Valentine's Day sweets - chocolate! (what else?)
If you’re the type who thinks of the “main course” as dessert rather than the entrée, read on.
Alice Medrich knows a thing or two about dessert. Dubbed the “patron saint of chocoholics” by the San Francisco Chronicle, she is the founder of Cocolat, the legendary and innovative Bay Area pastry company that revolutionized chocolate making from the mid 1970’s to the early ‘90’s. Since then her books have won the coveted Cookbook of the Year and Book of the Year awards from the James Beard Foundation and The International Association of Culinary Professionals three times.
While we know and love Medrich for her life in chocolate, her latest cookbook “Pure Dessert” (Artisan, $35) focuses on our favorite course using flavorful, inspired ingredients, from fresh cheeses and yogurts to Tahitian vanilla, all prepared simply.
Sour Cream Ice Cream. Plum and Almond Tart. Chestnut Tuiles. Jasmine Panna Cotta. If overly sweetened, frilly, gooey desserts are your thing, look elsewhere. The emphasis here is simply flavor.
“The best chefs cook savory food simply, with the best ingredients,” she writes. “Why don’t we make more desserts that way?”
Each chapter offers recipes centered on natural ingredients: milk; grain, nuts and seeds; fruit; chocolate (of course!); honey and sugar; herbs and spices, flowers and leaves; wine, beer and spirits.
Whether she’s brewing jasmine tea for tuiles or caramelizing sugar for honey caramels, this master teacher encourages rather than intimidates with clear, precise instructions. Thirty-one introductory pages guide you through proper techniques, equipment and shopping for ingredients.
The most important tip for a beginner, she advises, is what the French call mise en place, setting out and preparing all the ingredients in advance.
“Baking is meditative,” she told me by phone from her Northern California home. “There’s a sequence of things that you do. It’s not free form like cooking. Once you measure and prepare everything in advance, you dance through the steps. There’s a sense of discipline about it, the familiarity of doing a favorite recipe. It’s a pleasing ritual.”
With Valentine’s Day approaching, the chocolate chapter beckons. “All the changes and updating of chocolate make it more interesting to work with,” she said. “There are different blends of beans that now engage us.”
You’re baking for the one you love – why not choose authentic, fresh and natural ingredients? “I’m certain there are health properties in chocolate,” she noted, “but it shouldn’t be an invitation to gobble down a lot of candy or desserts with extra sugar, cream and fat. Enjoy the good stuff, and don’t eat too much of it.
Try her Bittersweet Brownies in a round rather than a square pan, she suggests. “Serve wedges topped with whipped cream, on plates with forks, and people will think you made something very fancy indeed.” Just don’t call them brownies!
“Of all the special, quote, unquote, gourmet foods, chocolate is one of the only ones we have all loved since childhood,” Medrich observed. “It’s not an acquired taste. Maybe we liked milk chocolate and have grown to like bittersweet, but it’s always been there for us. It’s not intimidating. We didn’t have to learn to like it, like coffee, wine or caviar.”
Orange County Register/Fullerton News Tribune 2/7/08