Monday, August 4, 2014
While in London earlier this year, I made sure to visit some of the finer chocolate shops. One I wanted to go to in particular was one of the Hotel Chocolat locations known as Roast+Conch, where they actually make some bean to bar chocolate. The location in the Borough Market in the Bankside district of London and includes a full restaurant that features cacao as an ingredient in every dish.
After eating a wonderful lunch, my mother and I browsed the store on the ground level. The cacao of the day was Trinidad, with the beans being served before lunch and some pieces of freshly made chocolate served at the end of the meal. So I was sure to pick up a bar of that. Then I also wanted to try another bar from their Rabot 1745 line. Though Hotel Chocolate uses Callebaut chocolate in their other confections, their Rabot line is made in conjunction with Coppeneur in Germany (one of my favorite chocolate makers). I didn’t know that at the time, but now it doesn’t surprise me at all.
I picked out a Venezuela Chuao 70% bar. Chuao cacao has a strong reputation as some of the best beans in the world (here’s a sampling of some bars I tasted a few years ago).
Hotel Chocolat gives extensive information about the handling of the beans and making of the cacao. The bar itself is 70% cacao with just three ingredients: cacao mass, cane sugar and soy lecithin.
The description of this bar from Hotel Chocolat goes something like this: Prima Donna with talent. She’s good and she knows it – an interplay of cream and caramel with malt and raisins, roast nuts and plenty of elegant poise.
Roasting time: 35min @135 C.
Refining & Conching: 72hrs
The bar is wonderfully dark with an interesting texture from the mold. Though it’s rather thick, it’s quite easy to snap.
The scent is woodsy with some green notes like jasmine and olives. The melt is smooth, though it has a bitter note right away, a sort of dryness that gives it an acidic bite. But the buttery texture makes that all quite palatable. I caught a burnt note to it, a sort of smoke but nothing that’s unpleasant. It doesn’t have some of the other nutty notes I enjoy in other Venezuelan chocolate, mostly those from Ocumare. But I’d definitely eat this again, mostly because the texture is so nice, especially since it’s such a high cacao content.
The bar itself just came in the cellophane sleeve with a label, there was no box. The label also didn’t say anything about the conch time or the harvest, just the date the bar was best by. The Hotel Chocolat website says that they use Trinitario beans (which makes sense, since they’re from Trinidad where the varietal originated).
It’s a 75% bar, so it’s only a little bit darker than the Chuao. The texture is far and away different, it’s grittier and sort of rustic in its overall flavors. It’s woodsy with some coffee and black pepper notes, a little toffee and brown sugar as well. It’s kind of bitter, but not overly dry at the finish. The meal we had in the restaurant started with these beans and then later finished with little medallions of chocolate also from Trinidad beans. I like the idea of buying chocolate that’s made right before my eyes, but the reality is that I prefer to eat the chocolate that’s been carefully crafted ... and I don’t have to witness it to enjoy it.
I’ve found that I like a long conch on my chocolate, part of what I like about a good chocolate bar is the texture. In most cases a long conch gives the cacao not only the time it needs to become smooth, but also for the flavors to develop. I did a taste test a few years back with some Coppeneur Chuao that had been conched 70 hours and 100 hours. Much of the mass-market chocolate we consume is conched for less than a day, some for two days ... I found that a 3 day conch is fine for me, anything over that gets kind of muddy in the flavor department but does create an amazingly smooth texture.
The Rabot 1745 line from Hotel Chocolat is a worthwhile way to experience single origin chocolate along with a lot of information about the making of the bar itself, as few chocolate makers include the origin, harvest date, roasting and conch time.
Monday, July 28, 2014
Wonka, a Nestle company, has been trying get traction with some newer candies over the past decade. There have been many introductions, but none have the staying power of some of the classic candies under the Wonka label, like Runts, SweeTarts and Nerds.
The new Wonka Randoms are billed as an Endless Gummy Variety because there are dozens of different shapes and colors possible, each bag is likely to be a unique mix of possibilities.
There are five different colors/flavors and three different textures.
The easiest version to spot is the transparent molded shapes which come in yellow, orange, pink, purple and red. Some also have a foamy white bottom with a transparent fruity top layer. Then the third version is also a foamy bottom, but they’re usually dome shaped and have a dollop of goo in the center under the transparent layer.
The variety of shapes is quite charming. Most are mundane and realistic, such as trains, crowns, ships, alligators, unicorns, pieces of candy (how meta), paintbrushes, footprints and bicycles.
The Pink are Strawberry, or something similar. It’s bright and tangy with a mellow jam quality instead of fresh fruit. They’re soft and with a balanced and dense flavor.
Orange are Orange. It was ordinary and a little disappointing, as it tasted more like an orange popsicle than a good, zesty orange gummy. The package says that the flavors and colors are all natural, and includes real orange and lemon juice.
Red is Cherry. This one was admirable. It had a light black currant note to it, a bit of tangy bite and less sweetness than the others.
Purple is Grape. I was rather surprised this was a flavor. I didn’t care much for it, as it was rather like eating generic purple jelly on toast at a diner. It was tangy and had a fruity note, but didn’t taste as good as some other grape gummis I’ve had from Japan.
Yellow is Lemon. It’s a very strong lemon flavor, with a blend of tartness, zest and sweetness. It had a concentrate note to it (which I always associate with aluminum, for some reason) but was very flavorful.
The Marshmallow Whip ones were very similar, but a bit bouncier from the aerated gummy base.It gives it a creamier note, but also dilutes the overall intensity of the flavor.
The Jam Filled were okay, the jam was mostly sweet, without much of its own flavor contribution. It definitely made the pieces a quicker chew, less dense.
Since Nestle is a global company, they have a much larger presence in Europe. Many of the Wonka products we know in the United States are under the Rowntree brand in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe. I first saw Rowntree Randoms in London when was there back in March and picked up a few little bags.
The Rowntree packaging doesn’t state where they’re made, but the Wonka Randoms are made in the Czech Republic, which is also where previous Wonka gummis (such as the Squishy Sploshberries and Sluggles) were also manufactured.
The molds and flavors were the same as far as I could tell.
Overall, the idea of so many different shapes in a single bag is delightful. The actual flavor variety doesn’t quite float my boat - I like pineapple and a wider range of citrus flavors in my gummis. These look great in a bowl and are fun to share. Many parents will appreciate that they use naturally derived flavors and colors. They’re not gluten free and there’s no statement about other allergens like peanuts and tree nuts.
Friday, July 25, 2014
For many years I have chronicled the demise of once-great candies that were cultural touchstones for generations of Americans. The usual trajectory of a candy like this is that the company making it compromises too many times with cheaper ingredients and formulas until consumers lose interest in the product entirely and it is quietly discontinued. No one misses it much, because it broke their heart before it died.
It’s rare to see a reversal. I’m glad to be here to tell you about it. Hershey’s Krackel bar was one of the last candy bars that Milton Hershey personally developed before he passed away. It was introduced in 1938 (and had nuts in as well, for a time). When the Hershey’s Miniatures were developed, it was one of the bars chosen to represent the favorite of the Hershey bar assortment. The single-serving bar always stood out at the candy counter, in a bold red wrapper and large letter with a made-up word for the name.
In 2006 Hershey’s discontinued the single-serving, king-size and larger sizes of the Krackel bar. It was still included in the Hershey’s Miniatures ... but with a substantial change to the formula, it was now “made with chocolate” but also adulterated with other vegetable oil fillers. (What they were, I can’t say, because Hershey’s would not disclose the ingredients at the time, though later packaging did list each bar separately.) At the same time Mr. Goodbar continued to be produced in all sizes, though they did move to the mockolate recipe.
With some small fanfare Hershey’s announced the return of the Krackel bar, citing shareholders as part of the reason for the return. The change to real chocolate was made in miniatures early this year and the bars returned in May. The current ingredients are:
I can’t exactly recall the actual Krackel bar any longer. I know I liked it as a kid and I know that I preferred it in the miniature version, because the chocolate was thicker. But other than that, I’ll have to judge the Krackel on its current merits without any comparisons because I don’t have a time machine and if I did, I probably wouldn’t use it to taste old candy recipes.
The bar smells sweet and lightly milky. It’s not like the regular Hershey’s chocolate that has that yogurty tang. Instead it’s just sort of fudgy, like cheap frosting. The crunches are good, they’re spaced out a bit, so it’s not terribly airy, just crunchy. Crisped rice often has malt in it, as this does, which usually gives Krackel a sort of malted-milk-ball-in bar-form vibe. Sadly, there’s not much going on here, though the hint of salt keeps it from being too sweet.
It’s much better than the previous mockolate version, though a far cry from being a good chocolate bar. It’s simply a passable candy bar.
I did pick up a Nestle Crunch bar at the same time, which has gone through a few formula changes over the years as well. The ingredients are similar, they’re both 1.55 ounces, though the Nestle has 10 more calories.
The ingredients on the Nestle Crunch are actually a bit better, with no preservatives or PGPR. When I tried the bar last time, I found it much better than previous versions, but not something I was likely to seek out.
As you can see from the comparison of the bars, the Crunch is on the bottom and has a lot more crisped rice in it. I did prefer the airy texture and crispy rice, but the chocolate flavor was nearly impossible to discern. As a piece of candy, it was passable. As a chocolate bar with crisped rice, it was very disappointing.
The Hershey’s chocolate texture was a bit better, but that could be that there was just a slightly higher chocolate ratio, since there were fewer crisped rice bits.
Neither comes out a huge winner, really. I like both package designs. Both are made in the United States. Neither Nestle or Hershey’s are using ethically source chocolate yet. (Though Nestle does have a “Cocoa Plan”, its little seals are just to direct you to information about its plan, not as a notation that this bar is actually using traceable cacao.)
You can see more examples of classic Krackel wrappers here.
I’m still going to say that the Trader Joe’s Crispy Rice Milk Chocolate is my favorite. Though the ingredients don’t differ that much, there are no preservatives and no PGPR and it has 18% cacao content (about 1.5x the amount of Hershey’s). Still ... even though it’s made with Belgian chocolate, I don’t know the sourcing of it, but would like to see Trader Joe’s give some assurances about the ethical sourcing in the future.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
DeMet’s may have invented the name Pecan Turtle, but they haven’t done much to exemplify the greatness of the combination. They’re mediocre, but at the very least, easy to find at many major drug store chains.
The bags are on the expensive side, mine was $3.79 for only 5 ounces, which is over $12 a pound.
My first bag, purchased at a Walgreen’s not far from my house was bloomed slightly, as you can tell. It didn’t seem to affect the texture, but after I saw heard from a neighbor that stopped by to pick up a prescription a week later that Walgreen’s was shut down by the health department for vermin infestation, I decided to source another bag. (I really wasn’t concerned, it was fully sealed, but figured the candy deserved a chance to shine - but I was pretty miffed about the condition of the chocolate from Walgreen’s, so I’m unlikely to buy chocolate from that location again.) I didn’t re-photograph, though, since it was oppressively hot in my home and just as likely to bloom the new bag.
Even the new bag with its well-tempered pieces was still scuffed, so they didn’t look that dissimilar.
They’re mini turtles, so it’s not a complicated concept. What I was hoping was that each turtle would be a single pecan.
They’re cute and bite sized, a great concept really when it comes to this type of candy, which can get flaky and messy when eating in several bites.
The chocolate is marginal, to the point where I had to re-read the ingredients several times to make sure it was real. It’s sweet and not overly smooth or with much of a chocolate intensity. That said, it’s a good companion to the caramel, which is nicely chewy without being too sticky. The caramel didn’t have much of a salty or toffee flavor pop to it, but held everything together. The biggest disappointment is the shortage of actual pecans in my turtles. It’s like the turtle had only two or three legs, not a full four plus a head and tail.
If given a choice, and no budget, I’d probably seek out See’s Pecan Buds. They’re about twice the price and slightly larger, but so obviously fresher with whole pecans and higher quality chocolate. But, if I were trying to find something a little more on the decadent side for watching a movie or perhaps traveling, these might fit the bill.
Turtles, of course, contain milk, tree nuts and soy ingredients. They’re also processed on equipment with wheat, other tree nuts and peanuts. There’s no information about the sourcing of the chocolate itself.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Ghirardelli has a very large and varied line of chocolate bars and individually wrapped squares. This year they also introduced a new line of Ghirardelli minis in five varieties: Milk & Caramel, Milk Chocolate Sea Salt Almond, Milk Chocolate Toffee Crisp, Dark Chocolate minis and Sweet Dark Chocolate Cookie Bits minis.
The package explains that “minis are the sweet way to share your love of chocolate ... anytime, anywhere.” The bag is rather slight at only 4.1 ounces but is priced comparably (per ounce) to the bars. I chose the Sweet Dark Chocolate Cookie Bits because it was a flavor I’d never seen in the bars or the standard squares before. Unfortunately the package doesn’t detail the cacao percentage.
The packaging is a beautiful matte, medium blue that I found very appealing. The wrappers are also easy to open, which I appreciate when spending a little more on my candy.
I have to say that I don’t understand the point of these. They squares are 7 grams each, while the regular Ghirardelli Squares are 10.75 - so they’re about 2/3 the size of the original version. They’re a little thicker, but not unwrapped like so many Bites and Minis are these days. (Not that I think they would fare well jumbled in a bag, they’d probably break and get scuffed up instead looking incredibly charming.
The little squares are about one inch on each side. The smell is odd for a chocolate product, it reminds me of frosting in a can, overly sweet with more of a cocoa and vanilla extract scent than the complex smell of chocolate.
The bite is easy, and the thickness of the chocolate means that the little cookie bits have space to stack up and provide some texture. The cookie pieces are crunchy and less than sweet overall, which is a welcome change from the chocolate itself. The chocolate is smooth, but like the smell, tastes a bit on the fake side. I know it’s not, that it’s probably the cookies giving off that smell, but it just turned me off from the experience. I was hoping for some sort of deluxe version of the Limited Edition Hershey’s that come out from time to time, but here I found it no better.
I’m still keen to try some of the other flavors, this minis line seems to be a bit more on the comfort candy side of flavor combinations than the regular line, which I think is fun. This one just didn’t work for me.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.