Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ingredient: Cocoa

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I know, preach, preach, preach. But here's the thing. If you want delicious food, you have to start with delicious ingredients. Period. End of story. There are tricks, short cuts and money saving tips, but some things have to be done in a certain way to achieve the best result. So I decided I am going to try and demystify some of these ingredients that you should know about.

Today is cocoa. I was baking my go-to decadent Espresso Brownies that I have been making for years. The recipe is from Williams Sonoma and were part of a cooking class I taught there. They are fairly easy to make and are a show stopper in their simplicity and their sheer chocolate decadence. So when I jumped to the WS website to get the recipe for this party, I read the reviews. And everyone was 5 stars and just crazy about them. And then, one poster gave it a poor review and said she used Hershey's cocoa, not Dutch processed. Fail. And my post was a little terse. (Good ol' WS edited it, my poison pen needs editing sometimes). And I am not wanting to sound witchy, honest. So I thought maybe not everyone knows there is a difference between natural cocoa and Dutch-processed cocoa, (beside price) I can teach the difference! At least to my loyal few. So what is the difference? Let's talk about cocoa. Natural cocoa is made by removing all of the cocoa butter from the cocoa liquor. Then this dry cake is ground to a powder. It is very bitter on its own, and therefore is used only in baked goods. The acid content is so high, it can actually be used as a leavening. This is what Hershey's and Ghirardelli cocoas are. There are many recipes that call specifically for this type of cocoa. It is lighter in color and is always baked or cooked. You wouldn't dust a dessert with this cocoa or roll truffles in it. You can see the darker, deeper cocoa on the left is Dutch-processed, the cocoa with the reddish tint is the natural cocoa. Dutch-process cocoa is natural cocoa that has been treated with an alkaline solution to reduce the natural acidity, thereby reducing the bitterness. This makes the cocoa darker and smoother. Traditionally these cocoas were imported and of course my favorite is Pernigotti. It's Italian (just like me), is found at Williams Sonoma (just like me), and has been around since 1860, so it is just about a hundred years older than me. It has a hint of vanilla which adds to the mellow flavor and I would never substitute anything else! Obviously the process is Dutch based, so there are Dutch brands available as well.

A well written recipe will tell you natural cocoa or Dutch-processed. You need to follow the recipe, because as you have heard time and again, baking is one big chemistry experiment. Acids and bases have a part in the baking process. If you peruse some high quality baking cookbooks, you will find good bakers have preferences in cocoa, many I have never heard of but would love to try. The thing to watch for is whether it is natural or Dutch and don't interchange the two.

So here is the recipe that spawned this post. And if the Hershey baking poster came here to find out who SweetiePetitti was telling her not to skimp on ingredients, welcome, and I hope you will try Dutch-processed in the recipe. I promise you will have much better results. And many thanks to one of my favorite baking books In the Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley. I garnered much of my cocoa knowledge from her.

Chocolate Espresso Brownies
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch process
cocoa powder
3 Tbs. instant espresso powder
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 oz. semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 eggs
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Generously grease an 8-inch square baking pan.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, espresso powder, baking powder and salt into a bowl; set aside.

In a small, heavy saucepan over low heat, combine the butter and chocolate and heat, stirring occasionally, until melted, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs and brown sugar until blended. Gradually stir in the chocolate mixture until blended. Stir in the vanilla, then add the flour mixture and stir until blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the edges pull away from the sides of the pan and the center is springy to the touch, about 25 minutes. I bake at a lower temperature and for less time because I use convection bake. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool.

For the glaze:
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. instant espresso powder
4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
Pinch of salt
16 chocolate-covered espresso beans (optional)

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream and espresso powder and heat, stirring, just until the powder is dissolved and bubbles start to appear around the pan edges. Add the chocolate and salt, remove from the heat and stir just until the chocolate is melted. Let cool to room temperature.

Using a small offset spatula, spread the cooled glaze over the cookie in a thin layer. Refrigerate until the glaze is set, about 30 minutes. Cut into 1 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch bars or 2-inch squares. Top each bar with a chocolate-covered espresso bean. Makes 16 bars.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Collection Series, Cookies, by Marie Simmons (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

So, what are ya waiting for? Go get BOTH kinds of cocoa and bake!!!

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