Review: Lake Champlain Milk Chocolate Apple Cider Caramels

lake champlain happy valley orchard citizen cider caramelsWhiskey chocolates? Been done. How about chocolates studded with caramel and apple cider?

Lake Champlain Chocolates’ latest concoction brings in apples from Happy Valley Orchard and cider from Citizen Cider to create an all-Vermont seasonal confection sensation.

These dense caramels start with silky milk chocolate and burst open to reveal intense apple pie flavor inside, rich with cinnamon/allspice notes and fresh apple puree. If anything’s missing it’s the “cider” element — though it seems impossible to get the real essence of tart, fresh cider into a package this small.

Delicious stuff, though perhaps a bit pricey….

A- / $15 per sleeve of 7 caramels (2.4 oz. total) /

Review: Lake Champlain BeBop Hop Chocolate Bar

hop chocolate barBut allow me to explain.

Lake Champlain Chocolates has made this oddity by wrapping a solidified blend of milk and dark chocolate around a molten core that’s made with hop-infused caramel, which is sweetened with malt that’s been reduced from Long Trail’s brewing operation. Hops, as in beer, that’s right. While “hop oil” is the last ingredient on the package (after salt, for God’s sake), there’s no mistaking who this chocolate’s target audience is.

Intense and initially off-putting, this is a confection that, surprisingly, grows on you. You better really like bitter beers. The initial rush of sweetness is misleading, because those hops come on quick and push all of that sugar aside. The hop infusion is long and lasting — not exactly bitter, but all-encompassing in the way that a good, big beer can be. There’s an aftertaste here that’s far longer than any beer I’ve ever tried. I’m detecting hops on the palate for at least 15 minutes, which is both intriguing and a little disconcerting. The chocolate is also very good, too, though nothing you’ll be able to recall with clarity considering the hop influence in that caramel center.

Really, really unique stuff. My wife, however, had to spit it out.

Available only through June 9!

B+ / $4 per 3.25 oz bar /

Seminar and Pairing: German Wine + Asian Food = Love

When you eat sushi, Chinese food, or pad thai, what’s your drink of choice? If you’re like most: Beer, maybe sake, if you’re feeling adventurous. Why not wine? The general dearth of wine options on most Asian food beverage lists is a good reason, but a more common one is that consumers just have no idea what wines to drink with Asian food. This food runs from ultra-spicy (General Tso’s chicken) to ultra-delicate (toro sushi), with some cuisines giving a taste of each during the meal.

Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee recently came to San Francisco to show us that pairing wine with Asian flavors isn’t just possible, it can be fantastic. And she turned to the country that makes the most inspired, common, and – if you think about – strange natural pairing with Asian food: Germany.

Lee led our group through a four-course meal at SF’s Ame restaurant, each paired with two different (and often wildly contrasting) wines, to see what we thought worked and what didn’t. A snapper carpaccio with two gelees, umami soy and lemon sea salt, was a great dish – and the soy gelee worked surprisingly wonderfully with 2009 Friedrich Becker Pinot Noir from the Pfalz region of Germany. I was less enamored with a 2010 Castell Silvaner when paired with the lemon gelee, which handily overpowered the wine.

Up next was a tuna tartare with slow cocked egg, dashi broth, and a smattering of bitter greens. Here, the reds didn’t pan out – a 2006 Furst Pinot Noir was too earthy and shallow, unflattering with the bitter components of the dish. A 2003 Fritz Haag Auslese Riesling was however a phenomenal match. Sweet wine? Yes, but at age 9 it had mellowed and caramelized, offering enough acid to keep up with complex dish.

Finally, a lobster dish in coconut curry broth. Here both wines – a 2010 Spatlese Riesling from Selbach-Oster and a 2010 Riesling from Leitz – worked well, but for different reasons. The Spatlese, though young, didn’t bomb the dish with sugar, tempering the mild heat in the curry, while the crispness of the Leitz Riesling was a natural pairing with the dish. It didn’t have the acid I would have liked but any Riesling probably could have done the job. (Alas I had to skip the last dish due to time constraints.)

That leads us into Lee’s general pairing tips – which were presented in a booklet created with the Deutsches Weininstitut – which, as you might expect, are heavy on the use of Riesling. All German whites get a shout-out or two for almost every region from India to Japan, but Lee also recommends German reds with Northern Chinese food, Sekt (sparkling wine) with Singaporean food, and even Pinot Noir with sushi and Indian curry.

Of course, you can’t define an entire country by one style of food, and wine pairing recommendations can’t be pinned down based on a gastronomic stereotype, either. Lee’s book is a great reminder of that, and should serve as a reminder that one size doesn’t fit all in the wine and food world – and that one needn’t resort to Sapporo just because it’s sushi night.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Sapporo.

Update: Congrats to our five contest winners, who will each be getting a copy of the book!

Review: L.A. Burdick Robert Burns Collection

What do you give a whisky lover as a romantic gift? Well, you can give him whisky… or you can give him whisky-infused chocolates.

Recently it was suggested (or rather I was accused) of enjoying whisky confections more than the whisky itself (not true, I swear), and reader John Bratincevic turned me on to this collection of Scotch-infused chocolates released for Robert Burns’ birthday (January 25) from New Hampshire-based L.A. Burdick. The company was kind enough to send a sample box my way, and I’m going to tell you, if you can get them (they’re limited release confections), do it.

These aren’t those cheap, foil-wrapped Cointreau and Kahlua cordials your grandma used to give you once you were in your 30s. This is the real deal: A 1/2 pound box of truffles and bonbons flavored with Lagavulin, Macallan, Talisker, Springbank, Highland Park, and Glenfarclas — some of my favorite names in Scotch whisky.

The assortment spans 7 different items (only one is an unnamed “honey whiskey”), with about four to six pieces of each. Picking a favorite is tough. They are all wonderful. But if pressed, I’d go with the Highland Park (dark ganache with scent of grapefruit) and, surprisingly, the Talisker (currant-hazelnut ganache), both of which are complemented beautifully by the hints of fruit added to the ganache.

You can really taste the whisky in all of these confections — though the still let the chocolate shine through — and the bonbons are small enough to allow you to eat three or four without feeling disgusting afterward. All of these truffles are fabulous solo,  and are even better with whisky — either their namesakes or something else.

As I write this, the collection is only available as part of a combo with a Lunar New Year collection or as a set of two 1/2 lb. boxes. Do yourself a favor and pick one up either for yourself or for someone you love.

A / $31 /

burdick robert burns collection chocolates scotch

Oddity of the Week: Benny’s Bloody Mary Beef Straw

You love beef. You love straws. Now you can get the two together, in the form of Benny’s Bloody Mary Beef Straw.

As the name implies, this unique “straw” is designed to accompany Bloodies, but enterprising cocktail types will likely find myriad uses for it — not the least of which is simply consuming them plain. Essentially a Slim Jim with a hole drilled through it lengthwise (and yes, I know Slim Jims are made from chicken, but you get the idea), this all-beef stick is perhaps the most eye-catching garnish I’ve ever seen.

I tried it as intended — to sip a Bloody Mary — and found it didn’t impart any significant flavor as it zipped through the straw, but the real fun is, of course, in noshing on the garnish. The Beef Straw is big: This is far more substantial than a stick of celery in your glass, and if you’re a carnivore you’ll doubtlessly finish off the straw well before you consume the drink. The straw itself tastes pretty good: Meaty, but with a sausage-like texture, not tough and chewy like a Slim Jim is. Once a pack is open, it will last up to a week in the fridge.

The look may not lend itself to sophistication — particularly once you start chewing on the end — but it’s one of the biggest (and beefiest) cocktail conversation starters I’ve yet to encounter.

$34 for three 10-packs /

benny's beef straw

Review: Lights Out Relaxation Products

Relaxation mania continues with Lights Out, a whole series of products designed to help you sleep more evenly, fight stress, anxiety, jet lag, and all that other bad stuff.

Lights Out contains chamomile, skullcap, rose hips, valerian root, L-theanine, and GABA, but it’s probably the 5mg of melatonin that really does the trick.

The 2-oz. shot comes in two sucralose-sweetened flavors — tropical and, oddly, cloud berry — and both tastes are fair enough. The cloud berry version is largely innocuous and vaguely citrus and apple in character. The tropical is stronger, primarily redolent of coconut.

Strangely, the product is unique in that it also comes in a solid form: a chocolate brownie and a chocolate chip cookie. Both were exceedingly dry and crumbly, and hardly the delicious dessert confection you might be expecting.

As for the effects, with both the shot and the dessert products, I found myself falling asleep relatively quickly, with vivid and rather intrusive dreams to follow. Both times I woke up around six in the morning and had difficulty getting back to sleep — though the six-hour release time of Lights Out may have something to do with that. Still not sure how effective these are, though I felt fine and productive the following day. That said, I’m not exactly clamoring for another brownie.

C+ / about $4 per product /

Tasting Emanuel Andren Chocolate Truffles

We don’t review much high-end chocolate here at Drinkhacker. Or rather, some (namely myself) would say we don’t review enough.

While you’ve probably not heard the name, Emanuel Andrén is hardly a new brand.  Founded in a small town in Sweden in 1868, this family business is devoted to producing ultra-luxe confections, which it promptly makes very hard to get. (In the U.S., the only way to get one — unless you get one in your Grammy Awards goodie bag — is to order them online.)

Andrén stopped by the other day to give me a guided tour of his works of edible art, all handmade, hand-painted, and largely created with herbs, spices, and other ingredients from Andrén’s own backyard. At present, 20 varieties are available, in a variety of gift box assortments.

Andren tasted me on seven of the truffles, starting with the traditional — Champagne and Strawberries — and moving to the unexpected and delightful Elderberry, one of my favorite sweet truffles in his collection. Things took a turn for the unusual with a line of truffles that combine chocolates with cheese: The Strong Cheese and Cloudberry truffle puts together Vasterbotten cheese with the Nordic favorite berry, served here in marmalade form, though I enjoyed more fully the Monte Enebro truffle, which included raspberry, red pepper, spices, and a little Tabasco — a really complex and fun treat.

Andrén saved the best for last, with a pair of spirits-oriented truffles that included a Calvados offering (gushing with apple brandy) and the enigmatic and incredibly popular Zino Platinum Cigar truffle, made with dark rum, salt, dark chocolate, and the essence of a Davidoff Zino Platinum stogie. I can still feel that tobacco heat in the back of my throat, days later.

Incredibly fun stuff. While the $29-per-piece price tag may be stifling, some of these — especially that Cigar truffle — would make for perfect gifts… if you can avoid eating them yourself.

Book Review: Grands Crus Classes: The Great Wines of Bordeaux

This mammoth tome — nearly 400 pages and over six pounds in heft — is a tome in two parts. The two parts celebrate the companionship of food and wine: Each section offers information about a Grand Cru Bordeaux winery, its production, grape varietals, and a bit of history, plus copious, gorgeous photographs of that winery — generally one page of text and one page (or more) of pictures.

Then you flip the page and get… a recipe, usually from some megastar chef like Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, or Joel Robuchon. Each recipe is paired with the wine it follows.

Now this is a drinking website and not a cooking site, so it’s not really my place to judge this tome as a cookbook. That said, I do cook a lot, and I can’t see myself putting many of these recipes into practice in the kitchen. As inspiration, though, they sure do look good.

As for the wines, remember these are, as the title suggests, Grand Cru wineries only. Only left-bank Medoc and Sauternes/Barsac wines are covered here, so you won’t get anything from the rest of Bordeaux, including wines like Petrus. That said, it is a comprehensive look at all of the Grands Crus, including more dessert wines than you might have realized existed. The information provided about each chateau is usually interesting, even if the writing is as dry as the font is small. The pictures tend to tell the stories far better.

Better for the coffee table than the library or the kitchen, Grands Crus Classes is an interesting experiment that, unfortunately, didn’t really pay off for my reading style.

B- / $47 / [BUY IT HERE]


Dispatches from Aspen Food & Wine Classic 2011

“Is this your first Classic?”

It was a question I’d hear more than once over the three days I spent in Aspen last month at what has become the pre-eminent annual food and wine event in America. Emphasis on food. In a single evening I encountered Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin, Jose Andres (who personally prepared the salt-crusted grilled prawn I ate while berating someone for disturbing his onions), and Andrew Zimmern (who heroically saved me from a deadly spider).

A few weeks later, so much of the Classic, hosted by Food & Wine magazine and an event of absurdly high expense to those who pay to attend it, is now but a blur. Is it the Aspen elevation? The long days of seminars and tasting sessions? Or simply the mountain of business cards I now have to follow up on that makes the whole thing seem so daunting in retrospect?

Structurally the Classic sounds like an easy-to-manage thing. For two and a half days, the schedule (basically) runs like this: Sessions (there are a dozen food, wine, or spirits-focused seminars to choose from) start at 10, then the grand tasting event (more on that later) is open for a couple of hours after that. The tent shuts down for a while to allow for more sessions, then it reopens in the afternoon, closing promptly around 6 o’clock so dinners can be had and the parties can begin. Depending on who you know there may be a half dozen to chose from each night.

Friday and Saturday are “full” days, and Sunday is a lighter one, as most people try to get home, fast (not an easy feat from remote Aspen, Colorado).

“The tent” — the grand tasting pavilion — is , for most people, the centerpiece of their experience here. Hundreds of exhibitors represent wineries around the world, spirits sellers, food merchants, kitchenware purveyors, restaurants, even countries hoping to get tourists, cruise ships, car companies, and just about anything else have a booth. Everyone is either pouring or cooking: A quick spin through a fraction of the tent will have you noshing on Korean noodles, sashimi, barbeque, chocolate, salad, root beer, and pork rinds — and probably in that order. While there’s plenty of supermarket brand stuff being poured here, a lot of it is upscale, sometimes extremely so. While there were many fabulous wines (including a whole sub-tent devoted to Spanish wine), I found the spirits purveyors to be the most rewarding: Casa Dragones tequila, private bottlings of all sorts of whisky from Samaroli (see pics), and Ron Cooper personally pouring just about all of his company’s Del Maguey mezcals, including the bizarre but fantastic Pechuga (which is made with a whole chicken breast), of which only 650 bottles were made. I probably looped back to Cooper’s table four times over the two days I was in the tent.

The seminars should not be underestimated. I attended two great ones: One tasting the audience members on old wines dating back to 1980, and another comparing Oregon and California Pinot Noirs of various vintages and regions. (Discovery: I liked southern California Pinot the best of these.) If you’re more into cooking, copious celebrity chef-led demonstrations are available, as are sessions dedicated to all levels of expertise.

Then there are the parties, and one finds that in the tiny town of Aspen, it’s easy to hop from a Macallan event to a tasting of two vintages of Penfolds Grange in a manner of minutes. (The 2006 Grange stands as my favorite wine tasted the entire weekend.) Everywhere you go, someone’s cooking a whole pig or three (as with the Wines of Spain party), or pouring something surprising (as with the “Magnum” party, where several dozen large-format bottles of wines are available to try — all self-serve).

I feel fatter just writing about it.

If you’re a gourmand and you have the means (all-access tickets are over $1,000, but tent-only consumer access runs under $400 for the weekend), this is worth an excursion once in your life. Some advice if you go: Stay as close to town as you can, over-prepare for the extreme altitude (various supplements were recommended to me), and get some rest before you arrive. You’ll need it!

Review: Cookies & Corks — Cookies for Wine Pairing

Pairing wine with different foods is always a fun way to experience wine. Now here’s an easy — and more fun — way to do just that: With cookies customized for different wine types.

Cookies & Corks produces small, boutique boxes of cookies, each bearing three different cookie types designed to pair with one of three wine types: red, white, or sparkling. In each box you’ll find two traditional, sweet cookies, and one savory one — usually something with herbs in it — all designed to pair with wine of a certain color. A legend on the side of the box tells you in more detail what kinds of cookies go with what kind of wine (Cab, Pinot, etc.).

Results are interesting? In tasting through these nine types of cookies I generally found that cookies taste a lot like cookies whether you’re eating them with wine or not — but there were indeed a few that enhanced the experience of the wine-drinking… generally the savory ones.

Some thoughts on each cookie collection follow.

White Wine Cookies & Corks – 13 total Apricot Sage, Peanut Butter Chocolate, and Ginger Molasses cookies. Apricot Sage is actually the least tasty cookie on its own (sage in cookie form is stronger than you’d think), but with a glass of Chardonnay it was a surprisingly good fit. I really liked the PB&Chocolate (two peanut butter cookies with chocolate sandwiched between them) cookies, but the whole affair was so huge it was a bit sloppy and crumbly for a dainty glass of wine. The touch of salt on that cookie: fantastic. Finally there’s Ginger Molasses: A solid and crumbly gingersnap, definitely worthwhile, and probably the best cookie here on its own merits. B+

Sparkling Wine Cookies & Corks – 15 total Zesty Lemon, Parmesan Thyme, and Sea Salt Chocolate Oatmeal cookies. A huge, tart Lemon cookie gets you started, and the Oatmeal cookie, while really salty, is quite delightful. The savory Parmesan Thyme, however, is less cookie than squishy biscuit. Unlike, say, the Apricot Sage cookie, it works less well with or without wine, coming across a bit like an old cheese cracker that’s gone soft. The sweet cookies, however, all seem to work pretty well with sparkling wine, though… and just as well on their own. B+

Red Wine Cookies & Corks – 15 total White Cheddar Rosemary, Shortbread, and Espresso Chocolate Peanut Butter cookies. Chocolate and red wine always work pretty well together, and the Espresso Chocolate Peanut Butter cookie, while a little busy, is a good counterpart to red wine — and better with some juice (which gives the dryish cookie a little moisture) than solo. The shortbread is quite sweet compared to your average Trefoil, with a slight citrus kick, maybe not perfect for red wine but pretty tasty in its own right. Finally there’s the Cheddar Rosemary: Unfortunately these cookies were mostly pulverized by the time they got to me, but the pieces, much like the Parmesan Thyme cookies, bring a big cheesy biscuit character to the party. Overwhelming on their own, they work well enough with wine but overall I preferred the sweeter cookies in this bunch compared to this savory one. A-

about $7 per box /

Cocktails for National Sandwich Day

Did you know that tomorrow (November 3) is National Sandwich Day? Did you know there was such a thing National Sandwich Day?

Well, there is, and even if you don’t like eating sandwiches, our friends at Flor de Cana have devised a way to drink them.

Behold, three of the strangest cocktail recipes I’ve seen all year. Happy drinking! Er, dining?

Created by Gianfranco, Tippling Bros.

1.5 oz. Flor de Caña 7 yr rum
.5 oz. Lustau Palo Cortado Vides
.25 oz. Strawberry jam
.25 oz. Peanut syrup*
1 Egg white
1 Yellow banana

Shake all ingredients in a boston shaker without ice, then add ice and shake vigorously again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass that is rimmed with minced salted-peanuts.

Garnish: A banana slice.

*Peanut syrup
1) Combine 2 parts water with 2 parts sugar in a pot
2) Bring sugar water to a boil
3) Add 1 part minced peanuts
4) Simmer for 10 minutes
5) Strain to remove peanut particles

Created by Niccole Trzaska

1.5 oz. of Bacon-infused Flor de Caña 7 yr rum
2 oz. Sacramento tomato juice
Dash Worcestershire sauce
Pinch celery salt
Pinch black pepper
Squeeze of lemon juice
Dollop of horseradish
Fresh Cilantro to taste

Pour all ingredients over ice shake and then strain over ice.

Garnish:One piece of bib lettuce wrapped around a thick piece of crispy apple wood smoked bacon and an avocado slice. Use a toothpick or skewer to secure with a cherry tomato.

Created by Trevor Burnett and Whitney Munro, Tipicular Fixin’s

1 oz. Flor de Caña 7 yr rum
2 muddled Roma tomatoes
1 oz. Iceberg lettuce water
1 oz. Beef (well reduced)
2 tbsp Toasted bread crumbs
1 tsp Dry mustard powder
2 tbsp Aged cheddar
1 large Kosher dill pickle
Salt and pepper to taste

Muddle tomatoes, add ice, and slowly poor lettuce water. Stir rum and beef jus together in stainless shaker. Float rum mixture over ice. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Garnish: Cheddar frico and pickle knot.

Garnish instructions: Heat pan to medium heat, sprinkle in cheddar and use sides of spoon to gather cheese into a circle. Brown and remove from pan to cool on plate. Mix bread crumbs with dry mustard. Wet rim of glass with pickle juice, dip glass in crumb mixture.