Monday, March 6, 2006
2006 Independent Food Awards
As part of this year’s Independent Food Festival and Awards sponsored by tasteEverything, I’ve been tapped as a jurist to give out an award for excellence in food. (You know it’s gonna be candy.) I decided after my mind-blowing experience touring candy factories in the Bay Area last December that it had to be something that really helped me to immerse myself in the true source of chocolate.
My 2006 Winner of the Independent Food Awards is The Best Things to Stick to your Marshmallow: Scharffen Berger Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs.
Cacao nibs are roasted cocoa beans, what all chocolate is made from. Scharffen Berger then pan coats them with 62% cacao semisweet chocolate. They’re complexly flavored little buggers, about the size of rice crispies - they’re crunchy, sometimes fibery, sometimes buttery and nutty ... always a surprise. Some flavors are like wine, raisins, coconut, coffee, oak, banana, apricot, sweet almond, grapefruit, cherry, cinnamon, clove ... I could go on and on. They’re like a blank canvas and a symphony all at once. They take over the senses and make you forget your train of thought. The coolest part is that each little morsel is independent of the others - it might have come from a different tree, might have been harvested weeks before or after its buddies in the tube. Eat one and get a sense of the particular, eat a palmful and travel the world.
So, what do you do with these besides just eat them like candy? You can bake with them, as I saw at Tartine in San Francisco, where you can get Rochers (like soft meringues) made with cacao nibs.
But I’m not really a baker. You can’t just serve an olive boat of these morsels to guests. Then oddly enough the answer came to me in the mail the same week. I was reviewing Plush Puffs, flavored, handmade marshmallows. With proximity being the mother of invetion, I tried putting things on my marshmallow. Actually, I tried mashing my marshmallow into things.
Now, given that I have the title of jurist, it was incumbent upon me to evaluate at least several other marsh-mashables. So I ordered up more Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs and a full array of Plush Puffs (Orange-Honey, Sam’s Sour Lemon, Maple Pecan and Vanilla Bean) and scoured my kitchen and a few stores for some options.
In the interests of trying to find the perfect thing to mash into my marshmallows, I pulled a few things out of the cupboard and ordered some others off of Chocosphere. Here are the results:
The definition of pure confection heaven has to be Orange-Honey Plush Puffs with Scharffen Berger Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans. This is the standard by which all other mashmallow-ables will be judged. (Really, why did I go on, how much better could I expect things to get?)
My second favorite thing to mash into my marshmallows has to be these Valrhona Chocolate Covered Orange Peels (Equinoxe Noir des d’ecorces d’oranges confites). They’re tiny pieces of lightly candied orange peel pan coated with 66% cacao dark chocolate. Smooth, sweet, crisp and with a great zesty orange taste. At $4.00 for 1.8 ounces, they’re even more expensive than the Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs, but as a little dash mixed in with the Cacao Nibs, it’s a welcome little burst of citrus energy. They go really well with both the Vanilla Bean and Maple Pecan ones but unlike the cacao nibs, they don’t work with everything.
It wouldn’t be fair of me to evaluate chocolate covered cacao nibs without trying out the naked ones. So I selected the Dagoba Cacao Nibs, which are also organic. The pieces are less consistent in size and shape than the chocolate covered brethren. They have a wild, alcoholic aroma. Smoky and woodsy to the nose, they provide a huge burst of flavor when eaten on their own but they’re also incredibly acidic and sometimes acrid, astringent and puckeringly dry. When pressed into the Vanilla Bean marshmallow, the sweetness and blankness allows the subtle cacao notes to shine while moderating the overt acidity.
With the success of the malted rice krispies squares, I thought I’d just go with the source materials. This wasn’t as pleasant. The malted milk powder is a bit salty and of course dry. The milk powder, I think, is part of the issue. Milk doesn’t really belong with marshmallow. In fact, it turns out that I don’t really care for the flavor of powdered milk.
I love molasses and my favorite sugar is Billington’s Muscovado. It’s got a sort of whiskey aroma to it, a complexity that you won’t find in refined sugars. I like to let it dry out in chunk and eat it that way. It doesn’t really stick to the marshmallows very well, and frankly, it makes it too sweet.
As a final confirmation about the Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs, I brought the array of my top contenders to an Oscars (tm) viewing party Sunday night. At the end of the night the marshmallows were nearly gone and so were the CCCN while the plain nibs were largely untouched. On top of that, people were pleased with the fun combination of flavors. (And as a capper we got to taste some new regionally-sourced chocolate ice creams. Yum!)
There is one other company that I know of that makes chocolate covered cacao beans, called SweetRiot. I haven’t tried them yet, but I imagine they too are awesome.
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