Thursday, November 14, 2013

Downtown Local

After moving to Loma Mar from San Francisco over 7 years ago, spending time at a good coffee house always required a trek.  No longer.  Pescadero now has Downtown Local, a wonderful place for good coffee, quality baked goods, and comfortable space.  Rather than 40 minutes in the car, I now have a respite within 15 minutes from home. 

Opened just two months ago on Stage Street, just across from Duartes and down the street from Pescadero Country Store, Downtown Local seems a bit out of place in this small coastal town.  Yet, the motorcycle in the window, Italian newspapers on the walls, the turntable playing music, and the assortment of vintage items on display do create an inviting space that appeals to the diverse personalities that live in the area and tourists that come through. 

As usual, cacao-me ordered a mocha.  But my first sip caused me to do a double-take.  The mocha at Downtown Local is a far cry from the overly sweetened versions I've unfortunately grown accustomed.  Using TCHO chocolate, Downtown Local's mocha provides the shades of an excellent dark chocolate, which pairs with their Sightglass Coffee, to create a wonderful bite of complex quality and subtle fruity undertones.  The tastes echoed of the "hot cacao" I continue to make from ground roasted cacao beans.  In addition, Downtown Local had almond milk, which made their mocha even more perfect.

Though their selection of baked goods was small (4 items), each looked beautiful, screamed of quality, and were provided by Companion Bakery in Santa Cruz.  I enjoyed a dark chocolate cookie with sea salt that was divinely inspired.  Highlighted by just a touch of salt, the bittersweet notes of this thick, dense, crunchy chocolate cookie sang with perfection.  (And the banana nut bread was also excellent, dense and moist and not overly sweet.)

I stayed for nearly 2 hours, reading, journaling, chatting with a couple visiting from New Zealand, enjoying the eclectic hipster decor.  A spill of chocolate on the table, which someone outlined and wrote "Ooooh chocolate!" (see picture) also made cacao-me feel at home.  Downtown  Local is wonderful respite from work and school, now within minutes from home.  I now need to try their hot chocolate on my next visit.

Along with all the other wonders of the area, Downtown Local now provides yet another reason to visit Pescadero -- the coffee! 

(Click here for a great review of this place by the Half Moon Bay Review)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Not So Nice with Rice

Today is my birthday - a special day I share with National Chocolate Pudding Day.  And over the past few years, I've attempted to make a pudding in celebration, even though pudding is not my cup of tea (or I should say, cup of "chocolate").  I decided to continue the tradition again this year, but this year, my pudding experiment with rice didn't turn out so nice.

After the yummy success last year with the Vegan Peanut Butter Pudding, I thought about repeating and enjoying it again.  However, the annual pudding experiment is all about trying something new and so I decided to give chocolate rice pudding a try this year.

I downloaded a recipe from Chocoblog a few years ago which looked and sounded yum (see picture above).  It could also be easily "veganized" by substituting soy milk for cow milk and so rice pudding here we come.

I have to admit I've never made rice pudding before, let alone a chocolate vegan version, so this would all be a grand experiment, even though my experiments with chocolate baking tend to not always be very successful. 

After washing 1/3 cup rice, I whisked together 1/4 cup soy milk with 1/4 cup cocoa powder (organic and free trade - my new standard for chocolate) to form a paste.  I then added the remaining 3 cups of soy milk and 1/4 cup sugar.  3 1/4 cup milk seemed like a lot of milk for 1/3 cup of rice, but that is the recipe and so I followed it.

I added the milk mixture to the rice in a pot and attempted to bring it to a boil on medium heat.  Easy enough instructions, but this is where the problem starts.  The problem: in 2 words - "My stove". 

I shouldn't really say "my stove" for it is the camp's stove in my camp-provided housing.  It is unfortunately the stove I need to use.  The problem is the burner.  There is simply no control over the heat.  In spite turning the nob to "low," it's either on or off.  There's no such thing as "medium", let alone simmer.

I forgot about this when I decided this grand chocolate rice pudding experiment.  I was able to bring the pot to a boil.  Covered it and then turned the heat down.

Now, if I had a normal stove, I am sure that after simmering on low for 35 minutes covered, stirring every 5 minutes, I could then uncover it and cook it for another 10 minutes and have a beautiful chocolate rice pudding.

However, given my stove, I needed to stir continuously, and when left covered on "low", the pot began to over boil creating a big chocolate mess all over the stove.  (May be that's why 3 1/4 cups of milk is needed!)  I left the pot uncovered, continued to stir often, and after 45 minutes, simply decided to give up.  The liquid was reducing down way too much and beginning to burn, and the rice still had not cooked through.

While it looked okay in a bowl, the rice was chewy.  Though the chocolate flavor had developed, not too sweet and not burnt, the pudding itself was thick and a bit studgy.  Decent in taste, but not very pleasant in texture.  If my stove worked properly, chances are good this would have been good.  May be I should try it in my rice cooker next time.  There's a thought.

Over the coming days, I'll probably try adding some nut milk to this chocolate rice pudding, microwaving it to warm it up and cook the rice, and drink it like a hot chocolate - a hot chocolate horchata.

Luckily, my vegan chocolate chip bread turned out well today.  (I still need to post that recipe.)  It was a not a total kitchen disaster on this birthday, on this National Chocolate Pudding Day. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dandelion Chocolate

It took a few laps of driving around the block and a cut-through to an alley before I found a 2-hour, non-metered parking space.  But to be honest, I'd do it again to indulge at Dandelion Chocolate at 740 Valencia in the Mission District of San Francisco.

This bean to bar chocolate company, which opened up its factory and store front in this new location just a few months ago, features an excellent drinking chocolate and inviting ambiance for a relaxing afternoon of study or conversation with friends.  The biggest challenge is the parking but it is worth the hassle.

The "European Drinking Chocolate," as they call it, is Italian-inspired, and is wonderfully thick and rich, made from 70% cacao Rio Caribe beans.  Served in a unique egg shaped cup, it is made fresh daily and served from their chocolate dispenser.  Though a bit pricey at $5.25, it is wonderfully delightful and indulgent.  It is creamy smooth in texture, and has a well-rounded chocolate flavor with a light fruity taste.  It is not overly sweet but it also doesn't have a strong bittersweet bite.  It's very well balanced in flavor, and didn't harden as it cooled, staying liquidy for quite a while, extending the enjoyment.   

In other words, there was no need to rush to finish this.  And served with the tiniest, most adorable, drinking chocolate spoon, there really was no way to hurry the experience.  A little sip at a time to savor this fine sample of locally produced bean to bar chocolate.  The must frustrating part of this drinking chocolate is that the shape of the cup makes it hard to clean the bottom.  In other words, no licking the cup clean.  (Darn it!)

Though there were many chocolate desserts on display, including a decadent chocolate cake, the suggested accompaniment to this drinking chocolate was Dandelion's chocolate carmel tarte.  Upon cracking the shell, a layer of carmel oozed from the bottom.  It was beautiful.  The sweetness of the carmel did complement the drinking chocolate and brought out some of its bittersweet bite.  The bitterness of the ground cacao nibs on top complemented the drinking chocolate by highlighting its sweetness.  It was a brilliant chocolate ping pong match in the mouth.

With a 2-hour free parking space and delicious chocolates to savor, I spent some time studying and enjoying the little cafe in front of the factory.  There were a few tables with chairs, a bar near the front window, and a bar overlooking the chocolate factory. I wanted to talk a bit more with the service staff at the counter about their chocolates and their production, but a continuous flow of people ordering, enjoying, and asking questions made it difficult.  Unlike the other drinking chocolate places I've been to, I could say that this one was literally busy!

Knowing that I soon needed to go, I went to ask the staff about their vegan options when there was a momentary break in the crowds. While people-watching and taking in the scenery, I noticed on the board (after my initial order, of course) that all drinks could be made with almond milk or water upon request.  The server explained that to make their drinking chocolate dairy-free, they make each cup individually, melting their in-house ganache with either almond milk or water. While not as creamy due to the lack of dairy fat, it still maintains the same balance of chocolate flavors, they said.  I disagree with the "creaminess" factor as I've had creamy vegan drinking chocolate, but I'll definitely give their vegan version a try (along with their chocolate cake) on my next visit, which will probably be sooner than later.

Though Dandelion Chocolate is the most out of the way drinking chocolate place I've found for this Chocolate Week review, it has all the elements I enjoy -- a nearly perfect mug of chocolate goodness and an inviting ambiance for an afternoon of delight.  With a whole slew of chocolate drinks  to try (see menu left) and desserts to sample, there is also much more to be experienced.

An afternoon at Dandelion Chocolate is definitely worth the parking battle of the Mission, but I think next time I'll try taking BART.

Friday, March 22, 2013


With a name like "Mokka," it's got to be good.  And this little independent coffee house at 3075 Telegraph Ave doesn't disappoint.  Though they specialize in organic/fair trade coffee, Mokka also features a "sipping chocolate" on their menu, which is the reason I made the trek to south Berkeley, just past Ashby, away from the crowds and the parking meters. 

Because I often have my car with me, parking does become a big factor when finding a spot to enjoy an afternoon of drinking chocolate, studying, relaxing, indulging.  I was a bit concerned about finding a space in this area near Alta Bates, but I found a few 2 hour street parking spots just a block away. 

While I would have loved to try their "mokka," sampling their drinking chocolate was the primary agenda.  In talking with the barista, they make each cup individually, melting 65% cacao Madagascar Guittard chocolate with your choice of milk.  With soy milk as an option, I was able to make mine vegan from the get go, even though the soy milk was an extra $.50 over the $3.50 price.

Though all the tables were full, I was able to find a seat up on the window bar.  The space has a warm modern ambiance, and I was ready to settle in for a little work.  When my name was called and my drink ready for pick up, I was surprised by what I saw.  Rather than an espresso cup of melted chocolate, their "sipping chocolate" was an 8 oz mug topped with froth.  It looked more like a mocha than a drinking chocolate. 

I sampled a spoonful of the chocolatey brew, and to be honest, I was impressed.  It was not thick like the Italian cioccolata calda, which I adore.  And it wasn't the more liquidy drinking chocolate I regularly savor at Bittersweet.  This drinking chocolate was somewhere in between.  Rather than have a creamy texture, it was frothy and foamy as it was prepared using the frother on the espresso machine, instead of in a pot on the stove which melts the chocolate to create a thicker consistency.  It was different but I was enjoying it, one spoon at a time.  

There seemed to be a lighter chocolate taste in Mokka's creation, which was not as rich and decadent as your standard "sipping chocolate."  It did have a nice balanced taste of sweet and bittersweet, with fruity undertones, reflecting the chocolate they used.  Because this drinking chocolate wasn't too thick and wasn't too liquidy, it became the perfect dip for a chocolate biscotti.  The biscotti didn't go soggy; it kept it's crunchy texture; and the lightness of the drinking chocolate worked well with the darker bite of the chocolate on the biscotti.  A nice little marriage.

As I made my way through the froth, I eventually found more of a chocolatey brown color.  And as it cooled, it stayed fluid, not hardening up quickly like the sipping chocolate at Serendipity.  In other words, there was no need to rush as this large cup of goodness stayed warm and liquid for quite a while. In many ways, the chocolate became more "mousse-like" than "ganache-like" as it cooled, allowing me to savor my time at Mokka and extend my chocolate pleasure.

Though this was not an Italian-style cioccolata calda, it was a light, refreshing alternative that I can imagine craving again.  There was something about the frothy texture that was seductive.  In addition, given that Mokka's "mokka" is their "sipping chocolate" with a shot of espresso, I know I will definitely be back for more.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


While "serendipity" might mean "good fortune or luck," when it comes to San Carlos, "serendipity" refers to chocolate - Serendipity Chocolates at 1152 Arroyo Ave, and it is to my "good fortune" that I found them.

With the drinking chocolates at Rue du Thé and Back Yard Coffee becoming a bit too sweet for cacao-me, I wanted to find a place in the peninsula that offered something with more of a bittersweet, high quality chocolate bite.  Serendipity was my answer.  

Opened about a year and half ago, this little chocolate shop just off of Laurel in Downtown San Carlos offers artisan chocolates to the peninsula community.  With most of the high quality chocolate shops up in the City, Serendipity saw the need and has found a local clientele for its collection of confections, bars, pastries, and of course, drinking chocolates.  Though they do not make anything in their storefront (other than drinks), they feature only the best and freshest chocolate products from many local suppliers, chocolatiers, and bakers.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a 2-hour, non-metered spot just a few feet from the entrance - luck?  serendipity?  I was thankful that parking was not an issue as I had some work I wanted to get done while enjoying this new find off of Yelp.  (I searched for "sipping chocolate".)

Though there were 5 "drinking chocolate" options on the menu, I knew I needed to go with the "sipping chocolate" which, according to their online menu, is "a creamy, rich, and thick chocolate drink made with real chocolate chunks and water."  In spite being made with water (which is the "French-style," like at The Xocolate Bar), this was their cioccolata calda, made with real chocolate, not chips, not powder, not a pre-made mix. I was excited to give it a try.  

Rather than served from a chocolate dispenser, each cup is made to order from a blend of Belgian chocolates - milk and dark - from 50-70% cacao.  It is a secret blend, which I later learned comes from master New York pastry chef, Jacques Torres, who is known as "Mr. Chocolate."  According to one of the managers, Fatima, Serendipity is the only California store to feature Jacques Torres' special blend of hot drinking chocolate. 

With limited seating, I was fortunate to snag a table by the window.  With a rather stark interior design, this little store front does not have an inviting visual appeal.  The staff however is wonderfully friendly.  As I began working, the server brought me a little espresso cup of super thick "sipping chocolate."  Though made with water, it was very smooth, and was really more of a "spooning" chocolate than "sipping" as it was very thick.  Did I mention it was thick?  In spite being a bit too thick, it had an excellent balance of sweet and bittersweet notes, and lives up to Jacques Torres' reputation.  I did appreciate the flavors.

What made this little cup of chocolate hard to enjoy was that it cooled rather quickly, and soon turned into a pudding consistency and then hardened, in spite my mixing it up.  It was hard to savor the moment as it didn't seem to stay warm for very long, which is unfortunate.  

The little mocha macaroon, however, did pair nicely with the chocolate.  It had a wonderful chewy texture and light mocha cream center that did cut the richness of the chocolate which was a bit stodgy towards the end.  It was good that the macaroon was small because before I knew it, the cup was empty! 

I really wasn't able to get any work done while enjoying this sipping chocolate so I decided to order another drinking chocolate on the menu to savor a while longer with the work I needed to do.  

In talking with the servers, I discovered that all their drinks can be veganized through milk choice (almond or soy at no extra charge).  Even their sipping chocolate can be made vegan by using TCHO chocolate rather than the Jacques Torres blend which incorporates some milk chocolate.  I will definitely need to give their vegan sipping chocolate a try next time. (May be it won't be so thick!) They also offer local Guittard chocolate as a third option.  Though all their sipping chocolates are made with water, they can also be made with milk upon request.  And while $3.75 isn't cheap for a little espresso cup of goodness, I know I can taste the difference in quality of a drinking chocolate made with love and good ingredients.

With time left before my next meeting, I decided to go with their Mexican Chocolate with almond milk.  Not made from a powder as in other places I've sampled, they blend cinnamon, clove, vanilla, and agave with real chocolate shavings.  The server used TCHO because she knew I wanted it vegan.  It was a soothing blend of warming flavors which lasted as I finished up the work I needed to do.  They have a spicy option as well, which I will also want to try on another visit.  

To be honest, Serendipity does not have an inspiring ambiance, but they do serve a wonderful variety of quality drinking chocolates, many I am curious to try like their peanut butter drinking chocolate.  With adequate parking, a friendly staff, and a location which is fairly convenient for me, I know I'll be back.  They do have a friend in me!  I just won't bring a lot of work to do when I'm there. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Xocolate Bar

As much as I enjoy drinking chocolate, I discovered that my mom enjoys chocolate with ginger.  In search of the "perfect gift" for my mom over the years, I've checked out various local chocolatiers to find quality, artisan chocolate with ginger.  And at one North Berkeley shop, I found chocolate to satisfy both of us.

The Xocolate Bar at 1709 Solano Avenue in North Berkeley makes a dark chocolate with ginger chunks that my mom adores and features a vegan sipping chocolate that I love.  In other words, there is always a good reason to battle for a parking space along Solano Ave and indulge.

They refer to their drinking chocolate as "French-style" in that it is made with real chocolate (not powder or pre-made mixture) which they add to hot water, rather than milk or cream.  Their recipe is simple = two ingredients = 1:1 ratio of a good dark chocolate and water.  Because their "sipping chocolate" (as they refer to it) is always on tap, churning in a drinking chocolate machine, it becomes rich, dark, and thick, while being dairy-free and thus, vegan.

While it has a bold bittersweet chocolate favor, due primarily to the quality chocolate they use, this "French-style" is not as smooth as the Italian-style, cioccolata calda, which is made with milk or cream.  Made with water, the chocolate truly stands as the star however.  While beautiful in taste, it is far from beautiful to behold as they serve their drinking chocolate in a small paper cup, always "to go."  There are no seats inside their little store front, and only one bench in front.

While I've enjoyed a few cups of their drinking chocolate over the years (always in connection with a gift for my mom), the Xocolate Bar doesn't offer the same relaxing and indulgent experience as other places. Rather than sit and enjoy a quiet afternoon with a cup of warmed goodness, I've instead sipped my chocolate while walking on Solano Ave, while driving in the car, or at home after warming it up.

I also don't have a picture of my own paper cup of chocolate as I've always been on the run when picking it up.  (Thanks to Yelp for the picture above!)  And on the day I was free and wanted to enjoy a cup to take a picture for this blog, the store was closed.  They are only open 4 days a week and for only 6 hours each day.  You need to plan a visit, and as I mentioned above, parking can be a challenge.

What draws people to The Xocolate Bar however is their wide assortment of unique chocolate bon bon confections, all hand-crafted and made in the kitchen in the back of the store. This local chocolatier team uses only high quality, natural, 70% fair-trade cacao.  They also make a variety of chocolate bars in house, and carry fine chocolate bars from makers around the world.  In addition, they feature solid chocolate figurines and offer quite a few vegan options.

While I do love their drinking chocolate, the Xocolate Bar is unfortunately not a "bar," in terms of a place to sit, relax, and enjoy.  It is instead a artisan chocolate store to stock up on decadent treasures.  Whenever I need a gift for mom, I know where to go, and pick up a treat for me too.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Back Yard Coffee Company

A few months back I had a doctor's appointment at Kaiser in Redwood City.  With a little time to kill, I decided to find a coffee house near by where I could get some work done.  I love little local coffee houses and thought Back Yard Coffee at 965 Brewster Ave would be a great place to spend the afternoon.  I was planning on a mocha, but those plans quickly changed as I discovered that they served a "sipping chocolate."  Talk about a pleasant surprise!

As I ordered, I asked more questions about their "sipping chocolate," as they call it on the chalkboard menu.  I learned that they make it in an Ugolini chocolate dispenser and use Caffe d'Amore Bellagio Sipping Chocolate from a package.  Each day, they pour the pre-made mixture and milk into the machine which slowly blends and heats their drinking chocolate.  It is served in an attractive espresso cup with a little spoon, and for only $2.80, it is definitely a good price.

In terms of taste, however, it was definitely sweeter than I prefer, even sweeter than the dark chocolate drinking chocolate now served at Rue Du Thé.  I drizzled Back Yard's sipping chocolate on the peanut butter cookie I bought which helped cut the sweetness.  The chocolate lacked the bittersweet bite and the subtle fruity undertones of a good quality, higher percentage cacao.  Though it was thick, it was a little gritty.  It also had a "manufactured" taste rather than the "made from scratch" freshness of melted chocolate. This makes sense as Caffe d'Amore, according to the website, makes their sipping chocolate from cocoa powder and chocolate liqueur rather than chopped chocolate chunks. In spite being rich and decadent, this drinking chocolate tasted more like a melted hot fudge sauce than a fine drinking chocolate.  I was a little disappointed.

In spite its shortcoming, however, I still appreciated it and went back a few weeks later when I had that craving.  (I also wanted to take a picture as I wasn't expecting a chocolate find on my initial visit and didn't have my camera.)

What I appreciate most about Back Yard Coffee Company is the ambiance.  It is a beautiful, relaxing, inviting setting.  With couches, a few window counters, tables inside and outside, along with a parking lot (see left) - a plus in Redwood City which only has meters, this is a place to be inspired and spend the afternoon getting some serious work done, even though the sipping chocolate isn't the best.