Back in 2009 I enjoyed visiting a coffee farm when I was down in Guatemala. At that time I saw the coffee berries on the bushes and through the process until they were the dried beans bagged in 100 pound bags for shipment. It's years later and now I watched as raw, green beans became roasted and ready for grinding.

I was at the newer Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters location on Folsom Boulevard. Mondays and Thursdays are roasting days and with the shiny roasters in the front of the shop, it's something customers can observe while sipping on the final results. 

Nate Welsh was in the back working on the computer when I arrived. He was figuring out what current inventory was and which beans needed to be roasted. Currently they have eight varieties available from Guatemala, Honduras, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico. Nate was going to roast a little of each and then some for their espresso blend. While he was checking his numbers, he was heating the smaller roaster up. 

Chocolate Fish has two Diedrich roasters, one handles 3 kilos (5 pounds) and the other handles 12 kilos (20 pounds).  This day he was running both roasters, starting with the smaller. He weighed out 5 pounds of a Honduras bean for the first batch and once the roaster had reached temp, he poured them in. 

"Each batch will take 12-14 minutes to finish," Nate said. Next to him is a computer that is connected to a thermometer in the roaster.

"We use a program called Roast Logger to track all our roasting profiles," he explained. On the screen I could see a line that dips down drastically before turning and starting to climb up again. Nate told me that when a new coffee first arrives, it will be roasted several times at different temperatures and it is plotted on the graph. Each roasting is then brewed and tasted by himself and the owners, Andy and Edie Baker. Between the three of them, they discuss the flavor attributes of each roast trying to pick out the one that brings out the best flavor. They are trying to find the best balance of acidity and sweetness for each shipment/crop of beans. Once they pinpoint which roast they like the best, they use the computer graph to replicate that roast again and again. Each crop of beans will have a different roasting graph.

Nate pointed out the different parts of the graph. When the cold beans first drop into the roaster it drops the overall temperature, thus the drastic initial drop. At the bottom is the "turning point" when the line starts to move up and the temperature rises again. Now the coffee is roasting at the enzymatic/drying phase where the moisture is removed from the beans until we start hearing popping sounds like when popcorn pops. This is the "crack" (for the sound) sugar browning phase, when the sugars in the bean burst out and coat and caramelize on the surface of the bean. The third phase is dry distillation and none of CF's beans are allowed to go into this range as this is when the sugars start to burn and carbonize. 


"Coffee tasting is very similar to wine tasting," said Edie. "You need to develop a palate for it." On the wall is a colorful pie chart depicting the phases of roasting and the flavors that come out at different phases: lemony, chocolate, caramel. Edie explained to me that they no longer use the terms "low, medium, and dark roast". Nowadays the focus is on the bean flavor and whatever temperature brings out the best qualities. Dark roasting would be the dry distillation phase that CF avoids. 

Once the roasting is finished the coffee is dumped out and fans blow air so as to cool the beans as quickly as possible. Now completed, the beans are ready for packaging or grinding. 

I asked Edie about blends and she said the only blend they do is for their espresso. Their current blend is with beans from Brazil and Honduras. For espresso they need to roast the beans at a slightly higher temperature, as little as 2-6 degrees. Since espresso is most often mixed with milk, they need to adjust to account from the flavor change when mixed with milk's sweetness.

"That's our only blend. Nowadays coffee is roasted in single origin batches," said Edie. "These beans are such good quality, they stand on their own." 

The Bakers buy their coffee directly from individual farms that they have visited and gotten to know.  These farms will grow many varieties of coffee, but they will separate them according to quality. The lower quality is often sent to cooperatives with other farms' beans and they get all mixed together. The high quality is saved and sold directly to coffee houses, like CF.

The Folsom Boulevard location has the customer side and then the production/roasting side. Near the roasters is a cupping area where the testing/tasting of new roasts is done as well as training of the baristas. This day Scott was there preparing to be tested.

Scott passed!
Chocolate Fish has a rigorous training program. Scott has been with them for four months training. Until he passes the Bakers' test, he can't be behind the counter by himself, but must have another trained barista with him. His test included testing his tamping pressure, pulling espresso shots, and making macchiatos, cappuccinos, and flat whites. The Bakers checked for weight, temperature, flavor, and check the quality of his milk foam and pours.

I asked Edie if it bothers her when baristas they've trained start working at other coffee houses. "We want our baristas to want to work for us and many of those who leave will come back," she said. "I'll often tell an applicant to go to every coffee house and check them out first. They need to get a feel for what each place is offering and the atmosphere." She doesn't know which, if any, of the other coffee houses have such rigorous training or testing, but that's what they pride themselves on and sets them apart. It means that there will always be consistency in a customer's order, no matter which barista is serving. 

"We take a lot of pride in what we do," Edie said.

Chocolate Fish Coffee is served throughout the area at such places as Magpie, Yellowbill, Masullo's, Enotria, Formoli's, and Golden Bear. It's also sold at Whole Foods, Compton's,  and Corti Bros.

Disclosure: Even though I don't drink coffee, I do drink hot chocolate. CF advertises on my site and I enjoy my occasional chocolate chia lattes there. 
You gotta love when you discover some new treat that you never heard of before. Better yet, one that is so simple and with only three ingredients.

This weekend I was watching some cooking show and they started talking about a Brazilian treat that is the equivalent to what cupcakes are to us.  We have cupcake stores, they have brigadeiro stores. Apparently brigadeiros are found at any and every social event. The name comes from them being named after Brigadier Eduardo Gomes.

Turns out, they are basically like our chocolate truffles - chocolate bonbons with three base ingredients.  Our truffles are made with chocolate, heavy cream, and flavoring, usually vanilla. Brigadeiros have sweetened condensed milk, Ovaltine or Nesquik, and butter. While truffles melt in your mouth, brigadeiros are chewier and stickier, so more akin to caramels. Apparently the need for Ovaltine/Nesquik is because the sweetened condensed milk in Brazil is even sweeter than the American version. 

I decided to experiment over the weekend and made three different versions using two different methods - stovetop and microwave.

First the ingredients:  

1 14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk
3 Tablespoons Ovaltine
1 T butter

That was the recipe in its original form.  I wanted to see about using quality cocoa (Scharffenberger) but I didn't want to add more sugar. Instead I added 2 packets of real stevia (Stevia in the Raw).

The third variation I decided to use my chocolate flavored Shakeology. For those unfamiliar with it, it's a shake with 70 natural superfood ingredients such as maca, moringa, camu-camu, etc. People are always submitting recipes using it, so I thought the chocolate powder would work perfectly for this. 

Next was to try both methods of cooking it - stovetop and microwave.  Comments on results later.


Mix together ingredients in a saucepan and put over medium-low heat, stirring CONSTANTLY. It will burn on the bottom and sides and get lumpy if you do not stir constantly. When the mixture reaches a thick stage so that when you draw your spoon through it and you can see the bottom of the pan for a second before it settles, then it is almost done. Cook it for another minute. This will take about 10 minutes total.  You want it the consistency of really thick mud.


Mix together ingredients in a microwave proof bowl and microwave on high at one minute intervals, stirring between each minute. Keep an eye on it as it can boil over and leave a big mess in your microwave! Again, it's done when you can draw your spoon through it and it leaves a valley through it. I found this to be about 5 minutes of incremental microwaving.

cooled and ready to form

Let mixture cool to room temperature. Spray your hands with cooking oil and wipe off excess with a paper towel. Take spoonfuls and roll them in your hands to form balls.  Roll in toppings of choice: nuts, cocoa powder, sprinkles.   I suggest a mixture of 3 T cocoa, 1/2 t cinnamon, 1/4 t cayenne pepper for a spicy kick.

Results - stovetop vs microwave

The easier method was the microwave. The tastier method is the stovetop. Here's why.

The microwave doesn't have the problem with having to stir constantly otherwise you risk clumpiness and burned bits. But you do need to still keep an eye on it. I had a boil over on the first batch and it was a sticky mess.

The reason for the stovetop version being tastier makes perfect sense. If you keep cooking sweetened condensed milk you get caramel or dulce de leche. So if you keep cooking this mixture on the stovetop, it develops this lovely caramel flavoring to it that doesn't seem to develop in the microwave version. It also was a bit more chewy.

As for the versions using Ovaltine, cocoa/stevia, and Shakeology?  They all worked and they all tasted good!  Just different.  I think that I would opt for cocoa/stevia myself.  I'd want to use high quality cocoa like Scharffenburger or Guittard while not adding even more sugar. The stevia worked well for adding the extra sweetness (naturally) but not adding more to spiking my blood sugar levels than the sweetened condensed milk already did. A good compromise.

Brigadeiros are super easy, cheap, and different. What could be better for using as holiday treats this year?!

photo: R. Blackwell
REPOST. Original posting date 11/27/11.

News has spread that the founder of Daring Bakers, Lis Cifelli, has passed away.  As a tribute to her, the Daring Bakers community is posting memories and recipes.  I have decided a fitting way would be to repost this as we think of this great learning tool that DB is, but also because of the recent Philippine typhoon. 

It took me almost four years. It took me that long to host the Daring Bakers challenge. This blog will be four years old next month and in the following January I also joined the Daring Bakers. I knew back then what I would use as my challenge for the group and the opportunity finally came.

Let's start with an explanation of what Daring Bakers is. It's an internet group made up mostly of food bloggers, although having a blog is not a requirement. Each month a member hosts the challenge for the month. The idea is that the challenge should teach some baking techniques or introduce us to some baked goods that we might never try otherwise. The challenge is posted on the 1st and for the entire month everyone is busy making it and posting their results on the member forum. On the 27th of each month it goes public and food bloggers all over the world post their results on their blogs. Over the years I've made croissants to danishes to fancy tarts and pastries. Some have been really challenging and other things had been much easier than I would have anticipated.

When I first joined, the host schedule went by seniority according to when you joined the group. Even though the membership was a lot smaller back then, I knew it would be many years before I got to host. But sometime later the scheduling changed and I became aware that I could volunteer to host. This was a year ago and I was told I could have November 2011 if I wanted it. I said yes and spent time over the last year practicing and perfecting which recipes I wanted to put up, even though I had known from the start what recipe it would be. Each recipe needs to be well thought out and documented before posting.

November 1st was posting day. I misunderstood and didn't realize that I was supposed to post the challenge, I thought the group founders would. We in California are at the end of the global spin of timezones. I found out that I was about 18 hours overdue in posting the challenge and people in Australia, Korea, Greece, Spain, etc. were all posting on the member forum - Where is the challenge!! Oops. 

My challenge was titled - Filipino Desserts. I always knew I wanted to do Sans Rival and later I decided to add Bibingka as well. The Sans Rival was meant to challenge skills for those newer members who had never made a meringue dacquoise and French buttercream before. The bibingka was to add a cultural challenge for a flavor/dessert that many would never have had.  Although the desserts had required elements, they were allowed to modify the flavorings and choice of nuts in the Sans Rival.

I've posted these recipes myself over the years, so I won't here, just click the hyperlinks to get to the recipes. Instead I've decided to share some of the results from the other bloggers worldwide in the collage above. What I especially liked was some of the variations of flavor and styling. Some did a more rustic take by leaving the edges unfrosted and others made individual mini cakes versus a large single cake.

I'm happy to say that the results were great and many people commented on how much they liked the Sans Rival. Many of them were served on Thanksgiving. Hardly anyone tried the bibingka, but that's alright. I posted something that I love, was new to them, and represented the Philippines.

We have a tendency to associate Farm-to-Fork with the time when produce is the most abundant - summer and fall harvest. Farm-to-Fork also means eating seasonally, and so, as the weather changes, so do our seasonal ingredients and why certain foods, like pumpkins and cranberries, are associated with the holidays.  

For many people caviar is considered a treat for the holiday season. One of those indulgent foods that you only eat around Christmas. It falls among other holiday indulgences such as prime rib, lobster, and cracked crab or less pricey treats such as Christmas cookies, roasted chestnuts, fruit cakes, and marzipan.

Part of the reason we celebrate with caviar during the holidays revolves around the Rule of R. The Rule of R says that shellfish, in particular oysters, should not be eaten in any month without a R. That basically means May, June, July, and August - all warmer months. Although not a shellfish, the Rule of R has also applied to caviar consumption.

The Rule of R was necessary in the past for two reasons. First was due to the easy spoilage of food prior to refrigeration. All seafood is temperature sensitive and any eater that has gotten food poisoning from seafood knows the horrible consequences. For centuries caviar was harvested and consumed almost immediately before the curing process was introduced. Even then, it was essential that the caviar be well chilled up until the time of consumption, a difficult task for much of the world until the advent of refrigeration and ice making.

The second reason is due to the life cycle of a lot of seafood. Many shellfish spawn in the warmer months, making their flesh mushy and less flavorful than shellfish harvested in cooler months. In the case of caviar, the harvesting season revolves around the time when the eggs of the sturgeon are at their ripest. Here in Sacramento, Sterling Caviar harvests the caviar between late January and beginning of June.
Read about the caviar harvesting process.
Today caviar goes through a curing process where salt is added and the eggs are allowed to sit in tins for at least three months. Curing not only preserves the caviar, but improves the flavor. The curing process means that the finished caviar is ready for consumption in the fall and perfect for the holidays.