Friday, July 31, 2009

Cinnamon Sun Tea

Bengal Tiger Tea
Celestial Seasonings, from $3 for 20 bags

One grim, gusty London day a couple of winters ago, my friend Pepe let me in on a marvelous secret:  if you steep a bag of Celestial Seasonings' Bengal Tiger tea for a ridiculously long time (put a lid on the mug to conserve heat), the spicy cinnamon infusion turns sweet all by itself, with no added honey or sugar.  

Since then the self-sweetening elixir has become one of my cold weather staples, but I only recently started to wonder if it might help me get through Seattle's current heatwave.  So I put two bags in a quart jar and doused them with a little hot water, then topped up the jar with more water and moved it into a sunny spot to steep.  A couple of hours later I moved the jar to the fridge, and a couple of hours after that I was sitting in the shade, cooling down with a tall glass of sweet-spicy nectar.  

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bread and Chocolate Bar

Bread and Chocolate Bar
Theo Chocolate

When I was a kid, Krackle bars were among the Halloween haul that I was willing to share with my parents without dramatic protest. I'd eat them, of course, in a pinch, but I found them dry, mealy, and insipid.

Years later I woke up to the joys of mixing starches and chocolate. I'd eat good pain au chocolat when I could get them, or when I couldn't, improvised sandwiches of fresh baguette and dark chocolate bars.

Then came the Bread and Chocolate bar from Theo Chocolate's 3400 Phinney line: creamy organic 70% chocolate with crispy, crusty bread crumbs and a sprinkle of salt. If I thought anyone gave these as Halloween treats, I'd dust off my Dolly Madison costume.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thrive Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate Mousse
Thrive, $3.75/serving at Bite of Seattle

The first thing I did upon arriving at "Bite of Seattle" was ride a roller coaster. It was one of those enclosed boxes that rocks around on pistons so the occupants feel like they're lurching and swooping in synch with a computer-generated image projected on a wraparound screen. The line was short and the attendants promised air conditioning.

The last time I rode in one of these roller-boxes the premise was a rollicking ride through a low-gravity Martian ore mine. This time the theme was atherosclerosis.

After 5 minutes of buffeting against plaque-clogged arteries and ricocheting off blood clots, I wasn't in the mood for many of Seattle's sweetest, greasiest, and cheesiest bites. I was delighted to find a booth run by Thrive, a new-ish Seattle restaurant featuring fresh, organic, and raw ingredients. Their chocolate mousse is also gluten-free and vegan, an enjoyably unctuous fr0th of coconut milk, raw cacao, agave syrup, and cashews, with just enough sea salt to underline the rich chocolate flavor.

1026 NE 65th St #A-102
Seattle, WA

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Banh Choux Creme

Banh Choux Creme

Than Brothers, free with entree

I will never get used to sitting down for a big spicy bowl of pho and receiving a cream puff as an appetizer.

I understand why a French pastry is featured in a Vietnamese restaurant (colonialism and confectionery); I understand why Than Brothers uses the "free cream puff" gimmick to stand apart from other pho joints (confectionery and competition). But why do they bring the cream puff first? Do choux and custard really prep your stomach for broth, tripe, and tendons?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Posh Chocolat

Tasting Truffles
Posh Chocolat

Ana and Jason Willenbock met at the Culinary Institute in New York and traveled the world as chefs-in-training before opening Posh Chocolat in Missoula, Montana.

The Willenbocks' adventurousness and facility with savory flavors made their booth a standout at the Seattle Chocolate Salon. While nearly every chocolatier presented a sea-salted caramel and an accompanying explanation of why this one is different, Posh's really were. The flavors in their "exotic caramels" range include:

  • Turkish Coffee Caramel with Espresso Brava Sea Salt
  • White Truffle Oil Caramel with Cyprus Flaked Sea Salt
  • Coconut-Pineapple Caramel with Hawiian Pink Sea Salt
  • Bacon Caramel with Applewood Smoked Sea Salt
  • Thai Peanut Caramel with Ginger Sea Salt

  • The truffles pictured above are tiny "tasting" versions in Rosewater, Strawberry with 10-year-old Balsamic, Ras al Hanout, and Mojito. Posh also confounds the melt-in-your-mouth-truffle versus sniffed-out-by-pigs-truffle confusion with a deliciously successful "White Truffle Oil and Tahitian Vanilla" dark chocolate truffle.

    Thursday, July 16, 2009

    The Seattle Chocolate Salon

    The Seattle Chocolate Salon
    July 12, 2009
    Bell Harbor Conference Center

    9:30am. I fortify myself for the day ahead with a huge, bland breakfast: oatmeal, an egg, a little fruit. No sugar, no caffeine, no dairy...not yet.

    11:15am. I would have gotten to the Chocolate Salon when the doors opened at 11, if only Pier 66 had been were I thought it was. That was Pier 54--some 5 blocks away.

    So I'm sweating and out of breath when I get in the Will Call line with a printout saying that I, humble blogger, am entitled to a press pass (I emailed a question about the event and got a voucher in reply: deus ex machina!).

    "You're late," say the young woman behind the desk, as she outfits me with a VIP wristband. I start to stammer an apology and she dimples and laughs: "Oh, don't worry, there's probably some chocolate left."

    Inside the main hall three things hit me at once: the smell of the chocolate, the size of the crowd, and the fact that everyone is wearing a VIP wristband.

    The first table I spotted quieted my fears. William Dean Chocolates was reassuringly top-heavy with samples. Since it was also mobbed with guests, I made a first round of the less-crowded tables.

    At the Oh!Chocolate booth a chocolatier sat at a marble slab rolling tiny balls of fondant or snips of candied apricot in melted chocolate (photo above). Plopped down on squares of waxed paper, the newborn truffles were snatched up immediately, and I wasn't the only one trying to lick the excess melted chocolate off the paper.

    Oh! is a family business now run by the original owners' daughters, with the help of three grandsons; their Mercer Island store will have its 35th anniversary next Valentine's Day. The Madison Park branch offers guests the chance to get down and dirty at weekly hands-on chocolate classes.

    At Intrigue Chocolates I grazed on "fresh truffles", defenseless blobs of flavor-infused fondant blanketed in cocoa powder but not enrobed in a hard chocolate shell. While deconstruction seems so very modern, owner Aaron Barthel is actually looking to the past: "French truffles--the original--are free of the distraction of the hard shell." From a repertoire of about 70 boozy, herby, and fruity flavors (plus one dubbed "the Doctor") , Intrigue makes 6 flavors monthly. Their shelf-life is about like a gallon of milk: a month in the fridge.

    The strong flavors brought out strong reactions. I snuck seconds of my favorites while other members of the gathered crowd gushed about flavors that didn't actually taste like much to me.

    The samples at Claudio Corallo were made of much sterner stuff. Shallow white dishes held shards of hard, glossy, high-percentage dark chocolate made by an Italian chocolatier who lives and works on his own cacao farm in Brazil. Corallo's control over his product was most appreciable in the 100% bar, made with no dairy, sugar, or added cocoa butter; it tasted clean and creamy and not at all bitter. Balls of candied ginger coated with the 100% dark were also a delicious surprise, as was a "French curry" truffle designed by the pastry chef of Seattle's Crush restaurant; the garlic and spices were as subtle and warm as the ganache.

    12:45pm. Things are getting a little out of hand. Most of the chocolatiers have carefully separated their "sample" products from their "sale" products, but some guests are too jazzed to notice the difference. I see one woman reach over a tray of quartered truffles to a gift box of whole ones; she plucks out 3 or 4 and one after the other pops them, whole, into her mouth, as she slowly wanders to the next table. The incredulous chocolatier just sighs, quarters the remaining truffles from the plundered box, and sets them out on the display tray.

    What with the delicious smells and the crush of affluent people swinging tote bags and exchanging cooking tips, my mind wandered, momentarily, to a farmers' market. And then came to an abrupt halt as I thought of the major difference between the two.

    Next to none of the people in this room had actually grown the chocolate they were fronting. A goodly number probably couldn't say where their cacao originated, having bought their blocks of couverture from mass-producers such as Valhrona or Callebaut. These mass-market chocolates are a blend of "bulk" beans, cacao sourced from all over, and brought together for a desired price point or flavor profile. The origins of the individual cacao beans are lost to the melting pot; they become "French" chocolate, or "Swiss" chocolate, regardless of where they were actually grown.

    Why this is an issue for some, is that the agricultural practices and labor conditions associated with cacao production can be quite troubling. Although you don't hear much about "sweatshop chocolate" or "blood chocolate", cacao, like diamonds or cheap t-shirts, often comes to us on a tide of human misery. Joe Whinney, founder of Theo Chocolates, observes that awareness of this issue is growing and that consumers are increasingly looking for accountability: "[Make sure] nobody gets hurt...and then you enjoy it."

    But while with enough cash and a free morning you can pester the farmers at a local market until you are satisfied that you are buying the happiest goat milk or the greenest green beans, acting as a responsible consumer of chocolate is not always so clearly scripted. With the exception a small concern in Hawaii, cacao farms are not particularly accessible. Cacao grows in sweaty and often remote areas within a belt circling the earth twenty degrees to either side of the equator. The average American consumer is unlikely ever to meet a cacao farmer face-to-face, much less to visit a cacao farm.

    So what's a conscientious chocoholic to do?

    Divine Chocolates ("Heavenly Chocolate with a Heart") makes a good argument for seeking out Fair Trade. Divine is co-owned by the farmers in Ghana who produce the cacao for its range of flavored bars; according to the company literature, this arrangement ensures that farmers "...get a guaranteed Fair Trade price to invest in their communities". Theo, too, uses only Fair Trade chocolate, and Whinney says that Fair Trade branding sends a strong and straightforward message to consumers.

    But when I asked the Divine rep to estimate for me the amount of Fair Trade chocolate at the Salon, he reckoned 10%--at best. As Whinney admits, "There's a certain level of administration that has to go into Fair Trade certification." Theo helps its suppliers meet the additional associated costs, but not every chocolatier can go so far. Among the chocolatiers who addressed the ethical aspects of their products, there was little finger pointing (except, on occasion, at certain industrial makers of chocolate-flavored candy) and a general agreement, to quote Lauren Adler of Chocolopolis, that, "Fair Trade isn't the only way."

    For example, Carter's Chocolates are eco-concious, largely locavore, and wrapped in recycled or biodegradable packaging--but they aren't certified Fair Trade. Carter's sells truffles made from "flavor" beans, speciality cacao that makes up only about 10% of global production and remains identified by its country of origin, even after it has been processed by chocolatiers in another country. Knowing the pedigree of their chocolates allows Carter's to choose suppliers who are known for good labor and ecological practices--as well as for great tastes that pair seamlessly with their "local flavor" ganaches that feature" Washington State dessert wines, ales from Pike Brewing Company, top shelf liquors, natural fruit purees...". Carter's owner is also keen to see the conditions on his suppliers' farms for himself, and is planning his first visit to a plantation in January.

    2:15pm. Samples that would have seemed stingy at the start of the Salon are starting to look more and more sensible. Guests are not supposed to take samples home but I see more and more people turning their plastic water glasses into to-go cups filled with cut-up truffles. On some level this is anti-social behavior akin to filling up water bottles from a frat party keg--but on the other hand, it seems like the only way to give those chocolates you encounter towards the end of the day a fair try. You can cleanse your palate until it squeaks but you won't truly taste anything it you're eating it against your stomach's groaning protests.

    In a series of afternoon presentations, many speakers also addressed chocolate's impact on the health (and happiness) of consumers. The term "organic" was used but not much discussed--perhaps people are assumed to know where they stand on that issue already.

    Lauren Adler advised the audience on how to read the label on a bar of dark chocolate: acceptable ingredients are cocoa liquor/solids/mass, some cocoa butter, lecithin, real vanilla (not fake vanillin). Real dark chocolate should contain no additional oils or dairy ingredients. She also explained that "dutched" or "dutch-process" cocoa may look darker and more potent than reddish natural cocoa, but that the added alkali salts have stripped the cocoa of some nutritional value and flavor (though when baking, one should use whichever process is called for by the recipe, as they have different rising properties).

    Joe Whinney also addressed the topic of "raw chocolate", a promising but unresolved new category of healthy treat. The claim is that raw, cold-processed chocolate maintains much higher levels of cacao's natural antioxidants; the problem is that without heat, it can be difficult to draw out that last little bit of moisture that will otherwise cause the cacao to mold. At Theo they have been able to slow-roast the beans at a low enough temperature to still be considered "raw", but haven't yet found a way of overheating the beans during grinding. Whinney predicts that true "raw chocolate" is in the pipeline, but for now, should be treated with some skepticism; he also pointed out that the level of anti-oxidants in a chocolate has as much to do with its genes as with how it was processed.

    3:30pm. So much for chocolate as health food. Once again I'm sweating and out of breath, and I seem to be on the verge of a panic attack.

    On my way out I stop to make a purchase (of which, more later) from the now barren William Dean table. The attendant shakes his head in amazement at the empty trays: 3,000 samples inhaled in around 4 hours.

    Time to go home and eat. Brown rice and steamed vegetables sounds good.

    The Salon website lists official prizes and honors, but here is my own subjective list of things I would thoroughly enjoy eating again (in no particular order)...

    Theo Chocolate Bread and Chocolate
    Claudio Corallo 100% Dark
    Divine Chocolate Dark Chocolate with Mint

    Claudio Corallo Ginger Balls (candied ginger rolled in 100% dark chocolate)

    Decadent Tastes Lemongrass Ginger Truffle
    La Chatelaine Chocolat Co. Olive oil et Amande Truffle (dark chocolate covered chocolate ganache with extra virgin olive oil and toasted almonds)
    Intrique Chocolates fresh truffles in Mojito and Saint Basil
    Carter's Chocolates Amaretto Truffle
    William Dean Chocolates Mexican Mango Truffle ("layer of mango pate de fruit on top of a layer of milk chocolate ganache infused with fresh lime topped with a sea salt infused green chilies enrobed in dark chocolate")

    Ubiquitous sea-salted caramel:
    Oh!Chocolate Honey Orangeflower Caramel
    Posh Chocolates Turkish Coffee Caramel with Espresso Brava Sea Salt

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    Montezuma's Reward

    Montezuma's Reward

    Summer has finally come to Seattle and I am waiting for my internal thermostat to adjust whilst lying inert and working my way through a stack of library books on food and sweets. Although I've read about Montezuma's passion for chocolate many times, the notion of spiced chocolate served on fresh snow delivered from the mountains by runners resonated anew today, as I sat sweating and looking at the icy caps on the far-off Olympic range.

    In keeping with my recent slackadaisical efforts, this is another treat that couldn't be any easier. I picked up the original recipe for "mocha ice" ages ago and have never made it the same way twice. I've gradually reduced the amount of sugar called for (sometime I'll also try it with agave or maple syrup), and I use whatever herbs or spices I have on hand. With Montezuma in mind I went with chipotle and cinnamon this time, along with a splash of tequila. While the tablespoon of booze contributes very little in the way of flavor (or buzz) it makes my life a lot easier, since I don't currently own either a blender or a food processor. The alcohol keeps the ice from freezing completely hard, enabling me to grate the block into chocolatey snow using nothing more than a fork and a little effort.

    2 1/2 c water
    1/2 c brown sugar
    1/2 c table sugar
    1/3 c cocoa powder
    1/4 tsp salt
    up to 1 tsp combined dry spices (eg cinnamon, cardamon, chile powder, chipotle, ginger)
    1-2 Tbs strong coffee or espresso
    1 tsp vanilla
    1-2 Tbs alcohol (eg whiskey, tequila, vodka)

    Bring the water, sugar, cocoa, and spices to a low boil. Stirring frequently, let the mixture continue to bubble for 5 minutes over medium heat. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Stir in the coffee, vanilla, and alcohol. Transfer to the freezer in an appropriate container (with room for the liquid to expand). When the ice more or less solidifies rake it with a fork to make soft, fluffy granita-style slush. Eat immediately with spoons or allow to thaw to a slurpable consistency. Also good topped with a tiny amount of heavy cream or half-and-half.