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Artisan Chocolate truffles & the spices that love them: fennel seed
Fennel is a very hardy and drought tolerant plant that is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean Region of the world. It has been widely distributed throughout our planet, and fennel can now be found growing wild in many different countries, and in many different terrains and conditions. Some species of fennel, such as Florence fennel, sprout from a tuberous bulb, that can be cut up and roasted like a root vegetable, which is quite delicious.
In fact, all parts of the fennel plant are edible, including the thin wispy leaves, the delicate little yellow flowers, and even fennel pollen can sometimes be found through specialty online spice purveyors, although it is quite expensive. For the purposes of this article though, it is the "seed" from the fennel plant (technically the plant's fruit), that I will focus on.
Whole fennel seed can be found in almost any decent grocery store, and it ranges in color from green, if it is very fresh, to a dull, dusty grey color, if it has been sitting around for a while. In general, the greener the color, the more fresh and vibrant the flavors will be. It has a somewhat subdued licorice aroma, much like aniseed or star anise, but much less pungent. In my personal opinion, fennel seed has a very sophisticated and complex flavor profile that "marries" well with many other herbs and spices. In fact, many different cultures make good use of fennel's harmonious ability to blend well with other foods, and flavorings. It is an integral part of some Indian curries, Chinese 5-spice, Italian sausage...even some rye bread recipes call for it in some Northern European countries.
If you would like to try an interesting and unusual chocolate truffle formula, start by roasting some nice fresh green fennel seeds. Roasting them in the oven, or in a dry saute pan for a few minutes will ring out the maximum flavor and complexity of the seed. Grind your freshly roasted fennel seeds in a coffee grinder or use a heavy mortar and pestle to reduce them to a fine powder. In this chef's opinion, the wonderful licorice notes of the roasted fennel seeds play very well against a good robust bittersweet chocolate.
Choose a dark chocolate in the 65%-72% cacao-content range...not too powerful, or you'll just overwhelm the fennel. After you've chosen the correct chocolate, chop up about 200 grams of it into very small chunks. Then bring about 100 grams of good, rich heavy cream to the boil, and add in about 1 teaspoon of the finely ground fennel seed. Quickly pour the cream and fennel over the finely chopped chocolate and let sit for a minute or so. Then begin stirring the mixture until very smooth and creamy.
Finally, stir in about 10-15 grams of unsalted butter, just until incorporated. Transfer your newly minted fennel ganache into a small square or rectangular brownie pan, and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or until firm. Simply cut into small squares, and dust them with powdered sugar or good cocoa. These highly unique fennel seed truffles makes for the perfect dessert ending for a gourmet Italian feast!