Friday, October 12, 2007
A couple of months ago I got an invitation from Valerie Confections to preview their Mori Ex Cacao gift set. It’s a set of three skull-shaped chocolates. Rather than a little flat piece of candy, these are large and three dimensional with crisp and freaky details on the skulls, which are then filled with a premium truffle ganache or caramel.
The fissures in the skull can be made out easily, as can the individual teeth and with the three-dimensions of the skull, even the back of the head continues these details down to the base and roof of the mouth.
The Skulls were designed by Modern Alchemist Douglas Little and are about the size of a hefty plum. The design is based on DL&Co’s Memento Mori Collection, which features a similar looking skull candle and other small statuary pieces. A little bit more upscale than the traditional pumpkins and witches, this rather macabre take also features some incredible attention to detail.
First, the confections are hand “cast” with premium Felchlin Chocolate. Then each is filled with one of three centers. The chocolates are created in a three dimensional silicone mold, based on an original design by Douglas Little. After unmolding the chocolates are then airbrushed by hand with a cocoa-butter based “paint” which results in three different confections - one charcoal-black, one cocoa-brown and one bleached-bone white.
I didn’t get to eat the “real thing”, instead they created some tasting portions, which looked an awful lot like regular old chocolates (probably better for me that way). This means that my tasting notes are not based on the actual proportions of chocolate-to-filling you may get with the ultimate product, but all the other elements were the same.
I had my doubts, mostly because the caramel was so dark, I was afraid it’d be bitter and though it did have some burnt tones to it, it was complex and not too sweet. It went wonderfully with the chocolate.
Bitter Brandied Cherry
I say I don’t like cherry flavor, but these were real sour cherries, not some crazy artificial extract. The deep fruit flavors went really well in the ganache, a slight bitter note which I think tied into the macabre tone of the confections quite well.
Oh, this really lived up to its hype. The chocolate flavors were not overpowered by the spice. There was definitely a bit of throat burning going on, but again, it fit very well with the design and presentation as a whole.
Would I buy these? Certainly not for $100 a set ($40 for an individual skull of any flavor). I understand that the ingredients are premium and they’re really labor intensive. So it’s not that I don’t think they’re worth it, but the whole skull thing just isn’t really that big of a draw to me. I like my candy pretty and I never quite got how skulls and bones celebrate life. But if you are a fan of this type of design, and if you’re looking for something purely decadent to arouse all of the senses (this would be great to share as a couple) then this would be an excellent gift.
They can be purchased directly from Valerie Confections or from Dean & Deluca (they only carry the full set but also have some companion products that might complete the effect). They come in a lovely black silk box.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Right after All Candy Expo closed, I scrambled off for a much-anticipated visit with family in the Pittsburgh area. My mother came and got me at my brother’s and we went off to Farrell, PA to see Daffin’s Candies factory and then to Sharon, PA and the “World’s Largest Candy Store.”
The Daffin family has been making boxed chocolates for over 100 years and at their factory in Farrell, Pennsylvania since the late 40s.
Daffin’s offers free tours of their factory (usually only for groups of 12 or more, but they made an exception for me & my mom). We were graced with Johanna as our guide, she’s been with Daffin’s for over 30 years, starting part time as seasonal help in packing orders and now works full time on the floor. I’ve had quite a few tours over the past few years and this was the first time I’d had one from someone who’d paid their dues at just about every station in the factory (instead of the person running the company or hired just to lead tours).
The tour started with the chocolate. A huge, closed vat (kind of like a large double boiler but looks like a humongo hot water heater that holds 300 gallons) keeps the chocolate at a consistent temperature day and night. (On that day it was filled with milk chocolate, other periods they fill it with dark chocolate when they’re running that product line.) The milk chocolate is made to their specifications by Peter’s Chocolate.
The candy is made pretty much just like you’d do at home, only on a larger scale. Since Daffin’s makes mostly cream centered candies (and some barks), they have large copper kettles for creating nougats, buttercreams and meltaways. The centers are spread on cooling tables, then cut into pieces and are then fed into an enrober on the line. They were prepping several tables of stuff, it looked like fudge and an almond nougatine while we were there.
The main highlight of the tour was watching as they made their Milk Chocolate Covered Cherries from start to finish. The cherries are tumbled in a small panning machine (it looks like a cement mixer) to cover them with a syrup and then sugar coating. The little cherry blobs are then placed on a conveyor on top of little bases of chocolate. They go through two curtains of chocolate then a cooling tunnel. Then they’re boxed up and set for shipping.
The other specialty of the house is molded chocolates. Daffin’s is known for their huge variety of pops and chocolate creatures for every holiday. We saw them making chocolate witches, pumpkins and even starting on the Thanksgiving turkeys already.
They had some other lines as well as the enrober. The other was a depositor, which as the name suggests, deposits chocolate into a small mold (or bars, I’m guessing). In this case it was a little daisy shaped mold that got a peanut butter meltaway center. Just like the cherries, once the piece was formed the tray of chocolates went into a cooling tunnel. The tunnel then flipped over and the chocolates came out of their molds. (If they didn’t there was a helpful fellow on the line who gave them a good smack.) Another set of workers pulled the individual candies off the conveyor and put them into boxes (and checked them as well, tossing aside the mal-formed pieces).
The factory has a special tour before Easter each year called Swizzle Stick Day. It’s very popular with families in the area. The free tour is capped off with a Swizzle Stick - the visitor gets to pick any “center” such as raspberry cream, nougatine, etc. Then it’s put on a stick and fresh dipped in chocolate right there!
The real attraction to Daffin’s however, is not their factory tour. It’s their store in nearby Sharon, Pennsylvania. While they’re proud to talk about their “Chocolate Kingdom”, I find their strangely scaled statues of animals, castles and little towns to be kind of creepy and not the slightest bit engaging. Sure, they’re covered in chocolate ... but since I can’t eat that (who knows how old they are?) what’s the point? I wanna buy something!
They say that it’s the “World’s Largest Candy Store” and though I’m not certain what the criteria would be ... I’m impressed. They not only sell their own chocolates from the factory, they also have a huge selection of candy from all over the world. It’s not about the ordinary candy bar here, but pre-packed 8 ounce bags of everything. Gummis, jellies, jelly beans, Jordan almonds, mints, licorice and sours. Most were $2 to $3 a bag. They also had large pick-a-mix areas with individually wrapped hard candies (maybe 100 different bins?) for $3.49 a pound and some salt water taffy bins, too.
The store is quite different from Dylan’s Candy Bar, which has a lot more candy bars and focuses on hip design and of course the bulk items aren’t prepacked. But everything here is about 1/3 the price. It’s not quite Economy Candy either, which has far more packaged international items like mints from Italy, bars from England and of course all the regional American specialties. It’s also, well, in Sharon, PA ... so it’s not like either of those two stores are within spitting distance.
From their candy counter my mother and I picked out some of their barks. We got the Potato Chip Bark and Pretzel Bark (and something else I can’t remember that had marshmallow in it). I also got some Sugar Mints.
I’d been looking for these since I ran across a thread on RoadFood.com over a year ago. They go by a lot of different names (MerriMints, Sherbet Mints, Melty Mints, French Cremes), but they’re basically just sugar (some recipes call for a little butter) with a little flavoring and color that are dolloped out (usually with a ridged side) and dried. Think of them as frosting disks!
I selected one of every flavor - Peppermint, Lemon, Orange, Cinnamon, Wintergreen and Root Beer. The melt easily on the tongue and were lightly flavored. All were great, except for the cinnamon, which was a maroon-red and tasted so bitter (food coloring!) that I couldn’t eat it. They were really reasonably priced. I think they were $8 a pound and I requested four of each flavor ... which came to $1.75!
The other barks were merely interesting. I’ve decided that Daffin special milk chocolate mix is far too sweet for me. Even with the mixed in items of the salty chips or pretzels, a little piece was all I could handle. I’m rather sad I didn’t try any of their dark chocolate items. (But I might return there sometime before Christmas or something because they have such a great selection.)
I really enjoyed their store, everyone was wonderfully friendly. I would definitely shop there again, but the chocolates are just not my style. Too old-school sweet for me.
Daffin’s Factory & Chocolate Shoppe
Daffin’s Chocolate Kingdom & World’s Largest Candy Store
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Dove has been adding to their line of Promises, the little chocolate nuggets they sell. It’s nice they have such a diversified line and I do enjoy a little foil wrapped treat. Lately they’ve been stuffing caramel see review) inside those little nuggets of milk or dark chocolate. Now they’ve added a few more versions of those to the line by flavoring the caramel:
Milk Chocolate Hazelnut Flavored Caramel - this was less caramel and more like a hazelnut creme. It had a nice nutty flavor to it, though I didn’t quite identify it as hazelnut. A little salty hit cut through the sticky sweetness of the milk chocolate.
Most of my little pieces were dented. I don’t know if that was a function of the travel or if they’re particularly delicate. (5 out of 10)
The Mint Caramel Dark Chocolate terrible, terrible pieces of confectionery nonsense. Gobbledygook, I tell ya! Gibberish! There’s nothing wrong with caramel, nothing wrong with dark chocolate, nothing wrong with mint. But put them all together and you get this humongo double take of “what the heck were they thinking?”
The caramel is just weird - it’s like it’s over emulsified, if there is such a thing. It’s gooey, but has no buttery element, no burnt sugary elements ... it’s become its own strange, pudding-like product. That’s it! It’s like peppermint-butterscotch pudding ... with dark chocolate. It’s just all kinds of wrong when I think too hard. (4 out of 10)
The strangeness continued with the Dark Chocolate Raspberry Caramel.
Luckily I didn’t have a whole bag of each of those, just a little handful ... and now they’re on their way to Kimberly, who won the drawing! (I should have had her sign some sort of a waiver.) Again, it’s like raspberry flavored butterscotch pudding. I just didn’t like all the flavors together and the salty hit of the caramel with the raspberry was just over the top. (4 out of 10)
The happy news is that the rest of this is all good. The more traditional new offerings to the Dove Promises line are just the regular milk and dark chocolate with some crushed almonds added in.
Almonds are a personal favorite of mine, I practically live on them (really, I eat them just about every day as a snack). What’s always bothered me about Dove chocolate is its foolish consistency ... it feels too perfect, too manufactured and lacking any personality. The crushed almonds in the Dove Dark Chocolate with Almonds fix that.
They add some texture, they add some extra flavor, a little crunch ... they just complete the Dove Dark Chocolate. Any trepidation I had about their chocolate has disappeared with the added element. (8 out of 10)
The Dove Milk Chocolate with Almonds benefits similiarly from the crushed almonds. It makes the milk chocolate, which was always a little sticky sweet to me, more malty and rich. The milky flavors now take on a toasted, darker tone.
They please me. (7 out of 10)
A single Milk Chocolate with Almonds has about 45 calories in it.
I don’t have the nutritional info on the Caramel line or the Dark Chocolate with Almonds, just the Milk Chocolate with Almonds, as that’s the only one I have the complete packaging for. I’m not sure when these are showing up in stores, they’re not on the Dove website yet. Anyone see them in stores yet?
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
I have a deep attraction to pretty candy. I’ve always enjoyed arrays of colorful candies spilled out on my desk. I like to arrange them in patterns, rainbows, color combos. I put them in glass jars, layered by color or shape. Mix them up, repeat and eat.
Most candies are pretty limited in what they can do with shapes and variety. Compressed Dextrose - the plain old chalky sweet and tart candies however, are extremely flexible when it comes to design (I call them chalk candies). With the loss of Tart ‘n Tinys, the time has come to find a replacement.
Oak Leaf (part of SweetWorks) is one of the few sugar-candy companies that really pays attention to the possibilities of pretty candy. At the All Candy Expo I got to see in person the huge variety that they make. I also got to bring home a good selection of those that attracted me most.
Holy moly, the green Baby Tears is actually lime! Who knew anyone made anything lime any longer? It’s all green apple these days. I think blue is Blue Raspberry, which was okay but certainly not sour.
There are a few versions of baby tears out there, (ZOMG has a review here).
Most of the candy is the same, the only differences are the colors and shapes. Some have different flavors depending on the mix. I was tickled by this Bonz variety. They sell it a couple of different ways, with just the skulls, just the bones and a mix of the two. (The plain bones are fun for a dog theme, the mix is great for Halloween or pirate themes.)
The bones themselves were super tart and kind of chalky on the inside instead of being dense. Pink (cherry), Red (also cherry), Yellow (lemon), Blue (sweet raspberry), Green (lime) and White (pineapple?). The candy shell was thin and easy to chomp through or dissolve off.
The skulls didn’t have an identical color line, there was a Purple (grape) and Orange (orange) and the Green was darker (watermelon).
These were dreadful. As cute as they are, they’re just as tasteless. The scale, for one, is just horrible. The Watermelon is the same size as the Strawberry and that’s bigger than the Lime! The Orange has a cute bumbly coating, but it’s so thick and flavorless I was worried it was actually a piece of plastic display. The grape had a similarly hard shell filled with a flavorless sweet powder. The Banana was the only standout, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Some days when I chomp on them I find the fake banana flavor comforting. Other days it feels rather cool on my tongue and slightly bitter I’m wondering if I’m eating fingernail polish remover. I had another small assortment of little fish in my mix and found the banana-yellow one in there even more alarmingly chemical-tasting. (I’m wondering if there’ll come a day when someone diagnoses Banana Candy Workers Lung.)
All of the candies are fun and at most places where I see them in bulk (at those pick-a-mix places at the mall) they’re way overpriced. You can buy them for about $2.50 a pound on Amazon (different brand) ... if you’re willing to buy 24 pounds of Bonz at a time. I wouldn’t pay more than $4 a pound for these unless I was depressed and nothing but bright food coloring and sugar could shake the doldrums.
They make Super Sours (different sizes, coated and uncoated), Smiles, Snaps, Lil’ Jewels (perhaps like the old Tart ‘n Tinys?) and Fishes along with all sorts yellow Bananas and multicolored Crazy Bananas.
The best way to buy these, as far as I can tell, is from those candy machines in kiosks at malls and arcades. At only a quarter for a little handful, it’s a pretty good pick-me-up.
If I wanted a fun and casual candy buffet (especially one that could stand the heat in summer), these could definitely be at the top of my list. Though some flavors are hit & miss, I still give them an 8 out 10 ... because they’re still pretty to look at if I don’t eat them.
EDITED 11/28/2007: I updated this to correct an earlier error. I attributed this candy to Concord Confections in error. These candies were made by Oak Leaf.
Monday, October 8, 2007
Gimbal’s LavaBalls aren’t a new product, I even saw them at the 2006 All Candy Expo. But I never saw them in stores (except online in 5 lb boxes), so I was hesitant to write about something that you couldn’t get.
Well, I found them, at Walgreen’s (and they’re probably in other places) ... so here’s a review!
Gimbal’s is an old San Francisco panned confectioner, run by the same family for four generations. They make a line of gourmet jelly beans, some fun licorice product and pectin/jelly items. The bonus with Gimbal’s (besides the high quality) is that their facility is practically allergen free ... their candies are free of gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, gelatin, gluten, eggs and dairy. They’re also Kosher. (They do use Soy.)
LavaBalls are chewy hot cinnamon candies. Like their name implies, they’re a spicy cinnamon.
They’re like a giant jelly bean. The gumdrop center is lightly spiced, kind of like a Spearmint Leaf, mild but still making a generous contribution to the overall flavor. On top of that is a little layer or super-spice that’s covered by the rest of the nicely warm candy shell.
They’re about the size of a marble, which is a satisfying size for a sizzling chew. They’re not too hot for me, but there’s a pleasant burn and sometimes they’ll catch me a little bit with a tickle in my throat.
The balls are about the size of a marble, so they’re bigger than their newest competitor, the Chewy Atomic Fireballs (which are not allergen free) and marginally spicier and just deeper in flavor.
I enjoy these a lot and would definitely find them good traveling candies, a movie watching snack and good for swift novel-writing. Each LavaBall has about 13 calories each.
They do contain beeswax (and artificial colors/flavors) so may not be suitable for vegans.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.