Archive for February, 2008

One More Day for Valentine’s Day Orders!

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Valentine’s Day orders must be placed by Noon (PT) on Saturday.  Orders placed after noon will be scheduled to ship the following Monday (2/18).

And I’m really excited to go to the kitchen this weekend!  I’m honored that so many people have chosen to give the gift of BonBonBars for Valentine’s Day.  I’ll definitely bring my camera, and will post photos of them being made!

BonBonBars on Candy Blog!

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

Cybele over at Candy Blog has written a wonderful write up of the Malt Bar and the Scotch Bar — it’s the first review of the Scotch Bar online!

I’m very excited to have Cybele write about BonBonBars. I’ve been reading her blog for a long time now, and I have great respect for her tastes and the quality of writing.  I also admire the fairness — and enthusiasm — with which she critiques candies ranging from the most mass-market to the most artisan.  Every candy is objectively taken on its own merit, with wit (hehe) and understanding.  Ever since I launched my company, I’ve wondered if and when my confections would be featured on the site, and how they would be rated (woohoo!  the Malt Bars and Scotch Bars got a 9 out 10, which equals Yummy!).  So, I blushed when I revealed in my last post that I love stirring caramel, and I blushed again when I read her post…

I Love Stirring Caramel {blush}

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

I was a little hesitant to release the Scotch Bar with a layer of chewy caramel because oozy caramel is already a major part of my Caramel Nut Bar, but I did because people tend to love caramel and I really enjoy making it. Give me a pot, a bowl of sugar, and a stovetop, and I could caramelize sugar all day. So, I thought I’d share a bit about my observations and theories on the dry method of caramelizing as well as a fun caramel fact: Milton Hershey had a very successful caramel company before he ever dealt with chocolate.

I think that successful caramelization depends on the finesse of a technique that not a lot of people talk about: stirring. “Folding” is usually the way to combine ingredients that is the subject of stern lectures, earnest demos, and general hysteria, but I think that the more common way to combine ingredients –stirring — is also a skill. Watch how a person stirs, and you can tell a lot about who they are as a cook. Anyone can make irregular motions with a utensil to eventually pull together some ingredients in a bowl, but the agile, confident stirrer is something to behold, so smooth that you barely noticed that they’ve done anything at all. The ingredients swirl together practically on their own.

Stirring is mostly about circles. Large, languorous circles; small, quicker circles; and authoritative yet moderate figure-eights. Some long, straight painterly strokes can come in handy, too. It’s also about controlling contact. If you’re incorporating dry ingredients into wet, make contact with the wet ingredients first and let them pull the dries in as you stir. You’ll spend less time scraping gunk off your spoon or spatula. You also want to make contact with the bottom of the vessel as you stir. You’ll spend less time cleaning off your shirt, or dodging molten sugar grenades. Stirring is also about intent. You are generally trying to combine ingredients and/or allow them to heat evenly. I suppose whisking is a sub-category of stirring, in which you are more trying to combine quickly and aerate.

For stirring caramel, you can use a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon. I use a non-coated wooden spoon. I like the way it feels in my hand, how it keeps cool, and how it smoothly glides along the bottom of the pan, and it can scrape the sides of the bowl just fine.

So, when I start caramelizing sugar, I get all my ingredients ready, turn on the stove flame to med-high, and pour about 1/4″ of my sugar on the bottom of the pot and shake it so it’s flat. After a little time has gone by, the bottom and edges of the sugar will liquify and turn golden, and if I tilt the pan and shimmy it gently, I’ll see the hot-spot where the sugar is the darkest. That’s where I put the tip of my spoon down — where there are barely any sugar crystals on top b/c of the shimmying — and start stirring in small circles. When I’ve created a liquidy pool, I make my circles larger and swirl in the surrounding sugar crystals gradually until they are all incorporated into the wetness.

That little technique is really pretty nifty. If you plunk your spoon into a snowdrift of sugar crystals over caramelized sugar and stir any which way at that point, you’re going to wind up with lots of clumps of sugar surrounded by some liquid, and you’ll have to chisel away at them with a similarly clump-covered spoon until they break up and start caramelizing. If you don’t succeed, the clumps will stay crystallized and hard, and will make for a caramel that is either grainy or, yes, full of sugar clumps. This may seem like an esoteric point, but I applied it from reading Elisabeth Prueitt talk about incorporating flour into the egg foam to make genoise cake batter in the Tartine Cookbook. If you scrape in the flour that inevitably sticks to the side of the bowl, you’ll wind up with lumps that are impossible to smooth out, so she advises you to push some batter up the side of the bowl to where the flour is stuck and let the batter pull the flour away. And so it can be applied to caramelizing sugar.

So… now the sugar is all wet and on its way to fully caramelizing. The goal of stirring at this point is to let all the sugar heat evenly, not to combine or aerate. So, you can let it sit alone for a little while, as the sugar on the bottom cooks, then stir it gently to let new sugar find its way to the hot bottom. Although the sugar has all been wet for a while, it isn’t all caramelized. It will start out kind of thick, but as the lingering crystals break down mixed amongst the caramelized sugar, the caramel will become more thin and liquidy, and a richer brown.

In the dry method, the sugar is often added in stages. The bigger your pot, the more sugar you can add at a time; if you have a big pot or only a little sugar to caramelize, you can caramelize all in one go. When I add more sugar, I try to add it as a crescent or in the middle so that I can have open access to some caramelized sugar to put my spoon into before pulling in the surrounding sugar. There’s a bit of latitude about when to add additional sugar and how much. If you add a lot of sugar, you’ll wind up with a kind of a paste until it melts down; that’s ok. If your sugar isn’t thoroughly caramelized when you add more, that’s ok, too, because you’re continuing to cook it anyway.

So, I continue to stir and add sugar until all my sugar is in the pot. This is when doneness counts. At this point, there is already so much heat under the pot and in the pot — sugar caramelizes at about 310F (as a comparison, bread is done at an internal temp of only 195F) — that I turn the heat down to medium so that the remaining crystals melt and caramelize without burning the sugar that has already caramelized. The sugar is already quite brown and caramel-y at this point, so I only vaguely go by a nice rich caramel color. I think that the most important thing is that all the sugar crystals are melted. It’s slightly tricky because the caramel naturally has air bubbles in it, which also look like crystals, so I look closely at it. I then stir gently, b/c stirring vigorously wouldn’t accomplish anything except letting heat escape. When there are no more visible crystals and it’s a lovely deep caramel color, I stop cooking it by adding fats on low heat. If there are still sugar crystals, they can lead to graininess or clump into hard bits. I’ve found that my laser thermometer can pick up the temp of caramel just fine; mine usually gets to around 340F. If you think it’s close to being done but are scared of burning it, you can take it off the heat and it will finish due to the residual heat. Unless you go all Michael Recchuiti, burnt sugar isn’t good for much. I think it’s better to go slower at the end than to risk wasting the whole batch.

Candy thermometers are not so useful here because you’ve lost so much moisture while caramelizing that the caramel usually isn’t deep enough to get a good reading. And if you were to add fats to it, there’s a chance that the sugar on the thermometer wouldn’t dissolve completely when added. Also, if you have a lot of caramelized sugar, chances are you’re adding a lot of fat that will bubble up, so you want the caramel to be as shallow as possible so that it won’t bubble out of the pot. A candy thermometer should be added only after you’ve added any additional wet ingredients and have stirred to incorporate.

I was going to go into rest of the process and the differences between the chewy caramel in the Scotch Bar and the oozy caramel in the Caramel Nut Bar, but I’ll stop now — at this rate, this is the beginning of a novel called Caramel… I hope to have pictures for the next chapter!

Why Am I Doing This?

Monday, February 4th, 2008

It’s been about a couple months since I launched BonBonBar. And it’s about time that I should write a glittering post to promote my products and my newly-released Valentine’s Day confections (you only have until Saturday at Noon to order!), but I’m feeling a bit introspective at the moment, if not a bit melancholy… maybe tired, too. This blog is about sharing my feelings towards food first and foremost, and my recent quick posts to the contrary, is not simply a sales pitch for my products.

So, I will admit that when I got to my commercial kitchen this weekend, I didn’t really want to make anything. Of course, I did, and of course, am grateful that I’m able to, but I also thought a lot about my situation. What is motivating me? I absolutely want to make a secure living from BonBonBar, but I’m not especially motivated by the thought of, say, becoming a millionaire. I’m not a very good materialist. I don’t especially like having a lot of things and having the duty to look after them, and I don’t dream about buying things that I can’t afford now. I’m happiest when I have just what I need and like, and I already have a lot that I need and like. I think even part of my concern for biodegradable packaging materials stems from my desire to not have stuff lying around.

Maybe that’s part of why the business has been a bit of a shock to my system. I buy more than I ever have before for the business, and I have to look after every single thing. I have spend a lot of time organizing, and making space, and cleaning, and restocking, and calculating savings and wastes. If one critical thing is missing, I could potentially not be able to send something out.

Incidentally, on the flip-side, my personal credit card bill for the past month was probably the lowest it’s ever been since I first got a credit card as a teenager without a car, so I guess there is a little balance there. I hardly even buy much real food anymore because I don’t have the energy or savory creativity to make much now, but I’m not bored with what I eat because I’ve found that the challenge of combining what I already have into a fast meal is kind of fun, and leads to combinations that I think rival the most avant-garde cuisine. 🙂

So, what is motivating me? Why did I go on to make my sweets, aside from a market-driven legal duty? For one thing, I truly want people to be able to eat good food. There’s so much food out there that either tastes bad or is made with bad ingredients, or both. I know that candy bars and marshmallows are ornamental to the reality of day-to-day survival, but when I think about foraging for food in places like airports, food courts, supermarkets, or even around town, I know that good food –with flavor!– can be hard to find. At this point, I’m probably among the pickiest of tasters and consumers, but I don’t think that I’m the only one who’s ever felt forced to buy, for example, a turkey sandwich on a white roll, and proceeded to eat it knowing that there was very little nutrition and even less flavor. I can’t presume that all of my products are perfect for everyone and I’m always concerned over whether they’re good enough, but I like to think that they’re poised in the right direction for what they are.

I’m also hugely motivated by the people who I’ve come into contact with, including my readers who comment and who have made purchases, all customers, fellow entrepreneurs, suppliers, retailers, and so many others. It’s incredibly exciting to be in so many people’s worlds who I otherwise wouldn’t have known. I suppose that talking to and helping customers and networking is part of any job, but it really is an adventure to interact with people based on this little handmade candy bar scheme that I have. It’s fun making people happy, and I especially aspire to the ideas of hospitality in business that I read about in Danny Meyer’s book. Sure, when I meet people, I sometimes I get a little tired of hearing myself launch into my handmade candy bar spiel, but it’s always interesting when I hear someone else’s take on it, and when I get to hear about what they do and what they’re passionate about. I find that people are really excited to be around an entrepreneur, and working in chocolate doesn’t hurt. Sure, not everyone is genuine and not everyone follows through, but it’s all part of the adventure.

My interactions with people are especially important to me because I am a one-woman show now, from PR to packaging. I use “we” on the BonBonBar website more in the royal sense, and also as a nod to all the people who do help me, including a very caring and helpful boyfriend and supportive family and friends. But if something has to get done, I’m going to do it, or possibly instigate others outside my company/me to it. There’s always that feeling of having a lot to do, with the occasional feeling of nothing to do, if I actually want to relax, but that’s a dangerous feeling that slows down the present, and even more critically, the future. Everything takes its own time.

So, when I get to my rented kitchen, I’m alone, unlocking the triple-lock, carrying in supplies like my chocolate melter, sheet pans, tools, bowls, and freshly bought ingredients from my Beetle (at least I didn’t get that Miata I wanted six years ago). I have my iPod that I put on occasionally, and the luck to work with ingredients that I respect and like, and to only make things that I like. Chocolate is one of the more wily ingredients that a person can endeavor to control, but I try to understand it and work with it the best I can. I’m still terrified of discovering a batch of bloomed candy bars, and I have had my share of rejects through bad luck or recklessness. But I’ve had a lot of good luck, and there have only been maybe three times when I wished I had a second opinion in the kitchen. Only once have I called Chad to google something for me. And yes, if there’s a build up of dishes that I need and the chocolate is in perfect condition to use right away, I’m going to get it all done (and will always be more cleaning to do). And I go home, usually escorted by Chad after I got spooked a couple times, at around 2am.

I’m not exactly sure how much harder this is than a challenging job working for someone else, but there’s nothing that I’d rather do, and I’m excited that so many people have met the project with such enthusiasm. It helps keep me going, and I still have a long way to go… I dream of building this into my own chocolate store, and in addition to the immediate concerns, I have to strategize for the future based on the data so far. At least I’m small ‘n agile, and try to analyze every aspect within reason and at some point, and figure out wholesale, and PR, and ganache formulations, and packaging, and financials, and organization, and on and on… The game continues… The ebb and flow… The excitement, the anxiety, and the work…

BonBonBar in Print!

Friday, February 1st, 2008

For those of you lucky enough to live in Marin County in CA, Pat Fusco has written a lovely little write up of my BonBonBars in the “What’s New” section of The Pacific Sun (February 1 issue).  It’s the first mention of BonBonBars in a printed publication, so it’s very exciting.   Fortunately, it’s also available online here.

And when am I going to start writing more again, rather than linking to others’ words?  As soon as I can… I’ve been busy and tired trying to keep everything together myself — including myself — but yes, I have some posts in the works…