Saturday, March 23, 2002
made another batch of my famed chocolate chip cookies today. . .
with 2 crucial changes. what many people don't realize is how small ingredient changes can drastically alter the product. for example, sugar. a cookie dough made with all white table sugar will harden and turn crunchy as the sugar crystallizes out of the oven. one made with dark brown sugar will be a little moister and can soften a bit after cooling. one made with honey will become progressively softer as it sits; the honey will actually cause the cookies to absorb moisture from the air!
flour has another profound effect. my basic recipe calls for a pastry blend flour, with about 10% protein -- more than cake flour, less than most all-purpose. this would give you a softer, puffier, somewhat paler cookie.
today i used a high-protein flour, one clocking in at 14%. this made for a flatter, chewier, slightly darker cookie. i also used an extra dark muscovado sugar, so the cookies would be moist and yet stay a little soft. i did this because mr. right adores a large, flat cookie, with a nice brown color, a crisp edge and top crust but with a softer, chewier center.
you may notice that the basic recipe calls for 1 teaspoon baking soda for 3 cups flour. since 1/4 teaspoon can lift 1 cup flour, you might ask what the extra baking soda is for. it's for color -- a little extra baking soda also gives a browner cookie.
just by making these kinds of small alterations you can get amazingly different results from the same recipe. for example, i use plugra in my recipe, which has a so-called sharp melting point. that means at a certain temperature the fat turns instantly liquid.
what if i were to use butter-flavored shortening, which doesn't melt sharp? i would have a higher, puffier cookie. since the fat melts more slowly, the cookie has time to puff up and set before the fat melts. whereas with butter, the fat melts boom!, and the cookie dough spreads quickly before it can set.
everyone interested in this really should rush out and get shirley corriher's excellent book cookwise. she gives 1 basic recipe and then 3 simple alterations you can make that result in surprising differences. you might not know they can from the same exact recipe!
that aside, if you make these cookies yourself, be sure not to skimp on the quality of the chocolate chips. callebaut is the minimum here; but for reasons i've over-discussed, it might be wise to search for an alternative guittard or schokinag chip. or even get out your chocolate chipper and attack a block of valrhona couverature.
Friday, March 22, 2002
this freakishly cold weather is making me cranky. . .
and when i get cranky, look out! however, i just can't get worked up about yet another article complaining how americans are ruining yoga. maybe this is because i've had an ayurvedic consulation with dr. scott gerson and that anti-stress pitta carob jam is working.
(you're all asking yourselves: this woman can stand carob, aka "fake chocolate"? friends, i grit my teeth and do it for my soul. . .)
but seriously, while i personally don't do bikram, i know people who love his yoga, and more power to them. the great thing about yoga is that even if you start out doing it purely as a quest for that supermodel-yoga-butt, it will get to you, and you will be affected. so while it may appear at this moment that americans are changing yoga, trust me, yoga will have the last laugh here.
now in my most recent rant about that tired subject, child slave labor on the cocoa plantations of the ivory coast, you may recall that i wondered what chocolate manufacturers used ivory coast produce. and the answer, my friends, is here. among chocolate makers with dirty hands seem to be cemoi and barry callebaut.
let's all write them and ask what they planning to do to improve this situation. . .
Thursday, March 21, 2002
whoa -- big publishing glitch! in upgrading my software, i seemed to have made a shocking error. . .
that resulted in the loss of my march 20 entry containing seattle theobroma addict alex rast's in-depth discussion of how to taste chocolate. again, i don't agree with him 100%, but we must think of the future here! the archives! our duty to history! the repost:
I can't think of a time when I didn't love chocolate -- the only food I like better is beef -- this has been true since I was an infant. Nonetheless there are some moments that accelerated my addiction, as it were. The first was tasting a Ghirardelli milk chocolate bar. Not that I hadn't already tasted a great many quality chocolates before then: as a kid I was lucky enough to have cultured parents who introduced me to high-class chocolate. But they'd all been dark. Ghirardelli is one of the world's great milk chocolates and tasting it for the first time I realized it was possible to make a good milk chocolate. From that moment on I never doubted that any level of quality was possible in any chocolate.
The next is interesting, because I didn't really integrate how important it was for years later. IMO the best chocolate in the world is Guittard Bittersweet. Time after time, I'd try other first-rate chocolates only to find them a notch worse. At some point, I can't remember when, I went "Gee, if it seems revelatory to me now every time I eat it, what must my first reaction have been?" This unleashed a flood of memories. The first time, I'd been preparing to make (also for the first time), my Ultimate chocolate cake: Chocolate Death. I'd gone out and bought what I thought looked to be the best possible bittersweet chocolate for baking. Of course, before baking, I had to try a piece. In that instant I understood why it would never be possible for even the best milk chocolate, or the best semisweet chocolate, to be the best chocolate in the world. If tasting Ghirardelli milk for the first time had been a religious experience, tasting Guittard bittersweet was like ascending into the presence of God.
A perfectionist, however, is never satisfied, and I was always a little disappointed with the not-completely-smooth texture of Guittard and the not-quite-chocolatey-enough of Ghirardelli. I then got obsessed with making my own. Eventually my hard-fought experimentation met with success, and I succeeded in producing the best chocolate I've ever tried in my life, with the taste of Guittard and a texture, if you can imagine this, even smoother than Dove. I also found out why making chocolate at home is not a good idea! For those not in the know, it's a long, involved, elaborate process and you have to be fanatical in order to achieve good results.
So I got really serious about tasting. Now I don't merely taste new chocolates as they come my way, so to speak, but make a point of seeking out and trying new brands, even bad ones. It's been interesting because I've been able to develop quite a science out of judging and evaluating chocolate. How do you judge chocolate? First thing is to leave brand preconceptions at the door. If you approach a testing biased by brand in any way, you're not going to be fair. Before you've tried it, there is nothing that makes a Valrhona chocolate bar necessarily better than a Hershey's, for example. Be sure also that you try enough of a sample to make a fair taste-test. 50 g is optimum. 30 g is really the minimum to make a fair assessment, otherwise you won't experience the complete fullness of the taste or how it lingers.
Appearance is an indicator of quality, but not really a major one. Certainly it should not look cloudy, filmed with white or tan -- this means it has bloomed and will either be musty-tasting or very, very dry. A dark, pure brown tone is good but if it starts to approach black it's probably either Dutched or overroasted.
Next, set it down and smell it. Really bury your nose in it and inhale deeply, breathing down on the chocolate each time to heat it slightly. Do this for a good minute or so. Experience all the aroma components. A chocolatey aroma is the best, but you really have to confirm that it's purely chocolatey. Next best is an aroma of tropical fruit, almost like tropical punch.Tobacco aromas are also good, as well as certain fruits like blueberries. Among the less desirable aroma components would be coffee, citrus, or vanilla. Vanilla is particularly deceptive because the aroma itself is very pleasant, but it's an almost surefire sign that the chocolate flavor itself will be very weak.
Now it's time to taste. The first bite is critical. Bite off a big hunk. Don't be timid or delicate -- you need to get as much chocolate as possible in your mouth at once so you can get the most of the first flavor. It's typical for fruity notes, if there are any, to be strongest at this time. This first taste will be the most complex and you must really focus to try to capture as many flavor sensations as you can. Again, if the flavor is purely chocolatey, this is ideal. In a circle around the sun of chocolatiness are flavor components of coconut, tropical fruit, grapes, and flowers, all of which indicate a first-rate chocolate. Strong flavors of cherry, coffee, walnut, or blackberry are imbalanced and among the less ideal flavors.
Now, take 2 or 3 less gigantic bites, savoring them carefully. The objective here is to understand the overall flavor impression while eating. You don't have to focus so intensely on capturing all the flavor components. Ask yourself broad questions -- how sweet is it? (too sweet is sickly but not sweet enough usually tastes flat) How bitter is it? (The less, the better. Know now that even the darkest bittersweet doesn't have to have even a trace of bitterness) Is the chocolate flavor strong or weak? (an intense chocolate flavor is what you're looking for.)
For the next couple of bites, focus on texture. The ideal chocolate melts in the mouth with creamy uniformity. It coats every surface of the mouth without being pasty like peanut butter or filmy like olive oil. There should not be even a trace of grittiness or dustiness. And it should not be dry or waxy. For a nice reference for ideal texture, simply walk down to your local supermarket and buy a Dove dark chocolate bar.
Finally, finish off the rest quickly with large bites. By this point in a 50g bar, you'll have experienced all of the primary taste you're going to; now you want to experience how the taste lingers. A chocolate that in the last few bites starts to taste harsh, tedious, or overly sweet has problems. A chocolate that you regret getting to the end of is OTOH the way it should be. Then savor how long the chocolate taste lingers in your mouth afterwards. A good chocolate has very long aftertaste -- a sample of Guittard Bittersweet for me once lingered for hours!
Remember that in the final analysis, it's your subjective experience that matters, not what objective qualities you or anyone else may choose to assign to a given chocolate. A good chocolate is one that tastes good to you. If you don't like it, it's no good. If you have a satisfying experience, it's a quality chocolate.
Tuesday, March 19, 2002
readers, you know i hate to bore you. . .
so let's start with a chic new pastime in japan: cafe-ology. the appreciation of coffeeshops, which are hot, which are not, and what about their java? eager coffee lovers go to take notes. . .
but i have to make some mention of yet another story highlighting my much-overdone rant, child slavery on west african cocoa farms. as soon as i give this link, i also have to say that the chocolate industry is attempting to work with countries and plantation owners to alleviate this sorrow. and unicef is working on the problem; it's come to the attention of the united nations.
however, as the article notes, the overall quality of life in many african nations remains so low that many parents feel they have no feasible alternative but to auction their children into bondage. can you imagine being faced with such poverty that you choose among your beloved children, struggling to decide which one you must smuggle over the border to another country and to offer up as merchandise? which child is appealing enough that total strangers would buy him from you at first sight?
unicef is holding a conference in africa this week that aims to construct a legal framework to protect west african children better. no matter your political views, readers, you have to confess that global organizations such as unicef, development agencies, and international charities should focus more clearly on forms of development that would discourage and eliminate the need for this shameful social practice.
i personally do not think a boycott of chocolate is required -- the american chocolate industry at least is aware. unicef and other global organizations can work to set laws into place; but laws can be ignored and unenforced, as they will be while the economic situation in west africa is so awry. the international chocolate corporations and manufacturers -- the people who have the money, who have the relationships in the overall cocoa system -- they need to be proactive. they just can't ignore the problem and let unicef deal with it. but at the same time, since the problem is regional, the chocolate industry alone can't be blamed. so a boycott wouldn't apply the pressure where it needs to go, imvho.
we as consumers need only make the chocolate industry aware of our concerns, hear the chocolate industry's plan of action, and then help them follow through on those plans. all of us might consider writing our favorite chocolate manufacturer to ask what their level of involvement is, and to urge them to do more. but it might also behoove us to contact the imf and our representatives and senators to encourage not just more aid, but more effective aid.
then i'll eat my manjari with a strong conscience! (note: as far as i can tell from perusing their website, valrhona per se doesn't seem to rely heavily on west african cocoa in its products. i simply use manjari as an expression.)
Monday, March 18, 2002
ok, ok, i've got to get over jacques torres. . .there are other chocolate artists in the world. . .
and one of the most interesting is the california-based richard donnelly. never heard of him? dear readers, i have mentioned him before! still, he'll be even more famous quite soon; there are rumors that starbucks will start to carry his artisan creations in their stores nation-wide. those of you near a peet's coffee location may know him already, since his products are featured there.
and it would be no wonder -- donnelly's an award winning chocolatier, taking home several international chocolate prizes, notably the 1998 prize from the eurochocolate festival in perugia. he's been in business in santa cruz since 1988, when he returned from studying chocolate in europe. donnelly's delights are based on french (valrhona) and belgian chocolates. (note that he's been quoted as not totally admiring scharffen-berger chocolate.)
further, he's famous for a fanatical devotion to detail in his craft. yet donnelly's a nice guy too: when i recently took the liberty to write him out of the blue, he was kind enough to reply himself the very same day. and he does yoga! you're my kinda genius, richard donnelly. . .
i wrote to ask him what he thought was most important in chocolate artistry. and in a nutshell, he replied that it was preserving the sensuous qualities of fine chocolate. or, verbatim:
we think what is interesting in great chocolate is the taste and smell. to develop interesting and delicious chocolates we make very small batches with good ingredients and time tested/developed recipes.
btw, we are working on new products. when they work out you can find information on the web site (chocolate lip balm, chocolate bread, jams, chutneys).
donnelly offers traditional european flavors in his chocolate: almond, hazelnut, caramel, orange and coffee. he also features newer, exciting eastern flavors like ginger, cardomom, and chinese five spice. however, you won't find any of the crazy confusion flavors i've ranted against before. no merlot/pumpkin/ginseng/foie-gras or rosewater/fennel/peanut butter/saffron all-in-one-truffle stuff here. donnelly's palate is clearly elegant and disciplined.
as for those new products, chocolate lip balm! chef donnelly, i'll be virtually sleeping in that cyberspace line waiting for you to unveil that one. could it be even better than the orange-chocolate shea butter balm i've mentioned before?
Sunday, March 17, 2002
here's to the first day of chocolate week. . .
and to the los angeles times, which breathlessly reports that quality chocolate, often based on cocoa beans from certain countries or regions, is now all the rage. still the article does have some great quotes from gary guittard. . .
but we could have told them that, couldn't we, readers? how often have i waxed euphoric over el rey's bucare and mijao chocolates, all made with beans from venezuela? over valrhona's manjari or caraibe? or the hacienda conception of michel cluizel?
all in all, it's a great article that i hope will raise awareness about the wonders of quality chocolate. . .