« May 2006 | Main | July 2006 »

June 30, 2006

Chocolate Safari Goes Super-Sized

For a couple of weeks now I've been putting in some work on planning a Chocolate Safari on an extravagant scale. Barring unforseen mishaps I will be heading for New York City this November to visit the big Chocolate Show. And the Chocolate Show is only the tip of the chocolate iceberg (ooooh, that's a good image). New York City is home to more than a few shops that carry fine imported chocolate and I plan to get myself a nice variety of bars I haven't tried yet. But even better is the array of top notch chocolatiers and candy shops and restaurants that are scattered across the city. And I plan to hit a lot.

The current plan (again barring unforseen mishaps) is to do it up as a real vacation since I haven't taken a one in a few years (storm chasing is far from a relaxed vacation and you stay where you can). I'm trying to narrow down my hotel choice (not yet sure how high end I want to go) and hope to have my mind made up in a few days. I'm aiming to fly out on Wednesday the 8th. I hope to catch a show or something on Wednesday night then spend Thursday being a tourist (and buying chocolate). Thursday night there are a pair of Chocolate Show pre-events that I'm considering. One of them is open to the public (for a fee) and the other is for the press. I don't know yet whether I'll be considered a lowly blogger or a respected member of the press so the press event might not even be an option. Friday I plan to spend at the Chocolate Show. Saturday I'm going to play by ear. I don't know whether I'll need a second day at the show or not. I kind of hope not because I have a lot of ground to cover on seeing some of the city and buying a lot of the chocolate. I plan on flying home Sunday so that day is pretty much shot.

The big event that may take both Thursday and Saturday is going to be the New York City Chocolate Crawl. I plan on hitting about lot of chocolatiers and a few other interesting places and taking millions of pictures along the way. I'm working on trying to narrow down my list of places I want to visit, but it keeps growing when I'm not looking.

Yeah. I don't think there is any chance - AT ALL - that I will even manage half of that. But nobody can say I'm not ambitious. This is where my plans stand as of right now. I have put in for the days off at work and am getting ready to try and enlist a rabbit sitter. I have narrowed my hotel choices down somewhat and am getting ready to book my hotel and flight in the next couple of days. Then I just spend the months between now and then working on a more solid chocolate tour itinerary

June 29, 2006

Review: Chocolove Organic 73% Dark Chocolate

Every week I make the rounds of all of the stores around me that have anything that even resembles chocolate in hopes of finding something new and special to try. Usually it’s just more of the same old same old (not that there is anything wrong with lots of Chocolove, Dagoba, and Green & Black’s). This past week Wild Oats gave me a big surprise in the form of the new(ish) Chocolove Organic bars! I’ve been searching high and low for these for weeks now and finally I have them in my possession (do I sound obsessive?). Up for review tonight is the Chocolove Organic 73% Dark Chocolate bar.

The first thing of note about these new bars is the wrapper. It’s sort of transparent. It’s somewhere between wax paper and butcher’s paper and covers a more standard gold foil wrap. The transparent wrap, while a neat change, does not have the standard love poem inside (Chocolove puts love poems on the inside of the wrapper of their normal bars – it’s neat!). Aside from that the wrap is quite nice.

Moving on! There is very little to say about the ingredients (organic cocoa liquor, organic sugar and organic cocoa butter) so I’ll move on to the bar itself. It has a hint of that smell I associate with organic chocolate. It’s a good pure cocoa aroma: not overly sweet and there is a dark fruity tang to it. The flavor isn’t overly complex. It opens immediately tangy with a hint of apple and the tang carries through it. It isn’t overly sweet, in spite of sugar being the second ingredient. It is nicely bitter but not quite as strong as I had expected. There are hints of other things in the flavor (coffee for one), but it’s mostly just a pure tangy dark chocolate. It closes with a lingering tangy sweetness – sweeter then the open or middle. The cocoa butter gives it a smooth and only slightly dry texture – not as dry as some dark chocolates I’ve tried but still a little dry.

The funniest thing about this bar is that it has only a hint of the organic aroma and flavor that I’ve enjoyed in other organic bars. If you were to pick it up and eat it without thinking you might not realize it’s organic. As a first foray into organic chocolates this is excellent. It is a simple chocolate for eating whose flavor doesn’t hit terribly hard but is a laid back and enjoyable dark. If you are looking for complexity you probably won’t find it here but you will find a fine treat. As long as it remains readily available this will be on my short list of good snacking chocolates. I’ll give it a 8.75 out of 10. Very nice.

June 22, 2006

Review: NewTree Sexy

I’ve been curious about Newtree since I first read about them a few months back. They do what you could call “mood chocolate”. Each of the all natural bars has a sort of theme to it and (with the exception of Pleasure which is straight dark chocolate) a little something extra to make it special. There were three varieties at the store and I really only felt like having the Sexy bar because I was in the mood for ginger (though I'm not too sure about the guarana in it). Their description of the Sexy bar from their site:

SEXY is chocolate in stilettos. Spice up your day with dark chocolate, warmed by the taste of ginger. Naturally stimulating guarana extract adds an extra perk for a seductive treat. Chocolate and spice and everything nice!

Sounds like a winner to me (so long as I avoid eating it too late). Spicy, gingery, and energizing chocolate just sounds good to me. I like that sort of thing.

At first whiff you can tell it is going to live up to the promise of the description when it comes to being spicy. There is ginger in the smell but there is something more. Something like an orange spiced cider going on in there. There is a citrus thing, but it’s spicy. The bar is well formed and snaps nicely.

Upon tasting I found a slow start that wasn’t as spicy as the aroma promised. The chocolate is smooth but it isn’t very strong. It’s like it’s a delivery medium for the spice. The spice makes the scene shortly after the initial light cocoa wave and it’s pretty nice. The ginger isn’t overly sweet and the entire thing is sort of warm in the mouth. It remains spicy with a hint of citrus (sort of orange, but not as sweet) coming in at the finish and then lingering on.

I have mixed feelings about this bar. The chocolate takes a back seat to the other elements and I feel it could have been better with a stronger chocolate. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The bar is tasty and warm and nice, just not really chocolaty. I’ll call it a 7 out of 10.

June 17, 2006

Chocolate Safari - 2nd Quarter 2006 Edition

A couple of weeks back I turned the car south and headed for my quarterly pilgrimage to Jungle Jim's. For those who haven't been around for prior safaris Jungle Jim's is a grocery store on insane steroids. They have a produce section larger than my local Trader Joe's store - the entire store. The cheese section is huge as is the deli. The beer and wine selection is amazing. They have an enormous meat section and the seafood section features live fish (a few varieties including some very pretty rainbow trout), crab, and lobster. The international foods section is as big if not bigger than most of the local grocery stores. Their hot sauce selection has over 1300 sauces and is the largest retail selection in the US. They have an enormous array of sodas from smaller companies, bottled product from some of the bigger companies including Dublin Dr. Pepper (original recipe - real sugar), and some imports like Dutch and Mexican Coke (real sugar - no corn syrup). And then there is the chocolate. There are chocolate and chocolate products sprinkled throughout the international sections. The array of Cadbury products in the Great Britain section is almost frightening and they have local color in the French, Italian, Irish, Dutch, German, and other sections. But for me it's all about the chocolate aisle.

There are really five parts to the chocolate aisle as I see it. The first section would have to be the normal candy aisle. I tend to look at stuff there, but not buy. This time around they had the Double Chocolate Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and they sounded interesting enough to try, especially on sale. There wasn't a lot else there that I wanted to try. I had been hoping for a Dark Chocolate 100 Grand bar (which I can't find anywhere), but no luck. Eh, moving on.

The next part of the chocolate selection I hit is also separate from the rest of the chocolate because it's in the natural foods section. There they have a nice array of Dagoba, Equal Exchange (I though I had seen it there - they have their coffee as well), Chocolove, Divine, Thompson, Newman's Own and probably a couple of others I'm forgetting. Green & Black's tends to not be in the natural foods section for some reason and I can't even begin to guess why. So, on my way through I grabbed a Chocolove Chocolatour Grenada Vintage 2004 bar since I had eaten the one I purchased previously without reviewing it (oops). They didn't have any of the Vintage 2005 bars in yet or I would have grabbed some.

The third part is the backside of the chocolate aisle proper where they have cocoa and body chocolate and a lot of liquid chocolate type products. I kind of skipped over this section and moved on to the next which is really another candy section. This one has more specialized candies than the standard candy aisle fare. They have scorpion pops (a lolipop with a real scorpion in it) and other creepy candies. There is a vast array of Kopper's products including the Tiramisu Almonds I had been eager to try. It didn't make the picture, but I grabbed some to give them a try.

And I at last arrived at the main event, the chocolate aisle proper. There they have bars from more than a dozen companies many of which I haven't even heard of outside of Jim's. Once again I had been hoping for a single origin tasting kit from either Dagoba, Valrhona, Cluizel, or E. Guittard but once again they had none. I settled for a bar of E. Guittard Ambanja Bittersweet, a 65% cacao single origin chocolate from Madagascar. I almost grabbed a Scharffen Berger Gianduja bar but they had a funny smell to them so I left them alone. I decided that I would settle for another Vosges bar and grabbed the Black Pearl bar, which has ginger, wasabi, black sesame seeds in 55% cacao dark chocolate. Not that I was really "settling" since I love their bars. The next two bars I grabbed were from Choco-Lina, a company that makes sheep's milk chocolates and puts cute sheep on their labels. One was a Bourbon Vanilla white chocolate and the other was a Pumpkinseed 70% dark chocolate bar (also with sheep's milk). Curiousity got the best of me on these. I loved the sound of a good bourbon vanilla and the pumpkinseed one just really made me curious.

Satisfied with my small haul of chocolate goodies (and some soda, hot sauce, and potato chips) I made my way toward the exit and stopped to see what the new impulse buy items are. There is always an array of new and interesting candy near the registers and this time they had the Hershey's Sweet and Salty Granola Bar (with pretzels!) and that sounded just dandy (it sounded so much better than it turned out to be) so I tossed it in the cart and checked out.

I love this store beyond words and I'm beginning to think that once every three months might not be enough. Even at an hour and a half each way I don't mind the drive when there is a store this great at the end of it. And, in a few days when things are a little less hectic, I'm going to have a lot of fun tearing into these items and reviewing them. Also, next time I go to Jungle Jim's I'm going to try and get them to let me take pictures. Photography is not allowed and I feel like it's limiting me in my ability to describe just how great this store is.

June 10, 2006

Sweet and Salty Satiation

As I've rambled on about in a couple of posts now I have lately had a desire for things that are both sweet and salty. I've tried the Vosges Barcelona bar and the Choxie Peanut Butter Pretzel bar with great success and the Hershey's Sweet and Salty Granola bar with somewhat less success. After the three of them I was left still wanting something else. I loved the pretzels in them and in a random Take 5 I grabbed at the gas station before heading for Cinci but I wanted something that was substantial and not overly sweet. I took a look at some chocolate covered pretzels at the store but wasn't thrilled with either the brand or the price and found myself wondering why you couldn't get chocolate covered pretzels made with good chocolate for a reasonable price. It's not like pretzels are all that expensive and as long as they don't double the pretzel's mass with chocolate that shouldn't add too much to the price either. Heck, I thought to myself, I could make these for nothing.

Ah, epiphany.

I grabbed a $2 bag of pretzel rods and a half pound of El Rey Gran Saman at Whole Foods. My only chocies for bulk (I.e. not in the box - I won't touch those little boxes of Scharffen Berger - they are crazy expensivo and I can get bulk online for a LOT less) are really Callebaut at Wild Oats (which is a bit of a drive), Ghirdelli at Trader Joes (which is acceptable I suppose), and El Rey (which is very nice). I really like the El Rey and Whole Foods is slightly more convenient for me so it was a simple choice. So, with my bounty of salty pretzel and bittersweet chocolate (and treats for the rabbit) I headed home.

So I fire up the tempering machine (even though it probably wasn't necessary to temper the chocolate), toss in my chocolate and set to sorting my pretzels. All of the broken ones were set aside for random munching at a later time. All of the whole rods were gathered close at hand for coating. I put down a sheet of parchment paper and spread out a few pretzel rods to act as a cooling rack and I was ready to go. About 45 minutes later I'm sitting on top of a huge stack of ugly chocolate-coated pretzel sticks! I didn't bother coating with nuts for some unknown reason (I need to coat them with nuts next time - gotta remember that) and in retrospect I should have gone with the Bucare 58% instead of the Gran Saman but the end product is darn tasty and a pretty good bargain for the yield.

Bag of Pretzel Rods: $2.00
~1/2 lb El Rey Gran Saman: $4.00

How's that for a nice cheap pile of sweet and salty pretzel goodness? And I used expensive chocolate – I can get Ghirardelli for $3.50 a pound, which would go a long way to cheapening this. And adding nuts to the equation won't raise the price a whole lot (so long as you don't utterly bury them in nuts). If you want to get really fancy shmancy you could dip them in caramel or peanut butter before you coat with chocolate. It's a great quick little project. It’s cheap, relatively easy, and not even very messy. It’s also a fun one to do with the kids. My sister did regular sized pretzels with my nephews and they had a blast and turned out some great snackage.

It’s amazing the quality of snacky stuff one can turn out in little to no time and at a fraction of what a similar product would cost elsewhere.

June 7, 2006

Review: Hershey's Sweet & Salty Granola Bar

On the Trail of the Sweet and salty that I've been jonesing for lately I picked up this Hershey's Sweet & Salty Granola Bar thing. It says it has pretzels on the label and that's usually enough to get me interested so I grabbed it. I was on safari and like to get a couple of more candy-ish products to go along with the finer chocolate and this was filling that role in my cart. Plus I was curious as to when and why Hershey's decided that it needed to start making granola bars. I can see selling their chocolate and or name to an established company and getting some co-branding but to take the plunge and do it on their own is an interesting move.

On to the product. I love the Take 5 bar so I figured that this would be good stuff as well. First stop: ingredients! Is it a bad sign that the first ingredient in a chocolate and granola bar is high maltose corn syrup? I'm not sure I've even heard of high maltose corn syrup. Another interesting item is PGPR which I'm pretty sure I've never heard of. There are a number of interesting items in there: vanillin, PGPR, soy lecithin, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup, and two vegetable oils. A little on the frightening side of things, but I'll try just about anything once.

Moving on, it smells pretty nice - sweet with a hint of chocolate. The granola has a sugar-gloss shine to it (no surprise given the slurry of corn syrups) and there is a small layer of chocolate underneath it all. The taste isn't quite what I expected. It isn't nearly as sweet as I thought a "Sweet and Salty" bar would be. And I can barely taste the chocolate which for a product with the name "Hershey's" on the label is a bit of a puzzler. The granola - a mix of peanuts, oats, crisped rice, and pretzel bits - has a nice texture to it but is more salty than I would like. It's not a very strong saltiness, it's just sort of everywhere. It's pervasive ($5 word!). The whole "salt everywhere" thing doesn't bother me in other products (like a Payday) but here it just isn't really offset by anything and leaves me with a sting in my throat and the corners of my mouth. And I was disappointed that while they show a lovely pretzel on the packaging you get itty bitty smashed up pretzel bits mixed in it as opposed to the more satisfying crunch of a whole pretzel.

The bar, which was brimming with potential, left me a bit cold. It wasn't quite the sweet and salty that I was hoping for. To be honest I threw half of it away. I just didn't want any more of it. Some may like it with it's salty approach to things, but it isn't working for me. Not at all. 4 out of 10 stars. Bleah.

June 5, 2006

Review: Vosges Barcelona Bar - PLUS NEWS!

Some days life just smiles on you in unexpected ways. I recently took a little detour on my way to the mall and found that a little gourmet market (that I never really thought of as a gourmet market) just a short distance from my apartment has Vosges bars! Of course it was a day after taking a trip to Cincinnati to find chocolate - a day that saw me come home with one of their bars in my bag. A day late or not, I'm just happy that I have easy access to tasty chocolate. Variety is a good thing.

Lately I've been in the mood for sweet and salty stuff so the Barcelona Bar was an easy choice for me. The Barcelona is a nice 40% cacao dark milk chocolate with gray sea salt and smoked almonds. With big grains of salt and nuts it fit both my love of chocolate with crunchy bits and my need for something salty. The chocolate is a nice milk chocolate that isn't overly sweet and has a nice caramel note to it and on it's own is reasonably nice. Vosges were pretty generous with the nuts in the chocolate so you get a bit of nut in every bite which is wonderful, but the star of the show is the sea salt. Since they use nice big grain sea salt you don't taste salt all the time, but you'll bite down and there will be a little crunch and a small explosion of salt. I really like that it is spread throughout the bar just like the nuts and not a constant factor. And the distribution of salt and nuts is very even. There was never a bite that was overpowered by three or four salt crystals and never a bite that was just overloaded with nuts. I tend to look for balance and this bar achieves it.

In the end we have another nice bar from our friends at Vosges sporting their trademark packaging and a nice mix of smoky almonds and salt. If you don't like the sweet and salty flavor combination then this isn't the bar for you. If, however, you're like me you'll find a very snack-worthy bar. The only problem with it is price. Retail is supposed to be $7.00 (though I think they were selling for $5.99 where I bought this one) which is a bit steep but I tend to feel that it's worth it now an then to get a bar that's a cut above the standard grocery store and mini-mart fare. I'll give this one an 8.5 out of 10 and will definitely repeat when the need hits me. Not every day, mind, but when the mood takes me I'll be back for more.

New Vosges incoming!
A look at the chocolate bars page on the Vosges site had me scratching my head for a minute. I was positive that I hadn't seen some of these bars before and - sure enough - I hadn't. On the way are the Goji, Calindia, Gianduja (mega-yay!), and d'Olivia bars. I'm not too sure about the d'Olivia (neither white chocolate nor olives do a lot for me) but all of the others have me at least curious. Gonna have to try them all. And I still have one other on deck not to mention the other varieties I haven't tried. So much good chocolate to look forward to!

June 1, 2006

Review: Scharffen Berger Kumasi Sambirano

After the wonder that is the Scharffen Berger Jamaica á l'ancienne bar I had high high hopes for their other limited edition offering of the moment: the 68% cacao Kumasi Sambirano. The bar is made with beans from Madagascar and Ghana to show the diversity of African chocolate. Reading the write-up from Scharffen Berger (which can’t decide where Madagascar is) I knew what they think I’m supposed to find from the bar. I had my own opinion. Having read previously that Madagascar is characterized by a delicate citrus flavor I was expecting the Ghana to overpower the Madagascar. I was looking forward to seeing if I was right or about to be proven wrong in a pleasant manner.

The packaging is relatively dark – green and leafy with mostly black text - but attractive. Popping it open you find a bar with a beautiful medium-dark brown color and clean molding and the snap is all you expect from a high quality bar. The aroma… tells me that I might have judged the bar too early. The aroma is bright and carries citrus and floral notes on a earthy base. It smells nice and the aroma hints that they might have succeeded in marrying the two beans well.

Before I talk about the taste I have to say that I do not know, beyond reading about it, what Ghana or Madagascar chocolate tastes like. I can’t say whether one overpowers the other or if there is any sort of balance. Add to that my inexperience at tasting chocolate and my horribly undeveloped palate and you may find yourself disagreeing with every word that follows. All I can offer is my ignorant opinion of the experience.

And what I find is a lovely flavor with a bright citrus note (lemon to my taste buds) and an earthy background. It is not at all sour and only lightly acidic. The flavor moves from a light, slightly earthy cocoa opening to citrus in the middle and on to a lingering floral finish. From what I’ve read regarding Ghana and Madagascar they seem to have succeeded in making a bar that shows off elements of both.

I really enjoyed the bar a lot (Do I say this in every review? I think I do. It feels like I do.). It was quite tasty and offered a different experience than any I’ve had to date. I would like to have it on a more regular basis if it weren’t for the price. Of course if it weren’t a limited edition it probably wouldn’t cost $8.00 a bar. Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot and I can recommend it to any who are curious about the combination and don’t mind the hefty price tag. Overall I’ll give it a 8.75 out of 10.

Also, the name is fun to say. Kumasi!