Tuesday, November 20, 2012
It’s been over five years since I’ve been to Manhattan, which I consider one of the United States’ great candy shopping cities. Naturally, I visited a lot of candy stores and chocolate shops and have plenty to report.
FAO Schweetz is found in the flagship FAO Schwartz store on 5th Avenue at Central Park South and occupies at least a third of the first floor. The candy merchandising is done by IT’SUGAR (but less tarted up). They have a good selection of candy, with a special emphasis on large things. Giant things. Things you can probably buy elsewhere but are enchanting in this atmosphere. Like the World’s Largest Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the One Pound Snickers Slice ‘n Share, large boxes of Wonka Nerds and some cereal themed packaging of candies (pictured to the right).
The prices are steep, I bought some Christmas Peeps for $3.49 which could have been a buck at Target.
Myzel’s Chocolate is a spot I’ve wanted to visit for years, but not for the chocolate, for the licorice. True to their reputation, this tiny little shop does have a huge and well curated variety of fresh licorice. I didn’t pick up a lot as I’ve already either had the varieties they carry or they were the salted licorice types that I don’t enjoy that much. I did get some griotten, skoolkrijt, beehives, Italian rosemary licorice, Copenhagen cats, chocolate licorice twists and Dutch lozenges.
It’s great to be in New York when there’s a chill in the air, because that means that it’s time for hot chocolate. Though I took a walk through Maison du Chocolate at Rockefeller Center, I opted for my first hot chocolate in Manhattan from Michel Cluizel, who didn’t have a shop when I visited last. I had a dark hot chocolate and a salted caramel macaron. It’s a petite cup of hot chocolate, which is fine with me as I don’t need or want much. The macaron was fresh, flaky and crunchy with a nice salted caramel layer in the middle.
I then walked over to the Upper West Side to check out Fairway Market and Zabar’s (for some soup) along with a stop at a gelato shop called Grom that’s known for their hot chocolate.
The Grom hot chocolate is the closest to the Spanish style I’ve had, appropriate for dipping churros or other baked goods. It’s thick and I’m told, it becomes much thicker like a mousse when refrigerated. (I would have tried that, as I couldn’t finish the 8 ounce portion and wanted to take it back to the hotel, but they didn’t have any lids.)
The Man and I headed down to the New Amsterdam Market (because it was Pickle Fest) and visited Liddabit Sweet‘s excellent stand to see their complete line of hand crafted sweets. They have 10 different gourmet candy bars to chose from (and unfortunately had no samples to help me decide) but I did manage to pick out 3 of them: Pecan Pie, Humbug and The Snacker. I also got some of their Beer and Pretzel Caramels and an assortment of their lollipops to soothe my aching throat.
The next series of stops were more nostalgia - we popped into Economy Candy, which was mobbed but happily back up and humming since Superstorm Sandy as well as Yonah Schimmels and we tried to go into Russ and Daughters but the line was out of the door.
Then it was off to Roni-Sue, pretty much the gal who started the whole pig candy craze. I was more interested in the comfort food candies, including her Beer & Pretzel Caramel.
I took a walk through Aji Ichiban and Ham Kam Market in Chinatown, but I didn’t see any Asian treats I can’t find at home, so I didn’t opt to buy anything.
Then it was LA Burdick for hot chocolate and a canele. The hot chocolate was not sticky or too thick, but rich and dark. The canele was small but had a custardy center and a caramelized shell with a hint of citrus zest. I also bought an $8 bag of “seconds” at the counter which was literally a grab bag of goodies. There were at least 20 pieces, though LA Burdick pieces are very small, but that resulted in an excellent variety. It really was the best deal of my trip. I put them on a plate in my room and had one or two at my leisure during the week.
My last spot for the day was Eataly, which was jam packed with people, so much that I was overwhelmed and decided to go back again later when it might be calmer.
Dylan’s Candy Bar is an iconic stop in New York City for candy aficionados. It’s also one of my least favorite places to buy candy and this visit proved no different from my other experiences. The marketing is rarely about the deliciousness of the candy, and the choices they make in their products often show how they value style over substance.
Down in the lower level, I was pretty much aghast at how filthy it was. Granted, it was later in the day (I think around 5:30) but that doesn’t explain all of it. Near the serve-yourself bulk bins there was candy on the floor. There were at least three sales associates restocking, or maybe just talking with large boxes nearby, yet none of them made any effort to clean up the messes. It wasn’t just in that section, but the bulk areas were most notable. Some candy was broken and ground into the floor. The thing that really turned me off though was the fact that the floor was cleaned inconsistently. At the baseboards it was absolutely filthy. It was obvious that they just slopped down a rag mop and pushed all the dirt into the corners. It wasn’t as noticeable on the colored floors (in the banded colors of the Dylan’s logo) but some floors were white and it was quite apparent that they didn’t regularly clean in those areas.
The store charges a premium price, and for that I expect cleanliness at the very minimum. (My original post on the store his here.)
This was my cultural enrichment day, so I headed up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I was disappointed to find that the Temple of Dendur was closed as well as the Dutch Masters rooms in the European Painting wing. Not that there weren’t other wonderful things to see, such as the special exhibit on Manipulated Photography through the years and Roentgen furniture.
I started my day with a stop at Francois Payard in the Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel for a mochaccino and a salted caramel macaron. Both were excellent, just the right touch of chocolate in my espresso (though more milk that I would have liked). The salted caramel filling of the macaron was silky smooth.
I also picked up a couple of marshmallows at Three Tarts Bakery - a vanilla bean and an espresso. I’m still not a big marshmallow person, though these were good. Soft, delicate and well flavored.
Then I walked up to Laduree on Madison Ave. and picked up four more macaron, including their Salted Caramel, Citron Vert, Dark Chocolate and Rose. The first I ate while walking to the museum, the other three I saved for my walk back ... which also meant that the got a bit smashed in my bag.
Later in the evening I walked down to Times Square and checked out the M&Ms Store. I’ve been to the one in Las Vegas before, so this was no surprise. It’s three stories jam packed with Chinese-made branded merchandise. Some of it is quite charming, but it’s also a bit overwhelming after a while. The actual candy available is rather limited. They have the color walls of the M&Ms available in both the Milk Chocolate and the Milk Chocolate with Peanut. But there were no special buys, no limited edition candy ... not even anything else from Mars.
I’d say the highlight, after listening to blaring dance music was to see the Red M&M dance with some other patrons to Gangham Style.
Across the street is the Hershey’s Store, which pales in comparison to the Hershey’s Chocolate World. It’s just a little store front with lots of shiny lights on the outside advertising the Hershey’s brands, but not much for sale inside. Again, not great prices and very little that’s hard to find. Very little that I didn’t see at any Duane Reade on every corner.
The Meadow is one of those fantastic stores that sells an incredible selection of very specific items. In this case they have salt, bitters and chocolate. The chocolate bar selection is very well curated and had just about everything I was looking for, including Canadian bean-to-bar maker, SOMA. They also had all the big hits like Amano, Askinosie, Pralus, Chocolat Bonnat, Olive & Sinclair, Mast Bros, Patric, Dick Taylor and Domori. There are two main sections, the plain chocolate bars (single origin for the most part) and the bars with inclusions plus a few confections.
Another interesting thing to note, nothing will have peanuts in it. The owners have a peanut allergy in the family, so they don’t bring anything into the store that has peanuts (though I’m guessing there could be traces with some products like Patric that does use peanuts but did not have any peanut products in the store).
Sockerbit is a Swedish candy store I’ve been looking forward to visiting since I heard that it opened. It’s clean and spare little store with a whole wall of bulk candies. The price is per pound, $12.99 whether you get licorice, chocolate or sour gummis.
It’s a large cross section of Swedish confections. There are fudge and nougat as well as foamy marshmallow, sour gummis and a pretty good selection of salted licorice. I picked up, pretty much, one or two of everything. They have a nice online store, so I can always order from the web for any new favorites.
There’s really only one reason I go to Kee’s Chocolate, it’s for the Creme Brulee chocolates. They’re large geodesic dome shaped things, about twice the size of a regular chocolate from them. They must be eaten immediately. Inside is a soupy custardy creme brulee. It’s sweet and caramelized and creamy. The chocolate shatters when it hits the mouth, so it must be popped on the tongue whole.
I also got three other chocolates, a blood orange which was okay, a pink peppercorn which had a wonderful earthy, carrot flavor to it (I liked it!) and a dark chocolate. The centers were a little grainy, which I found odd, but not off-putting. Earlier review here.
Max Brenner is a chocolate themed eatery in Union Square featuring “Chocolate by the Bald Man.” I’ve had some of Max Brenner’s chocolate selections before his move in the US market about 5 years ago. It’s a large beautifully designed, if you like a steampunk chocolate maker meets Sizzler steakhouse.
Since it was after lunch in the middle of the week, it was no trouble to take a table just to have a dark hot chocolate. It was good, rich, but not the best hot chocolate I’d had all week. I think it would have been better with something else on the menu, or as a dessert to a light lunch.
Eataly is a high end food mall with restaurants, coffee bars and of course a huge selection of groceries from Italy. They have a well curated section of Italian candy, of course, featuring Venchi. Other brands included Caffarel, Domori, Amarelli licorice, Perugina and Leone.
The prices were steep, I picked up my favorite Sassolini from Amarelli, it was $5.80 for a mere 1.4 ounces. The biggest thrill though is the sheer amount of torrone (nougat) they had, in both the soft style and the hard version. They’re opening on in Los Angeles, so I hear, so I’ll wait until they’re local and pick up new candies as needed.
Addresses for all locations are available on this map. Plus some spots that I wasn’t able to visit. Previous New York experiences are tagged with NYC.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Halloween is the first Holiday in Candy Season. The variety of candy is not quite as remarkable as Easter or Christmas, because most candy is just smaller sizes of single serve products for easy distribution for Halloween trick or treaters. It’s interesting to see what the new and returning products are each year.
The big trend seems to be seasonal flavor combinations. The notable ones are Candy Corn (now in jelly bean, gum drop, chocolate covered & novelty flavors) and Caramel Apple (lollipops, Milky Way bars, Werther’s hard candies, Sugar Babies).
I haven’t seen much that’s new this year, but I did visit most of the stores in my area to see what’s on the shelves, here’s my hitlist of the highlights:
FARLEY’S & SATHERS (BRACH’S)
(review) Now available in snack packs for Trick or Treat
NESTLE & WONKA
So what have you seen that’s new or what’s missing that you’ve been looking forward to?
Monday, October 8, 2012
Last month I visited Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania, as I often do when I’m in the area. The themed space is open year around and adjacent to Hersheypark. It’s free to visit and is mostly a Hershey themed mall with a food court and a ride the includes the story of how Hershey’s makes their chocolate.
One of the new attractions at Chocolate World is Create Your Own Candy Bar. It’s a real, mini candy factory where you can customize a single, large candy bar from an array of options. It’s $14.95, so it’s not cheap, but it is an engaging way to spend 30 to 45 minutes, especially if you love to watch machines.
When buying the ticket, you’re asked for your first and last name plus your zip code. I didn’t realize that this was how the bar was customized as you go through the factory experience (though you’re only addressed by your first name and last initial, in case you’re visiting with your AA group). If I knew this, I could have given my name as CandyBlog as you’ll see later.
The tickets are for sale in the main lobby, patrons are given a ticket with a scheduled start time. Folks line up and are given hair nets and aprons, asked to remove all visible jewelry (rings and watches) and hopefully washed their hands. (You don’t actually come into contact with any of the equipment or ingredients.) I don’t know what the limit for a group is, but I would guess about 15-18 people.
The event starts with a quick video which shows you how each stage of the process will work. The basic steps are: choosing your formula, the production of the bar, the cooling of the bar, creating a custom wrapper and then the boxing of the bar.
The customizations are:
You simply scan your ticket’s bar code at the screen and make your selections.
Through a set of swinging doors, the set up is a real mini factory line with a continuous conveyer through a series of stainless steel machines. It extends along a long exterior wall, so it’s well lit and you can view it from the outside (though a real candy factory wouldn’t allow so much sunlight directly on the process). You can follow along and witness every step of the manufacture. Everything is well within view just behind a plexiglass divider and well marked with what’s going on at each step.
The process starts with a chocolate base. It’s like a little, short walled box of a bar. I chose dark chocolate and the suction arms picked one up and dropped it onto the conveyer to start. Along the conveyer are the six possible inclusions, when the bar arrived at an inclusion for your bar, the hopper or screw feeder opens up and drops in your items.
At each station, the items are marked and a little bit about the reasons for the type of dispensing is explained. Screw feeders work well for items that might be sticky, like toffee bits and gravity feeders are for dry items like nuts and pretzels.
Once my inclusions, pretzel bits, almonds and butter toffee bits, were inside the little chocolate box, the bar proceeded towards the enrober. All bars were coated in milk chocolate. No choice. My bar, though, was filled unevenly. The corners had nothing in them and the center had a too-high mound. I would have preferred that my bar go over some sort of vibrating bar that would level things before the enrober.
The enrober is a thick curtain of chocolate on an open mesh conveyer. The video above is short, but gives you an idea of the process. The chocolate that isn’t used gets filtered and recycled back into the system. (So do not eat these bars if you’re sensitive to gluten, tree nuts or peanuts, even if you didn’t pick those items.)
After enrobing, bars that get sprinkles will. I didn’t select those. Then the bars go into a cooling tunnel. The cooling process takes about 8 minutes, so it’s off to waste time in the design and marketing department.
Just off the “factory floor” is a room with more touch screens. Waving the little bar code on my ticket got a new series of options. First, I could design my wrapper. (Well, it’s actually a sleeve, it’s not well explained before you get in there that the chocolate bar comes in a box, which is then inside a tin which gets a customized sleeve.) The design options are not extraordinary. You can choose your background as either a solid or gradient of color or a pattern. Then there are the added items - Hershey Logos, Your Name and some icons (mostly Autumnal and Halloween). I made what struck me as a pretty ugly design and pressed print.
After that the screens give you marketing data about your candy bar. All sorts of different graphs that say how popular or common things are and what other people have done.
That process took me about three minutes, and I tried to rush through it since there were only five screens and plenty of people (including some kids which probably wanted more time on the design). Then it was back to watching the cooling tunnel ... which is a tunnel and only had a few little windows to check on the progress of the bars.
Once the bars came out of the cooling tunnel they were loaded into little slots and dumped into boxes. The boxes got a little laser printing on the end with everyone’s name, then went down to the wrapping stations. This was the only part of the process that was hands-on with any of the factory workers. They had already printed our labels and were waiting for the bars to come out. They popped the bars into a tin, closed the tin and put on the sleeve wrapper.
The factory experience gives people the ability to walk through with their own bar, but also enough time to go back and really look at the equipment if they desire. I don’t know how large the groups can get, but it appears that Hershey’s keeps the manageable so that you have enough room to move around and see everything. Photography is permitted. Children are welcome though everyone has to have a ticket (except toddlers under 2) and everyone makes their own bar. They are ADA compliant, and I saw no reason that folks in wheelchairs wouldn’t be able to get the full experience. (Chocolate World as a whole seemed to be very accessible and actually well attended by folks of all abilities.)
It’s extremely clean, as you’d hope. It’s very well run and each person you meet on the Hershey’s staff is eager and seem knowledgeable. (Especially once you get in the factory room.)
I was at the front of the line and ended up being the first bar (I already scoped what I wanted and was ready at the bar selection process). For me it was about 35 minutes, but if you’re slower or at the back of the line, this might be 45 minutes or more. So allow ample time, as well as the fact that once you get there and they issue the ticket, your start time may be more than a half an hour away.
So there’s my lackluster wrapper. Under the stiff printed sleeve, the chocolate bar is inside an embossed tin with the Hershey’s logo on it. It’s a nice tin, one that I can see myself keeping and using for storing small items.
The tin is 7.5” by 4.5” and 1.25” high with rounded corners. There’s a plastic tray inside that holds the boxed chocolate bar with the generic packaging.
The bar is pretty big. It’s 5 inches long and 2.75 inches wide and maybe 2/3 of an inch high. I don’t have an approximate weight on it, but it’s well over 6 ounces.
As I noted from the production line while watching it being made, the base is dark chocolate and though the chocolate tray had room, the inclusions didn’t make it into the corners. So it takes a while of biting to get to the interesting part of the bar.
I broke my bar open and just as I suspected, the contents spilled out. What’s more, I felt like I was missing the actual inclusiveness ... then enrobing didn’t actually cover my center. So I had my filling adjacent to chocolate, but not actually covered.
Aside from the physical mess, I didn’t like the taste. The fillings were dry and even though it was only a week later that I ate it, it was stale. The pretzel pieces weren’t crisp and were really small so had less crunch to them and were more of a grainy texture. The almonds were nice, small pieces but still fresh and crunchy. But what I was really disappointed about was the butter toffee bits. I was hoping for little Heath toffee chips. Instead I got some sort of artificial butter flavored thing that just stunk up the bar.
Though I chose a dark chocolate base, the majority of the chocolate in the bar is still the milk chocolate. It’s rich and sweet, but does have that Hershey’s tang to it. (Some don’t like it, but if you don’t ... why are you at Hershey’s Chocolate World?) The dark chocolate notes came in a bit, especially when I was eating the sides, but really didn’t nothing in the middle.
On the whole, I give myself 5 out of 10. I blame my inexperience and ingredients.
The problem with my fillings is that they’re dry. What I would suggest is either squirting a little chocolate in the base first and then putting the inclusions into it, or putting layers of chocolate into the center between the dispensing of the inclusions. Then do a little jiggling to get it all evened out and get the air out. This solves two problems.
The other thing I might suggest is that the “candy makers” get to try the inclusions first. There should be a little tasting table, maybe after you’ve bought your ticket before you get the “orientation” portion. That way we can really get a sense of what we’re putting in there instead of $15 experiments. The other thing I’d like to see is the ability to go through the process just accompanying someone who bought a ticket. I can see this being a huge expense for a family with many kids. It would be nice if the parents weren’t obligated to also get a ticket and bar.
Chocolate World is fun, and though it’s billed as free, there are some interesting attractions making this a good rainy-day destination for family, friends and couples who live nearby or are traveling through the area.
The stores there carry a huge array of branded merchandise and candy. The candy selection, though there’s a great quantity, isn’t really that diverse. For Hershey’s Dagoba and Scharffen Berger line they carry only three or four items. The prices are about what you’d pay at the drug store or grocery store when the items aren’t on sale, which is too bad. I heard more than one person lamenting that they could do better and not have to haul the stuff home if they just stop by Target or Costco. So I’d suggest focusing on the hats, tee shirts, playing cards, keychains and mugs.
What I would want from a “factory store” is a section where you can get special preview items, items out of season and of course super discounts on factory seconds. Something that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I’d also want better prices, after all, you’re buying direct so if there are no middle men, why are the prices so high? The only item I saw that rose to that level of specialness were green & red Hershey-ets.
Hershey’s Chocolate World
Free parking, free admission. Fees for most special activities. Wheelchair accessible. Their hours vary wildly, so call or check their website. Open every day (except Christmas).
More photos from PennLive of the Create Your Own Chocolate Bar.
Hershey’s Chocolate World gets a 7 out of 10 from me as an adult, I think kids would rank it higher.
My ticket for this experience was comped by Hershey’s. I have not done any of the other classes or movies at Chocolate World, only the free ride and shopped at the stores.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
After my niece’s lacrosse game but before my nephew’s baseball game we headed over to Bevan’s Own Make Candy in Media, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. It’s a cute little shop where nearly everything they sell is made right there in the store. The Bevan’s shop has been there for over 50 years, churning out local favorites and holiday treats. I was interested in the items that they were particularly well known for.
The store looks barely touched by the years. The interior is a simple set of shelves, a quaint window display and a large glass candy case. The gal behind the counter was happy to answer questions and even ended up checking in back for a dark chocolate mix for me.
We picked up three boxes of candy, one to eat with the family and two which I shared and then took the rest home with me. We picked out Milk Chocolate Covered Pretzels (which were gone within 24 hours), Peanut Butter Sticks and Molasses Chips. Each box was between $6.00 and $6.50 and I think had about a half a pound in it.
I love the idea of a Butterfinger, but have been disappointed over the years with the quality of the Nestle product. But stores like Bevan’s almost always have a house made version, Peanut Butter Sticks and they’re far superior. This version is a straw-style peanut butter crunch that’s then covered in a large helping of milk chocolate.
The peanut butter crisp is flaky and melts in the mouth quickly. The peanut butter flavors are strong and it’s not too sweet with just the right, light touch of salt. The milk chocolate is smooth, a little too sweet for me, but the right ratio for this version of the candy. It was hard to keep at least half a box for photographing when I got home.
The other item I love getting, especially from Pennsylvania candy makers, is Molasses Chips. Like the Peanut Butter Sticks, it’s a candy that takes a bit of work and skill to make, even though the recipe is quite simple. The center is just a boiled sugar and molasses mixture that’s pulled and folded to create the unique layered texture. Then it’s cut up and covered in dark chocolate. The bitterness of the mild dark chocolate goes well with the dark, toffee sweetness of the molasses. Crispy, melt in your mouth, definitely a keeper.
If you’re in the area and crave a little home-cooked flavor, it’s a good shop to experience. Around the corner on Edgemont Street is the actual candy kitchen, you can look in through the window and see their equipment and candy making tables.
Bevan’s Own Make Candy
Read more about Bevan’s at the local Media, PA website, Fig Media.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
So I was pretty excited when I heard that Target was going to make some curated shops within Target enlisting the help of Diane and Brian of the Russian Hill store. What I love about the store is that they have such an interesting collection of little tidbits from around the world. Sure, there’s some that’s completely common, but there were things I’d pick up there, especially licorice, that I have a hard time finding elsewhere.
Unlike Target’s house branded line of Choxie items, this is not a permanent addition to Target, when it’s gone, it’s gone.
The store at Target amounts to an endcap near the candy aisle in the food section at Target. The theme colors are black and white with a field of some sort of weird light green that I associate with government buildings, black and white. There aren’t really that many products and only three or four formats. There are lollipops and different candy in jars and then some tins of chocolate confections. The price points vary from $2.49 for the lollipops to $9.99 for the large tins.
The cornerstone, I would say, is the display of lollipops. The packaging is simple but the actual pops are clever and appealing. There are swirl pops and clear pops with little Necco wafers embedded in them.
The largest array of products, though, are the ones in the jars. This is where my disappointment originated. They’re $4.99 for 11 to 14 ounces of bulk candy. The candies themselves are underwhelming and expensive. I appreciated the harder to find items, like the sour sanded jelly stars, the gummi fried eggs and licorice scotty dogs. But $5 for less than a pound of Bit O’ Honey or Necco Wafers? That’s insane, the packaging is nice, but not like the tins for the chocolates. They’re just plastic.
The lollipop is double wrapped, which is a good idea. The outer wrap is loose and is closed with just a little twist tie that holds the bow on. Inside that, the pop itself is shrink wrapped. It was tough to get off, the shrink wrap had a big glob of melted plastic at the stick that took quite a bit of work with some scissors to remove.
The pop is 3.5 inches square and came in a variety of colors/flavors. I chose orange because I thought it would be a good representation of how flavors are handled.
The hard candy part of the lollipop is nicely poured. It’s a little uneven in spots but has only small bubbles in it. The tight shrink wrapping ended up creating creases and lines across the corners and edges of the pop. The Necco dots are lined up in the sort of pattern that might make some think of Lego blocks or perhaps a six sided die.
The flavor of the candy is very simple. It’s orange, just sweet orange. There’s a lot of zest notes in it, but it’s mostly a soft and sugary orange. The Necco wafers are crunchable with the candy, if you’re the type who chews their hard candy. I found the flavors (lemon and lime) of the Necco actually went well (except for pink). But still, it was just a big piece of hard candy on a wooden stick. It’s fun to look at, but really not for eating. The Necco Wafers contain gelatin, so this is not a candy for vegetarians, also contains soy.
I like the idea of a curated set of candy that’s hard to find and well priced. This has some of those elements, but I’m not their actual intended audience. This is for people who don’t realize that there are neighborhood candy shops in so many places where you can find this sort of thing, along with an enthusiastic person behind the register like Diane or Brian. If you’re stuck in big-box store land, this at least has more personality and is a better gift than a peg bag of Scotty Dogs.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
One of the places that sealed the deal to get me to attend was Lubeck, home to Niederegger Marzipan. If there was a candy that I was introduced to through the blog that changed my mind about a long held prejudice, it was Niederegger’s Cappuccino Marzipan bar.
Lubeck is actually home to many marzipan makers. At one time there were dozens, now there are a handful, but enough of them that there is a strict standard they must follow if they wish to be called Lubecker Marzipan. Kind of like sparkling wine can’t be called Champagne unless it’s from Champagne. How Lubeck became a center of marzipan creation when they don’t actually grow the sugar or almonds necessary for its creation is kind of an odd tale.
Lubeck is a Hanseatic City, which means it was a member Dudesche Hanse, an economic alliance of cities and merchant guilds in Northern Europe starting in 1358 until the 1860s when it was one of the last remaining members. As a center of trade Lubeck had access to the almonds and sugar it needed to make marzipan and the shipping routes to export it.
In 1806 Johann Georg Niederegger purchased Maret Confectioner, where the current Niederegger Cafe stands to this day. The company is still family owned, in its seventh generation.
Niederegger is widely regarded as one of the best marzipans from Germany. It’s characterized by its consistent texture and high quality. The marzipan is made in one facility, just outside of town in the traditional style of open copper pots.
The almonds sourced for Niederegger are from Spanish, mostly Marcona almonds though at times they also source from Italy. To start the almonds are cleaned and then blanched and then the fibrous peels are removed. There’s a lot of hand work involved in the entire process, as workers pick over the almonds after the blanching process to keep the quality high.
The almonds are then mixed with sugar and ground and cooked in open copper pots. The staff were hesitant to give us exact times for how long these processes take, but it’s probably more than an hour and less than a day.
The cooking and mixing is carefully supervised by the cooks. The day we were there it was cold and rainy and it’s pretty much assured that the room was probably not heated and it was quite balmy. I can’t imagine what it’s like in there even with air conditioning in the summer. The pots generate quite a bit of steam and moisture.
Once the marzipan is finished multiple pots are dumped into a large one and quickly cooled with dry ice. The last step is the addition of rosewater, which I believe has a touch of alcohol in it. The marzipan is then molded into blocks and sent along to other parts of the factory for different purposes.
Though Valentine’s Day isn’t as big of a deal in Europe as North America, the Niederegger Hearts are extremely popular year round but do show up in American stores for special holidays.
All enrobed chocolates had the Niederegger name embossed on the bottom.
Because the company makes such a huge variety of shapes, sizes, varieties and packaging styles, much of the work is done by humans, who are far more adaptable. This also helps to account for the higher price of Niederegger products.
In addition to the machine made products, some are molded by hand and then hand decorated. Though no photos were provided, we visited one room where they did custom molded pieces, especially for corporate clients as well as favors for weddings that can be personalized for the couple.
Though many of the Niederegger products are expensive when priced out by the pound, there are plenty of items available for less than a buck. They have stick or log versions of their bars which are usually about one Euro and their little loaves are about 35 cents or so. The box above is their Klassiker which featured pistachio, orange, pineapple and espresso. I think this assortment is about 6 Euros. It’s one of the products I see for sale in the United States around Christmas but often for somewhere more in the neighborhood of $9 or $10.
The loaves are enrobed, like the hearts in the factory photos above. I generally prefer enrobed chocolates, I like the way the coating adheres to the fillings better than molded products.
At the end of our tour, the Niederegger folks gave us a sampler tray of their most popular current products. (Later we also went to their cafe and shop where I bought about 40 Euros more of stuff.)
I think the little loaves are my favorite. The chocolate is quite thin and the foil is always cute. They’re barely an inch long, so it’s not even two full bites. Since there’s little chocolate, it’s very much about the marzipan. There’s not as much sugar in the Niederegger marzipan as in some other varieties. Also, it has a more rustic grind to it, it’s not a smooth dough or paste like some. Think of it like peanut butter cookie dough - it holds its shape but has a slight grain. The sugar is completely integrated though. There’s a toasty flavor throughout.
The trick with the little loaves though is that they get dried out quickly. I found that there’s no point in hoarding them, they should be eaten within 3 months if possible, and be sure to keep them in a sealed tin or zippered bag.
The long bars solve that dryness problem with a thicker chocolate coating and a fully sealed plastic wrapper. Those seem to seal the moisture in much better. The Espresso Marzipan is by far my favorite of their standard flavors. So much so that I pick them up whenever I see them at a trade show, gourmet shop or when in Europe.
The marzipan is generally sweet, but the dark toffee flavors of the espresso really balance it out and even give it a little bitter edge that pairs well with some of the bitter note of the almonds.
In that big assortment from the Niederegger folks I got to try something new, their liqueur marzipans:
Rum Truffel - this was the most traditional and perhaps the most boring of the set. The reservoir center had a little slab of rum infused chocolate truffle. It was sweeter than the others, but had a nice little kick to it.
Orangen Liqueur is moister than most of the other Niederegger marzipans I’ve had. It’s hard to tell if there was a liquored up center, which was a little darker than the rest of the marzipan, or that was just where the stuff concentrated itself. The scent has a light touch of orange zest to it. The flavor of the marzipan is delicate, the chocolate creamy and only a very thin shell of it to seal in the marzipan and cut the sweetness. The bite of the liquor isn’t intense or harsh, just a light warming. I liked this one quite a bit, and tasted it compared to the classic Orangen piece as well. The liqueur does add a little more zest and less juice flavor to it, and the alcohol’s ability to make me blush probably gives me the impression that it’s said something flattering.
Armagnac Pflaume - is a plum brandy. The idea didn’t really sound that appealing to me, but I know that I’ve enjoyed many of the things that the Japanese have done with plums and confectionery, so I thought I’d give it a chance. This piece has a little ribbon of plum jam of some sort in the center. The flavor is a little like brandied prunes, tangy and with deep cherry and raisin notes. The alcohol was quite distinctive and hit me high in my chest, between my collar bones.
Williams Christ is a Pear William brandy puree in the center of the marzipan. Though it looked rather like the Armagnac one, it definitely tasted distinctly of pear and a little like ripe bananas.
Eier Liqueur - is made with an egg liqueur. This is one of those drinks that I’ve never actually had except in confections (all German) so it’s hard for me to compare it to anything else. It’s like a creamy vanilla pudding center, with a slight rum buzz to it. I liked it, though the idea of egg cream in a candy is a little strange at first, and then I remember my love of nougat and custards.
One of the newer flavors I was really excited to pick up in Germany was their Niederegger Vodka Fig Marzipan. They’re wrapped in bright purple foil and came in a long package like the sticks, but really just a strip of the loaves.
Again, freshness was the key here. The center had a definite grain alcohol blast to it. The figs were well supported by the delicate flavors of the almond paste and the vodka did a good job of helping disperse that flavor throughout.
On the whole, I’m not sure I needed the vodka, just a fig marzipan would be fine with me. And when I say fine, I mean, I wish there were fig marzipans available easily. I might have to make my own.
The last box I bought was called Niederegger Marzipan Weihnachtskofekt and I think I paid 6 Euros for it. It was a combination of three different winter flavors for Christmas. (Remember, I was there in December.)
The box was very simple, as are most of their packages. It was a paperboard box with a metallic gold plastic tray with little sections for each piece of candy. It protected the pieces extremely well (this was early in my trip and had to go on and off the bus every day for nearly 1,000 kilometers plus the flights home). So the inside did well, but the exterior got quite dinged up.
Since it was a seasonal product it was extremely fresh, the centers were soft and moist.
Arabisch-Mocca - toasty flavors of coffee and a little hint of chocolate in the center. The marzipan has more of a toffee and coffee flavor than anything almond. The dark chocolate shell seals it all up and has a nice bittersweet component that also gives it a creamy start.
Dattel-Honig is the only milk chocolate piece of the set. It smells like ripe bananas. In fact, it tastes like ripe bananas. Like actual fermented bananas, with a light alcoholic and tangy note towards the top. The milk chocolate and the dates keep it all rather sweet. I didn’t catch much on the honey side of things.
Ingwer is one of my favorite bars from Niederegger. The little pattie version is a gem as well. The ginger is soft and glace style, the dark chocolate keeps it all from being to sweet or sticky. There’s less chocolate in this version than the bar, and more of an alcoholic bite as well.
I know I have oodles more photos of the store, the cafe and the products I bought. But it’s more of the same. The ingredients are simple and great and I think Niederegger has very high standards for what they’ll produce. They make some other nougat (gianduia) products which I haven’t sampled extensively. They do great marzipan, one of the other marzipans that I’ve ever tried that I truly love, so I’m always eager to try more of those. I’ve noticed that no matter what kind of store I was shopping in, a department store like Kaufhof or a grocery store like Rewe, the prices were always the same. So no sense in going bargain shopping, the trick for me when traveling was finding a store that carried the size and format of the flavors that I liked.
(Disclosure Note: The trip to Germany was sponsored, so I did not pay for my airfare, ground transportation, accommodations or food while I was there. At the factory tours we were given generous samples to consume on site as well as some to bring home. Any reviews of those products will be noted as to that fact. But I also brought a couple hundred Euros with me and spent them liberally and almost exclusively on candy both from the companies we were introduced to as well as many other Germany/European products that I found in my prowlings of grocery stores, department stores and the factory outlets.)
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
You may notice a lot more about German candies on the blog in the coming weeks. I went there for a week of candy factory tours earlier this month and have lots of fascinating adventures to share. (I’ll try to focus on candies you can either get in the United States or are worth seeking out.)
Ritter-Sport is a large German chocolate brand with a unique selling proposition, its chocolate bars are square. Their standard 100 gram (3.5 ounce) bar comes in 23 varieties with another 3-9 promotional and seasonal variations throughout the year. In the United States there are about six core varieties on shelves, but some stores like Target will sell about eight. Even in Germany, I still only found about 14-16 of the versions at the stores (which included the Bio and Winter Kreation varieties). The best place in Germany to find everything Ritter Sport sells, naturally, is at their factory store.
The Ritter family started making chocolate in 1912, but didn’t introduce the Ritter Sport square bars until 1930. They’re becoming better known around the world as 35% of their total sales (over 20,000 tons of the 60,000 they produce) are now for export. (Russia is their number one customer, then Italy, then the United States.) The quality for a consumer bar (sold for less than one Euro) is excellent and the company prides itself on its innovation, ethical sourcing of their raw materials and quality of their products.
For the past two seasons in the United States I’ve actually been able to find the Ritter Sport Winter Kreations in stores. (Mel and Rose Wine and Liquors and a really good 76 gas station in Glendale on Glendale Blvd & Glen Oaks.) Last year the Winter Kreations limited edition set was Orangen-Marzipan (orange marzipan), Nuss in Nougatcreme (hazelnuts in gianduia) and Vanillekipferl (vanilla cookie cream). This year the Nougatcreme did not return but was replaced by Gebrannte Mandel (burnt sugar almonds).
The Ritter Sport Orangen-Marzipan bar is pretty special. When I got to Germany back in February of this year, this was one of the first bars I sought out and bought. After eating some of it, I bought the little assortment above plus an additional full size bar. Then when I was there earlier this month, I again bought a full size bar, since I think it’s the right proportion of chocolate and marzipan.
The bar is a little different from the classic Ritter Sport Marzipan bar in that it has a milk chocolate shell (sorry, it’s not vegan). It smells like fresh orange juice, almost like an orangesicle, actually, because of the sweet and milky chocolate. The chocolate is quite sweet and so is the marzipan center, but it all works swimmingly together. The orange flavors are both juicy and zesty, without being bitter. The marzipan is moist and sticks together like a cookie dough instead of being dry and crumbly. There’s a light hint of amaretto to it as well.
It’s terribly sweet, which is usually a turn off for me, but I enjoyed the decadent sticky quality, probably because it’s cold out and I usually want more sugar when I’m chilly.
I do wish that it was the dark chocolate shell though, but since this is the only other marzipan bar that they make regularly, I can understand wanting to hit the milk/marzipan market at least seasonally.
I don’t think I would have appreciated this flavor in the same way without my visits to the Christmas Markets in various cities. The Gebrannte Mandel stalls were ubiquitous (photo), sealing this confection as a definite seasonal fixture. It only makes sense that Ritter Sport would create a Winter Kreation that includes some toasted almonds with a caramelized sugar coating.
The base of the Ritter Sport Gebrannte Mandel is milk chocolate. Ritter Sport makes eleven different chocolate bases for its different bars, including several varieties of milk chocolate. This version has a cacao content of 30%, so a richer milk chocolate than most American consumer brands.
The bar is light in color, silky and smells much like the stalls at the Christmas Market, like toasted nuts and sugar. The nuts in this case are crushed (I’m not sure they’d fit well in the bar otherwise and might end up a little too crunchy). It’s sweet and the sugar coating on the nuts gives it more of a grainy crunch, but also adds more toasted flavor. There might be a hint of cinnamon in there as well.
Ritter Sport Vanillekipferl is based on the classic Austrian cookie called the Vanillekipferl or vanilla crescent. They’re rather like a Russian Teacake or shortbread cookie with nutmeal in it. (There are no eggs in the traditional recipe.)
The bar is like many of Ritter Sport’s, a milk chocolate shell with a cream filling. In this case the cream filling was slightly sandy with a very sweet vanilla flavor. I can’t say that I got much of the shortbread or nutty qualities out of it. It was decent, but not really different enough from Ritter Sport’s non-seasonal offerings.
The Ritter Sport Nuss in Nougatcreme was a 2010 flavor and was nicely done. It was a milk chocolate bar with a milky hazelnut paste center with a bit of a crunchy, crushed nuts. I didn’t think much of it one way or the other. Again, like the Vanillekipferl, it wasn’t that different from the regular nougatcreme bar.
All of the above bars, oddly enough, I bought at the grocery stores (Rewe and Aldi for the bars in February and Kaufhof for the most recent marzipan and candied almonds). Our tour group visited the Ritter Sport factory campus on our last full day in Germany on our way to Stuttgart. The factory is in the small town of Waldenbuch, which has less than 10,000. But it’s about a half an hour outside of Stuttgart (which has about 600,000 people and over 5 million in the metro area) which is the center of Germany’s auto industry.
The Ritter family created a museum on the factory campus. Not just a chocolate museum that shows how cocoa is grown, harvested and processed into chocolate, there’s actually an art museum there. The building houses four areas: an interactive chocolate museum (upstairs to the right), a cafe (in the back left), a factory store for chocolate (on the lower right) and the front half to the left is the art museum.
The exhibit while I was there fits well with the aesthetic of the square chocolate bars. They were selections from the Marli Hoppe-Ritter Collection in a variety of media. Most were paintings but a few sculptures as well.
All of the pieces had geometric elements and either bold use of color (in primary and secondary palettes) and rarely representational.
The space isn’t large, but is well laid out in four areas with tall ceilings and awash in light.
The Ritter Sport Factory Store is exactly what I want from a factory store. First, the prices are excellent. They are below the standard price for the bars (except for what you may find on sale) and they carry everything. There were no varieties or shapes that they make that I could not find on the shelves. The standard price for all 100 gram bars was .69 Euro (about 90 cents US). They were all fresh and in pristine condition and a pleasure to browse.
In the back corner was the spot that I love factory stores for. It was where the seconds and over-runs were for sale. If I lived in the area, I’d be sure to visit often to see what turned up. There were plenty of bulk items, such as the Schokowurfel in bags. Far off there in the corner were piles on the shelves of plain white wrapped bars. They were test bars of new flavors, so I picked up a few of those for later investigation and indulgence. They were only a half a Euro each.
The branded merchandise was nice. I liked the continuity of the themes, the colors and use of either the cross sections of the bars or the square shapes. However, the prices on these items were definitely premium retail. A little back backpack was 85 Euro. There were also large tins with the chocolate cross-section design - quite large and useful for only 7.50 Euro, but that largeness thing would have been an issue for getting them home. (But what a great gift idea to buy one of those tins, then one of the bulk bags of the minis and fill it up- the whole gag would be less than 20 Euro.) I picked up the coffee mug for my husband and filled it with minis for Christmas.
So, if you’re in Stuttgart and tired of looking around at the cars or just swinging through the area, it’s a worthy diversion to Waldenbuch. There’s also a Ritter Sport shop in Berlin (which I doubt carries the factory over-runs) that has its own merits for it’s interior design.
Maybe you’ll also catch sight of their company cars in the area: these were parked in front of one of the factory buildings. When we first arrived in our tour bus, there was a third. It was canary and said Knusperflakes on it.
Full Disclosure: My trip to Germany was sponsored by German Sweets, a government funded trade organization. While this provided me with excellent access to people in positions at the candy companies, in this case all of the products featured here were bought and paid for by me. Of course being at the factory store with its excellent prices which were a fraction of what I pay for the products in the United States probably prompted me to buy things I might not ordinarily. The Ritter Sport factory was not actually on the tour set up by German Sweets (though they’re members), but since it only took our tour bus 15 km out of our way on the last day of our travels, they agreed to stop at my request.
Friday, December 2, 2011
Did you notice the theme this week was all Trader Joe’s candy for the holidays? Here’s a roundup of what’s at Trader Joe’s this season.New for 2011
Trader Joe’s Classic Holiday Candy Mix - classic hard candy straws & pillows made with all natural ingredients. $1.99 (read review - 7 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Eggnog Almonds - $3.99 (read review - 9 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Minty Melts - it’s peppermint bark for people who don’t like the crushed candy canes in it - $4.99 (read review - 7 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Mosaic of Chocolates - squares of different kinds of bar - $3.99
Trader Joe’s English Toffee with Nuts (Tall Can) $7.99 (previously in a box like this? It’d call it a step above Almond Roca)
Trader Joe’s Chocolate Liqueur Cherries - the name says it all - $4.99
Trader Joe’s Candy Cane Coal - dark chocolate covered candy cane bits - $1.99
Trader Joe’s Merry Mingle - caramel with pecans and cranberries dipped in dark chocolate -$7.99 (read review - 8 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Peanut Brittle - $2.99 - I haven’t tried this yet, mostly because Los Angeles tends to be very humid in the winter and brittles just don’t do well when they get sticky.
Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Minty Mallows $2.99 (2010 review - they’re quite moist and dense 7 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Chocolate Palette (a beautiful stack of single origin bars - they’re only okay, but a beautiful introduction to the idea of single origin at an excellent price) $9.99
Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate After Dinner Mint Thins $2.99 (made in England)
Trader Joe’s Brandy Beans - these have been coming back on and off for years, they tend to sell out really early - $2.99
Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels $4.99 (2007 review - more of a flowing caramel than the chewy style of the Fleur de Sel - 6 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Cocoa Truffles - inexcusable fat bombs - (Imported from France) $2.99 (see my review - I gave them a 3 out of 10, though I think the ingredients have changed a little bit, they’re still quite thin tasting yet stupidly fatty)
Trader Joe’s 9 Rabitos Royale $6.99 (2010 review - quite decadent and elegant but doesn’t use all real chocolate - 7 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Assorted Chocolates - I have no idea about these, the boxed items from Trader Joe’s are hit or miss with me, at this price I might stick to See’s - $9.99
Trader Joe’s Fleur de Sel Caramels (wood box) $6.99 (2006 review, still the same packaging. Classic, nicely done but a little pricey for boiled sugar. 7 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Old Fashioned Sweet Sticks - barber pole candy sticks in classic and new-agey flavors - $2.99
Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate & Dark Chocolate Oranges $2.49 (Reviewed in 2009 as Florida Tropic Oranges. Good quality & price plus always charming package and dark is vegan 7 out of 10 & 8 out of 10)
Trader Joe’s Chocolate Rings with Sprinkle - they’re just little disks of dark chocolate with sprinkles, like giant SnoCaps - $1.99
Also returning are the chocolate covered Peppermint JoJos and a variety box of other chocolate covered flavors. Though I reviewed the JoeJoe’s before, I can’t really call them candy.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.