Chocolate Dinner: A Beautiful Marriage of NYU’s “Materials and Experimental Design” Course and Mast Brothers Chocolate
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.
Another day, another wonderful walking tour, this one of Flushing, Queens. Our first stop was the Myanmar Baptist Church’s 15th Annual Fun Fair, and indeed it was fun, especially for my tastebuds! We feasted on amazing, never-before-tried Burmese dishes and desserts; listened to some intense rock and roll covers of well-known Western pop songs (“La Isla Bonita,” anyone?); and played a game trying to figure out what the individual letters that many of the church kids were carrying spelled, which turned out to be “IN GOD WE TRUST” (doesn’t that make you think of money more than anything else, capitalist heathens?).
Our dessert spoils:
I apologize for not giving you the proper name of all of these treats, but the signs were mostly written in Burmese script, and when I tried to ask what things were, I think I taxed the vendors’ English lexicon and was usually only able to glean something about coconut. Therefore, some dessert research was required (the best kind of research, according to a recent poll).
I loved watching the preparation for the shaved ice, which included lots of exciting fixins like: crushed peanuts, aiyu jellies (made from the seeds of a variety of fig that become gelatinous when rubbed together with water), ABC Special Grade raspberry syrup, Hale’s Blue Boy grape syrup (featuring a dancing little boy in short pants on the label), and Houston Cowboy pineapple syrup (featuring a suspiciously familiar dancing little boy in a cowboy costume on the label).
The milk shake line was the longest, so course I had to join it. The drink turned out to be a lovely concoction of sweet rosewater syrup and melty ice cream, various jellies, and tulsi seeds, which come from a plant in the basil family, look like poppy seeds when dry, but when soaked, get a nice clear coating. They have no taste, but add a tiny crunch of texture. I’m not a fan of flower-flavored desserts, because I feel like I’m eating perfume, but the rose taste here was quite subtle. The shake overall was refreshing indeed. It was very similar to falooda, another South Asian dessert, but without the vermicelli noodles and tapioca.
As far as the coconut and rice cakes go, I know that one was brown and the other was reddish, but I assure you that they tasted largely the same– kinda bland. Not enough sugar for my sweet tooth. I was tempted to run back over to the shaved ice lady and steal some of her cowboy syrup to douse the cakes with.
If you’re interested in trying Burmese food in a festive atmosphere with welcoming church folk, keep your eye out for this fair next year (around mid-August?).Myanmar Baptist Church corner of 84th Drive and Smedley St. Flushing, Queens, NY
MBC’s specially dedicated fun fair page: http://www.emallbay.com/funfair
It was about 12:30am– many hours into the wedding reception of good friends at a château in southern France. I was busy working on my substantial cheese course as a procession of waiters carrying fancy giant pastries, cakes, and puddings began to wind its way between our tables and into a dedicated dessert room. I sneaked over to this magical chamber to check out the spread before the other guests could descend upon it. And what wonders did I see– 17 (count ‘em) different delights! The pièce de résistance was a traditional French wedding croquembouche, a tower of profiteroles stuck together with caramel and decorated with candies and sparklers. My cup, it overfloweth-ed!
Cupcake litmus test: if you cut one in half with a knife, the two sides fall down, and the frosting top comes off, the cake is too dry and/or there’s too much frosting, and, basically, you’re in trouble. If you cut one into quarters, and the four tops remain intact after impact with the plate, you’ve got a moist, delicious, perfectly balanced red velvet cupcake from GoodieBox. I mean, (elderly New Yorker who’s gushing with praise) it’s so good– you neva’!
I recently went to a GoodieBox tasting at the East Harlem Café, a cute, hip joint with gorgeous mozaic art pieces. GoodieBox is a baked goods supplier operating out of Weehawken, NJ that specializes in classic and simple baked goods. Their red velvet cupcake was the best I’ve ever had. Perfect, light, vanilla cream cheese frosting– not too much to be sickening, not too little to be sad plus the aforementioned moist, springy cake. You can either order these babies online or hope that your local coffee shop starts carrying them. GoodieBox Bakeshop 201-430-8634 goodieboxbakeshop.com East Harlem Café 1651 Lexington Ave
(between 104th St & 105th St)
New York, NY 10029
My beloved French Culinary Institute & PastryScoop.com held their annual conference in October. They invite some of the best pastry chefs & chocolatiers in New York to come and do demonstrations of their signature treats. It’s open to the public, so I ponied up $65 to watch Cookshop’s executive pastry chef Emily Wallendjack make her famous Cookshop Candy Bars, with layers of Devils food cake, gianduja crunch, praline ganache, frozen peanut nougat, and chocolate shell. She invented these after her stint at Jean-Georges working with pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. Chef Johnny made a wonderful peanut butter dessert that cemented her love of peanut butter and chocolate. (I don’t blame her– Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are a guilty pleasure of mine.) She joked that if she ever dropped her Candy Bars from the menu, her customers would have her head. Once I tasted the completed confection, I understood why:
It was such a delight to watch her and her team work. She gave us the complicated recipe to follow-along with and make at home ourselves (hah!). She explained everything patiently, clearly, and with humble humor. Her sous chef, Natasha Hillendahl, was so efficient. Cake would get baked, chocolate would get melted, and needed cooking implements would appear by Chef Emily’s side without a word.
I learned the following random baking tidbits along the way:
-Gianduja is milk solids & hazelnuts, which civilians can purchase at Whole Foods and is made by Valrhona.
-Mayo (I know, ew!) actually works better than oil in cakes because it incorporates better. And yes (double-ew!!), you can use Hellmann’s. Chef Emily uses mayo in her Devils food cake.
-When making ganaches, it’s better to use a heat-proof spatula than a whisk so you don’t incorporate air bubbles. Also, using milk chocolate is dicey because it burns much faster than dark chocolate.
-Water is one of chocolate’s worst enemies, as it causes it to sieze up. When using a double-boiler to melt chocolate, make absolutey sure there’s a tight seal over the water, don’t let the water boil, and look out for condensation.
-Gelatin sheets (available at Buon Italia in the Chelsea Market) are great, flavorless thickeners. You put them in ice water to soften and wigglify. Then you squeeze them out before you use them.
-It’s good to whip cream with side-to-side motions using a flat whisk. It’ll still take forever, though!
-Pâte à glacer is just chocolate & grape seed oil, and is used to make chocolate coatings. You don’t refrigerate it.
-Chocolate “feet” form when you’re coating something, and it flattens and cools on a surface. Tasty feet!
After Chef Emily was done, I asked her what her favorite dessert was to make: “ice cream and sorbets,” she said. She loves experimenting with different flavors and selling them at their sidewalk stand outside the restaurant, where they don’t need a permit and are in a prime spot for High Line foot traffic. I get the sense that ice creams are the preferred form of expression for many pastry chefs. It certainly seems like those Iron Chef guys just can’t stay away from the ice cream makers. Lobster and shiitake sorbet, anyone?
After the Cookshop demo was over, I saw that next door’s Ice Cream Social with Flex Mussels’ corporate pastry chef Zac Young was still rockin’. I snuck in and was immediately struck by the frenetic atmosphere of the room. Chef Zac was making seemingly endless varieties of ice cream and sorbet, and his sous chef and the poor FCI students were busting their butts to keep up. I got to try the cream cheese ice cream and white chocolate mint and passion fruit sorbets, but I think my palate was shot by then or I was too full, because I didn’t find the flavors to be well-balanced; maybe they just weren’t sweet enough to my liking.
Looking forward to seeing who’s coming out next year! And, as always, I can’t wait for my next trip to L’Ecole, FCI’s amazing student-run restaurant.