Alinea: Chocolate, warmed to 94 degrees

From the title of this recipe one would not know what to expect. Is it a hot chcolate drink? Just warmed chocolate? Honestly it sounds a bit boring. Boring, though, this recipe is not! Without waxing with no end about the nuances of this dish I have to say that this dessert from Alinea is AWESOME. It’s so much more than the sum of its parts that at first glance I was not sure how they will work together. It’s a dish that combines braised figs, Bergamot tea (you know, like Earl Grey), a cinnamon flavored ice cream and dried chocolate mousse. The result is delicious, comforting, familiar and exotic at the same time and features amazingly harmonious textures. Oh and I just love how classy and lovely it looks…hence the tons of pictures in this post.

I had seen this recipe years ago, right before the Alinea book was published. This one was one of the few “preview” recipes published by the authors on their Mosaic website. I just never got around to making it for the usual various reasons but mostly because fresh figs have a fairly short season here and when I do find them they are pretty pricy and the fruit is not that great. Recently though I found a bunch for an excellent price at Whole Foods, so I bought some to eat fresh and to make this recipe. The figs are braised in a mixture of wine, ruby port, glucose and sugar until they are soft. The cooking liquid is then reduced to a glaze and stored along with the fruit until plating time. The figs and their liquid delicious on their own. They will work great as a garnish for game meats or on top of vanilla ice cream.

The ice cream is supposed to be “cassia ice cream”. Cassia buds are the tiny flowers of the cassia tree, the same tree that usually produces a very fragrant bark that we use regularly -cinnamon. The buds are supposed to have a cinnamon flavor and aroma but are more flowery, citrusy and intense. At least that’s what I gathered from a couple of online sources. In any case, I could not find them locally and was not going to order them online. So, I used a bunch of cinnamon sticks and some corriander seeds that get toasted and steeped in milk. Like many of Alinea’s ice creams, this one is fairly low in fat and is supposed to be frozen in with a Pacojet not churned in a regular ice cream maker.

Usually I alter these recipes to make them more home-ice-cream-machine friendly like I did with the delicious buckwheat ice cream from another Alinea recipe. This time though I decided to see what would happen if I just made the recipe as is. Well, the resulting ice cream predictably froze much harder than is desirable and had a very light texture (not too icy though) on the tongue. To serve it I had to let it sit on the counter for 5 minutes or so I can make nice quenelle scoops out of it. On it’s own, the ice cream is not great honestly. It’s a bit too light and not creamy enough, but the cinnamon flavor with the accompanying corriander came through very well. When it was time to eat the plated dish though, the ice cream worked perfectly with all the other elements. It’s lightness played very well with intense chewy figs and the dark crunchy chocolate mousse. So, even though the ice cream could not stand on its own, it was perfect as a smaller player in a larger composition.

This was a neat and unique way to serve chocolate mousse. The mousse is that cracker looking piece on top of the ice cream. It’s a dehydrated chocolate mousse. The recipe is pretty standard with dark melted chocolate, egg yolks, whipped egg whites and sugar and it makes for a tasty version of this confection (I saved some and served it in a small ramekin). The rich mousse is spread on a acetate sheet and dehydrated for several hours until it is crispy and can be easily broken into shards. Those shards are addictively delicious all on their own and go great with a glass of milk. It’s a good thing that the (half) recipe of the mousse makes more than enough of the crackers for lots of servings of the dessert, because we snacked on those things like crazy.

For the bergamot tea, I cooked dried mission figs with water, sugar and a little salt. Off heat, I added earl grey tea leaves and let them steep for a few minutes. I strained everything out and then blended in a few grams of Ultratex-3 to finish the sauce. It’s interesting to note tha the Ultratex here does not make the sauce too thick or pudding-like. Instead it gives it just a little body and texture.

Last but not least, the recipe’s namesake is made..or more like “warmed”. One of the reasons people love chocolate so much lies in its melting point. Chocolate, or more accurately, cocoa butter melts at around 94 degrees F. Since our bodies maintain a temperature of 98 degrees F , chocolate just gently melts in our mouths and spreads is bitter sweet complex goodness. So, what Achatz is doing here is using that property to soften the chocolate by warming it just up to its melting point while maintaining its shape. Allen at his Alinea blog, just recently posted about this recipe (with his customary amazing pictures) and went to great lengths to create an environment that maintains about 94F. I did not. All I did was put a few broken quality dark chocolate pieces on the mousse shards. I heated my oven to about 100F, turned it off and left the pilot light on. I slipped the chocolate topped mousse shards in there for about 15-20 minutes by which time the chocolate got perfectly soft but did not run all over the place and maintained its shape. As far as I could tell using an oven thermometer the temperature in there remained around 95-98F.

To serve it, I put three braised fig halves and some of their liquid in the bottom of a bowl. I topped them with a nice quenelle of ice cream and layed a chocolate topped mousse shard on that. I gently poured some warmed bergamot tea/sauce around in the bottom right before serving it (at the restaurant they do this table-side). The dessert is supposed to be garnished with a bergamot flower, a pretty red one. I had none and went to my herb garden to see what I had. I ended up with some basil buds and pretty rosemary flowers. This really was a perfect dessert.

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