The Trouble with Chocolate

For all the encyclopedic knowledge, intuition, palate training and intricate skills I possess within my field, the biggest challenge for me on a regular basis is chocolate.

Not necessarily tempering (although I need more practice in that area and do plan on exploring the world of bonbons this year), just the oddly necessary inclusion if it on every restaurant dessert menu everywhere. When building and structuring a menu, woe is the pastry chef who doesn’t include an over-the-top chocolate finisher.

My very first menu did not really have a chocolate option. I was concerned about the glaring omission, but the executive chef and I agreed that a bowl of supple malted milk panna cotta dotted with crunchy cocoa meringues (yes, a bowl of Cocoa Puffs dessert, and no I didn’t get the idea from Christina Tosi) was close enough, temporarily. And if people felt they needed something insanely rich to end their dining experience, I also offered peanut butter layer cake (although, if you’ve read my Serious Eats column, you know I would come to regret it).

But soon enough there was a clamoring for something more overtly chocolatey, and I answered the call with a succession of sundaes, ice cream sandwiches and cakes, finally striking gold with a stupidly simple chocolate pretzel tart that induced swooning, sharing, arguing (mostly about sharing) and ultimately a mention in the Michelin guide (hilariously just after I was fired, taking my recipes with me).

I’ve always found it kind of funny how chocolate is treated as a staple, an anchor item on the bottom of every dessert menu. People say they “need” chocolate. They “require” it. It strikes me as a little spoiled, a little too first-world-problem, considering what a luxury ingredient it really is. And yet. You can’t have a restaurant without a chocolate dessert.

Chocolate desserts are generally easy sells. Easy sells for easy tastes. Chocolate and caramel (and salt). Chocolate and coffee (though chocolate and tea, especially green tea, is gaining traction). Chocolate and chocolate. Once you get much more complicated than that, there is divisiveness. Not everyone likes chocolate and mint. Some people loathe chocolate and orange, or they love it but can’t wrap their brains around a dessert where the orange is swapped for another citrus like grapefruit or lime. A lot more people dislike chocolate with red berries than you’d think (I like it with cherries but not raspberries, and am pretty neutral about chocolate and strawberries). These pairings are generally about as challenging as anyone outside of ├╝ber fine dining will go.

So of course I, in my semi-fine-dining-but-still-casual work setting, had to upset things a bit. With a broad Mediterranean scope allowing the use of things from all over that region, I went North African with my first chocolate dessert. Inspired by za’atar, I created a dense chocolate date torte accented with black cardamom, crusted in toasted sesame seeds and accompanied by a scoop of creamy tahini semifreddo (before the gelato machine came in) and a tart sumac caramel sauce. It was slightly challenging for the average chocolate lover, but ultimately satisfied and sold very well.

But I recently changed much of the menu, and the chefs thought we needed a new chocolate creation, so I pulled the torte (deciding that between two other warm desserts and a gianduja hot chocolate that no one would miss it for a brief while) and set to work on a dessert based around a chocolate cake I’d made for a tasting menu dinner that the chefs had adored (Nigella’s recipe, thanks Ms. Lawson).

It was challenging and we threw around a lot of ideas, many involving caramelized white chocolate (finally a kitchen that doesn’t hate the white stuff!), but since I knew I wanted to use a gelato made with the preserved Meyer lemons I found in the walk in, I went from there.

The gelato is somewhat magical in flavor, developing constantly and tasting a little different every day. Some days the honey comes through strongest, others the lemon or its accompanying spices. I added a pinch of saffron for good measure (because anytime you google chocolate and honey, many results point you towards chocolates with honey and saffron) and it became even more complex.

To add some crunch and bitterness, I decided to include honeycomb candy on the plate, and, after a period of waffling, chose to present the cake in layers sandwiched with amaretto pastry cream. Completing the dish is a small pile of candied cocoa nibs and crushed toasted almonds to act as a throne for the gelato, which also gets a spare crowning of bee pollen.

At a casual glance, it does bring to mind the all-important honeybee (remember, kids: without bees, we’re fucked), but upon more intense scrutiny, it’s clear that this is just as much an exercise in excess as it is an ode to bees. Casually throwing together such precious ingredients as honey (and expensive pollen), chocolate, saffron (from a flower, lol) and almonds is, indeed, an over the top combination, albeit an unusual one. But it works, from both a customer satisfaction standpoint and my own irrepressibly bored-with-the-status-quo view. Do I expect it to generate as much devotion as a chocolate pretzel tart? No. But it can hold its own, and I’m happy that the customers are up to the challenges I offer.

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