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Chocolate Sensation

Indulge your beloved on Valentine’s Day with help from the First Lady of Chocolate, Alice Medrich.

By Sue Tomchin

Valentine’s Day is coming and our thoughts turn to—chocolate. The holiday of love provides the excuse we all are looking for to whip up batches of brownies, cupcakes or mousse for the ones we love.

Alice Medrich,
Photo credit: Deborah Jones
Alice Medrich, Photo: Deborah Jones

In this season when chocolate reigns supreme, we want to introduce you to one of its most ardent admirers—noted baker and award-winning cookbook author Alice Medrich. In the 1970s when famed chef Alice Waters and others were revolutionizing the food world with California-style cuisine, Medrich was inspiring her own revolution through her influential Berkeley dessert shop, Cocolat, which she founded in 1976. 

“I was responsible for popularizing chocolate truffles in this country through my shop,” she says in a phone interview, “and desserts such as flourless chocolate cake that I made at Cocolat began showing up on menus around the country.” 

The public clamored for her truffles and for her elegant desserts made with fresh ingredients rather than mixes, butter rather than shortening, and nuts, orange peel, cream and sipping-quality liquors. One small shop became seven and then ten. Gourmet magazine wrote: “Cocolat is to chocolate what Tiffany’s is to diamonds.” 

She left the retail world in 1990, but that didn’t mean that she abandoned chocolate. In the years since she has devoted her career to sharing her knowledge through teaching and writing. Her cookbooks have been honored by the James Beard Foundation, the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) and others. In her latest book, Seriously Bitter Sweet—The Ultimate Dessert Maker’s Guide to Chocolate (Artisan, $25.95) , with photographs by Deborah Jones, Medrich has created a lucid and engaging exploration of how to use the new, distinctive, complex and percentage-based chocolates now available.

“Today it is irresponsible to simply call for bittersweet chocolate in a recipe,” Medrich says. “You have to be more specific. You would never use a recipe that calls for eight ounces of beef without specifying the cut. You need to give the range of percentages that will work.” 

Medrich learned this when she began baking with European chocolate. She assumed that introducing a 70% chocolate into a recipe would make a superb dessert even better, but found that this wasn’t the case without adapting the recipe accordingly. In her book, she provides guidance on which percentages work best in individual recipes, along with tips for adapting other chocolate that you may have on hand. She also specifies what kind of cocoa—natural or Dutch process—work best in her recipes. For example, she notes, “Brownies made with Dutch-processed cocoa will look dark but taste less chocolaty. Brownies made with natural cocoa will be lighter yet have a more complex and chocolaty flavor."
Seriously Bittersweet by Alice Medrich
Seriously Bitter Sweet includes 150 meticulously tested recipes for such delicacies as Molten Chocolate-Raspberry Cakes (each contains a 62% truffle that melts during baking into a luscious sauce); Chocolate-Flecked Cocoa Soufflés (each has less than 7 grams of fat and only 180 calories!); and Grappa, Currant and Pine Nut Torte, which she says can be easily adapted to serve at the Passover Seder by substituting matzo meal for the flour and margarine for the butter. In a recipe for Albert’s Mousse (named for her lactose-intolerant brother) you can use water or coffee instead of milk or cream with delicious results. Experimenting with cocoa nibs, tiny nuggets of roasted, shelled and cracked cocoa beans, she developed recipes for sweets such as Nibby Nut and Raisin Cookies, Almond Sticks with Cocoa Nibs (thin, miniature biscotti), to Currant and Nib Rugelach. 

Medrich branches into unexpected terrain with a chapter devoted to using chocolate in savory dishes. She sprinkles cocoa nibs on a salad for crunch, adds them to an eggplant appetizer and drizzles 62% melted chocolate on a toasted sweet baguettes to create Chocolate-Olive Oil Crostini. She adds chocolate to Coq Au Vin, to pasta sauce and to a Wild Mushroom Ragout which she writes “tastes big and rich enough that you might believe it contains meat, although it has none.”

But what would an Alice Medrich book—or Valentine’s Day—be without truffles? She includes multiple recipes and detailed explanations that both home cooks and professionals will appreciate. Her own acquaintance with these confections began when she and her then husband moved to France in the early 1970s so she could study at the prestigious Ecole Lenôtre in Paris. “We rented a flat in a grand private home on rue Copernic,” she recalls. “Our landlady, Mme. Lestelle, who lived there with her dog, asked me to help her roll truffles one year at Christmas. That truffle was a revelation,” Medrich says. “It was rich and smooth and chocolaty and buttery, like a bittersweet poem. I never forgot it and it changed my life.” 

For Valentine’s Day, Medrich has shared her recipes for Molten Chocolate Raspberry Cakes and Truffles au Cocolat, the recipe that started her career. “Every few years I update the recipe for my first and still favorite truffles,” she writes. 

Truffles Au Cocolat

Excerpted from Seriously Bitter Sweet by Alice Medrich (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. Photographs by Deborah Jones.

Makes 64 or more truffles

Photo credit: Deborah Jones

These are the truffles that Mme. Lestelle, my landlady on the rue Copernic, made for my birthday in 1972. A year later, I asked for her recipe as a going-away gift and with it, I started my career, making truffles in my home kitchen in Berkeley and selling them to a local charcuterie. Without this very authentic yet virtually obsolete recipe, I would never have dreamed of opening my own chocolate shop. Bite-sized cocoa-dusted truffles made with butter and egg yolks rather than cream have a unique bittersweet intensity and a smooth, dense texture that is different from that of the cream-based ganache truffles most people know. Every few years I update the recipe for these, my first and still favorite truffles.

I now use a higher-percentage chocolate than before, and I have slightly reduced the amount of butter to create truffles with a heightened chocolate flavor. I have changed the way the egg yolks are handled too; now I heat them first for safety. The result is still an elegant and stunningly easy-to-make confection. No dipping is required; the truffles are rolled directly in good cocoa powder. Choose a fine distinctive chocolate. I like a fruity, not too austere chocolate, such as Scharffen Berger semisweet (62%), Valrhona Le Noir Gastronomie (61%), or E. Guittard Sur Del Lago (65%). Always good after dinner with espresso, port, or Cognac, these truffles also get along surprisingly well with a juicy, fruit-forward red wine with low tannins, such as a syrah or a late-harvest zinfandel.

If you are using fresh farm eggs or are confident about the quality of your eggs, you can skip the egg-heating step: simply add the ½ cup water (cold) to the chocolate and butter before melting them. When the chocolate is completely melted and smooth, add the raw egg yolks and proceed as directed. 

1 pound (455 grams) 54% to 62% chocolate, coarsely chopped (see Chocolate Notes)
10 tablespoons (140 grams/1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
½ cup boiling water or freshly brewed espresso
½ cup (50 grams) premium unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)

Special Equipment
8-inch square baking pan
Fine-mesh strainer
Instant-read thermometer

Line the bottom and sides of a baking pan with parchment paper or foil. Set aside.

Place the chocolate and butter in a medium stainless steel bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water over low heat. Stir frequently until the chocolate and butter are almost completely melted and smooth. Remove the bowl and stir with a spatula to complete the melting. Set aside. Leave the heat under the skillet on low.

Place the egg yolks in a small stainless steel bowl and gradually stir in the boiling water. Place the bowl in the skillet and stir constantly with a heatproof spatula, sweeping the bottom of the bowl to prevent the eggs from scrambling, until the mixture registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer. (You will have to remove the bowl from the skillet to take the temperature unless you are agile enough to stir, hold, and read the thermometer at the same time.) For safety, rinse the thermometer stem in the simmering water to sterilize it after each reading. When the yolk mixture is ready, scrape it immediately over the melted chocolate. Stir gently (without whisking or beating) until completely blended and smooth. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the lined pan and spread it evenly. Cover and chill until firm, at least 2 hours.

Put the cocoa in a medium bowl. Remove the truffle pan from the refrigerator and use the liner to transfer the truffle sheet to a cutting board. Allow it to soften until you can cut it without it cracking, about 30 minutes if the mixture is very hard. Invert the sheet and peel off the liner. Cut the truffles into squares 1 inch or smaller and toss them in the bowl of cocoa powder. You can leave the truffles square or dust your hands with cocoa and roll them into balls. (Store the truffles tightly covered for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator or freeze for up to 3 months.) Remove from the refrigerator about 20 minutes before serving to soften slightly.

Chocolate Notes
To use higher-percentage chocolate, make the following adjustments.

To use 64% to 66% chocolate: Use 12 ounces (340 grams) chocolate, and increase the butter to 12 tablespoons (170 grams/1½ sticks). Dissolve 1½ teaspoons (6 grams) of sugar in the hot water before adding it to the egg yolks.

To use 66% to 72% chocolate: Use 11 ounces (310 grams) chocolate, and increase the butter to 12 tablespoons (170 grams/1½ sticks). Dissolve 3 to 4 teaspoons (13 to 17 grams) sugar in the boiling water before adding it to the egg yolks.

Molten Chocolate–Raspberry Cakes
Excerpted from Seriously Bitter Sweet by Alice Medrich (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. 

Serves 6

Have you ever ordered one of these sexy little desserts in a restaurant only to find that the anticipated molten center has morphed into cake instead of flowing sauce? Because small desserts are more easily overbaked than large ones, and because baking times vary with different kinds of chocolate, I’ve concluded that the best and simplest insurance against disappointment (congealed sauce) is the buried-truffle method. During the short time in the oven, the truffle in each small cake melts to form a luscious sauce, while the cake gets fully baked. Although it sounds like a completely separate step
, the truffles are actually created with a portion of the cake batter, so the whole process is quite efficient. 

Sugar for the custard cups
8 ounces (225 grams) 54% to 62% chocolate, coarsely chopped (see Chocolate Notes)
6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter
¼ cup (55 grams) strained raspberry puree (from fresh or frozen unsweetened raspberries)
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (46 grams) sugar
2 tablespoons (12 grams) premium unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
2 large eggs, separated
1 large egg white
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
Fresh raspberries for garnish (optional)
Powdered sugar for dusting

Special Equipment
Six 6-ounce custard cups or ramekins

Put a pie plate or cake pan in the freezer to chill. Liberally butter the insides of the custard cups, sprinkle with sugar, and tap out the excess.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a medium heatproof bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water, stirring frequently until smooth. Remove the bowl from the skillet. Transfer 5 tablespoons of the chocolate mixture to a small bowl and set aside the rest. Add the raspberry puree and 2 teaspoons (8 grams) of the sugar to the 5 tablespoons chocolate and stir to blend. Scrape the raspberry mixture into a puddle in the chilled pie plate or pan and place in the freezer for 10 minutes or so to firm.

When the raspberry-chocolate mixture is firm enough to hold a shape, use a teaspoon (or a tiny ice cream scoop) to form it into 6 truffles (they need not be perfectly round). Return the truffles to the freezer. 

Rewarm the remaining chocolate mixture in the skillet of water over low heat until warm to the touch. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cocoa and egg yolks.

In a dry medium bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with an electric mixer until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Gradually beat in the remaining 3 tablespoons (38 grams) sugar and continue beating until the whites are stiff and glossy but not dry. Fold about one-quarter of the egg whites into the batter. Scrape the remaining whites into the bowl and fold until blended. Using half of the batter, fill each cup about half-full. Press a truffle about halfway into the batter in the center of each cup. Top with the remaining batter and level the tops; make sure the truffles are completely covered by batter. Cover the cups with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. 

Twenty minutes before you want to serve the cakes, remove the plastic wrap and place the cups on a cookie sheet. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the cakes are puffed and the truffles are melted (a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake should meet no resistance and the chocolate on the toothpick should feel warm rather than cool when you touch it to your lip). Let the cakes cool for about 3 minutes. 

Run a knife around the sides of each cup. Holding each cup with a pot holder, invert the cakes onto serving plates. Garnish with a few raspberries, if desired, and, using a fine-mesh strainer, sift a light dusting of powdered sugar over all. Serve immediately.

Chocolate Notes
I originally developed this dessert using 55% chocolate and loved the outcome. But 62% chocolate made it even better because the difference in texture between the slightly cakey outside and the gooey inside is more pronounced and exciting.

To use a higher-percentage chocolate, adjust the recipe as follows.

To use 64% to 66% chocolate: Use 7½ ounces (215 grams) chocolate. Add 2 teaspoons water to the raspberry puree. Increase the sugar added to the raspberry-chocolate mixture to 1 tablespoon (13 grams). Reduce the cocoa to 1 tablespoon (6 grams).

To use 70% to 72% chocolate: Use 7 ounces (200 grams) chocolate. Add 1 tablespoon water to the raspberry puree. Increase the sugar added to the raspberry-chocolate mixture to 1 tablespoon (13 grams). Omit the cocoa. Increase the sugar added to the egg whites to 4½ tablespoons (55 grams).

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