A stadium of chocolate: an affair to remember


AS VALENTINE'S Day approaches (guys, it is tomorrow!), chocolate is in the news. Last week as I ate my way through the Chocolate Affair, an annual fund-raiser for the Center for Poverty Solutions, chocolate was on my mind and my plate and ultimately settled in my ever-thickening middle.

If, as the song says, there are 50 ways to leave your lover, Baltimore-area chefs have come up with about 43 ways to get one back. That is how many area restaurants and caterers set up booths in the club level of PSINet Stadium and served chocolate-laden or chocolate-inspired dishes.

There were also a few offerings that were chocolate-free. Let me tell you, after a few hours of tossing down myriad rich desserts, a bite of real food -- such as the rare roast beef served by Midtown Yacht Club or the crab-and-spinach dip on bread served by City Lights -- starts looking real attractive.

Chocolate showed up in many inventive forms: wrapped around cubes of cheese at the Great Cheese booth; embracing a pretzel (the nonchoking kind) at Fine Host, the outfit that runs the kitchens at PSINet; cloaked in a roasted banana won ton at the Ixia booth; tucked in a gumbo at Gertrude's; squirted atop pieces of Sascha's orange-and-lemon chicken; and hiding in the depths of Spike & Charlie's wild-boar chili.

Most of the action, however, was dark and decadent. The chocolate bread pudding from Biddle Street Catering was so dense it could block out the sun, or any midwinter worries. There were truffles, such as the amaretto-filled numbers from Deereco Desserts, at every turn. There were the traditional Baltimore pieces of pleasure, such as the chocolate-and-raspberry squares from Moore's Candies and the zingy chocolate mints from Naron/Mary Sue Candies.

Then there was Bicycle's doubleheader, consisting of a dense, flourless chocolate torte known as Boca Negra (black mouth), followed by a silky chocolate milkshake chaser, which contains, among other ingredients, a shot of Ovaltine. After downing that double dose of chocolate, I uttered, "Take me to heaven or the fat farm now."

The event was attended by several hundred members of the general eating public. I was among a dozen judges, mostly media types, who walked around with clipboards, scribbling as well as sampling. After two hours of eating, the members of the chocolate judiciary gathered, kibitzed and picked winners in five categories.

The Hot Chocolate, or tastiest treat, award went to Charles Levine Catering for the Chocolate Mac, a torte made with ground chocolate wafers, caramelized macadamia nuts, vanilla cream cheese mousse, and covered with a semisweet chocolate. Eating it made my knees weak.

Another prize-winner was the Cappuccino Dream, an edible demitasse cup fashioned out of chocolate meringue and filled with espresso mousse. It was created by the crew at Chef's Expressions catering. It won the Sweet Booth Award.

The award called Chocoholic's Dream, for the most visually enticing treat, went to Innovative Gourmet catering, which fashioned a wizard, who looked a lot like The Lord of the Rings'Gandalf, out of a dark modeling chocolate imported from Switzerland.

A white chocolate "risotto" made with amaretto, sun-dried cranberries and golden raisins created for the event by Cuisine Catering won the Loco Cocoa award for the most creative use of chocolate as an ingredient. And the Sweet Relief award, for the dish that offered a relief from dessert, went to Blue Agave for its Mexican chocolate-crusted pork loin with cactus salad. This dish, I am told, will be on the restaurant's menu for Valentine's Day.

In addition to these awards, we judges were allowed to pick a personal favorite. Megan Hall. a senior at Towson High School and an editor of the school newspaper, assisted me.

Among her favorites were the triple-chocolate cake from Panera Bread Company, the Chocolate Oreo Dream from Ms. Desserts, the Italian cream cake with hazelnut buttercream icing from Cakes by Stephanie, the tiramisu from Sotto Sopra, and the popcorn flavored with white chocolate and cranberries from Festive Affairs Catering. Eventually we picked the white-chocolate popcorn.

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