Happy (day after) National Chocolate Day! I've been getting plenty of intriguing new chocolate to keep me occupied - perhaps it's a good thing I have a baby to prevent me from eating it all at once!
I was recently contacted by Bar & Bean, a new online shop for small-batch craft chocolate from around the world. Bar & Bean is dedicated to educating people about the qualities and nuances of craft chocolate, and they helpfully include tasting notes for the bars on their site, as well as detailed information about the chocolate makers.
I got the chance to meet Jasdeep, the creator of Bar & Bean, who is passionate about introducing people to the world of craft chocolate. He's brought an impressive roster of chocolate makers onto Bar & Bean, many of whom I haven't heard of or had the opportunity to try yet. Jas recognized that many people are either unaware of all the craft chocolate out there, or intimidated by the plethora of choices. By organizing his site with cocoa percentage and flavor profile searches, and adding tasting notes, he's hoping to demystify the process. Jas has also developed some detailed personal notes on how to taste chocolate, which he shares in his tasting classes in San Francisco; check the Bar & Bean website for details.
As a introduction to Bar & Bean, I received a baker's set consisting of five bars from Poco Dolce, Ritual, Escazu, and Dick Taylor. An early Halloween haul, indeed!
Ritual Balao 75% - I'd heard of this Denver-based chocolate maker but hadn't had a chance to try it before. This elegant little bar is made from single origin Ecuador beans. Citrus and floral, very bright and lively, dry finish.
Poco Dolce Bittersweet with Sea Salt - San Francisco-based Poco Dolce does not make their own chocolate, but uses Guittard chocolate as their base for their flavor combinations. This bar is their classic, pure chocolate with a sprinkling of their signature grey sea salt. Very smooth, creamy, delightfully mellow. I confess a bias towards Poco Dolce since they are after all based in my backyard!
Dick Taylor Fleur de Sel 74% Dominican Republic - Dick Taylor makes some of the more gorgeous-looking bars around. This bar delivers a fruity, acidic punch - no wallflower this! I find the fleur de sel provides a welcome tangy counterpoint to this very robust bar.
Escazu 74% Pumpkin Seeds and Guajillo Chile, 74% Chipotle Chile and Vanilla - This Raleigh based chocolate maker is also new to me. Although they make plain bars with no inclusions, Bar & Bean chose to include two of their bars that do contain inclusions - chiles and pumpkin seeds.
Now, when I received this package of very fine chocolate bars, marked for baking, my eyebrows went up and I wondered, "For baking? Not eating?" Small-batch chocolate has been crafted to highlight the flavors and nuances of the cacao beans; often these particular harvests are quite small themselves and difficult to source. From my view all this painstaking work is primarily intended to be enjoyed on its own. Now, of course you *can* bake with them, but to bury all that careful craftsmanship beneath a pile of sugar and butter - well, it's like using a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem to poach some peaches. You could do it, but I'd probably rather just drink that wine straight. The quality of most craft chocolate leads to reason two: these chocolate bars are quite dear. As a quick example, the recipe below requires 8 ounces of chocolate to make about 8 servings of dessert. Most of the bars in this set are barely 2 oz. If you're making dessert for a party, you could end up with quite a grocery bill (and if the amount doesn't faze you, I'd like to be your new best friend). There's no getting around the fact that craft chocolate is a premium product that is unlikely to ever be available at bulk prices. The question is raised, is it really worth spending extra for craft chocolate - and then mixing it into your chocolate cake?
I posed the question to the master of chocolate herself, Alice Medrich. By happy coincidence, one of her classic cookbooks (and one I consider a seminal part of my journey towards serious baker), Bittersweet, is being re-issued in an updated edition, Seriously Bitter Sweet. It now bears the subtitle, "The Ultimate Dessert Maker's Guide to Chocolate", and certainly this reference belongs on the bookshelf of any dedicated chocolate lover or baker.
Alice agreed with me that you want to showcase the carefully crafted chocolate, not hide them beneath a mountain of fat and sugar, and she recommended "minimalist recipes". If you read Alice's headnotes and essays in her cookbooks, you notice that she's become ever more dedicated to paring out excess in her recipes over the years, reducing them to polished gems. From Seriously Bittersweet, she suggested making her Rich Hot Chocolate or Albert's Mousse. Both recipes use water, which may surprise many people who associate rich chocolate desserts with more milk, more cream, more butter. However, Alice asserts that less fat allows you to taste the actual chocolate flavor much more clearly - and these desserts are by no means lacking in the indulgence factor!
Alice also suggests making truffles, another simple (and economical) way to sample several different chocolates. It's one of my favorite ways to do a chocolate tasting and is a little more festive than simply setting out bowls of chocolate pieces.
I elected to use my Bar & Bean bars in Alice's Intensely Bittersweet Soufflés. The headnote for this recipe reads, "This recipe is positively a showcase for the chocolate you make it with, so you must use a chocolate of distinction." What more inviting dessert for the rapidly cooling weather and fast-approaching holiday season than a warm, rich soufflé ?
Although soufflé may sound intimidating, they're really nothing to fear, and are actually quite versatile as they can made almost entirely ahead of time - one reason they're a restaurant kitchen staple. You can make the batter and fill the ramekins beforehand, and store them in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Then you pop them in the oven and like magic, you look like a dessert wizard.
To make them even more irresistible, I served the souffles with some cocoa nib-flecked cream - the subtle, sweet flavor of roast nibs in cream adds a wonderful layer to a intensely rich soufflé.
Thoughts on the results? These are some interesting picks for a baker's bar set. They are all on the bittersweet end of the cacao percentage scale, which gives them more clarity and intensity than the lower-percentage chocolates. They're ideal for the soufflé recipe, which is intended to draw out and showcase the chocolate. Not surprisingly, I thought the best results came from the Ritual and Dick Taylor chocolate bars, which were almost nothing but chocolate (the fleur de sel in the Dick Taylor bar was fairly subtle as the flakes were small and well incorporated). They were both intense, bittersweet bars and that intensity came through just slightly muted by the ingredients. In this case, I think it worked well as I probably would not eat a whole bar of their chocolate in one go, but mixed with some sugar and egg and butter, I was ready to scarf it down (oops). The Escazu Chipotle and Vanilla also fared well; I would have probably preferred to have control over what spices I added to my batter, but the end result was pleasantly piquant and different enough to stand out; if you're using nice chocolate, you'd better hope that your guests will notice. The Poco Dolce, which delightful on its own, is probably the most challenging to bake with because the large sea salt flakes can seriously skew the result of any baked good. While the soufflé was tasty, I would sometimes get a few unexpected flakes of sea salt in my mouth. This bar might work better in a truffle where you can better appreciate the balance between chocolate and salt.
Although I'd not likely to make small-batch chocolate my regular baking chocolate (winning the lottery notwithstanding), I do have a better appreciation for how I could showcase them if I wanted to make a very special dessert. You can do the same: I'm giving away a Bar & Bean Baking Set to one lucky Dessert First reader! You can do you own experiments in your kitchen - or just enjoy them on their own (I won't tell!)
Also, now through November 1st, receive 10% off your entire purchase at Bar & Bean by entering the promo code "cocoabeans" at checkout. Here's your opportunity to discover some great craft chocolate!
1. Leave a comment answering the question, " What is your favorite baking chocolate?"
2. For a second entry, you can follow my Instagram, where I've been posting up images of my favorite chocolates lately. Post a comment here if you've done so.
The contest will run until November 3rd and I’ll randomly select and announce the winner on Monday November 4th. Good luck!
I was sent two sets of Bar & Bean Baking sets for my review. All opinions in this post are my own.
- Recipe adapted from Alice Medrich's Seriously Bittersweet
Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflés
- 8 ounces (227 g) 70% chocolate, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering ramekins
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 3 large eggs, room temperature, separated
- 1 large egg white, room temperature
- 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/3 cup (65 g) sugar, plus extra for dusting ramekins
Cocoa Bean Cream
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons (20 g) roasted cocoa nibs
- sugar to taste
For the soufflés:
- If you are making the soufflés right away, preheat oven to 375 degrees F, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.
- Lightly butter and sugar the sides and bottoms of eight 5-ounce ramekins.
- Combine chocolate, butter, and milk in a metal and place over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
- Remove from heat and whisk in egg yolks until combined.
- In a medium dry bowl or in stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip the four egg whites and cream of tartar together until soft peaks form.
- Gradually sprinkle in the 1/3 cup sugar and whip until stiff peaks form.
- Fold about one-quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten. Add in the rest of the egg whites and carefully fold until just combined.
- Divide mixture among prepared ramekins, filling about three-quarters of the way full. You can either bake off the souffles now or cover with plastic wrap and store in refrigerator for up to two days.
- To bake soufflés, place ramekins on a baking sheet. Run your finger or a q-tip around the inside edge of the ramekins to keep the soufflé batter from sticking to the sides - this will help them rise straight.
- Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, until soufflés have risen, crack on top, and a wooden skewer inserted into the center are moist and gooey (but not liquid) - you are not making molten chocolate cakes!
- Remove soufflés from oven and serve immediately with the cocoa bean cream.
For the cream:
- Combine cream and cocoa nibs in a small saucepan. Bring just to boil over medium heat.
- Remove from heat and let steep for 20 minutes. Strain out nibs and chill cream in refrigerator for six hours (or until thoroughly cold).
- Whip to soft peaks for serving with the soufflés.