Imagine being invited to be a tasting judge for Taste TV and the International Chocolate Salon's annual awards of excellence in their "Bridal Chocolate Salon 2011" competition. I had to pinch myself. For a chocolate lover like me it would be a dream come true. Seriously? Yes! I was asked to sample a whole pile of chocolate and vote for winners in several categories. They didn't have to ask me twice!
Tasting and judging required a knife and sticky notes.
I thought it would be delicious and fun. It was. But it was also a lot of work because in total I was sent over 50 different samples of chocolate from 12 different companies and judged them in 17 categories. I brought in an assistant as the task of tasting, scoring and tracking all of the samples was going to be more challenging than I first thought.
In the end, 42 samples (I skipped samples of flavors I knew I wouldn't care for) and 90 minutes later It was time to fill in my score card. You can view the winners at the Taste TV website by CLICKING THIS LINK.
William Dean Chocolates is the total package. Literally. Their painted and molded chocolates are works of art and their packaging was so impeccable it took their beautiful and delicious chocolates to a whole new level of presentation. And I've seen and tried a lot of chocolates.
This image from www.WilliamDeanChocolates.com
This was my favorite flavor, a PB & J (Peanut Butter and Jelly) described on their website as:
"Milk chocolate and peanut butter with bits of peanut brittle topped by a blend of 3 jellies."
It was neat because the flavors are nostalgic but this is a sophisticated rendition of the sandwiches I ate as a kid. The jelly portion was not soft like actual jelly, it had the consistency and texture of a Fruit Gelée which if you've never had one is similar to a Sunkist Fruit Gem jelly candy. If you've never had them, imagine a texture like a gumdrop, only more soft.
A William Dean PB & J Bar
The PB & J chocolate looks similar to this inside. You can see the "jelly" on top and even the crunchy bits of peanut brittle if you look really closely.
These images are from the www.ForteChocolates.com website.
I have always loved caramels. This was a tough category to judge because there were over a dozen caramels to sample. Some were classic while others were uniquely flavored.
I'll mention a few others in a bit but hands down I LOVED Forte's Sea-Salt Caramels. They were my favorite of the classic caramels. The tasted exactly the way a rich caramel should and the texture was the perfect chewiness caramel should be. It had some density to it but was soft enough to chew and would slowly melt in your mouth as the chocolate and sea salt melted into it.
www.NicoleLeeFineChocolate.com offer a romantic wedding favor gift boxes!
Because this was the "Bridal Chocolate Salon," selecting chocolates appropriate to use as wedding favors or as a bridal gift set made the packaging and imagery of romance especially important.
I could most easily imagine Nicole Lee's gorgeous, petite, heart shaped chocolates with a flake of 24 kt edible gold leaf, packaged in an impressively well finished, paper covered and lined, custom printable, two piece box as the most attractive, thematic and beautifully presented option of all the samples I received to give as a favor. (← Was that a run on sentence?)
I also liked that the red and white hearts would be less likely, then a milk or dark chocolate, to cause dirty finger prints that could stain silk or satin gowns if they were served on the wedding day.
The interiors were delicious soft and silky smooth. The red had a dark chocolate filling and the white had a citrusy white chocolate key lime infused center.
The open box "Las Paves" photo was taken from the Nicole Lee online store.
Another favorite by Nicole Lee was her "Las Paves" tiny truffle cubes. Rolled in Belgium cocoa powder they literally melt in your mouth and their petite size makes it easy to ration yourself to one cube a day. OK, maybe I ate two a day (or three or five) but who's counting?
Fig in Roasted Walnut Bon Bons by www.Cocotutti.com
I love figs. I love Fig Newton cookies and fresh figs sliced on pizzas. Now I love fig candy. I was not familiar with Cocotutti before but these Bon Bons have put them on my chocolate map. They were one of my favorites when it came to flavored chocolates. In fact, I was torn trying to decide between these Figs in Toasted Walnut truffles the PB & J I showed you earlier and a few others as "The Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations."
A Perfect Gift for Any Occasion by www.SweetChocolot.com
Chocolot was another company that has gone well beyond the typical when it comes to their packaging. Their gift box was beautifully finished, their painted chocolates equally so and the flavors were truly mouth watering.
Favorites here were the first two on the left, their Fleur De Sel Caramel and just after, in the green stripes, the Mint Leaf. It's described on their website as "A flavorful infusion of refreshing, organic mint leaves and creamy white chocolate." Imagine the humble Campfire or York's peppermint patty all grown up, refined and sophisticated and that's what Chocolot's Mint Leaf is like. The flavor is refreshing and bright and really tastes like fresh mint.
A Trio of Flavorful Caramels from www.AmellaCaramels.com
Billed as the "World's First Cocoa Butter Caramels" Amella's surprising trio of cake-flavored caramels were rich with a perfect, chewy caramel texture. For weddings the filigree decorated packaging with cellophane windows makes for an attractive favor idea and would definitely give your guests something to talk about. I mean who's ever heard of Carrot Cake Caramels before? I hadn't.
Of the three flavors the Carrot Cake was my favorite. It tasted just like fresh carrot cake and the texture was similar but in a caramel'ish kind of way! Amella's website describes them as:
"Taste a medley of fresh carrots, roasted pecans, and cocoa butter with creamy caramel. Blended into a smooth body of white chocolate, this is an exquisite rendition of the classic American favorite."
www.JTruffles.com's Veracruz Orange is both citrusy and spicy.
We received three sample of architectural pyramids by J Truffle. The white chocolate covered Veracruz Orange's center is a winning combination of fresh orange flavor and spicy chili powder. It had a really nice little bite to it. For me, it was another strong contender in the "Most Delicious Flavor Combinations" category and for weddings, I saw on their website favor boxes are available.
How in the world could I choose just one favorite?
The www.PlumeriaFlours.com Hibiscus Flower Caramels really surprised me.
Normally I don't like flower flavored food. For instance I don't care for lavender or rose flavored desserts or dishes. But I really liked these Hibiscus flavored caramels!
They weren't as sweet as the rest of the caramels I sampled which, when I did the everything-in-one-night tasting, kind of worked against them. But when I sampled them again a few days later without having eaten any other chocolates beforehand the caramel had more depth than the other caramels and they tasted just sweet enough without being overly so. I would definitely purchase them if I spot them around town.
Best Chocolate Bars
Chocolat's Trail Mix Artisan and Forte's White Chocolate Cloud chocolate bars were both winners in my book.
The candied orange in the Chocolot bar offered both a flavor and texture that I loved. I only wish they made a bar where every bit contained the candied orange. It was that good.
And the Forte white chocolate bar was easily the best and most delicious white chocolate I've ever tasted. I had no idea white chocolate could be so good. It wasn't waxy the way others I've had in the past were. It was smooth, creamy, light and sweet.
Living in the SF Bay Area I can shop at Ghirardelli Square or online at www.Ghirardelli.com.
While Ghirardelli (pronounced "Gear-ar-delly") may not be considered an "artisan" chocolate, it is a historic chocolate company whose origin dates back to 1852.
Their "Caramel" Filled Squares have always been one of my favorites. I didn't know they now had flavors like "Truffle" and "Dark & Sea Salt Caramel." Did you? The Sea Salt was particularly interesting because unlike every other salted caramel chocolate I've ever had, the salt is not applied as flakes to top, I think it was mixed into the liquid caramel center. It makes for a stronger more infused salt flavor, different than the more typical burst a few salty flakes on top creates.
Both Hallett's and Beijo de Chocolat sent small gift boxes with many different flavors inside and were favorites among the judges for "Best Milk Chocolate."
Want to try some new chocolates and a few unusual caramels? Halletts has Habanero, Grey Sea Salt and Huckleberry caramels available online and possibly at their Chocolate and Coffee House in Spokane, Washington.
Beijo de Chocolat, located in Chicago, IL offers soft, smooth and creamy chocolate truffles, a Brazilian specialty, called "Brigadeiros." They will literally melt in your mouth.
OMC (Oh My Chocolate). By now we had sampled over 40 chocolates in 90 minutes. Can you even imagine eating that much chocolate in so little time?
And last but certainly not least, it was hard to judge "toffee talk's" almond toffee against the many chocolates and truffles because it seemed like it should be in a category all its own. Still, I wanted to recommend it to you because it was soooo delicious! The toffee was crunchy, rich and buttery and melded with the flavor of the nuts and chocolate perfectly. It's definitely the kind of treat you want to eat slowly enough not only to taste, but to really savor.
CLICK HERE to view the awards of excellence.
I joked on Facebook I have found my dream job. Well, it was a fun (and very filling) dream job even if it was just for one evening. And more thanks to Harpreet for helping me out that night. It was a tough job but someone had to do it. I was happy to have him join me.