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).
Friday, March 16, 2012
I found the Russell Stover Big Bite Pecan Delight Egg at Walgreen’s along with the other super-sized Easter classic, the Coconut Cream in the shape of a Big Bunny.
Pecans and Caramel covered in Milk Chocolate
Ah, a pecan turtle. What a fabulous candy. The roasted, maple flavors of pecans with their oily crunch go so well with the burnt sugar, sweet chewiness of caramel with it all encapsulated in creamy milk chocolate.
I’ve reviewed a few different versions of these in the past. The first one I tried was the Organic Pecan Delight, which were sold individually wrapped and bagged. They were good, but lacked a lot of pecans. The second one I tried was the traditional Easter favorite, the Pecan Delight Egg ... well, that one was even more parsimonious with the pecans. Then most recently I tried the non-organic version of the Pecan Delight and was similarly underwhelmed.
So, would scaling up make a difference?
They weren’t kidding about it being a big bite. It’s two ounces, so of course it’s big, but that’s the same size as a Snickers bar. It’s packed with 290 calories as well. What it’s not packed with is pecans. Those little lumps on the outside ... those are the pecan pieces. That’s it. No hidden nuts inside the caramel center.
I can sit around being disappointed that there aren’t more pecans in this. (I can also call it false advertising.) But the reality is that it’s still a good piece of candy if you adjust expectations. The milk chocolate is passable - it’s sweet and milky and though a bit fudgy and grainy, it still has a pleasant melt and mouthfeel. The caramel center is salty and though sweet, not overly cloying or syrupy. The caramel is smooth, without the slightest bit of grain. It’s pretty gooey, but not chewy. The small bits of pecans gave it a roasted nutty flavor, but not much texture overall.
Would this have been better with more pecans? Absolutely. Would it have cost a dollar? No, not possible. It was a bad year for pecans, the price went way up. The solution to this is for Russell Stover to not offer this candy at this price point, or to adjust our expectations by not saying that it’s the Pecan Delight.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Schluckwerder Fancy Eggs - Fine Marzipan are featured at Cost Plus World Market every year around Easter. It’s a very simple, almost mousy looking package. A gold plastic tray with ten sections holds pastel candy coated marzipan eggs.
I’ve been stalking these eggs for years. I’ve even taken photos of them in the store, hoping to go back after Easter when they’re on sale. The only problem with that plan is that there’s never any left after the holiday for discounting. They’re a little on the pricey side, $3.99 for a package weighing only 5.29 ounces from a German brand I’ve never heard of. On the other hand, I have a lot of confidence in German marzipan, now that I’ve visited a few factories in Germany and tasted quite a variety over the years. Germany knows what it’s doing when they combine sugar and almonds.
Each egg is about a half an ounce, so two is a good and filling portion. The center is pure marzipan with a thin chocolate coating then a sugared candy shell. They use all natural colorings, however, they do also use carmine, so the product is off the table for vegetarians who draw the line there. (There’s also milk in there, so it’s a no for vegans.)
The eggs vary a bit in size and shape. Some were spherical and about 1.25 inches in diameter and the more ovoid ones were about 1.5 inches long.
Even though they’re kind of big, they’re easier to bite than something like a Malted Milk Egg or Marshmallow Hiding Egg. They have a slightly floral scent, nothing really overt, just a clean sort of orange blossom or fig perfume. The chocolate is thick enough to provide quite a bit of flavor. It’s not very dark but has a well rounded woodsy cocoa flavor and a smooth, silky melt. The center is soft and quite moist, which is nice because I don’t care for the chalky and tough marzipan.
The marzipan is a little doughy but not overly sweet. There’s a faint bit of amaretto flavor, but mostly it’s a clean rosewater and nutty almond flavor. They’re hearty without being sticky sweet. They’re easy to eat, though I usually ate mine in two bites instead of popping the whole thing in my mouth at once.
I’m glad I took the plunge and tried these. They’re definitely worth full price, especially if it’s something you had as a kid or in your travels. When you come down to it, the price works out to about 1.33 per ounce, which is far more reasonable than Caffarel. And I think I prefer this marzipan to the Caffarel version. I’ll still keep an eye out for them on after-Easter clearance.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
The bag is expensive. It was 3.5 ounces and cost $3.99. There are only 10 little eggs inside. However, I liked the spare packaging which did the job of protecting the foil wrapped eggs as they were all fresh and unmarred.
The package says that they’re Crispy bite size eggs smothered in milk chocolate with luscious cream. Each egg is about 1.5 inches long.
The chocolate shell is extremely light in color, the ingredients bear this out, with sugar as the first ingredient in the shell and milk as the second with cocoa butter and cocoa mass pulling up the third and fourth slots.
It smells extremely sweet, a little like pudding and nutella. The bite is soft, the construction is similar to a Ferrero Rocher. There’s a nearly liquid hazelnut cream center, a crisp cookie shell and then the chocolate coating on the outside. (There are no crushed nuts in this item.)
The creamy center is sweet, sticky and quite slick. The smoothness gives up the roasted hazelnut flavors easily, and matches the sweetness of the chocolate shell very well. The light wafery crisp of the inner shell is the only thing that breaks it up and gives a little malty corn flake note to it (it’s made with wheat flour).
Ferrero Cocoa Eggs are like Ferrero Rondnoir. There’s a dark chocolate shell, a wafery light shell under that and a creamy dark chocolate filling. There’s only a touch of hazelnut in there, according to the ingredients, and I really didn’t catch any of the flavors.
Like it’s hazelnut buddy, there’s also a bit of palm oil in the center, which is a little disappointing, but expected. The Ferrero group has pledged to sustainably source their cocoa and palm oil by 2015. They also say that they don’t purchase cocoa from slave farms, but don’t have a formal certification process yet.
The dark chocolate is well rounded, with a strong fudgy flavor like brownies. There’s even a slight bitter note to it that’s balanced out by the much sweeter creamy filling and more bland wafers.
I liked the Cocoa Eggs a bit better than the Hazelnut. They’re both different from their year round versions as well, which means that they are a little more “special” than just a reshaping and some pastel packaging.
They contain nuts, milk, soy and gluten. The only artificial ingredient was vanillin. They’re filled with fat (delicious fat) and clock in at 163 calories per ounce, on the very high side for candy.
I found them expensive for the amount and quality of the product. They were good, but not fantastic. For the same money, I’d probably be happier with See’s Scotchmallow Eggs.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
I was shopping for candy downtown at Jack’s Wholesale Candy and found these brittle disks. They’re made by a local company named Las Trojes which is based in Anaheim. I’m not quite sure what the name means, as troje is a granary or barn but could also be a storehouse.
The packages are quite simple, and do a fantastic job of showing off the product. They’re all extremely simple: a mix of sugar and seeds and/or nuts. They were also very inexpensive, at only $1 each for a two ounce package.Seed brittles are a beguilingly good snack but they’re also a great way to bind together vexing little seeds into something easier to transport and consume.
I picked up all three varieties they had at the store.
The packaging features a thick piece of cellophane folded over the round disk and held in place by the label sticker on the back (or is it the front?).
Las Trojes Pepitoria Mixed Seeds Brittle is quite a gorgeous little find. There are peanuts, sesame seeds, almonds, coconut and pumpkin seeds (pepitas) with only the addition of sugar to hold it all together. There are no added oils or partially hydrogenated fats or gelatins. It’s a vegan snack.
The disk is easy to snap apart for eating. It’s firm and crisp, but if you live in a humid area, they can become a sticky mess quite quickly. I don’t expect these would do well in parts of Texas or Florida for that reason.
The distribution of nuts and seeds is pretty even, I didn’t find parts that seemed to be all one nut, though peanuts were by far the largest bulk. The plank smells quite toasty, with a little note of toasted sesame and perhaps even a bit of burnt nuts. The sugar has a honey note to it but doesn’t add a whole lot of sweetness to the brittle, as there really isn’t much more than is needed to bind everything together. The pepitas, peanuts and sesame seeds have the strongest flavor, I didn’t catch much of a contribution from the almonds or coconut.
Las Trojes Pepitoria Coconut Brittle is a great looking disk. It’s thick and crisp and doesn’t look like anything you’d make at home with store bought coconut flakes. These look fresh and rustic.
The brittle has a little bit more bend to it, probably because the coconut is more fibrous and makes breaking it a little harder. The toasted coconut scent is incredible, the caramel and creamy tropical notes all swirl together. Though there’s a lot of crunch at first, it turns very chewy after that. The toffee flavor of the burnt sugar is great and again, it’s far from being too sweet, though it is the sweetest of the three products.
Las Trojes Pepitoria Pepita Brittle is a great mix of greens and browns, the pumpkin seeds are glossy and toasty. I love pepitas in trail mixes, but I never eat them on their own. It smells like toasted pumpkin seeds, just like you’d expect. The seeds are crunchy and a little grassy tasting. This is the least sweet of the entire set and for the most part it’s about the pumpkin seeds. Though some of the seeds looked a bit burnt, I didn’t get the same sort of bitter toasted note from this that I did with the mixed brittle.
They’re all beautiful and wholesome snacks that barely qualify as candy. That’s not to say that they’re not laden with calories. The Pepita one is the leanest at 260 calories for the 2 ounce portion, but it also has 7 grams of protein and only 16 grams of sugars. The Mixed Brittle is 300 calories but packs 8 grams of protein and only 15 grams of sugar. The fat in there is from the nuts and seeds, which are generally regarded to be better for you than dairy or animal fats ... though still watch the calorie count. The Coconut one comes in as full on candy, even with only two ingredients with 310 calories, 200 of them from fat and only 3 grams of protein.
All the nutrition aside, I find these sorts of snacks more satisfying than many candies. There’s a great mix of textures and flavors, plus they’re really beautiful to look at. I’d definitely pick these up again, but I’d probably try to share them. They work far better when consumed right after opening and of course I find it hard to keep from eating the whole package anyway.
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.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Ferrara Pan which is known for Lemonheads and Atomic Fireballs got into the chocolate business a few years back making very good domestic versions of segmented chocolate oranges (with Belgian chocolate) and panned nut treats. This new Ferrara Chocolate group is also creating some new holiday items, I was excited to see these fun speckled eggs called Candy Coated Chocolate Covered Almond Eggs at Walgreen’s.
The bag is priced pretty well, at $2.49 for a half a pound, it’s about what I will pay for Almond M&Ms on sale.
The eggs are a nice size, indicating that they either have a lot of chocolate in there or start with very large almonds. They’re a milk chocolate product with a lot of milk in them. The first ingredient in the chocolate coating is sugar, the second is whole milk. So, that’s some milky chocolate. The coatings are attractive. They start with a pastel base and have little speckles on them. Some are quite speckled, others have barely a burnishing of color.
The ratios are great, the chocolate is thick and the almonds are nicely sized and well roasted to a crunch. The milky chocolate is sweet, but not that Easter-cloying sweetness. The level of milk in it gives it a cool melt on the tongue and a light toffee and dairy finish. The other notes are a bit of smoke, either from the chocolate itself or the almonds and maybe a hint of cinnamon (they are the makers of Red Hots). The shell is a little thinner than M&Ms so it has a lighter crunch.
They’re good. Good enough that I ate the whole bag in three days. They’re different from M&Ms, the melt of the chocolate is less sweet and less fudgy and a little smoother, but the flavor isn’t quite as intense. I prefer the look of the Ferrera to M&Ms and the consistent shape of the candies.
The candies are Kosher and made in the United States with Belgian chocolate. No gluten statement. There’s also no statement about the sourcing of the cacao and ethical concerns on the package or their website.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
One of the seasonal imported candies I looked forward to as a kid were Perugina Baci. They were one of my earliest recollections of hazelnut candies. It’s a simple construction, a chocolate cream filling with crushed hazelnuts, topped with a whole hazelnut and then dipped in dark chocolate.
They’ve been made since 1922 and were very successful from the start. The hook with Baci though isn’t just the hazelnut textures and chocolate, it’s the packaging. Each little chocolate is individually wrapped, and inside the wrapper is a glassine paper that has quotes about love, now in multiple languages.
I ate plenty of these as a kid. They used to come in larger boxes, I think they had either three or four chocolates in them. Now they’re only available in this duo box or in the larger gift size versions (which change depending on the season). They were first introduced to American consumers in 1939 when Perugina opened their own shop on Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1939. But then they went away. Nestle bought Perugina in 1988 and the brand was less emphasized. Perugina concentrated their sales efforts on Italy and Europe. Baci weren’t as easy to find, though still turned up in Italian delis and import shops. When internet sales came along, it was a bit easier, but still, the impulse of buying a little tube of Perugina Baci was long gone.
That supposed to change now, as Nestle has an agreement with Colavita olive oil (not a Nestle product) to handle imports for Baci and other Perugina products. They made a big splash at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, so perhaps they’ll be easier to find now.
The pieces are about a half an ounce each and have about 75 calories in them. It’s a rich mix of dark chocolate on the outside, a filling of hazelnut paste and cream along with crushed hazelnuts. Then there’s a large, whole hazelnut on top.
The ingredients list for a complicated candy like this is very short: sugar, hazelnuts, chocolate processed with alkali, cocoa butter, milk, milkfat, soy lecithin and vanillin.
Baci are only for chocolate eaters who love hazelnuts. There’s a lot of hazelnut in there. The filling is jam packed with crushed hazelnuts (the chocolate was invented to make use of excess crushed nuts in the chocolate factory) but the real appeal here is the fantastic whole hazelnut on top.
They smell sweet and nutty. Bite is easy, the center is soft enough to give easily, but not sticky or syrupy. It all melts well together, with a lot of woodsy and roasted nut flavors. Personally, I like biting off the bottom and consuming that first, leaving only the chocolate covered whole hazelnut at the end.
One is satisfying, two is downright indulgent. I think a box of three would be the perfect serving and put a fourth in to at least create the illusion of sharing.
While Caffarel are still my favorite Italian hazelnut chocolates, I do love Baci and I’m glad they’re going to be more available.
There’s no statement about the ethical sourcing of the chocolate on the package or Perugina Italian website. (The US website hasn’t launched fully yet.) The product contains hazelnuts and possibly traces of other tree nuts, plus soy and dairy. There is no statement about gluten on the package.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.