Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ready for a Chocolate Adventure?

Ever tried a wattleseed chocolate truffles? Or chocolate-laced curry paste with coconut milk? How about chocolate pudding with tapioca pearls and caramelized plantain? If combinations like these get your creative gears turning, the Chocolate Adventure Contest might be for you. This contest, sponsored by Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker and the weekly web newsletter TuttiFoodie, challenges its entrants to pair Scharffen Berger chocolate or cocoa with at least one of the adventure ingredients (the full list is on the contest page).

Last week I had the pleasure of attending one of the kick-off events for the contest at Orson in San Francisco, the acclaimed (and polarizing) venture from Elizabeth Falkner. The event was organized by the contest sponsors with help from the tablehopper.

John Scharffenberger on sparkling wine and chocolate
After some preliminaries, co-founder John Scharffenberger gave an impromptu talk about chocolate. Last year, at one of the Chocolate Adventure kick-off events at the (now-closed) Rubicon, he gave a fascinating explanation of the evolution of the cacao tree and how humanity learned to use it.

This year he focused on taste, starting by connecting chocolate making with sparkling wine making (he used to run Scharffenberger Cellars). Many sparkling wine companies try to maintain a consistent style through the years which means that their product is a blend of many inputs — wine from different vineyards, different percentages of grapes, and so on. Scharffenberger recounted that on some days his staff would taste 30 or 40 different blends in their quest for the right blend for that year. Most chocolate is also a blend — Scharffenberger said that the cacao beans in a Scharffen Berger bar come from 6 to 11 different sources. He also said that the chocolate industry should follow the sparkling wine industry when it comes to single-origin bars (in which the cacao comes from a relatively small geographical area). In many sparkling wine companies, "declaring a vintage" is a big deal, reserved only for years with exceptional quality. Similarly, the sale of single-origin bars should be done only when the cacao from that year's harvest is exceptional, not simply because the cacao was available.

Inspiration from Orson
Scharffenberger's remarks were followed by culinary inspiration from Orson's kitchen. Ryan Farr, chef de cuisine at Orson, presented three small tastes that included chocolate or cacao nibs.

The first was a salad of mango, avocado, cherry tomato, arugula, chocolate shavings and violet vinaigrette. I wasn't able to detect much chocolate flavor among the ripe mango, lucious avocado and bright Spring-like dressing.

The second taste was a small dumpling of Parmesan pudding along with mounds of roasted red peppers and cacao nibs with popping candy (how they work at HowStuffWorks, and how they didn't kill Mikey from the Life commercial at Snopes.com). I've been thinking about savory puddings and custards for a while (and even have a recipe for one in my "to blog" queue), so this one excited me. The pudding and cacao nibs were very adult flavors — rich and slightly bitter — while the popping candy brought back childhood memories.

The final savory item was a small piece of roasted pork set on a mole sauce that contained ancho chilies, ginger, other spices and almonds (both ground and chopped). Based on my hazy recollections of Ryan Farr's comments, this one had little (if any) chocolate in the sauce, so as to provide a slight break to our palates.

As a finale, pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez offered a surprising dessert combination: black olives and chocolate. Villavelazquez placed small ice cream sandwiches of black olive-speckled ice cream and dark chocolate cookies, on a rich chocolate sauce that was dosed with popping candy (and, I think, a butterscotch sauce).

The black olive bits played with my expectations about ice cream, causing bursts of saltiness in a silky, not too sweet background. The chocolate cookies — alone or with the ice cream — were brilliant: crispy but not brittle and deeply flavored. (Apparently, this dessert appears on the regular Orson menu now and then.)

The Contest
Entries can be submitted to one of three categories: savory, sweet and beverage categories. In each category, entrants will compete for first and second prizes (first: $5,000 plus a stack of books and chocolate, mention of your recipe in Saveur magazine; second: a stack of books and chocolate).

Inspired by the Orson's event, I've already tried two adventurous pairings. Both, however, were unsuccessful and probably didn't point me to better ideas. I'll keep trying (January is a long way away) and hope to come up with an entry or two. (Last year I submitted a recipe that paired chocolate with pomegranate and cardamom in a black and white brownie.)

Entries will be accepted between October 1, 2008 and January 4, 2009. Complete rules are on the Chocolate Adventure rules page.

An Unfortunate Postscript
A day after the joyous event, the New York Times reported some sad news about the other founder of the Scharffen Berger company:
Dr. Robert Steinberg, a food-loving doctor who threw himself into the chocolate business, eventually joining with a former patient to make the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker brand into one of the most highly regarded fine American chocolates, died Wednesday near his home in San Francisco. He was 61.

The cause was lymphatic cancer, which Dr. Steinberg had battled for nearly two decades and which spurred him to shift careers, his sister, Nancy Steinberg, said.

"He knew medicine would be difficult with his illness and he always loved cooking, his hobby," Ms. Steinberg said - so much so that her brother stood almost daily by the antique blender machines he had imported from Germany so he could do his own taste testing.

Cookbook author and chocolate wizard David Lebovitz has an appreciation of Steinberg and his influence on American chocolate.

Random link from the archive: Finally heeding the call of Lahey's "no knead bread"

Technorati tags: Baking : Chocolate : Food

1 comment:

kimrennin said...

California, amidst the chaos of Los Angeles, is a beautiful little Asian-influenced pastry, tea, and chocolate shop/garden. There is not much space inside the shop, although the pastry splendor is quite large. The garden features seating and waiters, so you can peek at the shop, then settle outside for an Afternoon Tea.
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