Sunday, October 24, 2010

Northwest Chocolate Festival

Question: What's brown and sticky?

At any other time, the best answer would be "a stick". On this particular weekend, a better answer would have been "Seattle Center", overrun as the place was by The Northwest Chocolate Festival and hordes of hot-handed, sample-crazed chocophiles. There were booths hosted by manufacturers and confectioners from around the world, expert panels debating fair trade and environmental issues, an adults-only wine garden, and on Saturday night, a chocolate-themed masquerade ball.

I stopped by during my lunch hour on Sunday for a few samples and a demonstration on cooking French-style chocolate macarons given by Antoine Rondenet, an instructor at the Art Institute of Seattle's culinary school. In between ingredient recommendations and technical tips, Chef Rondenet and his assistant delivered some surprisingly funny shtick on the subject of magic ovens and pastry bags full of brown goo. When the finished macarons emerged from the aforementioned oven, the audience lept up from its orderly rows of folding chairs and swarmed the stage (so much for the mellowing properties of all those "feel-good" chemicals in chocolate). My "free" macaron (below) actually cost me several bruises and a smidgen of self-respect.

Chef Rondenet's recipe is available on his blog, "Food and Pastry".

Friday, October 15, 2010


Kobe Fugetsudo

I held out as long as I could, but I'm finally sampling the sweet swag I brought home from last month's Hyogo Confectionery Event. First up, these old-fashioned cookies from confectioner Kobe Fugetsudo.

Although gaufre is French for "waffel," Fugetsudo's interpretation is more what I think of as a wafer or tuile. Each airy disc is baked crisp and golden between engraved metal plates that also emboss it with the company's name and a leafy border. The gaufres are mortared together two at a time with a thin lick of stiff, sweet, delicately flavored pastry cream. They come three to pack in the classic Neapolitan combo of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla.

Fugetsudo's gaufres owe their distinctly Belle Epoque vibe to Kobe's former role as the official center of Japanese-European commerce and cultural exchange. A century ago, Japanese consumers would have considered gaufres as exotic and modern as Kobe's broad streets, brick buildings, and puff-sleeved dresses. I once compared a Euro-Japanese sweet of the same era to a Victorian lady, but whereas monaka are plump and a bit frumpy, gaufres are their elegant Continental cousins.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Zorba's Chocolates

Raw Chocolate Confections
Zorba's Raw Chocolate, $29/12 pieces

My parents recently and temporarily relocated to Ashland, Oregon, a small town just north of the California border. Ashland is home to Southern Oregon University, Mt. Ashland, the world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, lots of galleries, some great restaurants, a few notable nudists, and enough Tibetan prayer flags to swaddle Mt. Everest. It's an artsy, foodsy, outdoorsy, high-brow hippy haven, the kind of place you could call "granola"--if by "granola" you mean hand-harvested heirloom grains frosted with honeysuckle nectar and trampled flat by yearling llamas under the light of a new moon.

In short, it's a place I enjoy visiting, not least for the unusual experience of feeling comparatively conservative.

At a gorgeous flower shop on the main drag I discovered a display of fine chocolate and one unfamiliar brand. Zorba's Raw Chocolate confections were set out under old-fashioned glass domes; at first sight they reminded me of gems or rare orchids, and after a little research I learned just how apt that impression was.

Zorba's confections are "Raw, Dark, and Divinely created," made in Ashland using single origin Ecuadorian cacao grown by a co-operative of small farms. While cacao in its natural state contains a wealth of nutrients and antioxidants, many of these break down at the high temperatures associated with conventional chocolate manufacturing. By contrast, "raw" chocolate is never allowed over 118 degrees, thus conserving more of the cacao's natural health benefits. According to Zorba's literature, "Cacao in its raw, unroasted form, contains more antioxidants/gram than any other fruit or vegetable on earth," and raw chocolate contains upwards of 300% more free-radical-fighting antioxidants than even best conventional dark chocolate.

Zorba's confections start with organic raw cacao powder and raw cacao butter. To that they add coconut oil as an emulsifier, and a range of flavorings from sources near and far. In lieu of refined sugar, Zorba uses sweeteners such as raw honey, maple syrup, stevia, dates, aromatic oils, Jerusalem artichoke syrup, and maca and lucuma (respectively, a naturally sweet Andean root vegetable and fruit). More assertive flavors come from ginger, matcha, cayenne, mesquite, Himalayan sea salt, and coffee (locally roasted, fair trade, and shade grown).

Pictured above, Zorba's truffle range (left-right, top-bottom): ginseng and cardamom, cayenne/coconut, pure dark, maca-roon, vanilla "karamel", bing cherry, espresso, rose "karamel", and ginger and green tea. I found the texture of the ganache a little dry and crumbly, but in a way that was rustic or hearty rather than off-putting. The standout for me was the rose "karamel", a sweet and creamy concoction made from medjool dates, essential oil, and salt; nothing like a caramel, nothing like a rose cream, but totally delicious.

And the health benefits? While I can't say whether or not Zorba's confections added moments to my life, I can attest that they made me feel better in the short term. I was so intrigued by them that I broke my own two-truffle rule, sampling my way through one after another in quick succession. When I realized just how much I'd eaten I began to dread the impending rush/crash, but it never came. Instead, I just felt good--well-fed, satisfied, and content. Much as I love chocolate, that's not how too much of a good thing usually makes me feel.