2012 Taste Test Awards: Artisanal Category Winners

Taste testers loved these gourmet treats for their delectable qualities—and you will too. Splurge on these meats, cheeses, sweets, and drinks for an extra special treat for your taste buds. By: Cindy Hatcher

Watching Gourmet Grow

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

Watching Gourmet Grow

In the three years since Cooking Light began giving these awards, the number of small-batch food producers has grown deliriously, and so has the quality of their products.

The pickling craze of 2010 simmered down, leaving room for a burst of intricate preserves, as well as a noisy party of superb small-batch liquor and beer. Most of these items can be ordered online. Shipping can be expensive, so we favored products that deliver a uniquely regional experience or make special gifts.

We did not focus on low-fat foods: When the quality is this high, you can enjoy a little less and truly savor.

Best in Condiments: North Carolina

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Condiments: North Carolina

Farmer's Daughter Bourbon'd Fig Preserves ($9 for 6 ounces)

April McGreger is the one-woman operation behind this richly textured treat. Lemon lifts the flavor of Brown Turkey figs; bourbon and vanilla add richness.

Best in Condiments: Washington

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Condiments: Washington

River Wave Foods Tapanui Tapenade ($10 for 6.5 ounces)

Rebecca Kawanami learned international flavor profiles while tasting her way around the globe as a flight attendant. This tapenade is a fantastically unique sweet-salty blend of figs with meaty bits of olive and a hint of pucker from pomegranate molasses.

Best in Condiments: Minnesota

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Condiments: Minnesota

Red Lake Nation Wild Chokecherry Jelly ($6 for 12 ounces)

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians makes regionally specific products, like this tart, bright spread made from wild Minnesota chokecherries. Similar to cranberries, the fruit is sweet and astringent, with a trace of port-soaked cherry flavor.

Best in Condiments: Michigan

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Condiments: Michigan

American Spoon Sour Cherry Preserves ($9 for 9.5 ounces)

Great fresh-fruit flavor and zip—courtesy of Michigan-grown Montmorency cherries—make this taste like fresh, homemade jam. Bright, light, and bursting with fruity goodness.

 

 

Best in Sweets: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Sweets: California

Little Flower Candy Co. Sea Salt Caramels ($7 for ¼ pound)

Former Los Angeles pastry chef Christine Moore started this business to spend more time with her children, and these soft, chewy delights are one of the payoffs. Gray sea salt from Brittany makes these briny-buttery and perfect.

 

 

Best in Sweets: Georgia

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Sweets: Georgia

Caroletta's Cakes Wedding Cookies with Pecans ($25 for 4 dozen)

Friends Carol Chanin and Loretta Webb of Macon collaborate on these cookies, which are irresistibly crumbly with a fantastic pecan crunch.

 

 

Best in Sweets: Massachusetts

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Sweets: Massachusetts

Rogue Chocolatier Hispaniola Bar ($8 for a 2.21-ounce bar)

The beans come from a small cooperative in the Dominican Republic, yielding a bar that tastes slightly fruity and perfectly acidic.

 

 

Best in Sweets: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Sweets: California

Droga Confections Peanut Brittle ($12 for 6 ounces)

Roasted and generously sea-salted peanuts are enveloped in a delicately crackly caramelized crust.

 

 

Best in Sweets: Oregon

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Sweets: Oregon

Xocolatl de David Raleigh Bar ($3 for 0.875 ounces)

Picture a fun-sized Snickers bar. Then imagine it filled with near-liquid, bourbon-laced salted caramel, nougat, and roasted-yet-tender pecans.

 

 

 

Best in Sweets: Michigan

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Sweets: Michigan

Achatz Handmade Pie Co's Michigan 4-Berry Pie  ($40 for 3-pound pie)

A buttery crust encases what seems like an entire truckload of Michigan-grown cherries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Amazing.

 

 

 

Best in Cheese: Pennsylvania

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Cheese: Pennsylvania

September Farm Extra Extra Sharp Cheddar ($7 for ½ pound)

A wickedly sharp yellow cheddar, hand-cased in black wax and aged for three years. Creamy but pocketed with satisfying crystalline bits.

 

 

Best in Cheese: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Cheese: California

Barinaga Ranch Txiki ($30 for 1 pound)

Pleasantly musty, deeply earthy flavors from Marcia Barinaga's Marin County farm, which has only been churning out cheese since 2009. Chef Thomas Keller is a big fan.

 

Best in Cheese: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Cheese: California

Central Coast Creamery, Holey Cow ($6.25 for ½ pound)

Wonderfully creamy, Alpine-style cow's-milk cheese with a nutty caramel flavor and a buttery finish reminiscent of Jarlsberg.

 

 

 

Best in Cheese: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Cheese: California

Nicasio Creamery Foggy Morning ($18/pound)

Similar to cream cheese in texture, but in a mind-blowingly upgraded form. Velvety soft, cow's-milk cheese with a lingering hint of grassy tang—all wrapped up in a thin, delicate rind.

 

 

Best in Booze: Colorado

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Booze: Colorado

Dancing Pines Distillery Chai Liqueur ($35 for 750ml)

Like an aquavit that grew up in Bombay, with an intense cardamom zip and black pepper--fueled bite. Very sweet but not cloying. Stir into milk for an Indian spin on a White Russian—and feel all worldly.

Best in Booze: Virginia

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Booze: Virginia

Foggy Ridge Pippin Black Hard Cider ($30 for 375ml)

Diane Flynt blends Arkansas Black and Newtown Pippin apples with apple brandy to create an ode to the apple in liquid form. It has notes of honey, butterscotch, and caramel, yet it's neither too sweet nor hidden by too much fizz.

Best in Booze: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Booze: California

St George Terroir Gin ($35 for 750ml)

A whiff of this woodsy, outdoorsy gin is alcohol aromatherapy, and its bright note of citrus complements the gin's evergreen core.

Best in Booze: Florida

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Booze: Florida

Drum Circle Distilling Siesta Key Rum ($20 for 750ml)

This Sarasota distillery produces its rums in a copper-pot still. The silver variety is dangerously drinkable with hints of sweet butterscotch. We also loved the spiced version with its warm punch of nutmeg.

Best in Booze: New York

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Booze: New York

Ommegang BPA ($9 for 750ml)

A 3-hops, 5-malt, bottle-conditioned brew that tastes of citrus and flowers. It has the hoppy authority of an IPA while the yeasty malt rounds out the architecture. Fine, Champagne-like bubbles pop on the tongue.

Best in Booze: Illinois

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Booze: Illinois

North Shore Distillery Sol ($30 for 750ml)

Derek and Sonja Kassebaum's Lake Bluff craft distillery is the first in Illinois since Prohibition. This infused vodka is delicious, smooth, and citrus-fragrant, and has none of the fakey-fruit sweetness that derails many flavored vodkas.

Best in Meat: South Dakota

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Meat: South Dakota

Wild Idea Buffalo Bone-In Ribeye ($29 for a 16-ounce steak)

You've never tasted buffalo so tender, buttery, and juicy, with just enough grassiness to pay homage to the South Dakota plains. It's the very definition of healthy indulgence for a meat lover. A 1-pound steak serves four.

Best in Meat: Washington

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Meat: Washington

Agrumi Salumi ($17 for 1½ pounds)

With cardamom and orange zest for aromatic effect, and a slightly firm, not too fatty texture. Producer Gina Batali does credit to the family tradition started by her father, Salumist Armandino Batali, and her brother, Chef Mario Batali.

Best in Meat: Florida

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Meat: Florida

4 Rivers Smokehouse Brisket ($14 per pound)

Central Florida isn't the first place that comes to mind when barbecue is mentioned, but this is exceptionally fork-tender, masterfully smoked Angus brisket. Nuanced levels of smokiness could placate even the pickiest Texan.

Best of the Rest: South Carolina

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: South Carolina

Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Small Batch Tonic ($32 for 2 [17-ounce] bottles)

A concentrated quinine syrup that blends crisp acidity with a bit of orange peel and lemongrass. Add soda to make a cool G&T.

Best of the Rest: Colorado

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: Colorado

Trü Bread & Butter Pickles ($6 for a 16-ounce jar)

Greg Skufca looks back to his Austrian-American grandmother's pickles for recipe inspiration in these sweet (but not syrupy) rounds with a spicy kick on the finish.

Best of the Rest: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: California

Fat Uncle Farms Original Blistered Almonds ($9 for 10 ounces)

They're soaked in water before roasting, yielding a crunch that lasts to the core. Sea salt enhances the nuts' toasty flavor.

Best of the Rest: California

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: California

Navarro Vineyards 2011 Verjus ($11 for 750ml)

A non alcoholic grape juice made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes grown in Mendocino's Anderson Valley. Tangy but not too tart, with a dry, crisp finish.

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