Chocolate Dinner: A Beautiful Marriage of NYU’s “Materials and Experimental Design” Course and Mast Brothers Chocolate

Sunday, February 5th, 2012 | chocolatiers, Events | 4 Comments

Bear with me as I describe the provenance of a “Chocolate Dinner” I attended in late December.  NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Graduate Program (a “Center for the Recently Possible”), has some of the most interesting course choices on the planet, including: “Animals, People and Those In Between,” “Making Pop-Up Books,” “Time,” and the somewhat normal-sounding “Materials and Experimental Design.”  Last semester, the professor of this Materials class chose a most peculiar material– chocolate!  I scored a press pass to their final presentations, which were held at their chocolate supplier, Mast Brothers, in Williamsburg.

The presentations were extremely diverse, and only a select few produced edible chocolate (which I couldn’t help enjoying the most).

One team created different types of paper out of cocoa bean husks. You couldn’t eat the paper, but the team kindly prepared a side of Hungarian chocolate truffles (a student’s mother’s recipe!) which were made with paprika and thyme.

One student created chocolate cups that held what appeared to be rainbow sprinkles.  On biting into said cups, however, I discovered that the sprinkles weren’t sugary, but were instead not-unpleasantly tasteless, and blew around everywhere like beautiful sparkles.

Another team distilled chocolate down to its essence using a perfumer-looking setup with beakers, funnels, and tubes.  The result was a chocolate-smelling water that they put into tiny individual corked tubes– would one be the perfect talisman for a dessertatarian to wear around her neck?  I think so.

Another team created a box which could hold a chocolate inside and was equipped with a GPS system.  The catch was that the box could only be opened once the GPS indicated that it was at a certain destination.  I suppose you could use this box to creatively propose to someone, or perhaps to kick off a great scavenger hunt.  Since I have no will power whatsoever, I would probably smash the box with a hammer to try to get at that chocolate as soon as possible.

One team produced an amazing contraption that I would imagine would be popular as a party game.  Directions: take lots of foodsafe light bulbs (if there is such a thing); melt some chocolate, then dip the bulbs in; let the chocolate cool and harden, then suspend the bulbs in a line on cords connected to a giant pipe; support that pipe with two other pipes; place a bunch of plates of strawberries in a line underneath the bulbs; flip the switch; wait a bit; and lo and behold: chocolate covered strawberries!  It was a messy contraption, to be sure, but if any restaurants are looking for some last-minute Valentine’s Day decorations, this would be a good choice.

The last project of the evening showed how our experience of chocolate can be manipulated physically to create different textures and by pairing it with unexpected foods to enhance, even change, its taste.  The student first showed us how to create tiny spheres of chocolate using calcium chloride.  She dropped a chocolate mixture into a chemical bath, and the chocolate immediately became a ball, which she called “caviar.”  The balls tasted like absolutely nothing when just sitting on the tongue.  Only a bite would release the taste of the chocolate inside the suspension, kind of like biting into a fish egg.  She also made chocolate “chantilly” by whipping chocolate, water, and an emulsifier.  The resulting taste was similar to chocolate ganache, but without the heaviness of cream.  Her weird pairings spread included anchovies, mushrooms, and black truffle oil, all of which you could place upon chocolate tongue-shaped tuiles.  Each ingredient helped to bring out different unknown notes in the chocolate.  My husband enjoyed how the mushrooms highlighted the earthiness of the chocolate.  I couldn’t help but like the somewhat less adventurous combination of Madeira wine and chocolate.

What a fascinating evening– and all within the gracious setting of Mast Brothers chocolate tasting room, where sacks of cocoa beans from Belize await their roasting, grinding, and tempering, and a kitchen awaits people hungry to try out the resulting treats.


Brazil: The Ugly (or the kinda weird)

Monday, August 8th, 2011 | Travel | No Comments

Brazil’s dessert landscape has a few more curiosities:

1. Halls (yes, the company that makes your cough drops) are candy.  This realization dawned on me after seeing everyone from street vendors to grocery stores to juice bars hawking them alongside other prepackaged sweets.  At first I thought, “Wow, Brazilians must have 24/7 sore throats or something– ick.”  But then I peered closely and read some of the flavor names, such as “Halls Creamy: Tropical Passion Fruit with Chocolate Center.”  It’s so weird because they still sell the menthol-eucalyptus-cherry-lyptus-honey-horror flavors right alongside the sweet ones, but they just have a higher “Halls Power” rating of, like, 5 out of 5 for “extra forte-lyptus,” rather than a 1 out of 5 for “Halls Creamy: Strawberry Cream.”  Do you think Brazilian kids beg for them when they’re <cough> sick like my brothers and I used to beg for completely ineffective cherry Ludens?

2. Just like the Brits, Brazilians just loooove biscuits.  I would say that this love is similar to Americans and their cookies, but it’s different: there are several chain stores that are literally devoted to biscuits, Casa do Biscoito being one of them.  Inside these yellow-hued wonderlands, you’ll find enormous, heaping towers of biscuits in every kind of packaging imaginable, from rolls to boxes to sacks.  It’s a feast for the eyes, if not necessary the palate.  Are wafer-based items included?  You betcha.  What would the rest of the world do without their wafers?  Despite looking down my nose at them as a young dessertatarian, because I thought they were too cheap and light to be proper sweets, I have now come to appreciate their subtle charms and pleasant crunch.  The wafers I tried from the Casa, however, sent my development back about a year, as I tried to go for the chocolate flavor, and, as already discussed in a previous post, found them to be totally unsatisfying. I also had to close my eyes during each bite for fear that some of the wafer shards would come flying up and blind me.  On the other hand, they were so dry that the billions of crumbs that ended up in my lap just blew right off when I got up.  I hope I didn’t blind anyone around me, though.

3. Do you like vaguely sweet corn pudding?  Because the Brazilians do.  It’s a typical street vendor food that you might think is the aforementioned quindim, but it’s more yellow-yellow what with the corn, rather than eggy golden-yellow.  It’s called curau and comes in a dry-ish form wrapped in a corn husk, tamale-style, or in a cup for the wetter version.  They both taste… fine… just fine.

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Brazil: The Bad

Thursday, August 4th, 2011 | chocolatiers, Travel | 3 Comments

I know that I’m jeopardizing Brazil’s status as one of the world’s great dessert oases and will therefore lose some of you readers here, but it simply must be said: there is almost no fine chocolate culture in that country.  I confirmed this with the American owner of our bed and breakfast in Paraty (the fabulous Pousada Guaraná), who had to go all the way to São Paulo for a decent-enough cocoa to make his chocolate breakfast cake.  He said there just isn’t the demand for fine chocolate as there is in New York, for example, where even the lowliest of bodegas at least stocks Lindt. 

As far as I could tell, if you’re on the hunt for chocolate, you have two choices: Garoto or Cacau Show.  Garoto is your average, run-of-the-mill, store-bought chocolate that comes in all manner of Euro-style bon-bons and bars, sort of like Cadbury’s in the U.K. or Hershey’s in the U.S.  But I tell you this:  Garoto is not even as good as Hershey’s.  It’s a little gritty, totally waxy, and flavorless– like cheap Polish or Russian chocolate.  Are you shocked that it’s now owned by Nestlé after being founded by a German-Brazilian in the 1920s?  If you’re hankering for chocolate, eating some Garoto will be such a frustratingly bad experience, it’s probably not even worth it.  You’ll moan and cry in despair and hope that at least there’s a Cacau Show store in town somewhere that you can hop a cab to.  Cacau Show is the only “high-end” chocolate chain that I could find.  It was actually founded by a 17 year old Brazilian kid in 1988 and is still wholly owned by the original company, which is a real feat in the monopolistic world of foodstuffs.  The chocolate is unevenly good.  The bars and individual chocolates were a disappointment and lacked a rich cocoa flavor.  The brightly-wrapped truffles, however, were actually quite good and come in flavors like coconut, chili pepper, and hazelnut.  They were probably the only chocolate I had in Brazil that I enjoyed and filled that terrible void that I was beginning to feel very desperate about.

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Brazil: The Good

Monday, August 1st, 2011 | Travel | 4 Comments

Brazil provides the dessertatarian with one of her most basic needs: SUGAR.  I can’t help but use all screamin’ caps, because, like, seriously, Brazil has a lot of sugar– they even run their cars on it in the form of ethanol.  The heft of the typical Brazilian table sugar packet is considerably more than those in the US, too.  On my recent trip to fabulous Rio de Janeiro and the little colonial town of Paraty, I did indeed ingest a lot of sugar in a “when in Rome…” kind of way, of course.

Sucos (or juice) purveyors are plentiful in coastal towns like Rio and often have surfer dude names like “Winds” and “Beach Sucos.”  Here you can try all manner of wonderful juices, many of which are made with fruits you never even knew existed (if you’re from the Northern Hemisphere).  My favorite was the highly caffeinated and addictive açai/guarana mix, which is served in a tall ice cream sundae glass.  It’s not juice so much as a melty sorbet that is piled up about an inch over the top of the glass, and it somehow stays there without overflowing.  My first thought at this presentation was “I’ll never see the bottom of this glass,” but then after a few ravenous snorts, snarfs, and brain freezes, it would just… disappear.  It is so dark purple, it almost looks chocolatey and has a pleasantly gritty, rich texture, with the flavor of black currants.  A few others I tried were caju (or cashew fruit, has a putrid smell not unlike durian, but the flavor isn’t all bad and does grow on you when you begin to also taste something akin to pineapple); graviola (or soursop, smooth, creamy, similar to melon or pear in flavor and a favorite),acerola (acidic, berry-like, quite tart), melon (so light and sweet, another winner), guava, cupuaçu (acidic, similar to watery orange juice), and fruta do conde (or sugar-apple, tasty).  At night, sucos gave way to caipirinhas, which are fruity, sugary drinks made with cachaça (or fermented sugarcane alcohol).  The usual ones are lime-based, but I saw lots with passion fruit, mango, and even one with slices of cashew fruit, which has a creepily meat-like, um, flesh.

Coconut is also featured heavily in Brazilian desserts– good thing I love it, as it is one of those oddly polemical ingredients.  I wonder what happened to people in their early childhoods to make them hate the taste of coconut?  Did their first-grade teacher whack them with an Almond Joy bar, rather than a ruler, perhaps?  Probably the best coconut dessert is also the simplest: cocada (or coconut candy), which comes in white sugar and brown sugar varieties.  It’s also nicely shelf-stable, which would make it the perfect gift to bring home, if not for its brick-like weight.

Brazilian bakeries and sweets shops are wonderfully ubiquitous, from self-serve neighborhood joints offering homemade flans, puddings, and cakes, to the famous confeitarias of Manon and Columbo, where you can get French-style patisseries with a Brazilian flair.  One of the most popular items is the bright yellow quindim or quindão, which is a kind of puddingy custard flan thing made with tons of egg yolks (a Portuguese technique) and coconut.  Quindim actually means “girlish charms” in a Bantu language, which was spoken by African slaves in Brazil in the 17th Century, so you can learn your triangle trade history while you eat. When it’s sobremesa (or dessert) time, here are some more of the heavenly words that your pocket translator (or fluent friend) will conjure for you: dulce de leche, ice cream, tapioca, lemon/lime (you’re never sure which, since they’re both oddly called limãos), fresh fruit sorbet, guava paste, and pastry cream.

You’ll be happy and unsurprised to know that the next posts are entitled “Brazil: The Bad” and “Brazil: The Ugly (or just kinda weird, actually).”


“Hop” Movie Poster: What’s wrong with this picture?

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 | Media | 1 Comment

Easter is coming up, and with it, the wonderful CANDY that is only available for a short time each year. When I was a kid, no matter how careful I thought I was being, I would always eat myself to a stomach ache, I loved that candy so much. Therefore, I know it well. As I think a lot of people do.

So what do the designers of the movie poster for the new animated/live-action film, “Hop,” take us for?

Several of these items are not typical Easter candy, such as horrible, horrible licorice All-Sorts, Gummy Bears, and peppermints, and some, namely the candy canes (huh?!?) actually go with another rather well-known holiday. I will excuse the M&M’s, which are basically the correct pastel color, but aren’t really an Easter fixture. But where are the Peeps, the fake chocolate foil-wrapped eggs that make you gag, the Cadbury Cream Eggs, or the chocolate bunnies? Could they not get a licensing agreement with them or something? You’d think that a movie like this would be a product-placement gold mine, right?

And not to nit-pick, but Easter jelly beans should be clearish, not opaque like M&M’s, and there have to be at least a few black ones.

Have the people who designed this poster ever actually celebrated, or at least stolen the candy from someone who celebrated, Easter? Yeesh. I’m sure the movie will be as brilliant as the poster, too.

Margot Restaurant: It’s Flan-tastic!

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 | Restaurants | 1 Comment

After spending a rhapsodic two and a half hours immersed in New York City’s best-kept secret, Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s, it was time to break the spell at Margot, a Dominican restaurant in Washington Heights.  At this wonderful little hole-in-the-wall, you’ll fill up on amazing roasted chicken, coconut fish, fried plantains, and rice and beans.  But take heed: save room for dessert!  A kindly owner/host-type fellow came to our table after our meal and presented us with the evening’s offerings of sweets: bread pudding made from croissants, flan, and rum raisin pudding.  I normally don’t get too excited by these kinds of cold custardy things, because they’re made ahead of time and sometimes sit around in the fridge getting nasty.  But this man had a twinkle in his eye as he described his desserts passionately, as if he made them himself… somewhat recently.  There were also six of us, so half a dessert each seemed survivable for most of us.  They were extraordinary:

The bread pudding was my favorite, with a rich, creamy custard, and not a hint of dryness from the bread.  It was also sitting in a thick pool of what tasted like dulce de leche.  The flan was perfect: not too eggy, nice and smooth, with a sweet pool of syrup.  The rum raisin pudding was equally yummy, but with a strange chocolate cakey-type bottom, which I think was the only thing that didn’t work.  Overall, these desserts were worthy of standing up with the great custards of the world, and I can’t wait to go back.

Margot Restaurant
3822 Broadway
New York, NY 10032-1547
(212) 781-8494

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The Grand Tier at Lincoln Center

Monday, February 28th, 2011 | Fine Dining, Restaurants | 1 Comment

Does life get any better (or convenient) than eating dinner in the concert hall right before seeing the show? The Grand Tier, in the Metropolitan Opera House, has the pre-theater formula down pat. Make a reservation for 6pm, dine in relative ease for the first hour and a half, then see how the vibe of the restaurant changes as the crowd starts pouring in and the 8pm curtain time draws near. Ladies scamper to wait on long bathroom lines; your waiter, in his haste to quickly jot down your dessert order and move on to the next table, accidentally drops his pen in your lap; and all of a sudden, that big pot of tea and second glass of wine don’t sound like such good ideas anymore. But the food is excellent and most of the desserts, divine. Regard:

The Chocolate Peanut Butter Ganache Tart with caramel crema, chocolate mousse, and huckleberry jam was heavy and decadent, just like it sounds. It was like eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a candy bar at once. Sadly, because of its richness, this one will be the first one to get left behind as the bells genteelly call you to your seat. Since wasting a perfectly good dessert because of a silly thing like time is a sin to me, I wrapped our two leftover bits in an ancient purse Kleenex. This necessitated a good bit of industrious Kleenex removal with my digits when we went to eat them the next day, but we prevailed!

The Key Lime Parfait with spicebread crumble, key lime curd, and compressed pineapples wasn’t quite as delicious. The “spicebread” tasted like cheap ground-up Graham crackers and I couldn’t figure out why the white cream on top had l’air de Cool Whip. But the key lime curd was solid and I’d never heard of “compressed” fruit before. This apparently is a technique that utilizes a vacuum sealer and liquid to infuse the fruit with its own cooked juices and sometimes an external flavor like vanilla, kind of like sous-vide.

The Passion Fruit Crème Brûlée with black sesame seed and coconut macaroons was wonderful.  The tangy fruit and nutty seed flavors worked perfectly in the custard, and the macaroons were a delightful little cookie bonus for added texture.

I might have gotten the old-school-sounding Chocolate Soufflé, but since it requires serving just after it’s baked and therefore requires planning, it was only available at intermission. How do you scarf down your dessert in 15 minutes and use the facilities? Well, my boyfriend’s dad informed me that the system works quite well, actually. You place your dessert order, then come back to your table at intermission, where your dessert will be magically waiting for you. If you have time for the toilet afterward, then you can give yourself a gold star.

Grand Tier
150 W. 65th St
New York, NY 10184
(212) 799-3400

Gayle’s Chocolates: A Detroit-Area Treasure

Friday, January 21st, 2011 | chocolatiers, Travel | 1 Comment

My mom’s the best.  Several years ago, she sent me back to Brooklyn with a humble-looking bar of something called “Gayle’s Chocolates.”  She always sends me home with so many wonderful sweets, that I didn’t think anything of it other than “Yay, chocolate.”  We’ve got some of the best chocolate in the world here in NYC: Jacques Torres, La Maison du Chocolate, and L.A. Burdick, to name but a few.  So when I finally opened my little dark chocolate bar of Gayle’s and took a bite, imagine my surprise when it turned out to be… not just good, but absolutely exquisite.  Smooth, sweet, and decadent, it was the perfect chocolate.  How could I have made light of my mom’s taste?

On my next trip (and subsequent visits) back to Motown, my mom took me on a Gayle’s pilgrimage.  The maroon-colored store is a soda-shoppe/café/lounge mix with lots of chocolate molds of shoes in clear handbags decorating the walls.  It’s so darn cozy and inviting, I would like to move in.  Observe:

Accustomed to Jacques Torres’s insanely good chocolate chip cookies, I had to see if Gayle could pick up the gauntlet– turns out she can.  That cookie was almost just as good– it was maybe just a tad too salty.  But it had the same soft butteriness and the same actual layers of chocolate.  In fact, the chocolate layer was so pronounced, the top and bottom of the cookie actually separated at one point.  Extreme!

One confection I’ve never seen before: the Cakeless Fruit Cake, containing “All the good stuff without the bad!!!”  This chocolate-covered treat must have been created using a sweet little bundt pan and is indeed fruit cake-like, with dried apricots, pears, cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, brandied cherries, and pecans, all sitting atop a soft gingerbread cookie.  Of course, the candy makers couldn’t resist putting a huge dollop of chocolate ganache in the center.  My head spin-eth.

A word on the shape of their chocolate bars, which aren’t the usual large, thin rectangle model.  They are, instead, reminiscent of gold bars in their thickness.  While I respect their attempt to be different from the likes of Hershey’s, there’s a reason to keep your bars thin: you have to be able to easily break off pieces.  With Gayle’s, you’re either forced to chomp down on the bar yourself, all but guaranteeing that you gobble the whole thing up by yourself, or share it with someone who doesn’t mind your copious amounts of mouth-watering-induced slobber – OR – you have to harness the power of a thousand suns and try to break it yourself, perhaps wedging it against a hardwood floor or jabbing at it with the back of a hammer, and just about suffering an exploded brain or broken hand in the process.  Gayle’s: please change this.  Are you trying to force me to buy one of your soft truffles instead?  Because I will.  So help me God I will.

Even if you’ve got no plans to head over to Royal Oak, MI any time soon to check out the Detroit Zoo, fear not: you can order Gayle’s online, and there are several locations at Detroit Metro Airport, so you can grab some to sustain you on your flight to Osaka.

Gayle’s Chocolates
417 S. Washington
Royal Oak, MI  48067
Also at DTW

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Dessert Gum?

Friday, January 21st, 2011 | Store-bought | 2 Comments

Does everyone remember some years ago when there was chocolate-flavored gum?  And it was disgusting?  Well, it’s baaa-aaack… in the form of Wrigley’s Extra Dessert Delights Mint Chocolate Chip flavored sugar-free gum, where you can “Have Your Dessert & Chew It Too!”  (Um, I usually chew my dessert first– I’m not a bird.)  We all know that specific chemical the flavorists use to make “chocolate.”  But the acrid taste is somewhat masked by a minty flavor, creating a “nice” balance.  I’m not saying I’m cool with Wrigley’s claim that this is somehow dessert (!), but it’s worth a try… I guess:


Dera – Pakistani Falooda Kulfi

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 | Restaurants | No Comments

Dera, located in Jackson Heights, and the tastiest Pakistani restaurant I’ve ever been to, serves a most wonderful dessert: falooda kulfi.  It comes, soup-style, in a large bowl and is best shared by two people who know each other quite well (as I believe two people sharing soup should).

Falooda is a liquidy dessert, often a sweet beverage, that comes from South Asia.  From what I can surmise, Dera’s has vermicelli noodles, milk, ice shards, tulsi (basil) seeds, rose syrup, green food coloring, and both frozen and room temp kulfi.  Kulfi is a traditional South Asian ice cream made from evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream that is thickened with cornstarch.  Observe:

This dessert is a real project to eat, and it’s got several different textures, so it’s interactive good times!  The frozen kulfi comes on a popsicle stick that you scrape away at with your spoon.  It’s so cold that it starts to freeze the nearby noodles as you eat,  turning them from squirmy wormies to stiff wormies.  The room temp kulfi is smooth, creamy, and sweet, while the basil seeds add a nice little crunch.  The ice shards do get a little annoying after awhile as some of them are too big to want to bite down on, so you end up trying to avoid them to slurp up the soup.  As all of the ingredients melt together, the rose syrup turns the soup a nice Pepto-Bismol shade of pink, which is dotted with the green food coloring and yellow kulfi.  It is a delicious, impressionist-style masterpiece!

7209 Broadway
New York, NY 11372
(718) 476-6516

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