Friday, December 19, 2014

Review - Tea Room Holiday Chai Nog

The holiday season is here again. It seems to arrive faster every year! And thankfully, the holiday season always brings out the best in hot chocolates from chocolate makers all over the world.

I've know about The Tea Room chocolates for a while now. They make an amazing variety of high quality bars, most of which are infused with tea flavors. Things like milk chocolate with honeybush caramel tea and dark chocolate with raspberry rooibos tea.

A couple months ago I learned they made some drinking chocolates. And not only do they offer 13 great flavor combinations, but they also offer 3 additional holiday flavors.

I picked up a canister of their Holiday Chai Nog. It's a white hot chocolate infused with the flavors of black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, and clove.

Great packaging! Colorful and intricate, very fancy looking.

I love how, right there on the main description page for their drinking chocolate selection, they tell you straight up - "This is not cocoa, it's PREMIUM ORGANIC CHOCOLATE". That's become my mantra since starting this blog. There's a huge difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate. If you're still drinking cocoa from a packet, please proceed directly to my first posted recipe and have your life changed.

The shaved chocolate looks great, and the smell is just unbelievably comforting! It's the aromatic equivalent of being wrapped in a blanket in front of a fireplace on Christmas Eve! They use all organic ingredients, and I don't mean just the chocolate and tea. Even the spices are organic. And bonus - everything they do is non-GMO and gluten-free.

Included in the tin are instructions for a couple different ways to make the drink. Curiously, they lump both water and milk based recipes together as "European Style". Then they seem to correct themselves and follow up with "Water is classic European". I've been in the mood for creamier hot chocolates lately, so I chose to use half and half, as directed in their "Rich Hot Chocolate" instructions.

The amount of chocolate mix to add is also open to your personal taste, as they recommend 1-3 tablespoons. I like mine as flavorful as I can get it, but I also wanted to review it fairly using their provided instructions. I went ahead and used 3 tablespoons.

Definitely a top notch white hot chocolate, and very much in the spirit of the holidays. I found it to taste like a very light pumpkin spice white hot chocolate, with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. Very delicious and very much recommended!

Although it says "nog" in the name of the hot chocolate, I didn't get much of an eggnog flavor. (This led me to research what exactly "nog" means, and apparently it's not well defined.)

I've not seen The Tea Room hot chocolates in any stores, but ordering from their site was extremely easy and fast. I will also definitely be checking out more of their flavors, and I'll report back here when I do.

Have a great holiday season!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review - Fran's Dark Hot Chocolate

On my last trip up to San Francisco, I came across Fran's Dark Hot Chocolate in a grocery store. After spending the last few days working on a sugar-free, healthy hot chocolate recipe (for a future blog post), this one was a real treat!

Fran's Chocolate is a chocolatier out of Seattle, Washington. I'd seen some of their chocolates assortments, but until now, did not know they made a drinking chocolate.

The ingredients list is nice and simple, so I was expecting a pretty good hot chocolate. Opening the tin and checking it out also raised my hopes. It was nice, very fragrant and crumbly.

To find out a little more about the chocolate, I wrote to Fran's Chocolates. They kindly answered all my questions. I'm having good luck contacting chocolatiers lately, after also being able to contact someone at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates a while back.

I was informed that they source only the finest premium chocolate made from the highest quality cacao beans. Felchlin is the chocolate supplier they use for their Dark Hot Chocolate.

In fact, their Dark Hot Chocolate was the winner of the sofi™ Outstanding Hot Beverage Award in 2007. Pretty cool! (Another hot chocolate I've reviewed also won the same award in 2011.)

I made their hot chocolate using milk and followed the instructions perfectly. Wow, what a great hot chocolate! Rich and chocolaty, no complex flavors here. Not very dark, and very creamy and milky.

I'd suggest if you want a breakfast variety, try cutting the amount of chocolate in half. It's pretty rich, definitely more of an after dinner drink.

I would definitely recommend picking this up if you come across it, or ordering some if you just want a great quality, tasty hot chocolate on hand. My only complaint is how small the tin is. Following the instructions, you'd probably only get 4-5 cups out of it. But then again, maybe that's just me. Perhaps I just want too much of a good thing.

The kind folks at Fran's also sent along their recipe for making an Iced Drinking Chocolate:

¾ cup milk
8 tbsp Fran’s Dark Hot Chocolate

In a saucepan bring the milk to a simmer. Add the chocolate and whisk until smooth and melted. Remove from heat and serve immediately or place in ice bath, stirring occasionally until cool. Pour over ice and enjoy!

If anyone gives it a shot, please let me know what you think of it!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review - Ginger Elizabeth Hot Chocolate

I'll be honest with you - I can't remember how I found out about Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates. They must have turned up in something I was reading online, or perhaps looking over a map of chocolate places here in California. However it happened, I'm glad I found them.

Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates was started by Ginger Elizabeth Hahn in 2005 to be a responsible, sustainable chocolate company. They're located in Sacramento, where in 2008 they opened a small storefront. From pictures on their Facebook page, it seems the good people of Sacramento are perfectly aware of what a treasure they have there, as they line up down the block to get into the place!

After trying their amazing hot chocolate, I sent a message to them asking what details they could give me about how it's made. Wow! Traci, the manager there, gave me every bit of information I could have asked for! Unbelievably helpful!

When I ordered the hot chocolate tin from their online shop, I also bought a stick of their marshmallows. What a great way to package marshmallows! They form it in a plastic roll, and simply leave it there for the customer to cut into whatever size they choose.

Back to the chocolate! Traci informed me that they are not bean-to-bar chocolate makers, but that they source their chocolate from Valrhona in France, Felchlin in Switzerland, and Etienne Guittard here in the US. They are fondeurs, meaning they melt the sourced chocolate into their own custom varieties and flavors. Ginger herself creates those blends and flavors. The hot chocolate we're reviewing here is a 58% blend.

Online, they only have the Classic variety of hot chocolate available. In their boutique, they have a couple other varieties, Oaxacan and European. Go try them if you're near Sacramento! The Oaxacan also uses a 58% chocolate, but the European uses a 72%. Man, I sure wish I lived close enough to try them all out!

They have some recipes posted on their website, one for European hot chocolate and one for a Maya Coconut hot chocolate. As the European recipe on their site uses their Classic hot chocolate as the main ingredient, I'm guessing perhaps the one served in the boutique is a bit stronger at 72%.

The directions are straightforward, and I'm using milk rather than water. Like most amazing hot chocolates, the mix of real chocolate clumped together into perfect little morsels that dissolved quickly in the heated milk.

Someday I hope computers can transmit smells, because that picture above is worthy of the technology.

The finished drink is wonderful and rich, and that 58% is really obvious. Rather than a deep, bitter flavor, the hot chocolate tastes much more like a sweet milk chocolate. In fact, that's what got me writing to them in the first place. It didn't taste like the dark chocolates I was used to, so I was curious about the percentages they use. If you're not yet enjoying the dark chocolates, but want something much better than a typical powder mix hot cocoa, then this is your cup of chocolate! 

Click some of those links and order some, and be sure and tell them where you heard about them! And thank you, Traci at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates. If only other hot chocolate makers were as responsive and informative as you guys are!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review - Commissary Hot Chocolate

Here in Burbank where I live, there is a depressing shortage of good hot chocolates. Sure, every diner on every street serves one in a small coffee cup, topped with whipped cream, but we all know that's just the powder mix. And cafes and coffee shops have hot chocolate, of course, but I've rarely found these to be up to the quality level I expect.

Earlier this year, Commissary opened right across the street from the Burbank Studios (formerly NBC). We had heard the coffee there was worth stopping in for, so one Saturday, my fiance, her sister, and I stopped by. And that leads us to this, my first review of a hot chocolate from a cafe or restaurant.

There was no hot chocolates listed on the menu, so I ordered a water with a pastry. As they were preparing the coffee my fiance and her sister had ordered, my fiance asked if they made hot chocolate. It turns out they do.

They told us they make a ganache with Tcho chocolate and use that with steamed milk to make it. Great! This is what I had been looking for here in my hometown! A great quality hot chocolate, using an amazing artisan chocolate like Tcho! Why wasn't it on the menu?
The next weekend we came back, and I asked about their hot chocolates. They make a regular and a cinnamon flavored one. I ordered both, along with a chocolate chip cookie. You can never have too much chocolate!

The verdict? Not bad, but not what I had hoped, either. The regular hot chocolate was tasty, but very mild. It tasted more of steamed milk than of hot chocolate. The cinnamon one had the same small amount of chocolate flavor but also very strong cinnamon. Cinnamon was definitely the dominant flavor, where as I thought the chocolate should have been.

I'm going to go again. Maybe the guy making it that day was a little off, or maybe I can even ask them to crank it up a notch for me. I'd love it if they really let the Tcho chocolate come through and be the main flavor. They're definitely on the right path, using the right stuff. They just need to amp it up a bit.

Los Angeles certainly has plenty of amazing hot chocolates, and I plan to review many more. In fact, sometime soon I'd like to do a post on my top ten in the city. Anyone have any recommendations? As for Burbank, I'm still searching. Have you tried the hot chocolate at Commissary? What did you think?

UPDATE 7/24/14 - I stopped in again, and this time when I ordered the regular hot chocolate, I asked them to make it double strong. He asked me "Double the chocolate?" to which I replied, naturally, "Yes, please!". Much better! This was the hot chocolate I had been hoping for. Very chocolatey and rich, you could really taste the quality chocolate this time. I'm not sure what kind of milk they used as the base, but it was a bit thin. That's a minor critique, though. If you go, order a double strong hot chocolate.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Recipe - Dick Taylor Craft Chocolates "Ecuador" Hot Chocolate

I've mentioned before that I'm very much a fan of artisan chocolate makers. Many artisan chocolate makers also create their own hot chocolates, and I've even reviewed a few already, like Chuao and Askinosie.

Today we're going to make a hot chocolate using chocolate from an artisan chocolate maker who doesn't yet offer a drinking chocolate. Dick Taylor Craft Chocolates is a tiny company in Northern California, and they are cranking out some of the best chocolate being made anywhere on Earth.

The first time I tried one of their bars, I fell in love. Some of their chocolates are fruity, some are much more of a deep, strong chocolate flavor, and many of them have things like coconut or fig mixed in.

Last fall, I attended my first Artisanal LA show here in Los Angeles. It's a small local convention type of thing that is mostly about foods, condiments, and candies. Anything local and edible turns up here.

To my surprise, Dustin Taylor and Adam Dick had a booth there! I got to chat with them a bit and had a great time sampling most of their bars. For every compliment I paid them regarding their chocolate, they returned the favor, praising us chocolate bloggers for helping spread the word about their amazing products.

That's Adam on the left, with the mustache. Dustin is in the plaid on the right.

The packaging they do is just amazing, probably my favorite artisan chocolate wrappers out there. So detailed, on beautifully textured paper, each one is a work of art. Both Dustin and Andy are carpenters and have built and refurbished furniture and boats. That idea of pride in craftsmanship and really creating something by hand, from scratch, is what inspired their ship-building wrappers.

We're going to use their 76% Ecuador bar, which is one of my favorites. Their 72% Belize, however, is a Good Food Award winner and would also make an excellent choice.

Even the bar itself is a masterpiece! The detail work in the molding is gorgeous! It's almost a crime to break it and eat it. Once you taste it, though, you realize the crime would be NOT eating these bars. So delicious!

To make the hot chocolate, I heated 1 cup of water. Once it was almost boiling, I broke up about half the bar and dropped the small pieces into the water, whisking as I went. You can add as much chocolate as you like. Pay attention to the thickness and texture as you go, and just stop adding chocolate when you reach the consistency you prefer. I added a bit more than half the bar, and it made a nice, thick sipping hot chocolate.

I served mine with some Plush Puffs Vanilla Bean marshmallows. If you like to make your own marshmallows, that's the way to go. If not, then these are the ones I recommend buying. Plush Puffs are wonderful!

Wow, what a perfect after dinner dessert! Using water lets the flavor of the chocolate really come through unimpeded, which is exactly what you want when using chocolate like this, chocolate made by hand, directly from the bean, in a small workshop. You can taste every nuance of the bean. I like to add the marshmallows and eat them quickly, as if I just ran them through a chocolate fountain.

Do you have a favorite chocolate maker? Try it out with one of their bars. If you haven't yet tried Dick Taylor chocolates, I strongly suggest ordering some. There is absolutely no way you could be disappointed!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Recipe - Toffee Hot Chocolate

Besides writing my own blog, naturally I follow a few other chocolate blogs. Cortney over at The Chocolate Tourist is doing all kinds of fun things regarding chocolate. Equal parts chocolate reviews, recipes, book reviews, travel blogging, and informational posts, I contacted her a few weeks ago to ask if I could link to her blog from mine. She surprised me by not only agreeing, but asking me to join her for an interview and to present a recipe on her Monday Mug series!

Of course I agreed! What fun! After a little back and forth on what to do, we finally decided on a recipe for toffee hot chocolate. She wanted to post in honor of Father's Day, and her father loves Heath bars.

You can see her post by clicking HERE to head over to The Chocolate Tourist, or you can watch the video right here.

We had a great time hanging out and talking about chocolate. It's great to chat with someone who has the same passion for all of the amazing varieties of chocolate out there in the world.

In the video, I mention a place in Amsterdam that had wonderful hot chocolate, served in the perfect fashion. I couldn't remember the name of the place while we were doing the interview, but the name of the place is Bagels & Beans.

I think it's a small chain of shops there in Amsterdam, and it was definitely one of the best hot chocolates I had while I was there. One of these days I'll have to do a post on every place I visited. There is certainly no shortage of amazing hot chocolate in Amsterdam!

Let's get back to that toffee hot chocolate. In case the video went too fast for you, here's what you'll need:

1 cup of milk (whole or 2%)
2 tbsp toffee
2 tsp cocoa powder

Pretty simple set of ingredients. Heat the milk, add in the toffee, and stir until it's incorporated. It's going to take a few minutes for that toffee to melt, and it's going to stick to whatever you're stirring with. It gets pretty gooey. Just keep going, eventually it will all dissolve. Then add the cocoa powder, top with whipped cream and a crushed up Heath bar (or toffee pieces), and enjoy.

You can absolutely use toffee you buy at the store. If it comes coated in chocolate, maybe add a little more than listed above. However, if you want to really do it right, you can make your own toffee. I spent a week working out how to make some great easy toffee, and it's delicious.

Toffee Ingredients:

½ cup unsalted butter
1¼ cup sugar
2 tbsp water
1 tbsp corn syrup

Mix everything together in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the sugar is dissolved, stop stirring. Using a kitchen brush dipped in water, wash all the undissolved sugar from the inside walls of the saucepan. Those crystals will gunk up the toffee later on if you don't wipe them away. Once the sides are clean, put a candy thermometer into the mixture and let it boil until it reaches about 280 degrees.

While you're waiting for it to reach 280, take a small pan and line it with aluminum foil. Dip a paper towel in some butter and grease the aluminum foil with it. Toffee sticks to everything pretty good, this will help separate it later.

When it reaches 280, it should be a slight golden brownish color. Take it off the heat and immediately, very carefully, pour it out onto the greased pan. It is extremely hot, so be careful not to splash it or touch it in any way. Tap the pan on the counter a few times so it spreads out a bit, then let it cool for 30-45 minutes or until its ok to touch.

Because I was using mine as an ingredient in hot chocolate (and as a topping), I broke it into large pieces, put those pieces into ziplock baggies, and smashed it up as small as I could get it.

So try it out, let me know what you think! And check out The Chocolate Tourist. It's definitely a blog worth following!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review - Diane Krön Drinking Chocolate

Wandering in Beverly Hills with a friend of mine, we stumbled across a tiny chocolate shop tucked away in the corner of a retail building on Santa Monica Blvd. I had never heard of them before. The sign was a little mysterious - "K Chocolatier".

I have since learned that K Chocolatier is owned by Diane Krön, who, over the years, has had clients such as Jackie Kennedy, Estee Lauder, Gregory Peck and Andy Warhol, to name a few. While in the store, we sampled some truffles they had at the counter, which were great. Browsing the shelves, I picked up a bag of their drinking chocolate.

I tried to do a little research and learn where their chocolate comes from - if it comes from a supplier, such as Varlhona, or if they create chocolate bean-to-bar. I couldn't find any information on this, and as of this writing, they haven't responded to my email inquiry. But I did learn that one of the things they do try to do is use less sugar than most commercial chocolatiers. That's always good news!

It came in a simple bag with an instruction card stapled to the top of it.

The mix itself is definitely more of a crumbled, ground chocolate rather than a powder. It clumps together and smells wonderful. Don't worry about the clumps, they melt easily and quickly.

I made mine with 2% milk, and it was magnificent. Creamy and good, a delicious dark chocolate flavor, not overly fruity like some of the expensive artisan chocolates. Just solid, clean dark chocolate flavor. They have a shop in Malibu, as well, and if you happen to be near either store, I'd advise picking some up. I know I'll be grabbing some more!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recipe - Shamrock Peppermint Hot Chocolate

St. Patrick's Day! What do you know about St. Patrick? Did you know he lived in the 5th century and was brought to Ireland as a slave when he was 16 years old? Did you know that it's believed a silver container was crafted to hold St. Patrick's severed arm? Neither did I! History is insane!

When I was growing up, St. Patrick's Day pretty much meant McDonald's would start serving their Shamrock Shake. I haven't had one in years, but since that minty, creamy flavor is a great memory for me around this time of year, I thought I'd try to recreate it in a hot chocolate.

 The ingredients are pretty simple:

¾ cup heavy whipping cream
¾ cup 2% milk
5 tbsp white chocolate, chopped
1 heaping tsp powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp peppermint extract
2 drops green food coloring

I'm using Ghirardelli premium white baking chocolate. Besides the cocoa butter and sugar, it has nonfat dry milk and milk fat in it, which makes it not the best white chocolate available. But it works fine for this recipe.

The peppermint extract I picked up at a local grocer, and the vanilla extract is some I found from Madecasse. Madecasse is an amazing chocolate maker in Madagascar. Top notch products!

The blend of 2% milk and heavy cream gives it a wonderful creaminess, and the powdered sugar adds a little extra sweetness. If you get a really good white chocolate, you could try leaving out the sugar and half the vanilla.

Warm the milk and cream on the stovetop. Once it's pretty hot, add the sugar first and whisk it around a bit, let it start dissolving. As the milk gets close to boiling, add in the chopped white chocolate. Once that's incorporated smoothly, add the vanilla and peppermint extracts, and finish with the food coloring.

It's St Patrick's Day. It's important that it be green. Add 3 drops if you're feeling crazy!

I'm serving mine topped with some homemade vanilla whipped cream, green sugar sprinkles, and a clover. Minty, smooth, and rich!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Recipe - Homemade Chocolate Syrup

That picture is not hot chocolate. It could easily become hot chocolate, though!

Today's post is about making your own chocolate syrup, which can be used for making both hot chocolate and cold chocolate milk. It's good for tons of things, as I'm sure you know. On top of ice cream, pies, in milkshakes, etc. Me? Well, I like to eat it straight from the bottle!

I'm sure everyone reading this has had Hershey's Chocolate Syrup. Good stuff! But did you ever take a look at the label? I'm not exactly a health nut (I have a blog about chocolate, after all), but once I learned how to make my own chocolate syrup, I had to wonder, what is some of the stuff on the ingredients list of Hershey's syrup?

Take a look.

The first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. I'm pretty sure I don't need to tell you how bad that is for you. It's not regular corn syrup. It's really bad for you, and it's in so many things today. In fact, here's an article called "5 Reasons HFCS Will Kill You."

Next ingredient is corn syrup, followed by water, cocoa, and sugar. Those make sense. Then it gets crazy.

Potassium sorbate. This is a synthetic preservative. While it does occur naturally in some berries, virtually all of the world's supply is manufactured synthetically.

Salt. You know what that is.

Mono and Diglycerides. These are emulsifying agents. They help keep the product from separating into its individual ingredients and add a little shelf life to it.

Xantham Gum. Another emulsifier. Just like the mono and diglycerides, it's relatively safe to eat, but if you like knowing what you're eating, it's something extra you don't need.

Polysorbate 60. Another emulsifier. Seriously, how many emulsifiers does one product need? I suspect these emulsifiers keep the syrup flowing smoothly, as well.

Vanillin. This is vanilla flavor, basically. It's the chemical in vanilla that makes the vanilla flavor. However, in this product, it's probably synthetically created because it's much cheaper than using real vanilla.

Finally, artificial flavor. As far as I can tell, this is a "chemical mixture that mimics a natural flavor in some way." So yeah, have fun with that.

It's sad that something as simple as chocolate syrup literally has to become a chemistry lesson to learn what's in it. Does it really have to be that complicated? Heck no! In fact, if we take a look at the list of ingredients in Hershey's syrup and keep only the things we understand, it's perfect! Well, let's scratch off the corn syrup, too. We know what that is, it's used a lot in candy making, but we only need one sweetener here.

Chocolate syrup ingredient list:

4 oz hot water
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup natural cocoa powder

And, if you want:

Pinch of salt (optional)
1 tsp vanilla (optional)

And you'll need a bottle like the one pictured here.

The best thing about making chocolate syrup yourself is the flavor! You can choose any cocoa powder you want. There are many artisanal chocolate makers out there creating some of the best, tastiest cocoa powders ever. I'm using Scharffen Berger Natural Cocoa Powder.

Interesting that they put the word natural right there on the label. Why would they need to make a distinction from any other cocoa powder? Well, because most cocoa powder is Dutch-processed, or alkalized. To quote Askinosie Chocolate's Facebook page: "Alkalization (also called “Dutch processing”) is a chemical processing of cocoa powder. Chocolate makers do this to create a uniform color and flavor when mixing various origins together and to tame the flavor by reducing the acidity. Unfortunately, this process strips away the complexity of flavor and removes many of the beneficial compounds naturally found in chocolate, not to mention fails to maintain the integrity of the origin, which is one of our main goals as single origin chocolate makers!"

When they mention origin, they mean the cacao bean. Cacao beans from different places around the world and different trees all have different flavors. To artisanal chocolate makers, the origin of the bean is incredibly important! That's what separates them from the mass-market cheap stuff (like the folks who make chocolate syrup loaded with emulsifiers).

Some cocoa powders I would recommend:

Ok, let's get to making this stuff already!

Put the water in a pot on medium heat.

In a bowl, mix the cocoa powder and the sugar. Cocoa powder on its own has a tough time blending into water, so mixing it beforehand with the sugar will help a lot.

Once the water is hot, but not boiling, slowly add in the powder mix while you whisk. Keep whisking while the sugar melts and everything dissolves nicely and becomes delicious, amazing chocolate syrup. If you want to add vanilla or a pinch of salt, now would be the time. Don't let the mixture boil, just whisk until it's smooth.

Turn off the heat and let it cool. I like to keep whisking slowly while it cools.

Once it's cool, go ahead and pour it into your dispenser. Or pour some right into some warm milk for a great hot chocolate!

It may thicken or solidify slightly in the bottle, since we've left out all those emulsifiers that keep it smooth and runny. Just pop it in the microwave for 10 seconds and you're good to go.

Or, you could even pour it into a jar instead of a bottle, and simply spoon portions out whenever you want some.