Battle of the Dishes: Caramelpalooza Edition

Photo by Jonathan McNamara
Last Friday, locals descended on the parking lot behind Smeeks to snag free caramels at our first-ever Chow Bella event, Caramelpalooza. Meanwhile over at Frances, a handful of judges including Chow Bella reader and haiku poet Jackie Porter, New Times food critic Michele Laudig and local food blog celeb JK Grence (aka The Cosmic Jester) were busy gathering up 9 caramels -- one from each participant.

Scoring was similar to Iron Chef, with categories for taste, texture, presentation, originality and overall appeal.

Sweet Republic offered a traditional caramel that was soft and slightly chewy, with a salty finish. "We just did a simple sea salt caramel with McClendon desert blossom honey; nothing complicated this year," said co-owner and ice cream chef Helen Yung. Their caramel was the stuff of childhood, scoring high in both taste and texture though it wasn't the most original creation.

Photo by Jonathan McNamara
The white wrapper of Wicked Bakery's entry opened to a slightly greasy caramel -- not a good start. But once I bit in, the soft treat exploded with a sweet and slightly sour taste and a salty crunch that fooled our taste buds. Peanut? Toffee? The suggestions were endless, but no one guessed pretzel. And that pungent taste? Beer.

If you needed any proof that lowbrow food can tackle upscale eats, this was it. The judges' winning caramel was a Beer & Pretzel Caramel Chew with milk, cream, butter, sugar, sea salt, beer and pretzels. Makes me want to sit in a recliner with my hand in my waistband and watch sports.

Photo by Jonathan McNamara
Bourbon Steak brings booze and chocolate to the table.
​The most visually appealing entry was Bourbon Steak's huge rectangular chew tucked in a shiny orange wrapper. The caramel was dark and rich with a soft texture and a chocolaty taste and a sweet, pungent bite owing to the inclusion of... you guessed it -- actual bourbon. In addition to Knob Creek Bourbon, the caramel also sported Valrhona Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Nibs.

Urban Cookies' Macchiato Caramel was an instant hit, perhaps because it had a nice boost of caffeine thanks to the inclusion of Royal Coffee beans. Unfortunately, I was the one judge who drinks tea rather than coffee. To me, this large paper-wrapped caramel was bitter and grainy. 

The last entry was Tammie Coe's caramel-colored lollipop on a traditional white stick. cute. As I reached for it, my co-judges voiced a warning. "Watch out if you have dental work," quipped one judge. "Suck it, don't bite it," said another. [Insert lewd response here.]

Oh. My. God. They weren't kidding. I practically needed a scraper to get the stuff off one molar. Thank god I didn't bite down on the side of my mouth with the crown. Too bad Tammie didn't enter her caramel popcorn, because that was delish!

Photo by Jonathan McNamara
Don't let these babies near your bridges.
​The pretty orange-wrapped caramel from Honey Moon Sweets had notes of orange and vanilla, with a contrasting soft and crunchy texture. This simple recipe of local Patagonia orange blossom honey, Arizona vanilla, tangerine zest, salt, chocolate and almonds made for one tasty caramel. 

Other entries included Tracy Dempsey's smoky Shoyu soy sauce flavored caramel, Chicago-based Whimsical Candy's LA-DEE-DAHS and a classic hard toffee by Urban Beans (cheating in my book, since a brittle-style toffee isn't really caramel). 

Photo by Jonathan McNamara
Guest judge JK Grence in action.
​By the end of the contest, the judges were enjoying a sugar high. "When you see the jester hat going boing, boing, boing, you know I've hit full stride," joked JK, who came quirkily attired in a Utilikilt and a velvet jester's hat.

The Victor: Slade grove of Wicked Bakery won the hearts of both the judges and audience with his beer & pretzels combo. But my personal favorite, and the winner of this Battle of the Dishes, was Bourbon Steak's bourbon-chocolate chew. Maybe I'm just a sucker for chocolate -- or, uh, booze -- but their soft caramel was the one I wanted more of even after the sugar coma set in.  

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