Monday, August 18, 2014
It seems odd that I picked up Jelly Belly jelly beans while I was in London, but this particular box isn’t available here. I bought this cute little pocket-sized flip-top box of Jelly Belly Beanaturals: 14 Flavors at Selfridges.
These beans are made in Thailand. In fact, if you see Jelly Belly candy in a store outside of North America, it’s probably going to be the Thai-made version. Many European countries have strict rules about genetically modified ingredients, the factory there uses non-GMO sugar and non-GMO glucose syrup (from tapioca instead of corn. (You can read more about that here.)
So, in addition to being free of any GMO ingredients, the beans are also made with all natural flavorings and colorings. They’re kosher, made in a nut free facility and gluten free. This is actually not that different from many of the jelly beans and other candies that Jelly Belly offers ... except for that GMO thing. Jelly Belly has plenty of beans mixes that are all natural ... so what I’m really trying out here is the European version.
The box is not large and only holds 1.59 ounces, so there were not even that many beans in there considering there were going to be 14 different flavors. In my assortment I had six Lime. Only one Barbecue Banana, but six Lime beans. These are the hazards of random distribution.
The first thing I noticed was how quickly the beans lose their freshness. The box was shrinkwrapped, and when I photographed them over the weekend, the beans I ate were soft and normal. But later in the week, oh, about Wednesday, when I worked on this post in earnest, they were suddenly hard. They were kept in the flip top box, closed, out of the sun and within a reasonable temperature span. Yet they were stiff and, well, stale.
Lime (light green) is nicely rounded, a little bitter towards the end and missing more of the juicy tartness.
Plum (dark maroon) is sweet and sort of like actual plum ...maybe just the plum skin but not much of the fruity, juicy notes.
Barbecue Banana (speckled yellow) is quite nice. Very sweet but the banana does have more of a baked sweetness to it, instead of the artificial vanilla note. I actually thought I only had one of these until I realized later that I had a bunch of opaque yellow ones that weren’t lemon leftover that were banana. Yum.
Orange (orange) is sweet but with a zesty note towards the end. It reminded me more of an orange jelly slice than a jelly bean as it lacked that tart bite.
Tangerine (orange) was really similar to the orange, so much so, I wasn’t sure they were different except that there were several of those and they were definitely a lighter orange. I wanted something intensely orange with that hint of lemon that real tangerines have. They were fine, but I really had my hopes up.
Lemon (yellow) was in the citrus zone that I hoped Tangerine would be. It was both sweet and tart and had a strong lemon peel bitterness at the top.
Cherry (red) was good. It was fruity without any hint of the bitterness that artificial colors can bring. The flavor also lasted a while, with a sort of jasmine floral finish.
Strawberry Jam (light pink) was actually more like jam than fresh strawberries. This left it more on the sweet side, without that delightful cotton candy floral note, but still good and nice in combination with my many Lime beans.
Juicy Pear (medium green) was weird and grassy and maybe even a little garlicky ... to the point where I was wondering if I got a Bernie Bott’s bean by mistake. But I only had one of these beans, so there was no way for me to get someone else’s opinion.
Pineapple (uncolored) was bland overall, like canned pineapple instead of the fresh stuff. Too much syrup and not enough acid.
Passion Fruit (speckled orange) is okay, it actually didn’t taste like much except for that generic “tropical candle” flavor.
Coconut (white with small speckles) tastes undeniably like coconut. It just does. Sometimes I thought there were actually coconut bits in it. You’d think it would go well with Pineapple ... and you’d be right.
Yup, there’s one missing here ... I didn’t get any Fruit Punch in my box. I’m okay with that.
I don’t think I’ve had this issue with the beans getting really hard so quickly before. Jelly Beans are one of those candies that is intended to be put in an open container for serving ... a bowl of jelly beans. If they can’t take being in a closed but not sealed box for several days without losing their freshness, I’m not sure I can commit to eating the full box (I know, it’s less than 2 ounces) within a day.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
I mostly chew gum made with sugar, not because I necessarily want sugar in my gum, but because it’s so hard to find sugar free gum that’s not made with artificial sweeteners like aspartame (NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (AceK) and saccharine. It’s very rare to find a gum like the PUR line that is sugarless but also made only with xylitol, which is a sugar alcohol. Xylitol has been around for years and is often used in sugar free mints and gums, though usually in combination with artificial sweeteners. It has a light ans sweet note to it, but like most sugar alcohols, it also has an odd cooling effect on the tongue (which is usually a desirable feature for mints).
The PUR Gum is is gluten free, nut free, dairy free, vegan and free of GMO ingredients. I’ve tried the other flavors that were introduced when the gum line launched about three years ago: Peppermint, Spearmint and Pomegranate Mint. I liked them quite a bit, though they’re not easy to find.
The pieces are simple chiclets, rounded rectangular pieces, a little rustic and uneven, measuring about 3/4 of an inch long and about 1/3 of an inch wide. A serving, for me, is two pieces. (With actual Chiclets it’s usually 3 pieces at a time.)
The chew is very soft at first, with a very cool note on top and a strong sweetness before the other flavors kick in. The sweetness is not the same as sugar, it’s less round, cool on the tongue and rather slippery.
The flavor is very odd. At first it was a bit on the wintergreen side, which some people find medicinal ... or repulsive. There are other notes to it, a little hint of eucalyptus and then another more balsam note, it reminded me of mastic, which is a resin that’s also used a chewing gum in the Mediterranean. (If you’ve never had mastic, it’s also similar in its flavor profile to tea tree oil, which is not meant to be eaten but is found in many natural personal care products.)
The wintergreen notes dissolve away and all that seemed to be left was that sort of resin note with a hint of something like jasmine tea. It’s pleasant, at least for me and did definitely freshen my mouth after eating some curry for lunch.
Cinnamon is predictable and comforting. It’s woodsy and a little on the clove side of spicy, but has a wonderful warming hotness to it. The intense and rounded flavors dissipate pretty quickly, but the lingering flavor is just sweet and with the lightest tough of cinnamon.
There’s no weird bitter note, either, which I think is often caused by artificial colors. There are no colors here, so it’s all about the gum flavor. The xylitol sweetness lasts for a while, I’d say the pieces are satisfying for about 15 minutes. After I tossed the gum, I still had that lingering warmth of the cinnamon for at least a half an hour. It definitely cut through coffee breath.
I’d probably still stick with the Peppermint (from the original review) for a gum to keep in my desk, but for travel, I think I would go with the Coolmint because I really felt like chewing the pieces longer than the other flavors. It’s a little expensive and the packaging takes up a lot of space for such a small amount of gum. (I might like it if the blister pack was scored so I could just tear off a few of them to keep them in my little case that I take on airplanes.)
The gum is not easy to find, and not cheap. I’ve seen it at natural food stores and grocers, such as Sprouts and Erewhon.
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.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.