Chocolate is one of the few luxury foods that can be savored either by itself or used as an ingredient in cooking. By comparison, wood truffles and caviar, both of which are delightful and wonderful, are much more limited in scope. Better still, as one of life’s luxuries, chocolate is relatively cheap, even when you’re buying the best stuff.
Perhaps the best-known of the handful of artisan chocolate markers in the region who make the best stuff is chocolatier Chris Curtin.
Curtin is owner of Eclat Chocolate, a small specialty shop on South High Street in West Chester, which offers high-quality chocolates directly to customers, or by mailorder. Go inside Eclat, and you feel you’ve walked into a fine jewelry store. Display cases show a wide range of individual Belgian-style truffles with many flavorings. On the left, a wall display has stacks of cans filled with round chocolate wafers called “mediants,” whose flavorings range from peppercorn to dried cranberry.
Look at the provenances listed for these delicacies and you see names including Sao Thome, Madagascar, Alto El Sol, Arriba, and Tanzania—all promising, and delivering, exotic flavors.
But not everything is super-elite at Eclat. Curtin points to two separate chocolates that he is particularly fond of—one with a beer-flavored center and one with red wine from Mollydooker in Australia. “They’re great people to work with,” Curtin says of his like-wine-for-chocolate buddies. The truffle spiked with wine bears a slight cherry/wine finish, while the beer chocolate has a delicious light tang of hops. Other flavors for people who like to pair their chocolates with their favorite drinks include Earl Gray tea, Islay Scotch single malt, champagne, and calvados.
Curtin, a Wisconsin native, received most of his culinary training in Europe as a pastry chef and chocolatier. He is a member of the Maison des Compagnons du Devoir, the French pastry guild, and he spent the remainder of his 12 years abroad working at Bachman Brothers in Switzerland, Coppeneur in Germany, and Herman Van Dender in Belgium. Curtin moved to West Chester because he had family nearby, and a smaller town is a great place to operate a chocolate-by-mail business.
Although the front of Curtin’s Eclat—the French word means “brilliance” or “dazzling effect”—shop may look like an elegant jewel box, it’s less alluring in the crowded back rooms where the chocolates and the money are made. Here are the small machines that grind, mix, melt, and dry—which have none of the elegance of the finished product—as well as the shipping facilities (Go to www.eclatchocolate.com).
But eating one—or two or three or five—of Curtin’s truffles or mendiants is much simpler than cooking with chocolate, although the former chef may come to the amateur’s rescue on that as well. Curtin says he plans to start selling small bags of cooking chocolate in his shop before the end of the year (and perhaps by the time you read this) for use by home cooks.
And not all recipes that call for chocolate are for desserts, nor do all recipes call for the same kinds of chocolate. For example, different recipes may require semi-sweet, bittersweet, milk, baking, or white chocolate (which is not technically a chocolate as it comes from cocoa butter). While most of what we eat is milk chocolate, we tend to cook more with the darker, more-bitter grades. The key thing to remember is to stick to the kind of chocolate called for in the recipe, as they are not interchangeable.
Chocolate, whether you intend to eat it or cook with it, should be stored tightly wrapped in a dry, cool place so that it can’t react with heat or humidity.
Melting chocolate for recipes can be facilitated by first cutting it into small pieces or actually grinding it into a powder (and many recipes will simply call for cocoa powder). “Avoid using high heat when melting chocolate,” Curtin warns, and an easy way to do that is by using a double boiler to avoid direct heat, stirring it from time to time with a dry spoon.
Of course, not all recipes will call for melted chocolate. Curtin likes to grind cocoa butter into a powder, then brush it on meat or an assertive-flavored fish, as a finish. “It gives a nice, nutty flavor to most meats and fish,” he says. For sauces, he suggests thinking of cocoa in the same manner you would cooking with butter, and to add it near the finish of the sauce preparation.
For shavings or curls, you’ll want to warm the chocolate a bit with your hands to keep the shavings from being too brittle. Use a vegetable peeler and a good deal of caution. Wax paper is a good medium to use in handling chocolate.
Finally, think of chocolate as having a savory side as well as a sweet one in terms of what you buy for eating or how you use it for cooking. Curtin often uses chiles and other peppers to accentuate his chocolates, and the Central American cultures regularly mix chocolate and hot and savory spices, such as in a mole sauce. The diversity and versatility of chocolate make it an intriguing companion in the kitchen or a sweet friend hidden away in the bedroom closet. After all, we aren’t dealing with something that is plain vanilla.
From The Orchard Restaurant, Kennett Square Pastry Sous Chef Hilary Hamilton & Executive Chef Gary Trevisiani
The Orchard serves this white chocolate mousse and the accompanying pumpkin mousse atop a pumpkin cake, but a plain sheet cake will work. Cut cake into serving portions and top each with a quenelle (shaped by two spoons) each of white chocolate mousse and pumpkin mousse.
Mousse holds in refrigerator up to three days
Set aside for plating
In a medium-sized saucepan, over low heat, whisk together 1/2 cup cream and cocoa. Add 1/4 cup of chocolate chips and stir until melted and smooth. Gradually whisk in remaining cream and 1/4 cup Van Gogh Double Espresso vodka. Once well incorporated, remove from heat and set aside. Next, in a medium-sized bowl, whisk eggs, egg yolk, and sugar. Slowly add in warm chocolate-cream mixture to create the custard. Fold into the custard the brioche, remaining 1/4 cup of chocolate chips and chopped hazelnuts. Let stand for 1 hour so bread can absorb some of the custard. Preheat oven to 325°F and butter six ramekins. Divide custard among them and bake until set in the center, about 35-40 minutes. While warm, top with a dollop of whipped cream. Serves 10-12.