Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, a member of the State Bar of Texas and co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research .
The Chocolate Show
Lemon and dark chocolate are seeing a lot of each other these days, from what I saw (and tasted) at the sixth annual Chocolate Show , which took place in New York November 13-16. Ethel M. Chocolates combined the pair most stunningly, including – and this was much better than it’s going to sound – coating popcorn with them. Exquisite handmade chocolates, with price tags to match, are also all the rage. Just-launched Chocolat Moderne delighted the eye with all-dark chocolate creations that glinted with 23-karat gold (which is airbrushed onto the molds). Sweet Bliss introduced charming blob-shaped animals, filled with marshmallow and priced about $35, and enormous globe ornaments of molded chocolate. The one real knee-jerk gasp producer, though, was a squishy white coconut truffle from Knipschildt Chocolatier .
You want fries with that novel? Actually, chocolate truffles and Italian roast coffee are a more likely offer when you visit Amazon.com these days. Continuing its morph into the world’s largest department store, Amazon.com has added gourmet food to its virtual aisles. The lengthy line-up of partners contains long-standing heavy hitters in the mail order business (Omaha Steaks, Harry & David) and some familiar names from grocery shelves (Arrowhead Mills, Blue Mountain Coffee, Zapp’s Potato Chips). Smaller producers and ethnic foods are also in the mix. Follow the tiny Seller Profile link in each product description for shipping information and rates; each seller ships its products out directly. It’s worth taking the time to browse by category and by brand names – a lot of good eats lurk in the listings.
The second installment of Food is the Anytime Gift spotlights spectacular food gifts across a spectrum of prices.
Divine Delights’ choice of name isn’t overstating the situation in the slightest. The petits four that have brought the company renown are layers of almond butter cake, separated by luscious fillings (truffle cream, butter cream, or fruit), and encased in exquisite chocolate. Come cooler weather, the petits four take on all manner of shapes for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Prowl the website for the catalog of seasonal offerings, or call 800-4-HEAVEN.
The harvest cakes of Rosetti’s Fine Foods (888-571-7140) suggest an awesome, bejeweled geological specimen. especially when cut open to reveal a cross-section. These elaborate mixtures of nuts and dried fruits (not to be confused with fruitcake!) are a symphony of crunchy, moist and chewy textures. Only a light egg batter and a little sugar holds it all together, without benefit of butter, oil, flour or preservatives. The Northwest Harvest Cake celebrates the bounty of the Pacific Northwest, while the San Joaquin Harvest Cake salutes Rosetti’s home base in California. Either comes in a 16 oz. ($13.95) or 36 oz.($27.95) size.
Salem Baking Company’s ultra-thin holiday cookies are crisp, elegant complements for cocoa or tea. Choose between sugar cookies, which are shaped like ornaments, bells, and trees, and Moravian Christmas spice cookies, which need a “Warning Consumption May Lead to Addiction” label. Check the website or phone 800/274-2994 after mid-October for availability and pricing.
Also in the dangerously addictive category are Swiss Colony’s spiced pumpkins , which are debuting this season. Shaped and decorated like little pumpkins, they’re full of pumpkin spice cake around a sweet cream cheese center. A dozen costs $15.95, plus shipping.
Pumpkin cheesecake has returned to the baking schedule of the Nuns of New Skete Farms, an Orthodox Catholic religious community in upstate New York that operates without a hierarchy. Their recipe, exceedingly moist, creamy and smooth, blossoms with refrigeration. Phone in an order and the calmest (albeit recorded) voice in the history of mail-order commerce will request your desired delivery date. (Don’t be startled by the voice’s gender; running the community’s mail-order food business is the province of the Monks of New Skete.) A six-pound cheesecake, unsliced, is currently $27.75. Order by the 1st of December for Christmas. Call 518/677-3928 or visit http://tinyurl.com/v4ro .
San Francisco-based Joseph Schmidt treats his Mosaic chocolates as miniature abstract canvases. Hand-applied vegetable dyes crown each of his inch-tall, 3D trapezoids with muted-colored patterns (such as a honeycomb or wavy lines) that identify what’s inside. That would be two and sometimes three distinct, layered chocolates, as well as three contrasting textures — a hard shell, a soft cream and something crunchy in the middle, usually nuts. A 12-piece assortment ($32.50) transforms a simple platter into an art installation (albeit a short-lived one). Call 800-327-4740 or visit JschmidtConfections.com .
Dagoba Chocolate’s certified organic two-ounce bars come in 12 exquisite varieties, including New Moon (72% cacao content), an uncommonly potent Milk, vibrant Chai and authentically flavored Latte. A dozen bars (your choice of flavors) cost $36. Order from 541.664.9030; DagobaChocolate.com .
People Gotta Eat’s signature Killer Pecans (16 oz., $20.75) are so crisp, crunchy, and addictively flavored that it’s hard to believe they grew out of a holiday gift recipe that one-time restaurateur (and company founder) Tom Stark whipped up in his home kitchen. The slow-burning combination of sugar, crushed red pepper, and cumin makes you reach for them again and again. Tree Nuts (16 oz, $19.75) tantalize with savoury seasonings fit for poultry. The mix of walnuts, almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts and cashews is dusted with rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, marjoram, tarragon. For maximum drama, warm before serving. 800/696-1131; www.peoplegottaeat.com .
Cherry chocolate coated hazelnuts (16 oz., $12) from Hazelnut Growers of Oregon are a religious experience. So do toffee squares, which are milk chocolate-covered layers of scrumptious English butter toffee and chopped hazelnuts (16z., $ 12). To cover your bets and target a wider variety of preferences, spring for the Growers’ section section gift tin, which delivers a two-pound assortment of hazelnuts with a variety of coatings (among them chocolate toffee, dark chocolate, cherry chocolate, yogurt), for $25. Hazelnut Growers of Oregon is the country’s largest processor and handler of hazelnuts (which also go by the name filberts).
The best toffee I’ve ever had comes from Enstrom’s in Grand Junction, CO. Maybe the altitude is the secret ingredient. The almond toffee is made by hand in small batches, dusted with almonds and broken into irregularly sized chunks. Prices start at $14.95 for one pound. 1-800-367-8766 or www.Enstrom.com .
Collections, Boxes and Samplers
SeaBear Smokehouse of Anacortes , WA offers a number of collections featuring its superb smoked salmon. One that’s especially affordable is the holiday celebration tower ($37.99), a stack of smoked king salmon, smoked sockeye, pate, crackers and chocolate truffles tied together with a big ribbon. The individual containers are small (the king and pate are only 6 oz. each), but the overall impact is grand.
Also budget-friendly is Dancing Deer Baking Company’s medium variety sampler ($19.95), which contains three nine-packs of the company’s original (and stunning) cookies: chocolate tangerine, molasses clove and sugar cane lime. (A bag of the chocolate tangerine alone has been known to make me happy.)
Want to wow? Zingerman’s Deli’s has assembled a culinary outing to Provence, minus the airfare. Strewn with aromatic imported lavender, the Markets of Provence basket ($120) combines a 1.5-lb. loaf of dense, freshly made Farm Bread with fruit preserves, potent Dijon mustard, butter cookies, chocolate bars from Michel Cluizel and Valhrona and at least two-third of a pound of two French mountain cheeses, the variety and amounts depending on availab
ility. 888/636-8162; Zingermans.com .
Another way to expand someone’s horizons is the tea guide ($25) assembled by In Pursuit of Tea , which works with the finest small farms across the globe. Designed as a crash course in growing regions and basic flavor profiles, the guide consists of an explanatory booklet and samples of six teas, all contained in a graceful, handmade box from Thailand. The samples include white, black, oolong, pu-erh (an earthy, fermented tea from southern China), and two green teas. Although the specific teas vary according to availability, one of the greens is always the aptly named anemone, which consists of spiky leaves tied together by hand in the namesake shape. (Think drink and table decoration.) The samples yield one to five servings, depending on the type.
Numi packages gift collections of its extraordinary, all organic herbal and caffeinated teas in atmospheric bamboo wrappers. The bamboo box ($46, currently on sale for $39.99) contains a 45-bag assortment of nine different teas, while the bamboo book ($27) holds five each of six teas. Available online from Inner Gifts.com .
A soup sampler may not sound inherently gift worthy, but hear me out. Vermont Country Soups jars comfort in the form of cream of potato soup. With the richness of cream, the sharpness of cheddar cheese and the slightest smokiness of bacon, this silky soup it is the perfect antidote for a blustery day. A close second is Vermont Country Soup’s exquisite New England Chowder, which owner Karen Thompson modeled after the best bowl she ever had, during her honeymoon at Martha’s Vineyard.
The company also produces a handful of hearty tomato-based soups, all smacking of garden fresh vegetables. (The company preserves produce for its soups with an industrial method called IQF, for “individually quick frozen,” which retains flavor and nutrients.) The rich, nutty lentil departs from the modest treatment this bean usually receives, while the bountiful minestrone (currently out of stock, but check back with the website) abounds with history as well as good taste. The recipe originated in the kitchen of Thompson’s Italian immigrant grandmother-in-law. As a blessing, the company served its first production of the minestrone from a pot that had been handed down through the family. Assemble your own combination of six 24 oz. jars for $24. (My choice would be pairs of potato, chowder and lentil.) 888-VT-CT-SOUP; VermontCountrySoup.com .
ã Kathy Biehl 2003