During the holidays, when the days and weeks are compressed, baked chocolate wonders that make for great gifts as well as delicious desserts are a triple-your-pleasure convenience. Dense chocolate bouchons, chocolate shortcakes studded with brandied cherries, crisp meringues dotted with cacao nibs and pink peppercorns -- think of them not only as presents for friends and drop-ins, but also as building blocks toward an end-of-the-meal spectacular. With chocolate shortcakes around, you're two beats from a fantastic dessert -- add a dollop of whipped crème fraîche and some of the syrup from the brandied cherries.
There are few better building blocks than the kind made with chocolate. And butter. Thomas Keller's recipe for bouchons, for example, are built with a cup of cocoa powder and 6 ounces of chopped chocolate -- and twice that amount of melted butter. The bouchons turn out of their tins like oversize thimbles, with a texture that falls somewhere between dense cake and denser brownie, the structure of the crumb interrupted by tiny pockets of melted chocolate.
The flavor is almost unadulterated chocolate, with slight variations based on the kind of cocoa and chocolate you use. If it's Scharffen Berger, hints of bright lemon; if Valrhona, a backdrop of coffee and spice. Keller, whose Yountville bakery Bouchon makes the little cakes as a signature dessert, says he likes how the shape reminds him of the corks ("bouchons") for which the bakery is named. The bouchons there are truly almost as small as corks -- two or three bites of rich chocolate are a perfect snack, with espresso -- or a glass of milk. But the bouchons from this recipe in his "Bouchon" cookbook are about twice the size, just right for a full-fledged dessert.
And the cakes do dress up nicely. At Bouchon in Yountville, they're serving three small bouchons with roasted banana ice cream and a hazelnut tuile, along with chocolate sauce and a salted caramel sauce. For folks at home, a scoop of ice cream and a drop of sauce -- or a flurry of powdered sugar and a few raspberries -- can turn a single bouchon into a work of art.
Works of art and their components are precisely the premise for pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini's new book, "Dessert Fourplay: Sweet Quartets From a Four-Star Pastry Chef." Iuzzini's the pastry chef at Jean Georges restaurant in New York, and his desserts are, well, involved. "When I began . . . at Jean Georges, I was introduced to the notion of 'tasting' desserts -- four different desserts on one plate," he writes.
An "exotic chocolate fourplay," for example, includes chocolate-chipotle soup with milk chocolate and coconut foam; malted-chocolate rice pudding and crispy rice cracker; chocolate-filled passion soufflé tarts; and milk chocolate mousse with caramelized bananas and hazelnut caramel sauce. Yes, that's one dessert.
Don't turn and run yet. Each component of each dessert can be delicious by itself -- like pink peppercorn meringues, which Iuzzini serves with white chocolate ice cream and rhubarb sorbet in an ode to the vacherin, the French concoction of meringue and ice cream. The meringues are crisp, light as air and just slightly tender at the center. (The trick is to beat the egg whites at a low speed.)
He's got a chocolate version with cacao nibs mixed in. And, actually, the earthy cacao nibs and fragrant pink peppercorns are great together. The pink peppercorns have a peppery kick but also are fruity and slightly sweet. (But you can skip the pink peppercorns if you don't have them on hand.)
"Meringues are a staple in the pastry kitchen," Iuzzini writes, "because they can carry so many flavors." To make coconut meringues, replace the cocoa and cacao nibs with 6 tablespoons of shredded unsweetened coconut.
Wrap a handful or two in cellophane, tie up with ribbon, and they're a pink-peppercorn-and-cacao-nib dream of a gift. They keep for a couple of days. And you can use them for a virtuoso plated dessert. Add ice cream, berries and whipped cream. Or crumble them over ice cream or panna cotta. Sandwich ganache between a couple of meringues and serve them at a party.
Delicious chocolate shortcakes are versatile too. A recipe from test kitchen manager Noelle Carter, they are made with cocoa and chopped bittersweet chocolate and a little espresso, which seems to intensify the chocolate flavors.
The texture of the shortcakes is more rustic than the bouchons, slightly more crumbly. The brandied cherries are elegant, tinged with spice and heady from Armagnac. The batter is studded with dried sour cherries poached in Armagnac, orange liqueur, cinnamon, peppercorns and orange zest.
For gifts, stack a couple shortcakes, wrap in parchment and tie up with string. They'll keep for a few days, tightly sealed, at room temperature.
But they might be too good to give away. You could instead keep them for your own dinner table. Split them crosswise, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and extra brandied cherries. Sometimes the best gifts are the ones you give to yourself.