taste testing

Quinn Popcorn Review

So back in May I visited the Wake Up the Earth Festival sponsored by Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain with our friends Scott and Shane. I love this event each year which features local organizations and artisans along with great entertainment from bands, singers and performance groups. It has been so close and we love taking advantage of it each year.

This year I stumbled upon the best find ever, Quinn Popcorn. Dane and I would definitely choose popcorn above almost any snack. When I started talking to them at the festival they had my full attention and support. I learned that they are a small business serving up microwave popcorn made with all natural ingredients. I was sold and decided to give the Vermont maple and sea salt option a try.

Dane was pretty happy when I brought this home and we had to try it immediately. We always use an air popper when I make our popcorn snacks and I’m a little wary of the microwave variety only because I’ve known too many people who grossly overestimate how much time is needed for their popcorn and then it smells like burned popcorn for hours.

This turned out to be super easy, as long as you aren’t a serial popcorn burner. Popped it for about 2-2 1/2 minutes then added this delicious happiness.

They definitely make the instructions easy enough. Come on, if you can’t master this then I don’t know what to tell you. Even I could do it. I have found with other types of oil that it can feel like it all comes out at once and it’s hard to evenly distribute. If you cut on the line and leave a small opening to drizzle, you can just add a little bit at a time while tossing the popcorn. Add in the seasoning and you’re set.

I don’t know if I’ll ever eat any other kind of microwave popcorn ever again. Quinn Popcorn is so good with a few different flavors to try. We absolutely recommend trying it if you’re a popcorn lover. I love knowing we can support a local small business that is making great decisions on what to include in their product. Not in the Boston area? Don’t worry, you can find places to get Quinn Popcorn here!

Taza Chocolate and Beer Tasting Event

A few weeks ago the wonderful people of Drink Craft Beer partnered with the lovely people of Taza Chocolate to host a “beer and chocolate love story”. The event featured four local breweries paired with different Taza chocolate. The turnout was amazing and the best part? It all raised money for the Greater Boston Food Bank.

We got there and were in a line just waiting to enter the building. It was chilly out, but everyone’s spirits were kept up by the Taza staff bringing around various chocolate treats like chocolate covered hazelnuts, chocolate covered cocoa nibs, and chocolate covered almonds. The 15 minute wait seemed like nothing with some stone ground organic chocolate to enjoy. Jeff from Drink Craft Beer also took some video footage of people waiting in line saying “I’m (fill in name) and I drink craft beer!”. Hope they put a finished video out soon!

At the door we paid our $3 – a bargain for the pairings and for a great cause (each $3 donation provided 7.5 meals to someone in need) – and shuffled in to try the first two beers and chocolates. In the first room was Naragansett Porter with Taza Mexicano Coffee chocolate and Peak Organic Mocha Stout with Taza Mexicano Salted Almond chocolate.

Zac from Naragansett poured the Porter to some (obviously) happy fans.

After that first room we ended up on a second line for the next two pairings that took us through the Taza factory. We got to see the equipment, read up on the process, and see the facility. Taza was founded in 2006 right in Somerville and makes chocolate in the traditional Mexican style. I don’t know how I have lived in Boston for almost 6 years without knowing the factory was so close.

Beer and chocolate share so much, even a fermentation process.

In the next tasting room we tried Sixpoint Crisp with Taza Mexicano Orange chocolate and Slumbrew Happy Sol with Mexicano Ginger chocolate. Again, two great pairings. At the Slumbrew table they were nice enough to also let us try My Better Half, one of their newer releases. Everything was delicious.

After we finished the tasting we wandered the Taza shop trying some other varieties and deciding what to buy. If you check in on Foursquare for the first time you get an offer for $5 off a purchase in the shop. We ended up getting the Salted Almond chocolate and chocolate covered almonds.

The event was great. Awesome job to Drink Craft Beer and Taza! We had a wonderful time and now would love to go back to the factory for a full tour. Great event for a great cause!

Vermont Winter Trip Highlights

Right before the holidays Dane and I took our annual trip up to Vermont to visit with our friends Sam and Jason (who we met in Boston, are both actually from Vermont, but live in Minnesota – we don’t get to see them nearly enough). As usual we had an amazing time with them and their welcoming families.

We started off with a trip to get a Christmas tree for Sam’s family. It was brutally cold and finding the right tree took a little more time than we thought. Luckily after the perfect one was found we got to warm up with some hot cocoa.

Absolutely beautiful views everywhere. Might have been cold, but it was lovely to see.

There’s a small building on the property at the Christmas tree farm (I guess that’s the best thing to call it?) where the owner always has free hot cocoa, snacks and candy canes. We went right inside the second the perfect tree was found and cut down, thankful for the warmth from the fire and the warm drinks.

Also I wondered what a Christmas tree felt like when it goes through this netting machine thing. So I wanted to try. Dane stopped me while Sam took pictures – that’s why she’s my best friend.

Of course the food highlight of any trip to VT is maple syrup. Sam’s parents started making their own syrup last year and we went up in March to see how sugaring works. This is the sign at the end of their driveway for Ledgeview Maple.

With all of this homemade, ready for consumption, delicious maple syrup we decided there was one thing we had to try.

Syrup on spaghetti.

Like in the movie Elf. Except we opted for plain spaghetti. No Poptarts and spaghetti sauce.

And the verdict? Pretty good actually! Not something I’d eat more than a bite of, but a food experience that we just had to have.

I also met a polar bear.

Dane decided he really wanted to try elk so Sam and Jason took us to the Cow Palace – the premiere elk burger spot around. That’s where the polar bear lives, along with a variety of other taxidermy animals. Dane enjoyed the burger but I opted out of trying the elk.

Another great trip to Vermont to see our great friends and their great families. And as always, some interesting new food experiences! Thanks for letting us visit!

 

Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Minnesota

Yes, I know. Tired of my Minneapolis trip yet? I feel like it sometimes takes me forever to get around to doing posts, so I’m still writing about my trip. But it was so awesome that I can’t just leave anything out!

My second night in visiting with Sam and Jason (right after leaving the MN State Fair for the second day in a row) we headed to the Town Hall Brewery, a brewpub in downtown Minneapolis. Sam found the place and loved their website so much that she decided we had to go. That and they have great beer. I was sold. Doesn’t take much.

Our main goals was to try a bunch of different beers. We had eaten so much at the fair that we didn’t need much in the way of food. Just some beer samples. The Town Hall Brewery made it really easy to try different styles with their different beer flights.

Sam went with a flight of their signature brews: Dortmunder Local, Masala Mama IPA, Hope and King, Black H2o Oatmeal, and West Bank Pub Ale. I decided to go with the seasonal flight: Smoked Hefe, Broken Paddle ESB, Tank Monkey Double IPA, Honey Storm, and a special infused beer.

There were some really interesting flavors between these 10 different beers. Some that stood out most to me were in the seasonal flight. The Smoked Hefe had some really intense smokey flavor, along the lines of a smokey bourbon or a whiskey. The Honey Storm was interesting too, with a sweet start and really oakey (is that a wordy? it is now.) finish.

All the signature brews were good, solid varieties. I especially liked the Hope and King Scotch Ale and the West Bank Pub Ale. To me, both were really drinkable and I could totally see them becoming a favorite for me with some growlers at home if I didn’t live so far away.

OK, and I know I said we weren’t really hungry, but somehow sampling 10 different types of beer makes you feel like you suddenly have an appetite again. So we ended up with the Spinach and Artichoke Dip and the Mashed Potato Pizza (!).

The dip was delish with the pita chips for dipping and the “pizza” was basically like potato skins on a pita. Carbs anyone? Perfect pub snacks for imbibing some delicious beer.

I would love to go back for an actual meal in the dining room. We sat near the bar since we weren’t planning on ordering much food, mostly just drinks. I loved that they had different flight options. The most appealing part of the Town Hall Brewery to me was their selection of in-house beer, so I was really happy that it was easy to try so many different kinds.

Thanks Town Hall Brewery for a lovely evening filled with 10 different styles of beer!

Taste Testing: Wines Under $5 from Trader Joe’s

This is the third in our series called “Taste Testing” for our blog. We’re looking to compare our favorite things to find the best of the best! Send us your suggestions of what we should test out!

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After talking with the lovely Marissa and reading the guest post she graciously wrote for this blog, it seemed only natural to do a little wine tasting. I have the new found appreciation for evaluating wine (even if it’s very basic) and wanted to put it to the test. I emailed some friends, and they kindly agreed to join in as my guest judges. I’m sure it was because they’re just amazing friends. Appetizers, a cheese plate, and free wine probably played no part in their decision making process.

Since we’re very new to the whole world of wine, we wanted to start with some very basic (and not so expensive) choices. We decided to go to a place that many people may have heard of, Trader Joe’s. They always have a wide selection of wine in a wide selection of price ranges, and we chose to go with the most accessible price range of $5 and under. Believe it or not, there were plenty of styles to choose from. We went with all red wines because it’s still winter and red wine seems cozier.

The contenders were (left to right): Tres Pinos (California), Aquila D’Oro (Italy), Condesa de Sarabella (Spain), Trader Joe’s Merlot (Chile), and Nero d’Avola (Italy).

I poured for my four guest judges to they didn’t know which wine they were tasting. Each wine was rated according to Marissa’s four step guide on a scale of 1 through 5 (1 being awful and 5 being spectacular). First was “the part where you swirl your wine around in the glass” focusing on the legs and color of the wine. Next, “the part where you shove your nose in the glass” to rate the nose, or bouquet, or the wine. Third, “the part where you drink” and evaluate the mouthfeel, taste, and finish of the wine. Last, “the part where you finish your glass and think about how much more awesome life is with wine in it” which was the overall rating that was out of a possible 15 points, and was the first three scores added up.

Here’s how they did

#4 Tie between Aquila D’Oro and Condesa de Sarabella

The tasters felt similarly about these two wine stating for both that there wasn’t much distinct flavor but too much bite in the finish. One taster especially disliked the aroma of the Aquila D’Oro and said “it tastes like $5″. I did some research on both to find out more, and most tasters suggested opening the bottle and letting it sit for a while before drinking the wine. This seems to bring out more of the flavor and pleasant aroma. Maybe something to keep in mind for next time.

#3 Trader Joe’s Private Label

I picked up this wine because I had never seen Trader Joe’s own label of wine and wanted to include a South American wine. Overall, the color and mouthfeel were good to the judges. It was lighter than the previous wines and a bit more fruity.

#2 Nero D’Avola

This wine, named for a grape that’s popular in southern Italy for wine making, was slightly sweeter and more fruity. Some thought it was also dry, but all of the judges seemed to like it. Only three points separated this from the first place wine.

#1 Tres Pinos Tierra Roja

This wine is actually a blend of four different kinds of grapes, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Syrah. This definitely gave the wine a nice fruity flavor and pleasant aroma, although with a touch of acidity (which I’ve learned are the tannins). This is the wine everyone wanted more of after the tasting, and that really is a good indicator for me.

It was fun to try some new flavors with friends and to branch out at Trader Joe’s. We’re planning to do this tasting again with white wines in the spring. I think the judges are already looking forward to it!

Kristen

Taste Testing: Winter Ales

This is the second in our series called “Taste Testing” for our blog. We’re looking to compare our favorite things to find the best of the best! Send us your suggestions of what we should test out!

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Continuing with our Taste Testing series, I thought Winter Ales would be a good second installment because I am a good blogger and always keeping others in mind. Totally not because I wanted to try 5 new types of beer.

Anyhow, if you know Dane and I, you will know we are loyal Sam Adams fans. We live within walking distance of the Samuel Adams Brewery and have gone on countless tours with friends who come to visit. We both love the Winter Ale, but thought our biases may have kept us from trying others. Perfect way to have some friends over, enjoy some new tastes, and see how our favorite seasonal beer stacks up.

Our contenders were (in the order they were tasted):

Smuttynose Winter Ale, Sam Adams Winter Lager, Wachusett Winter Ale, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, and Full Moon (from the Blue Moon Seasonal Collection)

This testing panel was composed of Dane, Jayneel, and Steve. I did not rate the beer, but I did serve it so that it would be a blind taste test for the three judges. They really concentrated on this more than I thought they would. Tasting beer is obviously fun, but they even asked at one point if they were allowed to talk about each beer. I thought it was really funny. Seriously guys, lighten up. You’re drinking beer!

Each beer was rated on a scale of 1-5 (1 being awful and 5 being perfect) in three categories: Color, Aroma, and Winteryness. Yes, Winteryness, which we decided included taste and whether or not it was a beer you’d want in the winter time. Was the flavor right for the season? Was it one of those beers that could warm you up? I never claimed this was very scientific, but the rating system worked for us. Each beer ended up with a total out of 15 for each judge for the Overall Appraisal.

a beautiful rainbow of beer

Now for the results.

#5  Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

Some people absolutely love this seasonal, but it ranked lowest in our taste test. It had the strongest aroma and taste of hops, and though at least one of the judges liked that taste it ranked low on the Winteryness scale. The floral aroma reminded us more of a spring ale. As Jay put it “Hop hop hop! Hoppity hop!”.

#4  Smuttynose Winter Ale

The color of this ale was darkest of the bunch, which was initially appealing to everyone. However, the flavor seemed toned down but with a bitter after taste. Sometimes that’s great for a beer (it’s what keeps you drinking) but in this case it wasn’t something th

at worked and took away from the Winteryness.

#3  Wachusett Winter Ale

We liked the Wachusett, just not quite as much as

the top two. It had a stronger bitter aroma, but a nice blend of sweet and bitter tastes. As one taster noted “The Jessica Alba of the taste test; lovely all around and one you would go back for.” This particular taster took the time to compare each beer to a recognizable female celeb (cough coughSTEVEcough).

#2  Sam Adams Winter Lager

I was very surprised this came in second, as it’s been my favorite seasonal beer for a few years ago (but as I said earlier, I fully recognize my biases). It has a sweeter aftertaste and tasted more filtered and clean. It went down much smoother than some of the other samples. Tasters also liked the caramely color and nice mix of spices that you can definitely taste.

#1 Full Moon

This seasonal ale from the makers of Blue Moon has very distinct wintery flavors that made a nice taste and smooth aftertaste. Tasters liked the darker color for a winter ale and the slightly hoppy aroma.

Congrats to Full Moon for coming out on top of this taste test. I was surprised this came in first, never having tasted it before. Really, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these. It’s all about your taste and your definition of wintery.

Cheers!

Taste Testing: Cannolis from the North End

This is the first in a new series called “Taste Testing” for our blog. We’re looking to compare our favorite things to find the best of the best! Send us your suggestions of what we should test out!

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Boston’s North End is well known for the amazing Italian cuisine you’ll find there. You can’t really go wrong with any restaurant or bakery you find. Dane and I frequent this neighborhood and have all our favorite places.

The first bakery I visited when I first came to Boston was Mike’s. I fell in love with everything I tasted there, but got tired of the crowds and touristy feel at times. I expanded my horizons when I was told by friends about other bakeries. It seemed like every bakery had a claim to “Boston’s Best Cannoli”. I don’t know who decides these things, but I’m pretty sure they can’t all be Boston’s best. So we decided to put these cannolis to the test.

With the help of my dear friend Heather, her boyfriend Danny, and my husband Dane, we made the commitment to find the best cannoli. We do this for all of you. You’re welcome.

I went to 5 different bakeries in the North End and purchased one chocolate dipped shell cannoli with the traditional ricotta cheese filling. My three volunteers did not get to see the cannolis until I brought them out at the tasting. Each cannoli was cut into 4 pieces (the tasters each got a piece, but I obviously wanted some too). My tasters rated each cannoli on the shell and the filling, which are in my opinion the two important elements that make up a cannoli. Each was rated on a scale of 1 through 5 with the highest possible score being a 10. This is a serious business.

I randomly chose the order they would come out and started the tasting. Let me say, my tasters took their job very seriously. They even kept pieces of the cannolis to go back and retaste them against each other so they could make the most accurate rating. The contenders were (in the order they were presented to the tasters): Lyndell’s Bakery, Maria’s Pastry Shop, Mike’s Pastry, Bova’s Bakery, and Modern Pastry.

And the rankings, starting with the lowest scoring were…

Lyndell’s ($3 for a cannoli)
This cannoli was ranked lowest by the judges. They explained that the filling had a gritty quality, the shell seemed soft (maybe as though it had been sitting out for a while), and overall it just didn’t work for them. Unrelated, Heather bought a red velvet cupcake here. It was extremely dry and hard, and the frosting was terrible. It was really disappointing to get it home only to be unable to eat it. For a cupcake to be that hard, it had to have been sitting out for a long time. Lyndell’s redeemed itself with raspberry linzer tarts which Dane picked up here. They are absolutely fantastic and I would definitely recommend them.

Bova’s ($3 for a cannoli)
Coming in 4th, this cannoli had filling that was slightly sweeter. Somehow it was still lacking in flavor and the shell wasn’t quite crispy enough. We generally get bread at Bova’s, which has always been perfect. I would suggest sticking with the bread.

Maria’s ($3 for a cannoli)
The website for Maria’s is one that describes their cannoli as the “Best in Boston”, but it came in 3rd for us. This was the only cannoli that had a shell with a different flavor, anise. Anise has a licorice taste, so if you like that, Maria’s is for you. The tasters were hoping for a more noticeable flavor from the filling as well. This place really struck me when I walked in. It was tiny, and there was only one woman working who was filling each cannoli by hand in the middle of the day on a Saturday. Definitely a family run kind of place.

Modern Pastry ($2.75 for a cannoli)
A legend in the North End, people are usually loyal to either Modern or Mike’s, but never both. Modern came in second here. The filling was noticeably more sweet and cheesy, and the shell was crispy and flaky. The tasters thought the texture was great, but the filling was a little bit too sweet. This cannoli was definitely smaller than the first place cannoli, which would explain the small difference in price. Here I found the customer service was lacking. Although I was the only person in line to order, one staff member continued to sit at a table talking to a friend, while the one behind the counter basically ignored me for a bit before asking if I needed help.

Mike’s Pastry ($3.50)
Our number one was my original love. When we got to this cannoli, the tasters raved about the difference between this one and the first two. After retasting, it came down to this one and Modern Pastry for number one. The shell was crisp, the cannoli was bigger, and the filling was sweet but cheesy.

Only 1 point separated Modern and Mike’s in our taste test, so it was definitely close. Both of those blew away the other three though, with the third place bakery 8 points behind Modern. Both of our top two are worth a visit and a taste. Head over to the North End and decide for yourself!

Kristen

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