Five Halloween treats for grown-ups

Halloween candyLike many former kids, I used to live for Halloween. Sure, the dressing up part was fun, but so was TP’ing the neighbor’s tree. What All Hallow’s Eve was really about were Pixy Stix, Fun Dip, mini Milky Way bars, and REESE’S Peanut Butter Cups (in my world, the latter still reigns supreme).

Still, things change. We grow up; most of us lose our appetite for eating the equivalent of eight cups of sugar in one sitting, we’re aware that those candy bars will go straight to our ass.

Still, I find something a little magical about Halloween: the brisk fall air, the aroma of woodsmoke and swirls of brightly colored leaves. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anymore, but there are some sophisticated treats out there capable of conjuring my inner child (mercifully, minus the buck teeth and tattling habit).

Below, my favorite confections, regardless of season:

1. Jonboy Caramels
I love me a good caramel, and this micro-Seattle company does them right. I discovered Jonboy at my local farmers market; despite the feel-good ingredients and ethics, these are no half-assed candies peddled by dirty hippies (kidding; I’m a longtime market vendor myself). Made completely by hand with local cream and HFCS-free, these pretty treats come wrapped in unbleached parchment paper, and are sold in little (recycled cardboard) boxes. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and these are intensely rich flavor-bombs redolent of that good cream as well as more potent, sexy flavors.

The selection is small and includes fleur de sel caramel, molasses ginger, and my favorite, an intriguing absinthe with black salt. Inspired by the salted licorice found in Scandinavia, Jonboy’s version is made with local Pacifique absinthe and a blend of anise, fennel, and hyssop. They’re dark and mysterious, like a trick-or-treater you shouldn’t let in the door.

Jonboy Caramels are available throughout Seattle at farmers’ markets and specialty stores, and select Washington and Oregon Whole Foods. Five box minimum for online orders (you’ll be glad to have extra, believe me).Halloween candy2. sockerbit
This groovy New York shop in the West Village is dedicated to “Scandinavian candy culture.” The name translates as “sugar cube,” and is also one of their namesake treats (a strawberry marshmallow square). Just like Ikea, crazy names and diversity are part of sockerbit’s charm. All of the essential categories are here: chocolate; licorice; marshmallow (who can resist something called “Syrliga Skumshots,” which are bottle-shaped sour marshmallows?); sweet; sour, and hard and wrapped candies. All are available for order online, and free of artificial dyes, flavors, trans-fats, and other synthetic nastiness.

It’s hard to make a decision in this place, but if, like me, you’re a slave to anything gummy and chewy, (red Swedish Fish people, I’m talking to you), you’ll be very happy with the tempting selection of fruit jellies. Skogsbär, here’s looking at you.

3. Recchiuti Confections
Lucky me, I used to work next door to this revered San Francisco Ferry Building confectionary (I worked in a meat shop; they traded us for chocolate). Chocolatier Michael Recchiuti is a genius, but it’s his delicate, botanically-infused chocolates that bring a tear to my eye. Bonus: many use herbs sourced right outside the door at the Saturday farmers market. Think lemon verbena; star anise and pink peppercorn; rose caramel, and candied orange peel. Just as heavenly are Recchiuti’s exquisite pates de fruits, S’more’s Bites, and…just about everything else. Order them all online at your own risk.

4. Dutch licorice
Licorice is an acquired taste regardless, but the earthy, intense, salted Dutch stuff is another thing altogether. Made with real licorice root extract–no artificial flavors here–they’re bracing, spicy, herbaceous, and strangely addictive. Any bona-fide candy store worth it’s, um, salt, will stock at least one imported variety.

5. Salt & Straw ice cream in holiday flavors
Ice cream season is supposed to be over (isn’t it?) but this five-month-old Portland, Oregon shop begs to differ. Some examples of their delicious array of super-regionalized “farm-to-cone” flavors: Hooligan Brown Ale and Olympic Provisions bacon, Stumptown coffee with cocoa nibs, and pear with Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake blue cheese.

New to Salt & Straw is their line-up of Thanksgiving and Holiday flavors, which includes bourbon pecan pie, made with Stone Barn’s Oregon Whiskey; eggnog with butter-rum caramel; blood orange cranberry; pumpkin cheesecake, and a sweet-and-savory brown bread stuffing studded with chestnuts, herbs, and dried apricots. Online orders are a minimum of five pints.

Understanding and Preventing Sugar Cravings

Belgian chocolate: so good you can snort it

Belgian chocolate
Back in grade school, my friends and I used to eat Smarties, those little sugar tablets that were so popular back then. Some of us, wanting to show off, used to pound them up and snort them. There was no better sugar rush. We used to call them “Snorties”.

Well, we should have copyrighted it, because now in Belgium they’re snorting chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but gourmet Belgian chocolate. I discovered this at the appropriately named The Chocolate Line in Antwerp. The “applicator” is a plastic catapult that launches little piles of powdered chocolate into both your nostrils. To see a closeup of the nostril catapult, check out the gallery. There are lots of photos of more traditional chocolate and chocolate making too.

So how does it compare to Snorties Smarties? Not nearly as granular, easier on the nostrils, and a better aftertaste, although I didn’t taste the raspberry flavor that was supposed to be mixed with the chocolate. Good for clearing the sinuses too.

Belgium is justly famous for its chocolate. It has some of the best chocolatiers in the world and many of them live in Antwerp. The Chocolate Line is one of the most famous. It’s located at the elegant Paleis op de Meir, a palace that’s now converted into a museum, cafe, and chocolatier workshop. Here you can see elegant chocolate creations being made.

Chocolatiers dot the city. I also visited Günther Watté, which doubles as a cafe. After sipping a delicately flavored cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain with the traditional piece of chocolate on the side, I explored their wide selection for something to bring home. For other recommendations, see the well-researched Amsterdam Tourist Guide’s Belgian chocolate page.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Antwerp: Belgium’s historic and modern port!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Belgian chocolate

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Undiscovered New York: Satisfying your sweet tooth

New York is under attack by cupcakes. Giant, fluffy cupcakes, gobbed with sickeningly sweet frosting and dumptruck-sized helpings of candy on top. One moment, Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City is chowing down on one, and the next, our fair city is awash in an unstoppable tidal wave of buttercream and sprinkles – it almost makes you want to go into a sugar coma.

Like cupcakes or loathe them, they’re a symptom of a much larger fact – New York is and always has been a sugar lover’s paradise. From the moment William Frederick Havemeyer founded what was to become the Domino Sugar Company in 1799, the city’s tastes were inextricably linked to this sweet, grainy substance. But even though Domino closed it doors in 2001 and Red Hook’s Revere Sugar Refinery met the wrecking ball in 2007, New York is still very much a sugar lover’s city.

And though we find ourselves in the midst of “cupcake craziness,” it would be a shame to forget the many other divine desserts, sublime sweet shops and bountiful bakeries that New Yorkers are spoiled with every day. Does chocolate make you weak at the knees? Looking for a candy “blast from the past?” Want to try some quirkier sweet fare like Belgian Waffles? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to “Satisfying your sweet tooth.”
In New York, Dessert Comes to You!
Forget getting in a taxi or strenuous activities like walking – sweets are a food best consumed while relaxing. Perhaps that’s why one of New York’s many mobile “dessert trucks” can be a godsend. OK – they don’t literally come to you, but they do move around, offering dessert lovers across the city a chance to sample some first-rate goodies while they’re out and about.

Anyone who’s craving a Liege or Brussels-style Belgian waffle should search out the Wafles and Dinges truck. This roving truck serves some of the most authentic Belgian treats anywhere in the city. They come topped off with a range of awesome toppings, or “dinges,” ranging from fresh fruit, whipped cream and nutella. You can find the truck’s next location by checking out their website or on Twitter.

Another strong contender for best sweet-serving truck is the Dessert Truck. Not only do you get to enjoy your dessert al fresco, their selection is ever-changing and totally delicious. How about some Molten Dark Chocolate Cake, Brioche Doughnuts or Coffee Mousse? And all for only $5-6. Yes please.

Getting Your Sweets Old-School
Candy is a food that is inevitably associated with the carefree days of childhood. If you’re looking to relive those days of old (if even for just an hour), head to Economy Candy on New York’s Lower East Side. The store is one of the last holdouts of the old neighborhood, first opening its doors to sugar-lovers everywhere in 1937. In addition to a huge selection of bulk candy, licorice and chocolate, Economy also stocks quite a few old-school candy favorites, including candy buttons and Big League Chew. How’s that for sweet nostalgia?

And did you know Brooklyn also has its own brand of gum? OK, it was actually created in Italy in the 1950’s – but you’ve got to admit there’s something pretty neat about a city with its own brand of chewing gum. The tiny packs bearing the iconic bridge logo have become a cult favorite among Borough residents. Head to Brooklyn and see if you can find a pack.

Ice Cream Lovers, Unite
Who doesn’t love ice cream? Alright, maybe the lactose-intolerant. But truth be told, New York is a great city for frozen treats, whether you like the good old-fashioned American stuff or something a bit more international. Chinatown visitors will want to stop by the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory where they can sample exotic flavors like Wasabi, Durian and Zen Butter (?!). Italian gelato fans are in the right place too. Discriminating customers of Italian stuff swear by Ciao Bella, and straight from Rome upstart Grom.

If you’re looking for something more “All-American,” head to the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge for the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory which specializes in classic all-natural flavors. Last but not least, for a TRUE New York ice cream experience, grab a cone from Mister Softee – their chocolate-dip soft serve is a favorite summer treat.

Where has all the sugar gone?

Have you noticed that it is virtually impossible to buy chewing gum WITH sugar anywhere in the world anymore? Panama, Italy, Czech Republic, Switzerland…they all sell gum with aspartame or saccharin. Even in Mauritius, one of the world’s top sugar cane growers, I noticed they used artificial sweetener in their gum. Sad, to say the least.

It used to be that sugar-free gum was a US specialty because Americans were obsessed with fitness (like the two extra calories make a difference) and their teeth. Not anymore.

Nowadays, it is virtually impossible to get a piece of gum without aspartame/NutraSweet anywhere in the world. Not because it is so much better for you, but it is so much cheaper to produce. This really blows for me because aspartame gives me an instant headache. Not fun, especially when you travel.

Chatting with the biologist about water bottles (yesterday) brought us to the topic of sugar as well. He feels much more strongly about the use of artificial sugar than drinking water with leeching chemicals. He said:

“If you really want to worry about your health, don’t use anything that has artificial sweetener in it which includes all diet drinks and foods as well as most over the counter medicines. Sugar has been part of man’s existence for thousands of years and until we got modern was never a problem unless we used too much (as we do in the U.S.). I am very afraid of aspartame (NutraSweet) and the neurological damage it does since it is in millions of products used daily. “