Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Cream Puffs: In Which Alice Medrich Continues Her Reign as Chocolate Goddess

As I've mentioned before, Alice Medrich's Bittersweet is my personal chocolate bible.

I recently bought another book of hers, Chocolate Holidays: Unforgettable Desserts for Every Season, which is the paperback form of A Year Spent in Chocolate. I'll save a full review for after I've tried a couple more recipes, but I will say that if "Chocolate cream puffs with spun sugar" is any indication, my faith in Ms Medrich is well-placed.

I've never made cream puffs or puff pastry of any sort before. The only time I've seen them attempted was when a friend in college, who was born in France, tried to make some from an original French cookbook and failed miserably. I hope she's since found a recipe as easy and detailed as this one! As usual, the dense recipe text leaves nothing to chance, and my puffs puffed up in lovely fashion.

The chocolate custard filling was exactly what I expect from a Medrich recipe. It did an amazing job of highlighting the flavor of the chocolate I used (my standby Ghirardelli 60% chips) rather than overwhelming it in egg flavor. It was also surprisingly rich for having no cream or butter in the recipe - in fact, I used a mix of skim and 2% milk rather than whole! I think you could easily make it with all-skim and be perfectly happy with the results.

Happily, my camera is working again (it's been broken since Christmas, hence the lack of photos in recent entries). Here is a shot of the filled puffs, with custard oozing out of their little holes:

I was making these to bring to school to pass out, so I skipped the caramel glaze and spun sugar meant to turn the puffs into a croquembouche and dipped the tops in a simple ganache. Although made with the same chocolate, the ganache and the custard had distinctly different flavors, which was a nice contrast. Here are the final, dipped puffs:

Overall, these were a huge success! And if you thought people were impressed by homemade cheesecake (which they always are), wait til you hand them a cream puff!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chicago Luxury Ice Cream Festival Roundup

Tonight we went to the Chicago Luxury Ice Cream Festival. For $25/person, you could indulge in all-you-can-eat taster sizes of a dozen different gourmet ice cream brands, plus a small amount of alcohol and pizza. A few of the highlights:

The Winners:

- When I read that Vosges would be there, I assumed they'd be giving out chocolate samples. I did not realize that they are making ice cream now! Their chocolate chili was one of the top flavors of the event, hands-down. We went back for MANY refills! They also had coconut curry (called "Naga" on their site). I'm not a big coconut fan, so I wasn't terribly impressed with that one.

- Sassy Cow Creamery had two winners with Ginger Pear and Cherry Dark Chocolate - but the cherry ranked in my top five overall. Whatever dark chocolate they used in it was terrific.

- Ciao Bella Gelato had a Valrhona chocolate ice cream that may have been the only one to top Vosges. Dark and very creamy, my one regret of the night was that I didn't get a second cup. I also had their mango sorbet, which was tasty.

- I am a sucker for cinnamon ice cream, and Homers' had the excellent idea to add white chocolate chips to it. They were clearly creamy real white chocolate, and they went amazingly well with the cinnamon.

- Oberweis Dairy may have been the least "gourmet" (or at least, most mainstream) entry, but their mango-pomegranate sorbet and chocolate peanut butter ice cream were still at the top of the charts. They also apparently had a blue-and-white birthday cake ice cream that was excellent (according to the girl ahead of us in one line), but we didn't get to try that one.

- Unfortunately, neither of us remembers the name of the creamery who featured chocolate ice cream with sour cream and sea salt, but it was very good! The sour cream gave it a bit of a tang, and chocolate/salt is always a good combo.

The Mixed Bags:

- Nice Cream had an odd setup. Rather than a table where you could grab a cup on your way past, they had two tables at which they sat four people at a time, where one of their staff served everyone four flavors individually. This resulted in a long line (we waited over 20 minutes, and it was the only one we waited in for more than about two), and most people in line were confused about exactly what the line was for. The event's website promised a tasting contest where you could vote for your favorites, and people thought that this was the line to participate in that. But no, it was just another company. Anyhow, their four-flavor lineup had two winners and two losers. The peaches & cream, made with sour cream, was excellent. As with the other sour cream entry, it really added to the flavor (and I don't like sour cream by itself). The chocolate and sweet basil was the other winner - it's easy to forget that basil is in the mint family until you taste it with the chocolate! I don't think I could eat a large bowl of it, but a small amount was surprisingly good. The blueberry pie ice cream was good (and had a surprisingly "pie"-y flavor), but didn't stand up to the intense festival competition, while the strawberry and angel food cake was rather bland.

- Clandestino was clearly positioning itself as the gourmeter-than-thou entry. First was its chocolate chili, which won third place last year - but Vosges' much creamier version outshone it this year. Then was the one ice cream I tasted all night that was just bad - blueberry huitlacoche. What is huitlacoche? I wish I'd asked before I tried it, and I might have been prepared - it's a fungus that grows on corn. And yes, the ice cream tasted... fungusy. Mildewy, almost. *shudder* Luckily, they made up for that with their serrano cornbread ice cream, which was savory rather than sweet and was really very good! Cornbread is a nice sweetish savory taste well-suited to ice cream, and there was just a hint of serrano heat running through it. Wish I'd had a second cup before they ran out!

Worth a quick mention as well were the banana chocolate chip from Mitchell's and the very rich and flavorful vanilla from Shawn Michelle.

Dinner was taken care of by small slices of spinach stuffed pizza from Edwardo's, there was a table with taster cups of wine, and a table at the center of the upstairs room was handing out cups of champagne with peach ice cream in them, which Robbie says were excellent. They certainly had one of the longest lines in the place going! They did have a table pouring cups of water for those needing a non-alcoholic drink to cut through all the dairy. We also got a chance to walk around the nature museum it was held in, which was a nice bonus.

I recommend getting there early - we got there about 6:35 (doors opened at 7), and there was already a long line to get in. But once we were through the doors, we started upstairs where it was less crowded and were rewarded with almost no lines for the first half hour or so. By 8pm, it was getting pretty full.

Overall, they still have a few logistical kinks to work out (we paid at the door, but as we were headed in realized it would have been absurdly easy to sneak in because of the way they had it set up), but we had a lot of fun and ended the night plenty full!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Moser Roth 70%

We were surprised to find nice chocolate at discount grocer Aldi, of all places. They actually have two "store brands" - Moser Roth and Choceur. Moser Roth is definitely the better of the two, and is made in Germany.

The 70% has a lot going for it, though not everyone will like it. The flavors are very subtle, none of the obvious fruitiness that a lot of better dark chocolates have. Because of that, some people will probably find it bland. I quite liked it, though - it's not as bitter as many 70%s while also not being sweeter than you'd expect, and the predominant flavor seems to be pure cocoa. It's nice and crisp, a lovely texture.

After just eating it, we also tried baking with it. We tried making a flourless chocolate cake using this recipe, and the massive amounts of butter and egg just totally overpowered the subtle flavor of the chocolate. The recipe needs something bolder and a bit lower-percentage, while the chocolate needs to be used only in recipes that really let it shine rather than burying it. Perhaps in Alice Medrich's "Albert's Mousse" from Bittersweet.

Overall, at $1.30 for a 4.4-oz bar, this is a great deal for good 70% chocolate. It's clearly not as good as bars that cost 4 times that, but it's at least as good as many that cost twice that. There is also an 85% available, milk chocolate with toffee, and a few other varieties.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Caramel egg battle: Cadbury vs Walgreens

My husband's favorite Easter treat is Cadbury caramel eggs. This year, we found that Walgreen's has also started selling a store brand version. Since neither of us are huge fans of Cadbury's overly-sweet milk chocolate to begin with, and the ingredients list looked reasonable (ie, real chocolate and in fact less sugar in the chocolate than Cadbury's), we decided to buy a couple and do a taste test.

We both tried both eggs blindly, and could both easily identify which was which. The chocolate in the Walgreen's egg was not as creamy/milky as Cadbury's (it's a tiny bit grainy in comparison), but also not as sweet. It tasted a lot like Hershey's Special Dark to me - trying to be dark chocolate, but still quite sweet. Visually it was also darker. If we were just eating plain chocolate, the Walgreen's would win, although it still wasn't the greatest stuff out there.

However, at least half the point of a caramel egg is the caramel. The caramel in both tasted about the same - BUT the Cadbury's egg had a lot more of it. The Cadbury egg had a shell that was uniformly about 1/4" thick all over the egg. The Walgreen's egg was about the same size, but the shell was very thick on the top and bottom of the egg, leaving only about a 1" sphere in the middle to fill with caramel. It's possible they were going for something that mimicks a real hard-boiled egg, with the caramel being the size of the "yolk." But unfortunately, this led to simply not having enough caramel. The amount of the caramel in the Cadbury egg makes the chocolate hard to taste in the first place, and when you're dealing with chocolate that's kinda mediocre to begin with, that's a good thing.

Overall, we both preferred the Cadbury caramel egg. While the chocolate in the Walgreen's egg was a bit better, it wasn't good enough to make up for the lack of caramel. The masses of ooey-gooey caramel easily hid the drawbacks of the Cadbury chocolate.

I'd post pictures, but unfortunately my camera is still broken. :(

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hotel Chocolat - 40% milk

I discovered Hotel Chocolat during my annual trip to Boston in January. I was hanging out on Newbury Street and wandered into their store, where all the Christmas chocolates were half off! Score!

HC is a British chocolatier who owns their own chocolate plantation in St Lucia. They are committed to ethical farming practices both on their own estate and when dealing with the local cocoa-growing community.

They also claim to use minimal sugar to keep the cocoa front and center in flavor. I was very interested to try this, since I tend to find most British chocolate (such as Cadbury) to be way too sweet. So I was pretty excited when the variety pack I bought included a few pieces of 40% milk chocolate (they also sell 50% and even 60% milk chocolates).

I definitely liked it better than most milk chocolate. It was noticeably less sweet than the average milk, which was a big improvement. Crisper, as well - so much milk chocolate is slightly mushy. The one complaint I had was that it seemed overly creamy. If it were too sweet, I'd call it cloying, and I don't know what the equivalent of "cloying" is for creaminess. But it bordered on cloyingly creamy, whatever the real word is. But I think it's definitely the best milk chocolate I've ever tasted. Even Crimson, who normally hates milk chocolate for its sweetness, thought it was acceptable.

I've tried a few other selections - some hazelnut truffles, and a lovely caramel-flavored 33% milk chocolate. The caramel flavor really offset the creaminess nicely! I can't wait to get my hands on some 60% milk chocolate sometime.