Each week, at school, we attend a lecture seminar. Some of them are very practical (knife skills, ServSafe), others are practical and fascinating (chocolate).

Chocolate is a very VERY interesting beast. My friend Erin recently asked me to tell her my favorite kind of chocolate to use in baking (specifically in something like the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies). The obvious answer is that it depends on the recipe, at least as far as the strength of the cocoa. Some recipes really just call for a milk chocolate or a semi-sweet, others need a bittersweet or unsweetened cocoa. Sometimes my chocolate preference is flavor driven.

The other answer is that I'm picky about my chocolate, in both quality and processing. Depending on the way the cocoa is processed, some companies take the cocoa butter out entirely, and add oil back in to make their finished chocolate product. There are a few reasons a company might do this, and I'll get into this in more detail in a sec, but given the choice between a chocolate with cocoa butter and a chocolate with some kind of non-cocoa related oil, I'm going to pick the cocoa butter every time. With that said, the cocoa butter chocolate is probably going to taste better anyway, but QUALITY of taste is a huge factor for me when I'm picking a chocolate.

Ok, let me stop here and give you a run through of how chocolate is processed, from bean to bar.

Chocolate is grown along the equator where the climate is wet (70 inches of rainfall a year) and humid (90% humidity). We're talking rain forest here, where it's wet, humid and the average temperature is 80°F. Hawaii is the only place in the US with a climate supportive enough to grow the cacao trees, but most of the growth occurs in Africa and South America (Central America, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are among some of the other climates conducive to cacao tree growth). Cocoa beans grow in pods on trees (Theobroma Cacao). There are two subspecies of cacao trees: the criollo (creee-oh-yo), and the forestero (forrest-err-oh). The criollo produces a pod with a higher cocoa butter content, and its beans are less bitter than those of the forestero. The criollo tree takes longer to cultivate and bears less fruit than the forestero. The forestero produces beans that are more bitter in pods that have less cocoa butter, BUT it yields more fruit than the criollo, and it yields that fruit two years earlier than the criollo. So. You can see why each tree is attractive for its various reasons to cocoa growers.

INTERESTINGLY, there has been a cross between these two types of cacao trees which resulted in what's called a trinitario. I'm assuming it's resulted in bringing together the best qualities of each?

Now. Cocoa beans grow inside a pod that buds off of the tree. The pods are harvested by hand, cut open and the pulp is removed to get to the seeds. These seeds are fermented for about a week to enhance their flavor, then dried on large racks (in the sun). At this point they're ready to be sold and shipped off to chocolate processors.

The cocoa beans are roasted to bring out their flavor, this sounds like coffee, right? From the roasting chamber, they're funneled through a hopper and stirred before heading off to be winnowed. The winnowing takes any foreign objects off the seeds (fine skins, rocks, sticks- don't forget, these beans came straight from being dried in the fields). Winnowing is the initial refining process, and it produces a cocoa nib. After the winnowing, the nibs are ground either by stone or steel, resulting in what's called chocolate liquor (though it's not liquor liquor- it's simply what the paste is called), and it's at this point that the cocoa butter might be removed from the bean. From there, the ground seeds are put through the concher for further refining- this is where additional cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla- anything that's going to flavor the chocolate, or determine the chocolate "percentage"- is going to be added, and this process is what's going to give the final chocolate product a smooth quality. This part of the chocolate adventure can take anywhere from 90 minutes to FOUR DAYS.

Finally, the chocolate liquor is is tempered to create what's called the "snap" and sheen, and then the chocolate is molded into the finished shape.

TA DA: chocolate. It's quite a process, isn't it?

During the grinding process, the nibs might be ground down to a powder form, known as cocoa powder. We use this in baking all the time, and it's a great way to add chocolate flavor without excess liquid or sugar. Some companies, I'm not going to name any here (but you could probably guess who they might be, or a quick google search is going to point them out), will use this process to grind all of the cocoa butter out of the bean, and replace that cocoa butter with oil, and sell the extremely valuable cocoa butter to the cosmetics industry. There's nothing unethical about this, since they're being honest and it's safe and completely legal. It just.....doesn't taste good.

I SHOULD add that a pretty famous example of a company that deliberately takes the cocoa butter out of the bean and substitutes a fat back in is English Cadbury. They're not being underhanded, they're adding palm oil to develop a very specific, signature flavor. And if you've ever had English Cadbury (not American Cadbury which is owned by Kraft, and which tastes entirely different from English Cadbury), you'll know that their chocolate is absolutely DELICIOUS. English Cadbury also set off quite a hilarious only-in-Europe scandal when the UK joined the EU. In Europe there are VERY strict guidelines governing chocolate production and chocolate percentages (what can be labeled a bittersweet, versus what is a semi-sweet, etc), and all of the traditional European chocolatiers were horrified to think that Cadbury milk chocolate with its palm oil was going to be allowed to sit next to their traditional milk chocolate, and the Two Chocolates Policy was developed in order to settle the unrest.

Oh, Europe. I love you and your standards.

Chocolate percentages are really the measure of the percent of cocoa in a particular chocolate. 65% chocolate contains 65% cocoa. See? You'll notice the % of cocoa on a chocolate package, and 85% cocoa doesn't make the chocolate BETTER than 65% cocoa, it just makes it more bitter and less flavored. You probably don't want to EAT 85% chocolate. Unless, you like super bitter chocolate. And then you might want to. I don't know your life.

Through tasting, I've discovered that my favorite kind of chocolate to EAT is a 65% bittersweet. I like the complex flavors that can come out in a bittersweet- I've tasted everything from tart cherries to blue cheese in the layer of flavors of a good 65% bittersweet chocolate.

Finally, when I'm choosing a chocolate, ethics play a role. Chocolate is grown along the same geographical line as coffee. You may have heard of the fair trade movement in coffee, right?  Chocolate growth and production isn't as regulated as coffee, but many of the same issues that exist in coffee growth and control ALSO exist in cacao growth and control. It's up to the individual chocolate processor to do their research and buy their beans from growers who operate in an ethical manner, and there is a movement in the chocolate world towards direct trade or fair trade. It can be difficult for larger companies to ensure their beans are coming from fair trade growers, because of the volume of beans involved, but many medium and small bean to bar producers DO have the luxury of working with fair trade growers. I've also seen larger companies putting out a fair trade specific chocolate, which is an EXCELLENT first step. Whenever possible, I try to support companies that employ ethical business practices. And it's funny, but I've been finding that companies who act with ethical growing guidelines in mind, tend to produce a better quality chocolate. So: win/win.

Some of the best chocolate I've had is made by small bean to bar manufacturers. Taza is one of my favorites. They're a small company based here in Summerville, and they practice direct trade with their bean growers, which is really progressive, in my opinion. Their chocolate is delicious, and their flavors are adventurous, and if you're local, they offer tours of their factory. Go! See them! Give them your support!

Rogue is another chocolatier that I love- he's a guy. Making incredible small batch chocolate. I've tried his Hispaniola 70% and it's AMAZING. I believe he makes a batch, and that's it. So essentially all of his chocolates are limited edition in a way. If you come across a bit of Rogue chocolate, I'd say it's a must try.

Mast Brothers are located in Brooklyn. They consider their chocolate making to be a craft and are incredibly devoted to bringing out the best flavor in their beans and developing uniquely delicious chocolate. Their ingredients are simple, and what they DO with those ingredients is exceptional. If you're in New York, and you want an experience, pop in and see if you can get a tour. Support them too.

Theo, for you Seattle-ers, is a company I can really get behind. They are another purist chocolatier who use premium ingredients in their chocolate, and back up their quality chocolate with a fair trade promise. I have some Theo drinking chocolate in the pantry, but I hear their bread & chocolate bar is to die for. Bring it back, Theo! If you're in Seattle, stop in and see them.

It can be a little difficult to find fair trade companies that produce enough chocolate to make baking with it cost effective, however, as I mentioned above, there ARE larger companies that might produce a special batch of fair trade chocolate. Guittard has a 55% semisweet that they're calling Akoma. This is pulled from the package, "Akoma represents 'heart' in traditional Adinkra symbols of West Africa where cocoa beans for this chocolate are grown." This particular batch is marked fair trade certified, but based on their statement about ethical labor, I believe Guittard tries to approach all of their chocolate production in the most responsible manner possible. When I bake at home, I use Guittard almost exclusively. I think they make a great product, and I appreciate their ethical approach to manufacturing. I find Guittard at Whole Foods (which is an excellent place to cruise around if you want to try some specialty small bean to bar chocolatiers).

all of these chocolates are fair or direct trade...and DELICIOUS.
So. There you have it. When I'm choosing a chocolate for baking, I look for three things: the kind of chocolate flavor I want in my finished product (do I want a semi-sweet? a milk chocolate?), the taste and quality of the chocolate (production practices matter, in my opinion), and whenever possible I try to buy from ethically driven companies, fair trade, thoughtful bean selection, community minded- all of these qualities are important.

Have you come across some of the small bean to bar chocolate producers? Or tried any of the specialty chocolatiers mentioned above? If you do try or have tried them, I'd be interested to hear what you think!

(and, I want you to know I've edited myself- this is just choosing my chocolate. I can write a whole ENTIRE SEPARATE post about tasting chocolate)(which, actually, I think I will! oh gee, I'm so sad about the research that will have to go into that one)



Buttercream frosting is maybe my favorite thing in the world. I commented on Facebook the other day that buttercream is my kryptonite, and I meant that I'm powerless against it. I always will be. Our wedding cake was entirely buttercream (and cake)(chocolate), no fondant, and I loved that people actually ATE it. Willingly.

Fact: Buttercream was a working name for my bakery before I landed on Pickwick Baking Co. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to make some treats last minute for a party (and I cannot wait to tell you more about THAT when the time comes), and I made my vanilla swiss meringue buttercream for both rich chocolate cupcakes and a yellow butter layer cake.

What I love about this buttercream (and NO, I'm not giving up my recipe! DON'T EVEN) is that it's so light. I'm not a "frosting" fan, but buttercream is in a league of it's own. Swiss meringue buttercream is simply out of this world. It's airy, has almost a whipped cream quality, but richer, and it simply melts on your tongue and then disappears. The flavor, the texture is so delicate but so right on....then it flits away.

I recreated the layer cake today with a twist of flavor. You guys were split nearly evenly between wanting a raspberry vanilla and an apricot vanilla, so: I give you both

yellow butter cake with apricot and bourbon vanilla swiss meringue buttercream

yellow butter cake with raspberry and bourbon vanilla swiss meringue buttercream

Wee little cakes with big flavor. Heaven on a dessert plate.


Puits d'Amour with pesto and strawberries

When we last checked in, you had your blitz turned and wrapped and ready to be rolled out. Today, I'll show you how to make Puits d'Amour, which can be either savory OR sweet, and are a major crowd pleaser at parties.

First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Take your puff pastry and roll it out to about 1/8 inch thick. This is half as thick as it was when you were rolling it during your turns. When you have it rolled out, cut it in half (it's just easier to work with a smaller section, I think- so I cut it in half, wrap one half and keep it cold in the fridge, while I work on the other half). Like. So.

Take circle cutters and cut the dough into circles (my circles were 2 inches in diameter). Take half of the circles and place them on a parchment lined sheet pan, brush with an egg wash. With the other half of the circles, you're going to cut a 1/2 to 1 inch hole in the center, then place these circles on top of the egg washed circles on the sheet pan:

With your fingers, lightly press around the edges of the circles, and then egg wash the tops.

Place the sheet pan in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes (know your oven- they may take a little less time, or a little longer, so peek at them from time to time). When they're done, the puits d'amour should be puffed and lightly golden.

NOW, this is the fun part. You can fill these babies with anything. When we made them in school, my partner and I filled them with brie, caramelized onions, fig jam, and topped them with baked prosciutto and a balsamic reduction.

Today, I'm filling them with pesto, fresh chopped strawberry, and garnishing with basil.

Once your puits d'amour have cooled, poke through the center hole with your finger, so that the shell is ready to be filled:

Spoon in a little pesto:

and fresh chopped strawberry:

And now garnish with fresh basil. I happened to have teeny tiny basil leaves sprouting off the quite leggy basil in my herb garden (seriously, that stuff will take over the WORLD if you let it. Basil and Bamboo: watch those suckers), and I thought the small leaves would look cute, so I picked them and stuck them in with the strawberry:

Aaaaaaand, DONE! Also, I'm happy to tell you that it was delicious- fresh and nutty, light, but VERY flavorful. I'm a pesto fiend (see: all of the basil). Balsamic reduction would have been nice on this. You can also substitute strawberry jam for the fresh strawberries and maybe some chopped toasted pine nuts or walnuts for the top? Play around with it.

PUFF PASTRY, you guys.


Blitz: quick puff pastry.

ALRIGHT. Everyone loves puff pastry, but legend has it that it takes 12 hours to make, barefoot, uphill in the snow both ways, under the light of a full moon on the third Wednesday, and requires a single tear from a young male unicorn in order to properly rise.

Lies. All of them.

Fact: I don't make traditional puff pastry (I almost never remember that thing about the light of the full moon, and then it's ANOTHER WASTED UNICORN TEAR). If I'm making puff pastry, it's a blitz and it takes me maybe an hour to make, start to finish. Probably less. Depends on what else I'm doing.

I know, do you want to take a minute and sit down? It's ok, go ahead. I'll wait.

Ok. First thing I'm going to tell you to do is to get yourself ready. Mis that stuff out you guys, because you need to keep the butter cold, and your water ICE cold, so get your butter chopped then stick it in the fridge while you measure out your flour, salt and water.

these are your blitz players. from left: AP flour, lots of butter, fine crystal salt and ice cold water
Here's where I tell you something that might alarm you: I've taken to measuring ingredients by weight and so I only use a kitchen scale. I don't think in terms of cups, I think in terms of ounces and pounds, BUT you can do one of two things: convert this to cups (there are 8 ounces in 1 cup) OR get yourself a $20 kitchen scale. I'm going to talk your ear off one day about digital kitchen scales. Here's a preview: if you like to cook or bake, a kitchen scale is going to give you a much more consistent product since the size of a "cup" can vary, but 8 ounces of flour will always be 8 ounces of flour. This recipe will be by weight. If you're currently weeping over your keyboard, let me know and I'll convert the recipe. Otherwise, onward my brave little blitz makers!

I'm making half a recipe of blitz for this post, later, I'm going to actually MAKE something with it. So you're going to get a full recipe, start to finish. Ok, you ready? Blitz. Here we go:

17.5 oz flour
14 oz butter, chopped into small pieces
1/2 oz salt
8 oz ice cold water (give or take, you may not need all 8 ounces- you don't want this dough to be too wet)

This first part is incredibly complicated, so pay VERY CLOSE attention: in a mixer with the dough hook attached, dump everything into the bowl.

haha, just kidding, that's as easy as it gets in pastry!

Mix the flour, salt, butter and water on medium until they are just barely combined. The chunks of butter will be about grape size, like so:

DON'T OVER MIX, you want this dough to be a shaggy mess, just barely holding itself together. The rest of the blending you will do as you roll the dough. So, when the butter is about grape sized, and the flour is still pretty loose, go ahead and turn the dough out onto a floured surface.

look at that gorgeous hot mess!
Form a rectangle-ish shaped mound with the dough, and roll it out to a 1/4 in thick rectangle. Like so:

Then you're going to do one turn. Fold the bottom third up, then fold the top third down, and turn the dough so that the seam runs along the right side, like a book.

bottom third up

top third down

turn like a book
That is ONE turn. You're going to repeat this process five more times (for 6 turns total)- this is what gives you all of your flaky layers. So here we go, second turn: roll your dough into another long rectangle, about 1/4 in thick, fold the bottom third up, fold the top third down, and turn so that the seam runs along the right side.

it's starting to look more like dough I made on purpose, isn't it?
Do this a third time, and a fourth time, each time making sure that the sides and corners are lining up as straight as possible- these will be your layers- then stop. Wrap it in plastic wrap, put it in the fridge to give the butter a chance to cool again. If at any time you think your butter is getting too melty, stop and stick the dough in the fridge. I stopped after three turns, because my kitchen was warm and the butter seemed too soft (the dough was really sticky).

Take a break, mark how many turns you've completed so that you don't forget, then come back to it in about 20 minutes.

When you pull the dough out of the fridge, complete the remaining turns to get yourself to 6 turns. Then? You're done. You just made puff pastry.


In the next post, I'll show you what I made with this dough (hint: it involves pesto and strawberries).



Back in the Biscuit post comments (here, if you're interested), there was a mini discussion about flour, the different types and what this MEANS for your finished product. Flour is probably the single most important staple in my pantry. Flour is the basis for just about everything I make as a pastry chef (not actually everything......but almost).

There are many different types of flours. You may have noticed this happening on the grocery store shelves. There's bread flour, all purpose that's "better for bread", all purpose, and pastry flour, just to name a few. And YES, they really do serve very different purposes.

Every flour has a protein content. Protein in flour is what becomes the gluten strands when you add the liquid, and the yeast and salt, and you get it all going. The higher the protein content, the more gluten you're activating. The more gluten, the denser and chewier the product is going to be.

Cake flour has the lowest percent of protein (6-8%), followed very closely by Pastry flour (7.5-9.5%). You don't want a lot of active gluten happening in your cake or pastries, you want them to be light and tender. Bread, on the other hand, is a denser product; it needs a good network of gluten (from a higher protein content flour, like bread flour) to support all of the rise that will happen between the yeast fermentation, and the heat and steam of the oven.

Now: here's where stuff gets interesting.

Enter, butter. Butter acts as a shortening agent in bread dough- it will actually coat and shorten the individual gluten strands, so if you're making an enriched bread (such as challah), you need to compensate for that gluten shortening effect with a higher protein flour. Think of it this way: your dough is going to need ALL THE HELP IT CAN GET to bounce back (literally) from all of the butter (and, frankly, sugar) that an enriched bread needs in order to be.....enriched. And here's a tip: if you're making brioche or challah at home, before you add the warmed butter, let that dough work for a good 10 minutes to get the gluten as active as possible. Then when you've finished adding all of your butter, give the bread another 10 minutes in the mixer to get that gluten network going again. The more you work a dough, the more active the gluten. And THAT RULE right there is why, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you should try not to over work your pie crust. No one wants a chewy pie crust, right?

(if you overwork your pie crust: DO NOT FREAK OUT. Wrap it up, stick it in the fridge and walk away. let it rest. come back to it later, it will be fine. There is NO CRYING IN PATE BRISEE)

All of these rules about protein content in flour, and now I'm going to tell you not to worry. Don't give your all purpose the heave ho- all purpose flour will serve you well. The protein contents aren't so far off that an all purpose is going to contain too much protein for a good pate brisee (pastry flour, for instance has a protein content of 7.5-9.5%, while all purpose generally has a protein content of anywhere between 10-13%. See? Not so far off). BUT, I would recommend taking your recipe into consideration, and knowing what you now know about butter, if you're working on an enriched bread recipe, opt for the bread flour (which has a protein content of 12-15% and will give you juuuuust that much more of an edge).

Conversely, and some of you already know this, I like to use a higher protein content flour for things that you might not expect, like chocolate chip cookies. The higher gluten content in bread flour gives the cookie a chewy quality that I can't get with all purpose, and the gluten helps to hold the moisture better than an all purpose or lower protein flour. I find that it really DOES make a noticeable difference. Try it next time you make chocolate chip cookies, and let me know if you see a difference in the end result!

Something else that's interesting to think about is whole wheat flour. Have you ever noticed that you never really can find a whole wheat bread without another flour mixed in? I'm talking a pure, whole wheat only loaf? There is a really real reason for this: the fragments of cracked wheat in whole wheat flour will cut the gluten strands, so another flour needs to be incorporated into the dough to help compensate for the effects of the whole wheat. Whole wheat flour has a pretty high % of protein (13-14%), but it needs the boost of another flour in order to work well.

So there you have it: cake flour and pastry flour have the lowest percent of protein, and they'll give you a light, tender product. All purpose is somewhere in the middle of the pack and will yield fair results for most baking, but if you're working with something that has specific needs (ie. enriched bread), then you'll do well to swap out your all purpose for a flour that is job specific.

Any questions?