Eaten: The Petit Mendiant Pendant from La Maison du Chocolat

I hold a special place in my heart for La Maison du Chocolat, having had the fortune of having had a meal composed entirely of chocolate while in Paris.  I’m not kidding in the least – there were truffles, and a demi-tasse of hot chocolate, accompanied by a bowl full of billowy whipped cream.  Oh, and there was a glass of cold chocolate.  And maybe a macaron or four.

So, when La Maison du Chocolat reached out to me and inquired as to whether I would be interested in sampling something from their holiday collection, there was absolutely no hesitation.  What arrived in the mail was their Petit Mendiant Pendant, a glorious combination of nuts and chocolate designed to be hung from a Christmas tree as an ornament for as long as your chocolate-hungry soul will allow.

Opening the package reveals 180 grams of exquisite dark chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and pistachios, covered in edible gold flake.  And, seeing that it had arrived weeks before a tree would ever grace our livingroom, we had no choice but to dive into it immediately.

The verdict?  There’s a reason why La Maison du Chocolat is one of the leading purveyors of luxury chocolate, and the Petit Mendiant Pendant is a just one example.  The piece is no delicate work, far from it – I used a butter knife to crack the thick pendant into rough quarters, and the combination of rich chocolate and nuts ensured that I would be satisfied extending the experience over several nights.  And when all was said and done, I still had that beautiful red ribbon as a reminder of it all.

The Petit Mendiant Pendant is available in La Maison du Chocolat boutiques and online.

December 15, 2011   Comments

A Review of Chocolate: A Love Story

My first experience with Max Brenner chocolates occurred this past summer, during the last few hours of our trip to Manhattan. We stopped into the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar in Astor Place, our curiosity piqued by the notion of an entire restaurant devoted to chocolate.  Exhausted from having taken in two full days of the Fancy Food Show, and with a bag containing sixty pounds of cookbooks in tow (long story), we were in no shape to sit down and engage in a full meal – but that’s not to say that we merely browsed and left empty-handed.  It’s CHOCOLATE, folks.  You can’t just look.  It’s illegal to just look.

The store is like a Willy Wonka fantasy for adults. A variety of chocolates were showcased under glass, like jewelry, and it took us quite a few minutes of circling the case before we were able to decide on our selections.  Each square piece of chocolate featured an intricate design and yielded flavors blending the usual suspects – fruit, liqueurs, nuts, cereals – all very good, and beautifully presented.  A box of Max Brenner chocolate pralines is as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate.

With that said, when I was offered the opportunity to review Max Brenner’s cookbook, entitled Chocolate: A Love Story, there was absolutely no hesitation behind my acceptance.  As it turns out, just as his retail shops are no standard confectioneries, Max Brenner’s book is far from your ordinary cookbook.

Max Brenner, in collaboration with the artist Yonatan Factor, has created a compelling work that achieves something that is rare among cookbooks – Chocolate: A Love Story not only inspires me to cook, it also inspires me to write.  Reading this book, you realize that a cookbook that is prepared by a writer can become a very different animal from all of the cookbooks that are mere collections of recipes.

Most of the 65 recipes in this book are introduced by snippets of prose written by Brenner, which all tend to evoke themes of love, romance, chocolate, and nostalgia.  Not content to simply throw recipes at the reader, Brenner seeks to draw his audience into his world, using prose to set a mood for the reader, so that they may experience a fleeting glimpse of some deeply emotional fiction that connects Brenner to the recipe on the page – romance, whimsy, ennui, nostalgia, senses of loss and remorse among them.  Remorse? Are we still talking about a cookbook?  Amazingly, we are.

The recipes are accompanied on the facing pages by Yonatan Factor’s Art Deco poster graphics, which serve to complement Brenner’s prose, and which sometimes threaten to transform the recipe itself into a third wheel.  Thankfully, the majority of the recipes are strong enough to stand on their own, and then some.

Recipe titles like “Control Freak Chocolate Spread” and “Politically Correct Sacher Torte” mingle freely with straightforward declarations like “The Belgian street waffle” – a deceptively simple title which contains no hint of its inclusion of butterscotch chips, roasted pineapple, and a white chocolate and orange maple sauce.  There’s even a recipe that mimics a cheeseburger in its entirety – but using chocolate instead of beef patty, strawberries instead of ketchup, and so forth.  It’s not something that you would expect an average reader to attempt, but Brenner gets credit for the imaginative effort.

Reading the intro to “My lost childhood chocolate birthday cake”, which one would think to be a surefire recipe for happiness, actually made me a little sad. The recipe itself is a very basic yellow cake preparation with a ganache frosting, nothing fancy or overly complex.  The same recipe could appear in a dozen other cookbooks and evoke no emotion whatsoever. Yet, in Brenner’s hands, it’s something else.

In his introduction to the book, Max Brenner says that after ten years of seeking inspiration, he has yet to embark on writing his first novel.  But, flipping through the pages of his book, it’s quite clear to me that he’s already been on his journey as a writer for quite a while now, and maybe he just hasn’t realized it.  All of his ingredients are in place, somewhere in his mind – he just needs to put them all together to create a literary meal.

December 1, 2009   Comments

The Big Finish

So, I had mentioned that I spent part of the morning on Friday making dessert. While I knew that one of our distinguished guests was bringing a homemade cake (completely from scratch), I also knew that, in said cake, there would be no chocolate. That was my in.

I decided to augment the dessert selection by making a chocolate pots de creme, which is really just a fancy way of saying “melted chocolate held together by egg yolks”. Really, it is.

At first, I had the hardest time finding which cookbook had held the recipe that I used earlier. I grabbed one book, but the pots de creme recipe didn’t look familiar (also, it called for a dozen egg yolks, and I’m fairly positive I would have remembered that). Finally, I grabbed my copy of Williams Sonoma Paris: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World, and found a recipe whose page was splattered with bits of chocolate and stained with cocoa. Pretty sure that was it.

So, here’s the magic formula, with the ingredients straight out of that book and the procedure based on the book but adjusted somewhat for my tastes:

Pots de Creme au Chocolat

1.5 C whole milk

1 C heavy cream

1 C powdered sugar

8oz bittersweet chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger, 72% if I remember correctly), chopped up

2 T unsweetened cocoa

pinch of salt

1 large egg, whole, plus 6 egg yolks

1/2 t vanilla extract

These things are incredibly easy to make, which is probably why they are my go-to recipe for chocolate desserts. First things first, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Some preparatory steps – take eight 6oz or 8oz ramekins (they are cheap and widely available, about a buck and a half each if you shop around) and put them into an ovenproof dish that will fit them (a Corningware casserole is good for this). Take a saucepan of cold water and pour it into the dish until the water level reaches about a third of the way up each ramekin. Take out the ramekins and pour the water back into the saucepan. Set the saucepan of water aside, or pour the water into something that you can heat up in the microwave. As long as the water is hot when you put the dish into the oven, it doesn’t matter how it got that way.

You know what you just did? You just made the preliminary measurements for a bain marie, or water bath. It’s an important part of custard making – by cooking the custards, covered, in water, it maintains a nice, steady temperature which cooks them evenly. You’ve now measured the proper amount of water needed to cover the ramekins halfway (and before you quibble that I specified a third of the way – Archimedes Principle. That is all).

Onwards to the recipe. Take another saucepan and set it over medium heat, then throw your milk, cream, and sugar into it. Give that a good stir to dissolve the sugar, and heat it up until you see some simmering action going on along the edges. Turn the heat off.

Toss in your chopped chocolate, cocoa, and salt and stir until everything melts together. Turn the heat back on and heat until you see small bubbles at the edge, then turn the heat off again. Set this pot aside to cool for a bit while you go get the eggs.

In a large measuring cup (I mean large, like 8 cups or so) or large bowl, whisk the whole egg and the egg yolks together until blended. While stirring with one hand, ladle a little bit (like, half a ladle) of the warm chocolate mixture into the yolks, then a little more (you do it this way to avoid cooking the eggs with the hot chocolate – this brings the temperature of the eggs up slowly). Slowly incorporate the rest of the chocolate in a slow stream (don’t stop stirring). Add your vanilla.

At this point, the book suggests running the mix through a sieve. Seeing that I am lazy, and I don’t mind lumps in my food if they are lumps of chocolate, I generally skip this step.

Assembly. If you haven’t already, bring that reserved pot of water to a simmer, or microwave it in a microwave-safe thingy until it just boils. Either pour or ladle the chocolate mixture into the ramekins, then set the ramekins into the oven-safe dish (leave out one so you have a space to pour the hot water). Pour the hot water into the dish until the water level reaches the halfway mark of the ramekins, then put the last ramekin in. Cover the dish, either with a lid or with foil.

Carefully place the dish into the oven for 25 minutes. Take it out, uncover it, and with great care because you will most certainly burn yourself if you aren’t careful, remove the ramekins and place them on a kitchen towel to cool. When they have cooled to room temp, cover each one with plastic wrap and throw them into the fridge until you’re ready to attack them.

I just realized that the picture here has a sprig of rosemary sitting in the chocolate, and I haven’t mentioned it before. One thing about this recipe, once you get the hang of it, is that you can infuse the chocolate mixture with any number of other flavors, just by simmering an extra element (such as rosemary) in the milk-cream-sugar solution prior to adding the chocolate. Here, I chose rosemary, but you can also go with lavender or anything else you can imagine. Just pick out the flavoring element, or sieve it, before you add the chocolate.

The pots de creme ended up being the perfect counterpart to the strawberry cake that was brought to the party. The cake, which was so light it felt like a prop when I lifted it, was a white cake with fresh whipped cream, and strawberries in the shape of hearts (which is great, because I don’t shape my food often enough), was the exact opposite of the chocolate custards, which were very dark and very dense.

So, to keep things fair, I ate both.

Pictures of each, below:

May 1, 2008   Comments