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The Bar has been Raised

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

First off—no, I did not make these! Pictured above is a homemade candy bar from BonBonBar.com. BonBonBar was started by fellow blogger, Nina, over at Sweet Napa. I’ve been reading her blog for over a year and was excited when she announced she was going to start her own candy business last October. I ordered her BonBonBars online last week and was hoping to hide my identity from Nina, figuring that if I purchased the chocolates anonymously, that this unsolicited review would be more genuine. I assumed she wouldn’t remember my surname since our last email correspondence was a good 6 months ago. I even used my work email address during the checkout process, hoping she wouldn’t figure out it was me, but when I opened the package I saw a hand written note on the invoice. Nina wrote that she threw in some marshmallows so I would have a complete sampler of her products since I had ordered the candy bar sampler.

I carefully opened the packaging and examined the contents before unwrapping a dark chocolate Caramel Nut Bar. I smelled the candy bar and right away I knew this was going to be a completely brand new candy experience. It’s funny how the prevalence of mass-produced confections sets our expectations of what a “good” candy bar is. We settle for the familiar and await the new ways that a machine can assemble chocolate, caramel, nuts, and/or cookies. Hey, why not fry them? King size, fun size—the candy bar has long been a commodity defined by convenience and thrift. So why on earth would you want to pay $5.00 for a candy bar?

“Oh, that’s expensive” you say between sips of your venti nonfat half-caff vanilla soy triple mocha. Actually, it’s kind of a bargain considering how much it costs to keep things out of a candy bar. These BonBonBars are missing a few things that you might have become accustomed to like corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavorings and—oh yeah—a long shelf life. You don’t see candy bar ads from manufacturers extolling their products’ freshness over competitors. These candy bars are the freshest tasting candy bars I have ever had. It’s amazing what happens when you combine fresh ingredients and consume them soon afterwards. My BonBonBars indicated a “best by” date only 3 weeks away. My wife and I quickly discovered that being perishable was of no concern as we quickly consumed 3 different bars in a single sitting.

The buttery Caramel Nut Bar was just amazing and definitely our favorite. The molded chocolate shell makes for a very attractive bar and helps you ration the bar into smaller chunks to savor one at a time. The caramel was so soft and buttery I first thought the nuts were chunks of toffee. The salted nut flavor quickly follows and makes for a very nice finish. The taste was incredibly fresh and the quality of the chocolate and caramel were second to none. I’m already thinking about how I can make my own caramels with so much rich, buttery goodness.

Next, we tried the Malt Bars. I’m a huge fan of dark chocolate so I was surprised to discover that I actually prefer the milk chocolate Malt Bars more over the dark chocolate version. Although the fillings are presumably the same, I felt that the dark chocolate overpowered the malt flavor and wasn’t a harmonious match like the milk chocolate and malt pairing. The crunchy shortbread cookie in each of these bars was really good. I would have liked to just munch on the cookies alone. Finally, we opened the marshmallows. I wasn’t really expecting much since I’m not a huge marshmallow fan outside of campfires, but these were really good. The Vanilla Marshmallow had texture and freshness unlike any marshmallow I have had before. Equally fresh and light, the Passion Fruit Marshmallow was accurately described as tart and refreshing. Before trying it, I thought passion fruit seemed like an odd flavor to choose, but after eating one you want another.

These BonBonBars were fantastic and really opened up my eyes to the true potential of a candy bar. Brava!

The candy arrived safely thanks to a cushion of starch-based packing material.

The packaging was very eco-friendly yet stylish.

The dark chocolate Malt Bar was very good, but we liked the milk chocolate version best.

The milk chocolate Malt Bar was amazing and the shortbread cookie inside was fantastic and crunchy.

The Vanilla Marshmallow packaging hides 4 neat, cube shaped marshmallows.

The Vanilla Marshmallows were incredibly fresh. My wife, not one for marshmallows, even thought they were delicious. Brava!

The Passion Fruit Marshmallows in their packaging.

The Passion Fruit Marshmallows were really good and had a nice aftertaste.

So fresh and free of preservatives these bars are perishable. We couldn’t imagine how you could let them sit for 3 weeks—we succumbed and ate it all in 24 hours.

Find out more about Nina and BonBonBar on her blog, Sweet Napa.

Got Zest? Make Lemon Sugar Cookies.

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I’m still in the midst of lemon season, so I have been busy making recipes with lemons. I have a huge bag of Meyer Lemons and so I wanted a recipe that would help use them up. Making the extra strength Meyer Lemon Sorbet recipe helped, but I still had almost a dozen lemons leftover. My wife and kids had been clamoring for another batch of sugar cookies since I made Old Fashioned Sugar cookies (with just a hint of orange). When I saw this recipe for Lemon Sugar Cookies, I knew I could address two goals at the same time.

This recipe calls for a lot of lemons. In fact, I can’t recall any other recipes I have made that call for 1/3 cup of lemon zest. Surprisingly, the baking process obscures a good deal of the zest, but they still have a nice lemon flavor. These cookies are also a little less delicate than the Old Fashioned Sugar Cookie recipe. Perhaps the 400°F oven played a part in these last two cookie traits; most recipes are 375 or 350. The coworkers at my new job don’t gobble up cookies like at my last couple jobs, so I now give most of the cookies (gotta save some for the kids’ lunches) to my wife for her to take into her work. She said that the cookies were all gone by 10:30 AM. That’s more like it.

Ingredients for making Lemon Sugar Cookies.

Mix 1 cup of butter, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 egg until light and fluffy.

Juice 1 lemon to yield 2 tablespoons of juice.

Add 1/3 cup of lemon zest (yes, 1/3 cup—about 6 lemons worth) and mix well.

Mix together 2 1/4 cups of flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1/4 teaspoon of salt until blended. Gradually add this to butter mixture, scraping sides of bowl occasionally.

Roll dough into 1 inch balls and gently roll in sugar before placing on silpat baking mat.

Flatten dough with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar. Press down until ball is half inch high.

Bake in 400°F for 9 – 10 minutes or until edges begin to brown.

Transfer cookies from baking sheet to cooling racks and let cool.

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery can be found on the Lemon Sugar Cookie recipe page.

By Popular Demand: English Toffee

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

Although my candy recipients appreciate all the candies I make, the majority of them are most eager to sample the toffee. This year I made two different kinds of toffee: the same classic English Toffee I have been making for a decade and Coffee English Toffee, which I first made earlier this year. In the USA, English Toffee, made famous by Brown and Haley’s pink tins of Almond Roca, is a bit of a misnomer—like English muffins or French fries. The toffee you typically find in England is actually more like a semi-hard caramel. A former co-worker brought some back from England last year and I eagerly helped him finish the bag of toffee chunks. I’ll take either kind of toffee, thank you.

Making English Toffee isn’t terribly difficult, but it does take a little time. Since it is so popular with my candy recipients, I make 3 – 4 batches, usually over the course of 2 evenings. I grind up 10 pounds of almonds for coating, though not all 10 pounds go into the candy. I usually lose about 15% to almond flour, generated during the chopping process, which I sift out. It’s easiest to coat the dipped toffee by laying them in a bed of almonds; a couple pounds go to layering 2 jellyroll pans. A few hours of dipping and coating with almonds, and I’m done. To differentiate the toffees, I left the tops of the coffee toffee almond-free, and later striped them with milk chocolate.

If you have never made toffee before and would like to, I’d recommend skipping the enrobing and coating with almonds for your first batch. You’ll shave off at least an hour or two in prep time and get a feel for making toffee. Un-dipped toffee is great broken over coffee ice cream or just eaten raw. With all the butter and sugar, what isn’t there to like?

English Toffee, like most sugar candies, is hygroscopic, which just means it absorbs moisture from the air. Excessive exposure to air will cause the toffee to lose its crunch, so you want to keep it wrapped with waxed paper in an airtight container until you are ready to serve. Of course, the best, and most delicious way to safeguard toffee from humidity is to wrap it in chocolate. I like dark chocolate, so I dip mine in 72% Valrhona Araguani chocolate and then set them in a bed of freshly chopped almonds. Dipped toffee will stay fresh for several weeks.

Below are just a few highlights of toffee making:

Cook 2 1/2 cups unsalted butter, 2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup water, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 cup of chopped almonds until mixture registers 305° F while stirring constantly.

Quickly pour toffee onto oiled marble board or silpat mat. As it cools, repeatedly score toffee to desired sizes.

Once toffee cools you can slide it over the edge of working surface and break along score lines.

Dip toffee in your favorite chocolate.

Place dipped toffee in a bed of chopped almonds. Sprinkle almonds over top to completely cover in almonds.

You can also skip the top coating of almonds and drizzle contrasting stripes of milk or white chocolate on the tops.

Recipes, exhaustive instructions and photo galleries can be found on the English Toffee recipe page and Coffee English Toffee recipe page. Other good resources, in alphabetical order, include:

Lemon Bars are a Slice of Sunshine

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

We’re in the middle of a pretty major storm in California right now, so I’m really craving summer fruits after all the holiday meals and seasonal favorites. What better way to brighten a rainy day than these lovely lemon bars? If you are craving a non-frozen treat with potent lemon flavor, look no further.

I consider myself to be pretty fortunate; I have a steady supply of Meyer lemons most of the year. A citrus hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange, Meyer lemons are less sour than the typical Lisbon or Eureka varieties most commonly found in stores. I’ve seen Meyer lemons sold only a few times in stores. Your best bet for getting some is by befriending someone with a Meyer lemon tree in their yard (living in California will also improve your odds of finding such a friend). I get me Meyer lemons from my viola teacher, and my supply is kept well-stocked thanks to my weekly lessons with my son (who takes violin lessons).

If you can’t find Meyer lemons, there’s no reason to pass on making these lemon bars. I first fell in love with this recipe long before I had acquired a taste for Meyer lemons, so I know how good they are with more common lemons. I like to serve these with a dusting of powdered sugar. Dust them right before serving, since the sugar will absorb moisture from the bars after 10 or 15 minutes. These lemon bars are addictive, so plan on sharing these soon after making them to spare your waistline. I usually bring these lemon bars with my sifter filled with powdered sugar to work. Nearby coworkers would be alerted to the presence of these lemon bars by the squeaking sifter.

Ingredients for making Lemon Bars.

Cream 1 cup of room temperature butter with 1/2 cup powdered sugar.

Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and then gradually mix in 2 cups of flour.

Spread the dough evenly in a greased 9×13 inch pan, going up about an inch on the sides. Bake for 20 minutes in 350° F oven until lightly browned.

Use a microplane grater to remove the zest of 2 lemons. Juice the lemons until you have 1/2 cup of juice.

Beat 4 eggs, lemon zest, 1/2 cup lemon juice and 2 cups of sugar until blended and sugar has dissolved.

Pour the lemon custard into the hot crust and carefully return the pan to the oven.

Bake for 20 minutes or until top just begins to lightly brown.

Remove from oven and let cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar immediately prior to serving.

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery can be found on the Lemon Bars recipe page.