A few chocolate-related updates and notes:
Although I’ve received lots of great ideas for candy names, I’ve been thinking about the new chocolates as a kind of collection. As such, I’ve been trying to think of a unifying theme for them. After much thought, I’ve decided that each one will be named after an appropriate feminist trailblazer. Feminism and chocolate, hooray! Trust me, this is going to be rad, not incredibly dorky like I know it sounds, I promise. The box design is coming along and it’s going to be incredibly beautiful. I’m keeping the names of the women top secret for now (because I’m still figuring them out), but if you know of a lesser-known trailblazer, please let me know.
Since I changed the little naming contest and thus there were no winners, in the fall when the chocolates get rolling I’m going to send a free box to everyone who suggested names – if I don’t have your address, would you mind emailing it to me?
In other chocolate news, the awesome people at the aforementioned Askinosie chocolate sent me a little freebie box of their goods to try, even though I’d already tasted them at two Fancy Food Shows. Because I already discussed it, I won’t talk about their politics except to say that most chocolate is made with truly sickening business practices (the phrase “child slaves” is, horrifically, often not inaccurate) and Askinosie is one of only a handful of chocolate companies that put sustainable, ethical and sensible business practices right upfront. But none of this would matter if their chocolate wasn’t tasty (hello, Dagoba!).
I happened to have the lovely boys of Black Gold at my house recording an album when the chocolate arrived, so they helped me with the tasting. (More on them to come.) Here’s the full report, accompanied by pictures of the band at the local ice cream parlor.
Than, Eric, Al
What did this little vegan eat at her local small town ice cream shop, you ask? Sorbet, like most major ice cream shops have? Sorbetto, like you can get on every other block in Australia (perhaps in Italy, too, but I’ve only had it in Australia)? Vegan artisanal gelato, like the wonderful cashew-based creaminess from Woodstock-based Organic Nectars, just 30 minutes away? Mindblowing Ciao Bella coconut gelato, available at the health food store right around the corner? A super-processed Tofutti Cutie??
Nope. I had a plain cone with a mashed banana and maraschino cherries. My god. New Paltz vegans beware – the cute little family-run ice cream place in town has absolutely nothing for you! They do, however, have roughly a zillion kinds of extremely low-quality candy they will mix into extremely low-quality “homemade” ice cream on one of those frozen stones that so entrance children.
But the outing was still worth it because a huge litter of kids were streaming in still wet from the local pool, and it all felt so American and summery and goddamn innocent – until the BG boys started talking in some detail about the pros and cons of dating (I use the word as lightly as it can possibly be used) professional dancers. Alas.
On to chocolate:
But first. Can I admit something? It’s a little shameful.
I’m not much of a chocolate eater.
Phew, it feels good to have admitted it in public. I love chocolate – I love explaining how tempering works (it lines up molecules!), I love watching chocolate in the tempering machine, I love drizzling it and pouring it and mixing things into it and it onto and into things. I love thinking about it as a tropical fruit transformed through fermentation and human hands into this deep dark substance that melts so gorgeously on the tongue. I love chocolate – but a chocolate bar would be just about the very last thing on earth I would reach for when looking for a snack. Which is why you can trust my chocolate palate. Because it’s not a flavor I crave, I am able to evaluate chocolate on its own merits, without that pesky “yum, let’s have another bite!” impulse getting in the way.
My lack of love for eating chocolate is one reason I always do chocolate tastings with trusted friends around. The Black Gold boys were good tasters. Than has one of the most sophisticated palates around – in a former life he had a fancy job that involved business dinners at NYC’s fanciest restaurants, so he knows what’s what. His sister and mother are both amazing cooks, which also helps. Eric is always excited about a tasty meal, and Al is a deep chocolate lover with a super sweet tooth and a love for bizarre flavor combinations (raspberry ice cream with peanut butter cups mixed in, anyone? In his thick Scottish accent, he explained that it was meant to be kind of like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which makes sense except that I thought everyone except Americans were kind of weirded out by pb&js?).
We tried the cocoa powder first, straight up because no one was hankering for hot cocoa in August.
Askinosie’s all-natural, unsweetened, single-origin non-alkalized cocoa powder is lighter than my house cocoa powder, Callebaut. Callebaut is alkalized, or “Dutch-processed,” because I originally liked the dark color and smooth flavor of alkalized cocoa powder. I’ve known for a while that I wanted to switch to a healthier (non-alkalized cocoa powder has more antioxidants) all-natural non-alkalized cocoa powder, so this tasting came at the right time.
I gave the boys a blind taste test and asked them which they liked the best.
Than: instantly liked the Askinosie. “It’s more chocolatey, yo. Winey. Good shit.”
Al: “They’re both quite nice. That one [the Askinosie] is quite fruity, no?” (Al is from Glasgow, so I can’t help hearing a little Belle & Sebastian in his voice – so nice. I think everyone knows Belle & Sebastian by now so I shouldn’t have to link to them, but this might be a good place to point out that my friend Ivan turned me on to them 11 years ago, so, well, I am cooler than you, damn frat boys who go to B&S shows these days! Although probably Al has been seeing them in little Glasgow clubs since they began, so I might have to cede some coolness to him. Al is a super cool dude, though, so I don’t mind.)
I can’t exactly say I enjoyed tasting two kinds of cocoa powder neat, but here are my notes: The Callebaut was richer in color and flavor, but overall I liked the Askinosie more. Dutch-processed cocoa powder just feels like cheating – it’s processed to tamp down the complex bitterness and make it more palatable for Americans. The Askinosie cocoa powder reminds you that chocolate is a tropical fruit – it is indeed fruitier and very winey, more rough, more exciting and interesting. When I use up my giant bag of Callebaut, I’m going to make the switch. I’ve tried one other brand of all-natural (and organic and fair-trade) cocoa powder in preparation for switching to a new brand, and it was flat and sour and so, so sad. Askinosie really has something going on.
Now the bar.
We tasted their 70% Ecuadorian San Jose del Tambo bar – most definitely a bar meant for eating and discussing and marveling at with some nice vintage port. The real draw is the amazing texture – smooth smooth and SMOOTH. It’s got a nice soft snap – but when I did the tasting it was super hot outside, obviously it would have a snappier snap in cooler weather. The first bite starts out slow and sweet and mellow, as well as weirdly flowery even with no vanilla. Gradually you taste a more complex winey, tart earthiness and tasty bitterness. You’re left with a supremely chocolatey chocolate aftertaste – that mouth-cleaning zesty, dusky tart feeling unique to chocolate.
Than: “Nice complexity. Tart and fruity.”
Al: “A little bitter for me, but I can tell it’s a great bar.”
I must confess that while I love the stripped-down Askinoise ingredients – just cocoa beans, sugar (which they assured me was vegan – they knew all about the sugar issue! Chocolate makers who care about the concerns of vegan chefs? Is the world completely topsy turvy?), and their own cocoa butter (it’s super rare for a chocolate maker to make their own cocoa butter) – I like the flowery flavor vanilla gives chocolate. And I completely own that that makes me something less than a purist.
In addition, they don’t use soy lecithin, the other usual suspect in dark chocolate. I don’t get why their chocolate isn’t crumbly – I always thought lecithin was there to hold everything together. Askinosie clearly uses magic to make their chocolate.
Although it’s ridiculous to cook with a chocolate bar costing $8, this bar would make a dynamite grown-up chocolate chip cookie. Or a wonderful rich ganache drizzled over ice cream or a slice of vanilla cake. Or a super special truffle, all by its lonesome, no flavoring necessary. But then you’d trade the utterly perfect texture of the bar for another (differently perfect) texture, and that would be a shame, because this bar is perfectly crafted and is meant to be eaten out of hand.
Also, I really like the relative thinness of this bar – it’s the perfect weight for a nice bite, unlike some super bulky bars.
See what I mean? It’s a deeply appropriate size for a chocolate bar to be. Long and lean.
One more thing: man oh man, the strategy of sending free samples to food bloggers is such a wonderful, decentralized way of getting your product to the people who will use it, isn’t it? Seriously. Food bloggers are (hopefully) free of the cozy relationships that food magazine editors sometimes have with PR firms, and aren’t afraid to tell the truth about a product.
The downside, of course, is that some food bloggers don’t have any kind of palates at all – but that’s a risk you take when reading a food magazine too.
[Long and annoying digression alert]
For example: my god, those Cook’s Illustrated people care about the trashiest food – I disagree with their annoying prissy taste tests all the time. They seem to be 100% white East Coasters (full disclosure: as am I) who grew up in the 1960s on white bread and mayo sandwiches (unlike me, who grew up in the 1980s eating dirt) and are always trying to update some annoying recipe we should have forgotten about years ago.
OK…in fairness I will admit that sometimes they are totally spot-on – I use a handful of their admittedly well-tested (I’d say over-tested – I truly think they are contributing to the dumbing-down of the average cook with their idiotic directions like “use a spoon to stir.”) all the time, and am thankful for them. I will also admit that my intense irritation of them stems mostly from Christopher Kimball’s stultifying faux-folksy column all about how great the blueberry breakfasts are at the local church in his fingernails-on-a-chalkboardy quaint Vermont town. I knew I had to cancel my subscription the day I couldn’t stop myself from flicking his prissy little bow-tied line drawn portrait on the inside page. Now I hear him on The Splendid Table now and then, and even his voice annoys the hell out of me.
I respect what they are trying to do – make people pay attention to how they cook, and cook in a smarter and more efficient way. I even like what the dreaded CK tries to do in his column – make people realize that mainstream mall-centric America(TM) isn’t real life, that real life is something that happens with neighbors and farms and all that shit. But they go so, so far in the opposite direction, with their “we tested this chocolate cake 300 times” (which just makes me think they are stupid, instead of thorough – why did it take you so long to figure it out? What’s wrong with you?) and CK’s “Charlie was a good old horse…until we had to shoot him.” editor’s letter.
[End of long and annoying digression]
Back to Askinosie! So what can I say? I’m in love with this company, and they have great chocolate to match their values. Their buying practices are spotless and super admirable, they have an insane amount of seriously green cred, and they are truly mavericks – an American chocolate company making unique chocolate according to their own quirky little vision.
It melts the heart of this hard-hearted old revolutionary, for sure.