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Cocolat, Chocolate and Cherries

Molten Chocolate Cherry Cakes with Roasted Cherry Compote

Many years ago, in the city of my birth, there was a small chocolate shop and bakery. It was located about six or seven blocks away from the very house in which I came into the world, and naturally enough it formed a part of the daily fabric of my life from my earliest moments. A friend of the family worked there and often dropped off leftovers for us to enjoy; weekend mornings often found us taking our place among the hungry crowds waiting at the counter for something sinfully rich to start the day. Birthdays and special occasions were marked by the presence of a pink cardboard box that even today I associate with the sound of astonished gasps. From the enormous display case I remember ordering truffles so large I had to devote a good ten minutes to finishing one, and slices of tarts, tortes and gâteaus so rich and chocolaty they set my hair standing on end. When I was old enough to roam the streets alone, I would often stop in to spend my hard-earned babysitting money on a treat, usually lingering for half an hour or more in front of the display trying to decide which of all those glossy, shimmery, jewel-like concoctions appealed most. For me it was the quintessential neighborhood hangout. It was also an education in chocolate, and I grew up believing this was how chocolate should be.

The city was Berkeley, the decade was the 1980s, and the chocolate shop was the now-legendary Cocolat. At that time, of course, we didn't realize we were sampling history in the making; we just went there because everything was so extraordinarily good. The woman behind Cocolat, Alice Medrich, is now often credited with single-handedly revolutionizing the way Americans eat chocolate, and thinking back, I believe it. Her creations were light-years ahead of what was available everywhere else; everything was dark, dense, elegant and seductively nodding towards Europe, at the same time that everyone else was trying to get their cakes as tall, and their icings as stiff and well-behaved as possible. Medrich is often referred to as the Alice Waters of chocolate, though considering my chocolate-tinged vision of the world I would rather say the opposite. Although she claims that she stumbled her way around her shop for its first few years, blindly concocting recipes and hoping for the best, no one seems to have any doubts now about her brilliance. Her original cookbook Cocolat, now out of print, sells for up to $100 on amazon.com.

Cocolat closed its doors for good in the mid 1990s, which freed up Medrich to concentrate on sharing her profound chocolate wisdom in the form of cookbooks. All her books are luscious, appetite-whetting feasts for the senses, full of unusual and imaginative recipes and breathtaking photographs. Her latest achievement, which I purchased recently in a fit of lustful reminiscence, is truly a thing of beauty. Titled Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate, it chronicles Medrich's lifelong passion for chocolate and the way in which her appreciation of it evolved over time from the days in which the height of chocolate indulgence for her was a Milky Way straight from the freezer. One of the most amusing anecdotes I ran across in this book is the way in which she invented her insanely-popular golf-ball sized truffles which remained Cocolat's signature item until the end: wanting to recreate some of the amazing chocolate truffles she experienced in France, she fiddled around with ganache and melted coverture until she had a size she could easily handle and a taste she thought would sell. What she didn't know was that chocolate had to be tempered, and that not tempering her truffle mixture would cause it to liquefy at room temperature. How did she cope? Why, by selling the truffles cold, of course. She says she cringes at the naivety that went into that recipe; I do anything but cringe as I vividly remember the feel of cold shards of paper-thin chocolate coverture shattering in my mouth and the deliciously cool, velvety-soft ganache I would suck out of the shell in mouthfuls, desperate to finish before everything melted into a gooey puddle. It was, undoubtedly, a stroke of genius. Anybody can make little chocolate truffles and wrap them up in fancy boxes, but only Alice Medrich could make truffle-eating an event requiring one's total concentration.

The last time I visited Cocolat was more than thirteen years ago, and when I later learned it had closed I felt a curious pang of sadness, despite the fact that I now lived hundreds of miles away. Luckily for all of us - those who were lucky enough to know the shop and those who weren't - Cocolat lives on in Alice's recipes, and all I need to do to be transported back to that display case is pick up one of her cookbooks. I never had the good fortune to meet Alice Medrich in person, but I can honestly say she has affected my entire food-based existence very profoundly -  after all, who could grow up down the street from Cocolat and not come away marked forever?

Molten Chocolate Cherry Cakes with Roasted Cherry Compote

Source: adapted from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich
Note: The original recipe calls for raspberry puree to flavor the ganache centers, but I was tempted by the first crop of cherries in the market, so I decided to improvise. If you want to stick to the original, just substitute 1/4 cup strained fresh raspberry puree and 1 tablespoon of sugar for the cherry preserves.
Serves: 6

For cakes:
Sugar for the ramekins

7 oz (200 grams) bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup cherry preserves, heated and strained (measured after straining)
1 tablespoon kirsch or brandy (optional)
5 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch salt

For cherry compote:
1 lb. cherries, halved and pitted
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kirsch or brandy (optional)

Put a pie plate in the freezer to chill. Liberally butter the insides of 6 small ramekins or custard cups, sprinkle with sugar, then tap out the excess.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in the microwave, heating on medium power in 20-second bursts until melted (or do this in a double boiler). Transfer 5 tablespoons of the chocolate mixture to a small bowl, and stir in the cherry preserves and liquor if using. Scrape this into the chilled pie pan and return it to the freezer for ten minutes to harden. When it has, use a small spoon to form the mixture into six round truffles (they don't need to be perfect). Return them to the freezer.

Stir the egg yolks into the remaining chocolate mixture. In a clean bowl beat the three egg whites with the cream of tartar and pinch of salt until they start to form soft peaks. Beat in the sugar a tablespoon at a time, until the peaks are shiny but not dry. Fold about one-quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in the rest. Using half the batter, fill each ramekin about half-full. Press one frozen chocolate-cherry truffle into the center of each cup. Cover with the remaining batter, leveling the tops. The truffles should be completely covered. Cover the cups with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 3 hours and up to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Combine the all the ingredients for the cherry compote in a baking dish and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is syrupy and bubbling thickly. Remove and set aside. Twenty minutes before you want to serve the cakes, remove the plastic wrap from the ramekins and place them on a baking sheet. Bake 10-14 minutes, or until puffed like little souffles and a toothpick inserted in the center meets no resistance. Let the cakes cool for about 3 minutes.

Run a knife around the inside of each cup. Holding with a potholder, invert the cakes onto serving plates. Serve with the roasted cherry compote and a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Note: When I inverted these, I found that I had inadvertently pressed all my truffles to the bottom, and they broke open as I unmolded the cakes, thus depriving us of the 'molten center' effect. To guard against this, I would reduce the amount of chocolate I used for the truffles to 4 tablespoons, to make sure I would have enough batter to cover them top and bottom. Of course, you could always serve them from the ramekins - then it's like discovering a fountain of liquid gold at the bottom of each cup!


For The Sweet Love of Spud

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Spicy Feta-Olive Salad

Let me introduce you to someone. His name is Mr. Sweet Potato. You may have met him before, you may have even enjoyed his company, but you might have thought he was too unexciting to go out of your way to see again. You might have also found him just a little too sweet for his own good, with that appearance he made cloaked in sugar, marshmallows or pie crust at your last family get-together and his uncanny ability to make your grandmother swoon. You probably decided he had friend potential, maybe someone you would invite for holidays at your house to amuse your relatives, but you decided he just wasn't your kind of potato for anything more.

Well, let me tell you something. Times have changed. Since you last met Mr. Sweet Potato, he has matured. He has roughed-up that sugary veneer and cast off those wretched marshmallows. When you meet him now he exudes the unmistakable scent of earth, and spice, and danger; even his clothes are different: rough, torn, masculine. He has been to exotic places, learned things that will thrill you, amaze you, make you crave his company in a way you never thought possible. After you've been with him, you dream about him at night, imagining how your next encounter will be even more exciting than the last. Your grandmother may not even like him anymore.

But this bad-boy potato hasn't completely transformed. Underneath this new facade is still that same sweet wholesomeness you admired in him before. Despite the fun, the impetuousness and the danger this is a potato that once welcomed into your life will care for you, nurture you, nourish you. He's still good for you - he's just a lot more fun than he used to be. Shall I give you his number?

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Spicy Feta-Olive Salad
Recipe Source: Inspired by a recipe in Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
Serves: 2 as main course, 4 as side dish (can easily be multiplied)

2 large sweet potatoes, 3/4-1 lb each
200g (about 1/2 lb) block good feta cheese (sheep's milk is the best - try feta imported from Greece or France), cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) cubes
2/3 cup black oil-cured olives (or other high-quality olives), pitted and chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1/2 cup (packed) chopped fresh coriander/cilantro
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds (ground ok)
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds (ground ok)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper

something cool and creamy to dollop on top: sour cream, yogurt, tzaziki... even hummus!

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Wash the potatoes to rid them of any dirt and place on a foil-lined baking pan in the oven (no need to prick them). Bake until they are completely soft, about 45-60 minutes (depending on their size).

While the potatoes are roasting, make the salad. I like to toast the cumin and coriander seeds before using them, but you don't have to. If you do, just heat them in a dry pan, stirring often, until they smell fragrant and toasty. Set aside to cool, then crush them coarsely in a mortar or with the back of a heavy knife (if using whole seeds). Mix together all the salad ingredients in a bowl and leave to marinate in the fridge until the potatoes are done (add a little more olive oil if it seems dry). When they are, remove them from the oven and place on plates. Slice them lengthwise down the center, folding open to reveal the orange flesh inside. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Pile half the feta salad on each potato, and eat!

Notes: I can't get enough of this dish. The contrasts between hot and cold, sweet and salty, crunchy and soft are mind-blowing. I make it in a slightly different way every time, depending on what I have in the fridge, but it graces our plates at least once a week. It is so simple, so quick, and so delicious - I am head over heels in love with sweet potatoes.


Paper Chef #7: Seafood Socca with Date-Orange Salad, Spiced Honey Sauce and Crème Fraîche

Seafood Socca with Date-Orange Salad, Spiced Honey Sauce and Crème Fraîche

It's not often that I run across something on my plate that I've never heard of. Maybe while traveling, yes, but certainly not on home turf, where the same basic ingredients get continually rehashed in restaurants across the city. So imagine my great surprise when a recent weekend afternoon found me in a smart local French establishment staring in disbelief at my menu, halfway suspecting a spelling mistake and defensively challenging the waiter: 'what is that?' 'A socca, madam,' he replied with infinite Gallic graciousness, 'is a chickpea pancake from southern France. It is very good.' I squinted at him for a moment before deciding that he was probably telling the truth, at least the part about it being good, because after all, he did have a French accent. 'Okay,' I conceded, 'If you say it's good I'll have it.'

The socca that appeared on my plate was a thick circle about six inches in diameter, crusty and golden on the outside and studded with large succulent mussels. The pancake itself was nutty and moist with a subtle whisper of fennel, and it came crowned with a peppery tangle of frisee salad and a pungent drizzle of fresh basil pesto. And he hadn't been lying - it was good. So good, in fact, that I raced to the internet as soon as we were home, itchy to fill in my socca gaps.

It turns out that my waiter had been correctly informed, and that the socca is indeed from southern France - Nice, to be exact, though a similar version is also made in Marseille. It is something like a very rustic crêpe which traditionally contains only chickpea flour, water, salt and olive oil, and can still be found in those places sold from mobile socca carts equipped with charcoal ovens. You buy it by the slice, and eat it out of paper cones sprinkled with pepper. How I'd never heard of it is still a mystery, considering my bursting French recipe collection, but there was no time to waste trying to figure that out - I had to try making it myself.

I suspected that the socca I had tasted at the restaurant was a far cry from traditional. Nevertheless, I had been so smitten by it that I decided to try to replicate something similar, and from this attempt comes my first entry for Tomatilla's monthly Paper Chef competition (ingredients dates, honey, buttermilk and eggs), and which is being judged by the lovely and talented Julie of A Finger in Every Pie. I started with the idea of a thick, fennel-y seafood socca like I had tasted, and lightened it with eggs and buttermilk. The result was fantastic, very moist and chewy. I topped it with an improvised date-orange salad with red onion and arugula, and drizzled the whole thing with a reduction of honey, spices and chicken stock. The crowning glory, just to reaffirm my commitment to the competition ingredients in case anybody doubted it, was a homemade crème fraîche, soured with buttermilk. It was a very interesting combination of tastes, both sweet and salty, and made a tasty, albeit unusual, Sunday dinner.

So, socca, welcome to the family. Despite your newcomer status, I'm certain you'll be making frequent and much-anticipated appearances at our table.

Seafood Socca with Date-Orange Salad, Spiced Honey Sauce and Crème Fraîche
Serves: 6

For the soccas:
2 cups chickpea flour (also called gram flour, or garbanzo flour)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 cups fresh or frozen mixed seafood (I bought a mix that included mussels, shrimp and calamari)

For the date-orange salad:
6-8 medjool dates, pitted and chopped
2 oranges, peeled, and segments cut into pieces
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup arugula (rocket) leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
salt and pepper

For the spiced honey sauce:
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/3 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon hot chile powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar

For the creme fraiche:
1 cup heavy or double cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk

To make your own crème fraîche, you'll have to start the night before. Add the buttermilk to the heavy cream and shake together in a clean jar. Close the jar, and leave out a room temperature overnight (and depending on how long it takes to set, up to 24 hours). When it has thickened, put in the refrigerator.

For the soccas, whisk the flour, salt and baking soda together in a bowl. Add the eggs, buttermilk and oil and whisk until smooth. Stir in the fennel and the seafood. Coat a 12-inch skillet (preferably a non-stick one) with oil so that it covers the bottom. Heat the pan in the oven at 450F until the oil is hot and bubbling, about 4 minutes (if using a cast iron skillet, it may take longer). Take the pan out of the oven, pour a large scoopful of batter in and swirl around so that it covers the entire bottom of the pan, rearranging the seafood so that they are evenly spaced. Cook in the oven for about 7-9 minutes, or until golden brown on top and firm throughout. Remove from oven, transfer to a plate, and repeat until the socca batter is used up.

For the salad, combine all the ingredients and add salt and pepper to taste. For the sauce, combine the stock, honey and spices in a pan and reduce over medium heat until the sauce has the consistency of heavy cream, about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar and set aside.

Place the soccas on plates and top with some salad, a drizzle of the honey sauce, and a dollop of crème fraîche. C'est tout!