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Cocoa Curiosity

March 31st, 2011 by Cocolat

About 10 years ago, the late Robert Steinberg (who, with John Scharffenberger, founded Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker) called to ask if I wanted to come over that evening and taste the first samples of what would later become Scharffen Berger natural cocoa powder. I did. I suggested that Alfred Peet join us. Neither John nor Robert knew Alfred and I relished the idea of introducing the man who changed coffee in America to a couple of new guys that I knew (even then) would change chocolate. Alfred, the late founder of Peet’s Coffee, was well over 80 at the time. When I phoned him, he said,“I’m just back from Holland, too jet lagged to drive to San Francisco”. I took a chance and said, “what if I drive?”. He never hesitated, “what time should I be ready?”
 
In Robert’s kitchen that night, I introduced the elder game changer to the two up-and-coming. I was the only female watching these boys figure each other out, joke with each other, and eventually find common ground, and even show a little respect. I had a wonderful time and left with the guy what brought me, that is, the guy that I brought… Memorable evening.
 
Ultimately Scharffen Berger cocoa was memorable too: aromatic, chocolaty, fruity, filled with a range of complex flavors. Because it was such a pleasure to work with, I began to pay careful attention…
I started to notice that simmering or boiling seemed to destroy some of its bright fruity flavors and sometimes produced unpleasant flavor notes. For that reason, my recipes for cocoa frosting and cocoa sauce call for heating but no simmering. Lately I’ve wondered if some of my older recipes, like Sicilian Gelato or chocolate pudding, would be improved by not boiling the cocoa.
 
So I tried the gelato without letting the cocoa simmer: I simmered the base mixture (Straus organic milk, sugar, and cornstarch) just enough to eliminate the raw starch flavor. Then I whisked the base into the cocoa at the very end. I was rewarded with better, brighter, and more complex cocoa flavor. That recipe was good before, and now it’s better. If you try it, remember that home made ice creams have no gums or additives to keep then from freezing rock solid. Once frozen, you will need to soften the gelato slightly in the microwave or fridge before scooping and serving. Then again, if your gang is available at the critical moment, this stuff makes irresistible soft-serve, right out of the machine. You’ll end up eating plenty that way, so be happy it’s relatively guilt free.
 
CHOCOLATE SICILIAN GELATO REDUX
Sicilian gelato contains no eggs or cream; it’s made with milk and thickened ever so slightly with starch to give it creaminess and body. When it’s done properly and with good ingredients, it is satisfying and flavorful and refreshingly not-too-rich. It’s simple and delicious, and I often like it better than richer and fancier ice creams.
 
Ingredients:
2.4 ounces (3/4 cup) unsweetened natural (my preference) cocoa powder
3 cups milk (whole, low fat or nonfat!)
4.6 ounces (2/3 cup) sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch.
1/8 teaspoons salt
 
Equipment:
Ice cream maker
 
In a medium large bowl, whisk the cocoa with just enough of the milk to form a smooth loose paste. Set aside, near the stove. In a medium saucepan, mix the sugar with the cornstarch and salt. Whisk in enough of the remaining milk to form a smooth paste. Whisk in the rest of the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a silicon spatula or wooden spoon, scraping the sides, bottom and corners of the pan to avoid scorching, until the mixture thickens and bubbles a little at the edges. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes longer. Scrape the mixture over the cocoa paste. Whisk until thoroughly blended. Let cool. Cover and chill several hours or overnight. Freeze according to the instructions with your ice cream maker. Note: the mixture is thick to begin with and may take less time than average time in the ice cream maker. Makes about 1 quart.
 
POSTSCRIPT: Just to muddy the water a little, just to prove that “consistency (really) is the hobgoblin of small minds” (apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson) and that logical conclusions are not always logical, when I tried my best chocolate pudding recipe without boiling the cocoa, it wasn’t as good as the original. What’s good for the gelato is not good for the pudding? Go figure!

Duck Duck Duck Eggs

March 20th, 2011 by Cocolat

My friend Josh brought a dozen fresh eggs from his ducks. How could I be this old and never have tasted duck eggs? Never mind. I scrambled one immediately so he could share my first taste. I thought, “rich, not as egg-y (by which I guess I meant chicken egg-y) tasting as chicken eggs, hmmm”. Some people think they taste cheesy according to Josh. I didn’t and still don’t taste cheese, but the rich texture is somewhat reminiscent of scrambled eggs with cheese. And that extra richness does have its own flavor, which mutes what I would ordinarily consider to be an “egg-y” flavor. But I was hooked by the time I had finished my half of that first egg, which I had cooked hot and fast (but very soft) in brown butter and eaten with whole grain toast.
 
Over the next few days I ate a scrambled duck egg (often cooked in peppery extra virgin olive oil) everyday for breakfast. These have been so delicious I haven’t been able to make myself branch out and poach, fry sunny-side-up, or make custard with even one of them.
 
Last night, my cousins came to dinner. Duck egg virgins! What to do? I made a little appetizer: scrambled duck eggs with crunchy toasted baguette slices and chopped parsley on the side (a good call as it turned out), so we could each assemble our own little tastes. We had flakey Maldon salt and a pepper grinder at hand. Interestingly, the pepper overwhelmed the good duck egg-y flavor and the parsley was completely distracting. All that was wanted was a little salt after all.
 
This morning I was at it again. I scrambled my solitary egg in extra virgin olive oil, on low heat instead of high, and stirring constantly so the eggs came out very moist and creamy, very oeufs brouilles (someone please tell me how to get an accent egu over that last “e” please). I ate them with toast and salt. They were the best yet.
 
There are only a couple duck eggs left now. Tomorrow I might finally be able to poach one. Or maybe not.
 
 

Dulce Dulce

March 19th, 2011 by Cocolat

A couple of readers reported an unpleasantly graininess when they tried my dulce de leche from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies. I had good results when I tested for the book, so I was curious about the feedback. I made the recipe several times in the last few days, paying close attention to what might be going on.
 
Before I get into the details, let me admit that the recipe takes more like 60-90 minutes than the optimistic 45 minutes that I said it would take. And, you might as well use a bigger pot than I called for so that the mixture won’t flow over the moment you turn your back.
 
About the texture, it turns out that tending the pot and stirring frequently is critically important for a smooth sauce. You must stir any foam into the sauce regularly, as well as scraping the bottom and corners of the pot and around the sides, continually incorporating any thickened sauce from the sides and corners of the pot into the rest of the sauce before those thickened parts congeal and toughen. As the sauce thickens towards the end of the cooking, you must stir more often, and then constantly. I use a silicon spatula mostly, but have also used a whisk, though the whisk tends to cause more foam and if you whisk briskly the finished dulce will be lighter in color and texture, which may or may not be what you want. I’ve revised the recipe below with greater emphasis on stirring and with the additional step of straining the finished sauce for a little extra smoothness insurance. And I’ve added a pat of butter…
 
In one of my samples I ran out of whole milk and had to top off the measure with less than ¼ cup of non-fat milk. So, I added maybe a tablespoon of heavy cream to compensate. It seemed like a negligible amount so I promptly forgot about it. Comparing samples later, I liked the texture of that one best. I concluded that I had just been more careful about stirring. But later, I remembered that tiny bit of cream and wondered if such a small amount of extra fat could have softened the proteins (or something?). So I tested again with whole milk and but added a tablespoon of butter. I got the smoothest sauce of all… Of course I also tended the pot as though it were a baby. Clearly this is a recipe to make when you have time or other things going on in the kitchen meanwhile.
 
 
DULCE DULCE DE LECHE

(Revised from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies)

Makes 1 generous cup

Ingredients:

½ vanilla bean

1 quart whole milk

1 tablespoon butter

½ cup (3.5 ounces) sugar

½ teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt (optional but really good…)

Set a fine or medium fine strainer over a heatproof bowl.

With a sharp paring knife, cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. In a large heavy bottomed pot (that holds at least 6-quarts) combine the vanilla bean pieces with the milk, butter, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently, especially around the sides of the pot. At first the milk will foam dramatically, and it may curdle, but will eventually smooth out. Continue to cook, frequently stirring in any foam on top and sweeping the sides, corners, and all over the bottom of the pot with a silicone spatula. Keep the mixture boiling briskly but not furiously without letting it overflow. The mixture will gradually turn a deep caramel color as it thickens. This may take from 60-90 minutes, depending on your stove and the size of your pot. The mixture becomes especially bubbly and foamy in the last stages of cooking: adjust the heat so that it bubbles actively but not violently and stir it very frequently, and then constantly (especially around the sides and corners of the pot) until done. It is done when the mixture is reduced to a generous cup and a little spooned over an ice cube thickens to a soft gel. Scrape the sauce into the strainer and stir and press it through. Be sure to scrape the sauce from underneath the strainer into the bowl. Cool the sauce slightly, then taste and adjust the salt. You can put the spent pieces of vanilla bean back into the mixture if you like. They will either keep on giving flavor or at least look as though they are. May be kept in a covered container in the refrigerator for at least 1 month

Sending Back the Fish

March 9th, 2011 by Cocolat

I have a reputation in my family for sending back fish. I am not a hard to please diner. (Is that my daughter rolling her eyes?) It’s not my fault if I am served bad fish, or that someone at my table gets bad fish. I don’t think I am supposed to just sit there and let a loved one get sick. It happens disproportionately often when I am with my daughter. Once (with her) I sent back a platter of crudo at the Restaurant George atop the Centre Pompidou, even as we marveled at one of Paris’ most spectacular views. The waiter assured me that the fish had just come in. I assured him that (none-the-less) it did not smell fresh. Paris is yet another reason live: no one should die from eating bad fish.
 
My pre-teen had to learn to pretend she was not mortified to have a mother send back the fish, or wine from a bottle that was open too long or served in a glass that smelled of bleach, or baba ganoush that was beginning to ferment, or you name it. In my defense, I try always to behave graciously when sending food back. I do not berate waiters or behave obnoxiously. I have learned to be firm and reasonably charming (after a rocky start, I admit). In my further defense, my daughter, now in her early 20’s and no longer so easily mortified, has herself learned to handle restaurant situations with a modest aplomb that I did not acquire until I was much older. I am sure that she is grateful for her early training with me. I am sure…
 
Once, lunching alone, in San Francisco, two young women three tables behind me ordered the fish, though I did not. When the waiter walked past with their fish, I could smell that it was not fresh. I was beside myself. Should I mind my own fish (so to speak) or step up and appear to be a psycho: “Excuse me waiter, that fish over there across the room is not fresh…” I held my tongue. I wondered what the New York Times Ethicist would have said about allowing strangers to eat iffy fish, but I never wrote him and now he’s been replaced with a new guy that I am not yet comfortable with. I kept quiet but saved the story for my long-suffering offspring. She of the rolling eyes instantly understood both the hilarious irony of the situation and my acute discomfort in keeping silent. That’s my girl.
 
A few days ago I returned an expensive bottle of champagne to a neighborhood store…
I think we should speak up. How else will they know when something is not right?

Berkeley Breakfast For Two In 15 Minutes

March 5th, 2011 by Cocolat

Every now and then I love to be reminded that the best meals I’ve ever cooked are the simple fast ones I’ve prepared for people I love: a daughter, a lover, or a cherished friend. They often involve a little serendipity.

Last week my dear friend E set out for Berkeley from the North Coast to continue the celebration of her 75th. As usual, she stopped at the Booneville hotel to break the drive. But the Booneville was booked, so they tucked her in at the Toll House Inn 10 minutes up the hill on the road to Ukiah. She headed south again the following morning, after de-icing car door handles and scooping up the bottle of Alexander Valley chardonnay (Handley 2007) gifted by the hotel. Neither of us would have chosen the chardonnay, but even the persnickety can be tempted by free wine. Good thing.

POACHED EGGS FOR TWO W/ ASPARAGUS, BROWN BUTTER, FRESH TARRAGON, AND CALIFORNIA CHARDONNAY

Be sure the kitchen table is de-cluttered and the Magnolia blossoms plucked from the neighbor’s tree are in a lovely dish in the center. Tulips should already be arranged in the big vase behind the sink with lilies in the opposite corner of the room. (It wouldn’t hurt if the rest of house was de-cluttered as well-but that doesn’t count in my fifteen-minute prep time, nor does the fact that E usually gets up first and makes coffee for both of us well before we contemplate breakfast).
 
Put a wide skillet of water on the stove to heat. Meanwhile cut four slices from a loaf of Acme levain and put them in a turned off toaster oven. Rinse, snap, and peel asparagus stalks and set the kitchen table with flaky sea salt and a pepper grinder. When the skillet water is boiling, add salt and asparagus. Plop a chunk of unsalted butter into a tiny saucepan with a sprig of fresh tarragon over medium heat. Keep an eye on the butter and swirl it in the pot from time to time until it is fragrant and golden brown. When the asparagus is al dente (and still bright green), transfer the spears to a double layer of paper towels. (Check the butter and pour it into a ramekin when it is done).

Bring the asparagus water back to a simmer. Break four very fresh farm eggs into the water, in a clockwise pattern. Turn the burner OFF, cover the pan, and set the toaster oven for 3 minutes. Meanwhile uncork an expensive bottle of champagne and discover that it is not very good. When the toaster oven beeps, divide the toast between two plates and drizzle them with a little of the brown butter. Use a slotted spoon to remove the first egg, draining the excess water by resting the spoon on a folded paper towel before sliding the egg onto a slice of toast. Repeat, scooping each egg from the water in the order it was added. Garnish plates with asparagus and drizzle more brown butter over the eggs and asparagus. Top with tarragon leaves, pinches of flaky salt, and grinds of pepper.

Serve a slightly oaky, buttery, bottle of Alexander Valley Chardonnay (which turns out to be an even better choice than the champagne would have been…) Linger over breakfast as long as possible.

PS Enjoy left over brown butter on toast with salt and tarragon leaves for several mornings thereafter and don't forget to return the champagne to the store.