Tips & Tricks

Chocolate Tasting: How To Taste Chocolate

Last week I had the good fortune of visiting Tain-l’Hermitage, a town in the southeastern quarter of France, near Valence. It is right in the middle of the Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage wine country, in a gorgeous area that’s full of peach, cherry and apricot orchards. But me, I was there for the chocolate: Tain is also home to the Valrhona chocolate factory, and I’d been invited to take a tour.

We spent the day in paper hats, paper coats, and paper shoes (v. becoming), going in and out of large halls housing huge machinery, fat bags of cacao beans and ripples of chocolate, breathing in the intoxicating scents cacao emits as it is submitted to the many torments (cleaned, roasted, husked, crushed, ground, conched, molded, cooled, wrapped) that will turn it from bitter bean to the voluptuous antidepressant we know and love.

And the only thing I love more than chocolate is understanding how stuff works, so this was very much my idea of a happy Tuesday — despite the fact I’d had to get up at 4:45am to take the train, but I am nothing if not committed.

Most of the flavor components of chocolate are “trapped” in the cacao butter, and it’s only when the chocolate melts that they are released. Conveniently, the magic happens right around mouth temperature.

At the end of this full and instructive day, we were treated to a session with Vanessa Lemoine, the in-house expert in sensory analysis, a discipline in which the five human senses are used to describe and analyze products.

Among her responsibilities at Valrhona, she is in charge of training the chocolate tasters who assess the ten-kilo samples that are sent ahead of any cacao shipment. The beans from each origin are expected to conform to a particular flavor profile, according to the particularities of the cacao variety, the region’s terroir, and the production method that Valrhona and the growers have agreed upon. Any crop that differs significantly from that profile won’t be accepted for purchase. This is to ensure that the quality and personality of the single-origin chocolates as well as the blends remain steady, so that the chocolatiers and pastry chefs who have built their own recipes on a particular chocolate can in turn offer consistency to their customers.

The thing is, you can’t judge a crop by its bean: at this stage, the aromatic components are dormant, and its full potential will only be revealed after the beans are processed and turned into actual chocolate. So the sample beans go through a mini production line, and emerges as chocolate the tasters will grade along thirty different descriptors. A tough job, I’m sure — and I’m not being ironic.

It takes many training sessions to reach the finesse of palate that’s required of these tasters, but Vanessa Lemoine gave us a short primer on how to taste chocolate, and I thought it so interesting I wanted to share it here. The process is in some ways similar to wine tasting, so if you’re a honed wine taster, you’re that far ahead.

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Converting Yeast-Based Recipes To Use A Sourdough Starter

Once you have a natural starter alive and kicking on your counter, stealing the occasional banana from the fruit bowl, it’s hard to go back to baking bread with commercial yeast.

Not only would that feel like a bit of a betrayal (though you can always blindfold the jar of starter or work under the cover of night) but every loaf is an opportunity to strengthen your starter as well as your skills. And frankly, you’ve gotten used to the vivid flavor and lasting freshness of sourdough-powered bread, so you’re a bit spoiled.

Most breads leavened with commercial yeast can be leavened with a natural starter. It is just a matter of converting the recipe; all you need is a calculator and a play-it-by-ear disposition.

That’s not to say you want to limit yourself to those recipes written with a starter in mind: even though baking with a natural starter has the ancestral high ground and is regaining considerable popularity of late, it is still practiced by a minority of home bakers, and most of the bread recipes out there call for commercial yeast.

But of course, most breads (see caveats below) leavened with commercial yeast can be leavened with a natural starter. It is just a matter of converting the recipe; all you need is a calculator and a play-it-by-ear disposition.

So, how do you go about it? There is no single method* but I have had good success with mine, so I wanted to share it with you below. If you want to chime in with your own method and experience, I’ll be most interested to hear them.

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On Fresh Peas, and How to Shell Them

I did not grow up eating peas. My mother didn’t like them so they never appeared on the family table, and the revolting stuff we were served at school didn’t do much to dispell the notion that peas were, well, beurk (that’s French for yuck).

Fast-forward a decade or two and what do you know, I find out that petits pois, freshly shelled and cooked with grace, are in fact a delicacy, to be savored in proportion to the manual labor they require.

The first time I bought fresh peas at the greenmarket and sat down to shell them, it took me a while to find my groove. You see, I had years of green-bean-trimming experience, but none with these animals.

My initial technique was to pry them open through sheer force, but I was dissatisfied with the results. It was awkward and messy and left green gunk under my thumbnails; it could not have been the Mary Frances way*.

I fiddled with each pod, experimenting with different approaches as if trying to unlock one of those mechanical puzzles my friend Derrick loves so. Eventually I discovered that if I tore the stem end and pulled the string down along the pod, it acted like a pull tab to open envelope. The pod surrendered, and I was able to open it easily and free the peas with a run of the thumb.

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On Greens, and How to Keep Them Fresh

I’ve come across many versions of this tip over the years. Keeping one’s greens fresh and happy seems to be the culinary equivalent of keeping one’s skin young: it’s a losing battle, but everyone hopes to find the magic technique.

Wash, don’t wash (we’re talking about greens again now; we’ll address personal hygiene another time), wrap in plastic, cloth, or a paper bag, keep on the counter or refrigerate, and even this one: put the herbs upright in a glass of water and place on a shelf or in the door of your fridge. (That gave my French-sized refrigerator a good laugh.)

I’ve experimented with those ideas to varying degrees of success — mostly on the lower end of the scale — and after throwing out enough wilted herbs to start a compost heap, I’ve finally found the M.O. that works for me, so I thought I’d share.

When I get back from the greenmarket on Saturday mornings, I put my purchases away, sit down for a cup of coffee, then get to work.

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Cheese Course

Cheese Platter

I have a new piece appearing today on NPR’s weekly Kitchen Window column: this one is all about putting together a cheese platter, how to serve it and what to enjoy it with.

And on the picture above, you will recognize — from left to right — an ash-coated goat cheese from the Deux-Sèvres, a Pont-l’Evêque from Normandy, and a Perail des Cabasses, a sheep’s milk cheese from Aveyron.

(Previous contributions to Kitchen Window:
Fresh Herb Muffins
Cherry Soup with Hazelnut Rosemary Tuiles
Artichoke and Goat Cheese Mille-feuille,
Asparagus Confit with Almonds and Rosemary,
Chocolate and Candied Ginger Tartlets.)

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