Monday, October 29, 2012

Mast Brothers: Black Truffle

This was probably the most expensive chocolate bar I've ever enjoyed, at $14. Its provenance warrants the price tag: this is a candy bar born of a marriage between three heretofore non-consensual parties, hailing all from different continents. They are:

1.)  74% cacao from the Dominican Republic, concocted in as pure a manner as possible, with just a bit of cane sugar and no milk fat or cocoa butter, and left to sit for a month before the final melting so that its full flavors can emerge.

2.) A subterranean mushroom, sprouted from a spore transported by a fungivorous ground animal and harvested from the forests of Italy.

3.) Sea salt from coastal Maine.

And never the twain shall meet, until they got mixed up together in an artisanal chocolate factory near the Williamsburg waterfront. The Mast Brothers have said that they don't "dumb down" their chocolate, by which they mean they leave out those fatty emulsifiers that most purveyors incorporate to make chocolate more user-friendly. I sometimes find that this approach results in a product that's just no fun -- one made with more attention to process and presentation than deliciousness. Eating chocolate is not supposed to be a chore, nor a history lesson, nor a geography lesson, nor a reverent nod to oldey-timey crafts.

This bar didn't quite work for me, but not for lack of fun -- it was decadent, unusual, and disorienting, and an interesting experience well worth the price tag. But when you don't "dumb down" chocolate, its boldness conquers everything in its path, and butts heads unsuccessfully with equally all-consuming flavors like the black truffle. Sometimes, excess layered upon excess works. But sometimes, it backfires in messy self-destruction. It calls to mind: "before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Chuao: Potato Chips

Imagine my surprise upon finding this chocolate bar at the checkout counter of Taste of World Bean, the oddly named coffee shop at LaGuardia Airport.

First of all: let me say that that anyone who thinks we're here to talk about uppity snacks and unusual snacks and quirky snacks has entirely the wrong idea about this place. Potato chips is one of those things that most people seem to like and find somewhat irresistible when presented with them, but rarely do potato chips get their due as one of the best snacks in the world -- as one of the most top notch, fantastic snacks in the world.

That's how I feel about them, anyway. So imagine what a pleasure it must have been to discover one first-rate snack packaged within another first-rate snack, all wrapped up and displayed thoughtfully at a mediocre airport coffee shop, where an unsuspecting snack enthusiast could happen upon it at 7:00 AM, en route to South Carolina.

Chuao: Potato Chips
Cocoa content: 41%
Notable ingredients: Kettle chips
Origin: Venezuela

If you're wondering whether the potato chips maintained their crunchy texture: they did. If you're wondering whether most crunchy-textured snacks manage to maintain their crunchy texture when encased in chocolate, but you're not sure because you haven't had many such snacks, I can tell you that they do not.

I'm not sure how Chuao pulled off this feat, but suffice it to say that crunchy and creamy -- and salty and sweet, respectively -- melded together in perfect harmony, making this chocolate bar a particularly successful marriage of two foods that are consistently successful on their own. A.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Beer Table: PB&J

Surely I've made my beliefs known on the topic of things manifested as other things. But just as surely, I've demonstrated my love of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches dressed up like chocolate bars (here, here, etc.) There's no other sandwich that so perfectly lends itself to to being encased in chocolate.

Beer Table: PB&J
Cocoa content: n/a (probably around 35%)
Notable ingredients: peanut butter; jelly
Origin: n/a

I spotted this bar at the Beer Table Pantry in Grand Central -- a to-go outpost of the original Beer Pantry in Brooklyn -- and a space so tiny that only two customers can really fit inside at a time. I went in pursuit of beer, and left with this chocolate bar and a bottle of the tart Oude Gueuze Tilquin a l'Ancienne.

This bar, more than other PB & J bars that I've tried, truly tasted like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because of the understated chocolate, and the crispy bits laced throughout the peanut butter, posing as bread. Which is to say -- this bar could have been an actual peanut butter and sandwich, and not much would be lost; with such un-chocolatey chocolate, a chocolate bar need not be a chocolate bar.

All of the ingredients were a little lackluster. The jelly was a stiff sheet of fruit paste with neither seeds nor any distinct fruit flavor (given -- I lost the wrapper. But still, you should be able to determine from whence a jelly came without much help, and I could not.) The peanut butter was dry and under-sweet. And whereas a rich, milky chocolate could have heightened both components, this chocolate was shy and thin-skinned.

Next time, I'll stick to beer. This bar gets a C.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Vosges: Gingerbread Toffee Bar

Please excuse this long sabbatical -- I've been wrapped up in other things, but I wanted to stop in to tell you about a bar I've recently Known. This particular one was a Hanukkah present. It comes from Vosges, the excellent chocolate store with locations in Soho and the Upper East Side. Oddly, most high end chocolate stores seem to be concentrated in and around these two neighborhoods.

Vosges: Gingerbread Toffee Bar
Cocoa content: 65%
Notable ingredients: allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, toffee
Origin: n/a

This is one of Vosges's limited edition candy bars, probably just released for the holiday season. I thought it was going to be amazing because I'm a huge fan of gingerbread, but as it turns out, gingerbread is one of those things that you can only expect to enjoy when it is entirely itself -- in other words -- not trying to lend its graces to other treats, candies, cookies, pastries, and the like. With the exception of cookies -- gingerbread cookies are great -- nothing is a good vehicle for gingerbread spices. If you've had a disgusting gingerbread latte at Starbucks, then you already know.

I don't know what I expected -- for there to be little nuggets of chewy gingerbread tucked into the chocolate bar? Needless to say, there were not. The word "gingerbread" on the bar actually just indicates the presence of spices commonly used in gingerbread -- allspice, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. And the bar wasn't simply flavored with these spices -- rather, the toffee was flavored with these spices, and the toffee was -- allegedly -- strewn throughout the bar. So, at this point we're about 3 degrees of separation away from gingerbread, the advertised star of this bar.

As it turns out, there wasn't even any detectable toffee, really. There was something crunchy, which I still can't identify, and there was a certain stale space flavor, reminiscent of those gingerbread lattes. My dreams were a little bit dashed.

In fairness, I didn't get to try this bar at its absolute best. My apartment is not really a hospitable place for chocolate right now -- it's unspeakably hot during the day while I'm at work (I open windows when I get home), so it gets melty if I leave it out, but it gets chalky if I put it in the fridge. Any and all suggestions for the care and keeping of chocolate are welcome.

This bar gets a C.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bosco: Milk Chocolate

The Bosco candy company was founded in 1928 by a former physician living in Camden, New Jersey -- the county seat of Camden County, the death place of Walt Whitman, and home to much mayoral corruption and gang violence. Little is known about the Bosco company of candy manufacturers, except for the oft-repeated legend that the brand's signature chocolate syrup served as fake blood in the original shower scene in Psycho -- and even that is not quite known.

Three months ago, I was eating lunch at a restaurant around the corner from my apartment when a man in a pickle delivery truck pulled up alongside the curb and signaled to my gentleman companion, who then got up from our table and went to retrieve from this pickle deliveryman a bucket of retro chocolate for my enjoyment and potential review. This much I know.

Three months later, after many rounds of periodic (but limited) consumption, many instances of neglect (I have so much chocolate, and only so little time), and much unkind refrigeration, I had but three small squares remaining, and just this afternoon I have taken my butcher's knife to the remnants, chopped them down into a cascading pattern of chalky shards, and scraped every last bit into a silver bowl full of cookie dough. A repurposed antique.

Today Bosco makes an all-natural bar, which they probably did not feel the need to make -- or to market as such -- in 1928 -- although my guess is that in 1928, Bosco's milk chocolate bar was more natural than it is today. Who, after all, was baking with soy lecithin in 1928?

As mass-market milk chocolate bars go, this one is pretty good. It lacks that sour milk flavor that Hershey is known for -- and which, for the record, I have never found to be entirely unpleasant -- and has a nice, melty finish that betrays the high proportion of cocoa butter -- unusually high, I would guess, but I can't say for sure until those new nutrition labels come out with the graphic representation of ingredient proportions.

Until then. B.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Alter Eco: Dark Quinoa

I had big plans for this blog post -- had those plans not been derailed by graduation, employment, and an obscene heat that is entirely inhospitable to chocolate eating, this post would have arrived sometime in April -- it would have documented a curious intersection of contemporary food trends and the Exodus of the ancient Israelites -- yes, that Exodus, which Passover commemorates.

Alter Eco: Dark Quinoa
Cocoa content: 61%
Notable ingredients: rice-quinoa crisps
Origin: Bolivia

So, remember a few months ago, when the weather actually allowed for breathing and long pants, when we gathered around the table to nibble on bitter herbs and denounce chametz, a few of us were obsessed with this New Agey (and yet still, ultra Jewy) question -- is quinoa Kosher for Passover? I don't think we ever really got a definitive answer, but that question stoked my interest in this bar. And then I let it sit on a shelf for a few months. That seems to be happening a lot around here recently.

Three months later, this bar represents nothing more than another chapter in the long tradition of rice crisps masquerading as other things in chocolate bars. Given that this company -- Alter Eco Fair Trade -- actually sells plain old quinoa sourced from Bolivia in addition to chocolate, I was expecting crunchy little pseudocereals instead of these uninspired rice puffs. Ok -- granted -- quinoa rice puffs -- but still, this bar was no more distinctive than your average Nestle Crunch bar.

Next week, another selection inspired by the days of yore -- perhaps not so yore as the release of the Israelite slaves from Egypt, but pretty yore nonetheless. This guy gets a C.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mast Brothers Factory Tour Pt. 1

I know that I'm only supposed to write about chocolate bars here, and I know that to write about anything else I risk compromising the mission--and with it, the very integrity--of Chocolates I Have Known. And I do want to write about chocolate bars, but today I've come to discuss how they are born--not their taste, nor their distinctive features, nor their hubristic missteps of design--well, maybe I will talk about those things, too.

Last week I went on a tour of the Mast Brothers chocolate factory, located on a quiet block near the waterfront in Williamsburg. This blog has Known the Mast Brothers before--it's a rather new company owned by two brothers, one formerly of Gramercy Tavern and one formerly of Jacques Torres's Manhattan factory. They make mostly single-origin chocolates, and they exclusively use organically-farmed cocoa in all of their products.

The first thing we did upon arrival at the factory was we sat as a group at a table in the front room, adjacent to the storefront area where chocolate bars, nibs, chips, and baker's bags are sold. A whimsical fellow named Ian passed around a couple of dried cocoa pods, which are the vessels that house the cocoa fruit in which the beans are lodged. He explained to us the difference between Criollo and Trinitario beans, both of which the brothers use in their product. Then he handed us hairnets and we were on our way into the factory.

Out front, behind the sales table, a few men were preparing the chocolate bars to be wrapped. After cooling into their bar-shaped molds, the chocolate bars are set on wire trays, and the men pick up each bar, wrap it in gold foil (or as our tour guide said, plainly "gold,") and sets it in a pile to later be wrapped in patterned paper by a team of volunteers. They work alongside a couple men who sort through newly arrived beans, aiming to remove stones and little bits of debris from the beans before they are processed in the factory. One time, they found a lizard's heard.

Beyond this group, the conching process takes place in a loud, hot room. The chocolate is spun with sugar in metal vats for three days, breaking down in the heat created by the friction. It spins for three days.

When it's entirely broken down, it sits and ages for a month in a second metal vat. It develops a chalky, textured patina and allegedly develops in flavor during this time. Ian said that the chocolate would taste "green" if it went straight into bars before being aged.

Upon fully aging, the chocolate is re-melted in a brief tempering process, after which it is set into chocolate bar molds, dressed with various nuts and other dressings as applicable, cooled in a refrigerator, and set on a wire tray to then be wrapped in gold foil by the gentleman out front. The birth of a chocolate bar in this factory is a thing that begins and ends on the same table.

You know from reading my previous blog posts that I have not been absolutely crazy about Mast Brothers chocolates. I taste the care and deliberateness that goes into the production of each one, but I still haven't found any of these flavors to be absolutely delicious--and sweet and forgiving--and fun--the way the best chocolate is, I think. Taking this tour, I recognized and appreciated the company's sincerity at every step of the way. They don't cut any corners and they clearly do things the way they know is the right way, with no exceptions. I like companies like that--I work for one. But maybe sometimes the "right way" is more of a romantic flourish than a studied pursuit of flavor--we are in Williamsburg here, after all. For instance, Ian told the group that just a few days earlier, the Mast Brothers had sailed in with something like 20 tons of cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic. On a sailboat. A schooner! Apparently it hasn't been done in like 70 years. Safe? No. Precedented? No. Cost-effective? Please! But romantic, right? The Mast Brothers have a vision of how things should be done, and they stick to that vision. More than ever, I wish I loved their chocolate.