Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Brenham: Blue Bell Creamery Factory Tour

I love Blue Bell Ice Cream!  In Houston, I grew up on Blue Bell and really took it for granted.  It wasn't until I moved away that I realized the whole world really doesn't know much about this great little company in the middle of nowhere.

For years I have wanted to revisit the Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham, Texas.  The last time I visited was a cold night about 31 years ago when I was given a ride from Austin and dropped off a few hours before a morning opening.  After my unscheduled mini camp out, I was encouraged to return to my fraternity house in Austin with as much "Cookies and Cream" ice cream as I could safely get back.   Blue Bell created the first "Cookies and Cream" ice cream in the country and it wasn't available in Austin at the time.

On this trip, circa 2010, my family and I took the tour and got to sample whatever we wanted at the end.  I love this tour.  Our guides were local girls from the area.  They explained everything we wanted to know and more. The short film at the beginning of the tour reinforced Blue Bell's ties to the community around Brenham and their being a stickler for using only the best ingredients.  Then it was on to see just how it is all made.  Homemade Vanilla is on the line everyday.  Other Flavors are made as needed on a 3 month schedule.  We even watched the assembly of the mini- ice cream sandwiches.  Everything looked so good.  Nothing like fresh ice cream spinning and zipping into the container to get your taste buds rumbling.

"Krazy Kookie Dough" (cake batter ice cream with chucks of kookie dough) was my sample choice and I was not disappointed.  Not sold in grocery stores, this flavor is only found at ice cream parlors that feature Blue Bell.  There is a small shop to get all kinds of other BB merchandise- t-shirts, bowls and other gifty stuff.
Surprisingly, little has changed at the little company that produces "the best ice cream in the country".  It is fresh, fun and fantastic!

Certainly, well worth the trip to Brenham or your local grocery store (in 22 states).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dallas: NHS (Neighborhood Services)- "The Ding Dong"

I have a New Years resolution for 2011- "find more great Restaurant Chocolate Desserts".  Tonight, I get a jump on the new year by introducing the "Ding Dong" from Neighborhood Services restaurant at Preston/ Royal in Dallas.

Is NHS's fabulous creation a gourmet version of the Hostess "Ding Dong" or "Cupcake"?  Being a childhood connoisseur of both, I have an opinion, but I'll hold that for another day.  The most important thing is it is here and it is GOOD.  This fabulous creation puts a gourmet twist to one of my chlidhood favorites. The white creamy filling is a perfect surprise when you cut into this decadent moist chocolate cake with ganache icing.

A must have after a terrific dinner.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Houston: Dessert Gallery- 15 years and better than ever

Sara Brook is a GENIUS!  As she admits, she is not classically trained.  She just has been doing it since she was a kid-not that long ago- but long enough to have created one of the finest assortment of chocolate items cakes on the planet.

Since 1995, Sara and her crew have been rolling out desserts that have inspired and delighted her customers. I have been a frequent guest of the original store on Kirby- this trip I decided to drop in to the Post Oak restaurant.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have always longed to own a dessert restaurant.  15 years after first experiencing the Dessert Gallery, I find that Sara has continued to improve this concept far exceeding all of my wildest dreams for such a venture.  True to her craft she is consistent-  Consistently Perfect!

Dessert Gallery has a full range of desserts and cafe items: sandwiches, salads, wraps, soups, quiche, casseroles and, of course, desserts: cakes, pies, cookies, cupcake, truffles and brownies. Very nice offering and the food is original, fresh and from the finest of ingredients.

I am particularly drawn to her chocolate cake creations (no surprise there) and I don't think there is another baker in the world that has as many original and fantastic chocolate cake choices:  Old-Fashioned Diner Cake, Mom's Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Euphoria, Chip-Off-the-old Block, Jennifer's Birthday Cake, Truffle Candy Cake,  Everyone's Favorite Mousse Cake, The Bog O, Chocolate, Chocolate Cheesecake, White Concorde Cake and Chocolate Concorde Cake...

These are so unbelievably Good, let me try and describe them to you:
Old-Fashioned Diner Cake is hard to find.  Golden (yellow) cake with milk chocolate buttercream icing is never found in a restaurant anymore.  This one is Heaven.

Mom's Chocolate Cake is one of the best old fashioned chocolate cakes ever created.  Just like my grandmothers- chocolate cake with milk chocolate buttercream icing.

Chocolate Euphoria is a rich dark chocolate cake with chocolate chunks and a dark chocolate ganache icing. Sooo Good.

Chip-Off-the-old Block is a yellow cake with chocolate chunks and a dark chocolate ganache icing. Excellent!

Jennifer's Birthday Cake chocolate cake with a "fudge" filling and iced with milk chocolate buttercream icing. This gives "Mom's" a run for its money.

Truffle Candy Cake is a gooey chocolate cake now filled with "dulce de leche" and pecans and iced with milk chocolate buttercream.  I think this recipe has changed a bit and only gotten better. Chocolate and oozing caramel together- there is nothing better.

Everyone's Favorite Mousse Cake is exactly what it is named- Gorgeous and Delicious cold chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls and an exceptional chocolate cookie crust.

The Big O- here is the perfect decedent mousse dessert.  White chocolate mousse, Dark chocolate mousse and Oreo's. Now this is a perfect combination.

Chocolate Cheesecake is great chocolate cheesecake. This one is so smooth I had to step back and question if it was cheesecake or mousse. Unbeatable!

White Concorde Cake + Dark Concorde Cake.  I did not try these at the store but in reviewing the website, I found them; and they look so appealing, I had to mention them.  A cake with "layers of chocolate meringue and chocolate mousse" or "white meringue and white chocolate mousse blend into one divine dessert." Sounds almost too good to be true.  After I sample on a future order, I'll update and review but I can't think of a better combination...

Dessert Gallery- so much to eat so little time. Sara- after 15 years you continue to blow me away!
Congrats..  Can't wait to see what's next!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Houston: The Chocolate Bar- Village People

It has been several years since I last visited The Chocolate Bar.  This trip, I stopped in their location in the Village (near Rice University).

I really like this concept. I think it is the most complete chocolate shop I have ever visited. It has everything one could ask for to resolve a chocolate fix.  They make their own stuff: cakes, confections, novelties, dipped and drizzled popcorn, fruits and cookies, made to order chocolate bars and pizza, ice cream & more and everything is terrific!

I particularly liked designing my own chocolate bar complete with my personal favorite choices.  This time I chose a small milk chocolate bar with M&Ms, Marshmallows and chocolate rocks "mix ins"... delicious. It took less than 30 minutes, with a line. Next time, I want to try the pizza.

 I sampled the chocolate ice cream and was quite impressed.  The line was long to sit for dessert so I just admired the cakes on display. They looked amazing.

I picked up some novelties to take home to the kids: a chocolate tennis racket set for Jeffrey, hair dryer, mirror & other chocolate bathroom items for Samantha and 2 chocolate guitars for Max- Big hits when I gave them out.

I also took a goody bag for the drive home and loved every bit of the chocolate covered Oreos, pretzels and flakes (couldn't tell if they started off as corn or frosted).

All in all, a fun visit. I will definitely be back for more on my next visit to Houston.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Houston: Chocolat Du Monde

Located in the Village near Rice University, when I went running into Chocolat du Monde, I was on a mission.  Their chocolate, as the name implies, is from all over the world- Neuhaus, Leonidas, and more. They also have a pretty extensive general candy business- but today, all I wanted was their private label home-made Fudge. 

I had a long drive back to Dallas and I wanted to nosh.   The plain Chocolate Fudge may not be their most exotic product, but it certainly hit the spot and it was delicious.

Chocolat Du Monde has such a variety and it never disappoints.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Houston: Araya @ River Oaks Center

I was excited to visit Araya Artisan Chocolates in River Oaks Shopping Center next to the theater.

This center brings back huge memories. It was part of my old stomping grounds- actually came to this spot to a restaurant called Birraporetti's on my first "driving" date.  Same shopping center was the site where I bought my first alcoholic drink (when it was legal at 18) from a no name bar under a stair case. Actually, the bar was called Marfreless- couches, quiet, dark, fun- and it still is operating today??!!

This visit was all about getting to know a fairly new Venezuelan chocolate shop called Araya Artisan Chocolates. Upon arrival, I was lucky to immediately meet owner chocolatier Carla Susi.

Interesting tidbits of information about Araya: they don't use sugar, they use honey to naturally sweeten the ganache; they make Venezuelan 100% dark and a dark-milk chocolate; the store, the packaging, the chocolate and the people who work here are beautiful.

I sampled quite a few favorites from their collections. I really enjoyed from the milk chocolates- Venezuelan 41%, Hazelnut Praline, Hazelnut Truffle  and Keylime.  From the dark chocolate collection- Pink Salt, Strawberry Balsamic, Salty Caramel Rum, Peanut Butter & Berry and Chai Spice.

This is the real deal!   Fantástico!


Thursday, December 09, 2010

Houston: Keggs Candies- A Houston Institution

Keggs has it all. Since 1946, this Houston institution has been pumping out everything from their original "Pecan Crisp" and chocolate confections to fudge and most recently custard.

I ate a small football ( I really did) while I visited this trip and consumed half a slab of Chocolate Fudge on my drive around the city. Although the original store in the Village is gone, my childhood memories of that store come flooding back as I walk the new state of the art factory store on Westpark.

I loved slowly walking the 90 foot long glass wall and seeing the line where they still hand make most of these terrific goodies.

The truffles are quite large and very tasty.

The Pecan Hash combines my favorite ingredients and was so fresh.

I would be remiss to not mention great Chocolate Caramel treats, too

I'm not sure how many full service chocolate factory tours there are in Houston, but this one is a great place to start.

After all of these years, Keggs is still going strong and is still among the best.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Houston: Chocolate Pizazz- Hall of Fame

I love shows like "TBIEA", "Triple D", and "MvF".  If you are a foodie, you know what I am talking about, if not see below*. I even fantasize about having my own show like them one day.
: )

Every time I watch TBIEA, I  always think- could I say that "this" or "that" is the best I ever ate?  Well, I found one place that fits that bill.  Chocolate Pizazz in Houston!

Helen and Jeri have created a special chocolate plant in the heart of Memorial that requires me shouting from the highest mountain top.  To bad Houston is flat!

It started as something to do when their kids were in school.  Now it is a real business and they know what they are doing.

They mix chocolate with and on and around everthing that I love and they put so much on the goodies that it seems like they re-wrap the chocolate again and again.

I think everything I tried, may have been the best I ever ate in that category. 

This is not artisan chocolate truffles.  This is real food!

Popcorn, Oreos (not just regular but double stuff), marshmallows, moon pies, pretzels... I can't stop.  Not only are they soaked in unbelievable chocolate but then here comes the huge amount of toppings, masterfully loaded all around: M&Ms, toffee, colored sugar, butterscotch chips, drizzled chocolate, chocolate chips,  peanut butter chips... getting the picture?

"Celebration" is the best mash of stuff on Popcorn I think I have ever found on the planet. The Pepermint Chocolate Bark is also one of the best, ever!

No one uses double stuff Oreos but these gals do and they are using somebody's high end chocolate (a trade secret)... put them together and WOW.  I must stop writing now or I will have to get back in the car and drive 4 hours to get more...  It is available online. 

If you ever need to give a fun chocolate gift, go online and buy it here!

Tell them I sent you!

TBIEA- "The Best I Ever Ate" - Food Network
Triple D- "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" - Food Network
MvF- "Man vs. Food"- Travel Channel

Houston: The Chocolate Lounge

Old Town Spring, Texas has character, even in the daytime.  I can only image its fun at night or on the weekends.  I had no idea this little enclave of cool shops and restaurants even existed under the flight path to Bush Intercontinental Airport, a stones throw from the Woodlands.

Avery Smith could be the Mayor of Old Town.  She grew up in this area and suggested several other places to visit before I headed back to the freeway and on to Houston- a real ambassador if the area.

But the reason I stopped, wasn't for a tour of Spring, it was to sample what I had heard was terrific chocolate that she makes or imports- and it was well worth the stop.  I really enjoyed meeting Avery. She is the real deal.  "The Chocolate Lounge is boutique style chocolate shop" and so much more. They host showers and parties.  Her love for the area, chocolate and people comes through in her little shop.
Her chocolates are also something for people to crow about.

Amongst the goodies I tried were Smoked Venezuelan Maracaibo Chocolate w/Red Hawaiian Sea Salt- excellent.

Apamate Patron Cigar Chocolate, a Dark Chocolate Infused with the essence of a Padron 64 and made into the ultimate Port Chocolate- very unique.

Hood River Dark Cherry Pinot Truffles,  Pinot infused Cherries blended with dark chocolate ganache to compliment a great Pinot Noir

3- Bean Truffle (Vanilla, Cocoa, Coffee), Mint Oreo Cookie Bite, Peppermint Bark Bon Bon, Toffee Bon Bon- Excellent!

There is a lot more to The Chocolate Lounge than these treats, with plans to grow, so stop by and enjoy.

Conroe: Chocolate Passion

I love finding chocolate places that are a little off the beaten path.  I also love finding fellow chocolate lovers that are willing to put it out there for people to eat, knowing it may never be seen by the vast majority of people that pass by.

Chocolate Passion in Conroe, Texas is not on the busy I-45 Freeway.  It isn't in a strip center with other shops and restaurants. It is all alone on a fairly small road that you have to want to find and I am really
glad that I did.

I didn't have time to eat at the restaurant but I did get to sample the fantastic Venezuelan chocolates that Zulay Quinn perfects in the kitchen in the back. 

The Mint Truffle is a dark chocolate ganache with a really nice hint of real mint, not peppermint. 

The Amaretto Truffle had just the right amount of the liqueur.  Very good!

One can never go wrong with the Milk Chocolate soft Caramel. Very smooth!

The Dark Chocolate Cocoa Dusted Truffle was Rich!!

If you are ever passing through Conroe and need a fix, this is definately worth the stop.

Leyda and Zulay were terrific hosts, can't wait to go back for lunch at the restaurant. I overheard some patrons saying the sandwiches are amongst the best in town.

Corsicana: Collin Street Bakery

Have you ever eaten or received a fruitcake?  If you have, I bet it came from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas.  This family owned business has been delivering fruitcakes to customers since 1896. The company sells about 3 million pounds of fruitcake each year, which equates to 1.5 million individual cakes- and it is all sold mail order from Corsicana. CSB also has a 3000 acre organic pineapple operation farm, restaurant and tourist center in Costa Rica.

Why am I telling you this?  Although 98% of their sales is fruitcakes,  they also make a mean Fudge Pie.  It is delicious and available to non-fruitcake eaters that still want something great from this venerable I-45 Texas Institution.

Little known fact about Corsicana, TX.  Situated about 50 miles south of Dallas, in addition to being the fruitcake capital of the world, Corsicana is where both Mobil Oil and Texaco were founded. 

Corsicana: Russell Stover Factory and Store

I have driven from Houston to Dallas and back for 30 years- that really make me sound old- and each trip I have threatened to get off the freeway in Corsicana to visit the Russell Stover's factory store.  I finally followed through on my threat and went in today!

It is exactly what I expected.  Although I wasn't able to actually see them make chocolate on this trip, I was able to buy some of my favorite candies made by this old American candy manufacturer.

If you live in the US, you know Russell Stover, Pangburn's and Whitman's. You probably didn't know they were one company.  The Whitman's Sampler has been a staple in most homes for almost 100 years. Whitman's was founded in Philadelphia in 1842. Russell Stover's from Denver started in 1923.  Pangburn's Millionaires were first created in Ft. Worth Texas in 1914.  This is chocolate history!!

All of us grew up eating chocolate covered marshmallow or caramel Santa's and Easter Bunnies.  If you haven't tried the "Mint Dream", you are missing another terrific fluffy concoction.
The store is piled high with all of their goodies at deep discounts and you get a free sample just for stopping by.

For someone like me who is always encouraging people to "eat more chocolate", this is a great place to start!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Atlanta: Cacao Laboratoire- Bean to Bar in Atlanta

I didn't get a chance to meet the owner, Kristen Hard, but Kristen’s passion for chocolate and creativity ooze from her little shop.  On the first floor of this quaint townhouse just off from Downtown Atlanta, they do it all here.

 Chocolate Pretzels and dipped marshmallows and Cacao’s version of a Smores bar were all fantastic.  For the real chocolate conesseur, a trip to the Cacao laboratoire is a must!

Bean to Bar is not an easy job.  Kristen has created chocolates that are terrific..  Had a chance to get a few “Love Bars”- in particular, “Hispaniola” and “Patanemo”.  These are the real deal 75% bars..  Hispaniola is a dark chocolate with hazelnuts.  The Patanemo bar is single origin,  single estate, single varietal 75% chocolate bar- this is the real deal!  

Way to go Kristen!

Atlanta: Sublime Donuts- from sublime to just ridiculous- it is so good!

Sublime: def'n- to convert (something inferior) into something of higher worth.

We have all had a donuts.  In Dallas there is a donut shop in virtually every shopping center and I think I have tried them all. Most are mundane, with a few notable exceptions:  Of course, there is Shipley's chocolate filled donut and Krispy Kreme's glazed chocolate frosted.  Both are in the EMC Hall of Chocolate Fame.

Now, my sister takes me to Sublime Donuts...  and this hard to find, nondescript, hand crafted with love establishment certainly lives up to its lofty name.  Make no mistake, they take no prisoners here. It is closer to the hood than the burbs. Chef Kamal Grant, an ex-navy cook with a degree from the CIA (that's Culinary Institute of America, y'all) is an expert baker.  His goal is stated as "wanting it to be the best doughnut you have ever had in your life". He is "trying to go for someone's last meal on death row".  Chef, put one of these baby's in Huntsville or College Station, TX and I can guarantee you it will be..

I tried the Oreo and the YinYang (original/chocolate)Twist. They are definitely of "higher worth".  Other great donuts, like Dark Chocolate Fudge, Butterfinger and Smores, were sold out when I got there (just before closing), so I expect a return trip VERY soon!

Run there, if you are close!

Atlanta: Chocolate Pink (Update: 12/15-CP closed)

Delicious cupcakes, pastries, cakes and desserts, Pink Chocolates also features Norman Love Chocolates.

Limited selection of NL chocolates, but the Champagne and Vanilla Cupcake truffles were terrific.  Thought it was fitting to have the Cupcake Truffle at a dessert restaurant and it exceeded my expectations- real cake pieces inside! Next time I’m in Ft Myers, I’m heading for Norman Love Confections…

Atlanta: Kilwins by Georgia Tech

Kilwins from Florida is known for Fudge and theirs is about as good as it gets! With a location in Atlantic ststion, I loved sampling many of best goods, made on the spot.  It is well known they are VERY creative.
At the State Fair, I always go for the fried twinkees.  Now at Kilwins I was exposed to the chocolate covered twinkee.- really a Chocolate covered Twinkee – and man was that good!!  Caramel covered Oreos and Chocolate covered Rice Krispee Treats were also great!

Atlanta: Maison Robert- and he works in the middle of the store

Maison Robert Chocolates in Atlanta is fun. It is not in a heavy residential area.  It is not in a heavy traffic commercial area.  I'm not sure you'd find it unless you were looking for it, but it is definitely worth looking for and many in Atlanta swear by Maison Robert.

 It is in the French Patisserie style, yet set in a new strip center in Atlanta. They moved here a few years back after a long run down the street in a maison.  This is a family business and Papa Robert still comes to work almost everyday.  I'm told they actually have to make him go home at night or maybe he'd spend the night creating.

We had a chocolate croissant when we got there that was quite tasty.

Chocolatier Robert was at his counter making chocolates when I walked into the shop/ kitchen.  He was delightful and explained his art to me as I sampled many of his creations. There is nothing like talking to a chocolate creator.  Oh the stories!

 I love the simple white, dark and milk chocolate truffles.  They are delicate and fresh.  I also found an old chocolate favorite that previously I had only seen at Andre’s of St. Louis- the chocolate meringue ball.- always love to find this delicacy, no matter who makes it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Atlanta: Cumming's The Chocolaterie- in the middle of where?

I do not want to eat these chocolates-  I want to put them on display!  These truffles are an engineering feat and no wonder, it is an engineer that created these equally amazingly tasting chocolates.  My feeble attempt to take pictures of the chocolates do not do them justice.  The taste can not be translated across the web, either.  Trust me when I tell you, this is about as good as it gets!

My sister, brother-in-law and I had such a great time meeting Elizabeth and Michael Ashworth.  What they have created is really something special.  The attention to detail is astounding and well worth the 30+ minute drive up the GA400 from Atlanta.
It seems they have over 100 truffle options. My favorites include but are certainly not limited to: Root Beer Float, Chocolate Chip Cookie, Bananas Foster, Sunday Brunch, PB&J, Maple Cream, Carmellow.

They also have many other candy and chocolate products.  The fudge is amazing and it too comes in many delicious flavors.

If you need a terrific gift idea, Elizabeth can certainly help you package a unique arrangement from the impressive collection of options offered by The Chocolaterie!
Stop in and tell them I said "Hi"!