Saturday, January 30, 2010

Valentine's Chocolates - What I'm Loving Right Now

Photo by Alexandria Grablewski

I love chocolate...usually dark. And since I make a lot of my own candies and Truffles, it is not typical for me to buy or even enjoy many of those that are available commercially. (For info on the luscious truffles above, you will have to wait till the end of this blog entry). Ah, but never say never, right? Every once in a while I will taste a candy that knocks my socks off. I want to introduce you to a few of them. I figured Valentine's Day is approaching and for those of you looking to purchase something new and different, I'd share my personal current faves.
Look at that pic! This is a romantic box of chocolates from Fran's Chocolates. It arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago quite unexpectedly. Every now and then a company will send me a product to sample and you know if you read this blog that I am not in the habit of "advertising" food products. I will only blog about the ones that I truly love. I opened the box right away; the sumptuous ribbon begged to be pulled open. Inside was a dark chocolate assortment that came with a handy color guide. I am a sucker for these! I want to know what I am eating Before I bite into it! I went right for the caramels the company is so famous for; I didnt need the guide for finding those. I approached the box in a restrained manner, eating only one or two at a time or the following week. After a few days the guide somehow was left downstairs and the box was upstairs; I grabbed a small dark square that had delicate lines of chocolate zig-zagging across the top. I was making dinner (yes, I know...I will eat chocolate anytime, anywhere) and I was moving quickly around the kitchen getting my pots and pans and ingredients together...and then...I literally Stopped in my tracks! The flavor in this particular truffle hit me like a ton of bricks. A welcomed, intense, velvety Raspberry ton of bricks! The flavor was undeniable. Still, I momentarily forgot about dinner and ran downstairs to retrieve the guide. Sure enough what was unfolding in my mouth was their new Raspberry Truffle. I loved it. The 64% bittersweet chocolate was a perfect foil for the fruit. This filling was incredibly rasberry-y (or is that raspberryeeeeee). Just fabulous. Another much appreciated aspect to this chocolate was the incredibly thin, fine, delicate outer shell. Its delicacy was fitting for such a lovely candy. The enclosed information informed me that the filling was made from chocolate and raspberries - no liqueur and no cream! I found this last omission to be quite interesting. Apparently the ganache filling is therefore made from chocolate and raspberries (well, perhaps there is butter) but by leaving out the cream they are allowing the pure berry flavor to come to the fore. Brilliant.

Here is another item I'm crazy about - Bissinger's Handmade Chocolate Covered Marshmallows. Drop one (or two) of these into your favorite hot chocolate and you will see what I mean. Or, if you want to eat them out-of-hand, they are conveniently bite-sized for easy eating. They are handmade in small batches in their St. Louis factory and keep well all winter long. I have a thing for marshmallows - they are very low calorie. And since dark chocolate is "healthy"....well you see where I'm going with this LOL. I am very good at figuring out how to mentally "allow" myself my chocolate indulgences and this one fits the bill. And they are Gluten Free to boot.

Speaking of raspberries and chocolates, Bissinger's makes one of my all-time favorites that I first tasted a few summers ago - Raspberry Caramels. On-line they are available in their chocolate covered caramel assortment (seen below) but if you call the catalog at 800-325-8881 you can order the larger ones in one-pound increments (and of course they can be found at their retail locations as well). I love caramel. I love dark chocolate and I love raspberry but I had never had them all in one candy before I sampled these. They reduce fresh raspberries to create a fruity concentrate, which is then blended with the caramel. The caramel takes on a ruby hue as well. And then a generous square of the caramel is drenched in dark chocolate....OMG. My mouth just started watering. They are chewy and fruity and chocolatey - a must for fruit and chocolate lovers and caramel lovers alike.

And of course if you want to make your own, please do refer to my Truffles book. The dark chocolate passion fruit ones and the dark chocolate lemon are particularly fabulous. Or, in my most recent book, Unforgettable Desserts, you will find my version of a raspberry truffle....featuring a whole berry in each truffle. Look for Chocolate Raspberry Bliss Bites in the index. And yes, these are the truffles featured at the top of the blog. A feast for your eyes, I hope!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Brewing Loose Tea - Every Pot Perfect

My last post was about my favorite tea timer, but there are several things that go into making the best possible pot of tea. It is not easy to get a great cup of tea out and about, which is why I go the coffee route on the road. When at home we can surround ourselves with the proper accouterments and brew a fabulous pot.

The techniques I use are not unique. In fact, this is the way I learned when I visited the esteemed Mariage Freres tea-house in Paris. Whether they have been doing it the same way since their inception in 1854 I have no idea, but one has to assume that they have come to use these techniques after trial and error, coming to the conclusion that it is the best way.

Let’s start with the pot. I have many, from a vintage cast iron tetsubin that my father brought back from Japan in the late 40’s, to a very modern clear glass pot made in Germany, but my favorite is my insulated pot (seen pic above) from Mariage Freres. The metal is lined with an insulated felt-like material and opens like a clam shell; there is a hinge on the back. You have full access to the ceramic pot, which comes with it, and your tea will stay hot. (I have to tell you a funny story here....the picture of the pot above was generously shared with me by Rebecca Varidel of in Australia. Mine is, let's just say, well worn, and photo worthy. I found her image on-line, we became virtual buddies. Check out her blog for down-under, insider foodie info.)

The first thing I do is warm my pot with tap water that is as hot as possible. (I remove the pot from its insulated jacket and place in the sink). I have different pots, depending on what I am brewing: pots for black, pots for green and certainly separate pots for anything scented, like an Earl Grey. The flavors can certainly cross-contaminate from batch to batch, even thought the pot material might be glass or ceramic. While the pot warms, I heat the tea water and measure the loose tea.

I begin with double-charcoal filtered water, as I do not like the flavor of my well-water. We must start with excellent water, or you will not be able brew a tasty pot. I measure out 6-ounces of water per each scoop of loose tea. Note that this is Not “a cup” which is 8 ounces. A “cup” for making tea is 6 ounces. I then use an actual tea scoop to measure out the tea, seen here below:

The lighter and fluffier the leaf of the tea, the larger the amount of tea is used. I am very good at measuring "by eye" and know how big a scoop I want from whatever tea I am using at the time. This comes with practice and also by using the same scoop every day for over 12 years; my measurements have become fairly standardized. When brewed properly in every other way, if your tea is too weak, you have probably used too little of the loose tea – and the converse is true as well.

Right before the water is ready (described in next paragraph), drain the teapot of the warming water and place a cotton tea sock over the mouth of the pot. This is an unbleached cotton “sock” where the open end is attached to a wire ring, that can rest on the top of the pot. Photos courtesy of Upton Tea Imports

The sock will hold the tea leaves and eventually be submerged in the water. It allows for the full expansion of the leaves, which means their flavor will be properly released; tiny metal tea ball infusers do not allow for this expansion and I can also detect a metallic flavor that they impart. My method also allows you to easily remove the sock when the steeping time is up. So, drain the pot, put sock into place and measure the correct amount of tea into the sock. I have separate socks for green, black and flavored teas, again so the flavors don't cross over.

For my black teas the water is Just brought to a boil, but not allowed to boil for more than a moment, lest the water lose its life and end up tasting flat. For green teas, it depends on the tea, but many are brought to about 140 degrees F. A good tea purveyor should be able to make specific suggestions as to measurement amounts as well as brewing times.

Here are two of my favorite morning teas, both black tea, which I purchase from Upton Tea Imports. These images are from their site. Here is the Keemun Mao Feng (order tea ZK98):

You can see that the leaves are large and fluffy, so I measure a very generous scoop with this tea. I brew this Keemun for a full 8 minutes and it is a bracing morning cup, which I enjoy with milk. It hails from the An Hui province in China and is both mild yet complex. Here is another fave - Yunnan TGFOP (order tea ZY51):

This tea is slightly more compact and the scoops are a bit smaller as the tea is denser. I brew this Yunnan for a full 5 minutes. If you are a tea lover you must get Upton's catalog....there are over 300 teas from which to choose. They direct import and their prices are very reasonable. Their blender, Frank Sanchez, is very knowledgeable. Ask for him and tell him I sent you! He will be able to make recommendations to you based on your palate.

As soon as the steeping time is up, remove the sock and throw out the tea leaves. Your pot is ready! While I mentioned using milk with my hearty black teas, please do not use it with your greens!

I guess I will follow up at some point with a posting on green teas and matcha.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Favorite Tea Timer

OK I know this might sound esoteric...a timer just for tea? Yes! If you are a tea fanatic as I am, you know that brewing it at home allows for the most stringent control of your brewing techniques, yielding the best cup.

This fabulous timer allows you to time for Minutes as well as Seconds and the set-up is very intuitive. As you can see there is also a holder for a thermometer. This one has ranges on the dial, color coded, for different kinds of tea. The green tea ranges are indicated in a green color! How smart. Many green teas need water in the 140 degree F range; you will never again use water that is too hot. FYI the thermometer goes from 100 to 220 degrees.

You can find my favorite timer on-line from the company, WMF. Take a good look at the image above. It is sleek and attractive. This is form and function in one - something I find hard to resist. This is a perfect gift for the tea lover, or treat yourself. You will be brewing the best tea of your life in the press of a button.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Unforgettable Desserts Makes a Top 10 Cookbook List

A Huge Thank You to Kat Odell and her GoodBite blog for naming Unforgettable Desserts, my newest book, as one of her Top 10. I am thrilled to be in such company as David Chang and his Momofuku book as well as Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home and How To Roast a Lamb, by Michael Psilakis. What a nice way to begin the new year. As a nod to my readers, I would love to feature you on my blog with a photo of a dish you have made from my book. Send me a story about your baking experience in the kitchen with a photo of you and the dish - that you don't mind sharing! I am looking forward to seeing you and your pics.