Rachel Weill
Napoleon of chocolate, coffee/cream cheese mousse & almond breton; spiced rum ice cream with prune jam; apricot soufflé.
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Melding Chocolate

Jim Poris - April 2010

Time to go to the other side of the kitchen to spring a mixed bag of ingredients on three top pastry chefs. Their mettle test, Jim Poris reports on what they wrought.

Well, we know we want something with chocolate in it. That's a given. There are some here at Food Arts who are chocolate bloodhounds; they can smell it through thick concrete walls and they pursue it with relentless devotion until it's cornered and consumed. But what else? In devising the list of ingredients we decided to give the pastry chef the necessary components they'd need to imagine something tangible while also adding just enough interest to coax them from drawing obvious and easy conclusions. The mystery of the basket is figuring out where the stuff spilled out over the countertop will lead. The fun part is seeing what turns up after all the head-scratching, mixing, and matching is over.

So have at it, Thomas Haas of Thomas Haas Chocolates & Pâtisserie in North Vancouver & Vancouver. And Bill Yosses, White House pastry chef. And you, too, Melissa Chou of Aziza in San Francisco. Make it snappy, because though we may be curious we've been waiting a long time for dessert.

Show us what you've done with these: 70 percent or above chocolate; almonds; espresso beans; granulated sugar; apricots; oranges; vanilla beans; eggs; high fat butter; olive oil; salt and pepper; heavy cream; rum; peanuts; prunes; tomatoes; confectioners' sugar; agave syrup; all-purpose flour; potato starch; passion fruit puree; cream cheese; gelatin; baking soda; baking powder; cinnamon; nutmeg; ancho chiles; juniper berries; cloves; anise seed; orange flower water; vaudovan; lemongrass; lemon verbena; bay leaf; allspice; cloves; ginger powder; and cardamom.

Thomas Haas
Thomas Haas Chocolates & Pâtisserie
North Vancouver & Vancouver
"I've never thought of myself as a procrastinator. I mean, often I have to realize that a day only has 24 hours and a week seven days--or is it eight? I'm always up for a challenge, whether it's dealing with a demanding customer, using an unfamiliar technique, a competition, running up the tortuous Grouse Grind near my North Vancouver shop, or accepting a Mystery Basket dare from Food Arts. So when the magazine called, I was only too happy to take it on! That was early November 2009.

"Back then, I had nothing going on other than finishing up our first and, hopefully, only ‘offspring' pâtisserie in Vancouver, cutting concrete walls to extend our chocolate kitchen space in North Vancouver, moving our offices, and, I almost forgot, preparing for Christmas, just a little holiday season for a chocolatier/pastry chef. To keep a long story short, I thought early January would bring the necessary break to catch up and dig into the Mystery Basket to meet the mid-month deadline!

"I seemed to have forgotten where I live! But I got a quick reminder the first week of January that I had better get going to plan and prep for Valentine's Day, the Chinese New Year, and, oh yes, the Winter Olympics. Now, more than two weeks past my deadline, I followed the advice of a Food Arts editor who suggested I clear my mind by tackling the Grind [a 1.6 mile climb with a 3,000 foot elevation gain to the top of Grouse Mountain]. So there I was at 7:32 p.m., scaling the fence erected to keep climbers off the seasonally closed trail. As I set my headlamp in the right direction and clipped on my mountain crampons, I felt energized and excited about taking on the Mystery Basket, a steeper challenge than the Grind.

"As pastry chefs, we're taught to think differently than savory chefs. Everything is measured to the smallest milligram. In our kitchens I often instruct the staff to be precise, but I also try to inspire them to let go, to feel the food. Imagine how it should taste. Envision how it should look. Consider its temperature, the volume of a pâte à bombe, the shine of a mousse, the consistency of a chocolate. Those are things not taught but captured throughout our years in the kitchen and spurred by our constant motivation to improve and evolve.

"This is what I set up myself to do once I dug into the Mystery Basket. Imagine your creation--then create. This is why I came up with three dishes for a two-course service. I hope you will enjoy.

"And by the way, it turned really cold after I climbed through three inches of new snow to reach the top of Grouse Mountain, where a security guard was none too happy about seeing me coming up the trail. It was 8:49 p.m. Wow! Did it take long!"

Orange/apricot consommé; warm vanilla cakes; chocolate/espresso crisp; spicy chocolate/prune/peanut cracker. "First, the consommé. Wash four Valencia oranges; remove a thin layer of the peel with no white pith attached, using a paring knife; cut into a precise julienne; blanch 20 seconds to remove the bitterness from the peel; shock in ice water; repeat procedure three times. Prepare a simple syrup with two cups water and two cups granulated sugar; bring to a boil; add the orange julienne; simmer 30 minutes until they are tender; add three tablespoons passion fruit puree for acidity; remove from heat; infuse for about two hours at room temperature. Cut three of the oranges into sûpremes; juice the remaining orange; pour over the sûpremes. Blanch four ripe apricots; shock; remove the skins; halve; remove the pits; reserve. Quarter and pit four apricots with skin; place in a blender; puree; strain through fine chinois; reserve. Soak two gelatin leaves in cold water for 10 minutes; squeeze excess water from the gelatin; melt in a bain-marie until it reaches 90 degrees; strain the orange flavored liquid over the fruits; reserve the julienne; gradually stir in some of the orange simple syrup to the melted gelatin; refrigerate until lightly set, stirring occasionally. Combine orange sûpremes and juice, apricot halves, and apricot puree in large bowl; scrape seeds from a vanilla bean into the bowl (don't throw out the vanilla bean; set it aside to dry to make a powder or add it to the sugar bin for a fragrant vanilla sugar); add remaining orange simple syrup and gelled simple syrup; stir carefully; reserve in refrigerator.

"Next, make the cake batter. Combine three eggs, a half cup granulated sugar, and the zest of one orange with a whisk, taking care not to incorporate any air into the mixture; scrape the seeds of one vanilla bean into mixture; mix together one-third cup all-purpose flour, one-half teaspoon baking powder, and a pinch of salt; whisk into the wet ingredients; whisk in a half cup melted butter and one tablespoon agave syrup; pour into a container; cover; refrigerate for at least six hours.

"Soak one-half cup raisins in one cup rum; let macerate for 12 hours. Temper two pounds of dark 70 percent chocolate on a marble slab; thinly spread tempered chocolate over an acetate sheet; crush a half cup espresso beans into coarse pieces using a mortar and pestle; sprinkle over chocolate before it hardens; once it hardens (crystallizes), cut into 5-by-1-inch rectangles; reserve. For the cracker: finely dice one cup peanuts. Bring a quarter cup heavy cream, a half cup butter, one cup granulated sugar, and a quarter cup agave syrup to a boil; reduce heat to low; stir in two ounces dark 70 percent chocolate and one cup coarsely chopped peanuts with one-quarter teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cardamon, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg, and one-eighth teaspoon cloves; remove from heat; refrigerate at least two hours. Spread out on half sheet pan lined with nonstick Silpat pad; bake 10 minutes in 350 degree oven; remove from oven; cool to room temperature; cut into 5-by-1-inch rectangles; reserve.

"Begin the mousse by melting a quarter pound of dark 70 percent chocolate in a bain-marie until it reaches 90 degrees. Whip 1 1/2 cups heavy cream [36 percent butterfat] to create soft peaks. Bring five tablespoons heavy cream to a simmer; pour over melted chocolate; stir to combine, using a rubber spatula; gently fold in the whipped cream; cover the mixture with plastic wrap; refrigerate two to three hours.

"Toast a half cup sliced almonds in a 350 degree convection oven until light golden brown, about 10 minutes; set aside to cool. Pipe cake batter into miniature flexipans; decorate with the lightly toasted almonds and the rum-soaked raisins; bake at 350 degrees until golden brown; remove from oven; remove from the molds; place into a napkin covered bowl to retain as much heat as possible; serve warm. To assemble, place the consommé and fruits in a small soup dish; decorate with the candied orange julienne and lemon verbena leaves; remove chocolate mousse from the refrigerator; form into small quenelles; place a chocolate/coffee crisp on a small plate; top with a quenelle; make another layer of the crisp and a quenelle; top with the spicy cracker. Serve the consommé with the almond/vanilla cakes followed by the chocolate/coffee crisp. Pour a Port; dig in."

Melissa Chou
San Francisco
"Oooh, what a challenge. I love thinking of funky flavor combinations, but at first glance, so many things on this list threw me off! Honestly, at first I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I'll stick it to 'em and make some mish-mash of apricot/tomato/peanut/coffee and throw chocolate all over it. Hah!' Then, my ego got the best of me and I thought, ‘No, I'll kill it conceptually, write a really convincing essay about it, and hopefully no one will actually make this and taste it.'

"And then I calmed down a little more and started to logically analyze the list because I wasn't going to let these ingredients best me. But it haunted me. This list followed me everywhere, and I never stopped thinking about it. I'd wake up in the middle of the night, and think, ‘Prunes and coffee? Weird.'

"Initially, I began eliminating the things I was pretty sure I didn't want to use, like the tomatoes and the peanuts. I also noticed that the prevailing tastes were earthy and acidic, which then helped me to pair off the flavors: apricot, orange, and passion fruit all have a similar biting, fresh acidity; coffee, chocolate, and almonds is a classic combination that offers an earthy counterpoint to the brightness of the fruits. My next move was to give textures to the flavors. A soufflé allows flavors to shine as well as offers a temperature contrast to a dessert, and for the apricot, orange, and passion fruit, it's a perfect vehicle--not too heavy, but subtle and bright.

"Next, I thought the cream cheese would be a good mousse base and easily give body to the coffee flavor. At Aziza I like making napoleons with mousses because you can layer them with so many different textures. So I decided to make chocolate tuiles for the coffee mousse with an almond breton cake as a base, which would use some more ingredients on the list and not make that element of the dessert too heavy. But it was a big flavor jump to go from apricot soufflé to a coffee/chocolate napoleon, and there needed to be some kind of palate mediator between the two. Looking at the list again, it seemed that a spiced rum ice cream would be a perfect counterpoint in temperature between the soufflé and napoleon as well as bind the contrasting acidic and earthy flavors. A prune jam to pair with the ice cream would balance the sweetness of the ice cream and provide that acidic link to the soufflé.

"Well, I had approached this assignment thoughtfully and logically, and now I had to test it to be sure that it worked. I prepped it out, plated it up, and offered it to Aziza chef/owner Mourad Lahlou for his objective opinion [he tells me if something I make needs work--in the kindest way possible, of course]. The deadline for the submission was approaching, and I didn't really have all that much time to change the concept drastically so I was desperately hoping he'd tell me it was good enough that he wouldn't look at me with raised eyebrows and say, ‘That's how you're going to represent yourself in a national magazine to your colleagues?' I placed the plate in front of him and left so he could make his assessment in peace. Also, I just couldn't watch. When I returned to see what he had to say, he gave me some general, polite comments and kind of left it at that. But this was all during service so I decided I'd talk to him a little more extensively later on.

"The next day I asked him what he thought, and he said, ‘Do you want my honest opinion?'

"Oh crap, here it comes, I thought. I sputtered, ‘I know, it needs some work, but these ingredients…'

"He turned from the Cryovac machine, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘This is probably the best dessert you've ever made.'

Napoleon of chocolate, coffee/cream cheese mousse & almond breton; spiced rum ice cream with prune jam; apricot soufflé. "To make the soufflé base, soak two quarts dried apricots in six cups freshly squeezed orange juice; cover; let sit overnight at room temperature. The next day, place all the ingredients plus one-third cup passion fruit puree in a food processor; roughly puree; remove one cup to serve as the soufflé's center; continue to process into a smooth puree for the soufflé's base; reserve in refrigerator.

"For the rum ice cream, bring one and a quarter cups heavy cream, a half cup granulated sugar, one cinnamon stick, a half teaspoon whole allspice, a half teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, a quarter teaspoon whole black peppercorns, and a pinch of salt to a simmer; temper four lightly beaten egg yolks; return to a medium heat; cook until a thick anglaise forms; immediately pour the custard into one cup heavy cream; stir in three tablespoons rum; cool to room temperature; refrigerate overnight. Process in an ice cream machine the next day.

"For the prune jam: caramelize one cup granulated sugar with a half cup water; when golden, add a half cup water, a quarter teaspoon cloves, four juniper berries, and two strips of orange zest; cook two minutes; remove from heat; add one cup prunes; cool; refrigerate overnight. The next day, pit the prunes; place the prunes in a blender; add about a half cup freshly squeezed orange juice, the grated zest of one orange, and about two tablespoons passion fruit puree to adjust the sweetness; puree; reserve.

"Now the coffee/cream cheese mousse. Bring three-quarters cup heavy cream and a half cup espresso beans to a simmer; remove from heat; infuse for one hour. Strain out a half cup of the coffee flavored cream for use in the mousse; discard solids and any remaining cream. Meanwhile, bloom one and a half gelatin sheets; heat the half cup coffee cream gently again till just hot and whisk in the gelatin off the heat. Whisk in three-quarters cup cream cheese until smooth. Separate two eggs and whisk the yolks into the cream cheese mixture. Strain the cream cheese mixture into a clean bowl. Next, whip the two egg whites with a quarter cup plus one tablespoon granulated sugar with a pinch of salt until medium, shiny peaks form. Fold the meringue into the cream cheese in two additions. Pour into a piping bag and refrigerate until firm, about six hours.

"For the breton, finely grind one cup plus two tablespoons all-purpose flour, a half cup almonds, five ounces all-purpose flour, two teaspoons baking powder, and one teaspoon baking soda. In an electric mixer using the whisk attachment, whip four egg yolks with two-thirds cup granulated sugar and the seeds from one half of a vanilla bean until light and fluffy; whisk in a half cup plus two tablespoons very soft butter; gently mix in the dry ingredients; roll out the dough until about one-eighth inch thick; bake on sheet tray lined with Silpat nonstick pad in a 300 degree convection oven for about 10 minutes until golden; remove from oven; cool to room temperature. Cut into 1 by 1 1/2 inch rectangles with a serrated knife.

"Toast a cup of sliced almonds; cool; grind finely in the food processor with one tablespoon granulated sugar; reserve for service.

"Make chocolate tiles by tempering the 70 percent chocolate and spreading it very thinly on a sheet of acetate; cut into 1 by 1 1/2 inch rectangles; store in an airtight container.

"Make an emulsion with about one quarter cup agave syrup and two tablespoons olive oil; season with salt.

"To make the soufflés, butter and sugar seven or eight ramekins one inch round and two inches high. Whip a half cup egg whites with a pinch of granulated sugar; when foamy, add three tablespoons confectioners' sugar and whip until stiff and shiny. Fold into a half cup of the soufflé base [the fine puree] in two additions; spoon into a piping bag; pipe the soufflé mixture into the ramekins until they are about half filled; spoon in about a quarter to a half teaspoon of the rough puree into the center of the ramekins; pipe more soufflé mixture on top until the ramekins are filled; level off the tops and wipe the rims. These can be reserved in the refrigerator in this state for about four hours. When ready to serve, bake in a convection oven at 300 degrees for 10 minutes; remove from oven.

"Now to plate: lay down one piece of almond breton; pipe on the cream cheese mousse; top with a chocolate tile; pipe one more layer of mousse; top with another tile; place on a plate; smear the prune jam across the plate; top the jam with a sprinkle of the ground almonds and then a quenelle of rum ice cream; next to that place a soufflé dusted with confectioners' sugar; dot the plate with the agave emulsion, and call it a day! On second thought, drink some Heidi Schröck Beerenauslese Burgenland 2006, a mixture of Welschriesling and Weissburgunder [Pinot Blanc], with this and then call it day!"

Bill Yosses
Washington, D.C.

"What's in a name?"

"One of the best parts of being a pastry chef is making up names for desserts. It sometimes takes forever to select the most fitting, and sometimes the name jumps out at you. Right away I knew this dessert was going to be a lagniappe since its candy bar shape seems like a reward or small gift, which is what lagniappe means.

"Foreign words, especially French words, are a good choice to give an exotic and otherworldly feel to a dish. Just saying those words is fun. Soufflé! (sue-flay) Chiboust! (she-boost). Montélimar! (mon-tay-lee-mar). The last one inspired a song on The Beatles' White Album called "Savoy Truffle", one of the greatest songs ever about desserts, although it does warn you about having the dentist pull your teeth out, too.

"I'm always interested in how the flavor of food is influenced by the surroundings or menu descriptions. Some chefs have experimented with changing the lighting and colors of a room during a meal, and I've definitely noticed that food tastes better sitting in a beautiful dining room rather than eating it standing from a plastic quart container in a hot, bright kitchen. I also think a dish's title and its description on the menu influence our perception of it. Menus used to be full of adjectives: bold, tangy, crunchy, bubbly, and so on. Today, people want to know more about their food, so place of origin and locality are important as well as method of cultivation, the more natural the better.

"But I like to give a dish an evocative title. Think of it as pastry ventriloquism; we throw our voice onto an inanimate object, the cake, so it comes alive with memory and meaning to create ‘emotions in the mouth.' If we pastry chefs can tap into that visceral memory and grab our guest's attention, then the next step can be to enhance the experience by adding additional complementary layers without detracting from the original pleasure. We can add spices or chiles, an infusion, or a new texture to give layers of meaning to an already nostalgic moment. To me that's a great food experience. That's the art of gastronomy.

"In my current position as pastry chef of the White House, the problem is how to compete with so much stimulation&mash;the rooms, the historical artifacts, the leader of the free world are all so distracting! But once in a while I do get a smile and a nod from a guest that seems to say, "I did love your lagniappe."

Chocolate/passion fruit lagniappe. "There are four preparations that have to be made before the final dessert can take shape. The cake can be assembled as a single sheet cake and then cut into individual portions, or it can be made in individual flexipan molds as I've done here. Either way, this makes about 10 portions. Start by making a chocolate/almond/espresso financier. Sift one cup confectioners' sugar, a half cup plus one tablespoon all-purpose flour, a half teaspoon baking powder, a half teaspoon baking soda, a quarter teaspoon cardamom, a half teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon allspice, and one tablespoon ground espresso beans into a bowl. Add a quarter cup almonds, finely ground into a flour, and one teaspoon rum; stir in four large egg whites to form a loose batter. Place a half pound of the 70 percent chocolate in a heatproof bowl; gradually add one cup heavy cream brought just to a boil; pour over the chocolate; let sit for three minutes; whisk, mixing from the center and slowly moving the whisk outward once the center is fully combined, until the ganache has a smooth consistency; gradually add the ganache to the flour mixture; whisk in a quarter pound slightly warm melted butter and one tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil; cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate for four hours. Position a rack in the center of a 350 degree oven; pour the batter into a 9-by-13-inch baking sheet with sides; bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes; invert the pan onto a parchment lined baking sheet; cool on a rack. Slice the financier in half horizontally with a serrated knife. Using scissors, cut out rectangular pieces of the cake in the shape of flexipan mold; cover; reserve.

"Now for the peanut brittle. Bring one cup granulated sugar, a quarter cup water, a half cup agave syrup, and a quarter teaspoon salt to a boil in a heavy two-quart saucepan; add a cup roasted peanuts; cook to 300 degrees on a candy thermometer; add two tablespoons butter, a quarter teaspoon each finely chopped ancho chiles and ginger powder, and one teaspoon baking soda; stir well; carefully pour onto a greased cookie sheet and spread as thinly as possible with a couple of forks; cool; chop into pea sized pieces; place in the bowl of a processor; into a fine powder; reserve.

"Next is the cream cheese cheesecake filling that will cover the cake. Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, mix a half pound cream cheese and two tablespoons granulated sugar until smooth, scraping down the bowl frequently to avoid lumps; add seeds from a scraped vanilla bean and three tablespoons melted butter, always scraping the sides of the bowl; gradually add a quarter cup heavy cream so it incorporates without forming lumps; reserve.

"To make the apricot/passion fruit gelée, bring the juice of two oranges, one cup passion fruit puree, one cup dried apricots, two tablespoons agave syrup, and one tablespoon confectioners' sugar to a boil for four minutes; add a quarter teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, ground star anise, and ground cardamom; bring to a boil; remove from heat; infuse for five minutes; add four grams softened gelatin and one teaspoon potato starch; cook three minutes, stirring constantly; mix with an immersion blender; strain through fine chinois; remove a half cup to use as a sauce; reserve sauce at room temperature.

"To assemble, pour the apricot/passion fruit gelée into the bottom of the flexipan mold to a depth of one-quarter inch; refrigerate for one hour until set. Next, spread a one-quarter inch layer of cream cheese filling over the gelée; follow with the chocolate/almond/espresso financier; repeat with a layer of cream cheese filling; finish with another layer of the financier; refrigerate overnight. To serve, pop out of the flexipan; place on the plate gelée side up; spray with dark chocolate. Garnish the top of the cake with orange segments; garnish the plate with candied dried apricots and the reserved apricot/passion fruit gelée sauce. Drink with a Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise."