Parallel Tastings: Croissants, Balsamic Vinegars, and Honey

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#1. Chocolate Croissants

Alex and I sampled chocolate croissants from four different bakeries in Harvard Square. According to pastry chef David Lebovitz, croissants are typically rated in terms of crust, interior, and flavor. The ideal crust should be an even golden brown color, be very flaky, and shatter easily. Each flake should melt on your tongue and not feel too greasy. It should not be tough or chewy, either. The ideal interior should be feather-light, layered, soft, and moist. It should not be doughy or gummy. Finally, the ideal flavor should be very buttery with a natural dairy sweetness. I tasted the four croissants using the pyramid approach and assessed their qualities based on these areas. In order to account for the added element of a chocolate interior, I added a “chocolate” criterion to assess the deliciousness of the chocolate, and how well it worked with the overall experience.

In my tastings, I used the pyramid approach, whereby I compared two chocolate croissants, compared the winner to a third croissant, and compared the winner of the previous “match” to a fourth croissant to determine the overall winner. This method doesn’t help to determine a complete ranking, but it does help with finding an all-around winner. The below diagram describes my process:

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ROUND 1—Starbucks vs. L.A. Burdick // Both crusts had a slightly uneven, patchy coloring that was golden brown at some parts and pale yellow at others. The Starbucks crust had the right texture, flaky and shatter-able, whereas the Burdick crust was too hard, tough, and crispy, tasting very doughy and not melting on my tongue. While the Starbucks one had the better crust, the interior was simply too doughy, gummy, and buttery. This, combined with the overly sweet milk chocolate, was too overpowering and rich. In comparison, the Burdick croissant had an interior that was honeycombed and layered; the texture was still doughy but it was much lighter and airier than the Starbucks one, with a nuanced buttery and milky sweet taste. The chocolate was delicious as well; it was less sweet, contained complex fruity notes, and complemented the mild taste of the interior well. Winner: L.A. Burdick

ROUND 2—L.A.  Burdick vs. Darwin’s Ltd. // Wow. this chocolate croissant from Darwin’s was delicious! The crust was much nicer than the one from Burdick, in that it was an even golden brown color, soft, flaky, and very buttery, and melted easily on the tongue. The interior was scrumptious – light and airy, with a buttery taste and lingering sweetness. While the Burdick croissant’s interior tasted nice too, the Darwin’s one won because its texture was much lighter and softer. Plus, the chocolate in the Darwin’s croissant was my favorite yet: bold and nutty, with hints of mint, and a slightly grainy texture. Winner: Darwin’s Ltd.

ROUND 3—Darwin’s Ltd. vs. Mike’s Pastry // In my eyes, the Mike’s Pastry nutella croissant was a shame, because it was a waste of a perfectly fine croissant. The croissant itself looked very promising: evenly golden crust, flaky in all the right places, light and fluffy texture. However, there was so much chocolate and nutella on top of and inside of the croissant that it completely overpowered the natural buttery taste of the croissant itself. There was way too much Nutella, which permeated every bite I tried to take and infused it with an overpoweringly sweet and hazelnutty flavor. Whereas the other croissants used chocolate as a complementary surprise that added interest to the pastry, the croissant from Mike’s was just a shell to contain Nutella. Winner: Darwin’s Ltd.

Below is a detailed table summarizing and organizing the tastings:

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Croissant tasting criteria source: http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2010/10/the-best-croissant-in-new-york-city-best-croissants-in-nyc-manhattan-brooklyn-queens-ceci-cela-petrossian-payard.html 

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#2. Balsamic Vinegars

I did a tasting of 4 balsamic vinegars at Salt & Olive, a store located in Harvard Square that sells “fresh oils and vinegars, artisan salts, and spices.”

All of the balsamic vinegars sold at Salt & Olive were made from the Trebbiano grape in Modena, Italy, and were then aged using the solera barrel method. There are two types of balsamic vinegar: one is dark, and the other is white. The dark balsamics, unlike the white ones, were heated for three days, caramelizing the sugars within the grape and resulting in their characteristic dark coloring. The dark ones were also aged for 18 years, allowing them to achieve a syrupy consistency and opaque coloring.

The shopkeeper (in accordance with online sources) advised me to look for several things when tasting: color, viscosity, aroma, and flavor.

To discover my ideal balsamic vinegar, I decided to use the pyramid method again. However, this time, instead of tasting 4 brands of the same kind of food, I decided to taste 4 slightly different variations of a kind of food. I chose to begin by comparing traditional dark to a typical white, then delving deeper within the subgroup I found more appealing (in this case, the darks):

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ROUND 1—Sicilian Lemon White Balsamic vs. Traditional Aged Balsamic // The white balsamic was completely clear, smelled citrusy and vinegar-y, and had a runny, watery consistency. Its taste was quite tangy (I felt it at the tip and sides of my tongue) and reminded me a lot of Sprite, except with a very pungent, acidic kick. In comparison, the traditional aged (dark) balsamic was an opaque black with some reddish undertones, smelled fruity and sour, and had a syrupy consistency. The flavors were very grape-y, earthy, bold, rich, and complex, and I felt the acidity linger heavily on the back of my tongue. It was exquisite! Winner: Traditional Aged Balsamic

ROUND 2—Traditional Aged Balsamic vs. Blueberry Aged Balsamic // Unsurprisingly, these two were more similar than the first two were. The main difference was that the blueberry infused balsamic had a much sweeter taste, and the blueberry flavoring overpowered the grape taste. The sweetness also detracted from the bite of the vinegar, so I felt it less on the back of my tongue and more in the front/middle. I still thought the traditional aged balsamic was more complex, rich, and maintained a better balance of flavor. Winner: Traditional Aged Balsamic

ROUND 3—Traditional Aged Balsamic vs. C
hampagne Aged Balsamic
// The champagne aged balsamic was a bit runnier than the traditional and blueberry aged balsamics. It did not smell as pungently sour, but it tasted much more sour, to the point where I felt a lingering burn at the back of my throat which traveled up to my nasal cavities when I swallowed. I think the sourness made it too unapproachable on its own, and the rich grape flavors were absent here. Winner: Traditional Aged Balsamic

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#3. Honey

The shopkeeper at Follow the Honey, a store in Harvard Square that sells ethically sourced raw honey from places around the world, kindly led me through a tasting of five varieties of honey.

The amazing thing about raw honey is that the taste is entirely dependent on the unique region of the world where the bees live. Because the taste is determined by flower nectar, you will only find certain varietals of honey in certain parts of the world where those flowers can be found. Even the varietals themselves are never 100% the same, because there are always variations in the composition of the flowers that are visited by the bees. Unlike mass produced honey, which is a blend of honey made by bees with noncomplex diets, with compromised immune systems due to pesticides, and living in exploited regions of the world, the artisanal honey at Follow the Honey is ethically sourced, untreated with pesticides or chemicals, and far more rich in flavor and complexity.

The shopkeeper told me to take note of the color, opacity, viscosity, smell, texture, and taste. Because honey can take so many different forms and vary greatly in these areas, I figured the process of finding the “perfect honey” would be largely subjective.

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ROUND 1—Bayou Honey vs. Local Raw // The bayou honey was made from the white Tupelo tree found in the marshes of the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. It was a dark gold color, relatively runny, and smelled sweet and buttery. The taste was bright and sweet.

The local raw variety is from Deerfield, MA. The rich floral varieties incorporated into this variety include locust, basswood, raspberry, and goldenrods. I definitely noticed some hints of butterscotch and malt. It was very sweet and buttery, with floral hints. Winner: Local Raw Honey

ROUND 2—Local Raw vs. Oaxaca Honey // The Oaxaca Honey is a wildflower honey. A darker, amber color, it had hints of chai, marzipan, and anise. It was definitely a very spice-y and vibrant taste. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the graininess. Winner: Local Raw Honey

ROUND 3—Local Raw vs. Tasmanian Honey // The Tasmanian honey was a very opaque pale yellow, and had a very taffy-like consistency. It is made from french lavender, which definitely came through in the smell and taste of the honey, which was quite fragrant overall. However, the flavor was not as clear and brilliant as the local raw variety, and nor was the texture as smooth and satisfying. Winner: Local Raw Honey

ROUND 4—Local Raw vs. Serra Da Malcata // The Serra Da Malcata is an oak honey that comes from a mountain range in Portugal. It was a dark amber color, shiny and smooth, and quite viscous. The flavor was bold and rich – sweet, with strong hints of fig and maple. It was a very warm flavor that flooded my mouth, partly thanks to the smoothness of its body. According to the shopkeeper, the oak honey has medicinal properties, treating ailments such as ulcers. I loved this one even more than the local raw variety because it had the smoothness of the local raw, but was bolder, more intense, and more complex. Winner: Serra Da Malcata Honey

Conclusions: It seems I like smooth and sappy honeys with bold, complex flavors.

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Takeaways from #Challenge2

This challenge definitely made me think critically about the factors I should look out for when tasting different foods. Each food is unique in the factors that contribute to one’s tasting experience.

I noticed a distinct difference between my tasting experience with the croissants, and my tasting experience with the balsamics and honeys. When I was tasting croissants, I felt as if I had a rubric of qualities that have been determined by experts as objectively desirable. An ideal crust should be this way, an ideal interior should be that way. This made it easy for me to evaluate the croissants based on those factors and how much they lived up to expectations.

In contrast, my tasting experience with the balsamic vinegars and honeys was more subjective. With the balsamic vinegar, I was trying different variations upon a kind of vinegar to find which one best suited my own palette. Thus, I started with the biggest division (e.g., dark vs. white), and became more specific (e.g., blueberry vs. champagne). The fact that I eventually chose the traditional aged balsamic told me more about myself than the quality of the balsamics themselves. It was similar for the honeys, which taught me that I liked smooth-textured and viscous honeys with bold/complex flavors. Moreover, the honey tasting taught me that, in addition to our subjective preferences for various qualities, our emotional connection to the foods’ histories can also come into play. When the storekeeper was telling me about where each honey came from and the beauty of how honey reflected the unique qualities of the flowers in these local regions, I felt as if I were being transported to different parts of the world, and my presuppositions and emotional reactions also affected the way I tasted the honeys.

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