7 tips we learned about chocolate from Alice Medrich

Alice Medrich is a legend of the baking world. From the bittersweet chocolate truffles that first won her acclaim in the early 1970s, to her dessert chain Cocolat and award-winning cookbooks, the pastry chef has continued to experiment with new ingredients and refine confectionary techniques.

Last night, she explored the world of chocolate in an intimate evening class held at the Westlake Culinary Institute in Westlake Village, where she shared a number of valuable tips and recipes. Here are seven things we learned:

What does percentage mean when it applies to chocolate? Percentages are relatively new, having been introduced only around 16 years ago.  The percentage tells you how much chocolate by weight comes from pure cocoa beans —  the rest of the weight comes from sugar.

What chocolate should I choose for baking? Medrich recommends following recipes that call for chocolate by percentage to insure accuracy and consistency. “A good recipe will tell you what percentage was used, or at least give you a range,” she says. General labels such as “semisweet” and “bittersweet” can be misleading, as chocolate percentages can vary by brand and type. Using the wrong type of chocolate in a recipe will affect the chemistry and can affect the outcome.

What's the protocol for tasting chocolate? “This is different than eating it!” stresses Medrich. Tasting chocolate is a lot like tasting wine. Medrich recommends smelling the chocolate first, maybe rubbing a small piece between your fingers to warm it so you can take in the aroma. Then rub it against the roof of your mouth to study how it melts. Finally, focus on the flavors you recognize — if it’s fruity, what kind of fruit? Slow down and concentrate to fully appreciate the chocolate.

Why can’t I use chocolate chips in recipes that call for chocolate? Have you ever made chocolate chip cookies using chopped bar chocolate, and wondered why the chocolate melted and the cookies came out flat? Chips are specifically formulated to hold their shape under high heat, which is why they’re perfect for cookies. Because chips won’t melt like bar chocolate, they should not be substituted for recipes that call for standard chocolate. “Use chips for chips,” says Medrich.

How can I take my ganache to the next level? Ganache is essentially a combination of cream and chocolate. “Cooked ganache” is a combination of of chocolate, cream and sugar that's steamed over heat for about 10 minutes. This steaming process caramelizes the chocolate, deepening the flavors for a richer ganache.

What’s the difference between natural and Dutch process cocoa? Dutch process cocoa is alkalized, meaning it “knocks off some of the more acidic notes and astringency,” says Medrich. Natural cocoa “has high notes with some acidity for a more complex cocoa flavor.” Recipes that call for a particular cocoa,  along with a particular leavening (baking powder or soda), have been specifically calibrated, and should not be changed without careful consideration.

Why is a water bath so much better than a double-boiler for melting chocolate? “It makes me pay attention,” says Medrich. A double-boiler is a closed contraption, making it difficult to see what's going on inside and also concentrating the heat, making heat transfer to the bowl a lot faster. Medrich prefers placing a stainless-steel bowl in a larger sauté pan filled with simmering water for an open water bath that can be fine-tuned and heats more gently.

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Interested in taking a class with Alice Medrich? She will be teaching a culinary boot camp this weekend based on her new book, "Flavor Flours." Class dates, times and pricing can be found online at the Westlake Culinary Institute.

In the class, Medrich used the new line of Guittard chocolates now available to the home baker. The chocolates, which include new baking bars, a Dutch process cocoa and baking disks, are available through select retailers.

Love baking as much as I do? Follow me @noellecarter

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