Friday, December 14, 2007
I’m not sure what the precise name of this item is, as there are lotsa different things on the package, different sizes, different fonts. I’m going to go with Trader Joe’s Peppermint Bark White Chocolate Bar. The description clears this up, “White chocolate covers a bar of dark chocolate & peppermint bits.”
Though the bar looks kind of like some sort of yogurt-covered meal replacement bar, it’s actually high-density candy. It’s pretty hefty at 2.25 ounces. It’s all-natural, with the pink coloring coming from beet juice. The white chocolate is real, with the first ingredients being sugar and cocoa butter. So be prepared, this is a fatty, fatty bar. The recommended dosage for some reason is 2/3 of the bar which clocks in with 36% of your daily RDA of saturated fats (though none of them trans).
But it’s the holidays!
The core of the bar is a solid plank of semi-sweet chocolate with a light peppermint essence in it. Then it’s coated in a generous layer of white chocolate studded with crushed peppermint candies.
If you’re a fan of peppermint bark, this is a good, portable option. High quality ingredients. Nice packaging (the bar is sealed in plastic/foil wrapper inside) and a decent price at $1.49 (this works out to about $10.50 a pound). I wanted more texture difference, more crunch, maybe not quite such a thick chunk.
It’s a good stocking stuffer or just a little treat for yourself when you don’t want to buy a huge tin of peppermint bark.
The box heralds that there are “Six Stylish Varieties” and that they’re “Imported from Belgium.” While I like my chocolates to be attractive (and perhaps even stylish), I’m much more interested in them tasting good. The back of the little sleeve goes on to say, “Our hand-decorated chocolates are crafted by a European chocolatier who was among the first to create designs directly on the chocolate’s surface. Our collection contains six distinctive styles with exotic fillings such as Grand Arabica and Cardamom & Orange.”
Like most of the other chocolates at Trader Joe’s, these are nestled in a plastic tray with no fluted cups for the candies. While the tray does a great job of protecting each piece, it does make it a little harder to just pluck the pieces out and put them on a plate for serving. I guess we’re supposed to bring the whole box to the table or something.
The inside of the lid provides the key for the chocolates. The varieties include: Cardamom & Orange, English Toffee, Winter Spice, Grand Arabica, Yucatan and Double Hazelnut. While half of them feature a dark chocolate coating, all have a milk chocolate center of some sort. This was not communicated on the exterior of the package, so I was a bit disappointed. However, the pieces are a generous “two bite” size. Not too big so that you can’t have a nice variety to taste and not too small that you don’t get a good burst of the flavors.
I’ve always preferred enrobed or dipped chocolates to molded ones, so these win on that mark. The flavors aren’t as adventurous as some others that look similar and they’re not really that distinctively different from each other. I’d love to have some darker experiences (or at least know that it wasn’t to be).
The packaging is by far the most appealing at Trader Joe’s as well. Just slip off the little sleeve and it’s a sassy looking presentation box. As far as value goes, at $6 for 7 ounces ($13.59 per pound), this is nice stuff with real ingredients. If you know you’re never going to be able to afford the stuff at thrice the price (well, more but saying quintuple doesn’t rhyme) such as MarieBelle, Recchiuti or Richart, this is fun “pretend” chocolates to simply enjoy but not necessarily savor. They definitely come in on the winner side of hostess gifts.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
As disappointed as I was that the Peppermint Peep Stars had artificial sweeteners, I was just as excited to see that Trader Joe’s has Peppermint Marshmallows that are not only all natural, but also Kosher! (Which basically means that they’re using Kosher gelatin, which is non-porcine.)
However, Nicole at Baking Bites already had a review of them, which didn’t say they were bad, just that she wasn’t thrilled with the flavor. I still really wanted to try them, especially because it was Hanukkah.
The large marshmallow cubes come in a little tub and weigh a hefty 7 ounces. The packaging was a bit, well, feminine with all its pink and green-ness. But it was refreshingly un-holiday, which might mean that they’d be an all-year product. When they say that they’re all natural, they’re not kidding. The pink swirls are created with red radish juice.
They’re only vaguely pink with some little streaks of darker pink inside some of them. They were very hard to get out of the tub. The first one I mangled (but put back together for the photo) so I just dumped the whole tub out and lightly teased them apart. (Perhaps some waxed paper between them in the future?)
They felt very strange and fleshy in the hand. A little bouncy, a little latexy and not terribly light for a marshmallow. The outer texture was a little grainy, I’m guessing where the moisture of the marshmallow mixed with the sugar and dusting of corn starch. They smell like peppermint, but on the medicinal side somehow. Like toothpaste. And maybe mentholated rubbing alcohol.
The first time I bit into one I was puzzled and repulsed. I made my husband and a neighbor try it. They were both, well, not thrilled (and I had to give them something nice to eat after that). I waited a couple of days and dug around into the bottom of the tub to see if that was just a bad couple of squares.
It’s like eating toothpaste. They’re kind of fluffy, but not light. The texture is grainy, like a sugar paste. I can only imagine this is a bad batch because Nicole’s looked more like marshmallows and less like wads of chewed bread dough.
I went back and looked at Nicole’s photo and realized that this must be a bad batch. My best indication for this is that the tub weighed over 10 ounces (the marked weight is 7). So I went back to the store on Hyperion in Silverlake. All of the others on the shelf looked the same and were the same lot number, so I passed (and obviously picked up a bunch of other goodies you’ve been reading about this week). I also told the manager on duty that there was something wrong with them. I figured another store would have a different batch. So today I went off on my lunch break to the location on Third and La Brea. Sadly I didn’t memorize the lot number and ended up buying the same lot (1101071730 exp 01/26/2008) and finding the same grainy consistency (and this package weighed 9.8 ounces according to my postage scale).
I shouldn’t have to work this hard. (I haven’t decided if I’m going to take these back. At $4, I want something that’s at least the intended quality, even if I don’t like it.)
As far as buying artisan marshmallows, I’d say stick with either one of the actual artisan companies (Plush Puffs, Little Flower Candy Company & Boule are some good Los Angeles-based ones) or go for the French ones from Arnaud Soubeyran or the Williams Sonoma house brand (I tried them last year but never got around to reviewing them, they’re very dense and latexy but really satisfying). Or just get some Jet Puffed. It’s sad, because these are the first Kosher marshmallows I’ve found.
Last year Trader Joe’s had a standout product called Fleur de Sel Caramels (they’re back for 2007 as well). Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels seem to be capitalizing on the trend of the salted caramel and throwing in dark chocolate for kicks.
It’s obviously a seasonal item as well, with little string/line drawings of pine trees and the green theme. The package says, “buttery smooth caramels drenched in Belgian chocolate then sprinkled with crunchy rock salt from the Dead Sea.” Wow, Belgium ... the Dead Sea ... and they’re made in Ireland. I feel so worldly.
This is one of those instances where the product looks pretty much like the photo on the package, so no disappointment there. Although out of the box they had a little dusting of microfine salt dust. (A little paintbrush took care of that for the photoshoot.) They smell nice, like chocolate and a little hint of butter.
The box has a plastic tray with a dozen little chocolate covered caramels. They fit snugly, so there were no problems with dented or broken pieces, though there were a few salt chunks rattling around.
Biting into them they have a light flowing caramel filling. It’s not glossy smooth like advertised though. There’s a very slight grain to it, but it’s completely consistent. (I wonder if this is because the boxes are displayed above the frozen food and the package specifically says “do not refrigerate”.)
There’s something a little off about the buttery-ness of them though. It’s too buttery. In fact, it’s butter flavored. Looking at the ingredients I found that way down at the end was something called “natural butter toffee flavoring”. It’s not that there isn’t butter in there. There’s lots of butter fat and milk and sweetened condensed milk. But for some reason they felt the need to give it that extra little push. It’s still all natural, but unnecessary. The crunchy bits of salt were a nice touch, not too much and a good texture complement.
Personally, I prefer the thicker, chewier texture of caramel that also has more complex burnt sugar flavors. (Remember the recent poll?) I think I’d like those other Fleur de Sel Caramels covered in chocolate. They were gorgeous.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Trader Joe’s always has an interesting assortment of candies and sweet goodies around the holidays. But without brand names (and previous years) to guide you, how do you know what’s good ... or even what’s inside the box? I’ll devote the rest of the week to the Trader Joe’s hostess gifts.
First up is Trader Joe’s Fair Trade Chocolate Truffles because nothing says thank you for having me in your home than not oppressing people six thousand miles away. It frees you up to drink in celebration instead of out of guilt!
This box is certified by Equi-Trade as commerce equitable! The box looks kind of like a take out container, with pretty amber and brown African designs. Inside are two layers. There are 14 truffles in five flavors (Spicy Hot Chocolate gets shorted with only two of those, three of each of the others).
Double Dark - these were quite nice looking. The 70% dark chocolate coating is a little on the acidic and “high note” side, but is buttery smooth and on its own has a slightly dry finish. The ganache center is melty-smooth. It’s firm when bitten in half, but melts quickly. It has similar flavors as the shell, giving the whole truffle a consistent flavor, with the only difference in the textures.
Field Raspberry - this one was easy to pick out from the rest, the dark chocolate shell had little raspberry bumps on the top. I was kind of surprised at the pink color of the filling. It’s a light ganache, not quite white chocolate. Sweet, tangy and very much an authentic raspberry flavor. It overpowered the dark chocolate, but there were other, more chocolatey experiences in the box.
Cappuccino - has a milk chocolate shell with a little cap of white chocolate. It’s sweet and has a nice creamy milk chocolate ganache center. It’s more firm than the raspberry one. The coffee notes are a little, well, coffee-ish instead of true rounded coffee. But then again cappuccino is often as much about hot milk as it is about espresso. This has nice milky flavors in it as well.
Spicy Hot Chocolate - it’s a very pretty truffle. A glossy dark chocolate shell and a spiced dark chocolate center. However, the spices gave this more of a woodsy flavor reminiscent of cupboards and cardboard than warm chili. It was smooth, but I was glad when I got rid of these two and they stopped infecting the others with that kind-of-sour spicy note.
Creamy Milk - the milk chocolate shell has a strong dairy component reminiscent of fine Swiss chocolate. It’s a creamy smooth shell with an achingly silky ganache center. There’s not a hint of grain in here, though it is a bit sweet it never becomes sticky or cloying.
As a gift, the packaging is okay, it does communicate the fair trade aspects, which I’m guessing is one of its biggest selling points. It’s nice and compact, but not as easy to just open it up and dig in because it’s double-deckered (and the plain truffles are on the bottom, not all mixed up). The cream “label sleeve” in the center of the box slides off and then it actually looks much better (that’s where all the nutrition facts are). As far as price goes, $7 for six ounces of fair trade chocolate with all-natural ingredients is pretty freak-tacularly good. They’re not the best truffles I’ve had, but for the price (less than $20 a pound) they’re certainly an incredible value and should get you kudos when given as a gift or served to guests.
These were made in Canada. (I suspect that they’re made by Terra Nostra, seeing how there aren’t that many Equi-Trade chocolate companies in Canada.)
Sometimes I want a little more information on the package. I saw these at Trader Joe’s last Friday and I was intrigued. Trader Joe’s English Soft Peppermints. I liked everything I saw. Peppermint, good! English, yes, they know good candy. Soft, why yes, I like soft things. Even the blue tin was compelling. But what were they?
The back of the package didn’t tell me much more except that they were actually a product of The Netherlands (and not English as the name may have led me to believe). The ingredients were pretty simple: Sugar, Cream of Tartar and Natural Peppermint Oil.
What what manner of soft mint were they?
Open the package and it’s clear. They’re pillow mints. Lovely, king sized pillow mints (not those domestic throw pillow mints you get at the drug store!).
They smell of sweet peppermint and at first as light and cool on the tongue. Then the blistering peppermint kicks in. It’s like the word “English” is code for"Altoid” or something.
I enjoy pillow mints and their Butter Mint brethren, but the intensity of these doesn’t make for popping them one after the other very pleasant. Perhaps that’s a good thing, I could learn a little self control through negative feedback behavior modification. With fresh breath as a side effect whether I’ve learned anything or not.
As a breath mint, these are fine and dandy. As a candy, they’re not quite munchable.
Monday, July 9, 2007
It’s been well over a year since I had my first Pocket Coffee. They’re not easy to find in the United States, so I’ve been looking for an adequate locally-found replacement. I tried the Anthon Berg Coffee filled chocolates as well, but I haven’t been able to find just the espresso ones (the other flavors are a little too sweet for what I’m looking for in this case).
So I was quite excited when I saw these at Trader Joe’s, Espresso Chocolates. The package says that they’re “Rich, Dark Chocolate filled with Liquid Espresso Coffee.” Exactly what I’ve been looking for.
The package holds 3.88 ounces, and by my count, that’s 11 or 12 individual pieces (I can’t remember how many I ate ... except for “all of them.”)
The pieces are about the same size and shape of Pocket Coffee (or Mon Cheri) with a pleasant little wood grain on the top. Like it’s a log filled with espresso ... you know, the kind that you find in the Black Coffee Forest.
The chocolates are gorgeous and all were prefectly formed with no cracks or bleeds. Unlike the Pocket Coffee, these have no internal sugar shell (though they might form one eventually ... see above where I admit that I’ve already eaten them all and can’t experiment). The ingredient are: Cocoa Mass, Wheat Syrup, Sugar, Lactose, Cocoa Butter, Espresso Coffee, Soy Lecithin. Now, I suspect that the Wheat Syrup and Espresso Coffee are the syrupy filling (as I can’t imagine Wheat Syrup integrating well with chocolate and the Espresso filling is definitely sweet).
The filling is thicker than espresso, it’s woodsy and tangy and has a good coffee flavor but also some other notes rather like molasses or barley. The chocolate shell is sweet and tasty.
I’m not quite sure who makes these for Trader Joe’s, but the box says that they’re made in Germany, so I don’t think they’re made by Ferrero (the ingredients aren’t quite the same either). The package is very kind to list the caffeine content: 22 mg for a serving of 4 pieces. Compare that to a small cup (6 ounces) of brewed coffee which has 100 mgs. Sleep easy and have one in the evening!
Notes from the box:
While it recommends one bite, I like biting off one end and holding it upright, drinking the syrup center, then eating the chocolate. Melting them in your mouth is a completely different experience, because it reverses things and you get your chocolate first and an espresso chaser.
Friday, December 29, 2006
Here’s another trend among cooks that’s filtered into the candy world: artisan salt. The most common place to find this in confections is in caramels. Sometimes it’s grains of sea salt sprinkled on top, sometimes it’s just a saltier caramel. It’s not like caramels didn’t always have salt in them. When I make my own caramels I usually use both salted butter and a pinch of salt because I think it brings out the caramelized flavors better.
But of course the gourmets weren’t satisfied with plain old table salt or the more upscale Kosher flake salt, now they insist on curiously-colored and super-expensive sea salt crystals from Hawaii, France or New Zealand. They like to remind us of the grand history of salt and how our word for salary comes from the same root and why that means we should pay oodles of money for dried sea water. Frankly, it all looks like the stuff that we used to throw on the sidewalk when it got icy.
All that said, I welcome the new attention to salt as a way to bring out natural flavors. And I welcome Trader Joe’s foray into the salted caramel market because it’s actually affordable. The Shaker-style box that they come in is cute. Inside the box are two plastic bags with 7 ounces of caramels each. Not really as pretty on the inside as I might have hoped for $6.99 a box (maybe a little wood shavings or excelsior?).
The caramels are beautiful. Luminous and even looking, they’re smell like butter and burnt sugar. They’re individually wrapped in neatly folded clear cellophane. They’re sizeable morsels as well, each is two bites in my estimation. They’re firm to the touch but easy to bite apart.
While some salted caramels have grains of salt sprinkled on top, these are completely incorporated (like the Charles Chocolates and unlike the Fran’s) The salt is very apparent on the tongue but the smooth chew and the buttery mouthfeel come through loud and clear.
I liked them. I’m not sure I really want to eat all 14 ounces of them (that’s what’s good about the two packets in there instead of a large single one), so I might come up with some interesting things to do with them, like making a hard sauce for bread pudding.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.