Friday, April 28, 2006
Every once in a while I get an email with an offer for stuff to review. As much as I want to just accept every offer of free goodies, I had to develop a standard for freebies/samples. They have to offer something no one else does. Robert at Best Regards had me at “Cranberry Orange Craves.”
His line of chocolate barks feature his custom blend of chocolate and he recounts the discussion with his wife during his development of the treats this way:
I’ve never really considered dark chocolate to have an “aftertaste”, I always considered the dry, astringent or bitter carryover notes to be part of the experience. But I can see how the mellowness of milk chocolate alleviates both the good and bad lingering flavors.
Best Regards is located in the Kansas City, Kansas area, which is really one of the last places I would have expected good, distinctive chocolate to come from. Though the bulk of his edibles and gift baskets features cookies, the basket he sent has a large assortment of chocolate barks (called Craves) and even a fun variety of chocolate covered Oreos. So let’s dig in!
This is the star, the Cranberry Orange Craves - smooth dark chocolate flavored with orange essence and generously studded with dried cranberries. It’s an incredible combination and amazingly, I’ve never had it before. The zesty orange goes so naturally with the cranberry’s tart chewy bite and the smooth and mellow chocolate just brings it all together.
The best way for me to judge these sorts of things is to keep track of which package I finish first. This one was gone in the first weekend.
Orange and Oreo Chocolate Craves - the dark chocolate is smooth and creamy, but does lack some of the more subtle chocolate nuances. However, this is a combination bar, with orange essence added into the chocolate, so the rather homogenized background is actually pretty good as a foundation. Inside this thick bar are crushed Oreo cookies, which give it a nice crunch. Personally, I wasn’t fond of coming across the Oreo cream but the chocolate crunch was a good combo. My second favorite.
Premium Raspberry Chocolate - plain dark chocolate bark with raspberry essence in it. It’s not too sweet, ultra creamy and smooth. The raspberry has a good balance of floral nuances and there are bits of raspberry in there (including the seeds) which gives a little tartness and fruitiness to the whole bar.
Margarita White Chocolate - this was the only white chocolate offering and it was really good. I know, I’ve said I don’t like white chocolate and then I keep recommending white chocolate things. This was white chocolate that wasn’t too sweet and had lime essence in it. I would have called it Key Lime, because that’s what it tasted like to me. My third favorite.
Mint Chocolate Cookie - I’ve raved about Harry London Mint Cookie Joys before, and these are essentially the same. Minted dark chocolate with chocolate cookie bits in it. Heaven.
The final set in the basket were these two different kinds of chocolate covered Oreos, chocolate and mint chocolate. The plain chocolate ones had little sprinkles on them, and I have to say, as cute as they are, they’re not really that tasty. It’s fine for cake where you might want a little crunchy texture, but they just interfered with the chocolate and cookies here. The mint ones worked much better - a good, classic combo.
On the whole, the chocolate Craves were top notch. It’s hard to evaluate the whole custom blended chocolate part, because I never tasted the pure chocolate in any of these items, it was always in combination with other flavors and textures. While I really like a good dark chocolate, often the harsher bitterness can overshadow some of the more delicate flavors and textures. Of course that sort of intense flavor also keeps me from eating piece after piece. Maybe it’s the difference between fine wine and a good fruity sangria. Both have their place. So Robert at Best Regards has stumbled upon something - a really addictive dark chocolate that’s more “munchable.” Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I can assure you, it’ll be good for Best Regard’s business.
If I lived in the Kansas City area and needed a gift for someone, I’d absolutely take advantage of the gift basket idea (especially the mixed baskets of cookies) with local delivery and he has lots of options that are more on the savory side (and feature some of the local barbeque themes). If I had one suggestion for the sale of these, it’d be the ability to get a tin of them, maybe even a mixed variety. The packaging in the crunchy clear plastic bags wasn’t as resealable as I’d like. (I know, I rail against companies that have too much packaging, now I want more!) A tin of chocolate barks seems like it’d ship better anyway. However, he does offer some of the chocolate varieties as 8 ounce bars.
UPDATE: Wow! Robert is offering a special sampler package based on the products I reviewed here - at a huge discount off the regular $26.00 price, he’s offering it at only $15.99. Just go to the Sweets & Treats page and scroll down to see the “Cybele Special.”
Thursday, April 27, 2006
When I did my review last week of Turkish Delight, Joanna of SugarSavvy.net suggested that I try Aplets & Cotlets. Since I’m allergic to walnuts, I did a little digging on their site and found that they have some nutless products and then I fortuitously found some at the 99 Cent Only Store over the weekend.
I’m already partial to Turkish Delight and I figured this was an American version and it pretty much is. They’re American flavors and they sounded interesting on the package:
Cherry Amaretto - oh, well, this one just combines two of my least favorite flavors! Actually, it wasn’t as bad as all that. It was more like a cherry pie (which I like) and had little cherry bits in it. It didn’t have much of an amaretto note, so I’m guessing folks who like amaretto would be upset by the false advertising, but I was thankful.
Apple Spice - an interesting idea but not very apple-y or very spicy. It was sweet and had a nice kind of apple pie scent, but not much flavor to go with it.
Orange Ginger - this one is the star and if I could buy a package of just this, I probably would. The orange rind bits were noticeable and provide a zesty and sometimes bitter snap. Not much ginger burn or spice to it, but a good earthy flavor.
Strawberry Conserve - very sweet but at the same time intensely fragrant without any sort of artificial note to it. No tartness, just all the sweet berry notes. Quite a few seeds in there too.
The strangest thing about this package was the array. The package was a tray with nine slots in it. But there were four flavors. So which one do you think had a bonus? The other odd thing was that each pair of flavors looked the same. It turns out that the bonus piece was Strawberry Conserve. I have no idea if yours will be the same.
The texture missed on actually being Turkish Delight, as it was a bit denser and more flavored. The candies are covered in fine granulated sugar instead of powdered sugar, so they’re not at all messy. They’re not really a candy that I would sit and munch on while watching TV or a movie, but I think it’d be nice to serve with tea. I’m kind of curious now to try their other varieties, especially the mint and true Lokum. However, the sizes they sell on the website are a little large for my desire to just sample, so I’ll keep my eye out for these smaller packages in stores.
Note: the website sells these in a section called “Nut Free”, however, if you have severe nut allergies, the package notes that the candies may contain traces of peanuts and other nuts.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
One of the most talked-about candy stores in New York City has to be Dylan’s Candy Bar. Unlike Economy Candy, Dylan’s is all about display and experience. Also unlike Economy Candy: you pay a premium.
Located on Third Avenue at 60th Street - it’s a tony address - though not quite Park Avenue it is kitty-corner from Bloomingdale’s. If I could compare the store to something it would be FAO Schwartz. The store is brightly lit and on two levels. The street level boasts a large ice cream bar and featured huge Easter displays when I visited. The ceiling fixtures and shelves are candy themed, with large panels looking like some sort of vine of lollipops growing into the ceiling and large rainbow colored candy canes.
Dylan’s Candy Bar sells a huge range of products, both edible and wearable. The big feature, of course, is candy. The cornerstone is bulk candy and the bins are everywhere. They had a huge selection of all the sugar candy you can think of: gummis, Jelly Belly, Dubble Bubble flavored gumballs and licorice. They have chocolate too, from M&Ms (Colorworks), chocolate covered Oreos and malted milk balls as well as their own line of fine chocolates and flavored Belgian chocolate bars.
There were plenty of folks on hand to help out, none of the lines were very long (I expected the place to be crowded before Easter, but I did make sure to go on a weekday at lunch instead of on the weekend). The salesfolk seemed knowledgeable about the inventory too, which is a pretty big accomplishment with such a wide number of products. The prices for the bulk candies ran about $9.99 and they had some funky stuff, not just in the bulk bins but some fun displays. They had a HUGE selection of PEZ and a great big display of favorite candies chosen by famous people on the lower level. (Frankly, I don’t care much what famous people eat ... I’ll probably care when they ask me to do a custom mix.) There’s lots to look at and do in the store and I saw some children running around having the time of their lives (and their parents looked pretty pleased, too).
Their website features quite a few regional candy bars, so I was hoping to find an Idaho Spud, but it seems that they were fresh out. But I was able to find my Nut Goodie there and I also picked up a few other items that I’ll write about soon. There were also some funky items in the bins, like banana flavored gummi bears and a large selection of candy sticks in a wide variety of flavors and lollipops of all shapes, sizes and colors.
As I mentioned, Dylan’s Candy Bar has their own line of chocolate bars, so I picked up a nice assortment. They come in 10 different flavor combinations, but I picked of the little 1.75” tasting squares as an introduction:
Dark Raspberry - it was a nice dark chocolate bar. Not terribly sweet with a good overtone of raspberry essence to it, but none of the tart bite. The berry flavors mixed well with the earthy and fruity notes of the chocolate itself.
Dark - glossy and dark, there was no indication of the cocoa content here or on the website. It was nice, a little on the smoky side, but very smooth and a tad bit sweet.
Hazelnut - this bar is in the Guanduja-style, the first ingredient is hazelnut paste and the rest of the bar is made up of milk chocolate. It’s soft and creamy and a bit sticky feeling. The overwhelming flavor here is not the hazelnuts but the whole milk powder. The nuts add a level of satisfaction to the bar, but the milkiness just beats the nuttiness out of it to my dismay.
Dark Espresso (unwrapped) - a nice snap but a fair bit of grain in this bar from the ground coffee in it. The coffee flavor itself was good but completely overwhelmed the chocolate flavors and it seemed much sweeter than the Raspberry bar.
Can you tell I’m underwhelmed?
Maybe it started with their frustrating website, maybe I’m spoiled, but I want more info on my purchases. (I had a similar experience in the store.) Maybe I have no idea what a clodhopper is and the clothing ... maybe they could give me info on the fiber content. I want to know how much is in the package, and I want some indication of ingredients.
Maybe the article I read last year about Dylan Lauren rubbed me the wrong way and that’s colored my evaluation of the store. The NY Times line that got me was this:
What’s most interesting is that as I was there, I did not see “The Candy Girl” shopping there. I’m not the sexy, young, thin woman she pursues as a demographic (though maybe two out of four counts). As much as she might be positioning herself that way, the store is about kids - the displays obviously acknowledge that as there was quite a bit of the merchandise marketed to the under-four-foot set. While the store makes it socially acceptable for an adult to come in there and make a purchase(s), a destination like this will always be about children.
The other frustration is the price. Candy bars like the Nut Goodie I picked up are $1.49 and the bulk candy, such as Swedish Fish, in a plain plastic bag is $9.99 a pound. The same candy bar at Economy Candy is $.69 and probably about $1.00 at any of the many corner stores in NYC. The same Swedish Fish at Economy Candy were $3.49 a pound. What are you paying for here? Convenience of the address? Packaging? Isn’t that what Ralph Lauren has been selling us for years anyway? Except RL wasn’t taking Levi’s 501s and slapping his own logo on them and selling them for $100 a pair. Is Dylan’s Candy Bar doing that by taking other brands of candy and just dumping them into a clear plastic paint can?
Though I struggle with the the premium I pay at Vosges or Jacques Torres (which is like a fantasy land as well) I can rationalize it because they own their merchandise; they formulated it, they invented it, they make it. When I go into a mega-mart like Target or Toys-r-Us I expect better prices. Dylan’s just throws all of those expectations out the window. Sure, they have their own line of chocolates, but they sell everyone else’s too. They’re just selling you a brand, a bag and a logo. Sure, I have a similar complaint with the candy stores in malls where everything is in bulk bins and they’re selling it all for $8 a pound, whether you’re picking up plain old peppermint hard candies, gummi bears or M&Ms. But when I’m in Santa Rosa, CA, my candy store choices are limited and I accept the premium for variety. Dylan’s is in NYC, one of the most candy cities I’ve ever visited and Economy Candy is a scant four miles away.
I did enjoy browsing the displays, but the frugal part of me couldn’t get over the prices or the sheer gall of selling something that probably cost about $2 a pound wholesale for $10. There were candies there that I haven’t been able to find in other stores, so I appreciate that there were unique items there and there was a wide price range as well so you could get out of there with a bag of candy for under $5 with careful decision making. Part of the attraction of candy for me has always been its affordability and Dylan’s takes that part of the fun away. It’s no longer a simple pleasure, it’s an expensive one.
As the Candy Blogger, I’ll probably return. But as a simple candy consumer, it’s not a place I’d patronize. I found my second home in New York, it’s Economy Candy.
Dylan’s Candy Bar
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Oh dreadful day, I’m gonna just relieve you of any curiosity about these. They’re just bad.
Necco Smoothies are a new set of flavors of the good old fashioned Necco wafers. Smoothies, I’m guessing, are supposed to be fruit shake flavors. The package says: Blueberry, Banana Caramel, Tropical, Peach and Strawberry Creme.
The colors just weren’t doing it for me either. The chalky tablets looked more like antacids or perhaps some barrettes I had when I was in middle school. But I closed my eyes and went for the taste test:
White = Tropical: What does that mean? I think it was supposed to be pina colada or something with coconut in it. It was mild and pleasant. Not overtly flavorful, but simply sweet.
Yellow = Banana Caramel: Hey, this one’s pretty good, it reminds me of the long-lost Wacky Wafers. It’s not all banana, there’s a little hint of the caramelized sugar in there.
Orange = Peach: I know I mention my feelings for cherry flavored things from time to time, and this means that I’ve neglected my detestment for all things peach flavored. Don’t get me wrong, I love peaches. I just don’t like peach flavored things.
Blue = Blueberry: things flavored like blueberries never taste like blueberries. In fact, blueberries have very little flavor to me; they’re all about the texture. Sure, they’re sweet and tangy, but when you close your eyes and forget about what you’re eating, they taste kind of like iced tea. Maybe it’s the antioxidants or polyphenols or whatever in there that tea and blueberries have in common, but I’m happy to eat fresh blueberries but I don’t want blueberry flavored things.
Pink = Strawberry Creme: The strawberry flavor is very strong and has a slight tang to it, like a yogurt. It wasn’t offensive or off balance like the peach, but it wasn’t really that pleasant either. The chalkiness of the candy itself and the attempt at a creme flavor just reek of insincerity.
Now, I might be alone here in my estimation for these. Amy, my neighbor and co-worker seems to think that these are pretty good. She liked the Peach, she liked the Blueberry! Hey, that makes me the best next door neighbor ever ... all the flavors I don’t like, she’ll eat.
What I’ve always liked about the original Neccos is that I will eat all the flavors (except clove). So there’s value there. Same with Lifesavers, SweeTarts, Skittles and Starbursts. Sure, there are flavors I don’t like, but it’s usually one. If I’m not going to eat 3/5 of the flavors in a roll of Smoothies, it’s a total loss as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, so you can see from the photo what the color/flavor distribution in this roll was. So I’ve eaten all the Banana and the Tropical, and I’m left with this huge pile of Strawberry, Peach and Blueberry. I wonder if they’ll make good sidewalk chalk?
Note: Do take a moment and visit the Necco website. It is a little behind (highlighting Easter candies, but maybe they’re just letting people come look at the stuff because they’re still buying it on sale) but it’s nicely done and provides a lot more information about their history and candies than many other sites run by bigger companies. There’s even a section that shows how Necco Wafers are made.
Monday, April 24, 2006
You know if I’m not eating candy or writing about candy, I’m out on the internet reading about candy and looking at candy photos.
Last week I stumbled across two incredible sets of photos on Flickr, here’s a small sample:
I emailed him, and he gave me the story behind it. He collected a barrel of candy (50 gallons!) for Halloween as part of his work as a youth pastor. They did a huge challenge called the Pumpkin Hunt for middle and high school aged kids, kind of like a treasure hunt:
Wow, way harder than Trick-or-Treat, but it sounds a lot more fun. I wonder if the winner got the whole 50 gallons?
About a month ago a friend went to Seattle. Being a good friend she asked me if I wanted anything (knowing it would be a candy request). I told her that several people recommended Fran’s Chocolates, specifically their salt caramels. I even emailed her the locations of their shops to help her find the place.
Well, as luck would have it, she was up there for a panel discussion and one of the hospitality gifts was this package of Gray Salt Caramels ... so they must be famous!
The side of the package heralds them as “Award Winning! Soft butter caramels sprinkled with flavorful gray sea salt harvested off the Brittany Coast.”
I had to do some digging, I saw on their website that the caramels won the 2003 NASFT Outstanding Confection award, but I had no clue what NASFT was. Turns out it’s the The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, so I guess it’s like the Oscars (tm) for fancy food. (The run the fancy food shows in San Francisco, Chicago and New York ... something for me to put on my list o’ things to do.)
The caramels are covered in dark chocolate which helps to highlight the flavors. The caramel is sweet and the chocolate is smooth and creamy and the salt make it all pop. If anything, the salt makes it all taste creamier and richer. The salt itself had a more musky, deep flavor to it than regular table salt (yes, I tried the salt grains alone).
Salted Caramels are all the rage now, I’ve seen quite a few varieties in the past year or so, but I guess Fran’s was one of the first to present them. The large salt grains give a good textural addition besides the obvious salty pop. They’re very satisfying and vibrant on the tongue, but they don’t beg to be eaten over and over again. I had the package for quite a while and didn’t eat them all in one sitting, nor did I want to.
They’re fantastic, but they feel very special. I wouldn’t want a whole box of them, but I’d like a box of Fran’s candy and have a few of these sprinkled in (like this mix).
I’m definitely keen on trying other chocolates in Fran’s line. You can read more about the history of this Seattle Chocolatier on their website.
Kate at Accidental Hedonist also posted about these last week! So at David Lebovitz’s suggestion, I ate the last one upside-down, so that that salt hit my tongue first ... quite intense!
Friday, April 21, 2006
One of the must-see chocolate places in NYC is Jacques Torres. Even if you’re not a fan of their chocolate or have little money, it’s still an event. There are two locations in New York, one in Brooklyn and one on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Billed as Chocolate Haven, it truly is a delight for the eyes. The factory is wide open to witness from the street as they craft their handmade chocolate bars and when I was there they were packaging all of their hand-cast Easter goodies. From inside the store you get more than a view, you also get the scents and sounds.
But the best way to appreciate the innards of chocolate making though is from the Chocolate Haven shop. The glass walls enclose this little slice of sweetness and there’s ample room to move around and stop for a cup of hot chocolate at the chocolate bar.
I had a cup of custom blended Wicked (spiced chocolate) and Orange. It was smooth and sweet but not at all sticky. However, it was so rich and the portion (the smallest) was far too much for me to finish. As much as I tried, I couldn’t manage more than half of it.
Again, a little cup of hot chocolate helps me to keep my wits about me in such a place, it satisfies the chocolate craving and keeps me from going nuts and buying everything or gobbling it up as soon as I get away from the cash register with my purchases.
These little bunnies are just cute as bunnies. They’re each a little bigger than my thumb (which is kinda small) and were a good sampling of the Jacques Torres chocolate. The package was very light and as I guessed, they’re hollow ... so the whole thing weighed about 1.4 ounces. It cost $5.
The Dark Chocolate bunny tasted much like the hot chocolate. Smooth and rich with a slight dry finish, it wasn’t terribly complex but had some good woodsy/smoky qualities. I’m guessing this was the house blend variety of their chocolate which is 60% cocoa. The Milk Chocolate was quite sweet and has the European flavor to it, it was also very smooth but with a more fudgy quality to it. It’s one of those milk chocolates that begs you to eat more of it. The White Chocolate was really quite nice too. It’s true white chocolate in the sense that it’s made with cocoa butter and not tropical oils. It smelled very sweet and in fact tasted that way too, but had a slight caramel/vanilla note to it that made it much better than a bowlful of sugar.
They were all very nice, but for the price, first, I’d want solid chocolate. At this rate a pound of little bunnies would be over $50. I understand that more intense products like truffles demand a higher price, but these hardly qualified for such a premium. Not when the single bars of 3.5 ounces sell for $4.
This was my favorite purchase. I almost missed these too, they were placed up at the register and if I hadn’t already picked out the bunnies, I wouldn’t have even bought anything.
These are candied slices of orange that are then dipped in dark chocolate. They are absolutely gorgeous confections. I just couldn’t resist buying them because I knew they would photograph well. Luckily I love candied citrus peel, so I was really looking forward to these. They were just as dense and rich as I’d hoped. The orange slices were soft and juicy and not too sweet. The rind carried strong orange essences without the slightest bit of bitterness. A well-candied citrus rind bears more fruit flavor than a marmalade, which often tastes of sugar syrup.
I’ve not tried the rest of the Jacques Torres line of chocolates, so I can’t comment on the truffles or other chocolate covered goodies. They’re pricey though, but the visit to their shop provides a bit more value to the brand. I give them higher marks than the sole merits of the chocolate in the bunnies, the orange was extraordinary and gives me the confidence to recommend the other chocolate covered goodies I saw. There were fun items like chocolate covered corn flakes, graham crackers and cranberries and traditional fare like apricots, ginger and pretzels. Where the Scharffen Berger line has always been rather traditional in its expression (and I love that) I don’t care so much for the chocolate, just for the filling. Here the chocolate worked as the perfect complement to the orange and I reckon it would make even pedestrian items like corn flakes tasty.
Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven
I was prompted to seek out this Pearson’s bar after enjoying both the Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll and later the Bun Bars (especially the Maple Bun).
But here’s the question, how is this one different from the Bun Maple? Both are a maple fondant center covered in peanuts and milk chocolate. I had to taste it to find out.
There is no difference in size, they’re both 1.75 ounces and their packaging is sized identically. In fact, they look strikingly similar.
But they don’t taste the same. I don’t know what to attribute this to, but the Nut Goodie is neither a Maple Bun nor a Vanilla Bun. Since I had the wrapper from the Bun still lying around I did a comparison:
Maple Bun Bar.....................................Nut Goodie
So there you have it, they’re different. The Maple Bun, though it lists no maple flavoring, had a stronger mapleness to it, but the Nut Goodie is no slouch. It’s a good bar. The fondant center is a little more dense and has a good sweetness with a balanced slight hit of salt that brings out a more subtle maple/toasted note to it. The nuts are top notch and the milk chocolate is smooth and sweet and of good quality.
I doubt I’ll see many of these around, but if you’re a Maple Bun fan and you can’t find those, this might be a tasty substitute. I’d still like to see these made in a bar form instead of the plop, as it’s a bit harder to eat.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.