Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Lately as the artisanal, slow and local food movement has taken hold I’ve been seeing more wholesome candy bars coming to the market. It’s an interesting idea, to take the fantastic flavor and texture combinations made famous and delicious by the mass-manufacture candy companies and tweak them with better ingredients.
But what actually makes a candy bar great. After you get past the concept and the basics of the ratios, what sets a good candy bar apart from a great candy bar? Is it the quality of the ingredients? The freshness? Can the ethical repercussions of your purchase effect your enjoyment?
When I found out that Justin Gold of Justin’s Nut Butter was releasing a version of the classic Snickers bar, I figured if anyone was going to top Mars, it might be a guy who knew and loved peanuts. The new line of bars are called, simply, Milk Chocolate Peanut, Dark Chocolate Peanut and Milk Chocolate Almond.
The press release said “Justin’s All-Natural Candy Bars contain 25% less sugar, 50% more protein and 100% more fiber than the leading conventional candy bar, Snickers.” So I was prompted to take a look at what a Snickers actually had in it and what I’d get out of it nutritionally.
Snickers Stats: 2.07 ounces - 57 grams - 280 calories 130 calories from fat
Justin’s All Natural Milk Chocolate Peanut Bar Stats: 2 ounces - 57 grams - 270 calories - 130 calories from fat
So the ingredient list may look longer on Justin’s, but that’s just because they have to qualify so many of those items with organic. A Snickers bar isn’t really made with horrible things (no high fructose corn sweetener, no palm oil, real milk products and real milk chocolate). But a big selling point is that Justin’s attempts to use sustainable ingredients. But don’t go in thinking that there are fewer calories in Justin’s, just because there’s more protein and fiber, the calories are pretty darn close and the fat is identical.
The bars look great. The wrapper’s not bad either; it doesn’t look like some sort of dog-eared hippie candy bar. So no compromises there. The milk chocolate is quite sweet but the whole bar is about the peanuts and peanut butter. The caramel is chewy and has a nice pull to it, the nougat tastes like roasted peanut butter with a little note of salt. I was missing the crunch of big peanuts though. There were some, but not quite the same thing as a Snickers, which seems to have more distinction between the layers.
Still, a very satisfying experience. Sweet, crunchy, salty and toasty with a light creamy chocolate finish. Is it better than a Snickers? It’s hard to say, I’ve been raised on the ratios of the Snickers (just like I had the same problem with Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups not quite arriving at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup experience).
The package looks remarkably like the Milk Chocolate Peanut Bar, except the small print that says Dark Chocolate and the coloring of the illustration of the bar is a little darker. If I had one piece of advice about this bar it would be to make it easier to tell them apart.
The dark chocolate that Justin’s uses is quite dark, though has a smooth buttery melt and bitter, slightly astringent finish. Part of the time I actually got a green olive note from it. The peanut and caramel and nougat ratios are otherwise the same but seem a bit brighter by the bitter chocolate counterpoint. Of the two bars, I actually preferred the Milk Chocolate, which is a bit unusual for me. The dark chocolate is just too pronounced.
It features an almond butter nougat, caramel with almonds all covered in milk chocolate. The bar, like the others, is two ounces.
All of the bars are gluten free but contain eggs, soy, dairy and either peanuts or almonds plus may have traces of other nuts.
My experience with the Snickers Almond didn’t prepare me for this bar, but it’s quite different. It tastes like almonds. The roasted flavors of almonds, not amaretto, are throughout the bar. The nougat is lightly salted and chewy as is the caramel. The nougat has fantastic toasted flavors of almonds and the caramel holds the whole almonds and almond pieces. So there’s a great deal of crunch here along with the smoother chewy textures. The milk chocolate is silky smooth, sweet and has a strong powdered dairy note to it that ties the whole thing in a bow. Of the three, this one tastes like it beats the original in texture and flavor.
The only production note I had for all of the bars was that they had voids in them. Not huge, but enough in each one that I had to wonder about what might cause them during production and how they could avoid it. The other small issue I saw was that the bottom chocolate coating was thin. On the almond bar it was thin enough that I could see the nougat through it. This can let the nougat dry out and of course messes with the flavor ratios.
On the whole, these are great bars. They don’t taste like there’s a single compromise in there. Though the press release boasted about the improved nutrition, I’d say an extra gram of protein is not why you’d choose these bars. The bars are priced at about twice what you’d pay for Snickers. But for that you get ethically sourced, organic chocolate and other organic ingredients. Some of the other hand made bars are five times the price, so when compared to that, I was pleased. The preference between them without that would come down to personal taste. I think the Snickers are more consistent, but the Justin’s bars are new and I’ve only eaten four (two of the Milk Chocolate Peanut) plus the samples I had at the ExpoWest trade show so all were extremely fresh.
Update 9/17/2012: Either I misread something earlier this year or something change, but the Justin’s Candy Bars do not use fair-trade certified chocolate. The Peanut Butter Cups in both Dark and Milk do, but the Candy Bars do not at this time. I have edited the above review to reflect that information. I apologize if that was confusing to anyone in the interim (but please, always read the packages and/or websites of the candy companies, as they are more likely to have up-to-date information).
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Bees & Beans is a Portland, Oregon artisan candy bar maker. Faith Dionne says, “These are candy bars that you can feel great about eating.” I found the bar at BiRite Market in San Francisco’s Mission District, one of the best places I know to find artisan candy.
The Honey Bar is Honey caramel, salted filbert and honey nougat, hand dipped in dark chocolate with a sprinkling of sea salt.
Many of the ingredients are organic and, as much as possible, they are sourced locally in Oregon.
Based on the ingredients list, I believe this chocolate is sourced from Scharffen Berger. The Bees & Beans site says that they use both Theo Chocolate, which is fair trade, and Scharffen Berger, which is not, and is owned by Hershey’s. (Theo does not use soy lecithin.)
The construction of the bar is interesting, the caramel is on the bottom, the nougat on the top, then a coating of very dark chocolate sprinkled with sea salt. It looks just like a candy bar.
The nougat is almost marshmallowy. It’s soft and fluffy and has a bit of a pull when bitten, a silky sort of chew without any hint of sugary grain. The caramel is soft, not too chewy as to make the bar fall apart when bitten. There’s a sprinkling of salt on top, but also a fair amount of salt, as far as my tongue can detect, in both the caramel and the nougat. The filberts are only lightly toasted but have an excellent crunch, almost like a macadamia nut instead of like a hazelnut.
There is no perfect analogue to this in the mass-manufactured candy bar offerings in the United States. (Perhaps the European Nestle Nuts would be similar.) The textures are great and the ingredients are top notch. The prevalence of the honey flavors also sets this apart from so many other candies that might use honey but not enough to make it part of the texture and flavor profile to this degree. The short shelf life is an issue for folks like me who like to stock up (they sell the bars online in quad packs), but I was lucky to pick mine up a month ago and still eat it within its 2 month window of freshness. If I had to chose between this bar and the See’s Awesome Nut & Chew bar (which is all nougat and no caramel), it’d be hard. Bees & Beans makes several other bars that all sound fantastic, including a seasonal Malt Bar that I’ll have to order soon.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Double Dutch Sweets in Oakland, California makes an artisan confection called The Ramona Bar. Think of it as a Snickers made by hand.
The bar is set apart from other mass-manufactured fare at first glance. It’s wrapped by hand in foil with a lively printed sleeve that gives the simple description: layers of buttery caramel and honey nougat with roasted peanuts dipped in dark chocolate and finished with sea salt.
The tall and beefy bar is quite a portion for an artisan product. It’s 1.8 ounces packed into barely 3.5 inches.
The ingredients are mostly organic and all natural. The construction of the bar will seem familiar. A nougat base studded with peanuts, topped with a generous layer of caramel, then coated in Venezuelan origin dark chocolate with a sprinkling of maldon sea salt.
A Snickers bar is 2.07 ounces, so just a little larger and features a milk chocolate coating. There are so many other differences though, it’s hard to even compare the bars. The Ramona Bar has a similar bite, it’s thick and has a mix of textures. There are far fewer peanuts in the Ramona than a Snickers, and the nougat tastes more like a plain nougat while a Snickers has a peanut flavor to its nougat.
The caramel was really the star here; for me it was the ideal texture - chewy, stringy, smooth and with a dark toasted flavor and notes of salt. The addition of the salt on top of the chocolate though was sometimes just a little too much. The nougat was not as good for me. It was less of a French style nougat or Italian torrone, which has a mostly smooth texture, kind of like a dense marshmallow. This was more like the fluffed stuff of Snickers or Milky Way fame. It was like a fluffy fondant. It did have a less-grainy texture that was almost cool on the tongue as it dissolved. The textures worked well together, just as they do in a Snickers, but I was missing a flavor component from the nougat and the strength of lots of peanuts. (Or Almonds, if they wanted to go that way.)
The bars cost $6.00, which is about a little more than $53 a pound. (A Snickers bar, at $1 a bar would be about $16 a pound.) Is it six times better? Well, I feel better because the ingredients are great and someone really cared about the bar and it’s made with Venezuelan chocolate, so I wouldn’t be worrying about child slavery. But it’s not my perfect candy bar. For $6, I want my perfect candy bar. For $1, I can accept less than perfect. But it might be your perfect candy bar, and you might not know until you try. (I’m still happy to try all other bars that Double Dutch Sweets comes up with.)
The bars are gluten free.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
At Christmas one of the great gifts is an excessive version of something mundane but much-loved. For candy this means colossal proportions. Oh sure, you could just get a wholesale sized bag of M&Ms or Skittles. But there’s something special about a version that’s substantially larger than the norm: Giant Hershey’s Kisses, Giant Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, World’s Largest Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Giant Candy Canes and Giant Gummi Bears.
Mars is in the game this year with their Snickers Slice n’ Share bar. This year it’s exclusive to CVS stores. I found mine after going to several stores and it was even on sale for $7.99, regular price is $9.99.
The Snickers Slice ‘n Share is 16 ounces, while a standard Snickers bar is 2.07 ounces (so 8 times bigger). It’s also 9 times the price. The best value is probably to buy the snack size, which are about $1.25 for eight little bars totally 5 ounces - which comes out to $4.00 a pound instead of $7.99 a pound. But that’s simply not magnificent enough for gifting or wowing your guests. (See this 1925 ad for Oh Henry! that features the suggestion to slice and serve.)
The bar is protected in a paperboard tray and came out looking pretty good. It’s 9.5 inches long, about one inch high and 2.5” wide. A standard Snickers is only 1” wide.
There’s simply no way to depict how massive this thing is with photos because it’s dense and heavy. Honestly, I expected one pound of candy to have a bit more volume, but Snickers are certainly compact.
Like the old advertising slogan, this Snickers is packed with peanuts. The caramel envelops them completely and they’re jam packed in there all the way through the bar. The caramel and nougat layers are completely distinct and the chocolate is very thick, especially on the sides and the ripple on the top. It does flake off easily, but usually in big chunks that are easy to pick up and pop in your mouth.
The serving size suggested is a 1 inch slice (which is about 1.75 ounces - less than the 2.07 ounce regular bar). I found that to be a bit too thick and unwieldy, so I usually went for something about a 1/2 inch slice. It slices quite easily without falling apart, as long as you have a good, wide knife. A butter knife or steak knife are too small and narrow. A chef’s knife or even a clever does a much better job. Anything less than a half an inch though and the piece will not hold together well.
Also, I found that cutting straight down, with even pressure (chopping) was better than trying to angle it. The pieces came out cleaner and with less chocolate loss.
I loved the bar. I actually think I enjoyed it more than any other Snickers I’ve had in years. The peanuts were fresh, the caramel was thick, distinct and chewy plus the nougat was soft, slightly salty with a nice peanut butter toffee flavor. The layers are much more defined and folks who like to eat particular parts separately will have a great time.
Giant candy has always struck me as the kind of gift a kid would give to a parent or other relative. Not that I’d complain if my niece or nephew came me a giant version of a beloved candy. It’s a way to make a favorite special. But they’re not for everyday consumption. The specialness of the price assures that. But I expect because it’s under $10, it should find its way into many stockings this year, or because of its size, it will be adjacent to the stocking ... and featured heavily on early nights of Hanukkah.
The bar has all the same ingredients as the smaller versions. It’s hard to compare the nutritional value because of the difference in serving sizes, but the calories per ounce are greater for the Slice n’ Share than the regular size, so I’m going to guess that there’s more chocolate per bite on the small one since that’s where the densest calories are.
At a certain point something so large that it requires implements ceases to be candy. Candy is ready to eat, requires no knives or assembly.
The package warns that there are traces of tree nuts and wheat, plus it contains eggs, soy, peanuts and milk. Mars does not use fair trade or certified ethically traded chocolate for this product (though they’re working on it - their Maltesers malted milk balls will be Fair Trade next year in the UK).
UPDATE 12/5/2012: Snickers Slice n Share are back in stores for the holidays. They’re found in a much wider array of stores, I’ve seen them at Target, CVS, IT’SUGAR and a few others as well as on internet stores. Discount chains usually have them for $10-12, while the other stores like IT’SUGAR have them for about $20.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Abdallah Candies was founded in 1909 by Albert Abdallah in Minneapolis. The company still run by the family using traditional recipes and focusing on classic candy products like caramels, dipped fruit and chocolates.
I picked up an assortment of Abdallah’s Wrapped Caramels while on vacation here in California. They’re cute little two bite pieces that I thought were reasonably priced at 60 cents each.
Their varieties go beyond the typical vanilla, chocolate and nut versions. They offer about a dozen different kinds. They’re wrapped in clear cellophane, which shows of the candy very nicely.
I tried three different varieties:
Vanilla Caramels I started with the classic, as this is the base of the other caramel candies. The color is a pleasing creamy brown. The pull of the caramel was good, stringy without being too tough or grainy. The flavor was sweet with milky notes ... I tend to prefer a little more salt in my caramel these days, but this was still a great classic vanilla caramel.
Pecan Caramel Nougat is, as you can probably tell from the photo, a layer of pecan nougat sandwiched between two layers of the vanilla caramel. The pecans were soft but crunchy with a woodsy maple flavor. The nougat didn’t do much for me in the way of actual flavor (no honey notes) but the chewy and denser texture was interesting compared to the softer, quicker dissolve of the caramel.
I wouldn’t call it a complete win for me, but I loved the addition of the nuts.
Pecan Alligator Caramels are another layered caramel. The top is a chocolate caramel and the bottom is a pecan vanilla caramel. It’s great. It’s soft and chewy, the chocolate gives it a little smoky and salty edge, the nuts are fresh and ample, the caramelized sugar notes are perceptible ... I loved this one. It was a little grainier, could have just been that I ate them last of my little set, so they might have gotten a little humid.
I’m absolutely intrigued by Abdallah now. I want to order more of their candy directly but I’m a little hesitant as I sent them an email with a question on Monday and they still haven’t responded. But their prices are very reasonable. I had no trouble plunking down 60 cents for each of these.
The other items on their website include other caramel and nut combinations called Alligators (completely chocolate dipped nut caramels) and Grizzlies (caramels with whole nuts and dollops of chocolate). The confectioner has a factory store in Burnsville, Minnesota that you can get fresh candy and even watch the factory floor where they dip their chocolates (photos on their facebook page).
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
I mentioned this bar a couple of months ago in a candy tease. It’s called Frey Chocobloc AIR and as you might guess from the name, it’s an aerated chocolate bar. Frey is a large Swiss chocolate company (I used to see their bars at Target and often at airport duty free shops) but they’re not as well known in North America as some others.
Now that I’ve had the Hershey’s Air Delight Kisses, I thought it was a good time to compare it to another newly introduced product.
Frey makes a line of bars called Chocobloc which have a similar format to the Kraft Toblerone bar. They’re a long, chunky block that has little divided, angular sections. The regular Chocobloc bars are 100 grams, the aerated AIR bar is only 70 grams. But what’s really different about this bar from all the other aerated chocolate out there right now is that this is a milk chocolate bar with honey nougat and almonds. The milk chocolate does have a lot of cocoa content, 34% according to the label.
I know it seems odd to note it, but there are a lot of bubbles in the bar. I’m not calling your attention in this case to the ones in the center, but the edges of the bar, the peaks and corners have a lot of voids. A well molded bar, even one with inclusions will have an even surface.
The bar does feel light and the color is also on the creamy milky side of things. The pieces cleave off easily, much better than some other blocky bars (like the Toblerone). It smells quite milky and a little like malt and honey. There are little hard nougat bits in there, just tiny chips.
The bar melts quickly and has a very strong, sweet flavor to it. There are caramel and honey notes and quite a bit of the powdered dairy taste that Swiss chocolate often has. It’s not very chocolatey but still the melt is velvety enough.
As far as its performance as an aerated bar, it was light and did have a bit of a foamy melt with all the air included. About 30% of the mass of an ordinary bar was missing because of the air bubbles. But it also tasted a lot sweeter. Perhaps a dark chocolate version of this would be more to my liking.
The comparison to the other bars I’ve tried to so far is similar. The texture of this one in particular felt a bit smoother and I liked the notes of honey. But aerated still isn’t a trend I’m hopping on. There’s really nothing here that’s perceptibly better than solid chocolate. If you’re looking for something that gives the appearance of more to trick yourself that you’re eating lots, well, maybe this will do the trick for you but be warned that ounce for ounce, this is some pretty high calorie stuff. But the sugary flavor couldn’t match the satisfaction of slightly bitter, very dark chocolate for me.
(I used a photo from Frey for the package image. In the case of the review bar I received, it was in the Swiss packaging, which is sold there as Mahony Sweet Air - photo.)
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
3 Musketeers bars were introduced in 1932; at the time the name of the bar made more sense back then, when it was three joined sections, each with a different flavored filling: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. The bar was later simplified in 1945 into three sections that were all chocolate flavored nougat. 3 Musketeers were one of the first candy bars advertised heavily on television. (They had a long-standing sponsorship with the Howdy Doody Show.)
The shape of the bar has also changed a bit along with the packaging, but the frothy soft filling and milk chocolate coating have pretty much remained the same. A couple of months ago Mars announced that one of their oldest bars was going to get an upgrade: Mars has reformulated the classic light and fluffy taste of 3 MUSKETEERS Bar to deliver a richer chocolate experience. Taste is the leading driver of sales for 3 MUSKETEERS Bar, and this new enhancement still satisfies as a lighter candy bar (45 percent less fat) while increasing the chocolate appeal among consumers.
Mars sent me a couple of preview bars, but I’ve already seen them on store shelves (Walgreen’s). I also picked up a classic formula bar for comparison. The new richer chocolate is on the left and the classic (still quite fresh) is on the right. The size and weight of the bars is identical, as is the nutritional panel. I also could not find any differences in the ingredients, which means that they made this a richer chocolate experience without altering the predominance of any item to the point that the label would need to be changed.
The filling is a nougat and is made of sugar, corn syrup, hydrogenated palm kernel and/or palm oil and then less than 2% of cocoa powder processed with alkali, salt, egg whites, artificial and natural flavors. So a smidge more cocoa that doesn’t exceed the amount of hydrogenated palm kernel oil and there’s no need to change the label ... unless it’s to sell consumers on the new richer chocolate experience.
The look of the bars on the outside is the same. The little swirls of the milk chocolate coating on the classic recipe were a little deeper, but that could simply be a difference attributed to a particular machine. When I bit into them though, I could see a difference in color. The new Richer Chocolate Taste does look a little more cocoa colored. The classic looks, well, colorless and a bit desaturated.
The bar feels light but still quite bulky. The scent is sweet but with a creamy cocoa note to it that’s quite inviting. The chocolate shell is okay, it’s not creamy or richly chocolate, more of a functional container for the foamy nougat inside. The center is soft and fluffy and I noticed that it wasn’t at all grainy. The nougat has a light salty note to it, not overly salty, just a different sort of tone from the chocolate coating. The cocoa flavor was so very light, but at least it wasn’t as throat-searingly sweet as I expected.
Upon comparing it to the classic formula, it is most definitely more chocolatey. But if I’d not tasted the original, I can’t say that this would turn me into a 3 Musketeers consumer.
The bar is quite big. Two ounces is a lot of candy, especially when it’s one that’s so monotonous. I got through half the bar but then had to put it down.
The candy bars are currently marketed to women and folks who are looking for lighter candy. It’s true that its caloric density is less than many other nutty and chocolatey-er candies. But it’s also bigger. So a full 3 Musketeers bar may have 45% less fat than “the average of the leading brands”, but that doesn’t take into account the portion size. In the end, calories are calories and this bar has 260 of them - more of them are empty, unsatisfying sugar that lacks a true chocolate punch with all of its fatty, melty notes. Maybe I’m just getting old and cranky (well, getting old, I’ve always been cranky) but I’m starting to come around to the whole idea that fewer ingredients make for a better flavor and texture experience. Real chocolate has rich chocolate taste. You want a real chocolate taste experience? Have some real chocolate. It’s probably better for you than the empty calories and hopped up hydrogenated de-rainforesting palm oils.
If you love 3 Musketeers, chances are you’re going to be keen on the slight improvements here. But if you love chocolate, stick to real chocolate. I’d say half the portion of actual real chocolate is more fulfilling than this empty thing. But if you love texture, then maybe the tweaked bar is your new best friend forever.
Update 10/29/2012: According to Mars they’re going back to the original formula. So look for packages that don’t say “richer chocolate taste” for the classic version.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
The banner across the bottom of the logo says that this is Whipped Up, Fluffy Chocolate with Marshmallow Taste.
I don’t think they come in a full bar format, just this package of Minis. The bag weighs 9 ounces, but looks like it has a lot in it, probably because of all the teensy wrappers.
Mars thinks it can get into the marshmallow game. Actually, they’re not getting into the marshmallow game, they’re getting into the marshmallow flavored game. The one thing these have going for them is that they’re safe for vegetarians. There are egg whites in there, so it’d have to be lacto/ovo vegetarians. And those vegetarians would probably be better off never having tried a real marshmallow, so they won’t be quite as disappointed.
The pieces are tiny squares (almost cubes) - about three quarters of an inch at the base and a little over a half an inch high. They’re milk chocolate, though the chocolate coating is so thin it’s translucent in spots. The center is light and fluffy, though not quite foamy like marshmallow. The over-riding flavor is salty for me. There’s no malt to it and really no vanilla, so I was left with something that was trying to be less sweet but not quite succeeding. Though the salt covers up the sweetness on the tongue, it doesn’t disguise it in the back of my throat where it burns.
Plain marshmallows are airy and not quite sweet and are usually a generic vanilla flavor. These are just sugar flavored, I got no vanilla notes in there, and no toasted notes either.
Personally, a regular 3 Musketeers bar needs more flavor to please me. I even rechecked my 3 Musketeers opinion by eating some Minis side by side with the marshmallow version - there’s not enough cocoa or malt flavor and the texture is just too underwhelming. If you’re the kind of person who thought the classic needed less flavor, this is the candy for you.
The packaging says that 1 mini has only 25 calories, so it’s pretty easy to parcel out a portion of 100 calories. It also says that there’s 45% less fat than leading chocolate brands. Well, the calories per ounce are 124 by my calculation, so that’s more than a York Peppermint Pattie (113 per ounce) but less than a Twix (140 per ounce). I prefer both when it comes to taste.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.