Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
ExpoWest, the largest organics/naturals trade show in the US, is held annually in Anaheim, California. I recently returned from that show, and while there I noticed a trend toward what I call “chococeuticals”, or chocolates with supposedly beneficial ingredients added to them. Most chococeuticals are in bar form, and most combine chocolate with teas, herbs, extracts, plant esters, and/or minerals.
Chococeuticals are a diverse group. Playing upon the popularity of soft chocolate chews as calcium supplements, Thompson Brands introduced Adora within the past year or two. Adora are small disks of chocolate (milk or dark) that contain calcium and vitamins D and K. NewTree Chocolates combines classic chocolate flavor combinations with botanical extracts; a big part of the gimmick here seems to be the bar names. Forgiveness, for instance, is a dark chocolate bar flavored with lemon, and it contains a natural cactus extract “rich in fiber and known to reduce the intake of calories”, while Blush combines dark chocolate with cherry flavor and natural grape extract “rich in antioxidants”. Ecco Bella bills its products as “health by chocolate”. Their Women’s Wonder Bar includes whole soy powder, rose essential oil, chaste tree berry, and cranberry seed oil. Other companies in the mix include Gary Null’s Nutritious Chocolate, Joanie’s Smiles, and the corporate giant in the field, CocoaVia. (CocoaVia is in the Mars family (formerly M&M Mars, makers of M&M’s, Dove, etc.) Dagoba, known for their organic chocolate (in wide distribution in the US and possibly other countries), has begun an Apothecary line of bars as well as tinctures, both said to contain “beneficial botanicals” as well as “whole food ingredients”. These products are quite new but will soon be available in five varieties, such as Heart, Clarity, and Moon Cycle. And the businesses that exhibited at ExpoWest are not the only ones offering chococeuticals. To cite just one example, Bija sells a chocolate square with a softer filling that they call an Omega Truffle; ingredients include a blend of Omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids.
I confess I am puzzled by this new breed of chocolate. Part of the reason chococeuticals are flourishing is guilt, plain and simple. People, especially Americans, understand that chocolate is high in calories and fat. They want to believe that it’s OK for them to consume this indulgent food, but most chocolate fanatics, present company included, should eat less than they do. If someone can convince you that their chocolate is “healthy” for you, you might be more inclined to consume it---and consume more of it. Chococeuticals are also thriving because of the current infatuation with herbs, teas, botanicals, etc., many of which are thought to have some health benefits. Often, however, the botanicals used are in extract form. While I believe that green tea, black currants, and their ilk are very likely good for you, it does not automatically follow, to my way of thinking, that extracts of these plant foods will possess similar advantages. In addition, I don’t always want to consume the ingredients that manufacturers are putting into these products. By way of example, guarana extract, used in at least one chococeutical, can cause nausea and dizziness in some people; it can also interact with some prescription medications. Presumably, it’s used in small quantities in chococeuticals, but I don’t know how much is necessary to produce any side effects if a person is sensitive to it or should it interact with a prescribed drug. Most damning of all, in my mind, is that I’ve never tried a chococeutical I really enjoyed. I adore chocolate, and sometimes I like my chocolate combined with different flavors (coffee, orange, cinnamon, mint, and more). But why does good chocolate need to be “fortified” with nutrients? I don’t think it does. If I want to consume chocolate and green tea and black currants, I will, but I’ll have them separately, and I’ll ingest the actual foods, which I believe is where people get their nutrients anyway.
As usual, my suggestion is that you make up your own mind. Try these products; if you enjoy them, by all means continue to eat them (in moderation, please). But nutrition is still a young science, and beliefs in what’s healthy for the human system can change nearly as quickly as a politician’s polling numbers (if you need a few examples, recall the past popularity of saccharine, oat bran, low fat diets, and Howard Dean). So please don’t look upon chococeuticals as some new kind of miracle food; if you do, you’re likely setting yourself up for a disappointment (and a larger waist size) in the long run.
Dark Mocha Crème Brulee
I’ve seen those cute, palm-sized torches available in cooking supply catalogs, but I don’t use them. They’re pricey, and they use butane, a dirty-burning fuel I don’t like to use indoors or around food. So get thee to thy local hardware store and pick up a propane torch. I’d never used one before developing this recipe, but it was so much fun I continued to make crèmes brulees for a couple of weeks after I’d finalized this recipe, just so I could continue to use the torch! When you do use your torch, please read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. You’ll need the torch to caramelize the sugar on top of the crème brulee, of course. Some older cookbooks claim you can use your broiler to do this, but I don’t trust my broiler any farther than I can throw it, and I’m not sure my nice little porcelain ramekins would do well under a broiler. Do not be tempted to substitute brown sugar for granulated sugar as the topping. I thought this seemed like a dandy idea (you’re going to caramelize the sugar anyway; why not start with brown sugar?), but when I tried to caramelize the brown sugar topping with my torch, it caught fire almost immediately, every single time. Granulated sugar is less prone to this form of spontaneous saccharide combustion, as it were.
This dessert is very rich and very dark chocolate. You might not think the caramelized sugar topping would be visible on a dark-colored custard, but you’ll know it’s there. After the sugar topping has been caramelized, some people like to serve crème brulee right away, but I don’t. I think the custard is best when very cold, so I’ll put the brulee back into the fridge for at least an hour (the custards can stand in the fridge for up to 6 hours after they’re topped, as long as they remain uncovered). The custards themselves can be made a day or two in advance, then kept, covered, in the refrigerator. If any condensation forms on the custard surface, blot it up gently with a paper towel before applying the topping. Best after a light meal.
6 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
5 egg yolks, from eggs graded “large”
1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
3/4 tsp. instant espresso powder
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla
12 teaspoons granulated sugar
Have ready 6 ovenproof glass custard cups, each of 6 ounce capacity. Tear off a square of foil to completely cover the top of each cup, folding any excess down over the outer edge of the cup. If any foil overhang comes more than about 1 inch down the side of any cup, trim it so it is 1 inch or less. Have ready a baking pan at least 1-1/2 inches deep, into which all 6 cups can fit without touching one another or the sides of the pan; you’ll also need enough simmering water to fill the pan to a depth of 1 inch. If the baking pan is aluminum, sprinkle about 1 teaspoon cream of tartar into the bottom to prevent discoloration. Have ready a fine-meshed strainer and a heatproof measuring cup or pitcher of at least 3-1/2 cup capacity. Set all aside. Adjust rack to center of oven; preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
In small bowl, combine finely chopped chocolate and salt. In small saucepan over low heat, heat cream just to a simmer, stirring occasionally; remove from heat. Pour about half of hot cream over chocolate. Let stand for a minute or two, then stir or whisk very gently until smooth. (If necessary, place bowl of chocolate over simmering water on low heat--water should not touch bottom of bowl--and stir often until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and hot water.) Gradually stir or whisk in remaining cream. Mixture should be warm, not hot.
Place a medium heatproof bowl on a pot holder or folded kitchen towel. Into the bowl, place the egg yolks; beat with fork until well-combined. Beating constantly with fork, gradually add warm chocolate mixture to yolks.
In small, heavy-bottomed, nonaluminum saucepan, combine 1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar, cocoa powder, and espresso powder. With small whisk, whisk well to combine. Add 2 Tbsp. milk (reserve remainder); mix well to make a smooth paste. Gradually stir in remaining milk. Set over medium heat. Stir very frequently just until mixture reaches a simmer. Remove from heat.
Stirring chocolate-yolk mixture constantly, very gradually add hot milk mixture. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl with rubber spatula after about half of hot milk mixture has been added, then continue adding hot milk mixture, stirring chocolate-yolk mixture constantly, until all has been incorporated. Stir in vanilla. Custard will be on the thin side.
Place fine-meshed strainer over heatproof measuring cup or small pitcher. Strain custard into pitcher (you should have about 3 cups). Divide custard evenly between custard cups, then cover each custard cup with a foil cover.
Place baking pan on oven rack; carefully pour in enough simmering water to form a thin layer on the bottom. Carefully transfer filled, covered custard cups to baking pan; gently add more simmering water to baking pan, pouring it carefully around (not on top of) cups, to a depth of 1 inch (you might want to measure the water depth, as too much water will slow baking time).
Bake 45 minutes. After about 30 minutes, check baking pan; if more simmering water is needed to maintain the 1 inch depth, add it now. After 45 minutes, CAREFULLY remove baking pan from oven--it will be hot and heavy. Using pot holders, remove each custard cup individually from the water (it might help to use a spatula to do this) and transfer to a cooling rack. Remove foil covers from custards. Custard tops will be shiny and very dark; when tapped gently, custards will seem just set. Cool briefly at room temperature, then chill until very cold (at least 4 hours), covering tightly with foil covers or plastic wrap after 2 or 3 hours. Chill until needed.
In preparation for the topping of the crèmes brulees, please read manufacturer’s instructions for your propane torch at least twice. Make sure the area in which you’ll work is well-ventilated, but not drafty. Assemble the torch (if necessary) just before use. Sprinkle 2 tsp. of granulated sugar on top of each custard as evenly as possible. Take your time doing this. Do not sprinkle sugar randomly, then tap the custard cup to try to distribute the sugar, as too much sugar will settle toward the middle if you do. Place sugared custards on a stable, flat surface with a lot of cleared space around it. I place mine on a sturdy metal cooling rack on top of a 6 quart, widemouth pot.
Ignite the torch. You only need a flame a few inches long, but it should be blue, not orange. Play the flame lightly but completely over the sugar on top of each custard; the nozzle of the torch should be several inches above the sugared surfaces at all times. When the sugar on one custard starts to smoke, move to another area or another custard; you can always go back over an area, and you need to give the sugar a few seconds to react to the flames. You’re trying to caramelize the sugar to a rich golden brown, but not burn it. If necessary, shut the torch off for a minute, then check the custards to see which areas require more flame before re-igniting the torch to caramelize those areas. Even with your best effort to keep the sugar topping as even as possible, some of the sugar will be blown around on the custard surface a bit, so you’ll get areas of heavier and lighter topping on any one custard--OK. When you’re finished caramelizing the toppings, shut off the torch and put it aside in a safe area to cool off. You can serve the crèmes brulees now, or do what I do: allow the custards to cool for several minutes, then carefully, using pot holders (the top portion of the cups will get hot), replace the cups in the fridge. Chill at least 1 hour, uncovered (or up to 6 hours), before serving.
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I first ran across Coco-luxe Confections earlier this year in San Francisco. The retro-looking box opens to reveal nine squares with a cute little design on each chocolate. But the designs are more than just decoration; cleverly, they serve as a guide to the flavor of the center, so that two cherries on top of a dark chocolate piece indicate the Double Cherry center (dark chocolate-cherry ganache with dried cherry pieces), while the angel design on a white chocolate square tells you the interior is a white chocolate ganache flavored with vanilla bean, appropriately called Angel Food. The outer chocolate shells are thin and delicate. But how are the chocolates overall? Very impressive! I chose the Pink Box of assorted chocolates, so I received milk, white, and dark chocolates in my box (there are also all-milk and all-dark boxes). I don’t often care for white chocolate these days, but the Dreamy Orange piece is a winner. It’s not cloyingly sweet, and it has a genuine citrus flavor. Among the milk chocolate squares, the Banana Split is my favorite---a milk chocolate-banana ganache with bits of dried cherries makes a wonderful center. And all of the dark chocolate pieces are terrific, no matter whether you prefer the Devil’s Food, After Dinner Mint, or Double Cherry.
Stephanie Marcon is the founder of Coco-luxe Confections, a San Francisco based venture. Like many wannabe chocolatiers, she left corporate America in search of something better. But unlike many others, she has both talent and skill, the latter helped along by attending the Culinary Institute of America and by a stint in Michael Recchiuti’s chocolate kitchens. Stephanie has based many of her fillings on cake flavors, a delightfully different approach. Oh, and if you happen to be in the market for wedding or special occasion favors, Coco-luxe Confections can help you. This is an admirable small business trying to do chocolates the right way, and for that reason alone, you ought to give their products a try. For online ordering or more information, surf over to www.coco-luxe.com or call (415) 503-0481.
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.