The Baltimore Sun

Chocolate has gotten so serious. Fortunately for cooks looking to make a chocolate treat on Valentine's Day, some of the latest chocolate cookbooks are seriously fun.

Stephan Lagorce's Chocolat (Octopus Publishing, 2008, $21.99), cleverly packaged like a giant chocolate bar, is hard to resist. A Year in Chocolate (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008, $35), by chocolatier Jacques Torres, celebrates chocolate in recipes for holidays all through the calendar. His Valentine's Day chapter has whimsical strawberries painted with chocolate to look like they're wearing tuxedos. But if you don't want to fuss, he'll also teach you how to make some good hot chocolate, six different ways.

And Heavenly Chocolate Desserts (Ryland Peters & Small, 2008, $19.95), a collection of recipes from a group of food writers, has a wonderful homey invention we're eager to see more of - the Brownie Lava Dessert. (Don't make it for your valentine unless you'd like to see him or her stick around forever - it's that good.)

So don't get too hung up on cacao percentages and origins of chocolate, Torres says. Listen to, well, your heart.

"I always tell my customers, the best chocolate to you is the chocolate that you prefer," he said in an interview. "I usually tell people to test different chocolates. For Valentine's Day, I would listen to my significant other and see what my significant other loves."

For his own cooking, Torres has a few basic rules - chocolate should be not too dark and not too light, but bittersweet, around 60 to 70 percent cacao.

Whatever you do, when you're making hot chocolate, don't use cocoa powder, Torres says. "You want real hot chocolate, use real chocolate."

His basic recipe involves heating 1 cup of whole milk over medium heat in a pan, then slowly whisking in 2 ounces of chopped bittersweet chocolate. For a coffee-flavored version, you can add a teaspoon of freeze-dried coffee granules, dissolved in a tablespoon of hot water, with the chocolate. Or stir the milk with a candy cane for peppermint flavor. Or scrape seeds from a vanilla bean into the milk, then add the bean to the pan, before you whisk in the chocolate.

When he does turn to cocoa powder for cakes, profiteroles and the like in his book, Torres uses only the Dutch-processed version, which he says mixes into a batter better than natural cocoa. (If you can't find Dutch-processed cocoa, try Hershey's Special Dark cocoa, a mix of Dutch-processed and natural cocoas. It worked well for us in the chocolate angel food cake recipe we tried.)

Torres' book encourages you to cook with chocolate year-round, and gives recipes appropriate for each month. Many of them would work at any time - we found the angel food cake, which was both deeply satisfying and low in calories, in the Mother's Day section. (If you'd like to fancy it up, Torres tells you how to slice it in layers and cover it with whipped cream and berries.) It does use 13 egg whites, so make it at a time when you'll also need scrambled eggs, hollandaise sauce or another dish that will make use of the yolks.

Once you've taken the "wrapper" off Lagorce's book, you'll find a decent guide to the increasingly complicated world of chocolate that's informative without being ponderous. In fact, if you'd like to bypass cooking and just taste different types of chocolate for Valentine's Day, this book will tell you how. And it will also help you pair chocolate with wine.

If you do want to cook, there are 40 mostly approachable recipes here, labeled "subtle," "medium" or "intense" to help you gauge the level of chocolate flavor. We tested a very easy recipe for truffles, which was tasty even though we didn't find the suggested Costa Rican chocolate.

Heavenly Chocolate Desserts looks past the provenance of the chocolate to what any good bar can do for a tart, a cheesecake, a roulade ... the list goes on.

Though the book offers many eye-catching, mouthwatering creations, the one that won our hearts was that "lava" brownie, with the slightly resistant, chocolaty texture of a brownie on top and the sexy ooze of a molten chocolate cake below. It's advertised as "the ideal recipe for absolute beginners."

The other Valentine's plus is that this dessert simply must be eaten warm. Scoop it right out of the pan - no need to bother with the usual brownie squares - and serve with a dollop of ice cream. Eat it all. By morning, the magic will be gone; leftovers, if there are any, will have morphed back into a yummy but decidedly regular brownie.

Yes, romance can be fleeting.

chocolate angel food cake

(serves 18)

3/4 cup sifted cake flour

1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (see note)

1 1/2 cups sifted superfine sugar (divided use)

13 large egg whites, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

powdered sugar for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Have ready an ungreased, 10-inch angel food cake pan. Combine the flour, cocoa powder and 3/4 cup of the sugar and sift together 3 times. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip, combine the egg whites and salt and beat on low speed just until foamy. Sprinkle the cream of tartar over the egg whites and continue to beat on low until blended.

Raise the speed to medium-high and beat for about 4 minutes, or until soft peaks form. Do not over-beat. The peaks should hold their shape, but not be stiff.

Reduce the speed to medium, add the vanilla, and gradually sprinkle the remaining 3/4 cup sugar over the egg whites, beating to incorporate.

On low speed, add the flour mixture in 3 additions, mixing until incorporated after each addition and stopping the mixer after each addition to scrape down the sides and along the bottom of the bowl. You just want to make sure that the flour is evenly incorporated into the batter; you don't want to deflate it by beating.

Scrape the batter into the pan. Cut through the batter with a knife to eliminate any bubbles.

Bake for about 35 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and turn the pan upside down, standing it on its feet or resting it on the long neck of a heat-proof bottle or large metal funnel. Let stand for about 2 hours, or until completely cool.

Turn the cake right side up, and carefully run a sharp knife around the inside edge of the pan to release the cake sides. Holding on to the tube portion, carefully lift the cake from the pan sides. Then run the knife between the tube and the cake and the bottom and the cake.

Invert the cake onto a plate and tap it free. Brush off any loose crumbs with your hands. Sift powdered sugar over the top.

Serve alone or with a dollop of chocolate sauce, creme fraiche or whipped cream.

Note: We used Hershey's Special Dark cocoa, a mix of Dutch-process and regular cocoa, in this recipe with good results.

Adapted from "A Year in Chocolate," by Jacques Torres

Per slice: : 99 calories, 4 grams protein, trace fat, trace saturated fat, 22 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 73 milligrams sodium

brownie lava dessert

(serves 4 to 6)

1/2 cup pecan pieces

3 1/2 ounces good bittersweet chocolate

1 stick unsalted butter, cubed

1 cup minus 1 tablespoon sugar

2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the pecan pieces into a baking dish and lightly toast in the oven for about 10 minutes. Let cool.

Meanwhile, break up the chocolate and put it in a medium saucepan. Add the butter and melt gently over very, very low heat, stirring frequently.

Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar, then gradually stir in the eggs, followed by the vanilla extract.

When those ingredients are thoroughly mixed, stir in the flour, then, finally, the nuts. When there are no more floury streaks, scrape down the sides of the pan and transfer the mixture to a greased, 7-by-2 1/2 -inch round or oval baking dish.

Bake for about 30 minutes, until the mixture is set on top and there is a soft, gooey layer at the bottom. Serve immediately, alone or with light cream or vanilla ice cream on the side.

Adapted from "Heavenly Chocolate Desserts," edited by Celine Hughes

Per serving (based on 6 servings): : 468 calories, 6 grams protein, 31 grams fat, 15 grams saturated fat, 48 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 122 milligrams cholesterol, 29 milligrams sodium

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