I had the pleasure of figuratively immersing myself in chocolate for an afternoon at Rubicon Restaurant in San Francisco last Sunday. The occasion was the launch of a new recipe contest sponsored by food-website tuttifoodie and Scharffen Berger Chocolate (tablehopper also helped make the event happen). Called the Chocolate Adventure Recipe Contest, it challenges you to bring chocolate into a delicious partnership with one or more of twenty specified ingredients. The options include lavender, curry powder, mastiha (a Greek delicacy made from the resin of the lentisk tree) and amchur powder (powdered dried green mango).
The Evolution of Chocolate
To start the event, company co-founder John Scharffenberger gave a short talk about the evolution of chocolate. Unlike most fruits, cacao fruits grow on the trunk of a tree (Answers.com has a nice photo), down at the level of a very large herbivore, but too close to the ground for a monkey (they prefer the safety of the forest canopy--no jaguars up there!). Therefore, the current evolutionary theory is that the cacao tree's unusual form was intended to provide its fruit to now-extinct megafauna (giant sloths, giant tapirs, etc.), that would eat the sweet fruit but spit out (or pass undigested) the bitter seeds, thus spreading them around.
Eventually, humans discovered that the fruit of the cacao pod is good to eat. It took a while longer before someone learned how to process the seeds to remove the bitterness and make them into an edible form (perhaps a pile of pods was left fermenting in the sun, causing some of the bitter compounds to break down). In areas now called Mexico, the metate was used to grind corn for daily meals; it also works well for cacao pods. People living in those areas thus bred their trees to have larger and better tasting seeds (Crillio variety). Mr. Scharffenberger pointed out that pre-Columbian South American cultures did not eat the seeds of the cacao tree--perhaps they didn't have the grinding technology--so the trees endemic to that region have been bred to have more fruit pulp (Forastero variety). A third variety is called Trinitario, and is a hybrid of Forastero and Crillio.
The story of chocolate's evolution and adoption by humans is a fascinating one. I'll have to pick up a comprehensive book one of these days (David Lebovitz thinks highly of Mort Rosenblum's history).
We first tasted chocolate in a "unprocessed" form: roasted nibs that had been ground and then somehow compressed into a bar, without any sugar. It was a novel and intense experience, quite unlike eating unsweetened chocolate because of the roughness and brittleness of the pieces, which would quickly fall apart upon chewing. We had samples from Venezuela, Bali and Ghana (I don't recall the cacao variety). The three samples were had significantly different flavor profiles, one more fruity, one more smoky, each one interesting.
Then we moved on to pieces of finished product with cocoa content of 82%, 70% (Mr. Scharfenberger said that this offering is intended to "show what the flavors of chocolate are"), and 62%. Finally, we tasted a limited edition 75% from Antilles that has not yet been released (snap it up if you see it, it won't be around for long).
The vast majority of the cacao purchased by Scharffen Berger is used to make their standard bars through a process of blending. They pick and choose among the current crop to obtain the flavor profile that defines each standard variety. Now and then, they come across a spectacular crop that deserves special attention in the form of a limited release chocolate bar. A good analogy for this is the practice of declaring vintages in Champagne, France. Most sparkling wint from Champagne is a blend of wine from many different years, with occasional harvests having the grapes are fine enough to stand on their own and be declared a vintage.
Choc-ing the Rubicon
After the tasting, Rubicon's pastry chef Nicole Krasinski presented three desserts that use chocolate in innovative ways.
The first dessert was a rethinking of a s'more (a classic campfire dessert consisting of a fire-toasted marshmallow, Hershey's milk chocolate, and graham cracker). It was a nugget of thyme-infused chocolate mousse on a dusting of cookie crumbs, a piece of ripe fig, and a streak of meringue that had been browned with a torch. I had never eaten thyme and chocolate together--it was delicious at low levels of thyme, but less so when I ran across an entire leaf. Bites taken with all three components, the subtly-herbed mousse, the vibrant ripe fig, and the sweet, smooth meringue were splendid. An element of crunch would have raised this dessert to hall of fame levels for me.
The second dessert was perhaps the most daring because it featured a sorbet made with Japanese pickled plum (umeboshi) and chocolate. Umeboshi is distinctive, assertive and relatively salty, and is not something I would consider for a desserts. But in combination with a mellow chocolate-nib panna cotta and a chococolate-chip wafer, it worked quite nicely. This one was my favorite of the three.
The final dessert was a ganache-filled dumpling floating in a pool of lemon-infused milk sauce, with a bit of coffee gelee, topped with powdered sugar and Madras curry powder. Chef Krasinsky recommend that we try to have each bite be a mixture of each element, but I found that to be difficult because of the fragility of the dumpling. A single-bite size might have better, but probably not practical. The ganache filling was quite delicious because of something good that happened to it while the dumpling was being deep-fried (sugar caramelization?).
All in all, it was an inspiring afternoon. The conversations between presentations and after the tastings bubbled with creative commentary about the day's offerings. It certainly put my brain into motion, percolating dessert ideas in case I decide to enter the contest. (entries will be accepted between September 1 and December 1)
One idea that will definitely stick with me: if I ever visit Rubicon while Nicole Krasinski is running the pastry kitchen, I'll be sure to save room for a dessert (or two!).
More commentary on the event from Ladle & Whisk.
Random link from the archive: Eating the Whole Thing
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