Wednesday, February 4, 2009
For much of my life the prototype in my mind of Belgian chocolates was Guylian’s assortments shaped like sea shells. It was one of my earliest introductions to hazelnut pralines and though I rarely got the opportunity to indulge in them, they certainly fixed in my mind an image of what European fine chocolates were like.
They epitomize the convergence of flavors and design. Cute seashells and seahorse shapes with different cream fillings.
Now that I’ve had more access to a greater variety of confections, I wanted to revisit them with a fresh perspective.
The Guylian Belgian Chocolate Twists are a good way to try out their style without sinking too much money into the effort. For about $4, it’s a 4.51 ounce box with 18 individually wrapped “twists” in six varieties.
Each little piece is color coded and marked, wrapped in mylar. The pieces, I was surprised, are actually sealed and then twists (many other companies just twist the ends, these are actually sealed little pouches that look like twists). They do open easily though.
The little seahorses are striking. Each one was in great shape, even though I toted these around the floor at the Fancy Food Show and then all the way back to Los Angeles in my luggage.
Original Praline is dark and white chocolate with a hazelnut praline center. It has a soft and sweet hazelnut aroma. The bite of the chocolate is on the soft side. The center is lightly grainy with a strong hazelnut flavor. But it’s also very sweet with a touch of milky chocolate to it.
Now I remember why I don’t buy these. They’re very sweet, though I have to say, they are gorgeous.
But this assortment has other flavors, and they’re not white chocolate, so maybe I’ll find something else in there that I like.
Strawberry - this one looked like the classic marbled seahorse. It smelled like Twizzlers. Upon biting it open I saw the construction of the piece. The white cream center was covered in a white chocolate shell which then had the marbled dark chocolate on top of that in a thin veneer. So it’s a mostly-white chocolate piece. The strawberry flavor is more delicate than it smells, with only a slight tangy note in the cream. It’s rather like a chocolate version of strawberry ice cream.
Caramel Crisp (top of the pyramid) - this one didn’t start out well because it had a fake butter smell like buttered popcorn. But the texture combination upon biting it was fun. It’s a sweet milk chocolate shell with a whipped cream center with a butter flavor to it and some caramelized crisped rice bits in there for crunch.
Orange (bottom left of the pyramid) - dark chocolate with a light cream filling flavored with orange. The cream center is light and not too sweet, no graininess. It’s all about the orange, the only chocolate is from the shell, which isn’t strong enough to contribute much more than itself as a container.
Cappuccino (bottom right of the pyramid) is a dark chocolate truffle-like piece. The filling is light and fluffy, a white cream base with a heavy does of ground espresso beans in there. It’s definitely at the other end of the spectrum from the cloying sweet classic praline. Bitter yet still smooth, strongly flavored. The center isn’t quite truffle-like, it’s cool on the tongue, probably because palm oil is the second ingredient in the centers.
Chocolate Truffle is a milk chocolate shell with a milk chocolate ganache center. It’s slick and creamy, not too sweet but like I experience with the palm oil based Lindor truffles, it ultimately tastes empty.
Like the Lindor truffles as well, these are incredibly caloriffic. I clocked them at 192 calories per ounce. (A serving is 5 pieces, 34 grams and 230 calories.)
The craftsmanship on these is undeniable, but I don’t think this is the best that Belgium has to offer. They’re a fun little sweet for the eye, but less satisfying for those with discriminating palates (and who wish to avoid palm oil). I do have some of their Solitaire chocolate tasting squares which I’ll try soon, just as a touchstone for their main ingredient and they do make their chocolate from bean to bar to bonbon.
Terry has a review of the classic shells recently.
Friday, January 30, 2009
I check in with Valerie Confections from time to time, they’re about a mile from my house. The crazy little secret is that I go there for their teacakes. Especially in the summer, when I want something with a touch of chocolate but can’t bear a whole piece, the bottoms are dipped in chocolate. The cakes are moist, dense & lightly infused with flavors.
At the Fancy Food Show, however, Stan & Valerie were excited to show me their new Valentine’s collections. There are three:
The set called Pour Homme is for the gentleman. It has 11 pieces and comes in the dark brown box. Visually it’s dominated by large flat dark milk chocolate hearts that have fleur de sel and little almond toffee bits in them. It’s filled in with dark chocolate hearts with flowing caramel centers.
The set called Pour Elle is geared towards the gals and comes in the classic ivory box. This features large flat white chocolate hearts with rose petals and the small bittersweet chocolate hearts filled with rose petal and passionfruit ganache.
Both have 11 pieces and retail for $30.
For folks who want to share or prefer a different assortment there are boxes of various sizes (9, 18 & 36 pieces) that hold the bittersweet ganache hearts, gianduja rocher, and bittersweet chocolate with almond toffee bits.
I’ll just run down a few of the items I tasted:
Bittersweet Chocolate with Almond Toffee Bits (the smallest dark chocolate hearts shown above) - a simple pleasure. A mix of smooth bittersweet chocolate that has a glossy and smooth melt with little toffee chips and almonds. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t getting enough toffee ... but then again, if I wanted chocolate and toffee, I could just order the chocolate covered toffee, so this piece is more about chocolate.
Bittersweet Chocolate Hearts filled with Liquid Caramel - a little taller and wider than the other filled hearts, this one has a wonderfully thick and gooey caramel. Lightly salted, it has all the flavor of a toffee but the smooth texture of a custard. Lightly salted, the dark chocolate lends the perfect container and dark woodsy sweetness.
Bittersweet Chocolate Hearts filled with Rose Petal Passionfruit Ganache - a little petal graces the top of these pieces, but just sniffing it I could tell from the fragrance that it was the rose. The center is a white butter ganache with the tangy and tropical bite of passionfruit. The slightly soapy rose took some of the passionfruit earnestness away. There is a bit of a lingering aftertaste, kind of like jasmine. I suggest eating these last. Your dessert’s dessert.
Large Rose Petal White Chocolate Hearts (shown in a small version in the picture above) - this one was a little bland for me, and I did eat it first in my tasting session because I know that white can be a bit delicate and finicky. The white chocolate was smooth and not overly sweet, with a slight malty taste of cocoa. But the floral infusion didn’t quite hit me, but did leave a fresh aftertaste.
Gianduja Rocher - a sweet milky explosion of salt, buttery toffee chips and creamy sweet chocolate. It’s not a pasty, sticky gianduia. It’s a solid form that gives a soft and silky melt to the chocolate and a punch of roasted hazelnut flavor. It is sweet though, luckily the toffee chips and the salt cut through that.
Darkened Milk Chocolate Hearts with Almond Toffee Bits and Fleur de Sel - I want this in bar form year round. The “darkened milk chocolate” tastes like a cross between bittersweet and a European dairy milk chocolate. The dairy notes are complemented well by the toffee chips and the whole thing is set off by powerful zaps of salt in liberal reservoirs throughout.
Bittersweet Ganache in Bittersweet Shells Finished with 23 Karat Gold (the picture here is of a round version of the same truffle - the uneaten one is above). Delicate mix of flavors, as this is all about the chocolate. The ganache is soft and smooth. There’s an immediate acidic bite that gives way pretty quick to some dark charcoal and alcoholic notes like fine cognac and tobacco. The gold version has a bit more chocolate to it, because of the geometry ... the gold flakes do nothing for me, except distinguish it from the toffee chip dark heart.
The attention to detail in the items, with their perfectly placed decorations and well tempered chocolate is exquisite. No bubbles or voids, everything glossy and gorgeous. On the personal side of things, I go all weak in their knees for their nougat and am a little disappointed they don’t have it again this year for Valentine’s (as that’s what my Man gave me last year). But I like it when they try new things and enjoyed the darkened milk with toffee chips most of all. (So I guess I’d have to opt for the Pour Homme ... luckily the box doesn’t say anything about it being geared for fellas.)
I like supporting a local business and that everything is made fresh ... not last year and has been sitting in a warehouse. If you go to the store you can get the petits fours and the tea cakes by the piece.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
I checked through plenty of stores and found Walgreen’s had the best selection by the time the 75% off discount came around. This is when I jump on items I only eye at full price and then hem and haw over at half off. One was this Ghirardelli Squares Limited Edition Holiday Chocolate Assortment. Full price was $8.99, so $2.24 for over nine ounces of chocolate sounded like a great deal even if it was seasonally themed.
The assortment includes Peppermint Bark, Egg Nog and Chocolate Pecan Pie.
Ghirardelli, I think, is known for their Peppermint Bark. It’s one of the few brands that dependably makes the stuff and actually uses cocoa butter for their white chocolate.
The construction of the square is pretty simple. A milk chocolate base layer is covered with a minted white chocolate studded with little crunchies.
The scent isn’t overpoweringly minty, which probably saves the other chocolates in the bag from tasting like mint, too.
The texture of the chocolates is smooth and silky, very sweet but not achingly so. The little crunchies in the white chocolate aren’t crushed candy canes though, they’re corn flake bits (colored red). The crunch is a bit more cereal than hard candy but still puffy.
It’s kind of odd that this sort of confection isn’t available year round, but since Ghirardelli has been bringing it back faithfully each winter, I shouldn’t complain.
Of the three flavors in the bag, this was the one that sold me on it: Egg Nog.
It’s just extra vanilla-y white chocolate (with real cocoa butter) and a visible dash of nutmeg.
I love the flavors of egg nog, but never really cared for sweet or thick drinks so the idea of a solid, melt-in-your-mouth version of it is ideal for me.
The square is a creamy yellow color and smells like nutmeg.
The white confection is sweet but pretty smooth and has the woodsy blast of nutmeg and tastes, like, well, Egg Nog. It could use a little more vanilla and maybe a slight hit of rum.
A real winner, if only because no one else makes a plain old white chocolate with nutmeg bar. Truffles, yeah, but not just a block of white chocolate. Great idea, well done, bring it back next year and I’ll probably buy it before it goes on clearance.
One of the reasons I thought that this review, even at this late date, would still be of value is that the Chocolate Pecan Pie is not a limited edition item. It’s available now as an individual bar or in single-flavor bags of the Squares. (Also, I don’t think Pecan Pie has a season.)
This little milk chocolate square smells wonderful, like maple, hot chocolate and caramel.
The milk chocolate is smooth, though plenty sweet. Mixed in is a light crunch of toffee coated pecan bits. They have a little salty hit and of course the caramelized & buttery crunch of pecans.
(The photos make it look like the chocolate is bloomed, I don’t think it was, I think it was the fatty pecans messing with the sheen of the chocolate. Mmm, fatty pecans.)
Overall, the array is fun and something I feel comfortable eating out of season at the moment. Especially because I love individually wrapped squares. A bonus is that a sandwich of the Egg Nog & Chocolate Pecan Pie actually go pretty well together. (But the Peppermint Bark doesn’t work with either.)
The only thing that really bugged me was that the ingredients weren’t listed separately for each of the squares. I was able to get the ingredients for the Peppermint Bark because it’s sold separately, but I really like to know what’s in items that I’m able to choose from a dish.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
I was converted to the “white side” by Green & Black’s White Chocolate several years ago and now I understand that the mix of milk, cocoa butter and vanilla can be a wonderful thing.
I was more than intrigued when Askinosie, a bean to bar, fair trade chocolate maker right here in the United States came out with their white chocolate, mostly because it’s made with goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk.
But the fascinating aspects don’t end there. It’s single origin, contains no soy lecithin or even any vanilla.
The Askinosie Soconusco White Chocolate Bar isn’t white. It’s the color of butterscotch pudding.
It smells a bit gamier than other white confections - kind of like erasers and marscapone.
I was expecting a texture of pure bliss, after all, this is un-deodorized cocoa butter, so it would have the texture of chocolate, the earthier hint of the cocoa solids that were once there and then the wonderful base of goat’s milk to boost it up and moderate the necessary sugar.
Instead it’s a bit grainy but it’s a sugary grain. It still has a wonderful mouthfeel and is rather cool on the tongue. But it wasn’t quite a buttery solid goat’s milk that I was hoping for.
While I say that intellectually, I ate about a third of the bar pondering these few paragraphs.
The other two bars are far more interesting:
White Chocolate Nibble Bar - I thoroughly enjoyed my first Askinosie Nibble bars which were based on the Jose del San Tambo beans. All of the white bars are Soconusco beans of the Trinitario variety from Mexico. (Not my favorite in the dark version either.)
Like the dark nibble bar, the cacao nibs aren’t mixed in with the chocolate. Instead they’re just tossed on the bottom as the bar is molded. Personally, I prefer integrated elements. This whole “topping” thing means that the nibs aren’t completely surrounded.
That said, the nibs are fun. They obviously carry a huge amount of chocolate flavor punch in them. In this case they have a bit of a smokey and woodsy flavor to them and it really balances out the sweetness of the white chocolate. The texture variation is also remarkable. The nibs are crunchy, the white chocolate cool and the graininess I complained about earlier is unnoticeable.
White Chocolate Pistachio Bar
This was the star, the perfect combination of the above texture and flavor profile.
The addition of some lightly toasted & sparingly salted pistachios provided some crunch but mostly a grassy brightness. It balanced out the twang of the goat’s milk without making it sweeter, instead it just made it more flavorful.
Askinosie has also just launched a dark milk chocolate which is 52% cacao of the same Soconusco single origin, fleur de sel and goat’s milk.
Many people who suffer from lactose intolerance can digest goat’s milk without difficulty, so this new line of goat’s milk products from Askinosie, as well as the fact that they don’t use soy may be just the ticket for those with food sensitivities.
My hesitation with them, besides the fact that I haven’t seen them in stores, is that they’re very expensive at $10.50 a bar. (The regular dark chocolate bars are $8.00 to $8.50.)
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
So I greeted these Disney Happy Holiday Chocolate Figurines in milk and white chocolate with a bit of an eye roll. However, I did look over the package pretty carefully before opting to pay the $1.99 and saw a few things that convinced me that these might be worth the premium royalties to the Disney company.
First, the ingredients are all natural. Second, they’re made in the United Kingdom, not China or Brazil. Third, they list the actual cocoa solid content on the back (30% for the milk chocolate). Fourth, the white chocolate is real, there’s no palm oil or coconut oil in here. Fifth, the product is nut free (and also says it’s suitable for vegetarians).
They’re specific about the lengths that they go to and further, they give actual contact information for the company. Not some silly info email address, an actual person with a real email address and phone number (I didn’t try it though).
The box and little molded chocolate shapes reminded me of Advent calendars. When I browsed through the annoying but pretty complete Kinnerton website I found that they do make Advent calendars and most of their products are marketing tie ins with branded characters like The Simpsons, Barbie, Spiderman and Disney.
The chocolate pieces came in three different designs:
Winnie the Pooh sits there looking kind of rolly polly. Eeyore with his little bow-tied tail looped over his leg with one paw up, he seemed kind of happy. And Piglet was holding a jar of huny.
The milk chocolate is smooth and tastes a lot like powdered milk. It’s super sweet but also has almost no grain to it, even though it’s pretty sticky it has an excellent mouthfeel and melt.
The white chocolate tastes like Easter, through and through. A bit on the grainier side, there’s a strong milk and fake vanilla flavor. The cocoa butter background does a good job of allowing the flavors (such as they are) to come through.
Overall, a little on the pricey side. However if you have a kid with food allergies, these have no other compromises. They’re cute, the piece size is excellent for little ones and the design of the tray & pieces is well done. However, the little icons aren’t exactly holiday themed, just the box that they come in.
The packaging also had Walgreen’s information on them, so I’m guessing these are packaged for sale in the US just for their chain. The Kinnerton website mentions Aldi as well as Toys R Us as distributors.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The bar is also 7.05 ounces and is described on the front as Fine coffee flavored milk chocolate combined with a layer of white chocolate.
The box is quite nice, though a little generic (and the cup of coffee there is completely out of scale with the bar shown). The bar is wrapped in an oversized paper-backed foil that is easy to re-wrap around the bar and put back into the box for later. (And yes, at seven ounces I wasn’t eating this all in one sitting, even with help from co-workers.)
Instead of little fingers like the Choceur Luxury Mini Chocolate Bars, this is a full sized bar.
The bottom layer is coffee flavored milk chocolate with little rectangles of white chocolate on top.
The effect is attractive, the bar was nicely molded with nice attention to detail. Each piece was a nice mouthful.
The flavor is immediately a sweet coffee. In fact, it’s almost all coffee. I caught a few notes of chocolate in there, but it’s all about the milk and coffee flavors here. It’s a tangy and woodsy coffee with a strong dairy component, especially from the white chocolate part.
It wasn’t as sweet as I’d feared, so I was pleased that I could eat as much as I could.
It’s a treat for coffee and white chocolate fans and for those who really like the powdered milk flavors of European chocolate. The fact that it’s milk chocolate and white certainly sets it apart from most other bars and it doesn’t have actual pieces of coffee beans in there.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Here’s another attractive little treat I picked up at Harry & David. Like the Fall Leaves Fruit Gels, these are not found on their website, just in the stores. The Belgian Chocolate Hazelnut Pinecones are simply too adorable to resist.
Actually, I did resist. I saw them on a recent trip to the Bay Area and didn’t buy them, then went back to the store before I left town, even though $12.95 seemed a bit steep for 7 ounces of not-Caffarel gianduia.
They’re little pine cone shaped chocolates, some milk chocolate and some white chocolate with a filling of hazelnut paste.
They’re about the size of a walnut in its shell, a full dozen packed into the tall bag.
They come in three different varieties:
The dark green one has a milk chocolate shell with a smooth hazelnut & chocolate paste filling. They smell like sweet black walnut flavoring. (My hope was that I’m not actually sensitive to walnut flavor, just actual walnuts.)
It’s rather sweet but the nutty flavors blend nicely with the milky smooth shell and filling.
The white chocolate shell with brown speckles has a filling of hazelnut paste with little rice crunchies. The nutty flavors weren’t as apparent, but the crisps gave a nice salty & cereal texture boost.
The orange white chocolate with the reddish airbrushing has a smooth nut paste with a stronger dairy note to it and less of a cocoa flavor.
I preferred the milk chocolate one far and away, the others, while interesting combinations of textures and flavors were just too sweet. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded if the pieces were smaller.
The biggest selling point is that they are so well crafted. The size, shape, molding and airbrushing of the shadows makes these irresistible as a seasonal treat. I can say that because I was unable to resist buying them, but I’ve been able to subsequently resist eating them. Still, if I’m looking for a hit of hazelnut I’d probably prefer Caffarel, Perugina Baci or Ferrero Rocher (in descending order of price) especially since I’ve been able to get Caffarel for about the same price of $1.00 per piece.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
October is Fair Trade Month, which makes sense since Halloween is the number one candy holiday. A few years ago I’m pretty sure few people, especially candy fans even know what that meant, happily much of that has changed, both through education efforts and the simple ubiquity of the products displaying the logos. Fair Trade guarantees the growers of raw materials & makers of products a fair and liveable wage for their products, you can read more about it here. Luckily all sorts of fair trade products are becoming more available to regular consumers, even at big box stores like Target, grocery & drug store chains.
I’ve tried quite a few fair trade candies over the years, including Divine Chocolate. Divine is expanding more in the United States and has a broader range of products now than ever before. One of their representatives sent me a nice sampling of their products, so I’ll be reviewing them over the next month or so. The motto is Heavenly chocolate with a heart.
First, their standard 3.5 ounce chocolate bars. While fair trade chocolate isn’t hard to find, fair trade candy bars are. Yes a nice dark bar is all well and good, but sometimes I want a little more in my decadent treat (without enslaving any children in Africa for it either). With a retail price of about $3 a bar, it’s certainly no hardship for the chocolate aficionado. But of course the larger question is, how do they taste?
I tried this chocolate back in 2005 and while I can’t say whether they’ve changed the formula or way that they’re making the bar, I like it much better than I did then.
The packaging is lovely. Before it was a simple black wrap with their logo. The new package is a matte paper with a foil inner wrap. The decorative icons are fun and attractive, I spotted hearts, turtles, geese and something that’s either a comb or a Menorah.
The bar inside is wonderfully tempered. Shiny, even and no hint of bubbles or bloom. I like the thickness of the pieces and that the bar snaps easily into the little portions.
The scent is a little grassy and fruity.
On the tongue the cocoa butter melts quickly into a silky puddle. Flavors are middle of the road, there’s nothing difficult or loud about this bar. I get a little bit of coffee, cherries, olives, woodsy eucalyptus and very little acid. The finish is smooth and with only a slight bitter note but no dryness.
The high fat content makes this very munchable. I like that in a chocolate bar, though I know that some fans prefer a more intense concentration cacao.
99% of the ingredients are fair trade certified for this bar (this includes the sugar, vanilla and cocoa products - only the non-GMO soy lecithin is not).
Rating: 8 out of 10
The Divine Hazelnut Milk Chocolate is completely new to me. I tried the 27% cocoa plain milk chocolate and was struck by how the milky flavors reflected the European-style.
I think this package is the prettiest of the three. I liked the brown wrapper with gold and cream colored icons, it feels elegant, playful and subtly conveys that this is a milk chocolate product.
The ingredients in this bar, like the dark one go for fair trade when possible, though this one only clocks in at 69% with the cream, soy lecithin and chopped hazelnuts as traditionally sourced.
The bar is softer than its dark counterpart. Snapping it in half it’s clear that part of the reason is the plethora of crushed hazelnuts.
The bar smells milky, a little nutty and a little cheesy.
On the tongue it melts quickly but is a little sweet and sticky at first. Then come the flavors, the dairy flavors lean towards powdered milk, have a great smoky cocoa flavor and of course the hazelnut.
It’s not quite giaunduia, but it’s close. The bar overall is a bit sweet for me but fills that gaping hole out there for fair price fair trade candy bars that are more than straight chocolate.
Rating: 7 out of 10.
The cocoa content on this bar is a staggering 25%, which means it’s one quarter cocoa butter. Milk solids make up another 26%. (And the fair trade percentage here is 71%.)
Strangely enough the calcium content on a single serving is 16% of your RDA and 4 grams of protein. I wouldn’t call it a full serving of dairy, but it’s certainly not completely junk food.
The bar smells like Frankenberry cereal.
The little berry crisps dot the bar and look to be evenly distributed.
The melt of the white chocolate isn’t quite as even as the other two bars, it has a slightly fudgier grain to it, but it is smooth. The strawberry crisps are more than just little dried bits. They’re crunchy and tangy, with the floral scent of berries along with the high pitched tartness. But the tangy part isn’t intergrated into the white chocolate like the Meiji bar I tried recently.
If you have a soft spot for white chocolate and strawberries, I’d suggest giving this bar a try. I enjoyed it a lot more than the Frey but the Green & Black’s White Chocolate (plain) is still the gold standard for me.
Rating: 7 out of 10.
All of the bars are Kosher. I don’t know the full distribution of the bars but you can find some of them places like Whole Foods and other stores that carry natural products. Look for wider distribution soon as well as new products from Divine for the holidays. I saw some little foil wrapped milk chocolates themed for Halloween (available web only) on their site.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.