Pierre Herme’s Awesome Rich Chocolate Cake

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Pierre Hermè makes desserts with flavors that really pop. If it is a fruit dessert then it sure tastes like that fruit. If it’s a rose litchi macaron then it is the essence of the flower and the tropical fruit.  His book on chocolate desserts with Dorie Greenspan is a classic and I’ve been cooking from it for years. This one is pure chocolate, deep rich cocoa flavored moist cake for real chocolate lovers.

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The original recipe is for what is called a Pavè. This literally means a paving stone or large brick. It refers to the shape of the smallish cakes. Instead of making two cakes I went with one round cake. It’s more convenient and less labor intensive and it was to be taken to a friend’s house for a dinner. So it made more sense and it worked out great.

The cake layers are made with whipped egg whites, egg yolks, all purpose flour, cocoa powder and potato starch. The potato starch is not essential but it is that extra layer of precision I mention with Hermes recipes. It has no gluten and no real flavor. So it helps make the cocoa flavor pop and contributes to a lighter more tender cakes. I think it also helps the cakes suck up more of the caramel syrup.

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Seems odd to have caramel syrup in the cake. Wha??? Well, again, it’s a building block. The cake does not taste of caramel. The sugar in the syrup is cooked to almost burnt and then loosened with water and enriched with a bit of butter. When brushed over the cakes and allowed to soak they add bitterness and richness that makes the chocolate more “chocolate-y”.

Apricots are not the first fruit that I think would go with chocolate, black pepper though makes sense. Turns out combined together they both work with chocolate. I simmered dried apricots in water for a few minutes then diced them up. Then I tossed them with ground black pepper and lemon juice.

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Last component to make is the rich chocolate ganache. This one is made with a mix of bittersweet and milk chocolates and whipped with a good bit of softened salted butter. Now the cake is ready to assemble.

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I sliced the two round cakes in half to get four layers and brushed them generously with caramel, then a layer of soft ganache. I sprinkled some of the apricots over the frosting topped it with a layer of cake and kept going.

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The frosting is very rich and gets trickier to apply if it warms up. So before frosting the outside I put the cake in the fridge to let the ganache set very well then I spread the remainder on the outside. After another rest in the fridge I used a fork to “decorate” the edges of the cake with some neat striations. One apricot that I saved after poaching got glazed with a touch of syrup and sat on top of the cake. The cake is best served at room temperature when the ganache is at the perfect creamy texture.  So, we let it rest for a bit and dug in.

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Pear, Caramelized Genoa Bread, Chocolate Veil

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Francisco Migoya from the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America, not the other CIA) is a superb pastry chef and judging from his books, an excellent teacher. He has 3 books and I got a hold of two of them so far, Elements of Desserts and Frozen Desserts. While I have many high end, modern and professional cookbooks, until I got Migoya’s books, I really did not have any pastry and dessert books that target the professional cook. If you want to go beyond desserts tailored for the home cook and learn the way modern pastry chefs compose and create desserts, these are the books for you. They are geared towards the professional chefs and deal with everything from the basics of desserts, the professional tools of the trades, running a pastry kitchen and of course many beautiful modern desserts. I love reading through those books, looking at all the gorgeous pictures and learn a few things about the creative process, especially for plated desserts like this one here.

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The flavors are not strange or foreign , just a few primary flavors that work very well together and a modern unique plating. Migoya instructs that no more than three primary flavors should be included in a dessert or else the palate would be overwhelmed. This plate combined pear in the form of ice cream and poached fruit, almond Genoa bread accented with caramel and chocolate in the form of a cool “veil”.

This was my first time trying Genoa bread (aka Pain de Genes) even though I’ve read about it from many sources. It is a cake of sorts made with a lot of almond paste that gives it a wonderful flavor and a dense almost fudgy texture. This makes it ideal as a refined “cake” or building block for plated desserts. It can be flavored with anything from pistachio to black sesame or chocolate. This particular one is flavored with almond praline. I made the praline by cooking almonds with caramelized sugar and pulverizing the mixture. After baking the cake in a sheet pan I cut it into rectangles. Right before serving the bread gets a nice layer of caramel. The process sounds easy but is a bit tricky. It involves melting sugar till it is a dark amber caramel and then rolling the bread rectangles in it to get a thin coating of caramel on all sides. Well, rolling pieces of cake in a liquid lava is no easy feat. I managed to do it but the caramel was a bit thicker than it should be. Still it was a delicious crunchy counterpoint to the sweet soft cake it enveloped.

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The recipe also includes a pear ice cream (in my book almost any dessert recipe should include a frozen concoction of some sort!). It’s a straightforward ice cream made using pear puree, cream, yolks,…I had no pear puree and decided to make my own. I just cooked some peeled Bosc pears sous vide with about 10% of their weight sugar until fully tender. Then I pureed them, weighed what I needed and froze the rest for another batch later on. The other pear element is caramel-poached Seckel pears. These are those cute small pears about the size of a large chicken egg. To caramel-poach them I made a caramel using sugar and pear cider. I peeled and cored the small pears then cooked them in the caramel until soft and took on a lovely deep color. These were cut into quarters and reserved until serving time.

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It’s really fascinating to me how a final small touch could elevate a dessert of poached fruit, cake and ice cream. I’m referring to what Migoya calls a “veil” here made of chocolate. He uses this techniques in a few recipes in the book incorporating a variety of flavors. It’s basically a solid sauce that covers the dessert components and adds it’s own texture and taste. To make the veil a cocoa nib stock (cocoa nibs steeped in hot water) is mixed with cocoa powder, sugar and low-acyl gellan gum (a gelling agent). This is then poured in a sheet pan until set and then cut into large squares that get draped over the plated components. I was really worried about this step and figured it might get to be very tricky but overall it was pretty straightforward and worked well. The cut chocolate veil squares keep very well for a few days between squares of acetate in a tightly closed container in the fridge.

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To plate, I put a pile of crumbled caramelized genoa bread and almonds next to a piece of the cake and used that as an anchor for the ice cream. The whole thing gets covered in a chocolate veil and topped with a piece of the fruit. A small cut with a paring knife on the veil reveals the ice cream underneath it. The finished plate is as delicious as it is beautiful. It has a perfect combination of textures and flavors from the bitter to the nutty and sweet.

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French Laundry: Chocolate Cakes and Gelato with Toasted Hazelnuts and Syrup

I love it when a book never disappoints, whether I am doing a complete verbatim recipe or in this case using it for a template and making parts of a recipe. The book I am talking about is of course the French Laundry Cookbook. This lovely plate of confections is based on the recipe for Chocolate Cakes with Red Beet Ice Cream and Toasted Walnut Sauce from Keller’s book. Like most of my desserts this actually started off with ice cream or gelato. One of my absolute favorite things both to make and eat, ice cream comes first most of the time and then the rest of the dessert follows…or not. Afterall, a bowl of homemade ice cream and a good movie is just perfect sometimes. This was for a nice dinner party though for a few good friends so I wanted to make something elegant.

I prepared two gelato recipes, a salted caramel one and a caramelized cocoa nib one. The first is straight out of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. The second one uses Jeni’s ice cream base where I steeped a bunch of Theo’s cocoa nibs. Cocoa nibs are basically small pieces of the shell of the cocoa pod. They taste of slightly bitter and intense cocoa with a bit of an edge. During churning I mixed in some more of the same nibs but these ones were caramelized giving them a great bitter-sweet taste and very crunchy texture. Making caramelized cocoa nibs is no different than making caramelized almonds or peanuts. You start of with the nibs and sugar in a pot and you keep stirring and heating until the sugar melts and caramelized around the nibs.

The cake in this recipe is a flourless chocolate cake where most of the structure and the leavening comes from whipped egg whites. All the flavor is from the dark chocolate and cocoa in the mix. I baked the individual cakes until set but still a bit soft. These are delicious cakes that can be used in many recipes where a nice elegant cake is required that is both light and satisfying.

The French Laundry recipe makes a couple of components based on walnuts. Instead of walnuts I went with hazelnuts. First I toasted the nuts, then I candied them. To candy the roasted nuts, I simmered them in a mixture of sugar and white wine. The nuts are then sprinkled with salt and allowed to dry while the cooking liquid is reduced until we have a hazelnut syrup ready for serving.

To serve I plated a cake on a small puddle of the syrup and topped it with two candied hazelnuts. A scoop of gelato goes between the two hazelnuts (some plates got salted caramel there, others the cocoa nib). On the side goes another scoop of gelato on top of caramelized nibs. The whole thing then gets drizzled with a bit more of the hazelnut syrup. This was a big hit and rightly so. It’s complex, beautiful and delicious.

Oh, here is what preceded the dessert too; beef tenderloin in red wine sauce, kale and rich potato puree

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.

Candied Apple, Bacon, Brown Butter, Coffee and Maple

These  ingredients cannot be more complementary. They are delicious on their own and they work great together in a dessert. This dish has been in the works (i:e I first thought about it) about a year ago in Jacksonville, FL. I was working on a project there and a friend of mine mentioned he had some great candied bacon at a Superbowl party. While we were having some beers at a favorite restaurant we started brainstorming ideas as to what can be done with it other than eating it as a snack. One idea that stuck was to use it as an ingredient for a crust that would coat ice cream and then the whole thing can be deep fried. Well, that sounded good after a few beers anyways. Fast forward a few months and the final “Candied Bacon Ice Cream” dessert changed dramatically. It’s neat, refined and very delicious.

I decided on some kind of apple ice cream early on and also knew it would be shaped into a cylinder form. That will be coated with panko crumbs, corn flakes and lots of candied bacon bits. At first I was not sure how to fry the whole thing without messing up the ice cream with oil or melting it. If you search for fried ice cream on the web you’ll find a lot of recipes, but most of them make a bulky ball of ice cream, roll it in a lot of cereal and fry it quickly so that it will not melt. I did not like that and thought briefly about maybe mixing Gellan into the ice cream base and hope it will help it keep its shape. That seemed too much of a hassle and not guaranteed to work unless I completely seal the ice cream tubes so that they will not touch the oil. Besides, Gellan does not play too nicely with milk/cream due to the presence of calcium in dairy products. In the end, the simplest solution was the best. I did not need to fry the “breaded” ice cream cylinders, all I needed was to fry the panko crumbs just like I did for the Beef Royal dish from the Fat Duck. Then the ice cream can be coated with the mixture of bacon, panko and crumbled corn flakes right before it is served. That worked like a charm.

The candied apple ice cream recipe is from The French Laundry cookbook. It’s flavor base is reduced fresh apple juice. Reducing the apple juice gives the ice cream  sharper apple flavor and a sweetness reminiscent of candied apples. After churning, some of the ice cream was piped into acetate-lined cannoli molds to make the cylinders. Right before serving, I coated the ice cream with apple caramel (more apple juice further reduced to a thick sticky glaze) and then rolled them in a mixture of candied bacon bits, butter-fried panko crumbs and crumbled corn flakes. To candy the bacon, I baked homemade bacon slices with a teaspoon of brown sugar on each one until all the fat was rendered and the bacon was deep mahogany brown. The cooled bacon slices were coated in a flavorful glass-like brown sugar candy crust. I chopped several of them finely and ate the rest for a snack.

The coffee ganache was the second component I made and it is a simple dark chocolate ganache with strong coffee replacing most of the cream. I wanted it to be pliable enough to pipe from a squeeze bottle and not run all over the plate. That worked well after the ganache came to room temperature from the fridge. The brown butter component was from a recipe from eatfoo and is done with a mixture of brown butter and N-Zorbit Tapioca Maltodextrin to make pebbles or small rocks that dissolve in the mouth. The butter rocks had no sugar in them and worked as a rich but not sweet addition to the plate. I debated adding a touch of sugar to them, but I am glad I did not. They worked well with the rest of the textures and as a good counter point to the sweet ice cream, ganache and maple caviar.

I’ve seen the technique to make “caviar” or “pearls” out of almost anything on Michael Laiskonis’ blog. The idea is to make a solution with a gelling agent in it like gelatin or, in this case, Agar Agar. Then droplets of the mixture are dropped into a tall container of ice-cold vegetable oil (I put it in the freezer for an hour before using it). That causes these drops to immediatly gel and to naturally form small pearls. When the droplets are fully gelled they can be strained and rinsed off with water. The oil is perfectly clean and can be returned to its container to be used for cooking. It’s pretty neat. I made my caviar with maple syrup. The end product looks cool, has a very interesting popping texture and of course tastes of pure maple.

The apple chips are another Keller recipe, from “Under Pressure“. They are easy to make but need some care and time. The paper-thin slices are poached in a simple syrup that is barely bubbling for a long time. They are then drained, dried and dehydrated in a low oven until crisp. These, just like the bacon, make for great crispy flavorful snacks.

“Kit Kat”, Chocolate Gelato, Peanut and Coconut

This dessert tasted great. The flavors worked perfectly. It had some very nice textures. If only that coconut foam cooperated, it would’ve looked as good as I had planned as well. At some point I wanted to also include a banana component in this dish but I did not have the proper ingredients, so no banana. I’ll have to do it over again sometime.

The Kit Kat portion is straight from Michel Richard’s book “Happy in the Kitchen“. It’s made from  a base of chocolate, peanut butter and corn flakes and a top half of chocolate mousse. After it thoroughly chills it is sliced into neat rectangles and dusted with cocoa. They look like Kit Kat bars but taste way way better. They taste fantastic on their own.

The gelato is chocolate with a bit of coffee flavor added in. I used Starbucks’ VIA instant coffee to get a nice coffee flavor without adding any liquid to the mix.  The peanut brittle is very easy to make. I caramelized about a cup of sugar and added in a tablespoon of butter and a cup of roasted peanuts. I spread the mixture on a Silpat until completely cooled and broke it up to pieces.

The coconut was supposed to be a stiff foam that will keep it’s shape on the plate. It’s made from coconut milk, sugar, milk and gelatin. Then it is refrigerated in an iSi canister and charged with NO2. Unfortunately it looks like I used too little gelatin. The foam dispensed nicely from the whipping cream canister but lost its nice shape within a few seconds and turned to a foamy puddle. It still tasted good and had a very good taste and foamy mouthfeel. Since the foam failed to keep its shape I tried to change the plating a bit on one of the servings, with some success. It shows promise but the portion looks too big and bulky.

French Laundry: “Banana Split” – Poached Banana Ice Cream, White Chocolate-Banana Crepes and Chocolate Sauce

A classic flavor presented in a very untraditional and delicious way, classic Thomas Keller. Here we have sweet crepes, filled with a mixture of white chocolate and poached pureed bananas. I poached the bananas in a mixture of cream and milk until soft. The poaching liquid is then used to make a custard base for a vanilla bean ice cream that has a good banana flavor.

For the crepes, I filled them and formed them into cylinders with plastic wrap and then froze them till service time. They are then sliced and allowed to warm up a bit. I could be wrong but the goal here is to get a texture not unlike that of a ripe banana. By mixing the melted white chocolate with the banana puree and allow it to freeze and thaw, we get exactly that. A texture and taste that is familiar but at the same time not quiet so.

Garnishes, again, are very traditional. We have -or supposed to have- Maraschino cherries, sweetened whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Real Maraschino cherries are very different than that bright red crappy things you get in your frozen daiquiri. They are cherries soaked/candied in a Maraschino liquor such as the fantastic Luxardo. If we are going to be real traditional, the cherries are also supposed to be Marasca cherries. You can buy these delicious Maraschino cherries in gourmet shops or online, but they are not easy to find in your typical grocery store. Bottom line is: I had none, had no time to shop for them, so I made something to sub for them. What I did is bring sugar, brandy and port to a boil and turned off the heat. Then used that mixture to plump-up a bunch of dried Bing cherries. The result is not the same as the real deal, but still delicious and 100 times better than the fake orbs that garnish Shirley Temples everywhere.