Friday, June 26, 2020

Zak's Chocolate: Roasted Barrel Cactus Seeds

Enter a tourist shop in Arizona and you will find gummy prickly pear fruit candy and scorpion lollipops. But what if instead of these, you took home a bar of locally made chocolate adorned with barrel cactus seeds? It's novelty as well as gourmet. And it just plain makes sense, as I will outline.

Zak's Chocolate here in Scottsdale uses their 68% house blend for this bar. It's part of their Snacking Bars line, which takes kind of a bark concept, with ingredients on other bars being things like ginger or raspberries. So the 68% chocolate is a lightly sweet dark chocolate that keeps the tone mild and not too deep while still delivering rich chocolate flavor. This way you can enjoy the seeds or the ginger or the raspberries without feeling like you're giving all the focus to the flavor notes of the chocolate.

I first came across roasted barrel cactus seeds just last year at Native Seeds down in Tucson (though a small shop, they have a wonderful selection of products; I highly recommend paying them a visit if you're in town). They're tiny dark seeds, about the same size as sesame seeds or maybe even a little smaller. I tried out putting them on my appetizer board for Thanksgiving; they're fun to gather on the edge of a piece of cheese.

With chocolate I wouldn't have pictured them but why not? We add nuts to chocolate frequently and sometimes seeds, too, though less commonly. And I've been highlighting all of the collaborations that Zak's Chocolate does with other small businesses lately--so this is taking things a step further and using what is also a locally-sourced ingredient. The coffee and the cocoa beans have to be brought in, but the barrel cactuses are in the state already.

Flavor-wise, the barrel cactus seeds don't have a huge taste on their own. Maybe this is also because they are so small. They do somewhat enhance the earthier side of the chocolate, but mainly they contribute texture. They're much smaller and denser than crisped rice and they're not crunchy in the same way as nuts. In fact, the texture is much more like that of coffee beans, being that they are also a seed that we roast. It's a surprisingly great texture. Not that I was expecting it to be bad; I just didn't expect to enjoy it so much. As you can see, there is a medium amount of seeds on the chocolate, so it's just enough that you can lightly crunch each bite.

I tend to have mixed feelings about crunchy chocolate (that is, chocolate with nuts or something like that in it). Sometimes I enjoy it; other times it feels like it detracts from the chocolate. A lighter crunch like this, though, feels more natural. So what I thought would just be a fun gourmet novelty bar turned out to be quite wonderful.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Little Secrets: Dark Chocolate with Salted Caramel Cookie Bars

It is possible that the horse is not dead yet--but that approaching it to beat it again does in fact make it dead and so you are in fact beating a dead horse even if the horse might not have been dead if you hadn't approached it once more. What a vile analogy.

My beating of the dead horse is the decision to review another of the Cookie Bars from Little Secrets. Sometimes just one is enough, yet here I am with the Dark Chocolate with Salted Caramel Cookie Bars. If I wanted to get another one just to try it or because I was craving such a chocolate candy, okay--but why did I decide to review another?

I guess I was curious to see how the dark chocolate went versus the milk chocolate. Appearance-wise, it isn't faring well in the warmer weather. The coloring is dull with some bloom. Nothing to affect flavor, though, of course. It's inside that things get more worrisome, as the funky-looking caramel makes its appearance once more. Here is where the warm weather worked advantageously: it does indeed make the caramel softer and slightly less odd.

The cookie is still a little stiff, but I came in expecting that texture this time. The salt element here, instead of coming across as a fancy salted caramel, tastes more like someone added a dash too much salt to the cookie recipe. Cookie and salt and chocolate and then caramel isn't exactly the most cohesive of flavor layering.

The dark chocolate is candy bar dark chocolate, nothing special nor anything dark. And like with the dark chocolate in the Crispy Wafers, this appears to be compound chocolate (chocolate watered down with oil, which is extremely common in candies and cookies). So it'll satisfy a sweet craving. Sure, sometimes I do want a bit of junk food. I could see reaching for this when I want cookies covered in chocolate nonsense but I maybe don't want to buy a whole box.

But overall, I'm not too impressed. Little Secrets started out with the Chocolate Pieces (which they do well) and perhaps moved too quickly into other chocolate candy products. Neither the ingredients nor the flavors are quite high enough here to keep my interest. If they come up with a fourth type of product, I'll try it. Otherwise, though, I'll be sticking with the Chocolate Pieces.

Monday, June 15, 2020

In the Queen's Peril

Last year's Queen's Shadow by E.K. Johnston was apparently the Star Wars book that enough of us were waiting for that this year we have a prequel, Queen's Peril. Basically this one takes the things that people loved about the first book and spends more time with them.

Instead of seeing Padme adjusting to her role of senator after being queen, this book shows the time shortly after her election to queen. We see Panaka's involvement in choosing the handmaidens--and also the way in which Padme and the handmaidens made plans without him. We see all the individual skills they each bring to the table and we see how they interact with Naboo's traditions as well as the growing awareness of a wider galaxy.

This story revels slightly in portraying Padme the teenager--specifically, the teenage girl. Being YA, it takes that approach of showing all the little details of a teenage girl's life because Star Wars or no, this is a book about teenage girls. Teenage girls who are central to their planet's government, but still. And that's pretty great.

I kept thinking of Padme and her handmaidens as a type of female comitatus. You go back to things like Beowulf or The Lord of the Rings where the king/leader has his loyal warriors who serve him. Padme and her handmaidens are like the female version of the fellowship of the Ring. They're a group that has gathered together for one purpose. They try to be equals and acknowledge everyone's individuality and voice but ultimately they are all there to serve Padme and she is the one who gets the final say because she is the queen. They, in particular Sabe, will submit to whatever is necessary, even when it means putting herself in direct peril by decoying as the queen.

Once again, I love reading about Padme because she's a terrific female character: she's warm and sensitive and intelligent and in good control of herself. It's only after she and Anakin choose their path together that she starts to become overwhelmed.

And last time, I mentioned that I was resolved to the fact that there would probably never be a book about Shmi Skywalker, we did get a few snippets from Shmi's perspective in here and for that I am grateful. So while this book may have been a little scattered (trying to show the early days after the election and then also trying to quickly retell The Phantom Menace from a new perspective) and maybe didn't always have the most flawless plot (I don't get the point of Sache's heroic role and how it actually helped), it was pure indulgence. Perhaps next we can can get a Padme book from the Clone Wars era?

Friday, June 12, 2020

AZ Queen Bee & Zak's Chocolate: Chocolate Creamed Honey

This Chocolate Creamed Honey collaboration between Zak's Chocolate and AZ Queen Bee Honey is not the first chocolate honey I have come across. My seven year old review of CC Pollen Co.'s Chocolate Honey certainly takes me down memory lane. It's weird to think of a time when I didn't buy local honey, and I don't shop at Whole Foods anymore (because of, you know, Amazon). Time takes us on many paths, and the habits we have today aren't necessarily the same as those of yesterday.

Now you might expect for there to be little room for variation between two chocolate honeys; however, such is not the case. They're quite different.

Honey varies not just based on how much it's been processed but also on things like how old it is and what temperature it's currently at. CC Pollen's was pretty stiff, but Queen Bee's is more the texture of caramel. I used to favor buying creamed honey for this very texture; it's sweet and smooth while also still being easier to spread with a spoon or knife than liquid honey (which you kind of have to drizzle). This one is probably especially soft because I keep my home warm (my bearded dragon does not complain).

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let's start off with the jar. The jelly jar shape lets you know this is a jelly-like product (Queen Bee also makes their creamed honey in plain, blueberry, strawberry, and lemon). The black and gold label is classy and sleek enough to make this an elegant gift. Birthday present, hostess gift, friendship offering. Or also a treat for yourself.

Opening the jar reveals a rich and strong aroma. It smells of honey but also more strongly of chocolate than I'd expected. I'd say that carries true to taste, as well. It could just be memory, but I don't recall ever having a chocolate honey that tasted this much like chocolate. To clarify: the only ingredients here are honey and cocoa powder. A good helping of cocoa powder, too, it would seem. You can see the specks of it, too, if you look at a thin layer of the honey against the right background. So there is genuine chocolate flavor here rather than artificial chocolate flavoring.

I spread it out on some toast first, one half more thickly and one more thinly for the picture (not that any of these pictures look much enticing; I have not discovered the secret to photographing spreads). Honestly, you can go either way. If you're limiting your sweets, a little of this does go a long way. But spreading thickly is fun, too. Because the chocolate is fairly strong and the honey is incredibly rich and sweet, this makes for a fair substitute for chocolate spreads. It's incredible by the spoonful, too.

I did a little experiment, too. When I make hot chocolate, I just use a little cocoa powder and some honey (usually some cinnamon, too). So what would happen if you added a big spoonful of this chocolate honey to some heated milk/non-milk? I had to find out for you. The effect is like a light milk chocolate hot chocolate. There is just enough cocoa to give a mild chocolate flavor, and of course the honey acts as sweetener. It was an enjoyable beverage and so I'd recommend at least trying it once if you're curious, but I only did it once because it seemed a shame to dilute this spread rather than enjoy the full force of its flavor.

A culinary treat is what this is. You don't have to get creative. Simple bread is just fine. But I'm sure the foodies would enjoy putting together tasting boards with it. And you have the benefit of knowing exactly what is in it and also knowing that it comes from two great small businesses.