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Welcome to Fancy Food & Culinary Products' blog, your place to read reviews of the great fancy and gourmet products we find in the marketplace.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Annie B's handmade caramels

I'm not a chocolate-lover by nature, so Valentine's Day is always kinda tough for me (in relative terms). I don't have much of a sweet tooth, and every year, before the big day of red, I practice my "surprise face" in anticipation of receiving that ubiquitous heart-shaped box of chocolates and flowers. 
While the flowers are not so bad (hint, hint to my husband), when you're not a sugar-lover, even the finest box of chocolates can make you roll your eyes at the thought of downing the required handful of morsels that signal the non-verbal, "Thank you for thinking of me!" to your sweetie. He did, after all, try. 
This year, the lovely wife-husband team at Annie B's sent me a sample of their Handmade Caramels with a classy yet simple "happy Valentine's Day" in white cursive font is written above a modest white heart on a red label. What, no white-lace borders? No frills? No garish designs that shouts out, "Eat this candy now!"? No, none of that. But I assure you, the lack of gimmicks really make it pop. Put it next to any cash register for that impulse buy, and it will catch the eye of the guys (and girls!) looking for an upscale add-on for his flowers or Teddy bear. 
The Annie B's 8-ounce clear-plastic box of caramels modestly reminds the buyer with more small-print that the caramels are made in small batches and cooked in copper pots for the best and purest taste possible. 
Again, not a sugar-lover, so I was hesitant to delve into the sweetness of a caramel. I can down a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips all by myself but sweets are just not my thing--until now. Not even realizing that I had the choice of three different flavors in one box--seat salt, chocolate sea salt and raspberry chocolate--I pulled out the first two-inch stick of caramel I could grasp. With preconceived notions of what a super-sweet caramel usually tastes like, I bit in. 
Result: unexpected bliss (which is the best kind of bliss!). As it turns out, the chocolate sea salt caramel is not too sweet at all! In fact, it's actually salty! Go figure! "Wow," I thought, "A sea-salted caramel in which you can actually taste the salt!" As I chewed into the stiff caramel to break it down to soft goey-ness, I began biting down on precious chunks--not flakes-of actual sea salt. It was glorious. 
While other candies may boast the "sea salt" label, few actually follow through with the more-salty-than-sweet combination. But this fine morsel--which one a nod from "Oprah's Favorite Things in 2014--passes the test with flying colors. So much so that I was compelled to take a look at AnnieBsCandy.com.
Turns out, Justin and Amanda Henke bought the Annie B's company, which has been around since 1978, from its founders--another husband-and-wife duo--Tom and Carol Bouquet. In fact, the Henkes bought the candy company on the same day Amanda gave birth to her first child, August. (How's that for a sappy Valentine's Day story?!) 
It also turns out that Annie B's is known for much more than just their caramels (although that's what I'll be hitting them up for because I'm officially hooked). The company also offers small-batch popcorn in flavors like sharp cheddar, jalapeno cheddar and, of course, original caramel. 
I checked out the reviews that other people left on their website and, sure enough, people are raving about my new-found love: chocolate sea salt Annie B's caramels. It seems, like me, once they tasted it, they had to have more. 
Also interesting are the notes about the company's (or couple's) Facebook page. Of course, I took a visit and, sure enough, it's active (unlike so many mom-and-pop companies that tout their social media pages but actually post anything). Not only is it active, but it's fun! There are quizzes, pictures and--surprise!--you can actually talk and chat with the people behind the candy. 
Yes, the wholesalers have amazing candy gifts to offer your customers for Valentine's Day. But if you're looking for that impulse-purchase all year-round, then set some samples up near your cash register and watch the Annie B's boxes fly off the shelf. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

San Francisco Salt Co.

My mom never used salt in her cooking when I was growing up. There's enough things added to our foods already, she would say. But, sure enough, as I became my own experimental chef in the comforts of my own kitchen, I quickly learned of the noticeable flavor enhancements that salt brings to the table. 
What I did not realize, however, is that there are different levels of salt. Until recently, my knowledge - and palate - was limited to the very modest wonders of Morton kosher salt. Just a pinch here and there from a big black carton; nothing frilly, nothing fancy, although I never realized I had a choice. 
Step in San Francisco Salt Co. Just the name alone makes me feel like an upscale chef catering to the culinary elite. The company sent me three samples to try out: Himalayan salt, French Grey and Sea Salt. While it's never even occurred to me to have more than one kind of salt on hand, now I wonder how I ever cooked without them. I also learned how professional chefs elicit the best flavor profile of every ingredient - it all depends on the salt! (Cue the fireworks)
Not only does each variety of salt I received offer its own taste and texture enhancements for any mundane dish, the jars themselves are beautiful and classy. Clear glass shakers allow the color differentiation of each salt to shine through, from pink to grey to pure white (the Black Hawaiian Salt was the first to catch my eye on the website, and it's sure to do the same for any customer walking down your aisle - you just can't look away once you've spotted it). The sleekness of the compass-like logo exudes a premium, high-end look, but the feel of the label itself is smooth and soft to the touch, gliding between my fingers, making me want to keep holding it in my hands once I pick it up. 
These are words I never thought I'd use to describe something as simple as salt, but the newly launched re-packaging makes me feel like an instant executive chef at my own restaurant. And I knew I was on to something when I checked out the website, www.sfsalt.com, and saw the beautifully packaged jars included in a Gift Set of 3 for $34.99. Now that I can appreciate the finer points of salt and all its nuances, I can easily see myself gifting such a gift to friends who enjoy their time in the kitchen as much as I do. They may be somewhat puzzled at first, much like I was, but once you have a jar from San Francisco Salt Co. in your hands, it doesn't take long to become a salt snob. Soon enough, having any less than three different varieties of salt to choose from on a daily basis is simply unacceptable. (Proof of the salt snobbery)
The website, www.SFsalt.com is an adventure in itself, with a Salt of the Earth blog that features every use of salt one could ever (or would ever) dare to think of. From exfoliation to soothing our bodies to curing flu symptoms, salt, as it turns out, is much more than just a spice, and every kind carries its own small miracle, whether it be taste, touch or feel. The possibilities - and the blog posts - are endless, so have a look for yourself. Although a salty company, these people are clearly passionate about what they do - go figure. Clearly, they are, indeed, "salt of the Earth" kind of folks.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

MariBelle New York chocolate

It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's strong - the chocolate crave. I was yearning for some sweet goodness after my lunch break, and that's when my co-worker handed me a MarieBelle New York chocolate bar. 
"Gosh, Megan," I exhaled at once. "My birthday is not for two more months. Wanna save the gifts for then?" 
Megan--normally a caring, generous and selfless creature--made two things clear. First, it's not a gift. And second, she wants it back. 
I took one square of the luscious chocolate and complied with her demands, but not before thoroughly admiring its alluringly artistic packaging. A thick stock of pastel blue paper encases the chocolate bar like wrapping paper with images of a young boy sailing out to sea in a tea cup. His striped shirt and brimmed hat reminds me of an afternoon in Paris while seashells, starfish and anchors delicately adorn the outline of the pastel-blue sky. Below, a decorative whale swims in the wavy waters while the boy-sailer spots land just ahead. 
MarieBelle New York's Milk Chocolate and Sea Salt, reads the label in the center of the scene, noting the main ingredient is from Ecuador. As I gently opened the first colorful flap, as though opening a book of watercolors, I was greeted with the owner and founder: MarieBelle Lieberman, and her brief bio. Hailing from Honduras, she's a skilled chef, designer and chocolatier. As a child, she would sell her confections to the kids in her village. After attending the Parsons School of Design in New York, she opened a chocolate factory in Brooklyn. In 2012, Inc. Magazine named MarieBelle New York as one of “the fastest growing private companies in America,” and Oprah Winfrey gave accolades to her products in the highly coveted “Oprah’s Favorite Things.”  
Now the bar itself is just as impressive as its maker. I'm not usually a fan of milk chocolate, but this one is on the top of my list. The chocolate tastes of a mild, silky-smooth experience with subtle flakes of sea salt complementing the last moments of indulgence. It is made from the Cacao Trinitario, a cacao from Honduras. 
The packaging notes that Maribel Lieberman now works to empower women producing cacao, buying directly from the producers and giving them the opportunity to improve their living standards. Carrying a product like this in your stores doesn't only mean a beautiful piece of artwork for consumers to look at but also an opportunity to support women at all levels of the chocolate industry. 
Find more information at mariebelle.com.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

FiggyPops Tart Cherry Fig Supersnacks

As the clock slowly ticked toward 3:27 p.m., I felt it it: the mid-day crash. Everyone knows it. Everyone dreads it. 
I started off the morning so energized, so motivated, so ready to tackle anything. The momentum was invigorating as I pushed one task after another off my to-do list. But somewhere around 3 p.m., I felt the energy begin to wane. My eyelids grew heavier the longer I stared at the computer screen, and my cognitive thinking process began to feel like hard physical labor. 
That's my cue, I thought. I reached for the bag of FiggyPops, an organic fruit and nut energy snack that was sent to me from the good people at Made in Nature. 
FiggyPops Tart Cherry Fig Supersnacks is the newest member of the Made in Nature family. The package boasts a burst of powerful energy-boosting ingredients that's packed into nutritious bite-size pieces. The best part is they are made with certified USDA organic, Non-GMO Project Verified ingredients and no refined sugar. That's important for today's consumers who are looking for a healthy but tasty alternative to the not-so-appetizing protein bar. 
About three pops is one serving, according to the 16-ounce package. That packs 4 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and 190 calories. Being bite-sized pieces, I doubted that three would hold me over for the 2 1/2 hours left of the workday (what seemed like an eternity). But, sure enough, by the time I bit into my third pop, I already felt my stomach sending the "full signal" to my brain. Not only was my tummy satisfied, but so were my taste buds. 
I'm a big fan of figs not only for their sweet taste but their powerful antioxidants. But these organic figs offer so much more: tart cherries, walnuts, cacao nibs and a splash of coconut. They are rolled together into soft, chewy fig balls that easily fit between your thumb and index finger, although I needed two bites to finish one pop. Tart cherries balance the sweet figs while the walnuts offer just a bit of crunch. 
According to the press release, FiggyPops Tart Cherry Fig Supersnacks provide enough fuel to supply snackers with a steady stream of energy that lasts until dinnertime. I can happily vouch for that claim, as I gradually felt my energy levels back on the rise within 15 minutes of my FiggPops snack. It carried me through to 5 p.m., and I was able to end my day just as strong as I started. 
As a consumer, I like the convenience of the pops, and I can see myself easily "popping" one in my mouth for a sweet energy burst before or after a workout. The packaging is also alluring with "FiggyPops" in big, bold red letters that practically jump out at you. Just above it sits the certified organic and Non-GMO labels, which prominently and proudly indicates the values of Made in Nature. Finally, the Ziplock bag easily reseals for moist, soft and delicious FiggyPops every day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Popkoff's pelmeni

My husband is Russian. Actually, he’s from the former Soviet Union, hailing from what’s now called Ukraine. Since I met him, just a month out of college, his mother has been cooking us handmade, authentic pelmeni (pronounced pel-MEN-ee), Russian dumplings stuffed with flavorful minced meat. As tradition dictates, she serves them steaming hot with a slice of butter and a dollop of sour cream. It hits home every time—an Eastern European comfort food that rivals treasured American classics like Campbell’s chicken soup or grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s usually followed by a good heaping of cabbage-laden borscht, also adorned with a healthy dose of sour cream. By the end of the meal, you realize a sublime appreciation for the simple pleasures in life.
Popkoff's Frozen Foods offers authentic pelmeni and vareniki in 10-ounce packages.
Imagine my skepticism, then, when Popkoff’s Frozen Foods challenged me—and my husband—to test its pelmeni (similar to Italian tortellini) and vareniki (like a crescent-shaped ravioli) after being packed in dry ice and shipped from its facility in San Francisco to my office in Chicago. We were quick to rebuke the notion that a frozen pelmeni could even compare with Babushka’s, but we were willing to give it a try, of course.
After bringing them home for dinner, one thing was certainly obvious: They were fast and simple to cook. The frozen morsels only took five minutes until done, giving me barely enough time to get the cabbage salad ready. That’s a vast improvement on time since it takes my mother-in-law a tedious and grueling two or three hours just to get a few batches prepped for the week.
Once topped with the necessary garnishes, the moment of truth was upon us. Michael, my husband, was the true taste-tester here, as his Russian palate is more sophisticated than mine. And the verdict:
“For a frozen pelmeni, it’s pretty authentic.” That’s a direct quote from a very direct Russian, believe me. Ultimately, he gave it the “Michael stamp of approval,” although he refused to give me a comparison breakdown with his mom’s version. He did, however, discuss his reasoning.
For one, there is no funny aftertaste like with many frozen foods. I realized this to be due to its plethora of natural ingredients: non-GMO King Arthur Flour; Mary's Free Range Chicken, which is air-chilled and free from antibiotics and steroids; and Meyer Natural Angus Beef, also free from antibiotics and steroids. They’re also completely free of preservatives, artificial flavors or colors, soy or fillers.
The beef pelmeni is the most traditional, and Michael said Popkoff’s flavor profile is spot-on authentic. Again, no unfamiliar ingredients here: all-natural beef, wheat flour, water, onions, egg, sour cream, pepper, salt and sugar. In fact, Michael’s mother’s recipe is not far from it. The Popkoff Pelmeni are also available with chicken and farmer's cheese. The Vareniki are filled with either potato and onion or cabbage and carrot.
What we both noticed is that the hearty doughy shells didn’t break when I drained them from the pot, which is sometimes an issue with the homemade version. Traditionally, pelmeni and vareniki are boiled, sautéed with butter and then topped with dill, sage, rosemary or caramelized onions and a dollop of sour cream. But I was pleasantly surprised to read on popkoffs.com about the many recipes in which pelmeni can star: Asian dumpling soup, Chinese chicken salad, Mexican sope and even creamy Italian pasta dishes. They can easily be added to any soup or salad, although I don’t think anything beats eating them plain with humble preparations.
"Not only do we pride ourselves on keeping these traditional recipes of Eastern Europe alive, but we have gone to great lengths to make them with only the best ingredients," says Popkoff's President Alex Meseonznik. To learn more about the 10-ounce packages of Popkoff’s Pelmeni and Vareniki, visit popkoffs.com.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Editor's Pick: Seely Mint

Have you ever been so acclimated to something that when a newer, fresher, tastier option came around, you didn’t know what to think. “This is what I’ve been missing all along?” you’d say to yourself as you consider the artificial concoctions you used to eat.

I’m not just blowing smoke here; that’s how I felt when I bit into a Seely Mint Patty. For years I’ve settled with the sometimes chalky texture of mint patty fillings. I’ve unwrapped plenty of mint chocolates in my life just to be disappointed with the factory-made quality that would just barely satisfy my after-dinner sweet tooth.

This is not the case here, folks.

Every year, Seely Mint Farm in western Oregon transforms into a candy factory as its kitchen team busily handcrafts a range of all-natural mint confections, including hand-rolled candy canes, chocolate mint patties, white and dark chocolate mint melts and peppermint bark.

The chocolate is melt-in-your-mouth amazing, and the mint is something like I’ve never tasted. It’s fresh and real and screams “this is the quality you’ve been missing.”

Mike and Candy Seely, third-generation Oregon mint farmers, never dreamed of being in the candy business; In 2007, however, the demand for their all-natural essential mint oil used for toothpaste, chewing gum, mouthwash and perfume was shrinking because global manufacturers took to less expensive synthetic flavoring options.

"We needed to create new uses for the mint oil before we lost everything," says Mike, whose family began growing heirloom Black Mitcham variety peppermint and spearmint in the early 1940s.
In 2008, Mike and his wife, Candy, made chocolate mint patties to show customers at the farmers market new ways to use the fresh mint oil. They became a hit, but customers didn't want to take the time at home to make them from scratch; they wanted the quality delights the Seely’s were making themselves.

As word of the mint patties spread, local stores in the Pacific Northwest added the confections to their shelves. It’s transparent sourcing that’s winning over the customers who continually tell Mike and Candy they care about what's in their food.

“Our mint confections are all natural in an industry that is saturated with artificial flavor variations of mint in toothpaste, chewing gum and candy," says Mike.

If this is the real deal mint, I’m sold. 


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Perfect Purée


We're all looking for shortcuts in the kitchen, but hesitance to use prepared foods in your favorite recipe creeps in when you think about the ingredients - or the source of those ingredients - from an unknown product.
Step in The Perfect Purée of Napa Valley, whose ingredients are so simple and natural that the company feels completely comfortable displaying them front and center on the top label of the eight single-serve samples that were sent to my office.
Ingredients for Passion Fruit Concentrate, for example: passion fruit juice concentrate and filtered water. That's it. You can't get more simple than that, I suspect. Other refreshing flavors like Prickly Pear Puree and White Peach Puree might throw in additional elements like cane sugar and citric acid, but there's nothing - for once - that I can't pronounce.
Flavors range from pantry staples like raspberry, strawberry and banana to the exotic lychee, passion fruit and pink guava. All products contain no artificial additives, preservatives or sweeteners, and the fruits are harvested at the peak of season. Finally, they're puréed and packed frozen to maintain optimal freshness, flavor and color.
Now satisfied with its makings, I was eager to use the White Peach Puree in a cocktail. Once at home, I added some to my Champagne, producing an instant fizzy kick of natural fruit. It was different, fun and pretty to look at, a perfect fit for my next holiday party, I thought.
The company features 30 premium flavors and nine blends for mixology made easy. A visit to the website, www.perfectpuree.com, reveals many more recipes waiting for experimentation: White Peach Sangria, Green Apple Martini and Blood Orange Margarita, to name a few. Of course, the options don't stop at the bar, as the company suggests many ways in which these natural fruit purees can help jams, sauces, soups, cocktails and desserts.
Just to get your mind thinking, here are a few recipes that stuck out to me: Pear Poundcake with Pear Liqueur Sauce, Seedless Red Raspberry Jam, Chilled Pomegranate Champagne Sauce, Banana Mini Muffins and even Decadent Raspberry Soup. Of course, chefs can mix and match purees with different recipes, leaving the cook with endless options of new and creative dishes and drinks.
All flavors can be frozen for up to 24 months. When thawed, the purées, concentrates and specialties last 7-10 days in the refrigerator, and blends for 21 days..
The Perfect Purée of Napa Valley started in 1988, and today it caters to restaurants, hotels, bakeries, catering kitchens and, yes, bars. According to its press release, it has "indulged the culinary passions of chefs, mixologists and food enthusiasts with effortless products that provide the ultimate in fresh fruit flavor without the peeling, dicing and simmering required to make purées from scratch."
For order information, visit www.perfectpuree.com. For daily recipe ideas and inspiration, visit facebook.com/perfectpuree, twitter.com/theperfectpuree or instagram.com/theperfectpuree.