Imagine you want to have some friends over for a dinner where every course features chocolate. Dessert offers a huge range of choices, and after some thought you'll probably hit on Latin America's mole sauce for your savory dish.
Okay. Now imagine you're planning a six-course dinner with the same theme. You can not have six courses of mole sauce or six desserts (though the last is arguable). You might wisely turn to Alice Medrich's Bittersweet, which features some savory dishes from this queen of chocolate. Or you could try and concoct a menu of your own and use your guests as guinea pigs for your creations.
Guess which I did.
Oh, I intended to use Medrich's book more than I did. In fact, one of our guests was the person who got us the book, so it seemed appropriate. But then I started coming up with other ideas and, well, suddenly I had a menu planned. Oops. But our guests gamely agreed to be test subjects. I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures. People were so eager to eat that we often forgot about the picture.
Our appetizer course featured a chocolate-rosemary pain de mie (a dense bread baked in an enclosed pan). Several months ago I experimented with a bread that combined normal white dough and chocolate dough, and I revisited it for this dinner. I corrected mistakes I noticed before and I mixed rosemary into the white dough, an inspiration from Tom's winter party
. For both doughs, I replaced some of the butter with some of the leftover lard I rendered recently
. The idea behind the bread is simple: make the normal version of the dough, then make a chocolate version by swapping out some of the flour for cocoa powder. Stretch the normal dough into a rectangle, do the same with the chocolate dough, put one on top of the other and roll into a log. Bake.
The bread was pretty successful, though I think next time I'll reduce the cocoa to about 25% of the total flour/cocoa powder mixture. The chocolate portion was too bitter when the bread was eaten plain. The homemade chicken liver paté helped; the fat muted the bitterness, as it does when you eat a fatty dish and drink a tannic wine. We also offered olives and cornichons and poured glasses of the Roederer Estate Brut sparkling wine from California.
We featured a very small and simple soup course, really more of an amuse-bouche than a full dish. Into each bowl, I placed one of the four segments from the small Scharffen Berger bars (bittersweet in this case). I ladled in hot turkey consommé and served it with trepidation. My idea was that the soup would melt the chocolate into a semi-solid mass that could be sliced with a spoon but wasn't so far gone that it would cloud my clear consommé. I wasn't too worried about the taste, since poultry and chocolate go well together (I spent a lot of time with Culinary Artistry when planning this meal), but I was glad to see that the flavors meshed, neither one overwhelming the other.
A recipe in Bittersweet inspired our salad course, green beans and roasted red peppers tossed in warm butter and cacao nibs. Cacao nibs are the smashed fragments of roasted cacao beans, before they get ground down into chocolate. They're small, crunchy, and add an unmistakable earthiness to a dish. Medrich suggests using them where you might use nuts. When I served this, I laid out about half a dozen green beans on the plate, all next to each other, and then laid strips of the red pepper on top, perpendicular to the beans. Even when you toss the food in cacao nibs and butter, the nibs don't naturally stick to the beans, so I spooned some of the nibs on top of each plate. I had a hard time picking the wine for this. I had planned on a light merlot, but the weather was so warm that we decided to serve a white wine. I decided on the 2002 Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris from Oregon's Willamette Valley. It leans more towards the Alsatian style of this grape, and so was a little heavier than a Pinot Grigio. It at least didn't clash with the vegetables.
Even if one is creating other savory chocolate dishes, it seems silly to not include a mole sauce in an all-chocolate dinner. I made a roasted duck breast with spinach and fried polenta, adorned with a duck stock mole sauce. I intend to get a high yield out of the duck breasts I bought; I deboned the breasts and used the bones for the stock. I scooped out and trimmed off hunks of fat and froze them to render into duck fat at some point. And I used the remaining half-breast (five guests/3 full duck breasts = 1 half-breast) to try making my first duck confit. But back to the dish. I made a small mound of braised spinach, fanned roasted duck breast around it, and then ladled mole sauce onto the plate so that the duck and spinach were in a little sea of chocolate. Then I put down two fried polenta diamonds. I had intended to serve this with an Oregon Pinot Noir, but one of our guests graciously brought a 2001 David Bruce Pinot Noir from the Central Coast, so we served that. It went very well with the dish, the acidity supporting the fruit and earthiness against the complex flavors in the sauce.
I had a hard time incorporating chocolate into the cheese course. I racked my brain and finally came up with cacao nib tuiles which I could serve with the cheese, along with (purchased) raisin butter and well chopped dried apricot. The cheese itself was an artisanal Irish washed-rind (read, smelly) cheese whose name I sadly neglected to jot down. We served a Beaumes-de-Venise with this, a Muscat wine from the south of France. I think my original plan for a Banyuls would have been better, but I couldn't find a good one. The muscat worked fine, however.
I planned on keeping dessert a secret so that I could use it for IMBB 8, but since we neglected to take a picture, I'll tell you all now. Of course there are an infinite number of chocolate desserts, so here the difficulty was not creating but deciding. I opted for individual chocolate soufflés, serving a sauce made from reduced Framboise Royale from St. George Spirits. The wine was Bonny Doon's Framboise, a pleasant and fruity dessert wine.
Our guests valiantly made it through the five courses so far, but we had one final treat. This was the sole recipe I followed exactly from Bittersweet: chocolate truffles. I like Medrich's ganache a lot, though it doesn't allow much in the way of extra flavorings, and it's not one you'd whip up. When she came to Cody's, Melissa brought home some of the truffles Medrich had brought to the signing. They were delicious, of course, but I was most taken by the shape. They were square (well, cubes, really), and I immediately thought, "That's brilliant!" I realized this was a vastly less time-consuming way to shape truffles, even faster than piping them. You use a square form of some type (I have square aluminum bars I use on a silicone baking sheet), and just pour the ganache in and smooth it out. A little later (the weather was so warm I had to put ice packs around the ganache), unmold the square, and slice it into squares. Dredge in cocoa powder, and you're done. They look elegant, and they're very easy, so it's become my technique of choice.
I had been anticipating this dinner for some time, and I was thrilled at how it came out. Our guests had a great time, and all the food was good and interesting, and a great challenge to prepare: aside from the truffles and soufflé and the heavily modified bread, I didn't use any recipes. Now, I wonder if Melissa would let me do a ten-course chocolate dinner...