After Hours – Chocolate Cornucopia

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 Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

This month’s edition of After Hours visits the 2005 New York Chocolate Show, an open-to-the-public extravaganza that takes place every November, then heads west to spotlight the Chicago-based Cocoa Room, a supplier of very lovely gift chocolates indeed. Stay tuned to the end for a bonus item: an update on the campaign for spreading ever-widening concentric circles of yum.

The Chocolate Show

Unlike food shows for the trade, the Chocolate Show is designed for public consumption. The event, which has taken place in New York City over a long weekend every November since 1998, features lectures, demonstrations, chocolate fashions and art, exhibitor booths and an abundance of treats for purchase and, above all, samples for tasting. It’s an appealing combination, not to mention a smart business proposition, given the near-divine status that chocolate has acquired in our culture. The most recent show, in November 2005, drew weekday crowds that bordered on daunting. (I have never had the fortitude to visit the show on a weekend.) Fortunately, it also housed some newcomer exhibitors and a few old favorites that made fighting a path through the aisles worthwhile.

Making its first appearance at the show was Bissinger’s, a Midwestern chocolatier with a backstory as captivating as its products. The company’s roots go back 350 years to France, with American outposts that opened in the late 1800s (in Cincinnati and now shuttered) and in 1927 (in St. Louis, where the company still operates). Highlights of its samplings were a chocolate frosting, which unfolds into multiple levels of taste without battering the tongue with sweetness, and a spa line of chocolates that includes a green tea ganache with lemongrass, which brings harmony to the taste buds, at least, if not body and spirit (unlike the green tea ganache, available elsewhere in the hall, that was inexplicably and unpleasantly reminiscent of bubble gum).

Other standouts were a tart, tart, tart lemon cream-filled dark chocolate from Ethel M and moist, dense, individually packaged brownies from Fairytale Brownies. The brownies come in a dozen flavors (such as coconut, raspberry swirl or toffee crunch), as well as a half-sized version, the 3″ by 1.5″ “sprite.” Fairytale’s variety of mix-and-match options and containers for both sizes earmark the company as a versatile source for gifts. Chocolate Bar handed out elegant chocolate caramel corn, which the booth rep called “crack” (“The cheapest ounce and a half you’ll ever buy.”) Chocolate Bar also featured its Retro Bars, with 50-year-old retro graphics and nostalgic flavors that don’t normally turn up in bar form, such as coconut cream pie, salty pretzel and a knockout key lime pie. (A boxed set of all eight flavors goes for $22.)

This year, the Chocolate Show takes place from Friday, November 10 through Sunday, November 12 at the Metropolitan Pavilion and Altman Building on 18th St., between 6th and 7th Avenues. Tickets will be available online and at the door.

The Cocoa Room

“Cool Chocolate – No Drama” is the intriguing motto of The Cocoa Room – intriguing because the disclaimer doesn’t apply in the slightest to the appearance of what this Chicago company turns out. It was the source of the single most visually stunning stocking stuffer I received this past Christmas (and for any Christmas that easily comes to mind, for that matter): an eclectic dragee mix of high-polished, chocolate-coated sunflower seeds and almonds in turquoises, blues, whites, golds and silvers. They looked almost too good to eat. Unfortunately for them, the beauty was not merely skin deep, a condition that led to their slow-and-steady disappearance.

The gift was so stunning that it made me wonder what else this company produces. A quick prowl around the website reveals several notable reasons for placing The Cocoa Room on a shortlist for gift sources. The dragees come in equally beautiful multi-colored mixes for a variety of holidays and seasons. Too, they look much pricier than they are, from $6 for four ounces to $16 for 12. The chocolate section has a number of offerings that warrant investigation, such as chunks of dark chocolate “mint melts” with cocoa-mint centers and tiramisu-coated almond dragees.

Update on the Ever-Widening Concentric Circles of Yum

Circles have already been radiating out – and come back to me as well – in the campaign I launched in the December 2005 After Hours to send out favorite recipes (and some key ingredients or tools) from your kitchen to others..

I took my own advice and surprised a birthday celebrant with my version of Nigella Lawson’s extraordinary chocolate orange pantry cake (from How to Be a Domestic Goddess), accompanied by good quality bittersweet chocolate and the required eight-inch springform pan. (Locating the pan turned into quite the quest, so when I finally found one, excitement caused me to spill forth what I was up to and why, which caused the sales clerk to ask so many questions that she effectively got the recipe in interview format.)

A few weeks later a circle ebbed back in my direction, dispatched by the recipient of the package that set this campaign in motion in the first place. Her return volley consisted of her recipe for English mustard, two of the key ingredients (malt vinegar and Coleman’s dry mustard) and four canning jars with caps. She has since indulged in another mail-out, for an ailing, elderly friend: a package of English muffins, a jar of natural peanut butter, another of homemade jam and a handwritten recipe for … English muffins with peanut butter and jam.

If a circle has left or come to your kitchen, don’t hesitate to send in a report. And whether or not you share the word, please keep sharing the idea. Keep those circles spreading!

Copyright 2006 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.

Posted in: After Hours, Food