Chocolate love

 

The Chocolate Salon in San Francisco attracted candy lovers of all ages.

The Chocolate Salon in San Francisco attracted candy lovers of all ages.

 As it turns out, I’m a lightweight. I’d always considered myself a hardcore chocolate lover, but I met my match at the third annual San Francisco International Chocolate Salon last weekend. Herbst Pavilion quickly filled with hundreds of eager chocoholics, including my sister-in-law, niece, and me. We started hitting the tables, gobbling samples, and it didn’t take long to reach a conclusion:

A gimmick does not make for good chocolate.

"Sacred Steve"

"Sacred Steve"

Take, for example, Sacred Chocolate, which produces a vegan/organic/kosher/halal product being hawked by “Sacred Steve,” wearing butterflies in his hair and a lavish velveteen duster worthy of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Of course, we had to sample the chocolate on offer, and it was…OK. Just OK.

We pushed on, tasting creations combining chocolate with everything from Guinness stout, guava, goat cheese, fleur de sel, durian, and even Pop Rocks candy. The artisanal chocolate arena is crowded these days, so you have to do something to stand out. Problem is, when you venture into creative flavor combinations, it’s all too easy to overwhelm the flavor of the chocolate. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the folks at Chicago-based  Vosges, who were not at the salon, do the best job of achieving a the delicate balance of combining offbeat flavors with chocolate in a way that enhances the chocolate. That’s no small feat.

Sexy chocolate: Xocotal's Kama Sutra chocolate, one of their artistic creations that tastes good, too.

Sexy chocolate: Xocolate's Kama Sutra creation, which tastes good, too.

As it turned out, our favorite finds were those that kept it simple and focused on chocolate. We loved the wonderful nuggets of dark chocolate fudge produced by Jeanne’s Fudge of San Mateo, CA. Schoggi’s imported Swiss chocolates (especially their hot chocolate) were another favorite. Berekeley-based Xocolate’s were works of art in terms of design and taste. We also fancied the Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur.

I did my bit, trolling the tables until I staggered away in a shaky, giggly chocolate high. But I couldn’t help thinking these are tough times for fancy chocolate. Hershey’s, which bought the upscale Joseph Schmidt Confections in 2005, announced it will shut the operation down as of June 30. Schmidt has been a Bay Area institution in 1983 and was a forerunner of the current wave of artisan chocolate. Of course, one might think that the marriage of mass-market Hershey’s and speciality Schmidt was doomed from the beginning. Or it might hint at an overcrowded market, now that every city seems to boast a raft of chocolatiers.

Master chocolatier Joseph Schmidt, right, samples the wares at the Chocolate Salon.

Master chocolatier Joseph Schmidt, right, samples the wares at the Chocolate Salon.

But those who really love chocolate–and that includes everyone at the salon on Saturday–don’t really care about all that. They just love chocolate, recession or no recession, and they’re happy to sample such lovingly crafted wares. In fact, we spied Joseph Schmidt–the real, live chocolatier, not the company–wading through the crowds, going from table to table, and tasting a bit of this and a bit of that. 

Now, that’s love.

Floor show

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An artist uses Stubbs BBQ Sauce to create portraits of the company's founder at the Fancy Food Show.

I’m in San Francisco for the Winter Fancy Food Show, a trade shindig for producers and retailers put on by National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. (Check out their fun consumer site, Foodspring.) It’s a bustling show, with lavish displays filling Moscone Center’s vast exhibit halls.

“Recession? What recession?” I wondered. 

“Oh, they must have paid for all that by September,” my sister-in-law later told me.

cimg0834The show is slightly scaled back this year, but not that a rube like me would notice (it has been some time since I’ve attended this particular trade show). “It’s a little bit smaller,” said an Oakland, CA-based caterer who attends every year. “Maybe.”

Here’s a quick rundown of just a few highlights:

Infusion. Expect to see even more flavor-infused salts, oils, vinegars, and other products on store shelves. Sometimes this leads to flavor confusion because infusion is a tricky proposition. One flavor shouldn’t overwhelm the other. Sometimes the flavors marry well; others, it’s not so successful. I sampled an orange-infused olive oil from Sicily and all I could taste was orange.  And I do not want raspberry-cheddar cheese under any circumstances.

Tea products of every kind. From rare tea leaves to biodegradable tea bags to nutrient-enhanced iced tea beverages, we’ll have more opportunities to sip than ever.

Artisinal chocolate. The chocolate wave is still going strong, though there are so many players–each claiming to have the rarest, fairest-trade, single-origin bar–that it’s hard for consumers (well, me, anyway) to distinguish them.

One of my favorite finds thus far: Golden Star Jasmine Sparkling Tea. This stuff tastes amazing–crisp, refreshing, an elegant warm-weather sipper. You can find it at Whole Foods.

Have yourself a consumable little Christmas

Do people really need more stuff? Homemade goodies are likely to chic this year. (Photo courtesy by Dreamstime.)

Do people really need more stuff? Affordable, consumable goodies are likely to top lists this year. (Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.)

 

 

New York Times columnist Michael Kinsey wrote an interesting blog recently about a debate he had with himself: Should he purchase a whiz-bang coffee grinder/maker on sale at home emporium store going out of business? Although he could certainly afford the $179 the gadget would set him back, he noted, the current dour economic conditions made think him twice and he ultimately decided to leave it on the shelf. Expense aside, he figured, it was just another appliance to clutter up the kitchen counter.

Hmmm, he raises a good point. When you think about it, buying more junk willy-nilly is the opposite of fiscal responsibility (even if it’s deeply discounted at pre-Christmas sales and  was the engine that drove our economy for so long) and counter to environmental responsibility (more stuff=more clutter=more junk in the landfill).

Kinsey’s blog also reminds me of my friend’s husband. Long before the economy began to tank, he despised gifts that just took up space and favored tokens that could be consumed, literally. A gift of food was the most obvious example (for goodies to make, check out Eating Well magazine’s roundup of healthy recipes and cool printable gift tags). The recipient eats it, enjoys it, and–voila!–it’s gone. Tickets to an event are an idea in the same vein. And since I’m in the process of packing for a cross-country move, I can appreciate this concept better than ever. I’m shedding stuff, not looking to acquire more.

Long before the economy began to tank, my friend’s husband despised gifts that took up space and favored tokens that could be consumed, literally. Nothing fulfills that criteria better than the gift of food.

So I predict these austere times will make homemade gifts, including baked treats and other cadeaux from the kitchen, a hot item this holiday. These presents may once have smacked for quaint; now they’re the height of recession-era chic. If you don’t have time to be an elf in the kitchen this year, here are a half-dozen affordable, consumable items to consider for those you love.

For the coffee lover

OK, at $39.95 for a half-pound, Peet’s Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee isn’t exactly cheap, but recipients will no doubt consume it in no time. And if your giftees have downgraded to Yuban lately, this rich, world-renowned brew will be all the more appreciated. Or to keep stretch that $39, enroll someone in Peet’s Monthly Coffee Tour ($39 for 3 months, $74 for 6, $149 for 12) so they receive 1 pound of a different coffee monthly.

 

For the artisanal food aficionado

Located in the heart of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country, Bourbon Barrel Foods crafts small-batch sauces using bourbon barrels. The result is very intriguing gifts for little coin: their Worcestershire or soy sauce is just $5. Their sorghum syrups–billed as Kentucky’s answer to maple syrup–are about $8. Their bourbon barrel-aged vanilla extract ($8.95) is a must for bakers. For $17.50, you can give a set of the their bourbon barrel-smoked salt, paprika, and peppers–a nice item for the grillers on your list.

 

For the cook…

…a hands-on cooking lesson, of course. You can find these in just about any community for all manner of cuisines and techniques. Culinary schools often offer recreational classes for passionate amateurs, national chains like Sur la Table have great lineups of guest teachers, and local restaurant chefs also occasionally invite students into their kitchens. Prices range from about $60 for an evening class at a local store to $2,095 for a five-day Culinary Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America‘s Hyde Park, NY, campus. And remember, hands on, no demo sessions, because a cook isn’t going to want to sit around and watch someone else at the stove.

For the gourmand or health-food lover

Farro is high on the list of trendy foods these days. The ancient grain is high in fiber and protein, has appealing nutty flavor and al dente texture; you can use it in a place of rice in a pilaf or cook it like risotto. But it can be hard to find, so make it easy by ordering a pretty little linen bag of Tenuta Castello Farro

 

For the (adventurous) chocolate lover

Chocolate and bacon? Trust me, it’s compelling…sort of a gourmet sweet-and-savory riff like chocolate and peanut butter. Vosges‘ Mo’s Bacon Bar ($7.50) combines velvety milk chocolate with bits of applewood-smoked bacon and a sprinkling of alder wood-smoked salt. Yummmm. The chocolatiers at Vosges aren’t shy about creating offbeat flavor combinations; they also have the intriguing Organic Enchanted Mushroom Bar (dark chocolate, reishi mushrooms, and walnuts for $8.50) or the Habana bar (milk chocolate and crunchy plaintains, also $8.50)–and these are some of their more mainstream concoctions. For those who like variety, awesome gift sets of mini exotic bars starting at $25.

For the wine (and food) lover

Wine is a classic consumable gift, and a bottle of Dobbes Family Estate’s 2007 Grand Assemblage Cuvee Pinot Noir ($28) is a crowd-pleasing winner.  The wine’s ripe fruitiness, soft texture, and pleasing acidity makes it play well with all manner of holiday foods. If you go to someone’s house for supper, a bottle of this Oregonian wine will ensure you’re invited back. A guest brought me a bottle for Thanksgiving, and it certainly left me with warm fuzzy feelings.

Mmmmm….chocolate….

 

 

Chocolate or a brisk walk? Which do you prefer?

Chocolate or a brisk walk? Which do you prefer?

I came across this interesting nugget: exercise may reduce chocolate cravings. Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK asked 25 self-confessed chocoholics to abstain from their favorite fix for three days. Then they were randomly assigned to take a brisk 15-minute walk or rest, followed by an activity that would normally make them jones for chocolate (either a mental test, which induces stress, or opening a chocolate bar, which triggers a Pavlovian response). The participants reported reduced cravings during the walk and for 10 minutes afterward.

Researchers cite this as the first study to link exercise with diminished chocolate cravings. “This could be good news for people who struggle to manage their cravings for sugary snacks and want to lose weight,” says Professor Adrian Taylor. Craving chocolate is often a symptom of stress or a low mood, and exercise can both dissipate stress and lift your spirits.

Unfortunately, upon reading about this study, I started to crave chocolate and went into the kitchen to fix my favorite snack–Greek yogurt and dark chocolate chips. Since I’ll take the dog for a brisk walk in a little while anyway, I figure I can have my chocolate and enjoy it, too.

Lean times

 

a treat for a cash-strapped era

Mexican Chocolate Brownies: a treat for a cash-strapped era

As if I needed more evidence of how times have changed, consider how I marked

Birmingham's Chef Frank Stitt is a god.

Birmingham's Chef Frank Stitt is a god.

a good friend’s birthday. Last year, I treated her to a lavish Champagne dinner created by Chef Frank Stitt of Bottega (and Highlands Bar & Grill and Chez Fon Fon)  fame in Birmingham, Ala., using spectacular selections from Champagnes Bruno Paillard. Bubbly and beef cheeks speak to richer times, at least for me. This year, it’s a different story. Cash-strapped, I opted to spoil her with homemade Mexican Chocolate Brownies and a pint of premium (I’m not that poor) dulce de leche ice cream. Here’s the recipe for the brownies (shown above):

Mexican Chocolate Brownies

Mexican chocolate is sweet, cinnamony, and nutty. The chile powder adds a touch of smoky heat, but you can omit it.

1/4 cup 1% low-fat milk

1/4 cup dark chocolate chips

6 3/4 ounces all-purpose flour (that’s about 1 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder (optional)

1 1/3 cups sugar 6 tablespoons butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon almond extract

2 large eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray.

2. Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat, and add chocolate chips, stirring until they melt and the mixture is smooth.

3. Whisk together the flour through cinnamon in a large bowl. Add vanilla, almond extract, and eggs; beat with a mixer. Add flour mixture and chocolate mixture; beat just until combined. Spread batter (it’s thick) into prepared pan. Bake 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack.

Yield: 16 brownies.