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Friday, November 30, 2012

The Allure of Salted Caramel

     It was not too long ago that salted caramel became the “in” flavor of our age.  According to food writer and eater extraordinaire Nigella Lawson (see my post on her here), salted caramel is the “class A drug of the confectionary world”.  And she has the photo to prove it.



     Perhaps it was the ongoing fascination of sweet and sour that Americans had acquired, mostly through ill-prepared Chinese food, that made it stick.  I still remember when four years ago I made a stop at my local Starbucks drive-in on very chilly night and saw they were offering a salted caramel hot chocolate.  Keen on the combination, I ordered it at once and was not disappointed.  The slight hint of saltiness added that extra kick that made the already rich hot chocolate a multi-dimensional treat.  Earlier on during that same dreadful year of the global financial crisis, Häagen-Dazs had introduced their version of salted caramel ice-cream.  And the craze in America had begun.

     Since then, the flavor has appeared in everything sweet and savoury – cocktails, main courses, appetizers, sauces, you name it.  The trend started in France’s Brittany region, where famous pattisier Pierre Hermé initially invented a salted caramel macaroon, while also spreading a few grains of fleur de sel on top of exquisitely dark, almost glinting chocolates.  Going back to Nigella, she claims salted caramel is one perfect combination because it brings together effectively opposing flavours, which cause a highly positive physiological reaction in the brain.

     For me, the allure of this flavor became compellingly attractive in a recipe I found through Pinterest for a vanilla cheesecake with a salted caramel sauce.  The original was in a Polish website called Art Kulinaria.  And no, before you ask, I don’t speak polish.  But here is where Google’s translator feature becomes highly useful; so much so, that it allowed me to actually bake the recipe to perfection.  What also attracted me to this recipe was the fact that it contained topfen, a curd-type cheese from the Alps within its ingredients, along with the ubiquitous ricotta.  This is, in fact, what a true cheesecake should be like, its deliciousness extending even to the crust, which incorporates ground almonds to give it that extra touch of luxury throughout. No brick-like firm texture here, as is the one obtained when using American cream cheese, but the light, airy smoothness of fresh, almost always unpasteurized curd cheeses like the Italian ricotta and the Eastern-European topfen.  It is indeed a delicate cake.


     This is a luscious recipe and it proves an elegant dessert for tea-time or the end of a light dinner.  It fits into a 22mm diameter mold – roughly 8.5 inches.

Ingredients for the base:
  • 270gr. Graham crackers crumbs
  • 30gr. Ground almonds
  • 85gr. melted butter
Ingredients for the curd:
  • 450gr. Topfen
  • 400gr. Ricotta
  • 175gr. sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 500ml very cold cream, 36% milkfat or higher
  • 1 level Tbsp. of sifted icing sugar
Ingredients for the caramel sauce:
  • 250ml. cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 60gr. butter
  • Fleur de sel for sprinkling
Preparation:
     Line the bottom of a circular mold with parchment paper and lightly grease the sides with butter.  From the outside, wrap it tightly with plastic wrap so that when inserted into the bain Marie water will not leak into it.
     Combine the Graham cracker crumbs, ground almonds and melted butter and mix thoroughly to the consistency of wet sand.  Cover bottom and sides of mold with the crust and refrigerate for 1 hour.

     Preheat the oven to 300F degrees.  Prepare a vessel larger than the mold of the cake and a kettle of boiling water for the bain Marie.  In a separate bowl, mix the topfen and ricotta cheeses.  Add the sugar and one egg at a time, combining thoroughly in between each egg.  Add the salt, scrape the seeds of the vanilla pod and mix.  Pour this mixture into the mold with the refrigerated base, then place it into the larger vessel and fill half way up with boiling water.  Insert into the preheated oven and bake for about an hour to an hour and a half (depending on the oven).  Remove from the oven when a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean, but watch that the cheesecake does not become extremely firm (you do not want an overcooked cheesecake, trust me on this one).  So watch your oven like a hawk.  After baking, remove from the oven and leave to cool.  Once at room temperature, place in the refrigerator at least 3 hours or – better – overnight.

     Once the cake has cooled, whip the very cold cream with the sugar to stiff, in a bowl that has been previously placed in the freezer for a few minutes, along with the beaters.  Top the cheesecake mold with the cream and place back into the refrigerator to stiffen.

     In the meantime, make the caramel sauce by placing the cream, butter and sugar in a saucepan, stirring under low heat, until the sugar dissolves.  Increase the heat, bring to a boil and cook on low for 5 to 7 minutes, until the sauce thickens.  Stir several times during cooking and watch that it does not burn.  Put aside to cool.  This will also help the sauce thicken.

     Bring the cheesecake out of the refrigerator, carefully remove it from the mold and place it on a cake pedestal.  Pour the caramel sauce in a thin abstract pattern on top of the cake and sprinkle with fleur de sel crystals. This cake can be served with a nice coffee flavored with – why not? – salted caramel creamer.  International Delight has a very good one, the Salted Caramel Mocha, which is a seasonal product, mostly available during the holidays.  My advice is to rush over to your neighborhood supermarket and grab two or three (they last about 5 months in the refrigerator).  It is a rich coffee creamer that adds just the right amount of saltiness to the already rich mocha flavor.  I like it better with a medium roast blend, like a Viennese (I use Helmut Sachers’).  You should grind the beans just before brewing them.

Best latte ever

     The holidays are definitely a time to indulge. So when gobbling all that fruitcake and panetonne, I suggest a salted caramel macchiato martini. Just mix in a cocktail shaker with ice:

A nice salted caramel chocolate tartlette from The Fresh Market 

Strain into a martini glass. It tastes very much like a white Russian. I chose to coat the rim with salted caramel sugar from the The Spice & Tea Exchange.

     The holidays are THE time of the year to indulge. I have found salted caramel, as a flavour, encompasses it all. There is no better way to celebrate than by going from one side of the tasting spectrum to the other. Regardless of what your beliefs are, my wish is for you and your family that of truly Happy Holidays, full of warmth, cheer good food and, above all, good company.

========================

References:

- Lawson, Nigella, My love affair with salted caramel, Stylist.co.uk
- Severson, Kim, How caramel developed a taste for chocolate, New York Times, December 30, 2008


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"The Discovery of Chocolate"

     Alright.  I admit it.  I have taken an extended sabattical and this is a big no-no in the blog world.  I do, however, have several things under works that I think everyone will be please to read and get inspired about.


The Festival Welcome Center, where the event took place.

     This past weekend, for instance, I attended the 17th Annual Epcot Food and Wine Festival here in Orlando.  This is truly an event I love and look forward to every year, having attended it several times now.  This one however, was the very first time (and I certainly feel not the last), that I had the pleasure to participate in one of the seminars offered.  The Discovery of Chocolate was sponsored by Callebaut and was as indulgent as its name suggests.


This was what greeted each guest as they arrived at their seat.

    It lasted just over an hour.  As soon as we took our seats, we were faced with 5 different containers with 2 oz. of chocolate each ready for the tasting from the best South American chocolates: 40.5% Ghana, 66% Mexique, 70% Saint Domingue, 72% Venezuela and 75% Tanzanie.  As Chef Julien Rose, from Oregon based Moonstruck Chocolate, expertly prepared a luscious chicken mole, we were encouraged to smell and taste the delectable pieces.  Apparently, the best way to taste chocolate is to allow for a 15' pause in between the different sorts, and always from lighter to darker.  My tasting notes are as follows:

  • Ghana: milk chocolate with sift, velvety and creamy texture.  Smells like vanilla.  High in sugar an with a light cocoa flavour.
  • Mexique: reminiscent of burgundy wine.  More up-front bitterness and slightly acidic.
  • Saint Domingue: earthy and very intense.  Bitter yet leathery.
  • Venezuela: best to pair with spices (this is the one used for the mole during the seminar.  Intense and sharp.
  • Tanzanie: very bitter.  Fruity and slightly acidic with a long after-taste.  Best for confections.

Chef Julian Rose in action.

     To wash down all the wonderful chocolate, we were offered 2 liqueurs.  One of them was Rosa Regale, an Italian dry wine made with - yes! - rose petals and raspberries, which can be served as dessert wine or as an aperitif.  It was suggested as a pairing for the darker type chocolates.  The other drink served was Crave Chocolate Mint liqueur, which in its mint version pairs particularly well sweeter chocolates, like whites and pralinés (the company also makes it cherry and chili flavored, this latter one a future objective of mine).

     For the demonstration, Chef Julian Rose prepared chicken mole with 72% Venezuela cocoa before our very eyes, and I must admit that although I have never used chocolate in the cooking of savoury foods, this dish blew me away.  It was accompanied by a purple potato pureé and crunchy greens. I'll be preparing it in the near future (the recipe was given to us) and sharing this wonderful dish with all of you.

Chef Rose's chicken mole.
     Dessert was Brazilian truffles called brigaderos.  They are made daily in their native Brazil, as they are best consumed fresh, and Chef Rose picked up the recipe in his recent trip to that country.

From bottom left to top right: white chocolate and coconut,
praliné, semi-sweet chocolate, pistachio and dark chocolate
truffle brigaderos.
     Needless to say, the truffles were delicious and satisfied each one of my sweet teeth.  I really enjoyed this experience and look forward to more in next year's festival.  If you are a Florida local, or want to enjoy one of the best food adventures of your life, the Epcot Food and Wine Festival is indeed the right ticket.