Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Two Great Tastes: Gourmet Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Every Halloween my Mom set out a bowl of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups by the front door. We waited and, invariably, no kids came a knocking. Who could blame them? "Hurricane Hill" was almost thirty minutes away from Falmouth's top Halloween destination, the Foreside, where Moms dressed up as witches and you could fill your candy bag in a single block. But no matter, the day after Halloween meant plenty of leftovers. I ate quickly, knowing it would be another year until I could savor the taste of chocolate and peanut butter again.

I've always thought Reese's Peanut Butter Cups were a part of the Hershey empire, but not so at first. In the 1920s, H.B. Reese quit the dairy farm business and moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania to produce peanut butter cups. In the 1930s they sold for just a penny a piece! It wasn't until 1963, when the popularity of the peanut butter cup was well established, that Hershey purchased the H.B. Reese Candy Company for $23.5 million.

Now that I've entered the world of slow, artisan produced, local, organic foods (i.e.,Food Snobbery), a peanut butter cup is a guilty pleasure. And while I still love the taste of peanut butter and chocolate, I don't like to think of all the sugar and additives in each Reese's Cup. So this Halloween I scouted out my favorite SF chocolate shops for the gourmet take on chocolate and peanut butter. While doing so, I learned that this combination is a decidedly American taste. Richart, my favorite French brand, does not dabble in peanut butter. And my gianduja loving friends at Teuscher almost laughed at the idea. "The Swiss consider the peanut an inferior nut, but Americans are always asking for it." And just what makes a nut superior?

My husband and I sampled filled chocolate from 6 different companies, and here are our finds:
#1 - Our Favorite
Joseph Schmidt Peanut Butter Chocolate Prailine
Schmidt's signature egg-shaped truffles are hard to resist. We liked this one the best because it didn't try to do too much with a classic flavor combination. Under the milk chocolate couverture, the dark chocolate forms a thin shell around the creamy peanut butter center. Yum!

#2 - Second Best
See's Peanut Butter Cup
I'm not a huge See's fan, but I knew they would succeed with an American favorite. See's offers, not one, but three chocolate peanut butter combinations. The saleswoman said "this one tastes like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, this one tastes like a Snickers and this one tastes like a Butterfinger." In that case, why don't I save my money and go by some candy bars? We liked the round peanut butter cup best, and actually didn't mind the 50 cents price - a bargain in the gourmet chocolate world!

Vosges Organic Peanut Butter Bonbons
I am a sucker for marketing, and am always drawn to Vosges and their seductive packaging. Their copywriting is over the top but fun to read: "The Outcome: unparalleled, rich peanut butter-goodness, enhanced and intensified on your palate by mineral salt. Old fashioned tradition meets slight obsession." If only they had held back on some of those mineral salts. We felt Vosges went a little crazy with the pink Himalayan salt and the Fleur de Sel salt - too much, too jarring a taste next to the peanut butter and chocolate. Available at Fog City News.

Recchiutti Peanut Butter Puck
I was prepared to love the Peanut Butter Puck, which Recchiutti tells me is always a best-seller in the fall. This enormous truffle is meant to resemble a hockey puck, a perfect shape for an American pleasure. But there was a peculiar taste to the filling, maybe it was simply the Fleur de Sel, that led us to leave much of it in its wrapper.


Godiva Peanut Butter Cup
Godiva's "fresh" peanut butter cups were the real losers in our tasting. And at $4 a piece, they were also the most expensive. Godiva lays these treasures out by the window next to the chocolate covered strawberries and the pot of melted chocolate. Each is a large dark (or milk) chocolate oval filled with peanut butter and decorated with thin stripes of chocolate on top. It tastes simply like gooey natural peanut butter on a piece of chocolate, and it is very messy.

Next time the chocolate peanut butter urge hits, I hope you'll try some of the gourmet options I've suggested. And leave the Reese's for the Harry Potters and the Princesses with simpler tastes!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Chocolate for Singles

My husband wasn't too worried when I told him I'd be checking out the Singles Chocolate Salon at Fort Mason Friday night. It'd be 95% women, or so he thought, especially with a fashion show as the main attraction. Yes, but if all men assumed, as he did, that the event would be packed with chocolate loving women, why wouldn't they show up and take advantage of those odds? And some would be sophisticated, able to taste the nuanced differences in single origin dark chocolate, not batting an eye at the $8 price of most fine bars. Or so I told my single friend Sue.

Well, my husband was right. Aside from a group of fraternity brothers in identical navy jackets who lingered by the door and then left, the pickings were slim and unappealing. But the chocolate? Fantastic. I hope Sue came to understand one of my favorite chocolate quotes: "Forget love, I'd rather fall in chocolate."

For the $25 ticket price, we had access to 7 different chocolate booths, all featuring local chocolatiers and plenty of free samples. We could also taste from some wineries and Hansen Natural Soda, a stop we returned to again and again since there was no water to be found. My favorite "non-chocolate" stop was Bliss Spa, a company I work with for my "Day of Beautiful Chocolate" private tour. Their interactive booth allowed us to sample 3 different brownies from local bakeries and vote on the best. The winning brownie, or so they claimed, would be served alongside the cucumber water as guests await their beauty treatments. Sue and I both voted for the cake-like brownie from Bittersweet Cafe; I don't know what chocolate they use, but it was intense and delicious.

It's too bad San Francisco Chocolate Salon did not find a more hip venue to host this event; the Fort Mason meeting room felt vast, damp and soulless. Lounge music lightened the mood somewhat, but I couldn't help but imagine how much cooler this would have been at a downtown spot like 111 Minna. Despite the lack of cool, I was still happy to talk to the different chocolatiers, all of whom were friendly and eager to share what makes their chocolate unique. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Cosmic Chocolate (Oakland)
I love the sexy appeal of Cosmic Chocolate's gorgeous chocolates. Their lines include "flavors that warm the heart," and truffles that are "spa inspired" and "cocktail inspired." The cocktail ones were my favorite, with tempting names like the "blushing geisha" (strawberry dacquiri flavored), the "beaming buddha" (limoncello ginger) and the "lucky leprechaun" (mint/chartreuse). Cosmic Chocolate's Founder, Carly Baumon, says she went to culinary school in New York but is a self-taught chocolatier. They have a small storefront in Oakland at 5002 Telegraph Avenue - perfect for my evolving East Bay Chocolate Tour.

2. The Xocolate Bar (San Rafael)
Malena and Clive, founders of San Rafael's The Xocolate Bar, put together the most compelling display in the salon. Chocolate skeletons (in honor of Day of the Dead), buddhas, Aztec shields and beautifully sculpted truffles with unusual flavor combinations. Malena and Clive, former rock'n'roll bandmates, say they try to honor chocolate's roots in Mesoamerica through their flavors and designs. The Xocolate Bar took two gold metals at this summer's SF Chocolate Salon and I can understand why. I sampled the mango tamarind truffle and it was fabulous. The Xocolate Bar is sold at Chocolate Covered in Noe Valley and online.

3. Rushburn Toffee (San Francisco)
"Men love it," said Stephanie Rush, founder of San Francisco's Rushburn Toffee. Dismayed by all the bad toffee out there, Stephanie's grandmother created "The Toffee Recipe" in the 70s and shared it with no one until a year before she died. Now we can all enjoy this coveted recipe in different varieties: English toffee with almonds, espresso toffee with almonds, and milk and dark chocolate toffee clusters. Though I'm not a toffee coinnosseur, my sweet tooth enjoyed the milk chocolate toffee cluster sample. And I love the packaging: a sleek, silver tin reminiscent of grandmothers and sweet treats.

4. Sacred Chocolate (San Rafael)
If you read my post on making raw chocolate, you'll know my friend Daniel (recent raw food convert) and understand why he would be enamored of Sacred Chocolate - the only company at the salon who focused on the health benefits to eating raw chocolate. With a bit of a cultish hippie following, David Wolf's Sacred chocolate was first unveiled at raw food retreats. He believes he's the only chocolatier who uses the nutrient-rich skin from the cacao bean. Yet even Wolf admits his chocolate is expensive - $10 for what looked to be a 2 oz heart-shaped bar. I liked the 65% mint bar and would recommend staying away from the 99%, no matter how healthy it is! Wolf doesn't appear to have a web site, but he does have a revealing My Space profile under the moniker "Soaring White Love Eage."

5. XOX Truffles (San Francisco)
Any San Francisco chocolate aficionado has got to be familiar with XOX Truffles. Now with a store in Montclair as well as North Beach, Chef Jean Marc Gorce has been in the business with his wife Casimira since 1997. They offer 27 different flavors of hand-made truffles, some dusted in cocoa powder, others coated in white chocolate, hazelnut or coconut. The chef himself manned the booth and I loved the caramel truffles we sampled.

If this event sounds appealing, visit the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon to read about what they've planned for 2008. Just don't expect "love at first sight."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What's a Chocophile to do?

I'm not exactly a neat freak, but my haphazard system for storing chocolate bars is beginning to bother me. Open any kitchen cabinet drawer in my house and you'll find tin foil bundles of partially eaten bars. I've done my best to wrap each bar individually and keep them away from smelly onions, soy sauce and even other bars. But I tend to forget where I put them and when my mood calls for a 50% Michel Cluizel milk chocolate bar, tin foil goes flying.

So one day I envisioned the perfect invention for the chocolate connoisseur - a chocolate humidor. With dreams of Food Network appearances and a feature in Brookstone, I did a Google search just to make sure I was the only one with this brilliant idea. Darn. Of course there were some chocolate humidors out there, but nothing compared to the number and variety of wine cellars. Here is what I found:

Starting at the top, Richart sells a "Burlwood Chocolate Vault" for $825 as part of their "luxe" collection. Ouch. It looks like it belongs in a robberbaron's study, next to the shelves of rare books and the antique telephone. But at least the vault comes with 7 drawers of chocolates representing the Richart flavor profiles. The temperature and humidity gauges will keep the chocolate at the ideal temperature (12 degrees Celsius) until you're ready to indulge. And can you imagine your friends' reactions when you escort them after dinner to your chocolate vault?

If Richart's vault hints at old-money Manhattan mens' clubs, the Chocolate Cellar by Chocolate 15-18 is a sleek and modern machine that belongs in a DWR showroom. This Montreal based company defines itself through its attention to the proper storage of chocolate. For those of us not yet in the metric world, it may not be so apparent, but between 15 and 18 degrees Celsius is the ideal temperature for preserving chocolate. (Though Mr. Richart thinks differently.) Before eating, however, Chocolate 15-18 cautions you to bring the chocolate to room temperature for optimal tasting. The funny thing about the 15-18 cellar is that they will only loan it to you for a tasting party with the chocolate! No online sales yet.

And finally, for the mere price of 3 fine chocolate bars, you can buy the "Chocolador" by Chocolove. This product wins points for the most creative name, but it is really nothing more than a cute box made of "African Okoume." Unlike the Richart or 10-15, Chocolove doesn't offer any temperature control, making it a useless for the hot, humid summers experienced by those who don't live in the Bay Area. But at $19, the chocolador is a bargain because it includes 8 different Chocolove bars, tasting notes and of course, the Chocolove poems.

Many chocolate enthusiasts scoff at this neurotic attention to the storage of something that demands to be eaten immediately. On a Chowhound message board devoted to chocolate storage, one member writes "What's this nonsense about storing chocolate? Open your mouth, insert chocolate, chew, and it's stored." Ed Charles, an Australian food writer, says, "I have a place reserved for the Chocolate 15-18 chocolate humidor right between my truffle brush and my novelty apron."

Sorry "floydramp," Maybe I've done too many chocolate tours, but I simply can't down an entire 3.5 oz gourmet chocolate bar the moment I purchase it. I guess I'm a chocolate packrat. Since I don't have $825 and borrowing a cellar from Montreal seems absurd, I'll be heading down to the basement shortly to develop my chocolate humidor prototype! If you have any suggestions for clever, catchy names, email me at