into a sphere. The Terry’s Chocolate Orange has a chocolate stem in the center and all the pieces are joined to it. They tell you to “whack and unwrap” to separate the pieces. (The ones I got as a kid had a plastic stem, so there was no need for whacking.)
The sphere is between the size of a handball and a tennis ball. The slices are textured to look like citrus fruit on one side, the other is smooth.
I’ve reviewed the Terry’s Chocolate Orange bar, and I find this chocolate to be similar. It’s not great quality, a little grainy and very sweet. The mint is quite overpowering in this version of Terry’s chocolate (just as I found Hershey’s Mint Mix).
It’s damn cute though and since it was half off, I don’t feel at all bad for plunking down $2 for it. $4 would be another matter.
Notes: This peppermint chocolate orange was made in Poland. Terry’s is credited with creating the first “Chocolate Orange” in 1932.
Monday, January 23, 2006
Pesek Zman means “Time Out”, kind of like the tagline for KitKat bars is “Give me a Break”. They are, in fact, a nice little respite from a busy day and like the KitKat, easy to break off a piece and share (if you must). The shape of the bars and packaging is really cool, too.
The Black bar is dark chocolate with crispy wafers with a chocolate nut paste filling (hazelnuts and cashews). This is a pretty sassy bar. It has the light crisp, the nutty flavor of the nuts and the smooth creamy combination of the cream and the smooth dark chocolate. It’s lot of flavors and textures all at once, but very successful. It’s very sweet, but the hazelnut has a strange cooling sensation on the tongue that keeps it from being cloying and sticky.
The Peanut Butter bar is pretty much the same as the Black bar, only it has milk chocolate instead of dark and instead of hazelnut cream, it has peanut butter. It’s a good thing I’m typing this review, because I wouldn’t be able to talk while eating this bar. The peanut butter is very sticky, as in “sticks to the roof of your mouth.” My solution to this was to turn each piece upside down before I ate it, meaning that the peanut butter layer was on my tongue instead of the top of my mouth. It was much more successful that way, but the peanut butter in this bar is quite overwhelming in its texture and flavor dominance.
I have to say that this is a unique bar. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It reminded me of the Kliks, in that it’s a toasty cookie rolled up, but this one was far more delicate and had some more complex flavors going for it. The center of the bar is a loose, flattened roll of crisp waffle cookie (like a ice cream sugar cone). Then it’s covered with chocolate that can be sectioned off. When you break the sections, you can see right through the middle of the bar, just like the photo shows. The caramelized wafers are crispy and flavorful and there’s a good hint of hazelnut in the chocolate itself. It’s a very tasty bar with no real equal in any other brand I’ve seen. Of the three bars, it’s the one I finished first. The bar is slightly smaller than the others at only 42 grams instead of 45, but I wasn’t missing a thing.
If I were at an airport or international market and saw these, I’d definitely grab a few of the Reds. Even though the center was delicate, the bar traveled extremely well, making it all the way from Israel and then I carried it around in my “tasting bag” for weeks and it still looked factory fresh when I unwrapped it.
Friday, January 20, 2006
At my visit to Scharffen Berger last month I gave their full line another try. It confirmed for me that the bars I’ve tasted are fresh and true to the Scharffen Berger style. They’re complex and dark, with a lot of woodsy notes and a pretty overwhelming acidity that I don’t care for. There are exceptions in their line of course. The Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs are one. And one of their newer bars, the Gianduja is another.
I haven’t a clue how to pronounce it. I had the tour guide say it twice for me when she did the tasting and it still didn’t stick in my brain. (Perhaps JHEE-an-du-JHAH.) I want to pronounce it JHWAN-doo-jha ... hmm, how about I call it the Nutella bar? That’s what this is, a creamy combination of dark chocolate and hazelnuts. Only without the hydrogenated oils. It’s like a gourmet version of Ice Cubes.
This is a ridiculously fantastic bar. Really. It’s insanely smooth and nutty and melts so well on the tongue with a cooling effect that’s just stunning.
The price is also similarly ridiculous, but I’m guessing there’s a whole tree’s worth of hazelnuts packed into each bar, so that’s likely what you’re paying for. There’s 4 grams of protein in the bar alone. The bar is more soft and pliable than the others that I’ve had, again owing to the nut oils in there that have a lower melting temperature than the cocoa butter. It’s not too sweet and happily doesn’t have nary a trace of that acidic/dry bite that the other Sharffen Berger bars have. There’s still plenty of flavor, this is not just a Nutella bar. It’s woodsy and nutty with some smoky notes and a slight dryness.
Of course there are a lot of calories in it and a lot of it comes from fat. It’s candy, I know, but I think maybe they ought to suggest that the portion is not 1.5 ounces, but simply a single ounce instead. I responsibly took about a month to eat it, sampling a few pieces and then wolfing the rest of it today. It’s also pretty expensive and I haven’t seen it at Trader Joe’s. If not for that, I think it would have been a straight 10.
On December 2nd I had a fabulous day filled with seeing candy go from raw materials to finished product.
After my morning at the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, CA, I toodled back towards San Francisco and hopped off the freeway in Berkeley to see Scharffen Berger.
Though I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of their stuff (or at least I wasn’t at the time), I was excited at the prospect of being let into the factory to actually see the process. There are very few factories in this country that allow people to just walk in off the street to see how they make their producuts. Scharffen Berger is the only chocolate factory and the tour is FREE. Scharffen Berger chocolate is like wine, it’s got a distinctive taste and is more for savoring its complexity than its hedonistic sweet satisfaction.
The building itself was started just before the great quake of 1906 (not quite finished at the time) and was completed and occupied immediately after that. It’s been through a few different incarnations but is a wonderful example of brickwork, with an impressive curved/vaulted brick ceiling in the winnowing room. The 27,000 square foot facility houses the chocolate manufacture, factory store and their cafe. The company only makes the raw chocolate here, the basic chocolate is then sent to an additional facility up north (I think Napa) to be molded into the their consumer bars.
The tour starts in a little room next to their cafe. People sit on the plain benches for a little lecture about the origins of chocolate and how Scharffen Berger makes theirs. Some of it is rather well known stuff and other bits of info are interesting. The lecture is long and I was antsy to see the factory itself. The environment of the factory itself is rather casual and of course it’s a small company so everyone seems to know each other. It gives a homey feel to the candy, that someone really cared about it. They also give plenty of samples during the talk, which helps everyone pay attention.
The chocolate making process starts in the jungles where Cacao is grown. The cocoa beans are harvested from squat, strange little trees that grow under the high canopy of the forest. They gather these large pods, as big as a large papaya and then hack them open to reveal the flesh and seeds within. The mush from inside is scooped out and allowed to dry. The seeds are separated from the fleshy detritus and allowed to bake in the sun to ferment at bit.
After the cacoa beans are ready, they’ll be loaded into big burlap bags and shipped around the world.
Scharffen Berger mixes their beans from different regions of the world and from different varieties of cacao to make their basic bars. Most of the bars (except for the single origin bars) contain beans from at least eight origins. This gives them a great deal of control over the consistency of the bars from year to year. Most manufactuers do this, otherwise chocolate bars would taste different every time we opened one. However, with the big guys like Hershey or Nestle, they have the advantage of quantity to give them consistency. Little guys like Scharffen Berger have to do it with variety.
After the lecture is over (about 40 minutes later) we’re given lovely hair nets and ear muffs. The machinery is literally deafening and without it on, we wouldn’t be able to hear the tour guide anyway.
The first room processes the raw beans. It holds the “winnower” which is a machine that removes the chaff and shell and skin from the cocoa bean to reveal the part that’s good for making chocolate, the nib. The nibs are then roasted, just like coffee would be in this large roaster. All of the machines are steel so the team at the factory uses magnetic labels to identify what origin of bean is inside.
The next part of the tour is the money shot, it’s the thing that people come to see, the image that lasts a lifetime. It’s the melangeur. What is that? It’s the mixer/crusher. The roasted nibs are put into this spinning bowl along with the additional cocoa butter and some vanilla and sugar (if it’s sweetened chocolate) and then it’s macerated by two huge rollers that crush the stuff together. During the tour everyone gets an opportunity to stand on a little riser to look into the machine. It smells quite good and the batch that was being worked on while I was there seemed to be rather grainy still and must have been far from done.
The next part, the conching, isn’t terribly sexy, as from my vantage it’s just a huge, closed tank. The concher is where everything is combined further under precisely controlled temperatures.
Next was the tempering process, which we didn’t get to see, but is basically where the melted chocolate is raised and lowered to particular target temperatures to aid in the formation of the perfect crystaline structure to the chocolate. If chocolate isn’t properly tempered it melts too easily, looks cloudy or may separate (bloom) more easily.
After that it’s ready for molds. At the Scharffen Berger factory they are only processing the basic chocolate product. The chocolate gets flavored and further made into bars or shapes at another facility. When they’re done with the tempering here, they make them into simple bars, which travel down this simple conveyer and meet a rather strange end falling into boxes where they’re shipped up to a facility north of San Francisco that ages the chocolate (chocolate is one thing you do not want fresh from the factory) for a few weeks before making the signature bars.
As free trips go, it’s pretty good. They have a rather cramped parking lot, but it’s close to public transportation if you want to take the BART and a bus from San Francisco if you’re in the area. I wish there was more to the factory part, but as a tiny working factory, there’s not much else to do other than breathe in the scents and take a few photos.
The building itself is rather interesting too, and the way that the company has cobbled together various bits of machinery from different time periods is also rather remarkable. I’m rather fond of old buildings and machines and I wish I could have spent more time looking at them. The gift shop is also really nice. I bought a few posters that I’m going to frame and of course I’ve mentioned their sassy tee shirts before. They have plenty of books, baking supplies and of course all sorts of their chocolate (some which they’ll let you sample there). The prices in the store are the same on the web, though sometimes they have little sale offerings.
There’s also a highly regarded cafe as well, Cafe Cacao, so making an afternoon of it is also a nice little treat. Tours require a reservation.
Weekday tours at 10:30 AM, 2:30 PM & 4:30 PM.
UPDATE: Scharffen Berger has closed their Bay Area factory and no longer offers tour at this location.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.