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Ingredients, Tools & Techniques
Chocolate and coffee prove to be kindred companions in a range of drinks and desserts, and this book is intended to advance the current state of the art with contributions from an impressive multitude of professionals.
The theme uniting this assemblage has less to do with the individual ingredients than in how they come together in glorious, often unexpected ways. But first, let's take a few pages to discuss the essential elements in a little more depth.
The essence of the chocolate-coffee partnership lies as much with an informed choice of ingredients as with an informed approach to preparation. While many of the items that follow are available at your local supermarket or coffee shop, I encourage you to stock your cupboard with supplies that may be more challenging to find.
Master chocolatiers and baristas are, each in their own way, as selective and fanatical about ingredients as vintners are about grape varieties. As mentioned earlier, cacao and coffee develop different characteristics when grown in different regions. Thus it follows that each region contributes a distinctive aroma, personality, and complexity to the preparation's final character.
A package of fine chocolate will list the percentage of cocoa butter and/or cacao solids it contains. High-quality chocolate contains more fat, which results in more flavor and a luxurious feeling on the tongue, or mouthfeel. The higher the number, the better the chocolate. Superior chocolates, the "couvertures" used by professional chefs, consist of 56 to 70 percent cacao solids and include 31 percent cacao butter.
Unsweetened chocolate is pure chocolate liquor and about 50 percent cocoa butter. Bittersweet chocolate blends at least 35 percent liquor with as much as 50 percent cocoa butter, sugar, and vanilla. Semisweet chocolate has the same ingredients as bittersweet with the addition of more sugar. Milk chocolate, which contains about 10 percent chocolate liquor, takes the process a step further by adding about 12 percent milk solids. Some of the recommended chocolates come in blocks and must be chopped or shaved before use.
The recipes in this book mostly call for dark, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate and a few use white chocolate. (Because it does not contain cacao solids, white chocolate is technically not a chocolate.) Where it makes a difference, the exact percentage of cacao or specific maker is indicated.
A mocha-inspired preparation is meant to be a balance between the chocolate and the coffee. Base the selection of each chocolate for your recipe in combination, rather than separately. Chocolates often behave differently once they become part of a blend.
Cocoa powder is made by extracting much of the cocoa butter richness from the chocolate liquor (ground, roasted cocoa beans), then pulverizing the dry residue into a fine, soft powder.
There are two types of cocoa: natural (nonalkalinized) and Dutch process (alkalinized). Natural cocoa powder (also called unsweetened) is simply untreated cocoa powder. Dutch process cocoa has been treated with an alkali to make the powder more soluble. Along the way, "dutching" gives the cocoa a deep mahogany color and an Oreo cookie flavor. The most popular American brands of cocoa powder contain about 7 percent cocoa butter, while specialty and European cocoa powders contain 12 to 24 percent cocoa butter. Recipes in this book call for pure cocoa powder, not cocoa mixes that include artificial flavors, nonfat dry milk, preservatives, soy lecithin, vanilla, and sugar.
Cocoa powder is often used aesthetically, as a light dusting to add pleasing color and aromatics to a drink or dessert presentation.
While there are over twenty species of coffee plants, only two, robusta and arabica, account for the lion's share of commercial coffees. Robusta beans have a woody, bitter taste and aroma, and they are usually relegated to mass-produced, pre-ground coffee blends and freeze-dried products. In Italian tradition, robustas are often included in espresso blends to boost crema, the alluring layer of tiny, smooth bubbles that trap precious aromatics.
Arabica varieties, descendents of the original Ethiopian coffee trees, are the best beans down here where mortals tread, appreciated for distinctive bouquet, sweet, wine-like tones, and superior acidity or "high notes." Beans from different origins are blended to make a coffee that is higher in quality than any of the ingredients individually, often to create a proprietary or signature blend. But the highest-quality arabica varieties usually stand alone as single-origin and estate coffees. For a match with chocolate, it's better to avoid very bitter coffees or any with a scorched flavor.
As beans are lightly roasted, they change to a buttery gold color and develop a very mild, nutty flavor. Further roasting adds more body, and the darkest or French roast produces savory, rich characters with satisfying bittersweet and smoky flavors.
The difference between coffee and espresso is simply the amount of water that dilutes the grounds. An invigorating shot of espresso has the least amount of water, and therefore has a stronger, more concentrated taste profile. Instant coffees or espressos have been dried into soluble powders or granules, which can be quickly dissolved in hot water for consumption or employed as ingredients in recipes.
In Europe, flavored syrups are added to mineral waters to make "Italian sodas." On this side of the Atlantic they serve a dual purpose of flavoring and sweetening lattes and cappuccinos, an idea conceived by "Brandy" Brandenburger of General Foods and first promoted by Torani & Company of San Francisco. Flavored syrups are highly concentrated, but when used judiciously, they can give sweet little bursts of flavor to creative mochas.
Spices are among the earliest commodities to have circumnavigated the globe in trade. The practice of adding these powerful, lyrical, sensual aromatics to enhance the natural flavors of both chocolate and coffee can be traced back many centuries.
For best results, buy small quantities of ground spices and store them in tightly-closed containers in a cool, dark, and dry place for no longer than a year. Before using, sniff them. If the fragrance of a spice has dimmed, toss it out. Chances are, the flavor has weakened as well and will do nothing to improve your recipe. If you're using nonsoluble spices, place them in a tea ball or wrap them in cheesecloth before dropping them into liquid so you can easily fish them out later.
Store vanilla beans completely submerged in granulated sugar. This process preserves not only the moisture and freshness of the beans, but also creates an aromatic vanilla sugar that can be used for making cookies and other baked treats.
Sugar is persistently valued, not only for the sweetening of drinks and desserts, but for adding volume, tenderness, and texture.
Granulated white, or table, sugar has medium-sized granules and is most often called for in recipes. When heated, granulated sugar takes on a toffee-like color and flavor.
Confectioners' sugar, which has been crushed mechanically (and generally mixed with a little starch to keep it from clumping), is favored for its dissolving properties, especially in iced chocolate drinks.
Brown sugar is simply white sugar with a bit of molasses to give it texture and color. Its color will depend on the amount of molasses added during processing. The darker the color, the stronger the taste, so use one that suits your taste preference. Substituting brown sugar for white will add notes of caramel and molasses.
Honey adds sweetness as well as flavor, however, you may need to experiment as some honey varieties tend to overwhelm the subtleties of other flavors. Because honey is sweeter than table sugar, you'll need less of it to please your palate. For more robust, bittersweet flavors, natural molasses is a one-to-one substitute for honey.
Conversions & Equivalents
10 milliliters (ml) = 2 teaspoons (t)
50 ml = 3 tablespoons (T)
100 ml = 31/2 ounces
250 ml = 1 cup + 1 (T)
500 ml = 1 pint + 2 (T)
1 liter = 1 quart + 3 (T)
1 teaspoon = 5 ml
1 tablespoon = 15 ml
1 ounce = 30 ml
1 cup = 235 ml
1 quart = 950 ml
1 gallon = 33/4 liters
10 grams = 1/3 ounce
50 grams = 13/4 ounces
100 grams = 31/2 ounces
250 grams = 83/4 ounces
500 grams = 1 lb + 11/2 ounces
1/2 ounce = 14 grams
1 ounce = 28 grams
1/4 pound = 112 grams
1/2 pound = 224 grams
1 pound = 448 grams
Tools & Techniques
When measuring chocolate or coffee, an ounce is measured in weight, not volume. Professionals use scales to measure dry ingredients for greater speed and accuracy. Digital and balance scales are preferred, since they can be recalibrated to maintain accuracy. Spring-loaded scales are not as precise.
For home cooks, there are inexpensive digital scales available that will hold up to eleven pounds, are accurate to within 1/4 ounce, and convert between grams and ounces.
To properly measure, first weigh the container in which each ingredient will be placed. Set the zero indicator at the container's final weight. Then add the ingredients. In effect, you have ignored the weight of the container and only included the weight of the chocolate or coffee.
As for equipment, most recipes can be prepared with utensils you probably already have in your kitchen: measuring cups and spoons, a scale, a serrated knife, a pot or two, and a wooden spoon or wire whisk. Use a scoop for powder and a shot glass for syrups. Set aside a few bowls and/or a set of demitasse cups for serving.
Chopping, Shaving & Grinding
Most superior-quality chocolate comes in blocks and must therefore be either shaved on a coarse cheese grater or chopped into small chunks (about 1/4 inch) with a knife.
To work with chocolate, have your block at room temperature. Cold chocolate is too hard to cut, and room-temperature chocolate will chop into pieces without splintering. Use a long serrated knife and score at the point you want the break to occur to a depth of about 1/8 inch. Press the knife into the chocolate with firm steady pressure at several spots along the scored line, advancing the knife a little deeper into the bar at each spot.
Hold both the handle and the dull side of the blade, and chop into small pieces, as uniformly-sized as possible so they will melt evenly in the liquid. (If the pieces are different sizes the chocolate won't melt evenly, and you risk scorching some of the smaller pieces while waiting for the larger ones to melt.)
To shave chocolate in a food processor, chill the chocolate, bowl, and blade first, then pulse the chocolate to desired shavings. (Some manufacturers are making their chocolate available in small wafers or disks called "pistoles". Their slim, uniform size eliminates the need for chopping or shaving.)
Proper coffee grinding begins with a burr mill that produces more evenly sized particles than a blade grinder. Again, the more uniform the coffee particles the more even the extraction. Most models allow for a choice of grind calibrations, including French press (a coarse grind), drip (a medium grind), and espresso (a fine grind). When selecting a grinder, make sure it has the settings you require.
Melting, Cooking & Brewing
The favored method for cooking the chocolate component is as simple as melting small pieces of chocolate by stirring with hot milk in a nonreactive pan. Heat the milk over medium-low heat, and remove the pan from the heat just before it reaches the boiling point. Overheating milk destroys the flavor and texture.
Ladle out a portion of the milk over the chocolate. Stir with a wooden spoon until well combined and the mixture forms a smooth paste, or ganache, which is the base for the drink. Continue adding milk and gently stir until all the milk has been incorporated. Substituting a portion of heavy cream adds to the richness of the drink, while displacing all or part of the whole milk with low-fat milk or water allows more of the chocolate's complexity and subtle flavor notes to come through.
Let the chocolate cook in the milk while continuously stirring for a minute or two, then remove from heat, and allow the blended liquid to steep for ten minutes. This gives it time to develop its full range of flavors. Return to the heat and bring gently back to a simmer before serving.
To retain its full aroma, the chocolate should be kept under a boil, and, ideally, its temperature should not exceed 180 degrees F. To gauge accurately, an instant-read thermometer comes in handy. The right tools, and respect for your ingredients, help to ensure the best result.
Recipes that combine chocolate and coffee usually call for espresso or at least very strong coffee. The relatively inexpensive French press, or cafetiére, works by combining coarsely ground coffee beans with boiled water. The mixture is allowed to soak, then the grounds are pressed to the bottom of a glass cylinder, leaving behind filtered, rich coffee.
Brewing espresso is a culinary skill, and brewing great espresso at home requires a reliable machine. Thanks to its price and level of control, the semiautomatic has become the most common for home use. Its electric pump provides consistent pressure, forcing heated water through the finely ground coffee for thick, rich extraction.
Other than bean quality, duration of the brewing process is the single most important factor affecting the taste of espresso. With a semiautomatic machine, length of brewing time is controlled manually, a correctly extracted shot taking between 25 and 30 seconds.
Residue from the oils and grinds builds up with use and will affect the taste of your espresso. Take the time to clean the filter, water tank, and all other coffee tools regularly.
Mixing & Frothing
The more air you can get into a latte mixture, the frothier it will be. To impart a smooth, creamy texture to the drink: when the mixture begins to simmer, beat it vigorously with a wire whisk or fully submerge an immersion blender and whip until the surface of the drink is covered with foam. An elegant whisper of froth can be incorporated with a steam wand, the thin metal tube on an espresso machine connected to the boiler.
Frothing is easy with a bit of practice. Lower the wand into the milk (whole or 2 percent works best), injecting enough steam to create thousands of tiny micro-bubbles for a smooth and velvety texture.
Storing & Freshness
To store chocolate, wrap it well, first in foil and then in plastic, and keep it cool and dry at temperatures between 60 to 65 degrees F. Be sure to store it away from herbs, spices, and other aromatic foods, as chocolate picks up other flavors relatively easily.
Dark chocolate actually improves with age, like a fine wine, if stored under perfect conditions; it should be kept in a dark place or protected from light by wrapping paper. It is best not to refrigerate chocolate and it should never be frozen.
The whitish color that can rise to the surface on chocolate is called fat bloom. It means the cocoa butter has separated due to temperature fluctuation. While it's not a pretty sight, bloom does not affect taste, and the cocoa butter will be redistributed when the chocolate is melted.
Coffee beans begin to lose flavor if not stored under cool, dry conditions, protected from sunlight. Coffee is susceptible to damage from odors, temperature fluctuations, and moisture, and should be kept in an airtight container (not in refrigerator or freezer). If you must store coffee beans for a long period, separate portions into plastic bags, then wrap each bag tightly with aluminum foil.
It is ideal to buy coffee within no more than a few days of roasting. Grind your beans just before you're ready to brew.
Fortunato Nicotra, Felidia, New York, New York
Like most Italians, Fortunato Nicotra's passion for food began at an early age, and the rich environment of his childhood in Turin was the earliest influence for a career in the culinary arts. Today, this master chef attributes his culinary sensibilities to the legacy of his mother's cooking and his studies at the prestigious Institute Alberghiero.
Everyone drinks bicerin in his hometown, he explains, especially on winter mornings or during the merende (mid-afternoon) break. Children favor more chocolate than coffee in the formula, then graduate to a preference for equal proportions. "The drink is a meeting of two powerful ingredients," says the chef, "and neither is shy about its flavor." Since there is no better way to learn the art of bicerin than from a discepolo della esperienza (disciple of experience), Chef Nicotra graciously provides the most authentic recipe and proper technique.
6 ounces whole milk
3 ounces Gianduja or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped or shaved
Pinch of salt
8 ounces espresso or very strong coffee
Whipped cream, lightly sweetened
To make the hot chocolate, heat the milk slowly in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently, until steaming. Be careful not to scorch it. Add the chopped chocolate and salt to the steaming milk. Stir slowly over low heat. Do not allow the mixture to boil. Remove from the heat.
To assemble the bicerin, use 4 tempered short-stemmed glasses and pour 2 ounces of hot, freshly pulled espresso into each. Next, create a separate layer with 2 ounces of the warm chocolate on top of each espresso layer by pouring down the bottom of a tablespoon held against the side of the glass. Again using a tablespoon, pour another equal layer of cream over the top of each drink. The cream should be hand-whipped to a consistency just thick enough to float on top of the drink.
Makes 4 servings