SOMA Chocolate Maker Birch Bar

Yet again my expectations have been blown away by Toronto-based SOMA Chocolatemaker’s creative artistry. I’ve seen pictures of this birch branch on Instagram, but clearly I didn’t pay attention to the scale. Truly, I thought this would be a “bar” that could fit in your hands. Well, it *COULD* be hand-held…if you were Paul Bunyan or the Jolly Green Giant!

Whenever I go shopping for chocolates during the summer, I always take a mini Igloo cooler with me to ensure safe transit of my goodies. When I arrived at Chocolate Maya in Santa Barbara to pick up my SOMA order, I quickly realized that the over foot-long packaging would not fit into my cooler and I certainly didn’t want to remove the delicate molded chocolate from its secure “nest.” Since the weather was a bit warm that day, I put the plastic bag-wrapped box on the floor of the car on the passenger side & cranked up the air conditioning positioned at the feet so that the chocolate wouldn’t melt during the two hour drive back home.

My next “panic attack” was whether or not the box would fit into my 8-bottle mini wine fridge for storage until the weather cooled down enough for a photo session. 😱 Thankfully the box just barely fit! 😌

So, this week, during a cool mid-August morning, I finally decided to sample the realistic-looking, 12 inch long, thick, 10+ ounce branch.

As mentioned on the SOMA website:

“My Dad recently found a beautiful birch branch in a forest up in Lindsay, Ontario that we made into a mould. Beaver-inspired and perfect for sharing.”

They added more humor with little touches to the outer packaging:

You would think that it would be difficult to slice off a tasting round without shattering the rest of the branch. However, a non-serrated knife easily cut through the thin Jamaican dark chocolate shell.

As you can see, the star of the show is the ultra-creamy & buttery gianduja (chocolate hazelnut paste) studded with a praline crunch that reminds me of feuilletine flakes. The ribbon of cherry jam adds just the right amount of tartness and I love that there are pieces of the fruit skin in the jam for added texture.

As the holidays approach & you consider what to have as a Thanksgiving table centerpiece or are tired of the standard Christmas-time buche de noel/yule log, this Birch Branch is sure to bring a “wow factor” to your festivities (plus, it would make an AWESOME hostess gift too!)

*Note: while this might sound like a sponsored advertisement, it’s NOT! I was not paid for my review and really, truly LOVED this unique chocolate!

For more information on SOMA Chocolatemaker, please visit their website: https://www.somachocolate.com/

P.S. Have you missed seeing my posts during my month-long hiatus?! Don’t worry, next month I’ll be returning to the alphabet – this time featuring origins! Stay tuned 🙂

Bonus Z – Zereshk

Where do I even begin to tell this story? Another round of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet is coming to an end, so I have mixed feelings. I’m super proud that I was able to accomplish my mission of finding a unique inclusion ingredient for each letter of the alphabet, but it’s safe to say that this “challenge” has added some grey hairs to both my head and my boyfriend’s head! ?

Remember all of his advance planning and preparation for the “X” bar?! Well, he STILL wanted to try tempering chocolate with his sous vide machine, so unbeknownst to me, he researched Z ingredients and discovered zereshk (the Persian word for barberries)! The perfect tie-in to celebrate World Chocolate Day today!

The tiny, plump, moist, jewel-like reddish-brown berries look like a cross between a dried currant and a seedless pomegranate aril.

For scale, I’ve “posed” some zereshk berries next to a U.S. penny!

These berries are a great source of vitamin C and boy are they TART! Imagine mouth-puckering tart when eaten out of hand. According to Wikipedia, Iran is the top producer of zereshk in the world. Next time I visit a Persian restaurant, you can be sure that I’ll be ordering the zereshk polo (a rice dish where the chicken has been cooked in barberry juice) to taste these berries in a different form!

Anyway, back to the story…

The step-by-step instructions and explanation of the chocolate tempering process in “layman’s terms” from this Serious Eats article by J. Kenji López-Alt, led us to believe that tempering with a sous vide circulator would be relatively easy and painless…ooh, famous last words!

A couple of weeks ago, we had some time on the weekend and tested out the process following the instructions carefully. Perhaps we (and by “we” I mean “I”) were a little over-confident. We piped the melted chocolate into the mold, placed the mold in the fridge for about 30 minutes, then unmolded it only to discover that the chocolate WAS NOT TEMPERED ?After a little research online, we discovered that the temperature ranges quoted in the article did NOT match the melting/crystallization/working information for this particular Valhrona product. WAAH! At least we didn’t waste any of the inclusion ingredients and still had plenty of chocolate for further testing. I have no photographic evidence of this chocolate failure…my ego was too “wounded”!

As “Z” week loomed, one evening during the 4th of July long weekend, we decided to employ our “lessons learned” (I have a page worth of notes and ideas of what we could do differently) from the first attempt and give tempering another shot.

So, we measured out 3 ounces of feves from the Valhrona Guanaja 70% bag that was purchased from Caputo’s in Salt Lake City, UT.

Used a vacuum sealer to remove all the air from the baggie.

Waited for the water to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit and dropped the baggie into the pot.

The chocolate melted fairly quickly.

Then we added lots of ice to the pot to bring the temperature down to about 81-82 degrees Fahrenheit. We allowed the chocolate to enjoy its “bubble bath” at this temperature for a while and massaged the baggie at regular intervals to promote crystal formation (this is a step we neglected to perform the first time around). After about 10 minutes, we raised the temperature up to about 91 degrees Fahrenheit, still massaging the baggie at regular intervals. We thoroughly wiped down the baggie to ensure that NO water droplets were clinging to the folds. Cutting a small corner from the baggie, we piped some melted chocolate onto the back of a spoon as well as a piece of parchment paper. The spoon went into the fridge for about 3 minutes and the parchment paper remained at room temperature. When we touched the shiny chocolate with a fingertip, the chocolate ended up there, indicating that our tempering was not successful. We re-sealed the baggie and repeated the process at least 3 more times, varying the temperatures a degree or two in either direction, but still NO luck!

Have I mentioned that I have no patience, but my engineer boyfriend is tenacious and enjoys problem-solving?! So, as a last ditch effort (I was ready to quit at this point), he decided to use the “seeding method” (meaning that we took some small pieces of well-tempered chocolate and added it to the melted chocolate). Minutes’ worth of massaging and checking the temperature with an infra-red thermometer, we decided to test it one last time with the spoon and parchment paper sampling method. These were the slowest three minutes of my life…but in the end, SUCCESS!! We had tempered chocolate!

Now to pipe it into the waiting mold and add the zereshk. I have a new respect for those chocolate makers and chocolatiers who make inclusion bars look so photogenic. I tried my best, but still ended up with clumps in certain places 🙁

The mold was placed carefully onto a level shelf in the refrigerator and again we waited; this time for 10 minutes! An eternity, I tell you! TA DA…shiny chocolate with some ghosting and a few cosmetic blemishes due to imperfections in the polycarbonate mold! But no air bubbles…yippee!

The “back” on the other hand is full of lacy squiggles around the berries. I’m a chocolate blogger, not a chocolatier, remember 😉 Or maybe, that gives the bar “character”…yeah, I think I’ll stick with that theory!

We’re calling this bar Zereshk’ed Development (sorry, the “Arrested Development” play on words sounded better in my head!)

Since we had a second bag of chocolate (my BF meant to buy a different type and ended up getting the same Valhrona, though I suspect it comes from a different batch), we decided to make another bar. I’d like to say that we were vastly more successful now that we had some experience under our belts, but really the only way we were able to get tempered chocolate was by using the seeding method…AGAIN!

We are calling this bar “Zereshk Make a Deal” (since I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of adding salt as an inclusion & settled on hickory wood smoked sea salt as an acceptable option). After tasting our creation, I think the smoky flavor notes even out the harsh tartness of the berries.

For whatever reason, this one exhibited much more “ghosting” after unmolding the bar. We probably could have left it in the fridge for a little longer. Did I mention that I’m impatient?!

And though it’s hard to tell from the photo, we channeled our inner Zorro and piped the chocolate into the mold with various stylized Zs to see how it would turn out under the inclusions.

Now for the tasting notes for the “Zereshk Make a Deal” bar. There was a super sharp snap while segmenting tasting morsels. Personally, I think that the bar was a little too thick.

During the creamy, slow/even melt, there were bursts of smoky salt punctuated by chewy berries. Maybe it’s just me; but, the chocolate itself didn’t have any distinguishing flavor notes. I much preferred to “chomp” the chocolate so that the salt and berries mingled together to bring out salty, sweet, tangy and almost juicy sensations.

The “Zereshk’ed Development” bar was a bit plain in comparison. This one also had a sharp snap, but I noticed that more tiny flecks of chocolate went flying while segmenting this bar. This base chocolate had a nutty and caramel-like taste. Biting into the zereshk berries during the slow, even melt reminded me of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Of the two bars, I think I prefer the salty one.

Overall, this was an exciting way to end this round of the alphabet. From here on, I’ll leave chocolate making to the professionals! I’ll be taking a short break during the summer months (it’s HOT HOT HOT here in Southern California…predicted to be 100-101 degrees this weekend). Don’t worry, I’ll still post about chocolates here & on my Instagram feed in the meantime, but just not in alphabetical order.

Current plan for “Round 3” is ORIGINS (countries, estates, farms, etc.) Think Algeria to Zimbabwe. Please leave a comment or send me an email with any suggestions!

HAPPY WORLD CHOCOLATE DAY, hope it’s a delicious one!

Z is for Za’atar

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already reached the letter “Z”! In some ways, it seems like these last 26 weeks went by in the blink of an eye and in other ways it seems like an eternity since I posted “A is for Amaranth.” But wait, this post isn’t the end of the alphabet…I still have one more surprise “trick up my sleeve,” so stay tuned for that bar’s reveal soon!

At the end of last year, as I was putting together a list of inclusion ingredients that I wanted to feature for each letter of the alphabet, za’atar was the FIRST thing that came to mind (well, I did briefly consider zebra milk, but that was just to get an eye roll ? from my friends, though if a bar like that DOES exist, please let me know ASAP!) Feeling inspired in early February, I sent an email to two chocolate-industry people I felt were the most likely to work with an unusual flavor combination such as this. Lucky for me, Hans Westerink from Violet Sky Chocolate wrote back within a few days with this response:

It is interesting that you mention za’atar, that is on my list of experimental bars to work on. I even have the sumac ready and waiting!

Pinch me, I must be dreaming! Hans sent me his ideas on the spice blend and even asked for my opinion on how best to incorporate them with the chocolate. That gesture made me feel important & part of the “creative process” – though, as the expert, he would no doubt develop an ideal “formula” without my input! As the months went by, I still reached out to fellow chocolate lovers across the country to determine if there were any other za’atar bars out there (just as a precaution), but the closest source was Tel Aviv, Israel ? In mid-June, I sent a quick email to Hans to confirm that he was still willing to make a couple of bars for me. I am so grateful that he was able to quickly create the bars and that we had the time to wait until there was a short break in the Southern California heatwave to ship them about a week later. These bars exceeded my expectations! Hans is truly a master when it comes to layering flavors such that the photogenic #chocolatetopography tastes as good as it looks!

In case you’re not familiar, za’atar is a spice mixture that typically includes: sesame seeds, dried herbs, sumac and some salt. If you’ve ever eaten a Lebanese flatbread (manakish) or Armenian lahmajoun, chances are you’ve tasted this uniquely Middle Eastern flavor!

Since this was an experiment, Violet Sky didn’t make an outer label, but still wrapped the bar in their distinctive collection of shiny metallic foil. Hans, how did you know that purple is one of my favorite colors?! 🙂

Just unwrapping the bar released an aroma that transported me back to a Middle Eastern feast with olive oil dripping from my fingers as I took bite after bite of chewy, soft, still-warm dough crusted with spices. ?

Just look at the generous amount of dried thyme, toasted white sesame seeds, reddish-brown sumac and fat jewel-like salt crystals that seem to all but hide the 77% Belize dark chocolate!

I took dozens of close-up shots since I was just mesmerized by how photogenic the bar looked from every angle!

The inclusions remained mostly well-adhered to the chocolate while I “posed” the bar for photos or flipped it over to see the simple 28-rectangle “front” of the bar.

When ingredients did fall off during the photo shoot, it allowed me to taste them in isolation from each other. I really liked the nutty crunch from the sesame seeds, the earthy/woody notes from the thyme and how quickly the salt would melt on my tongue.

It was easy to segment the bar into tasting pieces.

With the inclusion side down on my tongue, all the ingredients seemed to mingle like a kaleidoscope image. Before reaching the chocolate base, dislodged sesame seeds and tiny thyme leaves danced on my tongue and then there was a citrusy “zing” when encountering a scattering of sumac. These pleasant flavors lingered on the roof of my mouth and I could then continue to munch contemplatively on the crunchy sesame seeds.

Originally, I thought that putting a morsel with the non-inclusion side down on my tongue would be the equivalent of “delayed gratification;” but, instead, the thyme became the focus, especially since the fresh herb had been infused into the base chocolate. By melting the chocolate first on my tongue, I could concentrate on the creamy, smooth, slow even melt punctuated by the vibrantly citrusy sumac which reminded me of freshly squeezed lemon juice.

As much as I like to “chomp” chocolate, I don’t recommend that method for this bar. Munch, munch and then the piece is gone without having enough time to notice the distinct flavor layering. Though, maybe it’s cumulative?! After my palate was acclimated to the flavors, chomping on two rectangles simultaneously still resulted in the same intensely sunny combination of flavors.

While Violet Sky has a website http://www.violetskychocolate.com/, I recommend instead that you check out their Instagram feed for all the seasonal flavors they have…seemingly never the same thing twice!

Don’t forget that I have one final “Z” post planned for later this week! You won’t want to miss that!

Y is for Yacon Root

OK…is it just me, or have you noticed that as I near the end of the alphabet, it’s getting harder and harder to find viable inclusion ingredients that start with my featured letter?! ?

For “Y” I could have potentially found yams, yeast, yogurt, yuca or yuzu…but I chose yacón root instead!

According to Wikipedia, yacón is an Andean tuberous root composed mostly of water that is a close botanical relative of Jerusalem artichokes or sunflowers. While the root can be red, orange, yellow or even purple, it seems like most pictures online remind me of a slender yam with cream-colored flesh reminiscent of jicama. Upon reading things further, Ecuadorians refer to yacón as “jicama” (wow, talk about confusing!) Speaking of names, it’s also called a “Peruvian ground apple” which makes sense since the French call potatoes pomme de terre (literally translated as earth or ground apples). Yacón is known to have a flavor that is slightly sweet & resinous with floral undertones. I was fascinated to discover that until the early 2000s, yacón wasn’t widely available outside of its native growing areas and that companies have since developed new products like syrup and tea from this root due to its extremely low glycemic index (1 on a scale of 0 to 100), making it popular among people watching their sugar intake (like diabetics or those on a diet).

After all that, I was really curious about how this bar would taste!

Raaka 79% Dominican Republic sweetened with Yacón Root

Raaka leaves their cacao beans unroasted (aka “virgin”) to allow the flavors to come through. For this bar, they are using Dominican Republic beans from the Öko Caribe Cooperative.

I love the simplicity of the micro fine point black ink lines on thick white paper. I see bamboo through mini blinds or plantation shutters. Though, I wonder if the front packaging is really an autostereogram (also called a “magic eye” picture) that needs to be viewed from a distance (or by squinting) for the image to finally emerge.

Removing the rectangular bar from the wax-lined silver foil that was folded with the outer paper like a hiyoku (inner kimono layer), you immediately see abstract art embossed into the chocolate (despite the jagged edge splitting the bar into two pieces; a transit-caused “casualty”).

There was a sharp brittle snap when segmenting pieces and the “breaking point” looked a little dry.

The tasting morsel melted slowly in my mouth (and with a bit of effort), yielding a chalky, powdery, not smooth mouthfeel and a mouth-puckering bitter flavor. There was a starchy, filmy residue that clung to my tongue, teeth and palate long after the piece was gone from my mouth. When “chomped” the chocolate tasted fruity…maybe this was the Dominican Republic terroir coming through?

Overall, this bar was extremely photogenic, but sadly the “acquired” taste of the unrefined sweetener did not win me over. I like earthy bars, but this one was a little too astringent for my taste. Maybe it was the unroasted beans? Maybe it was the 79% cacao content? Maybe I just need to find the right “pairing.” Have you tried this bar? Let me know what you think!

For more information on Raaka, please see their website: https://www.raakachocolate.com/

X is for Xoconostle

Every chocolate has a story! I just hope to do adequate justice to its narration since this one touched not only my heart, but also my soul ❤️

You know the phrase “it takes a village”? Well, this bar would not have come into being without the inspiration, ingenuity, creativity, tenacity, talent, care and support of so many people!

Late last year, as I was finishing “round 1” of the Eating the Chocolate Alphabet project, I wracked my brain for another unique alphabetical adventure. During the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle in November, I decided that A through Z inclusions would be perfect…though I couldn’t figure out what to do about “X” since I didn’t want to feature xylitol or xanthan gum and after tasting XO sauce (a spicy seafood paste originating from Hong Kong) I knew that would NOT work with chocolate AT ALL!

When I posted “A is for Amaranth” on January 4th, I added a plea to my Instagram followers for suggestions on how to handle that elusive letter. Fellow chocolate lover, Janice, promptly responded xoconostle; but heck if I knew what that was?! After a quick Google search, I discovered that this was a cactus fruit, smaller than a prickly pear; but the chances of finding that in chocolate were slim to none!

Fast forward a month later to Map Chocolate’s Indiegogo campaign. One of the perks was to design “the Map of your dreams”! Unbeknownst to me, though I had my suspicions, my boyfriend anonymously purchased that option in the hopes of partnering with Mackenzie Rivers to create a custom chocolate bar on my behalf! In the week that followed, my BF started researching foods that started with the letter “X” and found a company online that sold dried xoconostle – but they were currently out of stock. When the Indiegogo campaign was nearing the end and it was looking like Map would not reach their $25K fixed goal, my “I’m an engineer and problem-solver” BF decided that HE would obtain all the ingredients needed to home-craft a chocolate on the sly. He purchased a polycarbonate mold, a bag of Rancho Gordo xoconostle (as soon as it came back in stock) and some Valhrona couverture chocolate, which he would temper with a sous vide machine. At some point, he just could no longer keep the secret to himself. As we munched on a couple of rings of dried xoconostle together (imagine a cross between jerky and a tart “Sour Patch Kids” candy!), he recounted his endearing scheme and revealed the perfect bar name! It was then that it dawned on us…how would two neophytes like us possibly utilize and sweeten this shriveled fruit AND come up with a decent looking chocolate bar?!

Lucky for us, Mackenzie generously offered some of the Indiegogo perks even though the campaign had not been successful and I LEAPT at the chance that had previously eluded my grasp! My only request was that this bar include xoconostle and I left the rest of the details up to Mackenzie. If you heard squeals of joy in late May, know that was when these magical bars were delivered to me and they exceeded even my wildest dreams. Thanks for indulging me to endure this long story to finally see:

X MARKS THE SPOT

As you can see, there was care and attention to detail every step of the way: from the strips of map forming an X on the envelope, to the cacti paper wrapping the bars and even the inner liner note (which makes reference to a brief chance encounter that we unknowingly shared while both visiting a chocolate shop in Portland one afternoon):

Even though Map’s mold is super unique and distinctive, it’s all about the inclusions for me…so I’ll only be showing you the “back” side of the bar! However, if you head to my Instagram account, you’ll see a quick “unwrapping” video which highlights both the front and the back!

Just look at how the rehydrated translucent xoconostle glistens and the chili lime shimmers in the light! Chocolate topography at its finest! <swoon>

The aroma was fruity and jam-like with citrus and pepper undertones. Tasting the xoconostle on its own reminded me of a lightly sweet, crisp Asian pear or strawberry rhubarb. Upon handling the square bar to segment it into tasting morsels, my fingertips became stained with bright red chili dust and I certainly couldn’t let any of that go to waste! It was just like licking the rim of a tequila shot, followed by a short-lived, back-of-the-throat burn from the spice.

Now I could concentrate on the inclusion that was nestled within the 65% Dominican Republic Reserva Zorzal chocolate which was not completely smooth on the tongue, but not gritty either. It’s hard to articulate the sensation of teeth meeting the panela glazed peanuts which had just the right amount of “give” to add texture and a mellow crunch.

Leading up to the delivery of the bars, there were a couple of posts on Map’s Instagram account that probably made sense only to me:

Like a proud new parent, I took dozens upon dozens of photos of this photogenic bar and despaired over which ones to include in this post! After actively blogging for a little more than a year now, it’s getting harder and harder to find chocolates that other bloggers haven’t already written about! I think it’s safe to say that this is truly a one-of-a-kind bar and that no one else has ever tasted anything like it. While I might be biased, I think this was a delicious combination of ingredients and I can only hope (please, please, please) that Mackenzie considers adding this bar to her seasonal repertoire 🙂

And with that exhortation, I certainly DID!

From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU to everyone who made this bar possible!!! xoxo

For more information on Map Chocolate, please see her website: http://www.mapchocolate.com/

W is for Wasabi

You are about to eavesdrop on a conversation I had with myself recently!

ME: OK, what inclusion are we going to feature for “W” week?

ME2: We always blog about the most unusual ingredient possible…duh, wasabi!

ME: But, I don’t even like wasabi…I avoid it when eating sushi, remember?
(said in a whining tone)

ME2: Well, we couldn’t find wattleseed locally, so it has to be wasabi!

Dear readers, appreciate that I’m sacrificing my taste buds just for you 😉

*****

Maybe I’m imagining things, but isn’t wasabi a trendy ingredient in chocolate these days?! At least I *think* I recall seeing it in several bars over the years & was fairly certain that it was easily obtainable. However, a couple of weeks ago, when I started looking in earnest, all I could find were chocolatiers that were no longer making their wasabi bars :0

Eeks! Now, what?!

After a little digging, I discovered online that Cost Plus World Market was still selling wasabi bars…but they were in limited supply and deeply discounted, which is usually a precursor to being discontinued from inventory soon. After visiting one store and being unable to locate the bar, I thought I had missed my “window of opportunity.” My boyfriend is not as easily deterred, so when he found the bars at a store near him, he picked up the three remaining bars they had in stock. I truly appreciate his enthusiasm, but I don’t NEED 3 bars…so if anyone out there wants one of my extra bars, PLEASE let me know & I’ll gladly ship it to you 🙂

According to the packaging, this dark chocolate Ginger Wasabi with Mediterranean Sea Salt bar is from “the exotic collection of sea salted chocolate.” Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a snob and put “exotic” intentionally in quotation marks for tongue-in-cheek humor. While I’m certain that this bar might be someone’s favorite, it’s definitely not mine. Please don’t take away my craft chocolate fan club card based on this post! 😉

Removing the silver foil wrapped bar from the portfolio/wallet-like outer cardboard packaging, I was surprised to see the “back” of the bar facing me. Ignoring chocolate dust that had accumulated during transit, I noticed 10 squares with an interesting “drip” pattern near the outer edges.

While the matte finish front sported only 8 logo-emblazoned squares!

Straight out of wine fridge storage, there was no detectable aroma to the chocolate. However, as it came up to room temperature, a pungent peppery and ginger oil scent wafted from the bar. Surprisingly, since it’s not included as an ingredient, I also detected a lime or citrus smell?!

Speaking of ingredients, this bar has: Chinese ginger powder, wasabi powder, ground habanero chile pepper and ginger essential oil. The particular Mediterranean sea salt had been harvested from the Southern tip of Italy & was known for its mild flavor and bright white crystals.

There was a sharp snap when segmenting tasting morsels and it took some effort to get the chocolate to melt in my mouth, revealing a mostly smooth mouthfeel. There was an immediate back-of-the-throat burn that I associate with chili peppers, but there wasn’t the sinus-clearing sensation that wasabi is known for. Chomping the chocolate provided me the opportunity to experience crunchy salt crystals while feeling the cumulative, gradually-building, but long lasting, “heat.”

Overall this chocolate was not as potent as I had feared and I’ll probably use it for hot chocolate beverage experiments in the future.

I know, I know…my descriptions aren’t really “selling” the bar for you…but, don’t let that deter you from jumping on this once-in-a-lifetime deal of taking the extra bars off my hands 😉

Now where can I locate that wattleseed chocolate bar that I *really* wanted to try?! 😉

V is for Voatsiperifery Pepper

Story time! Here is yet another example of me being a “magnet” for unusual inclusion ingredients! 🙂

During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon the weekend before Memorial Day, we visited The Meadow in the historic Nob Hill District since I’d seen pictures online of their “wall of chocolate.” Imagine a shop with row after row of neatly organized shelving that almost reaches the ceiling, where sales associates climb a ladder to retrieve the chocolate bar(s) from the highest perches…if there was ever a chocolate “library,” it would be this place with 400+ bars to choose from!

When the employee on duty that afternoon asked me if I was looking for anything in particular, I mentioned that my heart was set on finding a bar with violets, but I’d be willing to settle for something else that started with “V” except for vanilla. She pondered, she climbed the ladder, she examined several bars…there was rose, but no violet. 🙁 As she attended to other customers, I slowly perused the shelves to see if there were other bars that I couldn’t live without. After a few moments, I was gleefully exclaiming, “I found my V, I found my V!” I’m sure everyone else in the store thought I was nuts; but my boyfriend and The Meadows’ employee were both genuinely very happy for me. Mind you, I still don’t know the proper way to pronounce this “V” inclusion ingredient. I found a site with 80+ versions, which doesn’t help narrow things down at all!

So, thanks to serendipity, I’m thrilled to feature this 72% Nicaraguan dark chocolate bar with Voatsiperifery Pepper which is a collaboration between Portland-based Pitch Dark Chocolate and the Bitterman Salt Company.

Later on, I learned that Mark Bitterman (of the Bitterman Salt Co.) founded The Meadow in 2006. This seems like the perfect quote to encapsulate this culinary collaboration:

“Salt and pepper, the powerhouses of flavor amplification, bring new life to chocolate’s eternal mystery. Combining the most beautiful salt and the most tantalizing peppers within the molten smithy of a bean to bar chocolate is the flavor sensation chocolate has been waiting for, and nobody knows it like Bitterman.”

It’s interesting that beans from Nicaragua were combined with a rare Madagascar pepper. The back of the packaging explains how voatsiperifery looks and tastes like. In case you’re curious, here is a link to see for yourself. The Meadows’ website explains “The name voatsiperifery is derived from the Malagasy words voa, meaning ‘the fruits,’ and tsiperifery, meaning pepper vine” and that the fruits are harvested just once a year making them relatively rare, even in native Madagascar.

Easily sliding the 12-rectangle bar from the uniquely shaped, stark white, textured thick paper outer holder and the black inner wrapper, you can immediate see that the “back” was generously sprinkled with the featured inclusion ingredient (surprisingly for a collaboration with a salt company, there is no salt listed for this bar!) The aroma reminded me of freshly cracked black pepper and I believe that there was a stem or two making an appearance. Notice an odd squiggle? Well, here are two close-up shots:

Segmenting the rectangles from each other produced a dull snap, while splitting a rectangle in half produced a sharp snap, sending little fragments flying everywhere. I noticed air bubbles at the break point.

I tried both melting a morsel on my tongue and then “chomping” on a piece. By melting, the peppery flavor was muted/delayed and there was a thick, not completely smooth mouthfeel. I personally preferred the “chomping” method since that allowed me to experience the crunch from the pepper, which also made the roof of my mouth and tongue prickle for minutes afterwards. The chocolate itself seemed a little dry/chalky and there was an astringent finish. I hope to find a jar of this pepper someday so that I can experiment with soups and stews in my own home kitchen.

Brian Flick, the “one man show” behind Pitch Dark, has been working with chocolate for more than half of his life, starting at age 14 by making confections for events and weddings. At age 21, he lived with a tribal group of cacao farmers in rural Fiji for 3 months to conduct field work for his thesis. Founding Pitch Dark in 2014 in his late 20s, his focus is on fine cacao sourced from single farms to isolate the unique flavors of the beans. This article from 2014 explains that Brian utilizes two separate pieces of equipment whereas many makers use just one for the conching/refining process: first he uses a stone grinder to pre-refine beans, then a separate roll refiner & finally a dedicated conching machine to control particle size.

To learn more about Pitch Dark and their various chocolate bars, check out: http://www.pitchdarkchocolate.com/

And if you ever figure out how to pronounce this multi-syllable, tongue twister of a pepper…PLEASE let me know! 😉

T is for Turmeric

When fellow chocolate blogger Victoria Cooksey interviewed WKND Chocolate maker Lauren Heineck back in March, she asked: “When selecting a chocolate bar to try what influences your purchase?” If you’ve been following Eating the Chocolate Alphabet so far this year, you’ll realize that Lauren’s answer pretty much echoes my own sentiments:

Distinctiveness goes a long way, and even something oddball I may find endearing.

While turmeric has been widely used in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, this rhizomatous plant from the ginger family has only started to gain popularity here in the U.S. over the last couple of years. A quick Google search will yield page after page of articles tracking the rise in consumption based on the health benefits. Do you enjoy Indian curries? Then you are already familiar with its distinctive taste and color! Speaking of which, white chocolate bars that go beyond off-white and cream were once considered “oddball,” but seem to popping up more frequently these days. After I saw a photo of Lauren’s “Turmeric of a Goat Thing” bar that looked like “golden milk” in solid form, I knew I had to try this for myself. Many thanks to Lauren for her generosity in supplying me with not one but two variations to sample side-by-side.

Although I loved Lauren’s rustic paper sleeves, the new outer cardboard boxes decorated with botanical illustrations of the cacao plant protect the bars better during transit. I’m very glad she kept the personalized touch by handwriting the descriptions with her calligraphy-like cursive. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to see some additional information on the packaging like an ingredient list; though if you look on her website, she very creatively describes the bar in less traditional terms.

Unwrapping the 12-rectangle bar from the re-sealable plastic pouch, I could immediately smell chai tea spices like cinnamon and cloves. Lauren confirmed that white pepper, ginger and cardamom were also included. Despite some chocolate dust and air bubbles marring the matte finish, the ingredients were very well dispersed, producing a uniform golden-brown color with flecks of spices rising to the surface on the front and back as well as being suspended evenly within the bar as well.

At room temperature, there was a soft snap when segmenting the bar, sending tiny fragments flying everywhere (FYI: straight from the fridge, there was a sharp snap and no errant particles!) Popping a piece in my mouth and chomping enthusiastically, I encountered the unexpected…a back of the throat burn and inner ear tingles due to cayenne pepper! Yes, I read other people’s comments about this bar, but clearly I didn’t pay enough attention since I don’t want to be “pre-influenced” prior to my own tasting. When I make golden milk, I always add black pepper since that supposedly helps our body to absorb turmeric more effectively; but how did I miss the word “spicy” until now?! Luckily, the initial kick of heat faded fairly quickly, so that I could continue to sample the bar.

Letting a morsel melt on my tongue there was a thick mouthfeel and a grainy texture while the peppery heat built gradually and was offset by a pleasant tang from the goat’s milk powder that reminded me of a spreadable chèvre.

Until I opened the second bar, made with 40% cocoa butter from Camino Verde (Ecuador), I hadn’t thought about photographing the bars side by side, so I quickly remedied that:

You’ll notice that the row of three rectangles at the top (the “original” Turmeric of a Goat Thing) is slightly darker in color than the half bar (6 rectangles of the Camino Verde). It would appear that the same spice blend ratio absorbed differently in the presence of the Camino Verde cacao butter. Instead of smelling the chai like I did with the first bar, the primary aroma in this case was the powdered turmeric.

While there was the same amount of chocolate dust on the “top” of the bar, there were fewer air bubbles and the surface of the Camino Verde bar felt a little greasy and/or tacky (like a lotion). Maybe my tongue & palate were getting acclimated to the chili or more likely the different cocoa butter had an impact – the “burn” was still at the back of the throat, but this time the top of my palate tingled rather than my ears. Overall, this bar was creamier, smoother, with a silky mouthfeel and the peppery heat seemed less intense. Rather than goat’s cheese notes, this one was grassy and earthy. In my opinion, the turmeric and ginger were able to shine and the rest of the spices were like “backup” singers 😉

Of the two bars, I liked the Camino Verde one best…though to be honest, I have devoured half of each bar already! This is all in the name of “research” and also to prevent catching a cold after being on an airplane this past weekend…at least that’s my story & I’m sticking to it! 😉

I leave you with a favorite quote from Victoria’s interview with Lauren:

“I’m still finding my voice as a chocolate maker, but I do identify as an insatiable chef. Mangosteens from a Bangkok street vendor, baklava in Istanbul, chimichurri from Buenos Aires; I want my creations to be as peripatetic as I am.”

With distinctive “oddball” flavors such as those, I’ll be keeping a close eye on what Lauren creates next! To learn more and to hear episodes of Lauren’s chocolate community building podcast entitled “Well Tempered,” where she highlights other women in chocolate, please visit her website: http://wkndchocolate.com/

S is for Salami

Sometimes I worry that my featured inclusion ingredient might be too “over the top” & people will stop reading my posts! 🙁 I’m hoping that if you’ve stuck with me through the foie gras bar from several months ago, then fingers crossed that you won’t be too shocked by this 72% dark chocolate bar flavored with Hungarian Salami and Smoked Bacon!

I’m including a photo of the ingredient list, in case you’re curious:

L’Amourette freely admits that this bar might be an “acquired taste” or controversial, as mentioned on the back of the box:

As you might recall, this isn’t the first time that I’ve tried bars from their Art Nouveau line. Here is a link to a post from last year which echoes many of the same experiences from this current bar in terms of overall appearance and texture of the chocolate itself.

Removing the dense 10-rectangle bar from the thin gold foil, I could already smell a smoky aroma. In the year or so since my last L’Amourette bar, I had forgotten that the domed rectangles were solid, not filled with a softer ganache. Many of the rectangles had air bubble imperfections, while several others had inclusion ingredients poking out from small holes in the chocolate near the embossed logo within a stylized heart.

It took a little effort to split one of the rectangles in half by hand, but I was rewarded with a perfect view of the meaty ingredients that lay beneath the surface.

Popping one of the halves into my mouth, I noticed that the chocolate didn’t really melt easily. Removing the morsel from my mouth halfway through the melt, I could see a tiny chunk of crispy, crunchy, salty bacon with the fat still glistening around the edges.

The chocolate itself is grainy and a bit chalky – which is surprising due to the 36 hour conching. Here is a better view of the bacon in all its glory:

The Hungarian salami with mild paprika (which I now realize was mentioned further down in the ingredient list) must have been more finely ground when incorporated into the chocolate bar since I haven’t really encountered identifiable pieces in the 4 rectangles that I’ve eaten so far. However, one of my very first bites of this bar left me with a lightly spicy, yet stringy bit of pork fat or gristle in my mouth after “chomping” on the tasting piece – I assume this was the salami.

Overall, this was not one of my favorites, but am glad that I tried it as part of this Eating the Chocolate Alphabet adventure…consider it me “taking one for the team” so to speak 😉 If you are daring enough to try this bar once it returns to stock, please let me know about YOUR experience!

To learn more about their process and product lines (according to their website, all their other offerings aside from this bar are vegan), please visit: http://www.lamourettechocolat.com/

50 States Collaboration – Nebraska / Sweet Minou

Last week I was awaiting a delivery from Sweet Minou, Nebraska’s only bean-to-bar chocolate company; so, when a box sporting several Cultiva Coffee Roasting labels arrived, I was a little confused. However, after discovering this informative article from 2015, all the puzzle pieces have fallen into place and things make much more sense to me now! Turns out that when the Cultiva owners opened a new location (called Cultiva Labs), they carved out some space for bean-to-bar chocolate production!

A big thank you to Rebecca Ankenbrand, Sweet Minou’s chocolate maker, for generously sending me an assortment of chocolate bars (and a couple of other goodies you’ll hear about later) for “research purposes” after I contacted her about this “50 states” collaboration project!

Rebecca mentioned to me that Sweet Minou recently rebranded their logo + packaging, so I feel privileged to be among the first to see this round of the artwork and screen printed thick paper wrappers. As you’ll see below, each bar’s sleeve + the informational sticker keeping the fold closed has a different color that seems to tie into a flavor component of the bar. Additionally, the company logo (a cat’s face) is printed in a similar or complementing color. When I first saw the Sweet Minou logo, I assumed that the name was chosen to honor a beloved pet. Maybe my guess wasn’t too far off, since “minou” is the French word for “kitty” and the company name was inspired by Rebecca’s years in France where she taught English and enjoyed tasting many gourmet chocolates.

First up is Bolivia Alto Beni (70% dark chocolate)

This small bar (0.8 ounces) is made from only three ingredients: organic cacao, sugar and cocoa butter. Just removing the 5-rectangle bar from the wax-lined silver foil inner wrapper released a lovely malty and roasted/coffee aroma. While the “top” surface was marred by some air bubbles, chocolate dust and a little scuffing, the vertical and horizontal lines from the mold were crisp and well defined.

Breaking off a tasting morsel, there was a sharp snap and an earthy aroma where the rectangle had been separated from the rest of the bar. During the slow, even melt I tasted light citrus/fruity notes, while “chomping” brought out more vibrant and tangy red fruit notes. Bolivia is my current favorite country of origin and this bar was a fine example, though less earthy in flavor than others I’ve tried.

Next is the Signature Blend + Walnut (70% dark chocolate)

The foil wrapper was bulging out from the paper sleeve, barely able to contain the plentiful inclusions.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the #chocolatetopography comprised of different sized walnut pieces dotted with glistening chunks of amber-colored caramelized sugar that crunched like toffee.

Thankfully most of the inclusions remained intact when turning over the bar to discover that a different mold was used for this larger (1.35 ounce) bar. Despite slight cosmetic imperfections (some ghosting and air bubbles), the “top” surface was mostly glossy and shiny.

Though it was a little difficult to isolate the chocolate from the featured inclusion ingredients, the signature blend was smooth, creamy, not-too-sweet and seemed to have a tang that reminded me of tart cranberries. Don’t judge me too harshly, but there is only a bite or two left of this bar…really, I don’t know what happened! 😉 It was one of those cases where you take a bite, try to pinpoint what you were tasting and then need to repeat the process multiple times since the flavor was a little elusive.

Last of the bars is the Signature Blend + Pistachio (70% dark chocolate)

The colorful purple rose petals and contrasting distinctive green and brown pistachios were sprinkled over the center of the bar. Taking a closer look, the chocolate seemed to change color at the edges of the inclusion ingredients, I suspect this was the oil leeching from the nuts rather than dissolving/deliquescing salt.

Regardless, it was easier to isolate the creamy, smooth chocolate and this time the signature blend was still fruity, but less tangy than the previous bar. To me, the salty nuts added more than the papery rose petals; though when the petals were tasted alone, they were flavorful and aromatic.

But wait…there’s more!!

As an unexpected treat, I also received Mango & Vanilla Bean Cups decorated with a dash of ground turmeric and a few large salt crystals.

My only complaint is that I was unable to remove the dense cup out of the brown paper liner unless I cut the chocolate in half first. The flavorful, creamy, smooth, tropical mango purée flecked with tiny vanilla bean seeds contrasted with the medium-thick chocolate shell (which I assume was made from the same 70% cacao signature blend as the inclusion bars).

Last, but not least, some dark chocolate dipped Chili Mango slices which won Best Dessert Curry at the Lincoln, Nebraska Asian Community & Cultural Center Curry Clash fundraiser event.

The baggie arrived with 4 pieces, but one of them disappeared before the photo session! 😉 There is just the right amount of chocolate to enhance the moist and chewy dried fruit – salty, sweet, savory & lightly spicy. This finger food snack has it all…no wonder it was an award winner!

While Sweet Minou is just starting out, in the two years that Rebecca has been in business, it’s clear that she has a passion for experimenting with different flavor combinations and different bean-to-bar origins. What a thrill to learn that she will be traveling to Haiti later this week for cacao sourcing! I’m grateful that I was able to try so many of her creations & look forward to staying in touch to discover what is next on the horizon!

To learn more and order goodies for yourself, please go to their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sweet.minou.chocolate/

Remember to follow the Time to Eat Chocolate blog to hear about the next stop in the “50 States” project!

NOTE: If you know of any other bean-to-bar makers in Nebraska, please leave a comment or send an email…we like to keep our resource lists as up-to-date as possible!