Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Essence of Chocolate

If you follow any food blogs, you've probably already gotten a peek at The Essence of Chocolate - a gorgeous chocolate cookbook from the guys at Scharffen Berger, John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg. I'd had my eye on this book, so I was thrilled when offered the opportunity to review it Happily, the book lived up to and even exceeded my expectations.

This is not just a cookbook. Interspersed with the recipes are chapters that describe how the Sharffen Berger company came into being, how chocolate is made, and how cacao is grown. Both the narrative and recipe sections of the book are lavished with beautiful full page photographs.

Perhaps what pleases me most about this book is that there are so many enticing recipes and that they generally appear to be very doable - not overly difficult and not requiring obscure ingredients. If I allowed myself to dog-ear this book (I can't bear to - it's too beautiful), there would probably be at least twenty page corners folded over. I'm also very happy to find a number of ideas for using those cocoa nibs that have been languishing on my shelf.

The recipes are divided into four sections: Intensely Chocolate (rich chocolate sweets), Essentially Chocolate (lighter chocolate sweets), Hint of Chocolate (sweet and savory recipes with just a little chocolate), and Basics and Add-Ons (recipe components or accompaniments that aren't necessarily chocolate). Some of the recipes come from the folks at Sharffen Berger, but most are contributed by well-known chefs and cookbook authors, including Rick Bayless, Flo Braker, Thomas Keller, David Lebovitz, Alice Medrich, and Jacques Pépin.

There are also a number of simple ideas, called "Quick Fixes", scattered throughout the book. These are more like interesting ideas than recipes: load up a clean pepper grinder with cocoa nibs and mill some nibs over melon or strawberries; or use a mixture of cocoa powder and salt as a rub for chicken, meat or vegetables.

Like most everyone else, I'm trying to get back to eating a little less indulgently after the holidays, so I have not yet sampled any of the chocolate sweets in the book. I did try the Three-Bean Chili which has a bit of cocoa in it to provide rich color and aroma. This was a very easy to make vegetarian chili, using canned beans and tomatoes and having a cooking time of only 10 minutes. Probably because of the short cooking time, the acidity of the tomatoes seemed to overwhelm the other flavors. But allowing the chili to sit overnight and reheating it eliminated this problem entirely. I thoroughly enjoyed the leftovers. Next time I would make this the night before I planned to serve it.

I've long wanted to make marshmallows and when I saw among Claire's new year resolutions, "Make Marshmallows", I thought, me too! There just so happens to be a recipe for marshmallows in the chapter of Basics and Add-Ons. It is used in the S'mores recipe and is suggested as one of the things you might dunk in the Chocolate Orange Fondue. I'm enjoying mine straight, though I plan to have a couple in a mug of hot cocoa tonight. Marshmallows are basically a sugar syrup mixed with gelatin that is beaten into a foam and then allowed to set. You'll need a candy thermometer, but other than that they're really very easy - and fun! This particular recipe is flavored with a generous amount of vanilla extract and dusted with a mixture of cornstarch and confectioners' sugar, but you could tinker with the flavoring or coatings. I'm thinking next time of rolling them in toasted coconut, dipping them in chocolate, or as my brother David suggested, rolling them in cocoa powder.

If you're still not convinced that you must have this book, you might want to take a look at a few of the recipes from the book that are posted at Leite's Culinaria, where the book was named as one of the Best 20 Food Books of 2006: Almond Roca, Apricot Hazelnut Squares, and Cocoa Caramel Panna Cotta.


Rachel said...

that looks divine!

Zarah Maria said...

Me want, me want, me want! That book sounds to die for! STOP TEMPTING ME! One of my New Year resolutions was supposed to be to NOT buy any cookbooks - bo-hoo!:-P Stamina, Zarah, will power...

Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard of this book before...looks great! The chili and the marshmallows both look good. So, now that you've finally made marshmallows, will you be doing so again anytime soon? I've always wanted to make them, too...but the time never seems right.

Cathy said...

Hi Rachel - it is, it is!

Hi Zarah - looks like there's a loophole in that resolution :)

Hi Alice - I'll definitely make them again, though probably when there's an occasion that I can give most of them away. They're pretty sweet and not something I'd want to eat a lot of in one sitting, but it is nice to have a few around!

Anonymous said...

Marshmellows! That is a great idea. Now I am going to see about that book. Thank you for this blog. I am enjoying reading it.

Cathy said...

Hi Michelle - thanks for stopping by! If you decide to get the book, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. We're celebrating a birthday today, so I'm going to make the chocolate layer cake. It looks like a fairly standard chocolate cake recipe, but the icing looks especially good.

Anonymous said...

This miht be a foolish question, but I'm a Canadian coming to Silver Spring for a few days, and I want to do some baking for a soiree my friend is hosting. Where do I buy baking chocolate--good stuff--like cocoa nibs or cocoa butter?

Any tips would be very appreciated!


Cathy said...

Hi Stephanie! I don't usually shop in the Silver Spring area, but I checked, and there's a Whole Foods there (833 Wayne Ave.). They sell Callebaut and El Ray chocolate by the pound in various percentages. They also sell Scharffen Berger chocolate, including the nibs. I don't know who might carry cocoa butter - I've never used it and can't say that I've ever seen it for sale. If you're going to need that, you might want to bring it with you. The other place that might be of interest to you is in Bethesda (not too far from Silver Spring) and that is Balducci's (formerly Sutton Place Gourmet). They don't have any bulk chocolate that I can recall, but do carry a number of different pricey bars. They probably have nibs too. Enjoy your stay in Maryland!

Anonymous said...

Hi Cathy,

Thanks for your help! I love Whole Foods, but never thought to check for baking chocolates there. Left to my own devices I would have tried finding a specialty kitchen store or something.

You saved the day!

thanks again!

Cathy said...

Hi Stephanie - well, finding a specialty kitchen store is never a bad thing! If you have time and decide to hunt around for that sort of thing, I'd be curious to hear what you find! Silver Spring probably has some interesting shops since it's close to the metro and downtown.