Category Archives: Column

A Look Beyond the Heart-Shaped Box: How a Bonbon is Made

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There’s a common saying out there concerning the manufacturing of sausages. It implies that once someone learns about the intestines, guts and other general all-around yuckies that go into something as wonderful as a sausage, that our newly graduated sausage scholar friend will lose his or her appetite for the very sausage he or she just studied.

As it turns out, that saying really doesn’t apply when it comes to chocolates.

I’d never taken a ton of time to consider how the truffles, bonbons and other filled chocolates are made, but given how much Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood I watched as a kid, I kind of generally assumed the process was a lot like how people make crayons or macaroni: mostly using big machines, with some oversight by men wearing hats and distribution by means of Mr. McFeely.

That in mind, when my friend and noted chocolatier Chef Amanda Tommey Terbush told me that she was getting ready to make some bonbons to sell during Valentine’s Day weekend at her Southern France Patisserie*, I was intrigued, as her kitchen featured neither big machines nor Mr. McFeelies. [Ed. note: I can’t say one way or another about hats.] Immediate further investigation revealed my preconceptions were woefully inaccurate and that I actually had no idea how one creates a bonbon; for the benefit of my vast readership, Amanda was kind enough to invite me to observe her make a batch.

*[Ed. note: Southern France Patisserie is a hybrid French and American Southern bakery on Irving Park and Southport just north of Wrigley Field. It’s a perfect place to eat pastries, drink coffee and complain about Mizzou football, and has become one of my favorite spots in the whole city. If you find yourself free on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning, mosey on over and give literally anything a try; there’s a more than 50 percent chance you’ll giggle at how good it is.]

Constructing a Bonbon

When I arrived, Amanda was already hard at work, having already completed batches of milk chocolate/Tahitian vanilla bean ganache and white chocolate/strawberry champagne ganache bonbons [Ed. note: Scroll to the bottom for tasting notes]; I was going to watch her make a dark chocolate variety, which would be filled with a blood orange salted caramel ganache, because of course it would.

The first step of creating one of these confections is to create the outer shell of the bonbon. Amanda had already taken care of this at the time, with racks upon racks of dark chocolate shells already cooled and ready to be filled.

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Racks on racks on racks.

Now, just about anybody would see that rack and get excited, but Amanda made sure to note to look more closely to ensure that everything was going according to plan. Perhaps the most important thing to look for at this point is the shine and coloring of the chocolate shells. If it’s shiny and uniform throughout, it means that the chocolate was tempered at the right temperature; this chocolate will taste wonderful and “crisp” when it breaks. However, if it was tempered improperly, the chocolate will demonstrate “blooming”: streaks of lighter brown interspersed with the darker chocolate.

Have you ever had a candy bar that totally melted and you tried to save by putting it in the freezer, and when you pulled it out and opened it, it mostly looked the same save some lightish stuff on the outside? That’s bloom.

Bloom is evidence that the chocolate was tempered at the wrong temperature; the fat from the cocoa butter does not emulsify with all of the chocolate and separates. This will lead to imperfections in the mouthfeel and cleavage of the chocolate, a major bummer for all involved. No “crisp”, no glory.

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Chocolate tempering in a tempering machine, called, what else, a Choc-o-vision. [Ed. note: This chocolate would later be used on truffles, but demonstrational purposes, yo!]

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Friends and friends and candy bars

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Happy new year, everybody! An entire month and change late!

Apologies for the hiatus; life’s been a bit of a whirlwind lately: I left a job, went on a Christmas vacation to the California coast and a New Year’s vacation to the California mountains, found a Lady Bar, worked at a fashion convention and lost a 1-on-1 basketball game for $100.

As I’ve navigated the highs and lows of the past few months, one of the great constants has been the support of my friends, who, in addition to being overall swell people, have also supplied me with more than my fair share of candy bars to sample.

A very genuine thank you to all of those who sent bars my way, including:

The friend who goes to visit a candy factory and knows you like silly hats

Many thanks to Jacki Bar, who not only sent along some delicious treats from her tour of the Hammond Candies factory in Colorado, but also sent this sweet-ass hat, which I immediately put on, because attention:

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Great hat. Why don’t you see more of these nowadays?

Of course, she also sent some sweets:

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Hammonds Whoopie Pie bar was, well, not exactly a whoopie pie facsimile, but, instead a dark chocolate bar with vanilla creme. It was definitely a tasty chocolate bar, but given the whoopie pie billing, I can’t say it completely lived up to my expectation (me and the whoopies go way back).

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Gimme more of dat creme, yo.

More than anything, the bitterness of the dark chocolate overpowered the gentle vanilla in the creme, and anyone who’s had a whoopie pie knows that the creme is paramount. If Hammonds had adjusted the ratio ever so slightly, this would have been a knockout. Continue reading

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Lumps of Coal

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When I was a wee lad, my grandma used to babysit me a lot. She was a sweet lady who loved Arnold Schwarzenegger and had a right hand that didn’t open up all the way on account of an industrial accident at a factory where she worked.

When I got tired of watching Predator and started beating up on my sisters, she would Stop That Right Now, Young Man Or Else You’re Going To Get THE CLAW.

She would beckon at me with her semi-clenched hand, her fingers extended and her long, sharpened fingernails pointed directly at my heart.

And I would stop, sit back down and get right back to watching Predator.

Grandma (Grambo to those who knew her – she loved Stallone too) passed a couple of years ago. As my family gathered to mourn and pore over pictures, possessions and memories, my cousins and I all came to realize that nobody ever actually got The Claw [Ed. note: It turns out, to some’s chagrin.] – the object of our abject fear was merely a ruse to get us to stop being such little shits.

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Miss you, Gram.

A similar ruse?

“If you don’t behave, all Santa is going to bring you is a lump of coal.”

Ignoring the fact that these days coal is a precious resource that might have a higher value than a great many other gifts, for a child, this is a scary-ass proposition. And, for the most part, it works.

Now, I know I’m not breaking new ground here, but we all recognize that nobody has ever – outside of the Kingsford briquette that your wisenheimer dad decided was a funny joke one year – gotten coal in their stocking in lieu of Christmas presents, right? The fortitude a parent would need to deal with the repercussions on Christmas morning alone would make it a futile decision, not to mention the therapy they’d need to pay for years later.

We continue to propagate the threat, though. And finally, someone’s taking advantage!

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If you squint real hard … they still don’t look like coal.

Butterfinger decided to market their holiday varietal as lumps of coal (pictured at top), and I couldn’t be happier. For one, it means the kids whose wisenheimer dads were going to put charcoal in their stocking now have a shot at a delicious alternative, but, really, it’s a creative way to package the best-possible form of Butterfinger. The chocolate-to-Butterfinger-stuffins ratio is higher than a typical Butterfinger, which offers a gentler tasting experience, both in the ways of initial taste as well as a more reasonable amount of candy that gets stuck in your teeth.

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Trick Season, Treat Season: On Halloween, sisters and candy corn

IMG_5203It is remarkable to me that a food as milquetoast as candy corn is polarizing as the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Candy corn is garbage trash food! Candy corn is delicious and hating on candy corn is the new candy corn! Why is it that people hate candy corn? Let me explain!

No fewer than five different people asked me this week on my thoughts on candy corn, all with the same kind of “this is not really what this question is about” guise as when a Tinder date asks about the last book you read. My two thoughts:

  1. Candy corn is something that I will put into my mouth, chew and eat and that is as much as I really have to say about candy corn. [Ed. note: Though I will note that Indian Native American Indigenous chocolate candy corn is worse and mellowcreme pumpkins are superior.]
  2. If not for candy corn, I would not know what an actual corn kernel looked like, so I will always be grateful for the lesson.

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Au Naturale

IMG_4610I was kinda under the impression that with candy, everyone was in on the understanding that it wasn’t particularly natural.

Yes, there are certainly plants and stuff that produce the sugar cane and the peanuts and the cocoa beans, but, like, you don’t see Snickers trees or Skittles bushes (though their marketing sometimes would suggest otherwise).

Candy is very much processed, the final byproduct of thousands of years of discovery, innovation and throwing lord-knows-what into sugarstuffs to peddle to the masses. A crowning achievement of our species.

Well, as it turns out, there are a few folks out there who have a different impression.

I ran into some all-natural candy bars from Cleo’s and Amy’s [Ed. note: The latter of which, I will note, is a brand that makes the nicest frozen burritos in the game.] in the quinoa section of the grocery store. Intrepid candy bar writer that I am, I scooped them right up and gave them a shot.

IMG_4611Amy’s Creamy (pictured at top)

Full disclosure: I ate this one first because I was intrigued by the word “whipped”.

It was … well, it was ok. Something about the nougat was off, or perhaps it had to do with the caramel. It tasted almost figgish? Perhaps that was where they pulled the sweetness from, in lieu of the chemicals/high fructose corn syrup. It gets a ringing “I didn’t spit it out” endorsement.

I did not notice the level of whip, but I did enjoy the story about Amy’s dad. He seems like a good guy. Probably not as good as my dad, but I bet they would have a good laugh over a malted milk ball.

IMG_4615Amy’s Crunchy

This is more like it. Boom. Some top-notch toffee. Thick, but easy to bite, with an appropriate amount of nuttiness. Just the right consistency, and a swell bit of butteriness. This was my favorite of the bunch.

IMG_4625Cleo’s Peanut Butter Cups

The only bar of these five with the distinction of also being vegan, the Cleo’s cups had me a little nervous. The thing about chocolate is that there’s dairy in there, so I was dubious over whether they could pull it off. Especially because they used the words “milk chocolatey”, insinuating that there would be some sort of milk chocolate facsimile happening around the peanut butter.

My caution was not unfounded — there was definitely some notes of soy going on — but, on the whole, this bar was pretty tasty. What the chocolate lacked, the peanut butter more than made up for. It was thick, creamy and rich: a significant upgrade from the chalky peanut butter of a Reese’s. I think I still preferred the entire package of the latter, but Cleo’s did a nice job with this one.

It also gets points for the Egypt theme, though I don’t really get why they decided to go with it.

IMG_4620Amy’s Crispy

Indistinguishable from a good post-workout protein recovery bar. Which is only a good thing if you’re a post-workout protein recovery bar.

IMG_4624Amy’s Chewy

It’s pretty easy to screw up caramel. Make it too runny, too salty, too chewy, too hard and it’s useless. This caramel is the spot-on perfect consistency, and couples well with the added pecans. Highly recommended.

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The Goo Goo Cluster, the Titanic and the Berlin Wall

IMG_4294Friends Alex and Abby Bar recently returned from a trip to Nashville, and since they love me and have somehow not grown sick of Drunk Uncle Carp coming over and playing with their dogfriend, brought me back a regional gift bar: the Goo Goo Cluster.

It seems the Goo Goo Cluster has some historical significance, with a 100-plus-year legacy and an accompanying infographic.

More on this momentarily.

More on this momentarily.

You see, according to its website, the Goo Goo Cluster was The First Combination Confection,

In 1912, in a copper kettle at the Standard Candy Company at Clark & First Avenue in Nashville, TN, the world’s first ever combination candy bar was invented. A roundish mound of caramel, marshmallow nougat, fresh roasted peanuts and real milk chocolate; its renegade shape was more difficult to wrap than the conventional rectangular or square shapes of the day. More importantly, this was the first time multiple elements were being mass-produced in a retail confection. Previous to the advent of the Goo Goo Cluster, candy bar manufacturing consisted of bars solely using chocolate, caramel or taffy. The Goo Goo Cluster represented the first time a bar consisted of more than just one principal ingredient.

which, if in fact true [Ed. note: This is quite a boast.], is really something, and laid the groundwork for the Snickers, the PayDay and the candy bar scene of today.

The bar itself was a lovely wad of flavors, with chocolate, caramel, peanuts and a most impressive layer of marshmallow nougat. It was a hearty wad, but not an unbalanced one: multiple textures, a hint of salt and an appropriate level of chewiness.

IMG_4298IMG_4299Now, this is all well and good, a solid old-style candy bar that you can pick up when you’re in the Nashville metropolitan area. But … hold up. Let’s take a look at that graphic. Continue reading

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A Word on Capacity

IMG_4167My least favorite part of having a weekly column in a newspaper was figuring out what to say when I didn’t have anything to say.

There were many times when I just wanted to not turn anything in, to take a week off because guh wouldn’t that be so much easier than spinning 15 more inches out of nothing? 

Of course, I always came to that conclusion too close to deadline to be able to do that, my space already allotted and my small handful of readers patiently awaiting in such a manner that I’d inevitably crank something out. Some of those columns actually turned out pretty well; others, predictably, dead on arrival. 

But, spare one or two exceptions, I kept putting them out because that was what I had committed myself to.

I made a commitment with this project, too: To eat a different candy bar each day and write about it.

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t written anything in this space since Mother’s Day. I’ll also willfully admit that over the past few weeks, there have been a significant amount of days when I didn’t eat a different candy bar.

I’ve broken my commitment. And, while this might not inspire much reader dedication, I’m ok with having done that at the moment.

During the past two months, my professional workload, quantitatively, has been greater than any I’ve had experience with. I needed to stay more hours at my day job to get things done, and while my bar gig was and still is a net happiness for me, it was also a guaranteed 18-20 more hours of time committed to something other than Not Being At Work.

I’ve never had any problem with working hard and working all the time — it is fitting that this post is coming the day before Father’s Day, because I attribute that quality to my old man — in the past, its only negative consequences have been less availability to be social and the dropping of Survivor and Top Chef as regularly scheduled programming.

But where there really hadn’t been any effects of working that much in the past, I’ve started to feel the tread wearing off the tire.

I stopped writing here and exercising regularly; it seemed what little time I had free would be better spent on seeing people and/or doing laundry. 

There was one particular evening when, after a rough day at my day job, I got home and didn’t really want to do anything except get into bed and go to sleep. A long phone call with an old friend cheered me up, but I realized the next morning that that was the kind of thing that they warn you about in Zoloft commercials.

I needed to make a change. I put my two weeks’ in at the bar three days later. [Ed. note: I’m still going to be picking shifts up here and there, but not nearly at the rate I once was, and not for a little while.]

Today is the first Saturday in a very, very long time where I am experiencing what adults have taken to calling “a regular weekend”.

And it’s pretty wonderful.

I apologize for my little break and for breaking my commitment. [Ed. note: I’m assuming you’ll accept my apology; if not, you’re welcome to enjoy all the other candy bar blogs out there.] But things are better now. 

I’m back, and I will be resuming my sweet adventure starting today. Maybe not as regularly, but resuming nonetheless.

Here’s to the rest of the year.

[Ed. note: Mom I know you’re reading this and it has probably freaked you the fk out, but I assure you I am very well and I am really more than anything just super excited to make jokes about nougat again.]

***

Tasting Notes

– Cheeky theme-appropriate name aside, the Take 5 is really just a powerhouse of a fking candy bar. 

– I have never not been satisfied after eating one of these suckers. Their flavor profile is just so perfect. Subtle saltiness from the peanut butter and pretzel, varied crunchiness from the pretzel versus the peanut. A two-bite self-contained capsule of delight that is easy to share or save for later.

– Top 3 among the macroconfectionary bars. Yes I just invented that word. But you know what I mean. 

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Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

947326_10101455422907780_672808151_nThis is my favorite picture of my mom.

She’s holding court in a clearing somewhere in the wilderness, her young audience propped up on camping chairs, stumps and laps eating out of the palm of her hand. The pointy hoodie, ripped jeans and white sneakers she wore would seem a dated reference of 1991 on anybody else — the kind of thing that the “normcore” movement attempts to pillory these days, or at least I think — but Mom has never looked more beautiful.

Because it’s storytime, dammit, and who gives a shit what you’re wearing. Continue reading

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Rest in peace, Chef Homaro Cantu

IMG_3936I heard some sad news last night: Chef Homaro Cantu was found dead earlier in the day at a site where he had planned to open a brewpub, which, it turns out, is not far from where I live now.

He’s renowned for the remarkable things he did at his flagship restaurant, Moto — edible menus, sammies that looked and “smoked” like cigars, deconstructions of things that were indestructible.

I’ve yet to experience Moto; I’m sure it’s all well and good, but to me, Homaro is Berrista, the little coffee shop he opened down the street from where I live.

Berrista is worth stopping into for its range of tasty local coffees, some creative breakfast and lunch fare (carbonated fruit, anybody?) and an aeroponic herb garden. It has a sleek, modern feel, and is a wonderful place to read the newspaper or write a blog post about candy bars.

What you’ll leave Berrista remembering, though, is its Miracle Berry experience. Oft presented as a small tablet, but also sometimes in berry or sorbet form, the Miracle Berry dissolves in your mouth, then alters the tongue’s very perception of taste: Sour things become fantastically sweet. Lemons like candy, goat cheese like frosting, vinegar like vinegar (that one didn’t work).

The experience is signature Cantu, and is something I’d planned to experiment with in this very space. I secretly held onto a dream scenario that I would tell him about this blog and he’d have an idea for a Miracle Berry-enhanced candy bar I could write about. He seemed a kind enough guy that he would consider it, which was enough to keep on hoping.

Berrista’s significance goes beyond what it sells, though. Its mere existence in Old Irving Park is a pillar of legitimacy and prosperity for a little-known neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side, a “hey, there are fun things to do here, too!” among an otherwise quiet part of town. Homaro had hoped that the calorie-saving aspect of the Miracle Berry (there is less sugar necessary when you can sweeten things with sour) could help tackle America’s obesity epidemic. He prepared lunches for students to take to school every Thursday. [Ed. note: According to the New York Times, he was homeless from ages 6 to 9, which is where he traced the origins of his philanthropy.]

Berrista is Homaro’s ode to the Old Irving, where he also lived. He was my neighbor.

I remember the day Berrista opened, when Abby Bar and I got up early to be among their first customers. Homaro was working the room, as he would during every one of my subsequent visits. His children were there, oblivious to the hullaballoo, just being kids before they had to run off to school.

He remembered Abby, whom he’d met in a chance encounter years before. He had never met me, but nonetheless smiled, introduced himself and shook my hand.

He gave us both aprons.

It was a happy day.

Thank you, Chef. Rest in peace.

[Ed. note: For the a deeper look at his experiences in his own words, check out this link from the Chicago Reader.]

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Toy Toy: Making the Nestle Wonder Ball Choking Hazards Look Like … Something You Wouldn’t Choke On

IMG_3915When I was a kid, I would get up early so that I could watch Pokemon sitting in a blue microfiber recliner I called “The ComfortZone” every day before I left to go to school.

I’m assuming because of how ad space is sold for children’s programming [Ed. note: Any intel, Sara Bar?], there were only seven or eight total commercials that ever played; of course, in fast order, my siblings and I memorized every single one of them.

This prompted some pretty strange, automatic reactions from us each time one of these ads came on, as we would quickly repeat jingles and ad copy, and hold jerky re-enactments of the clip of “Don’t You … Forget About Me” by Simple Minds featured in the compilation CD commercial.

One of those strange reactions was in response to the jingle for the Nestle Magic Ball, where we would shout outlandish replacement suggestions* as to what was inside the many layers of the Magic Ball. Because the jingle would get stuck in your head so easily, we got the opportunity often, which was always very funny**.

*[Ed. note: Most common suggestions: “poop”, “pee”, “puke”]

**[Ed. note 2: Most hilarious suggestions: “poop”, “pee”, “puke”]

I never got a chance to ever eat a Nestle Magic ball, though. They were quickly pulled off the market because the toys they contained in their chocolate-encased Balls That Pop were almost all very definitely choking hazards. Continue reading

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