Saturday, August 13, 2011

Scharffen Berger Extra Rich Milk Chocolate

To understand the genius that is Scharffen Berger Extra Rich Milk Chocolate, let us review what we learned from the tour guide at their factory in Berkeley. The FDA mandates that dark chocolate must have a minimum cocoa content of 35%. SB Extra Rich Milk chocolate blows by that requirement with its 41% cocoa, approaching the 45% of Hershey's Special Dark. If you're a chocolate snob, wait. I know your mouse started moving towards the back button as soon as you read "Hershey," but bear with me.
So what's the big deal? Is SB Extra Rich Milk just a weak dark chocolate? No. Emphatically. Compared to a dark chocolate that by definition has little or no milk, the deep, rich, caramelized milk flavor in SB's bar stoutly declares its presence. Quite simply, it is The Best Milk Chocolate In The World. And before you ask, yes, I have tried them all.
Now back to that high cocoa content. In common milk chocolates the sugar and milk typically overpower the cocoa, and to detect any chocolate at all you need the palate of a sommelier, or at least his uniform. By contrast SB's milk chocolate boasts a robust cocoa flavor that any fan of dark, cocoa-laden bars will savor with a knowing smile. It also happens to be one of the creamiest, smoothest chocolates around. Extra Rich indeed.
Back at the factory the guide explained that the production of SB Extra Rich Milk involves spinning vats of molten chocolate at very high speeds, and it is this spinning that generates the gentle heat which caramelizes the delicate sugars, i.e., the lactose, in the milk. The result is a flavor recalling Dulce de Leche in a distinct undertone to that walloping 41% cocoa. Chocolate still reigns supreme, but here it is a benevolent monarch, allowing others to have their say.

As promised, a note about Hershey. First, if you are desperate, Hershey's Special Dark is actually quite tolerable. While it isn't the Lindt 70% that you crave, it is certainly easier to find at your average corner drugstore or gas station. Second, Hershey bought Scharffen Berger. It also owns Dagoba. These acquisitions have earned it some street cred as a manufacturer by proxy of quality small-batch chocolate. (Nevertheless, no Kisses for this chocolate snob, thank you very much.) But of course Hershey is still Just Another Big Company - they closed the original small Bay Area factory where we took that memorable tour. Thankfully the quality of the product has not suffered, and for that they deserve credit.

In Dallas, Scharffen Berger Extra Rich Milk is available at Central Market; World Market seems to have foolishly stopped carrying it. Pick up a bar the next time you go chocolate-shopping.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Williams-Sonoma Crystallized Ginger

We live in an age of experimentation when any spice is just as likely to find itself in a dessert as in a curry - and that's a good thing. And while I’d never say no to a helping of red chili chocolate, I can’t help feeling - with all apologies to the Aztecs - that some combinations seem a little forced. Ginger, however, is the perfect mixer, since it has one of those shape-shifting flavors that is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes. Like cinnamon or saffron, it is just as tasty in a spicy curry as it is in a pudding or ice cream.

Crystallized (or candied) ginger is a great way to sample ginger’s sweeter side.  Crunchy, spicy and bursting with flavor, this simple confection is enjoyed worldwide. Like candied fruit or peel, it is made by steeping pieces of ginger in sugar syrup and then drying them. The pieces can then be eaten plain as an addictive snack or incorporated into desserts.

You can find crystallized gingers in any supermarket, but they won’t all taste the same. Texture and flavor will vary, and the candied ginger at your regular western grocery store will be quite different from one at a Chinese market or a Mexican fruiteria (although the raw ginger from the produce section in all of those places will taste identical).  

Among crystallized gingers, the acme of perfection is the product from Williams-Sonoma. But first let's talk about what can go wrong because while any candied ginger is tasty, flaws are common: 
  • Too dry: after chewing a piece, you’re left with a wad of fibrous strands in your mouth.
  • Slightly bitter: such preparations leave behind some of the "spicy" notes of the ginger, which may remind one of curry (but not in a good way). 
  • Poorly candied: coated with too-large grains of sugar which detract from the ginger.
Williams-Sonoma crystallized ginger beggars the competition in the same way that your backyard BBQ outstrips the corner burger barn.

The roughly round slices are about an inch wide, and about 1/4" thick, although now and then you'll run into a nice fat fellow. They have a pleasurable unevenness to them; presumably they crinkle a bit after drying. The box says the product is made from the "mildest, most tender stem ginger" from Australia, and it is indeed very tender.

Bite into a piece, and while juices don't actually drip, it certainly glistens with moisture. The texture is simultaneously crunchy and soft, a bit like a crunchy jujube. It is of course very  sweet, having been steeped in sugar syrup after all. But above all it is exquisitely gingery, with all the perfectly sweet notes of ginger and without any of the "curry" flavors. The natural fibers are apparent, clearly demonstrating that this is still a ginger root and not candy that is ginger flavored. 

I like to chop pieces of ginger and sprinkle onto ice cream, use as a paste to flavor homemade ice cream, or just eat with a favorite dark chocolate, kind of like a S'more. (Dipping in dark chocolate is even better, but who has the time?) It also makes a wonderful addition to a salad which has things like caramelized pecans, mandarin orange pieces, and cranberries. My favorite way to enjoy it, however, is in this breakfast smoothie:

Mango Ginger Smoothie


- 3 pieces Williams Sonoma crystallized ginger
- 1.5 cups soy milk (Silk original)
- 1 cup frozen mango chunks
- 1 scoop of whey protein powder (Body Fortress Vanilla)
- 1/4 cup of walnuts (a handful)
- 1 tsp Organic Blue Agave (Wholesome Sweeteners) 


- Reserve one piece of ginger; pop into mouth
- Put all ingredients except the ginger in blender and process until smooth 
- Add the ginger and process a little more until it is incorporated well, but still visible as small flecks

Any number of other recipes are available online. Enjoy!