Bacon, Sea Salt and Violets: Vosges Haut-Chocolat

Aside from being a prolific traveler, my Chicagoan friend John is a rather splendid gift giver. He’s made an annual habit of sending me a parcel bursting with delicious treats from the States, and I was lucky enough to have my doorbell ring with the delivery of this year’s instalment just a few weeks ago. Along with my yearly dose of Lucky Charms cereal and Ghirardelli’s chocolate Squares, this parcel offered sweets and chocolate from John’s recent travels through Hungary and a few select chocolate bars from a Chicago-based company I’d not heard of before: Vosges Haut-Chocolat.

The three Vosges chocolate ‘tablets’ John had picked immediately caught my attention, even amongst the landslide of Ghirardelli Squares pouring from the cardboard postage carton (John essentially uses Ghirardelli Squares instead of foam packing peanuts. Not that I’m complaining). Not only was the packaging sleek and beautiful, but the flavours sounded incredible: dark chocolates with exotic ingredients like black Hawaiian sea salt and hickory smoked bacon – and even one of the bars inspired by The Hunger Games!

I love trying sweets and desserts that centre around experimental and playful flavours, so I was super excited to try these Vosges chocolates. On the back of each bar told a little story on the various flavour inspirations, and of Vosges founder Katrina Markoff’s own inspiration in beginning the company with the notion of bringing to life her extensive world travels through chocolate. Now that’s one giant, incredible collision of two of my favourite things in the world! And, now I come to think about it, definitely a suitable name for any future autobiography: ‘Travel and Chocolate: The Terri Coad Story”.

Mo’s Dark Bar – 62% dark chocolate with hickory smoked uncured bacon and Alderwood smoked salt

bacon2Inspired by childhood breakfast plates laden with chocolate-chip pancakes, bacon and syrup – this chocolate bar really is something else. The bacon pieces were wonderfully crispy, and flavoursome in a way that wasn’t overpowering in its inherent, you know, bacon-ness. In fact, it seemed that it was actually the Alderwood smoked salt that really set this chocolate bar off. The ‘savoury’ sensation of the chocolate was incredible as that smoky flavour sat on the tongue for seconds after the dark chocolate dissolved. This bar also comes in 45% milk chocolate, so I’d be interested to taste the change with a much sweeter base!

Black Salt Caramel Bar – 70% dark chocolate with black Hawaiian sea salt and burnt sugar caramel

caramel2Mat and I polished this one off in record speed; it was definitely our favourite. I’m not sure I’ve tasted a caramel quite like it. A ‘burnt sugar caramel’, it was dark and deep and for me evoked the smells and tastes of home baking. The black Hawaiian sea salt (a blend of sea salt and volcanic charcoal) seemed to play more into intensifying that sensation, rather than standing out as a particularly distinguishable flavour on its own. Delightful!

 Effie – 62% dark chocolate with dried strawberries and candied violet flowers

effie2‘Effie’ is one of three of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire inspired chocolate bars released by Vosges. Along with Katniss (44% milk chocolate with apples, uncured hickory smoked bacon and Alderwood smoked sea salt)  and President Snow (72% dark chocolate with blood orange and tellicherry peppercorns caramel), this range conjures each character in most delicious form. I’ll admit that in tasting this I expected it to be similar to Lindt’s Excellence Strawberry Intense block, but I was quite surprised! Whilst Strawberry Intense is really very sweet, the candied violet flowers of Effie balance with the dried strawberries to create something much lighter. It’s fruity and floral and lovely.

I was quite obviously very impressed with my sampling of the Vosges chocolate bar range. The flavour combinations are sensational and the chocolate itself is high quality. There are plenty more flavours that sound amazing, like the Red Fire Bar (55% dark chocolate with Mexican ancho & chipotle chillies and Ceylon cinnamon) and even a Crispy Carrot Bar (45% milk chocolate with crunchy carrot confit and Valencia oranges)! If by your own travels, a friend or family member’s – or even if you have an in-country supplier like me, track down a Vosges boutique or stockist and get your hands on some of this stuff quick smart.

The Baked Brownie: A Cocoa Quest

Recently I’ve begun to notice more baking recipes calling for dark, high quality cocoa. I’d never much ventured beyond good ol’ Cadbury Bourneville before, so the idea of experimenting with a premium cocoa really intrigued me. Nothing spurred this intrigue more than the famous Baked brownie recipe. Baked is a cafe and bakery in Brooklyn, New York, and I bought their first cookbook Baked: New Frontiers in Baking from Book Depository earlier this year very much on a whim. I’d never even heard of Baked before – but was in the mood for some new cookbooks and this one seemed fun.

I’ll admit, it remained untouched for many months. But when I did finally pick it up with a mission to bring to life a Baked recipe, I couldn’t go past The Baked Brownie. Flung to fame after being featured in Oprah’s O Magazine as one of her ‘Favourite Things’, this brownie seemed to be a pretty big deal. And there’s nothing quite like a fine brownie.

The Baked Brownie urges the baker to “Use a dark unsweetened cocoa powder like Valrhona. A pale, light-colored cocoa does not have enough depth.” It also implores that the dark chocolate one incorporates is a “well-respected chocolate”. Now – the first time I made The Baked Brownie, I used Cadbury Bourneville cocoa and whichever block of dark chocolate was on special at Coles. And I’m not going to lie – those things didn’t turn out half-bad. In fact, they were pretty damn delicious! Which is why I was especially curious to find out how much of a difference it would make if I went the extra mile…

I picked up some Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa for the “well-respected chocolate’, but the dark cocoa powder proved a little more tricky. I couldn’t track down any of the Valrhona brand in Melbourne – it looks like I may have to order it online in future. For the time-being, and after quite a but of hunting, I found a ‘Premium Dutch Cocoa’ in David Jones. Made by a New Zealand company called Equagold, the only description intimated “Rich coloured, mild, bitter sweet flavoured Cocoa produced from the highest quality West African Cocoa beans and processed in Holland”. At $17.50 for 300g, I bit the bullet.

Brownies 2

(For anyone else on the hunt for a high quality, dark cocoa powder in Melbourne – I later remembered from my old days an an employee that Koko Black sell a dark cocoa powder at $14.45 for 300g.)

I was, as The Baked Brownie recipe suggested, less interested in the Dutch processing of the cocoa – but more in its colour and aroma. I was excited to get home and find that this cocoa was a gorgeous, dark brown, and that its smell was so deep and different to any other cocoa I’d used. It actually smelt like real chocolate!

Brownies 3

And so, I whipped up The Baked Brownie once again with my new premium ingredients. Unfortunately I had a minor mishap in removing the cooked creation from its baking dish, leaving a whole lotta brownie stuck to the glass base. Such silly kitchen tragedies can sometimes render me rather defeated, and perhaps it was that (or having eaten far too much brownie mix already) which led me to think, upon tasting the ‘new improved’ brownie, that it really wasn’t anything special. Despite the fact that Mat was experiencing a transcendent moment over his first taste, all I could think was: “Well, gee. That was a waste of money. Stupid, stupid brownies!”

It wasn’t until I opened my tin of ugly little broken brownie bits after work the next night that I truly experienced the awesome power of The Baked Brownie in all its intended glory. If the first batch was pretty damn delicious, this one was freakin’ sensational.

Brownies 1

The depth of flavour, as wanky-food-critiquey that may sound, is honestly what stood out. Using premium ingredients took everything from that first batch and magnified it to create such a rich, chocolatey taste that lit up my whole mouth. I think the texture benefited as well, adding to the wonderful hint of fudginess that makes a really fantastic brownie. I’ve already made another batch (this time removed flawlessly from the baking dish – thank you baking paper!) and I have to say, I think they could quite possibly be the best brownies I’ve ever tasted. I’ve had the joy of spreading The Baked Brownie love to friends and family, and received outrageously good feedback!

So, my foray into the world of dark, high-quality cocoa powder was quite a successful one indeed. I’ll definitely continue to make brownies this way, and I’m eager to start using it in other recipes too. I’m sure Cadbury Bourneville will always have a place in my cupboard, but it’s exciting to get more and more confident in baking and experimenting with how quality ingredients can make such a difference. In the meantime I’ve got a kick-ass new recipe in my repertoire, and a huge new item on my bucket list – visit Baked in New York one day to try the real thing!

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