Archive for May, 2008

How Old is Your Food?

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Ok, so this my rant on shelf-life… b/c frankly, for details that I won’t go into, I’m really angry right now. So, yeah, I’m blogging about it right now, as well…

As a business owner who hand-makes her own products with fresh ingredients, I’m finding it increasingly weird that a month shelf life is considered short in food retail. How long do foods usually sit on the shelf… that we pay money for… and put into our bodies (or put on our shelves at home for even longer amount of time)?

There are some products that are usually understood to have a short shelf-life, but the idea that chocolates go bad barely registers; it’s the curse of a naturally average, but not interminably long shelf-life, that can be extended with meddling… and that people have become used to. So, now we’re stuck with displays in grocery stores of chocolates like Godiva whose ingredients are engineered to last, with taste and texture as side considerations. Really, a box of 4 month old funky, dried-out chocolates with an ingredient list the size of my hand is supposed to be considered a gift? An 8 month old candy bar is a snack to look forward to? A 1 year old tinned cake is special?

Most of the food that I make at home lasts, oh… 3 days? A week, rarely? And it tastes good for it.

I know this about how my products sell in stores — they sell best in stores where the owners and store employees:

A) Have actually tasted them before or after purchasing them

B) Have read the labels and description sheet that I give them

C) Appreciate the fact that they’re selling a fresh product that’s locally handmade with real ingredients that logically go bad after many days have gone by. It helps to display the products as such, rather than put them amongst products that have sat on the shelf for months and will continue to do so. And it seems they do not sell well standing upright in jars/tall vessels b/c it obscures their appearance and label, and candy bars aren’t usually sold that way so people aren’t used to looking in jars for them, and they have to take the effort to pick it out of the jar to figure out what it is, and all that manhandling mars their appearance as well.

D) Actually talk to their customers because they sell what they like and their customers trust them.

E) Order small quantities that they reasonably expect to sell. They know their customers best. And I offer weekly deliveries.

They do great in those stores, and I’m happy that I know the store owners and I do almost anything they ask for to help the bars sell. Are those criteria so difficult to meet? Especially in “gourmet” stores with high prices?  This is why my “Where to Buy” list is short on my website.  For one or a combination of reasons, they don’t work in some stores, and I don’t aggressively pursue wholesale b/c there are too factors out of my control.

I want to be clear that I’m not simply blaming store owners. I work part-time in a store now, and I know something about what it’s like. It’s very hard. There’s a shaky economy, and there are slow days, or weeks, or months, and closures. And you shouldn’t have to talk to each customer that comes in. And you have a lot of products to look after. And there are some products that you make more money on than others. And the of point of packaging and product advertising is that the product can sell themselves. And they’re used to ordering in large quantities. And $5 is a lot for candy bars and $6 is a lot for marshmallows, and not everyone walks into a store wanting to buy them. And I know that not everyone will love my products (but a lot of people do). And days, weeks, months fly by.

It’s just that I’m never going to try to extend my shelf life beyond what is reasonable. Think about taking a container of cream, or milk, or butter out of your refrigerator, and letting it sit on the counter for a month. And then eating it. The chemistry of food combinations, heat, and packaging allows products made of such ingredients to last for a certain amount of time, but it’s really kind of a miracle and that doesn’t obscure the fact that there are fresh ingredients in there that, no matter what, taste best fresh.

A main advantage of my business is the focus on freshness. I’m really amazed that freshness in this area is actually novel. Even if products will be “fine” after 2 months, they’re not going to be the best that they can be b/c they’re simply not fresh and are furthermore full or ingredients that are there for preserving rather than flavor. I’m not going to put in all my hardwork for a business like that.

The only other option that I see (and have seen from the beginning) is to focus on selling them directly. It’s the only way that I can guarantee freshness. The majority of my sales have been directly from my website and phone calls, so I’m thrilled that most of the people who have eaten BonBonBars have gotten them fresh from me. They’re sent out the day after they’re made.

I’ve been reluctant to sell at farmers markets for practical reasons – I drive a very small car that might not be able to fit the tent and table, I’m pretty small myself so carrying and setting up the tent and table would be difficult, and chocolates melt in the sun.

But after successfully dealing with other issues that have come up, I’m going to go for it. If it’s too hot for the chocolates to be out (which it pretty much already is this year), I’m going to sell them out of a cooler as Frozen Candy Bars, which are delicious, too. And my marshmallows and soon-to-be-released caramels will be fine. I think I can make a cool display.

And I love interacting with customers! It’s really the best part of the job. It’s so interesting to get to know people who like the bars, and what else they like, and just the whole thing.

A lot of LA farmers markets are full, though, or are only accepting vendors that fit into their current mix, so I have to find a suitable one that has an opening for me.

I still want to sell them for special events and parties, too, but figuring out the packaging for that (eco-friendly, unique, adjustable) has been proven to be tricky. And a lot of those sales depend on word of mouth, which I’ve been lucky enough to have great experience with, but it can’t really be forecasted.

And the other option is to open my own store… That’s the rather modest goal. It may take a while, but I’m working on it. 🙂

The Rosy Strawberry-Rhubarb Pavlova

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

1

Chandler Strawberries, Rhubarb Compote, Tahitian Vanilla Bean Whipped Cream, Rose Meringue.

I remember the first time that I ever heard of a pavlova — in 1999, at the now-gone Montrachet in New York. I ordered it as something like a dare to myself, and the kitchen. I vaguely expected some kind of hearty Russian dessert to come out of that refined French kitchen that had already given us two absolutely amazing courses. The pavlova turned out to be a plate of pure lightness and flavor. Looking back, it was the first dessert that really left an impression on me (even though I’d have no clue about how to make it for the roughly 7 years afterwards). It was a passion fruit and blackberry pavlova, and part of its genius was that the glazed blackberries on the side of the plate were warm — making the otherwise cool, creamy dish even dreamier. And now that I think of it, that dish had two tart fruits, but the warmth in the berries imbued the dish with just the right earthy note. Brilliant.

So, I love pavlovas, and they’re really pretty easy to make. Unlike some meringue recipes that can go for hours or overnight in a low oven, the pavlova meringue can only take about an hour in the oven, so that it’s crunchy on the outside and marshmallow-y on the inside. Some pavlova-ists insist on a perfectly white meringue (which indeed looks gorgeous and satin-y in the oven while baking in the early stages), but I prefer a bit of a final brown complexion to mine. As all of my sugar-cooking as proven to me, color on sugar equals flavor… so that slight caramelization on the exterior is pure gold.

When I started on this dessert, I knew that I wanted to make some kind of a strawberry-rhubarb concoction… It actually started out as a napoleon, since I was making a big batch of puff pastry anyway that day to put in the freezer for alsatian tarts during the summer and I figure I should make pastry cream once a year whether I need it or not, but as I thought about it more and more, paring it down the essence of the flavors that I wanted to experience, the extra butter, flour, and eggs went away, as usual… and left me with the idea of making a sugary, creamy pavlova, topped with fresh strawberries on top of a rhubarb compote and unsweetened vanilla whipped cream, and spiked with the slight essence of rosewater in the meringue, inspired by Claudia’s Fleming’s ideas in The Last Course.

Strawberries – Wonderfully ripe and juicy Chandlers from the Santa Monica Farmers Market, quartered a la minute. No need to do/add anything else to them.

Rhubarb Compote – based on Dana’s recipe – I looked around for rhubarb prep ideas, and went with this one because I didn’t want it too runny so that it wouldn’t dissolve the meringue or whipped cream. This was one perfectly slightly jammy, with the help of a touch of butter to give it body and silkiness. I omitted the orange peel b/c I didn’t want too much orange flavor, but I did include some homemade orange liqueur made with valencias and Mount Gay rum. Rhubarb is way more rare in LA than it is in Seattle (I know of two farmers market stands that carry it, occasionally), but I felt that this is a good recipe to use to show off rhubarb whether it is sparse or plentiful.

Rose Meringuethis recipe, with rosewater added to taste at the end instead of vanilla – I followed Fleming’s advice to make the rose flavor slightly stronger than I wanted before baked b/c it would weaken a bit after baking. The exterior of the meringue seemed a little… umm…. rubbery for a while in the oven (maybe from the cornstarch), but I upped the temp to 275F after 50 minutes, and it got caramelized and crunchy on the outside while leaving the inside marshmallowy. And some people make meringues to get rid of extra egg whites… but I’m the type who never finds ways to get rid of extra yolks… egg-based custards just aren’t my thing.

I have some leftover meringues and rhubarb compote and cream… and some fresh brooks cherries! So, tonight, as I watch the Lost finale, it’ll be a pavlova version of last year’s cherry-rhubarb cobbler…. as look forward to remaking my Fresh Apple Pavlova in the fall from almost two years ago!

Please Take My Caramel Survey

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

There are way more delicious caramel flavors than I can make part of my product line at once… so please take my very short caramel survey to help me determine which flavors I should launch first!

Thank you so much!

Please click here for the survey

PS – Thanks so much to everyone who’s already filled out the survey!  It’s really helpful.  Right now, there’s one very clear favorite — and it’s not one that I thought would be!  I’ll share the results after more surveys are filled out.

BonBonBars in Santa Barbara!

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Metropulos in Santa Barbara is currently carrying my full line of candy bars and marshmallows (though you should call ahead for availability, just to make sure). So, if you live in the area or are heading up there for the holiday weekend, you can stop by for some BonBonBars.

I haven’t been to the store myself, but I’m tempted to take a little day-trip somewhere this weekend, btw production… and a store that begins its website with this declaration sounds like a perfect place for a little culinary escape:

“Food…it’s just a passion for us. We love to eat. We love to eat well.”

Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant
216 East Yanonali St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101

805-899-2300

The Caramel Report

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Despite my blog’s evidence to the contrary, the caramels have been on my mind a lot. I’ve boiled up quite a few batches, but it’s also been pretty cerebral/practical. One issue with caramels is that you have to boil an awful lot of sugar and dairy to make enough yield for sales to meet costs…. and then you have to cut… and place… wrap… and twist… every single one… before packaging them altogether into one package. It may be easier than tempering chocolate… but not quite as exciting… and certainly not foolproof (scorching the sugar or cooking it with the dairy even 1 degree too high or low makes for waste and/or wasted time).

Packaging is another issue. I want it to be unique, fun, and attractive, but also eco-friendly and as unfussy as possible. And I want the pieces to be as big as possible while still being pleasurable to eat; partially also to fit in with the “bar” part of the BonBonBar brand. So, the caramels are shaping up to be like little sticks, about 3.5″ long, and 1/2″ wide and tall.

Though I love cellophane b/c it’s clear and biodegradeable, I just can’t get the caramels to look unique and nice in it. Now I’m debating about whether to package them in kraft coffee bags (with glassine or PLA lining — not plastic, as many of them are), in paper tubes, or my kraft gift boxes; all those options are opaque, but I think that’ll be ok if the label is eye-catching, with a dash or color (kind of rare on caramel packaging). They actually look very cool standing upright and slightly sticking out of an opened tubes, but if I don’t get customized printing on the tube itself, I’m not sure that I’ll get a nice exterior look out of it with stickers, and they’ll be pretty pricey, which will drive up the price of the package just for packaging’s sake. So, I’m leaning towards the coffee bags for the smallest quantity (probably 4 oz), and then my gift boxes for larger amounts.

And the flavors! I loved all the suggestions from readers. A major consideration, though, is how to flavor the caramels — infusion or inclusion. Inclusion is relatively simple once you figure out the recipe — you either mix in flavoring ingredients (like nuts or spices) or adjust the recipe to include a new type of ingredient (like honey or malt syrup to replace some sugar/syrup). I’m also trying to be local as much as possible.

many of the suggestions called for infusions… and infusions are a bit tricky because, as I see it, you can either infuse the cream or the sugar… and it will probably take a lot of production time, and require straining. It’s the straining that’s the hardest part, because when you had the cream to the caramelized sugar, it sputters up a lot and requires strategic stirring. To put a strainer on top of the sugar pot would result in the sputterings to stick to the strainer itself… and cause a bit of a mess. You could strain the dairy into a separate vessel first, but when your caramelizing sugar, you don’t want to step away from it for too long b/c you have to strain (after making sure that it’s at the proper strength of flavor , which is a lot b/c it has to get through caramelized sugar) AND make sure that you have the same yield of strained cream every time, or else it won’t turn out the same texture-wise. I think that I could infuse the cream in batches, freeze it, measure it, and reheat it to use, but… that’s a whole project in itself, which requires lots of time and freezer space that I don’t have in my rented kitchen, and I really do like to use fresh dairy. This is especially an issue with citrus. I find that the best flavor and stability comes from infused peel into the cream; juice in the liquid tends to promote a pronounced cooked fruit flavor.

Or maybe I’m just lazy these days… b/c there were inclusion suggestions… I loved Cyndi’s daughters idea of Banana Nut Caramels (PS — hello, child prodigy — well done, you’ve suggested a brilliant match of flavors with caramel — Nina), but I haven’t tried it yet. I’m not sure that pureed bananas (I… can’t.. use extract) can withstand being heated to about 250F… and frankly, there are the issues of fruit flies that come from bananas as they ripen and to be in my rented commercial kitchen at just the right point when they ripen; though I think that I could freeze a large batch of puree ok. But as I write about it, I realize the more that I want to try it… Bananas… Caramel.. Walnuts, I’m thinking… Yum…

I also liked Mandy’s suggestion of adding flour to honey caramels… I think that the slightly more gummy texture from the starch would be very interesting (I LOVE the texture of Turkish Delights), but I haven’t tried it yet.

I also liked Tommy’s idea of stout added to the caramels. The only issue with this is the low alcohol content of beer — meaning that it was a lot of water and would take a long time to boil off — and I remember an Unwrapped episode on the Food Network about a beer confection that took a month for the flavor of the beer to come through properly… A month. I’ve tried Scotch, which comes through strongly right away.

And then there’s the ginger idea… Infusion or adding fresh ginger juice at the end like extract… I’m not sure how to go about it… or if I have a reliable source for ginger… I’ve come across a lot of dry/brown/blue pieces of ginger before, and I’m slightly reluctant to use ground ginger, though I think it’d be the easiest and most consistent.

Also, I’m developing the line of caramels because I anticipate my chocolate sales to go down in the summer due to higher shipping costs… but I could be wrong — esp if I get a lot of local sales, either direct or wholesale. So, to include a wide range of caramels may too hasty… If I have to make caramels in addition to large amounts of candy bars and marshmallows, I don’t really have the kitchen time for it… though if I get enough orders, that could mean affording more kitchen time and/or hiring someone to help… have I mentioned that I’m also working on a more ambitious business plan? If I had my own store where I could sell my products fresh from the air-conditioned kitchen in the back, a lot of issues would go away (though, yes, a host of other issues would appear)… but I am aiming for a store and a kitchen….

Anyway, now I’m thinking about maybe 4 caramel flavors to start. I’m going to put a survey for votes soon.

Anyway… as far as recipe development goes… Caramels are made of only a few ingredients, which are generally either fats (cream, butter) or sugar (granulated, liquid). Only some salt and possibly some flavoring round them out… It’s kind of fun working on these recipes within these ingredients; it’s like working within a haiku and being amazed by the endless possibilities.

One thing that is constant is in my recipes, though, is that the sugar is always caramelized because that’s the main flavor that I like in caramels. Caramels are often made without caramelizing the sugar first, and those usually rely more on the flavors of the dairy (butter browns around the final cooking temp of caramels); sometimes brown sugar is used in those to deepen the flavor.

So notes far…

Malted Chocolate – I think I have the flavor of this just worked out to be like a chocolate milkshake, but it’s been turning out a bit chewy, which may not be a surprise given the presence of organic malt syrup. To soften the texture, I’m adding more cream and cooking to a lower temp. I’m not adding more butter b/c I don’t want that flavor to be too strong.

Honey – Made with Wildflower honey from Bill’s Bee’s. I’d vaguely thought that the honey caramels would be pretty mellow, but these are quite pungent, which I think works best.

Salted Chocolate Nut w/ Cacao Nibs – I conceived this as a melty version of my caramel nut bar since it has the same ingredients, but the Caramel Nut Bar has a much stronger caramel flavor that I don’t think is possible with a chocolate caramel. Once chocolate is added, it takes off the edge of the caramel and butter. The texture of the caramel itself is like a rather moister tootsie roll, which is very nice… I’m not completely sure that it needs the nuts and cacao nibs.

Earl Grey – I tried this twice by infusing earl grey tea into the cream, and just couldn’t really get the flavor to come through strongly.

Apricot – This was pretty interesting. I added some apricot preserves that I’d made last summer out of just peeled apricots, sugar, and lemon juice to the boiling caramel; I’d also decreased the amount of sugar in the recipe proportional the amount of sugar in the preserves. The final texture was like a pate de fruit crossed with caramel — really great. The flavor doesn’t really come through until the end of the bite, though. I’m also not sure about the shelf-life of these at all — technically, there are still bits of apricot in the caramel; they might be sugared enough to be stable, but I’ll see how it ages.

Spicy- I added a spice mix that I made myself out of primarily ancho and chipotle pepper, but it didn’t meld well with the caramel flavor.

Scotch — Surprisingly very floral and unique.