Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stirs the Soul Salted Chocolate Pleasures


Ingredients (maybe?): Coconut palm sugar, coconut milk, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, coconut oil, vanilla

Corporate Info: I'd never heard of Portland, Oregon's Stirs the Soul until near the end of my visit to Seattle's annual Northwest Chocolate Festival. (I was only able to stay a few hours, so I expect to discuss the festival in related posts rather than on its own.) By that point my head was swimming: I'd seen countless thin, flat, brown rectangles and tasted many smooth, complex chocolates that were mostly running together in my mind, though I hadn't yet been blown away by anything and was actually considering going home with nothing.

Near the back of the convention floor I stopped at Stirs the Soul's undeniably hippie booth and figured it was another company that put ideology over quality chocolate...and then I had my first surprise of the afternoon. Daren Hayes comes off as a chatty, earthy-crunchy hippie, a self-taught chocolate maker (albeit one with a culinary degree) who had the good sense to hire a chocolatier or two, and they're doing interesting work. I actually liked (though not loved) the bars, which are made using organic, raw cacao, with alternative sweetners (coconut palm sugar, date sugar, agave, honey) and fairly interesting flavors like hemp and maitake mushroom, spiced chai, and orange goji. The truffles I took home aren't available on the website, but they're what blew me away, and if you're interested in the bars and other confections, you can buy them online or at one of these natural food stores.

Today's Confection: Daren had two “Pleasures” available for tasting, the Salted Chocolate and another (I think Turkish coffee, which I remember also being excellent); I overheard him saying something about them being a sort of cross between a caramel and a truffle. There's no label on the little cardboard boxes he had for sale, so I asked him for the ingredients and he rattled off what I listed above, noting that there might be one or two more that he couldn't remember. I've tasted raw chocolate in the past and used all three of the coconut ingredients he mentioned, and while I like them, I expected something fairly oily and harsh. Instead I ended up buying a box of four.

Appearance: Imperfect squares, with a very dark coating and a light, haphazard sprinkling of salt crystals and what I assume to be crushed cocoa nibs.

Smell: Not strong, but earthy, smoky, and dark.

Taste: Texture is pliable outside, very soft and slightly chewy inside, which must be the “caramel” in the caramel-truffle cross. Flavor is intense: complex, moody, dark, smoky, roasted—but not especially bitter or sour. These remind me of strong coffee and the scent of pot smoke (I'll only admit to having attended concerts as a teenager, and eventually learning what I was smelling around me), with the salt crystals majorly punching up the flavor halfway through chewing. I have no idea what fine European-style chocolatiers would think, as the texture, intensity, and smokiness are a long way from many super-creamy, mild truffles and sweet, buttery caramels, but I could eat one of these daily and always feel impressed and satisfied. I wish I had more.

Conclusion: Stirs the Soul Salted Chocolate Pleasures' hippie pedigree and culinary aspirations make them an intense, satisfying surprise.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Trader Joe's Organic Stone Ground Salt & Pepper Dark Chocolate

-->
2.6oz (73.7g) in two discs
Ingredients: I lost the label for this (it's a sticker on the back), but the Taza product contains just organic cocoa beans, organic sugar, salt, and pepper, and is 55% cacao.

Corporate Info: (Copied from 10/6/12) I've had very mixed results with Trader Joe's chocolate, enough that I rarely review it. The quirky-gourmet company is hit or miss anyway, with some products being regular purchases for years, some becoming favorites and then disappearing from shelves, and some straight up disappointing. There isn't much to say aside from a fun fact: The US's beloved Trader Joe's is owned by Germany's ALDI, which operates discount supermarkets all over Europe—and that explains why we saw packages of dried fruit and nuts labeled Trader Joe's in an ALDI in Osnabrück.

This Bar: (Altered from 10/13/12) Trader Joe's is known for offering store brand goods that are possibly lower-cost, identical products made by a name brand manufacturer and sold in very similar packaging that makes the connection even more obvious. Today's stone-ground cacao discs look mighty familiar, don't they? Well, they're as close as you can come (without being 100% positive) to Taza's two-to-a-package, spoke-scored, stone-ground Salt and Pepper Chocolate Mexicano, which I actually haven't reviewed here, though I can't compare the ingredients as I write this (see above). TJ's is only $3.99, while Taza's is $4.50 on its website and $5-6 in stores around my city. I don't have the Taza product here, but I can review TJ's discs alone. So how are they?

Appearance: This actually has a slightly darker, redder undertone than last week's 70% bar, despite being lower cacao (I think). Again, it's glossy with a grainy cross-section, due to the stone-ground cacao and sugar crystals.

Smell: Rich, dark, and a little sweet, with the black pepper adding a spiciness that doesn't stand out but rather makes the chocolate smell more complex.

Taste: Again, the texture is gritty, reflecting both the cacao and the sugar. The first flavors that hit me are salty-savory and sweet, not chocolatey, which is interesting. The salt and pepper don't taste strongly salty or peppery but rather contribute to an overall savory flavor, with the flavor-enhancing properties of salt and the slow burn of pepper. The sweetness stands out, probably because of the lower cacao content (I think) as well as the separate sugar crystals, which makes it a little too sweet for me but does provide a good counterpoint to the savoriness of the salt and pepper. Personally I'd like to taste this spice blend in 70% cacao, but it works if you like more sugar in your chocolate.

Conclusion: Trader Joe's Organic Stone Ground Salt & Pepper Dark Chocolate is sweet and savory, with the interestingly gritty texture of stone-ground cacao.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Trader Joe's Organic Stone Ground 70% Cacao Extra Dark Chocolate


2.6oz (73.7g) in two discs
Ingredients: Organic cocoa nibs, o. cane sugar
10g sugar/37g serving (27% by wt.)

Corporate Info: (Copied from 10/6/12) I've had very mixed results with Trader Joe's chocolate, enough that I rarely review it. The quirky-gourmet company is hit or miss anyway, with some products being regular purchases for years, some becoming favorites and then disappearing from shelves, and some straight up disappointing. There isn't much to say aside from a fun fact: The US's beloved Trader Joe's is owned by Germany's ALDI, which operates discount supermarkets all over Europe—and that explains why we saw packages of dried fruit and nuts labeled Trader Joe's in an ALDI in Osnabrück.

This Bar: Trader Joe's is known for offering store brand goods that are possibly lower-cost, identical products made by a name brand manufacturer and sold in very similar packaging that makes the connection even more obvious. Today's stone-ground, 70% cacao discs look mighty familiar, don't they? Well, they're as close as you can come (without being 100% positive) to Taza's two-to-a-package, spoke-scored, stone-ground 70% Cacao Puro Chocolate Mexicano, which I haven't reviewed here. The ingredients are practically the same (TJ's lists “cocoa nibs” to Taza's website's “roasted cacao beans”), but TJ's is only $3.99, while Taza's is $4.50 on its website and $5-6 in stores around my city. Unfortunately I don't have the Taza product here, but I can review TJ's discs alone. So how are they?

Appearance: Medium brown with yellow undertones. Glossy on the surface but grainy (i.e. stone-ground) in cross-section, with visible sugar crystals.

Smell: Sweet, dried/”brown”, light brown sugar. Not molasses-y, but with some caramelized, raisiny elements.

Taste: Texture is gritty and fudgy. Flavor isn't especially dark, but has a light spiciness, like nutmeg and ginger—that's the dried, “brown” smell I was getting. Slightly sour, little bitterness. The flavor's mild complexity and texture's variation makes this easy to keep eating.

Conclusion: Trader Joe's Organic Stone Ground 70% Cacao Extra Dark Chocolate is gritty, fudgy, and relatively mild, making it easy to munch.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Trader Joe's 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate



1.65oz (47g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa powder, soy lecithin, cocoa solids
13g sugar/47g serving (27.7% by wt.)

Corporate Info: I've had very mixed results with Trader Joe's chocolate, enough that I rarely review it. The quirky-gourmet company is hit or miss anyway, with some products being regular purchases for years, some becoming favorites and then disappearing from shelves, and some straight up disappointing. There isn't much to say aside from a fun fact: The US's beloved Trader Joe's is owned by Germany's ALDI, which operates discount supermarkets all over Europe—and that explains why we saw packages of dried fruit and nuts labeled Trader Joe's in an ALDI in Osnabrück.

This Bar: Just a random 72% cacao bar with no special selling points other than a small “Imported from Belgium.” It's worth noting that, unlike most chocolate bars I review, this one lists cocoa powder in the ingredients. I wonder what that will do to the flavor, if anything?

Appearance: Small and blocky, in a very medium brown with the normal level of gloss.

Smell: Roasted, bitter, kind of harsh.

Taste: Texture is waxy, melting into thick and somewhat chalky, the latter of which I expect has to do with the cocoa powder. Flavor is intense and bitter, with undertones of butter and nuts. The bitterness actually has some complexity, so even though it's a little harsh it's not totally all over the place and doesn't have super-off-putting edges, so honestly it's not all that bad, but it's amazing the difference between this 72% bar and many others with similar levels of cacao. Cocoa powder wouldn't be my first choice of chocolate bar ingredients, and I wouldn't go out of my way to buy this again, but if you relish bitterness it's worth a shot.

Conclusion: Trader Joe's 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate is strong and bitter, but passable if you like that sort of thing.