Monday, March 24, 2008
I rarely go into a Starbucks, but I do drink their coffee at the office sometimes. I think my favorite blend of theirs is the Estima (which they don’t make available for our office, drat). At home I’m more likely to drink Trader Joe’s but I’m not a coffee snob, I’ll buy coffee at 7-11, McDonald’s, happily drink the stuff on an airplane and of course at many of the local coffee houses in Los Angeles.
I’m not a “coffee drink” person. I just like a cup of coffee with some milk in it for the most part, but I’ll drink a capuccino now and then. I think coffee is a flavor that’s good enough to be savored by itself. No need for caramel, hazelnut syrup or other intrusions of flavors. (I do drink Mexican Mochas in November.)
I was still eager to try the new line of Starbucks Chocolates and happily accept the offer from some PR folks for a tasting kit (shown here, which is not available for retail sale).
I am kind of picky about my coffee and chocolate combinations though. I like my chocolate smooth, and I don’t usually want to eat my coffee beans. (I had a seriously dangerous chocolate covered coffee bean problem in college that led to an EKG and some stern words from a doctor about moderation.)
So I greeted the new Starbucks and Hershey’s chocolate venture with a little trepidation, mostly worried that both would bring the worst they had to offer to the products (Starbucks high prices and Hershey’s inflated prices for substandard quality or playing off the cachet of their Artisan Confection lines Dagoba & Scharffen Berger without delivering).
Their new product line consists of chocolate bars and tasting squares. There is the standard dark and milk plus two infused with tea flavors (Passion Fruit and Chai) and then a Mocha dark chocolate and a Citron dark chocolate. As expected they also have chocolate covered coffee beans (in milk chocolate) and a line of four different kinds of truffle-style bonbons.
The venture between Starbucks & Hershey’s is a strange one. Starbucks makes the sourcing of their coffee beans part of their marketing effort, with a pledge that they pay above market rates to the growers. It’s not quite fair trade (though they do have the Estima blend that is certified fair trade), it has certainly raised awareness of the issue of growers of our non-essential items like coffee and now chocolate. In this case the package makes note:
It’s unclear from that webpage if the chocolate in the Starbucks branded chocolate products was obtained within these principals or not. The package (on the other side) says “Manufactured for Artisan Confections Company Berkeley, CA 94710 USA under the authority of Starbucks Coffee Company”. (Emphasis mine) I’m still not sure who made these products. (Clay Gordon tried to get more info on this subject, but was unable, but I agree that the couldn’t be made at the Scharffen Berger space in Emeryville and I’m more inclined to believe they were made by the Dagoba folks.)
The good thing is that the risk with these is low for the consumer. They’re all well priced items, none more than $5.49 and available at local drug stores and discount chains. (I already spotted the full line at RiteAid.)
The ingredients on all the items are good, real vanilla, no PGPR though no indication what the cacao levels are on the products. (Well, also no indication of what the caffeine levels are on the coffee ones!)
To start, I tried the Milk Chocolate Covered Coffee Beans. They feature the Caffe Verona beans at the heart, sourced from around the world and prepared in the Italian roast style. Inside the little stand up box the glossy beans are sealed inside a clear cellophane bag. The size is 3.5 ounces and retails for $4.99 to $5.49.
They smell very sweet, the chocolate is milky and soft to the bite (so no flaking off). The combination of the crunchy bean at the heart and the chocolate coating is nice. A bit on the sweet side for me, when it comes to coffee confections, but still very nice. The consistent quality of the beans are a highlight. I ate at least a dozen and didn’t get a chewy or acrid one. (7 out of 10)
Milk Chocolate. They say it’s, “Sweet, silky indulgence; rich & rewarding” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a much smoother chocolate than I’m accustomed to from Hershey’s or even Scharffen Berger. It has some strong vanilla notes and a good milky texture. (8 out of 10)
Dark Chocolate. They say it’s, “Deep, complex flavors; smooth and satisfying” and I think that was overselling it. It was rather sweet but still smooth. It lacked a depth of flavor, but it pairs well with coffee, has only the slightest acidic tang and has a good buttery melt. (7 out of 10)
They come in both 3 ounce bars or a mixed bag of tasting squares (that include the Mocha Dark Chocolate). Bars are $2.99 and the tasting squares are $4.99-$5.49 for 2.6 ounces (kinda silly, really to pay so much more for so much less).
Passion(r) Dark Chocolate features a Tazo herbal blend of hibuscus & natural flavors. It has a very fruity scent and a grainy melt on the tongue. The little grainy bits are tangy and have a strong berry (and hibiscus) flavor to them with a tint of peach and passion fruit. It’s purely a personal thing but I thought this was dreadful ... from the texture to the combination of flavors, the sickly scent and the way it all overwhelms the chocolate. (4 out of 10)
Citron(r) Dark Chocolate is also a Tazo blend of tea leaves and lemon oil. This one smells pleasantly of lemon, but very little of chocolate. The texture is not as grainy as the Passion, but still not smooth. The lemon essence was strong, but had no citrus tang to it, thankfully. Still, no chocolate flavors came though, nor much of the tea base either. (6 out of 10)
Mocha Dark Chocolate should epitomize this fusion of chocolate and Starbucks, right? It smells wonderfully rich, a combination of chocolate and coffee and a dollop of vanilla. It’s apparent looking at the square from the back that it has ground coffee beans in it, not just an infusion of flavor. It’s a bit grainy but crispy when chewed. It’s much like the chocolate covered coffee beans, but has a stronger chocolate flavor to it that isn’t quite overhwhelmed like the others. Still, I’m not one for the bits in there, but I admit that’s a personal preference. (6 out of 10)
Chai Milk Chocolate includes Tazo tea leaves and natural flavors in milk chocolate. It smells quite rich, mostly of nutmeg, cardamom and clove. Though it looks grainy, it’s really quite smooth even with the little inclusions. It has a wonderful spicy mix of flavors without being too sweet. I’m a big fan of spicy chai but can’t stand how sweet it can be. This is a very nice mix, I almost like it better than the Dagoba bar (which has actual ginger pieces in it). (7 out of 10)
What I found most surprising about this collection of chocolate tasting squares branded by a coffee company was that three out of the six of them were tea infusions and only one was actually a coffee flavor. Their slogan for the line of products is, “when coffee dreams, it dreams of chocolate” but I think it should be, “when coffee dreams, it ends up with tea in its chocolate.” Some sort of self-loathing or something. (Or adverse reaction to cannibalism, of course coffee doesn’t want coffee!)
The curious part is that Starbucks is not selling these at their stores or even on their website. They’re a Starbucks experience without a Starbucks shop. Like the Choxie line at Target, I think they’ve done a nice job of finding the essential nature of what they have to offer, packaging them nicely and charging the appropriate amount that people are willing to pay for a personal indulgence.
I’ll have a roundup of the Truffles in a separate post.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
I can’t stop buying them. (And, um, taking photos of them, as this post will demonstrate, it’s mostly photos.)
Here are a couple of other more upscale models, in case you still haven’t outfitted your Easter basket for the year. Call it my Bunny Battle, spawned in part by sticker shock at Whole Foods (who doesn’t come away from WF without some degree of sticker shock?).
I picked up this extremely cute and extremely small goodie basket (I think they call it a favor basket) from Lake Champlain. It contains three filled half eggs and one tiny .6 ounce hollow milk chocolate rabbit. The price? $8.49.
Now, lest you think that it’s the little eggs that are racking up the tally there, the bunny all by itself on the Lake Champlain website is $3.25 ... it’s just chocolate, nothin’ special there. Just all natural milk chocolate.
I’ll get to the bunny in a moment, but first the unique items in this little basket (well, more like a cup) are the Lake Champlain filled eggs. They’re lovely little half eggs with a pretty molded shell that has the Lake Champlain logo and the word “Vermont” on it.
It comes with three eggs. I reviewed the blue foil wrapped egg before that has a hazelnut cream inside before, so I picked up the rest of the eggs in their set to make sure that I’ve covered them all. (The basket came with Raspberry, Caramel & Peanut Butter.)
Pink = Raspberry Cream in Dark Chocolate - very jammy center, definitely more fruit than chocolate.
I didn’t want to overwhelm everyone with too many See’s items, so I’ve had these Rabbits for a while. I picked up one of the milk (small in gold foil) and one of the dark (in blue foil). They’re hollow, but still rather hefty.
Lake Champlain Milk Chocolate - it’s sweet and milky, but smooth and has a very slick melt on the tongue, almost like it has hazelnut in it. ($3.25 for .6 ounces) The larger sizes are priced at: $15 for a 9.5 ounce solid rabbit and a novelty one driving a car for $20 for 8 ounces.
Lake Champlain uses Belgian chocolate for their molded items. The ingredients are all natural.
See’s Milk Chocolate - it’s sweet and slightly less milky, with more of a roasted base to it. It’s not quite as sweet as the Lake Champlain, but still has similar silky qualities. ($2.45 for 2.2 ounces.) There is a smaller one that’s solid that goes for $1.00 at the stores and the other hollow novelites available are $4.90 for 4.5 ounces and the largest standing rabbit is $8.50 for 10 ounces.
So they both taste good. They’re both good quality. They’re both cute ... I’ll admit that I like the squat and fat Lake Champlain format, but the foil wrapping and doe-like eye of the See’s is awfully lovable, too.
It comes down to two other things, I guess. Price and availability. See’s is pretty easy to find on the West Coast and of course you can order via the internet.
There’s a nice campaign to raise awareness about the hazards of giving children real rabbits (or baby ducks or chicks) at the holidays called Make Mine Chocolate. While a chocolate rabbit is not going to engender the same sort of squishy lovey feelings in a kid that a real animal will, it’s much more humane.
I had rabbits as a kid and I can attest to how much responsibility it is to care for a pet (especially one in a cage).
He sat around my office for weeks, I really liked the look of this rabbit in the light blue foil with his drowsy, heavily-lashed eyes and real bow.
Eventually the foil had to come off though, I had no idea what was beneath, I expected something similar to the milk chocolate one. The 2.2 ounce version (which also comes in dark chocolate) has those little drawn on hairs, so you know it’s a rabbit.
It’s so smooth yet angular. And the eyes are so vacant.
The dark chocolate is tasty, very smooth but middle-of-the-road. Kind of like very good chocolate chips or a good cup of hot chocolate. A little hint of bitterness, no dry finish and a buttery melt.
The bunny isn’t really that much taller than the 2.2 ounce one, just wider and of course has a very thick wall. (Honestly, I had a hard time ringing his neck to break him after I bit off the ears.) They come in milk or dark, but no white.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Jelly Belly prides itself on its extensive flavor list. (See Brandon’s exhaustive tasting notes and listings of all the flavors that have ever existed.)
Jelly Belly has had a chocolate pudding flavor in the mix for quite some time and I’ve avoided it for the most part. Chocolate is not a flavor, it’s an experience made up of far too many things like alkaloid compounds, monounsaturated fats and polyphenols that simply cannot be bottled and applied to other confections.
Jelly Belly went ahead and introduced a new bean anyway, Dark Chocolate. I picked up some samples at the Fancy Food Show, tasted a few and then put them away for a time when I wasn’t innundated with so many good things.
In short, chocolate jelly beans are to chocolate the same thing that Tootsie Rolls are. Something utterly different and unsatisifying if you were expecting anything approaching chocolate. However, if you’re looking for something that’s durable and attractive, but not necessarily tasty, these may be your new favorite.
They got the color right, they’re pretty. A little on the dark purple side (cuz of all those artificial colors like Red 40, Yellow 6 & Blue 2) and containing not more than 2% of actual chocolate.
But they’re postively bitter to me. I chomp down ... there’s a mild sweet taste, like cocoa made with hot water, but then there’s a strong bitter blast. I’m not sure if it’s all the antioxidants (hah!) or the artificial colors, but they’re just inedible.
I thought at first it was just a bad bag, or just me. So I opened a different sample bag that was sent to me later by Jelly Belly. Same thing! Turns out I’m not alone, both Caitlin & Brian at Candy Addict recorded the same reaction.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
This is one of the most incongruous bits of packaging I’ve seen in a while. Hot Tamales branded jelly beans, in spice flavors ... okay, so far so good. But the colors are all, I don’t know, racy.
Spice jelly beans are far from racy. They’re eaten by little nostalgic old ladies and middle-aged European guys as palate cleansers. These are packaged like they’re supposed to appeal to the NASCAR crowd (not that they wouldn’t enjoy them ... Mike and Ike even have an association with NASCAR).
But still, spice jelly beans are hard to find these days, and it’s even harder to find them made in the USA. (Yes, I get emails from people looking for American made spice jelly beans.)
Just Born is known for it’s jelly bean type products, which are their Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales as well as their lesser known line of Teenee Beanee, a gourmet jelly bean.
What strikes me as especially odd about these (on top of everything else) is that Just Born also has a line of spice jelly beans that Sera at Candy Addict just reviewed yesterday!
They’re lovely looking beans, a little bigger than the Jelly Belly everyone is so used to these days, but not as large as the Brach’s Jelly Beans.
The variety has five flavors (the only ones left out of the “traditional” spice mix are licorice and lemon): Wintergreen, Peppermint, Clove, Spearmint and of course Cinnamon.
The color mix is a little odd too, the assignment of colors defies ordinary candy traditions, but I suppose none of that is written in stone either. At least they have a key on the back.
Wintergreen = Pink: It’s a pretty pink, a little darker and easy to confuse with the red sometimes. The wintergreen is soft and mellow, almost like a teaberry instead of a Lifesavers Wint-O-Green.
Cinnamon = Red: pretty much what you’d expect, a spicy and zesty cinnamon with a very light burn to it.
Peppermint = White: it reminds me of those Brach’s Ice Blue mints, just a mild peppermint, which is pretty rare these days with all those curiously strong things around. Refreshing.
Clove = Yellow: as a candy purist, the universal color for clove is purple or lavender. Yellow is downright counterintuitive. All that aside, I thought it was nice. It has a good blend of the aromatic elements of clove along with the slight bitter volatile side. I’m not a big fan of clove, but this didn’t bother me when I ate it by accident. (Because they’re yellow!)
Spearmint = Green: the lightly translucent green had only a touch of spearmint, not quite as spicy as a good Spearmint Leaf, but still, a nice mellow bean that’s easy to keep eating.
Really, all that’s missing here is Licorice. But the Licorice beans were sold separately ... literally, in their own bag. There’s also a separate bag of Hot Tamales Cinnamon Jelly Beans, but that’s just silly! Hot Tamales are cinnamon jelly beans!
The beans are traditional pectin thickened, many just use corn starch these days. But they’re not Kosher for Passover (but plain old Kosher). They’re also gluten free. I don’t know if these will be sold year round of if they are just a seasonal offering.
Thanks to Rebecca on Flickr who helped me find these!
Friday, March 14, 2008
Gimbal’s is one of those candy companies where you’ve probably had their products, you just don’t realize it because they’re often sold in bulk. They have fun little sour jelly stars, sour sanded bears and licorice scottie dogs.
They also have an extensive line of Gourmet Jelly Beans.
They’re similar to Jelly Belly, they’re a similar smaller size, have different color codings for the flavors and in this instance, come in an assortment of dozens of flavors in one bag (41 in this case). I’ve seen these 7 ounce bags for sale at Walgreen’s, usually for about $2. I know that CandyDirect.com sells single flavors of these (and you may find them in bulk bins that aren’t identified by brand). At only $3.40 a pound online, that’s about a third off to half off the price of Jelly Belly.
I don’t have tasting notes for absolutely every flavor, but here are a few of the highlights of what I picked out of the mix over the past week:
Tiramisu - like a caramel coffee creamer.
Too many reds! There’s cherry, cinnamon, raspberry, fruit punch, red delicious. I had similar problems with the orange/yellow things. But this is an issue with many candies that have too many flavors in one bag.
I’d probably prefer to buy a more narrow mix of these, like just fruits or maybe carnival flavors (toasted marshmallow, bubble gum, red delicious, root beer… maybe someone needs to invent a funnel cake flavor).
The beans are nicely formed and all had an even amount of distinctive flavor.
Gimbal’s is not only Kosher, but also a facility free of most of the major allergens. They are tree nut/peanut, gelatin, gluten, dairy and egg free. So if you like Jelly Belly but have to avoid gluten and peanuts, this would be an excellent option. As a bonus, Gimbal’s are less expensive than Jelly Belly. Just harder to find.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
It’s a candy resurrection story! Good & Fruity has been reissued by Hershey’s after being off the market for several years (could this petition have anything to do with it?). It should be available in stores any day now.
Good & Fruity is the companion candy to Good & Plenty, which is a sugar-shelled licorice. Really, there’s very little that’s similar about them, though at one time Good & Fruity was a candy coated fruit licorice nib.
The current incarnation of Good & Fruity, simply put, is jelly beans. Tiny, narrow jelly beans in a box.
They’re a little different from typical jelly beans, the shell isn’t as grainy, mostly because there’s so little shell. It’s crispy and has a light cool feel on the tongue with the sweeter flavors.
Lemon - tart, but not quite lemony.
Some of the G&F were a little inconsistent. Some were tangy, others were plain and sweet, like they’d missed their flavor coats.
The colors are vibrant and really compelling. Like little pieces of beach glass.
These are probably a good movie candy, a palatable mix of flavors, easy to eat with a very low mess factor. I’m just not that into them. They’re Kosher and unlike Good & Plenty, the colors here are all artificial so I guess it’s okay for vegetarians. Earlier versions of the candy were known as Good ‘n Fruity.
UPDATE 5/4/2010: For those who miss candy coated red licorice, you might want to find Wiley Wallaby Outback Beans. While they’re not exactly like the original Good ‘n Fruity, they’re closer than this.
Friday, March 7, 2008
It’s funny how many different interpretations there are in the confectionery world for the word “creme”. In the case of Cadbury Creme Eggs, it’s simply a runny fondant. In the case of many of the Hershey’s Kisses it’s a firmer fat based ganache style and in Starbursts it’s just a flavor.
In the case of Nestle, it means “something softer than chocolate”. I picked up their Nestle Crunch Creme Egg with Caramel and Butterfinger Creme Egg at the drug store to complete my All Egg Week.
At 1.1 ounces, the Nestle Crunch Creme Egg with Caramel is virtually the same weight as a Cadbury Creme Egg, but slightly narrower and denser.
The outer shell looks almost like dark chocolate. It has a pleasant little squiggly design and the name Nestle on both sides of the egg.
It’s easy to bite without any mess. The chocolate shell is pretty thick and contains the fillings well (no sticky eggs for me). The base of each half of the hemispheres is filled with a firm and lightly salty chocolate creme studded with crisped rice. Each side is a little shy of full and that reservoir holds a scant bit of flowing caramel along with a rather large void.
The caramel is a bit salty, not very caramel flavored, but I don’t expect that from Nestle. The chocolate creme is still chocolatey without any greasiness or sticky-milk qualities. I wanted more crunches though, I really like crisped rice and think this would benefit from more of it.
It’s a very dense egg, I think I might prefer it in a slightly smaller form (maybe a half an ounce like the Canadian Cadbury Eggs I tried last year) but it’s a rare egg these days in the drug store that’s just going for chocolate (with that little bit of caramel & crunchies).
I give it a 7 out of 10.
Nestle also makes the Wonka Golden Creme Eggs, which are pretty much the same thing except there are graham cracker flavored bits in there instead of crisped rice.
The Butterfinger Creme Egg says it’s 1.15 ounces but I have my doubts with that huge void there. At first I thought it was just that one that was a little underfilled, but the second one (still wrapped in the photo) had a similar large cavern of nothingness.
It smells sweet chocolatey with a good roasted peanut butter undertone.
My major complaint with Butterfinger bars is that they don’t use real chocolate on the outside. In the case of these (and the Butterfinger Jingles), it’s real Nestle Milk Chocolate (which still isn’t spectacular) ... well, that’s what the foil says, “Butterfinger Pieces & Peanut Butter Creme in a Milk Chocolate Shell” but I’m kind of unclear when I read the ingredients that featured the second ingredient as “confectionery coating” but that may be a mock white chocolate base of the creme filling.
All that aside, it’s an enjoyable egg. The center has all the flavor of a Butterfinger. That buttery flavor with the little crunchy bits of peanut butter brittle (that don’t stick to your teeth!) a little bit of salt to even out the very sweet chocolate shell. It’s nothing like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg, but that’s okay, they’re both pretty inexpensive, get both.
A solid 7 out of 10 for this one as well.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Okay, this probably one of the saddest names for a fine Easter confection I’ve ever seen: Hollow Eggs with Novelty. See’s has gone through the trouble of naming every last one of their 102 boxed chocolates. Okay, some of them are ordinary names, like Buttercream, but others are original like Scotchmallow, Chelsea, Bordeaux & California Brittle.
Naming aside, everything else is spot on. The little carton holds the chick-egg-sized, foil-wrapped hollow chocolate eggs just like a half a dozen eggs you’d buy a the grocery store.
The foil is nicely applied (you’d be surprised at how hard it is to find foil-wrapped eggs where you can actually read the lettering on them). The blue, magenta and pale green colors are pretty sedate but match really well with most of the other Easter offerings at See’s. Each foiled egg has an interesting little rattle to it when shaken. There’s definitely something in there, and my guess is it’s a novelty. (It does sound kind of like the whole thing is plastic, but trust me, it’s chocolate.)
The outside shell is milk chocolate, the interior chick is white chocolate. The ingredients label is a little vague about that chick but the ingredients are still pretty pure: Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Milk, Chocolate, Soy Lecithin, Vanillin & Salt. The shell has a geometric pattern on it ... kinda like an eggshell looks when you roll a hard boiled egg around.
The price isn’t bad, especially when you buy the batch of 6. At $5.60 each is less than a dollar and are a little less than an ounce each (26 grams).
The first egg I opened I carefully sliced through the seam with an exacto blade. Now that I’ve eaten several, I can tell you the trick if you want to split it open cleanly ... hold the egg firmly and press along the seam at the widest part of the egg very gently. Most times it will split cleanly. Sometimes you end with your thumb through the egg ... just like when you play with real eggs!
The milk chocolate is nice. It’s sweet and has an mellow dairy component, not very malty or dark ... just a nice middle-of-the road chocolate flavor.
The white chocolate is very sweet but milky and mostly smooth. The appearance of them varies. Some are pristine little chicks, others are a little smudged up from rattling around in the chocolate shell (well, I’ve been rattling them around). It’s a nice couple of bites, I probably wouldn’t want more, but white chocolate is inextricably tied to Easter for me, so I enjoy it for the nostalgia alone.
They don’t sell these as solo treats, just in the half dozen box or in other pre-mixed baskets. Though I think they’re great, I just don’t see myself buying these when I can have the Scotchmallow Eggs (except those aren’t individually wrapped for nestling in baskets so someone will have to put a whole box in mine) at the same price. But if you’ve got a group to please, this is a good way to go.
Each egg has about 145 calories each.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.