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When I was a child, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favorite films. I would picture myself running through the chocolate room, filled with candy trees and flowers, and swimming through the chocolate river. It might have been wrong, but I was always jealous of Augustus Gloop when he got stuck in the pipe of delicious, endlessly flowing chocolate. It was also fun to think of how crazy some of Mr. Wonka’s creations were, like his three-course dinner gum. But now Wonka’s wild confectionaries don’t have to be imagined. Chocolate bars seeming to come straight from Wonka’s factory now fill almost every candy aisle.

Lining the shelves of the average grocery store, probably next to your own favorite bar, are bars that have chocolatiers pushing the limits on cacao combinations. Dark chocolate and chilies? Well, that doesn’t seem too exotic. But what about dark chocolate and wasabi? Milk chocolate and beef jerky? How about white chocolate and kalamata olives?
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Welcome to Chocolate Week at Table Matters! We’re celebrating all-things cocoa just in time for every chocolate lover’s favorite holiday. Stay tuned as we explore its many sides.

If I could, I would strike Palmer’s “chocolate” from this earth. You know what I’m talking about — that low-quality holiday candy that tastes like chocolate that’s been chewed up and spit out by the mouth of a dirty mama bird before being re-melted and shaped into little medallions. I cringe recalling all the Halloweens and Valentine’s Days I spent shoving those cheap candies in my mouth, trying to get rid of them before eating the much more worthwhile Kit Kats, or the ultimate trick-or-treat wins, the Almond Joys.

Likewise, I would happily rub out any of the new-fangled Hershey’s products that wear the wrappers and take the shapes of chocolate, but are in actuality the terrible bastard children of chocolate and corporate frugality. Yup, that’s right: If you weren’t already aware, there’s a good chance that the “chocolate” you’re buying from Hershey’s isn’t chocolate at all. See, back in 2008, Hershey’s started replacing some of the cocoa butter in its products with a combination of cocoa butter and other vegetable oils. Using other vegetable oils is cheaper for companies, which explains why a bag of the aforementioned Palmer’s always costs a dollar or two less than actual chocolate. But those “chocolate” products taste cheaper, too, as do most foods when unnecessary ingredients complicate their simple recipes. See, the process of making a good chocolate only requires a few steps: Cacao pods are roasted, ground, and made into chocolate liquor (which, if desired, can then be separated into dry cocoa solids and cocoa butter). Then you add in vanilla, sugar, and often lecithin (an emulsifier), and you’ve got some good eatin‘.
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Q: What do Tom Green, the Hoover Dam, and candy canes all have in common?
A: They’ve all been the subject of false rumors, perpetuated thanks to the Internet.

So for the record, Tom Green didn’t dress up as Hitler at a bar mitzvah, the Hoover Dam doesn’t have bodies of workers buried inside, and candy canes? Oh, where do I begin. Perhaps with a warning: other than grappling with a particularly divine-tasting edible, a column about foodstuffs isn’t normally the place to tackle religion. Today it is, because the candy cane and Christmas are as intertwined as the stick’s red and white stripes.
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Few things matter more to the Halloween tradition than candy. Sure, we like the annual rituals of dressing up in costumes, hanging cobweb decorations, and carving pumpkins into jack o’lanterns. Though, if we’re being honest here, diving into the bounty of seasonal Halloween treats is the part we look forward to most.

But don’t be so quick to blindly raid the trick-or-treat bowl this year. You may end up with a trendy-flavored twist on the classic you were craving. Just like it has in every other foodstuff lately, the pumpkin spice craze has infiltrated the Halloween candy scene. So has the trendiness of the candy corn flavor — a fad that I will never fully understand. And I’m afraid there are more caramel-apple-themed treats than there are actual caramel apples.

The Table Matters tasting panel recently assembled to sample a wide assortment of these recent candy innovations. We tested all of the newcomers — the good and the bad — so you wouldn’t have to. But there weren’t many treats we hoped to see again on shelves in 2014.
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Chocolate anise and chocolates

If licorice conjures memories of movie theaters and popcorn, then turn your thoughts to the dark side. The distinctive flavor of black licorice is usually associated with chewy candy, but there’s so much more to it. Salted licorice offers a satisfying chew that’s part savory, part sweet. Anise seeds have an earthy, almost spicy character. Fennel gives two more options: Raw, it has a crisp, bright taste and cooking brings out its syrupy sweetness. Star anise makes for a pretty garnish, but it also has a delicate sweetness. And tarragon’s subtle licorice flavor is tempered with herbaceous notes.

Given the versatility of licorice flavors, it’s a prime candidate for combining with chocolate. It can be tricky to pair the right type of licorice flavor with the right type of chocolate, but in the hands of these three chocolate companies, the results are something to savor. MORE

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Peanuts get a bad rap these days, from outright bans at schools to bags of Halloween candy proudly declaring their peanut deficiency. But when I was a kid, the more peanuts, the better. I present for your deliberation: Mars versus Snickers. Mars bar? Cloyingly sweet with an oddly slick texture. Snickers bar? Caramelly, chewy, and delicious—and stuffed with peanuts. I rest my case.

If peanuts are good, then peanuts and chocolate is better. There’s a reason that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups have endured since 1928, and it isn’t because my college roommate used to—and probably still does—eat them compulsively. MORE