Thursday, April 29, 2010

PRODUCT REVIEW: Planters Black Label

Planters is making a big push to expand their brand. Their first big effort was launched about eighteen months ago with the NUTrition line of mixed jars and food bars. I recommended both of those as quite tasty, especially the delicious mixes. I was also happy to see a real focus on quality in these new products, more so with the mixes. The bars are good, but they're a bit high in weird ingredients and a bit low in actual nuts.

Planters newest family member are Black Label. Ooooooh. Black Label. Sounds exclusive. Well, as exclusive as anything sold at Wal-Mart can get. This is certainly no Johnny Black.

I think it shows that Planters is really trying to expand their brand with the noticeably omission of peanuts from any of these mixes. Up until the NUTrition mixes, I don't think Planters even made a mix without peanuts in them. Hell, they were apparently so infamous for making their mixes primarily peanuts that they started listing maximum percentages for peanuts on their mix jars.

But here, zip. Zilch. Nada. No peanuts to be seen. The two most used seem to be almonds and cashews, with macadamias and pistachios making a couple of cameos. While the limited selection of nuts might be disappointing, the variety of flavors and dips will not be. Chocolate, chipotle, Santa Fe, sea salt and cracked pepper. These are not your ordinary nuts. This sort of flavor experimentation is usually restricted to small, niche-label food brands sold either online or from specialty resellers. But no. Here's Planters throwing the universe upside down.

Also surprising is the price. A large jar of Santa Fe will set you back $10 minimum, and small jars of the dark and milk chocolate mixes sell for nearly $6 at Wal-Mart. But that price certainly goes somewhere. The seasonings on the Chipotle are spicy and don't taste artificial like on most chip seasonings. The chocolate-covered nuts use a surprisingly high-quality chocolate, especially the dark.

And as I mentioned with the NUTrition mixes, these are NOT low-calorie foods. They are decidedly high-calorie. So don't think that almonds and dark chocolate, the super friends of super foods, make this overly healthy. If you add them to an otherwise healthy diet, you're good, but if you just munch on these bad boys, your weight will grow faster than you can say "Oprah."

The label has yet to expand nationwide, and currently you can only get the chocolate ones at Wal-Mart locations. Mentions of the Black Label start popping up online about a year ago, so I'm assuming that Planters has been rolling the product line out since then. It hasn't gotten an official mention on the Planters page, either.

I'm a bit torn as to how to recommend this. They're all good, but local shops dipping their own chocolates and adding higher-quality (but perishable) seasonings will be better. So I'll recommend this with a caveat: if you can get these same products locally, they'll be better. But as it stands, these are some of the tastiest snacks nationally available.

Planters Black Label: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Starbucks Machines.

Starbucks' roll-out of their new espresso machines is finally hitting the more rural locations that I usually frequent. Apparently, the machine should be in around 75% of locations, on its way to 100% some time next year. It's part of Starbucks continuing effort to change its direction by staying exactly the same, but saying that it's trying to be different.

I don't mean to bash Starbucks, I actually like them, but their efforts at turning around their fortunes are laughably poor. Instead of unleashing a torrent of business model experimentation, they're doing the same thing. Their food selection is decent, but overpriced and limited. Their WiFi is still limited. Their coffee selection is still limited. The list goes on. The design of the new machine is now on that list. What's the big difference? Well, it grinds beans as opposed to using pre-ground coffee packs. That's good. And it's also shorter! Oooooooh! This means that the barista has a better "connection" with the person ordering the drink by blocking "the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista." If there was ever something that the customer didn't care about, it's that.

But enough about that. How's the machine? First off, it looks different than the picture being passed about. The sides are a copper color and it melds in with the Starbucks aesthetic better. And the baristi are universal in their love of the machine over the old Thermoplans. The big difference that they're reporting is temperature stability. Apparently, under heavy load, the old Thermoplan machines would suffer from pretty bad temperature fluctuations in the shots. I'm assuming that this explains the wide differences in drink quality I've encountered at

The biggest difference that I've noticed is the milk steam quality. I haven't had a crappy steam job at any location with the new machines, whereas I've had numerous poor lattes on the old boxes. It's still semi-automated, which means no latte art-ready foam, but it's velvety and feels good on the tongue. Starbucks does a good job of talking up the machine at this online Flash app which also gives you the best view of the machine apart from actually going.

The thing that keeps running through my mind is that, if this machine is as good as they say it is, why does Starbucks insist on using only ONE bean blend? Their current blend is adequate, in that it tastes like coffee and isn't too bitter, or sour, or dark, or anything. It's just this bland thing sitting smack dab in the middle of a dark-roast flavor profile. It's crema level is very poor, and there's simply a lot of room to open up the variety.

Having one blend at Dunkin' Donuts or McDonalds is fine. They're not a coffee shop. But Starbucks is a cafe. They should have half a dozen coffees, at least one more type of espresso, and other ways to explore the coffee world. That's why a cafe exists! If I just wanted a high-quality cup of joe, I'd make it myself. As it stands, local cafes are whomping the 'Bucks in this department.

If Starbucks really wants to push the envelope, which I'm beginning to think that they don't, they should make a machine that can espress multiple bean types. Because until they do that, there's nothing bringing me to Starbucks over Coffee Exchange or Updike's Newtowne save for convenience. And now that I've got a new machine, even that's fading.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Survey is Dead. Long Live Survey!

Well, I last asked in which season you eat the most, and boy did you answer. 54% of your answered that you eat the most in winter (just keeping warm). Fall barely got 9%, spring got NO votes, and summer only landed 18%. The remaining votes went to people who eat 24/7.

Now with summer here, I'm curious as to your favorite frozen delight? Yogurt? Ice Cream? Milk shakes? Let your voice be heard.

PRODUCT REVIEW: Archer Farms Pre-Ground Espresso

Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that Target had their own house brand of pre-ground espresso beans. Targets are everywhere, while places that carry Illy are... not. Better still, the grounds were contained in the same metal tin as Illy. Similar size, shape and price. Everything seemed to indicate that Target was targeting Illy quite directly.

Usually store brands are at least comparable to the name brands, and since I'm still getting used to my new espresso machine (read: screwing up shots) I figured saving a few bucks was worth it for the sake of experimentation, even if the final product wasn't quite up to snuff.

So, I was already going into this with low expectations, and I'm happy to report that Archer Farms espresso missed even those. First off, it's not the slightest bit comparable to Illy. The blend is way off. It's more acidic and not in a good way. The texture of the grinds is also different. Illy has a powderyness to it, along with the slightly larger bits of coffee. Archer Farms is certainly super-fine, but is completely missing that powder texture.

This is the only thing that explains my problems with the shot. I tamped my shot, began the pull, and water flowed through the shot like shit through a goose. I got slightly strong, bad, coffee. I assumed that I had simply tamped too lightly. It happens. Did it again, with a deliberate, strong tamp. Same thing. Next step, doubling my tamp pressure. I pushed down with at least sixty pounds of force. Same thing.

I blew through five shots. Every one was the same, regardless of what I did. This grind is nowhere near Illy and completely useless for espresso. The package is a complete lie. I would imagine that if you had a moka pot, Aeropress, or even French press, then this would work fine. But in a real espresso machine, that applies real pressure, this is laughably off the mark.

Archer Farms Ground Espresso: NOT RECOMMENDED

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Proud Father

I am a proud new dad...

Of an espresso machine. Same deal, really. It takes forever to go to sleep at the end of the day, produces lots of brown stuff, requires a lot of cleaning, cost a fortune, and I have to put it through college. I'm so happy. My very first pro-level espresso machine. And to think that it cost a cool grand less than the Jura Capresso Z5 I had been using.

Now, you may not know it, but you're looking at an incredibly special machine. This is one of the very few pro-sumer espresso machines that are generally available that rock TWO boilers. Usually, high-end consumer espresso machines will use a heat exchanger, where the boiler only heats the steam boiler, and hot water for espresso extraction passes through pipes that pass through the steam boiler, thus flash-heating water as it heads towards the group head.

That's actually a really great way to wedge everything that's needed to make good espresso into a compact package while also making it affordable. It does have some disadvantages, such as a long recharge time between drinks. After pressure and temperature drop in the steam boiler from both a pulled shot and steamed milk, it could be multiple minutes before you can do anything else. Conversely, if the steam boiler sits for awhile, all of the metal around the boiler heats up, thus dumping too much heat into the water as it heads to the espresso.

It's a complication that is pretty easily dealt with once you understand your machine, but if you plan on hosting guests or run a light commercial operation, that extra time and effort is unacceptable. Thus, we have the wonders of the dual-boiler machine.

These have their own problems, as many in the recent past who have tried to run a pro-sumer dual-boiler machine in their home have discovered. In theory, it's perfect. In practice, though, there are some serious issues. First, there's the weight and cost. Dual-boiler machines can be upwards of twice as heavy as a comparable single-boiler machine, and they can cost an equal percentage more.

Worse still, even if your wallet and biceps are up to the task, your house may not be. Dual boilers draw an enormous amount of power, and usually require 20-amp socket to function correctly. Even if the manufacturer claims that the machine can run on a standard 15-amp socket, it probably does so poorly.

But my machine is different. My machine is special. Somehow, through some weird, Italian magic, La Spaziale has made a 15-amp dual boiler machine that actually works. Better still, if you ever install a 20-amp socket, all it takes is a small switch inside to turn the machine into a 20-amp monster.

I've had the machine for a few days, now, and all I can say is "WOW!" I'm loving it. Freaking loving it. The extraction is what you would expect, but the steam power out of this bad boy is just incredible. The joys of a dual boiler are not lost on me. Without a doubt, this is the best at-home steam machine I've ever used. It's the absolute equal of a commercial machine.

The drip tray is deep and large. The accessibility of the water tank is just fantastic. Unlike other pro-sumer machines that are basically rejiggerings of pro setups, the design details of the Vivaldi reveal a machine truly meant to be used in a kitchen, and the water tank is the jewel of those details. You can access the tank by simply taking out the drip tray and then removing the water tank. Piece of cake.

Conveniently, the machine actually streamlines my drink production for tea and coffee. The hot water spout produces buckets of 195 degree water for pour-over or french press coffee, and is the perfect temperature for black tea. Previously, I had a kettle on the stove and a large Brita water filter on a shelf. I now have it all in one machine that takes about eight minutes to start up. About that, that's eight minutes on 15 amps. That's great! I'd imagine that 20 amps would reduce start up time to a mere five.

despite my accolades, the machine isn't perfect. I would have liked manual controls. The auto function is nice, but sometimes I want to call a shot as I make it. Worse, there is no way to get a pre-infusion option on any given shot. You can either install a pre-infusion piston, and thus get pre-infusion on every shot, or uninstall it and get pre-infusion on no shots. It's annoying to say the least, especially when the plumbed version of the Vivaldi II gets the option automatically. I understand why this is the case, but I wish they could have managed something, anything, to give me the feature.

I would have also liked a rotary pump. Usually, rotary pumps require pressure to work. That's why they're usually found in direct-plumb machines. But I've seen quite a few machines that use a reservoir and still manage to use a rotary pump. As far as performance is concerned, the end result is similar. I've heard that rotary pumps create a more even pressure and thus produce better crema, but I've never noticed a difference. The biggest difference is noise. The video I've posted makes the machine sound a lot louder than it actually is, but it's still louder than the quiet hum one gets from a rotary box. It's a bit comforting to me, since my old Jura Capresso Z5 sounded identical.

I was aware of these limitations before I bought, but I wanted ease of operation, and this was the only machine that offered that sort of push-button operation at this price and still provided everything else that I wanted. I could have gone for a machine with a full E61 group, but since my most important drink is the one that I make in the morning, being able to press a button and immediately fall asleep on the floor for a few minutes was important.

The machine comes standard with a four-hole nozzle for milk steaming, which is wildly overpowered for my small milk carafe. I steam the milk in five to ten seconds. Needless to say, but I will anyhow, that's way too short to develop good milk foam. If the machine had a standard steam valve, as opposed to the lever-operated version, I could set a smaller amount of steam. But as it is, the machine is basically all or nothing.

This is the only part of the machine that I regret. I didn't even think about it. So, sadly, the only way I can control steaming power is via different nozzles. It certainly gets the job done, but it's not exactly convenient or user-friendly.

Long story short, I'm very glad I bought it. The limitations of renting a house were what drove me to this machine. If I had my own kitchen, I would have bought a direct-plumbed machine and integrated the machine in with the kitchen. But since maintaining mobility of the machine was important, and I wanted that push-button functionality, this was the machine for me. I think it's swell.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Starbucks Nutrition Sheet.

Now THAT is a freaking nutrition sheet. Starbucks does not mess around when it comes to letting you know precisely how many calories you're taking in. Unless you want whole milk. Then you're just left to guess. I'm a bit surprised that the Venti Choco-Waco-Caloriccinno Frappuccino Creme is only about 650 calories with whipped cream. Considering that a large soda at Burger King or McDonalds is in the same ballpark, it's not a bad indulgence.


Who's brilliant idea was this? Huh?! Who's? Show yourself!

I don't care if you think that you might be able to make a few bucks selling this to some idiotic market for a few years before the novelty wears off and you stop. A line has to be drawn somewhere. At SOME POINT, the damage done to the soul of mankind by your product must be taken into account. Like those individual slices of peanut butter and jelly.

No fuss? What?! When the fuck did frosting become a fussy endeavor?! I don't understand what terrible inconvenience that Pillsbury is alleviating afflicts households across America to such a great degree as to require a Goddamn aerosol frosting can.

Mark my words, the ONLY people out there who will benefit greatly from this no-fuss form of frosting dispensing are stoners who now finally have something to go with their aerosol cheese and whipped cream. Fuckin' hell.