I recently received a copy of John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg’s sumptuous new cookbook celebrating fine chocolate, Essence of Chocolate. Befitting one of the best-known artisan chocolate makers, the book provides both a concise summary of the role of chocolate in food history as well as an exuberant embrace of all the culinary possibilities of chocolate.
This book reminds me a great deal of another chocolate classic, Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet. In her book, Medrich recounts how her love affair with chocolate blossomed and how it led it the opening of her Berkeley store Cocolat, interspersing her recollections with a trove of delectable and unique recipes utilizing higher-percentage chocolate. Similarly in Essence of Chocolate, Scharffenberger and Steinberg reveal how a doctor and a winemaker became obsessed with creating fine chocolate from scratch, and share many of their favorite chocolate-centric recipes.
If you love chocolate at all, it’s an absorbing read – not only for understanding of how chocolate is created from cacao beans, but for discovering the intricacies in cacao production around the world and speculations on what lies in the future for growers, processors, and consumers.
The collection of recipes is first-rate, with contributions from both the authors and a veritable who’s who of the culinary world, including Thomas Keller, Flo Braker, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Jacques Pepin, and Sherry Yard, among many others. There are unusual twists on the old standbys like cakes, tarts, and custards, and offbeat creations like a banana caramel cake or roasted squash with nib vinaigrette. All the recipes specify the recommended cacao percentage for the chocolate to be used, which is quite handy and not unexpected in a cookbook by chocolate makers!
Below, the first two recipes I chose to try from the cookbook, with a heart-shaped twist for Valentine’s Day.
This recipe was provided by Thomas Keller for Essence of Chocolate, and is nothing so much as a very grown-up, very addictive version of an Oreo cookie (Is this another example of Keller’s penchant for reworking childhood favorites into ne plus ultra masterpieces?). Wafer-thin chocolate cookies sandwich a creamy white chocolate filling. The cookies are fantastically delicate and crisp, with an added zing from the generous helping of salt in the recipe. Paired with the subtly sweet filling, you have the perfect companion for a glass of milk on a cozy afternoon.
Chocolate Almond Cakes
Contributed by Jim Dodge, this is an elegant and versatile cake that is incredibly rich and moist from all the almond paste used in the recipe. Baked in a half sheet pan, you can cut it into any form you desire and layer with chocolate, jam, buttercream, or any other filling you like. The smooth, buttery-almond taste would work well with a number of flavors. In this recipe, the cake is layered with melted chocolate and then covered with a chocolate glaze to make a gloriously indulgent little treat.
Both recipes were surprisingly simple to execute and undeniably scrumptious. Either would be a lovely part of a sweet Valentine’s Day! There are still many more recipes in the book I’m eager to try; it’s certainly a fantastic addition to any baker’s/foodie’s/chocoholic’s bookshelf!
makes about 3 dozen cookies (or 18 sandwiches)
1/2 cup cream
8 ounces white chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
7 1/2 ounces butter, room temperature, cut into small cubes
For the filling: Place the white chocolate in a bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat on the stove.
Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and whisk together to melt the chocolate. I find this is a pretty high chocolate-to-cream ratio, so if you are unable to get all the chocolate to melt, you can place the bowl over a bain-marie and stir until the chocolate is completely melted.
Transfer the filling to another bowl and let cool until it has thickened enough to spread – it may take a few hours. You can speed up the process by putting the bowl in the refrigerator. If the filling gets too stiff, you can heat it up again in the microwave.
For the cookies: you will make this dough and bake the cookies right away – there is no chilling time needed, so plan accordingly.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or Silpats.
Combine the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in an electric mixer. With the mixer still running on low speed, add the butter a few pieces at a time. Let the dough continue mixing until it comes together – it should go from looking like pebbles or cornmeal to a cohesive mass.
Turn the dough out onto a floured working surface and work into a solid block. Divide the block into two pieces.
Working with one piece at a time, roll out between two sheets of parchment paper until 1/8" thick. Using a 2-in cookie cutter, cut out shapes and place on the baking sheets about 1 inch apart (cookies will spread a bit in the oven).
Bake the cookies for about 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through baking time. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks for a few minutes (cookies will be too soft to move at first), then transfer cookies to wire racks and let finish cooling.
To assemble the cookies: Place half of the cookies upside down on a work surface.
Whisk the filling lightly to fluff it up a bit and make it spreadable.
Using a small spoon, scoop a small dollop of filling onto the center of each cookie. Top with another cookie right side up. Press the cookies together until the filling spreads out to the edges.
The cookies with keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Chocolate Almond Cakes
makes about 24 2 1/2-in cakes
12 ounces butter, room temperature
1 pound almond paste
1 3/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
8 large eggs
Filling and Glaze
4 ounces 82% dark chocolate, melted
6 ounces butter, cut into small cubes
8 ounces 70% dark chocolate, chopped
For the cake: You will need a half-sheet pan 12 in x 17 in x 1in. Line the pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. If you use parchment paper, butter and flour it after placing it in the pan.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In an electric mixer, beat the butter and almond paste together on medium speed for about 5 minutes until it is very light and fluffy, scraping down the sides as necessary.
Add the sugar and cocoa and continue blending together on low speed.
Increase the speed to medium and add the eggs one a time, letting each egg incorporate before adding the next.
Let the batter mixing for a couple more minutes until it has lightened in color.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the center is just set – it may feel slightly spongy but a skewer inserted into the center should come out clean. Warning: the cake will rise above the top of the pan but it should not spill over – you may want to check halfway through the baking time and once afterwards.
Remove the cake from the oven place on a cooling rack. Run a knife all around the edge of the pan. After cooling about 10 minutes, turn the cake out onto the rack and let it finish cooling.
The cake should be chilled in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes before you cut it as it will be quite soft and moist.
To fill and glaze cakes: Using a 2 1/2-in cutter of your choice, cut out shapes from the sheet of cake.
Brush or pour some of the melted 82% chocolate over half of the shapes, and top with the remaining shapes. Let the cakes sit for a few minutes for the chocolate to set. Place the cakes on a wire rack over a sheet pan, spacing them a few inches apart so you can glaze each one easily.
Place the butter and 70% chocolate in a bowl over a bain-marie and melt over low heat, whisking occasionally. When the chocolate is mostly melted, take the bowl off the heat, and whisk gently to finish combining. Transfer the glaze to a measuring cup with a spout.
Pour the glaze over the center of each cake, using an offset spatula to spread glaze over the sides. The glaze does not need to evenly cover the sides. If all the glaze is used up, scrape the fallen glaze from the sheet pan below the rack and reheat to melt.
Let the cakes sit until the glaze sets, then serve.