Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

Wellington Heart bonbon

Sugar & spice


Chocolate to warm your heart

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The entries in the 2021 Top Spicy Chocolate Awards, sponsored by TasteTV, ran the gamut from subtle to painful, and also from sublime to suboptimal. While I wasn’t a judge this year, Cacaopod was, so I got to sample entries; and I am going to save you some pain by only telling you about the ones I rated 3 stars or more.

There were no SFBA entries that made my cutoff this time, so I will just cover entries that did, in roughly descending order.

Who’s giving us their heart?

Wellington Heart bonbon
Simply mysterious

New competitor, Wellington Chocolates LLC, Seattle, WA, submitted a heart shaped chocolate in a simple black box closed with a white paper strap. No label, not even their name. We were able to figure it out before we had to judge, but a little bit of a heads up is a good idea if you want credit for your creations.

I always feel a little trepidation when judging spicy chocolate; and with no clue as to what might be inside, I was more apprehensive than usual. We cut the chocolate in half. The dark chocolate shell contained a speckled white ganache. We figured the speckles would be the spicy part, and the scent from the white ganache gave us a good idea what it would taste like.

We guessed right: Immediately we tasted passion fruit. The heat came at the end and was very mild; we guessed cayenne, but who knows? It was a good piece: good quality chocolate, smooth ganache, and strong passion fruit flavor.

In spite of its modesty, Wellington’s Passion Fruit Truffle dominated the awards, winning Gold for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Flavored Chocolates, and Top Spicy Chocolate; Silver for Best Milk Chocolate (hmm, the one chocolate I didn’t see in there) and Best Flavored Chocolate; and Bronze for Best Taste, Best Texture, and Most Unique. It rated 4.5 stars.

Wellington doesn’t have an online store — they specialize in custom chocolates for special events — but their chocolates are available at a few specialty shops, and maybe by contacting them directly. More information is available on their website.

Excellent sweet to heat transition

Echo Raspberry Jalapeno
Echo’s warm Raspberry Jalapeño

Repeat competitor, Echo Chocolate, Stafford, VA, who first impressed us in the 2020 Caramels competition with a buttery salted caramel in dark chocolate, submitted their Raspberry Jalapeño bonbon. It was a shiny dark dome with gold swishes. The ingredients listed 68% dark chocolate with raspberry, cream, butter, glucose, and jalapeño.

It smelled like a good dark chocolate with berry overtones, and the first taste was strongly raspberry. The ganache dissolved quickly, and the heat built as the chocolate melted. It had a nice balance of warm-not-hot jalapeño and good chocolate. The initial pronounced raspberry taste disappeared in the heat to end a spicy flavored dark chocolate. It was a well made bonbon with an interesting flavor trip.

The Raspberry Jalapeño won Gold for Best Flavored Chocolate; Silver for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Texture, Best Dark Chocolate, and Top Spicy Chocolate; and Bronze for Best Taste and Most Unique. It rated 4 stars.

You can buy Echo’s bonbons, bars, caramels, and other treats online.

Less sweet chocolate

Veteran competitor, Panache Chocolatier, Leawood, KS, submitted a bar and 2 of their big bonbons to the competition, and surprised us by doing less sweet chocolates than their usual. (Yea!)

Sweet Spiced Nut Bar
Panache’s Sweet Spiced Nut Bar was loaded with nuts

The Sweet Spiced Nut Bar was great: A dark chocolate bar with chopped spiced pecans mixed in and topping the bar. It was a hard crunchy bar that smelled of toasted nut and spices. The first taste was good dark chocolate, then the nuts and spices, ending with heat on top. I don’t know what was in the spice blend; it was described as Spanish picoso, but even after Googling it I don’t know what’s in it. At any rate, I really enjoyed this bar.

Seems like the judges did too: The Sweet Spiced Nut Bar received Gold for Best Taste, Best Texture, and Top Spicy Chocolate; Silver for Most Unique and Best Dark Chocolate; Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations and Best Flavored Chocolate. It rated 4.5 stars.

Panache Pineapple Jalapeno
Panache’s sugar dusted Pineapple Jalapeño Truffle

Panache’s other 2 entries were just as good. The Pineapple Jalapeño Truffle used ruby chocolate for the pineapple-lime-jalapeño infused ganache inside a dark chocolate shell dusted with pineapple lime spiced sugar.  The grayish brown ganache had a strong — almost boozy — pineapple smell; and the piece tasted initially of that strong pineapple with a little berry (maybe from the chocolate?), then lime. The heat took a while to appear, but then it got plenty hot.

The Pineapple Jalapeño Truffle won Gold for Best Ingredient Combinations and Best Flavored Chocolate; Bronze for Most Unique and Top Spicy Chocolate; and an Honorable Mention for Best Taste. It rated 4 stars.

Panache Coconut Spiced
Panache’s Coconut Spiced Truffle was like a good cup of hot tea

Panache’s Coconut Spiced Truffle  was a big round bonbon with a dash of coconut and spice mix on top. It had a thin dark chocolate shell surrounding a smooth ganache, with the surprise texture twist of a little grit from decoration on top. The ganache was flavored with coconut, almond, cinnamon, clove, orange peel, and red chilies.

Even though coconut and almond were listed first, the piece was more about the other ingredients. It smelled of spices and orange, and tasted a little like Constant Comment tea, before the heat kicked in. I found it delicious.

The Coconut Spiced Truffle received Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Taste, Best Dark Chocolate, and Top Spicy Chocolate; and Honorable Mentions for Most Unique and Best Flavored Chocolate. It rated 3.5 stars.

Panache Chocolatier’s website is still under construction, so you have to call or visit them in person if you want to order something.

Holm Mexican Hot Toffee Chocolate
Mexican hot chocolate in toffee form

Hot toffee

Veteran competitor, Holm Made Toffee Co., OR, submitted 2 of their flavored Oregon Hazelnut Toffees; and both were very good. I usually like Holm Made’s 2-sided toffees: One side chocolate, the other side toffee, and both sides liberally covered in hazelnuts.

I especially liked the Mexican Hot Chocolate. Like all Holm Made toffees, it was a good crunchy toffee, loaded with nuts. It was a very mild spicy toffee: cinnamon was the dominant flavor with some baby heat at the end from cayenne powder. It was a touch too sweet for me, but a good toffee riff on its theme.

Holm’s Mexican Hot Chocolate Toffee won Silver for Best Taste, Best Milk Chocolate, and Top Spicy Chocolate; Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations and Best Texture; and Honorable Mentions for Most Unique and Best Flavored Chocolate. It rated 4 stars.

Holm Spicy Red Pepper Toffee
Holm Spicy Red Pepper Toffee

Their other entry, the Spicy Red Pepper Toffee went to the other end of the heat spectrum. It started out like their regular crunchy toffee, but then the heat started and built to hot hot hot! The very strong heat came from the visible whole red pepper flakes. Of the entries I liked this year, this was the hottest.

Holm’s Spicy Red Pepper Toffee won Silver for Best Texture and Best Milk Chocolate; Bronze for Best Taste; and Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Flavored Chocolate, and Top Spicy Chocolate. It rated 3.5 stars.

You can order toffees and other hazelnut treats from the Holm Made website.

Final note

This was a very uneven competition, with a lot of entries not making my 3 stars or higher cutoff for reviewing them. I tend to like spicy and savory chocolate, so I was disappointed that I didn’t like more of the entries. Looking over my notes, some recurring reasons for low scores from me were lower quality chocolate, unpleasant textures, and unbalanced flavors — personal-dare strength heat is not a treat.

And please no more sriracha chocolate. I just think it tastes nasty.

However, I was not an actual judge, so my opinions didn’t affect the official ratings. You can see the full list of winners on the 2021 spicy chocolate awards page.

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Published October 16, 2021