Cooking With Chocolate
Valentine's Day is coming, which for many is a prompt to give, receive and eat chocolate. Some also associate chocolate with Christmas or birthday cakes or Easter bunnies. My favorite trigger is a cup of coffee; pairing a square of 70% dark with a nearly equally bitter espresso is always a perfect match.
That said, unlike most of the world, I'm no chocoholic. Given the choice between chocolate truffles and a candied chestnut, the chestnut will easily win. Dark chocolate almond bark or an apricot pâté de fruit? I'd like two of the apricot, please. Brownie versus lemon bar? Or Snickers versus Twizzlers? You see where I'm going with this. I certainly love chocolate but I don't have the madness that many have.
I hadn't even noticed how much that was true until I submitted the first list of recipes for my book. It took my editor to notice that my dessert chapter had nothing made with chocolate. "Oh, that won't do," she gently but firmly said and sent me back to my kitchen. For any recipe to be in my book -- chocolate or not -- it had to make smart (i.e., flavor, time, cost) use of great ingredients, plus be do-able in a small city kitchen. Wanting to create something nostalgic and special enough for a celebration, I added a recipe for Chocolate Cream Pie that came as close as I could get to the ones I had as a kid that were made with My-T-Fine pudding; mine instead has a base of milk chocolate pudding made with no eggs.
Less elaborate but equally satisfying are my Chocolate Shortbread Buttons, made only with cocoa; no chocolate melting is necessary. I love these cookies because while intensely chocolate, they aren't too sweet. And I call them buttons because I make them round and small, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter, and using the prongs of a fork, I add two little marks on each cookie's surface like the thread holes on a button. Even if you don't bake, these are really easy to make.
See our link to this recipe from my book, The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen. Limitless Ingredients, No Time.
A Few Tips for Buying and Cooking With Chocolate
From an interview with master baker Alice Medrich that appeared a couple of years ago in Fine Cooking magazine, here are some important facts we need to know when cooking with chocolate:
Cacao percentages you see on bars and packages of chocolate indicate the percentage of the bar, by weight, that is pure cacao. And what is pure cacao? It's pure cacao beans, which are composed of cocoa butter or fat, and dry cocoa solids.
The rest of the percentage is made up of sugar, and maybe vanilla or lecithin. So if you see a bar labeled with 70% cacao, it has 30% sugar. The percentages of cacao and sugar will have an impact not only on the sweetness of what you make but also its texture.
As Ms. Medrich said, "… Chocolates with radically different cacao percentages can produce radically different results. Substituting chocolate with significantly high cacao (70% instead of 54% or even 60%, for example) has an effect similar to subtracting sugar and replacing it with unsweetened cocoa powder. Cakes will be dry and crumbly and might taste bitter, mousses will have a grainy texture, and ganaches and sauces will almost certainly curdle."
In other words -- if you love really dark chocolate, resist the temptation to boost the intensity in a recipe by switching out one chocolate for another with a higher cacao percentage.
As a general guideline, here is what the labels mean:
- Unsweetened chocolate: 100% cacao and no sugar. If the label says "bitter chocolate," read the label to make sure there is no sugar in it.
- Bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate: These are essentially the same, meaning cacao and sugar with a minimum of 35% cacao. In my experience the term bittersweet usually applies to chocolate with a higher cacao percentage and semi-sweet with a higher percentage of sugar but this isn't regulated and so the ratios and labels are used inconsistently. Read the label to be sure. If in doubt, choose a chocolate with 50 to 65% cacao for cooking because to go higher, as Ms. Medrich forewarned, could get you into recipe trouble. If you're buying the chocolate for eating and you like a darker chocolate, go for a higher percentage, e.g., 70%.
- Milk chocolate: This is chocolate to which milk solids have been added. Some are now available with higher cacao percentages so if you are a milk chocolate snob and don't eat the stuff, you may want to revisit this position as milk chocolate has become much better.
- White chocolate: For those who say this isn't chocolate, that is incorrect. Real white chocolate is made with cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder.
And which brands to buy? I agree with pastry chef and author David Lebovitz (if you don't know his books or his blog I am delighted to introduce you to him and added a link below to his popular blog) who advocates for tasting and choosing your own favorites. There are many excellent brands that have emerged in the recent decade, so enjoy the research. Some to try are Lindt, Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger, Green & Black, Mast Brothers, Guittard, Valrhona, Taza, Callebaut.
And Jacques Torres.
Listening to Mr. Chocolate
One can spend a lifetime learning about and perfecting chocolate. Jacques Torres began his in Provence and went on to become the youngest winner in history of the highly prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Pastry Chef of France), Executive Pastry Chef at Le Cirque 2000, Dean of Pastry Arts at the French Culinary Institute, winner of a long list of international prizes and awards, host of his own Food TV program, author of two cookbooks, and for the past ten years as Mr. Chocolate.
With two chocolate factories -- one in Brooklyn's DUMBO and the other Manhattan's SoHo -- plus a growing network of retail stores, corporate projects, and a robust website, Chef Torres has a total love of chocolate -- eating it, giving it, and cooking with it.
A week before opening his newest store in Rockefeller Center, he took a few minutes on a snowy day to talk with me about why we love chocolate, what we need to know about buying and storing it, what Dutch-processed means on a cocoa label, and why -- in a surprising way -- his palate has helped him be a success. We've added a link to our podcast interview with him, a man who, fortunately for the rest of us, has combined his passion with world class artistry.