Monday, March 6, 2006
As part of this year’s Independent Food Festival and Awards sponsored by tasteEverything, I’ve been tapped as a jurist to give out an award for excellence in food. (You know it’s gonna be candy.) I decided after my mind-blowing experience touring candy factories in the Bay Area last December that it had to be something that really helped me to immerse myself in the true source of chocolate.
My 2006 Winner of the Independent Food Awards is The Best Things to Stick to your Marshmallow: Scharffen Berger Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs.
Cacao nibs are roasted cocoa beans, what all chocolate is made from. Scharffen Berger then pan coats them with 62% cacao semisweet chocolate. They’re complexly flavored little buggers, about the size of rice crispies - they’re crunchy, sometimes fibery, sometimes buttery and nutty ... always a surprise. Some flavors are like wine, raisins, coconut, coffee, oak, banana, apricot, sweet almond, grapefruit, cherry, cinnamon, clove ... I could go on and on. They’re like a blank canvas and a symphony all at once. They take over the senses and make you forget your train of thought. The coolest part is that each little morsel is independent of the others - it might have come from a different tree, might have been harvested weeks before or after its buddies in the tube. Eat one and get a sense of the particular, eat a palmful and travel the world.
So, what do you do with these besides just eat them like candy? You can bake with them, as I saw at Tartine in San Francisco, where you can get Rochers (like soft meringues) made with cacao nibs.
But I’m not really a baker. You can’t just serve an olive boat of these morsels to guests. Then oddly enough the answer came to me in the mail the same week. I was reviewing Plush Puffs, flavored, handmade marshmallows. With proximity being the mother of invetion, I tried putting things on my marshmallow. Actually, I tried mashing my marshmallow into things.
Now, given that I have the title of jurist, it was incumbent upon me to evaluate at least several other marsh-mashables. So I ordered up more Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs and a full array of Plush Puffs (Orange-Honey, Sam’s Sour Lemon, Maple Pecan and Vanilla Bean) and scoured my kitchen and a few stores for some options.
In the interests of trying to find the perfect thing to mash into my marshmallows, I pulled a few things out of the cupboard and ordered some others off of Chocosphere. Here are the results:
The definition of pure confection heaven has to be Orange-Honey Plush Puffs with Scharffen Berger Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans. This is the standard by which all other mashmallow-ables will be judged. (Really, why did I go on, how much better could I expect things to get?)
My second favorite thing to mash into my marshmallows has to be these Valrhona Chocolate Covered Orange Peels (Equinoxe Noir des d’ecorces d’oranges confites). They’re tiny pieces of lightly candied orange peel pan coated with 66% cacao dark chocolate. Smooth, sweet, crisp and with a great zesty orange taste. At $4.00 for 1.8 ounces, they’re even more expensive than the Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs, but as a little dash mixed in with the Cacao Nibs, it’s a welcome little burst of citrus energy. They go really well with both the Vanilla Bean and Maple Pecan ones but unlike the cacao nibs, they don’t work with everything.
It wouldn’t be fair of me to evaluate chocolate covered cacao nibs without trying out the naked ones. So I selected the Dagoba Cacao Nibs, which are also organic. The pieces are less consistent in size and shape than the chocolate covered brethren. They have a wild, alcoholic aroma. Smoky and woodsy to the nose, they provide a huge burst of flavor when eaten on their own but they’re also incredibly acidic and sometimes acrid, astringent and puckeringly dry. When pressed into the Vanilla Bean marshmallow, the sweetness and blankness allows the subtle cacao notes to shine while moderating the overt acidity.
With the success of the malted rice krispies squares, I thought I’d just go with the source materials. This wasn’t as pleasant. The malted milk powder is a bit salty and of course dry. The milk powder, I think, is part of the issue. Milk doesn’t really belong with marshmallow. In fact, it turns out that I don’t really care for the flavor of powdered milk.
I love molasses and my favorite sugar is Billington’s Muscovado. It’s got a sort of whiskey aroma to it, a complexity that you won’t find in refined sugars. I like to let it dry out in chunk and eat it that way. It doesn’t really stick to the marshmallows very well, and frankly, it makes it too sweet.
As a final confirmation about the Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs, I brought the array of my top contenders to an Oscars (tm) viewing party Sunday night. At the end of the night the marshmallows were nearly gone and so were the CCCN while the plain nibs were largely untouched. On top of that, people were pleased with the fun combination of flavors. (And as a capper we got to taste some new regionally-sourced chocolate ice creams. Yum!)
There is one other company that I know of that makes chocolate covered cacao beans, called SweetRiot. I haven’t tried them yet, but I imagine they too are awesome.
If you’ve stumbled across this posting without first visiting the tasteEverything, have a look at all the other incredible finds from around the globe.
Thursday, March 2, 2006
I’m not sure why Hershey’s is mucking around with the Take 5 bar, but happily these limited edition bars at least mean that they leave the original alone.
In this iteration of the candy they’ve simply replaced the pretzel base with a chocolate cookie (ala Oreos). This created some balance problems for me with the bar. First, the pretzel was the linchpin of the Take 5 - you can’t have a Take 5 without a pretzel ... anything else in that slot and you’ve just made a Twix type bar. I don’t think the selling point of the Take 5 is just any old five ingredients - the pretzel is the unique selling point. This chocolate cookie is crisp and pretty thick, but it lacks a chocolate flavor of its own, and certainly isn’t as crispy as a pretzel and can’t match the salty hit and bland flavor that a pretzel has.
The balance is just all off and the crunchiness is gone, the variation in textures is missing ... it’s just lost its vibrancy and interest. The caramel doesn’t even seem as chewy or even noticeable (I did a double take after eating the first piece to make sure that there’s still caramel in there.)
Hershey’s is also planning a marshmallow version of this bar later this year. Or maybe they’ll read this and realize that there’s nothing wrong with the original Take 5 and just move on to adding different cookie bits to the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar or devising new KitKat flavors (may I suggest a peanut butter KitKat?).
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
As is often the case when I’m buying Japanese candy at Mitsuwa, I wasn’t quite sure what these were. Some good pictures on the package are always helpful and I figured that these were just coffee flavored chocolate shaped like coffee beans. They are, and so much more.
The candies come in a sassy cardboard tube (wrapped in plastic to keep them fresh). The name, coffeebeat is in English, as I believe that the word ‘coffee’ is pretty recognizable in the Japanese market. The font is funky and reminds me of the ‘70s. Inside the tube are little coffee bean shaped (but slightly larger) chocolate candies with a hard candy shell like an M&M. They even have the little crease on the flat side like a real coffee bean.
The shell is sweet and crunchy and very thin. The center is chocolate with strong milky flavor to it and of course a hit of coffee. It tastes like a mocha. Sweet, smooth, milky and with an excellent coffee flavor that doesn’t feel like a “flavor.” In fact, it’s less chocolate than it is coffee - the chocolate is just a medium to deliver the milky coffee flavor. If you’re a black coffee person, I can see that this might not be the coffee candy for you.
The package is cute, makes it easy to share and the quality is very good. Overall, I’ve been very pleased with the Meiji brand. The products are well priced, use quality ingredients, have logical yet innovative packaging and of course they all taste great. The website seems to indicate they’re for kids, but maybe I’m just a kid at heart.
It’s coffee day here at CandyBlog.net. Yes, I’ve got jetlag and I need lots and lots of caffeine. So in between sips of the regular liquid kind and some Black Black gum, I thought I’d review some coffee flavored chocolate candies.
I found this bar at the checkout counter at Target. There are a few varieties of the new Mauna Loa foray into consumer chocolate, but I thought that they knew their macadamias and of course Kona is known for their coffee. How could I go wrong?
This is a smooth and sweet dark chocolate bar with macadamia nuts and coffee. The bar has four domed segments each with some nice small bits of macadamias scattered evenly on the bottom of the bar. In this form I get the macadamia taste, but the texture is more like coconut. That’s not a bad thing. Then the coffee kick comes in. It’s mostly a chocolate flavor, but when you hit the coffee grounds, it’s definitely a good mellow coffee flavor.
But here’s the thing, and I mentioned it yesterday when reviewing the Dolfin cafe tasting squares ... I don’t want the coffee grounds. I don’t put up with coffee grounds in my actual coffee, why do I want them in my chocolate? Well, they do add fiber. This bar has 3 grams of fiber. (It also has 9 grams of saturated fat.)
Overall, it’s too sweet for me. I want a little darker, richer chocolate with my coffee essences. The macadamias add a great nutty flavor and texture to it, and though I’d never drink a macadamia/chocolate flavored coffee, I will eat a macadamia and coffee studded chocolate. I’m vaguely curious about their milk chocolate and might pick that bar up at some future visit to Target. I do actually appreciate Target’s wide selection of candies at the check out that include more than the standard fare of Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle and at 99 cents, it’s only slightly more expensive than the regular bars.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
I was on a kick to find the Dolfin Peppercorn bar and stopped at the same liquor store that my husband bought the previous assortment. No luck. But they did have this assortment of tasting squares that I picked up.
There are 24 squares in the package, 12 flavors.
Cafe Noir - dark chocolate with coffee bean bits. I’m kind of tired of the whole idea of throwing something that I generally regard as garbage in my chocolate. There are ways of getting coffee flavor into my chocolate without putting the actual beans in there.
I think I prefer chocolate that comes in a slightly thicker piece. These very thin tasting wafers seem just slightly chalky to me and I’d prefer something with a bit more tooth to it.
I’m still looking forward to the Pink Peppercorn and Anise bars (which I ordered from Chocosphere) but I think I may prefer Dagoba and Lake Champlain as an overall brand to Dolfin.
Friday, February 24, 2006
I’m traveling this week, and when I was at Mitsuwa picking up some things I looked for something to take along that might be considered “traveling Pocky.” I did find some Winter Pocky, which is appropriate because it’s winter here in Pennsylvania. I’m guessing it’s the same as our Limited Editions that Hershey’s and Nestle have been playing around with, they just call it “Seasonal.”
This is a regular milk chocolate Pocky rolled in cocoa. The chocolate seems sweeter than the regular chocolate Pockies and have a slightly more “dairy” flavor to the chocolate than the Men’s or regular Chocolate. It came in four small packets and is a bit more expensive than regular Pocky.
Unlike all the other Pockies I’ve had, this one did not look like the picture on the package. The package made them look textured, but these were just more matte looking and no cocoa came off the sticks (none in the bottom of the little plastic wrapping even). The cocoa adds a nice little bitter and salty hit to the whole thing, which is nice because now that I’ve had Men’s Pocky, I think that regular chocolate Pocky is a little too sweet.
There’s no listing on the ingredients that it contains hydrogenated fish oils, but it does have “shortening” listed on the ingredients, which isn’t prefaced with “vegetable” so it might be in here. It also lists monosodium glutamate.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Sometimes I’ve just gotta buy something because of the way it looks. I saw someone posting photos of this candy on Flickr a few months back. If I hadn’t seen what was inside the box, I’m not sure I would have bought it. The box is 5” wide and 4.5” deep (and only .75” high). The little candies are depicted on the package as well as a diagram of them (in Japanese) on the back (see the website for the text if you’re curious).
I’ve always been pleased with Morinaga’s products. They’re one of Japan’s finer mass-market candymakers. Their ingredients are good quality and they have a fantastic way with packaging.
The candies are “white chocolate” (made with real cocoa butter) with green tea in it (matcha). They’re shaped into pretty little candies - a fan, a flower, a leaf.
There are two different kinds - a dark matcha shape with a chocolate base and then a version with a white chocolate outside with a green tea inside. Though they look different, besides the little bit of dark chocolate on some of them, they taste the same. If you’ve ever had green tea ice cream, that’s basically what this tastes like. Sweet, milky green tea in a solid creamy form.
Some matcha treats have a grain to them, but these are pretty smooth with a mellow, earthy flavor that has only a slight bitter note in the middle. The floral notes stay with you long after you’ve finished them, it’s a pleasant feeling, not like coffee breath. As white chocolates go, this is the way to eat them. They’re pretty, they have an actual flavor and they probably give you a good boost of antioxidants. These are the perfect little gift for someone. The packaging is sweet but they’re not too expensive (even for an import). They’d also be a nice finish to a Japanese-style meal. The package says that a single serving is the whole box, but at 167 calories per ounce, you’ll be doing your heart a favor if you share.
Note: You can order them online from JBox or scour the Japanese markets for them. They may be a seasonal item. This post is pretty much a blatant photography exhibition, they were just so ding-dang cute!
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
I think it might be marshmallow day here at CandyBlog.net.
Last week I was at the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax to meet up with some other bloggers and I knew I had to stop at Littlejohn’s Candies because a reader told me they had the best toffee. Of course once I got there my eyes were drawn to these plump caramel kisses - soft caramel drenching a puffy marshmallow. I completely forgot about the toffee.
So, I got two, one in chocolate and one in vanilla. (And a pecan praline which was divine and I ate before I could take a photo of it.) I figured I can always go back for more toffee ... and another pecan praline.
Once I opened the wrapper it was obvious that these caramels were made with lots and lots of butter. They were creamy, very smooth and exceptionally sweet with a slight hit of salt to it. The marshmallow center was smooth and light without being too foamy. The center also wasn’t very sweet, so it gave a nice backdrop to let the caramel dominate the flavor stage. The chocolate caramel wasn’t as tasty to me, there wasn’t enough chocolate to set it apart from the regular caramel and I plan on sticking to the vanilla in the future.
These are messy candies. They stuck to the cellophane wrapper and to my fingers as I held it. They’re too big to put in your mouth all at once (about the size of a squashed golf ball), so eating them posed a challenge. I ended up with sticky fingers. In the future I think I’ll leave them in the cello and scrape them off with my teeth.
Since the Farmers Market and the adjacent Grove shopping center are such a tourist destination in Los Angeles, if you do come to the city be sure to seek this place out for something a little different from the tourist fudge that you find at many places. (Though they certainly have fudge.) It’s a classic, working farmers market and they actually make the candy right there with big plate glass windows so you can learn all of their sugary secrets.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.