Posts filed under ‘Candy Reviews’
This month in candy here at Candy Professor Central it’s “candy corn-a-palooza.” Together with my Fearless Assistant (aka Jelly Bean Baby*), we have been noshing our way through the full spectrum of candy corn offerings.
I’ll be honest with you, it hasn’t always been pretty. Last week, we experienced a most unpleasant sort of surprise in the guise of M&M White Chocolate Candy Corn. Verdict: Don’t go there. In the spirit of gustatory recovery, then, this week we return to the classic: real, authentic candy corn.
Candy corn is a generic bit of mellocreme, invented back in the 1880s. Anybody can sell candy corn, and judging by the offerings in my local drugstores, anybody does. So we decided it was time for a little taste-off. Here are the contenders:
In the upper left corner, Jelly Belly’s premium gourmet candy corn, 99 cents/ounce.
Immediately below, Brach’s national brand candy corn, 25 cents/ounce.
And rounding out the field, on the right, Rite Aid store brand candy corn, 16 cents/ounce.
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the bottom line: you get what you pay for. The high-end Jelly Belly product truly is superior. The bits are even, regular, smooth and shiny. The flavor is mild and pleasant. The texture is just a bit grainy, with the lovely chew that distinguishes a fine candy corn. So hands down, it’s better than Brach’s. But it is fair to ask: is it FOUR TIMES better?
Brach’s candy corn is what I grew up with, and I must say I think it is quite fine. Unlike the Jelly Belly corn, Brach’s boasts “real honey” in the mix. The flavor is slightly more salty than Jelly Belly, and once someone says the word “honey” you’ll say, “Oh, yeah, it kinda does taste like honey,” although i suspect the actual amount of honey is infinitesimal. Real honey flavor doesn’t necessarily come from actual honey these days (cf. “natural flavors”).
Texture-wise, Brach’s is a bit more granular and gritty than Jelly Belly, with a more “full sweet” intensity. This is the quality that has made candy corn the Halloween treat so many hate on. But for me, it’s that mix of chewy and grainy and sweet that I love.
The Brach’s brand started as a family candy business back to the early 1900s. Then all the Brach family died or were killed in gruesome murders. In the 1980s, several changes in corporate ownership took their toll. Production moved to Mexico in 2001. Those were some dark days for Brach’s candy corn, when every bag seemed to be full of misshapen morsels pulled off the rejects line. Happily, Brach’s candy corn has turned the corner; the batch I sampled was quite an improvement. My impression is that the current owner of Brach’s, Ferrara Candy Co., is heavily investing in the whole candy corn line (more on that in a future review), and that has raised the quality.
Now, for our last contender, “generic” candy corn sold under the Rite Aid label. These are weird, let me just start with that. The shape is too angular, the orange is too reddish, they have a dull and listless look overall, and the taste…I can’t figure it out. More vanilla, less honey-salt. I will give these generic grains points on texture, though. The texture actually seems ok, maybe even smoother than the Brach’s. But something is seriously wrong with the production. Let’s have a close up:
How many pieces are actually in tact? Three? Four? Most of them have lost their white tip, and quite a few have split right down the center. This is such a mess that you can hardly call it candy corn. I would never put a bowl of this out on the table. Even at less than one-fifth the price of the gourmet Jelly Belly corn, this “generic” is no bargain.
Bottom line: if you’re eating for pure pleasure, splurge on the Jelly Belly’s. If you’re having a party, Brach’s is best. As for the generic, I have to give it my lowest ranking: fake candy corn.
If you’re interested in the back story, check out my candy corn history at TheAtlantic.com
*Jelly Bean Baby will be a familiar character to readers of CANDY: A CENTURY OF PANIC AND PLEASURE
Candy doesn’t grow on trees. You can make it with “natural” ingredients, but there’s nothing natural about it. It’s totally artificial, a product of human ingenuity, chemistry, food engineering, and a dash of whimsy. And since candy is completely artificial to begin with, it is free to be anything. Like, say, corn. Candy corn, I mean. No one thinks candy corn is actual corn, no matter the resemblance. And the flavor? How could we possibly say what candy corn should really taste like? Candy corn is about as unnatural as you can get.
Candy isn’t the only artificial food we eat, of course. But what I like about candy is how it is totally honest about its origins. You won’t find candy corn in the frozen food aisle.
So you’d think, given my enthusiasm for the fakeness of candy, that I’d be a huge fan of any sort of candy innovation. And I generally am. Then along comes something like M&Ms White Chocolate Candy Corn.
If candy is fake food, then M&Ms Candy Corn is fake squared: candy-flavored candy. It makes my mind spin a bit. Which would be a more pleasant sensation, I suppose, if I didn’t find M&Ms Candy Corn to be not only existentially troubling from a philosophical point of view, but also, from the point of view of candy eating, just plain nasty.
Look at the morsels: bigger than normal M&Ms, bulbous and swollen. The colors lack the shiny depths of the usual M&M glaze. Instead, we have a chalky white, a toxic yellow, and an orange that is trying too hard. I’ve got to conclude that the folks at Mars weren’t giving this candy their full attention; even the proud “m” that marks each bit is missing from many of these sad specimens.
As for the taste, let’s just admit that with the possible exception of Green&Black bars, plain white chocolate is not something anyone should have to eat, ever. Waxy, salty, and overwhelmingly vanilla, yes. Candy corn, no.
The bottom line is that these mutant M&Ms have nothing to do with candy corn at all. And the M&Ms know it. Just look at that poor Red M&M guy on the package, dressed up in an ill-fitting candy corn suit. He is obviously unhappy. He is thinking, “What the he88 am I doing in this candy corn outfit?” He knows it’s not right.
Candy corn may not be “natural,” but I will not shy from naming this awkward and bad-tasting M&M hybrid for what it is: a freak of nature.
Last week’s Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago showcased some fabulous candies from the past that are just right for today, like Goo Goo Clusters and Modjeskas (see my previous post). Here’s my take on some slightly more perplexing nostalgia candies coming down the candy pipeline.
Necco Wafers: A strange story from the folks at New England Confectionery. Necco Wafers are returning to their original artificial colors, having shifted to an all-natural palette a couple of years ago. The Necco representative explained that it was like New Coke and Classic Coke: Necco is going back to Classic Necco. This one surprised me. It seems totally contrary to the whole away-from-artificial movement. But the official line is that the customers demanded it. It is an isolated case, but you’ve got to wonder if there isn’t more of this counter-revolution brewing.
In the image above, the current packaging is at the bottom (note “all natural”), and the new package at the top (“an American classic”). The all-natural kind are still on store shelves, but will soon be replaced with the Classic. The package on the new (old) version doesn’t proclaim its artificialness, so this may be a switch with little fan-fare. If you are interested in comparing the flavors, buy an “all natural” roll now and hold on to it for a couple of months.
The difference in appearance is not dramatic. The image shows the new, artificially colored wafer at bottom. Here’s the ingredient list for the current all-natural version: sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, coco power, natural flavors, vegetable gums, natural colors (red beet, purple cabbage, turmeric, caramel color, paprika). The new, back to the old, version adds citric acid and artificial flavors and instead of those lovely vegetable colors, you will enjoy the visual stylings of Yellows 5 & 6, Blue 1, Red 3, Red 40.
So nostalgia, it turns out, it a tricky thing. Those good old days involved a lot of chemicals.
Bosco Milk Chocolate: Speaking of nostalgia, here’s a new product that is un-ashamedly all about the packaging of nostalgia. Bosco you may recall from your childhood (or not, since if you are old enough to recall it, you probably can’t recall it….) Anyway, whoever owns the trademark now (who may or may not have anything to do with the original Bosco) has licensed it for use by Priam LLC. Priam is not actually a candy maker. Priam is a brand builder (at least I think that’s what this means: “a one stop resource solution…lending its expertise to its brand partners in the critical disciplines of sales, marketing, logistics, merchandising, graphic design, accounting and finance, and public relations.”). Priam has arranged for the wrapping of the Bosco name and logo around a bar of milk chocolate which does not, so far as I can gather, actually contain any Bosco. But this bar was a huge draw at the New Products Preview event, and everybody wanted to take a picture and take one home. We probably won’t even open it; the “value” of this candy is entirely in the wrapper.
Fizzies: These are flavored and sweetened tablets that work on the Alka-Seltzer principle to produce a glass of … beverage, I guess. I don’t have much to say about these, except that I remember them from when I was a kid and now they are back. They went off the market in the late 1960s when cyclamate, an artificial sweetener essential to the Fizzies formula, was banned. Bummer.The new version is sweetened with sucralose, another non-nutritive sweetener. We thought they were fun when I was 6, so perhaps a whole new generation of 6 year olds is waiting for this sensation.
Of course, when I was 6 we didn’t have Pop Rocks and Toxic Waste Candy and other such violent taste experiences, so Fizzies was about as exciting as it got. Will the youth of today prove too jaded for old fashioned fizz? In the Candy Professor test kitchen, the answer seems to be “yes.” My kiddie test subject yawned and walked away when the tablet fell into the water and then, well it didn’t so much fizz as fizzle. When she came back a few minutes later, it was still fizzling. Either they got the formula wrong, or we were just way more easily amused forty years ago. Against just such a possibility, the Fizzies people have come up with several cocktail recipes to keep the over-21 crowed fizzing along.
Today, some fresh candies that made an impression at the Sweets and Snacks Expo. I notice an inadvertent theme. Is the digestive tract* a new direction in candy concepts?
Farts: I was so put off by the name of this candy that I almost passed it by. This photo is all the Farts I brought home to sample, less three that I ate just before I wrote this, when I discovered that they actually taste really good! Clearly, when they decided to call them Farts, I was not the target consumer. But if your kids bring some home, try them. Flavors are (soothingly) predictable: green apple, purple grape, pink bubblegum. They are small nuggets, sour in a gentle way, grainy, softer than Nerds with a nice crunch that will not harm your dentist’s handiwork. If you eat more than one flavor at a time, the flavors cancel out and they just taste like chemicals. But they do not smell like farts at all.
Overload: While much of the latest in sweets and snacks is about being more healthy, more natural, more virtuous, or at least seeming that way, there are always the contrarians. I met a couple of guys from Long Island who seem very confident that there will always be a market for American much-ness. And I suspect they may be on to something. (Sigh. The genie is already out of that bottle, sorry Michelle.) Overload is based on the premise that if you like one candy at a time, you’ll love three. So these folks have piled a chocolate sandwich cookie on top of a peanut butter cup and sprinkled it with mini-M&M’s. There are variations on this theme involving chocolate chip cookies, Butterfinger chips, etc. This is the candy you’d get if you went to Cold Stone Creamery and left out the ice cream. I did not bother flipping the package over to look at the nutrition information. I doubt anyone who buys this item will do it either.
Jelly Belly Dips: Jelly Belly has always taken a creative approach to the jelly bean: unlike traditional beans, the folks at JB see an inside wrapped in an outside, and imagine flavors that way. But Dips takes the principle to a new level. They stripped the grainy coating off the “belly” part and instead dipped it in dark chocolate. In addition to creating an entirely novel candy for the U.S. market, this evidently shaves a fraction of a calorie off each bean, so you can worry a little less when you notice you ate the whole package, which you will because they are soft and chocolatey and yummy. The fruit assortment (coconut, orange, strawberry, cherry, strawberry) works very well with the dark chocolate. There is also a mint variety (packaged separately). If you mix in a few regular beans in the same flavors, you have a very pretty and tasty candy bowl. These have been a big hit already, and I heard murmurs that even more flavors might be in the works.
There is nothing like Dips made for the U.S. market (maybe chocolate coated gummi bears are close, but I find those strange and not so good). However, similar candies have been long popular in Japan. You can find various brands of chocolate or white chocolate coated gummis in Japanese groceries on this side of the Pacific too (see a review of Meiji Gummy Choco on candyblog.net, for example). I don’t know whether Jelly Belly was inspired by this Japanese confection, or just that good ideas tend to appear, but it is nice that we now have a domestic version.
Morinaga Hi Chew Peach Flavor: And while we are on the subject of Japanese confections, let us pause to savor the delicious spongy gumminess that is Morinaga Hi Chew. Hi Chew boasts its intense, juicy fruit flavors, so a new flavor is exciting news. Morinaga even hired a publicist to send out press releases in advance of the peach debut at the show, and candy bloggers for the past couple of weeks have been all a-twitter to grab their samples and chew away.
I arrive at one end the Morinaga booth, where they have a long row of samples for about 15 flavors. I am directed to the peach at the other table. I stride over, saying “Where is this famous peach flavor I have heard so much about?” The rep behind the counter stares at me, eyes wide. “How did you know about the peach flavor?” It is so new that they don’t even have properly wrapped samples yet, they are just pulling the wax-paper squares out of the retail packages. I give him my best wise-and-mischievous look. “Because it’s my business to know these sorts of thing,” I reply and laugh. He looks intensely puzzled and worried. Then relief: “Oh, he told you,” gesturing down to the other end of the booth where I started. I shake my head and intone, “No. I just know.” Poor guy. Now, imagining himself confronted with either a mind reader or a corporate spy, he is becoming quite flustered. I rescue him with the truth: “Your publicist sent me a press release! Everybody is talking about the new peach flavor!” Well, everybody except the Morinaga representatives at the trade show, I guess.
Hot Lix: When you are offered the chance to eat something really strange, who will you be: Terry Timid or Bertha Bold? This time, it was a bowl of chocolate coated beetle larvae. I decided to put on my Bertha Bold hat; why shouldn’t I be that fearless person who jumps in and says yes! So yes, I did sample the chocolate worm, the chocolate cricket, and even the cheddar worm on the savory side. I did, so now I can say I’ve done it. That means I don’t have to do it again.
Tasting notes: The chocolate covered worm/larva is the easiest to begin with. The shape is not obviously insectoid, so your mind is not rebelling right away. And in the mouth, it begins well: smooth chocolate, nice melty mouthfeel, a bit of crunch from the dried larva. So far not bad. Swallow. Hmm. Wait, what’s that? The chocolate is gone, and now I’m just left with the aftertaste of worm! Not good. Cricket goes a bit better, although the spiky cricket shape is a little less appealing.
Is fraternity pranking that big of a market? In related insect candy news, I also picked up a sample scorpion lollipop thinking my kid would go for the weird factor. She just said “eew.” She would rather eat a fart.
Next post: Nostalgia: new candies for old-timers.
*Did you get it? Un-scramble the candies to Dip, Lick, Chew, Overload, and then Fart. Fizzies, Alka Seltzer-style fizzing tablets, will be reviewed in the next post, as a potential remedy.
I got home late last night from Sweets and Snacks Expo 2011, the big national trade show for candy and other snacky things. It’s a big show, three acres comprising booths and displays for some 550 exhibitors, large and small, all vying for the eyes and wallets of candy and snack buyers and brokers. I’m still a little bleary but I’m eager to share my impressions of what’s happening in the land of big candy (this being CANDY Professor, I didn’t focus too much on the savory snack side…not sure if there is a “Chips and Meat Sticks Professor” out there…).
My legal team requires the following disclosure: this event was sample-palooza. Every candy I will discuss was a freebie, some pressed on my less-eager hands by the manufacturer, others sought out by me, but all free none the less. Will that bias my judgement? We will see.
Today’s theme is everything old is new again. For better or for worse, here are some very not-new candies that caught my eye.
Grape Pop Rocks: They used to come in grape flavor, then they didn’t, and now they do again. This has occasioned several press releases and a new advertising campaign. I am missing something here. I include a mention of this item as a scrap thrown to the publicists who stuff free things into media bags in the hope of generating hype. That is the only explanation I can find for why these were featured at the National Confectioners Association New Products Media Preview Event on Monday night before the show. Now I feel I have paid off my karmic debt for a lovely spread of hot hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.
Modjeskas: Where the marketing professionals have sunk there teeth deep into Pop Rocks to make something out of nothing, Modjeskas are an example of a real something that will be taken for nothing unless some marketing savvy turns things around. First off, the name. Mo-what? I can barely say it, much less remember it. There is some kind of quaint story about the origin of the name, but it never sticks in my head. (Wait, here it is, stapled to the back of the company brochure: A Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, gave a memorable performance in “A Doll’s House” in Louisville Kentucky in 1883. Hmm.), The candy’s appearance, which is basically a blobby brown lump wrapped in plain wax paper, doesn’t help. All of which is too bad, because these are ONE OF THE BEST AMERICAN CANDIES ever.
A version of this candy has been made by Bauer’s Candies in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky since 1889. A Modjeska is caramel-covered marshmallow. The caramel is soft with a bit of grain and a medium chew, while the marshmallow is firm and not too sweet. The terrific mouth-feel, and the interesting contrast in textures and flavors, make this candy irresistible. When they are fresh, which they must be, they have a tender, right off the farm sort of quality. These are the kind of candies the nostalgia boom is desperately searching. These candies embody the local and the authentic and the small. Anna Bauer makes them still, no longer in her parent’s basement as she did when she was a kid, but the attention and commitment of a family business make a huge difference. Modjeskas (or maybe we could call them “Cara-Mo’s”?) should be on the shelves of every faux-farm food boutique in the nation. If you see one, eat it right away.
Goo Goo Cluster: Not a new candy, but a great story.
Lance Paine, Executive VP of Goo Goo Cluster wins the prize for effective communication technique at a candy trade show. Goo Goo was on my show must-see list for two reasons: it is the oldest composite bar in America (1912!) and after 100 years, they decide to change the classic cluster from round to square. This is not the kind of change we here at Candy Professor can allow to pass unexamined.
I stroll up to the booth and announce, “So, I hear you’ve started making square Goo Goos.” Lance raises his eyebrows. “Square? Who said that? Those rumors are flying all over the place!” Then he grabs a wrapped candy bar, rips it open, and displays the Cluster within. “Does that look square to you?” he demands.
I must confess, it is not exactly square. It’s more of a… cluster. But before I’ve had a chance to insist that it is kind of squarish, and I do sort of remember something more definitely round-blobbish, he jams the bar in my mouth. What can I do? I bite. Oh my goodness, that is a good candy bar. Is it square? Is it round? I suddenly have forgotten the question.
Which, after I’ve chewed, swallowed, and regained my composure, turns out to have been Lance’s strategy all along. Because the point of Goo Goo Cluster is not its shape, but it’s essential Goo Goo-ness. Lance now admits that yes, the nougat base is square, and it used to be round. But once you pour on the caramel and the peanuts and the chocolate, the square is square in theory only.
The reason for the change, Lance explains, is technical. The round nougat base was made using the starch mold process: round indentations are pressed into a tray of starch, then the nougat is poured in and allowed to dry. Goo Goo decided to change to a slab cut process: take a slab of nougat and cut it into squares. Lance claimed that moving away from starch moulding resulted in a more moist and tender nougat. The bar I tried was indeed moist and tender, delicious and dare I say tending toward the confectionery sublime. So I’ll take the square.
By the way, I has somehow escaped me until now that a Snickers bar is basically a streamlined Goo Goo Cluster. Nougat, peanuts, caramel, chocolate. In the candy business, the candy matters, but so does everything else.
Next post: more candies from the show, new and old, and I reveal what I ate that I never thought I could eat…
Mars, Inc. has got some interesting stuff going on. Not just the M&Ms and the Snickers. Mars also runs a Historic Division. One of the projects of this division has been to reconstruct what chocolate from the Colonial era would have tasted like. After several years of top secret research, a product has come to market: American Heritage Chocolate.
How do we know what chocolate tasted like 200 years ago? Well, unless you can transport your tongue in a time machine, you’re out of luck. The next best thing is to try to reconstruct how food was made, and then taste the result.
So researchers dug into old records, letters, recipe books and inventories to figure out what sort of chocolate colonial Americans might have been able to make: what kind of tools they would use, what kind of things would be added.
First off, no chemicals. Colonial chocolate is by default “all-natural.” So just chocolate, sugar, salt to start with. No milk; milk chocolate won’t be invented for quite some time.
And what about the tools? For chocolate, the difference in tools between the colonial era and today is what makes the biggest difference.
Chocolate beans in colonial America would have been ground on a stone similar to a Mexican metate. Today this grinding is done by powerful machines, making the grain of the chocolate bean infinitesimally small. That is what makes chocolate so smooth. But grinding by hand on a stone would make the chocolate much more grainy, with tiny bits of chocolate nibs.
So this is Mars version of the “heritage chocolate”: dark chocolate, about the sweetness of semi-sweet baking chips. But more gritty, you definitely notice the coarser grind of the chocolate. There is also a strong spicy flavor: chile and cinnamon, primarily. Did colonial chocolate taste spicy? Many different flavors were added to chocolate in the 18th century: amber, musk, pepper, cloves, and vanilla are among the various flavorings mentioned in 18th century recipes. For the particular combination in American Heritage Chocolate, the researchers imagined what other sorts of spices might have been ground on the chocolate stone, giving the chocolate extra flavors when it was ground.
The other think I notice about this historical chocolate is that it sort of crumbles in your mouth, rather than the mooshy melty mouth feel of expensive modern chocolate. Modern chocolate is carefully tempered, repeatedly warmed and cooled within very precise parameters. This what gives chocolate its velvety texture. The colonial chocolate makers didn’t temper their chocolate, so the heritage chocolate is more brittle.
Heritage Chocolate is sold in eating sticks which look sort of rustic, unevenly shaped and dusted with cocoa powder and cinnamon. Mars has spared no expense in re-creating the authentic look of the past with modern methods; evidently a machine has been fabricated that makes the chocolate look like it is formed by hand. It is not clear whether Colonial Americans would actually have eaten their chocolate this way. In the 18th century chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage, melted into water or milk, although uses in cooking and baking began to appear in the second part of the century. But the stick form certainly appeals to modern chocolate snackers. You can also purchase Heritage Chocolate in a cake form for baking or drinking if you want to feel more authentically colonial.
For now, you can only buy Heritage Chocolate in the gift shops of select history museums and heritage sites. It may be very popular in those shops, but it seems a pretty limited market.
Which brings me to the big question about American Heritage Chocolate: Why? It is difficult to comprehend a company like Mars, super competitive in the snacking marketplace, would invest huge sums of money in this kind of geeky project, which has involved not only researching this chocolate, but a whole host of other very un-lucrative historical chocolate research.
I have a theory. It’s about bragging rights. Mars and Hersheys are rivals for America’s chocolate heart. Hershey got there first: the Hershey was making chocolate before 1900; Mars didn’t come along until the 1920s. So when the Mars Historic Division declares the goal of “becoming the undisputed leader in chocolate history,” its about claiming the present by taking over the past. It’s just a theory, mind you. I actually prefer the alternative explanation: with all that money and all those resources, Mars just decided to do something good in the world. It’s possible!
Disclosure: I received samples of American Heritage Chocolate from the manufacturer.
I’m back from my Wisconsin adventure with some candy stories to share.
We spend our annual vacation at a cottage was on a lake outside a small city called Rhinelander in Northern Wisconsin. Rhinelander (population 8,000) is a pretty non-descript town, with a derelict main street struggling to keep its head above the rising tide of Wal Mart and Home Depot. You wouldn’t come here unless, say, your in-laws lived in the town. But the area surrounding Rhinelander is green and unspoiled, dotted with lakes and vacationers fleeing Chicago. It’s what they call the “north woods”: flat, woodsy country, anchored by the Wisconsin River.
The history of Rhinelander is all about wood. This is Paul Bunyan territory, where plaid flannel and sharp axes provided the raw materials for a growing nation. In the nineteenth century, Rhinelander was a major hub in the processing and transport of logs and raw lumber. Today, Rhinelander is a factory town. There’s the paper factory, where wood pulp and chemistry do their magic.
And then there’s the Fun Factory, where the raw materials are of the sweeter sort.
The Fun Factory sells ice cream, a few house made chocolates, and an eclectic assortment of those strange candies that may or may not have been around for 75 years: Cow Tails, Choward Violets, Laffy Taffy. This is the kind of place that won’t survive trying to compete with the Walgreen’s and Walmarts in town, so don’t look for your typical brand names. For the candy curious, it’s a gold mine.
I found a few oddities that intrigued me. One of them was this Pop Rocks Bar, whose name pretty much gets at what it is: chocolate and pop rocks in the form of a candy bar. Cybele May’s review at Candy Blog reports the debut of this bar in 2007, but I suspect I’m not the only one who’s never seen one.
This is a small bar, especially by American standards. But the bar wasn’t made to American standards, I suspect. The wrapper says it was made in Spain. I think in Spain they may be a little behind the U.S. in the whole “supersize” phenomenon.
I was so curious about this bar that I rushed out to the Fun Factory porch to try it before the nice lady had even closed the cash register drawer. My assistant tasters (aka husband and daughter) were with me; what good luck to discover that the bar is scored in precisely three pieces.
When you bite into the bar and work the chocolate a bit in your mouth, there is a lot of fizzing and popping and explosive crunching. You know the sensation from Pop Rocks, but the chocolate sort of muffles the effect (in a good way, I think). The “pops” in the bar are colorless and flavorless, so the chocolate is all you taste. The pop is pure sensation.
The closest comparison would be a chocolate bar with those rice crispie crunchies in it, like Nestle Crunch. But a rice crispie that melts in your mouth just turns to sog, where as a pop rock that melts in your mouth explodes. So where a Crunch bar asks you to take action to get the crunchy effect, Pop Rocks lets you passively await a crunch and pop and snap that happens to you. The pops will pop, they just won’t stop. So don’t try this one unless you’re good and pop-ready.
Now I didn’t find the Pop Rock bar to be particularly “good.” The chocolate seemed cheap and waxy, and I wanted it to melt more smoothly to work the popping effect without so much chewing on my part (if you chew, the pops pop better). I only ate one square, and I didn’t feel I would need to continue, on that day or any other.
I sat there on the Fun Factory porch with the sort-of melting chocolate and the fizzing and popping in my mouth, and I thought: champagne. Popping chocolate is for grownups, for parties, for nights when the champagne corks are shooting toward the ceiling and the bubbly is flowing in fountains. Popping chocolate should be smooth, European, melting to the touch. Popping chocolate should be a morsel passed in golden cups on silver trays as the sun sets on the Riviera.
Popping chocolate is a brilliant idea, but not for kids and 7Elevens. This one needs a do-over by a real chocolatier. Call it “champagne chocolate” and pass it to the grownups, and I think you’ve got a hit on this season’s society circuit.
I am not in the candy review business. At least not on most days. And then I eat something new and… ZZANG!
That’s Zzang!, as in the candy bar, from Zingerman’s Bakehouse of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It comes in a few varieties, but it was the “Original” that got my attention. I had just intended to taste the thing, really just a nibble. And then another, and another, and I ate the whole thing. (So that’s why you see the Zingerman photo here. All I had left after that particular debauch was the box, below.)
ZZANG! It’s “Butter-roasted peanuts, caramel and peanut butter honey nougat dipped in dark chocolate.” Sound a little familiar? This is what a Snickers Bar would taste like if it went to Exeter and then to Princeton. Only the finest. I mean, the finest. These are the ingredients:
Dark chocolate, butter roasted peanuts, sea salt, caramel (organic muscovado brown sugar, corn syrup, cream, water, butter), nougat (honey, sugar, water, peanut butter, egg whites, sea salt).
That’s it. Take a bite with me: Smooth, creamy nougat with a soft chew, peanut flavor so rich and buttery, big crunches of peanuts melting into salty caramel and the smoky bite of the dark chocolate. Intense, chewy, everything a candy bar should be. And fresh. Zingerman’s puts a 60-day freshness recommendation on the box. Mine was nearly “expired” and it still was the freshest tasting candy bar I’ve ever tried. What would it be like really fresh? I’m on a quest for the next fresh shipment.
Now these are the ingredients of a Snickers Bar:
Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Chocolate, Skim Milk, Lactose, Milkfat, Soy Lecithin, Artificial Flavor)Peanuts, Corn Syrup, Milkfat, Skim Milk, Vegetable Oil (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and/or Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil)Salt, Lactose, Egg Whites, Chocolate, Artificial Flavor.
Don’t get me wrong. Snickers is basically my favorite U.S. candy bar. Snickers is widely recognized as the ultimate in salty, fatty, sweet satisfaction. Food scientists love to wax rhapsodic about the way the nuts crunch down and moosh into the caramel, with the chocolate melting everywhere: a perfect release of texture, flavor, and sensation. All that, and still you can buy one for the change you find under your sofa cushions.
No one has ever improved on a Snickers bar. Until now. Just look at those ingredients again. Skim milk, lactose, and artificial flavor are not even in the same ball game. Of course, when you go to the opera, it costs a lot more than when you go bowling. Zzang! set me back $5 for a bar just a wee bit bigger than your standard Snickers (see the stats below).
Zingerman’s tags the Zzang! line of candy bars as “taking candy bars back 100 years.” But really we should be saying 80 or 90 years at most. Candy bars like this were not too common until the 1920s. The Snickers bar went on the market in 1930. Fun fact: according to Jan Pottker in Crisis in Candyland, the first Snickers bars were nude of chocolate coating (weather issues).
The real question is, would a candy bar made in the 1920s taste anything like a Zzang!? Alas, I fear the answer is no.
A candy bar maker in the 1920s would have been using smaller, cheaper peanuts roasted in oil, not butter. Instead of fresh cream and eggs, the nougat and caramel would most likely be made out of pre-cooked bases, which would be more stable and easier to make into the final candy product. Maybe something like this nougat product from the White-Stokes company:
The sweeteners in the nougat and caramel might have included larger portions of corn syrup or other sugar substitutes. The other ingredients would probably have been fine, but nothing special. Chocolate would not have been so carefully selected and prepared so as to assure the maximal mouth feel and flavor. Salt might have come from the sea, but it wouldn’t have been the pure, mineral, intense experience we associate with today’s sea salt.
No matter how much they resemble their old time cousins, the Zzang! and similar new artisanal nostalgia candies are completely of the twenty first century. It is our most modern idea of finding the freshest, the most exquisite, the most unusual, the best, and combining it all to make the most delicious of food stuffs, no matter the difficulty or the expense.
It is elitist in a way; Zzang! and similar candies will never be produced at the volume of our dollar bar standbys. But you might decide that one Zzang! bar is totally worth the trade off of giving up five Snickers bars. Or you might not. The important thing to me is that these things exist, not that they have to be the standard for every one all the time.
I was wrong when I said it was the end of candy. It’s just the beginning. Candy has never been like this.
Sources: I bought my bar at the Brooklyn Larder. The Zingermans Candy website lists places that sell the Zzang! around the land and also offers mail order. Candy image from Zingermans. White-Stokes ad from Confectioners Journal 1920. I first got turned on to Zzang! by Rebecca Marx’s review in the Village Voice, “Fat Pants Friday”
Stats: Snickers: 2 ounces, 270 calories, less than a buck. Zzang! 2.5 ounces, 240 calories, 5 bucks.