Category Archives: Truly nut-free

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 A representative assured me that those photos are, in fact, out of date, hence the site’s being under construction.)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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Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen

A plate of fried chicken and cole slaw from Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen

[Edit: Today, on August 10th, 2017, Carla Hall announced—to my absolute horror—that her Southern Kitchen would be closing for good. It's like a death in the family. I'll miss this place. A lot.]

In theory, I love fried chicken, but in practice, it almost always bores the hell out of me. It's so one-note, so uneventful. And because it leaves so little room for innovation or fun of any sort, I inevitably get tired of the salty grease/greasy salt combo after, like, three bites of drumstick. Don't get me wrong—I don't dislike fried chicken. I just have a hard time buying into the hype. Consider me a fried chicken skeptic.

That said, I do eat a lot of the stuff, so I think I'm speaking from an informed-ish place when I say that the fried chicken at Carla Hall's is damn good. But before I start going on about food, I should probably give a little background on this place.

Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen, which opened this past summer, is a Nashville-style fast-casual fried chicken spot (exhale), owned by TV chef Carla Hall and her (business) partner Evan Darnell. Darnell's daughter has a peanut allergy—which sucks, yeah, but which is also the reason that the kitchen at Carla Hall's is 100% free of both peanuts and tree nuts. (You know, every cloud… and such.)

To be clear: they don't actually call themselves nut-free, as a few of their pre-packaged desserts (made off-site) may contain nuts. But their kitchen is entirely nut-less, so all of their hot food is (theoretically) safe for those with nut allergies. Aside from those pre-packaged desserts, the only menu items not made in house are the sweet potato rolls and the pullman loaves—which are easily avoided and relatively unimportant, anyway. So by any reasonable standard, Carla Hall's truly is nut-free. (And if I haven't already delivered enough good news: their house-made Buttermilk Soft Serve is safe, and they carry Skippers, Mini Twists, and Pretzel Caramel Bark from Vermont Nut Free, too.)

Mason jars lining the walls of

By the way: the restaurant itself is adorable. It's teeny-tiny and forever-crowded, but it's charming, too, if in a kitschy sort of way. The walls are covered with photos, recipes, and Nashville-themed bells and whistles…and, um, an orange Croc that appears to be autographed by Mario Batali. (I can never read the signature, but Batali lives in NYC, and he's one of Hall's co-hosts on The Chew. Plus, there's no one else in the entire universe with such an allegiance to orange Crocs, so. Likely.)

What's more, the staff is, for the most part, incredibly friendly—usually, they'll go far out of their way to make sure you're really being taken care of—and most nights, Carla Hall herself graces the dining room, speaking with customers and posing for pictures with the patience and good spirit of an actual saint. (Also, I can't be sure-sure, but I'm relatively certain that she has supernatural powers. I've never seen her leave or enter the room; she sort of just materializes, disappears, and repeats. It's impressive.)

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But what's really important—especially once you've made your way to Red Hook and waited 15 to 20 minutes for your order—is the food, and the food at Carla Hall's is straight-up delicious. The chicken comes in six heat levels, from Southern (no sauce) to Boomshakalaka (hot enough that the staff feel it necessary to ring a bell and yell "boomshakalaka!" in unison every time someone orders the hottest chicken—and hot enough that I see most Boomshakalaka-eaters go from bravado and machismo to tears and sniffles in, like, two bites), and though I've only ever asked for my chicken sauceless, I'm pretty confident in saying that it's really goddamn good.

The skin, always just crispy enough, is satisfying and salty (though not too salty, as the vast majority of fried chicken is), and the meat's nice and moist, too. There are no funky tastes, chewy bits, or dry patches; it's just simple, tasty fried chicken, with a few high-quality pickle slices on top. Like all fried chicken, though, it's very greasy—but that's not much of a problem, because a side of their cole slaw does a lovely job of cutting through that grease.

The potato salad isn't my favorite—I hate sweet potatoes—but it's a formidable grease-cutter, too. The rest of the sides (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, candied yams) probably won't perform the same duty, but they're viable (and classic) options nonetheless. Oh, and before I forget to mention this: the cornbread is fantastic, especially when it's still hot enough to melt the little pat of butter that comes with it. So good—and definitely better than the biscuits, which are usually room-temperature and a bit rubbery.

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Of course, there's dessert, too: Vermont Nut Free chocolates and Buttermilk Soft Serve, as I mentioned above. (The rest, as far as I know, aren't necessarily nut allergy–safe, but that's all right. At least there are options for us, right?) The soft serve calls to me me, but I haven't yet gotten a chance to try it—either they've been out of the necessary ingredients, or I've ended up finishing my meal past closing time, when the register's already been cashed out—but I have a feeling I'll love it. One day.

[Edit: I've since tried the soft serve, and it's absurdly good. It's a small portion for $5, but I don't even care, because honestly, it's incredible. It's really thick and creamy—much thicker and creamier than most soft serve, fortunately—but its tanginess is what really makes it stand out. It's like what frozen yogurt would be like if frozen yogurt didn't always taste so low-fat—in other words: perfect.]

I do have plenty of experience with Vermont Nut Free, though. Their chocolate's great—way, way better than, say, Hershey's or Nestlé's—and there's a certain sense of pleasure that comes with supporting a nut-free company, too. The Mini Twists (i.e. chocolate-covered pretzels) are usually great, as is the Pretzel Caramel Bark—though I should say that both are noticeably less fresh when purchased at Carla Hall's than when ordered directly from Vermont Nut Free. Makes sense, but still. The convenience is nice, but the mark-up's absurd, especially for stale-ish pretzels.

A jar of nut-free Vermont Nut Free Skippers at Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen

In any case, I really, really like Carla Hall's. This city has so few truly nut-free restaurants, and even fewer that I can recommend without a whole bunch of disclaimers—but Carla Hall's is totally endorsable, sans caveats, and I'd recommend a visit to anyone in the mood for a good plate of fried chicken, nut-allergic or not.

Find it at 115 Columbia Street, between Kane and Baltic. (Do yourself a favor and drive there. Alternatively, walk from the F or G station on Bergen Street, or figure out how the hell to get on the B61, and take it to the Columbia and Baltic stop, which is, like, 50 paces from Carla Hall's.)

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Fancypants Baking Co.

Fancypants chocolate chip cookies

I’m forever bitter that I can’t (well, shouldn’t) eat Tate’s, so I’m forever searching for an allergy-friendly alternative. Store-bought cookies suck, though, and the ones that don’t are almost always made in facilities that handle nuts. (For some reason, nearly every bakery worth its sugar is filled to the brim with nuts. Life’s bad, I tell you. Bad.)

But Fancypants, stupid name aside, is one of those rare bakeries that’s both (a) decent and (b) totally, 100% nut-free. Their cookies taste way too good to be free from cross-contamination, but they most definitely are—and deliberately so, at that. According to their packaging (and website), both their crunch cookies and their hand-decorated cookies are made in a dedicated peanut-and tree nut–free facility. Nice.

I can’t speak to their hand-decorated cookies (I’ve never tried them, and I probably never will, as $4+ is not a price I’m willing to pay for a single frosted sugar cookie), but I can say that their crunch cookies (sorry, their Non-GMO Project Verified Crunch Cookies) are straight-up delicious. They come in a bunch of varieties—chocolate chip, double chocolate, brown sugar oatmeal, vanilla bean, and gingersnap—and so far, every one I’ve tried has been great.

I’m particularly into the brown sugar oatmeal—I’m a sucker for most oatmeal cookies, really—but the chocolate chip (pictured above) is good, too. Both are crisp and buttery, and neither is too sweet, which is a welcome relief in the world of allergy-friendly cookies. (Imagine the polar opposite of Lofthouse‘s gummy-ass sugar cookies; that’s sort of what Fancypants’s crunch cookies are like.)

There isn’t much more to say (a tasty cookie’s a tasty cookie), other than this: It’s not often I find a brand that’s only nut-free, so when I do, I tend to get pretty excited. I’m allergic to nuts, not gluten, dairy, or eggs—so it’s not as if my cookies have to suffer. They just…tend to. But with Fancypants, there’s no suffering involved. That’s why I’m a fan.

Find Fancypants products at Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, Fairway, Union Market, Gourmet Garage, and probably a whole bunch of other stores, too.

[By the way: My semester’s officially started, so I’m finding myself with far less time on my hands to find foods and, you know, photograph/write about them. My posts are going to slow accordingly—only by a bit, though. Bear with me.]

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Koffee Kup Bakery

A lemon zest donut from Koffee Kup Bakery

A few weeks ago, I was wandering around Staten Island (don’t ask) when I happened upon a Top Tomato, a supermarket chain that…exists, apparently. I spent a few minutes exploring its aisles, underwhelmed as could be—until I spotted a familiar anthropomorphic cruller, one of which I’d often seen photos in a few of the six trillion godforsaken food allergy forums I frequent.

That thick-eyebrowed, boot-donning cruller is the logo for Koffee Kup, an allergy-friendly bakery based in Vermont. According to Koffee Kup’s allergen statement, none of their products contain any tree nuts or peanuts, which means they should be produced in a nut-free environment. To be sure, though, I sent them an email, to which I received the following response: “While we do not have tree nuts in the plant, we have not yet a full nut free policy for the entire building, so we may have some employee in the breakroom or the like with some.”

Standard, really—and good enough for me. Onwards, then.

Koffee Kup’s donuts come in a whole bunch of flavors: buttermilk, jelly, glazed, powdered, apple cider, devil’s food chocolate, bran and honey, lemon zest, orange, plain…and probably a bunch more, too, because a few of the ones I just mentioned aren’t even mentioned on Koffee Kup’s website. The day I came across them, I picked up a box of the lemon zest donuts (sue me—it was that or orange), and to my surprise, they were actually all right.

A box of Koffee Kup's lemon zest donuts

I have poor self-control, so I dug in right then and there—in the parking lot of Top Goddamn Tomato—and for the first third of my first donut, I was in love. They’re cakey, but not dry (in fact, the texture’s near-perfect), and the flavor’s nice and lemony (though a little too reminiscent of a bowl of Fruit Loops). Two bites later, though, all the sugar in that thing must’ve caught up to me, and I couldn’t go on. That’s one sweet donut…and I say that as someone who’s usually into absurd amounts of sugar. Maybe it was the sun, but yeesh. I wanted to throw up.

I’ve never once learned a lesson, though, so 10 minutes later, there I was, eating another stupid-ass lemon zest donut in the oppressive Staten Island heat. Honestly, though, I feel like these donuts would actually be pretty good in the hands of someone more responsible (read: someone who (a) actually maintains control of his or her portion size, (b) keeps a drink on hand, and (c) knows to avoid the ever-cloying lemon zest flavor).

In any case: a few days later, I found a box of Koffee Kup’s devil’s food chocolate donuts at Stop & Shop, and as I suspected, they’re a lot better than the lemon zest version. They’re incredibly sweet, too, but they’re not Fruit Loopy in the slightest, nor did they leave me wanting to vomit—in fact, I genuinely liked them. Score. (I did eat them indoors, though. In my air-conditioned apartment, with water nearby. Important variables, probably—and ones I’ll need to report to the scientific community, no doubt. Bullshit aside, though: these are some tasty store-bought donuts.)

Variables aside, I took the devil’s food donuts as a good sign, and I’m now in the process of tracking down a few of Koffee Kup’s other flavors. If you, too, are interested, consider heading over to Stop & Shop…or Top Tomato, of course. Other than those two, though, I have no idea where to find these donuts. Good luck.

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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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Halfpops

halfpops

Apparently, some people have a thing for the half-popped popcorn that’s usually at the bottom of the bag. And while I’m definitely not one of those people—who are they, and what’s wrong with them?—I have to admit that Halfpops are actually all right.

Allergy information first, though. Halfpops’ exceedingly irritating FAQ clearly states that each and every one of their products is nut- and gluten-free, so that’s that, I suppose. (Seriously, though. Their FAQ is annoying as hell, as is the rest of their website. Why they insist on harping on how portable their snacks are, I have no idea. Halfpops are exactly as portable as regular popcorn—but I digress.)

Online pandering aside, Halfpops do taste okay. (Imagine a softer Corn Nut, and that’s basically a Halfpop.) As of right now, they come in seven flavors: Aged White Cheddar, Angry Kettle Corn, Caramel & Sea Salt, Butter & Sea Salt, Brooklyn Dill Pickle, Black Truffle & Sea Salt, and Chipotle BBQ. My favorite, by far, is the Black Truffle & Sea Salt—in fact, it’s the only one I’ve tried that I actually like. Unlike so many inexpensive “truffled”products, these actually have a noticeable truffle element to them—and a pleasant one, at that. I’m definitely a fan.

The worst flavor I’ve tried is probably the Caramel & Sea Salt. As soon as I opened the bag and got a whiff of those things, I knew they wouldn’t be for me—and they weren’t. “Cloying” is probably the least offensive adjective I can use to describe them—they’re way, way, way too sweet, without anywhere near enough salt to balance out the sugar, and I can say with confidence that I do not like these. Not one bit.

Somewhere toward the middle of the Halfpops spectrum are the Aged White Cheddar—which (to its credit) tastes a whole lot like Smartfood, but without all the popcorn fluff that the folks behind Halfpops insists is so undesirable—and the Butter & Sea Salt, which is a little heavy on the butter flavoring. Brooklyn Dill Pickle is okay, too, if you want to be overwhelmed with vinegar, but I…don’t, so that one’s probably another flavor I’ll have to avoid.

The problem with most of Halfpops’ flavors is simple, though: the seasoning is way too strong. Perhaps if they’d tone it down a smidge, I’d be on board—but for now, I think I’ll stick with the Black Truffle & Sea Salt. (Or, you know, regular popcorn, despite its terribly unportable nature.)

Find Halfpops at Stop & Shop, REI, and ShopRite.

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The Good Bean Chickpea Snacks

The Good Bean chickpea snacks

I can’t say I’ve ever found myself craving a handful of roasted chickpeas, but if I ever did…well, these would do the trick. They’re a little weird, but they aren’t bad—and they’re a whole lot better for you than, like, Funyuns (or whatever it is that you can’t stop shoveling into your mouth).

Two of The Good Bean’s three products—their chickpea snacks and their bean chips—are made in a dedicated nut-free facility. Their fruit & no-nut bars, while themselves nut-free, are made in a facility that does handle both tree nuts and peanuts (though The Good Bean uses Good Manufacturing Practices to reduce the risk of cross-contamination), so they’re perhaps a bit less safe than the chickpea snacks and the bean chips. Still, they’re a viable option for many with nut allergies, and if I could find them, I’d give them a try.

I haven’t come across the bean chips or the fruit & no-nut bars, but I have eaten my fair share of the roasted chickpeas, and as usual, I have some opinions. First off, let me be clear about one thing: These things are extremely dry. Get more than three or four of them in your mouth at once and it’s like trying to revitalize sawdust with your tongue. In small bites, though, they’re manageable—and I actually kind of like them.

The sea salt flavor is the best one I’ve tried. It’s simple and to-the-point, and it’s actually pretty addictive, once you get used to the texture. My least favorite was definitely sweet cinnamon; I couldn’t even get through the portion I used for the photograph above. It’s just so wishy-washy—too sweet to be savory and too savory to be sweet, and not at all pleasant to eat in any quantity. So when the urge hits, I guess I’ll just stick with the sea salt for now. (A lot of the other flavors have proven hard to find, but I think I’m all right with that.)

Anyway, if roasted chickpeas have been calling you—or if my glowing review has won you over—you can find The Good Bean’s products at Stop & Shop, Duane Reade, Zabar’s, and various health food–oriented markets across the city. (Perhaps you’ll even be able to find all the flavors and products I couldn’t. Good luck.)

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A Guide to Tree Nut–Free Peanuts and Peanut Butters

You can spend as much time as you’d like combing through Google results; you won’t find much in the way of information on tree nut–free peanut products. I’ve been complaining about this for a while (and I’ve blogged about it before, no doubt) but I figure it’s probably time to actually do something about the issue.

So…I have. I reached out to approximately half a billion peanut and peanut butter companies, and this post is the result. I’ve only included companies that are reasonably allergy-friendly, so if a brand’s not on this list, I’ve either never come across it or I’ve come across it and found that it’s probably not a viable option for those with nut allergies. (Or! A handful of stick-in-the-mud customer-service representatives have kept me from being able to find out much of anything about a company’s facilities. That happens a lot, actually.)

The products that have made this list are peanuts and peanut butters that probably won’t kill you…if you’re allergic to tree nuts and tree nuts alone, that is. And if you can’t eat peanuts (or if you’re in the mood for a change of pace), scroll down to the bottom of this guide for a section on other nut-free spreads.

(Looking for tree nuts free from cross contamination with other tree nuts?)

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New French Bakery

newfrenchbakery

I wish I could say I’d found a nut-free French bakery, but…I haven’t. What I have found is a nut-free bread company that supplies packaged “take & bake” breads to various supermarkets. So French bakery? Not quite. Useful product, though? Definitely.

New French Bakery doesn’t advertise itself as nut-free, but there’s nothing about tree nuts (or peanuts) on any of the packaging. That doesn’t mean all that much, though, so I sent an email to double-check. Within a day, I received the following reply: “Yes, our facility is tree nut and peanut free.” So that’s that, I suppose.

I’ve categorized New French Bakery as “truly nut-free,” but really, things aren’t so black-and-white. These companies exist on an allergy-friendliness spectrum, and I’d say this one’s probably a bit less nut-free (whatever sense that makes) than a company like Enjoy Life, which requires allergen statements from suppliers, employs batch testing, and is generally defined by its allergy-friendliness. Still, a nut-free facility is a nut-free facility—it’d be silly to expect anything more.

I picked up a bag of the French dinner rolls at Gristedes (the only place I can seem to find these things) and froze them that day, as the packaging recommends. A week or so later, I threw a few into the oven for 12 minutes and ate them with some cheese, and they were all right, but certainly not anything worth getting excited over. Had they not been warm, they would’ve been pretty lame—but warm bread is warm bread, so I couldn’t be all that disappointed.

From what I’ve tried, it seems as though New French Bakery’s bread is, at the very least, a few steps above most of the bread you’ll find at the supermarket—and it’s nut-free, too, which certainly helps its cause. It’ll do in a pinch, and it’ll certainly do if you’re accustomed to being denied bread.

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