Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday Chocolate

I just came back from my first Chocolate Trade Show! I loved it - it was amazing and I was buzzed out of my mind on theobromine! (In case you don't know what theobromine is, it is the feel good chemical in chocolate that keeps one coming back for more)

Theobromine has a similar effect than caffeine, but about 10 times weaker. Theobromine has diuretic, stimulant and relaxing effects. Theobromine can lower the blood pressure because it can to dilate blood vessels. Theobromine has stimulant properties, similar to caffeine. Unlike caffeine theobromine does not affect the central nervous system. Theobromine can also relax bronchi muscles in the lungs. Theobromine can be used as cough medicine. Studies indicate that theobromine acts on the vagus nerve, which runs from the lungs to the brain.-

The National Chocolate Show, held last weekend on the breezy shores of Lake Michigan at Chicago's Navy Pier, was a fest for those who love chocolate, wish to learn more about chocolate, or for those who make a living producing chocolate in some fashion or another.

All the big names in the chocolate industry were in attendance. Valrhona, Cocoa Barry, Callebaut, and a new name in my chocolate book, Luker. I was not familiar with this Colombian brand and was happy to make their acquaintance on my visit. Luker chocolate tastes amazing and I look forward to using it in some of my confections. 

Another very cool find from the show was Crio Brü. Crio is based out of Utah and they are selling ground cacao of the Criollo variety of bean. They are selling it as a drink to be brewed like coffee. This drink is delicious, full of antioxidants, and gives you an amazing boost without the caffeine. Look for it in your local specialty store of coffee shop. Ask for it if no one in your area is carrying it. If you enjoy the raw flavor of cacao and the feeling that it brings you, then you must get your hands on this stuff, absolutely amazing. Tip it back and drink cacao like the Aztecs were doing some 500 years ago! 

My other very nice "surprise" was seeing Pacari Chocolates. Pacari is a brand of chocolate from Ecuador. Of course my own internal happy compounds went off as I was able to chat it up with Pacari reps not only about my last trip down to Ecuador, but I was able to find out what this great company is busy doing. I learned that they are quite busy indeed. They are farming the Nacional Variety of cacao in Ecuador and not only doing it organically, but also bio-dynamically. They have earned the Demeter Certification which is a biodynamic certification. Pacari's chocolate is delicious and at this years International Chocolate Awards held in London, Pacari walked away with 10 awards, including the Gold Medal for Best Dark/Origin Chocolate Bar. Congrats to Pacari! They seem to have a very successful brand that is sustainable from the bottom up. I am currently eating a bar of their Raw 70% award winning chocolate as I write this and let me say, it screams nacional bean variety.  (total chocolate dork here)

For those of you who care about the chocolate you eat... get out there are purchase a bar of Pacari 70% raw. It won the gold medal this year at the World Chocolate Awards in London. This is what real chocolate should taste like. Break a piece off, put it in your mouth and let it melt and melt and melt. The flavors are so earthy and real I guarantee you will have a conversion experience. Let it melt in your mouth and just taste the amazing flavor profile of a chocolate that is definitely worth spending $$$ on. Nacional variety beans, Ecuador, fermented, Demeter Certified = delicious.

Bliss out - eat good chchocolate and enjoy your weekend.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tennessee Whiskey and Wisconsin Cheese... Perfect Pairing

Cheesy Whiskey.

Some things are so good, so delicious, that you want them to never end. The above photo depicts just that; excellent cheese paired with high octane whiskey (no joke) and high caliber cheese. 

Thanks to the cheese diva, Jeanne Carpenter from Cheese Underground for putting together another amazing cheese event. Wisconsin Cheese Originals is an annual weekend long cheese festival, that leaves you full (literally) of cheese and other amazing goodies. Jeanne works tirelessly to bring together some of the best cheese-makers in Wisconsin and the nation, to this lip smacking event held at the Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin.  Artisan cheese-makers and farmstead cheese-makers alike make a Hollywood like appearance and grace the attendees with their cheese knowledge and cheesy wit. Even I blush when I have to introduce myself to these beautiful women and handsome men who make some of the best award winning cheeses in the world. (cheese-maker nerd swoon)

Willi Lehner Bleu Mont Dairy
Sandwich me in-between these cheeses and I am a happy lady....
best label in show.... don't you think?
Each year, Barrie Lynn, the Cheese Impresario is in attendance and offers up her knowledge when pairing fine spirits and cheeses. This year, her spirit of choice was Tennessee Whiskey. Last year it was rum, the year before it was sake. So here we are America,  feeling our southern roots with good ole' Tennessee Whiskey. I admit, at first I was not sure I could stomach the whiskey and cheese combo. However, after you warm up to Barrie Lynn's enthusiasm and knowledge of not only the cheese but also the whiskey, you are ready to create the "cheese highway" as Barrie Lynn calls it.

Jeanne Carpenter and Barrie Lynn - cheese goddesses

Artisan Cheese and Tennessee Whiskey Pairing

Prichard's Double Chocolate Bourbon Whiskey and Marieke's Raw Milk Honey Clover Gouda
George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whiskey - Red Rock/Chris Roelli
Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select - Satori Reserve Espresso BellaVitano
Whisper Cream Tennessee Sipping Cream - Belgioioso Cheese Mascarpone

The pairing was delicious. A highlight of my day at the Cheese Fest! The pours were generous, the hunks of cheese were weighty and my table of cheese aficionados were soon giddy from the whiskey while happily enjoying each taste of cheese. We tasted Red Rock,  a cheddar made with double the anatto and a hint of blue, Marieke's Raw Milk Honey Clover Gouda, Satori Reserve Espresso BellaVitano, and the creamy Belgioioso Mascarpone drowning in a luxurious Tennessee Sipping Cream.

I was partial to Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select, I must say. It was really smooth, for 47% and the flavor was filled with caramel notes. For being a amateur, I was quite pleasantly surprised how lovely whiskey can taste. However, ending the tasting with a super rich sipping cream which smothered the even richer mascarpone cheese was pretty much over the top. No other way to say it. OVER THE TOP! If you need something sweet and delcious to replace your traditional Baileys, get yourself some of the Whisper Creek Sipping Cream. Repeat, OVER THE TOP.

If you are in Wisconsin next November, try to make it to this great cheese fest. It is not only a taste experience, but an educational awakening into what really good cheese tastes like. Who knows what they will be pairing next year?

Peace out on Wisconsin Cheese and Tennessee Whiskey

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pie Palooza Madison 2012

It is easy to while away your time eating, especially when it is pie.

Eat it up Madison.

Mark this one on your to do list for next fall. Sponsored by REAP, Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group is a Madison based non-profit that helps bridge the gap between the food you eat and where it comes from. From farm to table, seed to fruit, farm to school, local food and community based, REAP works to keep the connections fresh and strong. Each one of their food based events brings the community together. These events help remind us of the important role we play in bringing balance back to our relationship with food. Pie Palooza is one of REAP's many special events held during the year. Local chefs and restaurants work to create and donate delicious edibles, in pie form, for the hungry masses. You purchase your ticket, and voila, you are fed.... with pies, both sweet and savory alike.

both sides of the pie line....

Formerly housed at RP's Pasta, Pie Palooza has grown to the point that now it is held in the spacious and lovely Goodman Center on Madison's East side.  Families and friends alike have their choice of two slices of pie, sweet or savory. Delicious greens are served as well as local ice cream from Sassy Cow Creamery and local coffee. This was my maiden voyage to Pie Palooza and it is definitely one I will be taking again. I was immediately struck with the friendliness of the volunteers and dedicated professionals who were working to make this event a success. Both Miriam Grunes and Theresa Feiner from REAP made me feel quite at home while I and others quietly (or not so quietly) indulged our palates with delicious pies, coffee and more delicious pie.

Listed below are the many local Madison restaurants who participated in Pie Palooza 2012 by making and donating some type of delicious pie offering. There were apple gallettes made with local apples and maple syrup, leek quiche with cheese from Edelweiss Creamery, pumpkin chiffon pie, pumpkin pecan and wild rice mini quiche, cranberry pecan honey tarts... the list goes on and on and on.

Madison Restaurants Participating in 2012 Pie Palooza

Pie Palooza is a sell-out event every year so make sure to keep a lookout for this come next fall.  Head over to REAP's website to see what there upcoming offerings might be. You can even consider becoming a member. Your contribution will be put to good use! We need REAP in our community to keep the good food energy moving and to keep us all educated on the local food happenings in and around the Madison community.  Check their site often for cool food events that will keep us all connected.

Peace and Pie

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Amazing Chocolate Brownie Recipe from the Cloud Forest

 The most delicious brown recipe starts with really good chocolate.

From the cloud forest of Ecuador comes an amazing cacao; 100%, dark, bitter, drying and earthy. When you hold the fresh baba in your hands, cover the fermenting pepas with freshly cut banana leaves, lay out the almendras to dry, roast the cacao to perfection, grind it into a pure paste, mold it, bring it back thousand of miles and finally melt it down again with a pound of butter, you can say that the brownie recipe that you are about to make may be your next favorite.

My house smelled like chocolate for 24 hours.

Amazing Chocolate Brownie Recipe - Mindo Chocolates

12 oz. 100% high quality pure chocolate/cacao
1 lb unsalted butter
8 eggs
4 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
1 cup flour

Oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9x15 pan. In a double boiler or bain marie, melt chocolate and butter. Let cool. Mix in sugar, and add eggs. Mix quite well until you have a uniform mixture.  Add in vanilla, salt and flour. Bake for 45 minutes. Voila. You will have the best brownies in the world. Let rest for at least 2 hours. I think the brownies are best cut into small two-bite pieces so you can keep eating them without any guilt.

And while your brownies are baking, take a peek at these photos I shot at a plantation we visited. Magical.

Nacional Ecuador Cacao - Puerto Quito
The Cacao Flower.
Cacao Plantation in Ecuador
A stunning tree, full of ripening cacao
Harvesting a ripe pod off the trunk of the tree
Ahh... the best part, eating our way through the plantation. Underneath that fabulous tasting fleshy fruit is the bitter cacao seed. If you ever get the chance to taste this fresh... do so... unforgettable.

Peace, love and another brownie - Megan

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wordless Wednesday - Butterflies in Mindo


Monday, September 3, 2012

Sugar Sweets - Making Fresh Cane Juice

fresh sugar cane
 Sweet mother. 
Where do you come from?

loading up the truck
I was treated to so many taste pleasures on my trip to Ecuador, one being fresh cacao, and another being a refreshing drink with a taste all its own, known as freshly pressed cane juice. I felt almost guilty enjoying something so pure and thirst quenching.  As hot and sticky as the jungles can be, and as you sweat out the long day in the sun, cane juice fills you back up with the coolness of the morning dew and the essence of the afternoon shade.

pressing the sugar cane in the press/trapiche - mindo, ecuador
One of the more spontaneous trips in Ecuador involved a trip up and out of the valley of Mindo to a town about thirty minutes away.... or so we thought (read on). Our mission was to pick up some freshly harvested sugar cane or caña de azúcar. Every month or so, at El Quetzal de Mindo, sugar cane is sought out, brought back to Mindo and pressed into fresh cane juice and then boiled down into a cane syrup which is used in several of the artisan products produced there. (my personal favorite being the ginger ale). The lucky part of being around on pressing day is that you can fill up your glass with fresh cane juice, add a bit of fresh squeezed lime juice and drink up! (Thank you Jorge for filling my water bottle to the brim) You can also chew on the cane, which is exquisite in it's own right because of the texture and crunch it gives while filing your mouth with this delicious sweetness we call cane juice.

sugar cane juice being boiled down into a syrup
We were given a set of very crude and very Ecuadorian directions to pick up the sugar cane. If you ask one person for directions in Ecuador they may tell you that it will take you 20 minutes to get somewhere and tell you to just drive straight. Another will tell you one hour and turn left (when they really mean right) and when exasperated, you finally reach your destination, you will see it neither took you twenty minutes or an hour, it took two hours! Our directions were; stop at kilometer marker 71 and pick up the cane in front of the cemetary. Really? Cryptic? Yes, we drove all around the tops of the mountains looking for the right kilometer marker. We finally found it. Was there any cemetery near by? Nope. Just a small dirt road about 1/4 mile past the marker. So being that that was our only clue, we took a left down the road and headed into a small village. Cemetery in sight? Nope? We stopped three times and asked three different people where the cemetery was. Each person zig zagged their hands in the air told us to just snake our way through the streets, right, left, right, straight back, right before the big hill, and then your will find it. We zigged, we zagged... and we finally found it. Sure enough way in the back of the village, near the edge of the forest, there stood the cane, standing on end, right in front of the cemetery.

We loaded up the cane, well actually the men loaded up the cane, I watched and snapped photos. The gentleman who grew the sugar cane was a sweet older gentleman, who lived with his son in a humble home on a hill next to the cemetery. Small sugar cane fields surrounded his house along with the most manicured gardens. You could tell that his gardens were so important to him. Each plant more beautiful than the next. He was being visited that day by an older woman who kept insisting to me that she was just his "friend" and she just does his laundry. Yep..I've heard that before. I think she was actually quite sweet on the man, no pun intended here. She led me up the path to the house where I snapped several shots, as you see here some of the beautiful flowers in the garden.

Sugar cane ready to be pressed
The next day back at El Quetzal, Don Victor prepped the canes for pressing. Prepping involves cleaning the canes of anything extraneous and halving them both lengthways and width-ways with the machete. This makes it much more reasonable for the press to manage the canes. I found that out quickly enough when I fed too many canes into the trapiche and plugged up the works. Luckily Don Victor wasn't too upset and was able to fix the machine.

The canes are run only once through the press, the juice is collected and run though a sieve. After being filtered once, the juice is then brought over to another set of filters where more of the impurities are taken out. After it's final filtering, the juice is put into a giant vat where it boils down into a sweet thick syrup that we call cane syrup. During the process of boiling down the sugar juice, you constantly are skimming off more impurities off the top.

The videos below are loud, due to the noise of the press, so adjust your volume.

Freshly squeezed cane juice is a far cry from the sweetness of sugar that we are accustomed to. It is hard to adeptly describe the flavor. I like to say it tastes fresh, crisp, spring tasting, and yes of course sweet. But in order to get the sweetness needed to use it as a sweetener, it has to be boiled down and concentrated. Once in its concentrated form, it can be used to flavor all sorts of beverages and sauces.

Thankful for my time in Ecuador and happy to share it all with you - xoxo Megan

Because I am happy to be alive, make chocolates, climb mountains, drink fresh cane juice, love, and let the sun warm my skin~