Wednesday, December 6, 2006
On my last San Francisco visit, after the night of the chocolate induced coma, I went to visit a chocolate factory. Unlike the Scharffen Berger factory that I saw last year around this time, I went to a place where they make more than just bars. Charles Chocolates in Emeryville makes heavenly concoctions under the direction of Chuck Seigel composed of fine chocolate, premium nuts (roasted on the premises), fresh fruits, teas and of course lots and lots of sugar & butter.
What sets Chuck apart from some other chocolatiers I’ve met is his lack of pretension (he admits not only to eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers, but he likes them!) but also his conviction to make candies to his standards and no one else’s. By example, we were talking about the new craze for salted caramels. He makes his own (chocolate and plain - review below) but doesn’t bother with the little salt crystals on top because he thinks that the texture gets in the way of the pure caramel and salt experience. He also makes his own marzipan from scratch and infuses it with citrus. I watched as they made a batch of lemon marzipan, and if I ever said here that I didn’t like marzipan, it was because I hadn’t tried Chuck’s. It’s sweet, mellow, nutty and zesty without that bitter medicinal taste of amaretto that so many others have.
Chuck is known for his nuts, which are roasted a little darker than others, he says to bring out more of their intrinsic flavors. I’m actually a big fan of raw nuts, so I was worried that these would be burnt and acrid tasting.
My problem with roasted nuts up until Charles Chocolates has obviously been quality control. His Triple Chocolate Almonds were divine. Instead of being just dark or milk chocolate, it’s both. There’s a rich milk chocolate layer and a dark chocolate layer (or maybe two, who knows, I couldn’t be bothered with dissecting them) and then they’re rolled in cocoa.
The little tin they come in is pretty fun too. They’re sealed in not only with a plastic wrap around the whole cylinder, but there’s also a little plastic cap inside the metal one. Air is the enemy of nuts, so Chuck has done his utmost to keep rancidity at bay. Not that I had them long enough. Of the haul that I left the factory with, this was gone within the first week ... and I only begrudgingly shared.
One of the other items sold in a tall clear tube are one of Charles Chocolates signature items, the Orange Twigs. It’s a milk chocolate ganache infused with orange and then dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in confectioner’s sugar. They look a bit like little twigs, I guess.
I wasn’t that keen on them. They were sweet and yes, the orange flavor came through, but I didn’t get a lot of chocolate to the whole thing.
If you’re curious about the box shown above, yes, that’s made entirely of chocolate. The bottom is made from fine dark chocolate and the lid of white chocolate. Inside were two layers of salted caramels. The caramels are small and soft, then covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate and decorated with a lightly embossed design.
The soft chew of the caramels was definitely buttery and creamy, but also had a slight grain to it. The salt hit was mild and pleasant and set off the chocolate well. But I didn’t care that much for it. Though the flavor was there, something a little off to the texture. It was like the whole thing wasn’t properly emulsified.
The chocolate caramel was interesting, but an intense buttery mouthfeel and a dark smoky taste to it. It also had less chew to it than the salted caramel and while I enjoyed the flavor, the texture just wasn’t for me.
The chocolate box itself was very good. I was afraid it was going to to suffer from being “functional first” but the chocolate was so good that over Thanksgiving the family busted up the box pretty quickly while there were still caramels inside. (Yes, I was sharing!) The white chocolate top wasn’t quite as notably tasty, I’m not sure why, but it tasted a little musty. White chocolate is tricky stuff, because the cocoa butter will absorb nearby scents and odors. I transported and stored the chocolate box in a cooler that also had some coffee infused bars, and I think there might have been some “contamination” there.
Other items that I tried and can heartily recommend are the Pate de Fruit (both fruit and wine flavors, so true to life), The Tea Collection (flavors that complement and rival the chocolate without overpowering it) and of course the boxed chocolates (many of which I sampled at CocoaBella - post #1 & post #2).
Charles Chocolates aren’t cheap at $54 per pound, but comparable with other high end chocolatiers. Some chocolatiers (like Recchiuti, another Bay Area chocolatier) are very focused on spices or fruits, Charles Chocolates seems to do a great job at raising mundane and common ingredients to gourmet levels, giving the ordinary like almonds luxury treatments.
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
I’ve always turned up my nose at Palmer chocolates. I’ve had their mockolate bunnies at Easter before, and in my candy-deprived-state of childhood I would eat them. But I never really liked them. So as an adult with the financial means to make other choices, I have avoided them.
But taking a risk this season was a little easier, as I found that Walgreen’s carries these little single-serving bags (two ounces) of the foil covered Premium Milk Chocolate Balls. It said premium, maybe they were good!
The ingredients looked promising:
Real vanilla, they took this premium thing seriously.
Palmer’s have always looked pretty, so I wasn’t disappointed with the merry red and green foil decorated with holly leaves in a band of gold around the middle. Inside the foil they weren’t terribly attractive though, looking more like a wad of putty.
They smelled sweet and slightly milky. I didn’t detect any real vanilla complexity though. I popped one in my mouth and immediately got a hit of sugar. As the grainy chocolate melted it was very sweet with a vague dairy taste and pleasant vanilla aroma. But very little chocolate. Though it melted, it felt a bit chalky and waxy instead of smooth and buttery. The texture is cool on the tongue and I don’t actually mind a bit of sugary grain to my chocolate, but without much of a chocolate flavor I was underwhelmed.
They’re pretty, I’ll give them that.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
I reviewed the Payday covered in real milk chocolate earlier this year. That was a limited edition item and was quickly replaced with this permanent offering called the Chocolatey Avalanche bar. Cuz you know, given a choice, no one wants real chocolate. They want chocolate-like products!
The Payday Chocolatey Avalanche is pretty good. It does have real chocolate in there, it’s just mixed with some other tropical oils (and that wonderful, ubiquitous PGPR that’s all the rage right now) so it no longer qualifies as chocolate . Under the mockolate, the peanuts have a good salty hit to them that balances out the sweet and soft nougat and the slight chew from the caramel. The bar tasted slightly of cinnamon, but perhaps it was stored somewhere close to a case of Atomic Fireballs.
The best thing about this bar was that it was fresh. Every last nut on there was crunchy and tasty.
The limited edition offering at the moment, however, is called Peanut Butter flavor Avalanche which also has no chocolate. It’s a peanut butter core, covered in caramel and rolled in peanuts then dipped in a peanut butter coating.
I’ve eaten two of these so far. The first one I wolfed down the night before my CNBC appearance because I wanted to prep myself properly. The bar was dry and though filling, it stuck in my tummy like a rock. The second one I ate (pictured above) was a bit more pleasant. I’m glad I gave it another try. Still, the crumbliness of the nougat center was just too much when combined with the lack-luster peanut coating. If I were a milk drinker that would have been the perfect accompaniment. But candy shouldn’t need to be consumed with a beverage in order to work.
I’m reverting to the regular old Payday. It never lets me down.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
There I was last spring, talking up the Easter-only Cadbury Mini Eggs. But it turns out they do have a Christmas version of them.
Irritatingly enough they couldn’t be bothered to name them. The package says Cadbury Solid Milk Chocolates with a Crisp Sugar Shell. What the? You call that a name? How about Christmas Cadberries?
I was hoping they’d be just like the Mini Eggs. I opened the package and they smelled similarly inviting, like sugar and cocoa. But the colors, oh, they colors are just off. I don’t know if the photo above conveys it. They look like pencil erasers. Kind of chalky, not quite pastel, not quite vivid. Inconsistent, bumpy and just weird.
On the tongue they’re familiar. Soft and slightly cool, the shell is crisp and crunchy. The milk chocolate inside is a little tangier than the last time I had these. I was terribly disappointed to see that they have PGPR in them as well (which was pointed out by a reader, Jenn, who commented on the Mini Eggs review and prompted me to search for these).
It’s odd how quickly my feelings can change, I have a hard time believing this is a bad bag. It might be the different colors or the PGPR (that could be in the Easter version for all I know) but they’re just not the same. I can’t give these more than a 6 out of 10 (the taste is okay but they sure don’t look tempting).
Monday, November 27, 2006
I went looking for Christmas candy of all sorts last week during the holiday break. I seem to have the best luck at Walgreen’s since they have dependable sales and a clean store (I also went to Target, but everything came in super-jumbo bags). As I expected Russell Stover’s has their assortment of single-serving goodies that are similar to the Easter and Halloween ones. I did, however, find one that I’d not seen before, the Russell Stover Coconut Wreath
They were on sale for 50 cents, so I could hardly pass it up. I’m a sucker for coconut haystacks which is what I expected this to be.
I wasn’t disappointed either. The plop of coconut and milk chocolate was shiny and smelled of coconut. The coconut was crunchy and well-toasted, giving it a much more chewy texture than something like a Mounds bar. The coconut bits were rather small, like little flecks instead of being little curls like you’d find in a bag of coconut shreds in the baking aisle.
It wasn’t too sweet at all, just a nice mellow mix with an interesting texture.
If I was disappointed it was at the shape. I expected something that looked like a donut, instead it’s just a plop. What’s like a wreath about this? Or was mine malformed and had a filled center?
I have to say that I’m pleased that Candy Blog has prompted me to give the Russell Stover holiday lines a chance. Their quality is excellent (no PGPR in the chocolate) and when on sale they’re about the same price as any consumer candy bar and usually feature less common flavor combinations.
Other Russell Stover holiday candy reviews:
Saturday, November 25, 2006
People complain that Christmas comes earlier and earlier each year in the retail world. The decorations are out before Halloween in some stores. It’s kind of funny, I was watching the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special and he was complaining about the same thing ... which leads me to believe that it’s been going on for a very long time. The funny part of that is that in some factories, it’s always Christmas.
Candy Canes are big business, especially for Spangler, which has two factories. Their primary facility is in Bryan, Ohio but they have another factory in Juarez, Mexico as well. The Bryan factory has been operating in three shifts since May just to keep up with demand, churning out 18 tractor trailer loads each day. (Their website says they make 25 million candy canes each year.)
Spangler makes more than just the plain old six inch shrink wrapped cane. They have a huge selection of different shapes and sizes, in more than the traditional red & white peppermint flavor. They make the candy canes for Jelly Belly, Disney and DumDum in all sorts of kooky flavors. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and got a hold of a pretty good cross section of their offerings.
Spangler always packages their canes well, so I rarely get a broken set. The flavor is a mild and pleasant peppermint. Not blastingly strong like an Altoid, more like a starlight mint, but less “foamy” feeling on the tongue.
Right now I’m pretty keen on the Candy Cane Wreaths. They’re a hoop of candy cane (but not joined at the top) around 4” across that have a gift tag already on them, in case you want to use them for decorating packages or gift bags. They’re easy to put on a Christmas tree, and I’m thinking about using them as napkin rings for the dinner table this year.
What’s especially cool about them is that all pieces are curved. I love the curve of a candy cane, how I can break off that piece and place it behind my front teeth and suck on it. Well, this is all curve!
I think if I my favorite size though is the tiny one. I know they aren’t wrapped quite as pretty (they’re in a cello pouch that doesn’t allow for hooking the cane on anything) but they’re easy to eat. I just snap it in half at the middle of the straight part of the cane and put the whole thing in my mouth. No muss, no fuss.
The last kind they make is the super-large pole.
I remember getting one of these when I was a little kid. I went with some neighbors to a parade where Santa rode in a red fire truck and gave these out. As a kid it was a huge amount of candy. A stupid, messy amount of candy. After a while it got very sticky and may have had cat hair on it or lint. So I would keep rinsing it off in the sink, and it would get clean, of course, but smaller and smaller. I seriously doubt I finished it.
As part of my new recipes starting in the New Year, I’ll have some fun tips for what to do with leftover candy canes.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Premium Organic : Smooth Organic Dark Chocolate with Cherry (70% cocoa). Yes, it’s dark. The bar is gorgeously glossy and smells of tart fruit, smoke and coffee. For such a dark bar, it is sweet. It has a nice melt, but a slight chalky feel on the tongue. The black cherry comes across with all the floral fragrance, but without much of the tartness that characterizes the dried fruits.
Though I’ve professed that I don’t like cherry flavor, I have no problem with actual cherries, so this was an agreeable bar.
This bar is organic and fair trade.
Dark Chocolate with Raspberries (70%). This bar has an equally smoky taste to it, dark and floral with some woodsy notes. It’s not as sweet as the cherry bar, but has the same sort of grain on the tongue towards the end of the melt. There are real bits of raspberries in there (including the seed) which give a little tangy zap every once in a while. The infusion of raspberry flavor wasn’t really there, but the scent lingered over the whole bar. This went really well with coffee or a savory snack like salted almonds or pretzels.
This bar is ethically traded.
I went to Target last night and noticed a nice selection of the Premium Organic line right at the check out stand candy rack. So this brand is getting much easier to find. Have you spotted it anyplace other than the Whole-Foods-style markets?
Sunday, November 19, 2006
There once was a fantastic chocolate bar that surpassed KitKat in crispiness, that exuded such a creamy sweet experience that Hershey promptly mucked around with the formula and then discontinued the bar.
I’m talking about the Bar None.
It was a cocoa wafer, chocolate filling, peanuts and a milk chocolate coating and was introduced nationally in 1987. It was a wide bar, about the size of the current Whatchamacallit bar. The series of light chocolate wafers were filled with chocolate cream, covered with a light coating of crushed peanuts and then a coating of darker than normal milk chocolate.
I was irritated at the time that Hershey had just mucked up the Whatchamacallit bar by adding lame caramel to it. I’m faithful to bars that are faithful to me.
With Bar None I was immediately smitten. I would buy them at the convenience store just over the bridge from campus where I was going to college. I would buy them in vending machines, I would buy them in the six pack at the grocery store. I would buy them whenever I could. If there was a reason that they didn’t succeed, it couldn’t be attributed to my lack of evangelical devotion.
Later in 1993 Hershey’s reformulated the bar and added caramel but also divided them into two bars (kind of like the Reese’s Sticks). While they were tasty, they weren’t the same and I lost interest in them entirely.
I wasn’t alone and at some point they stopped making them in the United States. The retooled version is still made in Mexico.
I’ve heard that they’re okay, and I’m actually curious to try the Mexican version, because maybe I was wrong about the new Bar None. But I’m not curious enough to take that drive south of the border in search of it.
Instead, sometime in the late eighties I also discovered the Le Chocolatier cookies made by Pim’s.
These are flavorless wafers with a chocolate cream and covered in real chocolate. What’s even better is they’re sold in boxes so while they weren’t wide and ample bars, there was an ample supply of them. If you were a fan of Bar None and have pined for it all these years, try the Le Chocolatier. Or take a trip to Mexico and let me know how those are.
UPDATE 2/6/2009: Look what I found! This is exactly what I remember, it’s a magazine ad from 1988 or 1989. Also, check in here with this photos set I have of a fan newsletter I used to get called Chocolatetown USA! from 1990 that profiles that launch of the Bar None.
UPDATE 2/18/2009: I think I found a pretty good replacement for the Bar None. It’s called the Q.Bel Crispy Wafer Bars. They come in Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate & Milk Chocolate with Peanut Butter and have no artificial ingredients or hydrogenated oils. I love the dark chocolate version. They’re currently being sold at Whole Foods. Though they don’t have the crunchy peanuts in them, they do have some crisped rice in the chocolate enrobing!
UPDATE 6/12/2013: The Bar None has returned, made by Iconic Candy Company, it’s a pretty good replica of the original. You can read the full review here.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.