Friday, November 10, 2006
It finally happened. I ate too much chocolate.
I had always figured that my first chocolate overdose would happen with a giant Toblerone or a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. This was the happiest surprise of all, it was with some of the best chocolates on the planet.
On November 1st I attended CocoaBella‘s unveiling of the “World’s Greatest Box of Chocolates.” This box is the culmination of Michael Freeman’s tastings of hundreds (probably thousands) of chocolates from some of the best chocolatiers. Instead of just shoving a box in the mail with some literature, Freeman and his PR team held a reception to introduce not only the chocolates but also the aesthetic and even three of the chocolatiers.
CocoaBella Chocolates bills itself as a purveyor of the best small batch artisan chocolates from all over the world. They carry Amadei, Christopher Elbow, Michel Cluizel and Charles Chocolates, among others. What’s different about them instead of going into all of those shops to find your favorites is that you can create your own box with chocolates from any or all of the chocolatiers. One stop shopping, if you will.
The evening began with the normal press recieving line where we were given our name badges as we entered the little shop in San Francisco. I was offered wine and given an overview of the evening. We would start with browsing and we were free to try ANYTHING in the shop. The chocolates for the box unveiling were located along one wall, but anything behind the counter was also available. There would be a presentation by Michael Freeman and three of the chocolatiers were actually present, Christopher Elbow of Kansas, Chuck Siegel (Charles Chocolates) of Emeryville and Jacques Dahan of Michel Cluizel Chocolates (Paris).
It was clear since the shop still didn’t have that many people in it and there were many name badges laid out on the table that there would be some mingling until everyone arrived. I browsed. I took photos. I didn’t touch anything. It smelled good and looked fantastic. There were other bloggers there, so I began to relax. It was no mistake that I was there.
At the back counter there were two men working to create and plate chocolates. I recognized both of them. On the left was Chuck Siegel and on the right was Christopher Elbow. Since other folks were talking to them, I sidled up and listened in. They were creating three fresh creations for us to try, nothing that either of them were ever going to include in their chocolate lines, just one-offs. I chatted with both of them and some other writers and then started trying some of the chocolates. I started with the nutty items, I had to pace myself. I got four chocolates under my belt when the presentation began.
Michael Freeman explained the chocolate shop, where he carries at least 300 different items. It sounds like exhausting work traveling Europe and the States to find some of the little chocolatiers and he insists that you can set down any of the chocolates he carries in front of him and he can identify it on sight.
Jacques Dahan did a little tasting of three of the Michel Cluizel single origin chocolates. I felt a little smug, as I’d already tried these as a tasting kit a few months back, but was comforted to see that my tasting notes of the time still held up. Dahan reiterated some of the literature in the tasting kit, that Cluizel fosters relationships with the plantations, just as I imagine great sommeliers do with wineries. There’s a great deal of pride involved in this upscale chocolate. What I found particularly refreshing though, was the openness and the nods that each of the chocolatiers were able to give to each other.
There were Siegel and Elbow, two men who might be regarded as rivals, happily collaborating on a set of chocolates for the evening.
Oh, and what were those chocolates? The little one is a simple dark ganache with a dollop of fresh mango and ginger chutney. Fresh and earthy, the bitterness and complexity of the chocolate was set off nicely by the rooty balsam flavors of the chutney. Then there’s the fresh fig, split open filled with a white chocolate ganache then dipped in dark chocolate. Wonderfully fresh, and the mild sweetness of the fig itself was set off well by the truffle cream, which happily was not sickly sweet. The dark chocolate wasn’t as powerful as I’d hoped, but maybe I didn’t pick one out that had been dipped enough.
The last one was a little mousy looking and they were pretty quiet about what it was. Just a peanut praline with a surprise. The next day Siegel explained a bit more about how praline is made, basically they take raw nuts and throw them in a copper kettle with sugar and heat it all together. As the nuts roast the sugar caramelizes. Then it’s ground together to make a paste that has little flecks of the sugar in it. This little square had an extra bonus though, at first I thought it was just something like the center of a Butterfinger bar, but then it popped. Then there was a lot of popping in there. Unflavored Pop Rocks. It was an interesting combination (and was a great help for my novel).
After the presentations it was back to the chocolate floor. I took photos, of course, and now that I had a better understanding of what Freeman was up to, I started really examining the offerings behind the counter. I also started tasting. I started tasting things that weren’t in that box. I knew that I was going to try more of Charles Chocolates the next day (yes, there’s still more to tell from my San Francisco trip!) so I looked at the other chocolatiers.
At first Elbow’s were missing the mark for me, they were very sweet (but they’re so darned pretty). Some that I tried that were fantabulous, most notably was the Orange Honey Blossom, which was a half-sphere button with a drippy honey cream center with a true honey taste and texture. I regret not trying one of the Bananas Foster. The Cluizel was fantastic and so incredibly specific. It finally dawned on me the unique position Cluizel is in, because they make their chocolate, from bean all the way to the final truffle creation. There are so few actual chocolate factories on the planet, and the fact that this one creates more than just the bars and couverture for the rest of the industry sets them apart. (And I need to pay more attention to them now.)
Fact is, I was seriously overloaded with chocolate. I wouldn’t call it a chocolate high, more like a chocolate sedation. I wanted it all, but part of my brain wasn’t working well enough to figure out where to put it. I couldn’t possibly fit any more in my tummy. I had a half a glass of wine during the presentations and after that a bottle of sparkling water. A glance over by the door though, and I saw that the name badges were replaced with gift bags ... with a box of chocolate to take home. I sighed in relief. As much as I didn’t want to leave, because the Golden Ticket would be voided the moment I stepped outside the door, I had to go. The wine had worn off at least a half an hour earlier and it was time to go back to the motel.
I lost count with how much I ate. It was probably a third of a pound of chocolate in two hours. Good thing I didn’t have any lunch or dinner.
POSTED BY Cybele AT 7:05 am
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
There were people who wanted me to do this. There were readers commenting that I should be covering Halloween goodies. So here goes. I went to the drug stores over the weekend and found all the pumpkins, most of them marshmallowy.
I did a roundup earlier this year of Easter eggs from Russell Stover and I was pleasantly suprised by the taste and quality of them, so it wasn’t hard to purchase these (though they were only on sale for 50 cents each).
This one really appealed to me because it reminded me of one of my favorite candies ever, the See’s Scotchmallow (always best in the dark chocolate single pieces, not the milk chocolate “bar” thing). The pumpkin shape out of the package is actually pretty good. It has some shape and definition, which I enjoyed quite a bit.
It smelled sweet and not a bit like chocolate. The caramel is soft and flowing and the marshmallow firm and bouncy but very moist. The combination of all the textures is nice, but the caramel doesn’t quite have that toasted sugar taste and it’s not quite salty enough to balance out all the other sweetness.
I have to say, after staring at the packaging for Russell Stover for the past couple of days, I’ve decided I don’t really like it. It has a sort of faux Peanuts feel to it that I find a little sad. Maybe it’s that the colors are too much like Easter and I feel like Charlie Brown and this might be the equivalent of getting a rock in my Trick or Treat bag.
This was certainly the best looking pumpkin of the whole bunch. It was thick and had a well-defined and easily recognizable shape. The bite was nice, with the soft and fluffy marshmallow center, but it lacked a vanilla punch. It just lacked flavor. The chocolate couldn’t carry it, because it didn’t have much flavor of its own, though it’s not like it was bad, just sweet and without any sort of dairy component to even give it a little kick.
I love the purple package. I really do, but it kind of confused me. Hershey’s is positioning purple as their color for dark chocolate (they use it on the Dark Kisses and those dark jewel tones on the Special Dark packaging). But no, this is milk chocolate.
I figured if I was disappointed with the lack of flavor in the Russell Stover marshmallows, Hershey’s would pick up the slack. After all, Hershey’s is known for their distinctive milk chocolate. This one was packaged nicely, a much bigger package than the Russell Stover even though it was slightly lighter. The marshmallow is nice and lofty and has a more firm latexy quality to it. Dryer and with a distinctive fake vanilla flavor, the marshmallow certainly had some personality. The chocolate on here was not really up to the challenge though. Too grainy, too sweet and just not creamy enough for me. I kinda scraped it off with my teeth so I could have more uninterrupted marshmallow. (This pumpkin was made in Canada.)
Everyone’s well aware of my love of Reese’s but this has to be the ugly duckling of the pumpkin bunch. It barely even looks like a pumpkin, it was difficult to extract from the wrapper and has a plain old greasy appearance and feel.
Now, all that aside, it’s a Reese’s Egg ... and I love Reese’s Eggs. They’re different from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the ratios are different and though they tried to recapture this difference with the Reese’s Limited Edition Bars earlier this year, I think these unattractive lumps offer something compelling enough to warrant making them seasonally. The center is firm and a little crumbly, a mix of salty, grainy and sweet with a thin and sticky milk chocolate coating that adds a little more sweetness to the mix.
I’ve saved the best for last. Last spring I tried my first Snickers novelty item, it was a Snickers Easter Egg. I actually liked it quite a bit and found it different enough from a regular Snickers bar to put it in the same class as the Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg (ratios and all that). For some reason the Snickers Pumpkin might have a slight edge on the Egg. It might have been because I couldn’t easily re-wrap the pumpkin in its foil wrapper, I had to eat it right away. Well, it might not technically have been eaten ... it might have been gobbled.
There aren’t as many whole peanuts in the pumpkin, but there’s a definite nuttiness to it. The nougat seems moister and flavorful and the soft caramel is smooth and has a little toasted salty hit to it that helps out the whole thing. The chocolate is merely adequate, but smooth enough to support the whole (and of course give it the lovely pumpkin shell).
If you’d like more opinions on the other pumpkin shaped goodies, coincidence has it again that Rebecca has posted on the Hershey’s orange pumpkins and Joanna has both orange flavored ones that I couldn’t bring myself to purchase.
All of the pumpkins I listed were 50 cents each on sale. If you’re looking for stuff to throw into the Trick or Treat bags, stick with the tried and true candies, they’re less expensive (when on sale most fun sized bars can be 10 cents each). If you’re looking for a little treat for yourself, it’s not a bad gamble. Overall I’m giving them all a 4 out of 10. They’re benign ... they’re not the epitome of their genre, but they’re not embarrassments either.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Like Candy Corn, Peeps and Peanut Butter Kisses are one of those seasonal candies that people either love or hate. I’m gonna go ahead and say right now, I’m on the side of love here.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had “name brand” peanut butter kisses before, these are the first I’ve ever seen that have anything on the black & orange wax wrappers. Made by Necco, Mary Jane Peanut Butter Kisses are a molasses taffy with a little blurp of peanut butter in the center.
The molasses taffy is soft and flavorful, with a rustic taste of mellow molasses with a little smoke and woodsy maple in there. In the center (or somewhere near there) is a pocket of peanut butter, a little crumbly and of course nutty and roasty tasting. The salty hit of the fatty peanut butter is a great combo with the sweet taffy. I much prefer them to the traditional Mary Janes, which I find not only a little too hard but also not enough of a “concentrated peanut butter” dollop.
Since these are not a spectacularly popular candy, with their rather mousy wrappings and bland colors they’re easily found dirt-cheap in the remainder bins after Halloween, which is when I prefer to buy them. If they’re a little old and stale, a little warm-up in the palm of your hand will revive them.
Some other notes: Mary Janes were originally made by the Miller Company starting in 1914, which was later bought by another taffy company called Stark Candy Company that continued the Mary Jane tradition. In 1990 Stark sold out to Necco, who continues to make the traditional Mary Janes pretty much unchanged from its original format.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Every great candy has variations in size. Of course shrinking or enlarging a candy doesn’t necessarily make it better, in fact, it usually makes it different. Same components, just different ratios.
Trader Joe’s has gone and mucked around with their Peanut Butter Cups. These are made by the same manufacturer but are wee-tiny. Seriously, you can hardly call them cups. They look like knobs. Little peanut butter and milk chocolate knobs.
The little knobs don’t have flat tops, so they don’t sit quite right, they roll over easily. The easiset way to line them up is to have the top of the cup facing down ... which makes them more knob-like.
The ratio on these definitely leans towards chocolate over peanut butter. The chocolate is cool and sweet and slightly grainy, but matched well with the dash salty peanut butter.
It’s quite easy to just grab a handful of these out of the tub. And of course being chocolate they start to melt in your hand and you have to pop them in your mouth ... then you’ve got an empty hand and need to repeat. So the tub can go quickly. I know it’s tempting to want peanut butter cups with out the little fluted paper cup so that you can shovel them into your maw faster, but really no one needs anything to improve the efficiency of gobbling Trader Joe’s candy.
In the end I kept eating them because I wanted more peanut butter. I think I’ll stick to my Reese’s miniatures.
Note: Yes, I’ve been eating a lot of peanut-heavy candies lately, I credit it to the change in the weather. Some people think fall is all about spice, I think it’s all about nuts.
Monday, October 9, 2006
Ever want a Chick-o-Stick without the coconut? Well, Atkinson’s makes those, too, though they come with the rather boring name of Peanut Butter Bars.
They’re not really bars, either. They’re more like rods. About the size and shape of a cigar or pretzel rod, they’re a hard candy shell with a crunchy peanut butter honeycomb center.
The candy actually comes in a variety of sizes, I usually see a small “changemaker” size with little one bite, individually-wrapped morsels. I like the ratio on this rods quite a bit, it’s a lot more peanut butter honeycomb than it is a hard candy. It has a nice flaky quality with a good salty hit and nutty crunch. It’s really crunchy, which is a great plus and they’re not nearly as messy as the Chick-o-Sticks but also a good all-weather candy.
Atkinson’s also makes something called a Pico-o-Sito which is a spicy peanut butter candy. Sounds pretty good to me, why can’t I find them at a store near me? Atkinson’s does have a nice website where you can order all of their candy and at pretty good prices (and free shipping).
Interesting fact from the website: Chick-o-Sticks & Peanut Butter Bars are vegan - there are no animal products in there (however, it depends on how observant you are on the sugar thing, their site doesn’t say if they use cane sugar or beet sugar).
Friday, October 6, 2006
Around this time last year I barely knew what Fair Trade was and there really weren’t that many chocolate products out there that were Fair Trade Certified. Now you can not only get cocoa and plain dark chocolate, but also some pretty cool flavored chocolate bars. Endangered Species seems to be leading the way with the Fair Trade “candy” bars in their new Premium Organic line.
Each bar is a single serving and easy to pick up at the checkout of your favorite “wholesome” market like Whole Foods, Wild Oats or Zoo gift shop.
Along with the Fair Trade and organic certifications, this bar boasts high cocoa content of 52% (high for a milk chocolate). This wrapper has a giraffe on the label and everyone knows that the pattern on giraffes is known as the peanut shell. (Okay, I made that part up.)
The chocolate is buttery smooth and very sweet on the tongue. It has very strong smoky qualities with a slight bitterness at the start but a good nutty flavor. Once I start eating the bar, the unpleasant burnt quality goes away, but each time I stop and start I have to go through the process all over again. I’m afraid I can’t give it the highest marks because of that. Now, I’m one of those “supertaster” people, so I tend to be more sensitive to bitter, so your mileage may vary.
Interesting fact about giraffes from the wrapper: A giraffe’s neck contains seven vertebrae, just like ours.
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
These aren’t really called Peanut Butter Kisses ... I believe those are molasses taffy with a bit of peanut butter inside of them and are often wrapped in black or orange waxed paper with twisted ends. The real name of these is Hershey’s Kisses filled with Peanut Butter.
PB Kisses were introduced as a limited edition item but were quickly deemed popular enough to become part of the regular repertoire and were added in June 2006.
The PB Kiss sports a light gold wrapper with red wiggly stripes and the word Peanut Butter on the foil. The little red flags say Peanut Butter as well. The Kisses look a little different out of the wrapper, the shell is smoother. These Kisses are molded instead of being extruded, so they’re shiny.
Inside the milk chocolate shell is a little dab of peanut butter filling. It’s got a good roasted flavor with a little hit of salt. It’s not super-smoothed like a Reese’s Pieces, but more like the inside of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (but not quite as crumbly).
They’re very tasty and quite addictive. The only problem I have with them is they’re a little greasy feeling when you take them out of the foil - I know that’s because of the peanut butter.
I’m not quite sure why these needed to be created though ... how different are then from the Reese’s Miniatures, except that there’s only one wrapper on them instead of a cup and a wrapper? The ratio, which everyone knows is very important with peanut butter items, is different though - there’s less peanut butter to chocolate here. So if you’re a chocolate fan but not so keen on a giganto hit of peanut butter, this may be your new favorite candy.
Monday, September 18, 2006
One of the things I’ve always struggled with when evaluating fudge is that it’s so unappealing looking (I have this problem with toffee, too). You usually just buy it in lackluster chunks and then you have to figure out how to slice it up and how big is a serving supposed to be? How do you close it back up without the edges getting crusty?
Flippin’ Fudge contacted me a few weeks ago to tell me about their new fudge and I was kinda skeptical, mostly because I really didn’t want to take photos of amorphous lumps of sugar and chocolate. Well, when it arrived, I realized that Tim & Liz Young at Flippin’ Fudge has figured out how to make fudge look great.
First, the box it came in. It was a white lidded corrugated shipping box that had the logo on it, you open it (easily, not with a lot of struggle) and inside is the smaller box padded by some confetti colored packing shreds.
The real treat is inside, each piece of fudge is individually wrapped in a royal purple/magenta piece of foil and labeled with the flavor.
All the fudge has a very good “bite” to it. It’s soft without being limp, firm without being chalky. None of it is particularly sweet right out of the gate, instead the chocolate flavor predominates and there’s less milky mellowness to it.
Dark Secret - a plain fudge but with a bit more of a chocolate kick. The fudge itself is smooth and dense, without being the slightest bit sticky. It’s missing that crystalline crumbliness that I kind of like in cheap fudge, but where that’s lacking the signs of bad fudge you’ll find lots of flavor.
Wake Up Call - coffee and chocolate, what could be better in the morning? This was a nice mellow chocolate fudge, but I never really got the coffee flavor kick out of it. It had a slightly more acidic bite to it, but no really smokin’ coffee to wake me up.
Skippy’s Surprise - a layer of chocolate fudge, a layer or peanut butter fudge and then another layer of chocolate fudge. The peanut butter is ultrasmooth and creamy and has a strong roasted nut taste. A little kick of salt and you’ll be searching the assorted box for more of these. Very satisfying.
Fuzzy Bubble - this is peach champagne fudge, and I’m sure lots of folks think this is a good idea, but I just have to exempt myself from this one. I really don’t care for mixing peach with chocolate for some reason and this fudge is no exception.
Citrus Shot - It’s a rich orange, with more essence to it than tart juicy taste. I’ve always loved the combo of orange and chocolate. This could be kicked up a notch, but it’s still wonderful.
Toffee Crunch - A nice salty hit with a buttery smell and taste of caramelized sugar mixed in with the chocolate.
Island Retreat - Coconut and chocolate is a great combo. If you like Mounds bars but don’t want to be bothered with all that actual coconut to chew, is a great option. All the flavor is there, that sort of floral fragrance, nutty bite and of course the chocolate smoothness to wash it down. It seriously made me think of summer and walking around the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ.
Overall the fudge is very different from what I’m used to. I looked over the ingredients and noticed that they all have
(I emailed with Tim and he said that there’s no peanut butter in the non peanut butter flavors, so his secret of how he makes it so smooth is his alone) without adding the milky-sticky texture that sometimes turns me off.
I did all this without looking at the price so as not to color my judgement one way or the other. The standard mixed box that I got is 12 ounces and contains 16 pieces. It costs $20.00 but the larger 28 piece assortment (about 21 ounces) is a better deal at $32. The site is well laid out with a good variety of product combinations and you can calculate the shipping before you check out, but all shipping is done through FedEx, which can cost a pretty penny for overnight but the ground shipping isn’t too bad.
UPDATE 10/14/2006 - you can win a $50 gift certifcate!
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.