Monday, March 6, 2006
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.
If you’ve stumbled across this posting without first visiting the tasteEverything, have a look at all the other incredible finds from around the globe.
There are currently three varieties of Goetze’s Caramel Creams. Each has a different name, which is kind of confusing. The plain vanilla variety is called Caramel Creams (though people often call them Bull’s Eyes). The chocolate ones are called Bull’s Eyes and the strawberry ones are called StrawberriCreams. I’ve never seen the chocolate or strawberry versions in the tray pack (which is usually how I buy my Goetze’s), but I did find them in the pick-a-mix at Baldinger’s in Zelienople.
They all have the same cool sugar cream center, but the caramel outside is a little different.
Original: The original Caramel Cream is not really what I consider caramel. It’s not buttery and smooth, but more doughy. It tastes kind of like a plain cookie dough with a plain, sweet icing. The caramel itself isn’t particularly sticky, what really sells the candy is the cream center. There really isn’t anything else like a Goetze’s Caramel Cream. The center is cool and soft and melts away almost instantly. I usually turn my caramel creams inside out when I eat them, popping the cream onto my tongue and waiting for that to dissolve before consuming the caramel O.
Chocolate - These are wildly different tasting than the original flavor. The chocolate dough is dark and smoky, not really a creamy chocolate experience, more like a really chocolatey Tootsie Roll. The caramel cream center stands out even more in this candy because of the darkness of the caramel. I would buy more of these as a companion to my beloved originals.
Strawberry - Gah! They smell like fake strawberries and taste like it, too. The dough nature of the caramel doesn’t really lend itself to this flavor, it’s kind of like a poor imitation of strawberry shortcake, a little tart, very sweet. I had to excise these from my pick-a-mix candy as the smell was rather revolting to me. I know some folks will like these (and probably do, since they’ve been around for a while), but I’m not one of them.
All of these flavors also come in a Cow Tales version as well. Generally I prefer to buy my Caramel Creams in the tray pack, as I think they stay fresh better that way than the twisted cello wrapped candies in the pick-a-mix. (I give the caramel and chocolate varieties a 9 ... the strawberri one is probably a 3 in my book.) All varieties contain both Hydrogenated Oils and High Fructose Corn Sweetener.
Cotton Candy is an elusive sort of candy, you really can’t buy it prepacked and you certainly can’t make it at home (unless you buy or rent a cotton candy machine). If you live in a big metropolitan area you probably see it for sale by street vendors but most of us associate it with fairs and amusement parks. Dubble Bubble Fluff, I think, is trying to capture a bit of that special treat feeling, but they’ve got an added proposition ... it’s cotton candy and then it’s gum just like their cousin Razzles (also made by the same uber-corp, Tootsie).
This looks and feels just like cotton candy and smells like sweet strawberries and, of course, sugar. The texture is a little less airy than cotton candy, but then again, this is packaged stuff, not the “fresh from the carnival midway” candy floss.
I was afraid it would be sticky and heavy on the tongue, but it dissolves rather like regular cotton candy and then towards the end, instead of melting away completely it has a transitional period where it’s just a rather odd blob, but if you chew it, it turns out as gum!
That wad of fluff there that I took out for the photo (about a quarter of the bag) turns out to make a reasonable size piece of bubble gum. It looses its flavor and sweetness rather quickly, but the novelty factor and overall success of the transition from sugar floss to gum is pretty incredible. It’s not my chosen way to enjoy bubble gum, but they really achieved the cotton candy end of the proposition, so they get high marks for that. The gum part is a little disappointing, but then again, when I’m chewing Dubble Bubble, I usually just chew the sugar out and pop another piece.
Friday, March 3, 2006
Ferrara Pan is a favorite of mine for one product they make: Lemonheads. No one else makes anything like it. It’s a hard, sweet lemon candy coated in a grainy, super sour coat and then a sweet “lemon peel”. Genius.
When I was a kid there were a bunch of varieties of these candies and they each had a cool name. There was Alexander the Grape, Johnny Apple Treats and Mr. Melon. Somewhere between the late eighties and the present Ferrara Pan dumped those names and reintroduced the fruit flavored, layered candies under the Lemonheads style naming convention.
The original. The classic. The. Perfect. Lemon. Candy.
Fantastic idea - it’s a Lemonhead, only it’s orange! The color is vibrant and they have both the zesty orange taste and the tartness. They’re not as blisteringly tart as Lemonheads, but the flavor can’t be beat. I don’t think these existed under another name way back when, but better late than never! My second favorite fruit head!
Well, folks know my feelings about cherry flavor. This is the classic cherry with some good rounded fruity notes and a sour bite to it. Like a cherry Lifesaver, only spherical and tarter. The original name of this candy was Cherry Chan ... so it’s probably good that Ferrara Pan decided to rename the whole line into something less offensive. (Though they briefly renamed them to Cherry Clan and changed the art a little bit.)
I used to eat these all the time as a kid. I loved the name, Alexander the Grape and the package logo was a little grape wearing a Trojan helmet. The color is a little surprising, as it’s very dark purple, almost navy blue or black. The flavor is a more complex grape than many other grape flavored candies these days and the package boasts “real fruit juice.” Of course the real fruit juice listed is apple. There are Appleheads, but I didn’t find those at the store (and had to get a smaller box of the Grapeheads because they weren’t available in the larger size).
When I first started on my Lemonheads/Alexander the Grape kick I was in grade school. We lived in Munroe Falls, OH and in good weather me and my older sister and younger brother were allowed to walk about a half a mile down the rural highway, over the Cuyahoga River and the Falls and then train tracks to the Stop ‘n Go in “downtown” Munroe Falls. This was the store where I also discovered such non-confectionery wonders as Pringles, Doritos and of course Starbursts, the Marathon Bar, Jolly Rancher Fire Stix and Charms Sweet ‘n Sour Pops with my allowance. Lemonheads were desireable because they were cheap and the box could be used as a noisemaker later. Sadly, the boxes are now the tab-top variety and no longer make that noise. (Chicket’s boxes still do, though.)
I like to eat my Lemonheads by peeling them with my teeth. First I anchor a candy at my first molar and crack about a third of the shell off. This reveals the super sour layer. Then I move the candy to my front teeth and pry off the rest of the peel using my teeth and tongue (if you’re wondering, yes, I can tie a cherry stem in a knot with my tongue). Then after the sourness is exhausted, I chew up the rest of the sweet candy and repeat until the box is empty. Giant Lemonheads are dealt with in a similar manner but I think that classic Lemonheads are better since the ratio of sour coating to candy is a little better. I wish the candy centers had a bit more flavor, but I’ve loved them ‘as-is’ forever, so I shouldn’t be advocating any changes. I also wish the the unfortunate Narbles that they introduced a few years back had this same sour peel to them.
Lemonheads and their fruity brethren are the perfect traveling candy. I enjoy hard candy when I’m on long road trips because of the variety of flavors and the interactivity which requires no hands (some fireballs must be removed from the mouth when they get too hot). The little burst of sour keeps me awake and engaged and of course being a pure sugar candy there’s fewer calories per ounce than something with chocolate in it. On my wishlist would be a few other flavors - including Grapefruit and maybe Strawberry and it would be cool to be able to buy a mixed bag of all the flavors.
You can watch a virtual tour of how Lemonheads are made in the panning process.
POSTED BY Cybele AT 10:12 am
Thursday, March 2, 2006
I’m not sure why Hershey’s is mucking around with the Take 5 bar, but happily these limited edition bars at least mean that they leave the original alone.
In this iteration of the candy they’ve simply replaced the pretzel base with a chocolate cookie (ala Oreos). This created some balance problems for me with the bar. First, the pretzel was the linchpin of the Take 5 - you can’t have a Take 5 without a pretzel ... anything else in that slot and you’ve just made a Twix type bar. I don’t think the selling point of the Take 5 is just any old five ingredients - the pretzel is the unique selling point. This chocolate cookie is crisp and pretty thick, but it lacks a chocolate flavor of its own, and certainly isn’t as crispy as a pretzel and can’t match the salty hit and bland flavor that a pretzel has.
The balance is just all off and the crunchiness is gone, the variation in textures is missing ... it’s just lost its vibrancy and interest. The caramel doesn’t even seem as chewy or even noticeable (I did a double take after eating the first piece to make sure that there’s still caramel in there.)
Hershey’s is also planning a marshmallow version of this bar later this year. Or maybe they’ll read this and realize that there’s nothing wrong with the original Take 5 and just move on to adding different cookie bits to the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar or devising new KitKat flavors (may I suggest a peanut butter KitKat?).
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.