Chocolate is like a red rose on Valentine's Day: a sweetly romantic yet undeniably conventional choice. The heart-shaped candy box, beloved by sweethearts since Victorian times, is such a best seller that the day ranks as the single biggest of the year for the chocolate business.
Just because its popularity is proven, though, doesn't mean chocolate has to be predictable. Chocolate can be far more sophisticated, even surprising, than the traditional box of treats.
Nowadays, as chefs look for creative ways to use a classic flavor, chocolate is making some unexpected culinary appearances. Sometimes, it moves off the dessert tray to a drink at the bar, or to the main menu in a soup or savory sauce. Other times, chocolate stays sweet but looks a lot more hip, turning up in the guise of everything from ravioli to sushi.
Consider just a few of the chocolate interpretations that can be had in Baltimore. At the cosmopolitan Ruby Lounge, there is the chocolate martini. At the fusion restaurant Ixia, an appetizer becomes a decadent dessert when chocolate melts with caramelized bananas in a pot sticker. And at the modern Mexican restaurant Blue Agave, chocolate mingles with chilies to enliven roasted game hen and bread pudding into something more than comfort food.
"I like the versatility of chocolate," says Michael Marx, Blue Agave's chef and owner. "There's always a bit of a surprise factor. Take pork. People would never think of having chocolate and pork together, but it's a great taste sensation."
Marx's signature dessert, a dense bread pudding, is certainly rich with chocolate. But the intense chocolate flavor is set off by ancho chilies, an intriguing, spicy-sweet combination that stars elsewhere on his menu. His poultry and pork dishes are frequently paired with moles, the regional Mexican sauces that mix chilies, cinnamon, spices, nuts and sweetened chocolate.
Mole sauces may be particularly appropriate for Valentine's Day because they're deeply rooted in chocolate's 4,000-year history. Chocolate didn't start off sweet at its inception in South America. But long before it was discovered to contain mood-altering chemicals, including the same stimulant that's produced naturally by falling in love, chocolate has been seen as seductive.
The Aztec and Mayan aristocrats brewed cocoa beans into a spiced, cold drink they believed to be an aphrodisiac. Legend has it that Emperor Montezuma drank 50 cups a day. When the Spanish conquistadors first met him, however, they were more interested in his golden goblet.
By 1528, the Spaniards had carried cocoa home, where it became a fashionable drink for the nobility. Eventually, as its use spread among European courts, the cocoa drink was heated and sweetened, and in the 17th century, popularized as an alternative to alcohol.
Candy, cakes and other forms soon followed, and by the time Richard Cadbury created the first heart-shaped candy box in 1868, chocolate was a well-established Valentine's Day tradition. Today, chocolate in the United States is a $13 billion industry, according to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, and while Halloween claims the largest share, Valentine's Day rates first in single-day sales.
"Chocolate isn't something you have to figure out. Once consumed, it's instantly appreciated," says chocolatier Marcel Desaulniers, creator of a seven-layer dessert called Death by Chocolate and author of a cookbook series by the same name.
"I think that's why there are so many boxes of chocolate, and even at a younger age, a chocolate bar is an icon of love or at least affection," he says. "It's a rare person who doesn't like it."
If chocolate never really falls out of favor, though, it can seem too known a flavor. Pastry chef Amy Felder, who teaches at Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Providence, R.I., says to overcome the obviousness of chocolate, "an increasingly large number of pastry chefs are looking to the culinary world for inspiration." Some try to achieve new nuances by pairing chocolate with spices once relegated to main dishes, she says, while others are recasting those dishes as desserts.
That's been evident at Baltimore's Chocolate Affair, a fund-raiser for the Center for Poverty Solutions for the past 11 years that is known to satisfy even the worst chocolate cravings.
In the early years, recalls Debbie Attman, event organizer, chefs mostly tried to outdo each other with elaborate displays carved out of chocolate. But since the mid-1990s, she says, "We've had the most amazing things. Chocolate oysters. Chocolate pasta. Chocolate pizza. We've had chocolate chili, with beans but not meat. It's very creative."
Spike Gjerde, chef and owner of a string of Baltimore restaurants, including Spike & Charlie's and the Atlantic, walked off with an award last year for his "sushi" - tempered chocolate served as the seaweed wrapper, which was then rolled up with rice pudding and papaya, mango and pineapple, and assembled during an all-nighter in his kitchen.
Another time, he created "calamari" out of marzipan tubes dipped in milk chocolate and crushed cookies, served with a raspberry puree that resembled cocktail sauce. It looked so realistic, he says, "People were shocked. They were thinking what's this? Squid with chocolate on it?"
For all their appeal, chocolate recipes can unnerve even accomplished cooks. The secret, says Gjerde, is to be patient and make sure the chocolate is melted correctly over hot water. "Once you get comfortable with it," he says, "the sky's the limit."
Mole sauces require careful assembly. Marx cautions that the chilies should be watched closely because over-frying them can leave a residual bitterness. Once made, however, a mole can be frozen and used again to transform something as simple as chicken in a crockpot into a romantic meal.
While they enjoy experimenting, many chefs also admit they're chocolate purists at heart. Gjerde, for example, has created a velvety, flourless cake that's made from the most basic ingredients: eggs, sugar and, of course, a high-quality semisweet chocolate.
"People like to say they don't eat chocolate that much, but you know it's not true," he says. "I'm kind of unabashed. I think it's just amazing stuff."
Chocolate-Banana Pot Stickers
Makes 12 dumplings
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 pound ripe bananas
juice of 1 lime
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (semisweet can be substituted), grated
1/2 cup toasted and chopped macadamia nuts
1 package spring roll wrappers (see note)
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Spicy Mango Dipping Sauce (see recipe)
In saute pan over medium heat, melt butter with sugar. Add bananas. Saute until lightly caramelized. Remove from heat and stir in lime juice.
Chill mixture until completely cold. Stir in grated chocolate and macadamia nuts. Roll 2 tablespoons of filling into each spring roll wrapper. Brush with egg wash and roll up like a burrito. Fry each spring roll in 350-degree vegetable oil until wrapper is crisp. Drain on paper towel and dust with powdered sugar.
Serve with Spicy Mango Dipping Sauce.
Note: Wrappers can be found in most Asian markets. They are also available at some groceries.-- Kevin Miller, executive chef, Ixia Restaurant
Spicy Mango Dipping Sauce
Makes 1 1/2 cups
1 very ripe mango
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sambal (chili-garlic sauce) (see note)
Puree all ingredients until smooth. Chill until ready to use.
Note: Sambal can be found in most Asian markets.-- Kevin Miller, executive chef, Ixia Restaurant
Spike Gjerde's Flourless Chocolate Cake
Makes 6 to 7 servings
8 ounces high-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1/2 pound unsalted butter
6 large eggs
1 cup and 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup high-quality cocoa powder, sifted
2 tablespoons dark rum
powdered sugar for dusting
Melt chocolate and butter over water (in double boiler or similar pans) until smooth. Remove from heat. In mixing bowl, whisk eggs with sugar. Add to chocolate-and-butter mixture and stir.
Sift in cocoa powder and stir. Stir in rum until smooth. The batter should be very thick. Scrape and pour into springform pan or individual ramekins.
Bake at 325 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes in convection oven; 350 degrees for about 20 minutes in conventional oven. If mold is smaller, bake less time. Check frequently. Remove once a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Decorate by sifting powdered sugar on it. Garnish with raspberries, if desired.
Blue Agave's Mole Negro de Oaxaca Makes 1 gallon
10 cloves garlic
4 Roma tomatoes
10 mulato chilies
10 pasilla chilies
2 chipotle chilies
1 cup lard, divided use
oil for onion
2 1/2 ounces sliced almonds
2 1/2 ounces peanuts, unsalted
3 1/2 ounces sesame seeds
1 cup of baguette, diced in 1/2 -inch pieces
1 green plantain, cut in 1/2 -inch slices
2 teaspoons allspice
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 quarts chicken stock
salt to taste
6 ounces Ibarra Mexican chocolate
splash cider vinegar
Roast garlic and char tomatoes. Remove stems, seeds and veins from the chilies. Reserve 6 tablespoons of mixed seeds from the chilies. Heat 1/4 cup of lard in large saucepot.
Quickly fry the chilies (without the seeds), remove and soak in warm water, enough to cover. Rub onion lightly in oil, wrap in foil and roast until soft. Set aside. Heat 1/4 cup lard and fry the almonds, peanuts and sesame seeds until lightly browned. Remove nuts and seeds.
Using the same lard, fry 1 cup of baguette diced in 1/2 -inch pieces and 1 green plantain in 1/2 -inch slices. Add this to the nuts and seeds. Mix allspice and peppercorns; toast in dry skillet. Then add to the mixture of nuts, seeds and bread pieces.
To assemble, puree the onion, garlic and chilies, including the water in which the chilies have been soaking. Set aside. Puree the mixture of the nuts/seeds, baguette and plantain with the reserved 6 tablespoons of seeds from chilies, 4 charred tomatoes and enough stock to make a smooth mixture. Heat 1/2 cup of lard in a large saucepot. Fry the bread, seed and nut puree, stirring frequently. Add the pureed onion, garlic and chilies and cook until the fat rises to the surface. Add salt, chocolate and remaining stock. Strain through a medium-holed strainer. Adjust any bitterness with brown sugar and splash of cider vinegar. Use for sauce, freeze the remainder.
Chocolate Ancho Chili Bread Pudding
Makes ten 5-ounce portions
1/2 pound butter
2 1/2 cups grated bittersweet chocolate
1 quart heavy cream
2 cups milk
5 large eggs
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 1/2 tablespoons ancho chili powder (see note)
2 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)(see note)
1 teaspoon ground clove
1 1/2 tablespoons ground allspice
one 1-pound loaf of challah (or similarly dense, egg-rich bread), cut in cubes
Melt butter and chocolate over double boiler. Remove from heat. Whisk in heavy cream and milk. Beat eggs in bowl until fluffy. Add brown and white sugar, vanilla extract and spices.
Add chocolate-butter-milk mixture slowly to egg mixture until incorporated. Add cubed bread and mix it with a rubber spatula. Let stand for 1 hour. Pour into greased, 8-inch square baking pan that's 4 inches deep. Top with parchment baking paper and foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. Test with wooden toothpick in center.
Note: Ancho chili powder and canela can be found in Hispanic markets. Plain cinnamon can be substituted for canela.-- Blue Agave