Holiday Chocolates

Holiday Chocolates
Holiday Chocolates -beats cookies any day!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Forget Cookies- Make Chocolate!

I haven't blogged for a while, but that doesn't mean I haven't been eating chocolate. I haven't really been out on the prowl lately seeking the world's best chocolate, but I have made a few nice discoveries: I was gifted a bar of Chocolove Organic 72% that was really quite lovely; I was also gifted some Burdick's chocolate-dipped orange peel that turned my world upside-down. Never would I have suspected that I would become an orange-peel fan. I've always believed that orange peel and candied ginger are for the "Greatest Generation", i.e. those over 80 years of age. And yet, just yesterday I found myself on a quest for whatever chocolate-covered orange peel I could find. I ended up with a bar of Caffe Tasse Noir Orange from my local chocolate dealer, Chocolate Now, and quite a few pieces of actual candied peel dipped in chocolate. I though those two purchases would hold me over for a few days. I was wrong. They lasted about two hours. I don't know what is wrong with me. Perhaps I have simply grown up and finally developed a taste for the finer things, such as candied orange peel, as opposed to water melon-flavored Bubble Yum. Or perhaps it is a sign from the Big Man Upstairs: here is a fabulous and simple idea for Christmas gifts!
Today, on an impulse, I went on down to my local King Arthur Flour shop ( a little name-dropping) and bought three kinds of chocolate, candied orange peel, candied ginger, and little paper cup liners for my mini-muffin pans. I came straight home, melted the chocolate in a double-boiler, filled the mini-muffin cups 2/3 way full with melted chocolate and then decorated each one with a choice of the following: the candied ginger, orange peel, dried raspberries, dried sour cherries, almonds or pecans. A little sea-salt is another choice. Now all I have to do is fill a few tins, write a nice note, and get down to the post-office to send them out to family and friends in far-away places. I don't often have Martha-Moments, but this was a brilliant one!
My particular project was a little pricey because I bought all of my ingredients at King Arthur, which is not cheap. However, the quality of the chocolate (Guittard and Callebaut chocolate for chefs) is superb. But you can easily make these for half the cost using chocolate chips from the grocery store. They come out looking like little Reeses' peanut-butter cups with pretty things on top. In fact, you can probably make little peanut-butter cups by letting the first layer of chocolate harden and then adding your peanut butter and a second layer of chocolate. You could also make two-tone chocolates: a layer of dark chocolate followed by a layer of milk. Lots of room for creativity here. Imagine the joy of opening a tin of hand-made chocolates instead of sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles! Not that there is anything wrong with those.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Black Flower Chocolate - Lavender & Wild Blueberry

I am truly blessed. Today I received a package with two bars of Black Flower Chocolate. The one I am sampling now is Lavender & Wild Blueberry. Seriously. There is lavender in this chocolate. I love the bath. But this is another masterful blend by Black Flower Chocolate: a subtle floral, just enough to let you know that you can indeed eat lavender, yet not enough to over-power the chocolate. And then punctuated by little zings of wild blueberry. I've seen bars with lavender in them and I must admit the idea didn't quite appeal to me, so I am so glad this bar was sent to me. I would not have tried it otherwise. Lavender is never going to be my favorite flavor, but this bar is done very well. I am really impressed with Black Flower's ability to do flavor in an artful and subtle manner. It reminds me of French ganache: just enough to compliment the chocolate yet never getting away from the main point, which of course is the chocolate. Black Flower uses a well-balanced 70% cacao in all their bars and there is mention of a possible 85% bar in the works. I'm really looking forward to that! But I am beginning to understand that 70% is probably the best place to start when flavors are to be incorporated. Just as the flavors should not over-power the chocolate, the chocolate should not over-power the flavors. This is truly an art, and Black Flower Chocolate is well on the way to mastery! I highly recommend adding this small, Vermont-based company to your Christmas-shopping list. These bars would make wonderful holiday gifts! Take a peek here.
Stay tuned for the review of the next Black Flower bar: Espresso Bean & Cocoa Nibs!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Black Flower Chocolate - Artisanal Bars from Vermont!

A new day has dawned: I have finally discovered a small, Vermont-based artisanal chocolate company! This was truly a magnificent find. There I was, minding my own business while strolling through King Arthur Flour on the hunt for another bottle of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla when lo and behold, a little basket with pretty colored envelopes lay before me. What are these lovely little things? I thought. Well, blow me over! Chocolate bars! Artisanal chocolate bars! From Vermont! Beautifully packaged in colored envelopes were 70% bars from Black Flower Chocolate with names like Mayan Spice and Mangosteen Crunch. I took a deep breath and said to myself: they will still be here tomorrow - just take one! I chose the Mayan Spice and then made my way over to the vanilla before I lost my composure and bought the other three: Mangosteen Crunch, Espresso & Cacao Nibs, and Green Tea & Almonds. Yes, I will go back for those, but I did make it out of the store with only the one bar, which is a huge achievement for me.
Black Flower Chocolate is owned and run by a woman in Charlotte, Vermont with a passion for the culinary arts. Her 3 oz. bars are made from Ecuadoran chocolate and are made in small batches and then packaged in envelopes of a color that corresponds well with the theme of the chocolate: red for Mayan Spice, green for Green Tea & Almonds, etc. They are beautiful to behold and filled with exotic ingredients. The Mayan Spice bar is a treat for any spicy chocolate fan. The heat slowly builds, rather than the Big Bang effect of Grace Under Fire by Lake Champlain Chocolates. I love placing a square of chocolate on my tongue, tasting the chocolate and cacao butter, the sugar, and any other ingredients present, and then suddenly: whoa! here comes the heat! There is a little cinnamon and nutmeg in this bar, but it is quite subtle. There are some Mayan themed bars out there that are more strongly flavored with orange and clove, but this one is all about the heat! A definite winner, in my book! This bar is an artful approach to subtlety in flavor with a heat that builds and hangs steady as you go. I am very much looking forward to the other bars!
Black Flower Chocolate creates several other exotically flavored bars, truffles, and fruit and nut barks. Check them out here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Debauve & Gallais

Alas, I have come to the very bottom of my bag, the very end of my forray into French chocolate. Yet, I have finally arrived at the chocolatier to royalty. That would be Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Debauve & Gallais were the first to create chocolate for the royal court of France in the 1700's. Chocolate was a novelty, coming from the New World, and because of its rarity was really only available to aristocrats at that time. Debauve & Gallais were pharmacists primarily and as such easily got their hands on new materials, like chocolate. They were the first to create chocolate confections for the Queen, who required chocolate wafers to get her medicine down. These little wafers are still being created by Debauve & Gallais and can be purchased at any one of their shops, one of which is on Madison Avenue in New York. All of their chocolates are gorgeously packaged and frightfully expensive. I happened upon a Debauve & Gallais shop on my last day in Paris and purchased a little box of squares of all different percentages. I also bought a small 99% bar that I really liked. I didn't think anyone could do 99% as well as Michel Cuizel, but this was an extraordinary specimen that I managed to gobble up awfully fast. This surprised me as 99% is not exactly a gobble-up kind of bar. I believe this Debauve & Gallais 99% has more sugar in it than the Cuizel and I would recommend it to anyone venturing into that percentage category.
As for the 85%, it too is rather sweet and velvety smooth. In my little sample pack, there was 85% chocolat and 85% amer (bitter). I found it difficult to detect much difference between these two, but I did prefer the amer. It seemed a little richer to me, and I like my chocolate really dark. Unless you are really paying attention, though, you might not be able to tell the difference!
I saved the rest of my sampler squares for last and did a succession of tasting, from 45% milk chocolate up to 72%. There were two different 45% milks in there: one plain and the other with sesame seeds. The plain one was no great shakes, in my opinion. Certainly a good-quality milk chocolate but most likely not worth the price. The 45% with sesame seeds was divine! I don't think I have ever had sesame seeds in my chocolate and it trumps nuts! If you ever come across a bar with sesame seeds, get it!
The 60% dark starts out with a sweet note of vanilla. It is a traditional dark chocolate before dark chocolate got hijacked by all of us choco-snobs in the dangerously-high-percentages group. As such, it is too sweet for me and has too much vanilla. I love vanilla, just not in my chocolate. As such, I would rate this 60% as not worth your money, since you can buy comparable chocolate elsewhere for half the price.
Next up was the 72%. Now we're talking. A little darker. A little less vanilla, but still traces of it. Very smooth with excellent melt-in-your-mouth feel. This is the bar I would buy at one of their fancy shops to give as a gift or to just gobble up when no one is looking.
What I like most about Debauve & Gallais is their history as one of France's first chocolatiers and the chocolatier to Marie Antoinette. I love their fancy packaging, too and if you happen to run into one of their shops, you really must go in. However, there is so much really good chocolate out there that rivals, if not surpasses, the creations of Debauve & Gallais. Their prices are steep, and I think I would rather drop cold, hard cash on Amadei or Pierre Herme (I've GOT to get another one of those salt bars!). But I would definitely purchase a few more of those 99% bars and a few sample packs to give as gifts. Debauve & Gallais is definitely a gift-giving chocolate rather than an every-day bar. For a quick visual on their gorgeous presentation click here.
As a company, Debauve & Gallais prides itself enormously on their history, their fancy shop and their fancy packaging. I found the shop atmosphere in Paris rather cold and unfriendly, which really struck me as the other shops I visited were quite friendly and accommodating. Perhaps they know they have a lot of stiff competition these days! About their chocolate I can say this much: they truly do produce a smooth chocolate with excellent mouth feel, something some of the newer chocolatiers have not yet mastered. On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of sugar and vanilla going on. Chocolate that contains a lot of sugar and vanilla is often masking inferior beans. Chocolatiers who take pride in the sourcing and roasting of their beans rarely use much vanilla and take it easy on the sugar, hoping that you will experience the bean itself. I'm not saying that Debauve & Gallais use inferior beans....I''m just saying.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jean-Charles Rochoux: Venezuela 72%

The Jean-Charles Rochoux shop on rue d'Assas in Paris is tiny, with dark wood paneling and a certain masculine aura about it. This shop is well known in Paris as the go-to shop for gifts for men. There are some really amazing chocolate sculptures in this shop, giving it a museum-like quality, but what I remember the most was the Habano and Bourbon ganaches. The popular gift for the new father is a box of these chocolates. The Habano is a cigar-flavored ganache, and the other decorated with a little red dab of wax like a sealed liquor bottle, is the Bourbon flavored. On the chocolate tour I was the only one brave enough to try the Habano. How can you pass such an opportunity??
The French do ganache in a very different manner than Americans. Our flavored ganaches are bursting with the intended flavor, rendering the quality of the chocolate irrelevant at best. The French prefer to maintain the quality of their chocolate by flavoring ganaches in the subtlest way, forcing the consumer to slow down and pay attention or you might miss the experience! Often, flavors are chosen by their compatibility with the chocolate. In other words, if the chocolate has a natural bright and fruity characteristic, that will be the one chosen for fruit-flavored ganaches. If it is a dark, earthy or nutty character then that will go with the coffee, caramel or nut-flavored ganaches. Makes perfect sense to me, but it then becomes painfully clear that many chocolatiers outside of France pick a chocolate and use it for all their ganaches, since the burst of flavor is going to overpower the chocolate anyway!
The Habano had a fresh cigar-like flavor to it, like the smell of a very fine cigar before it is lit. If you didn't tell people that was what they were going to experience, they might miss it unless they are paying close attention! The Bourbon was a little more up front, but in a pleasant way, not at all a boozy presentation. No risk of being pulled over for a DUI with a box of these in your car. I thought they would make a really nice after-dinner chocolate. In fact, I though they would both be great after dinner (but then again isn't all chocolate great after dinner?).
I did not buy filled chocolates in Paris for fear of not getting them home in tact, so I bought a bar, or tablette, at Jean-Charles Rochoux. I bought the Venezuela 72% which comes in a silver package with the texture of crocodile skin. Inside, the bar is covered with one piece of cellophane, over the top. This looks spectacular, but unfortunately does not keep the chocolate very fresh. Had I known there was so little packaging, I would have consumed this bar first, maybe even while I was still in Paris. Unfortunately, I saved it for one of the last and it sort of has that "kept in storage too long" flavor about it. Underneath the initial staleness though, is a well-balanced, sweet dark chocolate. It has a very nice mouth-feel (listen to me! I mean, really! What have I become??), and a dark, almost earthy taste, as opposed to the brighter, fruitier dark chocolates. It leaves a lightly bitter, but not at all unpleasant after-taste.
If you travel to Paris, this shop is not to be missed! Located at 16, rue d'Assas in the 6th arrondissement, the sculptures alone are worth the visit. Try a Habano so as not to appear a "light-weight", and buy a tablette - just eat it right away. Visit his arty website here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Richart-Santodino 82% Dominican Republic

Richart is a shop I just happened to run into while strolling down the Blvd. St. Germain last spring. A lovely, airy shop on a lovely, airy boulevard. I picked up a few "tablettes", and this was one of them (the other I sadly gave away - what was I thinking??). This Santodino bar is a single-origin chocolate from the Dominican Republic. It is smooth and dark with a touch of sprightliness to it. It is a super good pick-me-up on a hot afternoon! If you are a lover of very dark chocolate, this one is for you. While I did not sample the 70% (the one I gave away), I feel confident that it too must be a lovely bar. This is very good quality chocolate and I would recommend this shop to anyone visiting Paris: it's easy to find and has an assortment of different chocolates to choose from. Strangely, it was not included on the chocolate tour, but the Spirits were obviously on my side by placing it right on my route one particular morning. I just love when that happens!
Richart prides itself on being among the first, if not the first, to create single-origin chocolates, a trend which has caught on with all the high-quality chocolate shops. This is a very good thing, as cacao beans used to come in large quantities from all over the place, and all mixed together, including some old and moldy ones! It was up to chocolate houses to figure out what to do with endless shipments of beans that varied so widely in quality. The best chocolate-makers figured it out, the not-so-good chocolate-makers just added more sugar and soybean oil! Yuck. Now, the trend in single-origins has lead to chocolate manufacturers having a great deal of control over the quality of beans as well as the fermenting and roasting process. Of course you pay for this extra quality-control feature, but the price is well worth it! Richart is definitely in the elite category of chocolate. Not only have they made fine chocolate available to us, they are actively encouraging us to learn how to taste chocolate and to compare not only different percentages but different origins. My bar came with a little insert that instructs how to taste and rate chocolate - no kidding! It has categories for you to fill out such as Taste and Flavors (salty, sweet, acidic, bitter); Aroma (balsamic, fruity, herbaceous, floral, spicy; Tactile sensation, or what we usually call "mouth feel" in English (smooth, silky, granulated).
For more information take a peek at their website (English version), here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pierre Herme - Sao Tome a la Fleur de Sel 75%

I can't figure out how to make those little accent marks above the "e", dammit. I used to know how to do that, and I really need to figure it out since I still have quite a bit of French chocolate to write about! So, Pierre Herme (accent over the last "e") makes a line of chocolate bars called, "Meditation". They are single-origin chocolates that we are supposed to savor and discover the finer nuances of a fine chocolate. Sao Tome (accent over the "e")is a Portuguese-speaking island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Africa. (I lifted that last sentence right off of Wikipedia - I couldn't have said it better). So this is essentially an African, probably forrestero, chocolate. It is laced with "hand-harvested French sea salt". This chocolate is smooth, dark and well balanced and the fleur de sel just pops out at times. Chocolate with salt is a magical combination: think chocolate-covered pretzels and then take it up a notch and you have a truly exquisite product. This is a 75% chocolate done really well. I usually find 75% bars to be too sweet, but this one is just right and the infusion of salt makes it even better! The texture is of the highest quality, impeccably smooth. I seem to only have one of these bars in my French collection. Big mistake. I think I would give up the rest of my collection for just two more of these!
Pierre Herme is quite the esteemed patissier and chocolatier, and he has several books out on his creations. He has many boutiques in Paris and even one in both London and Tokyo. However, none in the good ol' USA. I have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to see if there are any American distributers of his chocolate bars. No dice. For eye-candy though, you can have a look here: Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme