Saturday, November 27, 2010

Theo Organic Fair Trade Nutcracker Toffee Dark Chocolate 70%

3oz (84g) bar
Ingredients: Organic fair trade cocoa beans, oft. sugar, o. almonds, o. hazelnuts, oft. cocoa butter, o. corn syrup, o. vanilla bean, sea salt, baking soda
12g sugar/42g serving (28.6% by wt.)

I'm a sucker for seasonal bars. Their novelty gives me a reason to revisit familiar brands, and it's just fun to spot something new on the shelves. This winter Theo offers tasty-sounding milk chocolate bars, seasonal caramels, and two dark chocolates: Peppermint Stick and this review's Nutcracker Toffee. Okay, so it's just another toffee-nut inclusion, and I haven't been so enamored of late with Theo's 70% mix, but I like toffee and I don't see it too much in dark chocolate, so there you go.

The bar looks and smells like Theo's other 70% bars: medium-dark, simply molded, and almost pungent. Will it taste like the others too? Verdict: Ehhhh. It's not bad, it's just that I don't get much toffee and nuts in there. I can see them, tiny beige (nuts) or shiny (toffee) pebbles in the solid brown of the chocolate, but as with spring's coconut bar, the inclusions are simply drowned out by a strong, vividly flavored chocolate. I know this is a matter of personal taste, but I really wish Theo would come up with a milder chocolate for its flavored 70% cacao bars. For now, I'll just have to resist the pull of those seasonal novelties.

Conclusion: Theo Organic Fair Trade Nutcracker Toffee Dark Chocolate 70% tastes like the rest of Theo's dark chocolate.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Madécasse Chocolate Sea Salt & Nibs

2.64oz (75g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, sea salt
14g sugar/37.5g serving (37.3% by wt.)

I've seen Madécasse bars for a while, elegantly rustic in their raffia-tied paper envelope, but they're a high-midpriced option and I've generally had something cheaper or more novel to try, so I've passed them by. Not long ago I saw Madécasse on sale and went for it, picking up this sea salt and nibs bar and accidentally overlooking its slightly high sugar content. I haven't eaten many sea salt bars, because while I enjoy the salty-sweet combo, I haven't seen much of it in super-dark chocolate. This isn't super dark, either, but there are certainly worse things than to be stuck with a slightly-too-sweet chocolate bar.

So how is it? The front looks clean and sharp, the back is laid with jagged waves of nibs, and the scent is sweet in that fragrant-tropical-fruit sort of way. The flavor is a bit tart, with the crunchy nut-like texture of nibs, and then a sudden punch of salt. It sounds overwhelming, but after a piece or two the saltiness becomes much mellower, a background counterpoint to the sweet/bright/nutty chocolate. Taken together it's enjoyably complex, more interesting than most plain chocolate while just containing the usual ingredients and salt. Personally I shy away from tart chocolate—my palate just tires of it quickly, so I won't go out of my way to buy this again, but in my opinion this is still very good stuff.

Bonus: According to Madécasse, not only the cacao but also the finished product come from Madagascar, and they pay their farmers “above fair trade prices.” Assuming that's true, then good on them. Good chocolate, too.

Conclusion: Madécasse Chocolate Sea Salt & Nibs uses basic chocolate and salt to create a complex, interesting bar.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amber Lyn Sugar Free Dark Chocolate & Mint


1.2oz (34g) bar
Ingredients: Chocolate, maltitol, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla, mint extract
0g sugar; 15g maltitol per bar

I'm wary of sugar free chocolate because I've had bad experiences with it: Too sweet for my taste, overwhelming sweetener flavor, low-quality chocolate, and...well...gastrointestinal side effects. Occasionally I'm tempted to give it another shot, in this case because of a gift from a gracious relative who bought some from an enthusiastic Amber Lyn representative at Costco. It's a sampler of 15 bars in seven flavors, so I'm either in the money or saddled with a lot of junk. For tasting purposes, I've selected a mint bar. Yes, I could try the plain dark chocolate or dark chocolate with nibs to get a purer sense of what Amber Lyn has to offer, but I wussed out and went with something that, if need be, might better hide lousy flavor.

The bar is simply molded, quite glossy and in a medium brown. There's no percent cacao on the wrapper, but by weight it's about 56% non-sugar, and since there isn't much else in there I'd say we're talking a 50-something-percent cacao bar. It smells minty and sweet, without a strong chocolate scent, like most lower-cacao chocolate. When I tried to break a piece off in the chilly room I'm writing in, it snapped hard down the middle, so to taste it I gnawed along that edge. Moment of truth...it's actually quite pleasant. The mint is bright and fun, the chocolate is dense and sweet, and while the sweetener doesn't taste like sugar, it's pretty inoffensive.

For my purposes I won't be eating too much of this chocolate. I don't want my palate to get used to sweets again, and I don't want to bring on maltitol's side effects. But if I could tolerate the maltitol and I were reeling from, say, a diabetes diagnosis, I might be happy to keep a big ol' Costco box of Amber Lyn's chocolate around—though I'll have to taste the plainer varieties to be sure.

Conclusion: Amber Lyn Sugar Free Dark Chocolate & Mint is a fine substitute for low-cacao mint dark chocolate.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Scharffen Berger Bittersweet 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate



3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Cacao beans, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla beans
13g sugar/43g serving (30.2% by wt.)

Once upon a time I heard Berkeley, California's Scharffen Berger touted as the source for American dark chocolate. Nowadays it's owned by Hershey (as is Oregon's Dagoba), and the Berkeley plant was closed last year. While I respect small chocolatiers' decisions to sell their companies, in the aftermath of a big sale the chocolate's history no longer means much to me. So make no mistake, what I'm looking at here is a Hershey product, albeit one from a different recipe than the iconic Hershey bar. Can present-day Scharffen Berger's 70% Cacao bar stand on its own?

This bar certainly looks mid- to high-end, thin and flat, glossy and imprinted with crossed lines and the Scharffen Berger logo. Its smell isn't distinctive, though it's nicely chocolatey. A cross-section breaks cleanly and looks dense and uniform. The taste: first rich and creamy and fairly sweet, then intense in a sour way, darker tasting than some other 70% bars I've had. It's not super interesting (but then, most bars aren't) and not mild or balanced enough to be an everyday bar for me, but it's legitimately tasty.

Personally, I wouldn't buy this over a comparable bar from an independent company. It's not especially cheap (If I recall correctly, I've only seen it for $4 and up) or organic or fair trade, and Hershey doesn't need my money. But taste-wise, it's decent.

Conclusion: Scharffen Berger Bittersweet 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate is dark, dense, and creamy, not amazing but good.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Valrhona Abinao Chocolat Noir Dark Chocolate 85% Cacao



70g (2.46 oz) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla
5g sugar/40g serving (12.5% by wt.)

Several months ago I received this bar from a friend, opened it, ate a bit, put it aside, and didn't get back to it until now. What I'm saying is it might not be quite at its best, so whatever I think about it today might not be completely fair. Still, we're talking Valrhona here [link warning: lots of flash and irritating music], so I didn't want to leave it off the blog entirely.

In the intervening months the bar has bloomed a bit on the edge, but otherwise it's still the same dark medium-brown with a very dull surface. Up close it smells like the chocolate version of dark roast coffee, toasted and almost smoky. It breaks into hard, brittle pieces but then melts quickly into something delicate and smooth. Though it's still strongly flavored, the light creaminess helps balance the sour and tannic elements: This flavor might have been called pungent, but instead it's merely intense. The finish is mouth-drying and bitter, not my favorite final impression but interesting anyway.

Conclusion: Valrhona Abinao Chocolat Noir Dark Chocolate 85% Cacao brings a contradiction in textures and a just-barely-tamed intensity.