To me, one of chocolate's best properties is the fact that it doesn't need to be super sweet to feel incredibly indulgent. A blissful chocolate is smooth, rich, dark, and simple. My current favorite is Chocolove's Orange Peel, and I expected the Scottsdale Culinary Festival's only dessert event would satisfy me at least as much as that wonderful chocolate bar.
The Chocolate & Wine Experience, however, didn't always showcase chocolate's best qualities. Instead of a celebration of chocolate, it felt more like a date night or social event. There was some really good chocolate, like Wei of Chocolate's organic, fair trade selections. It's no surprise that I gravitated toward the Wei Joyful, a citrus-infused 70% cacao bar with hints of herbs, lotus flower, and Cereus flower. Paired with Allure Winery's California Bubbly Moscato, it was a joyful experience indeed. (My Chocolove had better watch out.) But, there weren't many pure chocolate tastes to be had last night, and too often the star of the show was overshadowed by sugary confections -- and not particularly good ones.
The Talking Stick Resort, where the event was held, didn't seem to get the memo about chocolate. Orange Sky's dessert looked really impressive, and it earned lots of rave reviews from attendees. As cute as it was, the marshmallow, caramel, and chocolate sandwiched by thick almond cookies was super sweet and contained barely any chocolate. When two ladies stopped beside me with these on their plates, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into one, but I stopped at two bites and then moved on. The caramel was well made; but the marshmallow was a little too stiff, and the whole thing was overwhelming.
NutWhats brought some "twistedly addictive confections" to hand out in pre-portioned plastic packages. While the packing was a nice touch, the Pecan Scribble, which is drizzled (or scribbled) with chocolate, didn't have much chocolate at all. It would have been more appropriate to completely cover those clusters of pecan brittle in chocolate, and that would have made a truly addictive treat.
There were two brownie companies at the event: Fairytale Brownies and JJ's Brownies. While I expected chocolate to be served in other forms -- truffles, cake, and mousse (all notably absent) -- brownies are definitely a popular form of chocolate delivery. Two brownie companies might have been overkill, but at least they both served tasty treats and stayed true to the chocolate theme. JJ's Brownies had buttercream-iced options and brownie truffles. The Raspberry Kiss brownie truffle really won me over with perfectly balanced raspberry flavor, and it had two doses of chocolate: the brownie itself and a chocolate coating. The As American As Apple Pie brownie wasn't very chocolately, and the apple flavor wasn't prominent. The brandy, however, was in-your-face. The other buttercream option was dark and rich with an espresso filling. It was pretty good, but the buttercream seemed unnecessary and too sweet, competing with the espresso.
Fairytale Brownies served a more traditional style of brownie and also brought four varieties of cookies. The mint chocolate cookie had too much mint and not enough chocolate, and it left my mouth as minty fresh as a peppermint candy. It was clearly made in Thin Mint style, but the original Girl Scout version is better. Fairytale's simple cheesecake brownie was well crafted and had a soft texture -- nothing remarkable, but a solid offer. Then there were the chocolate-dipped brownies. The espresso was my favorite taste of the night. With tons of dark coffee flavor and enough rich chocolate to hold its own, this brownie was seriously special. It should also be noted that Fairytale uses Belgium's Callebaut chocolate, always a great choice.
The one table that can't be faulted for not being chocolatey is Beemster cheese, a welcome addition to the party. When you're on the verge of having too many sweets, cheese and crackers are a nice break. And of course it was really good cheese.
The prime example of sugary confections overwhelming the chocolate are the cake truffles from Classic Cakes and Confections. On the one hand, the idea is ingenious, but on the other, the result is way too sugary. The strawberry poundcake truffle had a nice mix of textures: hard chocolate coating, soft cake, even softer icing. And it was pretty delicious at first until the extra sugar caught up to the other flavors. With a little tweaking, these would be something special. But why not make it a triple threat with chocolate, chocolate cake, and chocolate buttercream? When you know your crowd is chocoholics, you may as well go all out.
Last but not least is b Naked Chocolates, who didn't get set-up until halfway through the event. At least they were very friendly and were enthusiastic about explaining that there's no refined sugar, dairy, soy, or gluten in their products, leaving room for pure flavor. Not all of their offerings were chocolate, such as the macaroons. The Naked East Indian macaroon was bursting with cardamom with a hint of orange. The flavor was great, but the texture was a little off, almost cakey. But, maybe I'm just used to making macaroons with thicker shredded coconut. As for b Naked's chocolates, the Slow Burn was the spiciest chocolate I've ever had. The burn was not slow at all, with the cayenne overtaking the chocolate and cinnamon after just a second. Some will love it, but it's not for everyone.
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While there were some great tastes, the Chocolate and Wine Experience did not deliver on its most important promise: "Indulge your sweet tooth with chocolate creations from some of the Valley's best pastry chefs." As someone who's constantly on the hunt for the Valley's top desserts (for Dessert First), I can say without a doubt that this was not a fair representation of the best that Phoenix has to offer. In fact, the AZ Wine & Dine had a better selection of desserts, and it was primarily a savory food event. So while this Scottsdale Culinary Festival event wasn't a complete bust, it didn't offer anything really high caliber, and in the end, the stomachache I suffered did not feel worthwhile.
Check back for more Scottsdale Culinary Festival coverage throughout the week: 2012 Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame Inductees Announced Shaken and Stirred at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival
Editor's Note: Chow Bella's admission to this event was comped by the Scottsdale Culinary Festival.