Miami Oasis – a storm, a room, a ganache

Miami, Florida – a place to find beauty, palm trees, bugs, and serenity.

Not to mention chocolate.

I’ve visited Miami several times for various reasons, most recently as the final destination on a one-week road trip down the Atlantic coast. It was an extremely satisfying, bewildering and exhilarating week, culminating in a 2-hour drive through the Florida Keys and witnessing the southernmost point of the USA.

When I drove through Miami, it looked like this:

Holy driving grannies, Batman - that sky is more conflicted than a hatmaker with two heads.

Holy driving grannies, Batman – that sky is more conflicted than a hatmaker with two heads.

And my bumper looked like this:

TCT-Miami-bumper

Let it be known: Florida freeways are where bugs go to die

My mission here was one of beaches, not of chocolate, so sadly this particular trip did not involve any chocolate hunting. But no sooner did I chow down on lunch, glance hastily around at the bits of Miami I could see, and hop back onto the Florida Turnpike, then water began gushing from the sky.

It was frightening.

Partly because of the thunder, lightning and decreased visibility. Partly because the median age of my fellow drivers was about 70. But mostly because the sky had been completely clear just moments before.

And it was completely clear as soon as the storm passed. Eerie.

I say all this to say that I need go back to Miami. And when I do, I need to stay here:

The view from just one of over 40 Oasis rental properties in Miami

The view from just one of over 40 Oasis rental properties in Miami

Oasis Collections offers a variety of upscale furnished housing currently in 11 cities in South America, Central America, and the United States. From jaw-dropping luxury to affordable comfort, Oasis properties are priced for every kind of budget, every kind of traveler, and every kind of trip.

Of their 40+ available properties in Miami, the Sunset wins. Yes, it is a beautiful property with a gorgeous kitchen in which I can spend all day concocting hot chocolate recipes. Yes, it has a pool. Yes, it is conveniently located near the Metro.

It is also three blocks away from Mr. Ganache – Miami’s Temple of Chocolate.

Master chocolatier Eric Girerd makes chocolates by hand, in flavors like passion fruit, champagne, jasmine and yuzu. From simple pleasures to more exotic delights, Mr. Ganache has something for every chocolate lover.

So next time you’re ready to vacate for some well-deserved R&R, keep in mind the relaxing rental apartment you can have all to yourself – and is only steps away from handmade chocolate.

Now that’s luxury.

Full disclosure: Oasis Collections recruited us to write about them in exchange for additional exposure to The Chocolate Tourist. We haven’t actually visited any of their rental homes. But we think it’s a fabulous idea, and if you do pay them a visit, tell us how it went!



Summer Vacations and Chocolate Celebrations

Good morning, chocolate friends!

Chocolate is really a celebration of life

Chocolate is really a celebration of life

It’s July 7, which means this is no ordinary Monday. It’s Chocolate Day.

Origins unknown, but the inspiration and method of celebration are pretty obvious.

Give chocolate to someone you meet today. Nothing is quite so welcome a gift, and even though you don’t need a reason, Chocolate Day is a good one.

This summer brings so many exciting opportunities. We’re focusing in on the video side of this chocolate endeavor, working like crazy to take The Chocolate Tourist to the screen with backstage tours of chocolate factories around the world, stories of chocolate makers, and more chocolate than anyone should be exposed to without great danger of busting out one’s pants.

This is also going to be my last post for a while. Given the demands of the web series – which we hope to begin filming in the Fall – I need to redirect my efforts for the month of July.

I’ll be back in August, with many stories to tell!

Three chocolate excursions in rural Virginia and Washington, DC.

A chocolate tour in Beverly Hills (visiting 7 chocolate shops in 2 hours)!

Lots of new Monday Mug recipe experiments, and potentially a few guinea pigs.

And probably more.

I’d love to hear your suggestions if you’ve found a great place or had a great idea for us to look into! We’re all about the stories behind the chocolate here at The Chocolate Tourist, and we’re just beginning to get started.

For now, please go to the beach and look at butterflies and call a friend. At the very least, savor a chunk of chocolate.

Enjoy your life.

See you soon! xoxo
The Chocolate Tourist



Raise Your Glass to Freedom: chocolate as an American tradition

On this day in 1776, America declared its independence from England. Since then we’ve been wildly enjoying our freedom and extending it to others – in a variety of ways, both tangible and intangible.

We are free, America. Free to participate in the government of our own nation. Free to be called Americans. Free to write words like “color” and “endeavor” efficiently without the encumbrance of additional vowels.

And certainly not the least of our most universally appreciated freedoms is expressed in chocolate.

In TheStoryOfChocolate.com, the National Confectioners Association’s Chocolate Council describes chocolate as an American tradition even before the colonies revolted against King George III:

Chocolate was considered a staple, and it was made in America. The colonists imported only the raw materials, cocoa beans, from the West Indies. After the Townshend Acts of 1767 levied taxes on shipments of tea, drinking chocolate became patriotic.

Right?

So chocolate is in our blood, basically. We’ve enjoyed it as a drink beginning in the early 1700′s, and it’s accompanied soldiers into every battle fought since then. Chocolate production has spread in America faster than any other country.

So Happy Birthday, America. Raise your glass to our founding fathers and enjoy the same chocolate beverage that’s been handed down to us from them.

Now bring on the fireworks!



Schakolad – a Fun-Loving Chocolate Franchise in Crystal City

Move aside candy hearts and marshmallow chicken-like creatures. Chocolate can be made into anything – even shoes, soccer balls, and a full set of dental care implements.

That’s what we found filling the shelves at Schakolad in Crystal City, Virginia – a whirring extension of the Washington, DC metropolis. Schakolad is a franchise of Edgar Schaked, who turned his father’s single Florida chocolate shop into a chain of 25 stores in the US and other countries.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schadolad-Chocolate-Capitol-building

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-shoes

This particular store is located in Crystal City Mall, a quick two steps off the Metro train (Blue Line and Yellow Line).

The-Chocolate-Tourist-DC-Metro

Riding the Metro is one of my favorite childhood memories. Growing up in northern Virginia, a Metro ride meant we were going somewhere downtown – usually somewhere exciting, like a museum or the zoo.

Today my friend Jay and I are riding downtown in pursuit of chocolate.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Crystal-City-MallThe Crystal City Mall connects directly to the Metro station, so it’s easy to find. From there, Schakolad is only a few steps away.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-Crystal-City

Each Schakolad location makes its own chocolate creations on the premises. And the freshness can be tasted – not just in the shelves full of chocolate curiosities (which admittedly I did not try), but particularly in the case full of truffles and candies.

On entering the store, we’re offered the local favorite: dark chocolate ganache in a dark chocolate shell. Each piece is a diminutive gentle square, elegant in its simplicity and decorated with white music notes.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-cheesecake-white-choc

Photo courtesy of Jay Kim

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-coconut-chocolate

Courtesy of Jay Kim

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-molded-chocolates

Courtesy of Jay Kim

The lady behind the counter is more than kind, giving us plenty of time to peruse the shelves as well as deliberate over which ones we’ll choose to buy. Meanwhile we chat about the joys of chocolate and she points out her favorite – the white chocolate cheesecake.

Well I adore cheesecake, so that one is coming home with me.

“That’s the beauty of chocolate,” she says, “it’s not a meal so you don’t really have to worry about the calories.” Sound philosophy. Going by her svelte shape, it seems to be working for her.

It isn’t until a few days later, lounging on the couch with my dad, that I am able to give Schakolad chocolates my full attention.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-Chocolate-Bag The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-Cherry-Cheesecake

Starting with the cheesecake white chocolate ganache, I bite it in half. To my tongue the flavor is more white chocolate than cheese, but there’s a subtle tang to the ganache center. Buttery and melt-in-your-mouth sweet, it’s like you don’t even need your teeth.

The chocolate cherry is not too sweet or boozy, just a firm dark shell over its gooey cherry interior. If you like Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, this is kind of like that (without the ice cream… although there’s no reason you can’t add some).

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Schakolad-Toffee

Dad helps me out by tasting the toffee. “Mm, crunchy,” says Dad.

I unwittingly save the best for last – mostly because I’ve forgotten what it is (that’s the trouble with choosing chocolates out of a case – those labels don’t come home with you).

One bite says it all: a rich red cake fills the deep dark chocolate, a buttermilk sweetness and decadent center. The cake is moist and dense, pairs perfectly with the chocolate shell. Things that make you go mmmm.

I don’t often make recommendations like this, but please, one time: go to Schakolad and buy a red velvet chocolate.

More DC treats next week, but meanwhile do you have a local Schakolad? What’s your favorite? Do you brush your teeth with the chocolate toothbrush? If so, can you make a video?

Until next time. Savor the flavor.



Monday Mug: Jazz Up Your Cocoa Mix

It can’t always be pretty, y’all.

After a week out of the saddle, I’m eager to get back into the swing of chocolate travels and new recipes to share, but today I am plumb tired! I guess this is why cocoa mixes were invented, so we don’t always have to make hot chocolate ourselves.

I’ve always found cocoa mixes to be a bit drab – too sweet and unvarying in flavor. But there are a few simple adjustments we can easily make to add some personality to this popular short cut.

I tested out several ideas a few months ago, but even sprinkling in some cinnamon or a dash of flavor extract (from vanilla and peppermint to orange or lemon) will make a big difference.

Play! Or just do what I did (it’s simple and straight forward when you’re too pooped to be creative).

You will need:
A mug
Enough hot water to fill that mug
A packet of cocoa mix
A generous spoonful of cocoa powder
A sprinkle of salt

Mix your cocoa and salt with the cocoa mix in a mug until well combined. Keep stirring as you add the hot water and smoosh all the lumps out.

You may like to add more cocoa, depending on your taste.

And on a nutritional note… you just added 20 calories, one gram of fiber, and one gram of protein to your plain old mix! Not to mention a heap of antioxidant, disease-fighting power and a goodly portion of pizzazz.

Stick around this week for updates on my travels and chocolate discoveries in Virginia! I have so much to share.

What are your favorite cocoa mix mix-ins? Do tell, we all need a few ideas when life gets rough.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Jazzy-hot-cocoa-mix



Pre-historic Ponderings: Chocolate and Dinosaurs?

Guess what I never thought to wonder: did dinosaurs eat cocoa beans?

But thankfully not everyone is like me, because it is a fascinating question that demands an answer. If it’s been a while since you geeked out on paleontology, please enjoy this fun dissection of the origins of chocolate, dinosaur behavior, and the fossilized findings that make us wonder.

2011 raptor Museum histoire naturelle expo dinosaure.jpg
2011 raptor Museum histoire naturelle expo dinosaure” by CopyleftOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you think about it – cocoa trees have been growing on the earth since time began, probably. If fossilized remains containing theobroma (one of the main ingredients of cacao) turn up in the same places as dinosaur bones… it could happen.

It could. But probably didn’t.

As explained on the PLOS blog:

The short version of all of this is that only the most distant relatives of cocoa beans grew alongside Velociraptor and friends. But, the news isn’t so bad for every prehistoric animal, especially those from the last million years. Some researchers speculate that giant ground sloths and gomphotheres (elephant relatives) feasted on big fruits like those from the cacao tree. So, even if our beloved dinosaurs never enjoyed chocolate, we can be comforted by the fact that cocoa beans may have passed through a ground sloth butt sometime in the Pleistocene.

Is that comforting?

Regardless of which ancient beings happened upon chocolate, here’s one species that happily figured it out – homo sapiens! And we’re definitely not getting tired of it any time soon.



L’Artisan du Chocolat – Normandy occupies LA with cucumbers and olives

We begin with a French lesson.

And end with tips on cooking escargot.

In between is chocolate. L’Artisan du Chocolat brings France to you, from the boundary-pushing chocolate flavor combinations to the gregarious chocolatier who greets you with a hearty, “Bonjour!” when you step through the door.

“Bonjour!” I respond, “comment allez vous?” “Ça va.” “Ça va, aussie.”

This leads to a conversation about how much French I know, which is “peu.” (Very, very little). “Ah, but a peu… a peu… a peu…” Little by little we can all learn. Indeed.

Bienvenue L’Artisan du Chocolat (guess what that means).

The-Chocolate-Tourist-LAritsan-du-Chocolat

I was drawn to this place after reading about some of the more adventurous flavors offered, such as mint and tamarind, bacon, or Kalamata olives – the last of which is discontinued because apparently most people don’t find olives and chocolate as exciting as I do.

I asked how many orders they would need to receive in order to bring it back - we need to create the demand! Who’s with me?

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Cucumber-Vodka

Many of the chocolate offerings are seasonal, in keeping with the very French mindset that our preferences change as we head into warmer or colder weather.

For a refreshing treat, how about a Cucumber Vodka dark chocolate (if you won’t make it to LA this summer, you can order online).

I chose one of these to try, and was impressed with the remarkable cucumber flavor, robed in dark chocolate. It’s unique and refreshing. Very light, but unmistakable.

That’s one thing you’ll notice about L’Artisan du Chocolat – the chocolate is king. There may be other ingredients, but nothing competes with the power of the chocolate itself.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-hazelnut-clusters The-Chocolate-Tourist-LArtisan-caramels The-Chocolate-Tourist-LArtisan-chocolate-bars In addition to nuanced individual chocolates (and caramels, above), L’Artisan du Chocolat offers chocolate bars in three flavors.

Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and milk chocolate with green tea.

Saint Patrick’s Day idea? Green chocolate!

As we were talking, a fresh batch of Grapefruit chocolates came out of the kitchen and of course I had to try it. Grapefruit is my favorite fruit.

The fruity center was fresh and tangy – when you bite the chocolate in half and look at it, it looks like grapefruit. Surrounded by a thick chocolate shell that balances beautifully with the sweetness and bitterness of the grapefruit.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Chocolate-Boxes

Conveniently located on a quiet corner between busy Koreatown and Silver Lake, L’Artisan du Chocolat is a treat for the senses and a mini French getaway.

Do something interesting today. And cast your vote for Kalamata olives!



Livin’ it up, Virginia Style

Good morning, chocolate friends!

I’m on vacation this week, visiting family in the beautiful commonwealth of Virginia. I’ll be doing some sight-seeing in Washington, DC this week, but today I’m enjoying some country views, humidity and sunshine.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Virginia-sunshineThere are so many things I love about Virginia, and the lush scenery definitely makes the cut. I snapped a few shots as we drove down route 17 so you can see what I mean.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Virginia-farmhouse The-Chocolate-Tourist-Virginia-countryside

 

So far it’s been a time of some exciting reunions with dear people – and I’ve only been here four days! I had hoped to coerce one or two of them to shoot a video with me so I could post a Monday Mug, but between the jet lag (hit me hard this time!) and schedule of activities, it just hasn’t worked out.

Next week…? Fingers crossed.

In any case, I have already found chocolate here and you can rest assured there will be a lot more. Plus later this week I’ll post some more treats from LA in the form of L’Artisan du Chocolat (next door to Valerie Confections, which we covered last week) and some fun and surprising facts about chocolate (think: pre-historic).

Wishing you a merry Monday, dear readers, and make yourselves some hot chocolate for me (here are a few ideas, if you need some help to get started).



Candy Contents: Toffee by any other name

What’s in a Heath bar?

Since we’re talking about toffee this week, let’s find out. Perhaps you make your own toffee, like Sean Kennedy on MeltingMug.com. Perhaps you get your fix from artisan candy makers like Valerie Confections. Or maybe you – like millions of Americans – pick up a Heath bar at the grocery store.

What’s the difference?

Let’s compare our toffee/chocolate and Heath bar ingredients and nutrition information.

According to Hershey, one standard issue Heath bar contains:
Milk chocolate:
(sugar, cocoa butter, chocolate, nonfat milk, milk fat, lactose, salt, soy lecithin, vanillin, artificial flavor)
Sugar
Palm oil
Dairy butter
Almonds (roasted in cocoa butter and/or sunflower oil)
Salt
Artificial flavor
Soy lecithin

Nothing too scandalous there – vanillin? Artificial vanilla. Soy lecithin? In just about every chocolate bar you buy off the shelf (it stabilizes the chocolate so it doesn’t separate into cocoa butter and cocoa solids while waiting for you to eat it). Palm oil? Is that oil from palm trees? Basically, yes.

Even the nutrition info isn’t too terrifying:
Calories: 210
Fat: 13g
Saturated Fat: 7g
Carbohydrates: 24g
Fiber: 1g
Protein: 1g

If you don’t mind a few chemicals, a Heath bar could be a genuinely reasonable treat periodically. Now what about our hot chocolate recipe derived from the same?

Sean’s Heath Bar Hot Chocolate ingredients:
1 cup whole milk
2 T fresh toffee (homemade or from a local confectioner):
(sugar, unsalted butter, water, corn syrup)
2 t cocoa powder

Other than corn syrup, those are all pretty typical ingredients one might have on hand if one likes chocolate (never be without your cocoa powder!). Now how does it stack up on the nutrition count?

Calories: 337
Fat: 17g
Saturated Fat: 12.5g
Carbohydrates: 39g
Fiber: 1g
Protein: 8.5g

For me, the bump up in quality of ingredients is worth a few extra calories. But this is a case in which personal preference is a major player.

What are your thoughts? Would you rather the Heath bar or the Heath bar hot chocolate?

Whichever you choose, enjoy it with all your heart.



Valerie Confections – toffee and chocolate in Koreatown

Inspired by Heath bars, one of our favorite candies, this week is all about toffee. And when considering toffee, one’s thoughts must turn to Valerie Confections.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-Confections-Koreatown

The headquarters for all three Valerie installments, this K-town location is a chocolate-covered, toffee and petits four dream. Conveniently located in what is often a busy part of town, the workshop is tucked into a quiet corner of First Street.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-Confections-shop The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-gift-boxes

Toffee is what got Valerie started ten years ago, with six different flavors that met with critical acclaim and led to lots of other chocolate treasures being added to the repertoire.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-ValerieConfections-toffee

Valerie Confections is a beautiful shop, done up in warm woods, white walls and soft light. The counter lends a generous view of the kitchen, with fresh truffle centers perched nearby ready to be dunked in chocolate. A showcase full of petits fours and shelves lined with chocolate treasures lure you in and insist on being admired.

When I entered the shop with my friend AK, we were immediately offered a a sample – pumpkin seed toffee. The photo didn’t turn out too well, but you can see the sheen on that chocolate coat.

The toffee pieces are easily big enough for 3 bites - a clean, sharp break with a deep smoky intensity. The toffee chews cleanly, doesn’t get stuck in your teeth, and is wrapped in just enough chocolate to know it’s there. The real point of eating this is the toffee.

And it’s a satisfying slab of sweet, buttery crunch.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-SWEET

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-cookbook

AK found a favorite recipe – Valentine’s Pie with a heart in the middle!

 

SWEET – Valerie’s new cookbook. The mammoth hardback leaps off the shelf, demanding to be opened and salivated over. Containing recipes for many of the shop’s wares being sold all over town, the book is full of pictures and the love of good food.

But I’m here for the chocolate.

So after much consideration, I picked out a box of nine chocolate truffles with intriguing names like Jasmine Pearl Truffle and Stout Truffle. It was all wrapped up and ready to be gifted to myself.

The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-Confections-box-truffles The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-inside-box The-Chocolate-Tourist-Valerie-truffles

I picked the liquid caramel as my first taste. The flavors are listed on back of the box, so it’s easy to know which one you’re tasting.

And this caramel is my new favorite thing.

In a word: Wow.The caramel itself has a rich, deep, almost smoky flavor that balances so perfectly with the sweetness of the chocolate. It’s difficult to describe – I was too busy enjoying it to think of the right words to capture the experience. I got lost in it.

I’m always surprised to taste a caramel I like, as it isn’t really my preference. So going by Valerie’s history, it would seem she has a particular gift with burnt sugar!

From caramel to toffee, Valerie Confections can cover it in chocolate and make it great.

And the mission continues. By my count, there are 39 chocolate makers, shops and cafes in Los Angeles. As of today, I’ve been to 10 of them.

We have our work cut out for us, LA! With a mission to tour and taste every chocolate maker in the world, I’m making progress but there’s a lot of ground to cover.

And just as Valerie began with 6 toffee flavors, we’re just getting started.