Category Archives: Product reviews

Mast Brothers Stumptown Coffee bar

I’ve tasted chocolate that had distinct coffee notes, and I’ve also tasted coffee that tasted chocolatey. If you stop to think about it, that makes some sense. Chocolate and coffee are both tropical fruits that are fermented, dried and roasted. (Chocolate goes through a number of other steps beyond roasting, but I won’t go into those right now.)

The combination of coffee and chocolate is nothing new. Every time I’ve been in a certain coffee shop (you know, that coffee shop), I hear someone say Um, hi? Can I get a double-shot no-whip extra-hot double-pump cafe mocha?

Kidding aside, there are other examples of coffee-chocolate collaborations. After all, Soma Chocolate teamed up with 49th Parallel to create the Epic Espresso Bar. And I love the combination of sipping chocolate and rich espresso in the sinfully decadent bicerin. And, of course, there’s the pastry chef’s trick of adding a bit of coffee or espresso to chocolate recipes; a little bit brings out the base cocoa notes without actually tasting like coffee.

And then there’s the Mast Brothers Stumptown Coffee bar. This love child of Mast Brothers (the hipsters of the chocolate-making world) and Stumptown Coffee (Portland’s darlings of coffee) is wrapped up in beautiful steampunk-y printed paper, and the inside is just as lovely as the outside.

Other coffee-chocolate bars I’ve tried taste like a hybrid of the two: not quite chocolate and not quite coffee. This bar, on the other hand, tastes like two distinct flavours that enhance each other. The chocolate is deep, dark and spicy; there are definite nutty notes that are enhanced by the crushed coffee beans on top. And the coffee itself is delicate, never overpowering.

But at heart, I’m a texture girl. And let me tell you, the crunch of the coffee beans with the crisp snap of the chocolate is dangerously addictive. And for someone who is developing a disappointing sensitivity to caffeine (hello, insomnia!), let’s just say that this chocolate bar is best enjoyed in the morning.

Chocolate for breakfast? Don’t mind if I do.

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Theo Chef Sessions limited edition confections

The idea of limited edition is kind of like eating seasonally. Something that’s limited edition is less likely to be taken for granted, though you run the risk of turning it into something precious. Or, worse, a marketing scheme.

Thankfully, in the case of limited edition things that are actually kick-ass and that, when they become available you need to snap one up immediately, there’s the Theo Chef Sessions limited edition confection collection. (Say that five times fast.) Featuring collaborations with some of the top chefs from Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, this might be the only opportunity you’ll have to try things like carrot caramel, pine resin ganache or candied beet pate de fruit.

Theo Chef Sessions limited edition confections

Standouts in the collection were the Chris Cosentino (Incanto) agro dolce brittle, a crispy crunchy brittle with pine nuts, capers and currants. Your brain expects sweet and it gets salty and savoury. I wanted more of the Maria Hines (Tilth) tamarind lime chili caramel, with its juicy, complex flavour profile. And, featuring the most traditional flavours of the bunch, the creation from Jerry Traumfeld (Poppy) didn’t disappoint with the huckleberry pate de fruit and cinnamon basil white ganache.

This limited edition (whee!) collection is only available for Valentine’s Day, so get ’em while you can.

Disclosure: The lovely team at Theo Chocolate sent me a box of these, gratis.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company

I’m always looking for chocolate, and I’m continually surprised and delighted by teeny tiny chocolatiers in the most unlikeliest of places. For example, my recent trip to Salt Spring Island find of Chocolate Beach. Or, more recently, on my fabulous weekend in the mountains of Rossland, B.C., visiting the Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company

I think the universe conspired to put this little shop on my radar. I found them through Twitter, and then my friends G & M, who live in Rossland, mentioned this great little chocolate shop that had just opened in their town. With G & M’s recent nuptials in Rossland, it seemed that it was time for us to meet face-to-face.

Trish Dyer, the chocolatier, is delightful with just a hint of sass. If I had had more time in Rossland I would have taken her out for a beer so we could revel in our mutual sassiness.

As fate would have it, I had to settle for a mere box of chocolates. There’s a nice selection of traditional flavours, updated by using local or regional ingredients, and some decided wackiness.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company: Wasabi!

The wasabi confection is adventurous and ambitious. I popped it in my mouth and experienced a tongue-whooping blast of wasabi. My nasal cavities braced themselves for the pain that usually accompanies that kind of wasabi power, but it never came. Instead, the wasabi mellowed into chocolate ganache with serious brownie notes. I can’t say that I love it, but the play on senses is definitely intriguing.

There’s the requisite sea salt caramel: perhaps a bit heavy-handed with the salt but the caramel is thoughtfully chewy without being sticky. Standouts include Noir, a classic French truffle, delightfully dark, perfectly smooth and rolled in cocoa powder. The filling in the truffle is a bit softer than the other Mountain Nugget confections, and I like it.

The peanut butter barrel is essentially two peanut butter cups stacked on top of each other to look like a barrel. I preferred to eat it as two peanut butter cups—one treat spread over two tasting sessions. Peanut butter and chocolate are a natural combination, but the peanut butter here really sings. It’s a rich, deep nut butter that tastes like the peanuts roasted in the oven for a minute more than they were supposed to—not because anyone forgot about them, but because they wanted to hang out a bit longer, dammit. This peanut butter is badass.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company - assortment of chocolates

The star of the show has to be the coconut log. A grown-up version of Bounty bar, this is a white chocolate ganache with toasted coconut, maybe a hint of honey, and just a touch of saltiness to cut through the richness. Choose from dark or milk chocolate on the outside, and get two because you won’t want to share with anyone.

There’s also a nice selection of bars with inclusions (that is, chocolate bars with stuff in them) like almonds, dried fruit and nuts.

Mountain Nugget Chocolate Company
2076 Columbia Avenue
Rossland, BC
250.362.3338

White chocolate gets a bad rap

El Rey ICOA white chocolateIn the chocolate world, it seems like darker is better. Whether it’s dodgy studies that claim dark chocolate will cure everything that ails you (from heart disease to athlete’s foot) or wannabe chocolate snobs one-upping each other by eating high percentage chocolates, it’s all about the dark. Generally speaking, a 70% bar does best with consumers, somehow striking that balance between perceived bitterness and actual sweetness.

But what about white chocolate? It’s like the abandoned, poor cousin of dark chocolate. It doesn’t even contain any cocoa solids: just sugar, cocoa butter and milk powder. And maybe it does deserve some of your derision. After all, most white chocolate on the market is sparkling, shockingly white and tastes cloyingly of too much sugar and milk powder. But then, that’s like saying all dark chocolate is bitter—which, of course, it isn’t.

How it’s made: white chocolate

After cacao beans are roasted and the skins are removed, they’re transferred to a melangeur (fancy French word for ‘mixer’). In the melanger, the cacao is ground into a fine paste of anywhere from 35-50 micrometres. There are one million micrometres in a metre. While 35-50 micrometres is pretty darn small, it’s still big enough that you’d perceive some graininess in the mixture. From there, the mixture is expelled under high temperature and pressure. Under these conditions, the cocoa mass is solid (think of cocoa powder) while the cocoa butter is a liquid.

When it first comes out of the expeller, cocoa butter isn’t white; it’s actually off-white, yellow or light brown. It often has distinct taste, though that taste will depend on where the cacao beans came from and their quality. In most cases, the cocoa butter is deodorized before it’s transformed into other things. Some chocolatiers add it back into their chocolate to increase its smoothness; some sell it to the cosmetics industry.

That’s right, the cosmetics industry. Cocoa butter commands much more money in the cosmetics industry, where it makes its way into lipsticks, face creams and soaps. This is why most mass-market chocolate makers want to replace cocoa butter with other fats: so that they can remove the cocoa butter and sell it at a higher price to the cosmetics industry.

And still, some take that cocoa butter, mix it with milk powder and sugar, and make white chocolate.

There are a few tricks to making white chocolate. One, if you roast the beans at a higher temperature, you weaken the cell walls in the cacao bean. This makes it easier to expel the cocoa butter. If you’re trying to make money by selling the cocoa butter to the cosmetics industry, this will maximize your profits—but it will also leave you with over-roasted, nearly burnt beans. Chances are, if you’re making your buck off the cosmetics industry, you’re not interested in high quality chocolate.

The second trick is that in deodorizing your cocoa butter, you’re removing some of the inherent flavours of the product. Again, if you’re looking at maximizing profits, rather than producing good chocolate, then this is a moot point. However, if you’re interested in making interesting white chocolate, then this is a problem. Deodorizing makes the resultant white chocolate sparkly white, and also terribly bland. That’s why most white chocolate all tastes the same.

El Rey ICOA white chocolate

This is the darling of the pastry world, as far as white chocolate goes. For a long time, this has been the white chocolate that professionals swear by. El Rey is a Venezuelan chocolate company, and while I can’t say I’m a huge fan of all their stuff, the ICOA white chocolate is quite nice.

This white chocolate is not deodorized, so it’s slightly yellow. It’s delicately milky, with a sharp sweetness at about mid-palate. Most important, both fade away to a clean finish so you’re not left with a chalky, cloying, milky aftertaste. As with all El Rey products, this one is silky smooth and luxuriously melty.

Askinosie Nibble Bar

Askinosie Nibble BarThis was a recent silver award finalist at the New York Fancy Food Show. That in itself is pretty impressive, because—as I alluded to earlier—it’s unusual for white chocolate to win awards. I’m particularly happy about this one because Askinosie is an American chocolate company who’s doing great things: putting pictures of their farmers on the packaging, including a “chocolot” number that lets you trace the provenance of your chocolate bar and innovative, sustainable packaging.

The nibble bar is a cute concept, too. It’s white chocolate with cocoa nibs on top. I like to think of it as a deconstructed cacao bean: taking the components (cocoa and cocoa butter), separating them, and putting them back together in a different way.

Just like El Rey, Askinosie doesn’t deodorize its cocoa butter. But unlike El Rey, Askinosie uses goat’s milk powder. The Askinosie white chocolate is beige-brown, which somehow fits with the rustic look of the packaging. There’s a bit of goatiness and sourness from the goat’s milk, and that offsets some of the sweetness. As you bite into it, it does taste too sweet and a bit grainy, but then the cocoa butter starts to melt and you start to crunch into the cocoa nibs. And as you keep chewing the cocoa nibs, the sweetness intensifies and the graininess becomes comforting, and then you’re just left with a clean palate and a bit of nibby flavour.

There’s something addictive about the crunch of the sugar and nibs, and the weirdness of the goat’s milk. They don’t call this the nibble bar for nothing. Notice that the top third of the bar is missing in the photo? Yup. Nibble nibble nibble.

Guilty pleasure: fun chocolate for grownups

Everyone needs a guilty pleasure. Most people’s guilty pleasure is chocolate. So what’s a chocolate connoisseur to do? If your everyday pleasure is chocolate, how can it possibly get any guiltier?

I know some chocolate snobs who swear by milk chocolate with almonds. There’s something comforting about the crunchiness. Milk chocolate with hazelnuts, too. The fact that it’s milk chocolate is pretty telling; it’s a break from the analytical chocolate tasting that we usually do.

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about a complete departure from good taste. I’m still not eating anything with waxy fillers or oils masquerading as cocoa butter. But take a decent foundation chocolate, one without too many distinct flavours, and throw some fun stuff in it? Yesssss. Here are three wacky bars that are high on my list for the fun factor.

Theo Chocolate Bread & Chocolate

I loved the Theo Chocolate Bread & Chocolate bar two years ago when I first tried it, and it’s still one of my favourites. You could call it a deconstructed pain au chocolat, or you could just eat the damn thing.

If I were to make this at home, I would buy a baguette and leave it on the counter for a week until every last bit of moisture was gone. Then, I would bash it to pieces, collect the bread crumbs and coat them with melted, unsalted butter. Then, I would take the buttered bread bits and add them to tempered dark chocolate.

Seeing as how I am not about to clean up the mess that the bread bashing would cause, I’m happy to let Theo Chocolate do the work and put it in a cute little wrapper with cats on it.

The crunchiness is like no other; it has a very distinct crispness to it that perfectly complements the melting chocolate. And the buttery finish is completely unexpected, lending a surprising savouriness to the experience. (And psst, the chocolate is certified organic and fair trade.)

Komforte Chockolate French Toast

I bought the Komforte Chockolates French Toast bar because of the label. I love it. As it turns out, the chocolate bar inside is pretty kick-ass, too.

As soon as I opened the foil wrapper, a cloud of syrupy vanilla wafted toward me. The bar itself is milk chocolate with chunks of crispy French toast inside. The French toast is the texture of very thin croutons, and the first taste provides a heady mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. A second later, there’s a decidedly confident saltiness at the back of the palate. The finish is all salt. The milk chocolate is the perfect sweetness and is, really, just a vehicle for crunchy, spiced, salty French toast. The entire experience is highly addictive.

Komforte also makes a Ramen Noodle bar and a Tortilla Lime Salt bar. The Ramen Noodle bar sounds cool but was rather disappointing. I didn’t buy the Tortilla Lime Chip bar, but you’d better believe I will the next opportunity that I get.

Chuao Chocolatier Firecracker Bar

This bar from Chuao Chocolatier boasts chipotle, salt and popping candy, which you might remember as Pop Rocks.

As a kid, I loved Pop Rocks, but they made me uncomfortable. The entire experience of buying and eating Pop Rocks gave me weird tummy rumblings. In retrospect, I think it was the anticipation of the popping: one part nervousness, one part excitement, and one part brain thinking that exploding candy is really quite bizarre.

Well, not much has changed. The first few pieces of this chocolate made me really uncomfortable. That familiar tummy rumbling was back. I put the bar down, only to be inexplicably drawn to it. I tried again. This time, less rumbly. And the third time, I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough.

It’s not all about the popping candy, though. The salt draws out the cocoa notes in the chocolate, and the chipotle provides a sweet smokiness up front, followed by a slow burn on the finish. The slow burn is just distracting enough to fill the gap in time between finishing one piece and putting the next one in your mouth.

It’s really sad when you realize you’ve eaten the entire bar in one sitting, though. Not out of some guilty complex that you’ve eaten an entire chocolate bar, but the simple fact that there isn’t any more.

Unless you’re me, and you bought three of them. Mwahaha.

Women and chocolate

On a slow news day, you’ll probably find some variation on the statistic that anywhere from 50-70% of women prefer chocolate to sex. Well, in an informal study yesterday afternoon, I asked four women which they’d prefer. Three of the four chose chocolate. The fourth chose both.

This post is about women who make great chocolate, right here in Vancouver. And, as a nice supplement to last week’s post, you might be surprised where chocolate lurks.

Chocolaterie de la Nouvelle France

chocolaterie_logoThis shop opened up on a sleepy side street just off Main Street in what used to be a chic, but overpriced, clothing boutique. The shop is decorated simply but is oh-so-cute, with a chalkboard listing the daily offerings.

Truffles are sold by weight, and include tasty delights like orange blossom (delicate, floral and fragrant), Earl Grey tea (aromatic, elegant, and positively bursting with bergamot) and coffee (deep, dark and earthy). There are also truffles made with single-origin chocolates from Venezuela and Madagascar.

These are serious truffles that don’t skimp on the chocolate. They’re dense, rich and almost impossibly smooth. Finished with a light dusting of Valrhona cocoa powder, they’re shockingly good. Though they’re all delicious, the Earl Grey truffle is the best of the bunch.

You can also get small chocolate squares adorned with aromatic additions like lavender and chile flakes. The chocolatière, Anne-Geneviève Poitras, has taken care to match each chocolate with an appropriate flavour, pairing the higher percentage chocolate with robust flavours and the lower percentage chocolate with more delicate flavours.

I love it when people pay attention to detail.

Chocolaterie de la Nouvelle France
198 East 21st Avenue
Vancouver, BC
604-566-1065

Bad Girl Chocolates

bad_girl_logo[Disclaimer! Disclosure! Kelly Boyd, the woman behind Bad Girl Chocolates, is a friend of mine. She also makes kick-ass chocolates, and I wouldn’t be talking about her stuff if it weren’t good. So there.]

Bad Girl Chocolates has been a staple of the Vancouver Farmers Markets for a few years now, and I always look forward to this booth. Is it the cheeky, ‘40s-style pin-up girls that adorn the packages? Is it that the traditional flavours (caramel, nuts) sidle up next to the wacky ones (pomegranate, balsamic vinegar)? Is it the use of local ingredients wherever possible?

I guess it’s a bit of everything. Plus, I can have a chocolate while I fondle the produce at the other booths. (I mean, really. Did you see the peaches this year, all fuzzy and blushing pink? I dare you not to fondle a fresh peach or stick your nose into an ear of fresh picked corn. Seriously.)

Even better, a lot Kelly’s products are vegan. The ganache for Bad Girl Chocolates are made with —gasp! —water, rather than cream. At first, I was a huge skeptic, but now I’m a convert. The flavours are crisp and clean, and the chocolates taste just as rich as one made with a cream-based ganache. I won’t be making water ganaches myself, but I’m happy to eat them.

Don’t miss the fun, seasonal products. Not only are they limited edition chocolates, but they’re also the season’s bounty at its peak. I spied pears at the fruit stand last week, so I’m keeping my eyes peeled for Kelly’s pear truffle: pear ganache with pear caramel. The mere thought of it makes my knees weak.

Bad Girl Chocolates doesn’t have a storefront, but you can order online here. They’re also available at most of the Winter Farmers Markets, though the final schedule still has to be posted. You can also check out Bad Girl Chocolates’ debut at this year’s Circle Craft Fair, November 11-15 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Surprising places for chocolate in Vancouver

I love Vancouver, and I like to think that I know it like the back of my hand. Tell me where you are and I’ll tell you the closest chocolate shop. No joke. Just try me sometime.

Thankfully, I’m still surprised by chocolatey discoveries. And lucky for you, I like to share. Information, that is. Not chocolate. Hands off!

At the coffee shop

Soma-epic-sized49th Parallel Coffee Roasters has just launched the Soma Epic Espresso chocolate bar. A collaboration between 49th Parallel and Soma Chocolatemaker (who I wrote about here and here), it’s as if chocolate and coffee met in an upscale (but hip and down-to-earth) martini lounge, had a night of indescribable passion, and this is the resulting love child.

Soma, a bean-to-bar producer in Toronto, blends their chocolate with freshly ground Epic Espresso beans to create a bar that equally highlights the coffee and the chocolate. It reminded me that they’re both similar agricultural products: they start as beans, they’re fermented, dried and roasted, and then turned into something that people in first world countries value quite highly. Economics and agriculture aside, the bar highlights reminds me of the roasting part of the process, and there’s a really nice smoothness to the bar that makes its way to every single tastebud and every cell in your mouth.

49th Parallel also has other offerings from Soma, including the microbatch bars that highlight cacao from Papua New Guinea, Hispaniola, and Madagascar. Alas, they no longer carry Askinosie Chocolate. However, they do have the full line of Thomas Haas chocolate bars.

49th Parallel Coffee Roasters
2152 West 4th Avenue
Vancouver, BC

At the record store

Vosges-bacon-sized

Dandelion Emporium is a dangerous combination of vinyl, handmade cards, laptop bags, cheeky books, and anything else that your hipster heart desires. Ever the strategic thinkers, they also keep a stock of Vosges chocolate bars beside the cash register.

Vosges became famous for its use of spices and beautifully architected truffles, but has gained even more traction since the release of their exotic chocolate bars. I was gifted a bar of Mo’s Bacon Bar last week, and it’s a wacky combination of milk chocolate, applewood smoked bacon, and alderwood smoked salt. It has a comforting salty-sweetness to it, and actually reminds me of Chinese moon cakes. There’s a nice texture to the bar (the bacon’s crumbly, the salt crunchy, the chocolate melty) and the flavours are surprisingly well-balanced.

It makes me want to make more bacon caramel chocolates.

Dandelion Records has some large (100 gram) bars in the store, and have an order of small (15 gram) bars that are set to arrive any day now. Just in time for Hallowe’en, they’ve ordered the red fire skulls: skull-shaped versions of their red fire bar, containing chiles, cinnamon and dark chocolate. And the best part: black salt for eyes. They’re positively ghoulish.

Dandelion Emporium
2442 Main Street
Vancouver, BC
778-737-7367

(Note: Don’t get confused by the old storefront for Dandelion Records on Broadway, just east of Main. They’ve moved just around the corner to 2442 Main Street, under the new – but similar – name of Dandelion Emporium.)