By happy coincidence, I was party to a number of chocolate-centric events these last couple of weeks (or perhaps it was no coincidence – it would be a felicitous development indeed if everyone started embracing the joys of chocolate more!)
The first was an invitation by the fabulous Marcia of Tablehopper to a chocolate tasting session hosted by TuttiFoodie and Scharffen Berger. In the intimate dining room of restaurant Rubicon, a group of chocolate lovers was treated to a chocolate tasting led by John Scharffenberger and then a parade of chocolate desserts prepared by Nicole Krasinki, Rubicon’s pastry chef.
A chance to hear master chocolatier John Scharffenberger speak about his experiences with chocolate is not one to be missed, and Scharffenberger gave a fascinating talk about cacao bean varieties around the world and how they are combined into Scharffen Berger’s different chocolates.
Scharffenberger guided us through a tasting of chocolates of varying cacao percentages and origins, helping us detect flavors and notes. The most interesting part of this was how he compared tasting fine chocolate to tasting wine – one has to note how the chocolate flavor develops and changes as it melts in your mouth. So as with wine, there is a progression in tastes from the beginning to the middle to the end that can be experienced when you are fully immersed in the "chocolate moment".
After this edifying experience, we were treated to another: Nicole Krasinki, one of the stars of the pastry scene, demonstrated her expertise in working with chocolate with a trio of inventive and delectable desserts.
A quenelle of bittersweet chocolate mousse on bed of honey crumbles with a streak of meringue and slice of fig was her offbeat version of s’mores – creamy, gooey, crunchy.
Silky cocoa nib panna cotta with a scoop of chocolate umeboshi sorbet and a chocolate chip tuile – the dessert that got the most comments by far, an unusual pairing of chocolate with the Japanese pickled plum – piquantly tart, wonderfully offset by the mild panna cotta.
A warm chocolate croquette with lemon, madras curry, and Blue Bottle coffee gelee – this was my favorite, a crisp-wrapped present of a truffle in a pool of flavors that sound unconventional but mesh together beautifully, and deliciously.
Krasinki is as sweet and down-to-earth in person as she is inspired in her pastry work, and I highly recommend you visit Rubicon for her ever-changing desserts, as well as the rest of the excellent menu – new American food at its sublime best.
This chocolate tasting was also the kickoff for the Chocolate Adventure Contest being co-hosted by TuttiFoodie and Scharffenberger. You (yes, all of you out there!) are invited to come up with a recipe that combines chocolate and one or more of the 20 ingredients listed on the Chocolate Adventure website – ingredients ranging from lavender to star anise to mastiha(a spice made from mastic gum). The winning recipe will net its creator $5,000 and will be featured on the menu at Scharffen Berger’s Cafe Cacao in Berkeley, CA for month. So if you fancy having your recipe served at one of the most famed chocolate factories around, here is your opportunity! Many thanks to Marcia, TuttiFoodie, Scharffen Berger, and Rubicon for hosting this highly entertaining and enjoyable event!
photos from CMA’s flickr photostream of the 2007 Chocolate Symposium
It was definitely fantastic to have a chocolate expert like John Scharffenberger teach us how to taste the nuances of chocolate, but for the rest of you eager chocoholics, don’t fret. The Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association contacted me with the ideal resource for chocolate lovers: the online guided chocolate tasting.
Rachelle was kind enough to send me a chocolate tasting kit containing the chocolates used at a chocolate tasting session held at the CMA’s Annual Chocolate Symposium in New York. The CMA has put up a webcast of the tasting session on their website, so anyone can watch Rose Potts of Blommer Chocolate and Ed Seguine of Guittard Chocolate lead a group through three flights of chocolate and describe the differences between milk, dark, and single origin chocolates.
Chocolate tasting in the comfort of my own home! With the chocolate arranged in front of me, I clicked on the webcast and was able to follow the tasting session and make my own observations on the different pieces. It is interesting how much context can help in unlocking the tastes of a particular chocolate – knowing its percentage and origins gives you clues on flavors to look for. I also found that after eating fine chocolates like Scharffen Berger, Cluizel, or Guittard, it becomes much easier to note the progression and development of flavors as you eat a piece of chocolate, as they are deliberately created that way. Cheaper chocolate, like Hershey’s, becomes startlingly flat and one-dimensional in comparison – even if you know it is not good quality chocolate, it is surprising how vast and evident the differences are the more fine chocolate you eat.
Even if you don’t have the exact chocolates used in the tasting webcast, I suggest watching it as a very useful tool in learning how to taste and describe chocolate. There are many other excellent resources on the site, including a tasting guide, glossary, and news about the world of chocolate. Thanks to the CMA for providing this indispensable guide to learning more about chocolate.
Finally, a chance to learn more about another exciting chocolatier in the Bay Area’s burgeoning chocolate scene: this last weekend, chocolatier Anthony Ferguson of Cacao Anasa opened up his kitchen to a group of visitors to tour the place and make several chocolate desserts.
Ferguson’s story is as fascinating and inspiring as his exotic chocolates: leaving his 9-5 job to travel around the world and absorb the cultures of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe, he combined the myriad tastes he’d experienced with his training in chocolate making to create his own line of artisan chocolates.
Ferguson professes a love of jazz fusion, and his chocolates reflect the joyful improvisation and technical virtuosity of this musical style. His truffles are compositions of complex flavors, ranging from fruits to flowers to spices. Far beyond the typical choices of raspberry or mint or coffee, you may encounter fig and ginger, or Chinese five spice, or bergamot, or ollalieberry and merlot. Infused chocolates are particularly in vogue these days, but I find Cacao Anasa’s to be inventive and expertly executed – the ganaches are smooth and silky, the chocolate partnering harmoniously with a layer of fruit pate, or a sprinkling of spices. My favorites included a intoxicatingly fragrant rose truffle, and a pleasantly tingly curry truffle.
Ferguson remained remarkably calm amidst a crowd of 30-some people storming his spacious kitchen, eager to play with chocolate. Over the next couple of hours, he instructed us on how to make chocolate bars, a coconut chocolate soup, cookies, truffles, and even chocolate martinis. Somehow Ferguson found time in the chaos to give an impromptu lecture on the chemistry of tempering (incidentally, I ducked out of joining the group in charge of tempering chocolate, as it was so warm in the kitchen that doing it properly was a huge challenge indeed!)
A store’s worth of chocolate treats was created, devoured, and packed away for later enjoyment at home. I must say that Cacao Anasa’s chocolate kitchen is one of the happiest and most delightful I’ve encountered – and I would urge you to get your hands on his chocolates wherever you can find them. Many thanks for Anthony for giving us a chance to glimpse inside his workplace!
I hope all of you have been enjoying the days of August – and if you haven’t had some chocolate today, may I suggest you not refrain any longer?