Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Taste Test: Peppermint Bark

What I love about the holidays is the food unique to that holiday.  Around Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving all the pumpkin beers come out, and I like to gather them up and get acquainted.  I like to figure out which is the tastiest (to me) and the skunkiest.  What my research lacks in rigorous scientific discipline it makes up for in sincerity--though it goes a long way towards scientific discipline.

Now it's heading towards Yule, Christmas, Hannukah, &c., and the foods have shifted.  For those not familiar with peppermint bark, it is this: a bed of dark chocolate covered in white chocolate and sprinkled with fragments of candy cane.  Candy covered in candy and sprinkled with candy: molto delicioso!

There will be, of course, some variations on the theme and being that I'm sitting here with four varieties right in front of me, all purchased within my city, I'm confident there are significant regional differences.  In thinking about these, I'm very curious to try them out but that will have to come later.

It will be noted that this candy doesn't actually look like the bark of any tree; no, not even birch.  I don't know why it's called "bark," but many things were decided before I was born.

Too Good Gourmet, San Lorenzo, CA: Augh, this stuff is freakin' nasty!  Where'd I get this from?  This is horrible!  It tastes like paraffin whipped up and up!  One interesting feature to peppermint bark is the division of the layers: when you bite into it, the milk chocolate may separate from the white chocolate.  This stuff doesn't: it's one solid mass of waxy, bland nastiness dusted in pale chocolate byproduct.  The candy cane chips are small shards with facets in solid red or white.   The chocolate feels bad on the teeth and it resolves poorly upon the tongue.  It doesn't even match its own picture!  There are far fewer candy cane crumbles on the actual product!  ...Oh, I got it at Marshalls.  Gods know how old this stuff is.

Trader Joe's, Monrovia, CA: This stuff is really good.  Trader Joe's just does not put out an inferior product, and second only to their dark chocolate and gooey caramel candies crusted in sea salt (also seasonal), this is my favorite confection of theirs.  Their white truffle fudge is creamy and melts very pleasantly, and the dark chocolate has a fine cocoa graininess that I enjoy.  The candy cane chips on this one actually have lines of color, as from a cross-section of a candy cane, though the red is closer to a raspberry or dark mauve, I guess.

World Market (South Bay Confections, Torrance, CA): I got this one at World Market, but there is no prominent brand name anywhere on the tin.  I really had to look to find "South Bay Confections," and that name doesn't come up on a Google search.  Anyway, as you might imagine, a candy coming from Cost Plus World Market  could be hit-or-miss.  As it turns out, this is a hit.  The white chocolate is more buttery than the other brands and glows with a nice milky sheen under direct light.  That Too Good Gourmet crap reflected lightwaves like old tile from a Catholic school bathroom: presentation matters.   Here, too, the chips of peppermint suggest they are the shrapnel of a shattered candy cane, and all is right with the world.

Harry and David, Medford, OR: Wow, a peppermint bark that doesn't come out of California?  I think there's no surprise that Harry and David put out a superior product on every level.  The taste has a buttery back-of-the-mouth musk akin to Andes mints.  The white and dark chocolates are attractively marbled with each other.  Where the other bark samples come in rectangular slabs, Harry and David's bag of bark is capriciously chunky and irregular--you can fish for a small piece or grab a large one and break it up (or wolf it down, snickety-snack).  And they sprang for the nicer candy cane: alternating solid stripes of red with three red lines.

I really don't think the candy cane should be the deal-breaker, though.  The main focus is the interplay of white and dark chocolate with peppermint as an accent.  I wanted to compare four brands against each other, but I will certainly look for more: Williams-Sonoma claims to have an original recipe, for example.  Did they invent it or are they hearkening to an old-timey recipe?  Most importantly, what difference will this make to the palate?  I intend to find out.

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