Yesterday marked day one of the annual Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival, held to benefit Project Open Hand. Hook and I went to the fest last year and the experience is one of my fondest memories of my early days in San Francisco (I blogged about it here). At the time, I’d been living in the city less than a month, and I was just becoming familiar with SF’s amazing gustatory offerings. I remember standing on a sunny patch of sidewalk, eating chocolate-hazelnut gelato with a wooden slat of a spoon, reveling in the cool beauty of the day, the breeze coming off of the water.
Buoyed by memory and my love of cacao-based confections, I entered this year’s festival with high hopes. Hook and I arrived early — twenty minutes before the gates opened — to find a snaking line of chocoholics waiting for access to the booths. Last year, I’d researched the vendors online, making a list of all the products I wanted to sample. This year, I took a more of-the-moment approach: I did no prior research about product offerings, opting instead to sample what I came upon. This approach served me well; at least one vendor wasn’t offering what was printed in the brochure, and I found it much more enjoyable to meander through the square, stopping at booths as I passed by, rather than tearing through the crowds in pursuit of a specific treat.
Before we started our chocolate tasting, Hook and I readied our palates with beers from Sudwerk’s. H. got the Maerzen, I the Hefeweizen, and both were wholly satisfying. (Note: Hefeweizens are among my favorite beers and rarely fail to please me.) Neither of us had heard of Sudwerk Brewery before, but we’ll be on the lookout for their brews at our local package stores.
After leisurely sipping our beers, Hook and I got down to business. Here’s my recap of what I sampled and how it ranked.
The Frosting Queens were offering “Frosting Shots” in three flavors — Vanilla Buttercream, Milk Chocolate, and Dark Chocolate Cabernet. (The program also lists the FQs as providing Buttery Peppermint frosting, but there was none at the table.) I tried a bite of Buttercream but wasn’t suitably impressed. Indeed, I was taken aback by the audacity of a vendor serving a thimblefull of frosting (and not even chocolate frosting!) as a legit sample. Frosting isn’t something normally eaten alone*, so a tiny sample of frosting struck me as a total gimmick. The frosting itself was average: very sweet — we’re talking Duncan Hines sweet, people — with a slight graininess. Pale, popcorn-butter yellow, it was topped with rainbow sprinkles — the vendor’s attempt at lightheartedness? Or perhaps a stab at classing up what was, effectively, a spoonful of frosting? Who knows.
I know I’m kvetching a lot about a spoonful of frosting, but the product was far from innovative. If the frosting had been perfect and a super-unusual flavor, I’d have had a wildly different opinion. But, as Hook noted, “this frosting is something I could whip up at home for like, $2.” Agreed. Word of advice: don’t waste your time with the Frosting Queens. Buy yourself some butter, a box of confectioner’s sugar, and some high-quality vanilla. You’ll be much better off.
Next up was the Kara’s Cupcakes van, which generated one of the longest lines at the festival. Last year, I quite enjoyed the cupcake I got from Kara’s, so I was eager to see how this year’s cake stacked up.
As last year, the wait for a cupcake bordered on half an hour. Why, you ask? There was one person working at the van and she explained the cupcake flavors to each individual patron. You know what would have made a lot more sense? A sign listing the cupcake flavors.
But no matter. While we waited, Hook and I chatted with fellow festivalgoer George (No Last Name Given), who has been attending the event for the last eight years. He brought along a cooler so that he could take his samples home and enjoy them later “without making himself sick.” A wise man, that George. Next year, I’m following suit so I can take some of the goodness home with me.
I wish I could say otherwise, but Kara’s product didn’t justify the exorbitant wait. Hook’s cupcake was solid: he chose Chocolate with Peanut-Butter Frosting. The cake itself was so-so — pretty basic, and not exceptionally moist — but the frosting, chocolate with only the subtlest hint of peanut butter, was well-done in an understated way. My cupcake, Chocolate with Caramel Filling and Chocolate-Sea Salt Frosting, was abysmal. The cake was dry; the caramel filling was so scant that I had to break apart the cupcake to find it. Worst of all, the frosting was so salty that it was nearly inedible. After my first bite, I thought I’d perhaps mis-judged the saltiness, so I had another taste. The frosting was like a damned salt lick! To verify the accuracy of my perception, I had Hook sample the frosting; he corroborated my gripe. Kara’s, you’ve let us down. Why anyone orders the cupcake I tried is a mystery to me.
On a lighter note, Eat My Love For You, a vegan bakeshop, had some kick-ass products. I sampled the Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes with Vegan Buttercream Frosting, while Hook had the Vegan Triple Chocolate Brownies.
Very clearly the better of the two cupcakes I had, my cake was dense, moist, and chocolately without being cloying. The frosting, made with Earth Balance (a hydrogenated oil-based butter substitute), was a spot-on reproduction of butter-based buttercream — and it also wasn’t unpleasantly sweet. Hook, a brownie connoisseur, enjoyed his brownie and said he wouldn’t have guessed, by taste alone, that the product was vegan.
Lori’s Diner garnered my affection with their Chocolate Shake, topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. Just sweet enough, thick, and throat-coatingly smooth, the shake was an old-school delight. If I’d had my head on straight, I would have gotten a second sample. Oh, hindsight.
We sampled several other sweets, including Pistachio Caramel Corn and Spiced Almond Caramel Corn from CC Made. The pistachio variety was indistinguishable from regular (albeit upscale) caramel corn, but the almond corn produced an afterburn, possibly owing to the inclusion of pepper in the recipe.
The The Bread Project’s Chocolate Chip Blondie was a footnote. Grainy in texture, greasy to the touch but simultaneously dry, it was reminiscent of something in the bakery aisle of a 7-11. The Cherry Chocolate English Muffins from Leadbetter’s Bake Shop, on the other hand, were deserving of a tri-fold promotional pamphlet (if not more). Seeing no line for the muffins (the crowds jockeyed instead for chocolate martinis), I spoke with Jamieson Leadbetter, a fourth-generation baker and transplant from Portland, Maine. Leadbetter told me that his grandfather developed this English muffin recipe in 1951 (the inclusion of chocolate chunks and cherries was Jamieson’s own modification).
Very similar to sourdough in taste and springy to the tooth, the muffin had fewer nooks and crannies that I’m used to, but it was delicious served with a thin layer of butter. Indeed, so fond was I of the muffin that I picked up a package of Leadbetter’s Cinnamon Raisin English Muffins later the same day. If you’re in the city, pick up a package or two — you’ll be glad you did.
Perhaps my favorite experience of the festival was unrelated to chocolate. Near the end of our stint at Ghirardelli Square, H. and I wandered past the Organic Pastures Dairy table, where we sampled raw milk.
I’ve read a fair amount about the health benefits of raw milk, the controversies surrounding the importing and distribution of European raw milk cheeses, and related issues, but I’ve never sampled the product itself. It was ice-cold; it coated my tongue; it had a faint, sweet aftertaste. Mark McAfee, the Organic Pastures CEO/head farmer, gladly answered my questions about sanitation standards in the production of raw milk. McAfee’s cows are grass-fed and raised without hormones and antibiotics; that the milk comes only from a known set of cows eliminates the practical need for pasteurization (which is necessary to eliminate the bacteria that can flourish when milk from different dairies is mixed). The dairy farmer’s enthusiasm for raw milk was infectious; a longtime drinker of skim and a recent convert to almond milk, I’m considering the purchase of a quart of raw.
By 1:30, Hook and I had reached our sugar threshold. We hit the Ghirardelli sample tent and used the rest of our sample credits on pre-wrapped chocolate squares in various flavors: almond, 72% intense dark, hazelnut, caramel, raspberry, pumpkin caramel, white mint. My favorite so far is the hazelnut, though the caramel isn’t too shabby.
Will we return to the chocolate festival next year? It’s a tough call. This year’s vendor list and featured products were much the same as last year’s, and some of the products advertised in print weren’t available in actuality. I predict that in 2011, Hook and I will head to Brews on the Bay, swinging by Lori’s diner en route for burgers and a shared chocolate malt. I call dibs on the cherry.
*Though I’d be lying if I said I’ve never eaten frosting straight from the bowl. When frosting is good, it’s really, really good.