If you were asked to name a food that is perfect just as is, a good piece of chocolate might come to mind.
But pair chocolate with one of four particular flavors -- mint, orange, hazelnut or coffee -- and you have a first-class food-world paradox: perfection enhanced.
And there’s a bonus to doing a little flavor matchmaking: The perfect thing called chocolate has in fact evolved and gotten even better over time. A new and international generation of chocolate now graces specialty and even some grocery store shelves. Valrhona, from France, Scharffen Berger made in San Francisco, and Callebaut, from Belgium, lead the pack, and there are the equally good but less ubiquitous El Rey, from Venezuela, and E. Guittard, also San Franciscan. These brands boast their cacao content and sometimes the source of their cacao beans on elegant labels.
The rule when cooking with these chocolates is much like the rule for cooking with wine: Use what tastes best to you. Which of course means you must sample as much as you can. No, really, you must. For science. Just know that as long as you avoid the harsh, gritty baker’s chocolate squares of a decade ago and choose the kind of bar that might accidentally be devoured in the car before it gets to your kitchen, you’ll be fine.
Here’s a cooking rule of thumb: The higher the cacao content, the more serious the chocolate. White chocolate has no cacao mass at all, and milk chocolate must contain at least 10%. Bittersweet and semisweet are interchangeable terms that mean at least 35% cacao presence, although these days 50% to 60% is standard. Chocolates with 60% and higher cacao mass are generally referred to as high percentage, although they can be used in recipes specifying semisweet or bittersweet to marvelous effect. The terms “sweet” and “unsweetened” refer to the amount of sugar added (or not); with these, cacao percentages can vary.
A great way to spotlight these terrific chocolates is to dip something wonderful in them. A staple in French confiseries, chocolate-dipped orange peels are the perfect little something to serve with after-dinner Cognac or coffee, or to give as a gift.
Candying orange peels distills the essence of the orange oil into sweet, tender, slightly chewy little treats. But before transforming an inedible peel to a marvelous candy, you must blanch it three times, progressively reducing the bitterness of the pith. Next you’ll cook the peels in sugar syrup until they become translucent and tender. Choose the most delicious chocolate you know to dip the orange peels in: Valrhona Pur Caraibe 66%, with its fruity sweetness, minimal sugar and well-balanced deep chocolate flavor, is an excellent choice. If you wanted to go truly deep, dark and sophisticated, try a chocolate with, say, a 71% cacao content.
In our quest for the finest high cacao-content chocolates, we sometimes overlook the pleasure of milk chocolate. It’s not just kid stuff. And nowhere does it show to better effect than in gianduja, a felicitious blend of chocolate and pulverized hazelnuts. A well-known Swiss concoction, gianduja is also claimed by the Italians, who harvest a great many hazelnuts in the Piedmont region. (They go so far as to say that gianduja or giandujotto takes its name from a popular Turin-based folk character, Gioan d’la Duja, or “John the jug,” who apparently enjoyed his wine quite a bit.)
From whatever country it comes, a gianduja truffle is divine. Creamy hazelnut butter, milk chocolate and cream create a silky-smooth truffle center. Crunchy toasted nuts and semisweet chocolate on the outside emphasize the caramel undertones of milk chocolate.
Finally, a perfect chocolate cake is like a perfect black dress; once you find it, you stick by it a long while. My favorite recipe -- one layered with whipped chocolate mint ganache -- is borrowed (and simplified somewhat) from Alice Medrich’s book “Bittersweet” (Artisan, 2003). By heating fresh peppermint leaves in cream and allowing them to steep, you will infuse the ganache with pure mint bliss. The texture of this cake is amazing, but the mint takes it out of this world.
Chocolate mint ganache
Combine the cream and chopped mint leaves in a saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mint leaves to steep 20 minutes. Strain and discard the mint leaves. Clean the saucepan and return the cream to the pan. Heat the cream to a gentle boil.
Chop the chocolate into pieces no larger than one-fourth inch. Place it in a medium-sized bowl. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Tap the bowl on the counter to allow the cream to reach all of the chocolate. Allow the mixture to sit for about 5 minutes.
Stir with a rubber spatula, beginning from the center of the bowl, until the chocolate and cream are thoroughly combined and no lumps of unmelted chocolate remain. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least 6 hours, up to four days.
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray 3 (9-inch) cake pans with pan spray, line them with parchment paper, then spray them again.
Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt and reserve. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder and one-half cup of lukewarm water. Mix thoroughly and set aside to cool. Combine the buttermilk, remaining water and vanilla; reserve.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars with an electric mixer until light in color and fluffy, about 6 to 7 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated. Scrape down the bowl periodically to make sure the ingredients are combined.
Add the cocoa and water mixture. Beat on medium speed until just combined. Stop the mixer, add one-third of the flour mixture, and beat on low speed only until no flour is visible. Add half the buttermilk mixture, beat on low until just combined. Repeat the process with the remaining flour and buttermilk mixtures, ending with the flour mixture.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until the layers spring back slightly when pressed and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 to 24 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans for about 5 minutes before inverting the cakes on a cooling rack top side up and allowing them to cool completely.
Beat the chilled ganache on medium speed just until it stiffens and holds its shape, like very thick whipped cream. Do not over beat or the ganache will become too thick to spread. (If this happens accidentally, all is not lost. Use a spatula warmed under hot water to spread a too-stiff ganache.)
Place the bottom cake layer on a piece of heavy cardboard cut out to the same size as the cake. Spread 1 cup of the ganache over the cake, then place the second layer on top and spread 1 cup of the ganache on top. Place the third layer on top, then use the remaining ganache to cover the top and sides of the cake, spreading the ganache as smoothly as possible. Chill the cake at least one hour before glazing it.
Chocolate glaze and assembly
Combine the chopped chocolate, butter, corn syrup and water in the top of a double boiler. Heat over low heat until the chocolate is almost completely melted.
Remove the mixture from the heat and set it aside to finish melting, stirring once or twice until perfectly smooth. Allow the mixture to cool for about 5 to 10 minutes (or until 88 to 90 degrees) before pouring. The glaze can be made ahead, chilled and re-warmed to 88 to 90 degrees before pouring.
Place the cake on a rack over a sheet or two of parchment paper. If the glaze has cooled, gently reheat it in the top of a double boiler until it is fluid and shiny. Pour all of the glaze on the center of the cake. Using just 3 or 4 strokes, spread the glaze over the top of the cake so that it runs down the sides. Do not use additional strokes to smooth or spread or the glaze will become dull.
Decorate the cake with crushed candies, if desired, by carefully placing cookie cutters in the center of the top of the cake and sprinkling the crushed candies within the shape of the cookie cutter. Carefully remove the cutters. Remove the cake from the rack and refrigerate until glaze is set, about 20 minutes. (If cake is made ahead and refrigerated for longer, remove it from the refrigerator one hour before serving.)
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