Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bradley's: Orange-Inspired Chocolates

Having tried out some plain chocolate from Bradley’s in Knoxville, TN, and not being entirely impressed, I was hoping that they had some more complex creations with more to offer. Onto the citrus-based chocolates, starting with a dark chocolate orange pate.

The dark chocolate, like the plain dark chocolate I’d sampled before, featured coffee and vanilla, and was just a tad bitter.

That bitter flavor was helpful in cutting the sugary pate, which also had a pleasing but not overwhelming orange flavor. The texture was firm and just a bit gritty, but was well-matched to the chocolate coating such that there was minimal flaking. I generally enjoyed the contrast of flavors, balance of sweet and bitter, and the notable texture matching. Far more enjoyable than the plain chocolate.

Yet another orange-based creation was available in the box: a white chocolate orange truffle.

The white chocolate coating is sweet and soft, but a bit gritty.

Unfortunately, the interior is also quite sweet, and only offers a bit of a tangy orange flavor to offset the sugar overload. It also happens to be a bit dry, which made it fairly difficult to enjoy at any level. Give me another dark chocolate orange pate, please.

Have you had fruit pate before? What did you think?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bradley's: Plain Milk and Dark Chocolates

When I started out my box from Bradley’s in Knoxville, TN by diving into the double-layer gianduja, I broke one of my rules of chocolate tasting: try the plain ones first.

My love for gianduja is stronger than my self-discipline. There. I said it. Happy now?

After devouring the gianduja, I moved right along to a nicely wrapped plain milk chocolate.

There were aromas of caramel and cream, and it had a soft texture with a medium, pleasing melt.

As with the aroma, cream and caramel dominated the flavor. It was a decent milk chocolate, but others, such as El Rey and Valrhona, are appreciably better. I’d rather have a box with some extra giandujas.

The box also happened to include a nicely wrapped plain dark chocolate, which I was obliged to sample before I moved on to other chocolates.

The chocolate had a simple aroma of coffee and vanilla, and a smooth texture with a fairly slow melt.

The taste also featured a strong coffee note, as well as vanilla and caramel undertones. I’d say it was “alright,” but not outstanding. Again, more giandujas would be a nice replacement for this piece.

What do you think about plain chocolates in a chocolate selection box?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bradley's: First Bite

I suppose that after my post from this weekend, it’s no secret that I work in the nuclear industry, though I’ve hinted at it before. For example, you may remember my trip to Oak Ridge, TN last month. Nobody goes there for vacation. Or work, even, unless they’re nuclear folk.

Today, though, I’m not going to talk about anything heavy like nuclear safety. I’m going to talk about the chocolates I got from Bradley’s when I was in Oak Ridge.

As you can see, the nine-piece box offered a nice assortment, with no repeated chocolates. I like this.

I also like giandujas, so I elected to start with the dark and milk gianduja piece.

The milk portion of this chocolate was quite sweet and soft, and features a faint hazelnut flavor, while the dark portion is a bit firmer and offers very little hazelnut flavor. The chocolate flavor isn’t very intense in either, but the texture is quite pleasing. When eaten together, the milk and dark layers blend together nicely to offer a bit of hazelnut flavor and a sweetness that isn’t quite overwhelming. It was a nice chocolate, but nothing outstanding.

Do you like chocolates with milk and dark layers?

Monday, March 28, 2011

March Biagio Sample Day: You Should Have Gone

Even though everybody at the organization I work for has been working nearly nonstop since the earthquake in Japan earlier this month, our CEO has been adamant that we all take a few breaks to ensure that we don’t overwork ourselves. I took one such break from drawing up a presentation on seismic probabilistic risk assessments to go to one of my favorite monthly Washington events: the Biagio Sample Day, which I attended with my friend Steven and his son, who is learning to appreciate fine chocolate at a young age.

We were also joined by my friend Juliette and one of Steven’s friends, but some folks aren’t always available for photos. Chocolate, on the other hand, is the ideal model, always willing to pose.

This fine and professional model was an Amadei 70% cocoa extra dark bar, featuring Jamaican beans, had a slow, buttery melt that evenly released nice cherry notes and had just enough sugar added to avoid bitterness.

Several other bars were available for sampling, and I made sure I enjoyed all of them. A few that were especially interesting:

  • A sea salt nib bar by Madecasse, which featured a subtle crunch from the nibs, as well as a nice balance of sweet and bitter thanks to the genius addition of the salt to make the nibs more palatable.
  • The Cluizel Maralumi Milk bar, made entirely from beans sourced from the Maralumi plantation in Papua New Guinea, which had a very complex flavor for a milk chocolate bar. I found it to be spicy, with cinnamon and cumin notes as well as a hint of caramel.
  • A unique bar, simply named “214,” from a completely new-to-me chocolatier, Fresco Chocolate, which draws out unique flavors by precisely manipulating the cocoa during the conching and roasting process, gave off citrus notes immediately. Cranberry and subtly cherry flavors followed, and the slow, intense melt made the slightly sour, but pleasing, fruity taste long-lasting. Fresco even had a written discussion about their process, which was an intriguing read.

Other non-bar creations were available for sample as well, including some Zoe’s peppermint bark from Waynesboro, PA, which included bits of peppermint that were slightly larger than I prefer, but which didn’t overwhelm the taste of the white chocolate.

There was also a divine treat from Chicago-based Terry’s Toffee waiting at the end of the chocolate-tasting display.

The toffee was a perfect texture, neither too soft nor too hard, and was just a tad salty and in no way too sweet. It was also addictive, hence my decision to not purchase any. I instead replenished my supply of some standby favorites from Potomac Chocolate and Claudio Corallo, and selected a few new chocolates to enjoy, including the Madecasse seat salt nib bar and the Fresco 214 bar that were featured at sample day.

A wonderful experience, as always. If you live in DC and haven’t gotten to a sample day at Biagio, you simply must sign up for their mailing list so that you don’t miss out again.

Are you interested in the roasting and conching process for chocolate that you eat?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Daring Bakers March 2011 Challenge: I Made a Damn Cake, But it Doesn't Matter

March is always a crazy month for me, with a bunch of meets to coach, as well as business meetings to attend as every working group and task force in the nuclear energy industry attempts to schedule their get-togethers JUST before refueling outages begin. I found a few minutes near the beginning of the month to check out the March 2011 Daring Baker’s Challenge, which was hosted by Ria of Ria’s Collection and Jamie of Life’s a Feast. Ria and Jamie challenged The Daring Bakers to bake a yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake.

YEASTED. Yes, using yeast. My nemesis. How, exactly, was I to fit this in with three weekend swim meets and a slew of meetings where I was slated to deliver talks in rooms packed with the brightest folks from the nuclear industry?

Well, as this photo shows, I did it. But it hardly seems to matter anymore. Neither did my previous level of over-scheduling. I’ll post my photos, and you can check out the instructions for making this here, but I just don’t think it matters enough for me to go over how I made this coffee cake.

It doesn't matter because on Friday, March 11, a destructive earthquake devastated northern Japan. Devastated. I was, like most of the world, troubled by the news. The reported death toll was low at first, but I think we all knew it would rise substantially.

The news outlets were all reporting that the affected nuclear reactors had shut down, meaning that control rods had been inserted in the core to greatly reduce the fission reaction rate. At least something was going well. I went about my work preparing for a talk I was to deliver at a meeting on probabilistic risk assessment at nuclear facilities the next week.

Then news outlets reported that there was no offsite power at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site, which is home to six boiling water reactors. It’s important that reactors have access to external power, as this makes it possible to keep coolant (water) flowing through the core to keep it cool, even after the fission reaction rate drops to near zero. At that point, the core is still putting off decay heat, but I was confident that the diesel generators would provide the necessary power.

Then the news outlets reported that the diesel generators failed. While this is never welcome news, I reasoned that each reactor had battery backup that could be used until offsite power was restored. It’s how we design our plants. Those of us in the business take safety seriously, and we care more about safety at nuclear reactors than anybody else.

Friends and old classmates who were watching news reports were, understandably, concerned, and since I’m the only nuclear engineer that most of them know, they asked me what I thought. I assured them that until the core was damaged, there would be no radioactive material released. And should there be core damage, the boiling water reactor designs used at Fukushima Dai-ichi site include robust containment systems to retain any radioactive material that leaves the core once it is damaged, meaning that the public won’t be exposed to radioactive material, save trace quantities of gases that might be vented to ensure that the containment pressure doesn’t get too high.

A few days later, data started to indicate core damage may have occurred in one of the reactors. No confirmation, but it was a possibility. But there was containment. Containment had worked during the partial core damage event at Three Mile Island Unit 2. OK. Breathe. Time for that meeting on probabilistic risk assessment at nuclear facilities (oh the irony…it was honestly scheduled over two years ago). I’d been tasked with delivering a few extra talks over the weekend, but a little extra work seemed like nothing now.

I delivered a talk. Went running. Went back to my room, turned on CNN to see an interview on the events. Then there was a breaking report that the pressure inside the containment at one of the reactors may have dropped.

The rest of the week was surreal. We worked to evaluate what could happen going forward while having nothing but the highest possible respect for the workers at the site.

The whole thing has been both thought-provoking and inspiring.

Thought-proviking because I, like every other worker in the nuclear energy generation sector, care deeply about operating our reactors safely and securely. We absolutely have to do this. Not just for ourselves and our coworkers, but for the public. Our operators practice drills and procedures for extreme, unlikely conditions on a routine basis. We care more than you’ll ever know.

Inspiring because, within our industry, everybody has stepped forward to offer anything and everything they can. People have been working 18-20 hour days, through weekends, with no expectation for extra compensation. Utilities have offered their top technical experts. Everybody, and I mean everybody, is willing to do anything asked of them without hesitation.

And in the meantime, we keep making electricity. Electricity that hospitals use to save lives, electricity that schools need to educate our young people, and electricity that we take for granted in our daily lives without considering the source.

Oh, and in case you care, for the filling, I spread out the meringue, then two ounces of coconut mixed with juice from four limes and a quarter cup of sugar. I topped that with eight ounces of chopped El Rey milk chocolate and six ounces of chopped macadamia nuts.

And that’s how I made the damn coffee cake. But I doubt you care at this point. I sure don’t.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fran's Gray Salt Wafers: The Last of My Loot

My last bit of bounty from Fran’s in Seattle was of the variety that I consume in large quantities. Salted chocolate, of course. In this case, gray salt “thins.”

These are, in fact, quite thin, which makes them ideal for slowly savoring the small box.

The texture is a bit waxy at first, and the melt tempo isn’t quite right as a result. Once the chocolate does start to melt away, a few grains of salt subtly come forward and draw out the sweetness of the chocolate. This makes this chocolate, which seems to be a semi-sweet type, come across as even sweeter. As the salt isn’t overwhelming, it complements the hints of coffee in vanilla in the chocolate, and the taste is relatively well-balanced if not superbly complex. The waxy texture, on the other hand, could be improved upon.

Have you ever had chocolate with a great taste despite a waxy texture?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fran's Caramel-Macadamia Gold: Dressed-Up Snicker's

If it isn’t obvious from my last two posts, my haul from visiting Fran’s in Seattle was caramel-centric. Nothing wrong with that. In order to make sure I had enough variety for my evaluations, I wanted to check out another nut-caramel treat: The Macadamia Gold Bar.

The aroma is overwhelmingly sweet, and the chocolate coating has a bit of a coffee undertone. It’s surprisingly strong and bitter for a milk chocolate.

That bitterness is fortunate, as the rest of this is a big ball (well, bar) of sugar. The caramel is a bit chewy and has a hint of butter, but not a bit of salt to cut the sugar. The macadamia nuts are miraculously nice and crunchy, somehow not totally soaked in sugar from the caramel.

It’s like an upscale Snicker’s bar, but just as sugary. A bit much, even for me. If the macadamia nuts were salted, this might counteract the mounds of sugar a bit, with them unsalted, it’s a sugar bomb.

Have you had macadamia nuts with caramel before?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fran's Caramel-Almond Gold: Big Old Nuts

As pleasing as the salted caramels from Fran’s were, I certainly believed that they could offer a bit more. I’d picked up a couple of other caramel-based treats from Fran’s, and was hopeful that one of them might meet the mark.

Perhaps, for example, this Caramel-Almond Dark Chocolate Gold Bite.

The aroma was earthy with a bit of vanilla, and the chocolate exterior was quite bitter to play well with the sugar from the caramel.

That chocolate is quite soft, and matches perfectly to the texture of the caramel, which strikes a nice balance between liquid and chewy. The caramel is sweet, with a taste of vanilla, and houses some nicely-roasted, crisp almonds that I’d enjoy more if chopped rather than whole. Though my personal preference would be for a saltier caramel and for the nuts to be chopped, the caramel is quite nice overall.

Nuts in caramel: a do or a don’t?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fran's Salted Caramels: Milk and Dark Chocolate

Fran’s Chocolates are quite famous in Seattle. Famous enough that they even have their own storefronts in the city. When I stopped by to scope out their store during my trip last month, I was promptly offered a sample of one of their salted caramels.

And I then promptly picked up a box to purchase.

The box included both milk and dark chocolate versions. First up: the milk chocolate.

There’s minimal aroma to this treat, and there was salt clumped on top. This lead me to believe that the salty taste wouldn’t be very uniform, and I was skeptical.

The chocolate is quite creamy and melts well, but does not feature a very complex flavor. It does melt quite well, and is perfectly matched to the texture of the internal caramel. The caramel itself is very sweet, and features only cream and butter flavors with just a hint of salt. As I’d suspected, there were a few bites overloaded with salt, and a few lacking. I’d have preferred better-distributed salt, as it was the only thing that prevented this from being, far, far too sweet. Instead, it was just a bit too sweet.

Having consumed that sugary creation, I moved on to the dark chocolate version.

This time, there were aromas of cream, caramel, and coffee.

The chocolate has a good melt and is just a bit bitter, which nicely offsets the sugary caramel inside, but is not overly complex of long-lasting. The chocolate crumbles a bit against the chewy caramel, but this flaw is minor. While the salt nicely compliments the chocolate and caramel, it’s not well-distributed enough to make this notable.

I enjoyed each of these caramels, but they could use some improvement. Since I enjoyed the texture of the milk chocolate version and the flavor of the dark chocolate version, the solution is clear: eat both.

What flavors do you like to taste in caramels?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lesley's Gourmet: 72% Cocoa Chili Caramel

As an unapologetic caramel lover, I was intrigued by the bar sitting next to the Lesley’s French Grey Sea Salt bar at a display at The Chocolate Box in Seattle: the Lesley's Gourmet 58% Cocoa Chili Caramel bar.

If nothing else, this bar was artfully decorated. I was hopeful about the inside as well, since I enjoy uniquely-flavored caramels.

There was, however, very little caramel in this bar, and it is more like a bar with bits of soft, nearly runny, caramel, than like a caramel-filled bar. The taste of the caramel is fruity at first, and the chili comes through fairly powerfully, but is not overwhelming. The chocolate that makes up the bar is assertive with a slightly acidic taste that is subdued by the sweet and spicy caramel. The blend of flavors is unique, and I enjoyed it, but if you don’t enjoy a strong, bitter chocolate or spice with your chocolate, this bar may not be for you.

How much caramel do you think a bar should have if it has “caramel” in its name?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lesley's Gourmet: 72% Cocoa French Grey Sea Salt

During my visit to The Chocolate Box in Seattle, I did not neglect my mission to consume as much salted chocolate as humanly possible. While several options were available, I stuck with a locally-made bar: a 72% Cocoa French Grey Sea Salt bar from Lesley’s Gourmet in Bellevue, WA.

The bar is nearly coated with salt on one side, and the intensity of the salt can be a bit overwhelming at first bite as a result.

It appears that there is not any salt mixed in with the chocolate, and as a result, the bites don’t all include a uniform ratio of chocolate and salt flavors. The chocolate itself is firm with a buttery melt; there may be some fruity notes but it’s difficult to tell with the sheer mass of salt included. The bar is passable, but the salt needs to be better distributed.

My quest for the perfect salted chocolate continues.

Salt coated chocolate: yay or nay?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Forte Orange Jazz: More Chocolate than Orange

The Forte offerings at The Chocolate Box in Seattle are fairly extensive, but given luggage space restrictions due to the short duration of my trip to the city, I limited myself to two bars: the 71% Cocoa Chocolate Brute, which I reviewed yesterday, and the Orange Jazz, a dark chocolate featuring orange essence.

The bar has a strong, but not artificial orange aroma.

Interestingly, the orange is a very subtle note, and flavors of coffee and other fruits, notably cherry, are more apparent. The chocolate is quite soft, almost buttery, but the texture is not quite outstanding, as there’s some grit in the bar. What is outstanding, however, is the balance of orange and chocolate in this bar, which allows other flavors from the chocolate itself to emerge.

It’s a bar I’d consider buying again. Even if Hannah, the hater of all things orange, would despise it.

Have you had chocolate with flavor enhancements that didn’t dominate the taste of the chocolate? What kind?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Forte 71% Cocoa Chocolate Brute: Flavor Notes (Or Not)

One very neat touch at The Chocolate Box in Seattle, which I visited during my trip last month, was the nearly overwhelming selection of chocolates from producers in the Pacific Northwest. Some, such as Moonstruck and Fran’s, were familiar to me. Others, such as Forte, based in Mount Vernon, WA, were new finds. Since I’m on a nonstop quest to find gems in the world of small-scale chocolate producers, I selected a bar of their 71% Cocoa Chocolate Brute to examine.

The bar has a fairly pronounced vanilla aroma, but offers little else on unwrapping.

The flavor, which features coffee and vanilla, is not very assertive, but is not so subdued that it’s overwhelmed by sugar. The best feature of this chocolate is not its flavor, but rather its texture. It is exceptionally smooth, almost creamy, with a nice, slow melt. However, the texture alone doesn’t qualify this bar for outstanding status – in fact, I’d chose a trustworthy Scharffen Berger 70% cocoa bittersweet bar over this, as the Scharffen Berger has a texture that is just as good and a deeper, more complex flavor.

What flavor notes do you enjoy in dark chocolate?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Vegan Tropical Truffles: "We Should Cocoa" March Challenge

There are a lot of great things about being adventurous with chocolate, though the stacks of dishes generated as a result is not one of them. To keep myself inspired when I’ve managed to use nearly every measuring cup and spoon in my kitchen, I consider the great things. Great things like discovering unique but delicious additions to chocolate treats.

Like lime. Remember those thumbprint cookies? My grandmother even specifically requested some at Christmas. That’s how delicious they were. So when I saw that this month’s “We Should Cocoa” challenge, hosted by Chele, dared us to create a chocolate treat that involved lime, I knew what I needed to do.

Tropical truffles. Yes. Coconut and lime. And, obviously, chocolate.

Just for kicks, I also made them vegan. You may wonder how I did this. It’s simple, really. Read on.

Vegan Tropical Truffles

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (Scharffen Berger 70% cocoa bittersweet)

6 ounces unsweetened coconut flakes

Zest of four limes, divided

¾ cup white sugar

Begin by melting the chocolate over low heat; set aside. Run the coconut flakes through a food processor until smooth. According to my experience and Heather’s directions on how to use this trick that she pioneered, this takes about 15 minutes.

The great thing about this homemade coconut butter is that it serves two functions. The first, and most obvious, is that it gives the truffles a subtle coconut flavor. The second is that it serves as a cream replacement for these vegan treats.

To complete the ganache, add the melted chocolate to the coconut butter, pulse several times until the mixture is uniform. Add ¾ of the lime zest to the bowl, pulse a couple of times to incorporate. Chill the ganache, stirring frequently, until it is firm enough to hold shape; roll into ½ inch diameter balls.

Combine the sugar and the remaining lime zest. Roll each ganache ball in the sugar mixture until well-coated.

These beautiful, vegan treats are ready to enjoy immediately.

Thanks for the challenge, Chele. And I do believe that we should cocoa again next month.

Have you made vegan truffles? How did you replace the cream?