Monday, December 29, 2014
barkTHINS won the Most Innovative New Product award at the Sweets & Snacks Expo for the Dark Chocolate Toasted Coconut variety. I can’t see quite what’s so innovative about that. I picked up a package of the barkTHINS Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Seed because it was on sale. The stand up package holds 4.7 ounces and was on sale for $3.99.
The top of the package says that it’s a serious twist on snacking. Which is a grandiose statement for a bunch of seeds in chocolate, which is one of the oldest forms of chocolate inclusions. Perhaps the twist they’re referring to is the fact that the chocolate and the sugar in the chocolate is Fair Trade certified. And the soy lecithin is non-GMO. There are no dairy ingredients, though it may contain traces of peanuts, tree nuts, milk, wheat or eggs. The FAQ on their website explains that their innovation is the fact that the bark is thin enough to snap into pieces.
All my grumbling aside, I like what I saw on the ingredients label and the concept of simple, ethically sourced dark chocolate with some fresh toasted seeds in it.
I’ve never quite understood the appeal of bark as a product. I understand why I make it, because I have leftover chocolate from a kitchen project and then just mix up some stuff I have sitting around and call it a tasty mess. I can’t imagine selling it. I want my pieces consistent and I want my seeds integrated.
The good news is that the pumpkin seeds (pepitas) are actually integrated into the chocolate. The pieces are pretty consistent in size and thickness and with a good amount of pepitas. The general size of the pieces is what I’d call, “too large.” They’re about 2.5” by 1.5”. This is a nice portion, however, I found them a bit large and wanted more small pieces. Luckily, I could make my own ... while providing lots of small pieces would mean that large piece lovers would have some assembly to do.
The chocolate is nice, a little on the fatty side which means that there’s a nice silky melt, but also that the calories per ounce on this were 164 ...quite high. (Pepitas have between 145 and 160 calories per ounce, depending on the variety.) The cocoa flavors have a lot of toasty toffee notes and a little hint of grassy olives (or maybe that’s the pepitas). There’s a hint of salt, which offsets the sweetness very well. The pumpkin seeds are crunchy and crisp with no really flavor of their own, just a clean chew with maybe a hint of pistachio.
I enjoyed it, though I do find snacking on bark to simply be difficult. The inconsistency of the sizes and the inclination for me to want to pick through and find the right size and density of seeds is problematic. I’m not sure why they can’t be little bars or puddles. The use of pumpkin seeds is different enough, though the price on these is a bit steep. I’ll finish the bag and probably consider the salted almond and coconut version in the future if I see them on sale again.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Theo Chocolate makes organic and fair trade chocolate from bean to bar in their factory in Seattle. They have a selection of seasonal bars in addition to their regular items, this year I picked out their Theo Chocolate Nutcracker Brittle because I liked their Salted Almond bar. It features almonds, hazelnuts and sugary brittle chunks in smooth, rich 70% dark chocolate
The most notable quality of this seasonal bar is that it’s vegan. That’s right, the brittle is not made with any dairy, so the bar is free from any animal-derived products. (Though it is made in a factory that also processes milk, eggs and wheat, so it may contain traces of gluten or dairy as well as peanuts or other tree nuts.)
The wrapping is nice, a simple paper over-wrap with the chocolate bar enclosed in foil underneath. The bar is made with 88% fair trade ingredients and all organic products (except for the baking soda and salt). The corn syrup is also non-GMO and they do not use soy lecithin (or lecithin of any kind).
The bar looked great and smells wonderful. It’s a woodsy cocoa blend, it smells like toffee and fresh brewed coffee and toast. For a 70%, it’s well balanced. The cocoa flavors are a little on the acidic side with some bright sour cherry notes along with the other woodsy components mentioned earlier. It’s sweet, at first, but the baked brownie flavors dominate towards the end. The nuts are kind of separate as a flavor and texture. The almonds and hazelnuts are crunchy and fresh (though hard to tell apart) and the little brittle pieces are crunchy without being tacky or chewy. I missed the little hint of salt from the Salted Almond bar, but that’s not what was promised here.
It’s a nice seasonal bar, but I have to wonder why it’s not a year round offering ... no reason not to have this for Valentine’s.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Tcho is a bean to bar chocolate maker based in San Francisco. Their early chocolate programs simplified the ideas of single origin distinctions and simply labeled their chocolate bars with the flavor characteristic based on a flavor wheel.
Though their early products were simple dark and milk chocolate bars, they’ve not created some interesting new flavored bars. I picked up two little tasting squares of their Tcho Mokaccino. They’re only .28 ounces, so it really is just a bite or two of chocolate. It’s described as: Serious Milk Chocolate + Blue Bottle Coffee.
Tcho is made with fair trade cocoa beans, organic ingredients and is certified kosher. (They do use soy lecithin in their chocolate and also handle nuts in their facility.)
I happen to enjoy the coffee renaissance that’s been going on for ...oh, the past 30 years. The pre-ground cans of coffee of my childhood are long gone: a time when single origin meant you looked for the Colombian mountain on the can as an indication of flavor.
The little piece has a wonderful Spirograph-style pattern on it. It tastes a little smoky, very milky, with an almost cheesy note. The coffee is intense, but on the sweet side (I don’t take sugar in my coffee, so having it combined with chocolate tends to sweeten it too much for me). The coffee notes blend very well with the chocolate but the most important thing here is the texture. It’s smooth ... there’s now coffee bean grit like so many coffee chocolates end up with (or whole beans) that I don’t care for.
I’ve been watching Tcho since they started up and were in beta. Though I appreciate many of their attributes, I’ve not been impressed with the products themselves, the dark chocolate is gritty and has an odd fat balance to it for me, and often the beans taste burnt. They do some interesting chocolate covered items, like nuts, which are good but not remarkable enough for me to fork over the premium price.
That said, I’m glad I had an open mind and picked up the Mokaccino. The little squares are a bit expensive, but if I bought two of them instead of an actual cappuccino, it’s about the same price.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
What Theo Chocolate is offering in their new line of peanut butter cup are the following qualities: organic ingredients, ethically sourced chocolate, kosher, no palm oil or soy ingredients and free from genetically modified organisms. The new cups come in two varieties, milk and dark chocolate, and the dark chocolate is vegan. Though they’re Theo Chocolate branded, they’re actually made in Canada.
The Theo Chocolate Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups were $2.25 a package, I picked them up at the factory store in Seattle (I’ll have a write up about the factory tour after Halloween) but they should be available at stores that carry Theo Chocolate soon as well. The packages are 1.3 ounces, so they’re only .2 ounces smaller than the usual Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup packages. Theo uses peanut butter from CB’s Nuts, a small batch nut roaster and butterer.
They’re not your ordinary round cups, nope, these are little heart shapes. They’re .65 ounces each, a nice size with a more even proportion of chocolate to peanut butter than some cups with thinner chocolate shells. There’s no oily puddle on the top, but my cups were probably extremely fresh since I bought them at the factory store.
They smell very toasty, the chocolate is crisp and has a good snap to it. The peanut butter is not fatty or oily, but also not quite crumbly. The overall roasted notes of both the chocolate and peanut butter are very strong. For a milk chocolate product, this is only very barely sweet. If you’re a fan of the more savory elements of peanut butter and chocolate, this is probably a good match for you.
The texture of the peanut butter is similar in particle size to Reese’s ... it’s not whipped smooth, there are little crunchy bits and a dryness to it that keeps it from feeling to slick on the tongue. The chocolate is lightly bitter as well but has a milky note and smooth melt.
There’s no notation as to the percentage of cacao, but this photos shows that the milk chocolate cups are very dark looking compared to the dark ones.
The Theo Chocolate Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups are packaged so similarly to the milk chocolate variety, the sales staff at the factory store would let each customer know as they rang up their order that they’d chosen a particular variety ... so I sense that there may be a change in the future to help distinguish them.
The cups are beautiful, again, a little smaller than the Reese’s Peanut Butter version, but lacking the little fluted paper cups. Instead they just sit on a little paperboard tray. The mold detail includes the Theo logo on the bottom of the cups, if you’re so inclined to actually look at them before you gobble them up.
These have the same deep roasted scent as the milk chocolate, but without the light dairy note to it. The dark chocolate is immediately bitter and creamy, with a very silky melt but a strong coffee flavor. The peanut butter balanced the intensity of the chocolate with a lightness, a little hint of salt and a comforting peanut flavor.
Just one cup was exceptionally satisfying.
These are much pricier than the traditionally produced peanut butter cups on store shelves, but have none of the additional ingredients that give many folks pause. However, they’re still made in a facility that processes wheat, tree nuts, egg and soy so they’re not for those sensitive folks.
Though Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups were first to market with ethically sourced ingredients, I think I prefer these for the texture and intensity. (But I’ll probably still hand out Justin’s for Halloween since they’re available in singles.)
Friday, October 3, 2014
It’s fun to see all the kids candy for Halloween, but sometimes adults want something a little special too. Enter Seattle Chocolates Devil’s Delight Dark Chocolate Truffle Bar with Peanut Butter & Pretzels. It’s described as Salted pretzel pieces and creamy peanut butter in dark chocolate that uses Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa. A devilishly delicious combination!. That definitely sounds right up my alley.
It’s nice to see a seasonal bar using ethically sourced cacao, and in this case, it’s no more expensive than other similar bar on store shelves.
Don’t be disappointed if it’s not your cup of tea, there are two others: Bloody Orange Truffle Bar and Dead Sea Salt Truffle Bar.
The bar is compact and uses the same mold as all the other Seattle Chocolates bars I’ve tried. At 2.5 ounces, it’s a bit too much to eat in one sitting and not quite enough for two portions. Basically, it’s perfect for the stingy sharer ... give one section to another person, eat the rest yourself.
The pieces are thick sections that hold the truffle filling.
The bar smells pleasantly nutty with a woodsy chocolate component. The dark chocolate is bittersweet and has a nice, silky melt. The filling is a little odd. It’s very peanutty, which I enjoyed and had some good salty pops. But the pretzel pieces seemed stale, as can happen when mixing with inclusions. I liked the peanut butter part, very smooth and nutty and offset well by the dark chocolate. I think they mix the peanut butter in with white chocolate, which is genius. Overall, I liked it, though I didn’t finish it in one sitting. One of the things I’ve seen that solves the stale pretzel problem is to give them a quick dip in chocolate before mixing them in.
This bar was sent to me as a sample from Seattle Chocolates, but I did see them for sale at Cost Plus World Market.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
They source their chocolate from an organic, family run farm in the Dominican Republic and appear to take equal care after the selection of their beans. Cacao Prieto also uses centuries old technology to roast, and then has innovated some new machinery to winnow the cacao before processing it with reproduction melangeurs. (You can see the process with photos here.)
I’ve seen these bars around for the past few years but was scared off by the price. The time was right, perhaps because of the name of this bar: Cacao Prieto Pecan & Sour Cherry in 72% Dominican Dark Chocolate. The thought of dried sour cherries and pecans had my mouth watering right away.
The bars from Cacao Prieto even have interesting packaging. The whole package is in a cellophane sleeve, and the window on the back of the box shows the bar with its inclusions. Even with the little peek, the packaging protects it well as for the most part they’re displayed with the window facing down. The front of the package also features a little postcard with similarly charming artwork designed by Brooklyn artist Sophie Blackall.
The bar is a slab, rather like a bark. The inclusions are really just scattered on top of the bar, not mixed into the chocolate. Personally, I prefer mine mixed in. I think a full coating protects nuts and fruits from oxidation (so they don’t get stale) very well, and usually means that you get a consistent taste of chocolate and nut/fruit in each bite. But Cacao Prieto says that each bar is hand-created, so I trust that this means that each of those inclusions was placed their by an artiste ... so who am I to argue. I’ll just leave myself in their expert hands.
The bar is nicely thick and quite robust. It’s 5.5” inches by 3.5” inches and weighs in at 4.2 ounces. Of course, the larger size is welcome considering the price of the bar at $13.
The chocolate itself has a crisp snap but yields well to the tooth even though it’s rather thick. The melt is buttery smooth. The flavors are rich, with a lot of toasty brownie notes, woodsy coffee and a note of toffee and cherry (but that could be the cherries themselves). The pecans are expertly chosen and placed. Crisp, mapley and crunchy, they went very well with the chocolate. The cherries were very soft, chewy and tangy.
I loved the bar. Usually I get bored after about 2 ounces of intense chocolate, but this was so well done. The chocolate itself is dreamy, the nuts and cherries are absolute perfection. I noticed that Cacao Prieto actually sells couveture drops of the 72% Dominican ... which I’m pretty tempted by at the moment.
There are a few other interesting features for the bar, first is that it’s Kosher. That’s pretty rare for bean-to-bar chocolate. The bar is made from organic beans and contains no soy lecithin as an emulsifier. There are also no milk products and is considered vegan.
I picked up this bar at Lolli & Pops, a newer and still small chain of candy stores. I got a private tour of the shop before they opened one Sunday morning last month from one of their salesfolk, Jaz. It’s an interesting selection, very wide. They have the standard sugar candy offerings of gummi bears, Skittles and Jelly Belly by the pound. Those are pretty expensive at $15.00 a pound, which is standard mall pricing these days. But what sets Lolli & Pops apart would be their selection of lesser known candies. They have imported mass-produced bars, a good cross-section of Japanese gummis and chews and then they have chocolate bars. Their chocolate room has a lot of candy by the pound (that’s where I got the Chocolate Covered Banana Gummi Bears reviewed last week) but also bars.
They have chocolate from most of the fine bean-to-bar chocolate makers: Amano, Theo, Lillie Belle, Marou, Blanxart, Poco Dolce, Chuao, Scharffen Berger, Taza, Dick Taylor and Dandelion… just to name the ones that I can remember. Though the other candy was priced a bit high, the bars here were at about the same price as if I’d ordered them right from the chocolate makers themselves ... without the shipping. Now, all the chocolate is expensive, most bars are between $5 and $10 a bar, but that’s just the going rate for many of the small batch companies. I don’t know of any other shop in Glendale that carries such a wide variety, so it’s a nice addition to the area.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Back in 1995 Cadbury introduced a hollow, molded chocolate novelty called Yowie that included an animal toy in the center in Australia. They were wildly successful not only in Australia but in Oceania, as well, even outselling the more globally known Kinder Surprise Egg in those territories. Then about 10 years ago some disputes between Cadbury and the product line’s creators, they were discontinued (more about that here).
There are plenty of hollow chocolates out there filled with little candies, but it’s not easy to find them with a toy surprise. In the United States they are banned because in most cases the toy inside qualifies as a choking hazard. Even though the toy is enclosed within a plastic egg that is far too big to be swallowed, it’s the tiny toys (often requiring assembly) that have American regulators on watch for them. (I’ve brought back the toys from Kinder Eggs from Germany, but never the intact candy.)
The Yowie Group has found a way around all of this regulation by simply making the toy inside too big to be a choking hazard and are reintroducing the Yowie line of toys enclosed in chocolate ... starting this time with the United States.
Yowies also have a few other features that Kinder Surprise Eggs do not. The chocolate is considered real chocolate (all natural) and is Rainforest Alliance certified. They’re shaped and molded not like a simple egg, but in the form of different characters. Inside the molded chocolate is a plastic capsule (also kind of a toy itself) that holds the toy. The toy is actual decent quality and are themed as little animal figurines with information inside the capsule about them.
The chocolate is formed in halves, fully designed on both sides (though the back is less interesting). It comes apart rather easily to reveal the capsule inside. They’re rather large, about 2.75 inches tall.
I bought two of them at Lolli & Pops in Glendale (I can’t even find anywhere online to buy them as I write this). They were expensive, $3.75 each. Sadly, one of them was badly bloomed and inedible. They had the same expiration on them, and none of my other chocolate I purchased had any texture/blooming issues, so I’m going to have to say that it happened somewhere between manufacturing and the checkout counter. (So, I staged the photo below to make sure you’d see both of the toys.)
The chocolate itself is pleasant. It’s very thin, so once I put a piece in my mouth, it melted very quickly. It has a fresh “dairy milk” flavor, a rounded cocoa note and a smooth texture. It’s not the best milk chocolate I’ve ever had, but it’s certainly very good for a chocolate novelty item.
You’re not buying it for the chocolate anyway, and as far as candy indulgences go for kids, it’s only one ounce (most chocolate/candy bars are 1.5 to 2.5 ounces) so it’s pretty low in calories overall (153). The little toys are solid and good quality for something considered a novelty ... though certainly not a product I’d be willing to pay more than 50 or 60 cents for, let alone $3.75, even if it does include an ounce of chocolate. But this is for kids.
It’s difficult to read the foil for the ingredients and other information. The press release from the company says that the chocolate is ethically sourced and their website shows the Rainforest Alliance logo. The chocolate is gluten and nut free and Kosher certified. The novelties are made here in the United States at Whetstone Chocolate of St. Augustine, Florida.
Monday, August 4, 2014
While in London earlier this year, I made sure to visit some of the finer chocolate shops. One I wanted to go to in particular was one of the Hotel Chocolat locations known as Roast+Conch, where they actually make some bean to bar chocolate. The location in the Borough Market in the Bankside district of London and includes a full restaurant that features cacao as an ingredient in every dish.
After eating a wonderful lunch, my mother and I browsed the store on the ground level. The cacao of the day was Trinidad, with the beans being served before lunch and some pieces of freshly made chocolate served at the end of the meal. So I was sure to pick up a bar of that. Then I also wanted to try another bar from their Rabot 1745 line. Though Hotel Chocolate uses Callebaut chocolate in their other confections, their Rabot line is made in conjunction with Coppeneur in Germany (one of my favorite chocolate makers). I didn’t know that at the time, but now it doesn’t surprise me at all.
I picked out a Venezuela Chuao 70% bar. Chuao cacao has a strong reputation as some of the best beans in the world (here’s a sampling of some bars I tasted a few years ago).
Hotel Chocolat gives extensive information about the handling of the beans and making of the cacao. The bar itself is 70% cacao with just three ingredients: cacao mass, cane sugar and soy lecithin.
The description of this bar from Hotel Chocolat goes something like this: Prima Donna with talent. She’s good and she knows it – an interplay of cream and caramel with malt and raisins, roast nuts and plenty of elegant poise.
Roasting time: 35min @135 C.
Refining & Conching: 72hrs
The bar is wonderfully dark with an interesting texture from the mold. Though it’s rather thick, it’s quite easy to snap.
The scent is woodsy with some green notes like jasmine and olives. The melt is smooth, though it has a bitter note right away, a sort of dryness that gives it an acidic bite. But the buttery texture makes that all quite palatable. I caught a burnt note to it, a sort of smoke but nothing that’s unpleasant. It doesn’t have some of the other nutty notes I enjoy in other Venezuelan chocolate, mostly those from Ocumare. But I’d definitely eat this again, mostly because the texture is so nice, especially since it’s such a high cacao content.
The bar itself just came in the cellophane sleeve with a label, there was no box. The label also didn’t say anything about the conch time or the harvest, just the date the bar was best by. The Hotel Chocolat website says that they use Trinitario beans (which makes sense, since they’re from Trinidad where the varietal originated).
It’s a 75% bar, so it’s only a little bit darker than the Chuao. The texture is far and away different, it’s grittier and sort of rustic in its overall flavors. It’s woodsy with some coffee and black pepper notes, a little toffee and brown sugar as well. It’s kind of bitter, but not overly dry at the finish. The meal we had in the restaurant started with these beans and then later finished with little medallions of chocolate also from Trinidad beans. I like the idea of buying chocolate that’s made right before my eyes, but the reality is that I prefer to eat the chocolate that’s been carefully crafted ... and I don’t have to witness it to enjoy it.
I’ve found that I like a long conch on my chocolate, part of what I like about a good chocolate bar is the texture. In most cases a long conch gives the cacao not only the time it needs to become smooth, but also for the flavors to develop. I did a taste test a few years back with some Coppeneur Chuao that had been conched 70 hours and 100 hours. Much of the mass-market chocolate we consume is conched for less than a day, some for two days ... I found that a 3 day conch is fine for me, anything over that gets kind of muddy in the flavor department but does create an amazingly smooth texture.
The Rabot 1745 line from Hotel Chocolat is a worthwhile way to experience single origin chocolate along with a lot of information about the making of the bar itself, as few chocolate makers include the origin, harvest date, roasting and conch time.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.