Category Archives: Online vendors

Pizootz Peanuts

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As we all know, shelled peanuts that aren’t cross-contaminated with tree nuts are hard as hell to find. America’s Best Nut Co. makes some—the best, actually, end of story—but theirs are rather expensive, and I can’t justify shelling out $40 or so for a shipment each time I get a craving. For a once-in-a-while treat, America’s Best are absolutely perfect. But what about when I don’t want my peanuts to feel acutely like a finite resource? When I want to eat them by the handful, Planters-style, without being hounded by any sort of compulsion to calculate the cost per legume? When I want to bake them into some brownies, or sprinkle them atop some noodles? When I want, in general, to be reckless?

For that, I need access to plain old inexpensive, non-gourmet peanuts—ones I can pick up at an actual store in my actual area for, like, $3 a bag. And…with regard to that want, I’m still shit out of luck. But Pizootz are certainly a little cheaper, a little more accessible, a little more casual than America’s Best. It’s all in the names, really. America’s Best, refined and proper, might just sell America’s best peanuts; but Pizootz, with their playful  marketing and up-front flavors, is out there selling what I can only describe as a pizoot of a nut.

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A while back, I found a bag of Pizootz on a shelf in Chicago. (I’m a grocery-store tourist—whenever I go anywhere, I tour the regional grocery stores.) Right then and there, I sent Pizootz the same email I send to every company that looks like it might make safe peanuts, and within an hour (!!!), I’d heard back: “We do everything in house. No tree nuts. Only peanuts.” That was it. But that was, of course, all I needed to hear. So I went back and bought two bags, one of sea-salt-and-cracked-pepper peanuts, and one of dill-pickle peanuts.

Despite that word salad of a product description—seriously, click that last link, and let me know if you have any idea what those words are supposed to mean together, because they’ve bewildered me—the dill-pickle peanuts are excellent. Dill-pickle seasoning is usually too strong for me (see, for example, Halfpops), but the folks at Pizootz (or, uh, Dr. Alfred P. Pizootz himself, if we’re sticking to the lore) have somehow managed to get the proportions just right. These peanuts aren’t too briny, nor too dill’d up; they’re tangy, and they’re pickle-y, but they’re balanced, too. Plus, the flavoring is built-in, which means no dusty fingertips. Nice.

Those were the first Pizootz I tried, so it surprised me when the other flavors came bearing traces of the same tanginess. The cracked-pepper peanuts aren’t quite briny, nor are their plainer sea-salt cousins, but both are markedly tangier than your average peanut. The flavor isn’t unpleasant—there’s nothing wrong with it, really—but it’s something to be aware of, I guess. Personally, I happen to like it. For the most part. Most days.

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Anyway. When it comes to peanuts, dill-pickle flavoring is about as zany as I’ll go. (Originally, I’d bought those for Sam and only for Sam. I was shocked at how much I ended up liking them.) Otherwise, I’m a peanut purist—so for me the sea-salted peanuts, despite their untempered tang, are the way to go. Even the cracked pepper is too much for me, given the way it half-silences the peanuts’ actual, you know, peanut flavor. So sea salt it is. But that’s just me. Maybe you‘ve spent your whole life searching for safe Baja taco–inspired peanuts. And in that case, well…you’re in luck. (Look at that! Me, acknowledging any degree of subjectivity to food. Wild.)

Of course, these peanuts do come at a price—$19.99 per one-pound bag, to be exact. And while that price is, yes, pretty high, it isn’t actually all that crazy, given how long a pound of peanuts lasts (a long time, for me) and the fact that shipping’s free, always. So while Pizootz are certainly no Planters, I wouldn’t call them prohibitively expensive, either. I’d obviously prefer they were cheaper, or at least available in a store or two ’round these here parts, but…what can you do?

You can be grateful for what you’ve got, that’s what. Perhaps Pizootz is a little bit of a strange company. Perhaps their peanuts are a little small, a little feeble, a little lackluster. Perhaps they cost a little too much, or perhaps ordering them online is a little too much of a hassle. Perhaps their copy’s a little over-the-top, their handwritten notes (!!?!) a little too alliterative. Perhaps the flavor-infusion’s a little weird. Perhaps dusty fingertips aren’t so bad. But whatever your gripe—and I suppose I have plenty—you oughtn’t overlook Pizootz as an option. And a decent one, at that.

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CLIF Bar

Two CLIF Bars: one Coconut Chocolate Chip, and one Chocolate Brownie

When you live with food allergies for long enough, you inevitably come to associate certain visuals with danger—logos and packages that provoke in you not hunger or craving but fear, resentment, maybe even a sneer or two as you push your sorry cart down the aisle. Me, I have tons of such visual queues: the quadricolor KIND logo; the death nugget that is the Ferrero Rocher; those chicken stock–looking cartons of Almond Breeze; anything wrapped in that paleyellow color that (for whatever reason) evidently means “I contain almonds”; the plump, happy shape of a jar of Nutella

You have yours, too, I’m sure. Maybe the insistently “rugged” beige sack that holds the CLIF Bar is among them. It was for me, at least. But not anymore—because I’ve just found out that CLIF Bar & Company is actually a rather allergy-friendly brand with a very reliable labeling policy. Their website’s Dietary Considerations page has a column for “allergens: contains” and one for “allergens: may contain traces of,” and as I’ve been assured by a few different CLIF employees, you can assume that bars without nuts listed in either of those columns weren’t made on shared equipment with anything nutty, and that they should be safe from trace amounts of nuts, too. (Of course, you’ll always find the most up-to-date information on the label itself. If the label and the website disagree, the label absolutely takes precedence.)

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That—the fact that there are nut allergy–friendly CLIF Bars on this planet—is the good news. The bad news? There are only four nut-free flavors, and one’s seasonal. (There are some nut allergy–friendly Luna Bars, Zbars, and BUILDER’S Bars, too, but those aren’t the subject of this post, are they?) There’s Apricot, Chocolate Brownie, Coconut Chocolate Chip, and Hot Chocolate—the seasonal flavor that supposedly exists but that I’ve never actually seen (and believe me, I’ve looked). All four contain soy, and all may contain traces of wheat and dairy (with the exception of Apricot, which is dairy-free)—and all (like most CLIF products) are kosher, too. Not perfect for everyone, I guess, but pretty accommodating nonetheless.

As for taste, CLIF Bars are…well, they taste a lot like you’d expect. They’re marketed as that impossible triad: easy, healthy, and tasty (“CLIF BAR is a great-tasting energy bar made with a nutritious blend of organic rolled oats and wholesome ingredients for sustained energy”), but what are they, really? There’s no denying that they’re easy—to find, to cart around, to eat, whatever. Good for you, though? Well, not particularly. They’re packed with sugar—like, candy-bar levels of sugar, which means that if you’re looking for nutrition, you’re probably better off staying away. Actual nutritional-value aside, though, CLIF Bars do have a little of that health-food grit to them—but for what they are (or what they’re meant to be, I guess), CLIF Bars do taste pretty good.

I haven’t tried the Apricot bar (apricots tend to make my mouth itchy), but I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of the Chocolate Brownie and the Coconut Chocolate Chip, and I have to say, I definitely see the appeal. They’re sweet, but not too-too sweet, and both have a nice, chewy texture to them, too. Which I like better changes by the week, but right now I’m going to have to go with Chocolate Brownie (because, uh, I like cocoa). Preferences aside, though, both are pretty good. They’re ridiculously filling, at least. And I’m a sucker for the novelty of eating normal-people foods—especially those particular normal-people foods I’ve spent my life afraid of. So there’s that.

Find CLIF Bars wherever. (I buy them exclusively at NYU, with whatever Dining Dollars [i.e. campus currency that disappears at the end of the semester] I don’t spend on shampoo and Chick-fil-A, but they’re available at just about every store on the planet.)

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Baked Cravings

An assortment of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

I don’t like cupcakes, and I don’t know a single post-pubescent with a palate who does. As baked goods, they’re fatally flawed: there’s the dry, crumbly cake that’s no good on its own, but that ceases to even register when eaten with frosting—and then there’s the frosting itself, always present in an obnoxious dollop, always blunt and harsh and critically oversweet, never even a third as good as it looks.

Only bad cupcakes are like that, you might say. And you’d be right. But the vast majority of cupcakes are bad. Yes, I’m sure there are a number of NYC bakeries that have subtle, balanced, pleasant cupcakes to offer, but not to me, nor anyone else who avoids cross-contamination with nuts. At most bakeries—and at virtually all of the good ones—the chance of cross-contamination is just too high. And the few, few, few nut-free bakeries that do exist seem to have devoted all their attention to the whole nut-free thing, and not nearly enough to the whole, uh, what-are-we-actually-baking-and-what-does-it-taste-like-and-will-anyone-but-a-six-year-old-actually-enjoy-it thing.

So I don’t eat cupcakes. Or crave them, really. On occasion, I’ll think back to the cupcakes of my childhood—my pre-careful days, when I’d eat anything handed to me—with nostalgia. But I can count on that nostalgia’s tendency to evaporate the second I bite into one of those jarringly sweet cupcakes of my current life. Wherever they’re from, they all produce in me the same Series of Unfortunate Effects: tooth pain, then moderate annoyance, followed by reluctant admission that cupcakes are probably just one of those things that’s incredible in childhood, but perpetually underwhelming thereafter—like Six Flags, or Christmas.

A tray of cranberry-orange

Now that I’ve effectively stuck my tongue out at Big Cupcake—dedicated readers will probably know where I’m going with this, as I only have about six or seven blog-post formulas, and Hate-Treatise-as-Introduction tends to lead into a post filled with effusive praise—I’ll allow myself to get into what I’m really here to get into, which is, of course, Baked Cravings, a cupcake spot that opened its doors last month, up on the corner of 105th and Lex. (Like 106 and Park, but different.)

Really, this place is exceptional. It has so many qualities of note, and I’m itching to list them all. First and foremost, though, is its nut-free status. Each and every product sold at Baked Cravings—mostly cupcakes, for now—is truly, truly, truly nut-free. Here’s the bakery’s nut-free statement, reproduced in its entirety:

As fathers, Craig and Rui understand the severity of nut allergies. To create desserts accessible for children to enjoy in schools, Baked Cravings have dedicated themselves to build and maintain a nut-free facility. Using only the highest quality ingredients sourced from nut-free vendors, following strict packing processes and conducting regular tests to provide pastries for children to enjoy and parents to trust.

Bang.

(Nut-free facility, nut-free vendors, regular testing for the presence of allergens—there literally isn’t anything else I’d dream of asking for, so I felt a standalone “Bang.” was the most appropriate response. Seriously, though: This is model-worthy protocol, and I’m impressed.)

A close-up of a tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But ignore, for a moment, everything but flavor. (And I do say this with the understanding that ignoring is not something we nut-allergic often get to do. Allergy-friendliness is the most important variable; anything else comes second, if it comes up at all—and I say this as self-appointed Queen of Making Excuses for Shitty Restaurants That Happen to be Able to Feed Me Safely.)

Ignore how cute the cupcakes are. Ignore that they’re reasonably priced, and ignore that they’re made with reasonable (i.e. “real”) ingredients. Ignore that the place is two blocks from the train. Ignore that the guys who run it are probably the nicest (and coolest) people I’ve met in my blog-related adventures—and ignore, too, that they’re obviously passionate about what they’re doing. Ignore the nut-free facility. Ignore the vendor-vetting. Ignore the allergen-testing. Ignore everything but taste of the goddamn cupcakes—the only thing that really matters (because we’re ignoring our allergies here, remember?)—and you’ll still be immensely pleased with Baked Cravings.

I am, at least. And I hate cupcakes. (See? Formulaic as Enfamil.)

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I first stopped by last week, after a (wonderful) lunch at Taco Mix. Stuffed with al pastor, and feeling as we do about cupcakes, neither Sam nor I was all that excited about all the sugar in store for us. But I have this silly blog to run, and Sam’s stomach might be an actual bottomless pit, so we soldiered on.

We didn’t regret it. We sampled seven cupcakes (red velvet, red velvet–strawberry, carrot, vanilla, chocolate, peach, and cranberry-orange), and we both loved nearly every single thing about every single one. The cakes are all absurdly moist—great on their own, even—and the frostings, though sweet, yes, are nowhere near as overbearing as, say, the ones you’ll find at Eleni’s. In fact, none of these frostings are unpleasant in the slightest: compared to most, they’re gentle and delicate, and instead of overpowering the cakes, they do a lovely job of enhancing them.

Red velvet was the first I went for, followed by red velvet–strawberry (standard red velvet, but with strawberry icing). The former, a classic, is just right: fairly chocolatey, with a sweet and tangy cream cheese frosting that’s surprisingly well-balanced. And the latter’s strawberry frosting tastes much more like strawberry + frosting than icky, artificial-tasting strawberry frosting. It’s light and subtle and so, so creamy—far creamier than it is sweet, which I assure you is a very, very good thing.

A peach cupcake from Baked Cravings

Peach, immediately above, is refreshingly real-fruity, too. Its cinnamon- and nutmeg-heavy cake is a little too pumpkin-spicy for me, but I absolutely love its frosting, which is made with bits of honest-to-goodness peach—and I feel the same about carrot, which has never been my favorite sort of cake, but which is topped with a sharp, tangy (cream cheese?) frosting that I can’t stop sticking my fingers in.

To my surprise, both the plain-olds—chocolate with chocolate frosting, and vanilla with vanilla frosting—are remarkably good, too. Faced with options like red velvet and peach, you’d think chocolate or vanilla would amount to throwaways. Not these, though. Chocolate’s deep, rich, and mousse-like, and vanilla…well, forgive me, but I’m going to go ahead and describe this one as the ideal type of the not-too-sweet vanilla cupcake I’ve been chasing since childhood. It’s just what I’ve been looking for in each and every nasty, cloying, piece-of-shit vanilla-flavored confection I’ve subjected myself to over the course of the last decade or so—the 21-year-old’s equivalent of the highlight of the 6-year-old’s day.

Finally, there’s cranberry-orange (pictured second above), the weirdest Baked Cravings offering, and probably my favorite, too. The cake, perhaps the least sweet of the bunch, makes me think “muffin” well before I think “cupcake,” but that’s not a complaint in the slightest. And though the cake isn’t identifiably orangey, it is dotted with chewy bits of cranberry—much more to my taste, anyway. On top, there’s marshmallow frosting, which sounds terrible, but which is actually delicious. It’s sweeter than the other frostings, but it’s not too sweet, and its added thickness makes its added sweetness worthwhile (and then some).

A tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But I’ve gone on too long—half because I’m so excited about these cupcakes, and half because I decided I really couldn’t winnow out any more of these photos. I’ll wrap it up, though. For the greater good.

I’ll end, then, with this: We nut-allergic are usually confined to the bottom tier of the baked-goods world. Sometimes, we’ll find a company that lets us get in on something tolerable, and we’ll get excited. We’ll tell our friends and family, we’ll post the product to a Facebook group, we might even write a blog post about it—knowing full well it’s slop, but grateful for that slop nonetheless. (We’re expert bad-food apologists, after all.) Sometimes, though—very nearly never, actually—we’ll find a company that lets us try some of the good stuff. Not the good-for-a-nut-free-product stuff, but the real-deal good stuff.

That’s Baked Cravings. Baked Cravings, whose cupcakes actually manage to rival all that gourmet danger-food I so loved to eat as a child. That’s a huge compliment, and a two-fold one, too: I mean both that these cupcakes rival those high-end, nutty-bakery cupcakes I was comfortable eating as a less-careful child, and that these cupcakes actually manage to live up to the impossible cupcake-ideal I (and most children) formed in childhood. I can’t say the same about any other nut-free bakery’s, nor any store-bought brand’s. Truly, these are special.

Find Baked Cravings at 1673 Lexington Avenue, on the corner of 105th Street. For now, it’s mostly cupcakes—but I’m told there’s lots more in the works. So go forth. Please. These guys deserve the attention.

P.S. Eleni who?

[Edit: Since publishing this post, I’ve also tried their brownies and their soft-baked cookies, and all I have to say is “wow.” These guys really aren’t fucking around—and I have no reservations whatsoever in announcing to the world that Baked Cravings is by far the best nut-free bakery I’ve ever been to. But like I wrote above, this place is about far more than the whole nut-free thing; I’m eating one of their brownies as I type this, and I can honestly say that it might as well have come from a top-tier (non-specialty) bakery. So good it’s offensive.]

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A Guide to Tree Nuts Made in Dedicated Facilities

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Like just about everyone else, I hate talking on the phone, especially when it involves trying to get straight, reliable answers out of people who are obviously trying to hide the fact that they have no idea what they’re talking about and who are, for whatever reason, weirdly resistant to the idea of going and finding out the answer to my questions—or, better yet, transferring my call to someone half-competent. Fortunately, though, running this blog has turned me into a call-making pro: I phrase my questions strategically. I push for the double-check. Sometimes I even—gasp—leave voicemails.

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Herr’s “Chocolate”-Covered Sourdough Pretzels

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A while back—when it was still cold out, of course—I decided it’d be a good idea to hop on an early-morning Chinatown bus to Philadelphia. I had no plan, nor anything to dabble in, so I ended up spending the whole day wandering. In the midst of those wanders, the wind got to me: my fingers and toes went numb, and so I decided to pop into some random supermarket to warm up (and gawk at food). It was there that I found these pretzels.

As a reflex, I pick up every bag (or tub, in this case) of chocolate-covered pretzels I see—and with the exception of Vermont Nut-Free’s, I’ve never come across one without a “may contain” warning for tree nuts. But as you’ve probably predicted, this tub of pretzels was unlike those others. It had no such warning, so I had no choice but to take it home.

In general, I’m one to go by labels. Unless I’ve found some specific cause for concern—the product in question is particularly high-risk, or it’s coming from a teeny-tiny company that makes a bunch of nut-containing products, too—I’ll dig right in to any packaged good whose label has no mention of tree nuts. I do that knowing full well that companies aren’t required to label for shared facilities, shared lines, etc., because…well, I’m just not a company-caller. (Many are—and if you got all your impressions from food allergy–themed online communities, you’d think that most were. But I really doubt the practice is all that widespread, especially among those who haven’t self-selected into allergy-related Facebook groups.)

The way I see it, if I adopted a set of food-safety standards so high that they required me to always confirm that a product comes from a nut-free facility before allowing myself to eat it—and if I were to really abide by that rule, and carry it out to its logical conclusion, which is some sort of obligation to make sure everything I put in my mouth is, as far as I can tell, free from all possible cross-contamination—I’d soon find that my standards were not only impossible to meet, but that they’d necessarily lead to something like a near-infinite regress of uncertainty, too. [Here, I will—for the first (and hopefully last) time—share a meme on this blog.]

Think about it. There’s just no way to confirm that a product is safe. What if the employee I spoke with was wrong? What if Nabisco has told me that my graham crackers come from a nut-free facility, but they don’t mention (or even know) that the flour that’s gone into those same graham crackers was itself processed on shared lines? What if a factory worker ate some almonds with his lunch? And what if I want to eat out? Am I going to ask a restaurant to provide me with a list of every single product that’s gone into my dish, and then proceed to call each and every one of those manufacturers before deciding whether to order? And what about that manufacturer’s suppliers?

Fuck no. All food comes with risk. I’ll survive. (Plus, my allergist’s on my side. So take that.) [Edit: For more on all this, read the comments on this post.]

Ingredient information on the back of a Herr's chocolate-covered pretzels tub

That all said—and yes, this whole post is just an excuse for the above demi-treatise—I did contact Herr’s about these pretzels—not as a precaution before eating, but as a precaution before sitting down to write this blog post. (Seems weird to throw a product post together without having spoken to the manufacturer. No matter how comfortable I feel at a restaurant, I wouldn’t publish a post on it without having gotten some summarizable allergen information out of one or two of its employees…or its website, I guess.) And eventually, I was able to find out that these chocolate-covered pretzels are, in fact, nut-free.

Originally, I was told (via email) that these particular chocolate-covered pretzels are made in a nut- and peanut-free facility, but that obviously wasn’t true, given that the label has a “may contain” statement for peanuts. I replied and said as much—and then, a day or two later, I got an unexpected phone call from a very apologetic (and very, very informed) Herr’s employee who’d evidently been tasked with setting the record straight. So: These pretzels—the ones that come in the red tub pictured at the top of this post—are made in a tree nut–free facility that does indeed handle peanuts, and they should be 100% safe for those with tree nut allergies.

By now, it’s beside the point, but the pretzels themselves are fine. They’re just about what you’d expect, really: thin, sour-ish pretzels, covered in a fair amount of sub-par “chocolate.” (It isn’t actually chocolate, but rather a chocolate-flavored coating.) They’re nothing to go out of your way for, but they’re nonetheless palatable. And even though they’re a little on the expensive side, they’re certainly less bank-breaking than Vermont Nut-Free’s. I don’t love them, and I’m not sure I’d buy them again, but…they’re chocolate-covered pretzels, and they’ve temporarily relieved me of my craving. I don’t ask for much more.

Anyway. I’m not actually sure where you can find these pretzels. (Remember: excuse, demi-treatise.) They aren’t listed on the Herr’s website, nor can I find much of anything about them online. With regard to potential allergens, the pretzels that come in the above-pictured red bucket aren’t necessarily the same as any of the other chocolate-covered pretzels sold by Herr’s. Rest assured, though, that these do exist, and that they (in particular) are safe.

They’re out there. I swear.

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Ghirardelli Chocolate Chips

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I have no idea what possessed me to go out and buy a bag of Ghirardelli’s milk-chocolate chocolate chips—maybe it was the pressure I felt to get on with it and finally buy something from the brand-new Target that recently opened near my apartment, or maybe it was the downright vitriolic Ghirardelli-related debate I came across in one of the many horrifying allergy-related Facebook groups I like to browse when I’m feeling particularly masochistic. Whatever the reasons, I bought a bag. And ate its contents. Then bought another. And another. And now I’m here, weeks later, still hooked, blogging.

The Facebook argument—and I’m probably aggregating three or four arguments here, because, like most special-interest online forums, these Facebook groups make me lose (a) my mind and (b) my desire to get it back—was, of course, about whether Ghirardelli’s chocolate chips are safe for those with nut allergies. I love myself, so I didn’t weigh in, but I guess now’s my time.

After reaching out to Ghirardelli, I received the following reply (which is 100% consistent with everything I’ve been able to find online, too):

Ghirardelli Bars and Squares are made in a facility and on shared equipment with products containing the following tree nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, cashews and coconut. Peanuts are no used in the manufacturing of our Bars and Squares.

The chocolate chips (60% Bittersweet, Semi-Sweet, Mini Semi-Sweet, Double Chocolate and Milk Chocolate) do not contain tree nuts or peanuts; moreover, the chocolate chips line does not make products containing tree nuts or peanuts. However, our chips are produced in the same facility as our Bars and Squares.

The Classic White Chips are produced in a facility and on equipment that makes products containing peanuts and tree nuts.

So while I probably wouldn’t risk it with Ghirardelli’s bars or squares, I’m entirely comfortable with their chocolate chips (with the unfortunate exception of the Classic White). Of course, these chips aren’t made in a dedicated facility—but they are made on dedicated lines, which is good enough for me. (Plus, with how good these chips are, I can’t even fathom opting to use a dedicated-facility brand like Enjoy Life. There just isn’t any competition between the two products—especially if your only allergy is to nuts.)

Of course, you should always defer to the label for the most up-to-date information. Ghirardelli’s great about labeling issuing “may contain” warnings whenever there’s any sort of cause for concern, so the allergen statement will be sure to let you know if the above information has, for some reason, changed.

Anyway, I should probably get to talking about chocolate. Ghirardelli’s is great, and these days, I straight-up refuse to bake with any other chips. The semi-sweet chips are absolutely perfect for brownies—last week, I used them in this recipe, and the brownies ended up being some of the best I’ve ever had—but the milk-chocolate chips are the ones I’ll eat by the handful. They’re smooth and sweet, but not at all cloying—and they are, of course, totally free from that artificial Hershey-esque flavor all reasonable people hate so much.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s an open bag of chocolate chips in one of my cabinets, and I have to, um…get to that.

Find Ghirardelli products just about everywhere.

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Sensational Sweets

An assortment of Chippers from Sensational Sweets

Despite my nut allergy, I’ve always felt pretty satisfied with the chocolate at my disposal. There are so many nut-free brands—Vermont Nut Free, PASCHA Chocolate, Dean’s Sweets, Videri Chocolate Factory—and there are tons of regular (i.e. not allergen-free) brands that work for me, too. So it’s not as if I spend much time scouring the Internet for more safe chocolate. (In fact, I intentionally abstain from any such scouring, precisely because I have way more than enough chocolate in my life.)

How did I find Sensational Sweets, then? Well…I didn’t. Sensational Sweets found me—but I’m actually really glad they did. A few weeks ago, one of their employees sent me a message, and—medium-length story short—I now have a box of samples sitting on my coffee table. (Yes, free samples, though I did pay for shipping. Of course, I’ll still be giving my honest opinion—and only my honest opinion.)

Allergen information first, though. Fortunately, at Sensational Sweets (and at Creative Cookie, which is owned by the same folks) there really isn’t much to go over. Their entire facility is nut-free and kosher-certified, and they have some gluten-free products, too. (Here‘s their catalog, which has the words “nut-free” all over it. And here‘s Creative Cookie’s.)

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Onto the products themselves, though. They offer a whole bunch of different stuff, all made to order: Chippers (tiny pieces of white chocolate bark), fudge bites, chocolate-drizzled popcorn, chocolate-covered Oreos, chocolate “pizzas,” chocolate-covered pretzels, Tropical Fruit Crunch (trail mix, but pretzel-based), and Pollylops (chocolate on a stick, basically). And over at Creative Cookie, there are fortune cookies, microwave cakes, microwave fudge, and, um, chip dips. (Don’t ask.)

Out of all those, they sent me some popcorn, a mini-pizza, some fudge bites, a microwavable cake mix, and a whole bunch of Chippers. And to my (admittedly mild) amusement, pretty much nothing was as I expected it to be.

The first thing I tried was the drizzled popcorn (pictured immediately above—as if you don’t know which of the photos in this post is the one of popcorn). Honestly, I’d expected it to be really boring; it’s just chocolate-drizzled popcorn—how good could it be? But for real, this stuff isn’t the slightest bit boring. Somehow, each piece is perfectly sweet, salty, and buttery. None of the flavors ever overwhelm the others, and none of the ingredients taste stale, which isn’t something I get to say anywhere near often enough. Definitely a product I would (and probably soon will) pay for.

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Next came the mini-pizza (rather, the Pizza Patty with Pizzazz—pictured immediately above), another product for which my expectations were totally, totally misguided. I don’t know what I’d imagined. Something bad, no doubt. I guess I expected it to be too sweet, too hard, or too busy, flavor-wise, but it just isn’t any of the above. The chocolate itself—sweet, but not absurdly so—is high-quality, and the texture of the popcorn works surprisingly well with the rest of the “pizza.”

To my absolute astonishment, I ended up really loving this thing (as did Sam—I shared, but only begrudgingly). We agreed: More, please. (And I have a feeling we’re going to end up ordering another at some point in the near-ish future—perhaps even a full-sized “pie,” if I can ever manage to get over the shame I’d feel for paying for such an absurd product.)

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Then, there was cakeMicrowavable birthday cake, which comes with everything needed to make it, cookware (and party supplies) included. It takes maybe five minutes to make—well, it took me five minutes, because I didn’t let it cool before icing—and the whole process is ridiculously easy, too. You just add water to the mix, microwave it (in the container it comes in!), “make” the frosting (more water-adding—this time, with an absurdly small and shallow spoon), and then frost the cake. That’s it.

The final product, pictured immediately above, actually isn’t half bad…for a cake that was five minutes ago literally just two types of powder. It’s nothing special (and why should it be?), but it holds its own against your average cake-mix cake, if you ask me. Plus, it takes a fraction of the effort. No pans dirtied—score.

After the cake, I moved on to the fudge bites—they’re nice and fudgy (duh) with super-moist centers—and then it was time for (what I expected to be) the grand finale: the Chippers tasting.

Pictured below are a bunch of teeny-tiny bags of Chippers, each containing a different flavor: salted caramel, lemon, lime, pumpkin, orange, peach-mango, raspberry, blueberry, grape, espresso, peppermint, and pomegranate. (Honestly, if it had been up to me, I never would’ve ordered any sort of fruity bark—but it wasn’t, so fruity bark I ate.)

A bunch of Sensational Sweets Chippers

Now, these…are strange. They’re just fragments of white chocolate peppered with what really, really taste like crushed Dum-Dums (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the candy bits were crushed Dum-Dums, given that Dum-Dums are top 8–free). Some flavors are all right—I particularly liked salted caramel, peach-mango, and blueberry—but plenty suck. (I guess that’s to be expected, though, as I did try every single flavor, including the ones I never, ever would’ve chosen on my own.)

Grape is unmistakably medicinal, and espresso tastes like Dunkin Donuts smells (not a compliment). Lime tastes like Mr. Clean (not sure whether Mr. Clean is nut-free, so the jury’s still out on that one), and peppermint is absurdly artificial, even compared to the other super-artificial flavors. But the chocolate itself is fine—I’m a big fan of white chocolate, which helps—so the fruitless Chippers are definitely tolerable, at the very least. (Salted caramel is my favorite, mostly because it’s the simplest.)

Anyway. I wish I could say I spaced all this chocolate-sampling over the course of a few days, but I didn’t. I ate it all in a single afternoon, then ordered a pizza before sitting down to write this post. The whole thing was genuinely shameful…but overstuffed as I am, I can’t deny that Sensational Sweets makes some damn good chocolate. With the exception of the Chippers, their sweets (well, those that I’ve tried) are indeed sensational, and I strongly recommend them to anyone who’s into (sugar-intensive, but not intolerably sugary) chocolate.

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Better Bites Bakery

A Sun Better Cookie Dō Bite from Better Bites BakeryI don’t think I’m capable of walking into Whole Foods without discovering a new nut-free product. This time, it’s Better Bites Bakery’s Cookie Dō Bites, which are, according to their packaging, vegan, kosher, and they’re made in a dedicated facility that’s free of the top 8 allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans, for those of you keeping score at home).

Their other products—cakes, cake balls, standard cupcakes, and imitation Hostess CupCakes—are top 8–free, too (with the exception of coconut, which is used in a few of their products and which is classified by the FDA as a tree nut), even though they don’t quite look nut-free online. (Better Bites’s website is currently under construction, but if you poke around, you’ll see some photos of baked goods that clearly contain nuts—don’t worry, though. A representative assured me that those photos are, in fact, out of date, hence the site’s being under construction.)

I’ve only ever tried the Cookie Dō Bites—and only the Sunbetter (i.e. sunflower seed butter) ones, at that—but I sort of liked them…for what they are, at least. They come in plain (chocolate chip) and Snickerdoodle varieties, too, but given how much I like sunflower seeds, I had to go with the Sunbetter (and at $10 per small box, getting two was out of the question).

I ate one straight out of the fridge and was pretty disappointed. It was cold (duh), hard, and gritty, with a waxy chocolate coating and a very bland filling. I let the rest sit on the counter for a little while, though, and once they’d warmed up a bit, they were worlds better. The chocolate coating (that’s Enjoy Life chocolate, by the way) lost most of its waxiness, and the filling softened up and actually took on the texture of cookie dough, which was a relief. The SunButter flavor’s strong as hell, for sure—but I like SunButter, so it’s not as if that put me off.

Once they’d spent some time out of the fridge, I actually sort of began to enjoy those Cookie Dō Bites. It’s very rare that I like a product that’s free from so many allergens, so I suppose I have to give Better Bites some props for these. Now, that’s not to say that I’m ready to start eating Cookie Dō Bites on a regular basis—I’m not. They are top 8–free, and their taste (and especially their texture) do reflect that. But for what they are, they’re pretty good. (Except for the macron over the o in ; I want to know who decided the product’s name needed to be stylized that way.)

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find Better Bites at Whole Foods. I picked my Cookie Dō Bites up at the new one in Williamsburg, but they should be available at the chain’s other locations, too. Beware, though: Better Bites’s pricing is downright absurd—like, $10-for-a-handful-of-cookie-dough absurd.

[Edit: Better Bites’s website is no longer under construction. Go forth. Frolic.]

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Biscoff Cookies & Cookie Butter

Two jars of

I spend a lot of time eyeing European sweets I know I can’t touch. Like, a lot of time. But for the most part, I’ve accepted that I can’t eat most of the stuff I see, and that my place in the food world—well, the European grocery world—is only that of an onlooker. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Biscoff products are safe for me to eat.

Products like these (as in: real-deal products, good products, products I actually decide I want before I know whether they’re nut-free) are almost never safe, so I was pretty shocked when I read that both Biscoff Cookies and Biscoff Cookie Butter are produced in a facility that doesn’t handle any nuts whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Check out their FAQ. (And please note that the whole nut-free thing does not apply to Annas Thins. They don’t have a “may contain” warning, but they aren’t made in a nut-free facility, and I think I’ve reacted to them before.)

Anyway, onto the products themselves. The cookies, which are pretty common on Delta flights, are tasty as hell. They’re Speculoos cookies, which are a crispy (but not particularly hard) sort of spice cookie—and Biscoff’s, rich and buttery with a nice, mild spice to them, are unusually good. A lot of lesser Speculoos products (I’m looking at you, Ben & Jerry’s) are way too cinnamon-heavy; fortunately, though, Biscoff’s are not.

Forget cookies, though. And forget allergy information. (Obviously, please don’t.) What I really want to talk about is cookie butter, which is basically a spreadable, peanut butter–textured version of a Speculoos cookie. Right now, cookie butter is pretty trendy; Trader Joe’s sells a jarred version, as well as a whole bunch of cookie butter–centric products—but few are nut allergy–safe, and none are as good as Biscoff’s real-deal jar of heaven.

Biscoff makes two varieties—smooth and crunchy—and both are wonderful. Smooth is super rich and creamy, with a peanut butter–like texture. I definitely prefer it, but the crunchy version’s great, too. It’s a little less rich, but what it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in texture. It’s packed with cookie bits, and it’s a little more fun to spoon (or finger) into your mouth than its smoother counterpart. Flavor-wise, it has a pleasant element of burnt-cookie-edge that the smooth version is lacking—but I maintain my original stance: Smooth’s a little better.

Point is, you can’t really go wrong with Biscoff. Both cookie butters great, and both are worth tracking down. They’re available online, but if you (like me) are a cheap-ass who pretty much refuses to shell out any amount of money for shipping, then you might be able to find Biscoff products at CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Stop & Shop, Target, D’Agostino, Westside Market, or Gristedes. (I’ve had some trouble finding their stuff, actually. But I do know that their spreads are available at the Westside Market on 7th Avenue and 14th Street and at the Fairway on 6th Avenue between 25th and 26th. Good luck.)

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Touring a Nut-Free Chocolate Factory

"Happiness is Unroasted"—outside Raaka's factory

Back in March, I published a post about Raaka, a Brooklyn-based craft chocolate company that’s entirely nut-free. In that post, I noted that Raaka offers 45-minute tours of their factory in Red Hook to anyone who’s willing to part with $10 and don a hair net. It’s taken me a few months, but I finally got around to going—so I figured I’d share some photos.

Some important information first, though. None of Raaka’s products contain any gluten, dairy, soy, or nuts. Their FAQ states that no nuts are allowed in their factory, but that their chocolates aren’t certified nut-free, as they cannot guarantee that their vendors’ facilities are equally safe. Everything they sell is vegan, non-GMO, and organic—and most (if not all) of their bars are kosher, too.

(In spite of the whole vendors’-facilities thing, I’ve still categorized Raaka as truly nut-free, as their own plant is nut-free, and that’s about as much as I can ask for. Plus, I kind of like the fact that Raaka isn’t defined by its allergy-friendliness; it’s just a normal chocolate company that also happens to not use a few ingredients.)

Raaka is really big on their whole virgin chocolate thing, which refers to the fact that they use unroasted cacao beans in their chocolate-making process. As the folks at Raaka frame it, many lesser companies buy low-quality beans and then roast them to hide their flavor, which leads to a one-size, homogenous sort of product. Raaka, in an attempt to “bring you true cacao flavor,” does no such thing; instead, they buy high-quality beans and are thus unafraid to showcase those beans’ natural (unroasted) flavors. As long as it tastes good, right?

Onto the photos, though. Enjoy.

Free chocolate samples at Raaka's factory

When Sam and I walked in, we were immediately hit with the unmistakable smell of dark chocolate. We were 10 minutes early, and the woman who took our names encouraged us to help ourselves to some free samples. Of course, we did—we both tried every flavor, even though we’ve had most in bar form before—and all of them were delicious.

I found myself enjoying the sample discs way more than I’d ever enjoyed Raaka’s bars, and that’s not just because the discs were free. They’re comparatively small and soft, so they’re way less overwhelming than the bars, flavor-wise—especially if you (like me) struggle with the bitterness of dark chocolate. Seriously, though: All the flavors were great, and come tour time, Sam and I both had trouble stepping away from the chocolate, even though we knew there’d be plenty more to come.

Dominican cacao beans

Soon enough, our tour-mates arrived. After a quick rundown on the difference between roasted and unroasted cacao beans, our guide led us to the bean room, where we’d soon learn more than we’d ever wanted to know about cacao. I can’t relate all that much information, because I got…um, lost in my thoughts (super-pressing questions like where are all the Oompa Loompas? and how many Willy Wonka jokes do these employees have to fake-laugh at per week?) but I swear our tour guide taught us a whole lot of stuff.

First, he taught us how to eat a cacao bean. Apparently, he’s spent a lot of time working farmers’ markets, where he’s met his fair share of that super-effete Whole Foods type who tend to just walk up to his stand, grab a cacao bean, say something to the effect of “mmm, antioxidants” or “ooh, a superfood,” and then pop the whole thing into his or her mouth, husk included. That, our guide warned, is not the way to go. Cacao husks are about as tasty as peanut shells—and after we’d been warned not to eat the beans whole, it was sampling time.

As we gathered around for our rations, our guide explained to us that cacao beans grown in different regions tend to pick up different flavors. He gave us each two nibs (a nib is a bean-chunk that’s had its husk removed), one from the Dominican Republic and one from…somewhere else, at which point we all realized that he wasn’t kidding. Though both beans were shockingly bitter, their flavors did have different undertones; one had distinct notes of earthy dirt, while the other was more of a dirty earth. (Sorry. They both tasted terrible to me. But they did have totally different flavors.) Nearly everyone made a sour face, and one of my tour-mates declared that he didn’t like chocolate—and then it was time to move on.

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Still in the bean room, our guide went on to explain the winnowing process (by which the beans’ nibs and husks are separated). Again, I had trouble focusing—why would you pay $10 to tour a chocolate factory if you don’t like chocolate, Red Shoes?—but the process involves three rounds of running cacao beans through a machine that removes and then sucks away their husks and only their husks. Neat.

The folks at Raaka used to have to spend all day removing husks by hand, so they were all rather thrilled when they were finally able to purchase a machine to do the job for them. They also recently picked up an optical sorter, which (I think) they use to make absolutely sure that there’s nothing but pure, unadulterated cacao nib going into their grinders—no husks, no rocks, no nothing—which is, of course, another job that used to call for human attention.

A vat of

After a long, long talk about husks and winnowing and optical sorting, we moved onto the the grinding room, where the nibs are ground (for three days!) into silky-smooth chocolate. That day, the Maple & Nibs vat was the furthest along, so that was the one we got to try.

At the prospect of getting to sample something sweet, our tour-mates finally started to look excited—and legitimately so, because that shit was good. Warm, smooth, and sweet, it was very dissimilar to the nibs we’d eaten in the previous room, and I was finally starting to have some fun. (Sugar. That’s all it takes, people. Also, dairy. But that one’s a lost cause at Raaka.)

After the chocolate comes out of the grinders, it’s still a little gritty, so it gets fed through a machine that looks a lot like a set of rolling pins for further smoothing. Then, it’s scraped into buckets and brought over to the tempering machine, which is in the factory’s main room.

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The tempering machine repeatedly heats and cools the chocolate to encourage it to crystallize properly, which makes sure the product comes out looking nice and shiny, gives it that satisfying chocolate-bar snap, and keeps the bars’ surfaces from going gray (for a while, at least). Then, after it’s tempered, the chocolate is poured into rectangular molds. If that day’s flavor calls for the addition of nibs or fruit or whatever, they’re added to the chocolate while it’s still wet, and then everything goes into a big ol’ fridge for half an hour or so to cool.

Raaka's labeling machine

Finally, the chocolate is wrapped and labeled. The wrapping machine, which is straight out of, like, City of Ember or something, can wrap around 400 bars per hour—way more than Raaka’s employees had been able to wrap by hand before they discovered this weird-ass machine in “the back of a warehouse in the Bronx.”

The labeling machine—way less steam-punk—applies labels (shocking!) to wrapped chocolate bars that glide by on a conveyor belt…and that’s it, really. That’s Raaka’s signature bean-to-bar process, of which they’re (understandably) rather proud.

(I know nothing and it’s showing—sorry. I’m here to talk about food allergies and share a few highly-compressed photos, not to pretend to be a chocolate expert. It wasn’t as if I was standing there taking notes, nor was I able to focus on nib-talk for long. I was hungry, and my thoughts were doing a lot of wandering. How many blocks do you think I’d have to walk to get a bottle of milk?, etc.)

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And then—then—it was chocolate-sampling time. While we’d been on our tour, the woman who’d welcome us had laid out five plates of samples for my tour-mates and me. On the menu that day was Bourbon Cask Aged (82% cacao), Maple & Nibs (75% cacao), Pink Sea Salt (71%), Piña Colada (60%), and Coconut Milk (60%). We sampled from darkest to lightest, as that’s apparently how it’s done, and each and every flavor was absolutely delightful.

The Bourbon Cask Aged was a little too dark for my 20-year-old, sugar-loving palate, but it wasn’t bad by any means. Maple & Nibs was refreshingly sweet, by contrast, and Pink Sea Salt was salty and satisfying, as expected. My favorites were the last two, though: Piña Colada was very sweet, with chewy bits of pineapple throughout, and Coconut Milk was creamy and soft. Perfect, really.

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After we’d all sampled each of the five flavors, the tour was over, and my tour-mates and I were set free…to the area with the rest of the samples. No one insisted we leave; no one pressured us to buy anything; no one sneered at us for taking too many little chocolate disks. We were under strict instructions to eat as much as we wanted—it was lunchtime, and our guide actually encouraged us to fill up on chocolate—and so we did.

Still, I couldn’t leave without making a purchase. I figured I’d go with the 3-bars-for-$15 deal—Piña Colada (my favorite), Raspberry Lemonade (of which there were no samples), and Sunflower Seed Butter (same deal as Raspberry Lemonade). But when I found out Piña Colada wouldn’t be for sale until the following month, I decided to just go with Sunflower Seed Butter ($8).

Anywho. I’m a shithead with the attention span (and palate!) of a toddler, but I had a wonderful time at Raaka’s factory (…when I wasn’t being shoved out of the way by one of my eldest tour-mates, that is). Our guide was super friendly, and he knew a hell of a lot about chocolate—and the folks at Raaka are very generous with their samples, which was a pleasant surprise.

In all, it was a great experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in chocolate. Plus, Raaka’s factory is a 15-minute walk from Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, which is totally nut-free, save for a packaged dessert or two. Make a day of it, if you’re into that sort of thing.

(Also, in the interest of accruing some bragging rights, I’d like to mention that I walked home—to Lower Manhattan—from Raaka’s factory. It was 90° and raining. I had boots, chocolate, and company, but I did not have an umbrella. Talk about making a day of things.)

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