At Last, Vegan Salted Caramel!

Salted Caramel is our most popular flavor (the same is true for most chocolatiers around here) and I've been wanting to make a non-dairy version for a while.

The challenge was that much of caramel's flavor comes from the browning of the cream and butter in it--without those two ingredients it just tastes like burnt sugar. 

Most of the recipes I've found for vegan caramel call for substituting soy milk for the dairy, but soy is frowned upon here in Berkeley and it's too nutty tasting anyway.

So in place of cream I used organic coconut milk, and in place of cow butter I used cocoa butter. The result is rich and flavorful, with the smooth chewy texture of a traditional caramel but entirely dairy free! The salt, as always, brings out the subtle flavors of the confection and balances out its sweetness. Finally, a salted caramel everyone can enjoy!


What Doesn't Work with Chocolate

Melon découpéI love to experiment. My greatest joy in the chocolate life is dreaming up new flavors and seeing if they work. Needless to say, most things taste better with chocolate...even surprising things like Kalamata olives and bacon.

Some ingredients merely overwhelm or underwhelm the chocolate they're paired with, but some are so remarkably bad they're worth a footnote in Xocolate Bar history. (Don't worry, I don't sell 'em if I don't like 'em)

The worst ingredients so far:
  • Parmesan Cheese. Why even bother? Because Lillie Belle Farms came out with a mind-bogglingly good Blue Cheese Truffle, and we felt inspired. Our cheese truffle, however, tasted like a regular truffle that had passed its expiration date. I think what works about Lillie Belle's is that blue cheese has such a distinct taste you can tell it's not just rotten cream.

  • Cantaloupe. Ever wonder why you don't see cantaloupe jam on the market? Probably because when you cook a cantaloupe it tastes like a stale old potato crossed with a rotten sponge. All the perfumy sweetness of my perfectly ripe organic cantaloupe disintegrated, and I was left with a brown stodgy mush fit only for the garbage can.

  • Fresh Thai Basil. This I want to give a second go because things that smell good with chocolate usually taste good with chocolate. The problem was trapping the fresh green aroma of basil in a ganache. Steeping it in hot cream only produced a putrid brown, wilted infusion that tasted like week-old salad. Perhaps I'll try again with dry basil or a cold steep.

  • Pale Ale. My stout truffles are so popular I decided to try the same recipe with an expensive, Whole Foods pale ale. Instead of the rich malty broth you get when you simmer down a dark beer,  I got a repulsively bitter, flat juice that reminded me of an old alchoholic's breath or the smell of a sticky bar floor in the morning. Down right trash can-worthy indeed.


Bless you, Tia Miriam

Tia Miriam showing us how high she could kick her leg, Summer 2007

Yesterday my Great Aunt Miriam died. She was a woman of remarkable strength and humor, but our greatest connection was through food. Even the news of her death was interspersed with a recipe for spiced plum juice.

She was the Julia Child of the family. At times she horrified us with chicken jello and mystery meat pate, but her desserts were divine and her recipes always worked. The last time I visited her in Chile in 2007, I watched her take a meringue to stiff peaks with only an analog whisk in hand. I could only help for a minute or two before aching for an electric mixer...and she was the one with severe osteoporosis and 70-odd years of age. I hope I inherit some of her strength.

I'm grateful I got to spend some quality time with her in the kitchen, writing down recipes and learning tips and tricks along the way. From her I learned to add a piece of cinnamon stick when caramelizing onions to make them more digestible (and to lend an exotic air to any sauce); that everything tastes better with garlic; and that jam is done when you can see the bottom of the pot as you stir.

She loved to experiment in the kitchen and dreamed of coming to help me in my chocolate shop. I'm sure we could have made some amazing flavors together.

Tia, you will always be loved and missed.


Backyard Bounty

Hats off to my customers and their green thumbs. This week the theme has been 'backyard bounty' as they've gifted me Rangpur Limes, Lemon Balm, Lavender, and oodles of Green Gage Plums.

Green Gage Plum Truffle
These plums on their own are challenging to eat; honey-sweet flesh is sandwiched between a mouth-puckeringly sour peel and pit. I like to bite into a mushy one like a vampire and suck out the sweetness, but they're even better simmered down with generous amounts of dark brown sugar.

Mixing the cooked plum puree with melted dark chocolate makes for a refreshingly tangy, green-tasting ganache. I reckon it'd be remarkably good with some Japanese plum wine. I piped the ganache into our Laughing Buddha mold to keep with that theme.

I had enough plums to make two huge batches of Green Gage jam, too. The first is just plums and brown sugar and the second is laced with cinnamon, cardamom and clove. The spices make the kitchen smell like Christmas in July. I can't wait to try the spiced one with chocolate :-)


Gourmet Walks SF Chocolate Tour

Last weekend I was asked to be the "Celebrity Chocolatier" on Gourmet Walks' chocolate walking tour of San Francisco. I won't tell you who we visited because I think they like it to be a surprise, but I will tell you this: prepare for chocolate overload!

We were given more chocolate samples than I could possibly stomach--and that's coming from me, a certifiable chocoholic. I recommend packing a protein-rich sandwich to keep you going between sugar rushes. Halfway through I was craving nothing more than a hunk of steak to offset the sweetness. That said, you definitely get your money's worth in free chocolate! And for you fellow food snobs out there, rest assured that they are highly selective as to which shops they visit...no villainous vanillin allowed.

It was a lot of fun and I do recommend it, for locals and tourists alike. You can sign up for the tour here and read the proprietress' lovely blog post about The Xocolate Bar here.


Rosemary Truffle (vegan)

As much as I'd love to grow my own food, I have a perpetually brown thumb. If you want to kill a plant in 30-90 days, give it to me. The exception is anything that grows like a weed without my interference. Wild fennel, mint, lavender, and rosemary are the hardy survivors of my garden. Luckily they all go great with chocolate!

Rosemary may be more associated with chicken than chocolate, but I assure you the combination works beautifully. Its herbal flavor is bold enough to stand up to dark chocolate yet doesn't overpower it.
We make it by muddling rosemary leaves into organic agave nectar and leaving it to soak over night. After straining out the leaves we're left with a wonderful rosemary-scented syrup, which we heat and mix with 91% dark chocolate before piping it into shells. Smooth, dark, herbal and sweet...a Xocolate Bar favorite for sure.


Community Supported Chocolate

To be honest, my little shop in Berkeley is feeling the effects of the Great Recession. Just when things started looking up, the economy seems to have plateaued or worse. Couple that with the hyper-seasonal nature of the chocolate business (summer is always dead slow) and I'm faced with two familiar choices: Get creative or close up shop.

{Cue the Stradivarius}
Foot traffic has always been pathetic on our stretch of Solano Ave and we've often dreamt of moving or opening a second hole-in-the-wall on the busiest possible street. Rent and wages, however, are a huge nut to crack when you're doing it in increments of $1.75.

Then there's wholesale, which we tried for a year before realizing we were actually working for nothing and losing money (not to mention effort and time). With a handmade, labor-intensive product, wholesale just doesn't make sense.

Farmer's markets and similar outdoor shows have proven to be a bust with a temperature-sensitive product, and summer shipping for online orders is cost prohibitive with the need for ice-packs and expediting.

CSC: A Solution
Eatwell Farm
After much tossing and turning, I drew inspiration from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program I used to belong to: Eatwell Farms. The premise is this: customers subscribe to a weekly or biweekly farm basket which they pick up at a host site during a designated time frame. The host site can be a business or home with a shady, secure porch; the owner gets a free farm basket in exchange for providing the rendezvous location.

The advantage to the customer is they get to have farm-fresh, seasonal produce without having to haul their arses all the way to the farm or pay for shipping. And they can feel good about supporting the farm with regular business. I thought, why not do the same thing with chocolates?!

I've already got host sites lined up in San Rafael, Santa Rosa, and of course, our shop in Berkeley. Are you interested in participating? Visit the brand new Community Supported Chocolate page on our website.

CSC...it just may save The Xocolate Bar.


Chocolate Ayurveda

To quote The Big Lebowski, "Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you."

A series of unfortunate events left me in a funk. With several cups of St. John's Wort tea down the hatch and no sign of improvement, I called on my spice dealer/ Ayurvedic practitioner friend Jill Leslie for something more potent.

With all the talk of oiled seafood, Oscar Grant, and "double-dip" recession on our collective minds, I figure I'm not the only one who could use a little boost. So Jill and I are collaborating on two new chocolates: one to lift your spirits and one to calm you down.

The first is the "Minty Mood Mender" (pictured below). It contains panax ginseng, ashwaganda, kappi kachu, and spearmint.
The second is "Sweet Inner Peace." It's got bacopa, shakapshpi, kava, ashwaganda, licorice, vidari kanda and lots of Balinese vanilla bean.

I've never heard of most of these herbs, but Jill assures me that they've been used for 5,000 years in India and are perfectly safe in moderation. In any case, they're way more constructive than a whisky bender (or a White Russian bender, for that matter.)

Our Make Out truffle collaboration has been a lasting success. Hopefully the new blends have the same type of magic, for everyone's sake.