Saturday, June 6, 2009

Book Review: Bittersweet

Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate by Alice Medrich. 2003, Artisan Books.

Alice Medrich is the Queen of American Chocolate, and this book showcases why. Where to begin on why you need this book? I guess I'll break it down into three reasons: The recipes, the stories, and the knowledge.

The Recipes
This won IACP Cookbook of the Year for 2003, with good reason. I have yet to try a recipe that didn't work beautifully and deliver the perfect chocolate punch. Medrich has specifically engineered each and every recipe in this book to put the flavor of the bittersweet chocolate at the center. Most are written to be made with chocolate in the 60% range, but also include alternate instructions to use semisweet (50-60%) or 70+%; some also include instructions for milk chocolate, and some cocoa-based recipes are included. The recipes run the chocolate gamut, from cakes/cookies/brownies to mousses, truffles, ice cream, and even a chapter on savory uses of chocolate.

If you'd like a sample before you buy, try the Best Cocoa Brownies, which have been posted at Epicurious. These are so good, I haven't even gotten around to trying the other brownie recipes! I mean, come on - any recipe with more cocoa than flour is sure to be epic.

The Stories
Bittersweet, as the subtitle indicates, isn't just a cookbook. It's also a memoir of Medrich's chocolate journey, from a year spent in France to opening her legendary chocolate shop Cocolat in Berkeley, CA, to sharing the chocolate experience with her children. The book is a joy to read even before you try any of the recipes - anyone interested in memoirs or food history should pick it up just for a good read!

The Knowledge
Just glancing at many of Medrich's recipes, you'll notice that the text is long and dense - no mere bulleted list of steps. She is careful to explain exactly why different techniques and ingredients are used in each recipe, and why one recipe differs from another. These explanations are sometimes worked into the recipes themselves, but there are also sections devoted entirely to them. Once I read her explanation of what tempering actually does to the chocolate and why it works, it became so much easier! Baking and candy-making are more science (or perhaps engineering) than art, and understanding the mechanisms by which the recipes work goes a long way to making sure you won't mess them up and will be able to create variations of your own that actually work. Consider this a recipe book, a memoir, and a textbook for a class on the science of chocolate.

The book does have one flaw that really bugs me, though - there is no useful table of contents! The main TOC lists only the section titles and the names of the individual memoir essays, it does not include recipes at all. Each section has its own recipe TOC, but there are no tabbed pages for these, making it very difficult to flip right to the TOC you want. The index becomes the only quick way to find anything. I highly recommend bookmarking your favorites.

Even if it can be hard to find what you're looking for, though, the content is 100% worth digging through. If you don't already have this in your kitchen library, grab it now.

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