Saturday, December 31, 2011

Whole Foods Organic 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate Tanzania Schoolhouse Project

3.5oz (100g) bar
Ingredients: Organic chocolate liquor, o. cane sugar, o. cocoa butter
10g sugar/38g serving (26.3% by wt.)

Corporate Info: See last week, both this section and the introduction. This week's bar is both organic and connected to a particular charity: The back of the box says “all proceeds are donated to help meet educational needs of schoolchildren in the district of Kyela, Mbeya region of Tanzania,” and, by the way, “the organic cacao used to make each bar is purchased from farmers in this region and is certified by the Fair for Life Social & Fair Trade Certification Program. Enjoy and feel good about it!” So that's nice, if annoyingly self-congratulatory.

Appearance: Very similar to last week's bar, though I'd say it's maybe half a shade lighter in color.

Smell: Again, like the Costa Rican chocolate, this doesn't smell challenging—round and warm, not sour or anything. It might be little nuttier and less fruity, but the similarities (despite the fact that the beans come from different continents) are challenging my sense of smell!

Taste: Again, creamy, waxy, and rich, with a rounded dark flavor, but not as fruity as the other bar, lighter in a way, reminding me of milk, cream, and nuts.

Conclusion: Whole Foods Organic 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate Tanzania Schoolhouse Project is dark but not heavy, light-bodied with a rounded flavor and creamy texture.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Whole Foods 71% Cacao Costa Rica Dark Chocolate

3.5oz (100g) bar
Ingredients: Chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla flavor
10g sugar/38g serving (26.3% by wt.)

The other day I stopped by Whole Foods for vegetables and discovered that the chain had changed its entire line of store brand chocolate bars. The new line presumably aims at the same demographic—people who will spend extra for local/organic/fair trade/sustainable and are leery of unpronounceable ingredients, i.e. Whole Foods shoppers—but the change seems to be an attempt to stay within current trends in both sustainability and chocolate consumption. The old chocolate was your basic “Milk chocolate” or “Dark chocolate with almonds” in bright, simple packaging, sometimes using the words “organic” or the classic, evocative “Swiss.” The new line includes more dark varieties, single-origin bars, and upscale flavoring combinations in Vosges-shaped thin boxes bearing lots of words, sustainability-certification-type stamps, earthy colors, and photos of people and sights in tropical locales. They're also marketing it under their Whole Foods brand rather than under their 365 “value” brand.

I bought three of the new bars to review over the next weeks, among them today's 71% single-origin Costa Rican bar (but made in Belgium, so there's still some Euro-cachet). Incidentally, this bar's carries Whole Foods' self-defined Whole Trade Guarantee and is made with Rainforest Alliance Certified cacao. These distinctions are, like organic, fair trade, direct trade, and all those others, complicated and varying degrees of meaningful to the well-intentioned consumer. I won't pretend to fully understand them (I suspect very few people really do), and one of these days I'd like to write a post on whatever I can learn about the real-world significance of each. Compared to eating chocolate, that's frustrating and boring, so it's on the back burner.

Corporate Info: After all the above, let's keep this one short. Whole Foods Market is a major American supermarket chain focusing on upscale and health food. People have all sorts of opinions on it because of its relatively high prices (at least in part because of the nature of the products, maybe also because its customers are willing to pay more), penchant for taking over regional health food chains, and outspoken co-founder/one-time CEO, but it also gives health-food devotees supermarket-style access to their preferred products, including many of the chocolate bars I review here.

Appearance: Surface is semi-glossy and finely textured, with a red-orange undertone.

Smell: Big, warm, round—that is, there's a lot of aroma but nothing pungent. Like ripe cherries or berries or something.

Taste: Texture is creamy, waxy, rich, mouth-coating. Flavor is full, not too sweet, not at all sour or bitter. This is the crowd-pleaser of very dark chocolates, fruity and winey without any challenging or unpleasant edges.

Conclusion: Whole Foods 71% Cacao Costa Rica Dark Chocolate is exactly what an upscale store brand would do when attempting to make a good-quality but not off-putting fairly dark chocolate.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

B.T. McElrath Salty Dog Chocolate Bar

3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Chocolate liquor, sugar (in the chocolate), cane sugar (in the toffee), cocoa butter, soy lecithin, butter, bicarbonate of soda, natural flavor, salt (in the toffee), sea salt (on the back of the bar)
17g sugar/43g serving (39.5% by wt.)

Corporate Info: Minneapolis's B.T. McElrath was founded by a chef, and accordingly seems to focus on creating unusual flavored bars and confections like Sweet Potato Pavé and Buttered Toast. B.T. McElrath's Chile Limón Bar is one of my favorites, and now that I'm eating a little more sugar, I can venture into the other 70% bars, including today's Salty Dog.

Appearance: Very glossy, richly hued reddish-brown with pale flecks under the surface and sea salt evenly sprinkled on the back.

Smell: Not strong, but with a hint of roasted beans and nuts.

Taste: Creamy chocolate, a lot of salt, toffee is more subtle in very small bits of crunch and low-key caramel flavor. The chocolate is mild, so even though it's 70% cacao the sweetness of the chocolate (not the toffee) stands out. Additionally, the salt doesn't seem to have a good counterpoint, which makes me wonder about the whole salt-sweet concept. I'm thinking that it's not just sugar and salt that work against each other, it's burnt sugar/caramel specifically that's so wonderfully enlivened by salt. Thus, I'd say there's too much sugar in chocolate form and not enough in toffee form to really play off the salt here. I've seen this bar many times and have the impression that it's pretty popular, but to my taste there's a balance issue that the Chile Limón bar didn't have. It's all very interesting, and I'd love to try more B.T. McElrath products.

Conclusion: For me, B.T. McElrath Salty Dog Chocolate Bar has too much sugar and not enough toffee to balance well with the mild chocolate and abundant salt.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Justin's organic 2 dark chocolate peanut butter cups

1.4oz in two peanut butter cups
Ingredients: Organic cane sugar, o. chocolate liquor, o. cocoa butter, o. soy lecithin, o. vanilla, o. peanuts, o. palm oil, sea salt
14g sugar/40g serving (35% by wt.)

Corporate Info: Justin's—a.k.a. Justin's Nut Butter—is a nut butter company, not a chocolatier, but I like peanut butter cups and Justin's makes a dark chocolate peanut butter cup, so there you go. Justin's products are mostly organic, and they claim to be trying for sustainability in a whole assortment of ways. Good for them. Also, with a hometown of Boulder, Colorado, Justin's is neighbor to Chocolove and SunSpire.

Appearance: Pretty nice. The wide, flat cups, glossy chocolate, and (in cross-section) good amount of crumbly-looking peanut butter make these comparable to Reese's ultra-popular version. I have as much Reese's nostalgia as anyone, so a decision to emulate the big boys seems like a good one to me.

Smell: As you'd expect, but with a somewhat greater emphasis on the chocolate than most. That chocolate has a red-berry tartness to the smell rather than being the usual super-mild and sweet type.

Taste: On first bite, I think: sweet...very smooth and creamy chocolate...yes the peanut butter has some crumbly-crunchy going on...lingering sugar and red fruit tartness. I wish the peanut butter stood out more; I'm thinking that, compared to milk chocolate cups, dark chocolate ones need a higher ratio of peanut butter to stand up to the chocolate, even if the chocolate isn't crazy intense (and this isn't). Not bad, though.

Conclusion: Justin's organic 2 dark chocolate peanut butter cups are a fine organic, small-company Reese's substitute, but the peanut butter flavor tends to get overwhelmed by the flavorful chocolate.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Madécasse 75% Cocoa Single Origin Madagascar

2.64oz (75g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla
10g sugar/37.5g serving (26.7% by wt.)

Corporate Info: Madécasse has one of those interesting progressive-chocolate-company stories: The American founders met as Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar and decided to not only grow their cacao there (not unusual) but also process and package the chocolate there to benefit the local community. The company claims to be paying good wages and using sustainable farming practices, and has impressed The New York Times and Fast Company (among others) with its commitment and innovation. The bars are not officially labeled fair trade or organic, but from what I read, the process is essentially a variation on both of those complicated labels. Madécasse produces a relatively small selection of plain and flavored bars. In the past I've tried and liked the 63% cacao barwith sea salt and nibs, and today I'm trying a basic 75% bar the wrapper describes as “dark & bold.”

Appearance: Basic semi-glossy, medium brown, not especially red or grey or anything.

Smell: Warm and sweet, caramelly dried fruit.

Taste: Texture is crunchy melting into creamy. Intense, tannic—that is, bitter in a drying, astringent way. It's pretty hardcore when it first hits, but as the chocolate melts, the thick, rich creaminess mellows the flavor so it's still intense but not like a punch in the mouth. Indeed dark and bold!

Conclusion: Madécasse 75% Cocoa Single Origin Madagascar is intense and thickly creamy, good for those who like their chocolate assertively dark.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

SunSpire Fair Trade Organic Baking Bar Unsweetened Chocolate

4oz (113g) bar
Ingredients: Organic fair trade unsweetened chocolate

I haven't bought a lot of SunSpire products, as they have that old-school health-food look about them that doesn't inspire (heh) tasty chocolate confidence. I'm finally trying this baking bar because it was on sale, I use a decent amount of chocolate, and I'd like to support organic and fair trade production when I can. That said, it's 100% cacao, so unless it's François Pralus it probably won't be a joy to eat as is.

Today I'm trying SunSpire's chocolate plain and in hot chocolate, which for me consists of chocolate, sugar, vanilla, and soy milk. You may make your cocoa differently, but since I drink it nearly daily using various chocolate bars and cocoa powders, I do have some basis for comparison.

Corporate Info: SunSpire's parent company is The Hain Celestial Group, owners of a huge range of health food brands, among them Greek Gods; Arrowhead Mills; Spectrum; Celestial Seasonings; Rice Dream, Soy Dream and WestSoy (milk replacers); Alba and Avalon Organics and Jāson (personal care products); and of course Hain Pure Foods. It's really big. Hain is headquartered in a town in Long Island, New York; customer service is in Celestial Seasonings' hometown of Boulder, Colorado; and Hain Celestial also operates in Canada and Europe.

Appearance: Very matte, washed-out brown.

Smell: Vivid, beany, tart, raw.

Taste: Bitter and chalky, leaving a chalky residue. It doesn't make much of an impression other than that texture and the bitterness hovering around it.

In Hot Chocolate: My cocoa with SunSpire unsweetened wasn't great, less because of flavor than because of the same chalky texture I tasted in the bar. It was like regular hot chocolate with additional chalk dust, which thickened the cocoa slightly and then, after I swallowed, lingered dryly on the inside of my mouth. Too bad.

Conclusion: SunSpire Fair Trade Organic Baking Bar Unsweetened Chocolate is more memorable for its weirdly chalky texture than its flavor.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vivani Dark Chocolate with Orange

3.5oz (100g)
Ingredients: Organic cocoa liquor, o. raw cane sugar, o. cocoa butter, o. orange oil
11g sugar/42g serving (26.2% by wt.)

Corporate Info: Vivani is a young subsidiary of Germany's Weinrich (a.k.a. corporate-sounding Ludwig Weinrich GmbH & Co. KG), and I've seen a selection of its bars all around Seattle, including today's Dark Chocolate with Orange. Vivani's focus is on being organic, so much so that the company's unveiling was at an organic trade fair. They also make claims about the positive effect of their farming practices on local communities as well as avoiding genetically modified ingredients (like common emulsifier soy lecithin), a widespread concern in Europe.

Appearance: Slightly reddish and fairly matte.

Smell: Rich with a little spice.

Taste: Texture is fatty-creamy and mouth-filling, the kind that coats your tongue and teeth and makes you want to sip some water. That's not good or bad, just a matter of preference. The flavor reminds me of what perfumers call “Orientals”—”exotic” woods and spices like nutmeg and cedar that make the whole bar taste rich, with the bitter edge of citrus peel. (To be clear though, this is relatively subtle, not like, say, Leysieffer's cardamom bar.) All in all, orange oil doesn't really do it for me as a chocolate additive, but from a more objective standpoint I think the unexpected complexity it contributes is pretty neat.

Conclusion: Vivani Dark Chocolate with Orange offers that complex orange oil spiciness that may or may not be right up your alley.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Vosges Blood Orange Caramel Bar

3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla, organic cream, corn syrup, Campari, hibiscus powder, orange zest, blood orange puree, water, sea salt

Vosges' blood orange caramel-filled bar was suggested to me by reader Emma after she read my post praising the similar Black Salt Caramel Bar. Vosges seems to do well with subtle complexity; will this bar fit that mold?

Corporate Info: (mostly copied from 9/24/11): Vosges is based in Chicago and produces a pretty wide variety of adventurously flavored bars and confections, among them the famous bacon chocolate. In the past I have been annoyed by the pretentious copy on the back of the box, and it's silly here too, but the website keeps the flowery text off the front page, and of course it's not as important as the chocolate!

Appearance: Subtle gloss, uniform deep brown color, cleanly stamped. Breaking a corner off reveals a gooey, somewhat liquidy caramel that makes this bar messier than the salt caramel one. (Yes, I know it looks like there's a slug sandwiched in my chocolate there on the left. Not particularly appetizing.)

Smell: Rich, a little dried fruit and nuts, but very cohesive: no smells stand out or seem removed from the central scent. I don't get any particular blood orange or caramel here, though the box claims some “bright citrus.”

Taste: The chocolate is super smooth, creamy, and nutty, and the caramel has, yes, a complex and subtle perfumey sweet-sour flavor. I can't tease out the blood orange vs. hibiscus vs. orange zest vs. Campari, but as with the smell I think that's where Vosges excels, combining ingredients in such a balanced way that they create something new, and that's pretty great. Unfortunately, though, there are downsides to this bar, mostly relating to the consistency of the caramel. First, it does indeed make for sloppy eating. Second, Vosges recommends breaking off “a small piece” and holding it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue until “within thirty seconds the chocolate square will begin to melt”; this is impossible with a bar that consistently breaks in the middle of each delicate square, smashing the caramel between shards of chocolate and leaving you with sticky pieces of the solid chocolate between squares. Third, the problem with this (aside from the mess) is that when you eat those pieces, the caramel melts away before the chocolate does, the equivalent of eating an outstanding sandwich inside-out rather than being able to fully enjoy the magical combination of bread and filling. I suspect the whole experience of this bar would be made better just by thickening the caramel.

Conclusion: Vosges Blood Orange Caramel Bar demonstrates Vosges' skill with subtlety and depth of flavor, but the too-thin caramel detracts from the experience.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sahagún Palomitapapá

25g/0.9oz bar (self-weighed)
Ingredients: Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla, corn, soy oil, fleur de sel, chile (cocoa is Ecuadorian)

Corporate Info: Sahagún (or, judging by the website, Sahagun) is a tiny little company that currently makes a few barks, a couple filled confections, and one coffee flavored bar. I must have bought funky little Palomitapapá at Cacao in Portland, drawn in by the “exploded corn” in the ingredients list. (Note: I can only find this bar as part of a bark three-pack, which I'm guessing means the company switches up its flavors from time to time.) If you're interested in Sahagún's South American names and ingredients, philosophy, or future plans, you can read an interview with owner Elizabeth Montes here.

Appearance: Nubbly and barky, with exposed salt crystals on top.

Smell: Not too much, actually.

Taste: First chile, more than I was expecting but not to a give-me-a-glass-of-water extent. Then salt, then the relatively subtle flavor and not at all subtle texture of the corn kernels, which are more chewy-crunchy than puffy like popcorn. The spiciness lingers, and the kernels get stuck in my teeth, and all in all the chocolate is just a flavor element rather than the headliner here. Hm, there's not a lot to say except that this is a fun experience if you're into the ingredients.

Conclusion: Sahagún Palomitapapá is fun if you want chile, crunchy corn, and salt with your chocolate.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pacari Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans

90g (3.17oz) box; mine contained 31 chocolate covered beans
Ingredients: Organic cacao beans, o. cane sugar, o. cocoa powder, o. sunflower lecithin

Corporate Info: Pacari Chocolate is single-origin (Ecuador), organic, and according to them, fair trade minus the certification. Most of what I'm seeing about the company is from commercial sites, so I'll just say that they sound good, in an upscale, rainforesty sort of way: Pacari offers local-origin bars from different plantations, flavored bars, chocolate covered tropical things (fruits, coffee beans, etc), and a few other earthy-crunchy-super-local items, including today's chocolate covered cacao beans dusted with cocoa powder.

Appearance: Dusty, oblong, irregular. Appealingly rugged.

Smell: Intense, sharp, with warm notes—ginger, cardamom, that kind of vibe.

Taste: In layers, what you've got is: First, a fine dusting of powder that has almost no taste; its only real effect is allowing the chocolate underneath to remain both protected and creamy, which is to my mind preferable to to the shiny, shellacked texture of some other chocolate-covered treats. Second, a medium-thin layer of creamy, tart chocolate. If you sit and savor that layer it's actually raw-tasting compared to other chocolate, but if you mostly chomp down like I am, the contrast with the cacao bean makes it seem very smooth and sweet. Finally, a large cacao bean with a papery outside and nut-textured, crunchy-crumbly inside. The bean is almost deceptively neutral flavored in its unrefined, unsweetened, low-bitterness, nutty non-intensity. I've eaten nibs that had a more distinctive, banana-tropical flavor that these beans don't, and I like these here. Very good.

Conclusion: Pacari Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans are rustic, have nice texture and flavor contrast, and are easy to keep eating. Warning: Too many can make you (me) hyperactive!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

El Ceibo Bolivia 77% Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nibs & Uyuni Salt

2.8oz (80g) bar
Ingredients: Organic cocoa mass, sugar, o. cocoa nibs, cocoa butter, salt, soy lecithin

Corporate Info: I'd never heard of El Ceibo before, but it turns out the Bolivian cooperative is pretty great, bringing together various indigenous groups and becoming a model for South American farming cooperatives in general. In collaboration with a European chocolatier (site is in French), El Ceibo makes only a few products for the international market. Today's choice, their 77% bar with nibs and salt, includes salt from a the world's largest salt flats, which are, not coincidentally, in Bolivia.

Appearance: Not very glossy, European-style thin and flat, greyish-reddish.

Smell: Raw and beany, with cacao's buttermilky tang.

Taste: Super smooth chocolate punctuated by nut-textured, more intense nibs. Chocolate is indeed tangy but not sour. Sugar is well-incorporated: I would say it's not at all sweet, but obviously that's not true, it's just that the sugar balances the chocolate's bite and no more. Salt is supposedly in crunchy crystals, but I'm only rarely picking them up; it's more like when cooks add enough salt to a dish to enhance the flavor without making it taste “salty.” Overall, this is pure, bright, smooth-textured, slightly tannic beaniness, with nibs for flavor and texture contrast. Good stuff.

Conclusion: El Ceibo Bolivia 77% Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nibs & Uyuni Salt doesn't taste gimmicky, it's just good, pure, bright, chocolatey flavor with a little extra something.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate 55% Cocoa

3.2oz (90g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa liquor, sugar, almonds, cocoa butter, sea salt, soy lecithin, vanilla
11g sugar/30g serving (36.7% by wt.)

When I was flipping through my bag of to-be-reviewed bars a couple weeks ago, I found that I had bought several flavored with sea salt and decided to review them as a pack. I started with the Vosges and Trader Joe's caramel bars, followed a tangent with another Trader Joe's bar, and am back this week with Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in 55% Cocoa.

Meta-moment: I've been violating the old maximum-1/3-sugar rule for two reasons: 1) Health-wise, I can do that now, and 2) many interesting bars come in dark chocolate bases that are a little higher in sugar than my usual. Unsurprisingly, I often find them too sweet for my taste, but with common brands like Chocolove, I have frequently seen the whole product line on sale and really wanted to give some fun flavors a try. So now I am.

Corporate Info: I have a soft spot for Chocolove, having lived in near its hometown of Boulder, Colorado and enjoyed the company's samples in my local Whole Foods. It's a relatively young company (Wikipedia says 1996; Chocolove's website doesn't say), hasn't yet been bought by a giant conglomerate, and is supposedly working with these guys to source its chocolate from well-treated cocoa farmers and communities. On the other hand, the chocolate isn't officially organic or fair trade, and Chocolove is rated a C by the Better World folks (same as Hershey's, much better than Nestle), so I don't want to give them my unconditional Choco-love (ha ha, I crack me up). But it's cheaper than most premium chocolate—$2-2.50 a bar—and reliably tasty.

Appearance: Chocolove's usual quilted-looking, heart-topped shape, kind of a greyish brown, very glossy, bumpy on the back.

Smell: Sweet, nutty.

Taste: Okay, yeah, it's too sweet for me and not super-dark, which makes it hard to pick out the other flavors. What I can say is that you get entire halved almonds and a well-incorporated, non-dominant saltiness. The wrapper says something about salt crystals, and that very well may be true, but they must be pretty small; while it doesn't taste like the salt is dissolved into the chocolate, there's more uniformity to it than I've found in other salty bars.

Conclusion: Chocolove Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate 55% Cocoa didn't taste like anything special to me, but if you like almonds and salt in a relatively light dark chocolate, maybe it would be great to you.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Toffee with Walnuts and Pecans

3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Chocolate liquor, cane sugar, cocoa butter, butter, corn syrup, walnuts, pecans, soy lecithin, water, vanilla, sea salt
14g sugar/43g serving (32.6% by wt.)

Sometime after I tried last week's Trader Joe's caramel-filled bar, I happened to be back at the store and spied the other bar in the same line, Toffee with Walnuts and Pecans, though this one contains inclusions rather than a filling.

Appearance: First of all, I love these box designs, a crowded and colorful riff on the detailed, Victorian-style illustrations Trader Joe's uses on its promotional materials. That aside, the bar is thin and flat, with a uniform, glossy surface, solid brown color, and little bumps visible on the back.

Smell: Not particularly strong. Pleasant, rounded, fruity.

Taste: This bar contains small nuggets of toffee and flecks of nut. The chocolate is good in a generic way, so while it's not complex or intense or smoky or anything else you might like personally, it's also pretty dark and doesn't have any “off” flavors or no flavor at all, and I suppose that's a good way to appeal to a lot of people. The toffee pieces are large and salty-buttery enough to be enjoyable (I'm looking at you, Endangered Species), and the small nut bits are pretty forgettable, but given how many people buy chocolate bars containing little pieces of delicately flavored nuts, maybe others get more out of them than I do.

Conclusion: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Toffee with Walnuts and Pecans doesn't stand out, but it's inoffensive and fun, and for $1.99 you get a gourmet-ish bar in a nice box.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Caramel with Black Sea Salt

3oz (85g) bar 
Ingredients: Chocolate liquor, cane sugar, cocoa butter, cream, corn syrup, soy lecithin, water, vanilla, Hawaiian black sea salt, sea salt 
13g sugar/43g serving (30.2% by wt.)

This 70% cacao Trader Joe's bar is basically the exact same thing as last week's several-dollars-pricier Vosges bar, except it varies just enough (not organic cream, a sprinkling of salt on the back, higher sugar content) that Vosges clearly doesn't produce it, at least not as an identical copy. I haven't been impressed by Trader Joe's chocolate in the past, but who knows who makes it or how many manufacturers the grocer has used over the years, not to mention this is a filled bar rather than a single-origin, super-dark bar that relies heavily on its beans, so I might feel entirely differently today. It's hard to go wrong with caramel-filled chocolate.

Appearance: Big, thin, flat, matte, uniformly textured, a solid, medium-dark brown. As with last week's caramel-filled treat, this thin, sharply molded bar holds its soft filling well. 
(It only broke just before I took the photo above, when I caught it on the wrapper inside the box.)

Smell: Mild, slightly spicy, dried fruit, no sharpness.

Taste: This is the Bam! version of the Vosges bar, with a less interesting chocolate, just-a-bit-thicker and significantly but not unpleasantly sweeter caramel, and to my mind one major improvement, that restrained if uneven sprinkling of salt on the back that hits the tongue quickly and livens up all the flavors. Without it—as I said, it's unevenly applied—the whole package isn't nearly as interesting, because there isn't as much to the caramel or the chocolate, but most people will find this an entirely acceptable substitute for the more expensive Vosges bar.

Conclusion: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar Caramel with Black Sea Salt isn't super-complex, but it's pretty darn good for the price.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Vosges Black Salt Caramel Bar

3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, organic cream, corn syrup, soy lecithin, water, vanilla, sea salt
11g sugar/43g serving (25.6% by wt.)

Corporate Info: Vosges is based in Chicago and produces a pretty wide variety of adventurously flavored bars and confections, among them the famous bacon chocolate. The last time I sampled a Vosges bar I was annoyed by the pretentious copy on the back of the box, and it's silly here too, but the website keeps the flowery text off the front page, and of course it's not as important as the chocolate! This filled bar just sounded like fun.

Appearance: Wide, thin, and flat, nicely molded, very smooth, medium-dark, a bit ruddy. I'm impressed such a thin bar contains a filling!

Smell: Not particularly unusual, but tangy and creamy.

Taste: Very nice. The caramel's flavor is rich, creamy, and deep but relatively subtle and surprisingly not too sweet; I personally might like it more toasted, but this is just a matter of taste, and it's well-made as it is. Texture-wise, the soft caramel oozes but fortunately doesn't all flow out like water, so I can take a chunk off without losing the entire filling. The 70% cacao chocolate is just tart, sweet, and complex enough to hold its own against the filling, neither dwarfing nor being dwarfed by the low-key caramel. I've almost forgotten the salt, which as part of the caramel isn't a standout ingredient but rather an integral flavoring element. There's a lot going on here, though you'll have to pay attention if you want to taste the nuances.

Conclusion: Vosges Black Salt Caramel Bar is balanced, not too sweet, and won't shout to be heard, but if you like this sort of thing, it's worth your money and effort.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

World Market Chili & Lime Dark Chocolate 64% Cacao

3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla, chipotle powder, natural flavor
15g sugar/43g serving (34.9% by wt.)

Corporate Info: See last week.

Appearance: Lighter in color than the Sea Salt bar, smooth and thin, with a touch of red.

Smell: Almost none, very very slightly like cocoa beans, chili powder, and lime Tostitos.

Taste: Subtle, with a brief hint of lime, then just mild chocolate, then a slow, lasting, back-of-the-throat burn, then the lime Tostitos fade in and out, though they're pretty low-key. I'm not getting much actual chili flavor or lime, and I wonder if the chocolate maker uses that same powdered lime substance that Frito Lay does. Overall, I think this bar is too sweet and could use more flavor all around—lime, chili, and chocolate—but I bet it would make good hot cocoa. I'll try that tomorrow.

Conclusion: World Market Chili & Lime Dark Chocolate 64% Cacao is dull and too sweet, though the long afterburn is fun. As I said last week, I'm not sure I'd buy World Market's 64% cacao flavored chocolate again.

[Update the next day: It does indeed make good hot cocoa!]

Saturday, September 10, 2011

World Market Sea Salt Dark Chocolate 64% Cacao

3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla, sea salt
15g sugar/43g serving (34.9% by wt.)

Corporate Info: So I don't know who actually makes World Market's (a.k.a. Cost Plus World Market) chocolate, but I was there for other reasons and liked the sound of their flavored chocolates, including this week's Sea Salt and next week's Chili & Lime. None of it is listed on the site, so I guess there are two questions here. First, how well do the flavors work? And second, if you're at World Market buying beaded chair cushions or Finnish soda or something, should you throw in some of their store brand chocolate?

Appearance: I dunno, medium brown. Fairly dark, actually, darker than I would think for 64%. A big, thin bar, and you can just barely see the shapes of sea salt flakes under the chocolate.

Smell: Mild, sweet, fruity of the apricot/peach variety.

Taste: Woah. The chocolate is very mild and sweet and not especially fruity, and the texture is fairly creamy. What's weird is that the flakes of sea salt sneak up on you, because they're not super small but are incorporated into the chocolate, not on top where you know where they are and they'll start melting right away; you're chewing your mild, milky chocolate and then suddenly there's a tiny crunch and salinity comes out of nowhere. I like sweet and salt together, but I'm not sure this entirely appeals to me, plus the chocolate isn't all that great. Maybe less sugar would have worked better with this mild chocolate.

Conclusion: World Market Sea Salt Dark Chocolate 64% Cacao is mild and a bit too sweet for me, and the incorporated salt is kind of jarring. I'm not sure I'd buy World Market's 64% cacao flavored chocolate again.