Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Laughing Moon Chocolates: Chipotle & Cinnamon

I am always excited to try chocolate made by small companies in the Northeast, but since I moved out of New England I don't often see these types of bars in stores. Luckily, I have friends who like to drive unspeakably long distances, stay with strangers on farms, and bring back chocolatey relics. This bar, given to me by Dan, is made by the Laughing Moon Chocolates company based in Stowe, Vermont. The company makes all sorts of chocolates, ranging from handmade truffles to chocolate-covered cookies. This bar is part of their Signature line.

Laughing Moon Chocolates: Chipotle & Cinnamon
Cocoa content: Unlisted (my guess is 60%)
Notable ingredients: cinnamon; dried chipotle pepper
Origin: n/a

Chipotle doesn't mean much to me beyond delicious Mexican fast food, but I understand that it's also the name of a pepper. Chipotle peppers look like wrinkly, dried out brown pods, and they smell smokey like Lapsang Souchong tea. Or like bacon. What I didn't know previously is that chipotle peppers are actually just smoke-dried jalapenos -- they retain little of the heat of jalapenos in the smoking process, I guess.

But anyway, this information is irrelevant, because I didn't taste a hint of chipotle in the chocolate bar. Was I not tasting closely enough? Cinnamon, the other notable ingredient in this bar, was certainly present and dominant in every bite. While I've found some flavors -- like chili and salt -- to be overwhelming in unsubtle doses, there was something kind of nice about the heavy load of cinnamon here. It tasted really homemade -- like the hardened product of a vat of chocolate into which a bunch of cinnamon was poured. Though it may indeed have overpowered the chipotle, cinnamon is a ritzy treasure, and I appreciated that it came out to play.

The wrapper promises that "you won't find chocolate like this anywhere else," and as far as I know, they're right. Ubiquitous as cinnamon appears to be in pastry, it is not often paired with chocolate -- and chipotle is of course an even rarer accompaniment. This bar's rating can be attributed to its originality as well as its taste: B+.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

TCHO: Fruity

TCHO is a maker of chocolate -- exclusively dark, I've learned -- with an emphasis on single origin and fair trade products. My mother bought this bar for me at Whole Foods in Union, NJ, although most varietals of their chocolate are also sold at Starbucks locations, at least in the Northeast. Kiss of death -- am I right -- especially for a company that deems itself "obsessed," "innovative" and -- this is the worst -- "local." Local this chocolate is not, although I'm pretty sure what they mean to say is that they're the only chocolate manufacturer in San Francisco. So, sure, it's a local company, but that doesn't really mean much for the people who are buying their bars in a Starbucks in New York City. ANYWAYS:

TCHO: Fruity
Cocoa content: 68%
Notable ingredients: n/a
Origin: Peru

TCHO has created what they're referring to as a taxonomy of different chocolate flavors. All of the chocolate is dark, but the dark varies in terms of flavor notes, and TCHO has identified 6 recognizable taste groups. They are: Fruity (this bar); Floral; Earthy; Nutty; Chocolatey; and Citrus. The website elaborates on the flavors found in each category, and Fruity apparently tastes of cherry, raspberry, and raisin. And I actually found this to be remarkably true, although it's hard to say how much I was swayed by the "Fruity" label and the bright orange color on the box.

I do think the flavor was somewhat distinct from what Citrus might taste like: it wasn't at all sour or zesty. It was kind of sweeter than you'd expect a 68% cocoa to taste, and had a notably uplifting flavor, as opposed to those chocolates I've described as "earthy" on this blog. It tasted crisp, finished, and -- I don't know how to say this, other than "bright." I really think everyone should just go out and try this bar for themselves, because whether or not you can sense the variations in flavor it's really delicious and well-made. And it's widely available at a Starbucks near you -- or a Whole Foods. Plus, the snap was agreeable and the packaging is great.

Other flavors on the TCHO (by the way, this is pronounced "choh" and is meant to sound like the first syllable of "chocolate") taxonomy that I would want to try include Nutty and Citrus. And I'll throw in Chocolatey for good measure because that sounds right up my alley. This flavor seems like a good pick, though, so I applaud my mother and I give this bar an A.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Berkshire Bark Chocolate: Pretzelogical

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I checked out the chocolate selection at Dave's Fresh Pasta (in Somerville) during my last visit to Boston. Dave's specializes in homemade pasta but it's also an impressive specialty foods shop. They carry a lot of nice local chocolate, and an interesting selection of beer and cheeses. Also, they had a bowl of fresh cherry peppers by the cashier. This chocolate bar, which was made in Sheffield, Massachusetts, stood out because of the name. I can't resist the promise of pretzels.

Berkshire Bark Chocolate: Pretzelogical
Cocoa content: unlisted (my guess is 30%)
Notable ingredients: pretzels, sea salt caramel, peanut butter
Origin: n/a

What do you expect, from an entire bar of chocolate-covered pretzel? And if it were smothered with peanut butter and pressed with chips of salty, hardened caramel? Sometimes I feel it's unfair to put a bar this ambitious on my blog and, in doing so, compare it with other chocolate bars. This is really like a block of fudge: about a centimeter thick, and spilling over with chunks of pretzel, shards of sea salt caramel, and smudges of peanut butter. It is a solid, unsegmented bar and it crumbled upon breaking.

Milk chocolate, pretzels, caramel, and peanut butter. I couldn't make it up if I tried. Peanut butter, the dark horse candidate for this bar's third piece in the salty trifecta: it added a perfectly creamy note to the otherwise jagged assortment of things. The pretzels were appropriately crunchy and the caramel was neither too sticky nor too salty.

And what I like about Berkshire Bark -- other than the fact that they're based in my beautiful home-state -- is that they carefully source the ingredients that they use in this excellent chocolate bar. The caramel is homemade and flavored with really nice sea salt, and the peanut butter is entirely natural: just peanuts, oil, sugar, and salt, which is how peanut butter should be. The pretzels come from a century-old Pennsylvania pretzel maker -- it doesn't guarantee their quality, but it shows that Berkshire Bark is interested in all the parts that go into their chocolate bars, and not just in the end result.

As it turns out, though, the end result is pretty much perfect. A.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Moo: Graham Cracker

Call me crazy, but I thought kids already liked chocolate. Some things have to be branded for kids -- yogurt comes to mind -- but I'm pretty sure candy isn't one of them. Nevertheless, Moo Chocolates is a company that makes chocolate for kids, and being that I'm a kid, I'm easily swayed by the image of the friendly cow on the wrapper. Michael got me this bar at the Fresh Pond Whole Foods in Cambridge, MA (throwback!)

Moo: Graham Cracker
Cocoa content: unlisted (my guess is 35%)
Notable ingredients: graham crackers
Origin: n/a

Moo is a tiny company based in Cob Cob, Connecticut, and it was started by a woman named Jackie Ekholm who ate great chocolates while in the Swiss Alps and wished there was something like it for her kids in the US. I would argue that there actually was something like it for her kids in the US -- hello, have you seen my blog? -- but that's beside the point because I'm always happy to see new brands of chocolate. Moo makes 4 varieties: rice crisps, granola, cornflakes, and graham crackers -- I'm sorry, but I have to wonder if Jackie Ekholm has ever met a real kid if she thinks their favorite cereals are Corn Flakes and granola. WRONG. The bars are inspired by "the playful cows we love," the package says.

Graham crackers are really delicious -- it's no secret. And this chocolate is really good, too, probably because it's made in such small batches and doesn't have to travel far. And, on top of that, chocolate and graham crackers go really well together -- but we already knew that, because of s'mores. So, predictably, this bar tasted great. The package was cute, the texture was good, and the website invites customers to "help us name our cows" -- what more could I ask for? And although the marketing seems a little gimmicky and unnecessary, I've got to say that this is a greater success than Go-Gurt. I guess the real test will be to see if kids actually eat this bar, or if it's just Whole Foods shoppers and obsessive perusers of the chocolate aisle.

Branding criticisms aside, this bar was good and I was happy to come across it in Cambridge because I had previously seen it only at a location of The Chocolate Room in Brooklyn. B+.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Theo: Spicy Chile

Theo is one of my favorite American chocolate makers -- they're based in Seattle and they have four main brands of chocolate: Classic Collection (to which this bar belongs); Fantasy Flavors (this collection consists of the 3400 Phinney bars you've seen here); Single Origin (here's an example); and something new called the Theo & Jane Goodall collection, which I have not yet tried but which sounds adorable. This attractive bar was purchased at my trusty Village Natural Market in Bronxville.

Theo: Spicy Chile
Cocoa content: 70%
Notable ingredients: chili peppers
Origin: n/a

I think chili is one of those chocolate companions that strike the seasoned chocolate eater (may I be so bold?) as sort of trite, and which at the same time can really shock people new to the game. Another one of those flavors would be salt -- "like mayonnaise on a bowling ball" a friend once said of the seeming incompatibility. If you pay attention you actually see it all the time, but it's not immediately intuitive like, say, chocolate and raspberry. Anyway, I've eaten a lot of chili chocolate bars in my day and the whole thing has become a little bit routine. And then came Theo.

Reader, believe me when I tell you I am a chili head. I pour Sriracha on my pizza and tinker with habaneros in my spare time. But I was not expecting the hotness that was this chocolate bar. Objectively, I should say, it wasn't so hot. It was less hot, for instance, than a jalapeno pepper. But every other chocolate bar has been only mildly spicy -- I mean: a little playful wave of spice as the taste subsides. This bar made me gag and run for water. It was so much spicier than I had expected.

Granted, the nutrition label lists three distinct kinds of chili: guajillo, cayenne, and pasilla. On the Scoville chili pepper heat scale, those three peppers are in roughly the same range as the jalapeno. Perhaps Theo is just a little more serious about showcasing the ingredients it uses. But, in my mind, Theo is a chocolate maker first and foremost. So, really, the spice shouldn't be so intense that it overwhelms the chocolate, which is exactly what happened here. I can't even tell you how the chocolate tasted or what the interaction of chocolate and spice was like, because all I got was spice and discomfort.

Maybe those uninformed chili naysayers are right -- when chocolate really tastes like chili -- and not just a subtle hint -- it's all wrong. This bar gets a C.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Tea Room: Mate & Cacao Nibs

This picture doesn't even capture how pretty the box was for this bar -- bright orange, with little raised letters and images. Michael got it for me at Cardullo's in Harvard Square, which is one of the best specialty food shops I know of. Plus, I saw Ben Affleck there once -- I bet I've already written about that on this blog. How embarrassing. This is the first tea infused bar I've ever had. It may or may not be the last:

The Tea Room: Mate & Cacao Nibs
Cocoa content: 72%
Notable ingredients: green yerba mate tea; nibs
Origin: Ecuador

Those who know me know that I am really not a tea drinker, but that has little to do with flavor and everything to do with my aversion to hot water. Unless it's pouring down over my body from a spigot, I want nothing to do with it. Anyway, of the teas that I do sometimes drink, green teas are not among them, so I wasn't too optimistic about the taste of this bar. I do enjoy nibs, however, which are just little bits of unground roasted cacao bean. They create a pleasant crunch and a slightly burnt taste, which I enjoy.

Sadly, I didn't encounter any nibs on my journey through this bar. Maybe they were too fine for me to detect, but if that's the case -- why bother? The rapture of nibs relies mainly on that crunch, so when the crunch is missing it's kind of a wasted ingredient. Which brings me to the tea. Maybe it's just because I'm not so into tea and haven't therefore Known it, but I really didn't taste anything that was distinctly tea-like. Maybe it was kind of bitter, but so is most single-origin dark chocolate. And anyway, what does green tea taste like? Grass, right? Would you infuse chocolate with grass?

I can only conclude that the high point of this bar was its box. And really, the bar itself wasn't bad: it probably would have been worse if it had tasted like tea. But instead it was just a decent single origin bar with a beautiful box and a misleading mention of nibs.

I most likely wouldn't return to this bar but I'm willing to give other tea infusions a chance just because I feel that green tea is the bottom of the barrel, and other teas might produce a better flavor. I give it a B-.