Sometimes it seems like the Bay Area is ground zero for chocoholics: new local artisan chocolatiers popping up every month, whole stores dedicated to chocolate from around the world…when burnt caramel and pink peppercorns are commonplace, it’s enough to make the pickiest of connoisseurs feel spoiled for choice.
A very fine, recent example: I was lucky enough to attend a chocolate launch party for Madécasse, an up-and-coming chocolate company based in New York making its San Francisco debut. In the world of chocolate, where buzzwords like “fair trade” and “single origin” are thrown about like sea salt on caramel, Madécasse is laying claim to a unique niche.
All of Madécasse’s chocolate bars are made in Madagascar, with locally grown cacao. Madagascar is one of world’s major sources of cacao, yet the cacao is usually exported, turned into chocolate in factories elsewhere in the world. Madécasse’s mission is to create new opportunities for the local Malagasy population in Madagascar, by training them to create chocolate, from bean to bar. Cacao is harvested, then dried, then turned into chocolate bars in local factories. As the website explains, keeping the production of chocolate in Madagascar lets the local community retain much more of the profits – up to four times more than simply producing and selling fair trade cacao.
Madécasse was founded by Brett Beach and Tim McCollum, who worked for 10 years in the Peace Corps in Madagascar. Their dedication to improving the life of the Malgasy people is heartwarming and inspiring. And, their bars are quite good – a valuable addition to the growing library of global chocolate.
We got to try all seven of their bars; five of them are straight dark chocolate, ranging from 63% to 80%, while a milk chocolate and sea salt nibby bar round out the collection. The 67% and 70% hit my sweet spots – the 63% was nicely buttery and smooth, with a supple curl of a finish, while the 70% has wonderful tart fruit notes up front, slightly more astringent in the finish. The 75% and 80% are excellent for those who love their dark chocolate dark and dry. I highly recommend these bars – not only will they satisfy your chocolate craving, but you’ll be supporting a truly worthy endeavor in Africa.
Madécasse also features Madagascar’s other famous culinary product: vanilla. I was gifted Madécasse’s entire line of vanilla products – vanilla extract, vanilla beans, vanilla cane sugar, and vanilla powder. Now, I’ve used versions of the first three products before, but I’d never tried vanilla powder! It’s essentially vanilla beans ground to a fine powder: many recipes I found simply use the powder as a substitute for extract. Unscrewing a bottle of vanilla powder is like opening a bottle of perfume: that florid, intoxicating scent virtually leaps out at you. Although I could simply use it in lieu of extract, I was really curious to emphasize its powdery form.
I remembered in Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert how she experimented with dusting freshly baked goods with spices instead of incorporating them into the batter; the difference in taste was surprisingly intense. I took that inspiration to make a batch of my favorite shortbread, shot through with cacao nibs and sprinkled with vanilla powder.
I’ve written enough odes to shortbread that a mere gushing should suffice here: I really like the cacao nibs in the shortbread. They taste like chocolate chips from the wild, crunchy little shards of elemental chocolate-ness in a golden buttery sea.
I did my best to be a good culinary scientist and tried sprinkling the vanilla powder on the cookies before baking and right after baking. The addition of vanilla powder certainly bumps up the flavor in the shortbread, but I found a dusting it on after they came out of the oven does allow the vanilla to come out while maintaining its distinctness. There’s a lovely sensuousness to it: the fine grains of vanilla unfurling on oven-warm shortbread, dissolving lightly on the tongue like flecks of a faraway paradise. You might try it, even if you don’t have vanilla powder, with your favorite spice – nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamon? Just be sure to sprinkle with a light hand: a mini sifter might be handy to avoid dumping a pile of spice atop your awaiting cookie!
So there you have it – chocolate and vanilla, two of the oldest dessert flavors under the sun, and yet there’s always a new way to appreciate them. Thanks, Madécasse!
Cacao Nib Shortbread
Makes 36 2 inch by 1 ¼ inch cookies
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup rice flour
1 cup (8 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
1/3 cup cacao nibs
vanilla powder for sprinkling
Whisk both flours together in a bowl and set aside.
In the mixing bowl with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, sugar, salt and vanilla extract on medium speed until light and fluffy.
Remove bowl from mixer and mix in the flours by hand with a wooden spoon, until combined. The dough should be homogeneous and stick together as one lump, but try to mix as little and gently as possible – this will make the shortbread more tender. Stir in the cacao nibs.
Place dough on a piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a ¾ inch thick rectangle.
Refrigerate for 2 hours to firm up the dough. At this point the dough can be double wrapped and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Defrost frozen dough overnight in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease several cookie sheet pans or line with parchment paper.
On a floured board, place dough and dust with flour. Gently roll out dough to ¼ inch thickness and cut into desired shapes. If dough gets soft, place back into refrigerator for 5 minutes.
Place on sheet pans leaving 1 inch space between cookies. Dock centers of cookies with the tines of a fork twice.
Bake for 15-17 minutes or until edges a lightly golden in color. Remove from oven and place on wire racks. Dust lightly with vanilla powder and let cool before eating.
Like many a baker, gadgets are my Achilles heel. And I’ve noticed that all the cooking stores are getting better and better at pumping out cute little tools and machines that illuminate previously-unknown voids in your kitchen inventory. My saving graces are that I don’t have a kitchen the size of Martha Stewart’s, nor do I have her budget either.
Still, it’s always fun to browse my neighborhood stores, if only to get baking inspiration. While I might not purchase the newest giant Oreo-shaped cake pan, I might go home with a hankering to make whoopie pies or cream-filled sandwich cookies. Sometimes, though, they pitch to the perfect sweet spot, and you find yourself walking home with another spatula in your absolute favorite shade of pink, or some Star Wars-shaped cookie cutters, or perhaps this mini lattice pie mold from Williams-Sonoma.
The little mold is fairly clever in design: The outside of the mold works like a cookie cutter so you can cut out the shapes for your pies; then you place one of the pieces of cut-out dough on the inside of the mold, spoon in some filling, place another piece of dough on top, and close the mold to crimp the edges together. Obviously, this is not a true lattice top per se, but it’s a pretty replication. And the fact that there are peaches everywhere right now, and I was struck with an intense desire to make some peach pie right away.
If you don’t mind accumulating baking gadgets (despite all attempts at a thorough cleaning-out when I moved, my baking collection remain an eclectic, ever-morphing warren of the long-coveted, the impulse-purchased, and accidentally-acquired), this little guy is less than $10 and does its job fairly well. I wouldn’t say it renders pie-making hassle free: you still need to make the pie dough and filling, and then assemble the pies. For those pie purists who’ve honed their pie strategies within an inch of their carefully-floured counter, this might seem a little silly. But I rather enjoyed making little individual pies, flaky-crisp pockets of rosy peaches dotted with cinnamon and nutmeg. The way these pocket-pies are shaped too, almost remind me of muffin tops in form and function: there’s almost a constant perfect crust-to-filling ratio, with no soggy parts.
The pie crust recipe below is adapted from the box the cutter came in, although your favorite pie crust recipe will do just fine. I threw some ginger in the recipe to give a prickle of heat that played nicely with the gloriously sweet, juicy peach filling. (P.S., if you aren’t in the market for a cutter, you can always cut out shapes with your favorite cookie cutters – remember it should be big enough to contain a generous dollop of filling – and crimp the edges together with a fork.)
P.P.S. I am slowly getting around to thank-you notes and replies to everyone who sent wedding well-wishes. I’m trying to get to everyone as soon as I can – thanks for your patience!
A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Ashley Hubbard of Fleurir Chocolates, asking if I'd like to try some chocolates from her and her fiance's freshly created artisan chocolate business. If there's anything that cacao-crazy San Francisco has instilled in me, it's an appreciation of chocolate as couture. I think it's astonishing that I live in a city where I can walk into boutiques that carry chocolates from all around the world, where I can think of offbeat combinations like strawberry balsamic caramel and there's likely a chocolatier that's making that flavor, that there are so many local chocolatiers practicing the noble art of converting theobroma cacao into perfect little tiles of delight.
Although the profusion of artisan chocolate might seem intimidating, I'm always delighted to see newcomers entering the scene: if anything, the abundant creativity and impressively high level of quality I'm seeing from these new faces tells me that there's plenty of room left for the world of chocolate to expand.
I received a sample box of Fleurir's nine piece box from Ashley – I'll have to admit that after the first bite, I was tempted to hoard it all for myself! Fleurir's Chocolates come in elegant squares, either minimally decorated or imprinted with transfers. I was taken by the green, botanical theme that extends throughout the designs, a gorgeous way to tie their line together.
Flavors from top right, clockwise: Cheesecake, Almond Amaretto, 85%, Raspberry, Coconut Lime, Grand Marnier Orange Blossom.
The flavors range from clean renditions of classics like raspberry and sea salt caramel, to some intriguing variations like lavender shiraz (the mix of dark chocolate with notes of wine and floral lavender make me think of drive in the country in spring) and ginger rogers, a tingly mix of ginger and mint (Ashley indicated it was inspired by one of her favorite drinks). The ganaches are beautifully creamy and flavorful, the shells perfectly snapping under the bite. Ashley's fiance, Robert, studied at the Le Cordon Bleu in Australia and worked under Tim Gearhart before heading out to start his own business.
I love the fresh green aesthetic of Fleurir – it means " to bloom" in French and Ashley said that captured their vision of spring, growth, and beauty. She mentioned that they considered Bloom for a name but didn't like the connotations with fat bloom in chocolates – I love me some food geeks! They've got a beautiful presentation going, which along with the high quality of their chocolates really gives them a leg up in the crowd of chocolate competition.
Fleurir is currently based in Virginia, and their chocolates can be bought online. They have just released a special Heart's Delight Box for Valentine's Day, which includes new Pink Peppercorn and Dark Raspberry flavors, with 40% of the proceeds going to the American Heart Association – a sweet deal! In our e-mail correspondence, Ashley had mentioned her affection for California, and I asked if Fleurir might branch out west. Maybe in the future was the reply, so while we're waiting for an SF shop to open, do go over to their website and order a box, and try some hand grown chocolates for yourself.
Edited 10/25/09: In response to e-mails asking about the seeding method, I’ve expanded my post to include a more in-depth explanation of tempering chocolate. See below for the bolded questions “What is tempering chocolate?” and “What is the seeding method?”
Wow! First, thank you all for the wonderful well wishes and support to my last post! It is still a bit unreal to me that I now have two books to my name, and all of your encouragement is *very* much appreciated! I wish I could send you all copies of the book – although I guess that wouldn’t be too good for book sales! I’m eager to share some of my favorite candy recipes on Dessert First though, so even if you can’t get a copy of the book you can still try your hand at candy-making! For all my foreign readers who are asking if Field Guide to Candy is available outside of the US, your best best is if you have an Amazon for your country. Otherwise, do write my publisher, Quirk Books, and let them know you’ll love to buy if it were available where you live!
Second, I read through every comment and I am tickled pink by all of your favorite candies! Incidentally, I was interviewed for a small feature in Rachael Ray magazine a couple months ago where I was asked to deduce what your favorite type of movie revealed about your personality, and what candy would go best with each movie genre. Sorry, I forgot to mention the article earlier, but it is fascinating to think about what your favorite candies say about you! Lots of chocolate and peanut butter fans, lots of toffee aficionados, lot of nutty candy lovers. I’m glad because I do cover all those candies in my book!
As for some of the “is that candy?” questions, yes, marshmallows are candy, and yes, chocolate dipped fruit is candy. Trying to corral the definition of candy was actually one of the most difficult bits of the book, as candy has various definitions around the world. It doesn’t help that many quasi-synonyms like sweets, confectionery, and bonbons exist, with sometime overlapping, sometimes contradictory definitions depending on the part of the world you’re in. In the end, my broadest definition of candy is something that is sweet, typically not baked, and is small and bite-sized. Of course there are many more technical and historical ways to define candy, but I’ll leave that outside of this post!
It wasn’t surprising to me that chocolate dominated across the comments. I have to admit the chocolate candy section of the book was one of my favorite parts to work on. Not only did I get to buy and sample tons of truffles and bonbons in the name of research, I also got to practice working with chocolate, a most singular and revered art in the world of pastry.
Also one of the most notorious: although I love baking with chocolate, and I loved making ganaches for truffles and drizzling melted chocolate over nuts, the prospect of tempering chocolate still gets my little panic button blinking. So I guess I both loved and feared the chocolate chapter. Feared, since I knew I would be spending lot of time stirring melted chocolate and staring intently at drying streaks on pieces of parchment paper, looking for that perfect glossy shine, the reassuring thrilling ‘snap’ that signals success.
What is tempering chocolate? Put simply, it is the process of melting chocolate and manipulating it to the right temperature to encourage proper crystallization of the cocoa butter in the chocolate. Here’s an example: say you melt a bar of chocolate and let it sit there to cool and harden naturally. What you’ll see is a dull, lumpy mass that might have light streaks in it. It might still feel soft to the touch and if you try to break it in pieces it will be crumbly and rough-looking. This is because as the chocolate cooled, the cocoa butter re-crystallized in a random and uncontrolled manner, with crystals of various sizes forming everywhere.
Contrast this with the shell of a truffle or a chocolate bar: the chocolate is hard with a glossy shine, and if you break it, it will snap cleanly (think of that lovely little crunch as you bite through the truffle shell). Tempered chocolate also holds up better and does not melt as quickly in hot weather. With all these appealing characteristics, it’s easy to see why getting chocolate into the tempered state is so desirable.
There are several ways to temper chocolate, but they all revolve around melting chocolate down (at this point there is no crystal formation), cooling the chocolate down to the correct temperature so that the desired orderly recrystallization of cocoa butter begins to occur, and then reheating it to a final working temperature (so the chocolate is at a workable consistency). The desired temperatures vary for dark, milk, and white chocolate, and often makers of professional chocolate will print little temperature graphs on their bags showing what are the ideal ranges for working with their product. For dark chocolate, typically you want to melt the chocolate to no higher than 115 degrees F, let it cool to about 82 degrees F, and then reheat to about 88 to 90 degrees F. Reheating the chocolate higher than 90 degrees will cause it to go out of temper, and you’ll have to start all over again.
The traditional way of tempering chocolate is by hand: one of the classic methods is to pour the melted chocolate on a marble slab, which helps cool it quickly, and work it with a scraper until it has reached the right temperature. Although it sounds messy, experienced professionals can temper chocolate very quickly this way. Another, perhaps more tidy method keeps all the chocolate in the bowl and uses a piece of seed chocolate to help lower the temperature and encourage proper crystallization; see it described further below. Of course, with the advent of large-scale candy making operations, it was inevitable that machines would be invented to streamline this often finicky procedure. The first time I saw a commerical chocolate tempering machine at a factory I was agog with amazement and delight: it was possible to mechanize this process!
So what’s this? Ok, I admit it. In the name of research for this book, I went and bought a home chocolate tempering machine. I was filled with fear that the night before the photoshoot I would have utter chocolate tempering failure. Would this guy be a reliable backup? A beautiful sleek blue machine that promises tempered chocolate, perfect and predictable? Well, I knew I would never have a better excuse to get one of these lovelies.
There are not many home chocolate tempering machines out there; Chocovision is one of the most well-known brands available. They are not cheap, either: I imagine they would be the best investment for a serious home confectioner who enjoys making candy regularly or perhaps someone just starting a business. The small capacity of these machines, though, (about 1 1/2 pounds for smaller home models) means if your business takes off you’ll likely need to move up to commercial-size machinery. The machine works on the seeding method for tempering chocolate. What is the seeding method?
The seeding method involves placing a block of unmelted, tempered chocolate into a pool of melted chocolate. Th e idea is that as the tempered chocolate melts, the orderly cocoa butter crystals will encourage the cocoa butter in the rest of the melted chocolate to reform in the same, desired formation (did you know chemistry was so important in chocolate? I would have studied it harder in school!) The advantage to the seeding method is that it can greatly speed up the tempering process since introducing already-tempered chocolate to the pool can induce the correct cocoa butter crystallization faster than trying to encourage the melted chocolate to come into temper all on its own. The unmelted chocolate will also of course help drop the temperature of the pool of melted chocolate more quickly. Once the temperature has dropped to the right point, you can remove any unmelted seed chocolate and then heat the chocolate back up to the 90 degree range, at which point all the chocolate should be in temper.
The Chocovision machine works with the seeding method pretty efficiently: you put in some chocolate, it will melt it to a certain temperature (108 degrees for dark), at which point it will beep at you to add in the seed chocolate. It will melt the seed chocolate and mix it into the main chocolate pool until it reaches another preset temperature, at which point it will beep again and you remove any remaining seed chocolate. Then it agitates the chocolate until it reaches the magic temperature of about 90 degrees, at which point, ta-da! your chocolate should be tempered.
What’s my verdict? Unfortunately, if you are expecting a magical chocolate tempering machine where you can just dump in chocolate, press a button, and instantly get tempered chocolate, I don’t think they exist. Tempering chocolate requires a understanding of chocolate, how it behaves at different temperatures, and why you want to manipulate it to different temperatures. What this machine is very good at doing is getting your chocolate to a specified temperature and maintaining it or increasing/dropping it as you desire. So instead of lots of stirring and constant temperature checking, you can just put the chocolate in the bowl and let it do the melting and agitating for you. I like this part because 1) I always make a mess when I work with chocolate, and somehow chocolate will get everywhere. This machine keeps it all tidy in the bowl. 2) Once I get the chocolate to the temperature I want, the machine will keep it at that temperature, so I don’t have to worry as much about the chocolate cooling too quickly. Note the manufacturer doesn’t recommend having the chocolate sitting in the bowl forever; if you’re not going to use the tempered chocolate within a couple hours, they suggest taking it out.
One of the best things about the chocolate tempering machine is watching the liquid chocolate swirling around in the bowl. Mmm, it’s like I’m in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Those are really the two best features about having this machine. Notice it wasn’t “instant tempered chocolate.” The thing is, the machine can take the chocolate up and down to the programmed temperatures, but there’s no way it can actually tell if the chocolate is tempered. It just knows that the chocolate is at 89 degrees or the temperature you programmed in. You still need to check to see if it is in fact tempered.
Typically most chocolates can be tempered within the programmed temperature ranges. I may have just been unlucky and needed to do some tinkering. I use Callebaut chocolate, and I find it can be a little thicker than other chocolates and I needed to drop the temperature lower to get the right kind of crystals forming. This isn’t to say the machine does not work or it is a bad purchase. But just like any technique in pastry or any machine, it works best if you understand what is going on. If I hadn’t practiced tempering chocolate by hand so much, I wouldn’t have known what to look for in tempered chocolate – the consistency, the feel. I might have just thought the machine didn’t work right. Once I had done a few test runs, I was able to figure out the best temperatures for my Callebaut chocolate and the machine worked great. I would say this guy is a wonderful luxury to have, but it’s still very worth it to know how to temper by hand. You’ll understand your chocolate better that way. And you’ll never be caught not knowing how to temper chocolate! From my hours and hours of tempering chocolate, I discovered a few guidelines that worked for me:
- Use at least a pound of chocolate. It’s easier to control the temperature of a larger mass of chocolate than a smaller one.
- Use good quality chocolate. I know some people have said they can use Baker’s Chocolate and temper using the microwave with great results. I guess I’m not that much of a chocolate tempering expert yet. Quality chocolate behaves better and more consistently, and will of course taste better. Some of the finer companies like Callebaut and Valrhona make different kinds of chocolate and indicate which ones are better for enrobing and which for baking.
- I find the seed method works best for me, since it cuts down on the time needed to cool the chocolate down and encourages the growth of the desired chocolate crystals. Use a single chunk of seed chocolate so it’s easier to fish out when your chocolate has cooled down.
- An accurate thermometer is your best friend in tempering chocolate, since being off by a few degrees can mean the difference between tempered chocolate and not-tempered chocolate. There is such a thing as a chocolate tempering thermometer, which works well because it is measures in single degree increments.
- It’s very difficult to temper chocolate on a warm or humid day. If you have air conditioning in your kitchen, use it! Or try tempering on a cooler day.
- Be prepared beforehand with the items you want to dip before tempering. Chocolate has the amazing ability to migrate everywhere – I will work as clean as possible and still find chocolate on my nose and arms. Have a towel handy!
Here is one of my recipes from my candy book, basic Dipped Chocolates, which features a ganache dipped into tempered chocolate. If you roll the ganache into balls before dipping, you get truffles. But cutting the chilled ganache into squares and then dipping in tempered chocolate will yield the elegant little tiles so popular in chocolate shops these days. The flavor of the ganache is of course only limited by your imagination – I made a vanilla bean ganache using a sample of vanilla bean paste I received from Singing Dog Vanilla. It is an intensely aromatic paste – I used the amount in my recipe and the vanilla was very clear and sweet.
I also took the opportunity to explore the many ways to decorate dipped chocolates. You can drizzle more chocolate over the tops with a fork or piping bag, as I did above.
You can also dust the tops with luster dust – I find the gold on dark chocolate quite enticing.
You can also use chocolate transfer sheets – sheets of plastic coated with designs in cocoa butter. Pressed onto just-dipped chocolates, they leave their mark – literally – on your chocolates. I got my transfer sheets at Fancy Flours, which has a nice selection of designs.
Oh, and of course what you’ve all been waiting for – the winners of the copies of Field Guide to Candy! Eva : ” i recently found your blog, and it’s been a real joy to read. congratulations on your second book. by the way, my favorite candy is dutch liquorice.^^”
and Julie: “My favorite candy to make is truffles. My favorite candy to eat would be candy cane marshmallows.”
Congratulations to you two! I will e-mailing you for your mailing addresses. Everyone else, I hope you enjoy the chocolate recipe and hopefully I will see you this Saturday at Omnivore Books!
Vanilla Bean Chocolates
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted, for coating layer
1 pound bittersweet chocolate, tempered
1. Line an 8” square baking pan with plastic wrap, letting the wrap overhang the edges of the pan on all sides.
2. Combine cream and vanilla bean in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat on the stove. Remove from heat, cover saucepan, and let steep for 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, place the chocolate into a medium bowl.
4. Strain cream into a clean saucepan and bring to a boil again over medium-high heat.
5. Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for 1 minute. Stir slowly with a wooden spoon or whisk until the chocolate is fully melted and combined with the cream.
6. Add in the butter and stir to combine just until the mixture is smooth, thick, and uniform. Do not overmix or the ganache will start separating.
7. Pour the ganache into the prepared baking pan, in a smooth even layer. Let the ganache set at room temperature until firm, about 2 to 4 hours. You can also cover and store in the refrigerator overnight after it has set.
8. When you are ready to make the chocolates, line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper or wax paper.
9. Using the plastic wrap as handles, remove the slab of ganache and flip over onto a clean baking sheet or other work surface. Pull off the plastic wrap.
10. Using a small offset spatula, spread the melted 4 ounces of chocolate in a thin layer over the surface of the ganache slab.Let the chocolate set, about 20 minutes.
11. Flip the ganache slab over. Using a sharp chef’s knife, cut the slab into 1”x1” squares. If the slab starts getting soft, place in the refrigerator for a few minutes.
12. When you are ready to dip the chocolates, line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper or wax paper.
13. Dip the ganache squares in the tempered chocolate, coating completely. Place them on the baking sheets to let set.
Hi dear readers! Sorry this post has been a long time in the making, but I had a lot I wanted to share with you all!
A few weeks ago, I got an invitation to attend a dessert demonstration by Valrhona. Valrhona is, of course, considered among the creme de la creme of fine chocolate; appending "Valrhona" to the ingredient list of any chocolate dessert is like shorthand for the most luxe and elegant of indulgences.
Valrhona chocolate can be pricey, but in their case you truly get what you pay for: beautiful, full-flavored chocolate that tastes dreamy and performs wonderfully. Whenever I get to use Valrhona in my baking, I'm a happy girl.
I was especially excited to attend this demonstration because not only was Valrhona unveiling some new products, but they were bringing in some of their in-house pastry chefs to demonstrate how to use them. Another thing that impresses me about Valrhona is their dedication to the industry and art of chocolate: they are involved in both the production and harvest of cacao beans around the world, as well as the creative and thoughtful use of the created chocolate in pastry. Valrhona has a chocolate school, l'École du Grand Chocolat at their headquarters in France, that provides classes in patisserie and confectionery to professionals and enthusiasts.
One of the chefs from the school, Philippe Givre, was flown all the way to the Bay Area to lead this demonstration, along with Derek Poirier and Alex Espiritu, pastry chefs for Valrhona's USA division. Needless to say, what an exciting opportunity!
Chef Philippe Givre. Looks like the quintessential French pastry chef, no?
Really, the demonstration was more like an intense four-hour pastry class taught by a master – I got a lot more technical information and baking tips than I thought I would from a demo, which was great. Chef Givre went into very detailed explanations of the importance of ingredient temperatures, especially when making ganaches, custards, and mousses; how to whip cream properly to maximize its volume, and even a mini-digression into the the importance of dry to liquid ratios in making ice creams and sorbets. Hey, after this I am fully convinced that going to l'École du Grand Chocolat would be an awesome experience(not that it would take me a lot of convincing to go to chocolate school).
In four hours, Chef Givre and his two assisting chefs blitzed through three plated desserts, demonstrating numerous techniques and also explaining how each one utilized different Valrhona products. And yes, we got to sample everything! I think everyone was on a sugar high by the end of the demonstration!
Here's the first dessert: Diagonale of Candied Pineapple with Whipped Lime Ganache, Almond Shortbread, and Fromage Blanc and Lime Sorbet. The idea is really cute: A U-shaped base of shortbread (you can see Chef Poirier making it in the next pic) with piped lines of milk chocolate and lime ganache, topped with candied pineapple and a scoop of sorbet. The ganache is made of cream infused with lime zest, then combined with Valrhona Tainori 64% and Jivara 40%. The mixture is then refrigerated before being whipped to a light, pipable texture – something I haven't done often, but which I'm now obsessed with! Chef Givre indicated that this recipe was specifically created to utilize the Valrhona Tainori, a dark chocolate with notes of almond and yellow fruits, meant to work best with citrus fruits. Of course it's a great way for Valrhona to illustrate their long line of chocolates, but I like the point that not all chocolates are the same and it would be a educational experience to taste different chocolates you use and consider which ones might work with different ingredients.
Here's Chef Derek Poirier showing the U-shaped metal molds used to form the shortbread bases. By the way, he was really concerned that I was going to take a photo of him with his eyes closed. So I hope this one is satisfactory to him!
Chef Givre plating the dessert.
This is the second dessert, called "Damas", consisting of an emmanuel curry sponge base topped with almond mousseux, a milk chocolate namelaka, and orange jelly. This was probably the most adventurous of the desserts and also the one I liked best, so I spent last week reproducing it! Compare the one I made in the first photo to this one; what do you think?
The last dessert was what Chef Givre dubbed "New Opera", a reimagined version of opera cake. The traditional version of opera cake is layers of almond genoise layered with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. In this deconstructed version, a layer of chocolate cake is topped with a square of tempered chocolate. The piece on top is whipped coffee ganache sandwiched between pieces of coffee nougatine. Finally, the cake is served alongside a coffee granité topped with more whipped coffee ganache. I think I counted about four different kinds of chocolate being used in this dessert. Chef Givre said he wanted to play around with textures while preserving the original flavors of the opera cake. It was a really playful, modern take on an old pastry warhorse; I especially liked the granité with the whipped ganache.
Here's Chef Givre putting those little millefeuiles of nougatine and ganache together.
In addition to these three desserts, the chefs also presented a taste testing of chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream made with Valrhona's newest chocolate, Coeur de Guanaja 80%. Without getting overly technical, this is a dark chocolate specially formulated with lower cocoa butter content, which can allow for a stronger chocolate taste in desserts. Basically, since cocoa butter is a fat and is solid at room temperature, it increases the firmness of pastry items like cakes and ice creams. Since fats can also dilute the purity and intensity of flavors, more cocoa butter can also decrease the strength of chocolate flavor in a dessert. That's why some recipes using chocolate sometimes call for cocoa powder, since it provides chocolate flavor without adding any fat.
Coeur de Guanaja was developed especially to address this issue – it has a lower cocoa butter content, so you can use it and get a strong chocolate flavor in your pastries without compromising the texture of the final result. The taste tests really helped illustrate the difference: a chocolate cake made with Coeur de Guanaja had distinct, chocolately flavor, and was also moister and softer than a cake made with cocoa powder, which was slightly tougher. Chocolate ice cream made with Coeur de Guanaja had a pure, almost bitter chocolate flavor (80% cacao content is pretty dark) and a long, smooth finish, while ice cream made with a regular chocolate had a lighter, sweeter flavor.
I found this all very educational. Even if you don't have the luxury of choosing between ten different chocolates when baking, it's always good to increase your knowledge of how ingredients, especially one as complex as chocolate, works. Then when you want to tinker with your recipes to get different results, it's easier to figure out what you want to change.
The chefs were kind enough to pose for photos at the end of the demo. From left to right, Chef Alex Espiritu, Chef Philippe Givre, yours truly, and Chef Derek Poirier. Yes, I know I look really short compared to all of them. The tall chef's hats probably don't help.
Deborah, the public relations contact, was also kind enough to send me a box of samples from Valrhona's current line after the demonstration. Talk about unexpected Christmas, a big box of Valrhona is enough to turn any day into a celebration! What I love is that Valrhona used to provide chocolate exclusively for professionals, but they've really reached out to the consumer market, producing both bars for eating and bars for baking – you don't need to have a contact in the food industry to procure Valrhona or be forced to buy giant five lb bars (fun, but hard to store at home). They have 70g Grand Crus bars in eight of their signature blends, including their famous Manjari, Caraïbe, and Jivara Lait, 250g baking bars in dark, milk, and white chocolate, and Gourmet Grand Crus bars, their very sophisticated version of candy bars. I've been enjoying the Manjari Orange, with pieces of orange inside, and Jivara Pecan, embedded with pecans, for the last week.
Ok, so I mentioned that my favorite dessert at the demo was the "Damas" – I really loved the texture contrasts of the sponge cake and the mousseux, and the curry was an inspired touch. Unfortunately, I didn't have the right spices in my cupboard (Chef Givre suggested using madras curry powder), but I had my own idea on how to spin this recipe.
Since the main flavors in the dessert were almond, milk chocolate, curry, and orange, I chose to eliminate the curry from the sponge and add in candied orange peel and cocoa nibs. Emmanuel sponge is a type of sponge cake made very similar to madeleines. You make the batter and let it rest overnight, which helps the flavors intensify and lets it bake up better the next day. Chef Givre indicated that this is a nice alternative to genoise, since genoise batter cannot be stored and can be finicky, requiring closer supervision while baking. Emmanuel sponge batter can be made ahead of time and bakes up quickly without much fuss. I'll admit the orange-and-cocoa-nib version was amazingly addicitive; I kept snacking on it without the rest of the dessert components!
The almond mousseux is a mousse made of almond paste, milk, and cream, mixed with a bit of gelatin and allowed to set. The cut cubes look a bit like tofu, don't they? And they should have the same perfectly silken texture – it's important to make sure there are no hard bits of almond paste floating around in the mix. I'd never made a mousse with almond paste, but this was light and airy, and delicious topped with some orange jelly.
Finally, you might be wondering what "namelaka" is – I know I hadn't heard of the word. Namelaka is the Japanese word for "creamy", and this little daub of chocolate is meant to embody "creamy". When I saw that it was made of milk chocolate, milk, glucose, cream, and some gelatin, I didn't see how it was different from a mousse. But the proportions of the ingredients means that the result should be very, very melt-in-your mouth, with no cloying taste. It requires some attention and precision – the mixture needs to absolutely, 100% smooth – Chef Givre used a stick blender to finish the mix off, and you can't add too much gelatin or it will be stiff and gummy. But I knew it was something good when I gave the boyfriend a spoonful and he remarked on how light and -yes!- creamy it was, before I had described what it was supposed to be.
This is definitely a small project of a dessert, but it's actually not that difficult to make, and it's become one of my favorites because of its elegance and flavor combinations. I'm really glad to have gotten a master lesson in chocolate and recharged my creative juices- and I hope it's inspired you to experiment with your favorite brands!
Damas – Emmanuel Sponge with Candied Orange Peel and Cocoa Nibs, Almond Mousseux, Valrhona Orizaba Lacteé Namelaka, and Orange Jelly
(note: All recipes adapted from the official Valrhona versions. Original measurements were in metric so if you want to be more accurate, use those!)
makes one half sheet (13"x17") of cake, about (24) 2 1/2" square pieces
1 cup (238 g) cake flour
1/2 cup (116 g) powdered sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons (10 g) baking powder
3/4 teaspoon (3 g) salt
238 g eggs (about 5 eggs)
1/2 cup (126 g) trimoline (invert sugar – you can buy this online)
1/3 cup (74 g) whole milk
13 1/2 tablespoons (193 g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons candied orange peel, finely chopped (I estimated)
1/4 cup cocoa nibs, finely chopped (I estimated)
1 1/2 cups streusel, see recipe below
Sift the cake flour, powdered sugar, baking powder, and salt into a bowl.
Combine the eggs and trimoline in a stand mixer and beat with paddle attachment until combined.
Add in the flour mixture and mix until combined.
Add in the milk and m ix until combined.
Add in the melted butter and mix until combined.
Pour batter into a container and refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours or overnight before baking. (Note: This really does make it bake better!)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a half sheet pan with a silicone baking mat.
Pour the batter into the pan and spread it out evenly. Sprinkle the orange peel and cocoa nibs over the batter (I'm afraid I didn't keep accurate measure of how much I used – just enough so that the cake is pretty evenly covered, but you don't need to blanket the batter, or else there'll be too much add-ins and not enough cake! Just think of adding nuts to a cake batter – similar idea).
Sprinkle the baked streusel over the top of the cake.
Bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes, rotating halfway. The top should be firm and lightly golden brown.
Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack before cutting. This is a fairly sturdy cake and should not fall apart or stick, but if you're going to store it, it might be easier to cut into smaller pieces and store them in an airtight container layered between parchment paper.
makes about 1 1/2 cups
1/3 cup (75 g) light brown sugar
1/3 cup (75 g) almond meal
1/4 cup (68 g) cake flour
1/4 teaspoon (0.5 g) salt
1/3 cup (75 g) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
Combine all ingredients except butter in a food processor until finely ground and combined.
Add butter and process just until the streusel starts to come together into lumps.
If the mixture seems very soft, refrigerate for about an hour to firm up.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.
Spread streusel evenly over the sheet. Bake for about 6-8 minutes, until it is golden brown and baked all the way through.
Crumble into smaller pieces as necessary for sprinkling.
makes one 8×8 square, about 25 pieces
This is basically a frozen mousse. It helps if you have a cake pan with a removable bottom – then it's easy to push the mousseux out from the bottom and cut into pieces. Otherwise, the mousseux will be frozen into the pan and you'll have to cut it out piece by piece.
1/2 cup (125 g) almond paste (Valrhona recommends their 70% paste, you may have to add sugar or use less paste depending on strength of flavor)
1 1/3 cups (300 g) whole milk
1/2 tablespoon (6.5 g) gelatin
1 cup (250 g) whipping cream
Process almond paste in a food processor until it is soft and pliable.
Add in milk and process until combined and smooth (You may have to do this in batches if your food processor is small). Alternatively, combine in a large bowl with a hand blender.
Combine gelatin with just enough water in a cup to let it bloom.
Heat about 1 cup of the almond milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Add in the gelatin and swirl pan until it is fully melted and incorporated.
Pour heated milk back into main milk mixture and mix to combine. Let mixture cool to about room temperature.
While you are waiting, whip the whipping cream in a mixer to soft peaks.
Fold the whipped cream into the almond milk.
Pour the mixture into an 8"x8" pan with removable bottom and freeze overnight. Note: After it sets, you can store it in the freezer.
Valrhona Orizaba Lacteé Namelaka
makes about 3/4 cup
This recipe uses Valrhona Orizaba Lacteé 40%, but you can use another milk chocolate if you like. Also, one important tip is that in order for the whole mixture to set up properly, you should pour out in a thin even layer, so a wide shallow pan works better than a tall narrow container (if it's too deep the center won't set). I used a 9 x 13 pan and it worked well.
3/4 cup (200 g) whole milk
3/4 tablespoon (10 g) corn syrup
1 teaspoon (4.5 g) gelatin
13 ounces (375 g) milk chocolate
1 3/4 cups (400 g) whipping cream
Melt chocolate in a double boiler or in a metal bowl placed over a pan of simmering water.
Add corn syrup to melted chocolate and stir to combine.
Combine gelatin with just enough water in a cup to let it bloom.
Heat milk in a saucepan to boiling. Add in the gelatin and swirl pan until it is fully melted and incorporated.
Pour the milk mixture over the melted chocolate in increments, stirring to combine and emulsify each time. It's important to combine the two mixtures slowly and make sure they are fully incorporated or the texture won't be right.
Process the mixture with a hand blender to ensure smoothness.
Pour mixture into a shallow pan and refrigerate overnight to let set.
To assemble the dessert:
Take out the mousseux and namelaka. If they have been sitting in the refrigerator a while, they may need a little time to warm up and soften. However, don't leave them out too long or they'll melt.
Cut the sponge into 2 1/2" square pieces.
Cut the mousseux into roughly 1 1/2" square pieces. Place one cube of mousseux on top of each sponge.
Scoop the namelaka into a piping bag fitted with a round tip. If it seems firm, or chunky in the texture, place in a food processor and process to soften up. Pipe a big drop of namelaka on top of the mousseux.
I got the opportunity to attend the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon about a month ago – a day long festival celebrating all things chocolate. With over 50 chocolatiers and confectioners, many of them local artisans, the variety of truffles, bars, and other chocolatey delights on display was sugar-shock-inducing.
It must have been unique challenge, as well, for all the chocolatiers: chocolate may be the most popular candy around, but when everyone around you is peddling theobroma cacao, you need to make sure your chocolate stands out.
One of the most memorable chocolatiers for me was Socola Chocolatier, whose eyecatching truffles had a distinctly Asian bent: guava, lychee, tamarind, Vietnamese espresso. While Asian fusion is still a hot-running trend in the culinary world, it takes a deft touch and expertise to take the combination of east and west beyond mere gimmick. Socola’s chocolates are the genuine article. I knew Socola was special when I kept wanting to reach for another sample; I was thrilled to discover that Socola is a small local company, the brainchild of two sisters, Wendy and Susan Lieu. After speaking to both of them, I had the opportunity to sit down and have a further talk with Susan, the company COO, about this delightful line of truffles. Photo courtesy of Socola Chocolatier
Talking to Susan makes me feel like I’ve just had a glass of Vietnamese espresso: smart, articulate, and fantastically enthusiastic, she displays an impressive zeal for Socola and life, with a dizzying list of goals, Socola prominently featured among them. For Susan, Socola is not just an entrepreneurial endeavor but a fun adventure with her sister, an opportunity to create outrageously named chocolates, and to share them with their friends. Her excitement and optimism is truly infectious: she’s the perfect spokeswoman for Socola, as well as motivator for anyone needing a little push on their own life goals!
The roots of Socola can be traced back in Susan and Wendy’s family line: their grandfather in Vietnam was a sweetsmaker. Along with their family, the sisters immigrated to the US when they were children to start a new life. Growing up in Santa Rosa, they were fascinated by the See’s chocolate store across the street from their parents’ store. Wendy, the culinarily-minded of the pair, was inspired to create her own chocolates, using her great-grandmother’s recipes. As word of the chocolates spread, Susan and Wendy decided to band together and start Socola Chocolatier in 2001. Fittingly, Socola is the Vietnamese word for chocolate. In the last eight years, their homegrown venture has blossomed into a successful business.
Photo courtesy of Socola Chocolatier
I learned that Wendy is a graduate of Tante Marie’s Professional Pastry Program – it’s always to a thrill to discover fellow alumna! I really love Wendy’s palate and eye for detail; her flavors meld seamlessly with the chocolate, making ultra-flavorful ganaches. The chocolates are perfectly tempered, and beautifully decorated. I loved the sprinkling of gold luster dust on the Guinness truffles, and the red Hawaiian sea salt scattered across the burnt caramel and sea salt chocolates. My favorite, though, would have to be their guava chocolate, which has a sublime guava pate de fruit on top of chocolate ganache. The chocolate is stamped with a winged alpaca, the mascot for Socola. To learn more this eclectic mascot, you can visit the Socola website and learn about her!
Photo courtesy of Socola Chocolatier
Socola Chocolatier is based in Oakland, and currently is sold at select stores in the East Bay. and online. Soon the chocolates will be available in San Francisco as well. Wendy and Susan have just created a special Mother’s Day Collection, 12 chocolates in six flavors, including Front Porch White Peach, Give It to Me Guava, Luscious Lychee, Matchmaker Matcha, Pretty in Pear, and Tango Tamarind. You can order this collection on their website – the deadline is today, but if you miss it, do try some of their other fantastic selections!