Northwest Chocolate Festival – writing-off the sugar buzz

The Northwest Chocolate Festival was quite an experience, and perhaps only just a bit of chocolate overload. Pacing yourself is important here. Seriously! With over 100 vendors, most of whom are selling chocolate bars or other chocolate-based confections, there’s no way to survive them all in one weekend without great care.

First, the Dagoba folks were very generous with samples though, so a shout out to them. They were one of my favorite bars years ago, and one of my first introductions to “good” chocolate. They still make a great chocolate even if they are now part of the Hershey family. Scharfen Berger was also present next door, also part of the Hershey family. (As a PA native, Hershey’s is still a guilty pleasure of mine).

We mostly tried to focus on the unique and non-local offerings in the expo hall, since there’s only so much you can do with just a fermented chocolate bean and cane sugar. Creo chocolate out of Portland had an amazing dark chocolate peppermint bar. It wasn’t anything completely unique, just very well executed.

From California, TCHO of San Francisco was there, one of our favorites from the bay area (our top pick in SF is Recchiuti, who wasn’t there). There name may sound like someone sneezed, but there chocolate isn’t anything to sneeze at. Firefly was another bay area vendor that we couldn’t pass on. They make a milk chocolate bar from 30% wild-gathered bay nuts that gave it a nutty flavor a little like Nutella, but different too, and in a good way. Because of the significant manual labor in making it, it’s not a cheap bat, but it’s an experience worth trying.

Equal Exchange, a national producer out of Massachusetts (I think) may have been the most distant attendee (not counting vendors that have operations in the tropics for growing or to support local production). Equal Exchange is a staple for us from PCC, and their baking cocoa is our powder of choice for chocolate ice cream.

There were some very unique vendors, to be sure. The Chocolate Conspiracy was sampling their raw vegan chocolate, made with unfermented chocolates and raw honey as a sweetener. It had quite a different flavor profile, and didn’t really tickle my tongue, but for people into the raw movement, it’s a viable alternative, and it wasn’t bad. One of their staffers had my favorite shirt of the day: “Rhinos are just chubby unicorns.” Brevin’s Fudge from Astoria, OR was some of the best I’ve tasted, smooth and creamy, hand crafted by an artisan fudge-maker that’s been practicing his art for 25 years. His root beer float fudge was a great throwback flavor that reminded me of the old root-beer barrel candies a bit. We also got to try basil chocolate, maca chocolate, and quite a few other unique confections, and a delicious Madascar chocolate that had a distinctly cherry-like flavor, but was just pure chocolate. Maca was on offer from a few vendors, so it seems to be having a moment right now.

Familiar Seattle-local names like Fran’s and Hot Cakes also made a showing, but we mostly skipped them since they are easy enough to find around and about, and weren’t really putting anything unique on offer for the event.

There were also quite a few equipment vendors there, mostly focused on commercial operations. If you wanted a chocolate tempering machine to replace your washing machine, this was the place to find it. The Confectioner’s Friend had a few options for hobbyists and small scale operations like caterers, though. I could have bought a small professional-grade tempering machine for about $550, which is better than other options I found last time I looked. I didn’t splurge, since I don’t think I’ll use it often enough to justify the cost, but I did take a card just for good measure. Maybe someday. If I ever got into making food as a business, it would likely be chocolate confections or fruit wine (or maybe both, since they can go so well together).

We got a late start, so we didn’t get to attend any of the sessions, but it was amazing to see so many small businesses bringing such amazing variety of indulgences to our region. We did walk the lower floor where the seminars are held, though, and one thing that’s apparent is the focus on business models that promote fair trade, entrepreneurship and job growth in less developed chocolate growing regions. Of course there was also the 21 and over aphrodisiac session track as well, with sessions like “the herbs that arouse”.

I’m looking forward to going back next year. There was so much we didn’t get to see and taste that even if it were identical to this year, it would be worth a second visit. But of course, it wont be, and that’ll make it all the more exciting.



How to make an almond smile


This is a story about macarons, and an awesome book called “Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee” (amazon). This book wastes the first half of it’s paper on coffee (that’s just my opinion, though). It talks about beans, sourcing and roasting. These people care about coffee, and Iris tells me it’s really good coffee. I don’t drink coffee. The other half of the ink is about coffee shop snacks though. They put as much passion into those as they do the coffee. That’s where the fun is for me. 🙂

I’ve written about a number of cookbooks now, and with most of them I’ve made the claim that an unskilled amateur would find them approachable. This isn’t one of those books. This is a book full of recipes that sweat the details, and involve more complicated steps.

The macaron recipe is amazing, tasting like something straight out of a Parisian café, but it starts with making the almond flour with non-alkalized cocoa (chances are you don’t have that in your cupboard), then has you beating egg whites to soft peaks while monitoring syrup as it gets to soft-ball stage, so that everything can come together at the right time. A second pair of hands is invaluable to get through this one. This recipe has many, many ways to fail. 4-5 pages of fine print worth, along with plenty of debugging tips. That said, the failures are still pretty tasty. Trust me, I’ve tried them.


Here are a few tips:

  • At some point, I bought a macaron kit with a silicon baking sheet with ridges that formed a nice template. It wasn’t worth the money. I expected the mix to be worthless, but so was the silicon pad. The macarons lift off parchment easier, and the silicon slows the cooking, making it trickier to get the bottoms cooked without making the tops too crispy.
  • Don’t make the macarons too small. The book calls for one-inch rounds, but next time I’m going with something closer to 2 inches (but not too thick).
  • Chocolate filling is the best part. I have two favorites:
    • If you have access to Recchiuti‘s sauce, it’s second to none. They’re a small San Francisco operation though, and hard to come by elsewhere (if you do have access to their chocolates, their fleur de sel caramels are also not to be missed).
    • The close runner up is Fran’s dark chocolate sauce. Fran’s distributes much more broadly, and is local for us, so this is what I usually have around.


One last parting shot, since I know a few of the folks that drop by are also amateur photographers. I recently picked up a used Nikon macro flash set (R1C1) and have been playing around with it a bit, as hopefully shows in the photos this week. Usually I’m just capturing cell phone snaps for expedience.

Here’s the setup for the chocolate sauce picture above:


I split the output to the two flash units about 80-20, with most going to the unit shooting through the diffuser on the right, and the one on the left pointed mostly at the background. There are is a can of Zevia ginger root beer and a bag of almonds in the background that are almost unrecognizable, but provide some nice texture. This was one of about 6-7 variations, and stood out as having the most interesting composition and contrast. The final shot is nearly unedited, aside from one spot-removal that was driving me bonkers.

– Ben