Saturday, January 29, 2011

What To Do With Excess Chocolate?

My newly purchased bars go into the pantry in a paper bag whose contents are the only food in the house that no one but me is allowed to touch. Once reviewed, all chocolate ends up in a big open-access bowl along with the other broken half-bars and regular chocolate purchases. So what to do with all that chocolate? Ah, first-world problems. Since I'm not a serious chocoholic, I don't actually eat straight chocolate all day, especially if I didn't really like a bar in the first place. But most of it gets used in the end, and here's how:
  • Cocoa
    • Aside from its obvious charms, in hot chocolate the milk mellows harsh flavors and overwhelms weird textures. Cocoa is endlessly customizable with sugar or other sweeteners, extracts, spices, coffee, a pinch of salt, whatever you like. Even inclusions are okay, since the pieces of nut or fruit just sink to the bottom.
    • My quick-and-dirty way to make cocoa is to break up a few pieces of chocolate into a mug, add in anything else I want, and top with milk. I microwave until just hot, stir, and microwave and stir a bit at a time until chocolate is melted and thoroughly incorporated.
    • Watery cocoa is the pits, but it can be avoided! You can use higher-fat milk for richness or whip the milk with a frother, which turns even nonfat milk into soft, pillowy goodness. I happen to use soy milk, which when shaken froths well on its own, but I also have a frother that I quite like.
  • Baking
    • Baking chocolate is still just chocolate, though it sometimes includes extra cocoa butter for creamy meltiness, and serious bakers probably have favorite brands for top-quality cakes and pastries. Personally I'm usually just experimenting with a basic brownie or cookie recipe, and I have enough random chocolate around that I can't justify buying E. Guittard wafers, so I chop up what I have and voilà.
    • I don't recommend using chocolate with harsh or “off” flavors for baking, especially in items like chocolate chip cookies. There might be cookie around those chocolate pieces, but the chocolate will still be harsh or “off,” and now you have a whole batch of weird tasting cookies.
  • Hoping someone else will eat it
    • Some chocolate is appealing enough to others that it disappears before I get around to using it elsewhere. On the other hand, if I didn't like it much or it's directed at a very particular sort of audience, no one else is anxious to finish it either. Thus the absinthe bar is still hanging around. Oh well.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Domori Cacao Criollo Javablond (70%)

25g (0.88oz) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa mass, cane sugar

I bought Domori's Javablond bar at Cacao in Portland, Oregon. The salesclerk, a smoker, described it as reminding him of a flake of tobacco ember on the tongue (I hope I'm remembering that right). While I wasn't sure I'd enjoy the bar the way he did, I was sufficiently intrigued.

Corporate Info: A Google search on Italy's Domori mostly finds retailers and the occasional layperson like me, not news articles or other credible sources of information. (One minor exception is a short blog post from 2005 by famed pastry chef David Lebovitz.) Domori is a subsidiary of gruppo illy, which also owns several other high-end brands including the obvious illycaffè. Otherwise I'll refrain from making any claims about Domori as a company and just point you to the area of its website that talks about cacao types, ingredient traceablity, and so on. It's not all that enlightening, but the focus (whether in reality or just marketing terms) seems to be on quality and flavor. So that's nice.

Appearance: Javablond is a thin, flat bar in reddish-orange medium brown, a bit darker than it looks in the photos here.

Smell: Like dried fruit, especially raisins. I know that's “snooty reviewer stuff,” but that's what this bar smells like to me.

Taste: Ooh! Very smooth and creamy, sweet, bitter, super interesting.

Snooty Reviewer Stuff: On first taste I just think “bitter,” but if I visualize smoky flavor, I definitely find something tangible to connect the concept with, if that makes sense. I can even see what the salesclerk meant by the idea of a smoky ember, though as a nonsmoker I don't think I'd identify tobacco in such a subtle form. The dried fruit I smelled is there too, but the fruitiness is more of a full, round foundation to the distinct bitterness that sits on top of it. There's a long, lingering bitter aftertaste, but it's mellow, not harsh, and so not unpleasant. The creamy texture is a great pairing for the strong flavor.

By the way, this is what Domori's site says about the Javablond bar: “Notes of tobacco, red fruits, smoked notes, and notes of underbrush. Pungent with great persistence and mildness.” I avoided reading this until after describing the bar myself, but it meshes fairly well with my experience.

Final Thoughts: FYI, this ain't no cheap chocolate, something like $5 for less than an ounce. A fun treat, though.

Conclusion: Domori Cacao Criollo Javablond is creamy, fruity, and smoky.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Moonstruck Dominican Republic Single Origin Dark Chocolate 72% Cacao


2oz (56g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa beans, cane sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla bean
7g sugar/25g serving (28% by wt.)

I've seen Moonstruck's distinctive bright-and-white boxes in stores, but I finally bought this not-cheap bar when sampled it at a festival.

Corporate Info: Portland, Oregon-based Moonstruck makes bars and confections, single-origin and blends, plain and flavored. The company once operated a bunch of chocolate cafés around the country but scaled back a couple years ago to the Portland area alone, and made the news recently for working with a special, rare cocoa bean. While Moonstruck's chocolate is neither organic nor fair trade certified, the company claims that it works with vendors it trusts to eschew abusive labor practices. Your comfort level with this state of affairs may vary.

Appearance: Standard: reddish brown, neither glossy nor dull.

Smell: Fruity.

Taste: Smooth, bright, and fruity. Complex and well balanced.

Snooty Reviewer Stuff: This is actually a really interesting bar. I'm tasting tart red fruits like raspberry and dried cherry, something nutty and tropical like cashew, and a background note of pleasant perfume, maybe vanilla and caramel. A bit tannic. This isn't seriously “out there”—pungent or seriously mouth-drying—but it's not mild and sweet either.

Conclusion: Moonstruck Dominican Republic Single Origin Dark Chocolate 72% Cacao is complex, interesting, and balanced.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Seeds of Change 61% Cacao Dark Chocolate With Mango and Cashew

2.99oz (84.8g) in three 1oz bars
Ingredients: Organic chocolate, o. cane sugar, o. cocoa butter, o. milkfat, o. soy lecithin, o. vanilla, o. cashews, o. mango
9g sugar/28g serving (32.1% by wt.)

I bought Seeds of Change's 61% Mango and Cashew bar at the same time as the coconut bar, because I found them on sale and hadn't tried the brand before. My opinion of the coconut chocolate was mixed: I thought it was mild and fatty, permeated with a tanning-oil coconut sweetness that was too much for me but might work for others. I've used the extra in hot cocoa and had the same problem, the coconut flavor overwhelming the chocolate and making the drink taste sickly and artificial. Nevertheless I said I'd like to sample another flavor, and there's no chance that the mango cashew bar will have the same Eau de Mounds.

Corporate Info: Seeds of Change is...complicated. The company was founded in 1989 on one very well-intentioned product, organic seeds, but in 1997 sold to mega-corporation Mars, Inc., makers of everything from M&Ms and Skittles to Pedigree dog food. Despite Seeds of Change's sustainability claims, UK-based Ethical Consumer Magazine now rates the chocolate at 2.5 out of 20 on their scale of ethical chocolate consumerism. (By contrast, they rate Divine at 14.5, Lindt at 11, and Mars' own M&Ms at 1.5.) Mars says it's striving for economic, social, and environmental sustainability in its chocolate production, but those goals don't yet seem to have made it into the product. With all that's involved in the long processing chain of chocolate production, I suspect there's some good and a fair amount of bad. Your conclusion may vary.

Appearance: Like the coconut bars, the mango and cashew bars come in three individually packaged, stubby bricks. They're a light to medium, orangey brown, and a cross section reveals small pieces of chopped mango and cashews.

Smell: Fresh, sweet, and tropical. Not at all sour or pungent.

Taste: Soft and smooth with a few tiny hard, chewy pieces of mango. Quite sweet, with sweet-tart mango; cashew contributes to the overall tropical vibe rather than having any distinctive flavor or texture.

Snooty Reviewer Stuff: I definitely get the extra cocoa butter and milkfat in here, as it has the same fatty texture as the coconut bar, but the slightly tart mango and lack of coconut flavor makes that texture less off-putting. I wouldn't call it recognizably mango—it could almost be apricot or weirdly sour cantaloupe—but the fruit works as a flavor contrast, though it does stick in my teeth long after I've swallowed the chocolate. Not much more to say...this is not a complex chocolate.

Conclusion: Seeds of Change 61% Cacao Dark Chocolate With Mango and Cashew is sweet, fatty, and just okay.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Chocolate Shops: Chocolopolis

Several months ago I visited Seattle's Chocolopolis and bought several interesting-sounding items including Venchi's intriguing absinthe bar and Amedei's subtle red fruit bar. I also bought a hazelnut bar from famed Valrhona, and when I finally got around to opening it, it tasted “off.” I thought it might be rancidity; though the expiration date gave me another month and a half, perhaps the hazelnut oil had gone bad. Valrhona ain't cheap, so I hoped I could return the bar. I called Chocolopolis and they told me they would allow me to exchange it, but when I finally brought it back in, I realized I'd forgotten the receipt!

Fortunately, Lauren overheard me mentioning my predicament. She remembered my call and had opened another bar from the same batch for quality control purposes. She compared it to my bar and found that it tasted the same. She suggested that Valrhona might just not be to my taste, but she wanted me to be happy with what I bought from the store, so she offered me a trade anyway. I swapped for a new-to-me bar from Olive and Sinclair, and out of impulse and goodwill also bought two of the chocolate confections behind the counter. (I don't remember the brands, only that one was a caramel-truffle hybrid and the other a ganache-filled and chocolate-coated fig.)

Chocolopolis is somewhat sterile, with no dishes of samples and only a limited selection of some brands, but what's there has been tried and approved by a knowledgeable staff. The shelves are labeled by origin and separated into plain bars versus those with inclusions, and as mentioned there is a counter containing high-quality confections. In Seattle it is one of only a few excellent multi-brand chocolate shops, a destination for those willing to splurge and looking for quality and expertise.

[Update: See Lauren's comment below for more on the confections I tried as well as Chocolopolis's free tasting sessions.]

Format Changes

Thus far I have written in a free-form style, discussing whatever I want to about a bar and always addressing only smell and taste. While I enjoy this writing process, I'm changing it for two reasons.

The first reason is that I'd like to make a habit of discussing the company behind each bar. Chocolate is an amazing product, in which corporate backing can mean anything from child slave labor to community-owned farms with fairly paid employees. It's also fascinating in how frequently small companies are subsumed by larger ones, often huge international conglomerates, which might leave the product alone or might change everything but the name. Your choice in chocolate can involve personal taste, environmental effects, several countries' growers and processors, and a complex corporate history in a knot of often hidden ethical implications. It's worth a little research, especially for such an unnecessary luxury product. I'm not promising dissertations here, but rather a short, dedicated entry on the corporate background of each bar.

The second reason is that the casual reader might not care about the history of a company or what I was thinking when I bought a bar. Thus I want to deconstruct my mushy paragraphs into several easily perused categories. Here's my current thinking:

  • Size/Ingredients/Sugar Content: same as before
  • Introduction: how I bought the bar and any other personal musings
  • Corporate Info
  • Appearance
  • Smell
  • Taste: texture, general overview (sour/bitter/sweet etc)
  • Snooty Reviewer Stuff: my attempt at analyzing subtleties of scent and flavor
  • Final Thoughts, if applicable
  • Conclusion: same as before

One more thing: I'll be posting more on individual chocolate shops. I've generally avoided such posts because they're usually specific to my town (Seattle) and I don't want to hold myself to any particular reviewing standards, but I recently had a good experience at a local shop and want to write about it. Shop “reviews” will still be relatively infrequent.