Friday, 2 April 2010

Which Came First, the Bunny or the Egg: Easter chocolate highlights

Which came first, the bunny or the egg?

Who knows. Who cares. But if they're made of chocolate, Easter is probably around the corner.

Each Easter chocolatiers use their imagination and talent to delight us with their delicious new creations. I made the rounds at a few of my favorite chocolate shops to see what they had come up with for this year. I was not disappointed.

Jacques Torres Chocolate (New York City)

At the Hudson Street location of Jacques Torres Chocolate in Manhattan, Jacques had the window of his shop packed with giant chocolate bunnies. The picture below gives you an idea of how many (if you can see past the window glare) ...

... but not of how big the bunnies are. The next picture does:

Now that's a big bunny. Basically, the size of a small child. At the Hudson Street shop, the chocolate factory is on full display for all walker-bys, so anyone can see how the chocolates are made. The feel of the shop is like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory--so much chocolate all in one place!--but without the creepinees. Jacques manages to keep the atmosphere approachable, too (the look is as if a corner of the factory was cleared for retail space), while still showing you he is serious about his chocolate. These babies are not just eye candy.

For my purchase, I chose an egg carton filled with a dozen chocolate eggs. Jacques makes milk and dark chocolates the size and shape of real eggs, wraps them in colorful foil, and puts them in a transparent carton. Rather than a bottle of wine, try bringing one of these to a dinner party (just $12):

La Maison du Chocolat (Paris, New York and many other locations)

Next stop: La Maison du Chocolat. At their Manhattan Rockefeller Center location I bought an "Egg Coquille" ($12.50):

Coquille is French for shell. This sophisticated treasure is a real egg shell, that has been carefully hollowed and then filled with dark praline.

(Here, "praline" means nuts--usually almonds and/or hazelnuts--that have been coated in a caramelized hard candy sugar syrup, and then ground into a creamy paste.) The inside of the egg shell is coated with dark chocolate and then filled with the ground up caramelized-sugar-coated-nut cream. The Egg Coquille is then finished with a tiny gold paper seal placed on top of the egg to cover the little hole made to empty out it original eggy contents.

Consider all the work that went into this (and how many broken shells had to be tossed). La Maison du Chocolat does not fail to wow.

Biagio Fine Chocolate (Washington, DC)

I ended my chocolate shopping with a visit to my favorite local Washington, DC chocolate shop, Biagio Fine Chocolate. Biagio does not make any chocolate of their own but sells quality chocolatiers by dedicated producers from all over the U.S. and the world. It's like a one-stop-shop for high-end chocolate. I chose this little locally-produced bunny (don't remember the price, but definitely under $10):

A Virginia native, this rabbit is made by Fleurir of caramel-filled dark chocolate and splashed with speckles of pastel colors.

Easter comfort food

Hey, I know times are tough ...

... But chocolate certainly helps with most problems that are not weight- or cavity-related. (Gilles Marchal, the creative director of La Maison du Chocolat, told me that the company's New York sales actually went up after the stock market plummet of 2008.) A sense of humor is good, too. If my chocolate happens to be shaped like a bunny and wrapped in pastel-colored foil, all the better.

Happy Easter!

Related Links:

Jacques Torres Chocolates (for store locations and online shopping)
La Maison du Chocolat (for store locations and online shopping)
Biagio Fine Chocolate (for store location and links to their facebook and twitter posts)
Fleurir - Hand Grown Chocolates (for online shopping)

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Celebrate Saint Patrick's Day with a Guinness

There is no more easily procurable, satisfying, affordable and socially lubricating way of celebrating Saint Patrick's Day than pushing back a pint (or its more dainty sister the half-pint) of Guinness with some friends. Gastronomically speaking, Guinness is Ireland's greatest contribution to the modern world. There are a few other reasonable contendors, like McCann's steel-cut Irish oatmeal, but do you really see people asking their buds to join them after work for a warm bowl? Oatmeal is just not social. Corned beef with boiled cabbage is a Saint Patty's Day tradition in many American homes, but it's not hard to think of other foods one would rather eat. Guinness, on the other hand, is a whole other story. To begin with, no one needs a special occasion to drink a Guinness. That is a true sign of its greatness.

I thought it appropriate to dedicate this Saint Patrick's Day to learning more about this great beer. So I hopped a plane to Dublin.

The Birth of Guinness

Upon arrival in Ireland, I headed straight to Guinness's Saint James's Gate brewery, the house's original location. After an exhaustive inspection of the grounds (a.k.a. a self-guided tour) I learned the following:

In 1759 Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease for a brewery in Dublin called Saint James's Gate at the bargain prices of only 45 pounds' rent per year for a 4 acre property. (In later years the brewery expanded, but according to the Guinness company it would seem that the original lease agreement still applies to the original four acres. I'm not sure why they say "seem" since if anyone should know whether it does, they should.) The brewery was not in great shape when Arthur bought it, but he quickly got it up and brewing, and after only ten years he was even exporting beer to England. Then, in the 1770s Arthur tried his hand at a new style of beer emerging from England called a porter, a dark-colored beer that for the first time used roasted barley as an ingredient.

Stouts and porters

Lore has it that porter beers were named after the London street and river porters who popularized them. Traditionally, a brewery reserved the name "stout" (as in strong) for its strongest beers, those highest in alcohol. Hence, "stout porters" were originally those porters that were higher in alcohol. Guinness became famous for its stout porter, whose name in time was shortened to just plain "stout." Today, the terms "stout" and "porter" are sometimes (confusingly!) used interchangeably. Interestingly, most modern Guinness is weaker than it was in the 19th century, but the brewery does put out some versions that are higher in alcohol.

The brewery tour was full of information on how Guinness is made, including the ingredients used (barley, hops, water and yeast) ...

... and details of the brewing process.

... but I'd had enough theory for the time being. Off to the top floor bar for some practice.

The art of the pour

I then jetted back to the U.S. to celebrate Saint Patty's Day with my compatriots and share my new-found knowledge. I was greeted by the following posting at a local establishment:

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Say I Love You with Cheese

What types of food do we think of as romantic?

Cheese? Well, there is one cheese that comes to mind: Neufchâtel. It’s from Normandy, a region in the northwest of France, and it is typically the shape of a heart. (Not to be confused with what Kraft markets as a low-calorie version of Philadelphia cream cheese--also, alas, called Neufchatel.)

The history of a cheese Valentine

Apparently, young Norman women for centuries have used these heart-shaped cheeses to communicate their love to the objects of their desire. A Valentine made of cheese. According to French farmgirls used the cheese to “woo the affections of British soldiers who were passing through during the Hundred Years War in the Middle Ages.” Cheese, the universal language. Even though women’s liberation has since rendered such discreet expressions of love unnecessary, the tradition of the heart-shaped Neufchâtel happily endures. (Neufchâtel also comes in other shapes, like logs and circles, but why buy them?)

A.K.A. Cœurs de Bray

The heart-shaped Neufchâtels are also sometimes called Cœurs de Bray, meaning Hearts of Bray, since the cheese is from an area in the northeastern part of Normandy called the Pays de Bray (Land of Bray). "Bray" is old French for marsh, swamp or mud, a reference to the area's soil. (I cannot personally vouch for its swampiness.) Neufchâtel-en-Bray is one of the main towns of the Pays de Bray, hence the cheese's name: Neufchâtel.

But what does it taste like?

Neufchâtel is a soft cow’s milk cheese with an edible bloomy white rind. “Bloomy rind” is cheese-speak for having an exterior covered with thin layer of a powdery white substance that I think is probably mold. I couldn’t, however, find a source that explicitly said “bloom = mold.” (You can bone up on your cheese jargon with the online glossary of the famed New York cheese shop, Murray's Cheese, at .) Whether you eat the rind or not is a matter of preference--and sometimes a cause for heated discussion. Neufchâtel is dense and creamy, similar to a Camembert but more delicate and slightly less gooey. Love at first bite (to end on an appropriately cheesy note)?

Happy Valentine’s Day!