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Archive for the ‘On The Shelf’ Category

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Cocoa (Pasta) Nibs

Paul and I went Christmas shopping at the weekend to our local shopping “mall”. We figured it would be sensible to go early and avoid large crowds but we forgot that there’s one thing that malls attract at any time of the year and that’s large crowds.  No matter. We had lunch at Yo! Sushi, a rather overrated fast food Sushi Bar that promises far more than it can offer, particularly on a Sunday lunchtime.  Our fast sushi was followed rather curiously by some Krispy Kreme donuts which do not taste the same over here as they do in the US. Why is that?

Anyway, to cut a long, tedious story slightly shorter, we popped into Hotel Chocolat. I am already a member of their tasting club and often spend many a lustful lunch hour drooling over their expensive looking chocolates, which are actually quite reasonably priced, considering their admirable ethical policies, which can often price other chocolate brands out of the “normal” buyers market.

After 10 minutes spent running around like a child in a candy store (that would be an oversized grown up in a posh chocolate store then), we purchased a gift for one of Paul’s employees, an advent calendar for me and several of their mini slabs of chocolate. At this point, Paul is trying frantically to usher me over to the cashier when I spot a selection of rather unusual cooking ingredients. Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar? Cocoa Pasta? Cocoa Bean and Chilli Olive oil? These guys really are putting their neck out selling this kind of artisinal (read: slow selling) ingredient.pasta-11Never did this seem truer than when the cashier asked me to let him know how the pasta tastes as they “don’t seem to sell a lot of it”.

So, I picked up a packet of the cocoa pasta, intruiged by its rich colour and £5.00 price tag (possibly what puts other customers off). Would it really taste of cocoa or just dye all my other food brown? I couldn’t wait to try it and find out.

I was tempted with a savoury sauce but Paul wanted Macaroni Cheese for tea. OK, so we’ll have Macaroni Cheese followed by Cocoa Pasta Pudding for dessert.

He set to work on the Mac and Cheese and I pondered the Chocolate Pasta sitting in front of me. I have always had a soft spot for my mum’s baked Macaroni Pudding which is a derivition of Rice Pudding, which is to say, rice (or pasta) baked in milk with sugar in the oven over a low heat. Sounds plain and I suppose it is, but it’s good plain. Comforting, nursery food.

So, to keep things simple (and dodge the flying pans and flecks of grated cheese as Paul prepared his meal), I simply poured the dried Cocoa Pasta into a baking dish and covered it with a mixture of cream and milk, then sprinkled it with some soft brown sugar. I cooked it in the oven at a low temperature (150c) and checked after 30 minutes to see if it needed any more milk. It did.

The Finished Dish - Barely Redeemed by the Choc Chips

After a little while in the oven, the kitchen was filled with a rich aroma of chocolate. Imagine if you were baking a chocolate cake – this is exactly how the pasta smells. Intruiged at how deeply chocolately it promised to be, I managed to eat a large plateful of Mac N Cheese and then wondered at how I could possibly eat yet another pasta dish that night.

But in the spirit of the experiment, I managed to dish some up and try it. As you can see from the picture below, it looks a little gruesome, a little gungy and a lot unappetising (and this was one of the better shots of it), and I felt that it needed an extra chocolatey hit to make it “pop!” flavourwise, so I added a sprinkling of choco-caramel chips and these melted quite delectably over the pasta, adding a further dimension to the dish.

My opinion of the pasta served as a pudding is somewhat mixed. The pasta didn’t taste strongly enough of the cocoa to flavour the dish discernably and this was my reasoning behind using a fairly bland, creamy sauce. I wanted to taste the pasta and to be knocked out by it. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. However, I suspect that it may work better with a spicy tomato sauce, something that the cocoa can enhance rather than be the main ingredient.

So, stay tuned for Part 2 of our Cocoa Pasta Experiment – The Savoury Course and, if you’ve tried Cocoa Pasta, I’d love to know what you thought of it and how you prepared it!

Cocoa Pasta is available via Mail Order or instore from Hotel Chocolat.

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Finland - Surprising Contestent for World's Best Milk Chocolate

Finland - Surprising Contender for World's Best Tasting Milk Chocolate

For most of us, chocolate is a comforting food. We turn to it when we’re feeling low, we eat it during periods of celebration. A simple candy bar (as can any food. My husband is transported to Fridays in 1970s LaCrosse when he eats McDonalds Filet o’Fish) can transport us back to our childhood, a more simple time when we were so much more easily pleased and our expectations were much lower (and people expected less of us too!).

It is true though that as we grow older, our palate changes and we demand more of the foods we eat. We prefer steak to hamburger, savoury foods to sweet and salad to crisps. Likewise, the chocolate aficionado will choose a more exclusive brand of chocolate to the cheaper candy bars, often settling for a specific cocoa content and blend that is pleasurable on the tongue. Paradoxically, the chocolate lover will try bar after bar, always looking for the chocolate nirvana. Inevitably and perhaps most excitingly of all, we will never find that perfect bar but we will have a tonne of fun searching for it!

My own favourite type of chocolate to eat is a milk chocolate of around 40-50% cocoa content. It is probably frowned upon by professional chocolate eaters to enjoy milk chocolate but I enjoy its warming flavours, sometimes spicy, sometimes creamy, always delectable.

And because I’m always looking for the next great bar, I spend a lot of time surfing the net looking for unusual bars from around the world. Just this week alone I have eaten chocolate from South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, France, UK and Finland.

Sorry? Finland?

That’s right, our Nordic friends the Finnish seem to be keeping one of the best kept choco-secrets in the world: their chocolate is ace.

Karl Fazer has been producing Finland’s biggest selling range of chocolate since the 1920s, still using the same recipe for their famous blue label bar. Such is the popularity and power of Fazer chocolate that in 2001 they became Finland’s first registered colour trademark, meaning that no one else can sell chocolate products in blue packaging.

Fazer's Red Label Chocolate

Fazer's Red Label Chocolate

This might all sound a little pompous but the Fazer take this honour with pride and with good reason. 7.5 million kilograms of Fazer chocolate is produced yearly and they hold 65% of the chocolate market. More than that though, their chocolate is just delicious.

It is produced using excellent cocoa beans and a finely tuned production process and, as they state on their website, they are the only Finnish chocolate manufacturers using fresh milk instead of milk powder. The finished product is a full bodied, rich chocolate that tastes deeply of cocoa. It is a true eating chocolate in every sense, a milk chocolate for the grown-ups.

To please the more discerning palate, Fazer are now branching out into the 70% cocoa range, and whilst they are not quite dabbling in Single-Origin bars, the flavour of these bars is enough to warrant a second (or third) tasting.

Unfortunately for us Brits, unless you visit Finland (certainly worth a thought) or have Finnish friends, the only place we can find Fazer chocolate is on online auction sites where it is quite expensive. However, for the true chocoholic, it is well worth sourcing if only for a special treat.

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It seems that the days of the corner shop are fading into obscurity. Supermarkets can supply the time-pushed shopper with everything, all under one roof.

However, is this a smart way to shop? The days of my childhood were mostly spent reading but I did look forward to a visit to the local sweet shop where I would buy a quarter of Butterscotch sweets and red shoelaces. As I got older, I, like so many other children, got sucked into collecting bubblegum cards. My favourite were Garbage Pail Kids and regular readers of this blog and our last one will probably find this of no great surprise.

But as the supermarkets grew bigger, these smaller shops became pushed out, made redundant. They couldn’t compete with the low prices being offered in larger stores.  This is a reflection of our faster, one-stop lifestyles, aptly implemented with fast food chains and internet shopping too.
The days of looking forward to visiting the local sweet shop seemed like they were over, but the tide is turning.

Only recently, whilst (I admit it) surfing a well-known internet auction site, I came across a shop selling all the penny sweets I had once loved as a child, but, of more interest to me now, a variety of chocolate bars that are difficult to source. The most startling discovery of all? This shop is not just a cyber-shop with a favicon as its shop front but is an actual living, breathing, functioning sweet shop by the sea-side in Great Yarmouth.

Sweet Dreams Traditional Sweet Shop is just that: old fashioned and sweet. Just how all sweet shops should be. So the external décor isn’t quite reminiscent of the sweet shops of Dickensian times but these days customers (notably children) are lured in by colourful signs and the promise of more colour and excitement inside. And besides, the myriad colours of the jars, filled to the brim of sweets, candys, sherberts and liquorice are enough to make the most anti-sugar person melt.

Sweet Dreams Traditional Sweet Shop was opened by Patricia, Nigel and Andrew on the 9th March 2005 and have recently opened up their cybershop too, providing almost every sweet you can remember from your childhood (and some you can’t), they also cater for the diabetic or person watching their sugar which is thoughtful. And, if you wanted to bring back a gift from your trip to Great Yarmouth, they have a vast selection of Swiss Lindt and British Beeches chocolates, along with Britain’s other well kept chocolate secret, Caleys. In effect, what Patricia, Nigel and Andrew are doing is keeping other British industries going, as well as bolstering the smaller, specialists businesses.

So, next time you visit Great Yarmouth, make sure to pop into Sweet Dreams Traditional Sweet Shop, buy a bag of penny sweets for yourself and a box of chocolates to take home and find yourself revelling in a childhood dream brought to life. And if you can’t get to Great Yarmouth, maybe you can find a traditional sweet shop closer to home (and let me know where they are!!).

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We’re all looking for a guilt-free way to indulge ourselves in heaps of chocolate, right? I think I may have the solution.

For all Chocoholic Gaming Afficionados, it was recently brought to my attention that there are three (yes, three!) games out there devoted to Theobroma Cacao.  Since then I have played all three games (not at the same time) avidly and I can confirm that even the most anti-gaming person will soon find themselves hooked on the charming graphics, fun dialogue and compulsive tasks of Chocolatier.

Designed by Big Splash Games, the Chocolatier Series follow a young rookie Chocolatier (that’s you), ably guided by Evangeline Baumeister, of the Baumeister Confectionary Corporation, on his/her travels around the world, opening up new ports, discovering new types of Cacao Beans, buying up sweet shops and chocolate making factories, not to mention developing new and delicious looking recipes.

In the first instalment of the game, set in the mid-1800s, you open up new ports and introduce the whole world to the joys of chocolate, whilst trying to to avoid rivals, hellbent on reducing your chocolate empire to cocoa powder. Perhaps the official website blurb can put it better than I can:

Oh the gloriously rich and delectable life of a chocolatier! Constantly surrounded by mounds of chocolate bars and boxes of mouth-watering truffles! Become a master chocolatier one ingredient at a time as you travel the world to find the best prices and maximize production…

Educational (well, sort of) AND addictive to the chocolate fan, this will eat up your time without you gaining a single ounce, visit Playfirst for a free download to try out this great game!

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What’s New?

It’s a hard job but someone’s got to do it….

With so many new developments going on in chocolate at the moment it’s hard to keep track. So, we do the dirty work for you and, in our high-tec tasting lab (also known as the “Kitchen” or the “Living Room”) we will be investigating the latest chocolate products on the supermarket shelves and online.

This week, Bonne Maman Tartelettes.

How cute are these?

You will no doubt be accustomed to those red and white gingham lids adorning Bonne Maman’s delicious jams and preserves, and recently they have extended their gingham motif to biscuits, cakes, galettes and even financiers. Whilst these are priced at the higher end of most biscuit lover’s budget, they are nonetheless delicious.

The latest Bonne Maman product to catch my eye was a long, thin, fairly unassuming box simply named “Tartlette.” I picked up the box, was struck by the price (£1.10 – fairly cheap by Bonne Maman’s standards) and placed it straight into my basket.

The box revealed little about its contents other than that the Tartelettes were chocolate and caramel. I wasn’t sure if there was going to be two large Tartelettes in there or, as I hoped, lots of tiny ones.

So, once home, I sat down in our high-tec tasting lab (“Living Room”), tore open the box and was thrilled so see nine (yes, nine!) tiny Tartlettes, individually wrapped in cellophane.

No more than two mouthfuls each, these joyous little bites are the crispest, butter shortbread filled with creamy caramel and topped with a milk chocolate ganache. It was easy to see the box depleting with great rapidity as I shared them with Paul.

In short, they are the perfect treat to have with tea, would make a charming treat for the sophisticated child’s birthday party (much easier than making them yourself) but are best when eaten covetously away from the prying eyes of husbands or dogs…

Bonne Maman Tartelettes and many of their other goodies are available in most good supermarkets now!

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