You read that right. Today is the day I realized I didn’t hate chocolate. Hard words to read coming from a pastry chef who loves to work with it.
For years I have spent creating decadent cakes, traditional cookies, rich pies and a host of other desserts using chocolate from all over the world. It was my every day thing to do. What did people like? How could I recreate this dessert or that pastry using a variety of chocolates? It was my life. It consumed my every menu. I went to bed thinking of how I can make something completely off the cuff to waking up and finishing what I started thinking about before bedtime.
Years ago I was a pastry instructor for a college level program. Up to that point I had been entering the chocolate show held in Portland, Maine for myself as well as some restaurants I worked at. I was very successful at this event. My first award was a three layer ganache cake that I had made while on a movie location in Georgia in August. Do you want to really test your strength in baking?? Do it in 100* weather with 100% humidity. I had to create something that would hold up to that southern heat and everything that came with it and at the same time have incredible rich flavor. This cake was it. It was the perfect first entry and I won Best Cake. That was pretty cool. I went to win the next year and a stretch of 5+ years after that and before long, I had 12 total awards to my credit. So back to the program. While I was teaching, I decided this event would be the perfect event for my students to experience competition. After getting the approval of the director of culinary arts, I broke the news to the students. They were thrilled. There were several categories we could choose from so we picked a few. I also told them their presentation would be judged as well. We decided to enter the “Best Alternative Dessert” category. This was any dessert out of the ordinary like vegan or gluten free. Someone actually tried to cook a sole dish with chocolate. It was an epic fail too. The place smelled like the Charles River in Boston in the corner they were cooking this dish. There are just some things that chocolate doesn’t marry. In this case, it was fish. We decided to make a vase of fruit flowers dipped in dark chocolate. The students carved beautiful patterns on the pears. We chose exotic fruits like the start fruit that would resemble a flower. We dipped them half in chocolate and using skewers (also dipped), they creatively displayed them in the pear vase. The students won that category. It was such a satisfying victory for them and the program. For me it was a nice feeling to upgrade the program to an award winning one as well. We were the first culinary school to enter and I’m happy to say the following year, another culinary school participated. That was very good competition for the students. Not to mention all of the amazing local businesses that entered. Portland is a very competitive market in the pastry field so this was a very healthy challenge. The following years we made biscotti, a cholate raspberry torte and a few other desserts. The program did well. I was approached by a team member of the event and was asked if I’d like to be a judge the following year. I was honored actually and agreed. Then I thought about how I wasn’t a fan of chocolate. I’d have to taste each and every entry. I was having second thoughts. It was the sweetness I didn’t like. Anything very sweet like candy or rich desserts just wasn’t my thing to eat. I loved making them but thankfully I wasn’t obsessed with chocolate. I don’t curl up and watch marathons on Netflix with a quart of chocolate ice cream or Oreos. Now a loaf of fresh crusty bread and (at the time) a nice hunk of cheese and there’s my comfort zone. I think that comes with being Italian. I always hoped there was a bread competition but it just never happened. I would have loved critiquing that. Anyway, I did agree to judge the following year and sure enough, I got the candy category. Can’t get an sweeter than that. There were 10 entries, all different from each other. At each table was a local celebrity, a culinary expert and some other invited guests. I actually loved this part because I’m a teacher at heart. As everyone tasted the entry, they all had some very interesting opinions and questions. My real role was judging the technical field. You can love or hate a piece of candy but if it comes down to three really good tasting candies, only one can be the winner and the technical merit plays the deciding factor. That was my expertise. The competition was really tight for the candy category. These businesses that really go for the right to be named the best are giving it their all. These contests are not cheap to enter. You have to have a minimum of something like 600 pieces per entry. You enter a couple of desserts and that’s a lot of sweat, money and chocolate not to mention the labor that goes into preparing for one of the shows. There’s a lot on the line so when it comes down to those three great tasting candies, you better have your mind on the job. After entering this show so many times, I knew what each entrant put into it or at least had a very good idea. I’m a firm believer you should only judge events you’ve entered previously. You have to understand the effort that goes into it. This was great event and I enjoyed every year I participated whether a judge or entry.
Chocolate is a funny thing to work with. There’s really great chocolates from India as well as Belgium. There are awful chocolates that have very little actual chocolate in them. It’s a wide open field. Once you find what you like, generally that’s what you stick with. It really depends on taste, texture and the ability to work with it. The temperature of the product has to be right and the atmosphere has to support it as well. Recipes are very specific about how to melt chocolate and cool it down. There a whole world of techniques out there and wonderful pastry chefs that have shared their wealth of knowledge on it. If I had to pick an expert to recommend, it would be Jacques Torres. He’s an absolute wealth of everything chocolate. He’s an artist for sure. His pieces are show stoppers and his ability to teach is beautiful. If you’re interested in learning, look him up and I’m sure you’ll agree he is a true master. He’s pretty funny too. I love watching his videos.
So why is today the day I stopped hating chocolate?? Well, I was headed out to do some laundry. The place I go is right next to a health food store. So I put my laundry in the machine and walked over to get something to drink. There’s this beautiful chocolate on the market called HU. It was started by a brother and sister. I’m a big supporter of family started businesses. I love the packaging and the fact it’s organic and vegan. I bought some recently and sent it to my daughter to try. She’s my best critic when it comes to any food. She honest and to the point. She loves this brand. Today as I was cashing out my drink, I saw a bar that had almond butter and quinoa in it. Who thinks of that??? Almond butter and quinoa together?? Is this another case of “You put your almond butter in my quinoa?” or “You put your quinoa in my chocolate?” Or did two people really just think this one through and decide to be gutsy? Either way, it got my attention. I bought the bar. I felt great supporting HU Kitchen (out of NYC) and I was about to eat a chocolate bar for the hell of it. It’s got puffed quinoa in it so how can it be bad for you?? I took the first square and let me tell you this. When I put it in my mouth, it was the best piece of chocolate I’ve ever had. The combination of an excellent dark chocolate with almond butter and puffed quinoa snapped me out of years of deprivation of chocolate. Who are these people?? Who are these creative chocolatiers?? And why weren’t they ever entered in the chocolate show years ago when I had to judge that category?? This was such an epiphany. I realized at that very moment that I didn’t hate chocolate anymore. Thank you to HU Kitchen for creating such a masterful bar of pure love. This, my friends, is the power in food.