Sunday, May 8, 2011

Carob Month

The new Sweet and Savory Challenge is up at Diet Dessert and Dogs, and this month the magic ingredient is Carob.


My recipes will be following soon, but for now I would just like to present my thoughts and feelings on this special ingredient, and share my favorite Carob-based products.

Carob trees in Albufeira, Portugal.
Carob is most commonly found in powdered form, and is frequently touted as a healthy cocoa- alternative. Free of chocolate's caffeine and theobromine, carob certainly does present healthful benefits that chocolate lacks. Carob contains three times more calcium, three times LESS calories, and seventeen times less fat!

Carob is a bean, which grows in pods on a tree or shrub. These trees grow wild in the Mediterranean, which, in my most- exciting world travels, I encountered wild in the Algarve of Portugal. When I was there, it was mid-March, and the beans weren't quite ripe on the trees. Even though I couldn't try any fresh, I was determined to sample some local carob cuisine. I had heard that little carob cakes were common to the area, and asked every single bakery that I encountered if they carried any.

There was one problem though-- I didn't speak Portuguese, and the bakers didn't speak Spanish, or English. And the word for "carob" in Portuguese is... nothing like "carob" in English. But of course I couldn't remember what it was. With a combination of Spanglish and hand gestures, "Es como chocolate... a powder, like chocolate... se crece en los arobles aqui... grows in bean pods...???" No use.


Another feature of Portugal: restaurant "advertisers" linger in populated areas outside of their joints to lure in customers. To nab the most tourists, most of these gems of salesmen seemed to be multilingual. After a bad experience being lured into a restaurant that served the grossest fish ever plus charged a euro for each slice of bread eaten plus a euro for each tiny packet of butter/cream/cheese/anchovy condiments used or opened, I figured the restauranteers owed me one.


So, we chatted one up, and then slipped in "HEY what's the Portuguese word for Carob?" --"Carob, what's Carob?" ... and, the usual half-coherent description ensued- but at least this time it could be in all English. After asking at least three other people, our restaurant guy finally found an old bearded man who got it-- and gave us the magic word.  ALFARROBAS!

Alfarrobas!? No wonder I didn't associate that with "carob!" Not only did said bearded an give us the word, but he also supplied directions to the only bakery in town that he claimed carried them. So, off we went, on a 20 minute walk uphill to the magic bakery!!

And there it was. And, full of little carob-fig treats that were... well, really pretty anticlimactic, overly sweet, and not too wonderful. But, I had fulfilled my Portuguese carob fantasy. (#WINNING :) )


SO: The moral of this story  (or long-winded tangent)  is that I will be whipping up some much-yummier Portuguese confections, using the wonderful carob. Be prepared, it's going to be GREAT. As in, I already translated purely authentic Portuguese recipes, which I will be posting complete with vocab lists.

But that is all to come.

In the meantime, I would like to share my top three Carob picks for store bought items. For anyone who can't eat chocolate, these will truly be a lifesaver to hold over your cravings. This is a count-down, so BE SURE to scroll all the way down to #1-- it's probably one of the awesomest products I've eaten ever, and truly a rare find.

#3: Sunspire Vegan Carob Chips

Upsides: Readily available, vegan, and look just like chocolate chips-- thus great for a baking substitute. Also come in un-vegan form (labeled "unsweetened carob chips), which are less sweet, but much more creamy, with a better texture.

Downsides: They really don't melt, and thus are... in reality not so great for baking substitutes. Not as good as the real deal (chocolate chips) but certainly better than nothing at all. When you eat mouthful after mounthful of these straight (have I ever done that? never... --hey, I was stressed out in a dorm room with nothing but Carob to ease the pain!) they taste rather rubbery-- or, it feels like your mouth is kind of coated in tar. Okay what am I talking about, no one in their right mind should do that anyway.

The verdict is that the consistency in baking and excessive eating is not great, but the overall look, feel, and taste is satisfactory.

---> * * * / 5 rating

~~~~~

#2: Rice Dream Mint Carob Chip Ice Cream

This is Carob at its best. A subtly sweet flavor, and soft, melty consistency makes this chips (or chunks, rather)-- dare I say it? Even better than chocolate chips in ice cream. I find that chocolate chips often freeze too hard in ice cream, and thus become little rocks that are barely tastable and a pain to chew. (Funfact: when I was little I called chips in ice cream "Poes" and always spit them out.) But carob poes? Pretty darn good.

What is lacking in this product lies in the ice cream department. Rice dream just never has tasted all that great to me, and although the mint flavor is a step up from the vanilla (which has nothing else to hide it's slight off-flavor), it still just has something... funny about it. Come on, Rice Dream, step it up and bake your stuff taste betterrrrr! Because you know the season of ice cream craving is only just beginning.....

Overall rating?
---> *** / 5

~~~~~

And the Grand Winner!
#1: Goldie's Carob Bars


This is by far the best Carob treat I have ever tasted in my life. Subtly sweet, creamy in the mouth, this is equivalent to a gourmet chocolate bar. I have sampled the Rice Crunch flavor (just like a Crunch Bar, only not sickeningly sweet!) and Plain (also delicious, but slightly less exciting), and after checking their website, nearly jumped out of my seat when I learned they also come in Mint, Orange Zest, and Hazelnut Praline! Oh my goodness, I must get my hands on these.

The only problem: these are elusive, too! I have encountered them in only one location: Whole Earth Center in Princeton, NJ. The company website? Equally archaic, with no sales information, and just a link to "Contact Us." These bars are for sale on Amazon, but for $36.42 for a box of 12 bars, they're no steal.

When I visit Princeton, (17 hours, 15 minutes 'til Reunions!) I purchase two treats for my ride home:
        1. Rice Cream Mint Chocolate Frozen Pie
        2. A Goldie's Carob Bar.
And I eat them in that order on the way home... all of them. And it is AWESOME!! (bi-winning.)

Overall Rating?
---> ****** / 5 stars. Yes, they're just that great.

Also: please, please, let me know if you find these bars elsewhere! Particularly... in the Northern VA area! <3



~~~~~~~~~~

In summary: Carob is great.

Let's face it, though-- when you need a chocolate fix, you just need the real deal. Without that caffeine and theobromine, that serotonin boost is just lacking with carob. The taste is different, the caffeine-high is lacking, but replacing chocolate with carob can benefit your body, and, even taste-wise, is a respectable substitute. (Remember: seventeen times less fat!!)


Sunspire's website sums it up best:

" Carob is a tree-grown fruit with its own natural sugars that impart subtle sweetness and a mellow taste. According to renowned vegetarian chef, Mollie Katzen, carob has its own flavor characteristics. Referring to it as alternative to chocolate sets up an unrealistic taste expectation instead of enjoying carob for the uniquely sweet treat that it is. "
But, enjoying Carob for Carob itself, in all its Carob-y glory? Spectacular.


More information on Carob and health? Check out http://www.gilead.net/health/carob.html !

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