Friday, March 29, 2013
The world of candy bars has changed a lot in the past 100 years, since the first mass-produced combination bars appeared in stores. At first local candy companies made bars that were distributed regionally. Eventually, after World War II, candy bars became national brands. You could find a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, Snickers bar or a Butterfinger at most candy stores though there were still plenty of local brands.
Today the candy landscape is dominated by just a few international brands, and the new upstarts that are found on the fringes fit into a different niche now. They’re special interest bars. These are the bars that incorporate local ingredients, fit into special manufacturing concerns like allergens, or in the case of the Eli’s Earth Bars from Sjaak’s Chocolates, they’re vegan (made without any animal-derived ingredients).
The new line of bars is interesting, because they’re not quite versions of already-popular candy bars. The Celebrate Bar is A delicious coconut caramel topped with whole almonds surrounded by chocolate. That doesn’t sound like any other candy bar on shelves today.
How did they make it vegan? Well, here’s the pretty short list of ingredients:
I’ve had two of these bars now. The first one I photographed and ate. Then I searched months and months to find them in stores again. Both bars looked the same, a long chewy plank of coconut caramel topped with whole almonds and then covered in a vegan milk chocolate. The milk chocolate is made without any dairy ingredients (but in a shared facility, so not appropriate for those with allergies) but uses real cocoa butter.
The chocolate itself is chalky and has a soft cereal note to it. The cocoa flavor is lacking, but overall it’s a pleasant coating. It’s kind of like how I feel about hot cocoa made with water instead of milk; I’ll drink it but I wouldn’t choose it. The chewy center is quite good, a very dense coconut and caramel combination. The caramelized sugar notes are missing, but the texture is great.
It’s an interesting bar and I had to throw my expectations about the milk chocolate out the window. This is not really a vegan milk chocolate, it’s just a very mild chocolate - the rice milk makes it something different in both intensity (which is what milk does to chocolate) and texture (which is kind of sad). I would probably prefer this bar with a true dark chocolate coating, but I understand the goal here was to make it with a milder chocolate. It still doesn’t match up to the expectations I have for milk chocolate, but if I toss those out and just experience this, I was surprised at how much I liked it. (It’s similar to how much I like Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, even though they don’t use a real chocolate coating.)
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
I mentioned a while back that Mars was going to convert all of their Dove Chocolate over to Rainforest Alliance certified cocoa this year. I saw the first bars in the store sometime around New Years and picked up this Dove 71% Cacao Silky Smooth Dark Chocolate.
The bar was on sale for $2.49, so it’s a pretty good deal for a 71% bar that’s 3.3 ounces. The nutritional panel lists that half the bar is a single serving. The 42 gram portion is 20 grams of fat. Good fat, of course… it’s made with cocoa butter which is supposed to be pretty good for your heart or at least not bad for it.
The bar looks like all the other Dove items these days. It’s seductively smooth with easy to break off domed pieces. The snap isn’t quite stiff, but not soft either. It’s, well, I can’t describe it any other way except fatty. See the above fat content for confirmation.
The Dove flavor profile is always a bit thin for my tastes, it’s like the chocolate is parallel to the cocoa butter instead of integrated. That may have something to do with Mars’ proprietary Cocoapro flavanol enhancement. Perhaps there’s some sort of process that it goes through that sanitizes it in this manner. The good news is that in this bar, that’s less of an issue. The melt is wonderful, buoyant and soft without a hint of grit. The cocoa flavors are lightly bitter, woodsy with a floral note that I don’t get from their regular dark. The melt is like a pudding, soft and creamy but still quite thick.
I had a few Dove Promises in the regular dark to compare. The regular dark is quite sweet and again, a little thin on intensity though a well rounded brownie batter chocolate flavor. I much preferred the 71% and didn’t feel like the lack of sweetness was a compromise. The deepness of the flavors was much more concentrated. I’ll be curious to see if these show up in the foil-wrapped Dove Promises line.
I know that in many stores this will be one of the few certified sustainably sourced bars, so it’s nice to finally have a choice when you’re at the drug store or a big box retailer.
Friday, January 18, 2013
It’s easy to dismiss this bar as one of the flash-in-the pan intersections of hipsterism. Mast Brothers are bearded bean-to-bar chocolate makers based in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and part of the trend of micro-producers of formerly mass-marketed products. This bar mixes their carefully sourced (but unnamed) beans with coffee beans from the famed Portland, OR coffee roasters, Stumptown (they also have a Manhattan location).
I admit that I do love very good coffee, though I also drink the mediocre stuff rather happily. (Lately I’ve been indulging in a weekly cappuccino made with Verve beans served up by the excellent baristas at Short Cake at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles.)
I want a chocolate bar that evokes all the pleasures of a well made espresso shot in a portable solid - mix the coffee with chocolate instead of hot frothed milk. Both contain strong akaloids and bitter tannins but the cocoa butter might give a slower release to those flavors than hot water.
One of the distinguishing features of Mast Brothers bars is the packaging. They’re wrapped in distinctive papers, this one with an appropriately evocative deep red with black line art of a vintage motorcycle. Inside the thick paper wrapper, which is sealed on the back with a large label, it’s also wrapped in a good quality gold foil.
The bar was nicely tempered. I know that working with other inclusions that also have oils in them can be problematic (sometimes I note a hint of bloom around nuts in dark bars). The look of the bar is interesting, it’s not completely smooth and this is accurate to the actual texture of the chocolate itself. It looks a little lumpy (though that could just be the artisan style of the bar molds), but I found it gritty.
The bar is exceptionally dark looking, and the flavor matches. The coffee notes are bold: smoky with aspects of toffee, molasses and oak. I can’t really tell where the coffee stops and the chocolate starts, but the flavors I thought were from the cacao were a little more green. Some olive and dried cherries (with the accompanying tartness) with another little note of lemon zest. The melt is not quite smooth, I’ve mentioned the grittiness already, I found this in other Mast Brothers bars (I’ve never reviewed them before). The finish is a bit dry, but not chalky.
Overall, it’s not my ideal cup of coffee. I will say that the coffee is bold and stands out from the chocolate without being too sweet nor too bitter. I’ll probably finish the bar (though I can’t eat it late in the day because it is actually caffeinated), but I don’t think I’m going to buy another. I’d say as far as bean to batch bars married with single origin roasters go, I’m still the most fond of the Askinosie and Intelligentsia marriage.
The ingredient list is simple and short: cacao, cane sugar and coffee beans. No emulsifiers and no vanilla. There’s no statement about nuts, gluten or dairy on the wrapper.
Note: Eagranie of The Well Tempered Chocolatier also reviewed this bar last year, but hers was a different iteration, which contained more whole beans. For more about Mast Brothers, check out this 2009 NY Times article about Brooklyn food producers.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
While I was shopping at Whole Foods outside of Philadelphia back in September, I spotted these Nectar Nuggets Peanut Butter Cups. I’d never seen the before, but there was a little tag next to them that said “They’re Back!” so I figured they must be a local favorite.
There were three varieties on the shelf, and I picked up one of each: Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup and Almond Butter Cup.
The name Nectar Nugget didn’t ring any bells for me, but with the little picture of a bee in the corner of the wrapper and the word nectar in the name, I thought perhaps these were honey sweetened. That would definitely be interesting!
The cups are of the same proportions that we’re all accustomed to, two inches wide at the top and only one half an inch high.
The chocolate used for Nectar Nugget is Rainforest Alliance certified, so it’s sustainably grown and audited to assure that no child labor or slaves are used.
It smells a bit grassy, like real peanuts but not dark roasted ones. The chocolate has a nice sheen. There’s a little bit of a cloudy spot on top of the center, but I forgive that with real peanut butter, as the natural oils tend to migrate.
The peanut butter in the Nectar Nuggets is extremely smooth but also quite thick. It has a nice melt, like chocolate or fudge. The salt is light and gives the peanut butter a sort of warm feel as it melts. The milk chocolate is quite sweet but has a much quicker melt than the peanut butter and creates a good backdrop. It’s not particularly milky, but also not very chocolately, just a nice sweet texture.
The package says that it’s Giant Size, which is 1.2 ounces ... a bit bigger than a standard Reese’s, but not what I’d call a King Size. The thick texture of the peanut butter makes it quite filling for me, so much so that I had to space out my review of this set of cups over several days (and I’ve been known to eat a lot of candy in one day).
The ingredients include milk, so it’s not a true dark chocolate (nor vegan) item. Like the other cups, the package says that there are 5 grams of protein in each cup. This makes them rather filling without that too-much-sugar crash later.
The dark chocolate cup is tough, but in a way it’s worth it. The dark chocolate is smooth and buttery, though it starts a little waxy and stiff if it’s cold. The peanut butter feels drier than the milk chocolate version. The melt of the dark chocolate is quick and really fatty, it rolls around on the tongue quite a bit. The cocoa flavors are very deep, nutty and on the bitter side. It brings a whole smoky flavor to the cup.
I was wondering if this actually was a nut butter or a marzipan, but it’s definitely nut butter.
The Almond Butter cup is interesting. Most notably, the nut butter interior is quite salty, especially compared to the sweet and smooth chocolate. It’s 80 mg of sodium (same as the peanut butter ones) which is actually less than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Like the peanut butter varieties here, the nut butter is a little on the dry side, but not crumbly, quite smooth and fresh. Instead of the roasted and grassy flavors of peanuts, the almond butter is a bit less vivid. Instead, the textures were the focus and the milk chocolate was more noticeable.
It still lacked a pizazz for me, but that’s probably because I was indoctrinated as a child into the peanut butter culture of North America. Even so, since they’re made in a facility with peanut butter, they’re not suitable for those with allergies to peanuts.
They were good and I appreciate the attention to details with the ingredients and the portioning. The ratios are good. They’re not my ideal cup but the fact that they’re ethically sourced and have no artificial preservatives tip my opinion in their favor. So I think I might pick them up again even though they were pricey (I think they were $2.00 each or something close to that) but probably wouldn’t seek them out at a special store. (They contain soy, milk and peanuts or almonds but there’s no statement about gluten.)
Monday, October 22, 2012
I’m quite fond of Chuao Chocolatier’s bars, which are made in Southern California. The packaging is spare but eye-catching and distinct. I’ve come to know the brand well enough to be able to spot a new bar on the shelf easily because of the color-coding. One that I’d been looking forward to finding is the Chuao Honeycomb 60% Cacao. The bar is a Dark Chocolate Bar with Caramelize Honey.
I was excited about this bar because Chuao used to make a fantastic item for local Whole Foods markets. It was a thick bar with large chunks of sponge candy (here they’re calling it honeycomb). I haven’t seen it in the market for several years, so I was hoping this bar would be a more widely available version.
The back of the package has a more enticing bit of marketing copy: The Honeycomb bar is a sweet bouquet of silky dark chocolate and crunchy, caramelized honey. Its pleasing layers of tropical flavors and contrasting textures seduce chocolate lovers like bees to a flower.
Chuao uses non-GMO ingredients, including the soy lecithin and the corn syrup for the honeycomb. chuao also sourced their chocolate through a project called Aguasanta Growth Initiative in Venezuela.
The bar has a wonderful decorative design for its mold. They’re changing their packaging yet again, so keep an eye out for the newer designs. Here’s a peek at the ChocoPod version. (Here’s what they looked like back in 2006 when I first tried them.) While it’s fun to look at, it is a little more problematic for portioning. The bar doesn’t break evenly around the “pod” pieces and of course it’s harder to tell how much of the bar you have eaten. (Besides all of it. That’s easy no matter the shape.)
There were a few little voids at the bottom where the mold didn’t fill properly and the same on the bottom of the bar where there were bubbles.
The bar is deep and toasty. The chocolate has a coffee note to it but is complemented by the burnt sugar flavors of the sponge candy. It’s a clean toffee note, with no hint of butter, just the scorched honeycomb. There are some hints of minerals and an earthiness to it. The honeycomb provides a little texture, though it has a bit of a crunch, it also dissolves quickly, like shards of cotton candy.
I was hoping for a bit more differentiation between the chocolate and the honeycomb, at least as far as the textures.
It’s funny that I had to go all the way to Pennsylvania to find a bar that’s made right here in California (and that I’ve been looking for in local stores). But it makes sense that Pennsylvania would be the target market, they’re the folks that make such fantastic pretzels and have innovated so much in the sweet and salty combination. I think I found the Chuao Potato Chips in Chocolate 41% Cacao bar at Wegman’s, and it was even on sale.
The package says that it’s an Ultra Premium Milk Chocolate Bar with Kettle Cooked Potato Chips.
The bar is made from all natural ingredients, the potato chips are made with sunflower/corn and/or canola oil and this wrapper does not say anything about GMO ingredients.
This is an odd bar. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Part of it may be the inclusions. As you can see from the photo, the bits of the potato chips are quite small, I’d call them potato slivers or shards. So the texture doesn’t allow for a full bite of potato chip, but more of the flavor without the crunch. The chocolate smells milky and has a wonderful, silky melt. The chips are at once light and dense. They have a strong crunch, even for their small size. They’re salty and earthy, with a rooty, potato skin flavor to the that’s common to the kettle cooked variety of chips.
In both bars I wanted more of the inclusions ... but it’s hard to fault these bars when the chocolate is so good as well. Chuao never disappoints me with their chocolate. I think my favorite bars are still the Chinita Nibs and their Coffee and Anise bars, which are both rather hard for me to find as well.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Taza Chocolate makes their chocolate from bean to bar in Somerville, Mass. What sets them apart from the many other small batch chocolate makers that have sprung up in the last 10 years is that they stone grind their chocolate in the rustic, classic Mexican tradition. Taza sources their cacao through direct trade sources to assure quality and ethical practices.
They make a wide variety of products but the ones of most interest to me are the Mexicano Discs. They make 10 different varieties, but I got samples of two that I thought would represent the style best: Cacao Puro Chocolate Mexicano 70% and Taza Salted Almond Chocolate Mexicano. I also noticed recently that Trader Joe’s has started carrying a strikingly similar set of chocolate discs, so I’ll throw in some notes about that.
The Taza website describes the Taza Discs as Rustic, round dark chocolate discs with a distinctively gritty texture, some sweet, some savory, some spicy. The packages have two discs in them, 2.7 ounces total (1.35 ounces each).
The discs are either for eating straight from the package or making into a drink by mixing with a whisk (or molinillo if you want to be authentic) and some hot milk (or water).
The Cacao Puro Chocolate Mexicano 70% is organic, gluten free, soy free and dairy free plus Kosher and made with only two ingredients: organic cacao beans and organic cane sugar.
The process for making the chocolate is very simple. The roasted cacao is placed in the stone mills and ground, then ground a second time with the sugar added. As noted on their website, it’s not a lot of processing, no conching and no emulsifiers are used. The chocolate is then tempered and molded into the discs.
(My photos for the Puro turned out poorly, so just imagine this Salted Almond is the Puro. It really looks the same, just a smidge darker.)
The look of the bars is a little dusty, less than glossy. The snap is solid, these are tough and dense bars. The melt is, well, not very smooth. It’s described as rustic and rustic is what it is.
The overwhelming flavor note I had was green wood, it’s a little like black tea, with other notes of lemon peel, raisins and a hint of figs and leather.
The texture is grainy, there are grains of sugar, which are interesting because they dissolve quickly. Then the is the grit of the large cacao particles. This gives the overall flavor of the chocolate a sort of variation, there are parts where the flavors might start as citrusy but then after chewing (yes, later because of the grit, there is more chewing than a really smooth dark chocolate might obligate me) some other flavors come out, like the tobacco and tea.
The chocolate here is only 40% cacao, with a larger proportion of sugar plus the almonds and salt taking up the other 60%. I really expected the cross section of this one to look more rustic, with more bits of almond in there, but it’s really well integrated.
It’s quite sweet, the graininess is taken up with the sugary grains with a hint of salt. I didn’t catch much from the almonds, except that they gave it a more creamy and mellow flavor that moderated the bitterness of the cacao better than the sugar. The chocolate flavors were also evened out, so I just got a sort of fudge brownie flavor from the whole thing.
I tried making a hot chocolate with this, since that’s part of the appeal of the Mexican-style of rustic chocolate. I didn’t put a lot of chocolate into it - about half of a disc for about 6 ounces of whole milk, I’ll probably add more next time. It’s best to use a whisk for this, all I had was a fork, so there was a lot of stirring (and a good thing that I didn’t fill up the cup all the way). The flavor is much more nutty and the sugar dissolves completely. The grittiness of the cocoa part goes away (until you get to the sludge at the bottom which is then a mix of almond bits and cacao nibs, which is also great).
I prefer this as a hot drink to a bar for eating, but that’s just me. It’s a bit expensive and requires a lot more work than just dumping a powder into some hot water, but I appreciate good ingredients and can take that extra minute for the stirring. (And now that the weather is getting cooler, I need a sort of whisk that’s ideal for one cup of chocolate.)
The final one I have notes on is the Trader Joe’s special version, Organic Salt & Pepper. It has 54% cacao, so it’s a bit darker than the Almond version. The only real difference between this disc set and the Taza branded ones is the fact that there are no little letters T A Z A on the molded sections.
It smells dark and peppery with some rum notes. The salt is much more forward than the Salted Almond. The gritty texture seemed to go well with the rustic flavors of salt and pepper and the grainy sugar. The cocoa flavors were a bit lost though did remind me of brownie batter. Of the three that I tried, this was my least favorite, but mostly because of the overall sandiness. The heat of the black pepper takes a while to warm up, but lends some nice tones.
The style of chocolate is interesting and definitely different from the standard fare and novelty chocolates these days. Really, I think this chocolate will shine as a drinking product, not for straight eating. But that’s a personal preference. If you’re looking for a chocolate that’s easy to portion, made with vegan ingredients, that has no GMO ingredients, emulsifiers or gluten or added vanilla bean then this is a fantastic option.
Update 10/29/2012: Per the suggestions of readers that I should drink this as hot chocolate, I did just that with one tablet of the Salted Almond. I found it a little bland, but very rich. So for the remaining discs, I made chocolate pudding. The recipe was 1/4 cup of corn starch, 3 cups of milk and three discs (about 3.5 ounces) of chopped chocolate. I warmed the mixture on the stove over low heat while I used a whisk to completely incorporate the corn starch, then as the chocolate melted to emulsify it. Then turned it up to medium heat, stirred constantly until it just started to thicken and boil. I added some vanilla extract (optional). It’s very rich, not at all sweet.
For my mix I had one disc of Salted Almond and two of the Cacao Puro. I wasn’t interested in the Salt & Pepper as pudding.
Friday, October 5, 2012
As I mentioned in some recent reviews, I’ve been chewing more gum lately. It’s hard to find gum that’s doesn’t use artificial sweeteners, but the market has expanded in the past few years as consumers have searched for alternatives to aspartame.
I picked up this package of Glee Gum Sugar Free Peppermint before a recent plane trip but then forgot to take it with me. So I’ve been munching on it at the office.
Unlike sugared gums and other sugar free gums, chewing gum made with xylitol has an amazing cool feeling on the tongue. The candy coating on the Glee chiclets only enhances that.Glee is also made with all non genetically modified ingredients (including sunflower lecithin) and a natural gum base made from real chicle.
The flavor is a mild peppermint, it’s clean and not too overpowering but also lasts quite a long time. The chew is smooth, and while I’ve had problems with the chicle sticking to my teeth before, I don’t have that issue with the sugarless version (it could also be that I’ve had some of my fillings replaced since I started Candy Blog).
Sometimes I find sugar free gums have a strange, metallic flavor, but in this case I got no strange notes. It was refreshing and simple. Xylitol is not a no-calorie sweetener, it’s a sugar alcohol that has a fraction of the calories of sugar. But mostly it has either no effect on the bacteria that cause cavities or, in some studies, can effectively combat it (but it takes more than just a couple of pieces of gum a few times a month). Xylitol, like most sugar alcohols, can cause stomach distress when consumed in large quantities by some people. Gum is usually not an issue, unless you’re chewing more than one package a day if you happen to be one of those sensitive people.
This is pretty much my go-to gum now. I still prefer real Chiclets because of the satisfaction of chewing the sugar out and then going for three more pieces. But this is probably better for my oral health, the flavor lasts longer and is made with all natural ingredients. Now I’m hoping they’ll come out with more flavors, like cinnamon.
Glee Gum does come in little single-serving boxes for Halloween treating, however, the sugar free varieties are not available yet. As far as I can tell, this would be the perfect item for folks who are nut-free, gluten-free and sugar-free to give out without seeming like stick-in-the-muds. (But it would help if it also came in the bubble gum flavor, too.)
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Poco Dolce is a small confectioner based in San Francisco known mostly for their lovely toffee tiles (really, take a look). A few years ago they started making specialty chocolate bars as well.
The one I picked up in San Francisco was one I was particularly looking forward to. It’s simply called Hazelnut Bar made with bittersweet chocolate. The ingredients are exceptionally simple, chocolate, hazelnut butter and sea salt. Since it’s a dark chocolate, it’s also vegan (though processed where it may have come in contact with milk proteins, other tree nuts or peanuts and there’s no statement about the sourcing of the sugar).
Poco Dolce sources their chocolate from nearby Guittard Chocolate Company, choosing from their Rainforest Alliance certified chocolate. The hazelnut butter comes from Oregon.
The bar is not that large, though the box makes it seem like it would be close to one of those 3 ounce tablets. Instead this one is 1.763 ounces ... or what I’d consider a very generous single portion.
The dark bar is nicely tempered and the smooth hazelnut butter is well integrated. The texture is smooth, no hint of hazelnut bits but a strong hazelnut flavor. The bar is bitter, but in a roasted way. The melt is good, though a little firmer than a regular dark bar at first, but has a lighter feel on the tongue than a straight chocolate. It’s lightly sweet and lightly salty, deeply chocolatey and nutty. It’s also exceptionally filling. About two pieces were a great pick me up. So while the bar was expensive and small, I felt like it lasted a long time.
One of my complaints about hazelnut paste (gianduia) as I’ve gotten older is that it’s too sticky and too sweet. This bar has none of those issues, yet still remains decadent.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.