Thursday, March 19, 2015
There are now dozens of small-batch chocolate makers scattered around North America. One that caught my eye a couple of years ago won the Good Food Award in 2013. Raaka Chocolate is based in Brooklyn, New York and was founded in 2010.
The team at Raaka says,”We make virgin chocolate from unroasted cacao beans. Our unique process preserves each region’s wild flavors, bringing you closer to the bean.”
The unique style of their bars means that they use organic beans that have been naturally fermented and dried but not roasted. The result is a bar that is like the chocolate that we all know, but with some differences ... not necessarily things that make it better or worse, just different. The cacao is direct sourced while the sugar is organic and fair trade certified. Most of their bars are just beans and evaporated cane juice (no vanilla, no emulsifiers) but the bar I picked out for review was the Raaka Virgin Chocolate Bourbon Cask Aged - Belize 82%. This bar also has some maple sugar in it.
As you can guess from the name, the notable thing about this cacao is that it is first aged in oak bourbon casks from Berkshire Mountain Distilling. I’ve had chocolate that’s been aged in barrels before, but never chocolate made from beans that have been aged in barrels. For roasted cacao that wouldn’t work, because the roasting would probably remove the flavors the casks introduce, but remember Raaka is working with unroasted beans, the way the beans are treated before grinding will definitely affect flavor.
The bar mold is dead simple, just a 1.8 ounce plank with no scoring, no design. There’s a great snap to it, and glossy sheen on the outside, but a little rough looking inside.
The bar smells, well, a little like bourbon. There’s a vanilla note and some light peat along with some other more yeasty bread notes. The melt of the chocolate is not quite as creamy as some bars I’ve had, but certainly not gritty. It’s smoother than Taza, which is also stone ground. The yeasty notes are very strong along with an acidic bite and a light coffee and maple note. It’s undeniably chocolate, but with a kick that is a little more unformed, a little less refined. The bar also changed, as I nibbled on it over several weeks. The bitterness dissipated (oxidation can do that) and I found a few more berry jam notes to it.
For an 82% bar, it’s not as dense as you might expect. I’ve certainly had 70% bars that are more intense. This may be because there’s some extra cocoa butter added in, which counts towards the cacao percentage, but does help mellow its severity.
I appreciate the bar, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I kept in my purse for several weeks, but never felt the need for more than a little half inch square at a time. The rustic melt was not as decadent as bars I usually prefer, so sometimes this felt like it demanded more attention to enjoy, like the different between classic sonnets and some free verse.
Their facility and bars are vegan, nut free, soy free, gluten free and made from all organic ingredients.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Like the other Russell Stover eggs, this one is one ounce. I found mine on sale for 39 cents, though they’re usually two for a dollar and sometimes as much as 59 or 69 cents each.
The Lemon Cake Egg wrapper is just a touch confusing. The picture on the front shows a nice yellow cake with white frosting. But this egg is lemon cake filling with a dark chocolate coating. Not a big deal, but it seems like it would be easy to make it a lemon cake with chocolate frosting in the picture ... or perhaps a white chocolate coating on this egg.
It’s very lemony. Even just opening the package, the zesty lemon scent is strong. Biting into the egg, the yellow center is quite bright, like a cream made from highlighters.
The chocolate shell is bittersweet, which is a nice complement to the lemon cake. Like the other dessert-themed eggs, this is a paste type filling made from actual cake mix. The consistency is thicker than batter and thinner than cookie dough. Though there’s wheat flour in there, it doesn’t taste raw like some cookie dough items do.
The lemon flavor is very well balanced, there are a lot of citrus peel notes, so much that there’s a light bitterness to it, which might also come from the chocolate. The whole thing is far less sweet than some of the other cake-themed eggs, like the Birthday Cake and Red Velvet. It’s rather refreshing, less cloying. I wish there was just a little more of a vanilla note, like a rich pound cake. But I do give them credit for trying something a bit out of the ordinary.
The eggs contain wheat (gluten), milk, soy and actual eggs as well. They may also contain traces of tree nuts and peanuts.
Friday, March 13, 2015
Just Born is best known for their Peeps line of marshmallow candies. Easter is high season for Peeps, which now come in all known colors visible to the human eye. So all that’s left is the extension of the brand into other areas. Target had a nice display of the Peeps brand line, including some Peeps lollipops in various colors and two different shapes. (They came in a Peep shape, which was a little less attractive than the bunny one.) The candies were on sale, your choice of two for $3. I thought $1.50 was a bit steep for a lollipop, but the Just Born website lists them for $2.50 each.
They also had matching tubes of the Just Born Teenee Beanee Jelly Beans to go with the pops. The packaging was spare but appealing and the flavor for this set: Indian River Orange sounded very appealing.
The Lollipop was interesting in that it was not only shaped like a Peeps Bunny, but it also had a sugar crust on one side. The texture of the candy was fantastic, it’s more of a barley sugar candy, which usually has few voids and a milder sweetness. Think of it like a less intense Jolly Rancher, the texture is a very light dissolve that becomes pliable when the piece is small.
The orange flavor was delicate, no tart bite, just the orange zest note. I loved the dissolve, but I admit I didn’t care for the grainy textured side of the pop, which meant that the pieces were rough when I bit them off. The size was good at 1.2 ounces, quite a bit of candy, but not so much that I could finish it in an afternoon at my desk. There was a fresh, citrus aftertaste that lasted quite a while.
Though it’s tempting to think that these were just cheaper Jelly Belly, but they’re not. Teenee Beanee are pectin beans, which means that they use both starch and fruit pectin to get the jelly center just right. They’re just a little bigger than Jelly Belly but not nearly as large as traditional jelly beans. The color is a little inconsistent, as some were more translucent than others, but I found this variation very attractive.
The orange flavor is vibrant and mostly zest-based. There was only a light hint of juicy tartness around the margin of the shell, but not at all like a Jelly Belly.
The tube holds 5 ounces and for $1.50 I thought that was a pretty good deal for a more premium bean. I liked them quite a bit, but part of it was that I just like orange jelly beans and the fact that I didn’t have to pick them out of a mix was good. The tube is easy to open and stays closed, and is pretty minimal overall. It also featured a real cloth ribbon bow, which is a nice touch if you’re going to put these into an Easter basket or make it part of a hostess gift.
The jelly beans were made in a facility that also processes peanuts, tree nuts, milk, wheat and soy. They use a confectioners glaze so are not considered vegan. Teenee Beanee tubes also come in La Jolla Lemon, Napa Grape, Chesapeake Cherry, Savannah Strawberry and Laredo Lime tubes with matching lollipops.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Easter is the best candy season. The qualities that make a good holiday candy are hard to pin down, but most of us know it when we see it. One quality that’s unique to Easter is the morselization of treats. Part of Easter is the presentation of candy within a basket. Sure, you can put packaged candy in there, but it sure is appealing when the Easter grass sports read-to-eat morsels. The jelly bean is a perfect example of this, since they started as spice drops but eventually someone gave them a more durable shell so that you can put them out in a candy dish.
I bring this up because today’s candy is a great version of a year-round candy getting a unique holiday treatment. Koppers Chocolate Easter Spring Milk Chocolate Marshmallow Eggs come in a box, but you can easily dump them out into a bowl or nestle them in a basket.
The candy construction is simple, though actually rather unique. It’s a small marshmallow at the center, a thick milk chocolate shell and a thin pastel glaze on top.
These have been around for a few years, I first had them in 2011 and posted a photo. That version was a robin’s egg version with a little thicker shell, but otherwise the same.
The box was on the expensive side at $7.99 for 6.5 ounces. It’s a flat, clear box that holds a single layer of the candies. They come in a variety of pastel colors with speckles: green, white, pink and yellow.
They’re ridiculously sweet, which is not ordinarily an appealing element. But at Easter, all bets are off. I go for white chocolate, I eat the super sweet things and I always give the marshmallow items a try.
The sugar shell is extremely light, so much that it doesn’t really give any crunch to the confection. The marshmallow core is soft and foamy and every once in a while I catch a little bit of vanilla from it. For the most part the morsels are just a lot of milk chocolate. The milk chocolate has a good dairy component to it and a very sweet, cool to the tongue effect. It melts readily but doesn’t have a very strong cocoa note, more like a hot cocoa morsel (with the marshmallow) than an intense milk chocolate.
This kind of candy, of course, could be done for other holiday and year-round treating occasions. It seems that there are other opportunities to mix them up as well with, perhaps, a flavored marshmallow (mint, perhaps) and different colored shells, dark chocolate ... even change the shape a bit.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Russell Stover is best known at Easter for their little one ounce eggs that come in over a dozen varieties from the classic strawberry creme to the trendy wedding cake and cookie dough. One of the other items that’s a little harder to find are Russell Stover’s version of Cadbury Creme Eggs that come in chocolate creme and caramel (review).
One of the newer varieties, or at least to me, is the Russell Stover Peanut Butter Egg. Russell Stover first introduced their little foil wrapped eggs in 2008, they came in some interesting varieties like Marshmallow & Caramel and Dark Chocolate with Chocolate Creme. I picked mine up on sale at 2 for 99 cents. The plain blue foil wrapping doesn’t say much other than the fact that it’s peanut butter in milk chocolate.
The egg is 1.2 ounces and is molded to be completely ovoid, not one of those flat-bottomed enrobed eggs. The design on the shell is very simple, with just a few embellishments.
Oddly enough, Russell Stover uses this same mold throughout the year. They have some sports themed hollow chocolates they sell, including a football, which makes lots of sense when covered in a brown texture-look foil. The odder part of that set of chocolates though is that the same shape is used for baseballs, soccer balls and basketballs.
The filling is not a peanut butter, as I mentioned, instead, it’s more like a peanut butter caramel frosting. The texture is smooth, but not quite chewy like a caramel. If you gave me a cupcake with this as the icing, I’d be pretty happy. The milk chocolate is very sweet, but goes well with the filling. The peanut butter flavor is muted by the sugary sauce its within, but it still works.
It’s not quite my thing, but it stands as unique take on this candy genre. I actually might buy these again and would probably include them in an Easter basket for kids if I put something together this year.
Friday, March 6, 2015
The new line of Russell Stover Big Bite candies are themed for hot beverages. I already reviewed the two coffee ones I found. Today I have the Russell Stover Big Bite Hot Cocoa.
The description on the front of the package says: fluffly marshmallow layered with cocoa-infused marshmallow surrounded by creamy milk chocolate.. I have to say that their picture of what the candy looked like was pretty darn accurate until I noticed that my layers were reversed.
The piece seems much bigger than the others, probably because of the airy marshmallow inside. This piece is 2 ounces, like the others, but is 2.25 inches square and .75 inches high.
Russell Stover makes a nice marshmallow, and make a lot of different kinds in all shapes and sizes. The interesting twist here is the layering of two different flavors. The layering is lovely too look at, though hard to perceive when eating. The bite was good, the marshmallow is soft, but not dry. The chocolate stuck to it well, so there were not little flaky bits, though after two bites pretty much all of the chocolate coating was cracked.
The marshmallow is sweet but has no real flavor profile of its own. It’s not vanilla, it’s not really chocolate ... maybe a touch of cocoa at times. The real flavor here is the milk chocolate coating, which is good. It’s very milky and melts well, combines well with the marshmallow. The marshmallow texture is quite sticky and not as fluffy as some others that I’ve had from them, more like a marshmallow sauce than a stand alone marshmallow. However, the texture of this marshmallow is much more like it would be if it were sitting on the top of a cup of cocoa, just a little melted, so maybe that’s the goal here.
Generally, the plain marshmallow and chocolate isn’t a stellar combination for me, unless there’s a stronger flavor note from the marshmallow itself. (See’s does a good job with their honey touch to their marshmallow.)
I liked this, but like the other Big Bite products, I find 2 ounces to be far too much. Russell Stover often has marshmallow items in their holiday offerings for Halloween, Christmas, Valentines and Easter. I don’t really see a need for a year round version in this size. Maybe if it had a little more flavor, or went for something like a Neapolitan (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry marshmallow) instead of just the chocolate & vanilla.However, if you are a fan of Russell Stover’s marshmallows and the little minis they now offer year round don’t do it for you, you’re just the right demographic for this one.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
At the Fancy Food Show last month I ran across another small-batch caramel maker. This one is called Suss Sweets. They’re based in New Hampshire and have a line of caramels with an interesting package idea - the caramels are sold in long logs, not individual pieces. So a standard roll is 1/4 of a pound. You slice off however much you want.
I found them at an Italian deli at Americana at Brand mall in Glendale. I had to go through the entire basket of caramel logs to find the only Maple Pecan one, since it was the flavor that I sparked the most with at the show.
There’s a lot of packaging for what looks so simple. The outside is a piece of baking parchment, twisted at the ends with a little sleeve with the label on it. Inside is a box, embossed with the logo (kind of a waste, I didn’t notice this touch until I was throwing it out). Then inside the box, the caramel roll is wrapped in wax paper.
The long log was easy to slice into appropriate pieces. The nuts were not as numerous as I’d hoped, so some slices were nutless. However, the maple and pecan flavor was throughout the entire bar. The chew of the caramel was smooth with excellent toasted sugar and fresh butter notes. The salt touch was quite light, enough to balance the sweetness but not so much to make me grab a glass of water. The nuts were fresh and the pecan flavors went very well with the woodsy and vanilla maple notes.
The bar was expensive at $7.50, but of course it was a quarter of a pound. But the fact that they’re not ready to eat meant we couldn’t just try them with our coffee at the store, we had to wait until we got home and got out a knife.
I did get to try the full range of flavors, including Pumpkin Seed and the straight Vanilla with Sea Salt. It’s a good caramel, just like I make at home when I have the time and the weather cooperates. It’s a fun item if you’re putting together a gift basket, especially if it’s a themed with coffee, cheese or other sweets. The fact that you can control the size of the pieces will appeal to some consumers, but I think I just want mine individually wrapped.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Honey Acres in Wisconsin has been keeping bees since 1852. They sell a variety of honeys as well as some very specific honey-based products. I picked up these samples from the Fancy Food Show last month.
One of the lines Honey Acres makes are honey patties which feature an unsweetened chocolate coating around a creamed honey center. This may sound familiar, as I’ve reviewed the Trader Joe’s Mint Honey Patties before. Honey Acres actually makes three varieties of honey patties: the traditional mint, orange and chocolate.
The creamed honey is just honey, that’s been carefully recrystallized in a way that makes it milky looking, spreadable and thick, instead of clear and viscous. There are no additional ingredients, no dairy associated with the creaming process.
The most intriguing of their three patties is the Honey Kissed Dark Chocolate Cocoa. There are two ingredients: chocolate and honey. It’s a little more complicated than that. The chocolate shell is unsweetened chocolate and then the center is honey creamed with unsweetened chocolate.
The pattie comes in a matte gold foil. Snapped in half, the center is a golden brown, set off nicely by they very crisply tempered chocolate.
It’s a very strong chocolate product. The honey melts at a different rate from the chocolate on the outside, so it’s an uneven mix of the honey flavors, the sweetness, the creaminess and then the bitter pop of the chocolate. It’s quite rich and the recommended serving of 3 pieces is very filling. I enjoyed eating them in different ways, sometimes nibbling the chocolate edges so that I had more of a honey proportion for a big bite of the center. Mostly I bit in half and let it all melt together.
Ultimately, I think I prefer a little flavor with it, the chocolate in the honey center did little more than just make the honey less pronounced.
The Honey Kissed Dark Chocolate Orange patty uses Valencia orange extract in the center instead of the peppermint oil for flavoring. This is an interesting combination, because I think that the citrus flavors go far better with honey than peppermint. The oily beeswax feeling on the tongue is cut but the vibrant orange oil. The bitterness of the unsweetened chocolate really shines through all this, with lots more woodsy notes than I noticed when combined with mint.
The calorie count on the website for Honey Acres listed them as about 11 grams a piece and only 110 calories per 3 piece serving. I don’t think that’s quite right, because it works out to less than 100 calories per ounce, which is not possible for a candy that’s also half fat. So, I’d prefer to go with the accounting for the Trader Joe’s which says 140 calories for 3 patties.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.